By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
In the mid-1960s, Michael Albert began studying physics at America’s premiere science university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When he discovered MIT was developing weapons the US military was using to destroy Vietnam, he began to question the university and the larger society MIT was molding him to enter. Disgusted with the institutional structure he saw before him – economic exploitation, racism, sexism, militarism – Albert turned from physics to organizing for radical social change, and he never looked back.
Or, more accurately, he never stopped. Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism (Seven Stories Press, 2006) is Albert’s memoir, looking back on forty years of political work.
A more topical than chronological work, Albert’s autobiography doesn’t seek to reconstruct some linear narrative of the events of his life. Such a narrative, where it exists, is secondary to a list of subjects that Albert addresses with regard to his personal experiences. And to be sure, that list of subjects is expansive. Rioting and writing; being elected class president and getting expelled; teaching at colleges and prisons; co-founding South End Press publishing house, Z Magazine, ZNet and Z Media Institute; speaking about the logic of organizing for social change to audiences all over the world; studying economics and developing an alternative model to capitalism that also rejects centrally planned and market-oriented versions of socialism… When it’s all said and done, Remembering Tomorrow is both intellectually and emotionally compelling. Ultimately, like the rest of Albert’s work, it challenges progressives to go far beyond simply complaining about present day injustices.
Few books are published with covers featuring laudatory quotes from the likes of Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) and Noam Chomsky (Manufacturing Consent). While Albert is a colleague of all three progressive luminaries, he is much lesser known to most Americans.
I was first exposed to Albert’s ideas several years ago when I was a twenty year-old campus activist attending one of his talks at Pennsylvania State University in the spring of 2000. Albert made a strong impression. Funny, crotchety and somewhat abrasive, he cut right to the chase as he raised some uncomfortable issues for many in his audience – among them, the self-defeating self-righteousness of too many activists and the focus on individualistic lifestyle choices as opposed to organizing for institutional change. Albert asked how many in the audience had ever spent time at a sports bar or attempted to discuss politics with the people who hung out there. Was the point of being a radical to live your own life differently amid the comfort of like-minded friends? Was it to have the right views? Was it to be able to look at yourself in the mirror? Or, Albert asked, was the point to win meaningful, radical change?
When someone replied defensively, “Most people just don’t care!” Albert pointed out that most people work demoralizing jobs all day long and asked, “Do you really think they’d feel better if they read Chomsky?”
Albert went on to argue that when leftists endlessly criticize dominant social arrangements without ever making a compelling argument that a better world is possible, leftists may as well be asking people to attend demonstrations against old age, mortality or natural disasters. Why waste time making yourself depressed thinking about awful things you could never possibly change?
Albert’s point was not to dismiss Noam Chomsky’s work. Indeed, Chomsky and Albert are close friends. Chomsky was one of Albert’s teachers at MIT, and Albert has been Chomsky’s editor for decades. In Remembering Tomorrow, Albert describes the experience of knowing Chomsky as being “a bit like knowing Newton,” and devotes a special section of the book to expressing his respect and admiration for the man. Those familiar with Chomsky’s work will recognize that Albert shares with him a commitment to social justice that is as unpretentious as it is unwavering. But unlike Chomsky, whose thrust has been exposing the hypocrisy of elite decision-makers and their apologist intellectuals, Albert has devoted most of his political life to answering a question frequently posed to social critics: “What’s your alternative?” Remembering Tomorrow introduces some of Albert’s most persuasive answers.
Even as a young activist, when Albert examined the leading political ideology of 1960s activism, Marxist-Leninism, he found it severely lacking. Not only did he feel the ideology wrongly elevated economic inequality above all other forms of oppression and ignored cultural diversity, he eventually concluded that Marxist-Leninism “got the economy wrong too” – most importantly by overlooking the importance of a third class situated between workers and owners. For Albert, this “coordinator class” was the group that came to rule over working people in the former Soviet Union and other “socialist” countries, regardless of whether those countries’ systems employed central planning or markets to distribute goods and services.
So if neither capitalism nor “socialism” was consistent with solidarity and classlessness, what was?
Like Chomsky, Albert gravitated to the libertarian socialist traditions of anarcho-syndicalism and council communism, as well as left-Marxist opponents of Bolshevism, such as Rosa Luxembourg and Anton Pannekoek. With these ideas he combined New Left analyses of racism and sexism, and a strong focus on participatory democracy. While studying economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the 1980s within the radical economics department led by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Albert and his friend Robin Hahnel began an intellectual journey that, the better part of a decade later, produced the alternative to both capitalist and coordinator class rule called “participatory economics” or “parecon” for short.
While participatory economics is the subject of several books by Albert and Hahnel, such as Looking Forward, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics, and ParEcon: Life After Capitalism (the latter tide having been translated into seventeen languages), Albert’s memoir merely introduces this intriguing model. The best place to begin exploring parecon is the subsection of ZNet found at http://www.zmag.org/parcconfindexnew.htm.
Although Albert’s main intellectual focus has been economics, he continues to argue that other domains of human life are equally important. As a result, Remembering Tomorrow includes provocative discussions of gender, race, romantic relationships, education, disability drugs, cultural diversity, music, democratic decision making, prospects and limitations of electoral politics, and more – often applied to his encounters with social movements in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, India, Turkey, Poland and, of course, the U.S.
Remembering Tomorrow also provides readers with some fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses of some of Albert’s fellow activists, including Leslie Cagan, David Dellinger, Daniel Ellsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Lydia Sargent, and Danny Schechter, as well as Chomsky, Ehrenreich, and Hahnel.
The creation of South End Press publishing house is covered, along with Z Magazine and ZNet, in addition to several markedly less successful projects.
As writer, editor, publisher, fundraiser, institution-builder. activist, and analyst, Albert presents a critique of mainstream media peppered with plenty of first-hand anecdotes, chronicling the difficulties faced by alternative media in its book, magazine and on-line forms.
Ultimately, Remembering Tomorrow is a book about a fascinating life spent thinking, acting, organizing, writing, and simply living as a remarkably dedicated radical – one who came of age during the tumult of the sixties, but who never relinquished his passion for social change to the nostalgia of by-gone glory days. Thus it is fitting that, despite the relevance of this book to progressives of any age, Albert ends with an appeal to members of his own generation.
Near the end of his book, he writes, “When we examined the dead-end lives of the poor – however courageously they made the best of it – or the hypocritical lives of the rich – however crassly they celebrated it – only resistance made sense. We didn’t sacrifice to be leftist. We became leftist to get where we wanted to go.”
“Regarding these basic choices,” concludes Albert, “I can’t see how 2006 is different from 1968.”
[Editor’s note, 1/7/13 – Here’s an excellent talk Michael Albert gave while on tour promoting his book in 2007.]