My comrade, co-worker and dear friend died unexpectedly October 5. Without Jon Britton this blog would not have been possible. It’s as simple as that. Jon was much more than editor. To explain, I must tell how I came to know him and how he became my best friend, comrade, and co-worker for 46 years.
I met Jon when we were both members of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party during the 1970s. In those days the SWP was a quite different political organization. It considered itself to be a Trotskyist party, indeed the most Trotskyist party in the world. The road leading me to that 46-year-long friendship began with a problem posed by Leon Trotsky. So the story of how I met Jon begins with how I became an admirer and for many years an ardent follower of Leon Trotsky.
I was in high school when I read Issac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky in the Albany, New York, public library. I had no idea who Isaac Deutscher was but I was very interested in current events and the ongoing Cold War from a purely anti-Communist perspective. I was a child of Cold-War America. The worst of McCarthyism had passed, but the witch-hunt atmosphere lingered. I didn’t know that Deutscher considered himself a Marxist. I did not know that Deutscher had once been a member of the Polish Communist Party and then a founder of the Polish Trotskyist Party. In 1938, he broke with Trotsky when he opposed Trotsky’s decision to launch the Fourth International. That organization was, in the mind of Trotsky and his supporters, the revolutionary successor to the Third (Communist) International.
When I first picked up the biography, I was interested only in the struggle for power in the Kremlin between Stalin and Trotsky over who would succeed Lenin as the leader of the Soviet Union. I assumed as a matter of course that all Soviet leaders were evil — Stalin the worst of all. That view was drilled into the heads of everybody in Cold-War America, in the media and the classroom alike, and though more subtly perhaps, it still is today. But Deutscher, a master of the English language, though not a native speaker, wrote with great power and sympathy about Trotsky. Despite his differences over the Fourth International, Trotsky remained Deutscher’s personal hero. In his trilogy he portrayed Trotsky as a tragic hero. But Deutscher also pictured other Soviet leaders in a sympathetic light, except Stalin and his closet supporters, who were the villains of the piece.
For the first time, I came to realize the great revolutionary idealism that drove both the Russian masses led by its working class, but also the leaders of the Russian Revolution. The transformed view of that revolution that I learned from Deutscher set me on the road to becoming a Marxist via the Trotskyist movement, and to meeting Jon Britton.
Building opposition to war on Vietnam
A lot was happening in the 1960s, which also left its mark on my political evolution. The most important of these events was the brutal criminal war of the United States against the people of Vietnam and other Indochinese peoples. What a difference there was between the leaders of the Russian Revolution raising the banner of national liberation of all oppressed nations and peoples of the world, and the U.S. leaders, Democrats and Republicans, who pursued the war against the impoverished, underdeveloped and overwhelmingly peasant country of Vietnam.
In those days the SWP, to its credit, put aside much of its typical Trotskyist anti-Stalinism and concentrated on building opposition within the United States to the war on Vietnam and peoples of Indochina. Between 1965 and 1972, the SWP made the fight against the war the center of its political activity.
The SWP also strongly supported the Cuban Revolution and, for the most part, put aside its anti-Stalinism.
The Soviet Union was considered Stalinist both during Stalin’s time and after. The SWP considered the Peoples Republic of China to be almost a carbon copy of the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Theoretically, the SWP defended state ownership of industry, the planned economy and monopoly of foreign trade in the Soviet Union and other deformed workers states, as it called the socialist countries (except Cuba). But it also called for a political revolution against the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was because, in the Trotskyist view, the CPSU represented the ruling bureaucratic caste of the country. In pursuit of a political revolution, the SWP supported the same anti-Communist dissidents the U.S. government and the capitalist press also supported.
The only difference was that the SWP claimed dissidents were fighting for socialist democracy — they were not — as opposed to fighting for democracy, as the capitalist press put it. By democracy the capitalist press meant dissidents were fighting for a return of capitalist rule in the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe as well. This of course meant a return to capitalist property relations with all its consequences. As it turned out, it was the capitalist media, not the SWP and the rest of the Trotskyist movement that had the correct view of the role of the Soviet dissidents.
