By JEFF MACKLER
Nat Weinstein, life-long revolutionary socialist and a founder of Socialist Action, died on May 9. He was 89 years old.
Nat joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1945. He overstated his age to get into the Army as a youth, but then met members of the SWP, which had a strong fraction in the Seaman’s Union. Nat did his military service in the Merchant Marine, a dangerous assignment in which U.S. supply convoys not infrequently came under fire and were sunk. He was won to Marxism while serving on a ship bound for Venezuela, when he became friendly with a seaman on board who was a member of the SWP.
Nat’s dad was a Jewish worker of Russian origin, and a prizefighter, who in his waning years came to live with Nat and his wife Sylvia. Sylvia also joined the SWP in her youth and worked in the SWP National Office in New York for many years. Later, she was part of the team that staffed Socialist Action’s national headquarters, and she wrote a regular column for Socialist Action newspaper. Sylvia died in 2001 in San Francisco.
In the 1960s Nat took a party assignment to rebuild the Seattle branch after most SWP members there had split to form the Freedom Socialist Party. Later, he and Sylvia moved to San Francisco.
Before that, Nat was the organizer of the New York Socialist Workers Party branch. Nat, a member of the SWP’s National Committee, played a critical role in the party’s growing relationship with Malcolm X. Sylvia Weinstein, who along with Nat helped to organize an historic meeting between Malcolm and Fidel Castro, was contemptuously characterized by the bourgeois press as “Fidel’s blonde prostitute” because she was often seen entering and leaving the Harlem hotel where Fidel had decided to stay after U.S. officials tried to interfere with his lodging arrangements while he spoke for Cuba at the United Nations.
During his time in New York, Nat became a member of the Painters Union, where he acquired the old-school skills that painters of his generation learned well. These included wood graining, marbleizing and gold leafing—Old World techniques that Nat would later put to good use.
Highly skilled, Nat could paint a pine board to look like any kind of quality wood or stone. He was fond of telling the story of his experience in marbleizing several dozen giant wooden pillars in a huge downtown San Francisco commercial building. While high on a scaffold, Nat remembered, he had been denounced by a woman below, who was outraged that he appeared to be painting over the building’s beautiful “marble” pillars. He recalled that the woman was astonished to learn that the opposite was the case!
Nat, who taught his skill in classes to several advanced painters, published a successful book entitled “Woodgraining, Marbleizing and Other Decorative Techniques.” Typical of Nat, he contributed the proceeds to Socialist Action—a hearty sum indeed.
After moving to San Francisco, Nat earned his livelihood as a painter, but was eventually blacklisted from the trade. This took place after Nat had become part of an important opposition caucus in Painters Local 4, which defended the local and its fighting leader, Dow Wilson, at a time when the Mafia-led international union was trying, unsuccessfully, to place it in receivership. After that experience, Nat made his living as a freelance painter and took what jobs were available using his special skills.
The employers hated the fact that Local 4 had won the best painters’ contract in the country, a pioneering contract that included provisions to reduce the workweek with no cut in pay in order to bring on new painters.
In 1966, Dow Wilson was shot and killed. The men who were arrested for the murder had links with disgruntled contractors who were roiled at the gains achieved by militant union action. SWP comrades continued as militant activists in the Painters Union following Wilson’s murder. Local 4 continued its militancy for many years, contributing to the radicalization of the 1960s and long after.
Nat never feared to express his views in the SWP, at that time a party with a rich tradition of internal democracy and one that was inclusive of differing political viewpoints. Nat was sometimes in a minority in party debates, including in regard to the party’s support for the 1973 Palestine Liberation Organization-initiated demand for a “democratic secular Palestine.” Nat believed that this represented a potential step in the direction of abandoning permanent revolution in favor of a “two-stage solution.” In time, however, he became convinced that this was not the case.
As with other disputes, Nat firmly expressed his views, and always in a comradely manner—a trait that served the party well and enriched the discussions and debates. Similarly, Nat was initially reluctant to accept the SWP’s groundbreaking views on the revolutionary potential of Black Nationalism. But again, he allowed the test of events and time to resolve what in his mind had been unanswered questions.
Nat was a man of great political and organizational courage. He was among the first to recognize the moves by major SWP leaders to abandon the party’s historic programmatic acquisitions with regard to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which states that in the modern era, the so-called democratic or bourgeois revolution would not and could not be separate and distinct from the socialist revolution.
In this critical internal dispute, he put aside a host of legitimate organizational differences, which might have caused oppositionists to focus on important but secondary matters, in order to organize a principled opposition in defense of the party’s fundamental ideas. These were expressed in texts that Nat authored and/or supported with regard to the 1979 Nicaraguan and Iranian Revolutions, when the SWP majority leadership adapted to critical weaknesses of the Sandinistas and essentially lent support to the bourgeois Iranian leadership of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the face of what soon became a massive and unexpected purge of all SWP oppositionists, Nat stood firm in his ideas and traveled to several branches around the country in an effort to convince comrades of the validity of the SWP’s historic program. He thereby began the process of assembling the initial cadre who, in 1983-84, became Socialist Action’s founding members. These included some dozen old-timers—founding members of the SWP and the Fourth International in 1938.
