An American Communist Dies, and The New York Times Gets His Life Wrong

Every time an American Communist or leftist dies, you can count on one thing: the New York Times will run a major obituary, and it will be misleading, incomplete, or very favorable to their life and record. The latest example of the paper’s favoritism to deceased men of the far Left is Saturday's obituary of Irwin Silber, the first editor of the folk music magazine Sing Out! and a secret rather than open member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. I happen to know a great deal about Silber. My very first published article appeared in that magazine in 1955, and through the years, I had many run-ins with him and could have shed a great light on what he thought and believed.

The current editor of the magazine, who did not really know him, calls Silber “one of the architects of the folk revival.” That is, in my judgment, more than inaccurate.  Rather, Silber’s role was to direct a growing interest in the music into very narrow Stalinist channels. As the well known folk-singer and guitar picker Happy Traum told me at the time Silber took over as editor, “It’s a coup.” Traum too was a leftist, but a rather moderate one and non-political, far more interested in the music and its art than narrow politics.

At the time, Silber was one of the most hard-nosed Stalinists in the American CP. The obituary tells readers that Silber left the Party “in the late 1950s.” (I doubt that too. In 1957, a friend and I visited Silber at The Daily Worker, where he was an editor and writer. The CPUSA did not let non-Party members write for and edit its official paper.) Other obituaries say that he left after the famous Khrushchev Report of 1956, the first indication of a power struggle among the Soviet leadership, in which Khrushchev shocked the world Communist community with his limited and incomplete account of Stalin’s crimes. The indication is that Silber, shocked at the truth of Stalin’s record, left when he realized the enormity  of Stalin’s crimes.

What the paper does not say, nor do most of the other testimonials one can find if you Google his name, is that Silber left the Party because he believed Khrushchev had sold out Communism, and he longed for the return of the kind of staunch Marxist-Leninist leadership and system that  Stalin had built and presided over. Years later, as Wikipedia’s account of his life gets correct (and evidently the obit writer, William Grimes, did not consult), Silber became editor of what had become a far left paper The Guardian, and used his work there to make it the spokesmen of what Silber called a “new Communist movement,” based on a favorable reevaluation of Stalin and strict Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist principles. As Wikipedia describes that movement Silber led, “these new organizations rejected the post-1956 Communist Party USA as revisionist, or anti-revolutionary, and also rejected Trotskyism and the Socialist Workers Party for its theoretical opposition to Maoism.”

Silber in fact gave a keynote speech that was printed in The Guardian, which ended by echoing Stalin and actually saying something like “let the bourgeoisie tremble, as we build a new Marxist Leninist party that will crush capitalism.” ( I am writing from vacation without access to my notes and files, so this is from memory.) The ruling class, much to Silber’s dismay, ignored his blustering.

One other example of his outlook. When the once Communist actor and singer Yves Montand appeared in a French movie that depicted the torture of those falsely arrested as traitors during the purges in post-war Communist Czechoslovakia, based on the memoir of one of the few found guilty who was not hanged, Silber lambasted it in a review, arguing that even if it was true, it would hurt the movement if revealed.

The obit writer does not ignore Silber’s one famous article: his condemnation of Bob Dylan for moving away from “protest songs” to more introspective and literary songs. Wrote Silber: “Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, inner-probing, self- conscious -- maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it's happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now -- rather than to the rest of us out front. Now, that's all okay -- if that's the way you want it, Bob. But then you're a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.”