Therefore in practice the SWP and the Trotskyist movement were hostile to the Soviet Union. In reality the CPSU, despite numerous political flaws, opportunism, and yes, its (in)famous bureaucracy, was the only political force existing in the Soviet Union defending nationalized property relations, the centrally planned economy and the monopoly of foreign trade.
Washington was spending huge amounts in terms of treasure, lives of U.S. soldiers not to speak of Vietnamese lives, and firepower to prevent the Vietnamese people from achieving national unity and independence under the Vietnamese Workers Party. President Ho Chi-Minh was the beloved leader of the Vietnamese people. He led the people’s struggle against the French and Japanese colonists and at the end of his life the U.S. invaders. The CPSU-led Soviet government supported the Vietnamese people.
Soviet dissidents certainly did not support the socialist gains of the Russian Revolution, nor did the Russian Orthodox Church. Nor for that matter did a large part, maybe the majority, of the Soviet state bureaucracy and large sections — and eventually the majority — of the bureaucratic apparatus of the CPSU itself. But in the end capitalist property relations could not be restored in what had been the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, without first uprooting the political power the CPSU had exercised over Soviet society and thus liberating the anti-Soviet sections of the bureaucracy from the CPSU’s control. All this was done in the name of ending the rule of the bureaucracy and bringing democracy to the Soviet Union.
Jon, when I first met him, was already more sympathetic than most SWP members to the Soviet Union. Only gradually and over many years did I come to realize that you could not in practice defend the Soviet Union while calling for a political revolution against its only organized political organization defending, however badly, the socialist gains of the October revolution. The failure of the SWP to defend the Soviet Union in any meaningful way inevitably made its defense of the Cuban Revolution inconsistent. The same held true of its defense of Vietnam against the U.S. imperialist war.
But despite these contradictions, clearer today than then, it was the younger members — as well as a few of the older ones — who sincerely supported the Cuban Revolution and Vietnam’s struggle against U.S. imperialism. This was the SWP that I, and some years earlier, Jon had joined.
Jon, older than I was, had joined before the Vietnam War had fully heated up. He belonged to what was called the Cuban generation within the SWP. Jon was a member when the struggle against a faction within the party and its allied youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, was waged by the leadership. That faction wanted to apply the Trotskyist slogan of political revolution in Cuba against the government of Fidel Castro. This struggle was over by the time I joined and I only knew about it from what was said within the SWP-YSA, which wasn’t very much. Unlike Jon, I belonged to what might be called the Vietnam generation.
As a young idealist member of first the Young Socialist Alliance and then of the adult party, I hung on Trotsky’s every word. About the time I joined the Trotskyist movement, Pathfinder, the publishing house that reflected the views of the SWP, embarked on a massive project to publish in English everything that Trotsky wrote from his forced exile in 1929 to his death at the hands of Soviet secret service operative Ramon Mercader in Mexico in August 1940. Stalin did not want Trotsky to be around when the Soviet Union was being drawn into the unfolding world war. The Soviet Union was drawn into the war on June 22, 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded. The project to publish Trotsky’s writings during his final exile was under the leadership of George Breitman. Breitman belonged to the older Depression generation of SWP leaders. He had a history of playing the role of a gadfly within the leadership.
I read all the writings of Trotsky Breitman managed to locate and translate into English written between 1929-1940. This is a lot of reading material. I discovered Trotsky possessed a mind far more subtle and far seeing than Deutscher’s. Indeed there have been few within the Marxist movement, or anywhere else for that matter, who could match Trotsky in that respect. I slowly came to realize that Trotsky’s ideas and politics and the SWP’s version of Trotskyism, not to speak of what passes for Trotskyism today, are not quite the same thing.
Trotsky is largely cut off from the current revolutionary generation not by the lingering influence of Stalin’s ancient slanders (which carry little weight today, despite efforts by Grover Furr to revive them) (1), but rather by what passes for the Trotskyist movement today. The various mutually hostile political factions making up today’s movement all too often echo imperialist positions in their imaginary fight against a ghostly Stalinism and various “dictators” fighting against the U.S. imperialist world empire.
