Bill Brust died on September 15, 1991 at the age of 72, after more than a half century in the Trotskyist movement. This article first appeared in the Bulletin on September 20, 1991.
Bill Brust, a veteran Trotskyist and a founding member of the Workers League, died on Sunday, September 15, at the age of 72.
Comrade Brust died in his sleep at 9:50 a.m., just over six months after he had been diagnosed as suffering from inoperable pancreatic cancer. Despite his grave illness, Comrade Brust continued to follow political developments and to make important political contributions until shortly before his death.
Bill Brust’s activity as a professional revolutionary spanned 53 years. He joined the Trotskyist movement just as the Fourth International was being founded. In a fitting culmination to his life’s work, the last task completed by Comrade Bill was preparing for a new edition of The Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International. He painstakingly compared German, Russian and English versions of the program, to ensure that the final version was completely faithful to Trotsky’s conception.
Bill was born in Budapest, Hungary, in the midst of the ill-fated Hungarian revolution of 1919. His father was a participant in the revolution, a shop steward among the metal workers and a delegate to the soviet which had been established by the revolutionary workers. Bill’s family left Hungary because of the defeat of the revolution, and they came directly to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1920, when Bill was about 18 months old. His brother and two sisters were born in the United States.
Entering adolescence during the depth of the Great Depression and the victory of fascism in Germany, Bill’s outlook was shaped by the enormous struggles of that period. He began his political activity as a youth of 17, when he joined the Young Communist League. His aim, as he later explained it, was to join the party of Lenin, the party which had led the October Revolution. He had an uncle who was an auto worker in Detroit and who had joined the CP, and he also met members of the YCL at the University of Minnesota.
Within a short time, however, Bill discovered the unbridgeable gulf between the Stalinist parties and the movement which had been led by Lenin and Trotsky. He met a member of the Trotskyist youth movement, then called the Young People’s Socialist League, who explained the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy in betraying the German working class, sabotaging the Spanish Revolution and tying the American working class to the Roosevelt administration.
When Bill took these arguments back to the YCL, the Stalinist leaders told him to read Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism. Bill read Lenin’s pamphlet, and found that it supported the Trotskyist criticism.
During this period Bill attended several meetings held by the Trotskyists, including one addressed by Ray Dunne, one of the pioneer American Trotskyists and a leader of the Minneapolis general strike of 1934. He also heard C.L.R. James, the West Indian intellectual and spellbinding orator who was then a Trotskyist. These meetings, along with continuing discussion with members of the YPSL, convinced Bill to join the Trotskyist youth movement.
Joining the YPSL in the latter part of 1938, Bill remained in the youth movement until the fall of 1939, when he joined the Socialist Workers Party. Among the YPSL members who joined the party at that time was Jean Tilsen, who would later become Bill’s wife and lifelong companion in the struggle for Trotskyism.
The movement Bill joined was one which had led important struggles in the working class. The party had at least 100 members in Minneapolis at that time. Thousands of the most militant workers read the party press. Hundreds attended meetings addressed by SWP leader James P. Carmon when he came to Minnesota.
Bill was a member of the Minneapolis branch, where he met and worked with figures such as Ray Dunne, Carl Skoglund, the Hedlund brothers and others. This was the same group of worker revolutionists which had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 for supporting Trotsky’s revolutionary internationalism against the Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in one country.”
Bill’s early political training took place in the context of great struggles and in the face of major obstacles. In April 1940, the petty-bourgeois opposition in the SWP, led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham, split from the movement, declaring that the Soviet Union could no longer be defended against imperialism. In August 1940 Leon Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent in Mexico. Less than a year later, as the Roosevelt administration made plans to enter the Second World War, the leaders of the American Trotskyists were indicted under the notorious Smith Act on charges of seeking the violent overthrow of the US government.
Bill learned firsthand what Trotsky had meant when he told a party member during a discussion on party work and perspectives that “nothing can kill us.” The cadres of the movement were imbued with a revolutionary confidence based upon a scientific understanding of the crisis of imperialism, the revolutionary role of the working class, and the historic mission of the revolutionary party.
