Thursday, June 23, 2005

A brain tumor finally silenced Jimmy Weinstein last week at the age of 78. Jimmy – or James as he was called on the cover of his several books & on the mastheads of the different publications he founded or co-founded – Studies on the American Left, Socialist Revolution (SR), The East Bay Voice & In These Times – was a starter. In addition to these various journals, he co-founded the San Francisco bookstore Modern Times, partly so that Socialist Revolution (later Socialist Review & later still, Radical Society) would have an outlet from which it could be sold and as a means of paying the rent for the journal’s offices.

I got to know Jimmy somewhat during my tenure as SR’s executive editor, primarily as a part of my fundraising responsibilities. An heir to a Havana hotel fortune – the American left was built on the ruins of such ironic ventures, the journal Mother Jones tracing its roots to South African diamond mines – Jimmy was always better at initiating projects than sustaining them, at least up until In These Times. Studies on the American Left had been begun largely by students of the great historian William Appleman Williams as an answer to Britain’s New Left Review. As the 1960s evolved, Jimmy returned to his native New York & mounted an unsuccessful campaign for congress as an anti-war candidate in 1966, two years ahead of the great efforts that finally brought down the Johnson Administration. Studies, however, ended up collapsing over an internal debate concerning its role as a publication. Should it remain an independent voice or should it prepare itself to become the journal of theory for an emerging revolutionary political party? Jimmy actually supported that latter position and when Studies broke apart over the issue, Weinstein headed west to San Francisco to resurrect the idea in a new publication.

That of course proved to be Socialist Revolution, tho Jimmy & the original editorial collective were already stepping back from the hubris of that title, in good part because the ultra-leftists within SDS had by then emerged as the Weatherman (& would soon morph again into the Weather Underground), revealing however inadvertently just how far the U.S. was from the necessary conditions for any revolutionary political party.

Jimmy was instrumental in getting SR & Modern Times going – in typical-for-those-years fashion, the original location at 17th & Sanchez Streets in San Francisco made no sense whatsoever as a site for a bookstore, but Jimmy I think owned the building, which made the venture affordable. After SR moved into offices of its own, the back end of the building was rented out to a dog grooming operation.

Jimmy himself soon left the SR collective, leaving it & the bookstore pretty much to fend for themselves, in order to try a more populist political project in the East Bay, a weekly newspaper. It ran for a couple of years, then folded, as Jimmy moved again, this time to Chicago to launch yet another paper, In These Times, with the idea of creating a more radical alternative to The Nation.

In Jimmy’s wake, Modern Times ran – and still runs today – on the energy of its collective, and especially that of co-founding members Michael & Pam Rosenthal, whose 35-year commitment to the project remains one of the great sustaining contributions to progressive institutions of our time. SR, whose original collective had been divided between local community activists & grad students (mostly in sociology) from Berkeley, saw some of its initial grad students finish their degrees & get jobs primarily in the Boston area. That gave rise to a second collective, one which – in contrast to the West Coast group – was focused almost entirely around people in the process of getting tenure. Within a few years, the two collectives could barely trust one another, something that actually made SR a more accurate reflection of the left in the U.S. than either side would have been willing to admit. The journal itself would have foundered in the 1970s after Jimmy left had not his role as publisher been succeeded by Robby Meeropol, one of the sons of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg. Meeropol had been adopted with his brother Michael after his parents’ execution for spying in 1953. Their adoptive father, Abe Meeropol, was a Bronx school teacher who dabbled – under the pen name Lewis Allen – in songwriting, and is best known today as the author of the Billy Holiday classic, ”Strange Fruit.” Because of his father’s entertainment industry connections and the massive campaign to free – and later to exonerate – their parents, Meeropol had deep connections with another left institution of the 1950s, the Hollywood Ten – the great blacklisted film industry professionals. And it was the film industry that rescued SR. When I arrived at the journal in 1986, the core of its support was still in Hollywood. I edited the journal for three years & remained on the collective even after I began working in the computer industry. SR lasted through two more editors after me, Leslie Kaufman & David Trend, before finally running out of steam late in the 1990s. An attempt at a resurrected version under the titled Radical Society (from SR to RS) ran in 2002 & 2003.

In These Times evolved as well, going from newspaper to magazine & surviving a nasty reputation for being late – or worse – at paying freelance writers. But the journal never became the radical answer to The Nation & indeed, it’s always been hard to see how it, The Progressive, Mother Jones & even Counterpunch don’t functionally compete for the same audience, part of the left’s longstanding commitment to self-marginalization. Jimmy retired from the magazine after 23 years in 1999.

For all of his limitations, Weinstein’s commitment to his project, the radical transformation of society, never wavered. He once wrote in In These Times, that “To me socialism means the fulfillment of the promise of American democracy.” My own experience of the man was that he was much more free with advice than with financial aid for SR, and yet he turned me onto some extremely important contributors, without whom the journal would not have survived those years and who actually underwrote its transition to computerized production methods. He was irascible in the best sense of that word, and without him the American left will lose not only part of its memory, but its personality as well.