Jeffrey Williams with Adolph Reed

Adolph Reed
Adolph Reed

The mid-1990s saw a number of celebrations of the public intellectual, notably of black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, bell hooks and Michael Eric Dyson. Adolph Reed poured some cold water on the parade. Just as he had criticized the 1984 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign for representing a self-appointed media elite rather than a bread-and-butter electorate, he criticized the new public intellectuals as an academic elite that didn’t have intellectual depth and didn’t do much political heavy lifting.

Reed himself, though, represents a certain kind of public intellectual. He has kept one foot firmly on academic ground in political science, writing analyses of the 1984 and 2004 elections and in intellectual history, notably of DuBois. At the same time, he has written regularly for magazines like The Village Voice and The Progressive. He was a founding delegate of the Labor Party in 1996, and he is co-chair of its Campaign for Free Higher Ed. Reed has consistently written on race, but he has tried to put the class politics back into race politics. For him, class “is the social relation through which other identities are constituted and experienced within political economy.”

Reed’s books include The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics (Yale UP, 1986); W. E. B. DuBois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line (Oxford UP, 1997); Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (U of Minnesota P, 1999); and Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press, 2000). He has also edited Race, Politics, and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s (Greenwood, 1986); and Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and the Retreat from Racial Equality (Westview, 1999). Related to this interview, see also “The 2004 Election in Perspective: The Myth of the ‘Cultural Divide’ and the Triumph of Neoliberal Ideology,” American Quarterly (2005); “A GI Bill for Everybody,” Dissent (Fall 2001); “Free Higher Ed” (with Mark Dudzic), The Nation (23 Feb. 2004); and “Majoring in Debt,” The Progressive (Jan. 2004), as well as the website

Reed attended UNC-Chapel Hill (BA, 1971) and Atlanta University (MA, 1974; PhD, 1981). He has taught at Howard University (1976-78), Clark College (1979-80), Yale (1981-91), Northwestern (1991-97), University of Illinois-Chicago (1997-98) and The New School (1998-2004). He is currently a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also worked as a labor and community organizer in North Carolina, for Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta and as an organizer for the Labor Party.

This interview took place in Adolph Reed’s office at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 26, 2005. It was conducted by Jeffrey Williams, editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by Nilak Datta.

Jeffrey Williams: Your academic field is political science, although the people who read minnesota review are probably more familiar with your pieces in The Nation or The Progressive. They’re probably in literary and cultural studies, and people in literary and cultural studies are versed in a certain discourse of cultural politics, but they’re usually unfamiliar with political science. I think it’s a problem in cultural studies, that there’s a dearth of political theory.

Adolph Reed:  Yeah, it almost seems like the more that people declaim piously in favor of multidisciplinarity, the less inclined they are to read or engage outside their own narrow sub-specialty. There are not many disciplines with which proponents of multidisciplinarity engage, right? I’ve been struck at how infrequently the work of historians or political scientists, or economists, or even sociologists, gets cited in the domain of cultural politics. I suppose you could say that the same is true on the other side of the ledger; most of what goes on in political science is pretty stupid anyway. It could be possible to be a competent theorist without immersing oneself in multiple disciplinary debates, but I think all too often people are drawn to what they imagine theory to be because they think it comes with no heavy lifting.

I’ll go into a bookstore and look at a book by the title of, say, The Political Economy of Gender in Late Victorian England. I pick it up and find out it’s an examination of six poems. That gives you the sense of a lot of cultural studies discourse: Political economy is a phrase whose main function is to imply a kind of heft and demands to be taken seriously, but it has nothing to do with anything that anybody from Marx to Krugman would call a political economy.

JW: One way to characterize your work is that you apply political economy to today’s politics, especially to what has been construed as race politics, for instance in your book on Jesse Jackson and the 1984 presidential election.

AR: I try to. I was motivated early to try to make sense of the race-class debate. The years I was a kid in the movement, I was around the line of the old Left and the New Communist school, so I came out of the debates from the political environment of the late ’60s and the early ’70s. It seems clear to me that there are two options: The first is to insist that race, or racism, operates outside of history, transhistorically, which means that you embrace some sort of ontological notion of race. What follows from that typically is what I characterize as endorsing a racialist narrative that’s the equivalent of a devil theory, because it treats racism as standing outside of social relations and intervening—like a diabolus ex machina—to cause bad things. It takes another, superficially more sophisticated form in a cultural studies anti-Enlightenment pattern. There the devil is this notion of “Othering” that emerged in the construction called Europe, during the moment called the Enlightenment, which has been carried over to the Western hemisphere, I guess dragging behind the Mayflower. To me, that is just another version of the Nation of Islam’s Yacub story. It’s a narrative propelled by some ostensibly damning quotes from Kant or Hegel in the Enlightenment, and then those get extrapolated to something called European thought.

