By JOE AUCIELLO
For years I would pretend to threaten him. It would be a writer’s revenge on an editor. “George, if you cut … [any number of words; a section of my article, etc.], then someday I will write your obituary and make up bad stuff about you.” He would laugh quietly and then go ahead and edit—not arbitrarily but as necessary—so that, for instance, the word count matched the print space available in the magazine, Bulletin in Defense of Marxism (BIDOM) and, later, Labor Standard. More often, though, George Shriver and co-editor Tom Bias, before soliciting an article, knew the approximate page length, so the staff and contributors would—to put it ironically—“comply or cry.”
Since several other writers—family, friends, and comrades—have already provided thorough biographical and political information about George, their efforts need not be repeated. Instead, I hope to express my gratitude, to explain how George influenced me, and to sum up a few lessons gleaned from his approach to work and political activism.
I first got to know and work with George in the early 1980s, when opposition tendencies emerged in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to counter the party’s abandonment of essential elements of its program. While our collaboration was hardly the most significant aspect of George’s life, his effect on me may be worth recounting for what it reveals about him. But let us clearly acknowledge: I owe an extraordinary debt to George as an editor and a human being.
George helped me discover self-expression. Writing is no easy task for most people; for me it is a kind of personal crisis. For years and years, I found that writing was next to impossible. One sentence, maybe two, and then nothing. Ideas died on the page in a notebook of aborted beginnings. Yet, there were things to say and the responsibility to try and say them.
About 30 years ago, George and Paul LeBlanc took some initiative and urged me to write for the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, though George in particular could hardly have known what demands would be placed upon him.
Not so long after, through arrangements made by Roger Sheppard, I was able to attend a public meeting in Springfield, Mass., called by the Nation of Islam (NOI), featuring as the main speaker Louis Farrakhan. It looked like the NOI had mobilized their membership in the New York-New Jersey area and the East Coast in order to hear Farrakhan launch a call for and begin to organize a Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
No press area was set aside for these rallies, and no reporters appeared to be in the audience. Certainly, no white reporters were present. The mainstream press was largely unaware or indifferent to the story. Our movement, then, was in a position to get news and analysis unavailable anywhere else at the time. All I had to do was listen carefully and write, which was as difficult for me as boarding a plane would be for someone who had a paralyzing fear of flying.
Lacking George’s support, nothing would have come to print. Instead, with his aid, BIDOM could publish two articles totaling about five pages for its May-June 1995 issue. Readers were given news of the Nation of Islam meeting, a socialist understanding of the Farrakhan phenomenon (in the tradition of the SWP’s views on Black nationalism), and a Marxist critique of the NOI platform.
The writing of these articles proceeded at an excruciating pace. I would type a paragraph, get up from my desk and walk around the room to relieve the mounting tension, reread the paragraph, then phone George to read it aloud to him. He listened without complaint and typically responded, “Good, keep going.” His specific advice was, “Just imagine you’re talking to someone interested in the topic and explain it clearly.”
I would return to my desk and write and rewrite another paragraph, repeating the phone calls to George. Things slowly improved. Sometimes, I wouldn’t call him until two or three paragraphs were completed. Of course, for articles totaling about five pages, this tedious process dragged on for days. That George ever answered a phone call from me again is testament to a superhuman patience and a remarkable personal consideration.
Before long, again thanks to George’s encouragement, I became a frequent contributor to BIDOM as a more normal arrangement set in. Typically, he would give me a topic and a deadline, and I would get to work, or I would propose an idea that he usually accepted. In 2002 I also began writing regularly for Socialist Action newspaper and continued for 15 years. If any portion of the work I produced was of value, then George deserves credit for giving me the nerve to get started. His unwavering encouragement and sustained friendship were irreplaceable.
George was born during the years of the Great Depression, whereas I entered the world sometime between the death of Stalin and the worldwide split in the Fourth International. Consequently, George was too young to be a father figure and too old to be a brother. I thought of him instead as the wise uncle who could help you understand the ins and outs of family history—that is, political issues and conflicts as they emerged or erupted in various ways. Rarely were our frequent conversations personal. Either George was by nature guarded, or I was considered too young to be allowed into his private life.