This is not to say that I think Trotsky made no mistakes or bears no responsibility for what the Trotskyist movement became. It was he who first introduced the slogan of a political revolution against the Stalin-led CPSU in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s in the name of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy. The relations between Trotsky, the man, and Trotskyism with its various and often hostile factions is a very complex subject. This is hardly the place to deal with it. People will probably be arguing about the role of Trotsky in the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary workers movement as long as the 20th century is remembered.
Trotsky’s Theory of the Stagnation of the Productive Forces
However there is an aspect of Trotsky’s late writings that formed the starting point of what led me to my collaboration with Jon. Trotsky critics who have taken note of it call it the theory of the stagnation of the productive forces. In the last several years of his life, Trotsky argued that the productive forces in the capitalist world had become stagnant. Therefore capitalism had been transformed from what he called a relatively reactionary regime to what he called an absolutely reactionary regime.
Absolutely reactionary because he claimed that while in the past capitalism acted as a fetter on the development of the productive forces, by the 1930s it halted their development altogether. I assume the older Trotsky was influenced by the theory of secular stagnation that became popular among the more left-wing young economists influenced by Keynes in the wake of the deep but brief Roosevelt Recession of 1937-38. This was a recession within the Depression. Trotsky I believe was saying that only at the end of the 1930s had the conditions for a Marx-defined social revolution fully ripened. This is how Marx described the conditions necessary for a social revolution in his preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” written in 1859:
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. … No social order is ever destroyed before all [emphasis added -SW] the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”
Trotsky said that before the 1930s and especially before 1914 capitalism represented a fetter on the productive forces but it was still capable of developing additional ones. It was therefore only a relatively reactionary regime. Reactionary in the sense that a socialist planned economy would be able to develop the productive forces more rapidly but only relatively so because the capitalist economy was still able to increase the productive forces. But Trotsky came to believe as the 1930s progressed that capitalism was no longer capable of developing productive forces either in what today we call the global south or in the imperialist core.
Trotsky made no attempt to explain why this transformation of capitalism from a relatively to an absolutely reactionary regime occurred. Was it because of the falling rate of profit, the growth of monopoly, the exhaustion of the world market, the depletion of natural resources? Trotsky probably assumed the 1930s Depression made the stagnation of productive forces self-evident. And so it probably appeared to many at that time.
In the SWP, Trotsky was viewed on a par with Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Indeed the SWP by describing its doctrine as Trotskyism in effect placed Trotsky even above Marx. Therefore as a young and rather bookish young SWPer, I hung on Trotsky’s every word. This was despite the fact that unlike other great Marxists, such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Marx himself, Trotsky never wrote a major work devoted to economic theory. The problem was the capitalist economy of the late 1930s was not stagnant. The productive forces of the capitalist world have clearly grown by quite a bit — both quantitatively and qualitatively — since Trotsky’s death in the 1940s. In my mind that was a big problem.
According to the dominant Keynesian economics of the time, the post World War II prosperity was not another cyclical boom. It was the result that thanks to John Maynard Keynes and other like-minded bourgeois economists, the capitalist state acquired the ability to ensure virtually uninterrupted economic growth. The big problem according to the Keynesians that tanked the capitalist world economy after World War I and during the 1930s was a lack of effective monetary demand. It was this that caused the stagnation that so impressed Trotsky at the end of his life.
According to the Keynesians the problem of effective monetary demand, or the market, was solved. They claimed the capitalist state could create whatever demand was needed to achieve full employment. According to this theory, the result was no more stagnation.
On global warming and degrowth — turning Marx on his head
In those days we were aware of pollution. But few people were aware of the dangers posed by global warming induced by burning fossil fuels. This was central to the expansion of productive forces since the industrial revolution of the late 18th century. Trotsky, as far as I know, never wrote about global warming though a few scientists were already aware of it even in his time.