The second option, if you come at the question from the other direction, from the ground up, racialist ideology is driven by commercial imperatives. It’s a commercial enterprise largely, and you look at the work of people like Edmund Morgan and others, and then you see the big problem to be resolved is that the people who led this commercial enterprise wanted a tractable labor supply. In that sense, notions of racial difference concretely and historically emerge in close relation to the foundation of the status of slaves in British colonial America. I quite like the work of Robert Steinfeld on this—he’s a legal historian up in Buffalo, who has done good legal-historical work on the realities of bound labor; his two books are The Invention of Free Labor and Coercion, Conflict, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century—and he makes the point that when you look at this historical side, you step outside the familiar line of classical economics, in which capitalism calls for and requires free labor. You look historically, and you find that the opposite is true, that what needs to be explained isn’t the persistence of forms of bound labor in the capitalist economy but how the notion of free labor emerged as an ideology and as an institution. He argues that in both the U.S. and in Britain, the notion of free labor emerged as a result of a struggle between workers and employers around specific conditions in society, constrained by law and class power and other ideologies. So if you come at the race issue from the ground up like that, I think you obviate another hoary, idealist debate. Does capitalism require racism? Well, they’re both empty abstractions. You can’t disentangle the two, just as you can’t disentangle when agrarian society becomes capitalist. As much as anything, these are taxonomic debates.

It’s hard to try to argue the point without being accused of some kind of reductionism, but I’m trying to find a way to talk about race and class as metrics of hierarchy that doesn’t presume them, at any point, to be different phenomena. Now they’re distinct, but they aren’t different. I think the way that sociologists have approached the overlapping pyramid, the hierarchy, has ultimately done more harm than good in that it reinforces the sense that these are different categories. And I think one of the reasons it has become so difficult to be heard properly is that the debate itself has become reified in certain ways.

Some say, “Racism emerged in capitalist labor relations, but then it developed a life of its own,”  in the effort to resolve the issue without giving anything up. I think that a shorthand way of talking about racism ironically makes it more difficult to make sense of the finely-grained, nuanced and distinct ways that notions of race and the practice of the racial hierarchy work and get reproduced, because racism becomes a blanket category that covers a lot of different kinds of phenomena, a flag under which many different kinds of ships sail. And if all you talk about is the flag that the ships fly under, then it’s hard to figure out when you’ve got a dinghy and when you’ve got an aircraft carrier. So if you want to talk about race, the best way is to start from concrete labeling of a social relation—that race is a category for sorting the laboring classes—and to try to rebuild an analysis from that level.

There is one other thing I want to say about general theories of race and racism: One of the ways the problem shows up is in the difficulty that American scholars have, and I think particularly black American scholars have, when it comes to talking about race or race relations in other societies. The people look familiar, a lot of the rhetoric looks familiar, a lot of the social relations look familiar—and that’s the problem. It’s like why it’s so much easier for people to misunderstand the late nineteenth century than for people to misunderstand the seventeenth century, because the language and the cast of characters are just familiar enough. So, for instance, when we find people going to Brazil and sometimes to Cuba (it’s probably going to happen a lot in Cuba now), they ask why no race-conscious political movement has developed. But why should race be the rhetorical mechanism around which people whom we would identify as black define themselves? They most likely identify themselves in a different way. It seems to me that a more interesting, more productive and certainly less imperialist question would be, “Why have you organized the way you have?” Doing otherwise essentializes race.

JW: It seems to me you write in three different registers. You are a political scientist, with hardcore scholarly works on DuBois and other things; you write political commentary, on the Jackson campaign or the last election; and then you also have a dimension that’s much more public. I can see how they all have affinities, but they are in different places and speak to different audiences.

AR:  Everything that I have ever written presumes some version of the same audience, which is an intellectually engaged organizer. My ideal reader has been constant through everything. I don’t want to drag you through my biography, but partly, I went to graduate school because the movement was dying out, and I figured we had been outflanked and defeated, and I saw it would be useful to go study and try to figure out what happened, and then do it better the next time.

JW: When did you go to grad school? And what movements were you involved in?

AR:  I started grad school in ’72. Let me take a couple steps back. I was at UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergrad from ’66 to ’69. I was part of the group that was involved in the big cafeteria strike there. After the strike, I left the university with a criminal conviction that prohibited me from engaging in any disruptive activity on any public campus. North Carolina had these crazy statutes called the “felonious misdemeanors,” which carried a two-year maximum prison sentence, and a couple of us got fines big enough to require fundraising and two years probation.

