The Militant (logo)  
Vol.63/No.35       October 11, 1999  
 
 
Ethel Lobman: 55 years of unbroken activity in the communist movement  
 
 
BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS 
NEW YORK Ethel Lobman, a veteran cadre of the Socialist Workers Party for more than 55 years, died at her home in Manhattan on September 28. She had been battling brain cancer since late 1998. She was 75.

Lobman joined the SWP in 1943, when she was 19. Just prior to joining, she worked in a factory in lower Manhattan producing and repairing magnetos for airplane engines and radar for planes and ships. She was among the hundreds of thousands of women during World War II who got industrial jobs from which they had previously been excluded.

She became a cadre of the party during the postwar labor radicalization from the mid- to late 1940s and during the McCarthyite witch-hunt of the early 1950s. During that latter period, Lobman assumed responsibilities as a youth leader and leader of various branches of the party in New York, where she lived for the rest of her life. She was a leader of the struggle against racism and for community control of the schools in District 1 of Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 1970s. She remained an active communist to her last days.

"The New York/New Jersey district of the party is organizing a meeting to celebrate Ethel's political experience and communist activity over this extensive segment of modern history," said SWP national secretary Jack Barnes in a September 28 letter informing party members and supporters of Lobman's death. Barnes will be among the speakers at that meeting, which will take place on Sunday, October 10.

Born in the Bronx, New York, on August 4, 1924, Lobman grew up in a family of Jewish workers who had immigrated to the United States from Lithuania at the beginning of the century. Her parents considered themselves socialists. Her mother was active in the Workmen's Circle, which was organized by Yiddish-speaking radicals and was politically tied to the Socialist Party, and became a supporter of the SWP later in life.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, the labor struggles of that decade that led to the formation of industrial unions and the CIO, and the sharpening class struggle in Europe put their stamp on Lobman, as on thousands of others of her generation.  
 

Activities to support Spanish revolution

In 1936, when Ethel was 12 years old, civil war broke out in Spain. "It was the daily topic of conversation," she wrote in an account of her political experiences through the early 1950s that she completed during the last year of her life. "I was then in the Red Falcons, the very young section of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL)," the youth organization of the Socialist Party. "We spent lots of time and energy raising money on the subways. Once I was walking through the subway cars saying, 'Help the Loyalists in Spain,' and an elderly woman leaned forward and sweetly announced, 'Oh, but I'm for the Royalists.' I was so shocked that anyone would actually admit to being for the fascists."

In response to the growing social crisis at the time, and faced with the uprising of fascist forces backed by a large section of the army officer corps, the Spanish workers and peasants had begun to seize factories and the land. The toilers, however, were led by an uneasy and ill-fated coalition of bourgeois liberals, Stalinists, social democrats, centrists, and anarchists more afraid of the plebeian revolt than of the fascist menace. The "Popular Front" government elected in 1936 came under assault by General Francisco Franco's fascist forces, which had the active support of the fascist Hitler and Mussolini regimes and tacit backing of other imperialist powers. The "Loyalists" Lobman was referring to were those who opposed Franco's fascist onslaught. Aided by the counterrevolutionary policies and thuggery of the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party of Spain, and by the refusal of anarchist or centrist forces to lead the rising working class and peasant masses to establish a government of the exploited majority, Franco's forces defeated the proletarian revolution, paving the road to World War II.

Shortly before Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, Ethel had joined the Youth Committee Against the War in her high school. "This was the youth section of the Socialist Party's Keep America Out of War Committee," Lobman wrote. "We had quite a large group at my school in the Bronx. We held street corner meetings and gave out leaflets explaining the issues as we understood them. That the coming war was an imperialist war to be fought over markets. This was an accepted understanding among a large section of youth and workers who were going through the miseries of the depression."  
 

World War II causes differentiation

Many of her friends soon succumbed to the pressures of bourgeois propaganda and became disoriented by the course of the Socialist Party and Communist Party, which backed the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt in leading Washington into the interimperialist slaughter. Lobman, however, remained steadfast in her opposition to U.S. entry into the war.

In December 1941, Tokyo's attack at Pearl Harbor, which was provoked by Washington, was used by the U.S. rulers as the pretext to enter the war.

"Just about the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war, I attended my first class of a series given by the SWP in the Labor Temple on 14th Street and Second Avenue," Lobman wrote. She had been invited by the father of a friend who had been in the left wing of the Socialist Party, which split from the SP in 1938 and founded the Socialist Workers Party.

The Workers Party, the predecessor of the SWP, had entered the Socialist Party in 1936 to link up with its left wing, which included thousands of radicalizing workers and youth, and recruit as many of them as possible to building a proletarian party that could lead the toilers to take power out of the hands of the exploiting classes. The majority of the SP's youth organization, the YPSL, joined the revolutionaries who founded the SWP.

