The Militant (logo) 
Vol.63/No.37       October 25, 1999 
Ethel Lobman: an unceasing fighter for human solidarity  
New York meeting celebrates communist activity of SWP cadre for over 55 years  
NEW YORK—For more than 55 years—half the duration of the imperialist epoch—Ethel Lobman was "a conscious, active organizer and inspirer of the forces that will end the last imperialist power on earth," said Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. He was speaking at a meeting held here October 10 to celebrate the political experience and communist activity of Lobman, who died September 28 at the age of 75.

More than 175 people attended the meeting. Many were members and supporters of the SWP, Lobman's party from 1943 until her death, and of the Young Socialists. A number of family members, neighbors and friends, and co-workers from the Tamiment Labor Library — where Lobman worked for half a decade until 1986, and continued one day a week until last fall — also attended.

During a reception prior to the program, participants enjoyed a delicious spread of food prepared by SWP supporters in the area. Before and after the speakers, they also browsed and read with keen interest a 13-panel display prepared by members of the SWP and YS in New York and New Jersey. Through photographs, articles from the Militant, and other items, the exhibit captured the tumultuous events in world politics that spanned the extensive segment of modern history during which Lobman was an active communist, and the response by socialist workers, including Ethel, throughout this period. (An article reviewing many of these details of Lobman's life appeared in the October 11 Militant.)

The gathering was held at the Dag Hammarskjold Lounge at the International Affairs School of Columbia University, overlooking the campus. The light of the rainy afternoon coming through three full-windows walls made the atmosphere welcoming.

Participants came from throughout the New York– New Jersey area. Groups also came from Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and a few traveled from as far as Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Two carloads of members and supporters of the Communist League and of the Young Socialists in Canada drove from Montreal and Toronto. Among those attending were several members of the Young Socialists and others who never had the opportunity to work with Lobman but came to learn more about her life and the movement she was part of.

The meeting was hosted by the New York–New Jersey district of the SWP and the New York and Newark Young Socialists. Argiris Malapanis, organizer of the SWP's district committee, welcomed participants on behalf of the host organizations and introduced Betsey Stone, a longtime SWP cadre who chaired the meeting.  

Women in industry

Ethel grew up in a working-class Jewish family in the Bronx. She joined the party in November 1943, shortly after being driven out of her job, because of her politics, in a plant making wartime components for aircraft and ships. "She was part of that huge army of women drawn into the industrial working class to keep the war industries going," Stone noted. "Many of you have heard of Rosie the Riveter. Well, Ethel did not rivet, as far as I know, but she was a gear-grinder operator and she knew how to use a lathe, milling machine, and a punch press," jobs that had traditionally been off limits to women.

When the war ended, the bosses attempted to drive women out of these jobs. Lobman recalled walking into an unemployment office after hitchhiking to Los Angeles in 1945 just as the war was ending. "As I got in line I noticed a handwritten sign on windows where the personnel women who were giving out the jobs were seated which read, 'All Jobs for Women in the Defense Industry are Canceled.' It was as blatant as that," she wrote in an account of her political activities through the early 1950s.

After a stint of waiting tables, delivering soap samples, and working other jobs, Lobman learned to sew and went to work in the largely unorganized garment industry in Los Angeles. She helped lead a rank-and-file attempt to unionize the large Caltex clothing plant, an effort stymied by the officialdom of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. When the second wave of feminism exploded in the 1970s, Lobman shared her experiences in industry with a new generation of young women coming into the communist movement, Stone recalled.

Stone read from several of the more than two dozen messages sent by Ethel's comrades and friends. Tom Leonard, a veteran SWP leader, wrote from Houston, "I first met Ethel Lobman in the early 1950s during the Korean War, while I was still a merchant seaman and a new member of the Socialist Workers Party. She was at the time assigned to youth work in the New York local of the party. She was one of three stalwart young women heading up that important area of political work, and they were doing it under the conditions of an intense factional political debate leading to a deep split in the Socialist Workers Party in 1953."  