I was trying to figure out what to do next. I got offered a job with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). They were trying to make a push in North Carolina then. They came in to UNC for the second cafeteria strike—the first one was in January ‘69. After the settlement, the university privatized food service. I was in the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Worker Party. In fact I was their organizer in North Carolina. I left after about a year and a half. I think so far as I had an adolescent political rebellion, that was it, a little more than year-long flirtation with Trotskyism.

JW:  Rebellion?

AR: Well, I came of age with late ’60s radicalism, with debates on SDS and the emergence of the Black Panthers and Black Power and the consolidation of race lines. My father was a professor. . .

JW: Where? Where did you grow up?

AR: Nowhere and everywhere. I was born in New York, lived in DC for a while, lived in Arkansas for a while, went to high school in New Orleans.

JW:  Instead of being an army brat, you were an academic brat. What field was your father in?

AR: Political science. He taught for the last 25 years of his career at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The area is home of Wal-Mart and Tyson’s Chicken, with neon signs flashing, “250 million killed a year.” My father’s originally from southeastern Arkansas. His father was a school principal down there and he was a Socialist Party voter. My father was drawn into the orbit of the Left in Chicago before the war, and then after he was in the war, he came back and went to New York around the Harlem section. He was in or around the CP (he never would say which) for a while.

I had been calling myself a Marxist since I was thirteen, so I was looking for a political organization, a political affiliation. Whatever coherence I have in my life is rooted in politics. I wanted something that had a working class content but also a lot of my age cohort were taken up by Black Power. The SWP was the one place on the Left that tried to appeal to both those tendencies. I joined and became the YSA contact in North Carolina and that lasted a year, and I left the organization a bit after the cafeteria strike. One of the reasons I left was that they urged people to go into the military and organize people. They organized conspicuously to get themselves busted, and then took prosecuted GIs around on a tour. They had a couple of guys in Fort Jackson in South Carolina and a couple at Fort Bragg [in Fayetteville, NC]. And they instructed us to direct the activities of our Chapel Hill-Durham local to support these guys.

It didn’t make any sense, and I was also more and more conscious of the SWP’s racial opportunism. So I left, and I was trying to figure out what to do. I’d gotten to know a guy who was a Comp Lit grad student and who had been involved in a couple of the first antiwar GI coffee houses down in Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Jackson. Through him I met Howard Levy, who was court-martialed for a number of offences, the crowning glory of which was when he refused to train Green Berets in dermatological interrogation. They were linked with a group called the U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, which set up antiwar coffeehouses near military bases.

JW:  How long did you do that for?

AR:  I was in Fayetteville for two years, and then I worked out of Durham for another year. The last two years I was on staff of the Foundation for Community Development. We organized and worked with poor people’s activist organizations that were part of a network of membership-based grassroots groups across the state. At its peak, the Fayetteville group, FAPPO (Fayetteville Area Poor People’s Organization), had more than 2,200 dues-paying members. So I spent another year working out of a Durham office as a technical assistant and coordinator of field reps, that kind of stuff. FCD formed out of the breakup or the decentralization of the old North Carolina Fund, which had been a pioneer Ford Foundation poverty program. The Low-Income Housing Development Corporation and the Manpower Development Corporation were the other two spin-offs. FCD was the grassroots organizing component. But we were still funded by Ford, and we funded and provided organizers for poor people.

Ford had been raising the bar on us, pushing us more and more in the direction of business development and entrepreneurial stuff, so we improvised this thing we called “community capitalism,” which was basically organizing co-ops and giving us—or at least some of us—a little bit of cover; for others, the belief in community capitalism was genuine or as genuine as it needed to be. Ford, as it turned out, wanted to do more feasibility studies, so I spent time doing studies on shopping center development projects, shopping habits and patterns and Ford wanted to move still farther in that direction. So my buddy and I led a staff insurgency. We wrote a position paper and learned a valuable lesson: The organizing and the research and development staffs voted for the insurgency, while the technical staff, the planners and architects voted with the management to conciliate Ford. The wild card was the clerical staff. The clerical staff, you know, had very good jobs for the local labor market; they were full participants in staff meetings and had votes. Their jobs were good, and they voted for their jobs. I finally left after that and went back to school.

JW: How did you end up at Atlanta University?

AR: I matriculated in ’72. I went back and finished up at Chapel Hill in ’71, and I went to Atlanta partly because it was a place where Ford popped up again. Ford had put a lot of money into Atlanta to upgrade its political science program. Most of the faculty were young and radical. My dissertation was advised by a guy my father had taught at Southern University in Baton Rouge who had been a grad student at UNC when I was an undergrad there. I was in Atlanta for most of the ’70s.

JW: When did you finish?

