The longtime activist and leader of the communist movement died July 27 at the age of 67 in Oakland, California. DesVerney joined the Socialist Workers party in 1948 and spent the next four and a half decades building the communist movement. He served on the party's National Committee from 1963 to 1971.
"From the day he became a communist some 45 years ago Bob remained true to that dedication," Barnes said. "It's easy to slide into taking this for granted. But being a communist, being a revolutionist, is first and foremost a deed, not a condition. It is a free act, and one that has to be frequently renewed.
"In capitalist society, a great deal of what the vast majority of us do, day in and day out, is not the result of free acts in any way, shape, or form. But acting as a communist is one of the few social acts one does under no duress. You're not drafted by a draft board. You have no parole officer breathing down your neck. The repo man isn't focusing your attention. You don't do it under threat from the cops. And you sure don't become part of the communist movement because it's a way of putting food on the table.
"Every day - under no duress, with no coercion, no penalties - Bob was free to change his course," Barnes said. "He was free to walk away from the fight, to walk away from being on the self-sacrificing front lines of the working class.
"He never did. He kept moving toward the hottest fights till the day he died."
Bay Area meeting
Some 100 of DesVerney's comrades, family members, friends, and others - an audience spanning several generations - celebrated that course at a Sunday afternoon meeting here August 20. The meeting capped a busy weekend of political activity for socialist workers and youth in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A Militant Labor Forum that Friday attracted a standing- room-only crowd at the Pathfinder bookstore to hear an eyewitness report from the 50th anniversary commemorations in Japan of Washington's heinous atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The following night young people from the Bay Area who had just returned from the Cuba Lives International Youth Festival in Cuba reported back on their trip to a meeting of 65 people.
The event to honor the life of Robert DesVerney was held at the Health Education Center at Samuel Merritt College in Oakland. At a reception before the program, set up in an outdoor courtyard, participants enjoyed a buffet prepared by Bay Area supporters of the SWP and studied a display of photos, articles, and other items highlighting events that marked DesVerney's more than four decades in the communist movement.
Young people at the meeting were especially attracted to the displays, each of which suggested big pieces of modern revolutionary history. These included DesVerney's membership card, dated Aug. 1, 1960, in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which had been established a few months earlier to get out the truth about the Cuban revolution and oppose Washington's efforts to overturn it. There was also his membership card in the Organization of Afro-American Unity, signed by Malcolm X and dated June 1964. The OAAU had been founded that same month by Malcolm as an organization to unite all Blacks, whatever their other political or religious views, in a common, uncompromising battle against national oppression and superexploitation worldwide.
Also on display were such items as copies of the OAAU Blacklash newsletter, including the Aug. 3, 1964, issue with a front-page article by DesVerney on "Afro-American Political Power"; the Italian edition of his 1964 pamphlet The Black Ghetto; a brochure from his 1979 campaign as the SWP candidate for school board in Oakland, California; and a leaflet from the 1984 Socialist Workers election campaign in California that DesVerney had translated into Chinese.
Those attending the celebration of DesVerney's life included a number who had come in from Los Angeles and elsewhere in California. Some in the audience had worked with him for many years in the communist movement, while others were from a younger generation of fighters, including 10 members of the Young Socialists.
Kathryn Crowder, a railroad worker and member of the United Transportation Union (UTU), chaired the meeting and welcomed everyone on behalf of the San Francisco branch of the Socialist Workers Party. In addition to introducing the four speakers, Crowder read excerpts from several of the messages sent by individuals who had worked with DesVerney (see box on the following page).
The first speaker was Sherry Finer, who had joined the SWP in New York City in 1952, the same year she met DesVerney. Finer said she had been radicalized by the Korean War of 1950-53. The U.S. rulers had been dealt their first defeat in the post-World War II world, as their invasion forces were battled to a stalemate by Koreans, aided by Chinese volunteers, fighting to reverse the partition of Korea imposed by Washington in 1945.
"Just out of high school at the time, I remember the young men in my graduating class who went to the war and never came back," Finer said. DesVerney had been drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Korea shortly after he joined the SWP, she recalled, and their shared hatred of that brutal imperialist aggression is among her earliest memories of him. "I'll never forget the deep anger we felt at the U.S. government, which considered young people expendable - little more than cannon fodder.
"I came to the conclusion that ordinary people had to organize together or there would be no end to the killing, devastation, and poverty. And with the help of others, I figured out how war was endemic to the capitalist system. It was in its nature. History has certainly shown that to be true."
In 1957 Finer, along with a number of other young people, set out to build a new socialist youth organization. She was part of a regroupment of young socialists from various political backgrounds who began working together under the impact of the rising struggle for Black civil rights in the United States; the 1956 revelations by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev of some of the crimes of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin; and worldwide revulsion that same year against Moscow's crushing of a revolutionary uprising by workers and youth in Hungary.