Steeled in fight against McCarthyism

A sizable faction in the party in those years had abandoned hope of building a revolutionary party — recoiling in face of the witch-hunt, and softened by the relative prosperity following Washington's victory over its imperialist rivals in World War II. Lobman was among the younger cadre of the party who defended the SWP's revolutionary continuity and argued that communists could carry out public political campaigns, despite McCarthyism and the postwar retreat of the labor movement.

The two young women besides Ethel that Leonard was referring to were Beezie Sideris and Dorothy Johnson. "I clearly remember their names because of the deep impression the three made on me," Leonard said in his message, "including my first experience of being referred to by one of them — not Ethel —as a male chauvinist. I had never heard that designation before because it wasn't widely used in the early 1950s. Fortunately, I went out of my way to find out what male chauvinism meant and learned the hard lesson of recognizing the criticism had validity, and that I had a great deal more to learn.

"But the most important thing about my meeting Ethel during the 1950s was the impression made on me at the time — as a worker new to communist politics — that women had both the potential and capacity to be all-sided revolutionary leaders."

For part of that time Ethel was the youth organizer of the party in New York and a member of the SWP's local executive committee. (The October 11 article inaccurately stated that she served as organizer of the New York local executive committee.)

The first speaker Stone introduced was Olympia Newton, representing the national leadership of the Young Socialists. Newton is organizer of the Newark Young Socialists chapter and currently works as a folder operator in the bindery of Pathfinder's printshop.  

Continuity of communist movement

"The experiences Ethel went through are important for people of my generation. They are part of the history of the working class," Newton said. "These lessons are available in the books published by Pathfinder, but more important is how these ideas are carried through the living cadre of a movement."

Newton reported on the "Red Weekend" to organize the YS National Office in San Francisco that was taking place the same weekend (see article on page 5). The Young Socialists is becoming a more proletarian organization, she explained. She described the socialist summer schools that YS members participated in this year, which included studying party history and Marxism, participating with SWP members in reaching out to worker and farmer struggles, and for many YS members getting some initial experience in industry, especially in garment and meatpacking. This helped "revitalize the work of the party-YS fractions in industry," Newton noted.

These summer schools culminated in caravans of YS and party members and other fighters who drove thousands of miles to Ohio in early August and helped bring alive an Active Workers Conference there. Since then, YS members have joined in teams to coal mining regions, meatpacking plants, textile factories, and elsewhere, and have held several regional educational conferences.

"We're reinforced by cadre like Ethel Lobman, who help us come to the working class as the force that can change society," Newton said. She cited a 1952 letter from James P. Cannon to fellow SWP leader Farrell Dobbs, referring to the death of a longtime party cadre. "Did you know that she had been with us since 1930?" Cannon wrote. "The history of her entire conscious life is virtually a history of our movement — that part written in simple deeds by the rank and file."

What the Young Socialists has to offer those who join its ranks is not just activity and a political program but a link to the proletarian party, the SWP. "When you join the YS you join a movement," Newton concluded, "with cadre like Ethel Lobman, who encase the living history of our class, the living continuity to Lenin and Marx and Engels."  

District 1 struggle

Some of those who sent messages to the meeting first worked with Lobman during the struggle for community control of the schools in District 1, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Lobman was a leader of this fight. "I was a new recruit to the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) when I first met Ethel in New York City in the fall of 1970," wrote Sara Gates from Seattle. She recalled hearing Lobman speak to "a thunderous ovation" during a mass meeting of that struggle in a school auditorium.

Stone also read part of another message by longtime party leader Doug Jenness, who was the party's New York City organizer in 1973, and now is a member of the Steelworkers union in Minneapolis. Jenness recalled an open school board meeting attended by several hundred parents. The racist majority on the board had sequestered themselves in another part of the building and broadcast the meeting via closed circuit television.

