A major figure who contributed greatly to our movement, now largely forgotten, Haim Kantrovitch is worthy of remembering and of study.
‘Haim Kantorovitch: November 4, 1890-August 18, 1936’ by Anna Bercowitz from American Socialist Quarterly. Vol. 5 No. 7. October, 1936.
‘THE RADICAL movement can ill afford to lose a single member in its ranks. Every rank and file member is important in the conduct of the class struggle. When, however, a movement loses one of its outstanding leaders, that loss is important. Great as the loss may be at the moment of his passing, the loss of a theoretical leader becomes more and more evident as time goes on.
‘Haim Kantorovitch believed that no one was indispensable to a movement. In this he was, however, only partly correct. Social movements have their own course; they flow on. But, there are drifts, there are diversions of courses; there are impediments. Little as the socialist movement could afford to spare him at any time, the less could it afford do so now, with the betrayal of Socialism on the part of the Old Guard, with the all too sad lessons to be drawn from the recent defeats of the German and Austrian working class movement, with the desperate struggle of our comrades in Spain, and with the French workers holding on grimly to power but with a weak and vacillating policy. Now, as never before in the history of the working class movement, clarity of thought, correct analyses, decisiveness of purpose, and vigorous defense of a Marxian position is necessary. As no one else in the movement, Haim Kantorovitch embodied all the attributes that make for great leadership, but one- health.
‘Born in a small village in Lithuania, Haim Kantorovitch came to the United States at the age pf seventeen. He had already had contacts with the Bund, a revolutionary Marxian organization of Russia. He had read what little revolutionary literature could penetrate to his small community. Like most immigrants of that particular period, he suffered dire privation, he knew the congested life of the West End of Boston, the wretchedness of the sweatshop, which threw him at once into the class struggle. He helped organize his factory into a union which affiliated with the IWW. After the IWW union had disintegrated, he reorganized the union when the ILGWU put on an organization drive.
‘At the same time he began his first efforts in the literary field, a number of his articles and poems having been accepted by a Yiddish publication in London.
‘Coming to New York, he haunted the Public Library and there, by chance, first came upon Plekhanov, whom he found intoxicating. Having a philosophic mind, he devoured everything of Plekhanov’s on which he could lay his hands. Plekhanov naturally led to Marx and Engels, to Feuerbach, to Kant, to Hegel, and to all of the philosophers, to all of the writers on the subject of socialism, anarchism, syndicalism, to the social sciences in general; to the labor and trade union movement. His reading and store of knowledge was prodigious.
‘But, not only did he read. He applied what he read. He was not a living encyclopedia. Knowledge, for the mere sake of knowledge, was decadence with him. Knowledge had value because of its application to the working class movement.
‘Having been a Yiddishist, his medium, for many years was Yiddish, although he read and wrote fluently Russian, German and English, reading everything he could, in the original. He became a member of the Poale-Zion movement. During that period, after having contributed to numerous magazines, he wrote two books. One “The History of the Labor Movement in America,” the other “In the Light of Marxism,” outstanding books in their field.
‘More a Marxist than a Labor Zionist, he realized that Zionists were primarily interested first, in Palestine and only secondarily, in Socialism. He left the Poale-Zion movement and joined the Socialist Party about ten years ago. At the time he had for several years been teaching in the Workmen’s Circle schools of Baltimore, Waterbury, Newark and New York. While in Baltimore he delivered his first English lecture, The Rise and Decline of Neo-Communism, which later was published as his first English article, in the “Modern Quarterly.” The article, one of the first critical analyses of Communism and the Russian Revolution, created a tremendous sensation and was later reprinted as a special pamphlet (now out of print).
‘On the invitation of V. F. Calverton, editor of the “Modern Quarterly,” he became one of the associate editors of the “Modern Quarterly” and contributed valuable articles giving Marxian analyses of the philosophy of John Dewey, in his article “A Revolutionary Interpretation of Philosophy;” of the science of Bertrand Russell, in his article “Historical Materialism and the New Science,” “A Modern Analysis of Historical Theory.” When the “Modern Quarterly” departed from what Comrade Kantorovitch thought was a correct Marxian emphasis, he severed his connection with that publication.
‘Coming to New York to take charge of the High School of the Workmen’s Circle, he wrote frequently for the “Wecker,” official publication of the Jewish Socialist Federation, which he later edited, and with which eventually he broke, again as a matter of principle, when the fight with the Old Guard began. Where it was a question of principle, he never faltered. During this period he toured the country for the Workmen’s Circle Educational Department, then under the direction of Philip Geliebter, having been among the few speakers in greatest demand. He was also director of the Children’s Camp of the Workmen’s Circle, as well as a member of the Executive Committee and of the Educational Committee of the Workmen’s Circle. Revered, respected, esteemed for his keen insight, his penetrating mind, his crystal clear method of exposition, his keen, incisive pen, his individual style, he was beloved by all of the young folks with whom he came into contact and whose mentor he was. It was sufficient for a child, or a grown person, to have him as a teacher, to become a devoted disciple of his.
