Monday, March 28, 2011

MICHAEL GOLD: Poetry in Red Journalism


By John Pietaro

Michael Gold came of age in a New York that is but a distant memory today. His Lower East Side was a stifling encasement of the poor, an exhausted swath of immigrant sights and sounds in the shadows of tight, winding cobblestone streets. The organic sense of deprivation as much as the cultural pride and revolutionary furor of his time remained glaringly housed within him, outlasting the decades. Gold matured into a decidedly radical author who chronicled the strife as he engaged in a quite fearless sort of street activism. But the fight that emitted from his pen went beyond the realm of the Left press he shaped and even surpassed his call for art as a weapon. Gold offered a pioneering style which established the model for urban story-telling. In doing so forged the American proletarian novel. His was a literary version of the Ashcan school of painting: realism, yes, but with a hyper sense about it. Hell, Gold wrote in social realism. His words were streamed in an orderly manner which felt conversational yet were anything but. The challenge, indeed the confrontation, was always lurking just behind any gentle bit of dialogue…

Michael Gold was born Itzok Granich on April 12, 1893, just in time to be part of the impoverished, immigrant experience in a broken New York City ill-equipped for the masses that had passed the portside gaze of Lady Liberty. Once off Ellis Island’s limbo, most were stacked in poorly lit, barely heated downtown ghettos and told to fend for themselves. The people, then hailing from middle and southern Europe, landed into a new kind of multi-cultural lifestyle but congregated in hushed old-country gatherings. Dispossession in light of the machinations of the industrial revolution brought the mix to a slow boil and the new Americans began to emote widely. Accompanied by native working-class radicalism and European socialist philosophy the effect, as it turned out, was a wonderfully defiant thing.

A natural communicator, young Granich attended writing courses at New York University in 1912-13 and then spent a brief time in study at Harvard. But in 1914, after struggling to help feed his family when his father, incapacitated and unable to work needed to rely on young Gold, the author’s personal anger at such injustice brimmed over. Knocked to the ground by a policemen’s nightstick during a Union Square demonstration, he moved rapidly into a macro view of the problem and delved into a new militancy. He began writing for progressive periodicals in this period, when one of his pieces was published in the Masses. Many more followed and in quick succession. Membership into the IWW came in 1916 and he spent some time living in anarchist communes in the Boston area, absorbing an individualistic approach to the Marxism he’d thrive on in the years to come. Gold also began contributing articles for ‘the New York Call’, the Socialist Party newspaper.

In 1917, now living in New York’s Greenwich Village—acknowledged as the daring heart of bohemian life and radical cultural work--he became affiliated with the fledgling Provincetown Players. Founded by author Susan Glaspell, this progressive playwrights’ collective also included John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, Floyd Dell, Louise Bryant and Theodore Dreiser, among others. Like most of the other intellectuals in his circle, Gold officially joined the Socialist Party and quickly declared his sympathies for the Bolshevik Revolution. His art and his politics were driven by the same passion and intricately intertwined.

Gold moved for a time to Mexico to evade conscription for the First World War which he spoke out against in journalism as well as street-corner soap boxing. And then during the tumult of the Palmer Raids he was back in New York, in the thick of it, and began using the pseudonym “Michael Gold”, named for a noted Jewish veteran of the Civil War. His ties to the literary Left were strong enough that Gold became an editor of ‘The Liberator’, the Communist journal which grew from the embers of ‘the Masses’, itself silenced by governmental forces due to anti-war features during the World War. ‘The Liberator’ was a formidable voice against right-wing injustice and boasted the talents of not only the usual Greenwich Village suspects (!) but the likes of Claude McKay, Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker movement), illustrator Boardman Robinson, Bertrand Russell, Louis Fraina, illustrator Hugo Gellert, Louis Untermyer, Norman Thomas (later the noted pacifist and leader of the Socialist Party), painter Stuart Davis and Helen Keller, then an outward anti-war radical traveling the circuit, communicating her dissent to huge crowds with the assistance of a Braille translator.