AR: I finished my dissertation in ’81. I had started in ’72, but I worked for a couple of years. Our fellowship lasted for three years. It was nice funding for three years, but that was it.

JW:  Where did you work?

AR:  I got an internship with the city government, and I taught at Howard University for a couple of years. Then I worked in Atlanta city government on the Department of Budget and Planning, and then directed the Mayor’s Research Office.

JW:  What was your dissertation on?

AR:  It was on Du Bois. I started revising the dissertation in ’84 and got distracted by writing the Jesse Jackson book. I published an article on Du Bois in Political Theory; I think it came out in ’85, but I had already started working on the Jackson book. There was a particularly simple-minded article in The Nation about Jackson in November 1983, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to respond to this.” And then things started popping off more and more. So I thought I’d wait until the dust settled to write an article. I sat down to write the article, and it just wrote itself. I was going into the office every night and kept writing, and then I’d realize there was another chapter, and it became a book. It wasn’t until I actually had the thing in my hand, the commodity, in 1986, that I stopped kicking myself because I had been thinking, Am I destroying my academic career because I’m not doing my Du Bois book? But I couldn’t stop.

I revised the manuscript of the Du Bois book—I think I got the contract in ’86 or ’87—and I wanted to write up a little coda. In the dissertation, I had noticed that the double consciousness reference was made in 1897 and in 1903, but after that, it disappears. Yet by 1986, as it was blowing up more and more in Du Bois scholarship, I thought, “Okay, something else is going on here, and I gotta get to the bottom of it.”

JW: The book situates Du Bois in the context of his time, in political and intellectual history. As I take it, the argument is to revise the idea of double consciousness, basically that Du Bois had for a brief time dwelt on Hegelian phenomenology, but after that moved toward collectivism, informed by Fabianism, so the current stress on double consciousness is a misreading. In a way, that’s how you criticize race politics now, that it’s too absorbed in double consciousness.

AR:  The long and short of it is that the double consciousness chapter in the book began in 1986 as a ten-page coda. As that notion blew up more and more and came to overwhelm so much criticism and commentary about Du Bois, I thought, I needed to deal with that. I’m on the historicist end of the continuum, I know, but I thing that standards for attributing influence are lacking, and we need to be rigorous about the way we make and assess such attributions. Too often, people just fall into the easy error of reducing claims about influence to what historian of ideas John Dunn once characterized as declaiming on how some ideas in some great books remind people of ideas in other great books—which is fine, but that’s a different project from trying to clarify the evolution of historical discourse.

People were making such claims about double consciousness. So I said, “Okay, let’s see.” Trying to track down the Hegel reference was like the “telephone” game in the secondary literature—professor A cites professor B as an authority for the assertion that there was a Hegelian influence, and then professor B is doing the same thing with professor C, and it passes down. I spent a lot more time doing that kind of stuff than I’d imagined doing. I spent a lot of time also reading Emerson and William James because, in addition to Hegel, those two figured prominently in such claims of influence. All this put me in better stead to address the conundrum: Why double consciousness now, and where did it come from?

As I said in the book, the first answer is that it is popular because it is popular, but it also resonates with a mood and intellectual disposition among a stratum within the academy and within the black petite bourgeoisie more broadly. I thought that I would center the last chapter on the work of Gates, Baker and West, and then I realized that West didn’t have enough interpretive stuff to engage. With Gates and Baker, you know, that was painful.

JW:  Why?

AW:  It was painful partly because Gates had something in print embracing positions from every conceivable compass point; as a result, I had to reconstruct an immanent logic. With Baker, it was basically a tangle of neologisms, which are never explicated. It took a lot of slow, careful reading, over and over again; I was trying to figure out what the hell it actually means. It’s not to say that consistency is necessarily a virtue, but it would be nice if people occasionally would say, “Well, yes, it’s true I said that then, but I believe this now. And I’ll tell you why.”

JW:  In a way, your problem with Gates and Baker is similar to the problem you see with the Jackson campaign; they are the elite, celebrity brokers of race politics, rather than hands-on electoral politicians. Gates becomes sort of the Jesse Jackson of academic politics.

AR: Part of the contradiction lies in Gates’s power as a public figure. His public voice rests on his professorial status, but his professorial status was built largely on arguing against a politicized approach to Black Studies. So from one perspective you could say that the basis on which he claims his academic expertise disqualifies him by definition from being somebody we should listen to for political commentary. He’s got the right to comment on and think about politics as much as anybody else does. I’m just saying that there’s no particular reason, apart from the content of what he has to say, why I should listen to him pontificate or pronounce on politics, especially as an English professor who has argued throughout his career that Black Studies can be cleansed of political claims. But, a small matter.

