Honoring Walt Sheasby
— Joel Kovel
WALT’S PASSING IS a triple loss. Personally he was a very dear friend. Second, as we are hearing, in many different ways he was a true stalwart activist, of immense energy and dedication.
Faith had something to do with Walt’s capacity. One of our speakers spoke of how he persevered in the face of meager returns that are always the lot of those who chose to stand outside the established system. And he persevered to the very end of his days. That is a shining example.
The third way in which Walt’s passage was a loss is in intellectual terms. I think Walt’s contributions have not yet been realized, and I think they were moving into a very fruitful phase. Typically of his nature, he was not concerned to publish a lot or to advance himself in the marketplace of ideas, such as that is. He was concerned for what he thought was the truth, and he was a prodigious scholar.
I do believe that of all the things in this world that he loved most was his copy of the Marx/Engels works; he had the whole thing. He just loved to pore over those books — not as a kind of penance but as a way to find creative force within him.
I knew Walt in several contexts. We met in 1997, at a conference set up by James O’Connor, who was the founding editor of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. In those years I was just one of the editors, and I didn’t know who Walt was. He showed up at this meeting with an essay, called “Karl Marx’s Inverted World,” which did appear in CNS.
This was a real tour de force, a brilliant piece of work, taking off from the economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844 and showing a very profound dialectical grasp of how everything is turned upside down, a “camera obscura” as Karl Marx put it.
At any event, you can read that in the journal. But the greatness of Walt was his ability to do the most gritty day-to-day stuff. There was nobody who would be more present in the creative and constructive sense. I can tell you some of the things he did for me and with me; there are fifty people who could say the same kind of thing, but it would be different.
You would see this immense activity that characterized the man. At the same time he was a profound scholar, for whom the identify of theory and practice was lived, not just a formalism.
Of course, like all of us, he was imperfect. He was struggling. But he knew he had to struggle both in the world to try to change it but also as a philosopher to try to understand it: not to change the world through mindless activism, but rather through profound and in-depth scholarship.
That depth is also given by rootedness in practice. One thing Walt did for me was get me to join Solidarity. I was not a member at the time. We were talking after that editors’ conference. I had never been a member of a group of that sort, and I wanted to. After talking with Walt, I applied for and became an at-large member, because I live in upstate New York, not near any chapter. And that has been very fruitful.
The most important thing that Walt did for me as an activist was give me the idea and encourage me and work very closely with me in the 2000 campaign for the Green Party presidential nomination. At that time — although we both admired Nader, and Walt certainly had an affection for Ralph, then as now — we thought it would be important to run a campaign at least within California, where I was living at the time, to challenge Nader.
Not that we were going to win; I didn’t want to win; we really wanted Nader to win the nomination because he had the momentum, and he was going to put the party together. But we wanted to emphasize several points, one of which was that Nader had refused to be a member of the Green Party.
We thought it was necessary as activists from within the Green Party to run a campaign as well — it shouldn’t just be the Green Party anointing somebody, however grand a figure Nader was and for whatever reason he was refusing to join the Green Party. (Furthermore) Nader wasn’t, never has been, a socialist, and I wanted Green politics to be socialist politics.
So I spent the early part of 2000 mostly just in a car traveling around the state and speaking to whomever would hear me. But without Walt that couldn’t have happened. He was really my rock. He was there. He was consulting all of the time. We had prepared the campaign literature, such as it was, together.
We became fast friends around that. In the year 2003, because of Jim O’Connor’s decision to step down as the editor of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, I stepped up as the editor-in-chief, whatever that means. It means the guy with the most headaches. But the first thing I did was to call Walt and I said, “Walt, this is going to be a big project. We have a very important task ahead of us. I want you to play a central role in it.”
He said, “Absolutely.” He was going to move up to the Bay Area and become a member of one of the editorial groups. There is one in London and Canada — various parts of the world — and the United States. And that was really important, but, alas, that never happened. His personal situation didn’t permit it.
I know that he lived in Sierra Madre as a boy in his family’s house (if I remember correctly, he said his father had actually built it). After a long hiatus he had returned there. It was typical of Walt to take care of his mother who was aged and infirm. So in the midst of everything else, this very dedicated man was there to care for his nonagenarian mother.
