Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 1
Carl Cowl (1900–1997)
WITH THE death of Carl Cowl, many of us lost not only a friend, but a living link with the events of this century. Born in 1900 in Minnesota into a family of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, he was active in the Industrial Workers of the World whilst still a child. He was 17 when the October Revolution took place, and 19 when the Communist Party of the USA was founded. He was so confident of the success of the revolution that he abandoned his studies to become a full-time revolutionary, a district organiser for the CPUSA in Minneapolis, and an alternate member of its Central Committee.
When in 1928 a group in the CPUSA decided to support the Left Opposition in the Communist International, and held their first public meeting, Carl was there. Carl became the Secretary of the Minneapolis branch of the Communist League of America, the city which became the centre of the US Trotskyists’ industrial activity amongst the truck drivers.
In 1934, the CLA fused with the American Workers Party, led by A.J. Muste. The new party proceeded to implement the entrist tactic that Trotsky called for in France and Britain. This involved the entry of the party’s militants into centrist and Socialist parties, with the argument being that time was short, the Fascist menace was close, and the vast majority of workers were under the influence of these parties. Some members did not consider this to be a valid argument, and that the tactic did not apply to the USA. However, the party decided to enter Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party, even though they were forbidden to promote their own publications. Carl supported Hugo Oehler, Tom Stamm and Rosalio Negrete (Russell Blackwell) in opposing this move. They were expelled in 1935, and formed the Revolutionary Workers League, of which Carl was an active member until 1937.
On his last visit to London, Carl told me that his organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, was dealing with the entry tactic in the Trotskyist movement, and having played a part in the split in the USA on that issue, he expected to be called on to make a contribution, but they had not done so. The obituary for Carl in Socialist Review refers to his having joined ‘the Oehlerites, an ultra-left sectarian faction’. Carl would not have agreed with this description.
In 1937, whilst Oehler and Negrete were active in the Spanish Civil War, Stamm and Carl and others seized the publications and name of the organisation. I did point out to Carl that in the circumstances, it was a treacherous thing to have done. Carl was, for him, surprisingly contrite at my criticism. What had happened was that Oehler had been insisting that the group move its headquarters from New York to the industrial west. Stamm was opposed to this. He was dependent on the income of his wife, who worked as a school teacher in New York. Stamm also had literary ambitions. Oehler’s style was said to be crude, and not always grammatically correct.
In the early days, Carl worked as an assistant stoker on the coal barges operating on the Great Lakes between Canada and the USA. Later on, he worked on oil-fired ocean-going ships. During the Second World War, he took a job as a toolroom worker in New York. Having worked some years in the engineering industry, I expressed surprise at this. He just waved his hand, and said: ‘I picked it up as I went along.’ He also drove a taxi.
Carl was greatly interested in music, and he obtained a degree in the subject in 1960. He became Secretary of the American Recorder Society, and was involved in a literary agency. On many of his trips to Britain, he went to Glasgow where, in conjunction with a woman there, he was working on an account of the life of Dr Farmer, an expert on Oriental music. Carl was also a Yiddish scholar, and participated in the Yiddish Summer School at Oxford University. He recently went with one of his sons to Lithuania, and visited the smithy where his father had worked as a blacksmith at the end of the last century. He was grieved to note that the tombstones from the local Jewish cemetery had been broken up and used in the repair of local houses. He spent his ninety-third birthday in Israel, and sent me a card from Sodom and Gomorrah. Carl’s handsome patriarchal appearance could be betrayed by a wicked jibe and a gleeful chortle.
At the age of 95, he spoke for over an hour to a meeting of 400 people at the SWP’s annual conference. He spoke of his experiences, his belief in revolution, and his opposition to any opting out of the struggle.
How did Carl last through this century, the century which August Bebel, the leader of German Social Democracy, had boasted would be the ‘century of Socialism’ – a false prophecy. (Is hope deferred for another century?) How did he survive? Was it his genes – he used to boast of an elder brother who did two workouts in the gym each week – or was it hard work in the early days? And there was the emotional wear and tear of several wives and children. One wife committed suicide. Music played an important part in his life. I remember coming back to his flat in Brooklyn to find him alone playing the clavichord. Music must have seen him through many a trial.
For myself and others, the world will not be quite the same without him.
Updated by ETOL: 1.10.2011