The young Trotskyist attended the trial of the Trotskyist leaders in federal court in Minneapolis in 1941. He missed only one session, when he was ejected from the courtroom after he made the mistake of laughing in scorn and disbelief when a prosecution witness claimed that party leaders told her they had hidden guns and ammunition in the walls of churches.
“I learned the lesson that if you’re not on the stand, you’d better keep your mouth shut in the courtroom no matter what,” Bill later recounted.
“The conduct of our comrades, both in their testimony and in the painstaking planning and preparation the day before each session, had an enormous impact,” Bill explained. “Their forthright defense of Marxist principles, including the bold presentation by Comrade Cannon of revolutionary defeatism in that bourgeois courtroom, was one of the major influences on my life.”
The Minneapolis defendants were convicted and their sentences ranged from 12 to 18 months in prison. Immediately after the sentencing, Bill was sent to Pittsburgh to work on building up the party’s forces in the steel industry during the war. He remained in Pittsburgh for about a year, returning to Minneapolis shortly before he was scheduled to be drafted. The SWP’s proletarian military policy, developed in the closest collaboration with Trotsky, insisted that revolutionary Marxists could not simply oppose the war with words. “We cannot oppose the fact of the war with wishful thinking; with pious pacifism,” wrote Trotsky. “We must place ourselves upon the arena created by this society.”
For the most part, party members waited until they were drafted or enlisted when they were about to be drafted, when they might have a choice on the branch of the military they entered. This is what Bill did, enlisting in the air force. He was sent for basic training, and then to an army school for the advanced study of the German language.
In the last year of the war, Bill was shipped overseas as part of an infantry unit. When the war in Europe ended, he was in a town in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria. He later told of an incident which graphically demonstrated the power of proletarian internationalism.
The army had a policy of no fraternization with the Germans. Since Bill was an interpreter, however, he had the right to speak to Germans. An Austrian by the name of Natz Striehling came to the office of Bill’s unit and announced that he knew where there were some Nazi party members. Striehling was in the underground, and was a member of the left wing of the Austrian social democratic party.
The captain of the unit, when informed of this information, said, “They’re all Nazis.” Bill, understanding that US imperialism had not waged the war to defeat fascism, but on behalf of its own imperialist interests, had warned Striehling that this would be the army’s response.
Eighteen years later, in 1963, Bill was traveling in Europe and stopped in the same town. After a few inquiries, he was told that Striehling was a furrier and worked in Innsbruck. The woman who furnished this information remembered Bill as the soldier who had saved her brother, who was going to be shot by some of the American soldiers because he was a German or Austrian, and therefore, in line with the national chauvinism with which the soldiers were indoctrinated, considered automatically to be an enemy. “She pleaded with me and said their whole family had opposed the Nazis, and so I had gone to this nut—he was an officer, a lieutenant—and told him that if he shot this guy, who was an anti-Nazi, I would turn him in. I don’t know whether it would have worked or not, but he got scared and let him go.”
It was on the basis of this bond of working class solidarity that the woman now greeted Bill and told him exactly how to locate Natz Striehling. He drove to Innsbruck, where he was enthusiastically welcomed by Striehling, and spent many hours with the worker he had met nearly two decades earlier.
Bill’s unit was sent home for 30 days, for what was called a convalescent furlough, after the war ended in Europe. He was home in Minneapolis when the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unit was then sent to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Bill quickly became part of the mass movement of US soldiers for demobilization following the war, a revolt which began in the Philippines and spread to Europe and the US itself.
Upon demobilization, Bill did not wait to return to Minneapolis to resume full-scale revolutionary activity. While in uniform he sold subscriptions to The Militant to passengers on trains carrying him home. Bill was the top sub-getter in The Militant drive, obtaining most of his subscriptions before taking off his army uniform.
Bill returned to Minneapolis and immediately began work at the Armour meat packing plant. Within two weeks, the national meat packing strike, part of the postwar strike wave, had broken out. Bill spent the next two years in the packinghouse industry.
Packinghouse wages had been frozen during the entire war, and workers were also tied to their jobs. Workers in “essential industries” were not allowed to change jobs.
