Benjamin "Ben" Gitlow (December 22, 1891 – July 19, 1965) was a prominent American socialist politician of the early 20th century and a founding member of the Communist Party USA. From the end of the 1930s, Gitlow turned to conservatism and wrote two sensational exposés of American Communism, books which were very influential during the McCarthy period. Gitlow remained a leading anti-communist up to the time of his death.
Benjamin Gitlow was born on December 22, 1891 in Elizabethport, New Jersey. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire; his father, Lewis Albert Gitlow, moved to the United States in 1888, followed by his mother, Katherine, in 1889. In the United States, his father worked part-time for insufficient hours in various factories, while his mother helped the impoverished family to make ends meet by stitching piecework at home for garment factories.
Radicalism seems to have run deeply in the family. Guests to the family home told stories about their personal and political experiences in Tsarist Russia. Ben later recalled this experience as formative to his own political development:
I would listen intently to the adventures of the Russian revolutionary leaders, of their experiences with the police, the days and years spent in prisons and their exile to the wastes of Siberia. I would grow indignant hearing how the Tsar mistreated the people. I thrilled at the stories of the underground movement, of the conspiring activities, how deeds of violence against the Tsarist oppressors were planned... The stories of personal experiences when raids were made by the secret police upon revolutionists' homes held me spellbound. I anticipated every incident that would be related. I also listened to discussions, very idealistic in their essence, in which the participants showed how Socialism would transform the world, and to arguments over methods of how Socialism would be achieved.
Gitlow studied law while working as a retail clerk in a department store in Newark, New Jersey. He helped to organize the Retail Clerks Union, political activity for which he was discharged from his job and blacklisted by the Merchants' Association. In June 1914, Gitlow testified before the US Commission on Industrial Relations on conditions prevalent in U.S. department stores. His testimony included descriptions of mandatory overtime, spying on workers, and quid pro quo sexual harassment.
Following his blacklisting from the retail sales industry, Gitlow worked briefly as a cutter in the garment industry before entering the world of radical journalism in 1919.
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As soon as he turned 18 and became eligible for membership, Ben Gitlow joined the Socialist Party of America. Ben was a committed and active member of the party and he was elected a delegate to the New York state convention of the SPA in 1910, the year after his joining. In the fall of 1917, Gitlow was elected on the Socialist ticket to the New York State Assembly (Bronx Co., 3rd D.), and sat in the 141st New York State Legislature. He was one of 10 Socialists elected to the Assembly of 1918, all of them from New York City.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his two years as a Socialist parliamentarian, Ben Gitlow professed a belief in revolutionary Socialism. From its earliest days in 1919, Ben Gitlow was an adherent of the proto-Communist Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party, working closely with renowned radical journalist and war correspondent John Reed. In April 1919, the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party of Local Greater New York established an official weekly newspaper called The New York Communist. Reed was named the editor of the new publication, with Maximilian Cohen handling the day-to-day operations of the publication as its business manager. Effective with the June 14, 1919, issue, Max Cohen exited the scene and Ben Gitlow assumed the post of business manager.
Following the Left Wing National Conference in June 1919, Reed's New York Communist was merged with the older and better established newspaper of the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party, Local Boston, The Revolutionary Age, edited by Louis C. Fraina. This publication was moved to New York and thereafter recognized as the "National Organ of the Left Wing Section, Socialist Party," with the former New Yorker Fraina continuing as editor and Ben Gitlow taking over as business manager.
John Reed was named the editor of the a new monthly labor magazine of the Left Wing Section, called Voice of Labor. Ben Gitlow also served as business manager of this publication, which was adopted by the Communist Labor Party in the fall, shortly before its termination due to lack of finances.
