Summary: James Obst (1953-2020) was a founding member of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization who gave 45 years of his life to the cause of human self-emancipation.
James Obst (born in 1953), who wrote under the pen names of Jim Mills and J. Turk, was a warm and loving friend, comrade, and revolutionary who devoted his life to the creation of a truly new, human society. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago, he bore his illness with all the dignity and poise that characterized him as an individual—constantly engaged, always forward-looking, forever ready to reach out on a moment’s notice to anyone who needed advice or assistance. He remained politically active even after being admitted to hospice care, attending and speaking at meetings of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization and commenting on world events through email. His death on October 14 has silenced his voice, but it will not stop his legacy from living on in those touched by him.
Jim grew up in southern Florida and attended the University of Florida at Gainesville, graduating with a major in sociology in 1975. Given his skills and background (both of his parents were architects and he initially planned on becoming one) he could have easily embarked on a traditional professional career, but he decided to devote his life to aiding and assisting those less fortunate than himself. While in college he became active in the campaign to support Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, which soon extended to solidarizing with other workers’ struggles. Never the ivory-tower intellectual, he came to Marxism firmly convinced of the ability of working people to speak and think for themselves.
Thanks to his older sister Mary (who wrote under the pen-name Mary Holmes), who was a participant in the 1968 student revolt at Colombia University and (by the 1970s) a member of News and Letters Committees, he learned about Marxist-Humanism and soon came to embrace it himself. He moved to Detroit and became active in all facets of the organization’s work, while developing deep ties with Detroit’s working class. He was an autoworker for a number of years (until laid-off during the closing of many plants in the early 1980s) and made it his daily routine to talk to fellow workers, record their thoughts, and engage in dialog with them on radical ideas. He worked especially closely with Charles Denby, the outstanding labor militant and revolutionary Marxist who authored Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal.
Jim was elected to the Resident Editorial Board of News & Letters, headed by Raya Dunayevskaya, with whom he worked closely for many years. She admired his patience and dedication, but also noticed what was often hidden by Jim’s modesty—his considerable talents as a theoretician. He wrote an essay on the philosophical development of Marxist-Humanism in the early 1980’s that Raya praised as one of the most insightful pieces penned on the subject; she continued to recommend it for years afterward. All the while, he was active in numerous campaigns and struggles—the anti-nuclear power movement, Women Take Back the Night marches, protests against police abuse, anti-Klan marches, etc. And of course, he was involved in debates and polemics with other leftwing tendencies, as increasing numbers of radicals converged on Detroit in the 1970s and early 80s to “organize” a U.S. working class that they knew more from books than from everyday life. Jim was a firm opponent of elitist and vanguardist tendencies in the Left and wasn’t afraid to let others know about it.
There is a kind of hard edge that many radicals take on as they go through life, given the difficulties of being a small and often disdained minority laboring away within the belly of the beast. I never noticed any sign of this in Jim in the 45 years I have known him. He was highly regarded by those he worked with in political groups and unions as tremendously warm-hearted and ready to listen and reach out—including to those with whom he had disagreements. He put the human relation first by showing he cared about you, as a person—not as a mere means to an end.
In 1987, Marxist-Humanism faced a serious challenge with the death of Dunayevskaya, given how central she was to its founding and each step in the development of the organization since its birth in 1955; it was by no means assured that the group would hold together. Jim’s steady hand had a lot of do with the fact that it survived and grew. He went wherever the organization needed his talents—the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, and ultimately Chicago, where he moved in the 1990s to work in the organization’s national office. By this time, he had considerable experience in editing publications for various trade unions, which made him a natural fit to become Managing Editor of News & Letters—a position he held for over a decade. He not only handled the technical issues of layout, print shops, and distribution, but wrote a considerable number of articles on labor struggles, anti-racist movements, and world events.
But perhaps his most important and enduring contribution to Marxist-Humanism was his work as an archivist for The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, housed at Wayne State University in Detroit. In 1998 he organized a massive 2,000-page Volume XV to the collection containing Dunayevskaya’s writings from 1983 to 1985. This was the period in which she projected the category “post-Marx Marxism as pejorative” and began work on a planned book “Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy.” The volume contains a vast assortment of manuscripts, lectures, and letters to such figures as Bertell Ollman, Harold Cruse, Cedric Robinson, and Vivian Gornick. As usual, Jim managed the considerable labor that this entailed by remaining active in all facets of the organization and taking part in various social movements in the Chicago area.
In the mid-2000s, when News and Letters Committees began to atrophy as some of its members increasingly treated Marxist-Humanism as a static ideology rather than as a body of ideas in need of constant rethinking and redevelopment, Jim found this as disturbing as did most of its theoretically and politically active and younger members. He was a solid, calm voice of reason among various controversies and arguments that arose over the nature of Marxist-Humanism and the character of real human emancipation. When it became clear the old organization no longer served the purpose for which it was created, Jim helped found the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO), which came into existence in 2009.
Jim played a central role in the IMHO from then to the end of his life, organizing meetings; giving reports at its international conventions; and being part of the editing committee of The International Marxist-Humanist. His articles written over the last ten years can be found at https://imhojournal.org/imho_author/j-turk. And he attended as many protests, picket lines, and rallies as his work schedule permitted. He didn’t see his role as lecturing others but rather listening to and learning from them—it was an indelible part of his character that was instantly recognized by everyone he met and worked with.
No less widely recognized was that friendly smile, ironic sense of humor, and basic human generosity that defined him. When comrades came to visit Chicago he was always ready to show them the town—whether by taking them to the Pullman museum so they could learn about the city’s working class history, the now-gone Chequerboard Lounge on Muddy Waters Street on the South Side, or the “total Chicago experience” as he called it—a feast of steak and eggs at an all-night diner. The one time he’d ignore you is when you offered to pay for your dinner.
Throughout, Jim devoted a huge amount of his time and attention to his family; he did not allow the political to overwhelm the personal. In August 1999 he met his wife to be, Laura, at Galter Life Center where he frequently worked out and Laura worked. They began running together on the Chicago Lakefront and it didn’t take long for them to fall in love. They were married on December 21, 2001, the winter solstice, longest night of the year. He became a stepfather to Zachary Smith and Dakota Smith, and later a loving grandfather to Aiden Rangel, Sofia Madl, and Michael Madl.
As a new generation of young Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and feminist activists joined the International Marxist-Humanist Organization in the last several years, he was a constant source of advice and encouragement to the newer members, who admired his patience, experience, and insights. This continued even as his battle with pancreatic cancer put him in an increasingly weakened position. He tried to attend every meeting possible, and delivered no less than three talks at the IMHO’s most recent convention in July. His first intervention in the discussion was truly memorable, as he explained the importance of revisiting the principles that Dunayevskaya and Denby formulated at the inception of Marxist-Humanism—which includes, as he put it, “workers as editors–not just in the sense of marking up copy but putting a proletarian stamp on the organization. Women and workers as writers—the purpose of which is to record what people are saying and thinking, even if they are not a writer. It is a way for members to be alert to what the masses say to each other. As Raya wrote, the withering away of the state will never occur until the party too withers away and falls off as well.”
Jim never lost faith in the ability of working people to think for themselves and organize their lives freed from racism, sexism, capitalism, and statist repression, and kept alive the dream of a new society where we treat each other as ends-in-themselves rather than as mere means to an end. The deep imprint he left on the lives of so many will live on.