Wages were extremely low. Packinghouse workers made ends meet during the war only by working many extra hours. When the war ended, wages remained frozen, but the overtime was cut. One of the major slogans of the strike wave was 58 hours pay for 40 hours work. More than five million workers joined this immense strike movement at its peak.
Bill played an active role in the 1946 strike, even though he had only just entered the industry. Along with others around the country, he joined the picket lines in his uniform. There had been relentless propaganda inside the army against the workers at home. The soldiers were told that workers were making big money, and it was clear that the government sought to use the demobilized soldiers against militant trade unionists. The appearance of thousands of ex-soldiers in uniform on the picket lines was the spontaneous answer to this attempt to divide the working class.
Bill became well known and respected during the 1946 strike. Some months later, he was elected secretary of United Packinghouse Workers of America Local 4.
Soon, however, with the development of the Cold War and the witch-hunt, a red-baiting campaign began, organized by the government and the trade union bureaucracy. It was actively assisted by the right-wing Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. The Stalinists, through their slavish support of the war and the notorious no-strike pledge, had betrayed the working class and helped pave the way for the witch-hunt themselves.
In the local union elections which took place in early 1948, shortly before another packinghouse strike, Bill and four or five other SWP comrades lost their positions in the leadership. Despite this, when the strike began, Bill was called upon to become the editor of the joint daily strike bulletin in South St. Paul, which was second only to Chicago as a packinghouse center in this period. The strike paper, under Bill’s editorship, was anxiously awaited by the workers each morning, seeking answers to the lies of the capitalist press.
During the 10-week strike in 1948, Bill was able to again demonstrate his abilities and his dedication to the rank and file, even to some of those who had led the campaign against him in the union elections. Several workers told him that he had actually won the vote, but that it had been stolen by stuffing the ballot boxes. Bill lost by 10 votes, and those ballots on which a candidate for local secretary had not been entered were altered by the union bureaucrats, who wrote in the name of Bill’s opponent.
At first the strike was conducted in a militant fashion, but then the orders came down from the bureaucracy to obey court injunctions limiting picketing. After several weeks, the anger of the ranks began to build up, and Bill mobilized the picket captains to go to a meeting of the joint executive board, where they demanded that mass pickets be set up. Fifteen to 20 picket captains warned the full-time officials that if mass picketing was not sanctioned, it would be organized in defiance of the leadership.
The bureaucrats retreated and sanctioned the picketing. Word spread rapidly, and the next morning at 4 a.m., there were thousands on the picket line. Bill was arrested on the picket line and charged with inciting a riot. He and four other workers were eventually fined $500.
As significant as Bill’s role was in important struggles of the working class such as the 1946 and 1948 packinghouse strikes, this work would never have been possible without his training and struggle as a member of the revolutionary party. The building of the party, and not simply a specific trade union struggle, was always his starting point. Bill’s participation in the inner-party struggles against revisionism within the Trotskyist movement over a 50-year period was the source of his political perspective and confidence.
The postwar years were ones of new and serious difficulties for Trotskyism. The imperialists had, with the crucial aid of Stalinism, temporarily restabilized their system on the basis of US hegemony. The apparent strength of imperialism and Stalinism led many within the Trotskyist movement to conclude that Trotsky had been wrong to base himself on the revolutionary role of the working class. The major leaders of the world movement, led by Michel Pablo, concluded that Stalinism could play a progressive role. Adopting the perspective of “centuries of deformed workers states,” the Pabloites demanded that the Fourth International confine itself to the role of pressuring the Stalinist and social democratic bureaucracies. Acting as the transmission belt for imperialist pressure, the Pabloites worked consciously to liquidate the Trotskyist movement.