Eventually his mother passed on, and he was going to sell the house and use the proceeds to move up to the Bay Area. Included in this scheme, he wanted to get a mobile home. Typical of Walt, there was something unworldly about the guy. I loved him for that too.
I said, “Walt, what are you going to do with your library?” He said, “I’ll figure something out.” Well that is a big problem; some of you who visited his home saw the tremendous library Walt had. It was a fantastic library that filled a big room, thousands and thousands of books and manuscripts of all sorts.
As I said, he never deigned to the publish-or-perish mentality or that crap that passes for academic work in this world. But he had his eye on several truths, and he had that library dedicated towards that.
To repeat, he loved the activism. But I believe that what he loved most of all was being with his books and being a scholar. What was important to him was the truth and making revolution.
The direction that his thought took him in the last years is another reason why this is a very serious loss. There was nobody that I felt more at home with in the development of a point of view which Walt and I have been calling ecological socialism.
We agreed that the only true and rational way of approaching this was from the standpoint that this process was driven by rampant accumulation of capital, and is inherent in the capitalist system in that capital does not simply exploit labor — what the classical Marxist approach took as its canon — but exploits nature as well.
It was necessary to bring these features together and to begin to rethink the radical project as such. I know that Walt believed in this as deeply as I do.
This year, we in fact disagreed about the Nader campaign. This is the last place I would to argue with anybody about it. But the point was that it didn’t affect our personal relationships at all. When we last met in Santa Monica and had lunch in May, we said that we disagreed and that we agreed to disagree, and that we were going to go forward. And the more important thing to go forward was the development of ecological socialism.
The last thing he said — you see, Walt was always more practical than I was in the sense of organizing things — was that as soon as this election blows over, we have to build that ecosocialist listserve. One of his many listserves. Somebody should do a “collective listserves of Walt Sheasby;” it would be quite a lengthy document.
He also wanted to build something called the Green Alliance, which was a major project that he and I shared, although he stayed with it and I drifted away.
I do believe that besides these memories there is a legacy that Walt leaves, which really should be somehow materialized and grounded, and that is the tremendous collection of his papers and books. Israel Feuer saved some from the dumpster, and Sam Fassbinder has some others.
How this is going to be done is a difficult problem. The really true legacy, the memorial to Walt, would be a Walt Sheasby Library somewhere in this great metropolitan area where those books could be useful for scholars and young people. Just the Collected Works of Marx and Engels — he probably converted several brokers’ fees [Walt made his living as a stockbroker] into that set of books, which is fitting, after all.
Of course the other job that is daunting is to make sense of his papers. A lot of them are lost already, but a lot of them are still around. For the sake of the future and also for Walt’s memory these papers must be resurrected.
Walt had in progress during the last year of his life an immense set of articles which was going to be turned into a book, Marx and Nature, the nature of which indicated just how importantly Walt took the project of ecological socialism. The fundamental point of these articles was to establish once and for all that the real living Karl Marx, both in his life and his thought, was deeply concerned about questions of nature, and indeed, ecology.
This year he handed in an immense project. We were going to spread it out over three CNS issues. The first was published in the June issue, the second was published in the September issue, which I have here, and the third was to be published in the December issue. Thus the second installment, called “Karl Marx and the Victorians’ Nature, The Evolution of a Deeper View. Part II: The Age of Aquaria” is his last published work.
The age of aquaria is sort of a play on astrology. But more accurately, Marx was fascinated by — who knew? I didn’t know — by deep sea phenomena. They had built certain aquaria in London and around Europe. Marx used to visit and really study them. Who knew from that? But Walt Sheasby knew.
Joel Kovel, editor of Capitalism Nature Socialism, spoke at the memorial for Walt Contreras Sheasby in Los Angeles on October 10, 2004. Walt Sheasby, 62, died suddenly on August 20 from the effects of West Nile virus. He wrote extensively on independent politics and the environmental movement and was active in the Green Party as well as Solidarity. Many thanks to Scott Ratigan for transcribing this tribute, which we have abridged here.
ATC 113, November-December 2004