Public Thinker: Adolph Reed Jr. on Organizing, Race, and Bernie Sanders

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Growing up in a family of politically engaged black intellectuals in the ...

Growing up in a family of politically engaged black intellectuals in the segregated South, Adolph Reed Jr. came to a career that combines political organizing and academic reflection almost as if “inheriting the family business.” Retiring this year from his post as professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, Reed had previously taught at the New School for Social Research, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, Yale, Clark College in Atlanta, and Howard University.

Reed will perhaps be best known to Public Books readers for his influential and often searingly critical commentary on race in American life, black political thought, and American politics, as well as for his many books, including W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, Stirrings in the Jug, Class Notes, and Renewing Black Intellectual History. But he also has a long history of deep involvement in left politics, including voting rights and anti-war organizing, city government, the labor movement, and, most recently, the Campaign for Free Public Higher Education and Bernie Sanders’s presidential bids.

In this interview, Reed speaks with Jessica Blatt about his political formation, his current book project on the American left since World War II, and how a lifetime of political organizing has shaped—and been shaped by—his intellectual work.

Jessica Blatt (JB): The theme of this series is intellectuals and the ways they engage with the public. Can you talk a bit about how you see your intellectual work in relation to your public, political work?


Adolph Reed Jr. (AR): You know, I’m skeptical of the “public intellectual” idea; it took the late Joe Wood more than two years to talk me into writing the notorious Village Voice essay that examined the phenomenon.1

I’ve got a pretty keen sense of the difference between academic, scholarly, and intellectual work and political work. And they are not the same thing. But to me they are organically connected. The most important reading of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach is the epistemological one. That’s how you know. It’s not just a moral condemnation.

I only got politically engaged in a public way when I was in college. And it was largely a function of when and where I went to college. But it’s also because my family was political. My mother had Catholic Worker–style left-liberal leanings; my father was basically a red, a product of that black Popular Front era. So political engagement was inheriting the family business, in a way.

I was at UNC–Chapel Hill in the late 1960s, where there was a powerful living tradition of social-movement activism. Jesse Helms routinely referred to the place as “Communist Hill.” (Helms came to prominence as a reactionary executive at the state’s biggest ABC affiliate, where he broadcast a venomous five-minute editorial twice a day. He had a way of saying “liberal” that made it sound like “pedophile.”) There were direct links to the civil rights demonstrations in town and the big fight over a law the state legislature passed in the early ’60s prohibiting subversives from speaking on public campuses. (That period was recently covered nicely in a UNC library exhibit called I Raised My Hand to Volunteer, by the way.)

Many of the key activists in those fights were still around the Chapel Hill–Durham area when I attended university there, and they were genuinely inspirational. The anti-war movement was just cranking into high gear; there were active, staffed chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), a group related to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and mainly, but not exclusively, targeting white students and poor people. The groups operated pretty much jointly.

At Carolina, I got started by volunteering in a voter registration drive, in 1966, centered on the poor black neighborhoods in Chapel Hill and adjacent Carrboro, which was primarily white. Carrboro was interesting. When SDS sponsored a summer canvass against the war, we found substantial pockets of working-class reds who’d been living basically underground there since the period of intense witch-hunting. They were as happy to encounter anti-imperialist students as the SDS people were to find them.

In any event, it wasn’t possible to elect actually desirable candidates in those areas, so the voting-rights strategy was to try to oust the incumbent to reduce segregationists’ power in Congress under the old seniority system. I know this sounds like a cliché, but, although I’d certainly seen a lot of poverty and really poor people in my life, I’d never been up close and personal with such dispossession—open sewage, flies the size of bumblebees, sores on kids, families living in what were basically sharecropper shacks. It was bracing and enraging. I went home and thought that, rational as that electoral approach was, it was so far removed from anything that could begin to make those people’s lives better.

Another step along the way was that I volunteered as a tutor for a Youth Educational Services (YES) program that was administered on campus through the YMCA-YWCA. It may seem curious, but the campus Y was a principal conduit for bringing students into activist and left politics. It was run by a wonderful older woman named Anne Queen, from up in the mountains, who attended Berea College after a decade as a mill worker. She earned a degree from the Yale Divinity School and was linked to the American Friends Service Committee before she came to Chapel Hill, in the mid-1950s. Having had a YES connection was not uncommon among my cohort of politically engaged students in the state, black and white and from different campuses.