Gold joined the Communist Party in this period, braving raids of the Bureau of Investigation, and authored a long-standing arts column for Party organ ‘the Daily Worker’. He also helped found and often edited the Party’s ‘New Masses’ which had culture as a focus. Gold traveled on behalf of the Communist Party, first to San Francisco and then on to Europe. This stint included stays in London, Paris, Berlin and ultimately the Soviet Union where he came to first study the German theatrical director Meyerhold’s conception of Constructivist Theatre. This genre melded standard theatre productions with techniques such as pantomime, acrobatics and formalized scenery in an attempt to focus on non-verbal communication with the audience. Gold was greatly influenced by this daring brand of drama and though he focused his efforts on journalism once back in New York, he would intermittently resume writing for theatre over the years. He published some of his dramatic sketches in Party periodicals including his “Strike!” of 1926, which he called a “mass recitation”. Gold also completed a Futurist play called “Hoboken Blues” this same year-- that which saw him arrested for protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

One year later, he established The New Playwrights Theatre with the likes of John Howard Lawson and John Dos Passos. So strong was the output of the New Playwrights, both artistically and politically, that they drew considerable note in the mainstream press. Following is an excerpt from ‘Time’ magazine’s March 1927 review of Lawson’s “Loudspeaker”. While the ‘legit’ media may have been sure to voice distrust of such new, worker-oriented forms, they none the less took notice:

The New Play-wrights—John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson, Francis Faragoh., Michael Gold, Em Jo Basshe—impatient with the restraint of conventional theatre, have set up one of their own, bolstered up by the generous purse of Otto Hermann Kahn. Here, at old Bim's, now the 52nd Street Theatre, they propose to experiment with those radical dramatic forms of whose marketability the commercial producers are suspicious.

Their first production, Loud Speaker, was written by John Howard Lawson, author of Processional (TIME, Jan. 26, 1925). As expected, it is staged against a "constructivist" background and presents the subjective state of the principal characters as well as their objective actions. The virtue of such staging is that, by affording the playwright several planes of action on one stage, it allows greater flexibility than is permitted by the rigid three-walled limitations of ordinary theatre. Thus, in Loud Speaker, the candidate for governor of the State may be discovered mulling over his radio speech in one corner of the stage, while his memory of an Atlantic City bathing beauty may be enacted in another corner. His daughter may black-bottom on an upper level and his wife receive a weird, bearded, hypnotic lover on still another. By proper punctuation and emphasis, such a production may be made colorful, clear, rapid, nervous, like jazz music. (,9171,846123,00.html#ixzz1HoPY32nN)

1929, the notorious year of the Crash, saw the birth of the John Reed Clubs. The Communist Party cultural brain trust led by VJ Jerome, Joseph Freeman and Gold quickly set plans for a nation-wide radical artists’ collective in Reed’s name, focusing on writers but encompassing cultural workers from every fold. Once proven in New York City, the John Reed Clubs took the lead in the push for a proletarian literary drive while hosting events by musicians, actors, dancers, painters and others. The Reed Clubs produced classes, lectures, concerts and exhibits; it published a series of magazines, newsletters, pamphlets and books and offered tutelage to fledgling cultural workers that combined lessons in social change with the arts. Membership included both the celebrated and the up-and-coming, largely all Communists, who sought to create works of social revolution. The Clubs spawned a series of off-shoot gatherings specific to different genres such as the Pierre DeGeyter Club of modernist concert musicians and the Red Dancers which served to develop modern dance of social conscience.

In January of 1930, Gold, by this time the best known of the proletarian journalists and a high priest, so to speak, of Communist cultural workers in the US, wrote of the origins of the John Reed Club, its multi-disciplinary nature, and his intent to guide it in a manner which would secure the artist’s relationship with the worker:

The John Reed Club was organized about two months ago here in New York. It is a small group of writers, artists, sculptors, musicians and dancers of revolutionary tendencies…Several activities have begun. The artists arranged an exhibition at the Workers Co-Operative House in the Bronx. About 35 pictures were hung. The exhibit will be shown for about four weeks. Over 300 workers came to the opening. There was a furious discussion led by Lozowick, Basshe, Gropper, Klein and others…At the next meeting I shall propose the following:

“That every writer in the group attach himself to one of the industries. That he spend the next few years in and out of this industry, studying it from every angle, making himself an expert in it, so that when he writes of it, he will write with like an insider, not like a bourgeois intellectual observer. He will help on the publicity in strikes, etc. He will have his roots in something real. The old Fabians used to get together and write essays based on the books they had read. We will get close to the realities” (Gold, Michael. The Daily Worker, January 1930; source: Dilling, Elizabeth, The Red Network: A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. Self-published, 1934, page 180)

Apparently, a lifetime of bitter struggle proved productive and Gold, by 1930, had published the novel which he’d become most celebrated for, Jews Without Money. While this is a fictionalized account of a poverty-stricken family on the Lower East Side, it is loosely based on his own family’s strife, thus a quite visceral tale. He’d been writing it over the decade prior, publishing bits and pieces as fiction in ‘the New Masses’ and other periodicals, but once compiled into a solid, beautifully composed novel, the concept of the proletarian writer became an accepted—and popular—standard of literature. With the degree of success Jews Without Money brought him,

