Remembering Robert Weil: Intellectual and Political Activist

Robert Emil Weil Obituary

Robert Weil, 1940-2014

by Swapna Banerjee-Guha

Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of Market Socialism

Robert Weil, author of the powerful critique of Deng Xiaoping’s “reforms” entitled Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of Market Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996, republished in India by Cornerstone Publications, Kharagpur), quietly passed away in California on 12 March 2014.  Almost a year after, on 15 February 2015 a memorial meeting was held in Santa Cruz, California at the Resource Center for Nonviolence where his family, friends, teachers and long-time comrades from near and far came together to share their memories.  Robert meant a lot to them and for many others across the globe, a true friend, a dear comrade whose political integrity, a rare characteristic in the current milieu, they value immensely, a committed activist and intellectual whose life they considered worthy on all counts particularly while imagining a better world.  Starting off as a student-activist at Harvard University in the late 1950s, right till his last days Robert Weil remained involved in solidarity work with oppressed people around the world.  Even in the face of indifferent health, he did not think twice to join such efforts.  His democratic values in pursuing left politics will remain an example to many for years to come.

Initiation into Activism

Robert Weil was born in 1940 in Evansville, Indiana.  His father’s family owned a printing company and his mother was an author of children’s books.  He joined Harvard University as an undergraduate student in the late 1950s and graduated in 1961, majoring in Fine Arts and History with a concentration in Asian Studies.  In his student days at Harvard, Robert was inducted into political activism and co-founded TOCSIN, one of the foremost peace and nuclear disarmament organisations of the United States and became its first chairperson.  Following graduation he pursued his interest in Asian studies and completed the graduate study course at the International Christian University, Tokyo during 1961-62.  During 1962-64, Robert was at Columbia University, completing his Masters in Chinese and Japanese Studies.  This was the time when the civil rights movement raged in the American South and Robert got inspired to leave the academic space and join the struggle.

From 1963 to 1965, as a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Atlanta and Mississippi, Robert helped set up the information office for the Mississippi Summer Project (Freedom Summer), which recruited college students from across the country to travel to Mississippi in order to make people aware of conditions at the national level, register voters, build community centres and teach at “freedom schools.”  When the civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were abducted and murdered, Robert worked in SNCC’s Atlanta office to spread the word throughout the country about their disappearance and press for a federal investigation.  Jeremiah Horrigan, a newspaper reporter from New Paltz, recalls Robert’s meaningful presence at the beginning of the civil rights struggle in 1963 and as a staff member of the nascent student nonviolent community, how he helped bring the world’s attention to the brutality faced by blacks — farm workers and fellow students in Mississippi (jhorrigan@th-record.com, 29 March 2014).

Robert was also a lead organiser of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, which organised a strike of several hundred cotton plantation workers in the Delta.  During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he co-founded the Rural Workers’ Organising Committee that took a leading role in getting together the region’s beef and poultry workers to fight for an improvement in their working conditions.  During this time, he also co-founded the College/Community Coalition against Apartheid and Racism.

Activist-Intellectual

After returning North, Robert came to live in New York City and New Jersey and took up odd factory jobs.  In 1984, he and his wife Barbara Leon, a poet and long-time comrade, joined the Harvest Brigade in Nicaragua and worked in the cotton fields with the local fieldworkers at Punta Ñata as a part of a solidarity programme with the Sandinista government and people against the Contra war.  On return they started the Nicaragua Support Project in their locality and became area organisers of the harvest brigades.  Shortly afterwards Robert joined the Casa Nicaragüense de Español in New York City for recruiting students to attend Spanish language schools in Nicaragua for gaining knowledge of the local conditions.  Barbara Leon recalls how he was always willing to do the gritty, non-glamorous work related to political struggles, stay up all hours of the night at New Paltz in the pre-computer times, putting together newsletters for the Nicaragua Support Project — typing articles in columns, cutting the columns with scissors (with no copy-paste technology facility), and pasting them on papers.  Barbara recalls how at times his fellow comrades got exasperated by his meticulousness in making the columns straight.  But they all knew that the product would come out the best (Barbara’s Memorial Notes, 15 February 2015, California).

From 1989 to 1995, Robert worked as an assistant professor, lecturer and adjunct at Vassar College, Marist College, State University of New York, New Paltz, and Queens College.  During this period he resumed his studies that he had left midway to join the civil rights movement and started his doctoral research at the City University of New York in Sociology, focusing on political economy, social class and the state.  He completed his thesis in 1991.  Michael Brown, co-founder of the journal Socialism and Democracy, was his advisor.  Brown remembers Robert as a capable teacher, a thoughtful scholar, a fine writer and, above all, an activist with deep commitment to justice (Brown’s Memorial Notes, 15 February 2015).

