Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Review: The Town of N

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Once again on the crimes of Stalinism: reviewing the critical reception of Leonid Dobychin’s novella The Town of N 


Owen Hsieh


The Town of N by Leonid Dobychin is a novella about a nameless boy in provincial, pre-revolutionary Latvia. Beginning in 1901 when he is seven years old and concluding a decade later. It has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, there is hardly a plot, chronological in style, it is replete with 100 different characters over 102 pages. Something of a minor epic, it has a number of thematic threads. It delights with a litany of understated literary references from the naive perspective of the young boy while creating a compelling portrait of what parochial, pre-Soviet, provincial life.


While chronicling the major events in the first quarter of the 20th century with the introduction of rubber tyres, the electric light, the gramophone and living pictures, the disastrous Russia-Japan war, and the failed revolution of 1905, this allegory sparkles with literary metaphor.


The town of N is a reference to Nikolai Gogol novel Dead Souls, which is set in a town of the same name. Some of the characters are smug, bigoted and mean, Gogol’s characters seem to reappear! For instance we see another instance of a Chichikov the con man, the insipid Manilov, the misanthropic Sobakevich, the miser Plyushkin, and the untruthful Nozydrov. It also contains references to the works of Cervantes, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dickens. 


Innovative, playful, ironic and inventive, rich in symbolism. Each reading delights with a series of new discoveries. Minor details that are seemingly hardly worth examining on the first reading wait to be discovered and rediscovered on the next read through. This is a good example of the novel that the serious critic would aim to read once per year, re reading it anew with fresh eyes and (ideally) a greater appreciation for the nuance with the historical and literary references.


The Translator, Richard Chandler Borden, explains Dobychin’s method in his introduction to the novella: 


“Dobychin’s texts demand close reading and rereading. Much information necessary for appreciating their subtleties is revealed sequentially and inexplicitly.”


“[He] was an excruciatingly, slow writer, who would spend days even months on the tiniest of details, often producing stories of but four or five pages in length and expressing astonishment, perhaps disingenuously, that others could churn out so many works of dimensions attractive to publishers. The result of such laborious creation is that the reader may invest fully in each detail - each word, each oddity of syntax, diction, or style - confident it has been selected for its maximum informativeness. Nothing has been left to chance.” 


This book is a joy to read, a full appreciation of all the subtleties of this novel hardly seems possible in this short review. This is a work of genius by a modernist master.


But sadly, the appearance of his novel preempted vitriolic denunciation in the ensuing year that led ultimately to the authors suicide. 


“Dobychin's experimentalism was not understood by his contemporaries, as it adhered neither to the dictates of socialist realism nor imitated the ornamental prose of Pilniak and Zamiatin, and he remained on the periphery of Russian literary life." 

(Cornwell and Christian (eds.), Reference Guide to Russian Literature, 1998, p. 53).


After the replacement of the various artistic schools and unions with the official union of Soviet Writers in 1934, and the adoption of the ‘new line’ of socialist realism in all the arts at its congress the same year. Dobychin had the great misfortune of publishing in 1935, a year prior to the Stalinist campaign against formalism reaching its apotheosis. 


Dobychin takes the unenviable title of being probably the last work of formalism published in this period and was savaged by the Stalinist literary critics.


Where formalists sought to analyse literatures form, structure and style rather than its socio-political content. The adherents of Socialist realism gave primacy to political considerations in literature, aiming to create works that showed the positive side of Soviet life with a blend of optimism and patriotism after the policy of socialism in one country. It discouraged abstraction and experimentation and favoured a conventional straightforward narrative structure. The Town of N was an anathema to the socialist realists. 


“Socialist realism was a special theory worked out for the sphere of art, establishing a sort of normative aesthetic code, which could not be deviated from without incurring penalties.” - (Boris Kagarlitsky - The Thinking Reed, 1989, pp 112).


Dobychin was singled out in 1936 as the first whipping boy and chief formalist. With unsubtle hints that he was a class enemy and accused of sharing the views of the novels protagonist: 


After a fierce meeting with the writers union on March 25th, 1936: 

“He responded only by stating that, regrettably, he could not agree with what had been said and departed. He disappeared the next day, after organising his affairs and confiding plans to kill himself to an acquaintance, he later proved to have been a police spy assigned to report on his activities. He was never seen again.” 


