Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 12, 2011

Getting thrown out of an SWP memorial meeting for Eva Chertov

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

(Received from Cliff Conner)

Dear friends,

A peculiar and somewhat disturbing thing happened to me and Marush yesterday, and in case you should hear about it in some indirect way, I wanted to be sure you heard it directly from me.

We had been invited to a memorial service for Eva Chertov, who recently passed away, too young, from a fatal illness.  Although we were never close friends with Eva, I had been in the SWP with her for fifteen years, from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, which meant that I considered her a comrade, and as many of you know, the bonds of comradeship are often deeper and more important than bonds of friendship.  The bottom line is that I had a great deal of respect for Eva as what James P. Cannon used to call a “stiff-necked rebel,” a fighter for social justice.  We went to the memorial service to pay that respect to her memory.

The morning before the service I received a phone call from an out-of-town friend who had also been in the SWP long ago.  After talking about other things, I said, “Guess where we’re going this afternoon?  To a memorial service for Eva Chertov.  I’ll probably see some of our mutual friends there.”  His reply surprised me: “You don’t think they’ll let you in, do you?”

“What do you mean they?” I asked.

“The SWP, of course.  Weren’t you expelled?”

“Yes, but that was thirty years ago.  It’s all water under the bridge.  They were personally hostile to me for a few years, but on those rare occasions when I run into any of them now, it’s all sweetness and light. I haven’t had any animosity toward them for a long time, and I’m sure they’ve forgotten all about me.  Besides, I don’t think this memorial service was organized by the SWP.  I got the invitation from one of Eva’s friends who isn’t a party member.  I think it’s an ‘ecumenical’ event.”

“No, you’re wrong on both counts.  It is being organized by the SWP, and they definitely haven’t forgotten about you.  It’s a cult and cults never forget anybody.”

“Nah, don’t be silly.  I’m just good-time Cliff.  Nobody’s afraid of me.  Why should they be?”

(Note to reader: I’m sure you can see where this is going.)

When we entered the hall and I saw that there was an entrance fee and envelopes for a fund pitch, I knew my friend was right that it was indeed an official SWP-sponsored event.  But we were warmly greeted—by people I had seen recently, by some I hadn’t seen in three decades, and even by people I’d never met before.  One fellow, who at first we both thought looked like Joe Biden, introduced himself as Dan Fein.

“Dan Fein!” I exclaimed.  “How nice to see you.  I didn’t recognize you at first.  Marush and I stayed with you and Jill in Phoenix for several days—I think it must have been 1981—when I was on a speaking tour for the party.”  Dan was extremely gracious and friendly, and at that point I was sure that bygones were indeed bygones.

We were about fifteen minutes early, so we sat down next to a couple of friends and settled in.  Marush got up to talk to someone else, and as I was sitting there, a young man who had a few minutes earlier been among those to welcome us came up and said, “May I have a word with you outside for a minute?”

“Sure,” I said, and followed him out.  He started to say something about this being an SWP event, and hoped I would understand if . . .

“Oh, yes, I understand,” I interrupted.  “Don’t worry.  I haven’t had the slightest interest in factional politics for a long, long time.  I’m just here for Eva’s memorial.”

But I soon discovered that I really hadn’t understood.  They were asking me to leave!  I was flabbergasted!  “Really?!”  I think I may have channeled John McEnroe:  “You cannot be serious!”

But they were serious.  I protested again that I had no interest whatsoever in doing anything that would upset anybody, but I was told, in solemn tones: “The decision has been made!”

Now, everything that had been said to me before that point had been said with gentle smiles and voices as sweet as maple syrup.  They didn’t want a scene, and making a stink is not my shtick, so after the absurdity of the whole thing had sunk in, I was ready to leave.  But when I started to go back in to get Marush, a woman (whose face I remembered from the old days, but whose name I couldn’t recall) stopped me and said, very gravely, “We can escort you out, if you prefer.”  The iron fist in the velvet glove!

“Well, I’m not leaving without my wife,” I replied.

“Wait here.  We’ll go get her.”

Poor Marush.  You may think me naïve for letting myself be blindsided by this, but you can hardly imagine her astonishment when it dawned on her that she was being ejected . . . from a memorial service!  She had never been thrown out of anything before in her life.  “Who are these people?,” she asked me when we were out on the street.  “What planet are they from?”

As we were going out the door, I saw Dan Fein again, and I said, as breezily as possible, “Well, Dan, it seems that we’ve been kicked out.”  Dan was staring off into the distance, pretending not to hear me; pretending that I didn’t exist.  I found this behavior absolutely astonishing.  I said to the woman who made sure we were all the way out the door, “Aren’t you even a little bit ashamed for doing this?”  But I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t at all ashamed.  Shame would be a normal human emotion.  Who, indeed, are these people?

