I just got a photo of Stu Singer from Jana Pellusch, a comrade from years ago in the Houston branch and now on Facebook, with this introduction. You can now judge whether he looks like Herb Terrace or not!:
Hi Louis, I read your piece about Stu. Attached is what I consider to be a great photo of him. This is in front of one of the 3 branches in Houston at the time, I think it was called the South Park branch, located in a strip mall along South Park Ave. that was later called MLK. Anyways it was in the southeast part of Houston and I was assigned to that branch. On this particular day in 1977, probably a Saturday morning, I had just bought a Minolta SLR camera and took it down to the hdqts. Stu was there and he was interested in it. He asked me if he could take some shots and I said something about not wanting to waste film. He told me I should not look at taking pictures in that way, that it was necessary to take many shots of something in order to get just the right one. I let him get away with taking a couple, then I took this one of him. Did not know how to send it to your blog so here it is. Regards, Jana Pallusch
On June 18 the Militant newspaper announced that Stu Singer had died of cancer at the age of 65 after battling the disease for 2 years. My first reaction was to wonder what kind of cancer he had. I had the same question about Alexander Cockburn who succumbed to the disease also after a 2-year battle. When you get to be my age, you tend to have a morbid curiosity about the disease since you know that you become increasingly vulnerable the older you get. For the most part it is a geriatric illness that you hope to avoid for the simple reason that the cure—such as it is—is worse than the disease.
I tried in vain to locate a picture of Stu but as so often the case with people with long-standing ties to the SWP (he was a member for 40 years and then a supporter for another 5 years), there is little to go by. These are not people likely to start a blog or a Facebook page, where a photo might crop up. You are more likely to find a photo for ex-members like me whose political life opened up after they broke from the SWP.
In his memoir “Outsider Reverie”, Les Evans describes Stu as an Alan Arkin look-alike. That didn’t sound right to me. Instead Stu always had a “separated at birth” resemblance to Herb Terrace, the cognitive psychologist at Columbia University who conducted experiments with the chimpanzee Nim Chimsky (a pun on Noam Chomsky who like Terrace considered language to be unique to homo sapiens.) Here’s Terrace and Nim Chimsky:
Trust me. That’s exactly what Stu looked like. Also, by the way, Nim Chimsky bears more than a passing resemblance to Steve Clark, third in command of the SWP. The other thing worth pointing out is that the smirk on Terrace’s face could often be seen on Stu’s as well–a real cat that ate the canary look.
I more or less expected the Militant to do the same thing with Stu as they have done with other obituaries, namely to use a cookie-cutter approach that strips the deceased of all their individuality and turns them into a kind of automaton carrying out the turn to industry.
Perhaps there was an unconscious allusion to this in the quote from the party’s great helmsman:
Forging a communist party in the U.S., Barnes wrote, “involves surmounting some extra hurdles. It runs up against the petty bourgeois tradition of American ‘individualism’—a by-product of the long duration of the Westward-shifting frontier and access to free land. It’s even reflected in literature, such as the restless, questing, chasing-and-doing Huck Finn. …
Oddly enough the article referred to a tiny bit of the Huck Finn that most rebellious young people, including Stu, embodied.
Barnes quoted from a message by Jeff Powers, a friend of Singer who joined the SWP in Boston around the same time in the mid-1960s. Powers recalled that Singer once found both of them a job—one they thought at the time was “a perfect gig. Not much work and a company vehicle that served as a delivery truck for leaflets, buttons and posters for the Boston Peace Action Coalition throughout the area, with the gas included.”
Since I knew Jeff Powers well some 40 years ago when he, Stu and I were all in the Boston branch, this reminded me of what we were all like back then. The antiwar movement consumed us and everything we did was geared to making it a success. My only regret is that there was nothing else like this in the entire article. Stu, like Gus Horowitz, Peter Camejo and Barry Sheppard, was an MIT student. I wondered what his major was. In fact anything of a personal nature would have been greatly interesting to me since I barely knew Stu even though we spent 3 years in the Boston branch together and then another year or so in Houston.
One of the few ex-SWP’ers I have remained friends with over the years told me that he had few insights into Stu even after spending a lot of time orienting him to the Houston branch when Stu was about to assume branch organizer responsibilities. My friend told me that Stu never made small talk. As far as I was concerned, Stu never spoke at all. Compared to him, Harpo Marx was loquacious.