The fight against the Pabloites was led, after some initial delay, by the SWP leadership under James P. Cannon. Bill and his wife Jean were opposed to Pablo’s conception of “centuries of deformed workers states” from the time they heard about it. They strongly supported Cannon’s “Open Letter,” which rallied Trotskyists around the world and split with the Pabloite opportunists, founding the International Committee of the Fourth International to continue the struggle of Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
Bill was in the thick of the fight against the Pabloites and their American supporters led by Bert Cochran. Bill and Jean’s home was the party headquarters in St. Paul at this time, the basement having been organized as an office and meeting room. Bill met with Ray Dunne and other local leaders of the majority faction to discuss the progress of the inner party struggle and to prepare the struggle to educate the cadres of the party in Minnesota. They understood, even though Pablo had few supporters in the area, that there could be no complacency on these fundamental theoretical questions.
The witch-hunt and postwar prosperity had taken its toll on the working class cadres of the SWP. A whole layer of this cadre, not only those who openly supported Cochran and Pablo in 1953, was beginning to bend in response to the ideological and material pressure of the ruling class.
When the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s crimes were published in 1956, followed soon afterward by the Hungarian revolution, Bill, Jean and other leaders of the SWP in St. Paul saw new opportunities to take up the fight for Trotskyism. The policy of regroupment, however, as put forward by the party leadership, softened the lines of demarcation between Trotskyism and Stalinism, and turned the party toward the disaffected Stalinists and middle class radicals, and away from the working class.
This turn away from the working class had a major impact, especially in Minneapolis, the center of the Trotskyists’ working class cadre. Although Cannon pulled back briefly from the liquidationist logic of regroupment after several years, there was no analysis of the experience and no lessons learned. The party cadre was disoriented.
When the Cuban revolution took place, the SWP, after initially taking a principled stand, rapidly capitulated to Castroism. They hailed the petty-bourgeois Cuban leadership as “natural Marxists” and moved to reunify with the Pabloites, whom Cannon had correctly labeled as traitors to the Fourth International only a few years earlier.
Bill was dissatisfied with both the orientation to the middle class radicals and the party leadership’s characterization of Cuba as a workers state. He was outraged when SWP National Secretary Farrell Dobbs spoke at a public meeting and declared Cuba to be a workers state before there had been a discussion in the ranks of the party itself. He also opposed the moves to reunify with the Pabloites. But he was unable to fully grasp how and why the pioneer Trotskyists under Cannon and Dunne had politically degenerated.
The conflict over these political questions began to clarify the issues underlying a confused struggle which had arisen in the Twin Cities branch during the regroupment period. As this struggle sharpened in the early 1960s, Bill and Jean, along with several other longstanding members, found themselves virtually driven out of the SWP. These comrades included Henry Schultz, a National Committee member of the SWP, and a veteran of the Minneapolis general strike. It was Schultz whom Bill credited with much of his political training as a Trotskyist.
The SWP leadership, having capitulated to Pabloism, knew that these comrades were an obstacle to the conversion of the SWP into a middle class revisionist swamp. The Brusts were removed from their party responsibilities and denied any opportunity to participate in branch work. They became inactive party members.
At this same time, a younger layer of party members centered around the leadership of the party’s youth movement, the Young Socialist Alliance, made contact with the leaders of the British Trotskyist movement and launched a struggle inside the party in defense of the ICFI and against the capitulation to Pabloism. Bill and Jean, upon reading some of the opposition’s documents, found themselves in agreement with many of their criticisms.
It was under these conditions that Bill planned to meet with Gerry Healy, the general secretary of the British Socialist Labour League and Cannon’s closest collaborator in the struggle against Pabloism 10 years earlier. The opportunity for such a meeting arose when Bill and Jean traveled to Europe in 1963 as part of Bill’s research for a doctoral degree in German literature. After extensive discussion with Healy, Bill and Jean agreed to contact the minority led by Tim Wohlforth upon their return to the US.
A letter from Bill, dated October 9, 1963, clearly illustrates his devotion to the fight for Trotskyist principles, and shows why, after a serious struggle, he found his way to the younger forces who had taken up the struggle in the SWP.
“Jean and I, with 25 years apiece in the movement, are perhaps too ‘indoctrinated’ with the Old Man’s ideas to lightly or on the say-so of even venerable leaders of the party accept the proposition that a middle class movement, even when led by honest radicals, can evolve into a genuine proletarian party and a workers state,” Bill wrote, referring to the leadership’s adulation of Fidel Castro.
