Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 23, 2008

Petty-bourgeois Menshevik handicapping

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

In June 2000, a former member of the Workers League, Jeff Goldstein, died in Las Vegas at the age of 58. He had participated in the founding of the Workers League in 1966. He used the pen name, Jeff Sebastian, and wrote numerous articles on economic matters for the Bulletin. He also made a significant contribution to the organization of the party’s work on the West Coast in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like Steiner, Goldstein left the Workers League during the Wohlforth crisis in 1973 and returned after the latter’s resignation. In the autumn of 1974 Sebastian assumed the post of Bulletin editor. However, in March 1977 he left the movement. Sometime later, he moved to Las Vegas where he combined his skill in mathematics with his lifelong, and generally unhealthy, fascination with gambling to become a professional handicapper. He published a racing journal that acquired a small but devoted following. After Steiner left the Workers League, he and Jeff Goldstein reestablished their friendship.

Goldstein-Sebastian retained generally friendly though extremely limited relations with the SEP. We were, of course, saddened to learn of the death of our former comrade. Steiner went to Las Vegas to speak at the funeral of his close friend. Not long after, he sent me a copy of the obituary that he had written to memorialize the life of Sebastian.

Of course, a eulogy delivered at a graveside has standards of its own, which allow a more forgiving approach to the rules of objectivity. And yet, as I read Steiner’s remarks, it seemed to me that he had pressed well beyond the appropriate limits. He sought to portray Goldstein’s work as a handicapper as a masterful application of materialist dialectics, based on the achievements of Hegel and Marx:

Jeff’s approach to handicapping was supremely philosophical, though I would guess that many of his readers were not aware of this. Jeff was a serious student of philosophy, though I doubt that he would have described himself in these terms. For Jeff was above all practical. For him the truth was always concrete. Theory is alive in its practical application. Thus Jeff found issues of jockeys, trainers and tracks not only fun, aesthetically pleasing, intellectually challenging, but also providing insights into profound philosophical truths, and I know it is these insights that he took most delight in.

full: http://wsws.org/articles/2008/oct2008/fran-o23.shtml

5 Comments »

  1. I believe I met Jeff Sebastian in 1970 in Los Angeles, when I was a participant in a local strike support committee called SWAC (Student-Worker Action Committee/Collective). SWAC came into being when a Teamster named Steve approached a table at UCLA in the very early days of the national student strike following the Kent State killings and said he had a problem: his union was on strike, but, since the strike was a wildcat, the companies had got a judge to disallow picketing at the “barns” where trucks issued forth each morning to make their rounds. Since, he said, the workers could not staff their own picket lines, perhaps we, the students, would be willing to help them?

    Wow. Were we. I myself was no longer a student, but an insurance underwriter who had just gotten fired due to cop fight envy, i.e. my absence in the several days following the only real student/cop battle at UCLA, when I was just looking for trouble and dawdling around UCLA hoping to run into a riot. Anyway, the people at the table got immediately busy and the next morning, and every morning after that for the duration of the strike, we mobilized from 100 to 300 students to go to various truck barns to picket in the stead of the striking workers. This was a very contentious strike.

    It was only formally a wildcat since the union meeting that was about to vote no on Jimmy Hoffa’s national master contract was gavelled closed in anticipation of the passage of a motion to vote no on the contract and yes to a strike. The rank and file, understandably, were enraged, and immediately decided to go it alone, that being the tenor of the times. They ran into the legal buzzsaw designed to discipline workers right away and, also due to the tenor of the times, were open to the idea of seeking allies among the striking students. The only other local that went wildcat on this issue in 1970 was in Cleveland, OH.

    Both locals experienced a massive level of violence. A striker (union guy) was run over and killed at one barn. In Ohio, rocks were thrown off overpasses at passing scab-operated trucks. (In retrospect, it must be remembered that “scabs” were also, in many instances, union members who just agreed that the strike was illegal.) I personally met people who went into the mountains east of Los Angeles with rifles to shoot out tires of trucks scabbing on the strike.

    Several members of the local, Teamsters 208, got arrested for some sort of strike activity that I honestly cannot recall. There was an attempt to support them both during and after their trial and very short incarcerations. We of SWAC by that time had a small newspaper that covered the trial and told the story of the striking workers, so we were well received by the union guys. I remember with great clarity the shit I took when, at a celebration of their getting out of the slammer, I innocently ordered a Coors beer at the bar where we met to celebrate. The Teamsters around me very loudly said, “By all means, give the brother the scab beer he wants” and it went on like that for a while.

    In any case, as you may imagine, a formation like SWAC, which had real ongoing contact with real workers, and had real workers who liked us because of all the good stuff we did for them, became an immediate object of attention to various organizations of the existing left, primarily the IS, WWP, several Maoist groups that I cannot remember by name, and notably NOT the SWP, which considered strike support work a diversion from the antiwar movement.

    I met Jeff Sebastian one afternoon in my living room when Les Evenchick brought him around to talk to SWAC about revolution. He was the single scariest human being I had ever met up to that time. He brought an aura appropriate to the eve of the insurrection (maybe) and tried to drill it into us with exopthalmic intensity. I frankly can’t remember a whit of what he said, other than the general impression that if this was what being a revolutionary was about, then no thanks. I was gratified at the number of rolling eyes around the room and we all shared a sense of relief when Jeff took the revolution away with him. Les Evenchick was himself a very nice guy who never, as I recall, did anything but comment on the politics of SWAC and attempt to sell us the Bulletin, which then cost $.10 and devoted several pages per issue to the status of the subscription drive.