Gold became a national figure, cultural commissar of the Communist Party, arbiter of artistic value according to the artist’s political allegiances. As the Twenties had buoyed up F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Thirties buoyed up Michael Gold—it was the decade for which he was born. In 1933 he became daily columnist for the Daily Worker, the mass circulation Communist Party newspaper. In 1935 in the introduction for a new edition of Jews Without Money, Gold noted that it had been translated into French, Swedish, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Jugo-Slavian [sic], Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Yiddish, Dutch, and Tatar and was particularly proud that “German radicals had translated it and were spreading it widely as a form of propaganda against the Nazi anti-Semitic lies.” (Gross, Barry. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 5. Ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Heath, 2005).

By the later 1930s, Gold's Daily Worker column included praise for the early folksong revival, then largely ignored by most American Leftist leaders, and he offered insight into the need for, "a Communist Joe Hill", referring to the legendary songwriter-organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World. Gold's words did not go unheeded, for they alerted the CPUSA to the importance of US home-grown music as a voice of the people; by 1939, the Party had discovered Woody Guthrie, whose ballads would be celebrated internationally and whose song "This Land is Your Land" would be called an alternative national anthem by many. Mike Gold was a tireless fighter for unions and other movements of social justice, and he spoke out fiercely against the rise of fascism in Europe, easily bridging the gap between the arts and social activism. Still, Gold desperately struggled with obscurity during most of his life. Largely, critics ignored his work; when it received any press at all the notices were negative, often brutally so. Old age would find Gold living in poverty and stifled by dysphoria and physical ailments. The irony was that his peers, even during critical lambasting, held the writer in very high regard:

Gold, too, had been among the cultural luminaries of his generation; a friend and associate not only of Leftists such as Eastman, Dell, Reed, McKay, Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Sinclair, Gold was also championed at different intervals by Eugene ONeill, Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, and even Ezra Pound. (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pg. 55).

Perhaps the best description of the radical literary figures Mike Gold walked with in his time is supplied by Gold himself from an article written in 1946, perhaps in light of the Red Scare, then preparing to evolve from the embers of V.E. Day:

Marxism flourished…during the first half of the 1930s…New writers wrote “proletarian novels”, plays and poems and became a main stream in our national culture, that formed the finest literary epoch our country has known since the Golden Age of Whitman, Emerson and Melville. It was a fighting art, a Marxist art, and frankly a weapon in the class struggle then raging so openly…We must find our way back to the main highway…We must rebuild the Marxist cultural front, with its literary magazines, theatres, music and art. (Gold, Mike, Daily Worker, March 1946; source-Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pg. 57).

Gold was a conflicted man, an undisciplined writer who could be very oppositional to expected CP discipline, yet a Communist Party stalwart with an almost undying faith in not only Party leadership but that of the Comintern and CPSU. Through it all, he stood as a respected leader of Party—and Popular Front—arts organizing. He also became the CP’s most profound cultural critic, often to a fault: in the course of his journalism, Gold denounced the works of progressive novelists, dramatists and screenplay writers whenever they softened or strayed from Party doctrine. He trounced Gertrude Stein in the pages of ‘the New Masses’, stating in blind anger that her work resembled, “the montonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums ...The literary idiocy of Gertrude Stein only reflects the madness of the whole system of capitalist values. It is part of the signs of doom that are written largely everywhere on the walls of bourgeois society."

He was noticeably harder on Party members whom he felt had lost sight of the mission and took continuous pot-shots at the likes of Albert Maltz and Howard Fast. And so this raised the question: just what is the mission of an artist engaged in social activism? The outcome was surely not what he’d hoped for; while Gold worked closely with Party cultural leaders to build the John Reed Clubs, ushering in new and exciting cultural workers and establishing a school of writing which crossed boundaries and raised the awareness of countless artists, he turned off many of them in the process. It was impossible, it seemed to some, to be both revolutionary and disciplined-- Gold himself fell victim to this conflict throughout his career. Perhaps, he was not aware of how to rise above this and became deeper entrenched in the murk of uncertainty. His own noncompliance with deadlines and bold championing of experimental theatre works belied his doctrinaire sensibility. Yet simultaneously he accused the likes of Albert Maltz of “social fascism” and disavowed modernist arts as bourgeois tools, thus the conundrum rolled on. Still, his relevance remains clear.

