BY ELIZABETH STONE
NEWARK, New Jersey - Howard Mayhew, a veteran leader of the Socialist Workers Party, died earlier this year. He was 87 years old.
A celebration of his life of revolutionary working-class activity, spanning the decades from the 1930s depression to opposition to the Gulf war in the early 1990s will be held here August 20. (See ad this page.)
Among the speakers will be SWP Political Committee member Joel Britton, who will review Mayhew's contributions to maintaining communist continuity in the late 1950s and early 1960s and helping to train a new generation coming to communist politics to take leadership responsibilities in the party.
Mayhew joined the workers' movement in the mid-1930s when the upsurge of industrial workers that created the CIO was nearing its peak. In 1938 he became part of that fight as a leader of the CIO organizing drive by the American Newspaper Guild at the Hearst newspapers in Chicago where he worked as a draftsman. After several years of struggle, including 17 months on the picket line, the workers were finally defeated in 1940.
Despite the loss, it was a hard-fought battle in which the power of the workers was felt. Mayhew wrote later: "What then should be said about this episode that agitated the lives of so many people? The strike demonstrated to the news moguls, nationally, that it is a threat to their profits to move too casually against their workers. The struggle was a valuable school to those participating..."
Mayhew's first contact with socialists was in 1936 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, when a neighbor convinced him to join the Wheaton-Glen chapter of the Socialist Party. He was 28 years old, a white collar worker with a family trying to survive the depression.
The Socialist Party was headed by Norman Thomas and others who were socialist in name only. They were basically supporters of the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt and thought in terms of reforming the capitalist government, not of replacing it with a government of workers and farmers.
But Mayhew soon came into contact with revolutionaries from nearby Chicago, members of a left-wing in the Socialist Party, which included communists who had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 because of their opposition to the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.
Socialist Party split
A debate was raging in the Socialist Party over how to fight fascism, war, and the depression conditions facing the working class. It came to a head over how to defeat the Franco fascists in Spain. The Socialist Party leadership refused to condemn the Roosevelt administration for denying the antifascist fighters in Spain the right to buy American armaments. The revolutionaries called for all-out support to the antifascist fighters and condemned Roosevelt's policy.
Socialist Party split
When the left wing began to grow and get more of a hearing, the SP leadership undemocratically expelled them from the party. Those who were expelled soon formed the Socialist Workers Party.
In the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton branch Howard Mayhew proposed the branch separate from the Socialist Party and join the Socialist Workers Party. The branch split down the middle, with seven members including the younger and newer recruits to socialism joining the SWP.
After the Newspaper Guild strike was over Mayhew joined the Socialist Workers Party campaign to get its members into industrial jobs where they could participate in union struggles. Mayhew trained as a welder and began working at plants in the Chicago area. In 1942 he hired in at the big General Motors (Electro-Motive) locomotive plant in McCook, Illinois.
Electro-Motive was organized by Local 719 of the United Auto Workers, which had more participation by the rank-and- file than other major new CIO unions. The 1937 sit-down strikes organized by the UAW workers at General Motors auto plants played a decisive role in the strike victories of the CIO.
During World War II, as a result of a no-strike pledge and wage freezes agreed to by union leaders who supported Washington in the war, workers at GM Electro-Motive and other industrial plants lost ground. Once the war ended anger at being asked to sacrifice while capitalists reaped giant profits exploded in the largest strike wave in U.S. history.
Once again GM workers helped lead the way. On Nov. 21, 1945, 225,000 strikers shut down GM in a fight for a 30 percent pay raise, when most other union officials were pressuring workers to demand less.
When some Local 719 leaders at Electro-Motive decided not to participate in the national UAW strike, but instead go it alone, Mayhew, who was on the Local 719 Executive Committee, organized a caucus that fought successfully to bring Electro-Motive into the national struggle. "Once the realization of the unprecedented power of shutting down the entire GM corporation caught the imagination of the workers," Mayhew later explained, "even of those from relatively conservative suburban McCook, Illinois, all previous ideas of `going it alone' were washed out."
Mayhew stayed at Electro-Motive for almost a decade where he served as Local 719 committeeman, line steward, executive board member, and coeditor of Local 719 News.
From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, Mayhew emerged as the central political leader of the Socialist Workers Party branch in Chicago. In the mid-1950s he was elected to the party's national committee.
The long years of ebb in workers' militancy, which accompanied the post World War II economic expansion, posed tremendous challenges for the SWP. The party went from more than 1,700 members in the years following the war to a few hundred before significant youth recruitment developed in the early 1960s. During the opening of what would become a long wave of prosperity for U.S. capital in the early 1950s, the pressure to give up on the perspective of revolutionary working-class politics was especially intense.
But the late 1940s and '50s was also a time of revolutionary upsurge internationally, when the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America rose up against the imperialist powers culminating in the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cuban, revolutions. Washington was handed its first military defeat by the Korean people. These events gave impetus to and became connected with the struggle of Black people in the United States, which began to pick up steam.
Participant in Black struggle
In Chicago's large Black community protests began to develop against segregation and racist attacks. As an activist in the NAACP, a tenant's group, and a discussion group in the Black community known as the Washington Park Forum, Mayhew helped lead the Socialist Workers Party branch to participate in these struggles.
