Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4


Mary Stanley Low (1912–2007) [1]

Mary Stanley Low died in Miami on 9 January 2007, aged 94 after a rich and distinguished life as a revolutionary, a creative writer and a teacher.

She was born in London to Australian parents, and educated in France and Switzerland. In Paris she joined left-wing political and artistic circles where she made the acquaintance and gained the friendship of leading surrealists. Surrealism was to remain one of the powerful creative drivers of her life. It was here, in 1933, that she met the Cuban born surrealist poet Juan Brea [2], who was to become her long-term partner and husband. After travelling through Europe and Cuba, Low and Brea, with many of their friends, among them Benjamin Péret, went to Barcelona to support the revolution in 1936.

The book they produced there together, the Red Spanish Notebook, remains the best known of all their work. It is one of the best accounts in English of the revolutionary transformation of the city, and Low’s chapters capture it through sharp observation of the detail of life. George Orwell was to praise her skilled writing as she described waiters refusing to accept tips, shoe-shine boys proudly displaying their union cards, and notices in brothels asking clients to respect the women working there as comrades. She found it hard to believe that even in this heated atmosphere the siesta was still almost universally practiced. Her description of the funeral of Durrutti is memorable; the tomb was too small for the hero’s coffin and disorganisation reigned in front of the assembled mourning masses. Low joined the POUM, while Brea was a member of the “official” Trotskyist group. Low worked in the English language radio service of the POUM, financed and co-edited their English newsletter (which the British Trotskyists advertised and sold in solidarity despite the political differences between Trotsky’s line and that of the POUM).

Low and Brea left Barcelona in December 1936 in an atmosphere increasingly dominated by Stalinist threats against the anarchists, POUM and Trotskyists. Brea had narrowly escaped death in an incident outside a POUM meeting which they did not believe was an accident.

Low translated Brea’s chapters of the Red Spanish Notebook, which received its first publication in London in 1937 with a prologue by C.L.R. James. The couple were married in London shortly before the book appeared.

After further travels in France and Cuba they settled in Prague, where they resumed co-operation with surrealists, until leaving for Paris in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion in July 1939. A compilation of poetry by Low and Brea (Low’s being written in French) was published in Paris in 1939, with the title La Saison des flutes, illustrated by the Cuban surrealist Wilfredo Lam.

In 1940 they left Europe and settled in Cuba, which was to be Low’s home for the next 25 years. Brea was already seriously ill and lived there for only about a year. In 1943 a volume of essays by Low and Brea, La verdad contemporánea was published, based on their talks in 1936 at the Havana Institute of Marxist Culture, with an introduction by Péret. Low continued energetic support work for the Spanish Republican refugees and exiles; work which was recognised by the award of the National Medal of Excellence.

In 1944 she remarried, to Armando Machado, a Trotskyist trade union leader, and acquired Cuban citizenship. In 1946 she published a volume of poetry, Alquimia del recuerdo (Alchemy of memory), again with illustrations by Lam. During this period she developed a deep interest in the history of Rome, and especially the life of Julius Caesar.

In 1957 she produced a trilingual book of poetry, Three Voices, Voces, Voix, illustrated by José Mijares. In 1959 Low and Machado supported the Cuban revolution. Low took on senior teaching roles at the Instituto de El Vedado and the University of Havana, in English and Latin. Both were members of the re-formed Trotskyist organisation POR, which soon enough and predictably enough lost favour as the Castro government came to rely on Soviet support. Machado was arrested and only freed on the intervention of Che Guevara. In 1965 they left Cuba, and after a stay in Australia, settled in Miami. She worked closely with the Surrealist tendency associated with Franklin Rosemont.

Blacklisted from teaching in the state sector for her political history, Low made a living in the elite private schools, teaching Latin and classics. She produced further volumes of literature and poetry – In Caesar’s Shadow (1975), Alive in Spite Of (1981), A Voice in Three Mirrors (1984), and Where the Wolf Sings (1994). (These two last were illustrated by her own collages and drawings, and are still in the list of AK Press.) Her writing appeared in a number of surrealist anthologies and her artwork was exhibited in surrealist group exhibitions.

After her retirement from teaching in 2000 she continued to travel extensively in Europe and maintained contact with the survivors of the revolutionary generation in Spain. In October 2002 she was one of the many signatories to the Surrealist-sponsored declaration Poetry Matters: On the Media Persecution of Amiri Baraka. Her final militant act was to sign a declaration of critical historians opposing the dominant historiography that depicts the Spanish revolution simply as a struggle between fascism and anti-fascism, (exemplified by Hobsbawm among UK academics) and seeks to erase the struggle between the classes from the historical record.

Mary Low’s ashes were scattered in Cuba and in Paris.

J.J. Plant


1. This obituary draws heavily on the notes published by the Nin Foundation (http://www.fundanin.org) and especially those by Pepe Gutiérres-Alvarez.

2. For more on Brea, (and the history of the revolutionary movement in Cuba) see Revolutionary History, Vol.6nbsp;7, No. 3, pp. 232–236.

Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011