His body was fished out of the Neva river months later, a presumed suicide. 

Leonid Dobychin


It is a tragedy that Dobychin joins the ranks of Bulgakov, Babel, and a generation of Russian Avante Garde authors who were born from the creative impulse created by the Bolshevik Revolution, with the democratization of the arts and the ensuing flourishing and healthy competition of the artistic schools of thought but were later repressed or silenced under Stalinism. Dobychin’s life was cut untimely short, and all we have of his literary legacy is a collection of short stories entitled: Encounters with Lisa and other stories, and this novella. 


It is worth quoting Trotsky and Rogovin at length to give the concluding comments to highlight the opposing perspective of the left opposition against the philistinism of the Socialist realists: 


“While the dictatorship had a seething mass-basis and a prospect of world revolution, it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fiber, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick. During those first years, rich in hope and daring, there were created not only the most complete models of socialist legislation, but also the best productions of revolutionary literature. To the same times belong, it is worth remarking, the creation of those excellent Soviet films which, in spite of a poverty of technical means, caught the imagination of the whole world with the freshness and vigor of their approach to reality.”


“In the process of struggle against the party Opposition, the literary schools were strangled one after the other.”


“The bureaucracy superstitiously fears whatever does not serve it directly, as well as whatever it does not understand”


“The struggle of tendencies and schools has been replaced by interpretation of the will of the leaders. There has been created for all groups a general compulsory organization, a kind of concentration camp of artistic literature. Mediocre but “right-thinking” storytellers like Serafimovich or Gladkov are inaugurated as classics. Gifted writers who cannot do sufficient violence to themselves are pursued by a pack of instructors armed with shamelessness and dozens of quotations. The most eminent artists either commit suicide, or find their material in the remote past, or become silent. Honest and talented books appear as though accidentally, bursting out from somewhere under the counter, and have the character of artistic contraband.”


“The life of Soviet art is a kind of martyrology.” - (Trotsky, the Revolution Betrayed, 1937, pp 153-156). 




“There is no place for talented people on Soviet soil, that party policy in the realm of art excludes creative experimentation, the independence of the artist, and the display of genuine mastery.” He associated the possibility that Soviet culture might flourish with the establishment of a democratic regime in the land, based on the political views which the Trotskyist have been defending”. - Isaac Babel in conversation with Eisenstein (Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938: Political Genocide in the USSR, Vadim Z Rogovin, 1997, pp 227)


Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Review: The Palestine Laboratory

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The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World Antony Loewenstein, 2023, Verso Books/ Scribe Publications 

Reviewed by Owen Hsieh, Jan. 9, 2024

“The economy abandoned oranges for hand grenades” - An Army Like No Other: How the Israel  Defence Forces Made a Nation – Haim Bresheeth-Zabner 

In May 31st of this year, Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist from Australia wrote a  history of the Israeli arms and surveillance industry examining how their products are ‘battle tested’ in Gaza and the West Bank and sold across the world.  

The Palestine Laboratory was published only a few months  prior to Hamas’ Operation Al Aqsa Flood and Israel’s swift  and brutal response, which has been likened to a second  Nakba. Loewenstein and The Palestine Laboratory have since garnered a lot of public interest with the title being catapulted to the best-seller list.

Israel is in the top ten weapons dealers in the world, its arms exports surged in 2021 by 55% to be worth  approximately US$11.3 Billion. The production and export  of arms is Israel’s leading export and a mainstay of its  economy.

The state of Israel has repeatedly demonstrated it will sell weapons to anyone who wants them, including pariah states such as: Apartheid South Africa, Suharto’s Indonesia, or Chile under Pinochet. Israel has approved every defence  export since 2007 without exception. 

The Israeli arms industry is guided by a philosophy summed up by the former head of Israel’s Defence Export Control Agency, Eli Pinko,  quoted at a private conference in 2021:  

“It’s either civil rights in some country or Israel’s right to exist. I would like to see each of your face  the dilemma and say: ‘No, we will champion human rights in another country.’ Gentlemen it doesn’t work.” 

This can be understood by looking at Israel as playing a role of minor partner for US Imperialism and  as ‘sheriff’ for the Middle East. Where the US has preferred covert support in lieu of public backing, Israel has been able to act as its proxy and provide the material and technical support to states in  official disfavour.  

