by JW Maso, slackwire.blogspot.com
March 6th 2011 I just learned that Bob Fitch has died. He broke his leg last month, and then a few days ago a blood clot went to his brain, causing a stroke that left him in a coma; he also suffered several heart attacks. He died yesterday.
I hadn't seen Bob in several years, maybe not since 2005 or 2006. But there was a time when I used to see him regularly, meeting at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square or his studio apartment around the corner on 17th St. There was a Japanese screen dividing his bed from the rest of the tiny space, and a huge portrait of Stalin on the wall. We'd talk about whatever he was working on at the moment -- the Nietzschean roots of the postmodern Left, his critique of Immanuel Wallerstein (two long, brilliant essays that as far as I know were never published), the status of the dollar, the politics of land use, the structural reasons for union corruption (the argument that eventually became Solidarity for Sale), the need for a new political party. "Let's start a party, Josh," he said to me on a couple occasions in that warm and yet somehow wheedling voice I can hear now so clearly in my head, that teasing tone he used in argument that always seemed to suggest that of course you already agreed with him and he was just humoring your perverse insistence on pretending that you didn't. "Well, don't you agree that..." he'd begin, socratically, when he realized you weren't with him. That makes him sound dogmatic, which isn't true at all; it's just, I think, that he was so caught up in his ideas that he genuinely couldn't understand it if you didn't share his enthusiasm. Once I walked with him as he took his laundry to the laundromat down the street; it seemed a little sad, this original, brilliant, genuinely important writer, probably nearing 60 then, still living such a penurious bachelor lifestyle. Like something out of Dostoevsky.
Fitch knew something about founding parties. In Berkeley in the '60s (Berkeley in the 60s!) he'd been friends with Bob Avakian, and helped him start the Revolutionary Union, which later became the Revolutionary Communist Party. Once, he recalled, the two of them were driving around Oakland and saw some police. "Let's shoot these cops," Avakian says. "They'll think the blacks did it, and when they crack down it will start a riot. We could make the revolution happen, we'd be like Lenin and Trotsky." "No," Fitch said," we're not Lenin and Trotsky. We're just Bob and Bob." No cops were shot; I'm not sure how long after that Fitch left the RU/RCP. He was a bit older than most of those Berkeley radicals, and had gotten there a bit differently; he'd been in military intelligence in the 1950s or early '60s, seconded, I only just learned, from the 82nd Airborne.
Not that that's why we'd admired him. Around the Grey City Journal at the University of Chicago, we mostly agreed that two of the most important areas to be thinking about were labor, and cities. We all read Jane Jacobs Death and Life and Mike Davis' City of Quartz, but The Assassination of New York was the book that made the deepest impression. It didn't just have an inspiring or dystopian vision of the city, it told a story, it had an explanation, a political theory for why New York had evolved the way it had.
Fitch was one of that small group of unaffiliated intellectuals who exist only in New York. (Or maybe I should write existed, since there doesn't seem to be a next generation.) Fitch, Doug Henwood, Barbara Garson, Dan Lazare, Steve Fraser. None of them academics (Fitch had a PhD and adjuncted, mostly at CUNY I think; I don't know if he ever had a regular academic job), all of them in the same broad region of the non-sectarian Marxist (or Marx-influenced) left. New York has a unique set of institutions that make that kind of milieu possible -- the Brecht Forum, the Socialist Scholars Conference (now the Left Forum); a handful of progressive, even radical, unions (Fitch worked for a while for CWA Local 1180; Arthur Cheliotes was impressed enough by The Assassination of New York to hire him to come up with an alternative economic development strategy for the city); and magazines like The Nation, Dissent and The Village Voice. Bob wrote a bunch of articles for the Voice, back when the Voice printed real political journalism and paid real money for it; Chris Lehmann also printed some of his op-eds when he was editing the opinion pages at Newsday.