Another problem with the discussions of the race and class issues is that there’s a faulty presumption underneath it all. I think this comes through in some of the recent political science writing about class and black politics. The presumption organizing the discussion is that race and class are alternatives, and that a race politics and a class politics are alternatives. I would argue that a race politics is in fact a class politics; it’s a petit-bourgeois class politics. I know that’s a term that many of my academic and political friends would counsel me not to use, but it really is what fits best descriptively. This kind of race politics is built on a set of claims about the existence of a unitary racial interest, and substantively what that unitary racial interest boils down to is a political program, the impact of which, if successful, has a disproportionate pattern of benefits and costs on the black population or within the black American population. These benefits tend to cluster in some strata, while costs tend to cluster in another—that to me is the hallmark of class politics.

I think Marx was smart about a lot of things, one of them being the first question you take to any political proposal: Qui bono? That is, who benefits? And I think that historically, the discourse of race spokesmanship, as it evolved in the United States over the course of the twentieth century, has always been classed, and to that extent, has shied away from applying the qui bono question, except at the level of gross racial disparities. That’s not to say that some articulate class sold out the interests of the masses, but I think, for instance, if we go back to the turn of the twentieth century and the debate over how you should think about Booker T. Washington, the principal tack of the neo-Bookerites is to say that he couldn’t have done anything other than what he did. It’s true he couldn’t have done anything other that what he did if he wanted to maintain access to the White House, have that private railroad car, have dinners at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt and curry the favor of the political elites and philanthropists. I appreciate that fully. I’m not comfortable with bringing Washington up on this indictment (I couldn’t impose a sentence anyway), but I think if we want to understand the past in ways that can help us make sense of the present, it’s important to understand the complexity of the positions and alliances that people were immersed in then and not to take on face value whatever they say, not to turn history into a Whiggish enterprise.

JW: Some of your critical sights have been turned on race politics within the academy, especially within African-American Studies. One piece that’s well-known among cultural studies people is “What Do the Drums Say, Booker?,” where you take to task some of the more famous black intellectuals, like Gates, Dyson and West. You don’t take any prisoners, but having just reread it, it seems to me that you let off Gates more lightly, since he’s more measured in his political claims.

AR:  Oh, the Village Voice thing? You know, Skip contacted me after that came out; he sent me a little note saying he really liked it and that he and his wife laughed uproariously.

Well, I’m glad to have the opportunity to situate that. My friend Joe Wood had been after me for over a year to do something like that, and I finally agreed to do it. I don’t shy from a controversy—though I want to stress that I absolutely do not seek them out for their own sake—and I’d never written about that subject. I don’t like the notion of public intellectuals; I think it’s a product of the late ’80s or early ’90s academy. This may be an expression of the kind of radical historicist that I am, but once that notion comes into the public lexicon and people start lining up under it, then it’s not appropriate to apply it after the fact to people like Lionel Trilling and Dwight MacDonald. Or vice versa.

JW: How do you see the state of African-American Studies?

AR: Ken Warren and I are completing an anthology on historicist black studies with about a dozen essays, some old ones that have been published already and some unpublished, some by established scholars and some by younger scholars, mainly political scientists, historians and lit critics. We started it because we’d been talking over and grappling with the cultural studies turn in Black Studies and thinking about what we’ve been dissatisfied with in Black Studies discourse. We started a two-man seminar at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap in Chicago, it must have been around ’93, and it lasted the whole time I was there. It got safer once I moved closer to Hyde Park! (That book, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought was published by Paradigm in 2010.)

I think we may try to do another book, perhaps just the two of us, probably on the model of the Greenblatt and Gallagher on the New Historicism (Practicing the New Historicism, Chicago, 2000), on Black Studies. (We’re completing this book, Culture/Politics: The Present(ism) of Black Studies, now, also with Paradigm.)

JW: How are you going to do it?

AR: A couple of substantive essays each, as well as a couple of  joint critical essays. The problem is, it’s so hard to read all the cultural studies stuff, but we started doing it. We’d assign ourselves Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall’s work, but then we’d get to the bar and commiserate that this stuff was tedious, painful and unhelpful.

