Dan Stern: A Defiant Life

by Mike Ely

Revolutionary Worker #1245, July 4, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

I first met Dan Stern years ago at his northside Chicago apartment to discuss working together on an article for the Revolutionary Worker . He welcomed me in at the door--tall, broad-shouldered, dressed in his usual worn flannel shirt and jeans, grinning through a week-old grizzle of beard, his long wisps of gray hair flying in all directions.

Dan was obviously not a man hung up on appearances or material things. His place was spare, almost stark--an old couch, bare floors, white walls with a few political posters.

And then, spread out on tables and shelves throughout the main rooms, stacks of books, clippings and papers-- mounds of them, loosely organized by topic. The exploding scandal of CIA cocaine-trafficking. The secret doings of fascist and rightwing groups. The methods and crimes of police infiltrators and agent provocateurs. The little-known linkages and decision centers within the ruling class. Histories of the Black Liberation struggle and the armed movements of Latin America.

Dan waved me to sit down, as he slid into his old worn reading chair. Jake, his black Lab, lay at his feet. And we started to talk.

Dan just loved to expose U.S. imperialism. His passion was digging into the many crimes of this system and dragging the facts into the light of day.

He loved piecing together bits of information, overlooked reports, first-hand accounts --and then massing them together in bulging files. He proudly took me onto his enclosed back porch, where he kept his work in a row of chest- high file cabinets--packed with decades of clippings, painstakingly marked, underlined, filed and labeled.

Over here, a drawer on U.S. government attacks on the Puerto Rican independence movement. Over there, evidence of the FBI's Cointelpro attempt to destroy revolutionary movements within the U.S. In another drawer, careful records of the Ku Klux Klan, the Order, the Aryan Nation, the rightwing Militia, the racist Jewish Defense League.

He gathered detailed records of the pursuit and abuse of political prisoners--the framing of Leonard Peltier, the torture of Pedro Albizu Campos, the railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Dan's eyes lit up when he talked about all this. He loved to catch the oppressors red-handed, follow the trace of evidence, and uncover the cover-up.

And he loved helping our newspaper, the Revolutionary Worker , bring it all to light.


Born in 1933, Dan remembered the ominous aggressions of Hitler's Germany and the powerful hope offered by the early Soviet Union. He grew up in a political secular-Jewish family that proudly remembered how one grandmother smuggled weapons through Odessa during the 1905 workers' uprising there against the Russian tsar.

Dan became an adult in a "Scoundrel Time." His first political activity came in the late 1940s, as he joined the fight against the savage turn of U.S. politics toward McCarthyism.

Dan remembered well when the Rosenbergs were executed and recalled (with disdain) how demoralized members of the Communist Party once lectured him that that socialism was now a hopeless cause.

For bleak years during the 1950s, Dan looked for a way to fight, a place to stand--as he got his graduate degrees and started a family. And then, like so many others, he watched with excitement as Black people broke the hateful silence of America. The 1960s found Dan Stern teaching at Northeastern University in Chicago. And he felt like he came alive all over again.

Already an "old man" in his 30s, Dan joined the circles of radical youth--where he was both their mentor and their student.

Dan was a supporter (and faculty sponsor) of the radical new Puerto Rican student movement--and helped turn Northeastern into a stronghold for revolutionary independence politics. He threw himself into the fight to end the war in Vietnam. He fervently supported the Black Liberation struggle--and hooked up with Chicago's Black Panther Party chapter and their leader Fred Hampton. And he grappled for the first time with women's liberation, recalling years later how little he had understood, and how bluntly some women challenged his backward outlooks.

Through the decades that followed, Dan was a powerful presence on Northeastern's campus. He was a tireless one-man teach-in--exposing the crimes, the secrets, the networks, the scandals, and all the linkages that the powerful ruling classes want to keep hidden. Over thirty years he used his post as professor to teach thousands of students the truth about U.S. imperialism. His courses were legendary--on the CIA, the Mafia, the drug trade, and the revolutionary movements of the world.

He knew that revolutionaries from Jewish backgrounds could play a special role in explaining the struggle of Palestinian people -- and he was truly fierce and unapologetic in his exposure of the Zionist project and his rejection of Israel's so-called "right to exist" as a racist white-settler state.

Dan had no patience for reform schemes or electoral illusions. He saw vividly that all the many injustices were connected to the very workings of this system. He had a deep sense that only revolution could bring meaningful change, and he dreamed of a radically different, classless, communist world. And he was a courageous advocate of armed struggle--and deeply supported oppressed people when they dared to rise up with guns in hand. And Dan loved the great communist revolutionary Mao Tsetung for his historic and uncompromising support of those principles.

For the rest of his life, Dan sought to unite with radical movements that arose among the people. For years he was especially close to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. Later he tried to find ways to reach Black youth caught up in the street gangs with radical political education.

He said, "Over and over, I found myself trying to work as a Maoist in various revolutionary and nationalist movements."

His search for the revolutionary road brought him closer, over time, to the Revolutionary Communist Party. Dan had been a supporter of the Revolutionary Worker newspaper from its earliest issues. And he deeply admired the work of the RCP in the heart of Chicago's housing projects. He would say, "Literally no one else is there where it counts. And if revolution isn't deep among the people there, then how can we talk about revolution?"

In his 60s, he took up a fresh study of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, and wrangled anew with many old questions. He got himself a stack of the works by Bob Avakian and (really for the first time) seriously dug into what they said. And he was often startled by how different these revolutionary communist politics were from what he had always thought "communist" meant. He grappled hard with the questions raised by the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and China--and particularly with the importance of seeing socialism as a transition to something higher, to a truly classless, new, global, communist society.

A turning point in Dan's life came as he read the rich polemic, "Living Socialism and Dead Dogmatism--the Proletarian Line and the Struggle Against Opportunism on the National Question in the U.S.,"which had first been published in 1974. After finishing this work, he said: "I really can't believe it. I have spent my life supporting the Black Liberation struggle, but never really understood how socialist revolution and Black Liberation fit together. I wish I had read this 25 years ago!"

Through such study and struggle, and through common work, Dan Stern became an increasingly partisan supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the last years of his life.

Our brother and comrade Dan Stern, at times the most stubborn of men, also kept himself open to struggle and new ways of looking at things. What pulled him forward through his life, what most often defined and guided him, was his passionate devotion to the oppressed and their revolutionary struggle for liberation.

When Dan Stern died on June 8, 2004 after a long struggle with diabetes, the people of the world lost a precious and much-loved communist militant.

A memorial for Dan will be held at noon on July 3 in Chicago. For more information contact Chicago's Revolution Books, 773-489-0930.