Dave Melamed died in August of last year at the age of 80. I knew him for over a half century. He was my comrade and my friend. I loved him. At one point in the mid 60's, We thought we were the only persons in the world with whom we had political agreement. Given how totally political we both were, you can image what that meant to us. We made our early mistakes – often bad ones – together. We later made some of our positive accomplishments – I think important ones – also together. I cannot tell you how much I mourn his loss; he is gone, a part of me is gone and a part of history is gone.
With his death there ended a tradition of struggle going back to the end of the 19th Century. As far as I know, Cde. David was the last genuine vestige of the long and bitter struggle of the East European Jewish working class to liberate itself by participating in the revolutionary fight to create a truly human world. I know of other old and still living East European Jews with a similar history there; I don’t know of any who remained true to Bolshevism, the actual moral heartbeat of that tradition.
Let me tell you first about the David I knew – here in the U.S. David was a Sympathizer of the League for the Revolutionary Party, the LRP. He could not be a full member because of massive health problems. However, no one could be more dedicated to the organization and to the revolutionary struggle to overcome oppression and exploitation than was Dave – up to his dying day – literally, as you will see. He argued for our politics. He distributed our magazine wherever and whenever he could. He checked out bookstores handling our magazine in his neighborhood. When the owners gave it less than a prominent position (it wasn’t exactly their best seller) he would put the copies first on the shelf. He regularly sent us political comments and info on left meetings, possible interventions, demos, etc. Often he clogged up our message machine; he was a talker.
He fought oppression as well as his own serious physical and emotional problems. It would be unfair to the personal and political struggle which he waged to simply salute him not only as a comrade but as a fine human being. But he was that. In writing a first draft of his obituary for our website, I said that in all the fifty years that I knew him, literally I did not know of a single human being whom he had ever intentionally hurt. Isn’t that amazing? However, since then, I remembered that David had been married for a number of years in the 1960's and then divorced. There was mutual hurting going on with that, but I cannot remember another instance. He was human, so I assume that they occurred, but... . Although a dedicated fighter for what he believed in, he was a gentle soul. No wonder that 30 – 40 people living in his building showed up for a memorial to him there after his death; no wonder that they footed a significant portion of the costs for his burial and now for a monument. He was a decent and caring person whom people liked a lot.
He loved, read and re-read Charles Dickens. He was critical but ecstatic about Bernard Goldstein’s book, “The Stars Bear Witness,” which described the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the other defensive military struggles of the Jewish proletariat in Poland. He was a scholar. He spoke and read Yiddish, English, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian.
Dave was a library worker until illness took its toll. He suffered two major heart attacks, the first I think was in the late 60's. They destroyed a large portion of his heart muscle. On the way home from a hospital visit shortly after the second attack, he was stabbed in the stomach by muggers who were unsatisfied with the few dollars he had on him. Over the last two decades, his health rapidly declined, yet he remained cheerful and about politics, constantly hopeful and doggedly devoted. He enthused over our new young members. He was in and out of the hospital and got around with difficulty although he would let nothing confine him to his apartment or from doing his duty. As often as he could he dragged himself down to the Village and his favorite French restaurant. You know, the one on Greenwich that says it seats 234 people — 11 at a time. They adopted him, served him at cost and prepared meals consistent with his health needs.
He lived in poverty on social security and other plans. He was proud and tried not to take funds from friends except when he was absolutely desperate, about two or three times in his life. He died possessing a lot of books, about $40 and our undying respect.
Memorials should not create illusions in perfect human beings. That destroys the memory of the real person and their real struggle. Dave had considerable problems which he tried to overcome. He had no problem speaking out against political opponents. However, in phone calls and in writing he would go on endlessly about how great each magazine article was, how marvelous we were, etc. It seemed as if he was afraid that if he said something less than admiring, people he respected would lose respect for him. In general when he spoke to others, he was over-effusive. Over the last years as I got older and crankier, sadly I lacked all the necessary patience which was due him.
In his political commentaries, if you had that patience, you listened carefully to all the compliments and with experience you could pick out his real worthwhile ideas and his actual criticisms. In face to face discussions after the first minutes you could have a real exchange. I learned a lot as I will show you afterward. Let me now turn to his political and cultural history in Poland.
