Thursday, October 4, 2012
Bill Roberts, a founding member of the ISO, and Hector Agredano, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, remember the life of a determined activist:
October 2, 2012
NEIL SMITH, the renowned scholar, beloved teacher and devoted activist, died on September 29 at the age of 58.
Neil is best known for his academic work. He was a professor of anthropology and geography at City University of New York. In particular, his writings on the patterns of social development in cities--drawing on history, economics, political and social theory, and ecological studies--are among the most prominent left-wing views on the subject.
But Neil will also be remembered as a committed socialist and activist. He came to the U.S. from his native Scotland in early 1977 to complete his graduate studies with David Harvey at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He wasted no time becoming an activist on campus, helping to establish the Graduate Representative Organization.
In 1978, Neil joined the International Socialist Organization (ISO), then only newly formed, and helped to build a campus chapter at John Hopkins of a dozen committed socialists. Neil became a frequent contributor to Socialist Worker, then a monthly newspaper. One memorable article of his in 1981, titled "It's Right to Rebel," put the London urban riots of that summer in the context of the severe economic recession and the hopelessness it produced.
As Kathy Ogren, a fellow student at the time and now a recognized scholar in her own right, remembered, Neil was "a great popularizer of Marxist ideas...and a good listener to a person's evolving political consciousness. He could help one sort out the connections between personal and structural questions and conditions."
Though Neil left the ISO in 1984, his comrades and students remember the humor and fearlessness he brought to his political organizing. "Neil was one of the most creative thinkers I've ever met," Ogren said. "He saw connections, applied his prodigious energy to researching an answer, and then found innovative ways to write or speak about what he had learned."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
AS A scholar, Neil's intellect was evident from early in his academic career. In 1979, he wrote an influential article titled "Toward a Theory of Gentrification: A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People." More than scholarly research, this was a political intervention in the field of urban geography at a time when questions on urban decay and ghettoization were riddled with inconsistent theories and contradictory research.
His most important theoretical contribution to the understanding of the geography of capitalism is outlined in Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Here, Neil laid out a coherent explanation for the unevenness and distortion of economic development, specifically in urban areas, because of investment and disinvestment in the built environment by capital markets.
Inspired by insights from Lenin and Trotsky, Neil's thesis is based on the contradictions of capitalism outlined by Karl Marx in Capital. However, in applying these ideas, he helped to anchor disparate theories from disciplines that often remain separated in the academy.
Neil would expand on these theories to develop analyses on the commodification of nature under capitalism, politics in the study of geography, and U.S. imperialism. One of his most celebrated books, American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization--for which he received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography for 2002--traces American military interventionism through the age of globalization. The book would prove prophetic when, one year later, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq.
Upon his arrival at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, Smith's scholarship and sharp politics attracted a crowd of activists, intellectuals and radicals of all stripes to his courses. From seasoned anti-gentrification activists of Washington, D.C., to peasant organizers from Costa Rica, and the curious from everywhere in between, they all found a seat at the table. His classes were lively with dissension and debate, and it was alright to be political; in fact, it was encouraged.
During the last years of his life, one of Neil's main concerns was that radicals and revolutionaries were losing hope. He was frustrated that it was easier for radicals to imagine an environmental apocalypse than a triumphant revolutionary movement against capitalism. During class and in meetings, he would raise the concern that one of the victims of the ruling class offensive had been the utopian imagination of the left.
This was one of the most inspiring things about Neil--he never gave up hope. And when the Occupy movement burst on the scene last fall, he welcomed it with open arms. Class discussion would turn into strategy debates--he encouraged students to participate, and would hold class at the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park or cancel them to allow us to participate in major demonstrations.
Neil leaves a lasting legacy of scholarship and dedication to geography and to Marxism. As a socialist, he always placed himself in the revolutionary tradition--he spent his last years trying to raise revolution to the agenda in people's imagination and political frontiers. He left us too soon and will be sorely missed by friends, colleagues, students and loved ones.
Neil Smith, ¡presente!
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Published by the International Socialist Organization.