There’s another powerful tendency we want to challenge, and not just in Black Studies, but in all the precincts associated with identity politics: There’s a strain of putatively left discourse that insists that class or political economy doesn’t exhaust the experience of whatever those constellations of identity are. Okay, but it goes beyond saying that political economy doesn’t exhaust the experience; the real move is to displace political economy. I think that’s what Hall has been doing for some time. With Gilroy, you’ve also got the problem of the neologisms that are undefined, and a generally hermetic narrative style. Beneath a dismissiveness toward grand narratives lies a practice that could hardly be more at odds with the populist sensibility on which the interpretive style associated with Gilroy and the others rests. The author knows where the narrative is going (or at least has gone; often I suspect the authors don’t even know until after the fact), so the only person who doesn’t know is the reader. You follow through his text wondering where the hell it’s going and what the point is, even at the end. He drops neologisms all the way through and never tells us what he means by them, and he always has oblique references to something else. For instance, he simply declares that the real kernel of National Socialism wasn’t race theory, wasn’t a political economic program, wasn’t totalitarianism. Rather, according to Gilroy, its ideological core was the visual in culture. He makes no attempt to argue that huge and preposterous claim.

Although it sounds crazy to me, the argument might still work, but you have to make the argument. This is probably going to sound like Walter Benn Michaels or Stanley Fish, but I want to see a higher quality of argument. I am a scholar after all; we all are. We have relatively soft jobs by the standard of most people in the country, and the one thing we are supposed to do to justify having them is make clear arguments. That may sound a lot more self-righteous than I intend it to but not being careful about making arguments creates problems in the future, for students who think that you don’t have to.

JW:  Maybe that’s one way to look at the distinction between the public and the academic. What do you see as the role of the academy?

AR:  Michael Walzer asked me a few years ago to do an essay for an occasional feature in Dissent called, “Why I’m Still on the Left,” or something like that. I realized I couldn’t answer it in a way that didn’t sound like 1930s clichés. There’s no reason for me to be anyplace else, right? Last time I looked, capitalism was still there, and the ruling class is still the ruling class. And, at the same time, I do try to make the distinction between the academy and scholarship and politics. I think that the university can be a domain of and source for political struggle. If you look at the 1980s and the positional struggles to secure institutional space for mental regimes and institutional programs for Black Studies, Women’s Studies and other programs, that is an important accomplishment. As in the affirmative action debates, it’s often the case that having those programmatic modes ghettoizes the subject matter, but the real choice isn’t between having a ghettoized subject matter versus being woven into the mainstream and orthodox disciplines. In a lot of cases, ghettoized subject matter has been the only way to get to the mainstream disciplines within the university. There’s a strand of practicality there.

What I think is problematic is when people cloud the domains. Fighting for Black Studies isn’t the same thing as fighting to combat the elimination of public housing, and I am morally affronted when people conflate or confound the two. Also, I don’t think that the university is a political front. I don’t expect to impose ideological litmus tests on people who get hired. I serve on the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and am very sensitive to that impulse. I’m also not a sucker; I know the Right is trying to move onto the university now, and they’re making headway and moving on multiple fronts.

I’m feeling more acutely aware of the ways in which the class insularity of the profession makes people stupid about the questions they ask concerning how the world works; in my discipline it really stands out. I think that what’s true of academic disciplines is what my father always said about state legislatures, that the worst one in the country is the one that’s presiding in the state that you’re in at the moment. And I think that, with the possible exception of economics, the worst academic discipline may be the one that you’re in. But economics probably wins hands down.

JW:  To fill in the timeline, you finished at Atlanta in ’81, and you’ve moved around a bit. I know you were at Northwestern for a number of years, and you moved to UIC in the late ’90s and then to the New School, before you landed at the University of Pennsylvania.

AR: I was at Yale from ’81 to ’91, then at Northwestern from ’91 to ’97. From ’97 to ’98, I was at UIC, then I went to the New School in ’98. And I came here, to Penn in ‘04.

JW: People could bill you as a contrarian, but they could also say you’ve become a public intellectual or even an academic star. Not everybody gets jobs at Yale or Penn.

AR: The whole thing is funny. I never took it seriously. In fact, I didn’t even aspire to those kinds of jobs. I went to the APSA convention in ’80 looking for a job. I was working for Mayor Jackson during his last year; I figured having a lame duck mayor and being in an unclassified job was a nice way to finish my dissertation and get the hell out of there. I hated Atlanta anyway. I applied to a lot of places. I ran into a guy I’d known for some time who had been contacted by the Yale search committee and asked for names. And he insisted on forwarding my CV. About a month later I got a call from the chair of the search committee, and he said he had been looking at my CV and wanted a writing sample, so I sent him some stuff. And then he said he was coming to Atlanta to give a talk at Emory and that we should get together for breakfast. He said he didn’t know whether they’d go senior or junior, but it was all sort of in one ear and out the other. I never imagined anything would come of it. So I was bemused when I got short-listed at two places, Yale and Williams. I flew up to Yale and gave my talk on the Monday after the Superbowl, and it was not stressful. I went through the recruitment gauntlet over the course of the day. I did the whole thing, not exactly tongue-in-cheek, but I didn’t feel any stakes, and they made me an offer.

