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Workers Vanguard No. 984

5 August 2011

Carl Lichtenstein


Our comrade Carl Lichtenstein, a 40-year member of the Spartacist League and archivist for the Prometheus Research Library, died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 7 at the age of 68. To lose an actively engaged and apparently healthy comrade in this way is a shock and an anguishing loss. Our hearts go out to Carl’s wife Alice, his son Lee and all his family, and to all Carl’s friends, colleagues and comrades around the world.

Carl Lichtenstein was a scientist. He earned a Ph.D. in high-energy nuclear physics at Cornell University and went on to post-doctoral work at Harvard University’s cyclotron laboratory. He authored or contributed to over 30 published scientific studies, 19 of them in Physical Review D or Physical Review Letters, the top journals in the field of physics. He had the intellect, training and requisite meticulousness to test Nobel Prize-winner Richard Feynman’s theory of quantum electrodynamics and was the first author of a published study about this (“Wide-Angle Bremsstrahlung,” Physical Review D, 1 February 1970). Carl loved physics and he clearly could have gone far in academia and lived comfortably. But he decided to devote his time and mind to the cause of workers revolution.

Carl and Alice joined the Spartacist League’s youth organization in Boston in 1971. Shortly thereafter, Carl joined the party. Carl was a member of Spartacist League branches successively in Boston, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor and New York. In Los Angeles, he served on the local executive committee, as education director and as party representative to both the youth organization and an industrial fraction. He was also a member of the Militant Caucus of AFSCME Local 2070.

Carl was truly a declassed intellectual who rejected metaphysical idealism and the arrogant false dichotomy between mental and manual labor. He was good with his hands and understood labor and maintenance projects as thinking work. He served on party defense squads at demonstrations and was a valuable contributor to Workers Vanguard articles on science. But Carl’s most significant and enduring contribution was his role in establishing and sustaining the Spartacist League’s central archive, the Prometheus Research Library, as a working research facility for a wide range of Marxist studies.

Carl was selected by the Spartacist League’s 1974 National Conference to serve on the Archival Commission. The central document adopted by the National Conference noted the purpose of this new party body:

“One of the crucial tasks of the vanguard of the proletariat is the struggle to function as the memory of the working class. An important component of this struggle for continuity is the systematic assembling, propagation and critical assimilation of the primary documentary history of the workers movement. Given the passage of time and the accumulation of distortions and vulgarizations, only the precise, verified reconstruction of past realities can serve as a true compass.”

Although he was outside the New York center at the time, Carl was a driving element of this work. Carl wrote letters to all locals suggesting interviews with historic cadres of the revolutionary movement who lived in their areas (e.g., “You should try to hunt down the Spartacusbund [1919] member in NYC mentioned in my earlier letters”) and wrote careful notes on how to research, conduct and record this work. His antenna picked up news of archival openings and finds at libraries and bookstores around the country. The Archival Commission sent out national circulars with Carl’s suggestions, informing locals that “Carl’s letters to locals and individual comrades carry the same authority as those sent from the CO [Central Office]. Our work has been hindered by his 3,000 mile separation from the center. We look forward to working more closely with him in the not too distant future.”

In an August 1975 letter, he wrote:

“What we seem to be becoming is an activist research library operation. I believe this is appropriate, but it is a big job. We still must have a primary task of gathering documents and other materials, but it is also clearly our responsibility to see that these materials are made known and available to cdes [comrades] who can use them, and to bend our efforts in accord with various organizational needs:

“(1.) This implies that we must systematize our existence as a library.... What will be happening is the creation of a card catalog arrangement of our holdings, so items and subjects can be located by someone interested.”

In 1977, Carl gave a report for the Archival Commission at the Fifth National Conference of the Spartacist League.

Carl sought to make revolutionary history available to guide all aspects of party work, from the trade-union arena to youth work, in the U.S. and internationally. Carl noted how Spartacus Youth League members could assist Marxist scholarship: “Write relevant papers on historical topics—some could also be made into YSp [Young Spartacus] articles. Cdes should send in copies of such papers already written, even if they’re not proud of them. Bibliographies, too.”

