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Vol. 80/No. 1      January 4, 2016

(feature article)

Priscilla March: Political cadre of SWP for 62 years

LOS ANGELES — “Priscilla March was a political cadre, grounded in working-class politics and the program and continuity of the Socialist Workers Party. That is what sustained her for 62 years of building the party,” said Norton Sandler, speaking for the SWP’s National Committee at a Dec. 19 meeting here celebrating the life and political contributions of March, who died Nov. 30 at the age of 95.

The previous weekend party branches in Los Angeles and Minneapolis hosted celebrations of the political lives of two other cadres, Betsy McDonald and Frank Forrestal. Articles on those meetings appeared in the Dec. 28 issue of the Militant.

“Through these three comrades you get a picture of the Socialist Workers Party over six decades and the individuals it’s made of,” Sandler said. “None of us picks when we are born or how long we live, and much of what happens in the class struggle is out of our control. Whatever the circumstances, communists build the party and try to advance the line of march of the working class toward power.”

March was born in 1920 and grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. Her father was a doctor. She was independent-minded for a woman of her time. She went to college, worked as a nurse, went through a brief marriage, and traveled in Europe, wearing out her shoes visiting museums, before she found the SWP.

When March joined in New York in 1953, it was at the height of a deep-going political fight within the SWP over whether a revolutionary working-class party organized along the lines of the Bolsheviks in Lenin’s time could and should be built in the United States.

The centers of the faction fight were in New York and Detroit, Sandler said. A minority in the New York branch aligned with Michel Pablo, then a leader of the Fourth International in Europe. The election of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as president, they argued, made a nuclear war with the Soviet Union inevitable. Moscow would attract progressive-minded people everywhere and end up victorious, and this would give impetus to the growth of Stalinist parties and the overturn of capitalism, establishing “centuries of degenerated workers states” in a number of countries.

The task before communists, according to Pablo’s supporters, was to enter these Stalinist parties, with a perspective of spending many years in them — rather than seeing them as a counterrevolutionary obstacle as the party, following Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, had for decades.

The majority of the Detroit branch was conservatized by the relative prosperity that followed U.S. imperialism’s victory in World War II and the pressures of the anti-communist witch hunt. They were in full retreat from the perspective of building a revolutionary party. Both groups that opposed the party majority lacked confidence in the working class and its revolutionary capacities.

March and Harry Ring, who was already a party member and became her life-long companion, had friends in both factions. March was won to the political view of the SWP majority, led by party National Secretary James P. Cannon, and built that party for the rest of her life.

Party responds to new openings

Developments in the class struggle soon brought home the correctness of the party’s confidence in the fighting capacity of the working class.

This included an outpouring in 1955 for the funeral of Emmett Till, a Black youth from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi, and the start of the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama — milestones in what became a mass, proletarian-led movement that brought down Jim Crow racist segregation and transformed the U.S. working class in ways that continue to be felt today.

Workers in Hungary rose up in 1956 against the bureaucratic abuses of the pro-Moscow regime. This revolutionary upsurge was crushed by Soviet tanks, but it showed new rebellious moods and cracks in the world Stalinist monolith.

On Jan. 1, 1959, the workers and farmers in Cuba, led by Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement, overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship, Sandler said, opening the road to the first socialist revolution in the Americas. This proved in practice that it was possible to construct a non-Stalinist leadership capable of leading the toilers to power.

“Harry and Priscilla were among the first party cadres to visit revolutionary Cuba,” Sandler said. They were there in 1960 when many of the U.S.-owned companies that dominated Cuba’s economy were nationalized through working-class mobilizations.

New generations were won to the revolutionary working-class movement. Wendy Lyons, a member of the Los Angeles SWP branch who joined in 1963, spoke of how she and many others spent Saturday evenings in Harry and Priscilla’s tiny New York apartment. “There was food, jazz, poker and, above all, hours of political discussion, helping knit the continuity between the generations to advance the struggle of the working class toward socialism.”

Lyons recalled traveling with March on a bus to the historic August 1963 demonstration for Black rights in Washington. “We took 7,500 copies of the Militant to the demonstration,” Lyons said, “and halfway through we ran out. Priscilla was the top seller.”

March was picked up by the rise of the women’s rights movement. “She knew how important women’s right to choose abortion was,” Lyons said, “and with her party helped build the movement to win it.

“Like many of us at that time, she stopped using her husband’s name. Most of us went back to the name we were born with. But Priscilla said, ‘If I wanted a man’s name I’d keep Harry’s. I picked March from the calendar,’” Lyons recalled.

“The 1960s brought class struggle developments among Mexican Americans,” said Joel Britton, organizer of the Oakland SWP branch, who chaired the meeting. These included “farmworker battles for union recognition, mass high school walkouts in Los Angeles, the 1970 Chicano Moratorium march of 30,000 against the Vietnam War and the growth of La Raza Unida parties.”

The party opened a Southwest Bureau of the Militant organized by Ring, and he and March moved to Los Angeles in 1971. “Harry traveled all over reporting on these struggles,” Sandler said. And he gave classes on party history throughout the region.

Continuity with struggles today

At the 50th Anniversary Convention of the United Farm Workers in 2012, “some veterans asked party members attending about Harry and Priscilla,” Britton said. “They were links in a chain of unbroken continuity of support by the party to this still-vital social struggle. Just two days ago, members and supporters of the party in Oakland, working with leaders of the ‘$15 an hour and a union’ fight, organized a vanload of fast-food and other workers to participate in a UFW Christmas party in Fresno.”

For decades, March was centrally involved in organizing the distribution of books on the party’s history and politics, today published by Pathfinder Press. She drove all over the country, visiting stores and libraries. Betsey Stone, a member of the SWP branch in Oakland, recalled how when she joined in the early 1960s the party had a few books that were essential in recruiting a new generation. Over the next decade as the party grew, “we got some presses and published many more. Priscilla’s work was to help get them out.”

Mike Tucker sent a message on behalf of the Communist League of New Zealand. “It was through comrades like Priscilla,” he wrote, “that we learned firsthand the rich history of the class struggle in the United States and worldwide, and learned of the efforts of these comrades to build a party and world movement. They brought to life politics and class battles that we had read about in books. This helped us to understand and become part of the continuity of the communist movement, which is a living movement, the vanguard of working-class struggle, and not a set of abstract ideas.”

When the party turned in the late 1970s to opportunities to get the large majority of its members working in industry and the trade unions, some of the older cadres of the party didn’t think it could or should be done. “Priscilla and Harry discussed and argued with some of their generation and helped win them over to the party’s course,” Sandler said.

“Priscilla was a stalwart of classes to systematically study the writings of Lenin in the early 1980s,” he added, as part of deepening an understanding of communist continuity throughout the party.

March helped organize Militant Labor Forums and petition drives for party election campaigns. She “loved to sell the Militant, to knock on a worker’s door and begin discussing the struggles going on, and how you can join in. She kept doing it well into her ’80s,” Lyons said.

Some 50 people attended the meeting. Among them was Anita Wills, who is active in the fight against police brutality in the Bay Area. She had also attended the event celebrating the life of Betsy McDonald. Wills said she could identify with these women, who “made a difference in the party. A lot of times in this society when you’re older you’re not considered relevant. The meetings made me feel connected to these ladies and to the party.”

Participants enjoyed an excellent buffet, looked at displays on the class-struggle events and political activity that shaped Priscilla March’s life and read messages sent to the meeting. More than $2,200 was donated to advance the work of the Socialist Workers Party.  
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