According to historian Alan M. Wald in his study of Leftist writers,

"Simply put, no single individual contributed more to forging the tradition of proletarian literature as a genre in the United States after the 1920s. All who came after Gold would stand on the shoulders of his legacy. Part of the explanation for Gold’s impact was his colorful semi-autonomy from the Party officials such as Jerome on the Party headquarters “Ninth Floor”. The dazzling blend of proletarianism, bohemianism, romanticism, and even a strain of modernism that comprised the early 1930s mix of Left poetry was quite evident in Gold’s own personality and career". (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pp 39-40).


Sadly overlooked today even by students of 1930s literature, Michael Gold’s artistry needs revival in yet another time of xenophobia and polarized economics. While our New York City—and the rest of the nation---struggles in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it is bitterly ironic that the Lower East Side in which Gold lived, worked and fought now stands as a gentrified community largely of the wealthy. As the jobless rates ominously rise, one wonders where the poor now call home and Mike Gold’s proletarian literature becomes deeply, sorely missed.


Buhle, Mari Jo, Paul Buhle, Dan Georgakis, Encyclopedia of the American Left. Chicago: St Martin’s Press, 1990

Daily Worker collection- Fighting Words: Selections from Twenty-Five Years of the Daily Worker. NY: New Century Publishers, 1949

Dilling, Elizabeth, The Red Network: A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. Self-published, 1934

Gold, Michael. The Daily Worker, January 1930

Gold, Michael. The Mike Gold Reader. New York: International Publishers, 1954

Gross, Barry. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 5. Ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Heath, 2005.

Spartacus School website -

Time Magazine, 1927 -,9171,846123,00.html#ixzz1HoPY32nN

Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002

Friday, March 18, 2011

Left Forum 2011--Talk by John Pietaro

A Brief Historical Overview of Major Cultural Activism in the First Decades of the 20th Century:

A Speech Presented at a Panel Discussion, The Challenges of Creating a Culture of Culture in the US Left, at LEFT FORUM, March 19, 2011, NYC

By John Pietaro

The art of rebellion is a tradition as old as dissent itself. Radical writers, musicians, painters, actors, dancers and other creative activists have long used their artwork as a weapon in the fight for social justice, toward revolution. If the very nature of expressive freedom lends itself toward a revolutionary voice, then it is arguable that the arts gave birth to radicalism, or in the least offered a view toward its path. Cultural workers have the power to put melody to fiery speeches and add a rainbow of color to the black-and-white of dogma.

In the wake of Marx, Engels and Lenin, artists, drawing on their own heritage of radicalism, forged a central place for cultural workers within the Left. In the United States, three radical movements have demonstrated the strongest use of the arts as tools for activists. In their chronological order they are the Socialist Party USA (dating from 1901), the Industrial Workers of the World (1905) and the Communist Party USA (1919). My brief talk today will offer but a sketch of the cultural institutions these organizations created in the first decades of the twentieth century. This work can be a model for the battles which rage ahead of us.


Labor agitator and leader of the American Railway Union, Eugene V. Debs, forged the Socialist Party in 1901, but one year into the new century. The timing was far from coincidental for the Party called for the dawning of a new day for working people. Its focus was on a wide sort of social change --and its arts endeavors began shortly thereafter. Publisher Charles H. Kerr released the pioneering song book Socialist Songs With Music that same year. In the introduction, Kerr wrote that this book was the first attempt to publish a collection of Socialist songs intended for the use of Socialists within the United States specifically. He added, “We American Socialists are only beginning to sing”.

Initially, the SP’s arts endeavors were loosely organized, used primarily as outreach for Eugene V. Debs’ presidential campaigns. Cultural workers involved included the much celebrated novelist Jack London and groundbreaking poet and folk song collector Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), among other notable contributors including poet and organizer Vachel Lindsay(1879-1931).


As the Socialist Party’s arts activism grew, the Left was able to look toward another grouping to see the possibilities of cultural work come to fruition. Of all US radical organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World , founded in 1905, is perhaps that which has most fully embraced cultural workers. Many, many of its early organizers were writers, musicians or visual artists (often all three!) and successfully used the arts as a tool in organizing workers across the globe.

Joe Hill (Joel Emmanuel Haaglund, aka Joseph Hillstrom, 1878-1915) was—and remains--the IWW’s guiding force. A model for the fighting cultural worker, Hill wrote globally relevant, militant topical songs and biting parodies in support of the union cause and in the process, spawned a legend. Among his most famous pieces are “The Preacher and the Slave”, “Casey Jones, the Union Scab”, “There is Power in the Union”, amidst an stream of others. He became a mythic character in all Left factions when he was silenced by the state of Utah via his infamous unjust execution. Famously, his last written statement was “Don’t mourn for me---organize”.

