Barbara Ehrenreich (1941 – 2022)

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On Barbara Ehrenreich


Look at yourself, she always asks the reader; what do you see there?

A funeral scene, 1976: “When we emerged as radicals,” the eulogist observes, “there wasn’t much of a left tradition to plug into. There was a scattering of individuals and small groups . . . but they were generally dogmatic and pretty much uninterested in some of the things that were of most concern to us.” What was of concern? “We talked about ‘alienation,’ about people realizing their full potential; they said that the issue was wages. We were obsessed with the direct and personal experience of oppression (especially in the women’s movement), they said we were being ‘subjectivist.’ . . . Over here were our concerns—very humanistic and idealistic. Over there (from our point of view) was Marxism, like some kind of well-preserved but indigestible lump which only academics or sectarians would even try to swallow.”

The language—“alienation,” “direct and personal experience,” “humanistic and idealistic”— carbon-dates the event even if you don’t know the year: this is the discourse of the New Left. The speaker was Barbara Ehrenreich, and the occasion the funeral for the former metalworker, Marxist theorist, and Monthly Review editor Harry Braverman, author of the 1974 landmark account of the deskilling of work, Labor and Monopoly Capital. For Ehrenreich, whose own work had received crucial support from Braverman, the late theorist represented a precious, narrow bridge across a generational divide. “So you can begin to see the importance of Harry’s book to so many people of my political generation. It is, on the one hand, an intensely humanistic book. It’s a book written with vast respect for the everyday experience of working people—not as ‘production factors’ or commodities of some sort—but as human beings . . . So I could not help feeling, as I read it, that the book is in some ways a vindication of the concerns of the ‘new left’.” At the same time, Ehrenreich emphasized, Braverman did not merely pander to New Left predilections. “If Harry vindicates some of our concerns and questions, he also makes it clear that the way to understanding is not going to be found (as we sometimes liked to think) in consciousness raising, or revelation, or even in immediacy of personal experience,” she warned. “The book is written with grace, but it makes it clear that the road to understanding is arduous; that it winds through history; that it is open only to those who have the patience for systematic and materialistic thinking. And that’s not an easy lesson.”

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