Alexander Trachtenberg Papers, 1870-1975


Alexander Trachtenberg was active for over half a century in the socialist, labor, and communist movements both as an educator and publisher. Born in Russia in 1884, he immigrated to the United States after the defeat of the Revolution of 1905. While a student at Trinity College and Yale University, he became a leader of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society founded by Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Florence Kelley and others. He specialized in economics and labor and wrote his doctoral dissertation on The History of Legislation for the Protection of Coal Miners in Pennsylvania. This was later published in book form.

On leaving Yale in 1915, Trachtenberg became a staff teacher and later director of the Rand School of Social Science in New York, founded ten years before by the Socialist Party. Here he organized a labor research department which served many trade unions and initiated the American Labor Year Book, predecessor of the Labor Fact Book. He became staff economist for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; and he served for many years as a board member of the New York Call, leading Socialist daily newspaper of the time which he had helped found in 1908. A member of the Socialist Party, he resigned in 1921 and became a founder and supporter of the Communist Party in the United States.

In 1924, with the assistance of his life-long friend, Abraham A. Heller, Trachtenberg founded International Publishers which became the leading U. S. publisher of Marxist writings. From that date, Trachtenberg devoted himself principally to the preparation and promotion of the books for which the firm is noted. Together with Robert W. Dunn, Anna Rochester, and Grace Hutchins, he founded the Labor Research Association in 1927 and remained an active collaborator. His publishing led to association with radical and left-wing writers' movements such as those around the old Masses, the New Masses, the John Reed Clubs, and the League of American Writers. He also helped develop the Workers School of New York and in 1943, the Jefferson School of Social Science.

International Publishers maintained an active publishing program under Trachtenberg's direction through many periods of changing public opinion in the United States, including the period of McCarthyism. Trachtenberg was convicted under the Smith Act together with twelve others, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, at a trial beginning in 1952 and lasting nine months. The Federal indictment charged that Trachtenberg and his co-defendants did “conspire to advocate and teach” the principles of Marxism-Leninism, and did conspire to “publish and circulate...books, articles, magazines and newspapers advocating the principles of Marxism-Leninism.” The “”Trial of Books” aroused world-wide attention and leading personalities protested it as a new form of “book burning.” Trachtenberg was sentenced to three years imprisonment, but he was released after three months when the principal witness against him, Harvey Matusow, confessed to perjury. He was re-tried in 1956 but his conviction was set aside upon appeal to the U. S. Court in New York. It was characteristic of Trachtenberg, then nearing 70, that while the case was before the courts, he published in 1954 the defiant book Looking Forward, containing excerpts from works then in progress by 19 American authors of International Publishers.

Trachtenberg suffered a stroke on December 13, 1966, and died three days later without regaining consciousness. His ashes were buried in Chicago, Illinois. Public memorial services were held December 22. He was survived by his wife, Rosalind.

(The above biography was primarily written by S. Luttrell, a U.W. Library School student, 1969.)