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(en) The late Sidney Solomon in his own words

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 3 Mar 2004 20:43:38 +0100 (CET)

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Sidney Solomon, a long-time anarchist and painter who lived in New York, died
on Monday at the age of 92. Sidney participated in the international anarchist
movement going back to the 1930s. We present a sample of Sidney Solomon's own
words in his oral history that he provided.
> SIDNEY SOLOMON Forest Hills, New York, June 2, 1973
A book designer by profession and a talented painter, Sidney Solomon was
a member of the Vanguard Group in the 1930s, the New Trends Group in the
1940s, and the .Libertarian Book Club from the 1940s through the 1980s
(see interview with Clara Solomon).

I was born in the town of Pogost on the Berezina River in Minsk province
on 8, 1911. Pogost had a beautiful wooden synagogue, one of the most My
father was a barber and had a sort of underground railroad for Jewish
boys escaping from service in the tsar's army. Because of this, he
himself fled to the United States in 1911, a couple of steps ahead of
the police. We followed two years later: my mother, two older brothers,
and myself, then one and a half years old. A sister was born afterwards
in America.)

We settled in the Bronx, near Charlotte Street, and I attended Public
High School 61, where I was chosen to take part in an experimental
group, headed by a teacher named Louis Klein, a socialist, with the
encouragement of the principal, Edward McGuire ("Baldy" McGuire, he was
called), himself a closet socialist. The group had a Painting Club--we
went To Bronx Park and painted scenery--and a Science Club--the kids
acted as protons, neutrons, and electrons, jumping about the room. On
graduation, I and Tommy Dolgoff, also a member of the special group,
were selected to go to Townsend Harris High School for gifted students.

I was kind of a black sheep in the family, which was mostly Communist.
At a very early age I rebelled against their authoritarian ideas. We
lived in a radical Bronx neighborhood, with intense Communist and
socialist activity. As a high school senior I joined Circle One of the
YPSL [Young People’s Socialist League] in the Bronx, a very influential
group. I had gone to a YCL [Young Communist League] meeting but was
horrified at how it was stage-managed and controlled. There was no free
discussion--like 1984. Downright revolting! And the Trotskyists in the
YCL were no different. They steam-rolled everything through. I was
disgusted, turned off, so I joined YPSL.

There the older people did teach us, and there were real discussions,
and I really learned something. But they too relied on authority. Marx
was still there. I read Marx and was repelled by his authoritarianism. I
also disliked their gradualist approach. I wanted action. So I turned
toward anarchism. I talked to Sam Dolgoff [q.v.] and Lou Slater [q.v.],
who really brought me over to anarchism. I attended the founding meeting
of the Vanguard Group at Clara’s house. I felt there was a serious flaw
in economic determinism. I believed that ideas played a big part in
social change, as big a part as economics or anything else.

Vanguard became my dream, my hope. I felt it would grow to something
important. Our paper had a good response. The older comrades saw us as
an errant child, but they were proud of us. Clara did five times as much
work as anybody else: correspondence, selling papers, organizing
meetings, debates and lectures. We debated with socialists, Trotskyists,
and Communists, and attracted disaffected socialists and Communists to
our group.

Our relations with the socialists were always friendly, in contrast to
those with the Communists. Abe Bluestein [q.v.], Roman Weinrebe, and I
carried on propaganda at City College, in the alcoves and even in the
classrooms. We wanted to organize the workers and rally them to our
movement. I went to the steel mills at Youngstown, I went to Boston,
Philadelphia, and other cities, speaking to workers and organizing
anarchist groups. I was hoping to attract really big groups among the
workers. Many of them were very sympathetic to the anarchists and the
IWW, especially the steel workers. You can’t imagine the response I had.
Louis Genin [q.v.] also went on speaking going tours, before going out
to Sunrise.

At its height, Vanguard had a circulation of about three thousand. That
was in 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. When Spanish
Revolution was established, Mark Schmidt [q.v.], I, Roman, and Jack
White were active in it. We had close contact with foreign anarchist
groups in the U.S.—the Fraye Arbeter Shtime, Il Martello, Cultura
Proletaria, even L'Adunata. They were mostly workers who wanted

I and Roman were very close to Carlo Tresca. He was a man of action who
got things done, not a purist or puritan anarchist like the L'Adunata
crowd, but practical. I liked that. The Fraye Arbeter Shtime people were
also for the most part practical and down-to-earth. We had an
English-language page in Il Martello, which I edited. We wanted to get
them, , the other anarchists, to be less isolated within their own
language groups. Tresca was a great inspiration to us. He told me quite
a few times before his murder that he was gathering information on on
large-scale collaboration between the Communists and the fascists. I
think it was the Communists who shot him.

We did a lot of work in connection with anti-fascist activity---the
Terzani case for instance--especially Tresca and Roman Weinrebe. When
Terzani was freed we all ate a huge Italian meal that lasted lasted
eight hours in celebration. Tresca was in the middle of everything, a
man with guts. Contrast the anarchists of L'Adunata, who lived in a
world of their own. There was an element of paranoia in their hostility
toward Tresca.

The Vanguard Group was largely composed of children of Russian Jewish
immigrants. But it was quite a varied group. We had a Chinese (Eddie
Wong), a Negro (Glenn Carrington), a few Italians (including Bruno
“Americano,” who went to Spain with guns that we supplied and was
imprisoned there by the Communists), and a few Irishmen, including
Gilbert Connolly, John Pinkman (a former member of the Irish Republican
Army), and Albert Mullady from Brooklyn.

