Eva Chertov: 50 years in the fight for socialism
BY ARTHUR HUGHES
NEW YORK—A meeting was held here September 11 to celebrate the life and political contributions of Eva Chertov, a member and supporter of the Socialist Workers Party for more than 50 years. Chertov died August 7 at 69 after a yearlong fight with brain cancer. The meeting was organized by party supporters in the New York area, with collaboration from the party branch here.
Among the more than 100 people at the event in midtown Manhattan were those who had worked with Chertov for decades, as well as others who had never met her but wanted to learn about the activity of the party she had made a lifelong commitment to. Present were her sister Judi Chertov and brother-in-law Steve Halpern; friends who shared her interest in the arts and the Bronx Botanical Gardens; and workers from the Jewish Home in the Bronx who had assisted her during the final months of her life. Participants included a number from her hometown of Philadelphia, and from Boston and Montreal.
Timeline of political activity
A display of photos, Militant and Young Socialist articles, and a timeline gave participants a feel for the expanse of working-class political activity that Chertov, as well as her mother, father, and sister, had been immersed in. As a teenager in Philadelphia she took part in the struggle to end Jim Crow segregation. In April 1960 she participated in the founding conference of the Young Socialist Alliance, which opened on her 18th birthday.
Chertov was active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the early 1960s. She was involved in the movement against the Vietnam War; in actions demanding legalization of a woman’s right to choose abortion and adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment; as an SWP candidate for Congress; in the fight against racist opponents of bilingual education and community control of schools in Latino communities in New York; and in the party’s communist political work in the industrial unions.
Since the late 1980s, Chertov had been a supporter of the SWP. She was a volunteer translator and proofreader in the Pathfinder Print Project, which helps the party keep the revolutionary continuity of hard-fought working-class struggles available in books and pamphlets for use by new generations of fighters.
The meeting was chaired by Lanie Fleischer and Gale Shangold, who recounted some of the experiences they shared with Chertov as party members and then supporters. Fleischer, who opened the meeting, said that as a new party contact in 1972, she had worked with Chertov in the fight for abortion rights in New York City. They had been friends and collaborators ever since.
Shangold read parts from some of the more than 20 messages to the meeting. These included a letter from Tony Thomas, who met Chertov in the late 1960s. “Eva was a communist who believed in communism, the Socialist Workers Party, the Cuban and world revolutions, and that was it,” said Thomas. “Whether as a member or supporter or whatever, she was always firm, always fighting, and never quibbling. Because of Eva there will be more like her, more and more until we get rid of capitalism.”
Another message was from Michel Prairie, a leader of the communist movement and French-language editor of Pathfinder books. He said that Chertov, who had taught in public schools in the Bronx since the early 1990s, had told him a few years ago “how eager she was to retire from teaching—how education under capitalism is an institution that destroys the worth of both students and teachers. Eva had a deep and firsthand understanding,” Prairie wrote, “that there won’t be any education for working people as long as our class—the real bearer of culture and progress—had not taken power out of the hand of our exploiters.”
Party supporters who organized the meeting prepared a fund appeal to support the work of the SWP. Some $4,000 was raised.
Learning proletarian norms
Vivian Sahner spoke about experiences she shared with Chertov in Atlanta in the early 1970s. Sahner, now a party supporter and Print Project member in New York, described lessons she learned as a new cadre about the party’s disciplined proletarian norms.
As in other party branches, SWP and YSA members in Atlanta were working with others in 1974-75 to support the fight in Boston to defend school desegregation and halt the stoning and other attacks on school buses carrying children who were Black. Ultraleft groups sometimes resorted to violence against other supporters of desegregation to break up meetings and try to impose their line. “Eva always took these situations completely seriously—she got quiet and calm,” Sahner said. She recounted an occasion “when Eva leaned over to me and said, ‘Vivian, it’s time to take off your earrings!’”
Also speaking was Dave Prince, a Socialist Workers Party leader who first got to know Chertov during a YSA-organized trip to Cuba in 1969. Among his other responsibilities today, Prince helps organize and lead the party’s work with the leadership of the Print Project. Prince emphasized “the indispensable place of the communist continuity that Eva was part of and the work of the project that Eva gave her efforts to.”
Judged on deeds, not prejudice
The meeting by chance took place on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. In his remarks, SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes recalled Chertov’s reaction to the public meeting the party held in New York just three weeks after those events.
“She said she was grateful I had ended my talk with the words ‘as-salaam alaikum,’” Barnes said. She understood, he said, that the inclusion as political equals of workers and youth from Muslim backgrounds and communities was a necessary part of building a revolutionary proletarian party in the U.S. and elsewhere.
One reason so few African-Americans who are Muslim in the United States are attracted to the self-destructive terrorism of political Islamist groups, Barnes said, is the still-living example of Malcolm X. Based on his own life experience, Malcolm made a compelling case that in order for fighters to organize to win in the struggle against racism and oppression of all forms, they must “divide their politics from their religion.”
Barnes said he first met Chertov more than 50 years ago in a hotel elevator in Havana, Cuba, in the summer of 1960. Chertov, who was 18, was there as a member of the Young Socialist Alliance delegation to the First Latin American Youth Congress, initiated by the leadership of the Cuban Revolution, which had triumphed a year and a half earlier.
Barnes, a student in Minnesota, was 20 and was in Cuba for 10 weeks to find out about the Cuban Revolution and its leadership and to bring the political lessons he learned back to young people and others in the United States. Chertov and her comrades were the first YSA or SWP members he had met.