In December 1975, Carl, Alice and two other comrades mined—and salvaged—a good deal of Leon Trotsky’s archives in Mexico City, where the exiled leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution lived before he was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940. Trotsky’s papers were in stacks on every surface: the floor, tables, shelves, cabinets. Carl mapped the collection, directed comrades to gingerly sift through the piles, selected documents to photocopy and returned the originals to their stratigraphic location, like the senior archeologist on a dig. Carl wrote in a report to the Archival Commission:

“Being at T’s house creates a mixture of awe and depression. I will not expatiate on this. We mostly kept very busy.… If we could do it without insulting them, I’d like to send a replacement for the ridiculously faded red flag over the grave….

“The lower shelves showed much evidence of mice—upsetting.”

The Prometheus Research Library became a regular contributor to the upkeep of Trotsky’s house and library.

Carl moved to New York, where he was needed to build the party’s “activist library.” En route, he interviewed Hugo Oehler, an important Communist Party (CP) trade-union organizer who was won to the Left Opposition following the expulsion of James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, from the CP. Carl Lichtenstein is, to the best of our knowledge, the only researcher to record an interview with Hugo Oehler. Carl recalled, “He had I guess what you would call a security fetish.” Carl looked for the man reading the New York Times in the Denver, Colorado, public library and followed him to a public park, where they discussed the early years of American Trotskyism. Their discussion was covered by traffic noise and occasional squawking by Lee, six months old, sitting on Carl’s knee.

The Oehler interview was part of a deliberate party effort to piece together the history of an internal struggle in the American Trotskyist movement that prefigured the 1940 split in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on the Russian question. This extensive research culminated years later in the publication of the Prometheus Research Library’s second book, Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933 (2002).

The PRL’s collection grew out of the intentionally collected and organized holdings of James Robertson, founding cadre of the Spartacist League. As PRL archivist, Carl substantially filled out the archives, carefully compiling and annotating internal documents of the early CP and the American Trotskyists. Wandering library stacks with eagle eyes, he located rare and important records, such as the internal bulletins of the Communist League of America, predecessor of the SWP.

Carl’s knowledge of the history of the Marxist movement and his attention to detail made him a superb archivist. In November 1991, the SWP published an article in the Militant appealing to readers to help them fill out their holdings of their own history with missing bulletins and documents. Carl leapt at the opportunity for archival collaboration with the notoriously proprietary SWP. He informed the SWP that we indeed had and would provide copies of bulletins they sought. Through meticulous crosschecking of the SWP’s indexing with actual documents and with Louis Sinclair’s bibliography of Trotsky’s writings, Carl figured out and notified the SWP that they had mislabeled and conflated a few items. The SWP replied: “Your letter was the only reply we have received thus far to our appeal for missing materials.” A second letter to Carl stated: “We thank you for calling these errors to our attention and we will pass the information along to the appropriate editors at Pathfinder for correction in upcoming reprintings.” In good turn, the SWP provided the PRL with documents Carl requested. Carl excelled at archival collaboration with opponent political organizations and individuals, based on the understanding that the history of the workers movement belonged to the workers movement internationally.

Along with the PRL’s librarian Diana Kartsen (1948-2007), Carl Lichtenstein was centrally responsible for the preparation and production of two of the PRL’s books (James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism [1992] and Dog Days). He was also central to production of the six Prometheus Research Series bulletins. Carl took pride and satisfaction in the increased use of the PRL and developed a “patron’s tour” to teach party cadre how to use the library’s database, which he helped develop, as well as where to locate and how to handle archives.

We have suffered a terrible loss and will keenly miss Carl’s knowledge, kindness and wit. The Prometheus Research Library embodies Carl Lichtenstein’s lifework. Those who wish to honor Carl’s memory and legacy by assisting the purpose of the PRL—to collect, preserve and make available the historical record of the international workers movement—are invited to make contributions to Spartacist, earmarked “In memory of Carl.” Mail to: Spartacist, Box 1377 GPO, New York, NY 10116. A memorial meeting is planned for early fall in New York City. Please phone (212) 732-7861 for details.


Workers Vanguard No. 984

WV 984

5 August 2011


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