Monday, July 11, 2016

Fellow Worker Sam Dolgoff (1902-1990)

Anatole Dolgoff, Left of the Left: My Memories of Sam Dolgoff. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2016.

Andrew Cornell, "A History of Vanguard".

But we have a glowing dream
Of how fair the world will seem
When each man can live his life secure and free;
When the earth is owned by labor
and there's joy and peace for all
In the Commonwealth of Toil that is to be.

the chorus of Ralph Chaplin's song "Commonwealth of Toil", 1923

Sam Dolgoff was an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) lifer. He discovered anarchism after being expelled from the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL, aka Yipsels) as a teen. He joined the IWW in 1922 and was an active member until his death in 1990. His son Anatole Durruti Dolgoff has written a loving portrait of Sam and the small vibrant anarchist milieu in the US during the 20th century, which also provided my political education. The title Left of the Left: My Memories of Sam Dolgoff is taken from Paul Berman's obituary for Sam in the Village Voice on November 13, 1990. He quotes Sam: "You always need a left. And within the left, you need a left. And within the left of the left, you need a left. And in that left, you need a left. And that left is me!" Sam was a little tipsy, but that was Sam Dolgoff. Sam remained faithful to the classic anarcho-syndicalist principles of IWW and the IWA (International Worker Association, the anarcho-syndicalist international) all his life despite the changing fashions on the left.

Sam Dolgoff was born in the shtetl of Ostrovno in present-day Belarus in 1902. His family immigrated to NYC in 1905, where he lived in the Bronx and the Manhattan Lower East Side most his life. Sam was apprenticed to a house painter at age 11, a profession he remained in his entire life ("a doctor of smearology" in Sam's words). He hated school, and in those days of child labor, had to support his family. The IWW and anarchist movement became his university, like so many working-class intellectuals on the left. He could have become professional organizer or union bureaucrat for District 9 of the Painter's Union, but instead chose to be a common worker and IWW evangelist. He would not become a boss, nor reconcile himself with AFL business unionism. Anatole Dolgoff reports that the IWW reached a maximum membership of 100,000 in 1923; by 1930 its numbers had declined to 10,000. Its last stronghold was the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union (MTW-IWW) which represented seamen throughout the Americas 1913-1950.
Sam contributed to an unending string of anarchist publications and organizations over his lifetime: the Road to Freedom journal in NYC and the Chicago Free Society Group in the 1920s; the Vanguard group and journal in NYC in the 1930s; the Spanish Revolution monthly 1936-38; the Libertarian League and its journal Views and Comments in the 1950s; the Libertarian Book Club 1946-present; and the Libertarian Labor Review later renamed Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 1986-present.

As an independent scholar, after a long day of physical labor, he produced four well regarded books: Bakunin on Anarchy (1971), The Anarchist Collectives: Workers' Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939 (1974) ; The Cuban Revolution: A Critical Perspective (1974); and Fragments: A Memoir (1986). His Cuba book criticizes Castro's repression of Cuban anarchists and dissidents, displeasing the New Left and some of his old comrades, like Dave Dellinger and David Wieck. His Spain book documents the grassroots social revolution during the Spanish Civil War. It also recounts the role of Russian GPU agents in murdering POUM leader Andres Nin, anti-Stalinist Marxists, and anarchist militants. These were Sam's comrades and friends, and he wanted the facts known. Consequently he was not romantic about the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, which was largely a Communist Party outfit. This may disturb some leftish readers.

I met Sam and his wife Esther Dolgoff in the 1970s. Our group Philadelphia Solidarity, and later Wooden Shoe Bookstore, was friendly with the NYC IWW, which included Sam and Esther, the Living Theatre troupe, and journalist Mel Most who became a good friend. We hosted a performance of the Living Theatre at the Christian Association on Penn campus in the early 1970s. 

In 1980 Esther translated Joseph J. Cohen's The Jewish Anarchist Movement in the United States: A Historical Review and Personal Reminiscence (Philadelphia: Radical Library, 1945) from Yiddish. Cohen lived in Philadelphia and was the editor of the anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme. The book included lots of Philadelphia radical history. We made an unsuccessful effort to publish her translation, which was a great disappointment to Esther. We were too disorganized and too broke. I sent her manuscript to the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan a few years ago. We did reprint a couple chapters which I'm trying to recover. 

I always enjoyed visiting them at their cozy coop apartment on East Broadway overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge on the East River. They were always entertaining young radicals, their habit of a lifetime.

As an older person myself now, I appreciated Anatole's human account of Sam and Esther's last years. It is a dilemma we all face. Anatole and his friends organized an around-the-clock cadre to care for his parents in their last few years. When Esther died, Sam would not move, and Anatole did not want to disrupt Sam's life unnecessarily.  At this moment, an old friend of the Dolgoff's and long-time activist with the Catholic Worker, Roger O'Neill, volunteered to move in and care for Sam. There is something poetic about this. Sam was an old bohemian friend of Dorothy Day, often spoke at the Friday Night Meetings at the Catholic Worker House, and occasionally sparred with her about the authoritarian, hierarchical Catholic Church. So, the last year of his life, he was cared for by a Catholic anarchist from the Catholic Worker, who didn't care that Sam was a principled atheist. This was the informal anarchist community that surrounded Sam and Esther all their lives. The IWW and the Catholic Worker still exist; that anarchist community probably does not.

Thank you Anotole Dolgoff for this beautiful homage to your parents. Yours for OBU (One Big Union), Frank Gerould.