Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


Paul Siegel (1916–2004): Marxist Scholar and Activist

A WEEK before Paul Siegel’s death on 26 April, he delivered his last lecture to a group of 15 New York Socialist Action comrades, friends and potential members. He had prepared the class meticulously and reviewed its contents with comrades at the Socialist Action branch meeting the week before. His subject, Has the Empire Overstepped Itself?, was designed to demonstrate that the horrors presently being perpetrated by American imperialism are a reflection of a deepening crisis of world and US capitalism rather than a measure of their strength and stability.

Comrades report that Paul’s voice initially faltered, but he struggled mightily in an attempt to deliver the steady and deliberate presentation that had marked his life’s work as a revolutionary socialist educator. He managed to regain his composure and finished with renewed vigour, but the rapid advance of his terminal disease denied him the clarity that had characterised his writing and speech for more than 50 years.

Paul’s final educational effort was deeply appreciated; his last appearance on the political stage stood as a testament to his courage and will. He was surrounded by comrades, friends and family, and had even convinced his hospice worker to attend his lecture as a way to introduce her to the ideas of socialism.

Three months earlier, Paul’s doctors had told him that he had inoperable and untreatable cancer, and advised him to ‘put his affairs in order’. Characteristically, he immediately set to work on a new book. He selected 20 articles he had previously written on the subject of Leon Trotsky, and wrote a new introduction for the collection, which will be published by Socialist Action. Meanwhile, we visited him, and asked him to tell us about his life and the events and ideas that shaped it.

Paul was born on 24 June 1916, in Patterson, NJ, to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Białystock in Tsarist Russia, now Poland. He graduated from City College of New York, and went on to earn a PhD in English Literature from Harvard University in 1941.

At that time, Harvard’s anti-Semitic quota system limited the number of Jews to a tiny few. Similarly, Harvard’s placement agency explained that it was ‘difficult’ to find academic jobs for Jewish graduates. With employment opportunities thus limited, Paul became subject to the newly-instituted military draft, and was inducted into the US Army shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in a medical unit in England for four years. Paul described himself as a ‘Norman Thomas socialist’ during his high school years until in 1936 he joined the Young Communist League, the Communist Party’s youth group. ‘I must be the only person in the world who became a Stalinist by reading Trotsky’, he told us. Paul had read Trotsky’s Whither England?, and was appalled to learn about the betrayal perpetrated by the social democrats who dominated the leadership of the reformist Labour Party.

But Paul’s brief flirtation with the CP ended with the infamous Moscow Trials, where Leon Trotsky and his co-thinkers in the Left Opposition were pilloried and sentenced to death. Max Shachtman’s Behind the Moscow Trials and Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed drew him to the Trotskyist movement.

He happened upon a copy of the Trotskyist Socialist Appeal newspaper, and met a Socialist Workers Party leader, the young George Weissman, which led Paul to found the Cambridge SWP branch, winning new members from Harvard and Radcliff.

A year later he joined the Boston SWP branch, where his education advanced under the leadership of Larry and Gusty Trainor and the renowned Marxist and feminist doctor and early abortion rights advocate, Antoinette Konikow.

The postwar rush back to the universities, encouraged by the government’s funding of education through the GI Bill of Rights, created the teacher shortage that landed Paul jobs teaching English literature, first at the University of Connecticut and CCNY, and then for seven years at Ripon College in Wisconsin.

At Ripon, he led a successful fight to prevent the establishment of a right-wing think-tank. But his resulting ‘persona non grata’ status, as Paul called it, ‘happily led to my release from my contract and to my acceptance in 1956 at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus’, where he remained until his early retirement in 1978.

Paul felt no compunction to refrain from signing the McCarthy-era anti-communist loyalty oath required by LIU president Admiral Richard L. Conolly. He became chair of the English department, and was one of the campus’s leading anti-war activist professors.

Paul took great pride in a gift of a portrait of Leon Trotsky presented to him by radical students in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) group, whom he allowed to use his department’s mimeograph machine to produce anti-war literature. At the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, when the US invaded Laos and Cambodia, it was Paul who presented the motion to the LIU faculty to discontinue regular classes and turn the university into an institution of opposition to the war. This is how Paul described the proceedings:

Someone called for a roll-call vote based on the idea that the faculty would be intimidated. But students invaded the hall to observe the discussion and vote. The resolution passed, to everyone’s amazement. Some parents threatened to sue the university, but the faculty thought that this was the highest level of education. The administration opposed it. The president of the Brooklyn Center of LIU, Aldridge, associated with the Rockefellers, later scolded the faculty and told us that we had to get the students to tone down their behaviour, and he glared at me as he spoke. I stared back until he turned away.

