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Guide to the Max Shachtman Photographs PHOTOS.087

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Erika Gottfried, 2009.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on September 20, 2018
English

Historical/Biographical Note

Max Shachtman (1903-1972) was a writer, editor, political theoretician, and a leader (successively) in the communist, Trotskyist, and socialist movements, whose views helped shape the outlook of many progressive and liberal anti-communist intellectuals and labor leaders. His life in politics began when he became interested in Socialist Party politics in high school, with particular sympathy for its left wing. In 1921, he joined the Workers (Communist) Party--the legal, above-ground arm of the Communist Party, and in 1923, at age 19, he moved to Chicago to take over the editorship of the The Young Worker, the magazine of the Party's youth organization. From that point on, he worked full-time as a political operative. Shachtman lived for several years in Chicago, where he honed his political and organizational skills, including his talent as a polemicist, orator, and debater whose speeches were famous for their eloquence, passion, and caustic wit. He rose rapidly to become a national figure in the Party and one of its most promising young leaders, serving as a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee, a delegate to the Fifth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, and to the Seventh Plenum of the Comintern, in Moscow. He also served as the editor of the  Labor Defender (the magazine of the Communist-affiliated International Labor Defense organization). In 1928, however, he was expelled from the Communist Party after adopting Leon Trotsky's dissident views. The following year, he became one of the three principal founders of what became the American Trotskyist movement, organizing -- with James Cannon and Martin Abern -- the Communist League of America.

Shachtman was the first American Trotskyist to meet Leon Trotsky after Trotsky's deportation from the Soviet Union, when he visited the exile's residence on the island of Prinkipo, Turkey, in early 1930. He became a close collaborator with Trotsky, his "commissar for foreign affairs," traveling throughout Europe on his behalf and meeting with members of the Communist opposition movement throughout Europe. He also translated some of Trotsky's major works. He maintained a close relationship with Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, arranging and accompanying them and one of their sons on their secret passage to France. In 1937, he was a member of the group (including painter Frida Kahlo) that greeted Trotsky and Sedova when they arrived at Tampico to take up residence in Mexico, Trotsky's last home. It was Shachtman, too, whom the Workers Party sent to comfort Ms. Sedova after Trotsky's assassination in Mexico City in August 1940. Despite widening political differences between them, he remained friendly with and continued to visit Sedova until the end of her life.

In 1934, the Communist League of America merged with the American Workers Party, another small leftwing opposition group, led by A. J. Muste, to form the Workers Party, and the Workers Party in turn joined the Socialist Party in 1936. In 1937-1938, Shachtman, along with other Trotskyists, was expelled from Socialist Party, and formed the Socialist Workers Party. Shortly after this, however, Shachtman had differences with the SWP's other leadership, and with Trotsky himself, over their view of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and in 1939 he led a splinter group, the Workers Party (renamed the Independent Socialist League in 1949), out of the SWP. During the 1950s, Shachtman developed the political strategy he described as "realignment," which held that U.S. socialists should ally themselves with the leadership of the labor movement and together work to make the Democratic Party into a social-democratic party. In 1958, Shachtman led his group back to the Socialist Party. From the 1960s onward, Shachtman's views turned rightward, away from revolutionary politics of his earlier years. He endorsed the Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba and supported the war in Vietnam--even refusing to back George McGovern over Richard Nixon in the election of 1972. Throughout his trajectory from left to right, Shachtman attracted and influenced, personally or through his writings or disciples, a wide variety of individuals, including intellectuals, left political activists and mainstream Democratic Party politicians, and labor leaders, ranging from anti-Stalinist Marxists such as Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin to neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. He also exercised an intellectual influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s as well as the mainstream labor movement through his young followers (known as "Shachtmanites"), many of whom held positions in unions and civil rights organizations.

Shachtman was born in Warsaw (then part of the Czarist Russian Empire), on September 10, 1903, a child of working class Jews with socialist sympathies. The family emigrated to the United States in 1905. Shachtman grew up in New York City and lived there (mainly in the Bronx) much of his life before moving to a home in Floral Park, a suburb of New York, in 1954. Although he attended New York's City College briefly, he was largely self-educated. A passionate bibliophile, he spoke and wrote fluently in English, German, French, and Yiddish, with some knowledge of Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew as well. He traveled extensively in Europe, including Spain, France, Germany, as well as in the Soviet Union, Turkey, and Mexico -- particularly in the 1930s -- on political business.

Shachtman had three wives. He met his first wife, Wilma "Billie" Rumloff, through his work in the Communist Party, while he lived in Chicago. He left Rumloff for his second wife, Edith Harvey, the former companion of his close friend and fellow Party member, Albert Glotzer, in 1937. He and Harvey had a son -- his only child -- Michael, born in 1939. Shachtman and Harvey split up, and Harvey moved to California with their son in 1951. That same year Shachtman moved to Brooklyn to live with his third wife, Yetta Barsh (1925-1996), to whom he remained married the rest of his life. Barsh, much more politically active than either Rumloff or Harvey, also worked for many years for the United Federation of Teachers, as an assistant its long-time president, Albert Shanker. Shachtman, whose health had begun to deteriorate after a heart attack in 1951, suffered a second heart attack and died on November 4, 1972.

