from an Oct. '99 Minnesota Review interview with Alan Wald

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 26 11:38:56 MST 1999

The Formation of an Activist Scholar: An Interview with Alan Wald
by David Tritelli and Sharon Hanscom

David Tritelli: In your contribution to a recent forum on teaching Marxism,
you claim that an awareness of the full scope of the US Marxist cultural
tradition is an urgent necessity for activists today. How have you, as one
of the leading scholars of this tradition, learned from the cultural
workers who have preceded you?

Alan Wald: I try to operate with a consciousness of a long tradition, a
legacy of left activist-scholars that has passed through several major
phases. The conceptual framework of these semi-autonomous stages might be
regarded as problematics (in the full sense of the term, including
absences) derived from the response of Marxist cultural workers to the
world situation and the condition of the US Left at certain points. When
one examines this tradition throughout the century, there are of course
similarities and continuities as well as important differences, and I try
to carry out my work with an awareness of that whole background. For
example, the problematic of the generation associated with the crisis of
the Great Depression—creating a tradition which extends into the 1940s and
early 1950s—is shaped by a world situation featuring fascism marching
across Europe, the evolution of the Russian Revolution from a liberatory
upsurge to a brutal dictatorship, the emergence of the CIO, and new forms
of anti-racist struggles. This objective situation significantly shaped the
consciousness and influenced the practice of cultural workers, and the
record of their successes and failures remains an extraordinary legacy. One
of the most difficult issues with which to come to grips in grasping this
past is the difference between the discourse of anti-Stalinism, a Cold War
phenomenon that was reactionary through and through, and the legitimate and
honorable critiques of the Stalin regime first generated by revolutionary
Marxists during the 1920s, despite their failure to build an equivalently
powerful and effective political movement.

Then there is the problematic of the generation associated with the 1960s,
which, again, is a historic moment that started earlier and extends longer.
However, the landscape of the era of the 1960s poses new kinds of
challenges: the industrial unions are not center-stage; the Civil Rights
movement transforms into the Black Power movement; the student population
plays a catalytic role; a new kind of international situation, with the
effort of the US to crush a national liberation movement in Vietnam as a
centerpiece. is in place; a new kind of cultural revolution, with a strong
drug presence, is in progress; and so on. Yet in my view these ostensibly
discrete moments, as well as the present problematic of the 1990s, are
profoundly connected. There is much wisdom, including an awareness that
there is some near-insoluble conundrum, to be extracted from the entire
legacy. Thus I think of my activism and scholarship not as a new paradigm
for emulation but much more modestly—as merely a contemporary extension of
this troubled but honor able tradition. In other words, I am saying to
anyone who might listen: Don’t follow me—learn from and join the tradition
of the Paul Robesons, C. L. R. Jameses, Josephine Herbsts, Harvey Swadoses,
Carlos Bulosans, and many others whom I admire. (Of course, I’m talking
about these figures as social activists, crusaders, and
organization-builders of the Left; not exclusively as writers or as
cultural studies icons to adorn academic work.)

DI: In saying that your scholarship and activism constitute a contemporary
extension of this tradition, how are you distinguishing between activism
and scholarship?

AW: Let me emphasize that 1 don’t make a sharp distinction between my
activism and scholarship, as if they were isolated spheres necessarily in
mortal combat for my waking hours and energy. While it is true that
everything significant in life demands time, once one poses the situation
in terms of competition—with activism as the alleged reason that one isn’t
accomplishing as much in other spheres, including personal life—there is
the danger of activism becoming the scapegoat. Hence activism becomes the
first thing that is sacrificed when one is under pressure. One of the
lessons I’ve learned from the past is that the all-too-common and
unfortunate result of defining activism as a competitor can be to take the
tack that one’s career is actually one’s contribution to the movement.
However, divorced from the controls provided by involvement in radical
organizations and movements, one’s career can very well end up taking one
in unanticipated directions. When I wrote my book on deradicalization, The
New York Intellectuals (1987), 1 used a quotation from Goethes’s Faust:
"You think you are doing the pushing/But it is you who are being pushed."

