Abe Magil: A tribute to a working class, Marxist journalist

Marxist journalist and pamphleteer. Devoted family man and friend. Poet. Editor. Political leader. All of these describe Abe Magil, who died in January. Writing as A.B. Magil, he was among the many people of talent and conviction who, starting in the mid-1920s, devoted themselves to the cause of working people and socialism. Over decades, these ideals took Magil to four continents, introduced him to leading artists, cultural and political figures, and involved him in the most important struggles of the day.

Born into a poor Jewish immigrant family in South Philadelphia, he was the youngest of four children. His three sisters went to work before finishing high school and that, in part, enabled Abe to finish. He then won a scholarship, and earned a degree in journalism and a Phi Beta Kappa Key at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1926, soon after graduating, he moved to New York and joined the Communist Party (CPUSA) and the staff of the Daily Worker. His association with the paper would last 32 years.

During the height of the Great Depression, Magil was sent to Detroit (1933-35) to found a Michigan Edition of the Daily Worker. His pay was $2 a week. Joining thousands of jobless workers, he ate most of his meals in “penny cafeterias,” where for 3 to 5 cents you got eggs and bread for breakfast, and soup and bread for lunch. Communist Party members often invited him to their homes so he could have a third meal.

When Magil arrived in Detroit, the Chief of Police called him in. He asked Magil what he was doing there, then demanded Magil’s press card and tore it up, saying, “I can’t wait till the showdown with you reds.” Magil replied, in a calm voice, “And I can’t wait either,” and walked out of the building.

The Michigan Edition soon faltered for lack of money. Magil then took on the job of editing the Auto News for the Auto Workers Union, a left-led predecessor of the United Auto Workers. But its funding also ran dry, so Magil became the Michigan correspondent of the Daily Worker. Now that he was making $10 a week, some of the Michigan communists, then led by William Weinstone, joked about the “well-paid New Yorker.”

This was a period not only of great hardship for working people, but also of great upsurge, especially in Detroit, and Magil was there to cover it. There was also a growing threat of fascism around the world, and at the center of it in the U.S. was Father Coughlin. Speaking to millions of radio listeners every Sunday morning from his church just outside Detroit, at first Coughlin hid his extremism and anti-Semitism in his broadcasts, but not in his church sermons.

With some trepidation, Magil began attending Coughlin’s sermons, and wrote the first exposé of Father Coughlin’s neo-fascist, vitriolic anti-Semitism for the Daily Worker. His pamphlet, “The Truth About Father Coughlin” (Workers Library, 1935), sold 150,000 copies. Another pamphlet, “The Real Father Coughlin” (1938), was also popular. By 1940, Coughlin was publicly disgraced and forced from the airwaves.

With Henry Stevens, Magil also authored a book on U.S. fascism – The Peril of Fascism: The Crisis of American Democracy (International Publishers (IP), 1938) — that covered such organizations as the Klu Klux Klan, the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, the German American Bund, and the American Liberty League, and examined their relationship to big business and to Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

The book contains lessons pertinent for today: “First finance capital curtails democratic rights, narrowing the scope of democracy and paving the way for the open and violent dictatorship of fascist rule. ... [T]he victory of fascism is by no means inevitable. Fascism is opposed to the interests of at least nine tenths of the people ... It cannot come to power when the working class is united and has cemented a strong alliance with the other strata of society whose interests would suffer from the open terrorist rule of the financial oligarchs ... Unity is the pressing need of all who hate fascism and war.”

Magil’s booklet, “The Battle for America: 1776-1861 – 1941,” was published in 1943 (IP). One of A.B. Magil’s proudest products was the popularly written pamphlet, “Socialism – What’s In It for You?” (1946), which sold over 100,000 copies.

Magil was also active in the left intellectual and cultural ferment in our country in the 1930s and ’40s. He worked alongside Joe North at the head of The New Masses, a weekly magazine of political commentary, cultural criticism and creative writing, which was held up as the iconic prototype for this kind of publication from the 1960s on. Nearly all the great left arts figures of that period appeared in its pages. Novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote for it regularly, as did Ruth McKenney, author of the novel, My Sister Eileen, which was adapted for stage and screen.

One Saturday in 1940, poet Carl Sandburg dropped into the office to chat with North and Magil. He expressed disagreement with some of the magazine’s political positions, but said he generally appreciated and respected the magazine’s work. Sandburg mentioned that he had read Magil’s long poem on the death of the great Soviet poet Mayakovsky, calling it “a good poem.” (Some of Magil’s poetry appears in the 1938 Anthology of Proletarian Literature in the United States, edited by Granville Hicks.) In 1942, Helen Keller sent to New Masses a portrait of herself with the inscription, “To Mr. Abe Magil with fraternal greetings.”

Magil was executive editor of New Masses in 1948, when the Cold War and McCarthyism forced it to close.

Soon after, the Magils – Abe and his wife Harriet Black Magil, a psychiatric social worker who had been National Treasurer of the American Women’s Congress, and their five-year-old daughter Maggie – went to Palestine. As a correspondent for both the Daily Worker and the Yiddish-language Morning Frieheit, Magil was assigned to cover the struggle to replace the British Mandate colony of Palestine with two co-equal states – Israel and Palestine.

