The longtime community organizer Steve Max is described as “a very important figure in the history of American Socialism” by Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Max’s father was a prominent figure as well, having once served as the managing editor of the Communist Party USA newspaper, The Daily Worker.
Raised in New York City, Steve Max gained his first experience as an organizer in 1958 when he worked on the Youth March for Integrated Schools. Two years later, he was a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In the early 1960s, Max helped create SDS’s Political Education Project, a working group that called for the New Left to engage in political action as a necessary complement to its radical activism on college campuses and elsewhere. Max subsequently worked on the political campaigns of a number of Democrats, including Eugene McCarthy’s presidential bid in 1968 and Bella Abzug’s congressional run in 1970.
In 1969, Max, Harry Boyte, Heather Booth, and Paul Booth collaborated to publish Socialism and the Coming Decade, a pamphlet arguing that because the U.S. had entered a “non-revolutionary period,” socialist activists should eschew confrontational tactics in favor of a stealth, incremental approach to social change. The pamphlet further advised community organizations to agitate for concrete issues like urban redevelopment and health care, thereby giving “the socialist movement relevance to the daily lives of the people.”
In 1973, Heather Booth recruited Max to join with her, Paul Booth, Robert Creamer, and Day Creamer in creating a curriculum steeped in the organizing principles of Saul Alinsky for the newly formed Midwest Academy (MA), a training ground for community organizers. Max went on to serve as MA’s curriculum director for many years.1 Among other things, he wrote the internal training curricula for the Academy’s largest clients, among which were such groups as the AARP, the U.S. Student Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Planned Parenthood.2
Knowing that many Americans would not be receptive to blunt, straightforward advocacy for socialism, MA in its early years was careful not to explicitly articulate its socialist ideals in its organizing activities and training materials. The group’s inner circle was wholly committed to building a socialist mass movement by stealth, rather than overtly. As Max and Boyte agreed in one of their private correspondences: “Every social proposal that we make must be [deceptively] couched in terms of how it will strengthen capitalism.” This strategy of hiding its own socialist agendas below the proverbial radar, earned the Academy the designation of “crypto-socialist organization” from Stanley Kurtz.
MA’s affinity for socialism found particularly clear expression one day when Max was preparing to take a temporary leave from the Academy. His comrades at MA gave him a going-away party during which they sang him a song to the tune of The Internationale – the Communist anthem – with new words that they had written for the occasion. Among the lyrics they wrote: “Arise a left, no more we’ll mourn/We’ll organize for socialism/With anti-capitalist structural reform!”3
In the mid-1970s, Max was a member not only of MA, but also of the West Side chapter of the New American Movement (NAM), which believed that capitalism was teetering on the brink of failure, and that America was thus nearly ripe for a socialist revolution in the streets rather than in the realm of electoral politics. Immersion into the existing political system, the Acdemy claimed, would likely dampen the revolutionary imperative to radically transform society.
Around 1975, Heather Booth and Max quietly left NAM to ally themselves instead with Michael Harrington’s politically pragmatic Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC).4 In the years that followed, Max played a key role in arranging for DSCOC and NAM to eventually merge into the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 1983.
In 1977, MA set up a discreet “Committee of Correspondence” designed to enable socialist community organizers to privately exchange ideas about how to most effectively promote socialism without revealing that they were socialists themselves. Correspondences by Max and Boyte, for instance, emphasized that “every social proposal that we make must be couched [deceptively] in terms of how it will strengthen capitalism.”5
In November 2001, just two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Max, who had worked with USAction and its affiliates in several states, delivered a speech to the “USAction Delegation Assembly,” stating: “The Chinese character for crisis, they say, is a combination of two other characters standing for danger and opportunity. We are now in such a period of crisis. There is great danger but there is also opportunity to advance to a progressive program.” Suggesting also that 9/11 was payback for America’s international transgressions, Max called for “nothing less than a massive reversal of America’s political and economic role in the Middle East”; “making peace with people we don’t like”; “applying intense pressure to people we do like”; and “an end to supplanting local cultures with fast food and Hollywood.”
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