For his publicized connection on the staff of The Revolutionary Age Benjamin Gitlow was targeted for arrest during the coordinated raid of the Communist movement conducted by New York state authorities and the Department of Justice during the night of November 7/8, 1919. Gitlow was charged with violation of the New York Criminal Anarchy Law of 1902, which made it a crime to encourage the violent overthrow of government. It was contended that the publication of the Left Wing Manifesto by The Revolutionary Age earlier that year constituted such illegal action.
Ben Gitlow's widely publicized trial began in New York City on January 22, 1920 and went to the jury on February 5. Gitlow addressed the jury in his own defense in the case, saying:
I am charged in this case with publishing and distributing a paper known as The Revolutionary Age, in which paper was printed a document known as the Left Wing Manifesto and Program. It is held that that document advocates the overthrow of government by force, violence, and unlawful means. The document itself, the Left Wing Manifesto, is a broad analysis of conditions, economic conditions, and historical events in the world today. It is a document based upon the principles of socialism from their earliest inception. The only thing that the document does is to broaden those principles in the light of modern events.... The socialists have always maintained that the change from capitalism to socialism would be a fundamental change, that is, we would have a complete reorganization of society, that this change would not be a question of reform; that the capitalist system of society would be completely changed and that that system would give way to a new system of society based on a new code of laws, based on a new code of ethics, and based on a new form of government. For that reason, the socialist philosophy has always been a revolutionary philosophy and people who adhered to the socialist program and philosophy were always considered revolutionists, and I as one who maintain that, in the eyes of the present day society, I am a revolutionist.
The attempt of the Gitlow defense to declare the publication of the Left Wing Manifesto an expression of historical analysis rather than an act of practical advocacy was unsuccessful, however. Gitlow was convicted of the charge against him and on February 11, 1920, was sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison. He served over two years at Sing Sing prison before being released on bail related to his filing of a writ of error. Gitlow's appeal motion was ultimately granted on December 13, 1922, followed by further hearings by the state.
Following his release from prison on bail in the spring of 1922, Ben Gitlow was made a full-time employee of the Communist Party of America. The governing Central Executive Committee named him as Industrial Organizer (party organizer in the unions) for a large area which stretched from New York City to Philadelphia and which encompassed the entire New England region.
He was elected as a delegate to the Communist Party's ill-fated August 1922 convention held at Bridgman, Michigan, a gathering which was infiltrated by a Justice Department spy and raided by police. Gitlow was arrested and jailed in the aftermath, eventually released on bail. Ultimately only 2 of the delegates to this convention were tried, trade union leader William Z. Foster (freed when the jury failed to agree) and Workers Party Executive Secretary C.E. Ruthenberg, who was convicted but who died before appeals were finalized and the sentence imposed.
From May 1923 until early in 1924, Gitlow — a devoted partisan of the party faction headed by C.E. Ruthenberg and an opponent of the faction headed by William Z. Foster — was named the editor of the Workers' Party's Yiddish language daily, the Morgen Freiheit, this despite the American-born and educated Gitlow's faltering familiarity with the language. The appointment was political in nature and Gitlow was removed from the paper as soon as the Foster faction achieved majority control of the party apparatus.
In 1924, Gitlow was named the candidate of the Workers Party of America for Vice President of the United States.
Three years after his release on bail, on June 8, 1925, the US Supreme Court upheld his conviction in the case of Gitlow v. New York, by a vote of 7 to 2, confirming that the publication of the Left Wing Manifesto in The Revolutionary Age did, in fact, constitute a punishable act under the law. As the legal wrangling and backstage politics continued, Ben Gitlow prepared to return to jail.
In November 1925, Gitlow was ordered back to Sing Sing Prison by the court to finish his sentence. This would not be "hard time," however. Gitlow was immediately transferred to a new section of the prison located on a hill, a much more comfortable facility than that in which he had previously been confined. Gitlow was assigned to a cleaning detail which only occupied about one hour of his time. The cells had fresh air, a comfortable mattress, hot water in the basin, and clean, smoothly painted steel walls. Gitlow later recalled that "had a bath been included, it would have been equivalent to a good small room in a modern hotel." Gitlow anticipated a short stay in the facility as the American Civil Liberties Union assured him that they had obtained a verbal commitment from Governor Al Smith that Gitlow would be pardoned expeditiously.