David was born in Poland in 1924 of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry. He left for the United States in the 1930's. His father, Zeleck Melamed, whom he worshipped, was a noted Yiddishist. David gloried in that tradition. You have to understand what that meant – it wasn’t simply a love of the language or the culture – Yiddishkeit, although it was both of those things. Yiddish was the language of the Jewish working class in Poland and elsewhere. To speak it and to create a rich literary tradition it in was an act of defiance against the Jewish bourgeoisie and its rabbinical allies who spoke Polish, Russian, German, Hebrew – anything but Yiddish, the language they sneeringly referred to as the Jargon. Court Jews – those who were tools of the Russian and Polish oppressors and pogromists – were not just the treacherous snivelers in the Czar’s court. They were the wealthy upper class Jews and the rabbis in East and West Europe who preached the acceptance of misery and helped weigh down Jewish workers with the most backward of religious superstitions. Jewish workers even had to sit segregated in the back of the synagogues in Poland. Meanwhile, vermin like the Rothschilds helped finance the Czar while Jewish workers suffered massacres, rape and looting in Czarist inspired pogroms.
There was an ironic saying toward the end of the 1800's attributed to Polish Jewish workers: “Long live the Czar! The next one could only be worse!” Yiddish was born in oppression and exploitation. But it was soon transformed into the language of class struggle. I can’t deal with the whole history. Suffice to say that the Jewish workers threw off the yoke of backwardness and launched fierce battles not only against Czarism and the Jewish upper classes but against capitalism itself. Large sections of the Yiddish-speaking working class became ardently Marxist and atheist. They were overwhelmingly hostile to Zionist chauvinism. They created military defense squads to fight off the murderous pogroms. Contrary to anti-Semites and Zionists, they fought back. They played an outstanding role on the barricades during the1905 Revolution. They had formed the mass Jewish Socialist Bund which, as is well known, over time capitulated to ethnic narrowness and Menshevism. However, that was hardly the whole story. Large sections, later known as the Combund, supported the Bolshevik revolution and joined the-then revolutionary Communist parties.
David’s father was the leader of a small Jewish communist organization which supported the revolution. He met with Lenin several times and they discussed the national question; sadly his notes are now lost to us. He served as a courier between the Kremlin and Trotsky’s Red Army. Once he swam the Dnieper River under machine gun fire to bring financial aid and messages to the front during the bloody Civil War.
You cannot know who David was without knowing that he was totally steeped in that background of struggle about which he knew so much.
I remember only two stories from his childhood in Poland. One day, living in the countryside, a tidal wave of young Polish peasants, instigated by reactionary university students, attacked the town – the shtetl – in which he lived. Dave, maybe 7 at the time, was lucky; he was able to hide in a haystack. The pogromists gathered after their bloody work right next to the haystack. They were arguing among themselves. Despite quivering in fear, he remembers hearing one bewildered young man saying “Why did we do this? These Jews are as poor as we are.”
The other story was sad in a different way. The family was living in a small house with a dirt floor, where the chickens came freely in and out and lived with the family. One day, the family had a feast and only later did David learn that the fowl they ate was his favorite pet. He cried all night and then some.
There is a large cultural gap between those workers (and David) and after the 1930's, their offspring in the U.S., no matter how much sentimentalized slop about East European Jewish life the latter imbibe with Broadway plays. I remember speaking to an old Jewish Bundist who regaled me with stores of the barricades and how they would set up tables outside the synagogues and have feasts on holy fast days. Then he invited me to his grandson’s bar mitzvah. I asked him how he could be so proud about his grandson’s bar mitzvah given his own beliefs. He was genuinely bewildered and said “But he’s an American.” Dave understood the cultural chasm and would not assimilate, surrender, accept it, that way.
In the 1950's he belonged to the Socialist Youth League and then the Young Socialist League, successive youth affiliates of the Independent Socialist League (ISL) led by Max Shachtman who had broken from Trotsky in 1939. When Shachtman led his followers into the Socialist Party as a reformist on his way into the Democrat Party, Dave, myself and a handful of others loosely associated with Hal Draper, fought him, thinking that we were the genuine Shachtmanites. We won the youth, split from the SP majority, but soon found that without a real program, the youth itself split in a variety of confused directions.