We were among the first to criticize Hitler, as anarchists were always
alert to authoritarianism, demagogy, and bigotry. The anarchists had a
great feeling for literature and were wide-ranging, less narrow and
doctrinaire than other radical groups. In Vanguard we made no hard and
fast distinction between anarchist-communism and anarcho-syndicalism,
but we were not anarchist-individualists. Dwight Macdonald [q.v.],
Edward Dahlberg, and Arturo Giovannitti spoke for us, as well as Mark
Schmidt and Harry Kelly. We had no contact with Abba Gordin and his
Clarion. But we were in touch with Maximiliano Olay, who had an office
on Fifth Avenue and put out an information bulletin on Spain for the
CNT. We also had some contact with Robert Bek-Gran, who was more of a
council communist than an anarchist.

Three issues arose almost simultaneously that caused the group to split.
First, our association with II Martello was opposed by a few who
preferred L'Adunata. Then there was a personal issue that was not really
crucial but became a rallying point: Lou Slater felt he owned his
girlfriends. When Clara drifted toward me and Elsie Milstein toward
Schmidt, Lou was greatly upset and accused us of stealing them. The
whole thing was later taken to a Fraye Arbeter Shtime committee when Lou
demanded justice. Lou was deeply hurt and resentful and made personal
relations an issue in the group, and that was very disruptive. But he
was especially grieved that his own mentor should steal his girlfriend.
Abe Bluestein refused to stand for all this bullshit and eventually left
the group and established Challenge.

The third and underlying issue was Schmidt himself. He was
conspiratorial, devious, mysterious, while we were a fresh, open,
marvelous group of youngsters. We were vigorous and wanted to do things.
I think he was a paranoid schizophrenic, however well read and
brilliant. He never actually did anything. More than that, he prevented
us from doing anything. He felt we were theoretically unprepared for
action, such as labor-organizing or forming cooperatives. He stopped us
from organizing for the ILGWU. We might have had a great impact but for
his negativism.

In the ILGWU the anarchists and socialists were always united against
the Communists. They needed young organizers whom they could trust, and
they called on Vanguard and YPSEL for help. We were called to a meeting
with the top brass of the union. But Schmidt got us to decline. The YPSL
accepted—Gus Tyler and the others-and did useful work; hence their big
reputation today. It was this failure to act that led to the collapse of
our group and of the anarchist movement in New York. We had so many good
young people that we could reach, and now we lost them. Schmidt claimed
that we weren't ready theoretically; actually, he was personally a
coward, fearful of taking concrete action, a man who talked revolution
but refused to mount the barricades.

Schmidt was a contradiction: he spouted anarchist ideas, while his own
behavior, what he personally did, was deeply authoritarian. I too felt
that leaders and activists were necessary. Even the word “government”
didn’t frighten me. When the Spanish Revolution came, I was not at all
troubled that anarchists accepted ministries in the government. Yet I
knew what the Communists were—from my family, my reading, my personal
experience. In 1936, during a debate with a black Communist named Robert
Moore on “The Infallibility of the Comintern,” I was pulled off the
platform by Communist henchmen. I saw Communist strong-men break up
Socialist Party meetings. Clara and I were ousted from a
Communist-controlled summer camp in upstate New York during the Spanish
Civil War.

In this country the trend toward anarchism and socialism was not very
strong. Yet there could have been an anarchist movement here, even after
the defeat of the Spanish Revolution. We made the mistake of following
Schmidt and keeping ourselves a small, isolated group of intellectuals.
I feel that we really attracted the better element among the workers,
with a sense of ethics and devotion. We did not, as the Communists did,
attract the conspiratorial element. But we isolated ourselves, and I
feel very bitter about it.

During the early 1940s, when the Second World War came, Clara contracted
rheumatic fever, we had a new baby, and we were drawn away from the
movement. Many of our group were older and had responsibilities to face.
Some went back to school and became professionals. A bunch—Audrey
Goodfriend [q.v.], Dave Koven [q.v.], Melvin Greig—went out to settle in
California. At the end of the war, New Trends was for me a new attempt
to try again. It was a more sophisticated journal than Vanguard. But
Schapiro was a very sick man, and the paper died with him.

Anarchism as an ideal is still very meaningful, in some ways more
meaningful than ever. Many anarchist ideas have been incorporated into
the activities of other groups—rent strikes, free schools, women’s
liberation. All you can hope for is the right direction, rather than
absolute solutions, for libertarian cultural and educational ideals,
whatever label you give them. There are many ways of getting things done
that are still relevant and very much alive. This is true also in the
field of ecology--that man is part of nature, rather than above nature
or exploiting nature. In other parts of the world too, including the
Iron Curtain countries, there are signs of increasing liberation. We
must advance along nonauthoritarian lines, and in that sense we both,
Clara and I, remain anarchists. There are grass-roots sentiments
everywhere that indicate that a libertarian movement can catch fire.
People are getting tired of rigid bureaucracies and social formulas. In
anarchism there is an underlying idea that relates to virtually every
aspect of life. We have no regrets about those early years. We threw
ourselves heart and soul into the cause. It was writing and working, it
was personal involvement, it was hitchhiking and travel, it was
organizing and it demonstrating--it was all the energies of our youth.
[EXCERPTED from infoshop-news@infoshop.org]

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