[Marxism] ISO obit for Neil Smith

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 2 08:01:31 MDT 2012

Obituary: Neil Smith
A passionate scholar and socialist

Bill Roberts, a founding member of the ISO, and Hector Agredano, a 
doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, remember the life of a 
determined activist.
October 2, 2012

NEIL SMITH, the renowned scholar, beloved teacher and devoted activist, 
died on September 29 at the age of 58.

Neil is best known for his academic work. He was a professor of 
anthropology and geography at City University of New York. In 
particular, his writings on the patterns of social development in 
cities--drawing on history, economics, political and social theory, and 
ecological studies--are among the most prominent left-wing views on the 

But Neil will also be remembered as a committed socialist and activist. 
He came to the U.S. from his native Scotland in early 1977 to complete 
his graduate studies with David Harvey at Johns Hopkins University in 
Baltimore. He wasted no time becoming an activist on campus, helping to 
establish the Graduate Representative Organization.

In 1978, Neil joined the International Socialist Organization (ISO), 
then only newly formed, and helped to build a campus chapter at John 
Hopkins of a dozen committed socialists. Neil became a frequent 
contributor to Socialist Worker, then a monthly newspaper. One memorable 
article of his in 1981, titled "It's Right to Rebel," put the London 
urban riots of that summer in the context of the severe economic 
recession and the hopelessness it produced.

As Kathy Ogren, a fellow student at the time and now a recognized 
scholar in her own right, remembered, Neil was "a great popularizer of 
Marxist ideas...and a good listener to a person's evolving political 
consciousness. He could help one sort out the connections between 
personal and structural questions and conditions."

Though Neil left the ISO in 1984, his comrades and students remember the 
humor and fearlessness he brought to his political organizing. "Neil was 
one of the most creative thinkers I've ever met," Ogren said. "He saw 
connections, applied his prodigious energy to researching an answer, and 
then found innovative ways to write or speak about what he had learned."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

AS A scholar, Neil's intellect was evident from early in his academic 
career. In 1979, he wrote an influential article titled "Toward a Theory 
of Gentrification: A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People." 
More than scholarly research, this was a political intervention in the 
field of urban geography at a time when questions on urban decay and 
ghettoization were riddled with inconsistent theories and contradictory 

His most important theoretical contribution to the understanding of the 
geography of capitalism is outlined in Uneven Development: Nature, 
Capital, and the Production of Space. Here, Neil laid out a coherent 
explanation for the unevenness and distortion of economic development, 
specifically in urban areas, because of investment and disinvestment in 
the built environment by capital markets.

Inspired by insights from Lenin and Trotsky, Neil's thesis is based on 
the contradictions of capitalism outlined by Karl Marx in Capital. 
However, in applying these ideas, he helped to anchor disparate theories 
from disciplines that often remain separated in the academy.

Neil would expand on these theories to develop analyses on the 
commodification of nature under capitalism, politics in the study of 
geography, and U.S. imperialism. One of his most celebrated books, 
American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to 
Globalization--for which he received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize 
for Biography for 2002--traces American military interventionism through 
the age of globalization. The book would prove prophetic when, one year 
later, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq.

Upon his arrival at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, 
Smith's scholarship and sharp politics attracted a crowd of activists, 
intellectuals and radicals of all stripes to his courses. From seasoned 
anti-gentrification activists of Washington, D.C., to peasant organizers 
from Costa Rica, and the curious from everywhere in between, they all 
found a seat at the table. His classes were lively with dissension and 
debate, and it was alright to be political; in fact, it was encouraged.

During the last years of his life, one of Neil's main concerns was that 
radicals and revolutionaries were losing hope. He was frustrated that it 
was easier for radicals to imagine an environmental apocalypse than a 
triumphant revolutionary movement against capitalism. During class and 
in meetings, he would raised the concern that one of the victims of the 
ruling class offensive had been the utopian imagination of the left.

This was one of the most inspiring things about Neil--he never gave up 
hope. And when the Occupy movement burst on the scene last fall, he 
welcomed it with open arms. Class discussion would turn into strategy 
debates--he encouraged students to participate, and would hold class at 
the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park or cancel them to allow us to 
participate in major demonstrations.

Neil leaves a lasting legacy of scholarship and dedication to geography 
and to Marxism. As a socialist, he always placed himself in the 
revolutionary tradition--he spent his last years trying to raise 
revolution to the agenda in people's imagination and political 
frontiers. He left us too soon and will be sorely missed by friends, 
colleagues, students and loved ones.

Neil Smith, ¡presente!

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