Trotsky however was one of the first to foresee nuclear power replacing the burning of coal as the chief source of the energy necessary to run the modern economy. This is something yet to happen. Today people are concerned about the dangers of accidents and problems associated with storing the radioactive waste generated by nuclear power. Therefore most leftists reject nuclear power out of hand. Scientists are themselves divided about the necessity and the possibilities of making nuclear energy safe in the future. But in the late 1960s, the dangers associated with peaceful use of nuclear power were not a major concern in the socialist movement. On the contrary, power “too cheap to meter” made possible by nuclear energy was hailed as creating the possibility of a socialist society of abundance for all.
Today concerns about the safety of nuclear power combined with rapidly growing awareness of the dangers of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels leads to a new challenge to a socialist society based on material abundance. Scientists are united in saying we must stop burning fossil fuels or face disaster. Some on the left, and outside it, claim that by themselves renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal will never be able to fully replace carbon energy sources or might even have negative consequences of their own.
Many leftists today consider nuclear fission power too dangerous to consider. And nuclear fusion is considered either dangerous as well or too far off in the future. Proposals for geo-engineering, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, are also dismissed as either unrealistic or dangerous or both. Many therefore conclude the only way out is to reduce the current level of productive forces along with the population.
Those supporting what is called degrowth turn Marx on his head. Marx believed capitalism would not be capable of developing productive forces sufficiently to achieve a society of abundance for all. The traditional Marxist view sees the main contradiction of modern society as the conflict between productive forces and capitalist property relations. But degrowthers, such as Monthly Review’s John Bellamy Foster, see the conflict between productive forces and nature as the central contradiction.
Marx — and Engels — unlike many of their later followers, were highly aware of the destructive impact of capitalism on the environment and the metabolic rift that capitalist agriculture has caused. This doesn’t change the fact that if the main contradiction of our time is the conflict between developing the productive forces and nature then the overthrow of capitalism would not in itself solve the problem. In that case only a dramatic decline in the human population, or a drastic decline in the standard of living of the people beyond the ranks of the super-rich, would solve it.
How far nature will allow us, once we get rid of capitalism’s fetters, to develop our productive forces is a very complex question. It is not enough to study economics. You have to study a whole series of other sciences, including physics, chemistry, biology, agronomy, climatology, paleontology, the history of climate on our neighboring planets of Venus and Mars, and maybe even the climates of exoplanets that orbit other stars.
These problems can only be dealt with collectively over many generations. The problem Jon and I dealt with was relatively simple! We needed to explore the limits of the development of productive forces within the capitalist system.
If it was true that capitalism with Keynes’s help had figured out how to continue the development of productive forces without limit, except those imposed by nature, and apply that to socialist production as well, didn’t it mean that the prospect of a socialist revolution was postponed virtually forever? There would leave plenty of room as productive forces continued to advance for struggles to improve society, such as fighting imperialist wars like the Vietnam War, fighting for the liberation of the African-American nationality and other oppressed nationalities, women, LBGTQ people.
Unlike many other young radicals of my generation, I never had the illusion the revolution was just around the corner in the prosperous and highly conservative United States. I had already read too much history to believe that. If prosperity and the development of the productive forces could continue indefinitely within the framework of capitalism, didn’t this mean according to Trotsky and Marx that the dream of a socialist society without classes and class rule would remain just that, a dream?
But the dream of a socialist society kept the members of the YSA and SWP willing to roll up our sleeves and build the next mass anti-war demonstration after the last anti-war demonstration failed to end the war. During the great anti-Vietnam war movement, many people joined one demonstration and then gave up when the war didn’t end. What was different for us was that while the struggle was important in its own right, it was only part of a much broader one to bring about a socialist society without a super-rich ruling class making life for the rest of us so miserable. But what if the dream of a socialist society was just an illusion like the dreams of a new Earth and a new heaven of the early Christians proved to be?
The answer to this question could only lie in political economy. In the beginning, I was completely intimidated by economics. I found what might be called political science, the Marxist theory of the state, far more manageable. I began to notice that leaders of the SWP had begun to move away from the Marxist theory of the state, at least as regards the process of the socialist revolution. I began to realize that Lenin’s views expressed in such classic works as “The State and Revolution” and orthodox Trotskyism (yes that’s how leaders of the SWP described their doctrine) were again not the same thing. Nor was orthodox Trotskyism the same thing as Trotsky’s own writings! This was the beginning of my disillusionment with the SWP and the Trotskyist movement. It was to be a long process extending over many years.
