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Leo Huberman: Radical Agitator, Socialist Teacher

John J. Simon, a writer, editor, and broadcaster, is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.

This month marks the centennial of the birth of Leo Huberman, who, with Paul M. Sweezy, was founding coeditor of Monthly Review. Arguably without Huberman’s editorial and publishing skills, his radical imagination, and his indefatigable commitment to the idea of an independent, clear-sighted socialist clarion, MR might well have been stillborn. Instead, the magazine—and Monthly Review Press—became a leading voice of independent Marxian socialism both in the United States and worldwide. Much of this was due to the unique collaboration and friendship between Leo and Paul and to the larger MR “family” that included, initially, Gertrude Huberman (Leo’s wife, who died in 1965) and Sybil H. May, MR’s office manager until her death in October 1978. MR’s first office was in Leo and Gert’s Barrow Street apartment. It was there that the two editors would meet to plot the course of the magazine, shaping its worldview, enlisting its contributors, and deciding each issue’s contents. And it was there that Leo, especially, molded MR as an enterprise, a particularly risky task in those early years of the Cold War and witch-hunts.

Huberman’s role during the first two decades of MR’s life was but one event in a consequential life marked by his dedication to the political, social, cultural, and historical education of students and workers, of people from all walks of life. And fueling this passion was his engaged advocacy of socialism. In a brief autobiographical sketch written shortly after MR’s founding in 1949, Huby, as his friends called him, wrote:

I was born in Newark, New Jersey, on October 17, 1903, the last but one of eleven children, of whom six died before my birth. My parents were worker intellectuals who became middle class. I attended the public schools in my native town and graduated from the local high school at the age of sixteen.

Summer vacations were an opportunity for rich industrial experiences. At the age of eleven I worked in a celluloid factory, nights from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M. I was a “runner” for a Wall Street brokerage house, a salesman at Nedick’s (orange drink), a laborer in a glass factory, an electrician’s helper, a clerk in a post office, and a night “checker” in a telegraph company.

All this before I graduated from high school. After two years at Newark State Normal School, I received my teacher’s diploma and started teaching in the elementary schools at the age of eighteen.

In 1925, I married a high school classmate—also a school teacher [Gertrude Heller]. For our honeymoon we hitch-hiked across country to California and back to New Jersey.

My schedule on those early years was rather full. I would teach in Newark until 3:15 P.M., take a bus and a train to New York for afternoon classes at New York University, then train and bus back to Newark, where I taught English to foreigners.

I received my B.S. from New York University in 1926, and that year moved to New York City to teach at a private experimental school there.

That school, the City and Country School in New York’s Greenwich Village, was at the heart of the burgeoning radical progressive education movement that emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century. Reformers like John Dewey, Carolyn Pratt (founder of the school), and Elizabeth Irwin made the first progressive schools laboratories in their effort to place children at the center of their education, empowering them not only with knowledge, but with the power to inquire, to understand, and to learn how to make decisions about their own lives. As commonsensical as that may sound, it was considered a subversive idea, resisted then as it is today. Huberman taught at City and Country because of its radical approach and became a passionate advocate of progressive education. It was there that he met Sybil May, later a stalwart of MR’s early years and coauthor with Leo of the still-vital pamphlet, The ABC of Socialism (1953).

Huberman writes,

After the publication of We The People [his groundbreaking history of the United States from the perspective of its working people] in 1932, my publisher asked me to write a textbook history of the world. In preparation for this task, I left teaching and went to London to study at the School of Economics there, and at the British Museum.

On my return to the United States, I took on a number of various jobs while writing books at night.

It was during this period that Huberman wrote Man’s Worldly Goods: The Story of The Wealth of Nations (1936), a popular political and economic history of capitalism. Both this book and We The People were initially commissioned as texts for young people before being revised for adult audiences. In the latter form they became standard works for the radical education of workers in the growing socialist, communist, and labor movements in the United States and abroad. In 1938, Leo published The Labor Spy Racket, a biting investigative exposE9 of the illegal and often bloody techniques used by corporate employers and their goons against the militant unions of the 1930s. And in 1940 he published a short economic history of the United States called America, Incorporated.

