Stories told in February, 2011

American Socialist, R.I.P.

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on February 21st, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The American Socialist folded at the end of 1959. It was a period of declining interest in the socialist movement. Those radicals who had left the Communist Party in revolt had mostly retreated into their personal lives, a few of them going back to work in the movement in a passive sort of way. But there were no new social forces entering the arena. The working class, the students, the black movement — all had yet to be heard from.

Those with unusual perception could see the beginnings of the massive social revolution that the black civil rights movement was beginning to build, but the forces that would be the seed for a new radical movement in America had yet to appear. So our magazine went out of business and American Socialist Club in Chicago dissolved.

Most of us did not give up radical politics in the process. We were just responding to a void in the American left which we were not strong enough to fill. The American Socialist Club was the last organized socialist movement I was ever a member of — not by choice, but because I never again saw an ideological tendency I could identify with and commit myself to at the same level. This may have been a rationalization for all the conflicting pressures that I was now under, as an insider in business who was also an outsider to the system, but it was also the truth.

I identified in my own mind, though, with Louis Boudin, the early radical lawyer (and uncle to civil rights lawyer Leonard Boudin). When he left the 1919 convention in which the Socialist Party’s left wing had split off to become the American Communist Party, Boudin was asked if he intended to join the new group. “l didn‘t leave a party of crooks to join a party of imbeciles,” is what he said. I still admire the man for that, for rejecting the pale reformism of social democracy without jumping into the knee—jerk caricature of Bolshevism that aspired to be its alternative.

l suppose history will remember us, to the extent that history remembers the losers at all, for making a significant if limited contribution to the development of socialist thought in America. My friend James Weinstein once told me that Studies on the Left, the seminal New Left discussion center of the 1960s, drew part of its inspiration from The American Socialist, and maybe that is legacy enough.


This story takes place in 1962. It was told on February 3rd, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Quentin Young had been my doctor since I went to him in 1958 with an eye problem that another doctor had been unable to deal with. Later he went on to greater glory, director of something important at Cook County Hospital, but when I met him he was just a family doctor with an office in the Hyde Park shopping center. Quentin was at a turning point of his own, in the midst of a divorce and trying to decide whether to join a group practice.

Kindred Hyde Park radicals, Quentin and I hit it off immediately. I thought he was a fascinating man. After he checked me over that first time we stayed in the office for several hours talking about politics and his marital troubles. Afterwards I thought I should have been the one to bill him.

This was probably no way to start off a doctor—patient relationship, but Quentin was my doctor from that day until I left Chicago decades later. For a couple of years I hardly ever saw him professionally. I would see him at the concerts a lot, and I saw him taking a growing role in the Medical Committee for Human Rights and the School Board struggle, but I was relatively healthy and I rarely had to go to his office.

Quentin hired a new nurse in 1962 named Francoise Nicolas, an extremely intelligent woman and a beautiful one as well, who had only recently immigrated from France. She was about my height, a little shorter, slender. Very soon after I met her at Quentin‘s office, I asked her to dinner at an ltalian restaurant on Rush Street, and we began dating.

Francoise had a fast, sharp tongue, but at the same time, she had a lot of heart. She spoke with a heavy French accent, which I kind of enjoyed. She was also a sick woman, and she didn’t know why. Even though she went about her life with an incredible amount of energy, Francoise seemed always to be getting colds. Her resistance was always weak, and during the brutal Chicago winters she was often ill.

Francoise was an angry premature feminist. She was extremely angry at her parents. Her younger sister had a Ph.D. in physics, her brother got a doctorate in agronomy, and she, as the eldest daughter, was programmed to be a nurse and get married. She became a nurse, got married, had three kids and lost her husband in a railroad accident the day they came to Chicago.

She stayed in Chicago because a lawyer misled her that she had a large case against the railroad, and that to protect herself and the kids she had to be here to pursue the claim. There was no case. The judge gave the three kids ten thousand between them, almost as a consolation prize. Meanwhile, she was in no position to get welfare, and her parents were unable to help her out.

She was instinctively a rebel and a freethinker, but not a radical in any strict sense. Her first exposure was to Quentin and his circle of Hyde Park progressives, so she heard all sorts of predictions that the machine would soon be destroyed, we‘d soon win the battle for civil rights, national health insurance was around the corner. She accepted all this at face value. When things didn’t turn out quite that way, she became a skeptic, and remained one the rest of her life.

Francoise always told me that it was her kids who had decided that she would marry me. She had gone out with one other guy before and had broken up with him because the kids didn’t like him. I was surprised to hear it, because I had always thought I’d make a better uncle than father. I didn’t treat them badly, but I didn’t I shmear over them either. I think I gave them a feeling of protection and security.