And so that is how we spent our Sunday afternoon.  But wait . . . there’s a kicker.  A friend who had witnessed our ejection called later to say that he had stayed to hear the tribute to Eva.  It seems that the main speaker, SWP leader Jack Barnes, had words of high praise for the Chertov family’s wonderful spirit of “inclusiveness,” because they often had members of the Communist Party—the SWP’s bitterest rival—over to their house for social occasions.  What a lovely sentiment!  Ain’t inclusiveness swell?!

I suppose there is one thing about this affair that I should find at least a little gratifying.  I was wrong and my friend on the telephone was right.  I hadn’t been forgotten after all!

UPDATE:

A report from someone who attended the meeting.

 

15 Comments »

  1. Doesn’t sound very inclusive to me.

    If it was a memorial service, they should’ve put politics or grievances aside and remembered the woman.

    Sorry you guys had to go through that comrade.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 12, 2011 @ 9:23 pm

  2. (Posted earlier on the SWP-USA Yahoo list):

    My God, these people are disgusting! I would have liked to have gone to that meeting myself if I’d been in New York. If I had, I wonder if I’d been kicked out also? I was never expelled, but I’m sure I’m on somebody’s shit-list.

    I was never close to Eva, but I have a couple of warm memories of her. One was when, in 1971, she wrote a defense in The Militant of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla when he was imprisoned by the government for something he wrote. Eva had lived in Cuba for several years and I take it she was a personal friend of Padilla’s. She defended him against charges of being a counter-revolutionary and his right to speak out according to his own conscience. Of course, something like that would never be published in The Militant today!

    I also remember sitting on defense with Eva at the skating rink at the 1971 SWP Convention (some comrades may remember that in those early days there were serious concerns about being attacked by right-wing locals). This was when Tom Kerry got up and delivered his infamous denunciation of the dissident groups in the SWP. He made a joke about the leader of one of those tendencies, David Fender, and his “little Trotsky beard.” This provoked a big round of laughter, foot stomping, etc. by a lot of the younger comrades, including myself. For this I was called out by Eva. These discussions were serious business, she told me, not a pep rally.

    Eva was a good comrade, and I’m wondering just how close she really was to the SWP in the end, for them to use her name to solicit money. I’m thinking of Tom Kerry himself, who died hating Jack Barnes and his little cabal. That didn’t stop Jacko from using Tom’s memorial meeting to shore up his own legitimacy.

    Comment by David Altman — September 12, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  3. I was also at that skating rink in 1971 but I was only 10. I remember comrade Eva just because she was like a great matriarch and everybody spoke highly of her.

    I remember also being on a chartered bus for some reason and at the back were a bunch of big guys, including my dad who was big, and their role was apparently to be the body guards to defend against potential attacks from PL goons (Proletarian League). In the back of this bus they were having a meeting about security concerns and I listened eagerly because I was a scrappy little roughneck but pretty big for my age.

    I inquired as to who exactly were these goons and how could they dare disrupt our convention, being so outnumbered? They explained that they were Stalinists who would do violence to any SWPer if they could. I asked if these Stalinists were also communists? They said yes.

    I was very confused on how communists could do violence against communists but I nevertheless found a tire iron in the back hold of the bus and without telling anybody I carried it with me, stuffed up into the arm of my jacket, imagining a time I might need to crack some Stalinist goon over the head if he jumped my dad or his comrades.

    Later when I was a teen reading Malcolm X I remember him telling somebody what would he define as a “good white person” and he replied that’d be a white somebody “who attended a Klan meeting with something up under their jacket they knew how to use” and I smiled thinking about stuff up under my jacket I knew how to use.

    It was an unsettling time for a 10 year old. A few years earlier I was tear-gassed in my home town when a police riot broke out at the Democratic Convention on Balbo St. in Chicago. Then when in the big DC anti-war marches crowds were chanting: “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today” I literally though the President was out to kill me!

    I’d ask my dad why so many protestors were wearing construction hats & football helmets and he expalined that that cops were clubbing skulls and I suddenly wished I had my Chicago Bears helmet on.

    Obama hasn’t yet killed as many kids as LBJ but give him another 4 more years and who knows? He’s certainly quite capable.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 13, 2011 @ 1:59 am

  4. Yeah, that’s the sort of behavior that puts the “low” in “lowlife”.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — September 13, 2011 @ 2:49 am

  5. Weirdos: best avoided.

    Comment by John Scott — September 13, 2011 @ 3:39 am

  6. They behave like Jehovah’s Witnesses!

    Comment by Sheldon — September 13, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

  7. How sad! I’m sorry you had this experience. If these people were in power, we’d all be dead. Makes me feel dirty and ashamed just knowing I was once in this group. And thankful that, while I’m still an active socialist, I’m not among such people at this point in my life, but among people who have learned the proper lessons from such sickness, and are trying our best to pass these lessons down to the next generation of activists so that no one has to go through such demeaning stuff again. Millie Phillips

    Comment by Millie Phillips — September 13, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

  8. Hi Millie! Formerly of the Phoenix branch, I believe?

    Comment by David Altman — September 13, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  9. (Posted earlier on the SWP-USA Yahoo list):

    It has long been the tradition in the workers and socialist movements, when honoring a comrade who has fallen, to put aside all grudges and acrimony, at least for a day.