The TVs in the auditorium "were soon closed down by flying objects hurled by angry parents who then held their own rally," Jenness wrote. "One speaker in the course of denouncing the school board made an anti-Semitic remark (some of the school board members were Jewish, as was much of the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers). Ethel soon got the floor, and in the course of reaffirming her support for the struggle, explained the dangerous and divisive nature of anti-Semitism. She said she was Jewish and supported the fight, and there were other Jews who did too, but that even offhand comments could set a tone of encouraging anti-Semitism and derail the struggle.…

"Given the charged atmosphere it wasn't clear when Ethel got up to speak what the response would be. But she knew it would have been a mistake to have remained silent at that moment, even if many disagreed with what she had to say. She knew that as a participant and leader in the fight, and as a communist, she had both an opportunity and a responsibility to help educate other fighters on a life-and-death question for the workers movement." In fact, Jenness, said, her remarks were met with loud applause.

Stone then introduced Nelson González, a militant in the District 1 struggle, who joined the Young Socialist Alliance — the predecessor of the YS — in 1974, as a result of his participation in those battles, and later joined the SWP.  

First steps toward becoming a Marxist

González, a meatpacker and SWP member in Newark today, recalled that he had been working about six months as a bilingual education teacher in Junior High School 71 in 1973 when he accidentally bumped into a meeting of the Por Los Niños/Save the Children coalition in Manhattan's Lower East Side and was invited to attend. This coalition mobilized thousands of working-class parents who were Puerto Rican, Black, Chinese, and white against racism in the schools. They were up against not only city and state officials but also the officialdom of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), headed by Albert Shanker.

The coalition advocated bilingual education; the teaching of Black, Puerto Rican, and Chinese history and culture; and parent-monitored affirmative action in hiring and promotions.

In May 1974 a Shankerite slate regained control of the District 1 school board, after a brief period where supporters of community control held a majority. In August the board removed Luis Fuentes as community superintendent of schools, along with 14 other principals and supervisors supported by the parents. More than 1,000 people from throughout the city turned out to protest Fuentes's dismissal, touching off a school year of boycotts and demonstrations.

Every meeting held to hammer out how to press for the coalition's demands was a battle for the political soul of Por Los Niños, González said. Would it remain an independent, mass-based coalition mobilizing thousands as its strategy? Or would it water down its demands in order to become a support group for the Democratic Party? "I began to notice a small group who made sense, who I found myself agreeing with" in these debates, González said. "They always spoke with the clearest voice and supported the demands that would keep Por Los Niños in the hands of the activists in the district."

Ethel Lobman was the most prominent leader of this group, the "District 1 fraction" of the party and YSA in this struggle, González said, and had tremendous respect in the coalition. He recounted the decisive impact on him of a discussion Lobman helped lead — first in the SWP-YSA fraction and then in the coalition — on the September 1975 strike by the UFT against City Hall's demands for layoffs, pay freeze, and longer working hours. It was part of a broadside attack on wages and working conditions.

The teachers union officials had called two reactionary strikes in 1967 and 1968 against Black community control in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn and against bilingual education in District 1. Parents mobilized to take their children through the picket lines and kept the schools open in response to this racist strike; the SWP took part in this effort and championed it.

So the initial reaction of González and many other community activists was to cross the UFT picket lines in the 1975 strike. "In the fraction meeting to discuss this I got my first political grounding in looking at the world from the point of view of classes and the class struggle," he said.

"Ethel again took the clear lead in those discussions, explaining, 'There is a working class and a ruling class. The working class has its organizations of defense, among them the unions. The unions are run by reactionary bureaucrats that use them against the workers and their allies. Our role is to use any and all opportunities to fight to transform the unions into revolutionary instruments that defend the workers and our allies.'" In this context, González said, Lobman explained that we had to fight to organize parents and activists of Por Los Niños to walk the picket lines, side by side with the teachers, against the attacks the UFT was facing. She was confident that if we stood firm and swam against the current we could win over the parents.

"Through a combination of patient, pedagogic explanations, suggesting readings like Leon Trotsky on the trade unions and other material, being totally firm — never pandering to me — and by carrying out this course in action, I became convinced she was right."

The most exhilarating moment came when Lobman and González helped lead a small march of parents to join a picket line of striking teachers, who initially couldn't believe they were getting support from Por Los Niños, and to discuss with them why they should back the program of the coalition. "I mark this as the moment when I passed over from being just a well-meaning activist to the beginnings of becoming a Marxist."  