These young political activists began publishing a monthly newspaper called the Young Socialist in 1957, Finer said, and they started building groups around the paper in New York and a number of other cities. They moved into action in defense of Black rights, joining the fight to topple Jim Crow segregation in the South and against racist discrimination in the North as well.
"This was a time of action and growing militancy in which the Young Socialist newspaper and its supporters were major players," explained Finer. She recalled how, beginning in 1960, young socialists helped organize regular picketing of Woolworth stores around the country in solidarity with young civil rights fighters in Greensboro, North Carolina, who had sat in at a Woolworth lunch counter there that February demanding that Blacks be served.
Finer spent several minutes recalling the "kissing case," which had taken place a year before the Woolworth boycott began. In Monroe, North Carolina, a seven-year-old and nine-year-old boy, both of them Black, had been jailed in October 1958. The "crime" for which they were arrested was that a playmate, a seven-year-old white girl, had kissed the older boy, James Hanover Thompson, on the cheek in the presence of David "Fuzzy" Simpson. At the trial the following month, the presiding judge convicted Thompson of "assaulting and molesting a white female" and Simpson of being an "accomplice." The judge ordered both children sent to a reformatory, saying they might be paroled by the age of 21 "if they have earned it."
A nationwide Committee to Combat Racial Injustice was launched in New York City in December 1958 to demand that the two youngsters be released immediately and all charges dropped. At the end of December, a national conference of Young Socialist clubs from 14 cities took up the case as a central campaign. Jim Lambrecht sent a message to the meeting recalling DesVerney's participation in that struggle. At the time, Lambrecht was organizer of the New York club, which was called the Young Socialist Alliance. (The same name was taken a little more than a year later by a new national youth organization at its April 1960 founding convention in Philadelphia.)
`Kissing case' campaign
The YSA, Lambrecht said, "began publicizing the `kissing case' immediately. And SWP members pitched in. We set out to build a national `kissing case' committee on the issue of freeing the boys." Noting that DesVerney was 31 at the time, too old to be in the youth group, Lambrecht said that "Bob made himself available full-time" to work with YSA members and others to win support for the Committee to Combat Racial Injustice. "He spoke to citywide gatherings of preachers in Manhattan and to NAACP youth groups in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. I accompanied him to many of those meetings and saw him work enthusiastically and successfully."
After just two weeks' work, some 40 people in the New York area had signed up as sponsors of the campaign to free the boys, Lambrecht recalled. "We all gained confidence from the support the case got from the Black community, and Bob especially just came alive as an effective organizer and speaker."
After the two children had spent five months in jail, the campaign - which by then had gained support and publicity worldwide - scored a victory in February 1959. Both boys were released from the reformatory and returned home.
Finer explained that Monroe, North Carolina, was at the center of other civil rights battles in the 1950s and early 1960s, as well. Like many areas in the South, in Monroe the Ku Klux Klan and other racist outfits routinely shot up neighborhoods to terrorize Blacks. These attacks accelerated in 1956-57 after Blacks waged a successful fight to integrate the local library and began pressing for equal access to the public swimming pool.
In response to the Klan violence, Robert F. Williams, the local NAACP leader and a Korean War veteran, organized self-defense to protect the Black population against the racist vigilantism. After some in the Black community sandbagged the front of their homes and fired back - with accuracy - at racist nightriders, Klan activity died down.
The "kissing case" was the racists' attempt at retaliation against the Black community in Monroe. Williams became chairman of the defense committee, and soon afterward he became an active supporter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee as well, conducting a speaking tour on its behalf. In 1961 Monroe authorities framed him on kidnapping charges, and he left the country, taking asylum first in Cuba and later in China. Williams returned to the United States in 1969. Seven years later - and more than 15 years after the indictment! - the frame-up charges against him were finally dropped.
Backer of the Cuban revolution
After the Cuban revolution triumphed on Jan. 1, 1959, and once Wall Street and Washington realized its revolutionary leadership could not be bought off, the U.S. government began to organize to overthrow it. In 1960 DesVerney became an early member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, as did other members of the Socialist Workers Party and YSA. He traveled to Cuba in 1961 to see the revolution firsthand, in order to help get out the word about it to workers and young people in the United States.
In September 1960, Fidel Castro traveled to New York City to address the United Nations. After numerous hotels refused accommodations to the Cuban delegation, the Hotel Shelburne in midtown Manhattan finally agreed to take them. The day after Castro's arrival, however, the management demanded a $10,000 cash deposit, so the Cuban leader moved his entire delegation to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where they were enthusiastically welcomed by members of the community.