While there, Magil renewed his friendship with cousin Matja Lessem Wolff and her husband, Dr. Willi Wolff, who became the first Israeli minister of health. Magil had met them in Berlin in 1930 on his way back from the World Congress of Revolutionary Artists and Writers, held in the Soviet Union. The Wolffs moved to Palestine in 1934 just ahead of the start of the Holocaust.

The UN supported the two-state solution, a resolution introduced by the Soviet Union. However, Britain resisted through stand-ins and there was intermittent fighting. The Trans-Jordanian Arab Legion was commanded by British officers, including a British general calling himself “Glub Pasha.” The situation was complex, with results both good and bad. According to the Israeli Communist Party, the struggle against Britain to establish Israel was just, but land beyond the partition line was unjustly seized, and many Arabs were driven from their homes on both sides of that line.

Magil was there for six months, including on May 14, 1948, when independence was declared. Several times he was under fire. On one occasion he went to report a military action of the Palmach, a special military unit of the Haganah composed primarily of left-wingers, including Communists. He interviewed its commander, Yigdal Alon, who later became Israeli military chief of staff, and his second in command, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist. Returning to New York, Magil wrote the book, Israel in Crisis (1949, IP).

Getting to Palestine had not been easy. When Magil applied for a passport, the State Department refused him on grounds that “it would not be in the interests of the United States.” Magil organized a protest, and approached the U.S. delegation to the UN’s World Conference on Freedom of Information being held in Geneva. The head of the delegation was editor of the Christian Science Monitor. Magil soon got a letter stating that his passport would be issued “at the request of the U.S. delegation” to the conference.

During the height of McCarthyism, Magil was asked to move to Mexico with his family. More than 150 Party leaders had been imprisoned or were in hiding, some in Mexico. Magil worked there as a correspondent for the Daily Worker and supplied Party leaders with information on the political situation both in the United States and in Mexico.

In Mexico, Magil developed acquaintance and friendships with political refugees from Latin America and the U.S., as well as with the great Mexican Communist artists, David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. This circle of people included Pablo Neruda, Chilean Nobel Laureate poet; Cuban poet Juan Marinello; Carlos Raphael Rodriguez, the poet and journalist who later became Vice President of Cuba under Fidel Castro; and Hollywood Ten victims Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner, Jr. and Dalton Trumbo.

The Magil family had a particularly close relationship with Frida Kahlo. When Magil was recalled to New York in 1953, as going-away presents, Kahlo took a ring off her finger and put it on eight-year-old Maggie’s, then gave the child a Mexican dress and pressed a sheet of paper against her lips to produce a lipstick farewell kiss. Kahlo also gave the Magils an original painting and inscribed it with the words, “Don’t ever forget me,” in Spanish.

When the Magils returned from Mexico, McCarthyism was still in full swing. With many still in prison or hiding, Betty Gannett and Pettis Perry were leading the CPUSA. Gannett asked Magil to join the Administrative Committee and establish a National Peace Commission, among other things. Magil also continued to write for the Daily Worker.

In June 1954, a CIA-engineered coup overthrew the first progressive president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, triggering one of the greatest bloodbaths in Latin America, which is hardly over today. Six weeks before, Magil interviewed Arbenz for the paper. Arbenz expressed concern about a possible coup, but thought the democratic forces could prevent it. Magil made it across the border just ahead of the death squads, only to be taken into custody in Mexico illegally by the FBI and returned to the U.S. There he co-wrote the pamphlet, “What Happened in Guatemala,” with Helen Simon Travis.

The CPUSA’s elected leaders began returning from prison and exile in 1955-56, and Magil served on the editorial board of the quarterly publication Mainstream and its successor, the monthly Masses & Mainstream. A period of internal turmoil ensued, from 1956 to 1958, during which Magil became editor of the Sunday Worker and then foreign editor of the Daily Worker.

In 1958, Magil concluded that he needed to provide more security for his family and entered the field of medical journalism. While no longer a full-time political worker, Magil served as a member of the editorial board of the progressive monthly Jewish Currents and participated in a Communist Party club of writers led by Si Gerson.

In early 1992, during the crisis of the world Communist movement, Magil reluctantly left the CPUSA with many others and became a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. In his final years, Magil read the major reports of the Communist Party and agreed with the CPUSA’s position on the need to build democratic unity to defeat the far-right Republican Party and Bush administration, as well as other CPUSA positions. Magil participated in a Marxist discussion group until shortly before his death at age 98.

Magil was known not only for his skill as a journalist and writer but also as good to work with. To friends and relatives he was known as a lovely person, always kind, considerate and soft-spoken, but firm in principle. He remembered to phone tens of relatives every birthday to wish them well. The home of Abe and Harriet, his wife of 63 years, was filled with love. They were famous for hosting frequent social gatherings attended by many of the country’s left cultural figures.

Daniel Rubin is the nephew of Abe Magil and the editor of a forthcoming collection of Marxist writings on anti-Semitism and Zionism. Rubin is a member of the Communist Party’s education commission and can be reached at pww@pww.org



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