By MARILYN VOGT-DOWNEY
Socialist Action is collaborating with Jennifer Shriver to produce a publication of personal and political memories of George Shriver. Socialist Action’s comrade has an important political legacy that has impacted the entire Trotskyist movement. We include here one of the contributions: the reflections of Marilyn Vogt-Downey. We are continuing to collect written and monetary contributions towards this important memorial publication for our movement. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or go to socialistaction.org/donate for any submissions towards this project.
George Shriver was a remarkable person. He played an enormous role in transforming my life, and I am sorry I never had a chance to thank him. He was the one the Socialist Workers Party assigned to contact me in 1971: Referring to the fact that I had indicated I knew Russian on a questionnaire I filled out at an SWP Oberlin summer conference, George asked me to come work with him at Pathfinder Press translating works by Leon Trotsky for the Trotsky Writings series that Pathfinder was undertaking. On those Oberlin questionnaires comrades were asked to indicate foreign languages they knew. This was in 1971. I, of course, told George “yes, I would,” and that launched me into an entire new dimension of my life: translating Russian. I had earned a BA in Russian Language in 1964, but had moved on to a Masters degree in Latin American Studies, only just happening to make mention of that Russian language background on the application but not expecting to use it.
But I did use it for much, because of George. He integrated me into the Pathfinder Writings team of editors and proofreaders in the Pathfinder office we worked in–like Naomi Allen, Sarah Lovell, and John Britten–translators along with George–such as Russel Block, Bob Cantrick, and Will Reisner–the very talented graphic and cover designer Dennis Edge–and, of course, the comrade who brilliantly oversaw the entire project, George Breitman. George Shriver was a critical component of this team that assembled and prepared the historically invaluable Writings series, the Challenge of the Left Opposition series, and numerous other volumes of works by Trotsky published by Pathfinder in the 1970s. We were determined that the documents that were assembled in these volumes would insure that Trotsky’s invaluable Marxist literary and political legacy would be assembled, presented, preserved and published by those who appreciated Trotsky’s work with introductions that explained to the readers the vital importance of Trotsky’s contribution to them today instead of by people who were his detractors, as had widely been the case up until then.
This Team–led by the two George’s–George Shriver and George Breitman–was of phenomenal importance to presenting and explaining the real history of the Russian Revolution, its success in creating humanity’s first workers’ state and to explaining the processes that were to lead to its degeneration under the Stalin regime and ultimately to its collapse in 1991. All these writings by Trotsky, all this material, could not have been assembled in this way in English translation without the work of George Shriver.
In pursuit of these goals, George and I also collaborated to prepare Trotsky’s journal published all during his exile from the “Soviet” Union in 1929–The Bulletin of the Opposition–for clandestine distribution in the “Soviet” Union. George convinced me that I could learn to type on a Cyrillic typewriter, and I did !! and I typed up the “Table of Contents” for all four volumes!!!! I was honored and very privileged to have been part of that entire team.
But George also helped direct the SWP’s work–and my work–in defending the what were called “the Soviet dissidents.”* In the early 1960s and 1970s, there had emerged, after Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Communist Party Congress in 1956 a “thaw” or partial opening for people to speak and write freely without fear of repression. However, in the early 1960s with the rise of Brezhnev regime, this openness was sharply curtailed and people began to be arrested and sent to prison camps again and even to psychiatric hospitals for saying and writing things that were critical of the current government policies or of policies during the Stalin years: for dissent. They were called the “Soviet dissidents.”
George, along with Joseph Hanson and Gerry Foley, introduced the SWP and its press to this whole world of information and history and current events. As a result, I turned my attention to the vast array of writings–called samizdat after the Russian words for “self-published” writings, that is, those that were “printed”–or most-often typed–and circulated person to person but denied official publication. We learned of and supported Communist dissidents–such as Pyotr Grigorenko, Alexei Kosterin, and Leonid Plyusch–led campaigns to defend them and also to free some from prisons and/or psychiatric hospitals; and translated their writings as we received them for The Militant and Intercontinental Press. Our goal was to demonstrate that supporters of the Left Opposition led by Trotsky defended workers’ democracy and open public discussion and not the repression presided over by the post-Lenin Stalinist regimes.
Of course, George and I collaborated on the volume Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition (1976) which contained a number of very valuable historic writings from opponents of Stalinism that emerged during that period. Through this work, we learned about the Ukrainian anti-Stalinist and Marxist opposition and their revival of the writings of Lenin on the national question and his Ukrainianization policy that had been destroyed by Stalin and the bureaucracy when they imposed Russification on Ukraine in the 1920s. We translated and published the writings of activists and launched defense campaigns for Russian and Ukrainian dissidents and for victims among other oppressed nationalities.
It was through George that the SWP received–via dissident Russian historian Roy Medvedev and his college roommate, Bukharin scholar Stephen F. Cohen–the samizdat manuscript by Ukrainian Left Opposition supporter in the 1920’s Mikhail Baitalsky, Notebooks for the Grandchildren, which I translated for the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism in the 1990s and which was published as a book and which I am now improving for republication. This incredible historic document came to us through George.
George was a very, very careful worker. He worked very slowly and deliberately. Everything he (and others!) did was subjected to his rigorous and critical thought process. Sometimes, this meant that we did not meet deadlines, that we had to wait and wait and wait. But that was because he was a perfectionist. I had never before and have never since met anyone like that. He was very rare and invaluable. I am sure that everyone who worked with him felt the same way. It could be annoying at times. But it was for a good reason (usually:)).
After Pathfinder ran out of funds for the Writings series in December 1975, I got a job in the bourgeois world and our paths didn’t cross so often except when we went to Pathfinder to continue on our projects after work. We met up in 1980 at Harvard when the Trotsky Archives opened. But by that time, we were no longer collaborating on projects.
We were both expelled about the same time from the SWP, as were all those who worked on the Trotsky Writings series project as the SWP leadership abandoned Trotskyism. We both ended up joining the Fourth Internationalist Tendency in the 1980s and we both contributed to the FIT’s publication Bulletin in Defense of Marxism into the 1990s. But George had moved to Arizona and we were not working closely on projects any more and were rarely in contact.
But what a comrade George was!! An intellectual, a devoted revolutionary and a scholar, single-mindedly determined and focussed, a formidable comrade he will forever be.
Long Live George Shriver!!!