Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 19, 2018

David McReynolds in the context of American radicalism

Filed under: Gay,Kevin Coogan,obituary,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 9:16 pm

David McReynolds and long-time companion Shaman

The first time I ever heard the name David McReynolds was shortly after joining the SWP in 1967. At the time, the antiwar movement was a tripod made up of the Trotskyists, the CP and the pacifists. As the executive director of the War Resisters League (WRL) and a colleague of A.J. Muste who was to the peace movement in the USA as Bertrand Russell was to the British peace movement, David was a key figure.

David arrived in New York in the early 50s and eventually took an editorial job in 1957 with Liberation, a radical pacifist magazine closely tied to the WRL whose founders included three leaders of the pacifist leg of the peace movement tripod: Sidney Lens, David Dellinger and Muste himself. Both Lens and Muste were Trotskyists in the 30s before evolving in a pacifist direction. Lens was a member of Hugo Oehler’s ultraleft Revolutionary Workers League and Muste was the chairman of the American Workers Party that fused with Cannon’s Communist League of America in 1934 to form the Workers Party.

Although I was too much of a rank-and-filer to sit in on strategy meetings with these people, I always had the impression that the SWP got along better with Lens and Muste than they did with people who were ideologically pacifist from the get-go like David Dellinger and Norma Becker. They tended to bloc with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman at the time because they all were into “propaganda of the deed”, which didn’t mean setting off bombs but getting arrested in a civil disobedience protest. Despite not seeing these people interact with each other directly, I suspect that David helped to keep the various factions together since he was such a warm and empathetic figure.

But there was no doubt about his commitment to the sort of actions pacifist groups were carrying out for most of the 20th century. David participated in some of the more important civil disobedience actions in New York under the impact of the Cold War. In the 1950s, there were civil defense drills meant to minimize the effects of an H-Bomb being dropped on the city. Instructions were utterly lunatic as David pointed out in an oral history interview with the NY Public Library. People on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building were supposed to go to the 40th floor while those on the 40th floor and below were supposed to go into the basement. Here’s a newsreel from the time showing a drill. So you can imagine how a 9-year old like me would be scared out of his wits.

Those who refused to take cover during these drills were subject to a misdemeanor arrest. David, A.J. Muste, and Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day took part in protests at City Hall. Muste and Day served 6-month sentences and David somehow slipped through the fingers of the cops.

During the 50s, such protests managed to take place because it was difficult to smear pacifists using Red Scare tactics. The anti-nuclear movement was one of the few areas in which open socialists could operate since it involved issues that did not touch directly on the Red Scare. Like climate change, the fear of extinction was palpable especially since the slogan “Better dead than red” was gaining popularity in the 1950s.

David adopted civil disobedience tactics once again in November, 1965 when he burned his draft card at a protest in Union Square. I remember how the SWP wrestled with these tactics as they grew more popular. Clearly, they were helping to deepen antiwar resistance but they didn’t follow our Bolshevik norms. To show how warped we were, a few months before I joined the party I attended the SWP convention held in a NY hotel as an observer. A debate had ensued over whether our newspaper should take exception to the growing popularity of speaking out against the war as being “immoral, illegal and unjust” since it fostered pacifist illusions. Harry Ring, a leader of the party’s antiwar fraction, got up to oppose such a sectarian position. The fact that it was even considered showed how isolated we were from normal thinking.

In the oral history interview, David includes a fascinating anecdote that speaks volumes about his political approach. It seems that as a gay man who never hid his sexuality but never made a point of it, he never felt quite satisfied with such a defensive position. At one point he went to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg in the East Village in which during the Q&A a woman asked him why he wrote so much about homosexuality in his poems. He replied that he did so because he was a queer. That impressed David so much that he went up to Allen later and introduced himself, the beginning of a deep friendship. At a certain point, David became responsible for persuading Ginsberg to become a public figure opposed to the war. Ginsberg was wary at first since he saw himself as a poet and not a politician. David won him to our cause by making the point that writers had a responsibility to oppose the war. Thereafter, Ginsberg became omnipresent at protests.

In 1972, the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose lineage went back to Debs, suffered a split. Some of its rightwing leaders, who would soon become aligned with or even members of the Reagan administration, renamed the group Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Sensing where they were headed, Michael Harrington led a faction into the newly formed Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) that would merge with the New America Movement to form the DSA. Wary of Harrington’s orientation to the Democratic Party, a small faction went ahead and formed the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) that David belonged to until recently. He was the party’s presidential candidate in 1980 and 2000. Unlike the DSA, you don’t find much Marxist analysis being spouted by its members such as the kind you will find in Jacobin. Also, unlike the DSA, the SPUSA hearkens back to Debs’s opposition to the two-party system. Like Debs and Norman Thomas, David had no use for the donkey or the elephant. He preferred cats and radicalism.

I am not quite sure when I hooked up with David but around twenty years ago I began making it my business to learn more about what you might call native radical traditions. Since so much of the Trotskyist experience involved applying the Bolshevik legacy mechanically to our country, I decided that David’s experience would help me fill in the blanks.

