A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty-Year Adventure

A review by Ronald Aronson of Milton Tambor, A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty-Year Adventure, Fulton Books, Meadville, PA, 2021

Milt Tambor is my friend, which makes this review especially challenging to write. During a great part of his fifty year story we’ve been connected in one way or another. After our being introduced at an SDS meeting in Detroit in 1968, he became the president of my wife’s AFSCME local, and we were among the founders of the Detroit chapter of the New American Movement (NAM). We participated together in a men’s group for over twenty years. And Milt was a major supporter and donor of the film Judith Montell and I made: “Professional Revolutionary: The Life of Saul Wellman” When Milt retired from Michigan AFSCME in 2001, he asked me to be one of the speakers, and there I couldn’t resist the opportunity of revealing to the assembled audience of union members that Milt Tambor was a socialist - which shocked and scandalized no one and in fact seemed to be greeted by recognition and pleasure among the 150 people present. Today I appear in a couple of places in his memoir, including my picture on page 58. So it made sense for him to ask me to read a couple of the chapters while he was writing the book. But how to write a review of it?

Rabbi Lerner, aware of this fifty-year connection, has given me my assignment, saying that I shouldn’t “make it primarily about what a great guy he is, but rather about what our readers can learn about the ideas that he (and you) have developed and/or what he and you have to teach the rest of us about organizing for transformation in America.” Exactly the point. In so saying he’s recognizing that I’m implicated in Milt’s story - which is as it should be.

Also, as it should be, the story is infused with the currents of the time: a seamless transition from Yeshiva University to a career in social work in Detroit through his MSW at Wayne State University, working first at the Jewish Community Center, then at a United Auto Workers retirees center. During the 1960s explosion of white-collar unionization, Milt became a social workers’ union activist affiliated with AFSCME. Elected the first full-time president of the growing citywide AFSCME local 1640, leading a strike of 500 social service workers, and then becoming an AFSCME regional staffer eventually focusing on education, Milt was also drawn into anti-Vietnam War labor activism and then became part of labor activism against American intervention in Central America. It was during his years at Michigan AFSCME that Milt became a founding member of Detroit NAM (New American Movement) and entered DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) with the 1982 merger. 

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These are all ways Milt and I lived parallel lives and became connected, but a further link was our secular Jewishness. It came from different directions - Milt’s relation to Judaism is a central part of his story: a cantor’s son going to yeshiva while living with a psychologist uncle in New York, both affirming humanist, universalist, and secular values through contact with the writings of Eric Fromm, Milt using Fromm’s Talmud-based celebration of the Sabbath as the basis for a paper written in Hebrew for his high school yearbook. Milt retained a comfortable identification as a Jew even while no longer believing in God. Indeed, he’s just as comfortable saying that morality rooted in his Jewish upbringing is at the heart of his lifetime activism. Milt identified with Israel early on, celebrated its successful defense in 1956, and worried about the disastrous implications of the occupation beginning in 1967.  Eventually, he connected with New Jewish Agenda, Brit Zedek V’Shalom, and J Street. And in retirement in Atlanta, this led him to give lectures on Jewish values and politics to his wife’s Hadassah chapter and to give talks at the local synagogue. And today it leads him, although these developments came too late to be included in the book, after over fifty years of hoping for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to conclude along with Michael Lerner and Peter Beinart that this is impossible and that it’s time to think about a single Jewish-Palestinian state. 

While Milt’s 1960s began with him working at Detroit’s Jewish Community Center, mine was about becoming a community organizer and then an activist professor and union member who had to struggle for my job at Wayne State University. Once I was granted tenure through a union grievance I was freed from many of the stresses of the working class, but Milt realized from the beginning that although he was an educated and trained social worker he inescapably belonged to the working class. Living a middle-class life didn’t spare him from being subject to powers over him – supervisors, agency priorities, board members, funding limits – that mocked his sense of professionalism. It only sharpened his understanding of the need to do away with the hierarchical labor system everywhere and create a democratic and socialist one. My own socialism was rooted in study, theory, and activism: Milt’s was built into his daily experience as a worker. As a result, he found himself identifying with the history of socialism and its theories, with those of us who had come to the same outlook. 