Barnes recalled he was wearing a Lenin button given to him by a leader of the Stalinist youth organization in the Soviet Union and was carrying some pamphlets about Cuba from the Communist Party USA that he had picked up while traveling through New York. But Chertov didn’t write him off because he had showed interest in literature of an opponent political group. “I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Cuba,” he said. “Eva judged people by what you did and how you fought.
“You had to earn Eva’s political suspicion,” Barnes said. “If you did, then you’d have a hard time with her. But it was because of your political conduct, not prejudice.”
Eva’s parents, Morris Chertov and Pearl Chertov, were longtime SWP cadres, Barnes said. She was raised in a home in North Philadelphia whose living room militant youth and fighting organizations in the Black struggle came to know as somewhere they could meet and talk. “There was no requirement you agreed about everything with Pearl or Morris,” said Barnes.
After the government blacklisted Morris from working as a seaman in the late 1940s, Barnes said, he held a job for many years in Philadelphia in a plant organized by the United Electrical Workers. While the UE leadership was dominated by the Communist Party, they made up a small percentage of workers there.
“Morris won respect on the job,” Barnes said. During the many strikes and skirmishes against the boss there over those years, “he fought together with fellow unionists, CPers and others alike. And he never hid his views or stopped pushing the Militant.”
It was also in Philadelphia, Barnes said, that the SWP had been most deeply involved in organized defense work to stop the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and to free Morton Sobell, convicted in 1953 by federal authorities on frame-up charges of “conspiracy to commit espionage.” Pearl, a well-known SWP cadre, was a respected member of the defense committee there.
“It’s not accurate, as a few messages said, that Eva—or Judi—were ‘red diaper babies,’” Barnes said. “Yes, they had conflicts with their parents. Families are families. What can you say? “But they never had to come to grips with their parents politically, as many children of Communist Party cadres did. They never had to make up rationalizations about how their parents were ‘good people’ despite the world movement they’d been part of. They never had to listen to second thoughts by Morris and Pearl about what they had done with their lives.”
Eva was deeply affected by the new rise in the late 1960s of the struggle for women’s rights and then gay rights, Barnes said. “To her that fight was a deeply personal one.”
But like others in the communist movement, he said, she also came to recognize there will be no American socialist revolution that doesn’t build on the growing confidence of women as they are incorporated in larger numbers into the workforce and become engaged in social and political battles of all kinds.
Barnes said Chertov had asked him about progress on the next book by Pathfinder, Making the Revolution within the Revolution in Cuba: From the Santiago Underground to the Federation of Cuban Women by Vilma Espín and Acela de los Santos.
“Eva had lived and worked in Cuba for six years in the 1960s,” he said, “and she knew a lot about women’s efforts there, with support from the central leadership of the revolution, to confront the pressures and transform the conditions carried over not just from capitalism but from millennia of class society.”
Fighting 365 days a year
Barnes said he would never forget the 1970 SWP campaign in New York when Chertov ran for Congress against Barry Farber on the Republican and Liberal party tickets and Bella Abzug on the Democratic ticket.
“We don’t run bourgeois election campaigns,” Barnes said. “We don’t run to win votes. We run in order to reach out more broadly not with ideas, not with platforms, not to say our party can beat the bosses’ parties, but above all to involve other workers along with us in fights that point a way forward for our class.”
He pointed to the example of a battle by 1,300 locked-out sugar workers in the Upper Midwest. “SWP candidates and campaign supporters talk about the Militant, which tells the story of fights like that every week,” Barnes said. “We use books and pamphlets that Eva, like hundreds of other Print Project members the world over, worked to keep in print for use by party cadres.”
Our campaigns not only help us protect our constitutional rights as a political party, Barnes said. Above all, they “attract working people toward a proletarian organization whose year-round political activity will eventually make bourgeois elections redundant, as the working class carries out a successful revolutionary fight for power.
“We don’t tell workers what ‘our’ candidate or ‘our’ party can do for you,” Barnes said, “but how our class can and will fight together with you.”
Chertov was a master at that kind of campaigning, Barnes said. And that drove the Stalinists who in the 1960s honeycombed Democratic Party clubs in Lower Manhattan crazy. That’s why he enjoyed walking into a public school in Greenwich Village to vote for Chertov. When Barnes asked those staffing the polling station how to cast a write-in vote, “some of them Democratic Party volunteers wearing the big hats Abzug was famous for, the room suddenly became very quiet and very cold,” he recounted.
No need for mirrors
“Eva was totally comfortable in her own skin,” Barnes said. “She didn’t need a lot of mirrors in her apartment to know who she was, what she was doing, or why. She was classy, not fashionable.”
Barnes described running into her more than once on a late Sunday afternoon, both before and after she got ill, at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. “She loved walks there. She loved the free concerts. She never had children of her own, but she loved spending some time with the kids running all over.
“She reveled in the massive Henry Moore nudes that were on exhibit at the Botanical Gardens a few years ago,” Barnes said. “She marveled at their immense space and perspective.”
Chertov never stopped being interested in revolutionary working-class politics, Barnes said. It was part of her world, part of the many things she took pleasure in.
For those in the communist movement, “your life is part of a continuity not only with revolutionary proletarian struggles of the past two centuries, but with those who have resisted oppression throughout the history of class society,” Barnes said.
“And you know—as we’ve learned from revolutionary leaders from Lenin and Trotsky, to SWP leaders such as Jim Cannon and Farrell Dobbs—that we fight not for a set of ideas, but for the line of march of a class whose triumph opens a marvelous road to putting an end to exploitation and oppression of every kind.”