"I saw Bob up there every night," said Finer, who covered the events for the Young Socialist. Thousands of Blacks and Latinos gathered around the hotel to get a glimpse of the revolutionary leaders from Cuba, she recalled, and cheers would go up when any of them came to the window and waved to the crowd. "Bob was there jumping up and down on the cars cheering along with everyone else."
During these actions, DesVerney took the time to write down a detailed list of some of the homemade placards greeting the Cuban delegation. Finer read a few of the slogans from the list, which was found in DesVerney's files. "Fidel is welcome in Harlem anytime," read one of the signs. Others said "Cuba practices real democracy, not race discrimination" and "We need more Castros, fewer Uncle Toms." A placard DesVerney himself made and brought up to the Theresa - reading "U.S. Jim Crows Fidel, just like U.S. Jim Crows U.S. Negroes!" - ended up in a photograph in the New York Post.
In reading DesVerney's notes from the mobilizations outside the hotel, Finer said she was reminded of how brazenly the big business media pumped out lies to try to undercut support for revolutionary Cuba. DesVerney had remarked on the media's "lurid articles, " including claims that the Cuban delegation was paying picketers to come out on the streets.
"The daily press would actually report that those demonstrating in Harlem were anti-Castro," Finer said. Articles and news broadcasts contained reports of Cubans plucking chickens in their hotel rooms and allegedly holding lavish parties with prostitutes. "The reputation of the papers was so bad among the people in Harlem that the crowds would often scream `yellow press' and throw pennies at the reporters," she recalled.
"As a reporter for the Young Socialist, I didn't have that problem," Finer said, holding up a copy of the October 1960 issue that she and others were selling on the picket lines. The Militant and Young Socialist stood out more and more as papers that defended the Cuban revolution.
"We had a banner headline that read `Vote Socialist!' - we were campaigning for the 1960 SWP presidential ticket at the time - and people could see right away that we were partisans of Cuba." The front page also featured an eyewitness account on the First Latin American Youth Congress, which had been held in Cuba July 26-August 8. Seven YSA leaders, and a number of young people soon to join the YSA, had participated in that congress.
Finer told a humorous story about a reporter from one of the major dailies who was getting hassled and tried to pretend he was really with her. But some Latino supporters of the revolution in the crowd yelled back at him, "No, no, she's a socialista, you're yellow press!"
Revolutionary capacities of fighters
A theme of several messages to the meeting was DesVerney's internationalist outlook and the impact that the post-World War II struggles in the colonial world had on him.
"Bob lived in the world of class politics," wrote Tom Leonard, a veteran SWP leader currently living in Houston. "He was very concrete in his understanding of U.S. imperialism's wars, and unbending in his active opposition to them. This was especially true of the Korean War, and later the war in Vietnam.... Bob understood the revolutionary capacity of oppressed people to fight back against seemingly impregnable imperialist domination."
This confidence in the revolutionary potential of working people was expressed not only in DesVerney's activism, but also through his writings. As the battle for civil rights in the South was raging in the 1960s, and Black rebellions in response to police riots shook Harlem in 1964 and the Watts section of Los Angeles the following year, DesVerney's articles on the rise of the fight for Black liberation and its weight in the class struggle were invaluable both for their accurate reporting and Marxist analysis.
"I first learned about Bob from reading an article he wrote for the SWP Discussion Bulletin in preparation for the 1963 party convention," wrote Doug Jenness, an SWP leader in Minneapolis, in his message to the meeting.
"Bob's contribution, entitled `Why White Radicals Are Incapable of Understanding Black Nationalism,' unambiguously pointed to the revolutionary proletarian features that were part of the new interest and support to Black nationalism. As a young rebel," Jenness continued, "and a brand-new member of the Young Socialist Alliance, I had been following with enthusiasm the course of Malcolm X." Jenness recalled that this contribution to the discussion on the fight for Black rights "also had a big impact on the party as a whole.
Bob had clearly been uplifted by the new revolutionary openings in the Black rebellion, which he captured in the next several years in the lively articles he wrote for the Militant that were turned into popular pamphlets."
Written under the pen name Robert Vernon, these pamphlets were The Black Ghetto, first published in 1964; Watts and Harlem: The Rising Revolt in the Black Ghettos, co-authored with George Novack and published the following year; and On Black Separatism, an exchange of views with Afro-American writer Robert Browne first issued in 1968.
Winning youth to communism
Several of those who sent messages to the meeting spoke of how DesVerney's example, his writings, and his patient political collaboration had helped win them - along with other young people, Black and white - to revolutionary politics and a communist perspective.
That was a central point of the talk by Thabo Ntweng, a member of the SWP National Committee from Los Angeles who joined the YSA in 1969 along with a number of other young workers from East Harlem.
