Alexander Trachtenberg (1884-1966)

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The Emma Goldman Papers
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May 5, 2011, 8:50 p.m. (view history)

Alexander Leo Trachtenberg (1884-1966)

Alexander Leo Trachtenberg was born in the Black Sea port of Odessa in November 23, 1884, where many Russia’s Jews were forced to live. He grew up resenting the oppressive Russian policies towards Jews. Trachtenberg agreed with young Jewish revolutionaries of the period that they should politically organize through forming trade unions, leading strikes, organizing demonstrations, disseminating underground pamphlets, and exercising civil disobedience.  He joined the reform movement as an engineering student at the at the University of Odessa School of Electrotechnique from 1902 to 1904. However, he had to serve in the army against Russian’s war with Japan. He emerged a victor, as he earned the Cross of the Order of St. George for his heroic service. Regardless of his success in the military, Trachtenberg still believed that capitalists used militarism and war to oppress people. 

When he returned home, he was arrested and imprisoned for a year for his political activism. Trachtenberg served in the 1905 Revolution, a response against government’s mismanagement of the war and political oppression, at the young age of twenty. The 1905 Revolution revealed the deep-seated anti-Semitism that erupted, leaving eight hundred Jews murdered. Trachtenberg joined the many reformers and hundreds of thousands of Jews in leaving the Russian Empire.  

He arrived in the United States on August 10, 1906. He joined the Socialist student movement, first at Trinity College in Hartford and then at Yale University, to help acquire better working conditions, higher wages, unemployment insurance, and restrictions against child labor. During the period of 1909 and 1915, Trachtenberg accumulated leadership and organizational skills as the head of many socialist societies, including as president of the Yale chapter of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. In addition to teaching economics and labor, he headed the Research Department at the Rand School of Social Science in 1915.

As an opponent of World War I, which he viewed as a capitalist war, he helped organize and worked as treasurer for the Collegiate Anti-Militarism League at Columbia University. The war created a fissure between the left-wing, anti-war sector and the right-wing, patriotic members. The party expelled many of the left-wing. Trachtenberg collaborated with some members of the Jewish Federation still in the Socialist Party to create the Committee for the Third International, also known as the Workers Council. Through their biweekly newspaper, Workers Council, the Council criticized the Socialist Party for lacking the revolutionary mindset and pushed for immediate revolution. 

By the end of 1921, the Workers Council reorganized to take the name the Communist Party of the United States. It advocated unifying the various communist societies of the country. It became more organized and relied less on incendiary rhetoric to foster an electoral, democratic voting process. Trachtenberg stayed involved in the CPUS for the rest of his life as a member of the party’s first Central Executive Committee, an administrator and teacher in the Worker School of New York City, a frequent contributor in periodicals, newspapers, and books, an electoral campaign director, and a candidate for the national Senate in 1922 and Borough President of Manhattan in 1925. 

Trachtenberg founded International Publishers in 1924 to publish revolutionary literature and educate the American masses in Marxist-Leninist doctrine. On September 13, 1939, Trachtenberg was forced to testify about the revenues, production, and sales strategy before the House of Representatives Special Committee on Un-American Activities about International Publishers’ relations with the communist parties in both the United States and the Soviet  Union. During the depression, Communist ideologies had become popular, as the growing revenues of INternational publishers indicated. The INternational Publishers and Workers LIbrary Publishers published inexpensive pamphlets to sell to Communist Party members that belonged to labor unions or industries that lacked unions. Although Trachtenberg denied any ties between International Publishers and the Comintern, the publishing company had relied on the Communist Party in the Soviet Union for funding. International Publishers also published anthologies to publicize the works of left-wing writers in the mid-1930s. They were also influential in highlighting the injustices of certain people, including Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were accused of murder and executed on scanty evidence. 

On June 21, 1951, the New York Times publicized how twenty one communist leaders, including Trachtenberg, were arrested for violating the Smith Act, which prohibits the advocacy, teaching, organization, or help aimed to overthrow the U.S. government through force and violence. He had to defend his life’s work in court and served in prison for three months. He retired in 1962. On December 16, 1966, Trachtenberg died of a stroke at the age of 82. Through propagating and publishing propaganda and radical literature during an era rife with political, economic, and social tensions, he emerged as not only as one of the most influential leaders of the Communist Party but also as a proponent of social change and political activism.