Remembering Marty Glaberman

by Bill Mullen

Rich Gibson has asked me to share some recollections about Marty Glaberman. Though I did not know him as well as many others, he made a vivid and lasting impression.

I was with Marty three times: once, during a research visit to Detroit, Marty, Alan Wald, Arlene Keizer and I had dinner together. On another occasion, I sat with Marty and his partner and friend Diane Voss in Marty's apartment near the Wayne State campus and talked about literature and Marxism. The last time I saw Marty was two years ago in Youngstown, Ohio. Jim Jordan was hosting a barbeque for members of the Workers' Solidarity Club of Youngstown. Marty was the Detroit contributing editor for Impact, the rank and file newsletter of Youngstown Solidarity edited by Staughton and Alice Lynd. Staughton and Marty go back a long way. When he died last week, Staughton said he felt like he had lost an older brother.

For me, Marty Glaberman demonstrated more courageous optimism about the revolutionary potential of the working-class than any person I ever met. It was a dialectical optimism, grounded in the recognition that objective conditions always carry revolutionary potential. Each time I was with him, I came away much more confident that as long as Marty was in the world, justice, and an egalitarian society, were possible.

Here are some lasting examples for me of Marty's contributions to our understanding of the working-class and its role in history:

---On February 22, 1957, Marty wrote a letter to his friend, mentor and collaborator C.J.R. James. The letter is available in Box 5, Folder 9 of the Marty Glaberman papers at the Walter Reuther Library in Detroit. The topic, broadly, was the role of workers in the intellectual evaluation of world events of 1956, particularly the Hungarian Revolution. Marty perceived Kruschev's 1956 speech on Hungary as a "turning point" for both intellectuals and the working-class. It revealed, he wrote, "the fraud and fiction of the economic plan, and the ensuing realization that the working class had known this all along while they, the intellectuals, had been taking its success for granted." Marty's enthusiasm for the Hungarian uprisings brought this astonishingly optimistic and synthetic analysis: "We have said before, although we have not elaborated it sufficiently, that cooperative labor is itself a form of knowledge, of cognition. What we have to realize now is that the intellectuals who, up to now, have considered that cognition, knowledge of reality, is their own specific trade, their special contribution to society, their historically appointed task, have now discovered through the failure of the economic plan, that the working class is better equipped, not through special training in philosophy or books, but by virtue of its position in the process of production to carry out this function of knowing reality than any intellectual divorced from the process of production could possibly be, no matter now well-trained, how gifted, how worldly."

Marty, always, read history from the bottom-up. It was, he thought, the only way of understanding and applying Marx, in general, and Trotsky and C.L.R. James in particular. "I think we have to be very firm on the fact," he wrote in the same letter to James, "that certainly such time as universal man (sic) emerges in his full universality, the intellectual does have certain functions to perform---of formulation, systemization, the contribution of his special capacity to formulate and systematize. But that these capacities can absolutely not be realized, without a) the philosophic concept of the inevitability of socialism and of universal man (sic) as the direction in which society is and must travel; and b) contact with the working class in the process of production." 

---Less than a month later, on March 2, 1957, Marty wrote again to James. This letter is in Box 5, Folder 10 of the Glaberman files. In the letter Marty pondered the relevance of Marx's Ph.D. thesis on Democritus and Epicurus to world events. The former, he told James, represented the "new society before the division of labor between manual and mental," while the latter represented their division during the decline of Greek society. We are now, he wrote James, in a similar moment: "All the debates about the conflict between science and faith, between techniques and the humanities, between means and ends are to be solved by the fact that today there exists a working class whose politics is in its economics and whose economics is in its politics.."

---Eleven years later, in 1968, Marty gave a speech to a conference of the Facing Reality Publishing Committee. The speech is reprinted as "Theory and Practice" in Marty's edited edition of the essays of C.L.R. James, Marxism for Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolutionary Organization, published in 1999 by University Press of Mississippi. Here is a passage from that essay:

The basic characteristic of the working class is that first you strike
But there's a peculiar element in that. To shut your machine
Down in full confidence that everybody else is, is not an
Instinct that you're born with. When you get out of the womb,
You don't know how to run a wildcat strike. It comes from a
Long experience in a particular plant, a knowledge of the particular form of production, of your particular workmates on the 
Whole and what you can expect of them and what they can expect
Of you. Not just in general but in particular. Who is a good
Speaker? Who is a good negotiator? Who is an intransigent
Bargainer? Who is a hard-nosed goon who will beat up scabs?
You've got to know all of these things. And it takes a long
Time to develop, because it's not developed in terms of formal
Discussion; it's developed in terms of living experience.

In 1980, Marty published the book Wartime Strikes (Detroit, Bewick Editions, 1980), a study of wildcat strikes during World War II. Here is a statement from that book:

There is a contradiction between the workers' being and the workers' consciousness. It would be quite remarkable if that were not so in a capitalist society. If that was where the matter rested, with the control by the ruling class of all the significant means of education and communication, then this discussion would be meaningless because it wouldn't matter in the slightest what workers thought. But the domination over the production of ideas is never enough for those who rule, because the reality of workers' lives is in contradiction to the ideas that dominate the society. It is the contradiction between being and consciousness which produces change. The hostile and alienating nature of work in this society (in addition to all the institutions inside and outside the factory designed to sustain the discipline of work) forces workers to resist their daily reality, individually and collectively. The response to that resistance tends to expose the mythology of freedom and equality and continually transforms the consciousness of workers. This is especially true of workers who have not yet been socialized into the accepted and institutionalized forms of resistance, such as the union grievance procedure, government boards, and so on. It is likely that those sections of the working class who were relatively new to the factories.....were least likely to accept the discipline of factory work and the discipline of the union. .....There is a continually developing contradiction between being and consciousness. They act upon each other. ...activity continually emerges to assert itself as the overriding element in that combination. (1245-126) 

Of course perhaps the most remarkable thing about Marty was his persistence of vision. When I saw him in Youngstown, he was talking with the editorial board of Impact about formulating a statement to the labor movement about the shape it was in. That statement, published as "An Open Letter to Rank and File Labor Activists," (available at described the problems with top-down unionism, the myth of Walter Reuther as a "Social Movement Unionist," sellouts by Ron Carey and the Teamsters, and the potential contribution of the anti-globalization movement to the building of a socialist society. In a section of the document titled simply "Internationalism," the editorial collective wrote:

Probably we all can agree that in order to combat transnational 
corporations and their strategy of globalization, we must build
international working-class solidarity. Surely we all long for the
day when workers for GM in Mexico, Lordstown, and St. Catherine's,
Ontario, will strike together on behalf of common contract demands…
The protest at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle
represented a huge first step in the need direction. However, as
one of us wrote to Labor Notes at the time, we have to recognize
that the Steelworkers union was in Seattle to keep imported steel
out of the United States (no matter what happened to steelworkers
in Brazil or Korea) and the Teamsters union was there to keep
Mexican truck drivers from crossing the border.

To the end of his life, Marty remained an active contributor to Impact, Against the Current and other journals. The last time I saw him in Detroit, Marty was talking about writing a book about white workers and their role in revolution. He was a little disturbed at what he perceived to be declining confidence in that sector of the proletariat.

What is Marty's Glaberman's legacy? It is well beyond me to say. It is essential, though, that his works, read by too few, be read more widely, and that his spirit, which is irreplaceable, be sustained by those who carry on his work. As Staughton Lynd put it to me, "For those of us who espouse a bottom-up view of things, they (Marty and Stan Weir) carried the idea of self-activity outside traditional institutions into the new century. Then left it to us."