"One of our pastimes was listening to tapes of Malcolm X," he told participants in the Oakland meeting. Not content to hear the message themselves, "We would play them over four-foot-high loudspeakers pointing out the window, so the whole neighborhood would get into the act."
Taking off from Malcolm's speeches, his group discussed the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and the Cuban revolution. They also began participating in political activity and decided to find out more about communist and socialist groups that were involved in these struggles.
"We wrote to all the groups, and the YSA and SWP were among the first to respond," Ntweng said. "What impressed me the most the first time I walked into their bookstore in Manhattan was the international flavor. There were posters and banners on the walls from struggles all around the world, as well as books and pamphlets about them.
"It was Bob, and some other comrades as well, who had the task of taking a bunch of young, impatient, hard-core Black and Puerto Rican nationalists and winning us to a communist perspective," Ntweng said. Among the books and pamphlets they studied were the writings of Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin on the national question and the working- class struggle for socialism.
The Vietnam War and antiwar movement were at a high point at that time. Ntweng, like many others his age, was subject to the draft. "Before we joined the communist movement, we had decided that we would not go in the white man's army - under no circumstances, that was it," he said. One of his friends had written a letter to the draft board stating, "I will never fight in your army and kill black and brown people of the Third World. The only army I will fight in is an army of Black liberation."
DesVerney discussed another approach with them - one he argued would be more effective in advancing their common goal of opposing imperialist war and preparing a revolution at home, and an approach he himself had carried out during the Korean War.
"Bob explained that we needed to stick with our class, not try to dodge the draft. If drafted, he told us, we should go and try to build opposition to the war from within the military," Ntweng said. "In both war and peace, revolutionaries should be with our class, whether in the workplace or on the battlefield.
"We listened to Bob's views because he had won political authority with us. He was a communist who was Black, who had been drafted into the imperialist army and continued carrying out opposition to the Korean War while in Korea," said Ntweng. "But I have to say that this idea came as a big shock at first."
DesVerney explained that in order to lay a political basis to fight attempted victimization, revolutionaries should tell their draft boards they opposed the Vietnam War and planned, when off duty, to exercise their rights as citizen soldiers to express their views and organize active duty GIs to participate in antiwar activities. And he pointed to examples of SWP and YSA members, as well as other soldiers, who were doing so right then.
DesVerney could read or speak more than 40 languages, and he used those skills to broaden his understanding of the struggles of the oppressed around the world.
Georges Mehrabian, who worked with DesVerney in the Bay Area in the 1980s, wrote to the meeting about one occasion when DesVerney put this ability to work. A gang of right- wing Vietnamese thugs, Mehrabian said, had announced plans to break up a forum featuring a reportback from a Militant reporting trip to Vietnam some nine years after the 1975 victory and reunification of the country.
"There were over 100 right-wing Vietnamese across the street from the Oakland Pathfinder bookstore where the forum was being held," Mehrabian recalled. "There were about an equal number of defenders in front of the store. Among them, in the front line, was Bob. He was holding a sign in Vietnamese that a number of rightists ran across the street to grab from him. He taught them that was a mistake - they failed.
"I asked him what the placard said. He replied, `We beat you in Vietnam, we'll beat you here.' The episode impressed me as to how simply and completely Bob had become one with the toilers of Vietnam. How he saw the struggle there as an extension of the struggle here, and vice versa."
DesVerney's internationalism was also an influence on a new generation of revolutionaries in the 1990s. In the week leading up to the meeting, members of the Young Socialists here in the Bay Area - most of whom had not known DesVerney for very long, or in several cases not known him at all - took an interest in reading and learning about the contributions he had made to building the communist movement.
Speaking at the meeting for the Young Socialists was Rebecca Gettleman, who had recently returned from a trip to Cuba. "The depth of Bob's contribution to the collective knowledge of the communist movement is invaluable for young people becoming interested in politics today," said Gettleman, a UTU-organized rail worker.
She said that in reading a number of DesVerney's articles, she was struck by the similarity of political questions that were attracting young people today and when DesVerney was writing about the Black struggle in the early 1960s. Both the ideas of Malcolm X and the Cuban revolution "remain relevant and ripe for reopening the discussion" on why young people need to link up with a communist workers organization, she said.
"For young people who are interested in relearning the history of the Black rights struggle in this country without the fetters of capitalist educational methods, Bob's contributions are honest and forthright on the subject," Gettleman said.
A person to emulate
In the concluding talk at the Oakland meeting, SWP national secretary Barnes pointed to the pitfalls it was easy to fall into in describing Bob DesVerney's life and contributions. DesVerney's love for the discipline of mathematics and the natural sciences, his command of languages, and his knowledge of music were so noticeable that it was possible to miss what was truly most remarkable about his life.
