Sy Landy Archive   | Steve Zeluck Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Sy Landy

Steve Zeluck 1922 -1985

(Summer 1985)

From Proletarian Revolution, No. 24 (Summer 1985).
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Steve Zeluck died on March 1, 1985 at the age of 63. He was a political opponent of ours; we mourn his death.

Our sadness does not derive from any notion of Marxist charity now that he is gone. Patronization of the dead is worse than of the living, since the dead cannot defend themselves. We respected Comrade Zeluck when we fought him in life. Now we respect his memory while we continue the combat against those who maintain his political legacy.

First it must be said that Steve’s whole life was dedicated to the struggle by the proletariat for a new, humane, socialist world. In our opinion, his strategy for this struggle was contradictory and self-defeating. He was killed by capitalism not, however, because of his mistakes but because of his devotion to the working-class mission.

Steve’s recent death from mesothelioma, cancer of the lining of the lung, was caused by exposure to asbestos while working in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the early days of World War II. He took a job there prior to being drafted as a political act, as a member of a revolutionary party seeking to lead his fellow workers in the class struggle; the communist goal, which he shared, was to turn the imperialist world war into a civil war against capitalism and for the rule of the working class.

For years the capitalist bosses had been well aware of the fact that asbestos was a killer. But they suppressed this knowledge, did not warn the workers, and made no adequate safeguards for the workers’ health. In this they had their priorities perfectly straight. After all, if they were willing to set in motion the slaughter of millions of workers-as-soldiers in fratricidal war in the interest of profits abroad, why stint on human sacrifice at home? As a result, Steve Zeluck, like many of his fellow workers, was murdered by capital.

The Struggle for Trotskyism

Steve became a Trotskyist as a young man in the late 1930s. He served both as a union activist and as a theorist and writer. He also lived through many of the decisive internal battles in the Trotskyist and ex-Trotskyist milieu. He continued his industrial work after the war at the International Harvester plant in Chicago, where he participated in militant strike action. Later he became a teacher and a leader in the United Federation of Teachers, where he fought the right-wing social-democratic Shanker machine.

He left the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in 1940 with the Shachtman split, a tendency that tried to mask its gradual turn towards the U.S. labor bureaucracy while highlighting the more evident dispute over the class character of the USSR. Within Shachtman’s Workers Party, he turned to the left and joined the “state capitalist” Johnson-Forest tendency led by C.L.R, James and Raya Dunayevskaya. With them he re-joined the SWP after the war, and when Johnson-Forest left the SWP in the late forties in a break from Trotskyism, he stayed behind as part of a loosely organized tendency including Art Fox and other union militants. As the SWP turned increasingly in the direction of middle-class radicalism, Zeluck and many others were dumped by the wayside in the mid-1960s.

In 1971 Steve joined the International Socialists (IS), a left-centrist Shachtmanite group strengthened by the New Left movement of the 60s. The IS was one of the first groups built during this period to turn to activity in the working class, but it was doing its best to bury the remaining shards of its revolutionary Trotskyist tradition. It presented itself as a militant trade unionist outfit seeking to spark a rank-and-file struggle for reforms and democracy.

The deepening capitalist crisis that set off the IS’s growth also led to its shattering. There were mass eruptions throughout the world, including the French general strike. In this country the black ghetto rebellions and the rash of wildcat strikes in the early 70s inspired new struggles, splits and expulsions within socialist groups. Among these was the 1973 fight of the Revolutionary Tendency in the IS that became the LRP of today, aimed at reconstructing a Trotskyist organization (see “The Struggle for the Revolutionary Party” in Socialist Voice No. 1).

Although he still identified himself as a Trotskyist, Steve remained loyal to the IS up to the point when its sole interest in union reform led it to embrace the left wing of the bureaucracy. This was too much for Steve and others, who reluctantly left in the late 70s to form the Workers Power group and publish the non-organizational magazine Against the Current, which he edited. This was Steve’s political home until his death.

Steve’s Broad Left Strategy

Workers Power and Against the Current embodied Steve’s conception that all tendencies of what he regarded as the broad revolutionary left ought to unify despite their serious political differences over the crucial questions of our time. The groups’ program had therefore to be vague enough to embrace as many disparate elements as possible. In Zeluck’s view this multi-tendencied mélange would succeed if it held a common approach to rank-and-file union reform. He drew the line against support for the capitalist Democratic Party and against submission to the left union bureaucrats.

