— Michael Steven Smith
MICHAEL RATNER WAS President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Chair of the Board of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. He practiced law for 45 years, dying on May 11, 2016 at age 72.
One of the last times I saw Michael was via FaceTime. He was out of the hospital once again and back in the living room of his Greenwich Village home, sitting in a padded recliner. I was on the Upper West Side at our singing class with Michael’s son Jake, his companion Elena, his daughter Ana, our friend Jenn, and my wife Debby. We all took a class together called “Anyone Can Sing” from our singing teacher Elissa.
We connected with Michael over an iPhone and sang him “The Internationale,” his favorite song. We could see Michael laying back in his lounger.
We sang the first lines:
Arise ye prisoners of starvation.
Arise ye wretched of the earth,
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth.
He could see and hear us and we could see him. So we sang the next lines.
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us,
Arise ye slaves no more in thrall,
The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all.
Michael knew the history of the anthem of the world working class. Perhaps he was recalling that Eugene Poitier wrote the words even as the Paris Commune was being crushed, gun smoke in the air, its leaders put against the wall at Pere Lachais cemetery in Paris and executed.
The Paris Commune lasted 91 days before being destroyed. It was the first socialist uprising of modern times. This was the rebel tradition with which Michael Ratner identified.
Then we sang the closing lines:
‘Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in their place,
Shall be the human race.
Michael teared up and joined in the singing with us. From his chair he raised his right fist in the air, sharing that moment with his children and friends. And he did it in the original French.
A Life of Law in Struggle
Michael believed in democracy and the rule of law. He did not believe they were compatible with capitalism. He knew fascism was. Initially Michael thought that the law was a civilized method of resolving disputes. Whatever flaws it had could be fixed. But he soon came to understand that law was a method of social control by powers who were determined at all costs to perpetuate themselves by any means necessary for as long as possible.
It was their government that Michael fought, in court, in the media, in books, and in the classroom, trying to expose its lies, its cruelty, its racism and its imperial reach. “Law is villainous,” he wrote. “Social equality will never be achieved under capitalism.”
Harry Ratner, Michael’s father, came to Cleveland from anti-Semitic Poland and soon became, along with his brothers, quite successful in business. He married Ann Spott, a very intelligent, competent and lovely woman.
In the Jewish tradition the highest form of charity is anonymous, and Harry Ratner and Ann were extremely charitable. Michael inherited that gene, as did his brother Bruce and his sister Ellen. When asked once whom he helped out, Michael answered “anyone who asks me.”
Michael was a Jew, but rejected the idea that it was racial ties or bonds of blood that made up the Jewish community, seeing those notions as a degenerate philosophy leading to chauvinism and cruelty. He embraced an unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and oppressed. Michael was not religious. Religion to him was superstition. Being part of a sect was too narrow and confining.
The Jewish heretic who transcends Judaism belongs to a Jewish tradition. The historian Isaac Deutscher had a phrase for it, “the non-Jewish Jew,” citing some of the great revolutionaries of modern thought: Spinoza, Luxemburg, Heine, Marx, Trotsky, Freud and Einstein.
I don’t wish to stretch the comparison. Michael was not so much a radical thinker as a man of action. But his intellectual understanding — he was well educated and widely read — powered his activity. He had in common with these great thinkers the idea that for knowledge to be real it must be acted upon. As Marx observed in Theses on Feuerbach, “Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.”
Michael saw reality in a state of flux, as dynamic, not static, and he was aware of the constantly changing and contradictory nature of society. He shared with the great Jewish revolutionaries an optimistic believe in the solidarity of humankind.
Michael will be remembered as a good, generous, loyal friend and a gentle and kind person; politically as a persuasive speaker, an acute analyst of the political scene, and a far seeing visionary. Professionally, Michael Ratner will live on as one of the great lawyers of his time, joining the legal pantheon of leading 20th century advocates for justice.
Michael died in the hospital on a spring afternoon in May. He had hoped to go up to his place in the Catskill Mountains. He would have gone flyfishing for trout in one of the little streams up there while Karen put in a large vegetable garden and hunted for mushrooms in the woods.
He would have gone jogging or biking or sat in his screened-in living room looking out at the yard full chickens and Guinea hens and a black-and-white lamb born unexpectedly that spring. Then later he would have joined his family and friends at a large round table where we all frequently met for dinner. But this was not to be.
A community will carry on Michael’s work and memory. That is his legacy.
September-October 2016, ATC 184