He didn't write that much, considering. An early book on Ghana; Assassination; and Solidarity for Sale. (I don't know what he was working on when he died.) There was also the long series of articles he wrote with Mary Oppenheimer for Socialist Revolution (later Socialist Review, still later Radical Society) on "Who Rules the Corporations". That should have been a book; it certainly had enough influence. David Kotz, well-known to most readers of this blog, was part of the radical political milieu in Berkeley at that point, making his living typing manuscripts. (A different world!) "Who Rules the Corporations" was one of the things he retyped; it inspired him to go to graduate school in economics, and his own dissertation, published as Bank Control of Large Corporations (a very good book) was essentially the working out of Fitch and Oppenheimer's argument.
If there's a theme that ran through his work, it's political agency -- an attention to the particular choices made by those with power. You could call it conspiracy theory, but in a positive sense, since after all there are real conspiracies, in the sense of decisions taken behind closed doors. There was a certain continuity from the question of how business was ruled by big banks, to how New York was ruled by the Rockefellers and their ilk, to how labor was ruled by ... well, here's where he lost me. "There are three great monopolies," he used to say. "The monopoly of capital, the monopoly of land, and the monopoly of labor." He'd written about the first in "Who Rules the Corporations," the second in Assassination, the third in Solidarity for Sale. Me, I could never accept the parallel. "Monopoly of labor" applies maybe to a certain kind of job-control craft labor, but where does that exist now? in a few big-city segments of the building trades, and in Hollywood. And it's under siege in both. This disagreement probably contributed to my not seeing him these past five years. I was working for the Working Families Party; I believed that the union movement, for all its flaws, was the only substantial American institution not ruled by money. He thought it was hopelessly corrupt, and needed to be replaced, refounded from scratch. "You could just as easily clean up a garbage pile by spraying it with attar of roses," he like to quote Debs, "as reform the AFL." (But didn't Debs spent years trying to arrange a merger of his own American Railway Union with the AFL-affiliated railroad brotherhoods?)
Conspiracies, that was in a sense what his work was about. He sort of acknowledges this point in the preface to Assassination. "A focus on the [Rockefeller] family may annoy academic Marxists," he wrote, "for whom the capitalist is only the personification of abstract capital and who believe, austerely, that any discussion of individuals in economic analysis represents a fatal concession to populism and empiricism. But New York is not capitalism in general..." His journalism on labor corruption in New York, however much he may have (in my opinion) overgeneralized it into a critique of unions in general, was incredibly valuable. "Orgies," I remember him excitedly whispering to me at one point, "orgies in the penthouse!" This was the top floor office of "Greedy" Gus Bevona, then-president of SEIU 32BJ, the giant NYC building-services local, whose corruption Fitch was one of the first people to expose. Soon enough Bevona was out and 32BJ became one of the best-led locals in the city; that same penthouse became the public meeting space for all kinds of progressive groups. I've been there on various occasions, looking out over lower Manhattan; no little credit to Bob.
Maybe he was too smart for his own good. He always had some project; there was always some question which he, finally, had found the no-one-before-recognized answer to. "You realize how conventional that is," he'd say to you, after you laid out what you thought was some original argument. Everyone read The Assassination of New York. Maybe it never established itself academically. But among radicals it was a touchstone.
All of us have an angel on our shoulder; all of us, doing practical politics on the left, have an angel asking if we aren't too ready to make compromises, if we aren't too quick to sacrifice principle for getting something done. Probably for almost all of us that angel has a name. For me it's Fitch. I learned as much sitting in that apartment as I ever did in a classroom. Maybe not concrete material -- altho there was enough of that -- as much as a sensibility. What it means to be an intellectual on the left. And what, more specifically, we need to demand from the labor movement. I hope I'll never commit myself to any organization without asking at some point, what would Fitch think?
Bob Fitch was a communist. He didn't, I believe, believe in any organized religion. But here is the moment when we have to acknowledge that something of the person does outlast the person. "From the first inspiration down the windpipe to the last expiration out of it, all that a male or female does that is vigorous, and benevolent, and clean, is so much pure profit to him or her in the unshakable order of the universe, and throughout the whole scope of it forever." What would Fitch have thought? I'm sorry I didn't ask him.
UPDATE: It's a real honor to have Jonathan Fitch and others use this space to share their memories of Bob. If you're reading this, please do read the comments as well.
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