Marxist economics was something else. I knew almost nothing about it and believed I could never master such a complex subject. The only place I could turn for answers were those Marxists — Paul Sweezy, Victor Perlo, and most importantly for Trotskyists, Ernest Mandel. They had the kind of minds that mastered and understood the mysteries of economists. So I purchased every book on the left dealing with economics I could find. If I couldn’t afford them I read them at the public library. First I read the popularizers like Sweezy, Perlo, and Mandel and then Marx himself. Later I read David Ricardo and Adam Smith who had been among Marx’s own teachers in political economy.
I was living in New York City and could easily take the subway to the 40th Street library. It had one of the best collections of books on political economy, including classical political economy, in the world. I also should give some credit to my boss. He was one of the very best teachers of political economy anybody could have had. In his exploitation of my wage labor, he confirmed in practice every law of the exploitation of wage labor I was learning from Marx! Others would have viewed my boss as just a nasty person. And perhaps he was. But in reality, he was acting the only way he could within the capitalist economy.
But what about the SWP itself? The leadership did not contain any person who was considered a major Marxist economist in his or her own right. Among the older generation was one man, George Novack. Novack was a brilliant student of philosophy. His interest in that subject fully matched mine in economics. Novack read every writer on philosophy he had access to, regardless of philosophical school, from antiquity to the present. He was also an exceptionally nice and approachable person. But though he certainly knew the basics of Marxist economics, viewed through his interest in philosophy, economics was not his prime interest. Novack was perhaps the only person in the entire leadership who might be described in the high sense as a theoretician in the mode, for example, of Georgi Plekhanov.
Crucial to the story of how I met Jon was George Novack’s close comrade and co-worker within the leadership, Joseph Hansen. Hansen belonged to the same Depression-era political generation as Novack. Hansen was a brilliant political analyst, writer and editor. He was probably the person closest to Trotsky outside his immediate family in his final years. Much like Trotsky himself, Hansen was an amazingly organized and disciplined person. Joe, as he was affectionately called, was not somebody, again like Trotsky, who tolerated lazy slackers.
But Hansen was not particularly knowledgeable in economic theory beyond the basics, and in any case never presented himself as an expert. However, he was the editor of a Trotskyist publication called Intercontinental Press. It was within the limits of its orthodox Trotskyist politics, in my opinion, one of the best political publications that ever existed. It was my favorite publication. Above all else, Hansen was completely dedicated to Trotskyism as he understood it, from the 1930s until his death in 1979.
Among those who were on IP’s staff was Jon Britton. Jon only rarely wrote articles. He was assigned to work full time as an editor. Jon was incredibly competent and disciplined as an editor. Joseph Hansen did not tolerate anything less. Why was Jon confined to a technical role as an editor when his dedication, undivided loyalties, character, intelligence, abilities, and personal courage would seem to cut him out for more of a leadership role?
The reason for his failure to climb the party hierarchy was that Jon was simply too nice a person to handle the petty personal conflicts that all too often mark personal relations in leftist and progressive organizations. Even leaving aside the problems of police provocation, of which there was no shortage, as they do elsewhere in our competitive capitalist society. Jon simply couldn’t handle this aspect of progressive and left politics, which any political leader must be able to live with.
At one point Jon, well before I knew him, did seem well placed to rise into the leadership. He was made organizer of the New York branch sometime during the 1960s. This was before my time, but I do know the New York branch was full of characters. Some could be extremely petty in pursuit of their small personal ambitions and individual gripes. Among these was Lyndon LaRouche who later gained worldwide fame, or infamy, for forming a grotesque personal cult somewhat resembling the Scientology cult. His cult however was more political. LaRouche claimed to be a brilliant economist, ran multiple times for the U.S. presidency, and swung to the far right end of the capitalist political spectrum. LaRouche finally died in 2019 as a supporter of Donald Trump.