John Neumaier, President of the State University of New York at New Paltz during 1968-82, echoes Brown’s words.  In the 1980s it was he who had suggested that Robert work with Michael Brown for his doctoral research.  Neumaier recalls how he had been deeply impressed by Robert’s clarity of thought, courageous writings and commitment to social justice (Neumaier’s Memorial Notes, 15 February 2015).  In 1993 Robert went to China to teach English at Jilin University of Technology when he readied himself to write the book on Den Xiaoping’s policy.  On his return to the US, he co-founded the China Study Group to bring together academics and activists from both China and the US and initiate debates on the unsustainability of “market socialism.”  Robert went back to China a number of times with teaching and research assignments in several universities.  This was the time when he developed a keen interest in understanding the Chinese post-reform economy and took part in workers’ struggles there that subsequently became a major area of his intellectual and political interest till his last days.

Besides authoring the book and several articles on China, Robert became a commentator on Chinese Affairs for National Public Radio, Pacific Radio Network and several other national and regional radio and television stations.  In 1995, he and Barbara shifted to the West Coast and started staying in Santa Cruz.  From 1995 to 2005, Robert taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz and San Jose State University as a visiting assistant professor.  He worked as a field representative of the University of California at Santa Cruz lecturers’ union, became a delegate to the Monterey Bay Central Labour Council and, following the invasion of Iraq, an organiser of Workers Against War.  He was a true educator, scholar, labour organiser and fighter for social justice throughout his entire adult life.  Just a few weeks before his death he was present at the La Campesina international meeting in Nicaragua.  Pete Healey from New Paltz writes, “Robert was an intellectual in the classic sense that he loved knowledge as a means to understanding the world and also an intellectual in a more modern sense as he took those understandings and acted on them to bring change” (Memorial Notes, 15 February 2015).

Few, however, know about Robert’s concern for the environment.  Years before, in the late 1970s, while at New Paltz, he organised a struggle to save the Minnewaska State Park in the Shawangunk Mountains from a “private development” project of Marriott Corporation and won the battle.  He loved nature and enjoyed living in the mountains and coastal lands, deeply appreciated the beautiful Hudson Valley where he hiked, swam and cross-country skied.  Towards the end of his life, he was often found collecting shells and stones at Seacliff Beach.  He loved poetry.  One of his favourite poems was Garcia Lorca‘s “Ode to Walt Whitman.”

Critique of ‘Market Socialism’

According to many, Robert Weil, in addition to his political activism and humanitarian principles, will be most remembered for his critique of China’s reforms and his meticulous analysis of the subsequent state of affairs in China.  He did not decry the positive effects of reforms on productivity, per capita income of farmers and urban workers in the early years of reforms when, according to him, it was carried out within strict limits to “provide a uniquely balanced system . . . [and in] the urban areas [particularly was introduced] with the promotion of small-scale entrepreneurship, especially among retailers, . . . [with] limitations . . . set on private exploitation” (Red Cat, White Cat, p 29).  He is also unambiguous in mentioning how in those years “the broader masses . . . benefitted to a significant degree from rapid economic growth . . . [and t]he number of peasants in deepest impoverishment . . . dropped” (Red Cat, White Cat, p 30).

A careful examination of Weil’s critique of “market socialism” makes it clear that the crux of it concerns with the impact of the reforms in subsequent years, especially with regard to modern industrial enterprises or large professional institutions as the latter’s scale did not go “easily . . . with . . . the kinds of socialistic restraints which had earlier been imposed on small-scale entrepreneurs” (Red Cat, White Cat, p 31).  The same was the case with the state-owned enterprises.  They all “require[d] massive outside investments and technical aid . . . [that] could only be obtained, given the rate at which the reformers were compelled by ‘the market’ to drive expansion, by turning in large part to foreign . . . investors” (Red Cat, White Cat, p 31).  According to Weil, the mix of private entrepreneurial and socialistic elements which served the reformers so well in the initial period began to break down gradually under the class dynamics and productive requirements of large industry and global markets.  Over the years, concepts like “iron rice bowls” lost their original meaning, job uncertainty showed up as a primary feature and informal or self-employed workers with very little bargaining power thronged the towns and cities of China.  Red Cat, White Cat essentially challenges the inevitability of the reforms and calls for a reassertion of the path of socio-economic transformation through revolutionary struggles instead of the path of state-capital alliance, individual freedom and neo-liberal modernisation.

