A Documentary Film
Co-Producers Judith Montell and Ronald Aronson
“I want things to change where the playing field is leveled, where equality emerges as a reality... where the horrible things about inequities are eliminated.” Those few words convey the life that Saul Wellman, now 89 years old, has tried to live since he was a teenager. While Professional Revolutionary tells the compelling story of Wellman’s 75 years of political activism, his life’s significance reaches beyond his specific causes to his spirit and core beliefs. The deepest goal of this film is to communicate one man’s example of political commitment: that living passionately in the wider world does not detract from personal goals, that one must change in order to stay the same, that taking risks makes one a fuller person, and that living a political life without conventional rewards can be richly satisfying.
Near the beginning of Professional Revolutionary, a time-worn but vital and articulate Saul Wellman recalls that “at the age of 16, believe it or not, I decided I was going to become a professional revolutionary. And you know what happened? I became a professional revolutionary, for the rest of my life.” Saul Wellman, a political activist through much of the twentieth century, is still at it in the twenty-first. Thus his personal story is also the story of some of America’s most volatile and dramatic decades.
The film begins and concludes with Wellman, in a wheelchair, preparing to participate in a demonstration in April, 2003. As the film ends, he asserts that “the worst thing is passivity.” The goal is “to react to your problems today – and to react to your problems today doesn’t mean you have to carry a red banner and yell revolution and so on and so forth. Do something about it.” This is the main theme of Wellman’s life and the film, reflecting a commitment so powerful that his whole life has been immersed in the main causes and issues of his times.
Through the approach of placing the man in his time, the film portrays one of the most remarkable and stirring, though unheralded, figures of the past three-quarters of a century. Wellman’s riveting story incorporates three parts: his youth, and participation in both the Spanish Civil War and World War II; his Detroit adventures as a Communist Party functionary and as a union activist; and his life with the New Left.
Part one begins with his youth in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, a hotbed of Jewish radicalism where he plunged into the ferment around him during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Wellman lived the period’s highs and lows, its dangers and dramas, its greatest hopes and worst disasters. He began his political career as a labor organizer, and then volunteered to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Wounded, he returned home. But soon after, the thirty-year old father of two children volunteered as a paratrooper in the Second World War, where he was seriously wounded, captured, and escaped from the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.
The second part opens with Wellman, with his wife and children, moving to Detroit – in the midst of the city’s major change from war-time boom to post-war unemployment. He worked as a Communist leader in the shadow of the industrial behemoth, the Ford Rouge plant, and in 1949 became head of the Michigan Communist Party. Soon after, the anti-Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy period forced Wellman to live underground, separating him from his children for nearly two years. Increasingly apparent is both the radical commitment and the toughness of those who assumed the mantle of revolutionaries between the 1930s and 1950s. But also evident is the cost to Wellman’s children, of their sacrifices and abandonment in having a father who admits that “politics always came first.”
The cocky revolutionary was arrested as one of the “Detroit Six” in 1952 under the federal anti-Communist Smith Act, and became the star defendant in Michigan’s most sensational political trial. In the film, the U.S. prosecuting attorney for the first time gives his side of the story, concluding by apologizing to Wellman for the frenzy of the time and resulting unfair trial and verdict. Wellman had served only six months of his five-year sentence in Milan Prison when the application of Smith Act provisions was reinterpreted in a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958.
The year became a turning point in his life. With his conviction set aside and in the wake of Khrushchev’s devastating revelations of Stalin’s atrocities and reign of terror, Wellman concluded that the Communist Party had become irrelevant in the modern world and, resigning from the party, began to restructure and rebuild his life. Consequently, in order to earn a living, at age forty-three Wellman became an apprentice in a printing firm. After overcoming considerable bias because of his Communist background, he was elected an officer of the lithographer’s union and in 1970 was a leader of its first major strike.
Part three begins with Wellman retiring as a printer and once again laboring to become relevant in a changing world. Actively engaging in the New Left’s anti-war and civil-rights movements reaffirmed his self-definition as a professional revolutionary. And these associations drew him back into an active role in Detroit politics. But most impressive and even touching about his place in the social and political world of these times was his newfound relevance as a mentor and father-figure to over one-hundred young activists of the New Left with whom he met individually and in groups, along with lecturing widely and interacting with younger people around the world. Wellman thus in his own time became – and remains – an advisor, a model, and an inspiration, creating once again a new activism for himself as a living bridge between an older political world and a new one.
Saul Wellman changed with the times – one can actually observe the young rebel becoming a wiser and calmer activist – while maintaining his political values and integrity. What the film achieves is a remarkably complex portrayal of one man’s struggle and sacrifice for his political beliefs. As the film ends at a protest against the 2003 war in Iraq, Wellman reaffirms the importance of action – no matter what. For even aging and half-blind, Saul Wellman invites the most diverse groups of people to see themselves in a wider world, share the common condition, and act to improve it.
Epilogue: Wellman’s struggle and sacrifice have finally been recognized and applauded in the most unexpected ways. This man who was once tried for treason and sedition in the United States in 1996 was made an honorary citizen by the Spanish government in a stirring ceremony in Madrid. And he has been honored for his contributions to the working class and young people in testimonials by both the Michigan Legislature, and the Detroit City Council.
Saul Wellman passed away in December, 2003, at the age of 90.
[Go to Ganley-Wellman Collection, Wayne State University]
[Go to Saul Wellman Collection, Michigan State University]
[Go to Ernest Goodman Collection, Wayne State University]