Review by Paul Buhl.
The historical moment for 1960s radicals’ self-reflection may have arrived early a while ago, even before 1980 for the especially large egos, but has arrived in force mostly in the last few years. We are now evidently beginning a smallish rush on the market, smallish in part because many of the books are self-published, smallish in another part because these are not the celebrity-status famous people or even the purported Beautiful People. A certain modesty is a great source of their attractions.
Milt Tambor’s Democratic Socialist Adventures surely takes the cake for modesty. It is all about him and it is not about him. This is a fellow who grows up within a Jewish-American world and never seems entirely comfortable about being there— no doubt because the institutions and their big shots have shifted sharply right during our political lifetimes, even when the community itself remains largely liberal. Tambor is forever, in these pages, reaching out beyond the limits of that world toward others, as he searches for a career equal to his talents. He is a “people skill” person who works with social service clients, with fellow workers of various kinds, and with allies, smoothing out tensions and searching for solutions in place of conflicts.
Tambor, as he explains, became early in his career a unity-builder between Jewish and minority communities in Detroit. He had a fine mentor: Saul Wellman, an erstwhile Communist dignitary of note as well as a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. Wellman had been doing the work of bringing people together for decades when young Milt came on the scene in Detroit. A more than willing protege, the younger man showed himself eager to build alliances, for his own reasons. Born in 1938 and raised in Miami and New York in a highly religious household, he was too old for the New Left and perhaps skeptical of imagined utopias. Besides, trained in social work was and assigned to community projects, not on the campus where the New Left action mostly took place.
You might almost say that Milt Tambor was born for DSA, or what became DSA.
On staff from 1965 at the UAW Retired Workers Center in Detroit, he was in a bargaining unit—a union within a union—for AFSCME. He soon set himself to organize various social work agencies as he prepared to go on to graduate school. He leaped into the labor movement’s own peace initiatives of the time, no easy matter when the AFL-CIO was led by super hawk George Meany and his circle of bureaucrats, enraged at peaceniks of any kind. Happily, the best of the old radicals were also against the war, almost as if the aging socialists of the 1930s-40s found a place to work together again. It was too little and too late, but meanwhile, Tambor had helped lead a strike of Detroit social workers, setting the pace for long term improvement of their collective situation.
The New American Movement formed in 1971 had a special appeal to him, bringing him into closer contact with such revered figures as Dorothy Healey. By the middle 1980s, he had become part of a labor delegation in support of Central American uprisings in Nicaragua and El Salvador, once again in sharp contrast to the AFL-CIO leadership. He also went back to graduate school and became a scholar of unions in social work, as well as a labor educator. With a pension, he took retirement and headed for an Atlanta retirement in 2001, eager for new political opportunities.
DSA had meanwhile emerged, joining two Left organizations and in a sense, bringing a sense of reconciliation between warring communist and anticommunist traditions. He was in the right place to push for Bernie Sanders, to build an Atlanta Metro DSA, and to secure the links with the labor movement that would make the movement a success in…. coalition building!
Nothing spectacular here but everything useful. Milt Tambor teaches us, especially but not only the young, how to be the Jimmy and Jenny Higgins of today and tomorrow.
[Paul Buhle, founding editor of the new left journal RADICAL AMERICA, has published many books on the history of the US Left but in recent years turned to creating radical history graphic novels. His most recent is Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography, co-authored with Steve Max, illustrated by Noah Van Sciver. He is a retired Senior Lecturer at Brown University, and is currently working on the 3rd edition of the Encyclopedia of The American Left.
Milt was instrumental in founding DSA's Atlanta chapter in 2006 and rooting it in the workplace and community struggles of poor and working class Atlantans, whether through anti–forclosure, anti–gentrification, or workplace struggles, using tactics from public education, to electoral organizing, to direct action. In his memoir, Milt details how the chapter's work contributed to the building of a vibrant progressive movement in Atlanta.
–Maria Svart, national director, Democratic Socialists of America
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