Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

20th century revolutionary

An obituary of the American socialist Carl Cowl

Socialists everywhere will have been saddened to learn of the death last month of Carl Cowl, lifelong American revolutionary, at the age of 96. Carl belonged to that rare breed of socialists whose revolutionary light shone as brightly in old age as it did in his youth. The story of his life is like a survey of the US labour movement in the 20th century.

Carl was born in Minnesota into a family of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He became politically active at the age of 14, when he toured the labour camps of the US Midwest with organisers of the Industrial Workers of the World. In the decade prior to the First World War and during the war itself, the IWW attempted to unionise workers into one great socialist industrial union, irrespective of trade or skill. Many were recent immigrants, and it fought to overcome differences of ethnic and religious origin. The IWW led many major battles, creating a new climate of combativity.

Carl was 17 at the time of the October Revolution in Russia. It was the catalyst that turned him into a Marxist. In 1919 the American Communist Party was formed from a split from the left wing of the Socialist Party. Thousands of its early recruits were either young people of petty bourgeois background or foreign born workers, both groups with little experience of class struggle in the US. Carl joined the then illegal fledging party at its foundation. He was a college student but world revolution seemed imminent and he abandoned his studies to become a full time revolutionary. Later he became district organiser for the Communist Party in Minneapolis and was also an alternate member of its central committee.

However, with the emergence of a new state capitalist bureaucracy under Stalin all Communist Parties were now required to subordinate their interests to those of the new Russian ruling class. Trotsky opposed Stalin's abandonment of socialism and internationalism and he was expelled in 1927. In 1928, the year of Stalin's first Five Year Plan, a small group of American CP members decided to break with Stalin and to support the Left Opposition led by Trotsky. They set up the Communist League of America. They wanted to remain a faction within the CP but were expelled in 1928. Carl was one of the 100 or so members of that group which held their first public meeting in New York in January 1929, and their founding conference in Chicago in May. The first four years of the tendency were tough, cut off from the vanguard, the 7,000 to 8,000 workers still in the CP. They devoted those early years to theoretical clarification and propaganda work, disseminating the ideas of the Left Opposition. Carl became secretary of the Minneapolis branch of the CLA, one of its strongest branches, with a base among coal heavers.

In 1933 the US working class began to fight back. This provided the American Trotskyists with a unique opportunity for mass work. In Minneapolis the great strike wave of 1934 started with the coal truckers who paved the way for the revolt of the entire trucking workforce. In the summer of that year they won a famous victory helped by decisive Trotskyist leadership. These battles heralded, in the years that followed, the greatest movement of unionisation and the most militant struggles in US labour history. The Minneapolis upsurge also made possible in December 1934 the creation of the Trotskyist Workers' Party of the US, of which Carl was a founder member. He did, however, join the Oehlerites, an ultra-left sectarian faction which was expelled in 1935.

The revolt of the 1930s dissolved into world war and the Cold War of the late 1940s and early 1950s which was also a period when world capitalism achieved temporary stability. It was a period when revolutionaries were once again marginalised. Like so many others, Carl became despondent about the prospects for revolution and dropped out of activity. He had a succession of jobs. During the war he was a merchant seaman, then he worked as a toolmaker and a cab driver. After that he started a literary agency, representing, among others, Claud McKay, the West Indian writer.

At the age of 60 when most people would be contemplating the tranquillity of retirement, Carl went back to university, completing a degree in musicology at New York City University. Throughout his life music had been one of his major interests. In the 1920s he'd had a job as a piano player in a silent movie house. He now embarked on a new career as a musicologist, taking part in recent years in a research project at Glasgow University on Middle Eastern music.

Carl's political life revived as a result of the great upsurge of the 1960s. He could be seen on anti Vietnam War demonstrations marching with a new generation of activists.

Carl was also a Yiddish scholar and for many years participated as a tutor in the Yiddish summer school at Oxford University. He became involved in research about life in a Jewish village in Russia 100 years ago, helping to translate documents.

It was at Oxford one summer in the early 1980s that he discovered the Socialist Workers Party. He embarked on a extensive tour of SWP branches, speaking about Marxism and US labour history. In 1982 he spoke for the first time at Marxism, and thereafter attended the annual week long event every year until failing health kept him away in 1996.

In the US he joined the International Socialist Organisation, our sister organisation. His presence at Marxism, an old man of irrepressible vitality who had lived through the century's peaks and troughs and retained an active commitment to socialism, was exhilarating. His absence last summer was a visible gap. But in 1995 he gave a talk on 'Memoirs of an American Revolutionary'. It was a packed meeting which turned out to be his swansong.

It was a source of pride that Carl chose the SWP because he saw in us a living link with the ideals of the October Revolution. For all who mourn his loss and who, like him, see in the struggle for socialism the only hope for a better world, his life remains an inspiration.

Sabby Sagall


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