By Greg Butterfield
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the summer of 1991. I turned 20, and it was my second year as a communist activist in New York. I was assisting comrade Sam Marcy, the founder of Workers World Party, as his “secretary” – I put that in quotes because I was really not up to the task, which had most recently been handled by Leslie Feinberg. I certainly didn’t have the self-confidence or life experience to handle working with such a big personality under such stressful conditions. (Sam’s partner Dottie Ballan was very sick and attended by a home healthcare worker 24/7, and both things made Sam very tense.) I didn’t last in that position very long, but in retrospect, of course, it was amazing to have that experience.
Anyhow – I remember helping Sam with research when he was writing in late August-early September 1991 about the Emergency Committee’s attempt to oust Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the USSR, and the aftermath of their failure to call on the masses to intervene, when the pro-capitalist forces banned the CPSU and shut down Pravda. I remember thinking at the time, how much of his life and energy Sam, who was born in Russia, had given to trying to help the Soviet Union back onto the revolutionary path over decades of writing and organizing. And how painful it must have been to be forced to witness and analyze the terrible events of the summer of ’91. (Certainly after the collapse of the “August coup,” there was a sense of the inevitability of a full-on counter-revolution, although Sam maintained a position of revolutionary optimism throughout.)
But Sam never faltered. He stayed keenly focused on his work, researching the historical and theoretical precedents and presenting an orientation to the party and the whole movement. Not only that, but he spoke weekly, sometimes daily, at public and internal meetings. We took to the streets, brought a petition to the Soviet Mission to the UN, and put out an emergency edition of Workers World speaking about the crisis in the USSR to workers attending Solidarity Day II in Washington.
The 75th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s assassination and death recalls another memory of that summer. Sue Bailey and I accompanied Sam on a brief getaway to the Jersey shore. This was difficult for Sam because Dottie couldn’t come along (and frankly, he needed a break from the hospice care atmosphere of their apartment). Sam had been coming to the Jersey shore since his youth, first as a Communist Party youth organizer from Brooklyn, and later, when he left the CP and joined the Socialist Workers Party. One morning, as we were walking along the beach, Sam told us how he had taken a similar walk on the shore with comrades after they had heard the news of Trotsky’s death in the summer of 1940. One of them had asked, despairingly, who will fill Trotsky’s shoes now that he is gone? And Sam replied, matter of factly, “I will.”
Now, if you never met Sam, who was about the most genuinely humble person ever, this might sound really arrogant. But Sam knew his abilities and his responsibilities and there was not a bit of arrogance – when he recalled it with a chuckle those many years later, he made it sound downright self-deprecating. But he was right. He carried on the thread of revolutionary thought and action inherited from Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, unbroken for more than 50 years, under the immensely changed circumstances that followed the Second World War, through the Korean War and the witch-hunt and the complete, utter collapse of 99.9% of Trotsky’s followers into social-democracy and the anti-communist gutter.
He carried that thread through the resurgence of revolutionary communist ideas in new forms, in China, Cuba, Korea, and the national liberation movements worldwide. He developed Lenin’s teachings on the national question and applied them in a consistent way to the U.S., something never done before. All this and more he bequeathed us (and not him alone, of course) first in the form of Workers World Party, which remained the repository of this historic legacy for nearly 20 years after Marcy’s death, and now in the Socialist Unity Party. I and many other comrades will defend the legacy to the end, because it represents a truly unique strand of the international communist movement, and of the historic lessons won through blood by the workers’ movement.
August 21, 2015
Updated August 21, 2020