But Hill was only the most prominent of cultural workers among the IWW. Predating him was Mac McClintock, composer of such well-known pieces as “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Halleluiah I’m a Bum” and the leader of the first Industrial Workers Band which shook the mountains of the industrial northwest. Another Wob who offered lasting revolutionary music and prose was Ralph Chaplin, who wrote labor’s anthem, “Solidarity Forever” in 1911. The magnificent force of the Wobblies was seen as a great threat by the powers that be; in this period, and into the next decade, they became the subject of vicious, violent raids which greatly hurt their numbers. While the embrace of the arts remained an IWW staple, the impact their cultural workers provided was curtailed by the constant throttle of a reactionary government hell-bent on destroying them. Another movement would need to pick up on this work if there was to be a real case of “Art as a Weapon” within the US left-wing.


John Reed (1887 – 1920) was a poet, journalist, revolutionary who may best be reflected upon as the artist of conscience who never sought out mythic status. Often reviled by the ruling class for his purposeful refuting of the prestige he was born into, Reed remains an anomaly on the Left. Most vexing is that his deeply relevant role as a revolutionary in the Communist movement he helped to found seems to be only acknowledged begrudgingly.

By 1919 he, along with activist Benjamin Gitlow, led a portion of the Socialist Party’s Left-wing into the formation of the Communist Labor Party, one of the two early communist organizations in this nation which would lead to the founding of the Communist Party of the USA. He also served as a contributing editor of its initial organ, the Revolutionary Age and then became editor of the Communist magazine and a noted public speaker for the cause of the workers’ uprising---this in a time of the Palmer Raids, mass arrests of radicals and the constant threat of the war-time Espionage Act hanging overhead.

Louis Fraina (1892-1953) was already a noted author and editor during his years of activism within the Socialist Party, IWW and, earlier, the Socialist Labor Party. His writings on modern dance and advocacy for free-verse poetry in this period indicate his strong vision of the power of the arts. Upon the SP Left-wing separation, Fraina and Charles Ruthenberg led the largely immigrant Communist Party of America before it joined forces with the Communist Labor Party in 1920, until both merged a year later. Hence, it needs to be stated that the Communist Party was founded by artists!

Michael Gold (1893 – 1967) was a radical author—journalist, playwright and poet—as well as an activist who chronicled the Great Depression. Gold began writing for progressive periodicals as early as 1914, when one of his pieces was seen in the Masses. By 1917, he’d become affiliated with the fledgling theatre group the Provincetown Players and had officially joined the Socialist Party but quickly declared his sympathies for the Bolshevik Revolution. Gold joined the Communist Party in 1922, and came to author a long-standing arts column for Party organ the Daily Worker. He also stood as editor of the Party’s magazines the Liberator and the New Masses. Gold was known as the Party’s most profound cultural critic, at points to a fault—he denounced the works of progressive novelists, dramatists and screenplay writers whenever they softened or strayed from Communist doctrine. However, he continued to straddle the worlds of revolutionary journalist, novelist and playwright.

VJ Jerome—the party’s primary cultural leader who is as criticized for his hard-line Stalinist approach to the role of artists as party functionaries. But he is also praised for having the vision to pull together the strongest, most lasting program of revolutionary arts in the nation and one which had a global impact.


While the IWW struggled to rebuild itself in the face of constant right-wing assault, the Socialist Party began to build its own cultural program, the Rebel Arts Group, led by Samuel H. Friedman, a writer and SP leader. Based out of the Party’s Rand School of Socialist Science in the Greenwich Village section of New York City stands as the Party’s strongest opportunity for the development of arts-activism. Rebel Arts’ agenda was largely theatrical, offering a series of radical plays in various New York union halls. But the Group also focused on a wider array of programming. It sponsored a photography club, a chess club, a drama club, hosted a wide array of concerts in the hall of the Rand School and ran, for a time, its own radio station, WEVD, so named for Debs himself. But as the Popular Front came to a close, so followed Rebel Arts, which continued to present a smaller and smaller array of events through the 1940s, until finally abandoning the complete program by decade’s end.