"Bob was a person who, once he had developed a serious interest in mathematics at a young age, spent his entire life deepening, testing, and broadening his mathematical abilities. He was a reader and serious student of professional scientific and scholarly journals in several fields. He had become expert in the use of research material available through public and university library systems that not just student youth but workers as well could gain access to. He taught any comrade who asked how to find, order, and use these resources, and to be proud of taking advantage of everything that creative labor had gathered and stored to advance human knowledge.
"And, as others have commented on, the number of languages that rolled off his tongue was mind-boggling.
"But there is a problem with focusing on these attributes, of course," Barnes said. "We can wonder at them. We can even be amazed by some of them. But most of us will not emulate them, and they actually end up blurring who Bob really was.
"Because Bob, in fact, was a totally `emulatable' person." From the time he joined the SWP at age 21, DesVerney became a communist and lived his life that way. "What was most important about Bob," Barnes said, "was not the 40 or so languages - he often pointed to the surprisingly large number of people who had multiple languages. What was important was the 40 or so years of building the communist movement. Cadres with that kind of record are far more precious and rare."
Barnes told the story of someone who once tried to ingratiate himself with DesVerney by playing up to his language skills. DesVerney turned to this person, Barnes said, "and very politely, not trying to be mean, simply replied: `You know, there is no advantage to being confused in 60 different languages.'
"Bob was a leader of the communist movement - that was what was most important about him," Barnes said. "He didn't come into the party as a leader, as some people do - not as leaders of the communist movement, but as leaders of some organization or struggle in the unions or social protest movements. But that's not how Bob came to us in the late 1940s.
"He once told me he had wandered into the movement, in a certain sense, after looking at group after group, hunting for answers, and not finding satisfactory ideas anywhere else. And he became a leader in the Socialist Workers Party - after becoming a communist, after becoming an active internationalist, a citizen of the world."
DesVerney was "the opposite of the caricature of the absent-minded intellectual," Barnes said. "He deeply understood that revolutionary ideas don't grow out of other ideas - that no ideas that advance science and human culture come about that way. He knew that ideas, the tools for organizing human life, come out of social labor and class-struggle experience, and nowhere else. Even discoveries about the most seemingly nonpolitical matters imaginable - mathematics, laws of the physical world that are independent of human will - are only grasped by human beings indirectly, under the impact and constraints of the social relations during the times in which they live, work, and produce.
"Bob was a revolutionary activist not just because he was determined to fight for what he believed in, and couldn't imagine acting any other way," Barnes said, "but also because he knew that doing so was a precondition for the advance of culture, the advance of human knowledge. He knew that organized social struggle and political action were a precondition to advance the self-confidence of the great majority of humanity, the working class and its toiling allies. It was their road to the moral high ground.
"Bob lived the fact that Marxism is not a set of principles, not even a set of very lofty and scientific principles. No, Marxism is the political generalization of the line of march of a class, of its relations and conflicts with all other classes, and of its destiny to sweep every aspect of the legacy of capitalist exploitation and all remaining forms of social oppression and property rights off the face of this earth."
Barnes related how he first met Bob in June 1961, at a camp in northern New Jersey where the Socialist Workers Party was holding its convention. "I had relatively recently returned from spending several months in Cuba, where I had participated in the massive mobilizations that registered the expropriation of the land and factories of Yankee and Cuban exploiters alike," Barnes said. "Those actions by revolutionary-minded workers, campesinos [peasants], and youth had made an enormous impression on me. And when I joined the YSA and then the SWP upon my return, I looked up to Bob and other comrades with more experience than I had as `the Cubans' in this country."
Barnes said that what immediately impressed him about DesVerney was that he "fought to help make accessible to others the unbroken thread of common experiences of generations of workers who slowly and painfully - over a much longer period than any of the founders of communism hoped it would take - are putting together a working-class leadership that can do the job, that can make a socialist revolution here and around the world."
What was most important to DesVerney was to be able to share his knowledge. Pointing to the earlier remarks by Ntweng and several of the written messages, Barnes recalled how DesVerney "reveled in discussions with revolutionary fighters to work out political positions, tactics, and strategy.
"To me Bob was first and foremost a journalist, a revolutionary journalist," Barnes said. "He had the traits of a real journalist. He made accurate lists, like the one Sherry read us from the actions to welcome the Cuban delegation in Harlem. It was hard work, but for Bob it was the only road to trustworthy journalism. And it was also a lot of fun.
"He couldn't help but be an accurate recorder of political events, no matter what was happening. He wrote down what he saw, not an exaggeration of what he saw. And, at the same time, he often jotted down hilarious, sometimes unprintable, X-rated, parodies of the buffoons of capitalism," Barnes said.