Material on this Web site is licensed by SocialistWorker.org, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0)  license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and SocialistWorker.org.  http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0
The late Dr. Smith's home page, including some of his papers, appear here
CUNY Graduate Center Anthrolopology Department here
CUNY Graduate Center's Center for Place, Culture and Politics here
- Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War- Tony Horwitz
- A Sultan in Palermo - Tariq Ali
- Hitch-22: A Memoir - Christopher Hitchens
- Negropedia- Patrice Evans
- Dead Funny: Humor in Nazi Germany - Rudolph Herzog
- Exile on Main Street - Robert Greenfield
- Among the Truthers - A Journey Among America's Growing Conspiracist Underworld - Jonathan Kay
- Paradise Lost - John Milton
- What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Thinking the Unthinkable - John Brockman
- Notes from the Edge Times - Daniel Pinchbeck
- Fringe-ology: How I Can't Explain Away the Unexplainable- Steve Volk
- Un Juif pour l'exemple (translated as A Jew Must Die )- Jacques Cheesex
- The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
- Pale King - David Foster Wallce
- David Bowie: Starman bio - Paul Trynka
- Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat - Andrez Bergen
- The Future of Nostalgia -Svetlana Boym
- Living in the End Times - Slavoj ZIzek
- FIrst as Tragedy Next as Farce - Slavoj Zizek
- How to Survive a Robot Uprising - Daniel Wilson
- Where is My Jet Pack? -Daniel Wilson
- Day of the Oprichniks - Vladimir Sorokin
- Ice Trilogy - Vladimir Sorokin
- First Civilizations
- Oscar Wilde -Andre Maurois
- The Beats - Harvey Pekar, et al
- SDS - Harvey Pekar, et al
- The Unfinished Animal - Theodore Roszak
- Friends of Eddy Coyle
- Brooklands -Emily Barton
- Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter - Seth Grahme-Smith - Entertaining and historical
- Dictionary of the Khazars - Pavic
- Sloth-Gilbert Hernandez
- War and Peace- Leo Tolstoy
- Charles Addams: An Evilution
- Life in Ancient Greece
- Time - Eva Hoffmann
- Violence - S. Zizek
- Luba - a graphic novel by Gilbert Hernandez
- Life in Ancient Egypt
- Great Apes - Will Self - riveting and disturbing
- Lost Honor of Katherina Blum - Heinrich Boll - could not put it down
- Yellow Back Radio Brokedown - Ishmael Reed (author deserving of new wide readership)
- Living in Ancient Mesopotomia
- Landscape in Concrete - Jakov Lind - surreal
- 'There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby'-Ludmilla Petrushevskaya - creepy stories - translation feels literarily "thin"
- Mythologies - William Butler Yeats (re-read again & again)
- How German Is It ? - Walter Abish
- The Book of Genesis - illustrated by R. Crumb - visionary
- "Flags" - an illustrated encyclopedia - wish I could remember all of these. Flag culture
- Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
- Ubik - Philip K. Dick
- Nobody's Fool - Richard Russo
- Hitler's Empire - Mark Mazower
- Nazi Culture - various authors
- Master Plan: Himmler 's Scholars and the Holocaust - Heather Pringle
- Eichmann in Jerusalem - Hannah Arendt
- Living in Ancient Rome
- Traveling with Herodotus -R. Kapuszynsky
- Oblivion - David Foster Wallace - Some of his greatest work
- Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace - still wrestling with this great book
- Netherland - Joseph O'Neill - staggeringly great read
- Renegade - The Obama Campaign - Richard Wolffe
- Mount Analogue - Rene Daumal
- John Brown
- Anathem - Neal Stephenson - love Stephenson but tough slogging first few chapters
- 7 Deadly Sins
- ALEX COX - Alex Cox
- FIASCO by Thomas Ricks
- I, Fellini - Charlotte Chandler & Federico Fellini
- Best of 20th century alternative history fiction
- Judah P. Benjamin - Eli Evans - Confederacy's Secretary of State & source of the W.C. Field's exclamation
- Moscow 2042 - Vladimir Voinovich - Pre-1989 curiosity & entertaining sci fi read; love his portrayal of Solzhenitsyn-like character
- Gomorrah - Roberto Saviano - Mafia without the It-Am sugar coating. Brutal & disturbing
- The Sack of Rome - Celebrity+Media+Money=Silvio Berlusconi - Alexander Stille
- Reporting - David Remnick - terrific journalism
- Indignation - Philip Roth
- Let's Go Italy! 2008
- Italian Phrases for Dummies
- How to Pack
- Violence - Slavoj Zizek
- Dali: Painting & Film
- The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight - Jimmy Breslin
- The Good Rat - Jimmy Breslin
- Spook Country - William Gibson
- A Blue Hand - The Beats in India - Deborah Baker
- The Metaphysical Club - Louis Menard
- Coast of Utopia - Tom Stoppard
- Physics of the Impossible - Dr. Michio Kaku
- Managing the Unexpected - Weick & Sutcliffe
- Wait Til The Midnight Hour - Writings on Black Power
- Yellow Back Radio Brokedown - Ishmael Reed
- Burning Down the Masters' House - Jayson Blair
- Howl - Allen Ginsberg
- Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut
- The Palace Thief - Ethan Canin
- John Adams - David McCullough
- The Wooden Sea - Jonathan Carroll
- American Gangster - Mark Jacobson
- Return of the King - J.R.R. Tolkien
- Gawker Guide to Becoming King of All Media
- Jews and Power - Ruth Wisse
- Youth Without Youth - Mircea Eliade
- A Team of Rivals - Doris Goodwin
- Ghost Hunters -William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death - Deborah Blum
- Dream -Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy - Stephen Duncombe
- Love & Theft - Eric Lott
- Exit Ghost - Philip Roth
- Studio A - The Bob Dylan Reader
- Alexi Murdoch Wait
- Wilco Summer Teeth
- Wilco The Album
- Carmina Burana - Ray Manzarek (& Michael Riesmann)
- Polyrock - Polyrock
- 96 Tears - Garland Jeffries
- Ghost of a Chance Garland Jeffries
- Yellow Magic Orchestra
- Mustang Sally Buddy Guy
- John Lee Hooker
- Black and White Years
- Together Through Life - B. Dylan
- 100 Days 100 Nites - Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
- DYLAN: 3 disc Greatest...
- Glassworks - Philip Glass
- Wild Palms - Soundtrack -Ryuichi Sakamoto
- Dinah Washington - Best of..
- Commander Cody& His Lost Planet Airmen Live at Armadillo