I do recall one visit to his home in Sandwich when I inquired about his daughter Jenny, who I’d just met for the first and only time. “Is she one of us?” I asked, meaning, “Is she a Trotskyist?” George’s reply was an affirmation of his daughter’s feminism, her sense of social justice, and her activism. The pride he showed in speaking of his daughter was self-evident.
Struggle for revolutionary principles in the SWP
Almost always, though, our conversations were about political issues. To cite a brief excerpt from a journal I sometimes kept: “January 8, 1982: George Saunders [George Shriver’s pen name] of the SWP phoned me last night for some information in putting a forum together and to give me some encouragement about remaining in the party. ‘Don’t quote me on this,’ he said, ‘but I think the leadership has the attitude of driving people out who have disagreed. We have to stay together and show them how an oppositional tendency can function.’”
The statement above typifies George: measured, steady, even slow in drawing definitive conclusions, yet placing the focus on what positive action could be undertaken. Such a measure of calm and maturity was less typical of me. I probably would have described the culture of the Socialist Workers Party in 1982 as a bloodthirsty “Lord of The Flies” world in which spears were being sharpened against anyone who had been part of a minority tendency in the 1981 convention.
George’s political and personal qualities were aptly demonstrated in a four-page contribution he submitted that year to the SWP Discussion Bulletin (Vol. 37, No. 20, July 1981). Naturally, he always read the documents in these bulletins, but with a political assignment as an unpaid volunteer for Pathfinder Press and paid work for university and other publishers, there was little time left over to write.
Difficult or not, though, time had to be found. It was necessary not only to defend a historic tradition but also to explain why those principles were still the best guide to action in the present, better than the direction charted by a leadership that was losing its way. As the SWP party leaders began to discard the organization’s historic program, and, even worse, to misrepresent their intentions and actions, some number of party members felt they had no choice but to band together and speak out.
The issues in dispute were complex and multiple. Readers interested in knowing more would do well to read Frank Lovell’s “The Meaning of the Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party,” available on the Marxist Internet Archive.
Given the area of George’s political expertise, it fell to him to re-present and thereby clarify defining elements of the anti-bureaucratic fight in the workers’ states against Stalinism and its influence. His contribution was titled “Cuba and Stalinism: For a Less One-Sided Treatment.” The ideas in George’s article were based on an understanding of the Cuban revolution and its limitations that had been discussed and affirmed by the majority of the world Trotskyist movement since its reunification congress in 1963 and that had been upheld by the SWP until 1981.
George pointed out that the SWP’s increasingly favorable assessment of the Castro current and its influence in Central America and the Caribbean involved two errors that were linked. One was to lose sight of the necessity of proletarian democracy within Cuba itself, and the second error was for the SWP to adapt to the Cuban Communist Party’s misunderstanding of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
George wrote: “I am troubled by what I feel is a tendency in the party and our press to uncritically praise the Cuban leadership for virtually everything it says or does and to downplay actions or statements by the Cuban leaders that are simply wrong, to overlook problems that exist in Cuba or to minimize their importance … we concluded rightly, in my opinion, that this is a revolutionary leadership. However, we should never forget, and should not overlook in our press, that it is a revolutionary leadership that suffers from certain very serious weaknesses in its central political conceptions and in its view of the world.
“… The Cuban leadership does not understand the nature of Stalinism and the contradictory, dual character of the degenerated and deformed workers’ states … the contradiction between a progressive social and economic base and a retrogressive, often counterrevolutionary, political superstructure (“the bureaucratic caste”).
“… Unfortunately, the Cuban leaders tend to recognize only one side of this contradiction – the positive effect on the anti-imperialist struggle … [This weakness] leads them to support and apologize for counterrevolutionary policies and actions by the Stalinist officialdom … The Cuban leaders fail to see the revolutionary dynamic of the struggle by the workers and their allies against the privileged bureaucracies.”