The Black struggle was breaking out and had an enormous impact on us. Dave, myself and a few others formed the Civil Rights Discussion Group. We worked day and night in the struggle and our loose group of Black and white activists grew.
We Draperites, militant left Shachtmanites – left reformists, I now believe – soon formed Independent Socialist Clubs in a number of cities in the mid-60's and then, after a disastrous experience with the Peace and Freedom Party, the International Socialists group was formed looking to restore early Shachtmanism and identifying as well with Tony Cliff in Britain.
As a result of the massive ghetto revolts and the wave of wildcat industrial strikes in the U.S., together with huge working class uprisings around the world in the late 60's – early 70's, a number of us including Dave, despite his heart attack, became convinced that even left-Shachtmanism was inevitably anti-working class. We threw ourselves into the struggle and into the books as well. As a result, we embraced authentic Trotskyism in counterposition to the Shachtmanites and Pabloites who sullied the communist banner with their collapse into support of either or both Western or Stalinist capitalism. Expelled in 1972 from the IS, we soon helped found the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL). Dave became a Sympathizer. When that now-dead group also capitulated and we were expelled in 1976, Dave adhered to the revolutionary Trotskyist minority which became the LRP. For one third of a century, he remained a staunch fighter for communism and re-creation of the genuine Fourth International.
He was a serious man; he had serious ideas. There are Yiddishists who still hope for a revival of the old radical culture. Figuratively, they wait for the first radio message from Alpha Centauri which they hope will be in Yiddish. Dave was not a sentimental fool. He sadly recognized that the culture that he loved so well was near dead, buried by Nazism, Stalinism, Zionist nationalism and assimilationism. He mourned the end of the proletarian revolutionary tradition it inspired. However, he deeply believed that the revolutionary banner in the U.S. was passing into the hands of the American Black working class and he threw himself into that struggle passionately, intellectually and before his illness, practically. He wanted to transmit the legacy of the Jewish revolutionary struggle into the greater armory of ideas being forged by the Black liberation struggle in the United States and abroad. Even facing death, human beings crave immortality. Facing the death of Yiddish revolutionism, Dave hoped its legacy would live on to some degree in the heroic fight being made by people of color.
Dave pointed out to me one important point about Polish Jews. They did not think of the Jewish Pale there as being their homeland. Nationalist movements looked to Palestine and elsewhere for their territory. That helped illuminate the fact that Black people in the Southern Black Belt did not regard it as their special homeland either. When nationalist movements developed there, they looked to the West, to Haiti, to Africa, not the Black Belt. Neither Jews nor American Blacks had a territorial basis for any authentic nationalism.
Increasingly, David saw that Latinos and new immigrants would inevitably also share in the leadership of the coming social explosions – although he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t know enough about their role in American society.
Even though they did not share his culture, he thrilled to the struggle of the Palestinians against Zionist tyranny; he regarded them as the real Jews in that land. He knew that Zionism was anti-Jewish at its heart. He pointed to the rightwing Zionist attempts to side with Hitler and their role in forming the collaborationist Jewish police in the ghettoes, serving the Nazis. Israel sneered at the struggle and culture of Jews in the Diaspora, replacing it with the adoption a culture so much like that of the Cossacks and pogromists. He desperately hoped that Jewish workers there would come to see the necessity for a Palestinian Arab workers’ state and would embrace the idea of a revived Jewish autonomous culture within that entity.
When we were young – advocates of Trotskyism in its various forms took history and ideas seriously – not like the desert we see out there today. Dave and I, like most others revered Abram Leon, whose book on the Jewish Question was rightly hailed as a major scholarly achievement for Trotskyism around the world. Leon as a young man broke from Hashomer Hatziair, the far left Zionists and became a Trotskyist leader in Nazi occupied Belgium. Under the eyes of the Gestapo, he helped organize miners’ strikes in Southern Belgium and he tried to build the underground Trotskyist organization which had some weight within the working class there. He also wrote his famous book at that time dangerously reading banned materials in the libraries. He was killed in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 26.
