Versions of this essay appeared as "Albert Szymanski: A Personal and Political Memoir," Critical Sociology, 15: 139-144 (Fall, 1988) and in my 1992 book Turncoats and True Believers.
of the American Sociological Association were held in the
of the San Francisco Hilton. The meetings were
at the climax of the social upheavals of the sixties.
rioted in the streets and students bombed draft boards, the
hid in their dummy variables and multiple dimensions,
the functions of conflict and the need for values to maintain
equilibrium. Colorless men in business suits read bland
of theoretical frippery and statistical fastidiousness. Al
was an oasis of genuineness in this desert of
casually in faded jeans and a work shirt, with a disheveled mop
blond hair topping his large round head. He was only a few
older than me, having been born in 1941. At 6'2" and 190
was the largest of a small group of radicals who stood quietly
of a meeting room holding up a sign saying "bull shit" whenever
made a particularly galling remark. The shy grin on his
face revealed his embarrassment with this tactic, which he had
as an experiment in ethnomethodology.
|Albert Szymanski, Sue Jacobs
(Al's wife) and Ted Goertzel selling copies of The Insurgent
Sociologist at an American Sociological Association meeting.
recruited me into the sociology radical caucus, which gave me a
group of other young professors to replace the political groups
to as a student. We were committed to direct action and
patience with the stuffy professionalism of academic
had missed the deadline to place a resolution condemning
in Vietnam on the agenda for the business meeting.
on occasions such as the death of a colleague, could be
time, however. Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader,
during the meetings. We felt that he was our colleague and
to extend the courtesy to him. When our parliamentary
we simply marched to the front of the room and held our ceremony
The officials wisely retreated to resume their deliberations in
room, allowing our action to fizzle out gracefully.
Al was the son of a Polish-American Rhode Island lobster fisherman who loved to work with his hands and never really understood his son's intellectual and political inclinations. It was his strong-minded, deeply religious, Italian-American mother who nurtured his precociousness, taking him to get his first library card as soon as he became eligible on his sixth birthday. When he first entered school, she told him that "other children could be cruel to another child who was different because of color or how he dressed and if he saw anyone alone or rejected to become a friend to them."
Al read Freud and Marx at the University of Rhode Island and tried to shock his mother first with the revelation that he had loved her unconsciously as a child, then with his discovery of Marxism. She professed to be flattered by the first revelation, and did her best to understand the second. She believed he was true to the fundamental values she had taught him, and defended his right to political views she did not share.
Al became involved in a group called Students for Democratic Affairs in 1963, writing a letter to the Providence Journal advocating that students be allowed to visit Cuba. He argued that students might return finding that Castro was not as bad as they had been told, or they might return as staunch anti-communists. In any event, they would be better off with first hand knowledge instead of repeating sterile clichés composed by people who had never left the state of Rhode Island.
On April 14, 1963 he organized an appearance by Hyman Lumer of the Communist Party on the Rhode Island campus. He thought that the communist system was a "tremendously important ideology in the world today." The Worker quoted him as stating that "if, after eighteen years of being schooled in the American way, two hours of listening to Dr. Lumer could change a student's political views, something would indeed be wrong with our system."
Al abandoned physics for sociology as an undergraduate major, and went on to do a doctorate at Columbia University, where he organized a radical sociology journal. He was a compulsive worker who produced a massive, two volume dissertation on Chile. He also found time to travel to Orangeburg, South Carolina, where he was arrested in a demonstration protesting a "slow down" by voting registrars. He was also arrested in a demonstration at Fairweather Hall, Columbia University, in 1968, but the case was apparently dropped and the FBI never got his fingerprints. They suspect he was at times affiliated with Youth Against War and Fascism, the Workers World Party, the Weathermen, the Worker Student Alliance, the Progressive Labor Party, the Revolutionary Youth Movement, the Peoples Coalition for Peace and Justice, the Venceremos Brigade and the Revolutionary Union, but his file includes few details. Both of our FBI files are heavy on hearsay and newspaper clippings. They did, however, uncover both of our "aliases." Mine was Ted Goerge Geortzel (instead of George Goertzel). His was John Albert Szymanski (instead of Albert John) or sometimes simply "Al".
By the time I met Al in San Francisco he was finishing up at Columbia and looking for a job. Oregon was hiring, and we brought Al out for an interview. Al's charisma and intellectual brilliance were apparent to even the most stodgy of Oregon's senior professors, who accepted Al's reassurance that he would not advocate armed revolution until social conditions had reached the point that it was unavoidable.
Al had been involved in the Sociology Liberation Movement for several years before I met him in San Francisco, and had helped to edit The Human Factor, a radical journal produced by students at Columbia. In an article titled "Toward a Radical Sociology," Al stated that the goal was to "explain how badly the present society functions, how people's frustrations stem from the social structure, how unnecessary and oppressive the present institutional arrangements are and how much better an alternative social order world work."
When Al came to Oregon, he brought the Sociology Liberation Movement's newsletter, The Insurgent Sociologist, with him, with the intention of turning it into a journal of socialist scholarship. We formed a collective with interested graduate students, solicited articles, collated and addressed the copies, and mailed them out free to anyone who'd signed a list at an annual meeting. The costs were covered by a film series which we ran on the Oregon campus. The mailing parties were fun, probably the only cooperative work most of us had ever done, and spouses and children joined in. When somebody asked my son if he knew what his daddy did for a living, he said, "yeah, he puts things in piles to go to different cities."
