Sep 24, 1998
Irwin Suall Memorial
NED President, Carl Gershman's eulogy at Irwin Suall's memorial service
I can think of no greater honor than to be asked by a person one respects to give a eulogy at his memorial service. I feel humbled and also a little intimidated. How is it possible to do justice to Irwin, to capture his substance and spirit?
I suppose I should begin by saying thank you to Irwin for having made a difference at several key points in my life. I imagine that he did this for others, too, so that in speaking personally I am making a general point about how he quietly affected many lives.
It was Irwin in 1968 who offered me my first job -- covering the left for the ADL. I didn't quite realize it at the time, but it set the course of my life. I met Laurie at the ADL and got involved in the Socialist Party, in which Irwin was a major figure.
The ADL was just around the corner from my father's law office, so the three of us met frequently for lunch, sometimes joined by a young cousin who was interning with my father that summer. I can remember how much my father enjoyed listening to Irwin talk about politics. I think he was not just impressed by Irwin's knowledge and articulateness, but probably relieved that if I was working with such an intelligent person, at a Jewish agency no less, I might not make a complete botch of my life after all.
It was only a year-and-a-half later, when my father took fatally ill, that Irwin came to the hospital in the middle of the night to give blood for him. It was an act of friendship that was comforting and unforgettable.
It was well after that -- two decades later -- when Irwin intervened again, this time to recommend that I hire his assistant, David Lowe, to help me run the Endowment. Of course I took his advice, and of course he was right about how good David would be. Irwin was an infallible judge of character, especially when it came to weighing a person's fitness for a difficult and sensitive political job.
I know I speak for Laurie and for many other people here when I say that Irwin was someone I not only respected, but for whom I had a very deep affection. He was the epitome of what he would call a person whom he himself respected: a mensch -- a decent, substantial, intelligent, and honest human being.
Irwin's life was a journey, as I suppose it is for anyone who has the capacity to explore, to learn, and to grow. He didn't end up where he began, at least in terms of his philosophy and political ideas. At the same time, he never changed at all in terms of his core beliefs -- his commitment to justice and freedom, to what in Judaism is called "tikkun olam," the perfection of the world.
In the beginning, this made Irwin a socialist. He was not a typical YPSL since most of the young socialists in the immediate post-war period (and not just then) were students, while Irwin had dropped out of college to join the Merchant Marines. He was hardly a typical sailor either for that matter, since his political interests drove him to seek out destitute Jewish refugees in Shanghai and rebellious Huk guerrillas in the Philippines. Nonetheless, his three-year stint at sea gave him working-class credentials that proved useful in the YPSL -- for example, by helping Tom Brooks, Seymour Kopilow, and others win the debate in the National Committee in favor of the Marshall Plan.
When Irwin became National Secretary of the Socialist Party in 1957, the movement was weaker and more isolated than ever before. Looking for a way to reverse the party's decline and to broaden its membership and activities, Irwin became the key intermediary in negotiating the merger agreement between the Socialist Party and Max Shachtman's Independent Socialist League (ISL). It was not an easy job, since Norman Thomas and others in the SP still resented the 1936 raid by Shachtman's Workers Party, whose members joined the Socialist Party, only to leave a year later, taking many of the Socialists with them.
But times had changed. Irwin met with Max and realized that he had no agenda other than to end the ISL's own sectarian isolation. He was impressed by the intellectual seriousness of the Shachtmanites (among them Mike Harrington and the young Tom Kahn), their abandonment of "third camp" neutrality in the Cold War, and especially by their commitment to building a relationship with the labor movement, an objective that Max readily acknowledged would be advanced by joining the Socialist Party which retained strong links with the ILGWU and other unions.
Together, Irwin and Max convinced Thomas that the ISL would not do what it did before, and that allowing the ISL members to join the SP (which is how the merger was finally consummated) would help the party become relevant again. There were, of course, some in the party who were perfectly happy to be isolated and who deeply resented Irwin's role in effectuating the merger. One way they got back at him was by blocking for a time the membership application of Irwin’s brother Bert, who had been attending ISL meetings and who waited until the merger to apply to join the SP. Bert eventually married the National Secretary of the ISL’s youth wing, who became Joan Suall and was like a close sister to Irwin for the rest of his life.