It fell to Jon to inform LaRouche of his expulsion from the SWP. It had been discovered that he had joined another Trotskyist group hostile to the SWP. Jon’s political career might have survived LaRouche, who was in a class by himself and considered a fringe figure within the SWP. But Jon couldn’t deal with some of the other characters who were in the New York branch. Jon had a nervous breakdown ending his career as a political leader of the SWP.
Jon’s personal weakness preventing him from being a leader reminds me a bit of what James P. Cannon wrote about Eugene Debs. Cannon was a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World before World War I. He later was a founding member of the U.S. Communist Party and then the main founder of what became the SWP. Cannon said — this is a paraphrase — that Debs was already living in a sense in the socialist future and was completely out of place in the actual dog-eat-dog capitalist world. In Cannon’s opinion this prevented Debs from being as effective a political leader as he could have been because Debs could not tolerate personal strife among comrades. (1) The same can be said about Jon.
Jon was much happier working in a technical capacity on the IP staff where Joe Hansen would not tolerate the petty personal intrigues that had marked the New York branch. In later years Jon would tense up whenever there was any personal strife in any of our local anti-war committees. We had many such committees over the years with their share of personal conflicts. While others view such personal conflicts as part of the territory, Jon simply couldn’t deal with them.
Jon’s younger brother Joel, two years younger, is still is a member of the SWP. Joel did rise into party leadership and by the 1970s sat on the SWP’s highest committees. Because of their similar names, ages, and to some extent personal appearance and mannerisms, Jon and Joel were often confused by others. Many people assumed Jon and Joel were the same person. I was among them.
Though the SWP had no first-class Marxist economist there were a few members who had an interest in economics and were more knowledgeable than most. In those years one was Robert Langston. Langston was a friend of Ernest Mandel and was determined to solve the problem dealing with the transformation of labor values into prices of production.
An interest in Marxist economics
However Langston, like Jon, never became a leader in the SWP. He, unfortunately, suffered from writer’s block and therefore wrote very little. By the 1970s Langston was a supporter of a political faction within the Trotskyist movement that included Ernest Mandel. It found itself in opposition to the leadership of the SWP. This meant he was on the way out of the party. He prematurely died soon after. In addition to Langston there were a few other members interested in Marxist economics, and were considered to be more knowledgeable than other members. Among those was Jon, but not Joel.
In 1975 I was helping out with the copy-editing on a volunteer part-time basis for my favorite publication, Intercontinental Press. Though I didn’t work with Jon, I did occasionally see him around the national headquarters then located on West Street in Manhattan’s West Village. At the time I confused him with his brother Joel, and assumed wrongly that he was a central leader of the SWP.
One day near the low point of the 1973-1975 Great Recession, I was in the national headquarters to copy-edit IP. I plucked up the courage to approach Jon and initiate what I hoped would be, with little expectation of success, a relationship with him. I was eager to talk to anybody who had an interest in the capitalist economy and where it might be headed. With budding, if still immature, ideas on economics I approached Jon. I asked him a question that went something like “how long do you think the recession will last?” I expected he might give a brief noncommittal answer and that would be the end of it.
That’s what would have been the case with almost anybody else. Not only did Jon answer the question, but far more importantly he invited me over to his apartment for dinner — a few blocks away from mine on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — to discuss the subject further. This was way beyond my wildest expectations, though it was what I had been hoping for. That’s the thing about Jon. He fulfilled your hopes not your expectations. On that afternoon so long ago when I asked Jon, “How long do you think the recession will last” my 46 -year collaboration with Jon that was to become this blog began.
I remember I came to his apartment with nervousness since I still believed that I was to have dinner with a member of the central leadership of the SWP. Here, I believed, was a central leader who was interested in discussing the crucial subject of the capitalist economy, and with it where modern society was going, with me a mere rank and file member. I soon realized that it was Joel — not Jon — who sat on the highest committees of the party. Jon was a rank-and-file member of the party just like I was. But now it made no difference.