Commitment to Political Movements

Robert had deep faith in political struggles and movements undertaken at multiple scales without which he strongly felt no theory of sociopolitical transformation could be put to the test and applied.  His involvement in struggles of diverse scales is a proof to this conviction.  He always felt that in the course of struggles, both victory and defeat are important trendsetters as they help in changing many old, outdated conceptions and help build new revolutionary strategies based on the changed circumstances of the capitalist system.  Defeats faced by political struggles could never affect his faith negatively as he considered that there is a “long historical pattern of apparent defeat, followed by further victories . . . not only in newer forms but greater strength than before” (Robert Weil, Is the Torch Passing? Resistance and Revolution in China and India, Setu Prakashani, Kolkata, 2013: 10).

His analysis of the approach taken by Marx and Engels despite the defeat of the Paris Commune is extremely relevant in today’s situation.  The history of the revolutionary path as seen by him and the way he examined the factors that worked towards building an optimistic approach deserve our attention.  First,

the legacy of a new consciousness that the struggle leaves behind, even if it seems to have been defeated . . . the lessons — both positive and negative — . . . are absorbed and passed on to the next generation.  The second [is] . . . the newer forms of organisations which are given impetus . . . to overcome the limits of previous phases. . . .  [T]hird [and the most important, is] . . . the knowledge that capitalism itself creates . . . laying the foundation for the emergence of ‘another world’ within the shell of the existing one. . . .  [T]he basis for socialist society develops, not only in periods of revolutionary upsurge and consolidation, but even in times of setback and defeat. . . .  This is a dialectical process . . . building on the expanded foundation of socialisation that capitalism itself creates.  (Is the Torch Passing? p 12)

This does not mean that Robert was blindly optimistic about the inevitability of socialism.  As he writes,

The forces of . . . imperialism are . . . extremely strong . . . and there is no easy path in overcoming them.  [Also] leftist movements globally remain weak and divided . . . [but] the higher level of capitalist development . . . is laying the basis for another major advance in the creation of a socialist society.  (Is the Torch Passing? p 12)

Robert believed in dialectics and put emphasis on trajectories of processes, on the path of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis to build new guidelines for socio-political transformation although remaining ever critical about the “pragmatic” strategy of adjusting with capitalist forces.

In his involvement in political struggles and related movements, Robert was a true internationalist.  Tineke Jager and Dirk Nimmegeers, translators of Robert’s Red Cat, White Cat into Dutch, state how Robert always felt it a necessity to take “the side of the oppressed and struggling and in this respect set an authentic and honest example to . . . comrades and friends all over the world” (Memorial Notes, 15 February 2015).  In the last six years of his life, he became interested in studying the current popular movements in China and India and their comparative paths to political development.  According to him,

With both the Indian and Chinese economies rapidly expanding, issues of viability and sustainability of their current development paths especially in the circumstances of deepening globalisation and world capitalist crisis have become exceptionally prominent.  Closely tied to this is the effect of ‘marketisation’ on the working class and the struggles they have undertaken in response.  At issue too are alternative models to the present dominant modes and what India and China may have to learn from each other.  (Robert Weil, “India Lecture Proposal”, California, 2009: 1)

During this period Robert got involved with organisations raising their voices against the conditions of political prisoners across the world and arranged meetings and discussions on the issue.  He organised and actively participated in a meeting in San Francisco in 2010 where speakers from India including Partho Sarothi Ray of Sanhati from Kolkata and many other organisations representing Latinos, African-Americans and Palestinians spoke on state atrocities and the condition of political prisoners in their respective countries.  In 2012, Robert, with his friends, organised a special meeting in Oakland where the situation of political prisoners in India was discussed in conjunction with the inhuman conditions of California prisons where a large number of prisoners hail from Latino and African-American groups.  Ray recalls how “Robert, physically situated so far from many such countries, empathised with the political prisoners incarcerated there and tried to build up solidarity against the system that kept them imprisoned” (Partho Sarothi Ray, Memorial Notes, California, 15 February 2015).

I have known Robert since 2009.  Late that year he came to India to deliver a series of lectures on contemporary developments in China and India and the condition of their respective working class.  He lectured in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Jaipur and a few other places and along with our common friend, Bernard D’Mello, I partly coordinated the programme.  In Mumbai, he came to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to deliver a talk on the post-Mao development scenario in China.  The impact his talk had was substantial and his composed, resilient response to questions and comments coming from a diversely positioned audience was admirable.  His clarity of thought and experiential knowledge of post-reform China made the discussion very distinct.  To me and many others, Robert’s involvement in political struggles, commitment to justice through active praxis, and courage to take positions in adverse situations made him very special, a rare person in the space of academics that is decidedly becoming uncritical day by day.  His passing has made this space and many of us poorer.


Swapna Banerjee-Guha (sbanerjeeguha@hotmail.com), Senior Fellow, Indian Council of the Social Science Research, was formerly with the Mumbai University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.  This tribute first appeared in the 4 April 2015 issue of Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.

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