Of course, it is true that another of the lessons of the past is that one
must not judge scholarly or artistic efforts by knee-jerk political
criteria, so I’m adamantly against an anti-intellectual ethos for the Left.
But this must be balanced by the view that activism in collectivist left
organizations can be a method of testing, correcting and gauging one’s
scholarly efforts, and perhaps the course of one’s life as a whole. I’m
talking about participation in social struggles actually improving the
quality of such work in terms of providing empirical evidence, bringing the
scholar more in touch with the world outside the library and university,
and even offering a vision to drive one to greater accuracy and longer-term
productivity. I think that such compatibility might certainly be the case
for anyone working in the humanities and social sciences.

It doesn’t follow, though, that one should capitulate to any pressures from
movement activists when it comes to the question of whether one should
abandon one’s cultural work for allegedly more practical activity. We have
seen, occasionally, especially in the operations of Leninist-type
organizations, pressure for cultural workers to put their skills at the
service of a party leadership in terms of producing polemical journalism,
documents, etc. We have also seen how scholars and cultural workers have
periodically felt tremendous pressure to abandon their work in favor of
what appears to be more urgent forms of organizing, or proletarianization.
Naturally one must do what seems most suited to one at different points in
one’s life, understanding the advantages and costs of various choices.
There’s no point in abandoning art for the revolution, only to find that
one is a terrible union organizer, when one’s posters might have become
powerful beacons in the struggle. It’s also reasonable for one to
experiment with different kinds of activism, depending on one’s age, the
state of one’s cultural and scholarly work, and one’s personal situation.
For example, up until my mid-forties, I was most comfortable doing Jimmy
Higgins work in socialist organizations and groups in solidarity with
anti-imperialist struggles. I was the person who attended all the meetings,
took minutes, prepared and distributed newsletters, brought signs to and
served as a monitor at demonstrations, and even did plant-gate newspaper
sales and leaflet distributions. I never held leadership positions, or
thought of myself as one who formulated policy beyond tactical suggestions
as to where an action might be held or how to deal with police or
administrators. Then, in the late 1980s and early 90s, circumstances
unfolded that encouraged me to become more visible as a person in terms of
participation in a very public Sister City delegation that went to
Nicaragua during the Contra War, and on a fact-finding mission to Haiti to
expose domestic repression during the military junta. (The object of these
activities was to get as much publicity as possible.) In this same period,
for the first time, in my early forties, I realized that I could play a
role in helping to guide socialist publications, and so I became active in
editing Against the Current and later Science & Society, as well as
contributing where I could to other radical publications such as Radical
Teacher, Guardian, Z, in These Times, Monthly Review, and International
Viewpoint. So there has been an evolution, obviously in response to aging,
the accumulation of experiences, the changing objective political
situation, my job situation, and my personal life.

Other people, in their twenties, start out as political leaders of
committees and groups, but that was not my trajectory. probably because I
was already involved in so much self-expression in my creative and
scholarly writing, I found the Jimmy Higgins work in the mass movements
much more appealing. But let me also add that one of my main conclusions
from the study of US Left history is the necessity of keeping alive serious
socialist organizations, which is especially difficult in a period where
they remain tiny and have few resources; so I maintain my membership in
Solidarity, a socialist-feminist and anti-racist network of Marxist
activists on the far left. I do what I can on behalf of its projects
(support to Labor Notes, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the Labor
Party), and I also sustain international links with similar organizations
and their cultural workers. This is what I consider to be my base; I do not
see myself as a university-based activist, even if my physical presence is
mostly there. Of course, on the campus I’m involved in the defense of
affirmative action through the organization of a rank-and-file faculty
group and participation in the student-based group, and I carry out
international solidarity and pro-labor activities when I can. What I’ve
described here is just my personal, perhaps idiosyncratic, trajectory of
activism, which I try to keep in balance with my scholarship and a
relatively stable personal life. (I’m a widowed, single parent of two
daughters, one in college.) Other people find that they have the confidence
to start editing socialist journals in their twenties, and still others
find that their talents lay in community activism or in being a
spokesperson on public issues like the economy, or being a leader in AAUP
or of a radical caucus in their profession, or in running some kind of
program or institute on a campus that has a progressive orientation. One’s
choice of commitment is not ipso facto more valuable than another; it’s
very destructive to start insisting that everyone else carry out another’s

