A Tribute to Baltimore Socialist Bob Kaufman


In the early morning hours of December 25, 2009, we lost a revolutionary voice.  Bob Kaufman, a life-long fighter for social and economic equality, succumbed after a protracted struggle with health complications stemming from a brutal attack in 2005.  He was 78.

Bob’s assailant was a drug-addicted tenant in his West Baltimore home.  After emerging from the hospital a few days after the attack, with numerous stitches dotting his head, a black eye, and his body swollen from the infection that was to return him shortly to the hospital for another five months (and force him into a drug-induced coma for five weeks), Bob told the local media that capitalism was responsible for turning his assailant into a criminal who was forced to rob and steal to get money to support his drug habit.

Ironically, Bob had long advocated “taking the profits out of drugs” so that this sort of crime would not happen.  Under his plan, addicts would be able to visit health clinics, to purchase, at cost (or at no cost to the penniless), any drug they choose.  Such clinics could provide “clean” drugs, clearly marked as to potency and without the harmful additives drug users are likely to get on the street, resulting in fewer overdose deaths.  The clinics could also provide an option to ratchet down to less damaging drugs and full treatment on demand.

“Taking the profits out of drugs” would eliminate the huge profit incentive that encourages the drug trade: drug pushers would be out of business the next day; addicts would not need to steal everything in sight; and most drug addicts could hold down a job, just as most alcoholics and smokers do.

Bob also pointed out that none of this would work without universal health insurance; all people arrested for possession or distribution of illegal drugs being released from punishment and their records expunged so that they may vote, obtain employment, and be eligible for student loans; and, finally, a federal jobs and job training program, reminiscent of the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps of the New Deal.  To really solve the problem of drug addiction and the violence associated with the drug trade, Bob made clear, will take a serious political movement of the American working class.

In the late 1940s, as a teenager, Bob began walking picket lines in front of Baltimore theaters that refused to seat blacks.  Years before there was a Civil Rights Movement, he spent nearly every weekend picketing against segregation.  By the 1950s, in the midst of the witch hunt against Communists, Bob concluded that revolutionary socialism was the only path to real justice for the oppressed.

He committed himself to the socialist movement and never looked back, first joining the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party and later joining other socialist groups.  As a result of his activities, he was arrested about a dozen times, including outside a Baltimore theater on the same evening that he had been given an award inside the very same theater for his tireless actions to desegregate Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore!  For his efforts, he also accumulated a 12-inch-thick FBI file.

As important as his efforts in furtherance of racial and social equality was the fact that he introduced generations of young activists to revolutionary socialist ideas, helping to keep alive the ideas of Marx and Engels, and Lenin and Trotsky, despite the decades of reaction that has followed World War II.  Many of those people remain active socialists today.

In his later years, Bob ran various electoral campaigns with the aim of popularizing socialism.  In particular, Bob used these campaigns to point out the necessity of building a political movement among the working class; the extreme economic inequality that exists in this country; and the fact that the so-called “war on terror” is just another ideological cover for the further expansion of American imperialism into the Middle East and Central Asia.  Judged by the response he received from the audience at campaign events, these campaigns were a success.

Finally, a statement from Bob that encapsulates his views.  The Baltimore Sun and other local media liked to refer to Bob as a “gadfly.”  Bob’s response:

What bothers me is the media’s use of the world ‘gadfly’ to describe myself.  To me a gadfly is an insignificant entity that annoys the ruling class.  I’m a revolutionary socialist.  I don’t wish to annoy the ruling class.  I wish to disembowel it.

There’s no legitimate purpose for a ruling class in an advanced industrial society.  It plays the same role as the biblical devil in that it exploits the overwhelming majority for its own benefit.

It’s about time the American people got together and took this country back and ran it of, by, and for the 90 percent of us who (combined) own less wealth than the top 1 percent at the top.

I will conclude with a statement that Frederick Engels made at the graveside of Karl Marx that I think is a fitting description for the life of A. Robert Kaufman: “Fighting was his element.  And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.”

Michael Melick, Baltimore, Maryland

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