Throughout his contribution, George argues as if it were possible for the SWP membership to assert itself and compel the party leaders to change direction. This optimism is evident in the very quality of the writing. His points are made straightforwardly and clearly, despite the complexity of the argument, so that it reads well. It features a reasonable tone without polemical exaggeration, misstatement, or sarcasm. George does what a writer can to summon a reader to agreement.
The problems and flaws of the SWP perspective continued and intensified. Within a few years, anyone in disagreement—and anyone who might potentially disagree—was shoved out or expelled. By 1983 George was one of the expellees.
George’s meticulous translations
Of course, in any organization of which he was a part, George’s overriding focus throughout his adult life was the struggle for revolutionary socialism. In that struggle he found the proper expression of his intellectual talent and gifts, particularly in the rendering of Russian into English. His work with the team that produced Leon Trotsky’s “The Challenge of the Left Opposition” and the “Writings of Leon Trotsky” series will endure as his major accomplishment.
Naomi Allen, George’s co-editor of the “Challenge” volumes, once wrote: “Above all, nothing can tarnish the exceptional contributions of George Saunders, Trotsky’s foremost English-language translator, who set new standards of excellence in the quality and quantity of work he did in the 1970s” (Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, No. 24, November 1985, p. 8).
Everyone who writes about George cannot help but refer to the meticulous quality of his translations in which each word and phrase is chosen precisely. It was as if the use of the wrong word caused him physical pain. I did once inflict such an injury when, in some article, I referred to the last Russian “czar,” Nicholas Romanov. Big mistake. George wrote me a two-page, single-spaced email giving a Marxist-based history explaining the class difference between the words “czar” and “tsar.” He was patient but firm with the foolish linguistic amateur who just did not know better. Suffice to say, that mistake was never repeated.
Given George’s work habits, it would be reasonable to assume a similar quality to his workspace. Not so. His desk resembled a rambling mountain range of precariously placed magazines and manuscripts, stacked to the limit, poised to tumble to the ground. A good breeze from an open window would have created confusion and chaos.
On one occasion, during a visit to his home, George led my wife and me to his study for conversation. My wife still recalls the sight as “frightening.” The invitation to sit down presented significant difficulty. Most of the floor, every chair, and the couch were covered with books, magazines, documents, etc. We did finally balance ourselves on the smallest of the periodical piles, swaying rhythmically throughout our dialogue to keep from falling over. George, so cordial and so kind, did not realize, just could not see, that there was no place for guests to sit and little room to move anything.
Marxists do not typically acquire personal assistants, but if our political movement had been more financially prosperous, George would have been able to make a good case for being assigned one. And, since his rough-draft translations were written by hand, a good typist would have been invaluable. Actually, a larger and better-funded socialist organization would have enlisted George into its paid, full-time staff with the specific task of translating and writing for the party press. Such a situation would have been ideal.
George did, of course, contribute greatly to the revolutionary movement, providing invaluable service for left-minded readers, especially when he could work in tandem with a valued colleague. George and Marilyn Vogt followed political developments in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries for the weekly magazine, Intercontinental Press, which featured their translations and articles. Through this sustained and consistent work, dissident voices that would otherwise have been suppressed were heard in English. George’s efforts were one critical part of the editorial team that made Intercontinental Press—under Joseph Hansen’s direction—an essential resource for the radical left.
A blind spot on Russian literature?
I would venture one complaint, though. While political ferment in the Soviet Union and other countries was linked to literary and cultural changes, George surveyed literature and art only to the extent that these expressions of culture also expressed political issues and themes.
Somehow, George’s political focus, while a world unto itself, still feels something like a loss, both for his readers and for him. This masterful translator from Russian had little interest in reading in the original what is one of the great cultural treasures of the world: Russian literature from the 19th century to the age of Solzhenitsyn and beyond.