That dinner was the first of many that continued right through to late 2019 just before my hospitalization in early 2020 for a blood infection. By the time my blood infection cleared up the COVID pandemic was raging through the San Francisco Bay area where we lived — and the world — and there were still no vaccines. While I was in the hospital, Jon and his wife Susan visited me until COVID forced the authorities to ban such visits. Jon was eager to talk about the political and economic situation even as I was strapped to a hospital bed with antibiotics being pumped into my blood. But I fully expected to resume my dinners with Jon and Susan and in the broader political activity that we were engaged in once I got out of the hospital.
But by the time I finally returned home — Jon drove me from the hospital back to my place — the pandemic prevented that. And now Jon’s unexpected death has finally ended those dinners forever. Before Jon died however, after we were all vaccinated, Jon and Susan drove me to our city’s annual May Day demonstration. The vaccines had pushed the dangers of the pandemic back somewhat though not as much as we all hoped last May.
Just before that, Jon, in what turned out to be the final months of his life, drove me to get my first two COVID vaccines. Later he took me to the eye doctor to get examined for a new pair of glasses. And then took me to another doctor to get my wax-plugged ears cleaned out. He was certainly a comrade and co-worker. But he was much more. He was the best friend anybody could ever have. After that Jon and I continued to meet on Zoom weekly, discussing economics as we had done in person for the preceding 46 years until the last week of his life. Jon remained incredibly politically active for a person who had passed his 80th year and only began to slow down during his final weeks.
I live only a few blocks from where Jon lived with Susan during the last 17 years of his life. Except for brief periods of travel and/or vacation, we have lived near each other since 1985. Jon helped me move to the Bay Area at that time so we could continue what we called the Project. The project consisted of getting our ideas on economics in written form with the hope they somehow, someday, might be published. The Internet as we know it now was still in the future, so to continue we had to live in the same city. That was Jon. He moved out of the New York City area to California but made sure that I would soon join him in the Golden State. This sort of thing is what Jon was all about.
Goodbye dear comrade, co-worker and above all friend!
With the help of others who have now come forward it should be possible to resume the blog, though nobody will ever be able to replace Jon. There is certainly no shortage of things to write about regarding the economy and the evolving political situation. The current inflationary spiral is putting increasingly downward pressure on real wages. This combined with Biden’s failure to pass most of the promised reforms has disillusioned Biden’s progressive supporters and sent his ratings down sharply in the polls.
However the combination of a rising cost of living and spot labor shortages has also strengthened the position of workers as the sellers of labor power relative to the bosses. This creates the best opportunity in many years to rebuild the labor unions. The result has been a wave of strikes including those at John Deere, Kellogg’s Cereals, and Kaiser Permanente Health among others. This raises the possibility of a revival and rebuilding of the labor union movement after long decades of retreats and defeats.
On the other side, faced with growing economic uncertainties brought by the inflationary surge, Biden, felt obliged to renominate Republican Jerome Powell for another term as Federal Reserve System chairman of the board of governors in order to reassure finance capital. A few weeks earlier Powell seemed finished due to the scandal of personal trading by members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee, the ultimate form of inside trading. The Fed’s actions have huge impacts on the financial markets, especially in the short run. Even mere comments by Fed officials often send the financial markets soaring or slumping. The possibility for huge personal profit by Fed officials, if they are allowed to speculate in financial markets, is obvious. Overall conditions appear to be ripening for Donald Trump’s return to the White House on January 20, 2025. But a lot can happen between now and then.
Faced with an increasingly unstable economic and political situation the best monument I can build for Jon is to overcome the difficulties caused by his passing and continue this blog. The only adequate monument to Jon however will be the socialist society that he struggled to achieve over his 60-years period of active revolutionary political life.
Jon Britton Presente!
(1) Professor Grover Furr writes on the history of the Soviet Union. He concludes, for example, that all defendants in the Moscow Trials were guilty as charged. (back)
(2) James Cannon’s “E.V. Debs” (1956). “Debs believed that all who called themselves socialists should work together in peace and harmony in one organization. For him all members of the party, regardless of their tendency, were comrades in the struggle for socialism, and he couldn’t stand quarreling among comrades. This excellent sentiment, which really ought to govern the relations between comrades who are united on the basic principles of the program, usually gets lost in the shuffle when factions fight over conflicting programs which express conflicting class interests.” (back)