Max Shachtman

Martin Abern

(9 May 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 19, 9 May 1949, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed &anp; marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is burning grief in our hearts. Last Thursday, April 28, 1949, Martin Abern died. He was riding to work that morning in a Brooklyn bus when he slumped over quietly. His teeth bit into his lips against the last pain from the weakened heart that failed him.

It is still hard to realize that Marty is dead and no longer with us in the movement. He was in it as far back as any of us remembered, and farther back than that. He was so much and so long a part of the movement that we just felt he would still be in it when most of us were already gone.

He had just turned fifty. He was born on December 25, 1898, to a working-class family. His young life was lived in Minneapolis, where he became known to every militant and radical in the movement or around it. He worked his way through school as a newsboy, the best in the Twin Cities (he always recalled that with quiet pride). As a student, he made a brilliant record, and great successes as a business man of tomorrow were foretold for him.

But all of Marty’s interests lay elsewhere. He had the rebel in him and it never left him. At the age of 15, just when the First World War broke out in Europe, he joined both the IWW and the Young People’s Socialist League, but, inclined toward political action, he bent his energies to the YPSL and to the Socialist Party which he joined subsequently.

Entering the University of Minnesota, he soon won the sobriquet of the “campus radical.” If he was tolerated, it was due, perhaps, to the fact that, conquering all political and racial prejudices, he became a star member of the university’s championship football team. Sturdy of frame, square-shouldered, broad in the chest and with a bullneck, he had a character to match. He could buck the line on a football field and he showed the same unbending tenacity whenever it was needed most in the difficult days of the movement.

Fought World War I

When the United States entered the war, Marty shared the position of all the left-wing socialists against it. In those days, many of the best left-wingers manifested their opposition to the imperialist war by refusing military service on political grounds. Marty refused to put on the uniform. It brought his university life to an end, after less than three years. Arrested and tried, he served six months in a Minnesota prison.

He came out of if to devote himself exclusively to the fight for socialism. It was natural and inevitable for Marty to become: a partisan of the great Russian Revolution of 1917, and to the end he never abandoned it. Marty,never abandoned a cause he believed in, and if it became unpopular among Philistines or cowards, he simply hunched his shoulders higher and kept going.

In the big fight between the left and right wings of the Socialist Party that opened up after the Russian Revolution and reached its peak after the founding of the Communist International, Marty took his stand prominently with the militants. Along with Abe Sugarman, then secretary of the Socialist Party of Minnesota, and Jack Carney, the left-wing leader in Duluth, Marty helped swing the Minnesota party and youth organisations into the left-wing column. The party split into three parts at its September 1919 convention in Chicago, and Marty went with the Communists.

A few months later, the Communist movement was cut to pieces and outlawed by the notorious Palmer raids, and only a few thousand were left out of the tens of thousands who voted to launch the new movement. Naturally, Marty was one of those who stuck. When the two main Communist groups united into a single party at an underground convention, he was elected as the youngest member of the Central Committee. He was not yet 23 years old.

His first assignment was to reassemble the dispersed Communist youth movement and he discharged that assignment with remarkable success. When the legal Young Workers League (later the Young Communist League) was established, he was elected its first national secretary. In that capacity he nursed it through its babyhood and shaped its whole course – he more than any other man.

Built Youth Movement

There never was a finer, stronger, healthier revolutionary youth movement in this country – before or since – than the Young Workers League of Marty Abern’s days, and I am not the only one who can testify to it from personal knowledge. No one more than Marty was responsible for the fact that the league soon counted scores of young miners and steel workers from Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and young farmers from the Northwest among its active membership.

In 1922, he was one of the American delegates to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International and, With John Edwards, a delegate to the Second Congress of the Communist Youth International, to whose Executive Committee he was elected. An intense interest in the world movement remained with him always.

Although we thought him “indispensable” to the youth movement, the requirements of the party organization drew him, as in the case of so many others, further and further from the league and toward the party. In the party, he became known all over the country as one of the ablest organizers and executives in the organization. His exceptional talents, meticulousness, perseverance and reliability were acknowledged on all sides even in the bitterest factional days in the Communist Party.

He served as effective organizer for District Eight of the Party (it was the best in the country, faking in Illinois and parts of Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri, with Chicago as headquarters) and, shortly before the International Labor Defense was formed, he became the chief assistant of its secretary, James P. Cannon, in charge of the organizational work. His work in that organization – it was a fine one in those days – especially In connection with the campaigns for Tom Mooney and Sacco and Vanzetti, was one of Marty’s most memorable contributions to the movement.

In the internal conflicts of the Communist Party, Marty was on the side of the Foster-Cannon group against the Pepperites and Lovestoneites – the opportunist wing of the party – and then, when his group split in two in 1925, he joined with others of us in forming the Cannon group. Marty was never ashamed of his factional allegiances and he never had cause to be.

Often in charge of organizing in these conflicts – and he was as able and loyal and responsible in factional organization as he was in organizing for the party or the youth as a whole – he just as often bore the brunt of the many party battles. But he was already too old a hand at fighting tirelessly for his convictions and his comrades to do more than wince at the vicious attacks which unclean opponents hurled at him – and then continue his road.