At the height of the purge of SWP oppositionists, Nat, who fought to remain in the party in order to try to re-orient the SWP and to win the best militants to his cause, was compelled to operate under the most difficult of conditions. These included the occasion after Nat’s longtime mentor, Tom Kerry, who had been in political agreement with him, passed away and Nat was called on to be the obvious keynote speaker at Tom’s memorial meeting. Nat took on this difficult assignment with courage, realizing that mere mention of Tom’s critical views on the evolution of the SWP—at a public meeting—could lead to his rapid expulsion from the party.
I will never forget how skillful Nat was in recounting Tom’s life, including his dedication to the founding ideas of the party that he and Tom had devoted their lives to. To remain in the party during the great purge initiated by the SWP’s Jack Barnes leadership while doing justice to Tom Kerry’s life was done with the utmost honesty. Tom, a top SWP leader for decades and co-leader with Farrell Dobbs of the SWP following the death of SWP founder James P. Cannon, would have been proud of Nat’s oration.
Not long afterwards, Nat, along with oppositional leaders Lynne Henderson, Frank Lovell, and George Breitman, were bureaucratically suspended from the SWP and ordered to refrain from all contact with others who had been undemocratically and unjustly expelled. This was an order that went against Nat’s very being. Believing that the SWP’s revisionist course had become irreversible, he began the process of preparing to build a new party, which could unite those expelled from the SWP—and potentially with other revolutionary socialists who were still members of the SWP. Nat’s dedication to the Cannon tradition in the SWP and to the party’s historic program—derived from the struggles of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and the bedrock of American Trotskyism since 1928—was the decisive element in Socialist Action’s emergence as a viable national formation.
Nat was the driving force in initiating key organizational steps to implement the decisions of Socialist Action’s founding convention in Chicago. These included seeking out talented comrades to come to San Francisco to work full time as professional revolutionaries for our new party, securing a national headquarters—which he and other comrades with skills in the construction trades helped to remodel—and founding, within weeks of our formation, Socialist Action newspaper.
Nat and I were elected co-national secretaries at our founding convention, a position Nat held for many years. We were close, if not daily, collaborators for over 15 years. He eventually took on the assignment as Socialist Action’s National Labor Secretary, when he played critical roles in several Bay Area and regional strikes in which SA comrades had jumped in to help secure some significant victories.
Immediately after the founding of Socialist Action, Nat played a key role in San Francisco support activities for the national strike of Greyhound bus drivers. Nat took the lead in engaging Socialist Action in the one-year P-9 Austin, Minn., strike by Hormel meatpacking workers, and was in the forefront of engaging our party in Ron Carey’s Teamster presidential election campaign. Carey was elected to head the national Teamsters union, but was removed from office by government prosecutors who falsely accused him of illegal actions.
When Teamster oppositionists abandoned Carey in the face of government intervention in the union, which was at that time under government receivership, Nat remained a loyal supporter. His support was subsequently vindicated when Carey was cleared of all charges against him, albeit too late to resume the presidency that had been stolen from him by a combination of corrupt Teamster officials and government union-busters.
Nat’s Socialist Action pamphlets on the promise of the Carey presidency remain instructive reading for union activists today. He attended the founding convention and led Socialist Action’s subsequent participation in the Labor Party initiated by Tony Mazzochi of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union. He authored several Socialist Action pamphlets on labor struggles, in each instance pointing to key lessons that would prove invaluable for future fighters.
His pamphlet, “Socialist Action: Who We Are, What We Stand For: Why Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism is alive and well over 100 years after his death,” stands the test of time and continues to provide deep insights into the history and relevance of revolutionary socialist ideas. Similarly, Nat was frequently the initial author of Socialist Action draft political resolutions that formed the basis of our political orientation for years to come.
During the 1999 U.S./NATO intervention and war in Yugoslavia, Nat developed important differences with others in Socialist Action over matters of Marxist theory, which directly related to our work in the U.S. antiwar movement. Following a major debate on these points that took place within Socialist Action’s leadership and ranks, Nat’s views did not prevail.
In 2001, not long after the convention that settled that dispute, Nat and his co-thinkers left Socialist Action—in my view, mistakenly—and soon afterwards formed the Socialist Workers Organization and its magazine, Socialist Viewpoint. The former dissolved a few years later. A few of Nat’s comrades continue to publish their magazine and engage in important political work.
Nat, like all revolutionaries who devote their lives to the liberation of humanity from capitalist oppression and exploitation, was not without faults. He had a hot temper that could on occasion distract comrades from the essence of his arguments. But his faults in political discussion were far outweighed by his strengths—of which the greatest was his clarity of exposition. If you had a disagreement with Nat, you soon learned that this was no place for raising secondary or subordinate issues.
Nat had the capacity to get to the heart of the matter post-haste and to drive his point home. With just a few exceptions, when subjective judgments could mar his political insight, Nat’s political acumen was the indispensable quality that helped Socialist Action remain on course to this day.
I visited Nat at the Veterans Hospital in San Francisco a week or so before his death. He faced his end with the same courage and revolutionary optimism that he exhibited during his entire life. Optimistic for the socialist future and convinced more than ever that capitalism’s evolution could only produce increasing misery for people everywhere, his confidence never waned in the capacity of the working class to advance humanity’s cause and usher in the socialist future.
Nat left behind two daughters, Bonnie and Debbie, and several grandchildren. Messages to Nat’s family can be sent to Bonnie Weinstein <firstname.lastname@example.org> or Carole Seligman <email@example.com>.
Socialist Action photo by May May Gong: Nat Weinstein (center) joins construction workers’ picket line in San Francisco in the 1980s.