Then I got there, and I could see that the worst position to be in was to want tenure there. It’s one of the perverse things about places like Yale. I knew of a guy (who I won’t name) there who wanted tenure so desperately that it seemed to signal to the senior faculty that he must not have deserved it. But anyway, there was a nice environment in my department at Yale, and there were a bunch of us there who were really congenial.

JW:  A lot of your work recently has been with the Labor Party. I remember when it was first founded to deal with the failure of the Democratic Party and to put issues like universal health care and a living wage on the table in a way that they weren’t. Maybe you could talk about how you got involved with it, how it was founded.

AR:  We had a founding convention in Cleveland in ’96, with more than 1,600 delegates. I had been working mainly with the Chicago chapter of Labor Party Advocates, the group originally formed to build toward creating a Labor Party, and the Illinois state caucus nominated me to be a delegate. Not long after I moved to Chicago, I worked for the Harkin campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, and I actually spent a couple of weeks in the DC office. Through the Harkin campaign, I got involved with the Coalition for New Priorities in Chicago. It became kind of the central clearing-house for organizing against the Contract for America that Republicans brought up in Congress. That work drew me more into the local labor movement. I went to a meeting at the UE Hall—it must have been in December of ’92 or ’93—and met Tony Mazzocchi, who’d been Secretary Treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and had left office with the charge of going around the country to build a labor party; Labor Party Advocates was the group he was organizing mainly within unions to build support for the idea. I was hooked instantly and focused as much as I could on doing whatever I could to build it.

I was a member of the committee that wrote the draft of the party program, and after the convention I was put on the national council. We had a very healthy debate, at the founding convention, over running candidates, and we voted not to run any candidates or to support an election campaign, not to do anything, for two years. Then we adopted at our next convention an electoral strategy that laid out the conditions under which we would consider running candidates. Requirements included things like sufficient support from trade unions, fund-raising plans, a series of analyses of the jurisdiction and of access to resources. The most controversial thing at the convention was whether to adopt electoral fusion, which we did not do. We think it’s ultimately only a gimmick that makes it possible to engage in politics as usual while pretending to do something else. Our concern isn’t to “improve” the Democratic party. We think they’re as culpable as Republicans for the position we’re in. We’ve recently decided to test the electoral waters and are in the midst of a campaign for ballot access for the Labor Party in South Carolina. (The South Carolina Labor Party won a ballot line in 2007.)

JW:  I was struck with the Free Higher Ed Campaign when I first read your pieces in The Progressive and The Nation. I like the clarity of argument. You start with the premise that higher education is a social good; most people would probably be behind that. You use an analogy to the GI Bill, which gave a rate of return of 7 to 1 of invested money. By most reckonings, even of the most conservative economist, that’s pretty incontrovertible.

AR: We’ve been careful; we don’t want to rush to get specific legislation, but I think we’ve crossed an important threshold now. If you’re trying to build a movement, then you need to go where the resources are first and connect with people who have a stake, who are most attuned to the issue. For us, because we’re a labor-based entity, the natural place to go is academic unions and professional organizations. The AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress picked up on it. They endorsed it early, and they’ve been great. They’ve publicized it in almost every issue of Academe. This is another little nuance and example of how politics works. The Yale graduate student unions a couple of years ago had a public hearing, and they asked me to be on the hearing board. It was a couple of labor lawyers and me. Mike Mauer, who is the director of organizing and services for the AAUP, came to it and presented an amicus brief from the AAUP in support of student unionization. We chatted and I found out he is a member of the Labor Party, but he didn’t really know about the higher ed campaign. He picked it up and ran with it, and moved it through the organization. Since then the UMass faculty union picked it up, as has the California Faculty Association, which represents the Cal State faculty and all the higher education unions in New Jersey, led by the Rutgers AAUP, have picked it up. The Professional Staff Congress-CUNY has done the same, and through them the national AFT has taken it up. We hope to move it through the National Education Association as well. A major threshold will be when we get it out to K-12 unions and from there into public schools.

One reason response has been strong in California is the combination of Schwarzenegger’s attack on the public sector and the example set by the California Nurses Association, a Labor Party affiliate, in leading an aggressive response that underscores the importance of public services. You’ve got to understand it’s an all-out class war—the “Academic Bill of Rights” stuff, privatization. The Bush administration is moving almost daily, or at least almost monthly, to try to use Department of Education rules and regulations to tilt the playing field in favor of private for-profit joints.

JW:  Didn’t they just get it to where for-profits can apply for federal education grants?