A Founder of Trotskyist Movement

Marty was one of the members of the party central committee to take up, along with Cannon and myself, the struggle for the ideas of Leon Trotsky and the Russian Opposition. There were only the three of us to begin with, the three who were expelled from the Communist Party on October 27, 1928, after a farcical trial, only three of us to “begin all over again,” without apparently more than a few friends around us and with less than modest prospects of soon getting many more.

The recollection of those stark days of trying to re-found and re-shape the movement, days of anguish and scorn and tears and blows, the perfidy of former comrades, the enforced isolation – it all gives the thought of Marty’s death a crueler bite. To withstand the black waves that pounded us then, we kept our arms tight around each other, and Marty’s arm was strong and true. It is not true that you find your comrades and your friends only in the light. Sometimes you learn Who they really are when it is bleak, when their comradeship is the only warmth and assurance you have.

In the bleakest days of our movement, Marty was like a pillar. He could grumble and fret like the next man, but we always knew he was a pillar. The fly-by-night would fly away and the flash-in-the-pan would die out dully, but Marty would still be there, always reliable. Without his incredible tirelessness, his administrative gift, his magical ability to wheedle money from stones, more than one issue of our precious Militant would never have seen the light of day.

He was no less a “professional” rank-and-filer than he was a “professional” leader. His sleeves were always rolled up for the “menial” work, the “dirty” work: pecking out an endless, positively worldwide stream of correspondence from cold typewriter keys; wrapping bundles of the paper; distributing it on the newsstands and selling it on the streets – and not always before friendly crowds. He was responsible to a large extent for the appearance of The New International, and if it attained a truly international circulation which increased month by month, it was Marty’s management we had to thank for it. All over, the world, comrades knew Marty’s name from the systematic, detailed, always informative correspondence which he extended and maintained in a score of countries.

With WP to the End

He was with us, too, as a leader in the fight over the war question, the “Russian question” and other disputes that led to the split in the Socialist Workers Party and the founding of the Workers Party in 1940. But the years were beginning to tell on the vessel. They were years of unrelieved work for the movement such as I have never seen anyone else perform – years which included strains such as few endure for long. On top of all that came personal difficulties of such overriding nature that Marty found himself compelled to seek a job outside the organization.

It meant he was unable to do as much for us as before, but it did not mean so much as a hair’s breadth of difference in the intensity of his political interests, the liveliness of his participation in every party activity that was available to him. Why, only yesterday he was busy at our national convention with old comrades from all over the country, with new ones, discussing problems, exchanging views, insisting above all else that no effort must be spared, no sacrifice spared, to keep our press going, insisting that the formation of the Independent Socialist League was a necessary and a good step toward the re-orientation and reconstruction of the movement.

But as he climbed the long stairs of our rickety building, we could see that it was a painful effort – he kept pressing his hand to his heart. We didn’t realize how bad it was. Marty didn’t tell us, because he seldom spoke of himself and never made any complaints. And just a few weeks later, that heart was stilled. His wife told us at the funeral that only a couple of months ago he had spoken with her of making the practical arrangements that would enable him to return once more to full-time work for the organization. The arrangements were never completed.

Marty was a comrade of the rarest singleness in his devotion. He was a comrade of amazing but quiet generosity, and no comrade – except, very often, himself – went hungry while he had a dime in his pocket. He had the most extraordinary loyalty to his comrades, loyalty to a fault sometimes, but loyalty that was fierce and gentle at once, that could not be bought and was not soon relinquished.

He was my friend and comrade of longer standing than anyone else I know in the movement – almost twenty-seven rich and lean and altogether irreplaceable years – and like others I did nothing but gain from knowing him well. He endured more assaults than anyone I know, and more calumny, but more often they dishonored those who directed them at him. He had an immense personal pride and an astonishing gentleness and shyness with comrades which he most often concealed behind a thin gruffness, as if ashamed to be considered “soft.” I never heard him abuse a comrade; I never saw him fail in sympathy for distress. I never knew a comrade of greater courage and less ostentation about it.

A Strong Oak

Oh, all the things I remember about Marty! I saw him once in the ’20s in Chicago, when he faced a gang of thugs sent by the right-wing bureaucrats of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union to break up a meeting he had organized, and stood there outstaring a burly gangster who had his cocked revolver shoved deep into Marty’s belly until the hoodlum gave the ground that Marty didn’t give and didn’t know how to give.

I saw him once in 1929 in front of the Communist Party headquarters in Union Square while Cannon and I were ringed off by a gang of Stalinist gangsters and another gang was tearing away at Marty’s back and his stiff unbending bullneck trying to tear the bundle of Militants out of the arms with which he was hugging them to himself, and not succeeding in tearing away a single copy.

I saw him again as chairman of our second public meeting for Trotskyism in New York (the first one had been successfully dispersed by the Stalinists), standing there at the table, quietly holding a length of pipe with a good T-head screwed on to it by one of our plumber’s helpers, waiting for the snarling mob of incited Stalinists to rush the platform.

He was an oak of a comrade, an oak of a party man, strong, solid and dignified, close grained and deep in the roots, not easy to bend and a lot harder to break. No one ever did break Marty. If he is not with us now it is only because he worked and worked for the sacred cause of human emancipation until the pump of his life grew too feeble to sustain that good and wonderful life he gave to socialism.

Goodbye, Marty. Dear friend, old comrade, goodbye.

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