My tutee was a middle-school kid whose father was a handyman and whose mother worked on the cafeteria line on campus. His dream was to be an astronaut. It enraged me because it was clear that there was no way in hell this imaginative kid would ever come within light-years of any such dream. Three years later, when the cafeteria workers were making strike plans, I saw him working on the line, next to his mother.


Black Intellectuals and White Audiences

By Matthew Clair

During the same period, I joined an ad hoc group that protested the local Community Action Program’s decision to focus on a neighborhood beautification campaign as the vehicle for meeting its War on Poverty mission. The idea, absurdly enough, was that poor people were demoralized by their unattractive living conditions and what they needed was more self-esteem. I didn’t yet realize that, despite the discourse of community mobilization, the side that had won the struggle over defining federal anti-poverty efforts assumed that poverty stemmed most consequentially from poor people themselves.

In that same year, a group of insurgent students organized a takeover of the campus NAACP chapter, which we rechristened in keeping with our new Black Power sensibilities as the Black Student Movement. Black Power insurgencies were spreading across college campuses in the state, especially at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and some of us at Carolina worked with those students and their two statewide groups, for example, in breaking up a “Wallace for President” rally in Durham County and protesting Hubert Humphrey’s visit to Raleigh.

Of course, all through this time, the anti-war movement was growing and becoming more militant. And the state AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), as well as other unions, drew on students for strike support, participation in organizing drives, and other, ancillary work. It was a pretty heady time and also a historical moment that gave us lots of opportunities to learn how to organize effectively.

I left college for several years after the 1969 cafeteria workers’ strike. A half-dozen of us were arrested and convicted for strike-support activities, under a bizarre state “felonious misdemeanor” statute. The terms of our probation included an injunction against engaging in any disruptive activity on the campus of any public educational institution for two years. So, I left Chapel Hill to be part of a group that set up a GI-organizing project at Fort Bragg.

We had a coffeehouse downtown and a black cultural center near Fayetteville State University, the local HBCU. We also worked with the Fayetteville Area Poor People’s Organization on civil, housing, and welfare rights. At its peak the group had 2,200 dues-paying members. I spent three years on that work, eventually on staff with the Foundation for Community Development (FCD), which funded those poor people’s organizations around the state. Getting a staff job at FCD in those years was pretty validating for young radicals because the most serious Black Power radicals and left organizers in the state worked for FCD.

I always figured at some point I would go to graduate school, because not only was my family political, they were academics. My father was a political science professor and my mother was also a college instructor; so, I guess that’s another way I inherited the family business. I went back in ’72, partly—well, mainly—because I could sense what smelled like defeat to me. The kind of work we were doing had been outflanked by bourgeois politicians and community development agencies.

I chose graduate school thinking that part of the deal was to study and read and talk in concert with like-minded others to figure out how we lost and what to do next. That was the ethos of the program that I was in. The Atlanta University political science department got funding from the Ford Foundation to create a black-oriented doctoral program in political science.2 AU (now Clark Atlanta) was at that time the only black all-graduate institution in the United States, and its faculty had included luminaries like Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, and others. I’ve been just working in the academy ever since then.

I don’t think I’ve ever described myself as an activist. People who know me know that when I find something that I think has the potential to help generate a transformative intervention, I’ll focus every minute of every day on what’s necessary to try to move it a few inches down the road. I’ve never been skittish about protracted struggle, because that’s the only way we ever win anything that genuinely advances egalitarian interests. But I’ve never been one to be “active” for the sake of being active.

And I also know that good, serious political work is going to be informed by good, serious, rigorous intellectual work. Look, a big part of political agitation is trying to call something into existence by insisting that it already exists. But one of the problems with the sort of Protestant leftism that we have now is that people don’t seem capable of thinking clearly about the turds that they polish for public consumption. We all do it, because that’s what politics is—but there’s always supposed to be some place, some room, some version of Ralph Ellison’s Little Man at Chehaw Station, where you know that you have got to leave the polished turds outside the room and engage in seriously self-critical analysis. And I think, perhaps this is ironic, that maybe one of the effects of the decline of a disciplined, party-based left is that we don’t have many of those rooms anymore.