Huby continues:

I was, for several years, associate editor of Scholastic magazine, then later, a member of the Human Relations Commission of the Progressive Education Association. In 1938–39 I was chairman of the Department of Social Science, New College, Columbia [that university’s experiment in progressive higher education]; labor editor of the newspaper PM [New York’s legendary non-commercial left-wing daily]; in 1941 a columnist for U.S.Week. From 1942–45 I was director of the Department of Public Relations for the National Maritime Union, CIO; from 1946–47 I was editor of the Pamphlet Press division of the publishing firm of Reynal and Hitchcock; and in 1949, with Paul M. Sweezy, I founded the magazine Monthly Review.

Evenings and vacations were spent in teaching, in schools for workers. Our Leadership Training Program at the National Maritime Union [NMU] became justly famous. Time magazine, reporting on our union bookstore said: “NMU’s apparatus includes some of the slickest trade union literature in the world, most of it the work of Leo Huberman. Members are laboriously trained [at the union school] in procedures. Skippers have learned to respect and fear the shipboard committees who handle seamen’s beefs.”

Interestingly, the only self-congratulatory quote in the brief autobiography relates to the achievement he most valued in a remarkable career: worker’s education. During his NMU years he made the slogan “every ship a school” into a reality. During the long, monotonous—but very dangerous—voyages through U-boat infested waters during the Second World War, on-board libraries were used by sailors to teach each other the history of worker’s struggles, Marxism, and socialism as well as the great literary classics. Huberman was also a prolific pamphleteer, writing Storm Over Bridges in defense of the Harry Bridges, the Australian-born leftist west coast longshore union leader threatened with deportation; The Great [New York] Bus Strike (1940); and The NMU: What it is, What it Does (1943); and with Paul M. Sweezy, Socialism is The Only Answer (1951); On Segregation, The Crisis in Race Relations: Two Nations, White and Black (1956); and The Theory of U.S. Foreign Policy (1960), among many others.

The autobiographical note excerpted above was evidently written in the early 1950s and so does not include Leo’s central role in launching Monthly Review Press (with the publication of I. F. Stone’s The Hidden History of the Korean War) or his appearance as a hostile witness before the McCarthy Committee in 1953 (his testimony was printed in the August 1953 issue of Monthly Review).

Among MR Press’s achievements in those years were the publication of Agnes Smedley’s The Great Road, a biography of Zhu Deh, the founder of China’s Liberation Army, Paul Baran’s germinal The Political Economy of Growth and Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital. In the fifties and sixties, with MR’s growing international reputation, Leo and Paul traveled widely, meeting with writers and militants. Increasingly Asia, Africa, and, especially Latin America became a focus. In 1959 and 1960 MR’s editors visited Cuba, touring the island with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In advance of most other analysts, in their celebrated book, Cuba: Anatomy of A Revolution, they concluded that the revolutionary transformation taking place was socialist. The Cuban revolution continued to be examined closely for the remainder of Huby’s life with many articles and another book, Socialism in Cuba (1968). In addition, under Leo’s guidance MR Press published Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare (1961) and Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1968).

But despite travel, Huberman was indefatigable, speaking, writing, and organizing on behalf of MR, always seeking to improve the magazine and to broaden its scope and influence. In his last years of his epochal life, Leo probed and challenged the ongoing tragedy of white supremacy in the United States; to this end in 1958 MR published as a special summer issue (and later a book) The Wall Between. Anne Braden’s book, a National Book Award finalist, offers an insider’s view of the early history of the modern civil rights movement. In good Hubermanian fashion the work became an important teaching tool for students and young activists of that era, as well as those of today.

Leo’s friends would find this account blemished if it failed to mention that he was soft-spoken, full of warmth, and a great lover of games: tennis first of all, but also poker and scrabble. Conversation was varied and unpredictable, ranging from politics to the films of the Marx brothers, often carried on walking through the streets of Greenwich Village, Huby guiding his interlocutor by gently holding an arm.

Huberman died on November 9, 1968. One could say that Leo then moved from life to legacy, one that informs and galvanizes the MR family still.

2003, Volume 55, Issue 05 (October)
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