“Rank and file” groups within the working class had been a hallmark of the original Shachtmanites. The idea was nurtured during and after the war, in opposition to the position of the then communist SWP for building the revolutionary party in industry as the alternative to the bureaucracy. The Shachtmanites inevitably capitulated to the bureaucracy (right as well as left) and the Democrats. Today they are the core leadership of both the Social Democrats USA (Lane Kirkland’s strategists) and the trendy Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The IS was born in a fight to preserve the earlier forms of Shachtmanism – a labor party and rank-and-filism – against the Democrats and bureaucrats. But because it never broke from the basic Shachtmanite assumption that militant reformism was the place to start, the IS ended up traveling on the same road to the right that it once fought against, albeit more slowly and hesitantly.

Steve too, despite his greater subjective leftism, still accepted the basic militant reformist strategy. Fittingly enough, at the memorial meeting held for him in New York on March 24, the upcoming re-merger of Workers Power and the IS was announced.

It is no accident that Steve’s grand perspective for regroupment has produced only the impending reunification with the remnant of the IS (and perhaps also a wing split from the Socialist Action outfit, itself recently expelled from the SWP). The real object of Steve’s (and the IS’s) desire was the large ex-Maoist milieu, in great disarray since the death of Mao Zedong and the exposure of China’s pro-U.S. activities. But the elements emerging out of the collapse of “anti-revisionist” Stalinism are uninterested. They have no need for impractical halfway houses that fight for reformist programs but refuse to embrace the only potential power centers for those programs, the left-tinged bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. Many New Left and Maoist veterans, some of them in the DSA, now serve as left covers and water carriers for the union misleaders. The effort to reconstruct an earlier, less capitulatory stage of Shachtmanism to avoid this path is as futile now as in the 1960s.

Multi-tendency centrist amalgamations like the ones Zeluck spent much of his life fighting for are inherently unstable; they maintain a tenuous existence only during periods of working-class retreat. But when the workers erupt, they have to choose between the real alternative programs: reform and revolution. The centrist groups split, recombine, flare up momentarily but then die out. They have always done so and always will.

Steve Zeluck was a fine teacher, especially patient with younger comrades. Many of us learned many things from him that arm us to this day. One reason was that he was genuinely concerned with what less experienced comrades had to say. In contrast to many of those who pass for leaders on the left, he never attempted to set himself up as demigod or guru spouting perfect wisdom. He likewise made a point of knowing his opponents’ views. He was always above the “anti-dogmatist” attitude that the opinions of small minorities, or of opponent tendencies, could be ignored out of disdain for the significance of their numbers.

Unfortunately his political course dictated a political and theoretical inconclusiveness which fed into the malaise enwrapping the left today. It encouraged young comrades to make uncertainty into a positive virtue, to identify political sureness and intransigence – qualities that were characteristic of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and our other great forebears – with dogmatism and shallowness.

Steve’s Theoretical Ideas

Steve’s comrades at the New York memorial meeting praised him repeatedly for the ideas he contributed – without mentioning what they were (aside from the regroupment perspective they share with him). Let us correct this omission, if only in brief outline.

In the mid-1950s he wrote two articles[1] under the nom de plume David Miller for the SWP’s theoretical journal on the role of state capitalism in China and other ex-colonial countries; these are still valuable sources of information and theoretical insight. He argued in particular against the prevailing, cynical view that statified capitalist societies like Maoist China’s were workers’ states, however deformed, transitional to socialism.

His later theoretical legacy is more ambiguous. In his own journal in the 1980s, he published two critiques of currently popular economic conceptions, the monopoly theory of Baran-Sweezy and others and the dependency theory of “third-world” backwardness. He convincingly attacked Baran-Sweezy’s anti-working class assumptions and their reformist logic leading to the strategy of working through the bourgeoisie’s state machine and its political parties. He also nailed the bourgeois nationalist logic of the dependency theorists. But in doing so he implicitly accepted these reformists’ claim to uphold the Leninist theoretical heritage. While Steve acknowledged that Lenin’s view was not the same as today’s third-worldists’, he ignored what Lenin considered the key question: the imperialist epoch and its close link to the development of monopoly. Without this understanding, Lenin’s strategy of building an intransigent revolutionary party becomes just one option to discuss among many.

Refusing to Draw Lines

On the same lines, in his critique of underdevelopment theory, he amassed evidence that capitalism has advanced the productive forces in certain ex-colonial and semi-colonial countries – but neglected to raise the question of whether this contradicts Lenin’s conception of the epoch and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Arguing against “dependency” while leaving these points unmentioned implies that a backward country in this epoch can rise to autonomous, even imperialist, levels – a possibility that both facts and theory dispute. As a result, Steve’s reluctance to either affirm or openly confront the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition left open the sort of reformist conclusions that he spent his life in combat against.