American Perceptions of Class

By Matt Wray

JB: Can you talk a bit about your more recent political work, with the Labor Party and the Sanders campaign, for example?


AR: I worked in the Harkin campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1992. I knew what Clinton was; even though “neoliberal” hadn’t quite taken on the current meanings and connotations yet, I knew that’s what he embodied. Not long after the election, I was looking for some outlet to challenge Clintonism. My old friend and comrade Gordon Lafer told me that Tony Mazzocchi, a longtime official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers and a real hero on the labor left, had started a group called Labor Party Advocates and was going around the country testing the waters to determine what kind of interest there was in pursuing an independent party anchored in the labor movement. I attended a meeting, met Tony, gave him a ride to the airport, talking all the way, and that was it—it was what I did before anything and everything else until we put the Labor Party to sleep, in 2007.3

My involvement in the Sanders campaign was somewhat similar. As late as the summer of 2015, I was saying to people, “Look, I don’t care about any of this, just tell me when it’s time to go vote for Hillary and I’ll do it.” But by midsummer, it began to seem that Sanders would run a campaign that could help to aggregate political forces capable of altering the terms of debate. I got involved in the campaign mainly under the auspices of Labor for Bernie. I did some campaign work in Detroit and Santa Barbara, campus stuff at Stony Brook and Yale—the latter with Cornel West. West and I did similar campus gigs together in a number of places, especially South Carolina. The character of my work is generally whatever it’s determined I might be useful doing. I’m basically an apparatchik.

A while back, Dissent approached me about doing an essay on the theme “Why I’m Still on the Left.” I agreed, but when I sat down to try to write something, I had nothing to say. I could say, “Where else would I be?” Or, “Capitalism’s still here, right?” So, I don’t know. To me, it’s just what I do.

People tend to think that organizing is something that involves a bullhorn. But a lot of it is just forming relationships with people and building standing with them. How the intellectual work connects is that part of what you are trying to do is generate accounts about what’s fucked up—how what the normal people you talk to are concerned about can be connected to a larger political critique and program in ways that are commonsensical to them.

This is why some of the “more radical than thou” behavior on the left is dangerous. I was at a union meeting in New Orleans recently where a young woman quite respectfully asked a question that was really a call-out about why the labor movement wasn’t doing more to support the national prison strike and deal with racism in the criminal justice system. It may be kind of shitty, but when stuff like that happens, I take it as an opportunity. Some of the nonpolitical, ordinary people at that meeting might think the stuff we are saying makes sense. But they might also be worried that it’s “radical.” So, God gives me people like her. Because she gave me the opportunity to respond by reframing the issue in ways that make it more clearly an expression of concerns that are much broader among working people. Cops beat up on people and kill them and put them in jail—and that’s a problem.

It’s about slowly building associations with people. And the only way to do it is through direct interaction and engagement in common projects that are rooted in their work and concerns. A lot of it is just showing up. There’s no big payoff to it, there’s no punch line moment. No trophy. No seizing state power.


JB: So far …


AR: Well, but you’re not going to seize state power unless you do it.

JB: Speaking of seizing state power, these feel like pretty desperate times for many of us. At the same time, you clearly thought and think the Sanders campaigns worth pursuing. And many people have noted that suddenly the word “socialist” is no longer just a slur in mainstream American politics. What do you think are potential openings for actually realizing real gains? And what are the forces that might get us there, if any exist?


AR: That’s the big question. I’ll start with the negative. During Occupy, what you heard all the time was, “People are talking about inequality.” And my response was, “Well, who’s talking about it that wasn’t talking about it before? You were talking about it; your friends were talking about it.” The response was: the New York Times. Well, okay, but three months ago the Times was talking about Kim Kardashian’s marriage to the basketball player.

So, you have got to be careful about that. And I admit that one of the reasons I was skeptical about Occupy is that I had been watching the Arab Spring coverage the year before and thinking, “What’s going on here?” And it all seemed like a 1942 John Garfield film about revolution: people go out in the street and the regime falls, and everything is better. I feel the same way about the socialism thing.