"Bob made use of facts and shared what was going on with the reader. And it was on the basis of that commonly accessible information that he then drew some generalizations that we could all learn from and be equipped to discuss and debate."
Barnes noted that DesVerney's writings were deeply appreciated by vanguard fighters in the Black struggle at the time. James Shabazz, one of Malcolm X's closest collaborators in the OAAU, for example, wrote an introduction in 1964 to DesVerney's pamphlet The Black Ghetto, a collection of articles all of which first appeared in the Militant. "The authenticity of his data can be vouched for by any member of the Harlem community," Shabazz wrote. "For he is no stranger there, but can be seen at rallies, interviewing the residents of the ghetto and those who claim to lead them, or even `hotfooting' it after a group of racing teenagers in the darkness of a `racial disturbance.' "
Rev. Albert Cleage Jr., the central leader of the effort to launch the Freedom Now Party in Michigan, wrote a preface to that same pamphlet. "Robert Vernon is one of the few journalists in America today who understands the Negro's struggle for `Freedom Now' well enough to write about it intelligently and in depth," Cleage said. "This would be enough - this ability to see, to understand, and to describe - if this were the full dimension of Robert Vernon's talent. But beyond this, he can analyze the basic problem and offer a solution."
Responses like these to DesVerney's revolutionary journalism, Barnes said, "helped teach me that the true test of what a revolutionary organization does is not ultimately determined by how it views its own accomplishments. The cadres of the party, of course, must democratically assess their collective experience and decide what to do next. But the ultimate test of what a revolutionary organization says and does is whether it rings true to genuine fighters who are not part of your organization - or at least are not yet part of it. Is it a help to them?"
That's why it was no small matter, Barnes said, that Shabazz and Cleage "agreed to introduce a pamphlet written by a well-known, longtime leader of the Socialist Workers Party and take full responsibility for doing so. That was a test of whether we were on the right track or not." Of course, Barnes added, such tests can only be made when advances in the class struggle are propelling layers of fighters in a revolutionary direction.
The SWP leader recalled another example of how this leadership lesson had been driven home - this one from quite a different direction, from a mistake DesVerney had made and learned from.
In October 1964, Barnes recalled, the Militant Labor Forum in New York City organized a debate between DesVerney, a Black woman who supported the right-wing Republican campaign of Barry Goldwater, and a liberal backer of the Democratic incumbent, Lyndon Johnson. The Goldwater supporter wasn't a leader of that campaign, just someone who was a camp-follower of the far right. And in the course of the debate, DesVerney not only made several sharp comments unmasking the anti-working-class character of both the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns, but in the process devastated the woman speaking on behalf of Goldwater.
"When Bob wrapped up the debate that night, we thought we had won it in a stunning way," Barnes recalled. But a reporter from The Village Voice, a widely circulated weekly in New York, was in the audience, and wrote a nasty article about the forum that appeared on the front page of the next issue. "Well, we're used to dealing with distortions in the press," Barnes said, "and we replied in a letter that the Voice published a week or so later."
"But that wasn't all there was to it. Bob insisted he had made a mistake; he had taken advantage of someone who wasn't a leader and done something more than simply answer her politically; he had gone on enough to embarrass her personally."
Barnes recalled DesVerney saying, "It's not enough to be right. You're also dealing with people, and you have to take responsibility for what you do with your capacities as a leader, and even how you use the political strengths of your own organization."
Barnes explained that DesVerney "could recognize that mistake because he thought primarily about and through people. Ideas, formulas, the sciences - all these were things that strengthened you, like running or weight- lifting. They broadened your scope and provided tools you could use to do more effective political work. But nothing could ever substitute for the actual, living work that Bob drew such pleasure from, collaborating with and sharing experiences and ideas with others in building a common movement."
A communist worker in uniform
Barnes also recalled that DesVerney, along with other SWP leaders who served in the military and merchant marine in World War II or Korea, taught him how to resolve the problem that Ntweng's neighborhood friend had addressed to his draft board during the Vietnam War: How can revolutionists agree to go into an imperialist army and kill worker and peasant allies in other countries?
"The answer is: you don't have to," Barnes said. "If you know how to function as a class-conscious worker in uniform, you don't have to be put in a position where you're going to kill other workers. In fact, you gain respect from other GIs for demonstrating the savvy to prevent fellow workers from being killed."
During the Korean War, DesVerney had had several different assignments in the army, not only translating but also at one point guarding Korean prisoners of war. "The prisoners were trying to buck each other up by singing revolutionary songs and so on, and Bob desperately wanted to do something to demonstrate his solidarity with them," Barnes said, recalling a story DesVerney had once told him. "But he had to consider the consequences of his actions for the Koreans, not for himself. So as he was passing by, he just said something under his breath, in Korean, that translates roughly to `Right on!' There was an immediate flicker in their eyes, and then they went on talking and singing."