Steve was caught between his strong allegiance to the working class and revolution on the one hand, and his constant effort to broker a left regroupment on a least-common-denominator basis on the other. While he was committed to rigorous Marxist theoretical analysis of fundamental questions, his mélange strategy inevitably prevented him from drawing sharp political conclusions. Of course, sharp political conclusions are the only point of theoretical activity for Marxists. But Steve’s deep and sincere interest in Marxist theory produced less than it should have because his efforts remained probes; he fell short of the kind of illumination his abilities and interest promised. And whenever faction fights broke out, even those over serious questions, the story always was that “Steve is somewhere in between.”

Workers Power, for example, has no defined position on the “Russian question.” (In the last decade Steve’s own view was that the USSR was more progressive than capitalism but less so than socialism. He may have been more precise than that, but if so we never knew. He was so concerned to reconcile opposing views that he didn’t crystallize his own.) The differences are vast: some see it as a workers’ state on the path to human progress, although perhaps stalled; others as a reactionary blockade to socialism. Obviously this affects one’s view of what socialism is and how to fight for it. Workers Power is devoted to discussing the need for a discussion of such vital questions but is absolutely adamant in refusing to come to conclusions which would draw lines.

In pursuit of his unifying mission, Steve demonstrated tact, patience and diplomatic skill. Yet he was also an embittered man who could, and did, explode upon occasion. Bitterness was not an uncommon trait among the generation of communist militants who entered industry in the 30s and 40s expecting to see the revolution in their time. Their sacrifices and dedication were mocked by their former comrades who sold out or capitulated when the post-war prosperity bubble inflated. When the surviving militants saw that the revolution had to be postponed to the indefinite future, they realized that their whole lives would be spent within the capitalist society they hated. Their tragedy is ours too. If Steve’s devotion to the working class was marred by a certain cynicism over its potential for revolutionary consciousness (as it was, in our opinion), we can understand his outlook even though we are hostile to it.

When we fought Steve in the IS in 1973, he took an extremely hard line against us, as we did towards him. He attacked us as unregenerate sectarians whose insistent evocation of Trotskyism would frighten off positive developments within the IS. We jeered at him as a “creeping Trotskyist” who believed Trotskyism could triumph without an open fight. When he took a stance between our tendency and the majority leaders, we attacked him for being firm against his left and soft towards those on his right. In that fight the truth was not “somewhere in between.” The I.S. did not creep toward Trotskyism; it galloped away, even when our spectres were no longer there to haunt it.

Steve’s Political Tragedy

Marxists would normally commend another socialist’s honesty, dedication and courage and then pass on, since such characteristics should be expected. These days, however, the defeats that embittered Steve have made others viciously cynical and vindictive. Steve was not like that. In a decadent milieu full of supreme leaders with small souls, he was a decent man. Faction fights in particular can be notoriously venomous and frequently dirty. In all of our battles with Comrade Zeluck, we knew him to be an honest and political opponent, never petty or personalistic. In recent years, when others have sought to use narrow organizational means to prevent opponents on the left (such as ourselves) from speaking at meetings or participating in events, Steve – just as hostile to us as were his friends – relied on political means and political ideas to fight with. We respected him despite our political hostility; we believe the same was true for. him with respect to us.

Steve Zeluck lived an honorable life fighting “against the current.” Tragically, he was unable to find the channel through the rapids. We in the LRP are also dedicated to working-class unity, but in our view the key to that achievement at present is to fight for the general strike – unity in action as opposed to the unity over minimal reform programs that Steve and others believed would do the job. We believe that a Bolshevik (Trotskyist) party can be built only through struggle against liquidationism and for a rock-hard revolutionary program. Within such a party, rich diversity and conflict will be productive and decisive, in contrast to the flaccid inconclusiveness of the political amalgams favored by Steve. We aim for the same goals with different means; we don’t think his means could or ever will achieve that end.

We not only mourn his death, but we dedicate ourselves to avenge an honest fighter against the criminal social system that killed him. The truest retribution will be the victory of that class, the proletariat, for whom Comrade Steve Zeluck gave his life.


1. The Role of Statism In the Colonial World and The Character of the State in China

Sy Landy Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated on 14 April 2009. This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.