“With Reagans war on communism, and Washington’s partnering with right-wing death squads from  Nicaragua to Honduras and El Salvador to Panama, Israel’s role was viewed as indispensable in providing both weapons and on-the-ground experience.” 

“Israel Supported the police forces of Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica during the Cold War  when the US Congress had blocked the had blocked US agencies from officially doing so.” 

Loewenstein has used WikiLeaks cables and a variety of other sources to uncover information which  highlights the role that Israel has played in global politics, gaining insights and information that is usually secreted and hidden from public oversight, subject to national security censorship in Israeli  state archives.

Loewenstein has taken many notes from the other notable histories of the Israeli Defence Forces,  including Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman and has catalogued a wealth of other information including the role of Israeli military contractors in  patrolling and monitoring European borders to maintain Fortress Europe, and selling spyware such  as Pegasus to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers such as Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who used Israeli software to track and murder the dissident voice of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These secondary narratives in The Palestine Laboratory deserve a feature length  history in and of themselves.


Sunday, December 10, 2023

James Creegan: a Marxist maverick

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James Creegan, a lifelong revolutionary socialist and a good friend and comrade, died on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023, at the age of seventy-six, following a lengthy illness. I had the good fortune to know Jim and collaborated with him on educational and political projects over the last ten years. Over time, I learned something about where he came from and the forces that shaped him. Much of the material I present is taken from a memoir Jim wrote and circulated among a few friends. All quotations are taken from his memoir unless otherwise indicated. This article was first published in the Weekly Worker edition of Dec. 7, 2023.

Note: An earlier version of this obituary mistakenly listed the League for a Revolutionary Party as participating in the slanderous claim that Jim Creegan was a "scab".   This has been corrected. 


Jim in Greece, August 2018

Formative Years

 Jim was a red-diaper baby, born on June 27 1947. Unlike many baby boomers, he did not rebel against his parents but learned from them. Both his parents were in the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. His father, Bernard, but Barney” to his friends, was more political than his mom Selma née Rubin. His father came originally from what is now Northern Ireland and joined the British CP in Scotland in 1923. He came to the U.S. in 1930, where he worked as a union organizer for  the CP, and later for the CIO. He fell out with the party in 1945 and was not active politically after that though he maintained his sympathy for the party. When the international Stalinist movement went into crisis, beginning with Khruschevs secret speech” in 1956, when the crimes of Stalinism were revealed, first to a select audience, and eventually, to any CP member who had eyes to see, Jims father reacted by adopting a left-Stalinist orientation. His position was quite different from that of other former members disillusioned with the CP, who were turning to liberalism and anti-communism. When the Sino-Soviet split happened he sided with China.

 From the New Left to Trotsky

It was therefore no accident that Jims earliest political orientation as a young man leaned toward Maoism. His first political affiliation was at Penn State in 1965, where, as a convinced Maoist, he entered the network of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). He was for two years chair of the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the headiest days of the student anti-war and radical movements. In If I Had a Hammer, Maurice Isserman, a historian of the American left, argues that the children of Communists were a more essential element of the New Left than is generally recognized. Jims experience bears this out.

Jim had his road to Damascus moment in his senior year when he read Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy at the suggestion of a fellow member of Students for a Democratic Society  (SDS). As he put it years later,

This biography changed my political views more than any single work I've read, and I began to take more of an interest in Trotskyism.

His newfound interest in Trotskyism however did not immediately translate into a political affiliation.

After graduating college in 1969, Jim returned to his hometown, Philadelphia. He remained there for two years during which he became active in the local chapter of the New American Movement (NAM). The NAM was basically a grouping of New Left refugees trying to reconstitute themselves politically. He entered graduate school in philosophy at the University of Colorado (Boulder) in 1972. He belonged to the NAM chapter there as well, but his main emphasis was on study--deepening his understanding of classical philosophy, Hegel, and Marx.

Jim returned to Philly in 1977, a more educated and convinced, Marxist than before. He had it in the back of his mind that the next phase of his life had to include organized politics. He always believed abstractly that any Marxist worth his/her salt must belong to a party-type organization. In his own words, Jim wrote about this period of his life,

I felt somewhat guilty about not having acted upon that belief by following the more serious refugees from the New Left who joined various parties in the early 70s. But I felt the need for more knowledge at the time, so went to grad school instead. And I  hadn't burned my bridges to academia even after I left Boulder. I enrolled in the Political Economy grad program at the New School (which, as it turned out, was like what people often say about communism: appealing on paper, but disappointing in practice), and moved to NYC in 1979.

