Morris Slavin: 1913–2006

— Christopher Phelps

MORRIS SLAVIN, A historian of the French Revolution and one of the last remaining veterans of the American Trotskyist movement of the early 1930s, died on February 6 in Denver, Colorado, at the age of 92. The vast majority of Slavin’s years were spent in Youngstown, Ohio, but his childhood took place in Russia.

Slavin was born in Kiev in 1913 on the eve of the First World War. His parents were Lazar Slavin, owner of a lumber yard and forests, and Vera Slavin, a graduate of the University of Odessa and dentist trained at the Polytechnic Institute of Berlin. Both were ardent members of the Bund, the Jewish socialist and labor organization, for which his mother smuggled arms during the 1905 Russian revolutionary upsurge.

As a boy, Slavin was fluent in Russian. He read Pushkin and Tolstoy in the original. His father’s devotion to Yiddish led to his enrollment in Hebrew school, which he hated and from which he was expelled, but he subsequently learned Yiddish in a school run by Der Arbayter Ring (the Workmen’s Circle). Later in life, he mastered English, French and German, as well, making him competent in five languages.

After surviving the German occupation of the Ukraine during the First World War, the Slavin family was swept into the Russian revolutionary upheavals of 1917. His father considered the Bolsheviks fanatics and favored Alexander Kerensky, the moderate socialist leader.

The family business was confiscated, first by the counterrevolutionary Whites, because Lazar Slavin was a Jew, and subsequently by the Bolsheviks, who designated him a bourgeois. The Slavins survived the famine during the Civil War on rations by working as dentists for the Red Army.

In 1923, when Slavin was nine years of age, the entire family, including a younger brother and sister, emigrated to the United States. They settled in Ohio, to which his mother’s two sisters had immigrated before the war. His father’s Hebrew traditionalism led him to forbid his mother from entering dentistry school, denying her proper American credentials for her craft. Consequently, the family was severely impoverished after 1929, when the Great Depression hit.

Impressed by Socialist Party standard-bearer Norman Thomas, Morris Slavin joined the Young People’s Socialist League as a teenager. When he met some Trotskyists, however, he found them “at entirely a different level, intellectually and politically, from the people I’d met in the SP.”

As a result, he read Trotsky’s My Life (1930), and in 1934 joined the Communist League of America, the Trotskyist organization in the United States. “I was 21 years old,” he quipped in a 2002 interview. “I knew everything.”

Slavin attended the December 1934 convention of the CLA at which the organization merged with the American Workers Party led by A.J. Muste to form the Workers Party of the United States. He participated in the subsequent revolutionary socialist phases of that decade, including entry into the Socialist Party in 1936 and the formation of the Socialist Workers Party in 1938.

Between 1932 and 1935, in the nadir of the depression, Slavin worked irregularly for Youngstown’s street department repairing roads, cleaning sewers, and sweeping streets. After a year at Youngstown College, he attended the Ohio State University, from which he graduated in 1938 with a degree in history and English.

On campus in Columbus, he was involved in the student antiwar movement and contested with the Young Communist League. “The Stalinists hated our guts,” he said. “They wouldn’t talk to us.”

The Trotskyist leader who most impressed Slavin was Max Shachtman, whom he first met in 1934 and considered “the most brilliant polemicist I ever heard.” He witnessed Shachtman speak “with passion for four hours” at the 1934 convention, after which Shachtman’s knuckles were bloody from pounding the podium.

At a Youngstown speaking event which Slavin helped organize, Shachtman spoke against the Stalin dictatorship’s cynical frameup of many leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution on fraudulent charges. “The Stalinists threatened to bust up our meeting,” Slavin recalled. “So we got hold of a few truck drivers. We had friends among them; in fact, the business agent was a friend of ours. So when they tried to get in, we just physically wouldn’t allow it, unless they paid, like everyone else.” The Trotskyists then permitted local Communists to speak, but Shachtman refuted their every objection: “When the Stalinists tried to ask him questions, he just mowed them down.”

When Shachtman broke with Trotsky in 1940, Slavin followed suit. He still considered Trotsky illustrious but was unable to concur with his characterization of the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state” on the basis of its nationalization of property alone.

Slavin joined Shachtman in the newly formed Workers Party and its successor organization, the Independent Socialist League, remaining a member until its dissolution in 1958. The WP and ISL, known on the left as the “Shachtmanites,” advocated a socialist politics independent from both Washington and Moscow, the two Cold War camps.

After graduating from Ohio State in 1938, Slavin went to work in a steel mill in Niles, Ohio. He then worked at another steel mill in Youngstown, from which he was quickly fired for union advocacy. He then became a substitute teacher, a job that led to regular employment as a schoolteacher for a year and a half. In 1942, he was drafted into the Army and served in the field artillery during the Second World War for a year and a half before being discharged in 1943 because of illness.

Teacher and Historian

From 1943 on, Slavin taught high school in Youngstown. Beginning in 1946, he started to moonlight, teaching evening classes at Youngstown College (later Youngstown University, then Youngstown State). Meanwhile, he took graduate courses part-time and received an M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1961 from Western Reserve (now Case Western) in Cleveland.

Though he later wrote several review-essays on the question of Bolshevism’s responsibility for Stalinism, it was impossible in the 1950s for Slavin to study the Russian history that had shaped his life and politics, because to travel to the Soviet Union in the Stalin era would have been dangerous for someone with his political background. Therefore, he chose to focus on the French Revolution, writing a dissertation entitled Left of the Mountain: The Enragés and the French Revolution.

Slavin finally obtained regular university employment in 1961 at Youngstown State, where he taught for twenty years. He found it difficult, however, to carry out research given the demands of teaching, and in a striking inversion of most academic careers today, he enjoyed his publishing heyday after his teaching duties ended.

Slavin’s three books, all issued after his supposed retirement, made a significant contribution to the understanding of the French Revolution in the “from below” school established by Albert Soboul. They were The French Revolution in Miniature: Section Droits-de-L’Homme, 1789–1795 (Princeton, 1984), The Making of an Insurrection: Parisian Sections and the Gironde (Harvard, 1986), and The Hébertistes to the Guillotine: Anatomy of a “Conspiracy” in Revolutionary France (Louisiana State, 1994).

These were followed by a collection of essays entitled The Left and the French Revolution (Humanities, 1995). The international regard for Slavin’s scholarship was manifested in a festschrift, Rebels Against the Old Order: Essays in Honor of Morris Slavin (Youngstown State, 1994), edited by Boris Blick and Louis Pastouras.

Tall and thin, kindly and unassuming, Slavin remained a Marxist and a partisan of the left throughout his life. In his later years, he belonged to the Democratic Socialists of America and maintained cordial relations with radicals of many persuasions. He read New Politics, Against the Current, Jewish Currents, and Cahiers Léon Trotsky, contributing to them all.

“The thing that makes me sometimes depressed, although on the whole I’m still optimistic,” he remarked in 2002, “is the fact that I thought in the 1930s that by ten, twenty years, we would certainly have a labor party, or at least a social-democratic party, some kind of left-wing party. But we are further than ever, much further than ever.”

Slavin married Sophie Lockshin in 1940, to whom he remained devoted until her death sixty years later. He is survived by their daughter Jeanne Kaplan and her husband Stephen, both of Colorado, and by their children, Leslie and Michael.

ATC 124, September–October 2006