Les Evans’s portrait of Stu Singer is quite unflattering in keeping with his alienation from all SWP’ers outside of the old-time leadership embodied most of all by Joe Hansen. In his chapter on the Iron Range of Minnesota, he describes Stu as an ascetic cut off from the world like a character in a 19th century Russian novel set in the revolutionary underground. His bed was a mattress resting on a door resting in turn on jetsam salvaged from the mines. Les says that Stu offered him a pick of the females in the tiny branch as if he was a tribal chieftain in 15th century Asia Minor. I found this hard to believe since whatever flaws Stu had, I had never heard about such rank sexism. Since most of the woman in the Boston branch had become very tough feminists when Stu and I were up there, word would have gotten out about such behavior. Trust me.
When I came up to Boston in 1970, the branch was divided into three groups. The first was hard-core supporters of Larry Trainor who thought the youth radicalization was a diversion from more important work in the trade unions. In other words, he was a premature Barnesite. On the other side were Peter Camejo, me, David Wulp and a bunch of other transfers in. Wulp, a Carleton graduate, would eventually replace Camejo as branch organizer. Trainor referred to us derisively as “hand-raisers” and he was totally correct. The group in the middle included Stu, Jeff Powers, and about 10 others who were recruited by Larry Trainor and thought the world of him. However, they were impressed with Camejo’s ability to take on SDS and build the antiwar movement, as well as his ability to defend the party’s orientation to the youth movement. By 1971, all of them had become Camejo supporters.
I moved to Houston in 1973 to help strengthen the faction that opposed the Ernest Mandel guerrilla warfare orientation in the Fourth International. Although I was immersed in the political struggle, I became increasingly disaffected from branch life and skeptical about a socialist revolution anytime soon in the USA. Living in Houston would tend to engender such feelings.
Somewhere along the line, after Stu had become organizer, there was an announcement about a “social” at Dan Fein’s house, where these dismal affairs often took place. I told someone that I would take a pass on the social since they consisted of comrades talking shop, like how many Militant subs had been sold, etc. I would prefer to stay at home and listen to my stereo. The next day Stu called me into his office and gave me a lecture about saying such things since they “didn’t help to build the movement” or something along those lines. I walked out feeling dismayed and began to think for the first time after 6 years of membership[ about dropping out. My mistake was not to follow through.
So I have to say that I know about as much about Stu Singer now as I did when we were rubbing shoulders over a four year period. But I do know a lot more about the sad state of the SWP as reflected in the grotesque tribute paid to him. While I have gotten used to the battiness in the pages of the Militant, the obituary soars to dizzying heights.
The article states that Stu spent six months in 1982 in upstate New York at a session of the party’s leadership school.
“As we prepared to jump into following the line of march of the early modern working-class movement, as it affected, transformed and was recounted by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,” Barnes wrote, Singer was asked to organize an introductory class on an outline by SWP leader Farrell Dobbs of his series Revolutionary Continuity: Marxist Leadership in the United States. Dobbs completed the first two volumes before he died in 1983.
In preparing the discussion, Barnes said, “Stu did what we had come to count on from him—a thorough, workmanlike job.”
In the section Singer was asked to focus on, Barnes wrote, Dobbs explained that in addition to turning its back on the social-patriotic Socialist Party leadership in the U.S., who backed Washington’s imperialist military efforts in World War I, the young Communist Party also had to break from revolutionary-minded left socialists such as Eugene Debs and from “the individualist, self-serving radicalism” of the Industrial Workers of the World—the Wobblies—and leaders such as Vincent St. John.
A thorough, workmanlike job? For Christ’s sake, why bother? Such damning with faint praise is an insult to Stu’s memory. Furthermore, where did Dobbs get the idea that the IWW was “individualist”? What a disgusting commentary on an organization that Lenin invited to join the Communist International. Who had the more impressive record in leading militant struggles of the working class? The IWW or the bizarre cult around Jack Barnes whose idea of involvement in the trade union movement is selling the collected speeches of the great helmsman to bemused workers?
This business about individualism in Huck Finn or the IWW is really a hoot. What better way to end this article than to repeat the words of a member of a Facebook group of ex-SWP’ers:
So, you’re on a raft going down the Mississippi with Huck Finn, Jack Barnes, Gene Debs and Vincent St. John but the raft is sinking and someone has to go overboard. Tough choice?