They partied the way you’d expect at a bash for a man who spent almost half his life in the party: Before that last long you in “Happy Birthday” faded, the group burst into “Solidarity Forever.”
That was just fine with Ben Dobbs.
During six decades of leftist rabble-rousing, he has endured more speechifying than a high school debate coach. Flattered as he was by those who forked over $10 to the Democratic Socialists of America to salute him on his 80th birthday, Dobbs has spent his life working for the egalitarian ideal. It hasn’t really been his style to be the center of attention.
So he asked that the gathering be short on talk and long on song, and 200 or so people obliged, singing along with the agit-folk music that spanned the decades of Dobbs’ colorful (red, mainly) life.
“If it wasn’t for the damn organization making some money, I would never have allowed that party,” Dobbs said later. “Who the hell am I to have a party? I just don’t see myself that way. Why should people come celebrate my birthday? I’d have much rather (stayed home) and had chicken with my wife and kids.”
Ben Dobbs lives in Los Angeles with his third wife, Ada, in a big, single-story 1906 Craftsman house, shaded by a towering pine and the oversized, bland apartment buildings that have sprouted on either side. Like the house, he’s something of an anachronism--a man who refuses to abandon his belief in socialism, even after spending a lifetime enmeshed in the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
In retrospect, Dobbs concedes that he and his fellow travelers made mistakes, that they should have recognized the repressive nature of Soviet Communism much sooner.
“Did we romanticize it? Of course we romanticized it!” he says. “I regret that we weren’t told the facts. We believed what we were told. People came back from Russia and didn’t tell the truth about what was happening.”
But even after he abandoned his belief in Soviet Communism, he clung to the underpinnings of his ideology, and he believes that America is a better place because of the fight he and his comrades waged.
He points out that during the Great Depression, when he joined the leftist crusade, there were none of the social programs people take for granted today: unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, welfare, the freedom to organize unions.
And although he concedes that there are no great models of socialist success to emulate, he can’t see why everyone is so tickled by what the free market has produced either.
“What kind of country have we become?” he asks, reciting a litany of problems that includes the savings and loan and HUD scandals, “general sleaze and corruption in government,” skyrocketing murder rates, “the tremendous dependence on military spending,” the deindustrialization of the United States and overall “corporate greed.”
“What is there to boast about?”
Bald, with sprouts of gray hair poking out rebelliously at the sides, Dobbs does not mince words as he thunders about why he still embraces leftist ideology:
“I hate capitalism!”
Dobbs became a card-carrying Communist in 1932, after a year and a half of car-pooling to UCLA from his home in Boyle Heights with a bunch of budding student radicals intent on discussing the clear shortcomings of capitalism and the supposed wonders of the workers’ paradise rising in Soviet Russia.
“This was the depths of the Depression, and many of us thought we were a lost generation--just like now,” Dobbs says. At the same time, on the other side of the world, Czarist Russia--"the prison house of the world"--had toppled, and the students were intrigued by what was happening.
“We were convinced the Soviet Union was a noble experiment,” Dobbs says. “People who went there came back with glowing recommendations of what was happening. We became very supportive of it. We romanticized the heroics of building a society out of nothing--a society without bosses, a society that had more understanding of the horrors of racism.”
Dobbs joined the Young Communist League, quit school soon thereafter and began working as a tire molder on the swing shift at the Millhander Rubber Co. at 38th and Broadway.
If he worked fast enough, he had half an hour between moldings. So, while a co-worker took whiskey breaks, Dobbs imbibed Communist theory, reading the 21-volume Little Lenin Library series, the works of Karl Marx and everything else a young man needed to hold his own in Young Communist League discussions.
By the mid-'30s, Dobbs was a paid full-time functionary, making about $4 a week for lecturing groups on communist theory, selling communist magazines and organizing classes. Over the next 30 years he did just about everything, from wielding power on the party’s national committee to sweeping floors after meetings.
The United States was never too amenable to labor organizers in general, let alone Communists, and 1930s Los Angeles was particularly inhospitable, maintaining its own Police Department “red squad” to break up leftist parades and meetings.
There were other dangers as well. After a meeting in Long Beach in the 1930s, Dobbs and his first wife found a cross burning on the lawn of her parent’s house. Men who identified themselves as Klansmen burst into the home and beat them with rubber clubs.
Drafted in 1942, Dobbs fought fascism for four years in Europe, returned to the United States and resumed organizing. The government, meanwhile, had never let up in its efforts to squash the Communist Party.
In 1948, Dobbs and his comrades were ordered before a grand jury, becoming known as the Los Angeles 21. And with the arrest of the party’s national leaders and the rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the party decided that the 11th Hour had arrived in America and braced for a fascist takeover.
The national committee created an underground. Dobbs left his family in 1950 and set up a new identity; if the party were outlawed, he could emerge from the underground to rebuild it.
“It was a stupid operation,” he says now.
For a year, he lived away from Ada and his three children, moving from Los Angeles to San Bernardino to Portland to Boise and back, with teams of FBI agents usually watching his every move.
A year after he left Los Angeles, while he and his son, Morrie, watched “Alice in Wonderland” at the Hill Street Theater, Dobbs felt a hand on his shoulder and saw an FBI badge. Dobbs and 13 other defendants were convicted under the Smith Act of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the United States government.
Dobbs spent several months in jail, then five years out on bail as he waited out the appeals process. In 1957 the United States Supreme Court reversed the defendants’ lower court convictions.
In 1968, Dobbs ran for Congress in a district around Carson, as a Communist on the Peace and Freedom Party platform. He got 2.5% of the vote. A more important milestone for Dobbs that year, however, was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia--the first tremor in the collapse of Soviet Communism two decades later, he believes.
Appalled that the national leadership of the U.S. Communist Party boasted its support of the Soviet invasion, Dobbs and Dorothy Healey--L.A.'s most notorious communist of the era--spoke in opposition.
“When you’re in an organization for all those years, it’s hard to get up and quit,” he says. “We decided to put up a fight to make certain changes.”
It was five more years before Dobbs abandoned the Party. A year later he returned to the fray--but not the party--with renewed fervor for socialist activism and contempt for the “disease of institutionalism” that he says puts organizations above issues.
During the next 15 years, Dobbs worked with the New American Movement, Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, the Citizen’s Party, Democratic Socialists of America and other causes. He did everything from lecturing to licking envelopes if he believed that it would advance his ideals.
When Gloria Molina ran for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, for instance, he showed up at her headquarters and told her: “Hi. My name is Ben Dobbs, I’ve worked for leftist causes all my life, I’m a member of Democratic Socialists of America, I won’t go out in the rain, I don’t want to do precinct work because I have trouble walking. Other than that I’ll do anything. Also, I want to work four days a week, six to eight hours a day.”
Such dedication led to the Democratic Socialists of America decision to honor Dobbs in February.
Molina drew laughter at the party when she presented him with a resolution in his honor, signed by all five supervisors--liberal and conservative alike.
“Most of the supervisors don’t know how to supervise anything,” Dobbs said. “I guess they didn’t supervise that either.”
The party ended with the lighting of candles on two cakes, one of which read: “Ben, We Salute Your Lifetime Dedication to Peace, Justice, Equality.”
All that was missing was the dramatic tension of the old days.
The few who still called each other comrade didn’t bother to whisper.
No one even looked over their shoulders as they sang “The Internationale"-- “Arise ye prisoners of starvation. . . . "--and shook their fists in weary defiance.
The “red squad” didn’t burst through the door.
“What is this, a funeral for the Left?” one man asked, squeezing into the crowded room midway through the party.
Another, grinning stoically, answered: “It’s what’s left of the Left.”