by Henry Boehm
What kind of political environment did you grow up in? Were you influenced by family, friends, or teachers?
“I was not what they called a red diaper baby or a pink diaper baby. My parents were good liberals. My dad made us listen to Fred Darwin, a liberal commentator, every night at dinner, stuff like that. So politics was a topic of conversation. I had a high school teacher—Mr. Sobel—who taught history and then for seniors a course called ‘Problems of American Democracy,’ and he had a big effect on me. Then I went off to Cornell and was in the School of Labor Relations, which was not where I got my interest in Marx and labor stuff. That place was all about labor negotiations. But in my junior year the anti-war movement hit. I went ‘65 to ‘69, so the war was on when I arrived, but by ‘67 it really ramped up. I started taking courses in Asian politics and Chinese politics from George Kahin and John Lewis, who had jointly written the premier critical study of the Vietnam War. It was what we used to go home and persuade our parents and anybody that would listen that the war was really bad. So I got involved in the anti-war movement pretty heavily, and decided that Asian studies and critical scholarship on China was what I wanted to do.
“I really got excited by China, partly because of the anti-war stuff, and partly because the Cultural Revolution was on in China. It was an extraordinary movement in which Mao Zedong mobilized and encouraged workers and students to rise up against the government. So I’m learning about this while it’s happening, and I thought: Here we are in the U.S. chanting “LBJ! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” whereas in China the top guy is encouraging students to rise up. And I said “I want to live there.” Of course, I was naive, and the Cultural Revolution was a lot more complicated, but it piqued my interest.
“Anyway, I studied Chinese politics at the University of Chicago. I continued to be involved in the anti-war movement among graduate students and young professors in an organization called the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. We specialized in doing research and criticism about the involvement of the Asian studies profession in the war; the ways in which some of the scholars were working for the CIA and helping the war effort. We published a journal called Critical Asian Studies which is still going, and sponsored trips to China very early before anyone else could go. This work was not loved by all our professors, as you can imagine. I was trying to take a sympathetically critical view of China—to maintain a critical posture and to not be hostile towards what you’re studying, in contrast to the Cold War approach that was so much about ‘studying the enemy.’ I had one professor on my dissertation committee who wrote a reference letter about my politics that blackballed me. That torpedoed my chances to get a job. Even though my record and the rest of my recommendations were great, the only place that ever gave me an interview was Oberlin.
“I didn’t find out about being blackballed until I was here for five years. When I did, I went to George Lanyi, the chair of what was then called the Government Department. He taught classes in comparative communism, which was anti-communist, and I taught courses in comparative socialism, which was critical but more sympathetic. I said ‘George, I just found out about this blackball. How could you hire me? Especially you, because we don’t agree on anything!’ I can still hear him saying: ‘Well, you know, when we see this sort of thing we pay no attention whatsoever.’ So they were true liberals at Oberlin, not in the sense of being on the left but rather of respecting free debate. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have gotten a job. So that’s that backstory. And I’ll always be very grateful to Oberlin College. You know I have my criticisms of what’s going on on-campus nowadays, but those old values of Oberlin College are still very important to me—and in fact they are the reason for my worries about the current direction of the college.”
How would you assess the successes and failures of the student movements of the ‘60s?
“I think we failed. We thought we were the beginning of something: a new world, an Age of Aquarius. We were critics of social life that had been created during the post-war boom, even as we benefited tremendously from it. We were big critics of everybody living in the same suburban subdivision, the same house, the same boring, empty life. People like Marcuse really spoke to us. One of the famous phrases from Hegel is ‘the owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk,’ which means you can only know something when it’s being completed historically. And in the fullness of time, I realized that it wasn’t the beginning of anything; it was the end of something. And it really was the end of Fordism: the post-war consumerist, state-regulated, welfarist, unionized economy.
