Robert Chester (1912–1975) was a Socialist Workers Party activist and Marxist educator. Bob was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1912. His parents, Jewish refugees from tsarist oppression, had fled Russia in 1903. Bob's political education began as a child, when his mother told him about the traditions of the Russian...
Robert Chester (1912–1975) was a Socialist Workers Party activist and Marxist educator. Bob was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1912. His parents, Jewish refugees from tsarist oppression, had fled Russia in 1903. Bob's political education began as a child, when his mother told him about the traditions of the Russian labor movement.
Under the impact of the depression, the American working class was radicalizing, and New York was a center of political debate. One night Bob and his brother, Morris Chertov, attended a Socialist Party meeting. Shortly thereafter, Morris joined the American Workers Party, led by A.J. Muste. In 1934, the Muste forces fused with the Trotskyist Communist League of America to form the Workers Party. Bob became exposed to Trotskyist books and newspapers, and he met leaders such as Art Preis, Ted Grant, and Sam Pollock. He listened carefully to the long discussions that took place in the family household.
By 1936, when the Workers Party decided to send its members into the Socialist Party in order to win over the growing left wing, Bob was a convinced Trotskyist. He entered the SP with the Workers Party members, and left in 1937 when the Trotskyists, having recruited many SP militants, were expelled.
Bob attended the founding convention of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), held in Chicago in 1938. After the convention, he became the organizer of the Brooklyn branch of the SWP. Bob later worked as a merchant seaman, joining the Marine Firemen's union shipping out of San Francisco; during the witch hunt years he worked as a house painter.
One of Bob’s most important contributions to the revolutionary movement was his role in helping to establish a printshop. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Trotskyist movement had to rely on outside printers to produce its literature. Bob was one of the first to see the need for a printshop that would publish the SWP’s books and pamphlets, and to recognize that establishing such a shop was a realizable goal. In 1955, when the SWP’s resources were extremely low, Bob and Hayden Perry took the first small steps toward setting up a printshop in New York. “We operated on a rock bottom budget,” Bob later recalled. “Practically all the equipment was made by hand, the camera, the darkroom, the light tables, and so on.” Despite its limitations, the shop began putting out pamphlets on the Black struggle, and printed a pamphlet by Joseph Hansen called The Socialist Workers Party: What It Is—What It Stands For. It printed campaign literature for the SWP’s 1956 presidential election campaign.
In the late 1950s, Bob became manager of the shop. The shop continued to acquire more and improved machinery. In 1960, 200,000 brochures for the SWP election campaign were printed. The shop also began to produce literature for the newly formed Young Socialist Alliance, and, later, pamphlets in defense of the Cuban revolution. “The work was all strictly volunteer,” Bob once explained, "done after working hours and on weekends." He set an example in this regard. He and his wife Anne devoted three years of work to put out Art Preis’s Labor’s Giant Step, a history of the rise of the CIO.
In 1964, Howard Mayhew, who had a small press in Chicago, moved his equipment to New York. He and Bob established a new printshop to meet the expanding needs of the revolutionary movement. Bob’s interest in cameras and other technical equipment led him to introduce other innovations to the party as well. He initiated the use of cameras at political events of the SWP, taking many of the early photographs that today help preserve party history. He also introduced the use of tape recorders to the party as a means of maintaining a record of speeches, classes, and debates. Bob had purchased a cheap tape recorder back when the tape itself was made out of paper, and he would bring it to party conventions, plenums of the national committee, and other events.
In 1967, Bob and Anne returned to San Francisco. Bob became active in the Painters union and in the party branch. More and more, he played the role of educator for the many young people who were joining the YSA and SWP at that time. He also did independent research on the question of the workers states.