A Contribution to the Celebration of Nat Weinstein’s Life
Geography was a limiting factor in our relationship, but by no means a decisive one, especially in recent years because we were able to communicate by e-mail. One thing that distinguished Nat’s e-mails from most of those I receive is that they were always substantive. Nat was not one to waste time or words.
As I told Bonnie recently, Nat was the best example of a worker-intellectual it has ever been my pleasure to know. In addition to political ideology, he and I shared an unbounded desire to understand the world around us on every level—physical, biological, psychological, and social. But most important of all, I felt he and I were on the same “moral wavelength,” which is to say that we shared that proletarian morality Trotsky identified as “ours” in Their Morals and Ours.
In academia, the term “worker-intellectual” may be treated as a pejorative, but in my eyes, it is the highest form of praise. To exemplify the difference between an academic intellectual and a worker-intellectual, let me cite the case of Gabriel Kolko, who died on May 19. The comparison is not meant as disrespect to Gabriel Kolko, who was among the better academic intellectuals, but to demonstrate the limitations within which they are forced to work.
Gabriel Kolko, in the first sentence of the New York Times’ obituary, is pigeonholed as a “left-leaning historian.” The adjective tells us that he was not representative of the academic history profession per se, but has to be considered as something of an outlier.
What was it that made him appear “left-leaning” to his colleagues? The obituary explains that he “argued that American domestic and international policies have long been driven more by the interests of big business than by the interests of the people.” Wow! How shocking!
So he devoted a long career to studying American history, and writing thick books about American policies, and that was what he concluded. Meanwhile, worker-intellectuals like Nat began with that proposition. In our world it is not controversial. It is as obvious as the simplest of mathematical proofs. It is not an abstraction that has to be argued—it is a reality that has to be fought against.
That is a fundamental difference, but there are also differences of style that distinguish what Nat wrote from the way academics write. This occurred to me most forcefully a couple of days ago when I happened to be reading something Christopher Hitchens wrote. You remember Christopher Hitchens, the former Trotskyist whose great intellect led him to aggressively support the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost every paragraph included a quotation designed not so much to provide evidence for his argument, but to show off the erudition of Christopher Hitchens. What a contrast to the writings of a worker-intellectual like Nat! Nat had plenty of erudition, but the hallmarks of his writing were logical exposition and sticking to the point. I can’t imagine him wasting time and ink on egotistical puffery.
Because Nat and I shared a special interest in science and technology, that is what we most often discussed in our e-mail correspondence. We both inherited that interest from Marx and Engels. But as Marxists, no matter how much we are attracted to scientific ideas for their inherent interest, there is also an overriding attraction to science as a means of solving the world’s social problems. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
And that is what most of all characterizes a worker-intellectual. Nat was a role model for all of us who are engaged today in interpreting and changing the world. His influence will live on through us and those whom we are able to influence.