Understanding History

About the author

George Novack was born in Boston in 1905 to Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe.

Radicalised by the 1929 economic crash, he moved toward Marxism. In 1933 he joined the Trotskyist Communist League of America, the organisation founded by veteran revolutionary James P. Cannon after his break with the Stalinised Communist Party in 1928. Novack remained active in the Trotskyist movement—first the CLA and then its successor organisations, most notably the Socialist Workers Party—until his death in 1992.

Novack early developed an interest in philosophy. In the 1930s he belonged to a broad layer of radical New York intellectuals who were attracted to Marxism. However, while the small US Trotskyist movement in this period attracted a significant milieu of fellow-travelling intellectuals, very few actually joined the movement and became revolutionary activists. Some—like Felix Morrow and James Burnham—did so but either did not fully make the transition or did not stay the distance.

George Novack stands out as one of the handful of radical intellectuals of the Depression years who remained true to his early convictions. As he wrote in an autobiographical memoir in 1976:

I had to watch most of my generation fall by the wayside and conclude a separate peace with the ruling powers in the universities, the publishing fields, the professional and business worlds. Today, at the age of 70, I am one of a very few: a radical intellectual of 1930s vintage who remains active as an unrepentant Marxist and fulltime professional in the revolutionary movement.[1]

Novack had a long involvement in civil rights defence campaigns. In 1932 he became active in the CP-aligned National Committee for the Defence of Political Prisoners. In 1937-40 Novack served as the secretary of the American Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky. This body initiated the celebrated 1937 Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the charges made against Trotsky in the Moscow show trials and whose verdict pronounced them a complete frame-up. In 1941-50 Novack was secretary of the Civil Rights Defence Committee. It was through this body that the SWP organised support for the 18 party leaders and members indicted and jailed in the wartime Minneapolis sedition trial.

In 1940 Novack was elected to the SWP National Committee and served on it until 1973. From 1965 to 1974 he was an associate editor of the International Socialist Review, the SWP’s monthly journal. Most of the articles in this selection first appeared in the ISR (many under the name William F. Warde, the pseudonym he frequently used in his party work).

Apart from the example of a life of steadfast commitment and activity in the revolutionary socialist movement, Novack’s greatest contribution to socialism consists of his Marxist historical and philosophical writings. Over the years he wrote numerous articles for the theoretical journals of the US Trotskyist movement (successively New International, Fourth International and then International Socialist Review ) as well as a number of books.

Many of his writings are historical studies of the development of US capitalism through two great revolutions (the War of Independence and the Civil War), the question of slavery, the destruction of native American society, and of resistance to the new bourgeois plutocracy. A number of his historical contributions appear in the collection he edited, America’s Radical Heritage (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1976).

However, Novack will be most remembered as an outstanding exponent and populariser of Marxist philosophy and theory. He produced a number of books on various aspects of this question: An Introduction to the Logic of Marxism (Pioneer Publishers: New York, 1942), The Origins of Materialism (Merit Publishers: New York, 1968), Empiricism and Its Evolution (Merit, 1968), Democracy and Revolution (Pathfinder, 1971), Understanding History (Pathfinder, 1972), Humanism and Socialism (Pathfinder, 1973), Pragmatism Versus Marxism (Pathfinder, 1975), Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (Pathfinder, 1978).

Although ignored by bourgeois academia, Novack had an undoubted impact on generations of activists in the revolutionary socialist movement, not only in the United States but also in Australia (which he toured for the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance in 1973, speaking to large campus and city meetings). The publishers hope that this selection of George Novack’s writings will help equip new generations of fighters for socialism with the Marxist education which is so essential for the struggle.

Dave Holmes
January 2002


[1] Novack, Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1978), p. 37.