Brilliantly he debunked the myth that a uniquely deep belief in their religion had enabled the Jews to survive for thousands of years of persecution. Rather it was the opposite. Playing a special role within feudal Christian Europe as usurers, merchants and traders was the reason that they survived. Jewish religion was enforced because it marked the boundary between them and the surrounding society. Feudalism could not exist without someone playing such a role but faithful Catholics were not allowed to participate in those arenas. Leon said that Jews were a special People Class in feudal society. Persecution, contrary to Zionist myth was not constant. For much of the time, the monarchs would rely upon and defend their Jewish financiers, merchants and rabbis out of necessity. When finally Christians were able to become merchants, traders and usurious bankers, the special role of Jews disappeared and by the time of the rise of capitalism, Western Jews, now without a special role, mostly converted to Christianity. Later, backward East Europe produced a mass migration of Jews who in turn became what we know as the Western Jews of today.
David was an enthusiastic admirer of Leon’s, but critical from the outset. More so than I was. I learned that he was right. Dave, along with Maxime Rodinson, a famous French Marxist scholar, accepted Leon’s basic premises but argued that Western as well as Eastern Jews had a far more articulated class structure historically and there were always lots of poor and artisan Jews tied to the special role carried out by the Jewish upper classes. Over time, that led me to the idea of Jews as a multi-class People Caste with the merchant class as its main raison d’etre rather than as a single class. It led to understanding American Blacks historically as a multi-class Racial Caste with first the slave class and then the working class serving as the reason for its specially oppressed existence within capitalism.
David thought that young Leon had not yet fully overcome traces of left Zionism. The left Zionists, like many Anti-Semites, claimed that Diaspora Jews were an “inverted social pyramid” with a small toiling class and a large wealthy class at the top. The formation of Israel would lead to kibbutzes and the growth of Jewish labor and a smaller ruling class, laying the basis for socialist revolution. David was so right: Although Leon had thoroughly rejected Zionism, he didn’t yet see the historic role of the Jewish masses in all its real depth and size.
In an effort to be honest, I told you that Dave’s constant need to please people was a noticeable hangup. However, it would be a terrible mistake if you therefore thought he was a physical coward.
Major Owens, before he became a Congressman from Brooklyn, was far more radical. He led the Rent Strike Committee of Brooklyn CORE in the mid-60's. As militants Dave, I and our friends were involved in several such committees around town. Dave, as a CORE militant, after work each day went to a particular section of Myrtle Ave. in the Black section of Brooklyn, to help tenants organize rent strikes – to refuse rent payments until they were reduced and there was decent maintenance.
Major said to me one day that he admired Dave who as a white man daily went into such a tough neighborhood at night, when he a Black man had hesitations about going there. He added that he thought Dave was so successful in his work because the people there had been so beaten down by their struggle to survive that his obvious hangups didn’t mean much to them. Everyone was hung up one way or another by life on this plantation.
I remember a phone call from Dave one day. “Sy, Syele, in every apartment they ask me ‘What’s in this for you, white man?’” He was overjoyed at the perceptive suspicions. We were reformists of a sort at the time, but subjectively we were ardent revolutionists and not middle class do-gooders who condescendingly thought of themselves as altruistic benefactors to the benighted poor. He replied that he knew oppression himself and knew that he would never really be free until they were free.
Dave was a fighter.
Trotsky eulogized Kote Tsintsadze, an old Bolshevik comrade of over 25 years standing who came from Caucasia and who died at the hands of Stalinism in 1930. He said, “Tsintsadze, suffering from tuberculosis, bearing the weight of decades of revolutionary work, persecuted by the apparatus at every step, did not desert his post of struggle for a moment.” He added, “The Communist parties in the West have not yet brought up fighters of Tsintsadze’s type. This is their besetting weakness.” I like to think that some comrades in the West have proven themselves since then. But Cde. Melamed, like Cde. Tsintsadze, both products of the East, have been models of fighting dedication for us.
A few days before he died, I got a telephone call from Dave at the hospital – bedridden and obviously declining rapidly – he said “Syele, I know this will seem strange to you, but its on my mind. Be sure that my copies of the new issue of the magazine are mailed to my apartment. Its important for when I get out of here.”
In the cynical world that we live in today, I know that sounds like melodrama and can raise smirks. Well, the hell with that world!
Without any personal ambition, he dedicated his life to the struggle to end war, genocide, starvation, pestilence, racism, chauvinism, poverty, exploitation, religious superstition and all the other benefits given us by the miserably inhuman society that now dominates our species.
David, Dovidle – danke and shalom.