    I remember the memorial meeting for James P. Cannon in Los Angeles in 1974. One of the people present was Arne Swabeck, co-founder with Cannon of the Communist League of America in 1928, who had been expelled from the SWP in 1967, I think. I don’t believe anybody raised any question about him being there; in fact, it would have been unthinkable to keep him out. If memory serves, Milt Zazlow
    (Mike Bartell) was also there.

    Something Cannon said that has always stuck in my mind is that one of the great crimes of Stalinism in the United States was introducing LYING to the workers movement, and destroying the feelings of fraternity that had always existed, despite disagreements, among the various tendencies that made up that movement.

    What a warped little man Jack Barnes is.

    Comment by David Altman — September 13, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  10. Forget about memorial meetings. The SWP never kept people out of public meetings. If you hold a meeting at St. Mark’s Church, a progressive institution, you have a lot of fucking nerve throwing anybody out. Remind me the next time these bastards use a space at Columbia University, I will make a point of coming and–unlike Cliff–I am Barnes’s worst nightmare.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 13, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

  11. Ha-ha – reminds me of my very brief recruitment engagement with the Spartacist League in the early 1980’s.

    Was invited to a couple of meetings, cracked a joke, met with frowns. Ok no jokes.

    The meeting room had a side walk-in closet with a coffee stand in it. I went to get some coffee, walked in, glanced casually side to side and….holy crap! Shelves of *hard liquor* stacked from floor to ceiling on both sides, enough for a full commercial bar! Hooo-whee, it was the booze jackpot!

    Just then two of the head honchos of the SF branch of the SL came up to the door. With agitated voices they asked me, “Why was I here?’ You can tell when a Spart gets agitated, their bodies start to visibly vibrate as if from some nervous overload. No it turns out it’s not because I had inadvertently stumbled upon their (not so) secret booze hoard – though now I can see their “need” here – but because I hadn’t been invited to *this* particular meeting, where they were about to pop the recruit question to a prospective candidate, and didn’t want me mucking up the proceedings with stupid jokes and what not. I left, shaking my head in a WTF sort of way, but I guessed that it was just a misunderstanding on my part, and was still open to them.

    Later I was invited to an “intervention” at a demo, you know, where they stand at the edge of the demo and bullhorn speeches at the participants. During the march I was mercilessly hounded by a sadistic female martinet to “stay in step” with the contingent. Guess that is what “Bolsheviks” do. I appreciate the need for a disciplined approach when required, but this just struck me as silly.

    Afterward a big bash at the Veterans Auditorium in Oakland. Again, featuring tons and tons of booze! Whole kegs of beer and lots of hard liquor, with party members assigned to sell tickets off giant paper wheels containing the same, the kind you used to see at cheap amusement parks. Rolling Stones and other R&R standards of the time on the sound system, clots of people in conversations along the wall of the auditorium floor in low lighting. Getting tanked, listening to R&R is what “proletarians” do! Naturally, with all this booze about, I became totally sloshed, and probably said something “wrong”, because the next day I received a phone call from an anonymous SL rep telling me don’t come to their meetings, don’t come to their interventions, ever.

    Perhaps the mountains of booze were a key part of some “screening” process, you know, where “real proletarians” can hold their liquor and get in. Or perhaps they are simply a sect of alcoholics.

    Comment by Matt — September 14, 2011 @ 12:41 am

  12. @ Matt: Ha Ha indeed! As bad as Barnestown is, it can’t beat the Spartacist League for sheer nuttiness!

    Comment by David Altman — September 14, 2011 @ 1:20 am

  13. Ha you’re funny Sheldon.

    Or even worse than that, how about Scientologists? LOL

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — September 14, 2011 @ 1:40 am

  14. Louis believe me I can’t believe this….Sectarianism has really pusshed the whole movement into blind channels of bureaucratism a twin of old Stalinism….

    Comment by rajesh tyagi — October 29, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  15. […] the meeting was chaired by Cliff Conner who was thrown out of a memorial meeting for Eva Chertov held in 2011. She had remained a member (or perhaps a sympathizer) of the SWP […]

    Pingback by Suzanne Haig Memorial Meeting | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 30, 2016 @ 7:05 pm


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