Radical Social Theorist Richard Lichtman is Dead at 86 z’l

One of the most profound radical thinkers in the U.S. was found dead in his bedroom Friday, March 16. Lichtman, who would have turned 87 in a few days,  a professor philosophy at U.C. Berkeley and then of social theory at the Wright Institute, trained a generation of social theorists who have carried on his legacy. Lichtman’s book, The Production of Desire: The Integration of Psychoanalysis into Marxist Theory. The Free Press, New York 1982 was hailed by Prof. Bertell Ollman of NYU for taking “the three quarters of a century old discussion of how to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable philosophies of Marx and Freud to new heights, and …. has become something of a classic to followers of both men.” Responding to Lichtman’s Essays in Critical Theory, Ollman goes on to say:Do you wish to understand the market, and its reliance on certain ideas to work, then you can do no better than read Lichtman's essay, “Toward Community.” Do you want to understand the one-sided limitations in the bourgeois notion of freedom, then Lichtman's “Socialist Freedom” is essential reading. Are you sufficiently clear about the role that equality plays in liberal thought? If not, then read Lichtman's essay, “The Façade of Equality in Liberal Theory.” Do you wish to grasp how universities and their supposed tolerance fit into the overall picture, then read Lichtman's essays, “The Ideological Function of the University,” and “Repressive Tolerance.” And in his cornerstone essay, “Marx's Theory of Ideology,” one finds the fundamentals of Marx's (and Lichtman's) approach to this entire subject laid out as clearly and carefully as has ever been done. Freedom, equality, justice, tolerance, community, Christianity, ideology and the market—these are among capitalism's most strategic targets, and every one of Lichtman's arrows is a bull's-eye.”Richard Lichtman came to U.C. Berkeley’s Philosophy Department in 1967 at the height of the student anti-war movement after having received his Ph.D. at Yale. He turned out to be a tiger in the classroom, translating opaque elements of political and social philosophy into understandable terms for the hundreds of students that studied with him. His popularity there was an irritant to his colleagues whose classes were lucky to attract 15-20 students.Lichtman was one of the very few professors who actively engaged with the anti-war movement at Berkeley. Despite its reputation for having been a “radical campus” in the 60s and 70s, that reputation had little to do with its faculty, but was rather earned by the student body. A large segment of the student population grew increasingly skeptical about the War in Vietnam, was active in civil rights struggles, and championed the 2nd wave of the feminist movement—often in outright rebellion against (i) a please-the-conservative Regents of the University of California by the Berkeley Administration and (ii) much of the liberal faculty who wanted to preserve their jobs and hence unwilling to identify with the movement. Lichtman, on the other hand, was unfailingly courageous, and in a 5-10 minute talk during campus noon rallies on Sproul Plaza, contextualized the particulars of each student protest within a larger context of the struggle against all forms of oppression. Unlike sectarian Marxists who sometimes used their time at the microphone to reduce everything to the need to overthrow capitalism (a goal he shared), Lichtman would engage in a detailed critique of the fundamental assumptions of those in both major political parties who had made peace with the war in Vietnam and those who were more interested in keeping peace on campus than in exploring the ways in which the university was collaborating in the war efforts and mis-educating students. As his teaching assistant for several years, I was frequenlty  frequently told by his students how Lichtman’s depth of analysis had moved them from protest to a deeper critique of the fundamentals of a racist, patriarchal, and exploitative global society. And his critique of the university itself, as an institution that pretended to be a neutral source of knowledge but actually was teaching in ways that reinforced the key assumptions of the competitive marketplace, made him increasingly a thorn in the side of liberal professors who wanted no part of that larger critique.

Berkeley was rated the number one Department of Philosophy for having world class teachers, most of whom were deeply steeped in the assumptions of a radical empiricism which not only scorned religion and spirituality, but undermined the foundations for any ethical critique of the society. In faculty meetings, Lichtman would often be the lone voice raising objections to those theories that the tenured faculty could not answer. They were happy to bring in champions of the supposed radicalism of European existentialists and deconstructionists, but they could not tolerate someone as passionately committed to a fundamental transformation of the world as Lichtman turned out to be. So it was no wonder that they voted against giving Lichtman tenure, because for them the John Stuart Mill notion of a “marketplace of ideas” could not reach to ideas that were subversive to the very institution that had given them certification as the great philosophic minds of the late 20th century. So they booted him out, in the joint campaign against him led by John Searle and Hubert Dreyfus.

Lichtman then joined the faculty at the Wright Institute, a Ph.D.-granting institutions set up by Nevitt Sanford, who had worked with the Frankfort School inspired research project “The Authoritarian Personality,” to explore the connection between social pathology and individual pathology. He taught there for several decades, though in much of that time only as a part-time faculty member. His grappling with psychoanalysis and its intersections with and differences from radical social theory had a deep influence on me and my fellow classmate Peter Gabel (both of us had doctorate degrees by the time we began our studies in psychology, and so found ourselves interacting with Richard both as students and colleagues). When I became Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology at New College of California in 1980, and Peter became President of New College, we hired Lichtman to teach there (in San Francisco).

In the July/August 2001 issue of Tikkun we published a selection from Lichtman’s forthcoming book Dying In America. As Tikkun author Joel Kovel, a psychiatrist and professor at Bard College, reflected at the time, this last book he published included a scathing critique of bourgeois psychology (in this case, fashionable studies of adult development). Psychology and psychiatry “to a degree, produce a self that resigns people to the mutilation of their lives under capitalism while processing them to be cogs in the machinery of accumulation. Severed from its rootedness in social existence, the notion of the self becomes a fetish packaging the illusory hope of fulfilling the craving of possessive individualism.”

One of the points in Lichtman’s study was that while death is a singular event that each person faces alone, the process of dying can be a social experience shared with one’s community. So it is particularly sad that his sudden and totally unexpected death even to people who had been with him the days before his death (which came as a shock to all of us who loved him and continued to honor him and learn from him  the past decades) denied him that experience of dying in community. 

Richard Lichtman’s memorial will be set sometime in the coming weeks. If you wish to be on a list of people notified about the date and place of that memorial, contact me: rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.

Best wishes to all who carry on the struggle for a world of love, kindness, compassion, generosity, social and economic justice, environmental sanity, and awe and wonder at the miraculous reality of consciousness and life itself.


2 thoughts on “Radical Social Theorist Richard Lichtman is Dead at 86 z’l

  1. Please include me on the email list regarding the time and place of the services for Richard Lichtman. Thank you.

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