Our comrade Edward Kartsen died suddenly on November 2 at age 70. A longtime cadre of the Spartacist League, Ed was a member of the SL/U.S. Central Committee from 1980 to 2002 and a member of the Political Bureau from 1986 to 1995. As a leader of our party, Ed ran for public office, helped direct our trade-union work and was an important part of our mass labor/black mobilizations against the KKK. He was a tireless fighter for the party to intervene as a conscious factor in black and working-class struggles.
For our memorial meeting in New York City, Ed’s family created a video montage about Ed’s early life that highlighted his multiple talents. He was such a childhood math whiz that his mother took him to her math classes at Queens College to help her with advanced problems and concepts. He was a talented artist whose family home was his art gallery. The importance of Ed’s political work was highlighted with pride. There were also many beautiful scenes of Ed relaxing and having fun with his family and his wife of 20 years, our comrade Diana Kartsen—the founding librarian of the Prometheus Research Library. Ed and the party suffered the pain of her loss from ALS in 2007.
Ed was won to Marxism as a student at the City College of New York and joined the SL’s youth organization in 1973. He was one of several black comrades recruited to the party in the early to mid 1970s following the split and demise of the Black Panther Party. Ed became a leader of the Spartacus Youth League and was its spokesman in a public debate on “What Strategy for Black Liberation?” at Harvard University. In polemicizing against black pseudo-nationalism, which despairs of fighting against segregation, Ed argued that black people have strategic power “as part of a racially united proletariat which can overthrow capitalist society, laying the basis for a planned economy within which full racial emancipation is possible. The black working class must play a key role in the American revolution. This is the perspective of revolutionary integration” (Young Spartacus No. 92, Summer 1981).
In the early 1980s, Ed became a signal maintainer in the NYC subways and was a member of the Trade Union Commission. He was a leader of the Committee for a Fighting TWU, a revolutionary opposition in Transport Workers Union Local 100. The program he ran on for Local 100 president in 1983 called to defend the right to strike and for elected union safety committees to shut down unsafe work, among other things. It linked these and other demands to the need for workers rule:
“FOR LABOR ACTION TO BRING DOWN REAGAN/KOCH! Reagan is after everybody—the Russians, the blacks, the poor, the old and the unions. He’s trying to provoke World War III, from El Salvador to Poland to the Middle East to Korea. But you can’t fight Reagan with the Democrats.”
The platform ended, “Democrats or Republicans—no difference! Same game! We need a workers party to fight for a workers government!”
In 1982, the party ran a campaign to counter Ronald Reagan’s escalating anti-Soviet war drive. As Reagan toured Europe, so did Ed, who spoke in six European cities. He brought the perspective of a militant transit worker fighting within the belly of the beast, saying: “The oppression of black people is as fundamental to American capitalism as is the exploitation of labor, imperialist war and their anti-Soviet war drive.” Referring to his campaign for TWU Local 100 president, Ed said: “I raised the issue that the working class in America must fight politically for power if it is to defend its interests against the capitalist attacks” (WV No. 310, 23 July 1982).
The fascists were so emboldened by Reagan’s union-busting, rollback of civil rights, attacks on women and imperialist saber rattling that the KKK tried to march in Washington, D.C., for the first time since the 1920s. Ed played a key role in the November 27, 1982 united-front labor/black mobilization that stopped the Klan in the nation’s capital, which has a significant black population.
Our condition to move ahead with this demonstration was securing a hard core of support from the organized proletariat in the region. Ed was dispatched to Norfolk, Virginia, to help lead that work. He was effective in talking with workers about how capitalism spawns fascism and why the ruling class protects fascists and uses them to attack labor and blacks. He helped organize a busload of shipyard workers and students for the demonstration as the “Nat Turner Brigade” in honor of the slave rebellion leader who was a hero to black people in the Tidewater area. He also helped obtain endorsements from trade unions representing tens of thousands of black workers, many of whom served in the rally’s labor defense squad.
On the day of the planned Klan provocation, the reformists who looked to the state to ban the fascists held a diversionary rally in a distant location to siphon off protesters who truly wanted to stop the KKK. In opposition to this liberalism, Ed was at the lead of the rally that militantly took to the streets in a victory march for labor/black power—a stinging political defeat to the fascists, Reagan and the D.C. cops.
Ed’s courage and the karate skills he employed as a frontline defender of our party in numerous demonstrations are famous among his comrades. When political opponents foolishly attempted to exclude the SL from a March 1982 El Salvador demonstration in Washington, D.C., Ed kicked and chopped through their goon squad lines. Comrades also recall more lighthearted occasions when Ed practiced his martial arts moves on the dance floor under a disco ball at the Palladium in NYC.
In 1985, Ed was the Spartacist candidate for Manhattan Borough President. Amid an endless siege of cop terror and mounting racist vigilantism, our campaign statement said: “Everyone has the right to defend himself! Gun control kills blacks! Mobilize labor and minorities to stop racist attacks! For integrated armed workers defense guards, drawn from responsible union men and women!” The following year, Ed helped found the NY Labor/Black League for Social Defense, which grew out of the successful fight, led by the Committee for a Fighting TWU, against the vicious prosecution of transit worker James Grimes for defending himself on the job.
In recent years, the International Communist League went through stormy internal struggle to reaffirm that the task of Marxists is to fight for revolutionary leadership of today’s struggles in opposition to the liberals and their conciliators. Following the SL/U.S. Conference last year, Ed was quite animated about this turn in the party and, like many of us, he grappled with applying its key lessons.
Most recently, regarding our fight to revitalize and lead the movement against police terror with our campaign to “Open All Police Archives!” Ed wrote: “Everything depends on the relationship of forces which are determined through struggle. Only by waging struggle can we determine the degree the capitalist may be forced to comply to our demand at least partially. Only by successfully extending the class struggle for power can our demand be fully realized.”
Ed had a number of great political qualities, but one that stood out is that he never retreated. Even when he made a misstep in his contributions to our struggle, he kept at it, trying to help advance the party’s work and its interventions in the working class. His determination to be a part of shaping the party’s course is to be saluted and emulated. When he was won to political arguments against his views, he explained in writing why he changed his mind and thereby helped others more fully understand the issue. One example is his letter on the Ukraine war that was published in WV No. 1177 (17 March).
As a comrade and former transit worker said at Ed’s memorial meeting, “I saw Ed a few days before he died, and he was focused on our tasks since the struggles of the last international conference, which he attended despite his health situation. We are a different party because of this conference, and Ed wanted to continue the fight for revolutionary leadership of the working class.” Shortly before his death, Ed wrote: “In order to provide the necessary leadership to win struggles, we must adapt the organizational and disciplinary methods of Bolshevism [outlined in] the Organizational Resolution of the Third Congress of the Communist International.”
In the last decade, Ed came to work at the PRL. He understood that Leninist parties are built through struggle and liked that the PRL’s purpose is to collect, preserve and make available the history of the communist movement. He helped build and maintained the library’s website and online catalogue (prl.org). Thanks to Ed’s assistance, every book and pamphlet produced by the PRL is available to anyone, anywhere in the world, extending the PRL’s reach around the globe.
It was not easy to be one of the leading black comrades in a party that is still predominantly white, in a country where the dangers and pressures of being a black revolutionary are immense and relentless. Ed is the first of the party’s black cadre to die at his post. His death is an immense loss and keenly felt.
It was a party tradition for Ed to lead the singing of the Internationale with gusto at party gatherings in his beautiful baritone voice. We will miss his voice, in all respects. We extend our condolences to his mother, sisters and extended family on behalf of all Ed’s friends and comrades around the world.