Milt’s book is filled with historical and personal detail, giving much information about what it was like to be part of and then co-chair Detroit’s anti-Vietnam War coalition, and a few years later the agitation within the local and national trade union movement against its Cold War-originated support for repressive regimes in Central America. Milt also tells the story of his participation in NAM’s labor committee and then as a Michigan AFSCME staffer and assistant education director. Indeed, the activism is on every page. And within the larger history, and connected to the specific events with which his life has been absorbed, is Milt’s specific practice of socialism. 

Inspired by two great Detroit socialist activists, Helen Samberg and Saul Wellman, Milt’s vision and actual practice was open, multi-tendency, undogmatic, accepting working in coalitions, able to work both at the grassroots and with sympathetic leadership, having an accepting attitude towards his comrades’ positions and their development, and stressing education as central. What does not appear is any clear-cut definition of socialism. In Milt’s experience socialists work within a wider movement and do so openly. Sometimes they call it together, sometimes they create it, sometimes they join it and remain an active part of it. And beyond this? What is Milt’s vision of a future socialist society? Strikingly enough, he never presents one, as if to say that “the long arc of history bends towards justice” but never says exactly how. It is as if it’s not the right time to work on this, that assuming the identity as socialists is what matters, that Bernie Sanders and other progressives have given all of us adequate rallying points for the time being, and that living out socialist values matters more right now than any sort of ideological coherence. 

These features of Milt’s approach animate the book’s longest chapter, “Building Metro Atlanta DSA.” It is a remarkable climax of Milt’s story because it begins with his retirement in Detroit after 35 years with Michigan AFSCME. Milt at first followed a familiar senior citizens’ path: retirement to a warm climate to be near his new wife Linda’s children and grandchildren, a chance to follow his lifelong sport of table tennis (even winning local competitions), and the occasional talk on Jewish values and contemporary issues. 

Milt’s story reaches its peak in his seventies, as he shows just what kind of a socialist he is, generating almost from scratch and with a few others a socialist organization of 1000 members, MADSA, at the heart of a citywide progressive coalition. His tireless work, sense of respect for others, welcoming spirit, comfort with identifying as a socialist, ability to build links with people from all identities and backgrounds, including religious leaders, union officials, and political leaders, belief in the importance of education, would be impressive to read about at any age. Even more impressive is that Milt was doing it in a new home. The skills of the lifelong organizer, but also the attitudes and values going all the way back to his early Jewish education, propelled him to the center of a city-wide multi-class, multi-racial progressive movement.  No less striking was Milt’s undogmatic identity as a socialist, making this seventy-year-old a vital part of the revival of socialism going on across the country. Beyond personal gratification, the book conveys Milt’s sense of belonging to a movement coming into being that was uniting people, voicing their demands, and meeting their needs: acting collectively, making a difference. In other words, it was an experience of hope.

The final chapter, “Connecting the Socialist Dots” is wholly different in tone and substance than the rest of the book. In it Milt seeks to find closure, drawing a series of conclusions from his fifty years of activism. He takes pain to summarize much of what he has narrated throughout the book: what he has done, what it has meant, what activists can learn from it. Some of the lessons are stated as general principles, for example, that “any radical agenda worth pursuing had to be grounded in political reality,” or the importance of coalition-building because of the small size of Left organizations or the value of DSA’s inside/outside strategy in relation to the Democratic Party. Useful as these thoughts may be, more important are those paragraphs where Milt drops the need for conclusions and refers instead to “the movements I encountered and the moral compass they provided.” No closure or recipes here, but the spirit of a socialist activist - the energy of always creating something new with other people in response to the problems and possibilities they encountered. In the end, the book’s title says it best: “A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty Year Adventure.”

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