Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 14, 2020

Polio, COVID-19, and socialism

Filed under: COVID-19,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

One of the few remaining survivors, Paul Alexander spends almost every moment of the day inside his iron lung.

In 1952, when I was very young, fear gripped my little village in the Catskills and across the USA as well. Sixty thousand children were stricken with the polio virus that year, leaving 3,000 dead and thousands more paralyzed. Some children were kept alive in an iron lung that functioned like the modern-day ventilator but that kept them confined to a virtual living coffin.

Summer was called “polio season”. In Woodridge, we had Kaplan’s Lake, a pond really, that local kids swam in. I went there mainly to wade near the beach. One summer our parents told us that it was being shut down because of the polio epidemic. We were also warned about sitting too close to each other in movie theaters, a real problem when the latest Martin and Lewis movie had kids lined up around the block to buy a ticket at the Lyceum Theater in Woodridge.

FDR was probably the most well-known polio victim in the USA but many others had the illness, including Neil Young and Francis Ford Coppola who had milder cases. Born in 1950, Patrick Cockburn came down with polio when he was six. He wrote a book about his experience titled “The Broken Boy” in 2005. In an NPR interview that year, the host told him: “You’ve been left with a limp, a severe limp. But you interviewed other survivors who were really much worse off.” Cockburn replied:

Yes, many of them. One man who became a businessman had to learn to sign his name using his teeth–with a pen stuck in his teeth and a special apparatus. Many others were–had their back affected, their lungs affected, their legs affected. But many people fought back. I mean, I met one man who was a farmer who was frightened that when he went home, because he was so badly crippled, that people wouldn’t accept him. But actually his family–and Irish families are very strong–re-adapted the farm so he could operate the farm machinery, so he could be a working farmer. And many other people fought back against extraordinary odds.

For many doctors, the goal of developing a vaccine to prevent polio became paramount. FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 and promoted the March of Dimes for polio research. When Harry Truman became president, he committed to a war on polio using language redolent of the 30s New Deal:

The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.

Two research doctors, New York Jews, were instrumental in developing a vaccine. Neither one of them saw this as a way of getting rich. Their goal was only to save the lives of children.

Born in New York City in 1914, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine based on dead polio viruses in 1955. Backing for his project was universal, with 100 million contributors to the March of Dimes, and 7 million volunteers going around with the iconic collection bank.

Salk could have made millions by patenting the vaccine but he preferred to see it made as widely available as possible. When he went on Edward R. Murrow’s popular “Person to Person” show, the host asked him who owned the patent. Salk replied, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” (Had it been patented, it would be worth $7 billion.)

As it happens, Salk graduated from CCNY, a hotbed of radicalism in the 1930s. It should come as no surprise that J. Edgar Hoover had his number. Five years before he came out with the vaccine, he was the subject of an FBI investigation. Writing to Dillon Anderson, a top aide to Eisenhower, Hoover recapitulated his transgressions:

  • Three unnamed associates of Salk, professors at U-M, said that during World War II Salk contributed to war relief for the Soviet Union and was “outspoken” in his praise for that country. The associates said Salk praised the country’s technical advances, while his wife, Donna, was even more outspoken in her praise for all aspects of Soviet life, Hoover wrote.
  • One of Salk’s professional associates at U-M in the 1940s said that Salk was “far left of center.” Another associate noted that a liberal organization for which Salk served as treasurer in 1946 became “leftist” under Salk’s leadership.
  • Salk and his wife registered to vote for the American Labor Party in the early 1940s, the letter says. According to an informant, the Communist Party emerged as a controlling force of the ALP within areas of New York City during that time.
  • An informant advised that Salk’s brother, Lee, was a member of the Communist Party in Ann Arbor in 1948.
  • According to an informant, Hoover said, Salk’s name appeared on the mailing list of the New York Conference for Inalienable Rights in 1941. The group was cited as a Communist front by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Born Albert Saperstein in Bialystok, Poland in 1906, Albert Sabin received a medical degree from NYU, just as Salk did. Unlike Salk, Sabin’s goal was to develop a vaccine based on weakened polio virus. Both vaccines worked, with Sabin’s having the advantage of being able to be taken orally and longer-lasting.