However, even during the heyday of Rebel Arts, the Socialist Party’s cultural organizers raced to keep up with the then rival Communist Party. As the 1920s moved into the ‘30s, both Michael Gold and VJ Jerome helped to initiate countless cultural workers into their ranks. Further, the Party had legions of “fellow travelers” who were either unofficial members or interested sympathizers, particularly during the Popular Front period. Attempting to list all of the brilliant artists associated with the CP’s cultural projects, journals, organizations, events and front groups in this 20 year period alone would rate a full college course in and of itself. I risk sounding insulting by merely mentioning the names and not the extensive bios of these gifted, radical cultural workers, but I prefer to at least offer some acknowledgement; here goes:

Paul Robeson, John Reed, Michael Gold, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Meridel Le Seuer, Floyd Dell, Hazel Scott, Nelson Algren, Henry Cowell, Kenneth Burke, Lillian Hellman, Malcolm Cowley, Frank Marshall Davis, Upton Sinclair, Ella Mae Wiggins, Richard Wright, Dashiell Hammet, Tllie Olsen, Waldo Frank, Sam Ornitz, Erskine Caldwell, Louis Engdahl , James Baldwin, Aunt Mollie Jackson, John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson, Mary Heaton Vorse, Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, Howard Fast, John Garfield, Sarah Ogan, Edmund Wilson, Sherwood Anderson, EE Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, Will Geer, Josh White, Rose Pastor Stokes, Isidor Schneider, Granville Hicks, William Gropper, Walter Lowenfels, Jack Gilford, Theodore Dreiser, Rockwell Kent, Florence Reese, Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Albert Maltz, Marc Blitzstein, Dorothy Parker, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, Abraham Polonsky, Donald Ogden Stewart, John Dos Passos, Lincoln Steffens, Charlie Chaplin, Pete Seeger, Claude McKay, Edith Segal, Aaron Copland, Arturo Giovannitti, Dorothy Day, Louis Untermeyer, Hugo Gellert, Robert Minor, Elie Siegmeister, Ruth Crawford, Alfred Hayes, Leo Hurwitz, Art Young , the Composers Collective of New York, the Workers Theatre Laboratory, the John Reed Club, the Almanac Singers, the Golden Gate Quartet, the New Playwrights, the Group Theatre, the Theatre Union, the Red Dancers, the Film and Photo League, the Provincetown Players, the League of American Writers, the New Dance Group, the American Artists Congress

…………and a seemingly endless list beyond.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

3 Panels on LEFT FORUM

LEFT FORUM, March 18-20, Pace University in lower Manhattan--a gathering of thousands of activists which comes to NYC annually. I am proud to be a guest speaker on three different panels. This year’s event is particularly pressing in the face of the onslaught of anti-worker legislation and rhetoric being promoted by the right-wing in this class war. Now, more than ever, progressives need to gather to brainstorm and organize. That’s what Left Forum is all about. We have much work to do!

Below is some info on the panels I will be involved in, but I urge you to come out for all of the amazing discussion going on over the course of the 3 days. Plus, dozens and dozens of progressive organizations, publishers and activists will have tables in the main hall---here’s your chance to buy books, DVDs, CDs and posters to fuel your radical fire. Check out for more info.

The Challenge of Creating a Culture of Culture on the US Left:
Panel Session 1—Saturday 3/19 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m.
Amy Paul—Adhikaar
Fred Ho—Revolutionary activist, saxophonist, performer
John Pietaro—Cultural worker and labor organizer
Kayhan Irani—Performer, saxophonist,
Steve Bloom—Activist Poets' Roundtable

Panel Abstract:
A discussion by individuals who are both social activists and cultural workers about the obstacles that exist on the US left to the incorporation of culture as a method of struggle, and possible solutions. I will be speaking on the powerful revolutionary artists of the 1920s and 30s and their influence today.

Mobilizing American Youth in the Classroom, at the Workplace, in the Community in an Era of Demoralization and Demobilization:
Panel Session 4—Saturday 3/19 5:00 p.m. – 6:50 p.m
Andi Weiss Bartczak—Science for Citizens
Irwin Sperber—Sociology, SUNY New Paltz
John Pietaro—Cultural worker, labor organizer
Julia Walsh—Director, NY Frack Action
Tess Cooper—student, SUNY New Paltz; organizer, NY Frack Action

Panel Abstract:
Potentially effective approaches to the mobilization of youth for the struggles against economic injustice and environmental predation are not used as fully as they could be for purposes of building a working class movement. How these approaches can be developed by organizers in the labor movement, in environmental NGOs, and in the classroom will be reviewed and illustrated by speakers with concrete experience in these settings. Also to be reviewed are a number of approaches that tend to fail in efforts at mobilization, but continue to be used simply because they appear intuitively to be effective.