    In general we of SWAC were more susceptible to the IS and a large number of us joined the IS over time, and a good majority of those wound up in the SWP through the IS-RSL-RMC-SWP road of splits and fusions.

    David McDonald

    Comment by David McDonald — October 24, 2008 @ 2:58 am

  2. Here’s another remembrance of Jeff Sebastian that showed up on Marxmail today:

    I was sad to hear about the death of Jeff Goldstein, who I am sure
    contributed a million times more to the world wide socialist revolution that
    David North. The writer of the piece Louis Project posted.

    Jeff was a beatnik leftist, one time chess champion of the state of
    Massachussets, a cab driver and writer, and an all around brilliant talker.
    He was a Dave Van Ronk Trotskyist.

    I met him in 1969 in a car on the way to the SDS convention in Los Angeles.
    It wasn’t exactly the SDS anymore, it was just the PL part (Progressive
    Labor Party). But what did I know? I was just a freshman at Berkeley
    bewildered by the dozens of little and big socialist, communist,
    r-r-r-revolutionary and radical groups out there in Sproul Plaza. I had been
    tricked into traveling with the Workers League by a guy named Steve Zeltzer,
    who is still around. Steve got his brother to help him recruit some people
    to fill up the Workers League’s cars for the trip to LA. I was an extra
    body.

    On the way down to LA, driving south from San Jose, another extra body
    pulled out a joint to smoke. OOPS! That was a revolutionary No-No, big time,
    big deal! I was shocked that these guys didn’t smoke dope. Their explanation
    about it being illegal was not too convincing, since – I mean they wanted to
    overthrow the whole fucking government, and that was not exactly legal
    either. But, I guessed getting arrested for something frivolous might have
    gotten in the way of more serious stuff, and my friend reluctantly agreed,
    too. He threw the joint out the window (but not the baggie in his backpack.)

    That night we camped out on the floor of tis PL guy who was a steel worker.
    He and Jeff stayed up the whole night arguing over the Chinese revolutions,
    1919, 1927, 1948, Stalin and Trotsky, the Narodniks and their relation to
    Maoism, and the student antiwar movement and the labor movement in the
    United States, and more..

    Jeff clearly won the debate. The Pler ended up joining the Workers League
    about a year later. I joined six months later. The SDS convention was
    boring. It was dying, and PL was clearly confused about what they were
    doing.

    Once in the Workers League, Jeff Sebastian’s brilliant talks about just
    about everything, kept me interested, despite the fact that Jeff, and the
    Workers League as a whole, had absolutely zero idea about what I, a student
    in the middle of the vortex of Berkeley, should be doing in the student
    movement in general, and the antiwar movement in particular. I read Trotsky,
    and made speeches calling for general strikes (which got applause) and a
    labor party (wich got humms and uhs.)

    Once on a trip across the country in a VW bus, the engine blew up in a snow
    storm in Texas (an unusual Christmas.) We amused ourselves while we atied
    for the tow truck by playing chess. Only we didn’t have a chess board. Jeff
    played all of us who were willing to give it a go simultaneously. I lasted
    the longest. He beat us all without paying much attention.

    Jeff was not the cleanest guy around. His teeth glowed green, and the dirty
    dishes in his sink had green stuff growing on them too. I guess he was an
    environmentalist before it became fashionable.

    In any case, Jeff Sebastian was a good guy, who knew a lot about a lot of
    things, had no ambitions to be rich and famous (although he had the talent
    to be either or both), and who played a mean game of chess.

    I am sorry to hear he passed away. The world would have been better off it
    had been David North.

    Anthony

    Comment by louisproyect — October 24, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  3. The WSWS really went through changes, the last few weeks.

    I liked on a personal level Bill and Jean Brust. They were intense to say the least.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — October 27, 2008 @ 6:37 am

  4. (Forwarded from Alex Steiner, who had some problems posting comments.)

    I am the “Steiner” referred to in the extract you posted from the David
    North article about the death of Jeff Goldstein. Please understand that the
    North piece is part of a smear campaign launched against me in order to
    deflect attention away from the critique of the theory and practice of the
    Socialist Equality Party written by me and my colleague Frank Brenner. I
    would appreciate it if you posted some of our preliminary replies to this
    smear campaign. Here are some links:

    http://permanent-revolution.org/polemics/haig_smokescreen.htm

    http://permanent-revolution.org/forum/2009/01/brief-note-on-publication-of-steiner.html

    http://permanent-revolution.org/polemics/haig_smokescreen.htm

    Needless to say it is particularly vile of North to use enlist the death of
    Jeff Goldstein as part of his smear campaign.

    Thanks for your consideration,

    Comment by louisproyect — January 28, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

  5. Thank you for posting the above comment for me. I made an error in citing one link twice and forgetting to provide a link to our preliminary reply to the smear campaign. Here it is:

    http://permanent-revolution.org/polemics/smear_campaign.htm

    Thanks.

    Alex Steiner

    Comment by alex steiner — January 28, 2009 @ 11:48 pm


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