AR: That’s right, and it’s easier for them to get programs certified now, too. The private, for-profit industry is spending a lot of lobbying money to get Congress to tilt the playing field in their direction. John Boehner, the new GOP majority leader, is the top recipient of their money in Congress. When I was out in Oakland, I stumbled onto an office of the University of Phoenix, and it’s like walking into a real estate office. The intake guy shepherded me right away to the enrollment consultant. He couldn’t distinguish their faculty from students. Anyway, the Free Higher Ed campaign’s gathering momentum, and I think it’s something that can be won—not in a matter of weeks, even a handful of years, but it can be won.

JW: Talking with students, I think this is one of the issues where they see the effect of politics in their own lives, and they’ll sign on, especially with all the loans they now have. High school is free to everyone, and one of the savvy arguments you make is that it applies to everyone. You hear a lot about class warfare, but I never understand how people don’t see privatization as class warfare that they are on the losing side of.

AR:  Every now and then I’ve had somebody ask whether this would apply to rich people’s kids, and I say, Yeah, just like they don’t have to pay tuition for public high school. It speaks strikingly to the triumph of market idolatry, as well as identitarianism, that means-testing seems to some nominal leftist like a populist idea. And so then I think, “Okay, who are the natural detractors for this?” Small nonselective privates, and also I guess the lenders and the rightists who for different reasons want to choke off access to higher education. But when all is said and done, there’s only one argument to make against them, and that’s that everyone who wants to attend college and qualifies for admission should be able to attend without regard to ability to pay.

JW:  I noticed you always say “qualified students.”

AR:  We want to make clear that we do not intend to interfere with institutions’ admissions criteria. Under the current system, access is restricted to qualified students who can pay for it. From time to time, the open admissions issue comes up. Understandably, it’s a big issue in New York and in California. One of the nice things about the California system, which is often used as an illustration, is that it underscores that the problem isn’t having tiers, but that the boundaries between tiers must be porous. And in all my years of reading graduate applications, it’s still an uplifting moment—though it happens less and less frequently—when I read a file of someone who started out in a community college, then transferred to Cal State, then to Berkeley or some other University of California campus.

JW: Especially given all the money that’s already spent on the loan programs, which pay nothing on the principal, except maybe to banks. What do you see coming out of the Labor Party? What hope do you have for politics now?

AR: I think that this is the best shot in my generation or in my lifetime to do something like this. We’ve got a situation is this country where neither of the political parties speaks to the most pressing concerns of the majority of the people. Things are getting worse, and they are going to get still worse, and what’s going to happen is that more and more of these people, the people without a political voice, are going to be ripe for mobilization. There are two different ways that this can go, and the Right has been out organizing at the grassroots for thirty years. They found ways to create a political identity around a particular kind of programmatic agenda to create a durable alliance. They want power, and they’re mobilizing for power.

In the first Gulf War, a bunch of antiwar students organized a teach-in demonstration, and a handful of the Right showed up and demanded the opportunity to speak in the name of equal time or free expression. And these kids are so cowed by the pluralism of American liberalism and fairy tales of right-wing provenance about the self-destructive intemporateness of the Vietnam-era Left, that they actually gave up the microphone and let them talk. So we’ve got a progressive movement that leads either by making empty statements, empty gestural statements, or by trying to find ways to conciliate the Right—”No, no, I support the troops,” “I really believe in capitalism,” and “I know what Jesus really wants.”

So who’s going to win in that fight? People tend to fall back when they get hit, and  I know there’s a natural tendency for it; it seems like that’s our movement’s inertial political tendency. But to give ground I think is just the opposite of what we should do when we’re under attack. We need to fight back, to try to reclaim the ground in political debates, and that’s what we are trying to do. In fact, from a longer view, what we are trying to do is to craft a particular kind of working-class political consciousness that’s anchored in the common experience of work and in the trade union environment, institutionally. But the working class is bigger than that. What we are trying to do is craft a post-Fordist working-class political consciousness, one that does not get stuck on distinctions between the employed and the unemployed, organized and unorganized, that understands that workers’ lives and concerns neither begin nor end in the workplace. (For a sober and solid reflection on the Labor Party experience, see Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, Labor Party Time? Not Yet (2012) available at


Adolph Reed, Jr. is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Race, Politics and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s (Greenwood Press, 1986) and Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and our Retreat from Racial Equality (Westview, 1999) and is author of The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics (Yale Press, 1986); W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism & the Color Line (Oxford University Press, 1997) Stirrings in the Jug: Black American Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Class Notes ( New Press, 2000), a collection of his popular political writing and is a co-author of Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought (Paradigm Publishers, 2010). He has been a columnist in The Progressive and The Village Voice and has written frequently in The Nation. He has served on the board of Public Citizen, Inc. and was a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party and the executive committee of the American Association of University Professors, as well as the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>