Another story: In ’96, right after the Labor Party founding convention, I gave a presentation to a class at Chabot College in California on this idea we had, which was a 28th amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing a right to a job and a living wage, which we defined then as $10 per hour, indexed to inflation. So, I gave the presentation, and there was one young woman at the back of the room who was shooting daggers at me from her eyes the whole time. And when it was over, she said, “Well, my mother has a small business and if she had to pay people $10/hour she wouldn’t have her business.” And I said, “Look, I don’t want to play the dozens on you, and I said this wasn’t for everybody. But if your dream depends on paying somebody less than enough to live on, maybe you should have another dream.”

To his credit, one of the two black guys in the class just sat there the whole time saying, “I don’t know what’s the matter with you people—$10 is not that much money.” But the other one, who happened to be the campus debating champion, says to me, “Well, my problem with this is that you won’t call it socialism.” And I think of that every time I hear that people are saying “socialism” again. He said, “I might even agree with it, but it just feels to me like you’re not being honest because you are not calling it socialism.” So, I said to him, “Look, socialism is a very amorphous term at this point. Most people have no idea what it means. If you want to call it socialism, you can call it socialism. But we are talking about two really simple proposals here: that everyone who wants and is able to have a job should have a job, and everyone who has a job should have enough to live on.” And I told him, you can call it socialism if you want, you can call it left Keynesianism, you can call it capitalism with a human face. You can call it Teddy Pendergrass, if you want to.”

I think there’s a cautionary tale there, too, also for the precocious young people in DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) and in Jacobin magazine and the left in Brooklyn and elsewhere. I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of debate about what a socialist agenda ought to look like. If DSA was to develop into a disciplined political organization, then those debates would make sense internally. But they can become an end in themselves.

At the same time, DSA has lots of people who are politically serious, trying to build around “Medicare for All.” That’s the thing we ought to be happy about. That’s the way.

A lot of people who voted for Trump thought they were doing something else when they were doing it. That’s what I take to be what was going on with the around 7–9 million Trump voters who had previously voted for Sanders and/or Obama at least once. And I understand why the Clintonites are so committed to denying that fact—and to attacking anybody who makes that point as abetting racism. To that point, it is kind of interesting to me to see how open the alliance between the identitarian and the corporate wings of the Democratic Party are about their shared commitment to defeating the left. That’s a plus, too, because sometimes it’s in these critical moments that people show you where they are coming from.

It’s dangerous as hell, this moment. The big challenge for us now, and the big opportunity, is that we have issues, public support, and sentiment that we haven’t had before to help us try to build the broad and deep movement that we need.


Populism, Right and Left

By Matt Wilde

JB: In what I’ve read of your current book project, on the left in the United States, the demise of a serious left is partly the result of pragmatic compromises in the face of real assaults from the right. But you also place some of the blame at the feet of the social sciences, which produced a set of exceptionalist, pluralist visions of US politics that obscured or, in some cases, provided a justification for the class dynamics of American political life. Can you talk a little bit about that history?


AR: I was never naive about that, because my father was a political scientist and a red; I grew up with him cursing [social scientists] around the house. In fact, the philosopher Sidney Hook was a professor of his at New York University and they had a correspondence back and forth, attacking each other until Hook died, I think. The letters were lost in a move someplace, probably.

I was an undergraduate in the triumphalist moments of behavioralism and also during the insurgencies of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The contradictions couldn’t have been clearer. I went to graduate school in that environment and had been conscious of the role that social science had played propping up empire all along.

Having said all that, I was still surprised, once I started digging around in other areas for my current book, at the extent to which the center of gravity of each of the social sciences was committed to making class and political economy invisible after WWII. Oscar Handlin wasn’t a social scientist—he was a related kind of putz—but he introduced his ethnohistory of American upward mobility in 1949. He spun out a just-so story about American economic mobility that was all about groups and their values. You wouldn’t know the New Deal had even happened, although it wasn’t even a memory—it was still everyday life.

So, there was a conscious denial, basically, up through the ’80s. During the first decade or two after World War II, historians and social scientists put on a full-court press to eliminate political economy and class struggle from descriptions and explanations of contemporary American life.

