Steve Nelson

American Radical

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The immigrant teenage son of a Croatian miller, Steve Nelson arrived in the United States after World War I and confronted a world turned upside down by the war, industrialization, and a labor upsurge challenging low wages, dangerous work, and the lack of a voice on the shop floor. Following the path taken by many fellow immigrant workers, he joined the Communist Party. Nelson became a full-time organizer and ultimately a national leader, only to resign in 1957 after unsuccessful attempts to democratize the American party.

This oral biography describes day-to-day life in the party and traces Nelson's career from Pennsylvania’s coalfields to his missions as a party courier to Berlin and Shanghai; from the battlefields of Civil War Spain where he was political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to the jails of Cold War Pittsburgh; and from the factory floor in Detroit to the upper reaches of a party leadership in New York. It is the frank and analytical account of a leading American working-class activist.

I met Steve Nelson in 1970, not long after I was arrested in a police riot in a Pittsburgh courtroom during spring break my sophomore year at Yale. Eight people had been arrested the night before during protests against the draft and the Vietnam war. They were arraigned in a courtroom filled with homicide squad detectives and protesters on March 19, 1970. The back and forth them became heated and when the judge ordered the courtroom cleared, I turned to leave. Grabbed from behind, I was beaten, then charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, inciting to riot, and aggravated assault and battery on a police officer. If only…

The media dubbed those arrested the Pittsburgh Five. We spend the next year in and out of courtrooms, including Federal District Court, where we filed a suit against the District Attorney and police claiming a chilling of our constitutional rights. The Pittsburgh Law Collective and William Kunstler represented us and most of the charges were eventually dismissed.

After the courtroom melee, I was introduced to Steve Nelson, who was part of the first Pittsburgh Five, men accused of violating the Smith Act in 1950s Cold War Pittsburgh. Several years later, Nelson spoke to grad students in the History Department at Pitt, where I was enrolled. Afterwards, Jim Barrett suggested we approach Steve about writing his biography. That led to Steve Nelson, American Radical and a deepening friendship with Jim, a leading historian of labor and radicalism, and a great friend.

Steve Nelson book cover

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Praise for Steve Nelson

“A fascinating portrait of a Communist activist with as varied and adventurous a career as can be imagined.”

New York Review of Books

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