For about a year, we would get together for lunch down in the East Village where we would chew the fat. One time I got a big kick out of how he was warmly greeted by Quentin Crisp when we walked into a restaurant, where Crisp was sitting at a table by himself. It reminded me of how bohemianism, including sexual openness, and socialist politics go together.

When I joined the SWP in 1967, being outed as a gay could get you expelled. Party leaders defended the policy since supposedly the FBI could get a party member to “turn” by threatening to out him or her to the party. Marxist scholar Christopher Phelps, who was working on an article about gays in the SWP titled “The Closet in the Party”, had gotten in touch with David to sound him out. This led to David writing an article for New Politics titled “Queer Reflections” that I urge everybody to read since it epitomized his sensibility and political instincts.

I EXPERIENCED LITTLE BIAS WITHIN the Socialist Party. The late, and nearly great, Samuel H. Friedman (a Jew who kept kosher and whose wife was an Irish Catholic) said to me “I’ve heard some nasty things about you, Comrade McReynolds, but I don’t believe them.” Dwight MacDonald once said “You aren’t one of those, are you?” But it was never used against me except by some of those around Max Shachtman (I always thought it ironic that Max ended up with Tom Kahn, whose homosexuality was an open secret, as one of the few who remained on his side to the end). Within the War Resisters League (WRL), where I worked on staff for 39 years, it was never an issue, not because there was some secret gay cabal in the WRL, but because the radical tradition of the secular pacifists was much more profoundly radical than that of most Marxists. Bayard Rustin wasn’t hired by WRL because he was gay (or black) but because he was incredibly talented. (Let it be noted, as part of the historical record, and as a reminder that even great leaders have feet of clay, that A.J. Muste, so clearly a mentor for me, resigned from the executive committee of WRL in protest against the hiring of Bayard, because he felt Rustin’s record of making indiscreet homosexual passes would threaten the organization. And Bayard himself, in 1969, when the WRL magazine WIN had a “gay liberation” issue, with pieces from Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and myself, phoned Ralph DiGia to say, “you guys are going to have to fire David — he will destroy the organization.” I never held this against Bayard, understanding only too well what his own experience had taught him.)

What makes David McReynolds so special was his ability to reflect the deeper traditions of the American left that go back to the early Communist movement, what Timothy Messer-Kruse called the “Yankee International”. Victoria Woodhull, who worked closely with Frederick Douglass, launched a Marxist current in the USA that competed with the one sanctioned by Karl Marx and that was led by Friedrich Sorge, a German immigrant. Sorge was not only exceedingly dogmatic, he was also hostile to Black-led protests since they might divide the working class.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

It is too bad that Marx regarded Woodhull as a spiritualist crank. Who knows? If she had received his benediction, we might be living under communism today. The tension between the Marxist high priesthood symbolized by Karl Marx in the 1870s or V.I. Lenin in the 1920s on one hand and the indigenous radical roots of living movements that sprout up according to their own rhythm and affinities has plagued us for nearly 150 years.

When people like Victoria Woodhull, Eugene V. Debs or David McReynolds come along, they deserve pride of place in building the revolutionary movement that is so desperately needed. The last time I saw David was in 2005 or so when I went to a brunch at Cynthia Cochran’s apartment on West 94th Street. She knew David for many years and admired him for the same reason she went with the “Cochranites” in 1954. In my discussions with David over lunch, we always came back to the need for a revolutionary movement that broke with the dogmatic obsession over the “Russian questions”. Like Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman, David knew how to put things into perspective. Sooner or later, the left will cohere around a program that emerges out of our living experience as Americans. David had a talent for sensing the mood of ordinary Americans.

Finally, for a really sweet and revealing interview with David that includes his story of how he decided to accept his homosexuality after meeting Alvin Ailey as a young man. It also includes some great photos of the young David McReynolds who was a handsome devil.


  1. Thanks for linking to David’s brief 2008 article for New Politics. Christopher Phelps wrote a superb article for “Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas” (Vol. 10 No. 4) entitled “The Closet in the Party: the Young Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Workers Party, and Homosexuality, 1962 – 1970.” I suspect you have some way to access it. Do read it — knowing your SWP past, the number of times you’ll find yourself nodding along in agreement with it will probably give you whiplash.

    David was really my only link to the “cultural left” that once was — Allen Ginsberg et al. Reason enough for me to miss him.

    Comment by jschulman — August 19, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

  2. …and now I’m realizing that you mentioned Christopher’s article already. Never mind…

    Comment by jschulman — August 19, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

  3. Your reflections on McReynolds are the best I’ve run across. He was a very warm person and a great communicator in
    person. He stayed with me in Seattle for a week just after his return from Russia in 1989 to talk to all sorts of people about
    Perestroika. We got together with conventional pols, radical groups, mainstream media people and anyone who was curious.
    He was a friend of friends who were WRL members and I had room in my house and the time to drive him around.

    He was a great guest, always humorous, warm and open to new experiences.

