In an unpublished memoir, Jim West, a lifelong Communist Party organizer, wrote that he “was prepared to go wherever the Party or YCL thought I might be helpful … I had decided to dedicate my life to working for the ideal of socialism.”
West did just that. In 70 years of organizing, he drew downright joy from the class struggle, wherever it took him. He was a member for many years of the Communist Party USA’s National Committee. West died last month in Seattle at 91.
He was born Isador Wexler in New York City on Jan. 8, 1914, son of a shoemaker and a garment worker. Attending evening classes at Brooklyn College, he met Young Communist League members who gave him a copy of the Daily Worker.
“I took to the paper like a duck to water,” he wrote. “I took the DW, the Communist Manifesto, and other pamphlets home to read more thoroughly.”
His father kicked him out of the house. Homeless, he volunteered as a copy boy with the Daily Worker, which provided him with a meal ticket and a cot.
His first arrest came while distributing the YCL’s newspaper to strikers in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. He and his comrades spent a night in jail before an International Labor Defense lawyer won their release on grounds they were “underage.”
It was then that he legally changed his name to James W. West to spare his family FBI harassment. He served as a YCL organizer, at $10 a week, in New Jersey and Schenectady and Buffalo, N.Y.
He helped organize rallies in defense of the nine Black youth framed on rape charges and sentenced to the electric chair in Alabama in the infamous Scottsboro case.
He also helped organize Unemployed Councils and Erie County’s participation in the 1932 Hunger March on Washington to demand jobless benefits for the unemployed.
West worked with the Buffalo Young Women’s Christian Association to found a local chapter of the American Youth Congress, mobilizing against the rising fascist menace. He even convinced the Young Republicans to join.
West was a delegate to the 1935 Congress of the Young Communist International (YCI) in Moscow. A sharp debate was raging, with the Soviet Young Communists calling for a narrow working-class base for the antifascist front while the YCLs of France, the U.S. and other countries argued “that the struggle to stop and defeat fascism required the unity of the young generation as a whole,” West wrote. That position ultimately prevailed.
A few weeks later, West was a YCL delegate to the 7th Congress of the Communist International, which adopted Georgi Dimitrov’s Popular Front strategy, key to the defeat of fascism. West stayed on in Moscow as the YCL’s representative to the YCI until 1937.
Soon after his return, the YCL sent him to Seattle. He secured a job at the Todd shipyard mucking bilge from the holds of ships, the dirtiest job in the yard.
West served in the U.S. Army in Korea at the end of World War II. There he contacted the Korean Workers Party in Seoul, developing a lifelong love of the Korean people and their struggle for reunification and peace.
After the war, West was assigned to Gary, Indiana. He was framed and sent to the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute in 1961 on charges that he violated the union-busting Taft Hartley Act. His wife Molly and their son Steven visited often, a memory that West calls his “happy hours.” Later the couple was divorced.
Following his release from prison, West participated in the struggle to rebuild the party hard-hit by anticommunist repression.
Communist and other progressive union members had formed Trade Unionists for Action and Democracy to unite and mobilize the rank-and-file caucuses then springing up in labor.
“The ‘fresh winds in labor’ which Communists predicted and worked for has arrived,” West wrote. “Gone with the old wind are Lane Kirkland and many of his ilk.”
As the party’s Ohio organizer, West led the struggle there to collect signatures to win ballot status for the CPUSA presidential ticket in 1976 and again in 1984. That Herculean task, he said, “brought Ohio’s Communists into live contact with more than 100,000 people.”
In 1977, West went to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to join the staff of the World Marxist Review. By then he was married to his second wife, Audrey, who served as the Prague-based correspondent for the Daily World.
They returned to the U.S. in 1983 and West became the CPUSA international secretary. In the mid-1990s, he and Audrey moved to Seattle, where they remained active in Party work. Audrey died a year after their move.
West participated in the labor-led 1999 “Battle of Seattle” that forced the early adjournment of a meeting of the World Trade Organization.
“It served notice that the fight against international monopoly was no longer confined to national boundaries,” West wrote. “Hands were being joined across borders in a common struggle for a better world.”
In addition to his son, West is survived by a daughter, Marilyn, a granddaughter, and Paul and Eda, Audrey’s children from an earlier marriage. His ashes are to be interred in Chicago’s Forest Home (Waldheim) Cemetery.