On this basis, Bill and Jean began a correspondence with the minority tendency fighting for the International Committee’s principles inside the SWP.
While readily acknowledging that they had not reached final conclusions, Bill and Jean began to seriously grapple with the reasons for the party crisis. Unlike middle class elements who become demoralized and seek to escape what they see as the confines of the revolutionary party, Bill and Jean were deeply disturbed when they found themselves at odds with the party to which they had devoted a quarter century of struggle. They neither turned their backs on the movement, nor dishonestly buried their differences and simply went along. They studied the issues, and they were not afraid to break decisively with leaders such as Cannon and Dunne, after these leaders had themselves broken from Trotskyism. This is what set them apart from the rest of their generation, who became cynical, demoralized or discouraged, and dropped out of the movement or joined the Pabloite renegades.
When the supporters of the International Committee were expelled from the SWP in the summer of 1964, Bill and Jean were still inactive party members, and not identified with the minority. Several months later, however, they submitted their resignations from the SWP. They could not accept the leadership’s course, which had led first, in 1963, to reunification with the Pabloites and then, a year later, to expulsion of those who fought for Trotskyism within its ranks.
The expelled members founded the American Committee for the Fourth International in 1964. The next step in Bill’s fight for Trotskyism was taken when he and Jean agreed to meet with Gerry Healy in Montreal in 1965, at a meeting to discuss the prospects for the refounding of a section of the ICFI inside the United States.
The IC had issued a draft perspectives document, “The World Prospects for Socialism,” in preparation for its Third Conference, scheduled for the spring of 1966. It was necessary to clarify the political issues among groups and individuals in the US claiming agreement with this document. It was at the meeting in Montreal that Bill and Jean committed themselves to the fight of the International Committee. They joined the ACFI, and went on to become founding members of the Workers League in November 1966.
When the Third Conference of the IC took place in London in April 1966, a decisive break took place with the petty-bourgeois American radicals led by James Robertson. Bill and Jean took a firm stand against these elements, by then organized in the Spartacist League. They recognized Robertson’s class position immediately, as manifested in his organic hatred of revolutionary discipline, his hostility to the working class and his pseudo-radical despair, so typical of the Shachtmanites, where he had spent the first dozen years of his political life.
Bill threw himself into the struggle to build the Workers League in the latter part of the 1960s. As a new generation of workers and students were radicalized by the war in Vietnam and the crisis at home, a fight against middle class protest politics was crucial to the winning and training of new revolutionary fighters. Incorporating the lessons of the struggle against the degeneration of the SWP, Bill played an important role in building branches of the Young Socialists, as well as of the Workers League.
Having obtained a teaching position at Carleton College, some 40 miles south of Minneapolis, in 1965, Bill was due for a sabbatical five years later. He took the opportunity to travel to Europe once again, where he spent six months. He worked with a section of youth and young workers who had been recruited to Trotskyism in Germany. Fluent in German, Bill developed the closest relations with a number of these young comrades. He explained the necessity of a fight against middle class radicalism, and helped to lay the basis for the founding of the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter, the German section of the ICFI.
During the 1970s, Bill was warned on several occasions by the college administration against discussing political issues with his students. More than once they suggested he might be happier working full-time for the party. Bill never became a full professor, largely because he would not find the time for furthering an academic career. He carried out research, but not of the type required for a full professorship. He used his background in language and history to study the history of the working class and the Marxist movement, such as the history of the First International, founded by Marx and Engels.
Bill’s political work stands in stark contrast to the sinister activities of the group of Carleton College graduates who went directly from the small liberal arts school into the leadership of the SWP during the early and mid-1960s. These middle class students undertook almost no political activity on the campus. A few years later, Bill noted the influx of these students into the SWP leadership. The IC’s investigation of Security and Fourth International established the connection between the “Carleton Twelve” and the infiltration and takeover of the SWP by the imperialist intelligence agencies.