'Today we work for Cuba'

The triumph of workers and peasants in Cuba, led by the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army, in toppling the U.S.-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista in January 1959 gave renewed energy and confidence to working-class fighters around the world. Ethel and Arthur Lobman, whom she married the previous year and who remained her lifelong companion, traveled to Cuba in the summer of 1960. SWP cadres Harry Ring and Priscilla March made the trip with them. In a message to the meeting, Ring noted, "1960 was a pivotal point in the unfolding revolutionary process." The U.S. oil refineries had just been nationalized, or "intervened" as Cuban workers termed it. "On our second day in Havana we watched a convoy of U.S. telephone company trucks filled with cheering, chanting workers. Their demand: 'Intervene the phone company.' That night the government announced it had taken over the phone company.

"The next morning Ethel picked up the telephone to make a call and was greeted by the telephone company switchboard operator, who declared, 'Good morning. Today we work for Cuba.' "

In introducing the final speaker, SWP national secretary Jack Barnes, Stone noted that Barnes happened to be in Cuba the same summer as Ethel and Arthur Lobman, though their paths did not cross at that time.

The revolution you live through is your revolution, Barnes said. "Cuba was Ethel's revolution."

He pointed to the concluding paragraph of Ring's letter, which stated, "Our euphoric visit came to an end and we found ourselves waiting to board the plane back to the U.S. Ethel stood there, obviously immersed in thought. She then said, 'I would be willing to stay here.' She paused, shook her head doggedly, and added, 'But it wouldn't be right to live in someone else's revolution.' "

This was a decision many visitors to Cuba had to face that summer, said Barnes. Thousands of revolutionary-minded youth from around the world, including himself, had traveled there, inspired by the example of the Cuban revolution. Every debate within the workers movement was recast by those revolutionary events; every current of thought was represented there.

The Cuban toilers were on a path that by August 1960 would lead over the next few months to the expropriation of the old propertied classes and the establishment of a workers state. It was the opening of the socialist revolution in our hemisphere, Barnes said. "Politics became the activity of millions who had made the country theirs. There you got a greater appreciation for what it meant to be a communist, to be a soldier." Lobman went back to the United States to carry out communist activity there, with the knowledge of what the Cuban revolution showed was possible to do.  

Experience and communist activity

When people asked Lobman why she joined the SWP in the midst of the horrendous slaughter of the second imperialist world war — and stuck with that decision — Ethel would reply, "I had no choice." Recalling her personality and activity, Barnes said, adds to your appreciation of the statement by Frederick Engels, one of the founders of the communist movement, that "freedom is the recognition of necessity." Once you recognize the inevitability the social and economic breakdown if imperialism is not ended, you gain the freedom to organize your life along a course that puts you at the center of humanity's possibilities for a different future. This gave Ethel a certain lightness of being, Barnes said.

He stressed the importance of celebrating both the political experience and the communist activity of someone who had been a party cadre for 56 years.

Ethel did not endure those years, the SWP leader said. These were decades of doing —not just living in history but realizing, at quite a young age, that you can have an effect on it, and on others.

Political experience is the summation of living and doing. But with age and disappointments that are part of life under capitalism, Barnes said, it's easy sometimes to simply fall back on the experience, on referring to something you studied, or the way you did something, in the past. It's only communist activity that keeps drawing on the experience and in so doing transforms a person together with others. Lobman never told political stories for the sake of story-telling by a veteran, Barnes noted. They always had to do with what needs to be done next in the struggle.  

Social forces determine attitudes

The period we are living through today — the beginning of the breakdown of the stability of the capitalist world order — is one that most of us have never seen before, Barnes said. But someone of Ethel's experience went through it once before.

Lobman was born into a working-class family. As a young person she was affected by cataclysmic events — the Great Depression of the 1930s, the massive working-class battles in those years, the rise of fascism, and World War II. She had relatives who were part of the two largest currents in the workers movement. At the age of 12 she joined the Red Falcons, a group for very young people associated with the Socialist Party.

