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September 2010, Week 2

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Mon, 13 Sep 2010 22:28:29 -0400
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Irwin Silber and the Guardian

By Jack A. Smith

Sept 13, 2010
Submitted by the author to portside

I would like to comment on Ethan Young's Portside
article on the death of Irwin Silber. I was on the
Guardian staff from 1963 to 1984 as a reporter,
managing editor and editor, and worked with Irwin for a
number of years. I thought Young did a good job. Of
course I would have written it somewhat differently,
but no matter. I want to make a couple of points,
particularly on the question of party-building, which
led to Irwin's departure from the Guardian.

We were not close but worked reasonably well together
for most of the years Irwin was at the Guardian, and I
respect his accomplishments - from his contributions in
popularizing folk music to his dedication to socialism.
I was a great supporter of his cultural criticisms,
especially his film reviews, and was mainly responsible
for bringing Irwin to the newspaper.

Irwin was invited to write a weekly cultural column for
the Guardian after it became a workers' cooperative in
1967. The paper itself, earlier named the National
Guardian, had existed as the independent voice of the
"progressive" left since 1948, and had many political
achievements to its credit before the staff assumed
ownership responsibilities.

Irwin's political influence at the Guardian was
established in 1972 when he became a full-time member
of the cooperative, and simultaneously was named
executive editor responsible for the paper's business
department, while continuing to write his column. As
part of this promotion package, Irwin was elected to
the co-op's five person Coordinating Committee, its
leadership body.

The Portside article suggests "Silber's Marxist
criticism was a large point of contention" during the
1970 "uprising by a faction of the staff [that] nearly
destroyed the paper." I doubt Irwin's columns were a
factor in this episode. At issue was opposition to the
paper's development of an openly expressed
Marxist-Leninist point of view during the three years
since becoming a cooperative. A rowdy crowd of
opponents, including some newer members of the staff, a
few outside contributors and forces off the staff 
with views extending from social-democratic to
anarchist invaded and attacked our office, and
threatened members of the cooperative. Files were
destroyed, and some equipment was wrecked. A calling
card was left in the form of a bayonet sunk clean
through the thick top of my desk.

While continuing to principally serve the broad antiwar
and anti-imperialist U.S. left, and to feature the
struggles of the oppressed peoples of the third world,
the Guardian gravitated ever closer politically to the
revolutionary developments taking place in the People's
Republic of China under the leadership of the CCP and
Chairman Mao. Irwin was in complete unity with the
paper's political line when he became a member of the
leadership and played a role in developing that line.

The events that led to Irwin's censure and eventual
dismissal from the Guardian cooperative did indeed
relate to party-building within the "New Communist
Movement" composed of various Maoist groups in the U.S.
It wasn't a question of "loyalty" but of exceeding a
mandate.

One of the executive editor's responsibilities was to
nurture and build what we called Guardian Clubs. In the
early 1970s combination news gathering and circulation
building groups were established in a number of cities.
These small clubs helped build the paper (which by that
time had about 25,000 subscribers, double the
circulation before the paper was staff owned). In time
some discussion groups formed in a few clubs as well.

Irwin was dedicated to party-building and evidently
viewed the clubs, and the Guardian newspaper, as a
vehicle to help construct a new communist party, and
started taking steps in that direction. Not every
member of the Coordinating Committee or the staff,
however, was fully aware of this development until it
was underway for a time.

While there had been considerable interest within the
cooperative  in party-building beginning in 1970, this
cooled down in a few years - partly because of China's
implicit alliance with U.S. imperialism against the
USSR, and partly because a number of party-building
staffers had departed the Guardian after joining such
groups as the CP (ML) and the RCP. Not all the
departures were voluntary.

In addition, some members of the leadership, including
myself, were extremely dubious about using the Guardian
and Guardian Clubs to build another Maoist communist
party. My opposition was based on two main reasons: (1)
I believed the paper was exceptionally valuable to the
movement just as it was -  an influential, independent
and explicitly M-L publication with a fairly broad
appeal. (2) I had little confidence that the times
required the formation of yet one more small Maoist
party.

The upshot was that Irwin lost an annual election to
the leadership group and, after a while, he was asked
to leave the cooperative, in 1978 I believe.

I still keep the red flag flying. Looking back, of
course, it's easy to spot the Guardian's political
errors, not all of which were insubstantial. But I
believe the paper's strengths were far more important
then its weaknesses - particularly in the quality of
the journalistic product and its outreach with a
revolutionary socialist message to progressives and
anti-imperialists.

We did not speak again after Irwin left the cooperative
some 32 years ago. But I never doubted that Irwin
Silber made contributions to the Guardian's strengths
and the struggle for socialism. 

_____________________________________________

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