John Gates was born in 1913. A New York City native, he was Jewish with Polish ancestry. He had a brother and three sisters. Throughout his childhood, his father owned and operated small businesses. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton high school, Gates attended City College where his life changed forever after he came across Marx’s writing. That discovery led to Gates dropping out of college at age 17 and joining the Communist Party. Then he eventually became a community organizer for unemployed Ohio youth and ran for Youngstown City Council.
When running for the Youngstown City Council, Gates was jailed for causing public disturbances. This was one of the several in his life he was arrested. He was later jailed in New Castle Pennsylvania in 1935 for distributing pamphlets. This was a difficult time for Gates; while being arrested for fighting for what he believed in, the Great Depression made it almost impossible to find a job and forced him to resort to living on public assistance.
In early 1937 Gates joined the International Brigade for Spanish Civil War, like many involved in the Communist Party. As a soldier under the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, he was a commisar at age 24, the highest ranking American in the Spanish Civil War. He was an extremely strict battalion commissar. Gates even executed some of his comrades on grounds of desertion. This earned him the hatred and anger of his subordinates. However, he showcased his stamina and bravery by fighting in nearly every single battle throughout the war.
After the war, Gates became a secretary for the organization “Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” and director of the Young Communist League in New York State. He would eventually become the editor in chief of the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. It was quite clear that his high position in the Spanish Civil War jump started the rest of his career. That may be why he put his newfound marriage to a woman named Lillian aside to enlist in World War II. After initially being kicked out for being a communist, Gates successfully volunteered as a paratrooper. This was an arduous job for a man in his thirties. Once again he took on a position of authority, this time informal, as a mentor for the much younger paratroopers.
Despite being a veteran, Gates was betrayed by his country. In an incident that gained him infamy, he and ten other comrades were accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Although this claim was denied by all the defendants, it was clear that their Communist ties had made the court view them as enemies of the state during the red scare. Gates was convicted on October 14th, 1949 to a five year jail sentence, characteristic of the McCarthy era.
During this jail time, Gates started questioning much of his philosophies, including Communism. Although posthumously he is known for being one of the most prominent and high ranking members of the Communist Party, Gates actually stopped getting involved in the party in the mid 1900s. Much like POUM, Gates didn’t support Stalin, and the Communist Party’s increasing alignment with the Soviet Union made him leave. He officially left his communist party position on January 1st, 1958. This was the subject of his book, The Story of an American Communist, a personal memoir published in 1959. Gates’s falling out with the American Communist Party had led to the closure of his Communist party controlled newspaper, The Daily Worker.
However, even after leaving the party Gates still held onto many of his prior beliefs, like the pro-worker stance. This motivated his joining of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as the senior research assistant, where he helped the workers gain Social Security, unemployment, and compensation. Gates continued his job at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union after serving in World War II, until eventually retiring in 1987. Gates spent his retirement out of the public eye, presumably with his family before dying of heart disease and stroke, in Miami Beach, Florida on May 23rd, 1992 .
At his core, it is evident that John Gates truly cared about social justice. Some of his key values were transitioning to socialism, and loyalty to America. He was survived by his wife, Lillian Gates.
Cobb, Kenneth. “Gates, John.” Encyclopedia. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gates-john
Folkart, Burt. “John Gates, 78; Ex-Top Communist.” Los Angeles Times. 26 May 1992.
Lambert, Bruce. “John Gates, 78, The Former Editor of the Daily Worker, Is Dead.” The New York Times. 25 May, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/05/25/nyregion/john-gates-78-former-editor-of-the-daily-worker-is-dead.html
Simkin, John. “John Gates.” Spartacus Educational. January 2020. https://spartacus-educational.com/SPgates.htm