Sharing a Culture of Culture of the US Left:
Panel Session 6—Sunday 3/20 12:00 p.m. – 1:50 p.m.
Amy Paul—Adhikaar
John Pietaro—Cultural worker and labor organizer
Kayhan Irani—
Steve Bloom—Activist Poets' Roundtable

Panel Abstract:
This is a companion panel for "The Challenge of Creating a Culture of Culture on the US Left." The goal is to share examples of cultural expressions that can enhance the development of the US left. There will be time for audience contributions. If all goes as planned, I will be performing a new work of semi-improvised music on xylophone and percussion and incorporating revolutionary poetry into this.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Emergency Labor Meeting Held in Cleveland: Union Radicals Plan Left Response to War on Workers

By John Pietaro

Cleveland, OH: In the months before the embattled atmosphere over Wisconsin descended upon its working people, several veteran labor activists, Donna DeWitt, Jerry Gordon and Mark Dudzic among them, saw the urgency mounting. Reaching out to other established leaders, including Bill Fletcher (who, regrettably was instrumental in planning but unable to make the meeting itself), they began to conceptualize an “Emergency Labor Meeting”, a core gathering of union troublemakers, to begin the daunting task of building a new, far more radical front in the ranks of labor: “to explore together what we can do to mount a more militant and robust fight-back campaign to defend the interests of working people”. In that period—highlighted by burgeoning unemployment, alarming foreclosure rates, startling municipal budget cuts, and increasingly anti-worker noise from the Right—they could hardly have known that a rather revolutionary upsurge was destined for middle America.

South Carolina’s labor boss Donna DeWitt called on the militants in her reach, a lot that is more numerous and loud than we northerners have come to expect. One of them was Russell Bannan, currently an AFT organizing director in Colorado but with roots firmly planted in Southern labor. Barron reached out to this writer with an almost insistent invitation to join this growing alliance planning to meet in Cleveland, March 4th to 6th. This young old friend drove a hard bargain which included the possibility of my leading the group in labor songs. “Oh damn, Cleveland”, I thought. I still had bad memories of a frozen, mandatory ten-day assignment there when I was employed in a political action assignment a few years ago by 1199 SEIU. But, still, I considered that this would probably end up being one of those events I would seriously regret missing. And okay, these days I am back home in the warmth of another progressive NYC union, AFSCME DC 1707, where I’d worked for some years in the past. No, there’d be no trouble getting out to Cleveland. There was no reason not to go….

“But brother”, Russell clarified, “right now let’s keep this quiet. We are being very careful in the early stages of this—it’s a small select group of activists coming together to lay a foundation for what’s to come. We cannot go public till there’s a secure start”. These were not the easiest times to forge a militant labor arm, even before Madison erupted.

WITH WISCONSIN NOW GLARINGLY PRESENT and conservative politicians everywhere talking trash about public employees, I boarded a jet out of JFK. The steering committee had reserved Cleveland’s Laborers’ Hall for our conference, one adorned with banners celebrating the various craft locals which were the building blocks of this union over the past century and a half. It all seemed quite symbolic of our hopes to grow a movement, or at least plant the seeds for same. For me, far from idealistic anymore but in need of something, Emergency Labor’s call to rekindle the radicalism of the 1930s couldn’t be more relevant now.

As the attendees filed into the hall, down in front was a smallish, unassuming woman struggling with a flip chart. It was Donna DeWitt. Taking the time to look up and smile even in the last-minute crush of preparation, the nickname given her by some in her circle, “Mother DeWitt” seemed to make perfect sense. After offering a warm greeting and accepting my offer to help with some of the presentation set-up, Donna called the meeting to order. The room filled.

Fraternal gestures aside, the agenda was serious, the meeting itself quite the experiment. A bottom-up conference designed not to establish a manifesto but to create an outline and principles to bring back to the members of our various unions in this emergent atmosphere. This was to be no partisan frolic. Madison was in the forefront of all of our thoughts, as were the other battle-ground sites. Welcoming remark by Harriet Applegate, Executive Secretary of Ohio’s Northern Shore AFL-CIO, dropped fanfare for fact. She informed the group that her state’s public workers were facing a challenge not unlike that of their Wisconsin sisters and brothers, including a bill which sought to take bargaining rights. Here was one more area in which public employees had become the object of scorn instead of the financial greed-meisters who’d created the recession we now struggle through.

In the throes of battle, the first panel discussion focused on Wisconsin and explored how we might be able to help the cause. David Newby, president emeritus of that state’s AFL-CIO, offered up-to-the-minute accounts of the tumult in Madison. Newby, a tall, strong-featured man with thick graying hair, reflected the stress of the moment in his very gaze. His was a somber message, offering perhaps greater concern for the potential for demoralization if Wisconsin’s arch-Right governor is successful in his drive to break collective bargaining rights for public workers. The occasional smiles and light comments Newby offered indicated a hope that was clouded by deep concern for not only the Madison protestors but the movement as a whole. So strong were his feelings that when he was later scheduled to speak again, he requested of the moderator that his not be the closing comments, lest the anxiety of his statement cast a pall on the proceedings. But, no, his talk only spurred on the sense of fight, the need for success. Plans were laid for a big presence at the next large Madison rally next week, 3/12. In anticipation of a possible outcome of this struggle in Madison, one was reminded of Joe Hill’s famous edict, “Don’t mourn, organize”. There couldn’t be a more prominent contemporary example.