Effects of colonial revolution
"The postwar revolutions in China, Vietnam, Algeria, and Cuba were all of a package to Bob," Barnes said. "I know how important the Cuban revolution was to Bob. But it was the Chinese revolution, I think, that had the biggest impact on him. "The Chinese revolution was probably the most unthinkable event that had ever happened to the imperialists. For all of Western colonial history, the people of China had simply been a massive collection of objects to be exploited, to produce goods to sell at a superprofit.
"Then, in 1949, the great lie that people of color could not fight back and defeat their imperialist overlords was put down in the most spectacular manner possible - by a mighty peasant and worker revolution in the most populous country in the world.
The Chinese people all of a sudden were no longer objects of the predatory plans of landlords and capitalists. Overnight they became the subjects, the makers of history. They threw the imperialists out of China and made practical, concrete sense of the abstract demographic fact that the great white colonial heirs were a tiny - and decreasing - minority in the world.
"All these events were happening as Bob was a young man who had just joined the communist movement in New York City, and they had an enormous impact on him, just as they did on Malcolm X," Barnes said.
DesVerney lived in a world of the merging of the colonial revolution and the socialist revolution, Barnes explained. In China, he said, this didn't happen "under a revolutionary leadership you could admire; the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party of China did great damage to the revolution, the results of which are much easier for millions the worldwide to recognize today than a few decades ago, when the impact of the revolution itself was still much fresher.
"But, more importantly, the world had been turned upside down in China. It had been opened up forever to the toiling majority of humanity, never again to be closed off. During Bob's lifetime, from among peoples of color the world over, one could see the potential cadres and leaders of a world communist movement emerging. And that process is what Bob did whatever he could to advance right here in the United States as well."
Radicals and communists
Barnes recalled that he had been a leader of the YSA and of the SWP branch in Chicago in 1963, when DesVerney's Discussion Bulletin article "Why White Radicals Are Incapable of Understanding Black Nationalism" arrived in the mail.
"Bob explained the rise of nationalism, its historical character, its place in the U.S. class struggle," Barnes said. "Our immediate embracing of his contribution to the discussion on Black nationalism flowed naturally from the struggles he and the party he was a member of were deeply involved in at the time."
As Jenness had pointed out in his message read at the meeting earlier, DesVerney's article caused quite a stir in the party at the time and helped shape its political response to this new development in politics. "It was a powerful answer to what had become a justifiably hated dodge in sections of the workers movement, especially, but not only, among Stalinists, social democrats, trade union `progressives,' and other petty-bourgeois currents.
"Bob put the lie to any notion that a pledge of some future class-struggle unity and multinational character of working-class leadership was a reason to hold back today from recognizing leadership that was developing in forms you hadn't necessarily expected - such as Malcolm X and what he represented politically.
"But the greatest single theme of Bob's article was one that is often missed. The rise in Black militancy in the '60s was a qualitative advance not only for the struggle for Black freedom - although Bob makes the case for that fact, as well, a case that few have made as effectively. He also presented the view that what was developing was a giant leadership advance for the entire world class struggle to overthrow discrimination, oppression, and exploitation. It marked an advance for communist leadership."
The year after the article first appeared in the bulletin, DesVerney prepared an edited version that was published in the Winter 1964 issue of the International Socialist Review under the title "White Radicals and Black Nationalism." Barnes said that he "and some other younger firebrands" had argued with DesVerney at the time that he should have kept the earlier, more pointed title to the article.
A few members of the party had objected to the initial title, Barnes recalled. They thought that at least DesVerney should have made clear he was talking about all white radicals except those in the YSA and SWP. "But his original title was correct, I argued with Bob. Once you stop thinking of yourself as a radical, white or otherwise; once you stop viewing yourself as part of a current in the `radical movement' and its milieu, and instead start acting as a revolutionist, as a proletarian internationalist, as that part of the working class, then all the contradictions are open to being solved. And that was what the political continuity of the Socialist Workers Party had taught us to do."
DesVerney agreed, but he told Barnes, "Well, but for those who still think of themselves as radicals but are learning fast, why don't we just make it a little softer?"
"At the time, I couldn't quite find my way to forgive Bob for that small concession," Barnes said, "but I came to appreciate his point."