Adventures in the Spartacist League

 It was in this period that Jim began reading the newspaper of the Spartacist League (SL), Workers Vanguard. From the start Jim felt a kinship with its polemics. He wrote of his engagement with the SL publication that,

…it reinforced much of what I felt about the rest of the left circa 1980: that most individuals and organizations had moved markedly to the right along with ruling-class-generated public opinion and emerged in far too flaccid a state to meet the challenges of the Carter/Reagan years .

Jims reaction was understandable. As a revolutionary socialist in formation, he had a gut reaction against the abandonment of radical politics by many of his contemporaries from the 1960s generation. The fact that Jims reaction coincided with his introduction to the Spartacist League is one of those contingent events in a life that nevertheless expressed a certain logic. The Spartacist League was vociferous in its denunciation of what they considered opportunism on the left, more so than any other organization claiming to be Trotskyist. It very much was in consonance with Jims uncompromising convictions as a Trotskyist. Jim later explained his affinity for this side of the SL:

I am by temperament a controversialist, who relishes the clash of ideas, the cut and thrust of polemic. The witty, pugilistic style of WV seemed to me to partake more of the authentic spirit of communism in its early pre-Stalinist incarnation, much of which my father had retained from his youth and passed on to me.

Once he became convinced of the correctness of a political stance Jim would brook no apologies for those misguided individuals on the wrong side of that issue, and he did not suffer fools. However, after a while Jim did have second thoughts about the Spartacist style that attracted him initially. He pointed to their “acerbic style” and their “excessively abrasive and hectoring "interventions" at the political meetings of other groups.”  The SL’s interventions often degenerated into what he described as “the accusation and insult that had become an SL trademark.”

Jim’s initial deep commitment to a political organization that gave expression to his revolutionary impulses certainly had its admirable side. But it also harbored a fundamental problem. Once he became convinced of something it was exceedingly difficult for Jim to pause and retrace his steps and consider that he may have been mistaken. That was my judgment based on many discussions I had with Jim. No matter how much his original enthusiasm for the SL changed into a deep opposition both to their policies and to their internal regime, he always looked back to the SL of the 1970’s as their golden age.

To cite one example, Jim indicated more than once that a fundamental issue which cemented his sympathy for the SL was the full-throated support the Spartacist League provided to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Jim and I never agreed on this issue. I found the SL’s slogan, Hail to the Red Army’ repugnant. It created the pretense that the Russian tanks that went into Afghanistan in 1979 had a direct connection to the heroic Red Army of 1919 that defeated the counterrevolutionary forces arrayed against the newly established Soviet state. The Spartacist League, and Jim, had this notion that any military intervention by the Soviet Union was an expression of the Stalinist bureaucracy defending the gains of the October Revolution. While it was true that the forces arrayed against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul were reactionary Islamists backed by the CIA it was also true that the Soviet-backed regime did not come into existence as a result of a popular uprising. Rather it was the inheritor of a series of coups backed by Moscow and had little popular support. The SL by this point in its political evolution had elevated the Stalinist bureaucracy at the expense of the international working class. While it was incumbent on Trotskyists to defend the Soviet Union, despite the bureaucracy, against imperialism, it did not follow that the Stalinist bureaucracy had somehow become a progressive factor in world politics and it certainly did not follow that Trotskyists were obliged to support whatever global political maneuver the Stalinist bureaucracy involved itself in. Once you substitute a bureaucracy for the revolutionary potential of the masses, as the SL did, you wind up with some very bizarre – for a Trotskyist – positions. The most notorious expression of this was the publication by Workers Vanguard in 1984, of a black-bordered death notice on its front page marking the death of the former KGB and Soviet party chief Yuri Andropov.

But even when Jim was an enthusiastic supporter of the SL’s perspective, he never became an apparatchik who failed to question the leadership, the kind of person that inhabits every group, one who is content to follow orders. Exactly the opposite was the case. Jim always had a mind of his own and refused to become the obsequious follower that other members of SL became.

