Julius Jacobson (1922-2003)

Submitted by Anon on 8 December, 2003 - 5:37

Barry Finger concludes his appreciation of the life and work of Julius Jacobson, who died last March. Julius was the founder and editor of the American socialist journal, New Politics.
One of the most agonising essays Julie was called upon to write was "The Two Deaths of Max Shachtman" in the Winter 1973 issue of New Politics. Shachtman had earned the admiration of a generation of radicals of previous decades by his political courage in engaging and opposing and - in Julie's estimation - besting Trotsky, whom he "loved, respected and feared", and for his intellectual and political contributions to the understanding of Stalinism.

In the 40s and early 50s, Max had had unusually warm relations - unusual for the difficult and ungenerous Shachtman, that is - with Julie and Phyllis. Among the most stunning and dramatic photographs of the Jacobsons in their young adulthood were some taken by Shachtman, who was not an infrequent diner at the Jacobson household.

Yet, with admitted trepidation, Julie passed the pronouncement that Max, the unheralded author and eminence grise of coalition politics and of the "realignment strategy", died in the most factual sense a renegade, "a man who reneged on his earlier, most fundamental commitment to social justice…"

"Had he [Shachtman] been able to make contact with the young, who were fresh and receptive to new ideas, might he not have been able to guide some into the camp of revolutionary socialism?" "But why," Julie characteristically asked, "should any of these young people have cocked an attentive ear to Shachtman's revelations about Stalinism when they were accompanied by apologies for the American bombing of Vietnam and plaudits for some of the most reactionary elements in the trade unions and the Democratic Party?"

In this essay, Julie put to rest for a decade any lingering need to further engage the self-entitled "Democratic Left," including most of the comrades of his youth who had by then orbited themselves politically and morally miles away from anything that could reasonably be said to be socialist.

A few years later, Julie had occasion to analyze the neo-Stalinist mist that was fast enveloping the anti-(Vietnam) war movement. In it he found the ultimate tragedy of the Shachtmanite legacy, reduced by his epigones to simple anti-communism, to be clear.

"If the ideological force of Stalinism, in the left wing world is to be exposed and eliminated it can only be done by those who continue in a truly radical, socialist tradition; never by those who compromise with imperialism." This theme foreshadowed Julie's final project that began twenty years later, "The Soviet Union is Dead: The "Russian Question' Remains."

By the end of the 1970s, the Jacobsons had quite literally exhausted themselves. Putting out a quarterly journal on a shoestring and editing the journal as a two person operation had occupied nearly every nonworking minute of their lives.

Julie's had operated a small machine shop, General Machines (one of whose workers invariably answered the phone by announcing, "General Machines, private parts here"). It was taken over by Bell and Howell.

The shop, which had barely paid its bills, in part by having functioned as subsidized employment for numerous movement personalities over the years, was - at Julie's insistence - fully unionised. Its remaining workers were absorbed as a pre-condition by their new employer with full seniority rights and appropriate union wage scales and benefits, a somewhat unusual procedure in such takeovers.

With this transition, the first run of New Politics also came to a close, brought to that by a combination of editorial fatigue with the social isolation and subsequent disappearance of the New Left at the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

In the interim, the Jacobsons edited a volume entitled Socialist Perspectives (1983), which frankly hoped to contribute to a renewal of interest in socialist theory and ideology buoyed by the growing anti-nuclear, feminist and ecological movements during the Reagan years. It prefigured by some three years the forces that again led to the revival of the journal in 1986.

When the journal was resuscitated, Julie made it explicitly clear from the outset that this was to be a journal of Third Camp socialism. Julie's masterful and detailed analysis of the manifold meaning and implications of such politics was fleshed out in greater detail than ever before and "Socialism and the Third Camp" remains, along with Hal Draper's "The Two Souls of Socialism," a classic exposition on the subject.

He took on the spectres that haunted such politics, the apparitions of past Third Campers, who had - so to speak - given up the ghost by their acquisition of a superior political "realism." Where is the Third Camp to be found? In what social forces does it adhere? Does it have a concrete history? What of the Third Camp and bourgeois democracy? And what of it and lesser evilism?

One by one he painstakingly attempted to dissolve the political gunk that had accumulated in opposition to these animating political ideals assembled over a lifetime of revolutionary experience. His conclusion bears restating.