‘Having devoted himself only to the Yiddish part of the movement, it is just about five years ago that the writer and David P. Berenberg, both then associated with the Rand School, felt the need for a left-wing, Marxian theoretical magazine in the socialist movement, a publication that could speak out clearly and vigorously, without equivocation. There had been no magazine in the socialist movement for more than ten years. Casting about for at least one other comrade, they approached Haim Kantorovitch, known to them then only through his English articles in the “Modern Quarterly.” He responded with alacrity. He too had looked forward to the establishment of such a publication. It had been his dream, his hope.
‘With unanimity of agreement and purpose, a bond and friendship was cemented, strong from its very inception and the “American Socialist Quarterly” was launched in January 1931. The magazine was a labor of love. The work was entirely voluntary. This was his introduction to the English reading members of the Socialist Party. His articles became a force in the publication, and left wing sentiment in the party began to crystalize as a result of his challenging and provocative writing.
‘At first his articles were devoted primarily to philosophical aspects of Marxism. Soon, however, world and domestic problems in the socialist movement impelled him to lay aside, for a while, the purely theoretical problems in order to analyze, critically, events on the political and economic scene. His articles on the “German Tragedy,” “Towards Socialist Reorientation” showed up with almost X-Ray clarity his keen perception of the situation, proving, all too unfortunately for the German workers, their mistakes which proved so costly to the workers of the world. Their costly policy he traced back very definitely to a perversion of true Marxian revolutionary concepts, and lack of proper education and propaganda. He claimed that the German workers were not trained to be revolutionary workers prepared to meet a revolutionary situation.
‘But, he was never discouraged; better to start almost anew than carry along heritages that were only fetters.
‘A few weeks after publication of the first issue of the “American Socialist Quarterly” he became ill, the treacherous disease which took its toll four and a half years later, having developed. He had also, just at that time started a series of lectures at the Rand School on the “Philosophy of Marxism,” the first English lectures after his original lecture on “The Rise and Decline of Neo-Communism.” His delivery, his vocabulary, his force, his rapier-like analysis galvanized his class. All too soon was he torn from his class. He went to the Workmen’s Circle Sanitarium, an advanced case of tuberculosis even then. But, he improved and returned the following fall to teach, and write, and lecture. His friends implored him to refrain, but there was need for every member of the party, he said. The internecine fight was on. He threw himself into it, for he was a revolutionist to the very bone. He had but one reply. “The movement is my life.” A year later, he left for a sanitarium in Los Angeles. No improvement was manifest. He returned East, appeared at two or three momentous and historical meetings of the party and left again for the Workmen’s Sanitarium only to spend his last months in the racks of the torture of a disease that sapped every bit of his strength.
‘And yet to the very end, when he could barely speak above a whisper, when he could write only a few lines at a time, he spent his last energy on the movement, reading and writing, writing, writing. His last article, part of a series of articles, was on an all-inclusive party. (The article will appear in a subsequent issue.)
‘Sometimes intellects of his stature devote themselves to one particular phase, to one partial aspect of a movement. But not Haim Kantorovitch. He was a versatile person, a rounded person.
‘In order to pursue his philosophical interests he followed closely developments in the newer sciences without which modern philosophy has no basis. He knew well the writings of Eddington, Jeans, Russell, Einstein, Planck. His knowledge of literature was boundless; he had read everything significant in fiction and was an ardent student and critic of the so-called “Proletarian Literature.”
‘Haim Kantorovitch thought no one was indispensable. Haim Kantorovitch is gone. We know Haim Kantorovitch was not indispensable. We know our loss. Only in one manner can we help, partially, to overcome our loss, in the one way that Haim Kantorovitch would above all, have wished- by rededicating ourselves to the socialist movement in order to prepare ourselves to serve as the vanguard of the working class. Small as the left-wing movement in our party may be, he was certain it was correct, and that it would ultimately be a force in the movement. Our loss must be transmitted into revolutionary class conscious action.
‘Haim Kantorovitch is gone. But, he lives on in revolutionary Socialism.’
Socialist Review began as American Socialist Quarterly in 1934. The name changed to Socialist Review in September 1937. The journal reflected Norman Thomas’ supporters “Militant” tendency of the ‘center’ leadership. Beginning in 1936, there were also Fourth Internationalists lead by James P. Cannon as well as the right-wing tendency around the New Leader magazine also contributing. The articles reflect these ideological divisions, and for a time, the journal hosted important debates. The magazine continued as the SP official organ through the 1940s.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/socialist-review/v05-n07-oct-1936-soc-rev.pdf