Jim’s description of his duties when he was a member of the Spartacist League testifies to his unselfish spirit, sacrificing much of his personal life and income as a soldier for the cause of the revolution. Even years after he had left the SL Jim still thought that those onerous work assignments were legitimate though he also became angered by the unequal treatment meted out to different members. Jim was assigned numerous duties on a daily basis involving newspaper sales, sales of literature and meetings with fellow SL members, in addition to a regular and much-dreaded early morning sale where he had to arrive at 7AM at a remote location in Brooklyn. By way of contrast, the head of the Spartacist League lived like a king.

Listen to Jim’s depiction of the corruption of the Spartacist leader, James Robertson, and the regime of exploitation built around his needs:

Maybe now you can better appreciate why those of us who joined the BT later on were so enraged that  Robertson, however greatly he had sacrificed to build the SL in the past, was then having a basement playroom built with our labor for his nocturnal escapades, flying Concorde--many times more expensive than a regular passenger jet--having a hot tub installed ( again with organizational funds and labor) in his NYC apartment, and demanding a special contribution over and above dues to buy himself a house in the Bay Area.

When Jim joined the SL, he came as part of a wave of new recruits inspired by their campaign for a victory for the Salvadoran rebels and opposition to a compromise with leaders of the death squads that had plagued El Salvador. But from the start the S L never fully trusted him because he came to them as already formed politically instead of “the preferred tabula rasa minds, upon which the leadership could effortlessly inscribe its wisdom and ‘organizational norms’.”

As a result, Jim was given tasks that mostly segregated him from other comrades lest he “infect” them with his independent spirit. He wrote,

…because of my reluctance to join full-throatedly in Robertson's amen chorus, I was shunted off into the lowly position of lit director… isolated from other members on the second floor of the SL compound, where I occupied the only permanent work station. The other members were assigned to the upper floors, only passing on occasion the lit shelves where I worked.

The SL never recognized the asset they had in Jim and instead of encouraging his political and theoretical development they kept him occupied with lots of make-work tasks. In retrospect, the worst crime they committed was undoubtedly their refusal to allow him to contribute to their publications given Jim’s enormous talent for political-historical analysis.

 The Spartacist Afterlife

 Jim remained in the SL for 5 years, from 1981 to 1986, until his inevitable break with them. He thereupon joined the Spartacist spawn known as the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). Jim developed differences with the SL position on various questions – the details are unimportant – but the real driving force for his break with the SL was undoubtedly his disgust with the cultish behavior of its leadership and the endless series of purges of members who came into conflict with Robertson. He thereafter found a home in the IBT where he remained for the next 10 years. The IBT, like the SL, was obsessed with the “Russian question” and felt that one’s position on the Russian question was the litmus test for whether one was a genuine Trotskyist. The IBT accused the SL of deviating from the “correct” position and the SL likewise made the same accusation of the IBT. In many ways the IBT led a parasitic existence off the SL. But Jim found a more congenial home within the IBT since he was finally able to publish, giving vent to his polemical talents.

In time Jim became disenchanted with the IBT. Years later he explained that,

They [the IBT] believed that the program remained valid regardless of what happened in the world. They had no clue in terms of analyzing newer developments in the class struggle and in politics. [1]

It troubled Jim that although the IBT had at that time existed for 20 years it had failed miserably to attract members and was the same tiny group that it was at its inception. One would think that if your goal were to change the world and you remained a tiny group over the years that had absolutely no influence on the working class, you should ask why this failure and critique whatever practices you have engaged in that led to this sterile abyss. One would think that, but only if one were ignorant of the ways of the various grouplets that populate the extreme left. Such questions never occur to them as they blithely ignore reality.

One incident stands out during Jim’s tenure in the IBT. He had worked for a number of years as a clerk at the office of the Village Voice, a famous New York weekly that featured some of the best journalists in the country. In 1996 the maintenance workers at the building housing the Village Voice went on strike, part of a city-wide strike, against the companies that were contracted by the building owners to do their maintenance. Jim was the shop steward of the United Auto Workers branch that represented the Village Voice employees. The striking maintenance workers belonged to a different union and made it clear that their strike was against the company that employed the maintenance workers, not the Village Voice. The Voice employees, with the assent of the UAW local and Village Voice  management, took out the trash themselves. The striking building maintenance workers did not object to this accommodation. The only other option would have been to allow the building’s maintenance contractor to bring in scabs to do that job. The Village Voice owners also stopped all payments to the building maintenance contractors for the duration of the strike. In addition, the Village Voice UAW local, largely because of Jim’s efforts, raised $3,000 for the striking maintenance workers in an unprecedented show of solidarity.