"She knew what had happened during those tumultuous years from family and friends who lived through them," Barnes said. "She appreciated what the fight for social security, for human solidarity meant." Drawing on these experiences, Lobman helped in recent years in discussions in the party on how the Clinton administration's assault on "welfare as we know it" was an initial probe toward a much broader dismantling of the social gains of the working class and of its solidarity.

Workers are inclined toward human solidarity, Barnes noted. They are inclined to help each other to be able to work and survive, because they don't have any property to live off as a substitute. The bourgeoisie tries to solve everything with money. They teach the petty-bourgeoisie that if somebody can't individually solve their problems, it's their own personal failure. But workers tend to know better. When someone's car breaks down, they stop and help them get to work, because they know you can lose your job. "This human solidarity is what Ethel banked on in everything she did."

Lobman joined the SWP at a time when pressure to accept rationalizations for Washington's entry into the interimperialist war were very strong within the workers movement, which was dominated by the Stalinized Communist Party and the social democrats. These forces backed the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt in dragging workers and farmers into the slaughter. Many of Lobman's high school friends succumbed to this pressure and went over to support the government's war effort. Barnes pointed to a letter one of Ethel's friends had written her prior to the war, opposing Washington's entry, and a second letter after the war broke out supporting the imperialist war.

The reality that big social forces will decide what a lot of people initially think was a fact that took Ethel some time to come to grips with. For a long time she thought many among the ranks of the Communist Party could be convinced of a revolutionary course, if you could only get them to listen long enough and explain things clearly enough. One of Ethel's deepest political attitudes, and strengths, was that no individual is out of bounds to collaborate with in the struggle for common ends. Her word was her bond, and her deeds went along with her word.

But she learned to face the reality that years of justifying betrayals of revolutionary struggles, collaboration with capitalist parties, and repression of workers and farmers made it impossible for the overwhelming majority of individuals who went through membership in the Stalinist-led CP to be won to communism.

Barnes described Lobman's response to a report he presented at an SWP convention in 1991, in the early stages of the political polarization that is deepening today. On the way to the convention he had read Right from the Beginning, the recently published autobiography of ultrarightist Patrick Buchanan, who was a few months away from launching his first campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In the convention report, without explicitly mentioning Buchanan, Barnes explained how as the deepening crisis of capitalism unfolded in the 1990s, fascist ideas would unexpectedly gain a hearing.

A handful of people in the room who lived through the 1930s and 1940s — who had directly faced American fascist groups like the Silver Shirts and the demagogue Gerald L. K. Smith — listened more intently than others and took what was presented more seriously as a question of current politics. Lobman was among them. At the end of the meeting, Ethel went up to Barnes and asked, "Who were you talking about?" Barnes told her about Buchanan's book, and she responded, "Thanks," and went away to read.

The new horrors being bred today come not from the malfunctioning of the capitalist system, but from its functioning, Barnes said. The capitalists, in competition with each other and in their drive against the working class to cut wages and dismantle social security, increase political polarization.

There is no road to reform of this system, he said. There is no road forward short of organizing in a disciplined, revolutionary party in which workers and farmers with the greatest inclinations to innovation and imagination voluntarily submit to the discipline of a proletarian party that makes it possible for humanity to organize to end this scourge. This is the conclusion Ethel reached very early, and acted on her entire life.

Barnes pointed to Lobman's habits of caring about what she did, of taking responsibilities seriously. Many of the messages to the meeting noted this, including in the meticulous attention she gave over the last decade to organizing the subscription list for the Militant. She did the same earlier in the 1960s when at 116 University Place, where the party headquarters were located at that time, Lobman and other comrades operated a big machine that pounded metal, letter by letter, to print address labels for the Militant. "When you care, and you know the reason for doing something, you can continue doing it for a long time, and draw others into it," Barnes said.

Lobman believed that after a certain amount of hard work to accomplish something like this, you earn the right and the opportunity to really have fun, Barnes added.  

Interesting times

Lobman wrote in the account of her life that she joined the communist movement in "interesting times," Barnes noted. She meant that literally. In the summer of 1945, Ethel and her friend Beezie, who she had recruited to the party when they worked together at Bell Labs, hitchhiked together from New York to Los Angeles. Ethel wrote later that her favorite song at that time was "Don't Fence Me In." She had wanted to go to Los Angeles for years, to see more of the country and get away from home. At the same time, it had been hard to decide to leave the warmth and familiarity of her family in New York.

