By Jeff Mackler
Joseph Ryan, – his friends usually called him Joe, – called me in late May from his home in Denver offering to resume his editorship of our COVID-interrupted print edition of our monthly newspaper, Socialist Action. I heartedly agreed and at Joe’s request sent him a dozen articles for inclusion in what we planned to be our summer issue. Joe was especially motivated to return to editing our newspaper by our website articles on the war in Ukraine. As was Joe’s lifelong habit, he insisted on letting us know where he stood, in this case, mercilessly pillorying those on the left who ignored the central role of U.S. imperialism in instigating the 2014 fascist-led coup and the coup government’s subsequent murderous attacks on the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas that set into motion today’s war and its associated horrors.
A few days after Joe’s agreement to begin work, he checked into a local Denver hospital for a routine shot for his shingles condition. His body apparently reacted violently. Joe, 78, mysteriously and tragically died a day later, with zero explanation from the hospital’s medical and administrative staff. His former wife of decades past, Ellen Schattner, with whom Joe lived for the past seven years as friend and loving companion, is still seeking answers. Ellen sent along her memories of Joe that I have incorporated in this obituary.
Joe Ryan served full time for almost two decades as editor, co-editor, staff writer and photojournalist for Socialist Action’s monthly newspaper beginning with our founding in 1981. He was among the hundreds of expelled Socialist Workers Party members and leaders who resisted the SWP’s abandonment of its Trotskyist and Leninist heritage. He viewed Socialist Action as the embodiment of political continuity with that history.
Joe remained loyal to this revolutionary tradition even after his departure from Socialist Action following an unwarranted split over the 1999 U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia. While both sides opposed the U.S. war and joined in leading the mass U.S. mobilizations against it, Joe’s faction turned a blind eye to Yugoslav President Slobodon Milosevic’s massive persecution and slaughter of the Kosovo people. Socialist Action defended their right to self-determination.
Soon after leaving Socialist Action Joe found work at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, using his now substantial computer newspaper design and layout skills there for some 15 years while participating in the newspaper’s CWA trade union local. He retired with a pension that provided him a sense of security and well being that allowed him to regularly volunteer his time and energy to various Socialist Action projects.
Joe’s full time assignments in Socialist Action included his designing and often editing the majority of the 110 books and pamphlets we published over some 40 years. His design skills coupled with his expertise in photography produced a stunning array of attractive and popular pamphlets that were sold by Socialist Action branches across the country. Joe spent countless hours sequestered in his improvised dark room at our San Francisco national headquarters developing and printing his often dynamic photos that marked the great social protests of the times. These often found their way into our newspaper and other publications as well as into his personal collection.
Joe was central to the publication of Socialist Action’s 1994 book, “My Brother, My Comrade: Remembering Jake Cooper.” Cooper was Joe’s close friend, a lifelong trade union activist and socialist leader. Jake was a leading member of the SWP’s and Socialist Action’s National Committee and a dedicated militant during the historic 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strikes that paved the way to the formation of the CIO. He was one of the eighteen SWP leaders imprisoned during the government’s first Smith Act prosecutions in 1940-41 aimed at quashing opposition to U.S. imperialist war policies. Joe, also a member of Socialist Action’s National and Political Committees, fully identified with the SWP’s history, including its direct collaboration with Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Joe’s steady production and editing of articles for our newspaper included insightful coverage of the Cuban Revolution as well as the revolutionary upheavals in the late 70’s and 80’s in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Grenada.
Joe co-authored several important party pamphlets aimed at educating newcomers to the socialist movement on the basic principles of working class political independence from the two-party capitalist duopoly. He wrote incisively about Malcolm X’s critical role in championing the right of oppressed nationalities in the U.S. to self-determination.
Joe’s 1988 pamphlet, “Is the ‘Rainbow’ a Real Alternative: A Socialist Response to Jesse Jackson,” observed that “The idea of building a ‘Rainbow Coalition,’ a united movement of working people, women, oppressed minorities, and all the exploited has great merit. A political organization that represents the interests of all the oppressed is a necessary prerequisite for the emancipation of the working class and its allies. But, the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ that is tied to the capitalists and their parties will never win freedom. It will only serve as an objective support for the capitalist system. Such a coalition will only deceive and demobilize the masses.” Joe’s warning that Democrat Jesse Jackson’s key objective was to orient the rising Black Liberation movement to the Democratic Party was on the mark. Thirty-five years later, he was painfully aware that in the absence of a clear-sighted and independent leadership, the largely self-appointed NGO and corporate-funded “official” leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement, that mobilized 25 million in the streets in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd, nevertheless proved tragically incapable of preventing this promising movement from soon after lurching headlong into Joseph Biden’s presidential election campaign. The very movement that succeeded as never before in laying bare the historic and ongoing systemic racism of U.S. society found its enormous energies and potential dissipated and, at least for the moment, disappeared into the dead-end of the capitalist billionaire-dominated electoral system that Joe had challenged over his lifetime.
Joe Ryan was a lifelong champion of Malcolm X, studying Malcolm’s many speeches with passionate attention. His popular Socialist Action booklet, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” perhaps inadvertently recalled Joe’s own life, replete with dark tragedy, intermittent bouts with alcohol and socialist political awakening.