“The counterculture was kind of libertarian: ‘I want my freedom to do whatever I want. I want my freedom to drop out and go live in the forest, take drugs, and not get one of your stupid, middle-class, corporate jobs, and just be stoned all the time and leave me alone and don’t tell me what to do.’ Which is not a particularly left political program. If you go back and read a lot of the stuff—the famous Port Huron Statement that was the founding document of SDS—it’s quite libertarian, seeking freedom from the government. And you could see why, because the government was fighting the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement happened, and the government was racist and militarist. So it was really like a dialectical aufhebung. We were resisting it, but in ways that were totally stamped by it. But I think it was mainly a failure. That’s because we were kids and didn’t really know what we were doing. Moreover, the backlash against what the ‘60s were, which drove the neoliberalism of the ‘70s and beyond.
“But mainly that was caused by capital getting fed up with post-war economic policy, which included high tax rates that produced a much more equal distribution of income from the New Deal up until 1970. The top income tax rate was 90%. It also involved big unions that could force capital to the table. So capital finally undertook an organized political counter-attack, including attacking unions. That actually started here in Oberlin, with Reagan’s defeat of the air traffic controllers’ strike, and it was a worldwide thing. This also happened in England, in France, and beyond. French students had May ‘68, where they tore down the place, and in China radical students were lambasting the party. There was something with the zeitgeist, in the air. And they sort of fed off each other. I’ve never figured out whether all these movements had some kind of common root. But anyway, it all went bad. My whole life I haven’t had a single presidential candidate I could get excited about except for Eldridge Cleaver in 1968 and Bernie Sanders in 2020, or a party I could join and support. It’s just been hell politically since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. So we failed, but I don’t blame us too much since the reasons were much bigger than backlash against the 1960s movements.”
You’ve mentioned your involvement with the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981. What has been your experience with labor movements in your time at Oberlin?
“I encouraged the air traffic controllers. I thought they couldn’t lose. But Reagan and his people figured out a way to keep the planes flying and really squashed those guys. They thought they were highly skilled workers who were indispensable, couldn’t be replaced, and they would win, but Reagan and his people were very tough-minded. A similar thing happened in England. Thatcher got elected and she ruthlessly crushed the much more powerful, experienced, organized miners’ union. They staged a two-year strike but she also was tough as nails and eventually beat them. And that was a big shock.
“So anyway, for my role in this, it wasn’t very much. I’m mainly a scholar of China. I wasn’t doing Marx stuff much. My politics were about anti-imperialism and foreign policy, not labor politics or Marxism. When I studied China, Marxism wasn’t a tool I needed to figure out what was going on in China. But then, around 1990, I started to think that maybe Marx could help me understand neoliberalism. After all, Marx was a student of capitalism, not socialism. So, in 1990 I started to get interested in it, and began to offer Marxian Theory (POLT 239). I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Which book that you’ve written are you the most proud of?
“My first one was about the Cultural Revolution, entitled Micropolitics in Contemporary China. I developed my own database for explaining why different people participated in the Cultural Revolution in different ways. But it really proved out some important arguments about why people joined the left-wing rather than the right-wing based mainly on their class background rather than their education, gender, age, or connections.
“Tied with that is a book I published in 1997 called Tethered Deer, which was the first book to analyze middle-level government in China. At that time, a lot of people in the China field were studying what the top leadership was—like Kremlinology, but for China. And then a lot of others of us were studying grassroots politics, at the very bottom, which is a lot of what I did too. But this was the first book in the field that looked at county government. And I’m very proud of it because it was also one of the first books by an American that was based upon field research in China. The first book was written on the basis of interviews we did in Hong Kong because we couldn’t go to China at the time. But for this one we actually went to China in 1978 and continued going. We made several trips over two decades. It took that long because we didn’t really understand anything after the structural reforms started in 1978—the whole game changed and we really had to re-educate ourselves. So I’d say those two. You asked for one, but you got two.”
What’s your favorite political joke?
“I’ll give you a short one. George Bush is campaigning in a senior home and he’s going around and shaking hands. He starts chatting with one resident, who seems unfazed at talking with the President. Finally Bush says ‘Do you know who I am?’ And the person says ‘No. But if you ask at the front desk they’ll tell you.’”
What advice do you have for the student activists of today?
“Get active! My watchworks are Gramsci’s great maxim that you heard me say in class: ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ So, even though you know things are bad and look hopeless, don’t ever, ever give up.”