Defying Cold War hysteria, Sabin worked closely with Soviet bloc doctors and scientists, thus earning him the reputation of working on a “communist vaccine”. In an article titled “Vaccination and the communist state: polio in Eastern Europe”, Dora Vargha concludes that the communist states were capable of “doing good things” as Bernie Sanders has said:

Both East and West shared the perception of what the communist state was and its ideal role in polio prevention. Following the appearance and successful application of live poliovirus vaccines, Eastern European states saw themselves as particularly suited to achieve effectiveness in curbing – and eradicating – polio through their part in vaccine development and its distribution. The West, while not endorsing such political regimes ideologically, agreed. Indeed, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland became pioneers in introducing, testing and applying live poliovirus vaccines on a mass scale, while their Eastern European peers were quick to follow in mass vaccination.

From a broader geopolitical perspective, polio raised uncomfortable questions about the positive side of communist regimes (i.e. effective epidemic control) and in a short time came to symbolise ‘neutral’ science that broke the barriers between East and West. The top-down organisation of vaccine trial organisation and immunisation, which was, at the time, seen as particularly communist and Eastern European, also came to be seen as the most effective way to eradicate polio on a global scale.

Sabin continued reaching out to demonized post-capitalist societies long after this. In a 2014 article titled “Epidemics and Opportunities for U.S.-Cuba Collaboration”, Marguerite Jiménez described his internationalist outlook:

Several years after his collaborative breakthrough with the Soviet Union, Sabin set his sights on a much smaller Communist collaborator, one that was much closer to home. Sabin had traveled to Cuba multiples times prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959, however he had been unable to return since the early 1950s. Despite receiving multiple invitations from public health officials on the island during the early 1960s, the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Cuba made such a high-profile visit by a famous U.S. scientist all but impossible.

Sabin’s enthusiastic pursuit of collaborative opportunities with the Soviet Union during the 1950s foreshadowed his efforts in Cuba to overcome political obstacles and diplomatic melodrama. Accordingly, at the end of 1965 when the Department of State announced an easing of restrictions on travel to Communist nations by certain categories of professionals, Sabin quickly seized the opportunity. The Department of State reported that the relaxation had been in response to the “urging of the medical community,” and had been done for reasons of “humanity” to promote greater international cooperation in combating diseases. While medical research justified the humanitarian nature of the move, the New York Times reported, “The hope in official circles was that the medical scientists could open the door to closer cooperation in other scientific areas.” Sabin immediately sent copies of the announcement to colleagues in Cuba and within twenty-four hours he received an invitation through Cuba’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Finally, after almost two years of planning, Sabin arrived in Havana on December 4, 1967. While in Cuba, he had the opportunity to visit and meet with people in a wide range of scientific and medical institutions, as well as hospitals, polyclinics, and research facilities. While other elements of his trip became public thanks to a handful of newspaper articles on the subject published in both the United States and Cuba, what is not commonly known is that during his trip, Sabin met with Antonio Nuñez Jiménez, a prominent young leader within Fidel Castro’s regime and the president of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. Sabin described Jiménez as a “pistol packing” and “very pleasant” person.

Yesterday, I was reminded of Salk and Sabin after reading a report from the Sunnybrook Research Institute, a hospital associated the University of Toronto. Titled “Research team has isolated the COVID-19 virus”, it revealed that Dr. Robert Kozak, Dr. Samira Mubareka, Dr. Arinjay Banerjee had isolated severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the agent responsible for the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.

That information would be critical to developing a vaccine. In describing their discovery, Arinjay Banerjee sounded very much in the Salk/Sabin tradition: “Now that we have isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we can share this with other researchers and continue this teamwork. The more viruses that are made available in this way, the more we can learn, collaborate and share.”

Collaborate and share. That’s not only necessary for overcoming COVID-19 but in saving the world from capitalist destruction.

Farhad Manjoo, one of the only readable NY Times op-ed columnists, was onto something when he wrote that “everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic”. He wrote:

There may be a silver lining here: What if the virus forces Americans and their elected representatives to recognize the strength of a collectivist ethos? The coronavirus, in fact, offers something like a preview of many of the threats we might face from the worst effects of climate change. Because the virus is coldly indiscriminate and nearly inescapable, it leaves us all, rich and poor, in the same boat: The only way any of us is truly protected is if the least among us is protected.