“To paraphrase the words of Victor Hugo concerning the assassination of the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat and apply them to Malcolm X;
“They say Malcolm is dead. No. Malcolm is not dead. Put him the Pantheon or throw him in the sewer; it doesn’t matter – he’s back the next day. He’s reborn in the man who has no job, in the women who has no bread, in the girl who has to sell her body, in the child who hasn’t learned to read; he’s reborn in the projects in Harlem; he’s reborn on the streets of Watts; he’s reborn in the unheated tenement; in the wretched mattress without blankets, in the unemployed, in the working class, in the brothel, in your laws that show no pity, in your schools that give no future… Oh, beware, human society: You cannot kill Malcolm until you have killed the misery of poverty, the scourge of racism.”
Joe’s terribly difficult early years led him to understand something of young Malcolm’s pain and suffering as well as Malcolm’s revolutionary redemption in inspiring and revitalizing the Black Liberation movement. Decades earlier, Joe and his four siblings were separated by order of New York State child service agencies from their brutal and incompetent alcoholic parents and sent to a series of faster homes.
“In 1960, at 16,” wrote his companion Ellen, “Joe ran away from his foster home, lived on the streets in the Bronx, and eventually was hired as a delivery boy for a local deli and found shelter in a rooming house. At 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a deck hand. He was ‘off to see the world,’ he would later explain,” adding, “The navy saved my life.” Like many poverty-stricken and far from political working class youth, Joe understood at the most elementary level, that the Navy could provide food, shelter and a semblance of security in an otherwise alienating world.
Joe and Ellen were married in 1967. “Three months later,” Ellen recounted to me weeks after Joe’s death, “we married and our journey began. From New York to Jersey City to San Francisco – Joseph’s trademark was his camera. Like the famed American photojournalist who Joe admired, W. Eugene Smith, Joseph was a tormented soul, always looking for the perfect shot and never being satisfied. We had so many wonderful times, developing the film in the bathroom, printing in the kitchen, listening to jazz, watching the Yankees in the summer and basketball in the winter and dancing. How he loved to dance. He would fantasize choreographing a dance routine. To this day, I still have Joseph’s photos in my home. To me, they are perfect.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area Joe found part time work in a Berkeley music store and later as a factory worker in nearby Contra Costa County. “After two years of living the life of a ‘hippie,’” Ellen recounted, “Joseph knew this was not the life he wanted. He began to read, read, read history books from morning ‘til night and then became active in the socialist movement.”
Joe joined the SWP’s youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, and soon after the Socialist Workers Party, then a leading organizer of the broad united front mass mobilizations that in time forced the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam – defeated by the heroic efforts of the Vietnamese people, the power and solidarity of the mass social forces at home and the resistance of active duty U.S. soldiers. These combined to demand and win “U.S. Out Now!” Joe was always an integral part of this movement, including its day-to-day planning meetings, conferences and ever increasing periodic mass working class mobilizations.
“Joseph was feeling good and found meaning to his life,” Ellen remembered. “He never remarried. We parted ways in 1972. But in 2015 the friend that introduced us in 1967 called me.” “I think I found Joseph,” she said. “Without hesitation, I called and we have been together ever since. I was living in Denver, and after 46 years Joseph joined me, never looking back. These past seven years have been the best for each of us. Just sitting in the same room and breathing the same air, was all we needed. Joseph didn’t have many friends after moving to San Francisco, only comrades. He was a very private person and extremely stubborn – Joseph and my grandson are the only two that can make me laugh.”
Ellen added, “Joseph would always say, ‘If you don’t know history you will not understand what is going on in the world.’” Indeed, Joe was a history enthusiast with great passion. He went to extraordinary lengths to study the U.S. Civil War and the decisive events of World War II, committing to memory not only the major protagonists but also their role in the great social, political and economic events of the time. Joe’s framework was Marxism, scientific socialism. He strived to make sense and bring clarity to the complexities of unfolding world events.
Ellen recounts that with the horrors associated with the COVID pandemic, Joe studied John Barry’s 2020 book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the deadliest Pandemic in History.” Again, for Joe Ryan, history had its lessons that Joe recounted during our ever more frequent discussions. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Joe explained, killed some 675,000 Americans, as compared to the one million COVID dead in the U.S. today, despite 100 years in advances in modern science. For the ruling rich, Joe never tired of insisting, capitalism’s sending its wage slaves back to work to maintain its profits trumped any concern for human life.
“The last movie we watched together,” Ellen wrote, “was Minamata, produced by and starring Johnny Depp as famed photojournalist W. Eugene Smith.” This award-winning film recounts Smith’s journey to Minamata, Japan, where he filmed the horrors associated with industrial lead poisoning.
Ellen concludes her memories of Joe Ryan with a striking tenderness that few who knew him had the opportunity to experience firsthand. “Joseph was my husband, lover, friend, mentor, the love of my life – he will always be with me.”
Jim Cannon, founder of American Trotskyism, spent a lifetime in the service of the socialist cause. Yet Cannon noted in reflection and aware of the great pressures that capitalist society exerts on even the most dedicated members, “We are lucky if we get ten years out of any comrade.” Joe Ryan contributed almost 30. Even after he left the movement as a formal member, he remained loyal to his revolutionary perspectives.
His companion Ellen summarized his life well and donated Joe’s extensive Marxist library to Socialist Action. She wrote: “To the memory of Joseph Ryan who never gave up in his belief that the working people of the world would one day prevail.”
[To donate to Socialist Action in Joe’s memory contact, socialistaction.org]