Old Lefties: An Oral History

Editor’s Note —

These poems emerged out of oral histories of the American Left that Paul Buhle conducted forty years ago. They are not literal transcripts, but lyrically condense the stories he heard. Buhle traveled New York from Coop-City to Ozone Park to the Lower East Side to Brighton Beach for this project. The old leftists were octogenarians when Buhle interviewed them. They are now all gone from this world. In a recent conversation remembering these encounters, he said “I was there for them at the end of their very long political, cultural, personal lives. These were the grandparents that I never knew in my own family. I loved them dearly, and they seemed to know that.” That Buhle has chosen the poetic form to distill the essence of these oral histories somehow seems right. For many unassimilated working class and lower middle class Jews, and many of these voices are Jewish, poetry was not an elevated language for elites, but a vernacular used to communicate a belief in justice and the concerns of daily life. 


Lithuanian editor

In 1921, I came to the U.S.A.
A college in Indiana was open to us and friendly.
We took courses but aimed to make a revolution.
I was always an editor and became an editor again,
this time in New York.
Young Lithuanians were building social halls and they liked Russia.
Was there a Communist
who would write the history of American labor?
So I wrote it in English, 1927, and it was published.
Was there a Communist
who could write the history of the Molly Maguires?
So I wrote it, in 1932 the book came out.
And then I finished with writing history books.
A daily paper in Lithuanian was enough work.
Our proletarians needed guidance. Also, entertainment.
Now I am almost finished. The paper is a weekly.
We are in Ozone Park it seems like forever.

Sci-Fi Writer Editor

The Futurions Club in New York, 1938:
A bunch of leftwing teenagers, all Jewish but me.
Isaac Asimov and a handful of us less talented kids
who would write books by the dozens and edit, besides.
We thought Russia had a more scientific civilization.
Later on, we didn’t think so.
But we still lived in a crazy, stupid society.
We made a living with a lot of steady typing.
We met young writers and helped them.
We put out their books with our own imprints.
We had parties and fun and fanzines and fan conventions!
Serious writers, important writers, considered us nothing.
We might as well have been doing romance novels.
But we didn’t think so.
There was a big split over the Vietnam War
with the “Big Eyed Monster” (BEM) writers against us peaceniks.
And then we got middle aged and Isaac died.
He was the one who got respect, the rest of us had readers.
Science Fiction was a way to tell a story.
The story was: humans, you better wake up!

The Ancient Socialist

It’s not true what they used to say, long ago.
I was NOT disowned in 1908 for questioning
…the Labor Theory of Value.
Dad was still editing The Daily People
and I was a loyal Party member.
But the IWW threw him out—which threw us out.
What was the point of the Socialist Labor Party going on?
I joined the Socialist Party’s left wing, with my pal, Lou Fraina.
He had a tragic life ahead:
Moscow/Mexico/New York/Yellow Springs.
I stayed here, the whole time. Mostly on Long Island.
For a while, I edited a Labor Yearbook.
And found smaller things to do for labor and the Left.
I had a happy life, a normal life.

Newspaper Writer

We had an office on East Fourth with the printer down below,
they also printed the BROOKLYN TABLET,
the right wing diocese weekly.
It was just business to them.
On the 2nd floor, our greeter, was assigned by the Party
to keep tabs on us.
It was OK, he worked free.
Upstairs, the three founders of our paper had died
or gone into exile or were fading away,
leaving us juniors on the job of
The Paper of the “progressives”
on the fringe of the frayed Popular Front.
We juniors joked, but only with each other,
about a typical inside feature
“Fashions in People’s Hungary!”
Old Communists read our paper on the subway,
with the Daily Worker hidden inside the pages.
Or that is what we heard.
We covered civil rights and peace movements
that commercial papers ignored.
And ran ads like “Dance with Murray Sherman
in Kerhonkson—Open All Jewish Holidays!”
In the middle page, the Buying Service,
mostly Vitamin E and Paul Robeson LPs.
On Saturdays, East German typewriters were picked up.
A fellow repaired them and brought them back in a week.
Pete Seeger was our annual fundraiser.
We were almost killed off by a Maoist who took over in 1972
and drove our old readers away.
We limped toward collapse some time later.

Hungarian-American Newspaper editor

We organized big antifascist events, around the country.
All the way from the 1920s and Horthy to the end, 1944.
Who were the big names for our side? We called them the two Belas.
Bela Lugosi and Bela Bartok
We didn’t have to watch the movies Lugosi made.
We could listen to Bartok!
Lugosi wrote bigger checks.
Later he became addicted to drugs.
He wanted to be something beyond a monster.


Paul Buhle interviewed dozens of old-timers from the Bronx to Brooklyn, mostly between 1978-1983. He was a Senior Lecturer at Brown University until his retirement in 2009. He has written or edited more than 40 volumes on labor, radicalism and popular culture, and in recent years has produced a dozen nonfiction, historical comics.

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§ One Response to “Old Lefties: An Oral History”

  • John O'Brien says:

    One small correction, I noticed in describing th eFuturian group background, the participant stated there was only one who was not Jewish in that group. One of my mentors was James Kepner. He was active in that group and is in the picture that shows many then, in the Futurian group. He was not Jewish. So there were at least two!

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