Participant in Black struggle
In 1954 and 1956, years when many radicals were afraid to proclaim their beliefs openly, Mayhew was the Socialist Workers Party candidate in the 2nd congressional district in Illinois. He campaigned against the McCarthyite witch- hunters and fascist and racist groups who were attacking Black families who had moved into a white housing project in Chicago.
The 1954 campaign distributed a pamphlet by Mayhew titled, "Racial Terror at Trumbull Park," which put forward a program to fight back. Mayhew wrote regularly for the Militant newspaper on these struggles.
In 1958, Mayhew helped organize a united effort of the Washington Park Forum, the SWP, and others to launch the United Socialist campaign of Washington Park Forum president Rev. Joseph P. King.
The campaign tapped into Black activists' growing disillusionment in Democratic party politicians who refused to take action against racist violence. This included Communist Party (CP) supporters who were beginning to question the CP's support of Democrats.
Clifton DeBerry, SWP candidate for president in the 1964 elections, was active in the King campaign and the Washington Park Forum. He remembers that many of the Forum activists were Communist Party supporters, "not members but supporters who traditionally followed their politics." Many, including King, had been active in union struggles as well as fights for Black rights.
Activists who were around the CP were now more open to working with the SWP because of the Communist Party crisis that followed the Krushchev revelations in 1956 exposing the crimes of Stalin.
In press statements and at meetings and rallies the King campaigners championed independent labor and Black political action, supported antiracist protests, called for the government to enforce the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, and demanded that the U.S. troops sent to Lebanon be withdrawn.
Despite an attempt by the Democrats to rule him off, Rev. King won a place on the ballot. Howard Mayhew was campaign publicity director and testified at the ballot hearing.
Participation in the fight for independent political action and against racism helped set the stage for building a broad and active Fair Play for Cuba Committee in Chicago at a later date.
New generation comes on scene
In the early 1960s a new generation of youth, inspired by the Cuban revolution, began to join the Chicago branch. As the central branch leader and member of the party's National Committee, Mayhew educated these new members, including this reporter, on the party's politics and norms.
New generation comes on scene
Many of those Mayhew influenced became national leaders of the party. Jack Barnes, national secretary of the SWP, moved to Chicago in 1961 after having recently joined the party in Minneapolis. He comments that the linking of the generations, led by Mayhew, and made possible by the activity that kept the party together in the 1950s, was Mayhew's most important contribution.
Barnes noted that the party came close to losing the Chicago branch several times in the late 1940s and 1950s, to Maoists and other groups opposed to the party's program. "In all these challenges Howard Mayhew fought to maintain the integrity of the party's working-class program," he said.
Barnes explained that Mayhew helped lead the process nationally of turning over the leadership responsibilities to younger members as this became possible. "He was conscious of teaching us how to function as leaders," he said.
Joel Britton, SWP national trade union director who joined in Chicago in 1962, described the Chicago branch as "a branch of workers - in steel, agricultural implements, and other industries, and including some members like Howard Mayhew who had been driven out of industry during the witch- hunt and blacklisted.
"This branch was engaged in political activity ranging from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee to the Ban the Bomb peace movement of the time.
"We got an education, above all from Howard who had the kind of confidence in the power, capacities, and revolutionary potential of the working class that comes from participating in struggles involving millions of workers," said Britton.
Helps expand party's printing capacity
At the request of the party leadership Mayhew moved to New York in 1964, taking along with him the printing press he ran in his basement, to help expand the party's publishing capacity. Pioneer, a predecessor to Pathfinder Press, was in a position to expand its publishing program due to increased sales of Marxist literature and the party printshop was to play a big part in strengthening this effort.
Helps expand party's printing capacity
This move followed the efforts of members of the Chicago branch, led by Mayhew, to reprint, collate, and bind 1,000 copies of both In Defense of Marxism and The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky.
In the 1970s, after several years as an at-large member in upstate New York, Mayhew teamed up with younger party members to build the Albany SWP branch.
Peter Thierjung, now a member of the SWP in Greensboro, North Carolina, remembers how "after a day of sales or petitioning Howard would modestly announce the number of [Militant] papers he sold or signatures he got. Without fail, he was always the top sales person or top petitioner."
Mayhew resigned from the party in 1983. "Only waning physical powers in general and frustrating loss of hearing brings me to this decision," he wrote. "This formal resignation from Socialist Workers Party membership in no way indicates the slightest rejection to my life-long subscription to the tenets of the SWP's class struggle politics."
For Mayhew, being a party member with the right to vote and decide party policy necessitated being active. He wrote, "Party decisions, to be informed, democratically arrived at and executed, must have and include the active participation both in those decisions and in the events and circumstances involved. Personal reasons, therefore, make it fitting and proper that I bring my formal membership to an end."
Until a few years ago when hit by a further decline in health, Mayhew remained an active supporter of the party, participating in sales, forums, and other activities.
Into the 1990s, he continued to spread revolutionary ideas. Mike Taber, a member of the Brooklyn branch who worked with Mayhew in Albany, reports that Mayhew responded to the Gulf War by ordering copies of U.S. Hands off the Middle East! - Cuba Speaks at the UN to sell in the retirement community in New Jersey where he was living.
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