The classes Lobman participated in included presentations by party leaders George Novack on dialectical materialism and Felix Morrow on the history and evolution of the first three workers Internationals. Lobman had been an avid reader since her childhood. These study groups, combined with her political activity, were instrumental in opening the road to Marxism for her. "But at that time I had no intention of joining," Lobman wrote. "I was a senior in high school, and I had vague plans of going to college where some of my closest friends were heading."

After graduating from high school in 1942, she was accepted into Cornell's College of Agriculture, which was free of charge then. She quickly became uncomfortable with the prowar atmosphere that dominated the campus and the habits and mode of life of many of the students who came from upper middle-class families. At the end of that year she returned to the Bronx and got a job at Wright Aeronautics in Lodi, New Jersey, that was organized by the United Auto Workers (UAW). She used to ride to work with four others from her neighborhood who were members of the Communist Party, as were a number of Lobman's relatives.

"During the long drive back and forth the war was thoroughly discussed by these four CPers. Class struggle was not in their vocabulary," Lobman wrote. "We were all members of the UAW, which was never referred to. Their talk was totally chauvinistic. They were patriotic. They detested the Germans without any differentiation between the defeated working class and the capitalists who had all been financed by the U.S. and other Allied powers. I couldn't really relate to any of these people."

So when a friend who had joined the SWP suggested she get a job in a factory in lower Manhattan she jumped at the chance. On the job at the International Projector Corporation which had been converted from producing movie projectors to making and repairing components for military aircraft and ships she met Debbie, a cadre of the SWP, and began to collaborate with her politically. The factory was organized by the United Electrical Workers (UE) union, the leadership of which was dominated by the Communist Party. All union representatives at the plant, as well as the foreman, were CPers. One morning in 1943, Debbie told Ethel before starting work that she expected to be fired because Stalinists from the plant had seen her selling The Militant at a National Maritime Union rally in Manhattan. Debbie's premonition came true moments after the workday began. "Then the Stalinist forelady came directly over to me, bent over, and whispered, 'If you are not out of here in one minute we are bringing you up on charges of sabotage!'," Lobman recounted. "To be charged with sabotage in wartime was no joke."

After being driven out of her job, she began to realize that the counterrevolutionary policies and thuggery of Stalinism in other parts of the world that she had heard or read about had direct implications for her. "Politics, I saw now, was a very serious matter," Lobman wrote. "It could be a life and death matter. I was 19 and that didn't scare me. The experience pushed me more towards the party."

She became a member of the SWP in November 1943. Lobman went through a similar experience at her next job at Bell Labs, where another SWP member lost her job in the middle of a union organizing drive by the UE after Stalinist union organizers realized she was selling the Militant. At that workplace, Lobman recruited another young woman, Beezie, to the party.  
 

Postwar labor radicalization

Towards the end of the war in 1945, Lobman moved to Los Angeles to help build the communist movement there. She hitch-hiked across the country along with Beezie. One of the things that impressed her on the way, she recounted, was the respect and admiration truck drivers she spoke to expressed for Farrell Dobbs. "We all trust him," these long-distance drivers would tell her.

Dobbs, a leader of the 1934 strikes that made Minneapolis a union town, was the central leader of the 11-state Teamster over-the-road organizing drive in the upper Midwest in the latter half of the 1930s. He was national secretary of the SWP from 1953 to 1972 and its presidential candidate four times. Dobbs and 17 other leaders of the SWP and of the Teamsters union had been convicted in December 1941 and subsequently imprisoned on charges of "conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government," because of their opposition to the drive by Washington and Wall Street to drag workers and farmers in the United States into the slaughter of World War II. Their convictions had been the first under the notorious Smith "Gag" Act. Lobman had taken part in New York in the campaign to win their release. The broad appeal of that campaign, especially in the labor movement, played a major role in the recruitment of Beezie.

Among Lobman's first activities in Los Angeles was participation in demonstrations of up to 20,000 people to protest the effort by Gerald L. K. Smith to set up the national headquarters of a fascist organization in the city. Smith had been in the Silver Shirts, a fascist group that organized goon attacks on the rising labor movement in the 1930s. The protests in Los Angeles were so successful that they forced Smith and his goons to ditch their plans for setting up operations there.

While in California, Lobman took sewing classes and picked up the skills to get into a garment shop, as part of the party ef- --fort to build a fraction in that industry during the postwar upturn of the labor movement. She later got a job in Caltex, a nonunion garment plant, and helped lead a rank-and-file effort to unionize that factory. The majority of workers signed union cards for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and many, including Lobman, organized a picket for months outside the plant to push for union recognition, which received nationwide news coverage. But officials of the ILGWU, which was dominated by social democrats, forestalled that unionization campaign, afraid of the momentum generated by the rank-and-file action.

In 1948 Lobman was elected for the first time a delegate to the SWP's national convention, which was held in New York. At the end of that convention, she asked to transfer back to New York, where she lived the rest of her life.  
 