One of the high points of Bill’s political work was the five months he spent doing research at the Trotsky Archives at Harvard in 1980, after these archives were opened to the public in accordance with Trotsky’s will. Once again Bill utilized his knowledge of foreign languages and the history of the movement to obtain valuable new information and insights on Trotsky’s struggle.
By the middle of the 1980s, Bill Brust was 65 years old and had a record of 45 years of struggle as a Trotskyist. The biggest struggle, however, was still in front of him. The most decisive of the inner party battles against opportunism began in the early part of the decade, erupted in the split of the British Workers Revolutionary Party from the IC in 1985-86, and continued in the struggle against the WRP renegades after the split. This struggle, in which the clear majority of the International Committee took a stand against the nationalist-opportunist degeneration of its leading section, anticipated the explosive developments within the international working class, especially in the decline and collapse of Stalinism.
The protracted political degeneration of the British Trotskyist leadership consisting of Gerry Healy, Cliff Slaughter and Michael Banda was felt particularly acutely by a comrade of Bill’s history and experience. Healy attempted to cover up his descent into opportunism behind a fraudulent crusade against “propagandism.” Healy’s struggle against what he called propagandism was not against sectarian abstention from the struggles of the working class, but rather against a determined struggle to uphold the principles of revolutionary Marxism inside the workers movement.
Healy had, after decades of struggle, concluded that the defense of revolutionary principles was to blame for the party’s “isolation.” He began to heap abuse on the perspective of Trotskyism, counterposing, in terms almost identical to those used by Pablo several decades earlier, the “real movement” to the Trotskyist program. On this basis, Healy carried out a policy of opportunist adaptation to the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaderships of the national liberation movements, while denigrating the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution and taking an increasingly opportunist line toward Stalinism and the trade union bureaucracy.
In 1982 and 1984 the leadership of the Workers League raised these political issues with the WRP leadership, which refused to discuss them, kept them hidden from sections of the International Committee, and threatened an immediate split inside the movement. Despite these desperate maneuvers, the Healy-Banda-Slaughter leadership could not long evade the logic of its liquidationist and unprincipled course. When the unprincipled clique in the WRP leadership broke apart in 1985, the Trotskyist cadres whom Healy had himself helped to train in the past intervened and waged a successful struggle for Trotskyism. Comrade Bill played an important role in this struggle, once again taking his stand for revolutionary Marxism against opportunism. It can truly be said that over the next five years, as he summoned up the lessons of his decades as a Trotskyist, Bill made his most important contributions to the revolutionary movement.
The historical principles which had been increasingly denigrated and dragged into the mud by the WRP leaders were now fought for, and Bill’s strengths came forward in this fight. He renewed close relations with the German comrades he had not seen for years during the period of Healy’s attempted wrecking operation of the IC. He gave his comrades throughout the world party the benefit of his experiences as a Trotskyist from the founding days of the movement.
A high point of Bill’s work was the trip that he and Jean made to Europe in 1989, to participate in the joint campaign of the German and British sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International in the elections to the European Parliament.
Over a three-month period, Bill and Jean worked closely with the European comrades, speaking at party meetings and assisting in the struggle to place the Trotskyist candidates on the ballot. During this period, Bill wrote a series of 12 dispatches to the Bulletin on the BSA campaign in Germany, the campaign of the British Trotskyists of the International Communist Party, and on other developments in Western Europe. These lively articles, printed as well in the press of other sections of the world party, educated thousands of workers on the true principles of revolutionary internationalism.
In what were to become his final years, Bill did not call a halt to his practical activity in the Twin Cities area. He participated actively in every important struggle of the working class, as it fought bitterly against the concessions and union-busting drive which was assisted by the traitors of the trade union bureaucracy.
Bill drove thousands of miles to cover strikes and speak to workers on the picket lines in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere in the Midwest. He travelled to Dakota City, Nebraska, International Falls, Minnesota, Dubuque, Iowa and to other cities. In 1985-86 he participated in the struggle of the Hormel meat packing workers in Austin, Minnesota who went on strike against concessions in the face of the open sabotage of the UFCW bureaucracy. Bill was arrested on the picket line, 38 years after his arrest in an earlier meat packing strike.