The Spartacist League newspaper, Workers Vanguard, always ready to find something with which to trash their IBT rivals, said Jim was a “scab” for participating in the Village Voice’s attempt to keep their operations going. The IBT put out a pamphlet with the title, Sectarians, “Scabs” & Socialists, which defended Jim against the slanderous “scab” charge. The union local also put out a bulletin, titled Support to Strikers, So Long to Scabs, which explained that the actions taken by the Village workers were in support of the strike by the building’s maintenance workers. Village Voice management also came to an agreement with the union to stop paying the building maintenance fee until such time as the building maintenance worker’s strike was settled.

 This was back in 1996. Move forward 20 years to 2016. Jim is suddenly confronted with the news that the IBT, which had defended him in 1996, had now “repudiated” the pamphlet defending him and had concluded that Jim had been a scab after all. The IBT further [falsely] claimed ignorance of the details at the time as their rationale for having defended Jim in 1996! Jim responded to these slanders with a brilliant piece that skewers the IBT and the SL. It is worth quoting the beginning of Jim’s response to give you a flavor of his inimical polemical style:


Old Lie Makes New Converts

The principal service that the microscopic and pompously named International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) has performed for the left was to expose the Spartacist League (US) and its affiliates in the International Communist League (ICL) as the personality cult that they are. Unable to answer the truthful testimony of the IBT (and its predecessors, the External Tendency, and the Bolshevik Tendency), the Spartacists fired back with a cascade of lies about their accusers, worthy of the   vipers’ nest this organization had become. Now, in a turn more pathetic than pernicious, the IBT has taken to retailing one of the lies directed against me when I was a member of their group over twenty years ago. I hesitate to reply only because I fear that I might make myself look ridiculous by expending so many pixels over something that won’t matter a tinker’s damn to anyone outside the  time capsule inhabited by the Spartacist League and its derivative groupuscules. But, as Trotsky said, the historical record should be accurately maintained, even in its minutest details. [2]


Jim was denounced not only by the SL and the IBT, but also by another Spart spawn, the Internationalist Group (IG). Anyone who could earn the wrath of all these small-minded sectarian outfits deserves a medal!

A revolutionary without a party

 After leaving the IBT in the mid 1990’s, Jim was finally able to flourish as a writer, an educator, and a trenchant critic of contemporary culture. And as I later learned  Jim was also a great raconteur, a poet, and a competent singer. Yet ironically, in this most productive period of his life, Jim was not affiliated with any political group. For someone who always believed that “any Marxist worth his salt should be a member of a party” this was undoubtedly a bittersweet period for him.

As a result of Jim’s work as an activist in the UAW local and his outspoken politics, he was forced out of his job at the Village Voice in 2002 after new owners took it over. Jim’s next job was that of a substitute teacher in the New York City public school system. The job was often very gratifying as Jim’s talents as a teacher made him an instant favorite in practically every school to which he was assigned. However as much as Jim enjoyed teaching, the earnings of a substitute teacher in the New York public school system are quite meager and the benefits even worse. But the job suited Jim insofar as he often had the afternoons free to read or write.

It was in this period that Jim’s literary and polemical talents shined as he became a regular contributor to the UK-based newspaper Weekly Worker. He wrote dozens of articles for the Weekly Worker starting in 2007 and ending in June of 2022. Jim’s oeuvre was not confined to strictly political essays, which he did masterfully enough, but also touched on history and culture. One notable example was a review of a film by Ken Loach about the Irish war of independence and subsequent civil war, Ken Loach's use of Irish history. [3]  

When the pandemic hit, Jim was assigned to the well-known science-oriented high school, Stuyvesant. Jim made a huge impression on his colleagues and students at Stuyvesant. The students knew him as the teacher who sang the attendance call. He worked at Stuyvesant up until several weeks prior to his death.


 Ironically, Jim outlived the Spartacist League. The SL’s founder-leader, James Robertson, died in 2019 at the age of ninety. The cult he began did not survive his passing. The newspaper of the SL, Workers Vanguard, ceased publication for over a year following his death. Eventually a group based in the UK attempted to revive the corpse of the SL. They held an “International Conference” where they attempted to diagnose the ills of the SL that led to their demise. Jim was following these events and noted wryly that for all their “self-criticism” the self-appointed resurrectionists of the SL never said a word about the corruption of the Robertson regime.