The transformation of the Socialist Party was completed in 1968 when the Shachtmanites, along with Irwin and others, were able to obtain a majority in the SP for a perspective looking toward a progressively realigned Democratic Party. This is the point where I came in as part of a revived YPSL. It was a tumultuous period of racial violence and student revolts, and the forces that were tearing apart the Democratic Party also split the SP.
The faction fight was, in many respects, an exciting if also wrenching experience. We were seized in our internal debates by large issues having to do with the Vietnam War and attitudes toward totalitarianism generally, as well as with the struggles then taking place between the "new politics" movement and Cold-War liberalism, the latter chiefly represented by the labor movement under the leadership of George Meany.
Irwin's role in those debates was powerful and distinctive. He was a brilliant
polemicist. Whenever he took the floor to speak, whether at a convention or a committee meeting or any other kind of gathering -- and there were many -- everyone immediately paid attention. He had a kind of E. F. Hutton effect on people. He spoke with force and precision, marshalling his arguments with complete intellectual command, modulating his voice to perfection, and using a razor-sharp wit, dramatic hand gestures, and a tone of intellectual and moral outrage to demolish not his opponent -- because he was never ad hominum -- but his opponent's position.
Of all the people I listened to in the movement, the only speaker who was arguably more impressive than Irwin was Max Shachtman himself. (Tom Brooks says that Norman Thomas was the best, but I came along too late to hear him.) But Max would sometimes take an hour to make his case, even three when he really got going, whereas Irwin would always compress his argument into a five- or seven-minute tour de force.
What I especially remember about Irwin was how fearless he was. Mike Harrington, who was most often the target of Irwin’s polemics, was already by that time a major intellectual figure in the firmament of the American left. By the same token, almost no one outside the movement had ever heard of Irwin. Yet when he rose to challenge Mike he was utterly confident and undeferential, every bit Mike's intellectual equal and often his superior. There were many YPSLs, myself included, who profoundly respected Irwin and drew from him the courage to be politically incorrect, at least according to the terms set down by the left-leaning intellectual establishment.
When the formal split finally came, the issue was not the war but rather the decision to change the name of the Socialist Party to Social Democrats, USA. The majority, which included Irwin, argued that the name-change would help the movement operate in the mainstream, where socialism was more often than not equated with communism. It was yet another step away from sectarianism. But for Irwin, and for others as well, the name-change represented not just a tactical move but an ideological shift as well.
During the faction fight and after the split, the issue that aroused Irwin's strongest political feelings was not the struggle for socialism but rather the defense of freedom against totalitarianism. The defense of freedom was much more important to Irwin than proclaiming allegiance to an ideology that had ceased to offer a compelling response to the core challenges that faced America and the world.
I have sometimes felt that the socialist movement consisted essentially of two kinds of people -- those who would start with the conclusion that socialism was the answer and argue backward from there; and those who would argue forward with an open mind, guided by certain core values having essentially to do with the dignity of the human person. Irwin was of the second type. As such, he was always interesting to listen to since he was grappling with real, complex problems. He was prepared to follow his core values regardless of where they might lead him. He was thus a person of moral integrity, character, and courage. And he was capable of growth, both moral and intellectual, even if this entailed taking unpopular positions or re-evaluating long-held views.
As Irwin's belief in socialism diminished, his sense of Jewishness grew. Irwin was a secular Jew, but never a lapsed one. He delivered his Bar-Mitzvah speech in Yiddish and operated comfortably within the Jewish labor circles of New York. Nonetheless, his Jewish identity grew and developed. Initially, as a socialist internationalist, he was not a great supporter of Zionism. The Six-Day War changed all of that, and his ADL work reinforced his growing awareness of the intimate linkages between extremism, totalitarianism, and anti-Semitism. To be sure, he never became religious, though I am told that he and Bert did search for a synagogue on Yom Kippur so that they could say Kaddish for their father. Tom Brooks told me that Irwin once described himself as "an agnostic Orthodox Jew," which is actually rather apt. Irwin respected Judaism, and he had the kind of personality that drew him toward the most devout and, if you will, counter-cultural expression of it.
So in these Days of Awe, which is what the period from Rosh ha-Shana to Yom Kippur is called, it is especially appropriate to recognize that Irwin was a devoted son and defender of the Jewish people who aspired to holiness in his own way. We cherish his memory, and honor it by the recitation of the Kaddish:
Magnified and sanctified be the name of God throughout the world which He hath created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during the days of your life and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily, yea, soon; and let us say, Amen.