  1. Excellent post, Louis, thanks for this. I knew Salk and Sabin refused to patent, putting their discoveries in the public domain; but I was unaware of their admirable political inclinations. I remember the inoculations of Salk-type (a needle which broke off while in my shoulder!) and Sabin-type (a doused sugar cube on the tongue) polio vaccines; both at public school auditoriums. And I remember kids in my grammar school classes who had leg braces and crutches. I also remember many people from then with a star-shaped shallow skin scar/discoloration, left from vaccination (maybe with an infusion gun?, like the US military did to soldiers during the Vietnam War, and which is now known to promote kidney [or liver] damage, as my Viet Vet friend reports his civilian doctors have told him). Here is a movie about an iron lung rebel. https://youtu.be/7_YnYrLfjxA

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — March 14, 2020 @ 9:36 pm

  2. Thank you. I grew up with polio being one of the scariest diseases in the neighborhood. We though Salk and Sabin were heroes.

    Comment by Birnbaum Arthur — March 14, 2020 @ 9:48 pm

  3. Salk’s association with UM garners a rare bit of respect for the nefarious criminal entity known as UM. I bet he caught mega shit from the liberal elites of A2. I didn’t know of his ALP and CP affiliation, which serves to increase my respect for this benevolent hero. Thanks for the essay.

    Comment by steven — March 14, 2020 @ 10:55 pm

  4. Many thanks for this post and in general for your blog -a light in front of current dark times Salud Maria

    Sent from my iPad


    Comment by Maria Caprile Elola — March 15, 2020 @ 1:08 am

  5. Another great one from Louis. A minor historical note: The American Labor Party did, in fact, split into right and left factions, the Liberal Party being the right outgrowth. The left faction was led by Manhattan Congressman, Vito Marcantonio, whose political development inspired the famous Mommas and Poppas line, “A red rose up in Spanish Harlem.”

    Comment by J, Marlin — March 15, 2020 @ 1:18 am

  6. “Farhad Manjoo, one of the only readable NY Times op-ed columnists…”

    Honestly, I thought you were on board with the Times’s racist editorials. I’m glad to know you’re not!

    Comment by Armand Franklin — March 15, 2020 @ 3:43 pm

  7. Funny thing. I read the last comment and found it so worthless and stupid that I bet myself a Toblerone candy bar that it came from someone using a proxy server. I’ll collect after I put this piece of shit in a spam filter. Honestly, if he quoted one of my posts that indicated agreement with Thomas Friedman or Brett Stephens, I’d have enjoyed answering him. If you are going to troll this blog, at least have the balls to make a substantive comment. If that’s above your pay grade, ask your parents to help you out.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 15, 2020 @ 3:50 pm

  8. I remember when I was a kid in 1962 there was an outbreak of smallpox in the UK, particularly in the Rhonda Valleys in Wales. The healthcare workers were terrific and despite the dangers carried on working with smallpox patients. In a small space of time, 900,000 people were vaccinated against smallpox. Here is an interesting 25 minute documentary about it. So let’s give a shout out to ALL the healthcare workers (including the janitorial and others keeping the places clean) struggling on the front line.

    Comment by splodgen — March 15, 2020 @ 7:49 pm

  9. I contracted polio during the summer of 1952 shortly before I was supposed to enter kindergarten. The actual illness was frightening and painful, but the terror it inspired was almost worse. I remember that, as I was lying on the examining table, feverish and aching, in the process of being diagnosed, the table suddenly began to buck and roll like a ship in a heavy sea an
    d I felt I was about to be hurled onto the floor. Whether this was the effect of the disease or the perhaps clumsily performed spinal tap necessary to diagnose it, I’m not sure it, but added to the fear. I recall being wheeled on a gurney down what seemed an interminable corridor lined with iron lungs, each with a small, peaked-faced child’s head protruding from one end. A bit later, during what I suppose was the climax of the disease, I recall feeling my whole body on fire with pain as the virus raced up and down the nerve pathways. For a day or two I couldn’t sleep or find a comfortable position in which to rest,

    The disease itself passed rather quickly, but it was only after it was past that the extent of the damage could be assessed. Some patients were paralyzed but recovered later; others remained paralyzed for the rest of their lives; many died. Nerves damaged or destroyed by the virus could no longer innervate muscles and those muscles atrophied.