    Comment by Mike Ferro — August 19, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

  4. IMO the best single portrait of the thinking of post-war pacifist non-Bolshie native American radicalism is Dwight Macdonald’s essay The Root Is Man in the journal politics that was republished in the early 1990s. It’s an ur-text.

    Comment by HH — August 20, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

  5. David readily acknowledged that he was never a gay activist, but he was open about his homosexuality well before many far leftists like myself dared to be, since we were members of oh so revolutionary groups like the Socialist Workers Party that sometimes banned open homosexuals from being members (not always, since we had at least one openly gay member during the sixties in the Minneapolis SWP branch) and considered homosexuality to be unserious and petty bourgeois. Even at their best after 1973 when the SWP supported “gay rights,” it still would not acknowledge that science shows same-sex love to be part of the mammalian heritage and is just as “natural” as hetero love.David never ran into that kind of hetero bigotry in the Socialist Party. Today, some former SWP members who supported the liberal- reactionary “Memorandum” of the party leadership in 1973 portray themselves as supporters of gay rights and even homosexual love without acknowledging their past heterosupremacist outlook.
    But toward the end of his life, David really did become a gay activist. Among several e-mail lists he maintained, a gay list was one. He provided a unique service to progressive and leftist gay activists (a dwindling cohort) by forwarding items of interest to them. Often several a day would come into my inbox. Then,. around a year ago he announced that he was going to close that gay list. I protested, and urged him to keep up the service, which neither a mostly assimilated gay press nor anyone else was providing. He relented, and kept it going until the end. His passing leaves a big hole there, as well as for others. He occasionally forwarded items I sent him pertaining to Trotskyism and Trotsky (a continuing interest of mine even though I don’t identify with that tendency much anymore), but always noted his strong distaste for Trotskyism.
    Your readers might be interested in this light shed on his final days, which I received from Steve Ault:
    “I contacted Bruce Cronin, who was mentioned in the NY Times obit, for any more information he had about David’s demise. I met Bruce in 1982, who, like myself, was an organizer for the gigantic demonstration in NYC against nuclear weapons. David McReynolds was on the steering committee, representing WRL, so was I, as gay activist without portfolio.

    “What Bruce told me is quite sad and disturbing. David suffered neither a heart attack nor a stroke. He fell and was immobilized, probably for six days before being found. He was alive but unconscious. He died about a day later, succumbing to multiple organ failure from extreme dehydration. Bruce notes that David’s physical condition had been declining rather rapidly at the time, although his mind was still as sharp as ever. From David’s many recent posts, there was no indication, at least to me, of any decline or problem.


    Comment by David Thorstad — August 20, 2018 @ 7:48 pm

  6. That’s sad to hear about how he died. That’s a good argument for those Life Alert gizmos. Fortunately, I have a young wife who will look after me before too long.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 20, 2018 @ 7:52 pm

  7. He deserved this great reflection.

    Comment by Ethan Young — August 21, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

  8. David McReynolds’ passing makes me very sad.

    David was one of my favorite anti-war leaders from 1967, when I first got involved against the War in Vietnam, to all of those imperialist wars onward. I eagerly read his articles and polemics when I was a member of the Bard College Chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. I saw no reason to change my positive opinion of David when I joined the YSA/SWP in December, 1969—no matter what The Infallible Party Leadership said about him.

    Over the decades I met and talked with him at all kinds of venues: from small organizing meetings, to rallies; from discussion at his cramped apartment on the Lower East Side, to one-on-one consultations to seek his advice and aid in our guerrilla theater of political resistance around Tompkins Square Park; and Lower East Side community and social events in between.

    David was approachable and readily engaged in conversation with people who were interested in talking with him; even people with whom he disagreed—particularly with those disagreeable people! In my experience, he was very unlike folks such as Leslie Cagan or Mark Rudd—the sort of “leaders” who are so full of themselves it seems sometimes they could float away like hot-air balloons. David McReynolds’ affinity for people was only one trait of many that made him a good leader of mass movements, whether they were extra-parliamentary actions in the streets, or electoral campaign struggles.

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — August 22, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

  9. There is a fascinating and controversial article on the post-WWII anarcho left called “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy” in the April 1947 issue of Harpers:


    It was written by Mildred Edie Brady, who was the wife of the Berkeley professor Robert Brady, author of The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism. Here’s her Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mildred_Edie_Brady

    I don’t know if she was a card-carrying members of the CPUSA but she and her husband were very Pop-Front. I read the article some time ago but I remember it was quite interesting for its portrait especially of ex-GIs who returned to California after the war and set up anarcho-poetry journals and such. As someone who went after Wilhelm Reich, I think Brady came across this world as Reich was very important to the kind of pre-Beat hipsters on both coasts.

    Comment by HH — August 22, 2018 @ 4:05 pm

  10. No one was sentenced to 6 months for the CD drill protests, to my knowledge. Dorothy Day served a total of 45 days for three arrests.

    Comment by Phil Runkel — August 29, 2018 @ 3:18 pm

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