Leo Huberman: Radical Agitator, Socialist Teacher

By Simon, John J. | Monthly Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Leo Huberman: Radical Agitator, Socialist Teacher


Simon, John J., Monthly Review


This month marks the centennial of the birth of Leo Huberman, who, with Paul M. Sweezy, was founding coeditor of Monthly Review. Arguably without Huberman's editorial and publishing skills, his radical imagination, and his indefatigable commitment to the idea of an independent, clear-sighted socialist clarion, MR might well have been still-born. Instead, the magazine--and Monthly Review Press--became a leading voice of independent Marxian socialism both in the United States and worldwide. Much of this was due to the unique collaboration and friendship between Leo and Paul and to the larger MR "family" that included, initially, Gertrude Huberman (Leo's wife, who died in 1965) and Sybil H. May, MR's office manager until her death in October 1978. MR's first office was in Leo and Gert's Barrow Street apartment. It was there that the two editors would meet to plot the course of the magazine, shaping its worldview, enlisting its contributors, and deciding each issue's contents. And it was there that Leo, especially, molded MR as an enterprise, a particularly risky task in those early years of the Cold War and witch-hunts.

Huberman's role during the first two decades of MR's life was but one event in a consequential life marked by his dedication to the political, social, cultural, and historical education of students and workers, of people from all walks of life. And fueling this passion was his engaged advocacy of socialism. In a brief autobiographical sketch written shortly after MR's founding in 1949, Huby, as his friends called him, wrote:

   I was born in Newark, New Jersey, on October 17, 1903, the last
   but one of eleven children, of whom six died before my birth. My
   parents were worker intellectuals who became middle class. I
   attended the public schools in my native town and graduated from the
   local high school at the age of sixteen.

   Summer vacations were an opportunity for rich industrial
   experiences. At the age of eleven I worked in a celluloid factory,
   nights from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M. I was a "runner" for a wall Street
   brokerage house, a salesman at
   Nedick's (orange drink), a laborer in a glass factory, an
   electrician's helper, a clerk in a post office, and a night
   "checker" in a telegraph company.

   All this before I graduated from high school. After two years at
   Newark State Normal School, I received my teacher's diploma and
   started teaching in the elementary schools at the age of eighteen.

   In 1925, I married a high school classmate--also a school teacher
   [Gertrude Heller]. For our honeymoon we hitch-hiked across country
   to California and back to New Jersey.

   My schedule on those early years was rather full. I would teach in
   Newark until 3:15 P.M., take a bus and a train to New York for
   afternoon classes at New York University, then train and bus back to
   Newark, where I taught English to foreigners.

   I received my B.S. from New York University in 1926, and that year
   moved to New York City to teach at a private experimental school
   there.

That school, the City and Country School in New York's Greenwich Village, was at the heart of the burgeoning radical progressive education movement that emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century. Reformers like John Dewey, Carolyn Pratt (founder of the school), and Elizabeth Irwin made the first progressive schools laboratories in their effort to place children at the center of their education, empowering them not only with knowledge, but with the power to inquire, to understand, and to learn how to make decisions about their own lives. As commonsensical as that may sound, it was considered a subversive idea, resisted then as it is today. Huberman taught at City and Country because of its radical approach and became a passionate advocate of progressive education. It was there that he met Sybil May, later a stalwart of MR's early years and coauthor with Leo of the still-vital pamphlet, The ABC of Socialism (1953). …

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