George did contribute to the literary anthology “Metropol,” but his work there was an exception. Small publishers, Hesperus Press and Pushkin Press, sprung up in London, and both featured new editions and fresh translations of classic Russian authors. Also, The New York Review of Books began an expansive book-publishing division. I offered to act as George’s unofficial secretary and contact them all on his behalf to look for job opportunities. The suggestion held no interest for George. “It’s all been translated already,” he remarked dismissively. He would not budge.
So, somewhere within George’s library might be found a Russian-language edition of Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novel, “The Master and Margarita,” one of the great works of Soviet and 20-century literature. I mailed a copy to George in Tucson, where the plastic wrapping covering the book probably remains unopened. Alas! Perhaps, in his undergraduate years, George had studied Russian literature to his satisfaction and in his working years lacked time or interest to pursue the subject any further.
In 1969 George did author a series of articles analyzing Solzhenitsyn’s novel “Cancer Ward” serialized in Intercontinental Press, later reprinted as a Merit pamphlet titled “Rebels And Bureaucrats.” His emphasis was less aesthetic and more political, appropriately focused on “the broader social and historical problems that are the author’s [Solzhenitsyn] main concern.” No doubt George would have made a fine, sensitive literary critic and editor as a professor of Russian, enjoying a productive academic career, but it was not the life he ever wished to pursue.
The only exception I recall was one driven by the need to secure a more stable income: for a short time, George taught an introductory Russian class at Cape Cod Community College in Hyannis, Mass. He did not speak of this experience with any pleasure or pride, but as George recounted, in passing, the amount of preparation he did for the class, I was struck by his thoroughness and the self-motivated high standard he brought to the task of teaching just as he did to the task of translation.
The overall situation, though, was troubling: a major talent put to minor use. Still, a stint in the classroom brought in some money until the next major project was available and the free-lance translator could return to more meaningful work.
Yet, there was a contradictory aspect to George’s efforts and pursuit of perfection. He always acknowledged that he labored slowly, that deadlines were, in practical terms, merely suggestions, but he said that most publishers recognized the outstanding quality of his translations and would grudgingly accept the delays. Unfortunately, that was not always the case. Not all publishers were patient and generous, so that George’s standards sometimes affected his ability to obtain and hold on to paying jobs. In all the years I knew him, money was always scarce, but he always persevered.
The work he loved and at which he excelled did not give George a comfortable life, but it did provide him with a meaningful and productive one. As an editor for Bulletin in Defense of Marxism and Labor Standard, George was in his element, analyzing and promoting political struggles at home and throughout the world. The foundation of the Labor Party in the mid-1990s was a long-wished-for event, which offered great opportunity for political intervention, and George, along with the magazine’s staff and supporters, threw themselves wholeheartedly into building the Labor Party, pursuing every real opportunity vigorously.
It was a conscious effort to apply the ideas of Marxism to a political radicalization while it was unfolding within the unions and the labor movement overall. In preparation for a conference of BIDOM magazine supporters in 1998 (where he was responsible for giving the main report), George urged us to realize, “We have things to contribute here that no one else can. We can help the labor party movement and organized labor as a whole be a better and more conscious force. … We point to the underlying class power and structures of ownership that aren’t touched by just voting someone into office. Thanks to the Transitional Program, we also understand and can explain, as most others cannot, the revolutionary dynamic of the labor party,” (In Defense of Marxism, Discussion Bulletin, 1998 Series, No. 3, September 1998, p. 13). Subsequently, George joined and became active in the Labor Party through a writer’s union in Tucson.
In addition to George’s well-documented qualities and virtues, he did show, at least in my opinion, some editorial blind spots or intolerance. No interest in Gramsci, but then, no animus, either. Definitely not Victor Serge, though! George referred dismissively to a “cult of Serge” that he thought was an overt and certainly misguided repudiation of Trotsky by intellectuals too soft to understand the rigor of principled revolutionary politics. So, this means a “no” to my idea for a retrospective review of Serge’s “Men in Prison” series? Definitely so. “You can put your time to better things.”
