Frank Lovell


Veteran Trotskyist Frank Lovell died recently. I append the "official" NY Times obituary to the bottom of this post, which contains observations unlikely to be found there. I was a former member of the group that expelled Frank Lovell as part of an ideological shift away from Trotskyism in the early 1980s.

When I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, there was a memorable series of classes given by movement veterans. These classes were supposed to help to "proletarianize" new recruits like me, the son of a shopkeeper and a philosophy student at the New School. While there were no plans to "colonize" basic industry at this point, the party leadership thought that we could get some vicarious exposure to proletarian politics by listening to the old timers.

Frank's speech was devoted to "Building the Party in a time of Repression." I can remember it like it was yesterday. Frank, like many of the old-timers, knew how to communicate. He provided rich anecdotal material about what is was like to be a revolutionary in the 1950s. He was an autoworker in Detroit and branch organizer. He said that they had to close down the party headquarters and cease having public meetings, since the state police always showed up and took photos of people coming and going. Eventually the branch held meetings at people's homes, usually over poker games. The factories were dangerous places as well. If you were known as a "red," you could get chased from the plant and beat up, even by workers who remembered you as somebody who made great sacrifices to build the UAW. In the depths of the repression, the branch decided it was necessary to run a candidate for Mayor. They drew straws and Frank got the short one.

During this period a faction fight developed in the SWP that reflected differences in the worldwide Trotskyist movement. The European leadership, consisting of Pablo and his disciples Ernest Mandel, Pierre Frank and Livio Maitan, decided that the cold war was forcing the Communist Parties to the left. They urged the Trotskyist movement to join these parties. Cannon, the leader of the American party, and Gerry Healy, the English party leader, called this "liquidationism" and formed a anti-Pablo faction.

In the United States, there were many supporters of Pablo. They were less interested in his orientation to the Communist Party than they were in his implicit rejection of the notion that Trotskyist-led revolutions were on the agenda. They had become pessimistic about the possibilities of American workers turning to socialism at any point in the near future. They had decided that post-WWII prosperity, in combination with McCarthyite repression, had quenched the flames of the 30s radicalization permanently.

The main leader of the American Pabloites was Bert Cochran, who, along with his wife Genora Dollinger, had been a leader of the Flint auto strikes in the 1930s. He was in the Detroit branch with Lovell when the faction fight broke out. Most of the working-class members of the branch sided with Cochran. Eventually the Cochranites left the party and became independent Marxist activists and scholars. Some became involved with the Monthly Review, such as Harry Braverman. (His widow Miriam was Frank's companion, according to the Times obit.)

The SWP leadership would not accept the notion that the working-class was no longer a revolutionary force. Frank and the rest of the old-time leadership decided a certain point that it was foolish to expect an renewed upsurge and redirected the party to the student, civil rights and peace movements in the 1960s. This reorientation helped to replenish the ranks of the party.

After the 60s radicalization began to die down, the party leadership had a crisis of direction. Instead of looking at objective reality in the mid-1970s, they projected seething labor discontent onto American society. Frank Lovell, along with many of the old-timers, defended this point of view. At a party conference in 1976, he gave a talk which included the comment that there was a deeper radicalization in the American working-class than at any time in the 20th century. Since this was a time of disco fever and student apathy, I wondered what he could be talking about. During the discussion period, I asked him to provide some evidence for this phantom radicalization. He said that while it didn't have a "class" dynamic, it included things like black nationalism and feminism. I didn't buy any of this, but decided not to start a political fight in the party, because I was just a rank-and-filer and nobody would listen to me.

The party went full-blast on the basis of a "working class radicalization" and instructed all its members to take jobs in basic industry. As it turned out, my doubts were correct. Not a single working-class person joined the SWP during this ill-fated "turn." Another "turn" that took place in this period was against the theoretical roots of the party. The younger leadership did not have the same kind of commitments to Trotskyism that people like Lovell did. Frank Lovell would sell Trotskyist newspapers in the 1930s at the risk of getting beat up. He and people like him were not likely to shed these ideas like old clothes.

So Frank Lovell and the entire 1930s generation were eventually expelled. Frank and George Breitman helped to start a small journal called Bulletin in Defense of Marxism. One of the key supporters of BIDOM was Paul Le Blanc, an important Marxist scholar. Le Blanc, Alan Wald and George Breitman are co-authors of "Trotskyism in the United States," a book that I highly recommend. Le Blanc and Wald have fundamental disagreements about the significance of the Trotskyist project. Le Blanc believes that it remains a model for the future revolutionary party, while Wald (and I) think that a much broader and less sectarian model is necessary. Wald is a member of Solidarity, which publishes Against the Current magazine.

The last time I heard Lovell speak was at a book party for "Trotskyism in the United States," where he shared the speakers platform with Alan Wald. Frank gave a boiler-plate speech about the need for a revolutionary party [ie., a new version of the SWP]. During the discussion period, I asked him whether he thought that the Cochranites were still wrong about the prospects of a working-class radicalization in the United States in the immediate postwar period. His reply was interesting. He said that looking back in retrospect nobody could understand how powerful a conservatizing influence prosperity could be. The ability of workers to purchase their own homes through the GI Bill, the emergence of suburbia, etc., all had the effect of quieting the class struggle. His candid answer to my question meant a lot to me. It showed that even in the twilight of his life Frank was questioning old shibboleths. Unless we are capable of doing the same thing as Marxists, we will become irrelevant ourselves.


May 23, 1998

Frank Lovell, 84, Advocate of Trade Unions and Socialist Causes


NEW YORK -- Frank Lovell, an American disciple of Leon Trotsky's brand of Marxism-Leninism and a New York City writer and editor concerned with socialist and trade-union issues, died on May 1 at his home in Manhattan's East Village. He was 84.

He was a former labor editor of The Militant, the newsweekly of the Socialist Workers Party. Most recently he was an editor and contributor to The Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, a small bimonthly subscription publication.

A native of rural Ipava, Ill., he graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. He became a follower of Trotsky in San Francisco in 1935 after a wrenching general strike in that city.

He was a founding member, in 1938, of the Socialist Workers Party, the American affiliate of Trotsky's small Fourth International, an attempt to organize a world revolutionary movement.

He worked as a merchant seaman, joining the Sailors Union of the Pacific and serving through the war years. He later wrote a critical book about the maritime industry and the union, titled "Maritime!" (1943). Settling in Detroit after the war, he found work at General Motors Corp. and became active in the United Auto Workers.

Lovell helped to build and lead a branch of the Socialist Workers Party and he served for many years on the party's national committee. He was the party's trade-union director and during this period became labor editor of The Militant.

By the 1980s, the party had split between the old-line Trotskyists and younger members, who used Fidel Castro's Cuba as their model for a "workers' and farmers' government" in this country. Lovell and other old-liners were forced out, and in 1983 he became the founding editor of The Bulletin in Defense of Marxism.

He is survived by his companion, Miriam Braverman, and a daughter, Joan Lovell, of Detroit. His wife, Sarah, died in 1994.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company