Sharon Hanscom: Some of the work with which you have been involved—both as
a scholar and as a member of the faculty at the University of Michigan—has
been in the area of countering attacks against affirmative action. Would
you discuss your general analysis of antiracist struggles in the present
context of anti-affirmative action policies? And in this respect, how have
you incorporated Marxism into your own anti-racist activism?

AW: In my view, the affirmative action struggle is essentially a
continuation of the Civil Rights movement, which in turn grew out of
earlier struggles against segregation and inequality. We are still trying
to remove barriers to equal access, to level the playing field. However,
the terrain has shifted from explicit segregation to institutional racism.
That means that the levers of equality are more deeply hidden in terms of
the race-bias inherent in criteria for admission, hiring, tenure and
promotion. Due to the mystifications of white supremacism it is much harder
to explain to some people how these institutionalized mechanisms work, arid
the forces of reaction have unashamedly seized on the demagoguery that our
campaign for justice in admissions is really about special privilege in the
form of racial preference. At the moment, the nature of the
anti-affirmative action attack at University of Michigan is focused on
student admissions to the undergraduate program and Law School, so our
fight-back is focused on mobilizing students and faculty, from the bottom
up, to explain to the broader public why it is in everyone’s interest to
maintain affirmative action. One of the most optimistic new developments is
an effort to work with community activists state-wide to develop a
pro-affirmative Action proposition for the ballot.

I am much impressed by the clarifying power of the original Leninist
distinction between nationalism of oppressed and oppressor groups, as well
as the distinctions between national liberation struggles and nationalist
ideologies. These offer categories for analysis that can help illuminate
issues that I often find confused in contemporary discourses on
nationalism. In addition, the strategy that the Communist Party and parts
of the Trotskyist Left applied to the anti-racist movements in the United
States is important as well. In particular the understanding that oppressed
people, first, need to organize themselves, around their own issues and
under their own leadership, as a precondition for unity with whites,
remains valuable to this day. There is also the notion that people of color
should not subordinate their interests and demands to whites, especially if
whites are slow to move, and that people of color can play a vanguard role
by setting an example. The old debates about what constitutes an authentic
nation, about national and cultural autonomy, and about internal
colonialism, are a valuable legacy for theorizing cultural as well as
political work in the late capitalist era.

DI: Barbara Foley’s work offers a competing assessment of the legacy of
twentieth-century left movements. She argues that the focus on nationalism
is a weakness in that it indicates a reluctance to foreground class
contradiction. Is this a different understanding of history than your own?

AW: Yes, that does sound remarkably different from the tradition and
perspective that I’ve been expounding here, and about which I have written,
especially in my book The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1992). I have to
say that I have a very high opinion of Barbara’s chapter on "The Negro
Question" in Radical Representations which I felt built effectively on the
scholarship of Mark Naison and Robin Kelley. My initial reaction is that
support to the right of self-determination blends well with an overall
project of multiracial working class unity, according to the model I
offered in response to the preceding question: that the precondition to
such unity is that people of color can self-organize and choose their own
leadership independently, not subject to majority rule by whites; nor
should they be pressured to hold off on demands for racial justice until
such a time as whites are ready to em brace them. In fact, I don’t see the
self-organization of working class women as a threat to ultimate unity
between the sexes, even though women as a group don’t have features of a
nationality. Unity between those with unequal resources is a dubious unity,
and different groups have different kinds of access to power in a
capitalist society. So, in dealing with race chauvinism as well as male
chauvinism, it is understandable that special measures are taken.

