Liston M. Oak Biography

Liston M. Oak




Liston M. Oak, journalist, artist and activist in liberal politics, was born in the Southern California town of Perris on September 8, 1895. Oak came from a prosperous business-class home, but he was restless and discontented with its secure and sheltered existence. At the age of 15 he left home for Los Angeles, where he attended art school. In 1915 he became a reporter for the Los Angeles Record, and around that time he married his first wife. In the years 1916-1917 he taught school in California's Imperial Valley, and after the United States' entry into World War I he enlisted in the Medical Corps. After spending 13 months in France, from 1918 to 1919, Oak returned to the United States and took a teaching job at Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. The college had been founded by Socialist leader Norman Thomas. In 1920 Oak returned to Southern California and, having obtained teaching credentials from the University of California, worked as a teacher in the Los Angeles high schools.

Oak had been sympathetic with the cause of Soviet Russia since 1917, and because of his communist leanings he was forced from his teaching job in 1924. In that year he went to New York City where he found work with the All-Russian Textile Syndicate, known as Amtorg. The Syndicate, headed by Oak's life-long friend Alexander Gumberg, served as the Soviet Union's purchasing agent in the United States. In 1927 Oak joined the Communist Party, resigned from Amtorg, and became a publicist for the Party and an editor of communist publications. Around that time he married his second wife, poet-activist Margaret Larkin. Between 1927 and 1936 he held a variety of jobs, most of which involved writing or editing. These positions included editorial assistant for the Modern Monthly and Americana (1928-1929); publicity agent for the first Exposition of Russian Peasant Arts and Crafts (1928-1929); travel publicity agent for the State of New Mexico (1928-1929); executive secretary and publicity agent for the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts (1930-1932); editor of Soviet Russia Today (1932-1934); publicity agent and member of the board of the Theater Union, a leftist theater group (1934-1935); and editor of the magazine Fight (1935-1936). In 1935 Oak's second marriage ended in divorce. The following year he led a group on an Intourist trip through Europe and the Soviet Union, and in 1937 he served in the Spanish Civil War as Director of Publicity for the Loyalist Republican government.

Oak's experiences in the Soviet Union and Spain helped to solidify what had been a growing discontent with the communist movement. In 1937 he openly criticized Stalinist policies, expressing his views in the pages of the New Statesman and the Nation. In a series of lectures to political and trade union groups Oak decried conditions in Russia and accused the Soviets of contributing to the Spanish Loyalist defeat. Although he continued to consider himself a Leninist until 1940, Oak distanced himself from politics during the late 1930's. In a reflection of this philosophical change, he served as managing editor of the relatively apolitical magazine Antiques from 1938 to 1943.

In 1943 Oak returned to the political arena as a liberal critic of communism. From 1943 to 1948 he worked as managing editor of The New Leader, an anti-communist liberal weekly. This publication was one of the first to denounce suspected Soviet spy Alger Hiss, and the magazine labeled many leaders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as communists. Oak's last job was with the Voice of America. From 1948 until his retirement in 1964 he worked as the Voice's labor and economics editor. There he wrote radio scripts and delivered anti-communist commentaries over the air. Once a dedicated member of the Communist Party, Oak ended his career as one of the Party's most vocal opponents.

Liston Oak was living in Long Valley, Morris, New Jersey when he died in February of 1970 while on a trip to Israel.