Max Shachtman (1903-1972) was a writer, editor, political theoretician, and a leader (successively) in the communist, Trotskyist, and socialist movements, whose views helped shape the outlook of many progressive and liberal anti-communist intellectuals and labor leaders. His life in politics began when he became interested in Socialist Party politics in high school, with particular sympathy for its left wing. In 1921, he joined the Workers (Communist) Party--the legal, above-ground arm of the Communist Party, and in 1923, at age 19, he moved to Chicago to take over the editorship of the The Young Worker, the magazine of the Party's youth organization. From that point on, he worked full-time as a political operative. Shachtman lived for several years in Chicago, where he honed his political and organizational skills, including his talent as a polemicist, orator, and debater whose speeches were famous for their eloquence, passion, and caustic wit. He rose rapidly to become a national figure in the Party and one of its most promising young leaders, serving as a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee, a delegate to the Fifth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, and to the Seventh Plenum of the Comintern, in Moscow. He also served as the editor of the  Labor Defender (the magazine of the Communist-affiliated International Labor Defense organization). In 1928, however, he was expelled from the Communist Party after adopting Leon Trotsky's dissident views. The following year, he became one of the three principal founders of what became the American Trotskyist movement, organizing -- with James Cannon and Martin Abern -- the Communist League of America.

Shachtman was the first American Trotskyist to meet Leon Trotsky after Trotsky's deportation from the Soviet Union, when he visited the exile's residence on the island of Prinkipo, Turkey, in early 1930. He became a close collaborator with Trotsky, his "commissar for foreign affairs," traveling throughout Europe on his behalf and meeting with members of the Communist opposition movement throughout Europe. He also translated some of Trotsky's major works. He maintained a close relationship with Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, arranging and accompanying them and one of their sons on their secret passage to France. In 1937, he was a member of the group (including painter Frida Kahlo) that greeted Trotsky and Sedova when they arrived at Tampico to take up residence in Mexico, Trotsky's last home. It was Shachtman, too, whom the Workers Party sent to comfort Ms. Sedova after Trotsky's assassination in Mexico City in August 1940. Despite widening political differences between them, he remained friendly with and continued to visit Sedova until the end of her life.

In 1934, the Communist League of America merged with the American Workers Party, another small leftwing opposition group, led by A. J. Muste, to form the Workers Party, and the Workers Party in turn joined the Socialist Party in 1936. In 1937-1938, Shachtman, along with other Trotskyists, was expelled from Socialist Party, and formed the Socialist Workers Party. Shortly after this, however, Shachtman had differences with the SWP's other leadership, and with Trotsky himself, over their view of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and in 1939 he led a splinter group, the Workers Party (renamed the Independent Socialist League in 1949), out of the SWP. During the 1950s, Shachtman developed the political strategy he described as "realignment," which held that U.S. socialists should ally themselves with the leadership of the labor movement and together work to make the Democratic Party into a social-democratic party. In 1958, Shachtman led his group back to the Socialist Party. From the 1960s onward, Shachtman's views turned rightward, away from revolutionary politics of his earlier years. He endorsed the Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba and supported the war in Vietnam--even refusing to back George McGovern over Richard Nixon in the election of 1972. Throughout his trajectory from left to right, Shachtman attracted and influenced, personally or through his writings or disciples, a wide variety of individuals, including intellectuals, left political activists and mainstream Democratic Party politicians, and labor leaders, ranging from anti-Stalinist Marxists such as Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin to neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. He also exercised an intellectual influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s as well as the mainstream labor movement through his young followers (known as "Shachtmanites"), many of whom held positions in unions and civil rights organizations.

Shachtman was born in Warsaw (then part of the Czarist Russian Empire), on September 10, 1903, a child of working class Jews with socialist sympathies. The family emigrated to the United States in 1905. Shachtman grew up in New York City and lived there (mainly in the Bronx) much of his life before moving to a home in Floral Park, a suburb of New York, in 1954. Although he attended New York's City College briefly, he was largely self-educated. A passionate bibliophile, he spoke and wrote fluently in English, German, French, and Yiddish, with some knowledge of Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew as well. He traveled extensively in Europe, including Spain, France, Germany, as well as in the Soviet Union, Turkey, and Mexico -- particularly in the 1930s -- on political business.

Shachtman had three wives. He met his first wife, Wilma "Billie" Rumloff, through his work in the Communist Party, while he lived in Chicago. He left Rumloff for his second wife, Edith Harvey, the former companion of his close friend and fellow Party member, Albert Glotzer, in 1937. He and Harvey had a son -- his only child -- Michael, born in 1939. Shachtman and Harvey split up, and Harvey moved to California with their son in 1951. That same year Shachtman moved to Brooklyn to live with his third wife, Yetta Barsh (1925-1996), to whom he remained married the rest of his life. Barsh, much more politically active than either Rumloff or Harvey, also worked for many years for the United Federation of Teachers, as an assistant its long-time president, Albert Shanker. Shachtman, whose health had begun to deteriorate after a heart attack in 1951, suffered a second heart attack and died on November 4, 1972.

Sources

  1. Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist's Odyssey through the "American Century" New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1994.