DI: You have written that your work as an activist scholar is informed by
certain kinds of praxis lived and absorbed in the 1960s. Would you talk
more about your own political formation?

AW: I wrote about this in the recent book from New York University Press
edited by Amitava Kumar, Class Issues. There I describe how fortunate I was
in that I was not one of those people who was first formed as a liberal in
the 1960s, only to be shaken and traumatized by the turbulence of the
decade. I was already alienated from the system before the 1960s, at least
from the time I was a junior high school student and was drawn to
Existentialism, the Beats, and the cool jazz scene. All during high school,
1960-64, I was a non-participant in the political process, although
increasingly aware of the Civil Rights movement. The 1960s New Left gave me
my first chance to participate on my own terms, and this was through
grassroots activism independent of the Democratic Party or of the liberal
establishment. I was emotionally drawn to the Civil Rights movement, and I
chose to attend Antioch College partly because I knew it was interracial
and had a strong connection to the movement. Moreover, I imagined that its
work-study program would enable me to live out the on-the-road fantasies
nurtured by the TV show Route 66 and Jack Kerouac’s fiction. My first
activities were anti-war and anti-draft, but I can’t say that my views were
exactly pacifist, since I certainly believed in self-defense and was
instantly in sympathy with Black organizations that promoted it. In fact, I
was turned off to pacifism after an experience in 1965 at the Dayton, Ohio,
Fairgrounds, where the police surrounded our tiny antiwar demonstration and
then allowed a motorcycle gang to come in and attack us. Our leaders told
us to sit on the ground in concentric circles, with tall men (like me) on
the outside and our arms linked; mine were held so tightly on either side
that I could not fend off blows, let alone retaliate. The experience proved
to me that I was definitely one of those unsuited for a Ghandi-style
pacifist movement. On the other hand, I certainly supported non-violent
tactics and never sought out physical confrontations with the police or
Right-wingers. That personal disposition became clear around the same time
when a small group of us tried to protest at one of the huge pro-George
Wallace racist rallies that were going on in southern Ohio. No doubt it
stemmed from my recognition that I had a fear of people with guns,
bayonets, and clubs, or in mobs waving Confederate flags, as much as from a
political understanding that such confrontations backfire in terms of the
Left getting blamed for intolerance.

Possibly the most crucial of my formative moments was my participation in
the Cleveland ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project) sponsored by SDS
(Students for a Democratic Society) in the Winter-Spring of 1965-66.
There’s a good study of the Cleveland project in James Miller’s Democracy
Is in the Streets. However, Miller treats the experience from the
perspective of the group of older people, in their mid-late twenties, who
had colonized the Near West Side ghetto and lived in an experimental
commune situation. They had been criticized for indulging in a kind of
"cult of the ghetto," living Spartan-like in the worst neighborhoods. Led
by Paul Potter (recently the SDS President) and Sharon Jeffrey, they tried
to carry out participatory democracy in their daily lives and
decision-making processes while organizing for jobs, tenants’ rights and
welfare rights in this depressed community. Since I was only nineteen, and
lived in a two-room apartment a few blocks from the main house, I was
witness to but not so caught up in their communal experience. The older
SDS-ers invited me to a number of their meetings—for example, a first-hand
report by Tom Hayden on his recent trip to Vietnam—and they assigned Kathy
Boudin, who is now serving a life sentence in prison for her alleged
terrorist activity, to be my political mentor.

