Noah London's "Notes on the USSR"

By Holmes, John | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Noah London's "Notes on the USSR"

Holmes, John, Labour/Le Travail

THE FOLLOWING DOCUMENT, Noah London's "Notes on the USSR," is a critique of the Stalinist system by a dissident "member of the communist international" who happened to be a prominent Soviet industrial manager. The original version was dictated to a visiting American relative in the summer of 1934. London was arrested and executed in 1937, in the Stalinist "Great Terror." (1)

London was an activist in the Jewish socialist underground in Tsarist Russia in his youth, and a participant in the 1905 Revolution. He emigrated to New York City in 1910 and married Miril Unterman, also an emigrant radical from London's home shtetl. They were both involved in the mass Progressive Era Jewish garment strikes, and participated in their political reflection, the American Socialist Party's Jewish Socialist Federation [JSF]. London was the organizer of its Buffalo branch in 1917, and issued the first call in the pages of its journal to support the Bolshevik Revolution. (2)

London was the first labour editor of the Freiheit, the Yiddish daily newspaper of the United States Communist Party [CPUSA], which went by various related names throughout the 1920s. It considerably exceeded the CPUSA's English-language Daily Worker in circulation in that decade. London participated from his editor's desk in a socialist-communist "civil war" in the garment industry which profoundly affected the American labour movement in the 1920s. He was also a Cooper Union-trained civil engineer, who had studied there while working in a garment sweatshop by night. After graduation, he worked as a highway engineer in Buffalo, and subsequently became a senior engineer and designer for the New York subway system.

A major, albeit somewhat dissident, figure in the American Jewish Communist milieu of the 1920s, London was briefly the founding national secretary of the CPUSA's Jewish Workers Federation. Removed from its executive committee in 1925, he was accused of leading a "Loreite" caucus. According to James P. Cannon, a central CPUSA leader who became the founder of American Trotskyism, Ludwig Lore, the leader of the CPUSA's German federation, "interpreted the united front policy of the Comintern favorably as a step toward reconciliation and reunification with the Second International." (3) This is certainly an accurate description of London's viewpoint by 1934. Increasingly marginalized in the CPUSA, he wangled an invitation to re-emigrate to the USSR and help build socialism in Kharkov, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, in 1926.

As an important manager, at first in the Donbass (Don river basin) coal industry, the main focus of London's Soviet career was water. He was in charge of water for the Donbass under one job title or another for nearly a decade. Donbass coal was the USSR'S main energy source under Stalin. Clean water was a key priority--both for industry, the uppermost consideration for the regime, and for the miners themselves, the primary consideration for London. Before the 1917 Revolution and the Stalinist "industrial revolution" the Donbass was a notorious centre for typhus and cholera. London was the first director of Donbassvodtrest, the Donbass Water Trust. (4)

In 1933 London was transferred to Moscow, where he became deputy director of Glavstroiprom, the Industrial Construction Trust, which oversaw the Donbass Water Trust and many other concerns. Miril's youngest sister Rose visited the Londons on her summer vacations. She was a New York City schoolteacher, as well as a CPUSA member. When she first visited her relatives in 1931, they all three were Soviet enthusiasts. But by 1934, according to an interview conducted half a century later:

London ... lived in an elegant Moscow neighborhobd, and had a car, a chauffeur, and a dacha in the neighboring countryside. Miril had a nervous breakdown in 1932--Rose believed ... caused by what she saw of the [Ukrainian] famine. During the 1934 visit, London drove Rose to an exclusive country club where food and fresh fruit were lavishly available during a period of widespread public starvation. …

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