On December 11, 1925, Gitlow's first wedding anniversary, he was visited by his wife, who showed him a letter from an ACLU attorney stating that he would be free to leave Sing Sing on parole if he agreed to the conditions of his release. Gitlow considered this an unfortunate turn of events, as he sought freedom to continue his political activities without the constraint of parole supervision and the threat of a rapid return to jail. Gitlow's wife received word by telephone at that time that his decision on whether to accept a parole was moot, however, as the Governor had decided to grant him a full pardon. Freed from jail the next day, Gitlow arrived by train to a packed Grand Central Station, where he received a rousing hero's welcome from the assembled party members and friends.
In 1928, Gitlow was once again named the candidate of the Workers Party of America for Vice President of the United States, running for a second time on a ticket headed by William Z. Foster.
Gitlow reached the summit of his political life as a Communist Party leader shortly after the conclusion of the 1928 campaign, when on March 16, 1929, Gitlow was named to the 3 man Secretariat at the helm of the Communist Party, assuming the post of Executive Secretary. His time at the top proved to be momentary, however, as on March 23 he boarded an ocean liner for Moscow as part of a 10-person delegation seeking to appeal the Comintern's decision to expel Jay Lovestone from the Communist Party. The job of Executive Secretary was turned over to factional ally Robert Minor in the interim.
In 1929 Communist Parties around the world were purged of so-called "Right Oppositions" by the Communist International as the world Communist movement lurched towards the revolutionary left. Together with his factional co-thinker Jay Lovestone, Ben Gitlow was expelled from the party as purported supporters of Nikolai Bukharin in the USSR in opposition to the hardline faction of Joseph Stalin. The expelled Communists followed Lovestone into a new organization, the so-called Communist Party (Majority Group), which actually included a small fraction of the membership of the regular Communist Party.
Gitlow was named a member of the governing National Council of the CP(MG) in October 1929. At the 1st National Conference of the organization, held July 4–6, 1930 in New York City, Gitlow was elected Secretary of the Lovestone political organization, a role in which he continued at least through 1932. In the fall of 1930, Gitlow was sent on a month-long tour of the United States on behalf of the Lovestoneites, taking him to Detroit, Chicago, and Superior, Wisconsin before returning to the east coast.
Throughout the first 5 years of its existence the Lovestone organization continued to seek accommodation with the regular Communist Party. Gitlow's own views had gradually changed, however. In May 1933 he and Lazar Becker split from the Lovestoneites to found the Workers Communist League, which in turn merged with a group around B.J. Field to form the Organization Committee for a Revolutionary Workers Party the next year.
After briefly rejoining the Socialist Party in 1934, Gitlow became disillusioned with radicalism of all shades and emerged as an outspoken anti-communist. In 1939, he publicly rejected the Communist Party in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Martin Dies, Jr. of Texas.
In 1940, Gitlow published his first work of political autobiography, I Confess: The Truth About American Communism. The book was controversial and widely noticed, pushing Gitlow into the public eye as a leading opponent of American Communism. The book remains an important primary document for the study of American Communism in the 1920s and 1930s.
Gitlow followed his 1940 memoir with a steamier retelling of old tales called The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America. Non-specialists should use the historical accounts in this later book, written as a potboiler for the popular market, with great caution as some of its details are at variance with the same stories told by the same author nearly a decade earlier.
Ben Gitlow's final pamphlets, written in the early 1960s, were published by fundamentalist preacher Billy James Hargis's Christian Crusade Ministries, an organization committed to stopping the spread of Communism in the world.
Benjamin Gitlow died in Crompond, New York on July 19, 1965. His survivors included his wife, Badana Zeitlin, whom he had wed in 1924.
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