For Third Camp socialists, political and social democracy and a belief in the ability and necessity of working people to govern their own lives are at the core of our socialism; we cannot recognize socialism in any other guise. This is not to suggest that Third Camp socialism is a sectarian and rigid dogma which provides a 'correct line' on all political questions. The concept is broad enough to embrace a rich variety of views, strategies and programs.

But what is imperative is the acceptance of democracy as a common denominator of socialism if we are to overcome the "crisis of socialism" over which we have agonized for so many decades. For the crisis is also in socialism, a crisis of self-definition of who we are and what we want. And since we are convinced that it is the responsibility of socialists to wave the banner of peace, freedom and democracy with one hand, that it follows that the other must be raised in a clenched fist as both affirmation of socialism and in defiance of all the little people in high places who control our lives; against those societies which oppress humanity and threaten its existence.

Some of Julie's finest writings during the ensuing years dealt, necessarily and at length, with American imperialism. The winter 1991 issue, in which Julie analyzed the first Gulf War crisis, actually sold its complete press run. What he observed a decade ago about American foreign policy still rings, if anything, with added truth and a resilient poignancy after the recent carnage. "…(T)o be effective, and deserving of popular support, anti-war activists must make it unambiguously clear that resistance to an unjust was does not mean any support for the Iraqi dictatorship…"

"All of us active in the movement against war in the Gulf should make our own linkage between the struggle for peace and the struggle for democracy in Middle East. We should urge the adoption of a foreign policy which encourages the development of democratic movements and democratic societies in a region now dominated by feudal monarchs, religious fundamentalists and dictators in the Arab world, and by racists and hardline hawks in Israel."

Julie's final project, which he considered the culmination of a lifetime of theoretical reflection rooted in political engagement, was to cast a cleansing light over the Stalinist shadow which had so infected and discredited socialism; to complete, as it were, the work of the Workers Party-Independent Socialist League.

Of this project, three-fourths were brought to print: the introductory essay on the enduring relevance of the Russian question, a discussion of the USSR and the nature of the Second World War, and one on Stalinism and the demise of American Socialism. It was to culminate in a larger theoretical section on the Bolsheviks, Communist totalitarianism and Marxism that, sadly, was never completed.

Still, he left a tantalizing prospect of what was to have come. "What is involved is nothing less than the question of self-definition, of fundamental concepts of right and wrong, of what kind of movement for emancipation must be built and, last but by no means least, what vision we have of an emancipated society."

In the last three years, Phyllis was stricken with a series of debilitating strokes that left her severely compromised and in need of round the clock attention. Julie, unable to care for her himself, shifted his office to Phyllis's nursing home room. There he carried out the day to day business of New Politics.

That is where he did his note taking, his writing, his editing. That is where he contacted essayists to discuss their submissions. That is where he took his lunch and, many days, where he dined in the evening. He was Phyllis' untiring nursing home advocate, overseeing her treatment and summoning specialists when he felt the home to be negligent. He shared his articles with her and took delight in showing her each ensuing issue of the journal.

Except for his stint in the army, Julie never parted a day from Phyllis, and the last years were no exception. Julie refused trips to museums and could not bear to indulge himself even to take in a movie, for fear that his absence would frighten, alarm or disorient Phyllis. He abandoned his weekend cottage and his beloved fishing trips.

On their anniversaries and on their birthdays, friends gathered with Julie in Phyllis's room. When in his last few months he underwent chemotherapy, he would end his day, wan and ill, with a visit to Phyllis, fearing only that his ravaged appearance might shock her.

Julie spent his last months as he had his entire adult life - with enormous reserves of dignity, not a hint of self-pity and with his sense of humor and irony fully intact. He completed the final draft of his article just days before he died and then moved on from his hospital bed to complete the issue's pagination.

For those who knew Julie, it was striking that only in the last few months were we aware of his having aged. Striking because it reminded us how indestructible Julie appeared, one of our generation out of time. If for us, the editorial board of New Politics, Julie seemed never to really grow old, there is an explanation, even if the truth sometimes lurks in clichés.

Perhaps it is impossible to truly grow old, as Ignazio Silone suggested, when one remains as fully and truly faithful to the ideals and commitments of one's youth as did our comrade.

  • This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of New Politics. Subscription details: www.wpunj.edu/~newpol

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