Well, then, there we disagreed, but a difference of opinion on this and other issues was no obstacle to further writer/editor collaboration. Unfortunately, though, George and I did not write together. The exception was an article at the time of Solzhenitsyn’s death, an effort to present a brief assessment of his life’s work, in the context of Soviet and Russian history. The article was published in Socialist Action newspaper in 2008.
Critique of Trotsky’s biography of Stalin
We did consider one joint project, but it did not come to completion. In 2016, Wellred Books in London, part of the International Marxist Tendency, published a revised and extended edition of Leon Trotsky’s unfinished biography of Joseph Stalin, which was originally translated, edited, and annotated by Charles Malamuth. Thanks to Harper & Brothers, this first and inadequate edition appeared in English in 1946.
When the new edition was published, I bought George a copy. We discussed it several times in emails and telephone calls. Without entering into the details, George and I both thought that the Wellred edition contained its own flaws, that Alan Woods’s editorial judgments were subject to question, despite the endorsement of Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson.
In one email, George wrote to me and said: “However, I am not certain that Alan Woods has done the job Trotsky intended, as he claims to have done and as Seva [Esteban] Volkov, T’s grandson, seems to agree—although Seva could not possibly have gone through all the material and effectively evaluated it.
“I have seen the material in the Trotsky archives at Harvard, having worked in those archives for a number of years on behalf of Pathfinder Press & Monad publishers, when I was living about an hour away from the Harvard Library.
“I am not confident that Alan Woods and his collaborators correctly appraised & translated this very complex set of materials, although they do seem to have described it accurately and in detail.
“… I will need to look through the mass of material at the Trotsky archives at Harvard before I can make a fully grounded judgment.”
What strikes me now, on rereading George’s comments, is his casual assumption about the need “to look through the mass of material at the Trotsky archives” in order to write a review, even a comprehensive one. He was already more than familiar with the archive’s contents. He probably knew them as well as anyone in the world. Did he really need to study the archives anew? Besides, how was such a thing to happen? The task itself would certainly have been arduous, and George, then living in Arizona, was no longer in driving distance to Harvard in Massachusetts. Nonetheless, George’s statement reveals the rigorous, professional standards he held, the level of excellence that guided his work as translator, writer, and editor. In this regard there is much to praise.
In one of our exchanges on the new Trotsky biography, I located a passage that George believed was missing. He was quite pleased with my finding it, and, referring to my help, wrote this comment: “That shows, once again, that two heads are better than one, and that a joint review by yours truly & Joe A. is a good idea.”
It is a simple statement that still means a great deal. The assertion that George and I could work together as almost equals, that I might have something to offer him, at his level, was difficult to believe but a source of real pleasure. If we had published that “joint review,” I confess I would have wallowed happily and recklessly in that most deadly sin of pride.
Unfortunately, so many projects that might have been done were never completed. It is not difficult to imagine what George would be doing now if he were alive and healthy. He would still be translating, of course. No doubt he would want to continue his work to bring more of Rosa Luxemburg to English-speaking readers. What would George have taken up next?
Demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence would be a main priority. George would have been pitching in to support the protest actions sweeping the U.S. and the world. Activists who take to the streets to demand racial justice would have found George at their side.
He would be speaking out, too. George would be able to march one day and write an article the next, offering analysis and commentary based on years of experience in the socialist cause. He would warn that Democrats and even Republicans might accept reforms, even significant ones, but would never accept measures that would challenge their dominance. “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” This idea from “The Communist Manifesto” would be fundamental to any critique that George might write.
George would view the Black Lives Matter movement as necessary and just in its own right and at the same time linked to the larger struggle for human freedom—the overthrow of capitalist rule and the creation of a socialist society. That was his life’s work, and his devotion to it is a reason to remember and honor him.
In conclusion, let’s recall what George declared decades ago, and let him write the closing words himself: “The fight for socialism in the imperialist countries is the decisive element in the worldwide socialist revolution. And it is our responsibility. The task we face is to convince workers here, and their allies, to extend the democratic rights they have won historically into the social and economic sphere and, by overturning property relations, to ensure full democracy for all.”