Thursday, August 12, 2010

Remembering Ernest Eber

Herman Benson writes in the Summer 2010 issue of New Politics

I remember Ernest Erber, who died in February at the age of 96, as one those few remaining friends and comrades whose political life and ideas so closely followed my own, from our formative years in the mid-1930s through the last 20 years. A a very young man, he joined the Socialist Party-affiliated Young People Socialist League(YPSL) in the thirties. While president of the YPSL in 1937, Erber visited Spain and wrote a pamphlet about the Civil War.  The SP helped form and fund a Debs column and Erber himself joined the staff of La Battale, the POUM newspaper.  In 1938, he left YPSL with the Trotskyists to form the Socialist Workers Party in 1940 after the Soviet Union invaded Finland, he became a founding  and leading member of the Workers Party (later reoriented as the Independent Socialist League.) Some time in 1948, then looking for a socialist philosophy which rejected both right-wing social democracy and leftist Leninism, he resigned from the WP/ISL.

At the point our ways parted and I lost track of where he went politically; I do know that he became a city planner; he worked briefly for Jesse Jackson as a volunteer; and remained steadfast as a democratic socialist. I knew him and respected him (as did most everyone) as a fine human being, intelligent, of absolute integrity, modest, independent-minded, decent--a  great educator.  He was a leader in the WP/ISL, under the name Ernest Lund he wrote our popular booklet "Plenty for All."  He was a member of the National Committee, served for a time as managing editor of the New International, and was on its editorial board until 1948.  AT the WP (or ISL?) convention around 1948, at a time when we were trying to redefine our role as a movement, he was a lone voice suggesting that we function as a "small mass party" an idea that went nowhere and seems to have little impression even on his own thinking.  When he presented his resignation, indicating that he had abandoned the Leninist, Bolshevik, whatever tradition, Max Shachtman wrote a whole little booklet denouncing him for his apostasy.  Erber wasn't sure where he wanted to go but he knew what he rejected.  In that respect he was a kind of pioneer for a myriad of followers who never will know of him!  At the time, I agree wholeheartedly with Shachtman, but looking back, I am convinced that Ernie, all alone, was (more) right.

Some of Erber's youthful Trotskyist writings are online. His 1943 booklet "Plenty for All" can be found here.

After his break with Shachtman, Erber, in addition to his work as a planner, wrote occasional articles and reviews for New Politics and Dissent.  As 1990 essay for the latter journal "Virtues and Vices of the Market: Balanced Correctives to a Current Craze" was reprinted in the Dissent collection Why Market Socialism and other books.

I had some contact with Ernie many years after his break with Shachtman.  I knew him as a member of DSOC and DSA,  We were both involved in CATNAM (the Committee Against the NAM merger) and in a small group that published a newsletter entitled, if I recall correctly, "Mainstream."  I remember editorial meetings at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C. and at his home in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland.  I share Herman Benson's kind thoughts towards Erber.  I wish now that I had known enough to ask Ernie about his political experiences. I am sure it would have been fascinating, but Ernie was very much involved in the issues of the day and treated his far younger comrades with the greatest equality.

Wikipedia does a fairly good job in describing the political conjecture

The proposal for merger [with the New American Movement]  generated vocal opposition, however. Forces on the organization's right wing, led by Howe and calling themselves the Committee Against the NAM Merger (CATNAM), urged that instead of courting New Left survivors that DSOC should instead continue to place its emphasis on outreach to larger forces in the labor movement and the Democratic Party. In addition to noting NAM's deep distrust of the Democratic Party, many adherents of CATNAM had grave misgivings about NAM's position towards Israel [and, though not noted in the article, NAM's third-worldist international politics]
The 1981 DSOC national convention was marked by a very heated debate on the question of merger with NAM, which was ultimately resolved by a vote of approximately 80% of the delegates in favor, none against, with the 20% or so supporting the CATNAM position abstaining.
One of our concerns, before and after, was that DSOC/DSA needed an internal political culture that consciously and unapologetically resembled the mass social democratic parties of Europe, and not the totalistic environment of the political cults or the hot-house, student movement.  (Of course, neither DSOC nor DSA never had nor desired that sort of insular political culture.  But there has not always been clarity on what they wanted, nor easy to achieve within the dominant American political culture.)  That was an echo, I think, of Erber's idea of a "small, mass party."


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