An excellent political overview of the last eighty years, as well as a powerful picture of the life of a U.S. communist.
Sam Stark: A Life Dedicated To Workers Party
BY DAVID CREED
LOS ANGELES - A celebration at the Pathfinder bookstore here June 1  honored the life and political contributions of Sam Stark, a longtime member of the Socialist Workers Party who died from complications of a stroke on May 2 at the age of 86. Some 40 people attended the event, including his son Sherman Stark, other relatives, friends, and comrades of the SWP and Young Socialists.
Eli Green, a member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, chaired the event. On display were front pages of the Militant highlighting major world political events that Sam participated in over his six decades in the communist movement. Messages from comrades who knew and worked with Stark over the years were read throughout the meeting.
Laura Anderson, a young airline worker and member of the International Association of Machinists, gave opening remarks. She read a message from Betsy McDonald, who worked with Stark as a member of the Los Angeles SWP branch for many years. "No assignment was drudgery," McDonald said. "Even the simplest tasks were important to Sam... I think his lighthearted ways and sense of humor contributed to his proletarian perseverance and staying power."
Francisco Picado, a member of the SWP National Committee who is currently working a stint in the printshop that produces Pathfinder Press titles in New York, also spoke at the event.
"The most important thing that I and others from my political generation can thank Sam for is his contribution to the steady, disciplined functioning that is essential to build a proletarian vanguard," said Picado. In a message to the meeting, Betsey Stone and Joel Britton noted that "Sam was a vital part of regularizing hours during which you could be sure the bookstore would be open."
A reminder of the importance of having the bookstore open at regular hours occurred during the event. Ten people, most of them youth, came in, bought $100 worth of revolutionary books and stayed for the celebration. Some attended a Young Socialists class on the Nicaraguan revolution afterward.
Turn to industry in 1980s
Having radicalized as a youth through experiences in his native Nicaragua, Picado joined the communist movement in Los Angeles at the height of the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions in the early 1980's. "Sam not only embraced these revolutions, but many other young immigrant workers like me who came around thirsty for politics," he noted.
Picado was convinced to join the effort in Los Angeles for some party members to get into union-organized garment plants to be able to carry out political work among this layer of the working class, composed mostly of recent immigrants and members of oppressed nationalities, with lower wages than many other industrial workers.
"There were some folks in the party at the time who disagreed with the Nicaraguan, Grenadian, and Cuban revolutions and opposed forming fractions in the industrial unions," Picado noted. "They boycotted and split from the party in this period. Some of them argued especially against the turn to the needletrade unions, saying it was not worthwhile to orient to workers who were illiterate and ignorant. Sam and his companion May Stark not only disagreed with these faint-hearts, but would sell the Militant and Perspectiva Mundial in the garment district with me and others.
"Neither was proficient in Spanish," he continued, "but they would give me competition selling Perspectiva Mundial. They along with the leadership of the branch understood that even those workers who were illiterate were not ignorant. They couldn't read a book, but they could organize a demonstration or a fight. The intense political fight around this issue in the branch and the building of these industrial fractions in Los Angeles forged my loyalty to the SWP."
John Benson, a leader of the Los Angeles branch of the SWP and member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, spoke about how Sam became a communist and his experiences in the communist movement dating back to the 1930s Depression.
Stark was born on March 16, 1911, in New York. His family immigrated to the United States from Warsaw because his father faced the Czar's draft. Sam left school after the eighth grade to help support the family, first working at his father's bed repair and sales store. He began boxing and had three professional fights. Sam did experience some difficulty finding work. Some places made clear that "Christians only need apply." Finally, he found work as a delivery driver in the garment center in New York.
As the depression deepened, Sam began to look for answers to the crisis of the 1930's. His brother had joined the Communist Party earlier and explained to Sam that capitalism was the source of the crisis and the Russian revolution pointed the way toward a solution for working people. Sam joined the Communist Party in 1934.
As the Spanish revolution was heading toward defeat as a result of the betrayals by the Stalinist, anarchist, and centrist misleaderships, Sam began to disagree with the Communist Party's policies. He especially opposed their use of force against those who disagreed with them. He began reading Leon Trotsky's articles in the Socialist Appeal, the name of the Militant at that time. He was expelled from the CP in 1938 and soon joined the SWP.
One of his first activities in the SWP was a rally in 1939 to protest a meeting of the German-American Bund and other fascist organizations at Madison Square Garden. Some 50,000 workers showed up to protest the fascists, in an action initiated by the SWP. Quoting from a Socialist Appeal article describing the antifascist demonstration, Benson said, " `Surrounded by an unbreakable phalanx one SWP speaker after another lifted on the shoulders of huskies made terse and militant speeches to the workers who cheered so lustily they could be heard, literally, from blocks away.' Sam Stark was one of those huskies."