Paul never abused his position as a professor by forcing his socialist views on his students, but his public activism made them well aware of his radicalism. A student once asked him: ‘Professor Siegel, why is it that although most of the well-known Marxist intellectuals of your era have renounced Marxism, you haven’t changed your views?’ Paul replied: ‘I suppose I must be more conservative than they are.’

Paul’s anti-war activity extended nationally to the Modern Language Association, an academic institution not previously known for its radicalism. But ‘the great ferment among young radical teachers like Louis Kampf and Paul Lauder led to Kampf’s election to the vice-presidency, and, in accord with the organisation’s bylaws, automatically the next year to the presidency’.

Paul celebrated the MLA victory with a call back to New York to his loving wife Edith, whom he had met when both were members of the SWP. (Paul and Edith originally ‘bonded’ as a result of their hitch-hiking together to the SWP’s Trotsky School in the New Jersey countryside.) ‘Edith’, he said, ‘there’s been a revolution here.’ Someone nearby overheard Paul’s comment and took it to mean that Paul was one of the old guard, fearful of the MLA’s new direction. ‘My God, they’re terribly afraid of us’, Paul overheard him say. Paul responded as he got off the phone, ‘No, I don’t fear you. It’s the new leadership that I was hailing.’

Paul had his differences with Lauder and Kampf. They believed that the university system was geared to turning out conformists to ruling-class ideology. Paul, influenced by the Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, was more favourably inclined to the new generation of student youth. ‘We were both right’, Paul observed. ‘Once the draft was ended, the students did become more conservatised. But so did everyone else.’

Paul left the SWP in 1953 with a split led by Bert Cochran. He agreed with Cochran’s characterisation of the SWP as ‘sectarian’ on several issues, but upon reflection years later, reversed this assessment and rejoined the SWP in 1978 after working with it on several projects. He had been a contributor to the short-lived Cochran publication, the American Socialist.

Paul’s resumption of work with the SWP began when he edited an anthology of Trotsky’s writings, Literature and Art, and he became a frequent contributor to the SWP’s monthly magazine, the International Socialist Review. He considered the SWP leader, author and organiser, George Breitman, whom he had met in the New Jersey branch of the SWP, among his closest associates.

Another close friend, Annette Rubenstein, often jousted with Paul over differing interpretations of Shakespearean literary criticism, Paul’s academic speciality. Rubenstein, an ex-CP supporter, came to work closely with the SWP and Paul in the ‘regroupment’ period following Soviet head of state Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes.

He fondly recalled her observation following a panel debate, in which he and Rubenstein participated, held on the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution. ‘Whatever our differences’, Paul recalled Annette as stating, ‘we have more in common than all the others outside the movement.’ This remark touched Paul’s heart and reflected his life-long open-minded approach to those with whom he disagreed or who held opinions that differed from the ‘party line’.

Paul rejected the commonly held academic notion that Shakespeare’s writing was timeless. His Marxist training taught him, Paul noted, that ‘no one was above ideology’. Paul’s view that ‘Shakespeare expressed the Christian humanist ideology of the new Tudor aristocracy’ was not widely accepted in the US, but was praised highly by Marxist interpreters of Shakespeare around the world.

In the spirit of literary exploration and openness (as opposed to revealed truth), Paul noted: ‘I favour any and all interpretations of Shakespeare, but I found that if you worked with his text rather than against it, you did better.’

Paul believed that most Stalinist intellectuals had given up their political principles. He noted as an example the monolithic bureaucratism that led Mao Tse-Tung to ban Shakespeare in China. In contrast, Paul observed, Marx appreciated Shakespeare, while Lenin preferred Pushkin as against the futurists of his time. ‘But Lenin’, Paul noted approvingly, ‘never tried to impose his opinions.’

That was Paul’s tradition. He never insisted that others agree.

Paul authored and edited numerous books and articles on literary and political subjects throughout his adult life. His Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise (1957), Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (1968), Revolution in the Twentieth-Century Novel (1979) and Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach (1986) constitute a treasure chest of insight into the value of Marxist analysis in literature and politics.

Paul’s last book, published by Socialist Action’s Walnut Publishing Company in 1991, The Great Reversal: Politics and Art in Solzhenitsyn, presents an insightful account of the evolution of the celebrated Soviet writer and Nobel laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from a brilliant revolutionary critic of the Stalin era to a pro-monarchist reactionary recluse.

Solzhenitsyn’s early works, Cancer Ward and The First Circle, seemed to echo a popular cry for a return to the policies of Lenin and Trotsky. His reversal found him repudiating both people, and condemning the United States for capitulating during the war in Vietnam. Solzhenitsyn, the most translated author in world history, was regarded as the equal of Tolstoy in regard to critical analysis of an existing regime, and the equal of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as a novelist. Paul’s insightful analysis of his reversal is presented with a clarity that brings to bear the full power of his Marxist method.