I also didn’t have a clear enough sense before working on this book of how much elite support for the collective-bargaining system was tied up with the Cold War objective of showing the rest of the world that we have harmonious class relations in America. If I’d ever taken myself more seriously as a social scientist, I’d be wanting to shower with a Brillo pad right about now. But since I didn’t, I’m just surprised.

As I’ve said time and again, people talk about how European-style left politics couldn’t take hold here because of American culture and institutions, but that is bullshit.

There is a much simpler explanation, which is that at the end of WWII the capitalist classes in western and central Europe were weakened by the war and discredited by their association with fascism. And the American capitalist class had rehabilitated itself, ironically, during the war and came out loaded for bear and stronger than ever and went right after us, basically. All that disappears in the standard accounts.

So, all this crap of three generations of political scientists talking about the constraints of our institutions and winner-take-all politics and blah, blah. Yes. The rules will always make it easier for those in power to hold power. That’s the whole point of the damn rules, right?  Therefore, the rules aren’t the problem for us.


Neoliberalism Misunderstood

By Johanna Bockman

JB: Your book traces the emergence and hegemony of managerial liberalism. I’ve written on related themes, too, and when I was doing so, that kind of technocratic, antidemocratic liberalism seemed like the enemy. Now, all of a sudden, we have Nazis. It’s like Lothrop Stoddard is writing our immigration policies, for example. I’m wondering what you make of this eruption of rank illiberalism.


AR: I recently read, at [CUNY’s] Jim Oakes’s suggestion, Benjamin Hett’s new book on the decline of Weimar.4 It’s a great book. It’s great on its own terms, but it’s really helpful for interpreting the present.


JB: That’s an alarming direction you’re going!


AR: I guess I shouldn’t have deadpanned that. But, yes, it is really helpful for understanding contemporary American politics. Because Weimar was successful. And that was the problem. The right wing, the industrialists, hated the mandatory wage arbitration and the social state, and the military wanted more money because they wanted to rearm. Protestant rural burghers and farmers felt squeezed by the German equivalent of the coastal elites and whatnot, and they fed, not only Hitler, but a phalanx of ultranationalist, right-wing parties. Their tragic mistake was that they thought that Hitler was just a clown they could control. Hindenburg called Hitler “the Bohemian corporal,” and he wouldn’t meet with him.

The best thing we’ve got going for us about Trump is that he’s a narcissist with no organization. Thank God for small favors. But we don’t have much, either. One problem is that managerial liberalism has shifted us away from a notion of racial equality as part of, or linked to, a left program of egalitarian redistribution and instead has moved toward a notion of racial equality that is an alternative to an egalitarian program of redistribution. I’m trying to figure out how that happened.

Each of the broad, identity-defined constituencies obviously has the same internal class dynamics as the workplace does. But to the extent that oppression has come to displace exploitation as a thing to be concerned about, the concerns of the vast majorities of people who are lumped into those populations get submerged into the voices of the elite strata.

This feels like a ham-fisted way to put this, but the agendas of the groups get redefined through the elite, pluralist conversion process, into a handful issues that are largely symbolic, at least for the rank-and-file black woman who is going to be just as concerned as anyone else about trying to make the rent or have transportation or health care. But within the conversion machine of Clintonism, those concerns have become redefined not only as issues not pertinent to those groups as groups, but as somehow antithetical to their interests. The Sanders campaign brought that to the surface pretty clearly, when Hillary made that comment about breaking up the big banks.

But now, since the 2016 election, it seems like they have taken it even farther than that, to the point where any appeal to concern about egalitarian economic redistribution is by definition aiding and abetting white-supremacist, working-class Trump supporters. I’m dumbfounded by it. And, at the same time, it makes perfect sense. In one sense, I’m like, let’s get it out there, call a dog by his right name and fight it out on those terms.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker? The Current Crisis of the Black Intellectual,” Village Voice, April 11, 1995.
  2. See Adolph Reed Jr., “Reflections on Atlanta University Political Science,” National Political Science Review, no. 9 (2003).
  3. A brief history of the Labor Party can be found here.
  4. Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic (Henry Holt, 2018).
Featured image: Adolf Reed Jr. (2019). Photograph by Eric Sucar / University of Pennsylvania