As the two young women traveled, they listened on the radio as the coal miners walked out on strike in defiance of the Roosevelt administration's antilabor legislation. They heard the reports from Washington's atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as the true horror of that act began to be revealed.

Arriving in Los Angeles, instead of the Hollywood image that even these two young communists had somewhat imagined, they found a city marked by Jim Crow segregation. It was a place where high school students in her own organization were helping lead a fight against fascist thugs led by former Silver Shirts member Gerald L. K. Smith and assaults on Jewish organizations.

Barnes recalled a national SWP conference in the early 1990s where a list of the languages participants spoke was to participants in the gathering. Yiddish had been left off the list, even though at least one participant —Ethel —had indicated she spoke it fluently. Ethel protested, sending a letter to Barnes. He replied with a letter to the party pointing out the error and why it was so important to correct it. When Ethel had joined the movement, Yiddish was the first language of a large number of Jewish workers. The SWP published literature in Yiddish. This was not a personal crotchet about Yiddish, he said, but followed Ethel's bent that you weaken yourself if you give up any part of the traditions that come together in the party. "We value every strength and every accomplishment that makes it possible to be who we are," Barnes stated.

Barnes recalled meeting with Lobman when he first moved to New York in the early 1960s. Before he left Chicago, Bea Hansen — who had been a close friend of Ethel's in the New York SWP in the 1950s — had told him to make sure to meet with Ethel and ask her to stand again for election to the party's branch executive committee. You need people like her to help take the next steps forward, Hansen had remarked, in the transition in the party leadership that had begun with the recruitment of a new generation from civil rights struggles and support for the Cuban revolution.

Ethel responded that she had decided not to take that kind of responsibility again, but she guaranteed she would continue to be active. "This was a great shock to me and a great help to me," Barnes stated. "To recognize the different degrees of responsibility, the different decisions which people make in their lives, which you accept and work together along the same road. Ethel had a capacity to teach you never to fall into the mistake of resenting what someone else wasn't going to do. But to take whatever a person has to offer and work together with them, asking only that they be a soldier in what they set out to do."

Ethel was also always truly an internationalist, Barnes explained. This accounted for the tone and character of the messages from comrades abroad, he said, pointing to letters sent to the meeting from members of the SWP's sister organizations in Canada, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.  

'Love at first sight'

Barnes read a portion of a letter given to him by Ethel's family that she received a few months ago from Beezie, the young woman Ethel recruited during the war.

"You have influenced my own life in many important ways," Beezie read. "Just by bringing me to the party you changed my whole way of seeing the world. You've always been there when I needed you — lending money, lending time, lending an ear.… I think of that first day you walked into Bell Labs, wearing outlandish flowered beach pajamas, and how the whole atmosphere of the shop changed from dull and quiet to fun, laughter, and friendliness for everyone there.… I know the years haven't basically changed you."

"This is to me," Barnes said, "the best example I've ever seen of 'love at first sight,' of the character of the solidarity working people find in each other, and in other women."

Lobman wouldn't like to be called a role model, Barnes added. "She was careful to teach me that no one should try to be a role model. Because no one can be. You have to find out who each person is, and then help them gain confidence as they discover over time that all types of human beings join a revolutionary organization and together accomplish what none of them as individuals thought they could do before."

Every one of us can draw strength and joy from the activity of a person who as teenager became a citizen of world and a citizen of time, Barnes said. He pointed to several conversations with Ethel about the accounts of her political activity, which, she told him, she concluded she had basically written for herself. After reading over these accounts a couple of times, Lobman said that in looking back at her life and revolutionary activity "I wouldn't change a thing."

Ethel Lobman, Barnes concluded, "remained an unceasing fighter for human solidarity and an uncompromising soldier of the socialist revolution."

At the end of the program, Militant staff writer Brian Taylor asked for contributions to the Pathfinder Fund. Participants in the meeting honoring Ethel's lifelong commitment to building the communist movement donated more than $7,000.  
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