Herbert J. Benjamin, 85, retired owner and operator of a Georgetown pottery store who had been a noted member of the Communist Party before breaking with it in 1944, died of a heart ailment May 10 at the Hebrew Home in Rockville.
Mr. Benjamin, who lived in Chevy Chase, was a native of Illinois and came to Washington in the late 1920s. He once told The Post he became interested in socialism at the age of 12, and became a socialist after reading books on the subject and hearing Eugene Debs speak. By 1920, he said he had followed other socialists into the Communist Party, where he said he earned $25 a week as a party organizer.
During the early 1930s, Mr. Benjamin was a chief organizer of hunger marches here in his role as a Communist Party leader. He was supreme commander of the 1931 National Hunger March in which 3,000 men and women marched in Washington, led by a brass band dressed in uniforms similar to those of the Red Army.
The marchers chanted, "Down with charity, we want security," and "Long live the Soviet government," as they filed through downtown Washington, according to reports in The Washington Post at the time. Mr. Benjamin, in a speech reported in The Post, told the crowd, "Workers of this country must defend their fatherland, Soviet Russia, the country that has done away with unemployment."
In a 1956 story about those days, Post reporter Edward T. Folliard recalled that Mr. Benjamin was a "dedicated, hustling little man who made no secret of the fact that he was a Communist; indeed, he was proud of it and wanted people to know that he was."
The story went on to say that Mr. Benjamin talked with Brig. Gen. Pelham D. Glassord, superintendent of police, to negotiate advance arrangements for the 1931 march. Mr. Benjamin also consulted with Vice President Charles Curtis and House Speaker John N. Garner, receiving permission for the marchers to troop to Capitol Hill. His negotiations also led to the marchers' receiving food and shelter. None of the 1931 hunger marchers was arrested. Folliard attributed this, in large part, to Mr. Benjamin's skill in negotiating with officials.
Mr. Benjamin told the Post that he and other Communists had hoped the hunger marches would prove to American workers that only the Communists had a genuine interest in the plight of the unemployed. But reforms introduced by the Roosevelt administration and President Truman's Fair Deal and new civil rights program disproved the Communists' claims. He said he became convinced that the Communist Party no longer had a place in the United States, and that he supported both democracy and the free enterprise system.
For 25 years after he left the party, he was a capitalist--operating the Pottery Fair in Georgetown from 1953 until he retired in 1978.
Survivors include his wife, Lillian Gerber Benjamin, of Chevy Chase; a son, Ernst of Detroit, Mich.; a daughter, Jessica Benjamin of New York City; a sister, Eva Burkat of Cleveland; and three grandchildren.