    I was, as they invariably say, lucky: at the end of the day, I had a fair bit of atrophy to the muscles of my right leg, and possibly a bit of nervous system damage affecting physical coordination and tasks like handwriting, but was otherwise unscathed. At present my right leg is an inch shorter than the left leg and the foot is dropped and twisted slightly to one side, but even now, in my seventies, I seldom limp and as a rule suffer only occasional loss of balance. The leg is nonetheless useful, although it is sinfully easy to get me off balance, which kept me from learning how to fight “like a man” growing up. For the most part the damage isn’t obvious unless I’m wearing short pants, and even then not everyone notices. In my younger days I was even able to run a little, though organized athletics were out of the question because I was so bad at them.

    Out next-door neighbors in the more-or-less Winesburg, Ohio I grew up in were less fortunate: there were two boys, the younger of whom was my good friend for a while. The older brother had been in early adolescence when striken and was paralyzed from the waist down. He lived in a wheelchair and had to be hoisted in and out of bed with a sort of crane. The
    mother, who worked as a waitress in a local tavern, raised the two boys alone. I remember their rented apartment as being as bare of furnishings as the set of The Honeymooners. The place was scrupulously clean and had no odor apart from a faint smell of Dial soap. They were brave, strong people.

    When Salk and Sabin produced their vaccines, the public health authorities made sure all the schoolchildren were vaccinated. I would get my picture in the local paper as the brave little sufferer who got the vaccinations in spite of not really needing them just to show others how safe and easy it was.

    Just now I was reading a news item asserting that Trump is trying to get an exclusive US patent on a German coronavirus candidate vaccine. Nobody seems to think there’s anything strange about this bit of international thuggery. What a long, sorry road we’ve come down since the days of Salk and Sabin. There’s a retreat from socially necessary governance across the board unlike anything we’ve seen before–the inevitable product of years of neoliberalism, not just the sickening malice and ineptitude of Trump.

    Stay safe comrades. It’s a bungle out there.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 15, 2020 @ 10:59 pm

  10. The Vaccination campaign against Polio was a successful example of creating “Herd Immunity”.
    Which is what Sir Michael Vallance, the scientific advisor to Boris Johnson’s government now hopes to achieve for Covid-19, without the benefit of having a vaccine!

    Polio was eliminated from the United States in 1979 and from the Western Hemisphere in 1991.
    The last “wild Polio” infection in Europe was in 1998. A few dozen cases still occur every year in Afghanistan, Nigeria & Pakistan – any case, anywhere is a potential threat.

    Herd immunity greatly reduces the transmission rate of the disease, but where regular vaccination programmes don’t cover the whole population (as in the latter countries), the Oral vaccine can mutate and “go wild” and cause cases. This fact sometimes misused by anti-Vaxxers.

    In the late 1940’s &1950’s there was also a Polio epidemic in the UK.

    One of its more well known victims was the singer Ian Dury, who was partially paralysed and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
    In 1981 he was commissioned to write a song for the UN’s Year of the Disabled

    In his typically derisive way he came up with “Spasticus Autisticus”
    Sample lyrics:-
    “….So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin
    And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in….”
    “…54 appliances in leather and elastic
    100,000 thank yous from 27 spastics.”
    I had suspected Polio in the mid 50’s and was put in an isolation ward at an East London fever hospital.

    This involved being kept in a glass cubicle for 2 weeks, unable to communicate with children in the surrounding cubicles, having no visitors and the trauma of a lumbar puncture.
    They burned all my toys before I went home too.
    But I did have a nice Irish nurse called Sherry!

    Luckily there were no lasting physical effects, but I do feel for the over 70’s who are now being told to remain isolated for “at least” 3 months.
    I also have my doubts about whether an effective vaccine can be developed in time to help them, which implies a longer “sentence”.

    The Right wingers in Johnson’s government , such as his weird adviser Dominic Cummings, see this as an experiment in Social Darwinism and an opportunity for multinational corporations & property speculators to make money.

    The opposition will grow, at the moment it’s “virtual”, with many organisations advising them members to stay at home.
    But I can envisage thousands of stir crazy pensioners taking to the streets, perhaps on alternate days to the younger workers and students and workers!

    Comment by prianikoff — March 16, 2020 @ 2:26 pm

  11. Terrific article, Louis. If you like I could have it professionally translated into Spanish and I am sure with circulate widely in the Spanish-speaking world. Please let me know.

    Sent using myEarthLink

    Comment by walterlx — February 2, 2021 @ 11:39 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: