Wednesday, January 24, 2018

New Left icons from "the Sixties": Angela Davis and Herbert Marcuse

I try to be careful about getting carried away with 10-year anniversaries of historical events. But they are hard to resist sometimes.

This, of course, the 50th anniversary of 1968, the year that has become emblematic of "the Sixties."

Angela Davis was one of the icons of the Sixties in the US. The reliably staid Britannica has a brief sketch of her career, including:
The daughter of Alabama schoolteachers, Davis studied at home and abroad (1961–67) before becoming a doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego, under the Marxist professor Herbert Marcuse. Because of her political opinions and despite an excellent record as an instructor at the university’s Los Angeles campus, the California Board of Regents in 1970 refused to renew her appointment as lecturer in philosophy. In 1991, however, Davis became a professor in the field of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1995, amid much controversy, she was appointed a presidential chair. She became professor emerita in 2008.
Her initial fame came when she went underground in 1970 to evade conspiracy charges over Jonathan Jackson's escape from a courtroom. " Arrested in New York City in October 1970, she was returned to California to face charges of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy; she was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury."

Her professor Herbert Marcuse also became one of the enduring icons of the Sixties, as well. In a 2004 collection of essays on him, Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader (John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb, eds.) her contirubiton, "Marcuse's Legacies," provides this recollections of the '60s:
Despite my chronic critiques of nostalgia as an inadequate substitute for historical memory, I want to ask you to permit me to engage in what I would like to think of as a bit of productive nostalgia. Because I do long for the days of interminable philosophical discussions about such subjects as the historical agents of revolution, when the participants in such discussions might be students and professors, as well as organic intellectuals who were workers and organizers. Marcuse’s interventions as a public intellectual helped to stimulate such discussions. Did the working class still have a revolutionary potential? What role could students play? I imagine that I am nostalgic today because so few people seem to believe that anybody has any revolutionary potential left. [my emphasis]
It's an interesting glimpse into a vital moment in time in New Left history.

Somewhat ironically, Angela Davis was famous figure of the New Left. But she was also part of the Soviet-line Communist Party, which was an emblematic institution of the "Old Left." She was the party's Vice Presidential candidate in 1980.

A cultural footnote on that campaign slogan, "People Before Profits." The fictional character J.R. Ewing on the series Dallas used it subsequently as his slogan on a political campaign he ran. An ironic slogan since the J.R. character was anything but left-leaning.

Davis also studied in Germany with Marcuse's Frankfurt School colleague, Theodor Adorno:
At this point in my remarks I would like to make some comments about my own development. I have often publicly expressed my gratitude to Herbert Marcuse for teaching me that I did not have to choose between a career as an academic and a political vocation that entailed making interventions around concrete social issues. In Frankfurt, when I was studying with Adorno, he discouraged me from seeking to discover ways of linking my seemingly discrepant interests in philosophy and social activism. After the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966, I felt very much drawn back to this country (the US). During one of my last meetings with him (students were extremely fortunate if we managed to get one meeting over the course of our studies with a professor like Adorno), he suggested that my desire to work directly in the radical movements of that period was akin to a media studies scholar deciding to become a radio technician.
During what we now call the Summer of Love, Davis attended a conference in London at which Marcuse "spoke pointedly about the hippies, identifying the more politically radical formations among them – the Diggers and the Provos – as uniting sexual, moral, and political rebellion, as encouraging new sensibilities, as exhibiting 'a non-aggressive form of life: a demonstration of an aggressive non-aggressiveness which achieves, at least potentially, the demonstration of qualitatively different values, a transvaluation of values'.”

For anyone who has read - or tried to read - some of Marcuse's work, this observation is likely to draw a smile:
Today, it seems inconceivable that crowds of people at a political rally would be willing to enthusiastically applaud a philosopher trained in the classical tradition, who might just as easily evoke Kant and Hegel as Marx, Fanon, or Dutschke. It seems inconceivable that people did not complain when this philosopher compelled them to think deeply – and even philosophically – in order to engage with ideas he proposed in the context of a public rally. The lesson I draw from these reminiscences is that we need to recapture the ability to communicate across divides that are designed to keep people apart. At the same time we need to substitute a nostalgic attitude toward Marcuse with one that takes seriously his work as a philosopher and as a public intellectual.

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