David Weiss: Long-time Trotskyist

by Marty Goodman / October 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

David Loeb Weiss, a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party (1938), died on Aug. 11 at the age of 94. He died peacefully in San Diego of natural causes, holding the hand of his companion, Vivian Gilbert-Strell.

A life-long revolutionist and former Socialist Action member, Weiss was born into a working-class immigrant Jewish family from Poland. He grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, where radical politics and Eastern European Yiddish culture met.

In his life David was a busboy, waiter, shipyard worker, farm hand, factory worker, and radar-man in World War II. Weiss retired in 1978 after 18 years as a proofreader at The New York Times. In the 1960s, he studied filmmaking and became an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

David was raised in a political family. Both parents were members of the Stalinized Communist Party (CP). By trade his father was a tailor and Yiddish actor; his mother a garment worker.

After work his mother would go up and down tenement stairs selling the CP’s Daily Worker. His father was often unemployed due to strikes and organizing drives. To help, David read writings of Yiddish authors at workers’ centers, after which a hat was passed. David loved talking about the old Yiddish culture—especially the curses—as we smoked cigars together on his porch in Brooklyn. Yet, David was hostile to religious mysticism, which often came with the culture. He was a staunch materialist.

In his youth David and his brother Murray rode the rails coast to coast three times. David reenacted for me the time he shouted at his brother to get him to leap between moving cars to evade railroad security, “Jump, you yellow-bellied bastard!” The frightened Murray jumped, and they made it to California. Murray changed David’s life when he introduced him to a follower of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. They read a pamphlet explaining the political outlook of the Trotskyists, and began to unlearn their parents’ anti-Trotskyist dogmas.

Later on, David organized clerks in the New York garment industry (1932); was an organizer of a New York hotel workers’ strike (1934), and a leader of the victorious Dura-Steel strike in Los Angeles (1937). He was an organizer of the Socialist Party (SP) in Los Angeles (1936), when Trotskyists were in the SP; and an SWP organizer in Youngstown, Chicago, and San
Francisco. In New York City in the early 1950s he was an SWP candidate for mayor and governor.

David’s first film, “Profile of a Peace Parade,” (1968) features interviews with antiwar New Yorkers at a large demonstration in Manhattan.

His favorite film, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” (1968), is still being shown at film
festivals. It tackled racism and the Vietnam War, its title lifted from a statement by Muhammad Ali. Said one film review, “The strongest statement yet from the Black community … a startling cry of rage and despair” (Los Angeles Open City). To buy or rent the film, go to http://www.Cinemaguild.com.

Other documentaries were “Farewell, Etaoin Shrdu” (1980), which captured the last day of the linotype machine at The New York Times and its replacement by newer technology, and one about the Young Socialist Alliance, the SWP’s former youth group.

In the early 1980s, Weiss was expelled from the SWP, as were others who upheld Trotsky’s legacy and democratic norms. He was a founding member of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency but left when it dissolved into the loose organization Solidarity. He joined Socialist Action in the mid-1990s but left a couple of years ago due to advanced age and some
political differences.

His major unfinished film, “Planet Without a Visa,” includes interviews made in the late 1960s with over 45 individuals who had known or worked with Trotsky during his exile in the U.S., Turkey, France, Norway, and Mexico—where he was murdered in 1940 by a Stalinist agent. Included are moving recollections by one of Trotsky’s bodyguards, Tom Robbins; his secretary, Jean van Heijenhoort; his wife Natalia and grandson Esteban Volkov; SWP leader James Cannon; Trotskyist historian Pierre Broue; and others.

Completing the film was Weiss’s dream, but declining health and support for his ailing wife Victoria, a lifelong socialist who died in the mid-1990s, made it impossible. Another obstacle was the $15,000 cost of converting hundreds of hours of unedited film to digital. If you want to help ensure that this irreplaceable record is seen by future generations, please call me at (212) 781-5157.

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