Review: Martin Glaberman - Punching Out
Charles H Kerr, 2002
Martin Glaberman, Marty to those who knew him, liked to describe
himself as an "unreconstructed Johnsonite." By that, he meant that he
was still a supporter of the ideas and perspectives developed by CLR
James when he wrote under the pen name of JR Johnson. That meant that
Marty espoused many unpopular ideas:
· He believed that the workers' movement was more just than
its "organized" sector.
· He believed that what posed as socialism in Eastern Europe
was in fact its opposite.
· He believed that class-consciousness was not measured by
sales of leftist newspapers and votes in elections.
· But most of all, he believed that workers were capable of
creating a better society, and it would be through the creative
efforts of working people that this better world would be born.
Much of Marty's writing was published in small circulation
newspapers and pamphlets. Such is reality for tiny socialist groups.
The danger was that the bulk of his work would ultimately be
consigned to the "gnawing criticism of mice." For preventing this
from happening, Staughton Lynd, the editor of the posthumously
released selection of Marty's writings Punching Out deserves a
special note of thanks.
Marty, who died in December 2001, was active in the workers'
movement for almost his entire life. He joined the youth group of the
Socialist Party when he was 14 years old, and passed through a series
of leftist and labour organizations, writing, teaching and talking
until the end. Punching Out is a fitting tribute to those who
knew the man and a great introduction for those who, unfortunately,
will only know him through his writings.
The book is organized into four sections, each dealing with
aspects of Marty's interests. The first, the trade union movement,
deals with the "organized" sector of the working class. Marty was
opposed to the idea that the union was a "cop" for the boss, since he
believed that view indicated that unions were a "trick of the boss."
However, he realized that the union did serve to police the working
class in order to live up to the contract. While he continued to see
the unions as working class organizations, he knew that the workers
would have to go beyond them.
In the second section of the book dealing with the working class,
Marty examines class-consciousness and how that unfolds in the real
world. Marty loved to tell about the struggle against the no-strike
clause in World War II, where workers actually voted for a no-strike
clause and then struck against it. Marty was quick to argue that it
is what workers do which is a truer measure of
In the third section of the book, the essays examine the
possibility and potential of revolutionary movements. Here Marty
looks at the meaning of the Polish solidarity movement, which he
believed outdid the Hungarian workers' struggle of 1956 and also the
relevance of Lenin for today. I part company with Marty's analysis
here. The reverence for Lenin is a mystery, as much of what the
Johnsonites believed, with their affinity for the spontaneous
capacities of the working class were directly the opposite of Lenin's
The final section of the book reprints some of Marty's poems.
Marty wrote poetry as a way to express his feelings that his
political writings could not. And in his poetry, in such poems as
"Wildcat", he again explores revolutionary and creative potential of
the working class.
The book also features several lovely cartoons of "the Egghead"
which appeared in the Correspondence in the early 1950s, reminiscent
of the Mr. Block cartoons from the IWW's Industrial Worker.
One finds in Marty an extremely readable and approachable style.
Free from the jargon that plagues leftist writing, and which
unfortunately this publication is not exempt, Punching Out
explains in simple clear terms, that workers view reality in a much
clearer way than their would-be leaders give them credit for.
My only real complaint about this book was the difficulty I had in
obtaining it. Even though the publisher Charles H Kerr is only an
eight-hour drive from Toronto, I ran into roadblocks in ordering it.
It proved impossible to order through the mainstream book
distributors on the Internet, and the web site listed in the book is
inoperative (although it may now be ordered from the IWW
site) There doesn't even seem to be a Canadian distributor for
Nevertheless, radicals in the US have no excuse. In his
introduction, Staughton Lynd calls Marty "the most important writer
on labor matters in the United States during the second half of the
Twentieth century." Whatever the political blindspots in Marty's
book, it deserves to be widely read and discussed by the milieu.
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