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 www.freehighered.org.
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.