The International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) suffered a major split in 2018. The issue that precipitated the split was, as you may have guessed, the Russian question. Following the split the IBT was left with fewer members than it had when it started out almost 50 years ago.  As Jim explained at a Left Forum panel in 2019,

Now the IBT, which was fewer than twenty members, has the rare distinction among Trotskyist grouplets that they managed to split over the Russian question thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union! [4]

I met Jim ten years ago in a seminar on the Russian Revolution organized by the Brecht Forum. When the Brecht Forum dissolved the following year both of us continued with its successor organization, the Marxist Education Project. Although we did not agree on every political and philosophical question, we had enough affinity on basic issues to collaborate on a number of projects. Among these was a walking tour in New York inspired by Trotsky’s 9-week sojourn in that city prior to his arrival in Russia in 1917. We also worked together, along with Marilyn Vogt-Downey, on a special broadcast on radio station WBAI commemorating the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.  Jim was also a participant - and often a co-facilitator - in a series of classes on Hegel that I taught through the Marxist Education Project. Among Jim’s many contributions to that class series one that stands out for me was Jim’s masterful lecture on the French Revolution.  I will miss our back and forth sparring over our different interpretations of Hegel.

 In addition to our political collaboration Jim and I developed a personal bond. Both of us came out of the 60’s generation and both of us joined small Trotskyist groups following a flirtation with the New Left.  It turned out that we knew several people in common.  I learned that Jim had known my first wife before I met her, when they were both members of SDS at Penn State. It also turned out that the groups we joined, in Jim’s case the Spartacist League, in mine the Workers League, began life in the same opposition faction of the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960’s. And we both witnessed the toll that the years of Reaganite reaction inflicted on the 60s generation.  Many did not survive the trauma when the optimism and Utopian spirit of the 60’s clashed with the dismal, self-centered culture of the 80’s and 90’s.  We both knew people whose lives were cut short by mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.

Any account by me of Jim’s political life would not be complete if I did not mention that Jim and I had a fundamental disagreement about the very basis of Trotskyism.   Jim, in his later years, had come to the conclusion that the premise behind the launch of the Fourth International by Trotsky in 1938 was  a mistaken assessment of the nature of the epoch. Trotsky thought that we were living in a period of the decay and terminal decline of capitalism and that therefore the objective conditions were ripe for socialist revolution. Jim felt that Trotsky’s assessment of capitalism in the 20th century was mistaken and cited the post-war boom as evidence of that.  I thought that Jim was being too literal in his interpretation of Trotsky’s intent. While it was true that Trotsky did not anticipate the post-war boom (not that anyone else did either) his pronouncement on the nature of the epoch was not meant to only apply to the immediate situation capitalism faced in the 1930’s and the decades following but was a  judgment of an entire historical period whose length could not be predicted in advance. I also felt that while Jim’s commitment and active participation in the struggles that emerged in the last sixty years were second to none, he was at the same time overly pessimistic about the potential for the rebirth of a militant working class.  Jim would undoubtedly have retorted that he was a realist, not a pessimist, and that my optimism was based on illusions I inherited from the Trotskyist groups with which I had been associated. (Jim provided a detailed presentation on this topic in a panel at the Left Forum.) [5] Yet no matter how strong our disagreements I knew that with Jim I was dealing with an intellectual giant who was  not easily dismissed.

I should also mention that Jim was a wonderful raconteur who had mastered the art of storytelling. I always enjoyed going to an Irish pub with him.

Jim’s memory will be cherished by his friends and colleagues, some  of whom have known him since childhood, others more recently. He leaves a legacy of commitment and independence tempered by his wit and good humor.

Alex Steiner

New York, Dec 2, 2023


Jim standing in front of a monument to Lord Byron. Jim loved the English, Irish and Scottish poets.

[1] Platypus Affiliated Society, panel at Left Forum, June 30, 2019, Beyond sect or movement: What is a political center?


[2] Excerpt from private email from Jim Creegan, Oct. 3, 2016.

[3] Weekly Worker edition of April 18, 2007, Ken Loach’s use of Irish history

[5] Ibid. Beyond sect or movement: What is a political center?