Friday, January 18, 2013

JOHN MCCARTNEY KNEW IDEAS CAN INSPIRE ACTIVISM

Harry Targ

I am trying to carry students on a ‘voyage’ in which they transcend their immediate experiences and impressions, and encounter in the process a ‘new’ world of ideas, values, and aspirations.” (quote from a letter Professor McCartney  wrote to the Provost, Lafayette College).
John McCartney was a colleague of mine, a political comrade, and a long-time friend, even though we had not been in touch in recent years. He was on the faculty at Purdue University from 1970 to 1979, serving as Assistant Professor of Political Science, and the first director of a new program in African American Studies. He returned to Purdue University in January 2003 to participate in a conference sponsored by Purdue’s Committee on Peace Studies. He gave a lecture on “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Question of Peace.” We in Peace Studies shared our ideas about social change at this conference with McCartney, labor leader Noel Beasley, and peace researcher Betty Reardon.
At that time John invited me to an upcoming conference on “Paul Robeson: His History and Development” at Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, where he was Department Chair. In April, 2005, John and I gave presentations at that gathering on “Marx and Engels’ Influences on the Development of Robeson’s Intellect.”
While clearing my desk a few days ago, I came across the Robeson paper and decided to seek its publication in The Journal of African American Studies. I started to submit the paper online. The journal’s application required the prospective author to submit names and e-mail addresses of three possible article reviewers. So I typed in John’s name and then searched the internet to secure his e-mail address when I found the entry, “Memorial Resolution for John T. McCartney.” http://www.lafayette.edu/about/news/2012/07/11/memorial-resolution-for-john-t-mccartney/2012/
My first reaction was emotional devastation. For me, John was always out there even though we did not keep in touch. On reflection I began to realize how important he was to me as an educator and activist and I decided to share some remembrances. I do so not to celebrate McCartney nor to provide an emotional release for me, but to underscore the power of ideas, the importance of the educational process, and the obligation of us in educational institutions to link our work to political practice.
John came to the Department of Political Science at Purdue University from the University of Iowa, where he was completing a Ph.D. Our department head reported that John would teach urban politics, because that was what people assumed scholars of African descent would teach. But no, to the department’s surprise John was a political theorist, specializing in medieval political thought. Along with teaching a course on the history of political theory, John taught courses on St. Augustine. He was such a wonderful teacher that one would see lots of students carrying around with them The City of God, not the usual political science text being studied in the early 1970s.
John met philosophy professor Kermit Scott, another medievalist and dear friend of mine. Kermit and I worked with other activist faculty on a variety of student, anti-racism, and anti-war activities in those days. John and Kermit decided to team-teach an undergraduate seminar on medieval philosophy. Both were brilliant and had a small but determined following among students.
John led a mysterious life outside the classroom. Always kind, gentle, and caring he lived alone in a small apartment across the river in Lafayette and spent his free time talking with working folks who hung out downtown. At some point, Kermit and John started talking about post-medieval politics and to our surprise Kermit and I learned that John McCartney was the leader of the Vanguard Nationalist and Socialist Party of the Bahamas. Every summer he would return home and walk the streets of Nassau with his comrades talking with virtually every resident of the main island. His name would appear regularly in articles on the front page of the Nassau newspaper referring to “Dr. John McCartney, Purdue University Professor and Chairman of the Vanguard Nationalist and Socialist Party.”
It turns out that John, the oldest of 10 children, received a first-rate British colonial public school education, worked as an officer of the British Customs Service, received a bachelor’s degree at Drake University in Iowa, and his Ph. D at the University of Iowa.
Meanwhile John and a small coterie of comrades were constructing a Socialist party designed to challenge the elected leadership of the post-colonial government of the Bahamas. He was struggling to build a socialist movement to take power from many of those opportunistic Bahamian nationalists who were John’s school mates years earlier. So John, teaching St. Augustine, in Indiana, was sending his salary back home to support his nine siblings and the new Vanguard Party.
John and Kermit, who himself was increasingly drawn to the Marxist tradition,  decided to put their copies of The City of God back on the bookshelf and rework their seminar into an in-depth study of Marxism. In addition to a small but dedicated group of students several faculty would sit in on the seminar. I did so three times.
John was a hard driver as a teacher. Our first seminar assignment was to go through volume one of Das Capital. We would read the text line by line. Through most of the class John read a critical passage, explained it, and read it again. Over the three classes I took with John and Kermit we read theorists including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Lukacs, Gramsci, and Euro Communists.
John organized several of us into a reading group that met on Sunday nights. We read Nkrumah, Cabral, Che, and some of the women in our group insisted we add some feminist voices to our readings and discussion. John needed to be brought along on “the woman question,” but of course he was not alone.
Kermit and I, mostly Kermit, began to do some work for the Vanguard Party, writing short essays for study groups that members engaged in back home and Kermit wrote a thorough history of the Bahamas for the party called “The Struggle for Freedom in the Bahamas.” Kermit visited the Bahamas often and I did so once.
During one meeting in the party office, which Kermit and I attended, some young ultra-left members pulled a revolver demanding that the party march “over the hill” and seize state power. John stood up to the leader of the revolt, a gun inches from his face, and asked, “What next?” We could not hold power he added primarily because not enough people would support a violent “revolution.” Fortunately, the rebel withdrew his gun and the next day party members resumed their work, walking the streets, talking to people, explaining socialism, and asking for the people’s support. Most importantly, the regular work in the community was done with respect for different views. John, the medieval scholar, was as much a man of the people as any revolutionary one could think of.
By the middle of the 1980s, the party fell on hard times and John, who had left Purdue and academia in 1979, returned to the United States to take an academic position. He taught for the rest of his life at Lafayette College, a well-known and expensive liberal arts college in Eastern Pennsylvania. In that powerful memorial statement about John, it was pointed out that both the college and John were taking a big risk. Neither the Department of Government and Law nor John was sure that he could adapt to teaching students from wealthy families. But on reflection the decision was a “no-brainer.” John loved people. He could hang out with the guys on the stoop in downtown Lafayette, walk the streets among the people he grew up with, and work hard to teach young people of all kinds the ideas that he valued so much.
When my wife and I attended the conference John McCartney organized in 2005 we caught up on our many years apart only some of which we were able to discuss when he attended the Peace Studies conference at Purdue in 2003. He spoke about how wonderful Lafayette College was, how open and tolerant the students were, and how important it was to communicate ideas to them. He admitted on the side, however, that “I teach a course in the local prison every year to keep in touch with the working class.” A former student reported that when John got sick and did not stop by the local Wawa food market, workers there would say: “Where’s Doc?”

"Doc” knew that ideas mattered; that young people needed to study hard; that ideas had to be put to work changing the world.

Students, teachers, and political activists will miss John McCartney.