In 1986, during the Hormel strike, Bill also ran as the candidate of the Workers League for governor of Minnesota. Exposing the scab-herding role of Democratic Governor Rudy Perpich, Bill patiently explained to trade unionists and other workers that a break with the Democrats and the building of a Labor Party based on socialist policies were the most urgent necessities facing the working class. He exposed the role of the trade union bureaucracy and its middle class radical accomplices, who backed the fraudulent “corporate campaigns” and other substitutes for the industrial and political mobilization of the working class. Bill obtained the largest vote of any of the so-called minor party candidates in Minnesota that year, and the largest vote for any socialist candidate in decades.
Beginning in 1989, Bill and Jean made numerous trips to International Falls, hundreds of miles away from their home in the Twin Cities area, to participate in the struggle of the construction workers at Boise Cascade’s International Falls paper mill.
The relationship of Bill Brust to the working class was graphically demonstrated at a benefit for the wildcat strikers at International Falls organized by the UAW and IAM officials and held in St. Paul on December 1, 1990. The International Falls strikers took over the platform at this benefit to denounce the role of the trade union bureaucracy and condemn its alliance with the union-busting Democratic Party. In the course of this intervention, a leader of the International Falls strikers singled out Bill and Jean Brust in the audience and told the assembled crowd of 200 workers and union officials, “You guys see these people? You call them Communist. You call them whatever you want. I’m an ex-Marine, a Vietnam veteran. Well, these people are 100 percent for the working people. And if our leaders can’t lead and do what’s right, these people can.”
This only begins to give a picture of the work which Bill conducted during this period. He worked continuously on translations, including the translation of the book Solidarity in Poland, 1980-1981, by German Trotskyist Wolfgang Weber. Countless articles from the German Trotskyist press were translated and published in the Bulletin.
At the same time, Bill continued his work among trade unionists until his final illness. He regularly sold the Bulletin at the St. Paul Ford plant, where he was well known by scores of workers, until the day before he entered the hospital last April for the operation which disclosed the terminal nature of his illness.
Comrade Bill also participated in the leadership of the Workers League over a period of many years. At the founding conference of the league, in 1966, he was elected to its Central Committee, a post which he held for a number of years. Later he became a member of the party’s Control Commission, the body made up of the party’s most experienced and trusted members who are elected at party congresses and authorized to conduct internal party investigations, including inquiries into the complaint of any member.
Bill and Jean Brust met inside the Trotskyist movement, which they both joined as teenagers in the late 1930s. After working in different branches in the Twin Cities area, they became better acquainted in the late 1940s as members of the St. Paul branch and of the party’s fraction in the meat packing industry. The Brusts, with more than 100 years of revolutionary work between them, were married for nearly 43 years. Trained in the fundamentals of Marxism as elaborated by Lenin and Trotsky, Bill and Jean worked as a team to bring the perspective of revolutionary socialism to thousands.
Bill was immensely proud of his three children: Cynthia became a speech language pathologist; Steve, a well-known novelist; and Leo, a professional revolutionist like his father, a member of the Workers League and a full-time party worker. All three children derived enormous benefit from Bill’s struggle. They were close to him politically, proud of his political record and of the movement that he helped to build. Bill is also survived by his son-in-law, Tom Moore, and six grandchildren, of whom he was equally proud.
While the struggle to resolve the crisis of revolutionary working class leadership was the core and center of Bill’s life, nothing human was alien to him. He found the time for music, literature, camping, running and gardening.
For Bill there was no separation between his personal and political lives. A man of broad knowledge and culture, his whole life was bound up with the struggles of the working class.
Bill understood that Marxism today means building the revolutionary party. It is not a matter of duplicating the theoretical work of Marx and Lenin, but of developing their work in the struggle for the world socialist revolution. It is not enough to find Marxism “interesting.” A party must be built on the basis of the most powerful ideas. Bill devoted 53 years to this struggle and could not be diverted from this task. It was his principled struggle which made possible the advances of the Trotskyist movement in recent years, and which has helped the International Committee of the Fourth International to carry forward and prepare the way for the completion of the struggle of Lenin and Trotsky.