While in the Bronx branch of the SWP Sam was asked to help a new member, Mamie Ordin (later known as May), study the Socialist Appeal. She became his lifetime companion. Like Sam, May Stark remained an active member of the Socialist Workers Party until her death in 1996.
As the preparations for the imperialist slaughter of World War II picked up, many middle class elements who had been attracted to the U.S.S.R. became panicked, refused to continue defending the Soviet Union, and buckled under the pressure of the U.S. war drive, especially after the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact. This was reflected in the SWP and led to a split. The party's majority turned to the working class and young members began working in basic industry. Sam and May were part of this majority.
Following W.W.II the U.S. rulers were unable to stop the struggles of colonial people for independence or overthrow the Russian revolution. Sam welcomed the rise of the colonial revolution, especially the Chinese revolution.
Victimization by political police
The rulers began preparations for new wars. As part of these preparations the Truman administration began restricting democratic rights and attacks on labor's right to organize and strike. "Sam had direct experience with the political police several times in the 1950s," said Benson. "They visited his home asking questions, but as a worker communist he knew that you can't talk to the political police of the capitalist class, and refused to cooperate."
At this time Sam was member of the United Rubber Workers, working at the Firestone tire plant in Los Angeles. At the height of the Korean War, Sam was a committeeman in his local union and was elected delegate to the 1952 California CIO Convention. He was fired from this job after the FBI visited the plant. Sam would find work for several weeks or months and then be fired. Finally he began working as a cabinet maker and remained in the Carpenters Union until his death.
Sam's experience with anti-Semitism made the fight for Black rights especially important to him. He was a member of the NAACP and worked alongside other members of SWP to help build the beginnings of the what became the civil rights movement.
In their letter, Stone and Britton said of Sam's work in the 1960's, "Sam had been inspired to redouble his party- building efforts when the Cuban revolution and the movement against the Vietnam war led to an increase of recruitment of youth in the 1960s. One of his weekly tasks in the mid-1960s was to visit several bookstores in the Los Angeles area, which took the Militant and some of our pamphlets and books on consignment. He was proud of the Socialist Workers Party's support to Malcolm X and the nationalist awakening in the Black community. Some of the bookstores he serviced so consistently with gratifying results were in the Black community."
Andrea Morell, a member of the Los Angeles branch of the SWP from 1970-1972, sent a message. She described this period, including the bombing of Cambodia and subsequent student strike, the Chicano moratorium, the imposition of the War Powers Act in Quebec, firebombings of the offices of the Party and YSA by counterrevolutionary Cuban exiles, and the opening battles to win women's right to choose abortion. Morell wrote, "Sam and May were veteran communist workers who, by their presence in our movement, were testimony not only to the revolutionary capacity of working people but to their ability to construct the needed revolutionary instrument."
In the mid-1960s Sam supported a position that the Chinese Communist Party ceased to be Stalinist and became a revolutionary party in order to carry out the Chinese Revolution. Most members of the SWP who held this view quit and joined Progressive Labor, a Maoist split from the Communist Party (CP). "Sam opposed this, saying, " `They left the CP because it was not Stalinist enough,' " Benson stated.
Gale Shangold, a member of the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees, and the chairperson of the SWP in southern California, also spoke at the event. She made a fund appeal for Pathfinder Press in honor of Sam's life, which raised $680 for the publisher of the revolutionary books Stark worked so hard to distribute.
Carlos Hernandez, a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Young Socialists, read a message from Diana Newberry, a YS leader and member of the SWP National Committee who worked with Sam in Los Angeles several years ago. "Comrades like Sam and May were like magnets to me," Newberry wrote. "They were talking about revolution and were inspired by struggles taking place in the U.S. and around the world. Sam was able to remain a rebel because he had a party and a program. He had a lifetime of experiences to contribute and he welcomed the youth that were coming into the movement. This is what is available to youth today. A party of equals who draw on the strengths of each individual to build a movement that will lead our class to the socialist revolution."
Hernandez, a recent graduate at Occidental College, added that he had seen and talked with Sam at that school's library, where Sam regularly went to read and study. "He had a reputation among the students of reading every periodical available."
"Sam considered he had the most fulfilling life one could choose, " said Benson in his closing remarks. "He never lost confidence in his party or the working class. His attitude towards the party is best put in his own words: `The party enriches you. It doesn't take from you. It gives to you.' "