But my main interests were always literary, so I was primarily assigned to
help develop a community theater that adapted Brecht plays to our
neighborhood situations. We drew on people from the local Bohemian arts
milieu for support, and produced our plays in an empty neighborhood
storefront with a community discussion held afterwards. Simultaneously I
worked at a full-time job at the Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital,
as a child care worker with African American kids suffering from
sickle-cell anemia. The total experience— an intensive four months helped
me to sort out many things. In regard to the job in hospital, I could see
that social work and personal care-giving were much too demanding for me,
emotionally and physically. In regard to the ERAP project, I unquestionably
felt an existential attraction to the idea of the endeavor, even though my
grasp of the actual political strategy and possibilities of the ER.AP
effort were rudimentary. Years later I read about the Russian Narodniks and
felt there was a similarity. (Here I must confess that there were often
personal reasons for making these kinds of ostensibly political choices: I
was first inspired about ERAP because of a college girlfriend, just as I
was first introduced to the idea of going to Antioch by my high school girl
friend. From the 1960s onward, my personal and political life were fused.)
To be frank, it did not seem like a sacrifice but was actually bracing to
feel the full force of ghetto conditions in my daily living—to live in a
freezing-cold, dilapidated, apartment in a semi-abandoned building with
derelicts sleeping on the steps. Many hours were spent in front of my
apartment’s filthy kitchen window looking into a grim alley, writing poetry
and prose fragments to try to objectify my emotions and gain control over

Even before Cleveland, I had been drawn to living in the worst available
neighborhood of Washington, DC, and a poor one in Pittsburgh, while holding
down jobs for three or four months at a time. This unquestionably upset my
parents, although I doubt that that was my main motivation. (Actually, I
arranged things so that they never saw my DC and Cleveland dwellings, which
would certainly have caused a family crisis.) Perhaps this behavior was
partly a way of affirming a kind of masculinity, since all the other
avenues of conventional masculine affirmation—the military, business,
sports—were either repulsive, boring or unsuitable. Finding SDS-ers who
were doing something similar made me feel less of an oddball in my
alienation from middle-class and especially upper-class culture (not that I
ever experienced much of this), although none of us had the illusion that
our temporary situation resembled that of those who would be trapped in
these conditions permanently. Still, while I certainly felt a kind of bond
with the ERAP cadre, I knew that I didn’t want to live in a commune with
eighteen-hour long meetings. I needed a large degree of solitude for my own
reading and writing (mostly poetry, then), and I was already formed as
something of an anti-social personality. In the end, though, I had
clarified my position so that my long-standing emotional reactions were
partially redeemed: I recognized that I had been a misfit in middle—class
society not because I was selfish and ungrateful (although I was certainly
both of those things—and still am!), but because by temperament and
intellectual bent I was with the poor against the privileged, the have-nots
against the haves, and those of color against the whites. Moreover, I came
to see that my disgust with middle and upper-class culture was not, in my
case, the snobbish elitism of those who thought that they were the truly
educated, but that such disgust was founded on the kind of values I had
encountered in SDS documents such as the Port Huron Statement and the ERAP
manifesto, An Interracial Movement of the Poor.

So I was all set for some sort of definitive moral, cultural and
intellectual break with capitalist society; the problem was that the
alternative perspective, liberatory Marxism, had been purged from academic,
intellectual and cultural life at that point, due to McCarthyism. As a
result, I suffered considerable depression centered around the idea that I
could not visualize a future for myself, occupationally or personally, in
the dominant culture. My parents. however, were sure that my depression
came from my rebellion, and that a return to a conformist way of life was
the cure. So I got into kind of a battle-like situation where I wrote them
brutal letters arguing that their efforts in that direction would only make
things much worse. Even before then, my family contact was minimal—I walked
out of high school in the spring of 1964 to attend a summer session at
Antioch, which had a year-round program, and was probably never at home for
more than three or four days at a time after that. Now, with the events of
the 1960s tearing society and culture apart in many other ways, family
relations entered a phase of bull-headedness on both sides from which it
never fully recovered. As a result, I have lacked confidence in my own
ability to parent. and I resist any kind of parental relation to students.

Louis Proyect
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