1953 split

During the early 1950s a faction developed in the SWP leadership that led a split in 1953. A sizable minority in the party had abandoned hope of building a revolutionary party recoiling in face of the witchhunt, and softened by the relative prosperity following Washington's victory over its imperialist rivals in World War II. Supporters of this faction proposed curtailing or outright doing away with petitioning to put SWP candidates on the ballot, opposed organizing regular public meetings, and argued against adopting nationally centralized goals for sales of the Militant and fundraising.

Lobman was among the younger cadre of the party who defended the SWP's communist continuity and argued that communists could and should carry out public political work and broad propaganda campaigns, despite McCarthyism and the relative postwar prosperity and retreat of the labor movement. She was the organizer of the party's local executive committee in New York at that time and a leader of the party's New York youth section. "I never doubted my position," Lobman wrote. "Some things you start with I started with believing that you need a party, a Bolshevik, revolutionary party."  
 

Partisan of the Cuban revolution

On New Year's Day in 1959, the workers and peasants of Cuba, led by the July 26 Movement and the Rebel Army, overthrew the U.S.-backed tyranny of Fulgencio Batista. The Cuban revolution opened the road to socialist revolution in the Americas and was encountering the wrath of Washington.

Soon after the revolutionary triumph, in the summer of 1960, Lobman took the initiative to travel to the Caribbean island to find out the truth about Cuba first hand. She went with Arthur Lobman, also a party member, whom she had married in October 1959 and who remained her lifelong companion.

In early 1960 Robert Taber, a free-lance reporter who had interviewed rebel leaders in Cuba for CBS news prior to the revolution, initiated the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. It was the first nationwide group in the United States to organize activities in opposition to Washington's attempts to crush the Cuban revolution. Lobman was an active member in the organization's chapter in New York. Along with others in the group, she helped organize a reception for Fidel Castro, who was Cuba's prime minister at that time, when he visited New York in 1960 to speak at the United Nations General Assembly.

The following year, Lobman attended the party leadership school at a camp in the Poconos mountains in New Jersey.

In the next two decades, she took part in numerous activities in the movement to end Jim Crow segregation in the South and in the anti-Vietnam War movement. During much of this time, Lobman did not work outside her home, devoting substantial time to raising her two daughters, Carrie and Sara.  
 

New York District 1 struggle

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lobman became a leader of the six-year-long struggle in School District 1 of Manhattan's Lower East Side for community control of the schools. She was chairperson of the Coalition for Education in School District 1 from 1972 to 1973 and a member of the executive committee of the Parent Association of Public School 63 from 1967 to 1972.

The struggle erupted into boycotts and demonstrations in 1974, when Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, collaborated with city school officials to engineer the removal of Luis Fuentes from his post as community superintendent of schools, dismissed 14 principals and supervisors supported by parents a big percentage of whom were Black, Puerto Rican, and Chinese and begun dismantling bilingual and Black studies programs and slashing the school budget. The story of that fight is told in the pamphlet The Struggle for Community Control in N.Y. School District 1: Puerto Rican, Black and Chinese Parents Fight Racism by Ethel Lobman and Katherine Sojourner, which was published by Pathfinder in 1975.

"The experience in this important struggle will lead some of the militants to see that the roots of the race-prejudiced and class-prejudiced school system lies in the system of capitalism," Lobman wrote in that pamphlet. Several of those militants did join the SWP during that fight.

At the end of the 1970s, Lobman took a job as a librarian at the Tamiment Labor Library. She retired from there in 1986, but continued working one day a week until shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer in November 1998.  
 

Communist activity to end of her life

Lobman remained active as a communist until the end of her life. For more than a decade until the fall of last year, she organized volunteers who came at the Pathfinder Building twice a week or more to enter in the computer new subscribers for the Militant and its sister publication in Spanish Perspectiva Mundial and maintained that list. She was known for, and tried to imbue in others, her meticulous attention to detail and professionalism necessary to guarantee that those who wanted the revolutionary press would get it regularly. She was often on the phone to subscribers to work out problems.

During this period, she also maintained accounts with several newsstands that carried the Militant in New York and did the footwork to deliver the papers and collect sales money.

Other recent activities include participation in protests against Washington's brutal bombings of Iraq, shown in the photo on page 3. In the first half of 1998, before she became ill, she did a weekly plant gate sale at JFK airport, to reach machinists at United and other airlines, as part of the party effort to reach out to industrial workers, increasingly resisting belt-tightening measures by the employers, with the Militant, the Marxist magazine New International, and Pathfinder books.

The meeting to celebrate Lobman's life and political contributions will be held at the Kellog Center, International Affairs Building, Columbia University in Manhattan, on Sunday, October 10, beginning at 1 p.m. A fund appeal at the gathering will raise money for the Pathfinder Fund. Messages for the meeting or the family can be mailed to the New York SWP headquarters at 59 Fourth Ave., Brooklyn, New York 11217; sent by fax to (718) 399-3492, or by e-mail to 102064.2642@compuserve.com  
 
 
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