LIU’s academic culture was not based on the ‘publish or perish’ ethic. Paul explained that without this compulsion, he wrote for his own satisfaction and for the education of those interested in ideas that elucidated life itself.

‘Academic books, as a rule, don’t make money’, Paul noted without a tinge of regret. Paul’s approach to his work was to complete his books first and then to seek a publisher, rather than the more traditional method of writing a prospectus first and then testing out the publication waters.

‘With one exception’, he told us, ‘I never made money publishing books.’ Paul’s reference here was to his popular work, The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World (1986), a Marxist view of religion that has delighted readers interested in a balanced approach to the origin and function of religion in society. The book was inspired when Paul’s daughter Rosalind married her first husband, a Mormon, who presented Paul with a book defending his religious viewpoint. Paul took the time to reply with an analysis of the book, exposing the fallacies of the author while praising the intentions of those who fought for religious freedom. The exchange that followed inspired Paul to write a book on the subject.

While finding a publisher proved troublesome, the problem was overcome when, according to Paul, a militant atheist won a faction fight within the Zed Books publishing house, and the project was set into motion.

In the course of finalising the work, the foremost scholar of the seventeenth-century English Revolution, Christopher Hill, after reading the manuscript, suggested that Paul ‘go more lightly’ where Paul had used references from Marx and Engels against various religious figures. In contrast, the leading SWP intellectual, George Novack, also read the opening chapters and urged him to remain firm. ‘Don’t apologise’, said Novack. Paul didn’t follow Novack’s advice entirely, but apologised for his own deference by stating: ‘One must hate the sin but love the sinner, particularly religious people who fight for social justice.’

Finding a publisher for his clearly Marxist-based literary analysis always proved difficult. This was certainly the case with Paul’s Revolution and the Twentieth-Century Novel, a work that was held up by Indiana University Press for a long while before its rejection. Paul later learned that Indiana University Press’ ‘referee’ for the book was the New Left guru of the time, Louis Kampf of the MLA, who stood in opposition to all ‘high culture’. Kampf had previously collaborated with Paul in the fight in the MLA during the Vietnam War, but stood in sharp opposition to Trotskyism. The book was eventually published in 1979 by the SWP’s Pathfinder Press.

Paul left the SWP for the second time in 1983 after he had joined with an opposition current in that party that rejected the current SWP leadership’s break with its Trotskyist traditions and programme. He was summarily expelled from the party during the ‘Christmas Eve Massacre’, when a group of New York SWPers were called into the party headquarters and told, without recourse, that their membership had been terminated. ‘We’re back to square one’, Paul remembered telling an older comrade, David Weiss. ‘But we continued.’

Twenty years ago, Paul became a founding member of Socialist Action, the organisation that stands in continuity with the programme of the pre-1983 SWP and with the historic traditions of the Fourth International, founded by Leon Trotsky. He was an elected delegate to several Socialist Action national conventions, and served as a member of the party’s Control Commission for many years.

In 1989, in the Gorbachev era, Paul participated in the first Trotskyist delegation to visit the Soviet Union since Leon Trotsky himself had been expelled six decades earlier. Initiated by Socialist Action, the delegation included Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban (Sieva) Volkov; Vlady Kibalchich, the son of the Left Oppositionist and anti-Stalinist fighter Victor Serge; Pierre Broué, director of the Leon Trotsky Institute in Paris, and several members and friends of Socialist Action.

Paul became co-chair of the Moscow Trials Campaign Committee, based in New York. The committee organised an international campaign demanding the rehabilitation of Leon Trotsky and other victims of the Stalin-era purges.

Paul’s lifelong companion Edith passed away at the end of 1999. His daughter Rosalind invited him to live with her and her family in Ohio, but he decided to remain in New York, where he could best pursue his political and intellectual activities. Although Paul was in frequent contact with many friends, an octogenarian living alone is not in the best of situations, so one of his grand-daughters, Jenni, moved in with him to provide daily companionship and a helping hand. Paul’s family was one of the great joys of his life; in addition to Rosalind and Jenni, he is survived by grandchildren Christie, Noah, Jessica and Halle.

Paul Siegel was our beloved comrade and friend. His efforts for a democratic and socialist world engaged his entire life. His work will be carried forward by his co-thinkers in Socialist Action and by all others who fight for a world free from capitalist oppression and exploitation.

Your work is done, dear Paul. You have gently passed the banner to thousands and more.

Jeff Mackler and Cliff Conner

This article first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper, and has been reproduced here with the permission of the paper’s editors.

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011