Real scandal of the `Bell Curve'
Barnes noted that even after DesVerney had retired from day-to-day activity in the mid-1980s, he continued to take ideas seriously, follow the party's work nationally and internationally, participate in public events and political gatherings of the communist movement, and accept any project proposed by the party leadership. Among other things, he occasionally wrote letters to the editor of the Militant presenting his views on various questions, something DesVerney thought was "absolutely natural for a member or supporter of the Socialist Workers Party to do, just like anybody else," Barnes said. "Bob didn't erect those kind of barriers between party members and other thinking workers and youth. He had been a communist political activist too long to ever do that."
The SWP leader used the example of a letter DesVerney had written to the Militant in December 1994 about the controversy around the book The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, which had been released a few months earlier. "Bob deeply understood the racist abuse of genetic flimflam to `prove' the alleged inherited and immutable character of intelligence and, thus, racial superiority," Barnes said. "In fact, he waged a fight for at least two decades to educate about such fakery and help explain that the very concept of race is a social construct of capitalist social relations, not a fact of biology.
"But Bob saw something different in The Bell Curve than simply more of that kind of racist pseudoscience. He recognized why the book had become `the scandal of the bourgeoisie.' That's what Bob called it the last time the two of us spoke face-to-face, at a socialist educational conference in Los Angeles over the New Year's weekend a few months ago. Bob's phrase helped me answer a question about the book that came up later, during the discussion at that conference," Barnes said, "and we incorporated the phrase in a resolution discussed and adopted by the party convention earlier this summer."
The Bell Curve became a scandal, Barnes said, "because in the course of the debate around it, the bourgeoisie, both supporters and critics of the book, liberals and conservatives alike, were forced to acknowledge that capitalist society necessitates maintaining a class hierarchy - a social construct, not a biological fact - that permanently denies equality to the majority of human beings, those who work for a living."
The purpose of the book, Barnes said, was to provide a rationalization for better-off layers of professionals and the middle class - those the authors call "the cognitive elite" - as to why they deserve to be richer and more comfortable than the great majority of humanity; it's because they're supposedly smarter.
"It was aimed at middle-class liberals in particular," Barnes said. " `Quit denying it!' - that was the message. `You deserve to be better off. It's necessary, especially in this computerized and hi-tech world we're living in.' Murray and Herrnstein didn't insist that the causes were strictly racial or genetic. There are a lot of social factors, too, but it all comes down to the same political fact, they insisted."
But the book was also a warning that even if layers of workers could be taken in by such ideological rationalizations for a while, deepening social polarization and impoverishment was leading to inevitable class battles - and sooner than many in the bourgeoisie and the middle class might hope. "Ultimately The Bell Curve sounded the trumpet of a coming civil war in the United States. It is written to give courage to those who are determined to defend their better living standards against those who produce all the wealth and the foundations for all ideas and all culture - the toiling masses of humanity."
For the U.S. capitalist rulers, DesVerney pointed out in his December 1994 letter to the Militant, "the worst possible catastrophe would be upheaval or social revolution, with the cognitive elite overthrown, scattered, and marginalized by us dummies who do all the work. Note that if the `theory' is valid, a disaster like social revolution not only shouldn't happen, it can't happen; it is flat-out impossible."
But in trying to make this fake prognosis stick, DesVerney pointed out, the U.S. capitalist rulers "confront the vexing problem that the Cuban workers and peasants, in their vast majority of African and Hispanic origin, the very ethnic groups so woefully deficient in gray matter and clustered toward the low end of the IQ bell curve, have made and maintained a successful social revolution for 35 years against enormous odds, not only against the former Cuban ruling class, but against the powerful and cerebral masters of the latter, Murray's and Herrnstein's darling American ruling class, which is still frothing at the mouth and afraid to let its citizens come into contact with our presumably benighted Cuban neighbors."
In concluding his remarks to the meeting, Barnes pointed out that DesVerney set "an example regardless of whether or not you agreed with or understood each and every one of his ideas or supported the party he devoted his life to building." In this regard, Barnes extended a special thanks to friends and family members who were not a part of DesVerney's movement who had come to participate in the celebration of his life and political contributions.
Advancing communist continuity
"Anyone trying to fight their way out of the muck, mire, and hatred of this society could see the strengths, power, and love that Bob exuded. We salute his life. In saying farewell, we present that life to you in good conscience as an example to follow."
At the conclusion of the meeting, Joe Swanson, a rail worker and leader of the SWP in San Francisco, made an appeal for special contributions to the SWP Capital Fund to honor DesVerney's lifelong work. Swanson explained one of the current projects the fund would help make possible: organizing to make available on CD-ROM the entire collection of articles that have appeared in the Marxist political and theoretical magazine of the Socialist Workers Party and its predecessors over the past 60 years, as well as a complete subject and author index to those articles.
Those attending the meeting contributed $6,262 to the Capital Fund.
Steve Clark and Paul Mailhot contributed to this
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