Marxism never died for Carl, 95

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The Independent Online
HE IS America's oldest living revolutionary. Carl Cowl, aged 95, not only remains a committed Marxist; by a curious process of osmosis he now looks a dead ringer for his famous mentor. When he visited Marx's tomb in Highgate Cemetery in London last week, one young schoolgirl even asked him if he and Marx were one and the same person. "I told her no, I wasn't, that Marx was a good deal more important than I have ever been." Secretly, you suspect, he is flattered at being mistaken for the Great Bearded One.

Almost 80 years since he first became a socialist, Cowl's faith in socialism's future remains as strong as ever. This week, he will be speaking in London at Marxism 95, a lecture series organised by the Socialist Workers' Party.

Cowl's own beliefs were nurtured while he was still a youngster living in Minneapolis, where he attended a Labour hall used by various left-wing and trade union groups, but it was the Russian Revolution in October 1917 that propelled him into a lifetime of activity. "At the time, the revolution seemed like a flame in the sky. We knew something extraordinary had taken place, something that had the potential to change our lives."

Spurred on by the Bolsheviks' example, Cowl and his comrades came together to found the US Communist Party, until the bitter battles between supporters of Stalin and Leon Trotsky, whom Cowl favoured, led to his expulsion 10 years later.

Starting all over again, he helped found one of the first Trotskyist groups outside Russia. His little band led a successful city-wide Minneapolis Teamsters' strike in 1934, paving the way for the massive recruitment drive of that union. Throughout that period, Cowl remained unemployed: "In October 1929, I was on the conveyor line at a Ford motor plant. The Crash came and the whole plant closed down, throwing thousands of us out of work. With my wife and child, we lived on welfare for the next few years."

Despite moving to New York, he did not find work until 1939: "I wanted to be a seafarer and the seaman's union had a rule that the steamship owner had to call the union office if he had a job. So I hung around the office and finally the dispatcher said they sometimes got calls at night for emergency replacements, so if I didn't mind sleeping in I might stand a chance."

Cowl remained at sea until he was 55, his time ashore occupied partly by a sideline business as a literary agent. Meanwhile, the McCarthyite period was in the process of crushing the remnants of the American left.

Back on shore, Cowl became a music therapist in a mental hospital, eventually going on to obtain a degree in musicology and a teaching post at Columbia University when in his sixties.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he failed to engage fully with the 1960s youth protest era: "The Sixties took the form of turning your back on capitalism rather than fighting it. I just felt lost."

Nevertheless, Cowl continued to plough away, his Marxism confirmed by the growth of new socialist groups, one of which he rejoined in the early Eighties and remains in to this day.

"Many people ask me whether I feel bad about the fall of the various regimes in Eastern Europe," Cowl says. "I tell them that from the late 1920s onwards I never believed Russia was socialist. It became a bureaucratic dictatorship, where every last vestige of workers' democracy was strangled. My own socialism has always been different. Before I kick the bucket I would like to see another explosion. I wouldn't say that I deserve it, but I would certainly die more peacefully."