Other speakers on this panel included celebrated labor leader Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422, that which received global attention some years back during the Charleston Five case. Ken has been defiantly fighting off the racists, corrupt bosses, rogue government agents and complacent union brass throughout his career. A genteel but firm man, Riley maintains a youthful pleasantness and enthusiasm which belies his decades of radicalism. He offered the kind of militancy that would pervade over this weekend when he spoke of the need for a general strike. Recognizing the great difficulties associated with this advanced action, he nevertheless reminded us of the strength of the longshoremen’s’ position, particularly in collaboration with ground transportation workers; they can stop the wheels of capital. Imagine if you will the grip this cold have on the nation if both the ILA and ILWU, in conjunction with other strategic unions, chose to act. Imagine. This would not be the only point in which one of the speakers or the other near one hundred attendees, would raise the specter of general strike. But the building toward more concrete, immediate plans was the principle agenda here in Cleveland—the planting of seeds.

The evening closed with a song. I was proud to lead this fired-up crowd in a rendition of “We Shall Not Be Moved” which included a verse about Wisconsin. The walls vibrated with the intensity of the moment. Later, many of us gathered in a hotel bar, engaging in discussion deep into the night. Free-flowing talk allowed every school of Left and liberal thought to intermingle productively. The consensus, happily, was that an alliance among all progressives was essential. But the comradely talk reached well beyond politics. My advocacy of the need for a cultural component in this movement led to discussion of the arts in general and I enjoyed spending considerable time with Jerry Tucker, an elder statesman of labor who’d been an instrumental figure on the UAW’s international board. An intellectual, soft spoken gentleman of character, Jerry was about as well-versed on issues of jazz music, English literature or Left history as he was about organized labor.

Saturday, March 5th was a full work day for us. I awoke bleary-eyed but most inspired. After engaging in a wonderful breakfast with Ken Riley—and recognizing his formidable talents as a prime mover who should have national AFL-CIO aspirations—the panel discussion began. These included “Labor Under Attack”, “Labor and Public Sector Unions”, “Labor and the Wars and Occupation”, and “Labor and Political Action”. Speakers ranged from many of the public and private sector unions and hailed from 26 states. Among them were the afore-mentioned as well as Clarence Thomas (ILWU Local 10 Exec Board and a founder of the Million Worker March), Sal Roselli (NUHW president who led successful campaigns against formidable SEIU battle), Bill Henning (VP of CWA Local 1180 and national board member of USLAW), and Cherrene Horzuk (chief steward, AFSCME Local 3800) who spoke on the urgent topic of an FBI investigation of members who now faced federal charges due to their support of Columbian unionists). Also on hand was Saladin Muhammad (Black Workers for Justice), Patrician Frost-Brooks (Ohio’s Education Association) and noted labor journalist Steve Early.

While some of the attendees offered reasonable concern that this might just turn out to be another feel-good weekend of preaching to the choir, , well-conceived planning was prominently discussed to be sure this would not be the outcome. DeWitt had made good use of that flip-chart in the course of the days and she, by the final hour, brandished page after page of points raised by the speakers and those who took to the audience microphones to add commentary. . Multi-colored felt tip notes accentuated by circles and arrows led toward the language needed for where we can take this.

In the days to follow, both a website, a list-serve and a Facebook page will allow this body to have a presence beyond the hall we met in, even as the vision for this committee continues to develop. Most of us seek for a permanent version of what we during these chilly, rainy days in Cleveland helped to give birth to.

A public report was released widely almost immediately after the meeting’s close and all present are asked to go back to their own membership for the means to engage in continued activism toward social justice, an end to war and an urgent, militant response to the current rhetoric against unions. Plans are now being laid for outreach into the larger progressive community to build toward a larger, mass meeting. Other notable declarations included lending a voice to both the March 12 rally in Wisconsin and the upcoming April 4 Day of Action recently endorsed by the AFL-CIO in remembrance of Dr King (April 4 will be the anniversary of his assassination). Additionally, the Emergency Labor Meeting participants called for a “We Are All Wisconsin” campaign to lend immediate national support in this class war being thrust upon the workers from the right-wing politicians and talking heads.The time is now.

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