We agreed that The Insurgent Sociologist should be open to a wide range of radical and socialist perspectives, instead of trying to define a narrow political line. A similar agreement enabled Al and me to work together for many years, despite the fact that I was a "wishy washy social democrat" while he was an staunch Leninist. What made him so intriguing was his insistence on combining theoretical orthodoxy with exhaustive empirical work. While many radicals retreated into theoretical speculation or utopian visions, Al focused on the difficult issues others ignored such as human rights in the Soviet Union. He relied largely on mainstream specialists for factual information, always carefully footnoted, and made the best case possible for an orthodox Marxist interpretation. His books are most fascinating when they defend positions I find outrageous, such as supporting the Polish government against the Solidarity movement.
The conflicts within University of Oregon sociology department became more complex when issues of preferential hiring for women and minorities were added to the splits between Marxists and mainstream sociologists and between Leninists and cultural Marxists. As an untenured white male Marxist with an "abrasive personality," my future in the department didn't look good and the gloomy winters became wearing on my psyche. I left for safer and sunnier climes at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, where everything was peaceful and my personality was unproblematic. Al remained, got tenure at Oregon, and took over my role as the department's scapegoat. He gradually became more and more isolated from his colleagues, especially from the feminists and the cultural Marxists.
My marriage finally broke up as Carol deepened her commitment to feminism and I envied the swinging singles. I dealt with the divorce by getting involved in humanistic psychology and personal growth, sampling the singles scene, and eventually remarrying. For Al, personal life was always secondary to political and intellectual projects. I can remember his telling me that he feared his wife's getting pregnant as he would have only nine months to complete the book he was working on. I already had two small children at the time, and no book. He, also, was divorced, but he responded by becoming more and more involved in his work.
The annual ASA meetings were a pleasure largely because I would get to spend time with Al. He would stay the full five days at the meetings, but would only attend one or two sessions, spending the rest of the time sitting at a table selling copies of The Insurgent Sociologist. It was a great way to meet interesting people and find out what was going on around the country. We also helped to organize the radical caucus at each year's ASA meetings, and prepared resolutions on all the burning issues for the business meetings
As the radical movements around us waned, we became more professionalized, and I felt that our sessions often weren't any more exciting than the traditional ones. Academic Marxists were retreating into scholasticism, debating obtuse points in Marxist theory or developing complex conceptual schemes to disguise the fact that the world really wasn't evolving as we had expected. Much of the Marxist work was, in my view, just as obtuse as the worst of the establishment sociology we had protested as students.
As a tenured professor, I could have gone on giving the same lectures year after year, but I began to feel that I was more of a relic than a revolutionary. I moved on to other interests, but Al remained loyal to Marxism-Leninism. He knew that few students were persuaded by his arguments, but he took comfort in what he called the "lazy dog effect," which meant that years later, when social contradictions had reached a peak, they would think back to what their radical sociology instructor had said and the truth would "click" in their heads. He also continued to search for a Marxist-Leninist movement which would follow the correct line and bring revolutionary consciousness to the masses. For years, he was involved with a group which was centered in Philadelphia and kept asking me if I had heard about its activities. I had to tell him it was a minor sect with no real political influence, and teased him about his eternal quest for a nonsectarian sect. When the Philadelphia group fell apart, he grudgingly acknowledged that there was truth to my remarks.
I knew Al was disappointed in political trends, but he seemed personally contented when I saw him at the 1984 International Institute of Sociology meetings in Seattle. He conceded at a panel that he had no idea how to bring about a revolution in America, but he was good natured about it and insisted that we go out drinking afterwards. He was even quite charming on a brief visit to my parents' home, taking an interest in my mother's work on health food faddism.
It was a complete shock when I got a call from my ex-wife the next March with the news, "Al Szymanski has committed suicide." She'd heard from his ex-wife, who gave her no clue as to why he did it. As the reality of his death sank in, I felt worse and worse. Losing a friend my own age, 43, was bad enough. But Al was someone I genuinely admired, not just as a scholar but, more importantly, as a man who lived for and by his convictions. What principle could have led him to this? I realized that the writing I was doing at the time was meaningful to me largely as part of a dialogue with Al. Why should I go on if he had decided it wasn't worth living for?
After the burial, Al's girl friend told me that he had been taking antidepressants for a long time but had avoided psychotherapy or even medical attention for what he thought was liver cancer but was only gall stones. I remembered conversations years ago when he urged me to keep a gun in the house in preparation for the revolution. Carol and I wouldn't consider such a thing with small children in the house, even if we had believed that a violent revolution might someday be necessary. We certainly never anticipated that Al would keep his gun by his bedside to comfort himself during bouts of depression, then, finally, one lonely agonizing weekend, use it on himself.
Many people asked if I knew why he had done it. I wasn't sure. If he had intended it as a political statement, he would have written a political testament. All he left was a 3 by 5 card asking that his retirement money be divided among a number of radical journals, and a small fund for his dogs. Looking back, my biggest regret is that I didn't urge him to encourage his wife to have children even if it meant delaying his book a year or two. At least I could have responded more seriously, in later years, to his questions about my successful second marriage, and encouraged him to talk more freely about his difficulties in establishing a committed relationship. I don't know that talking with me would have helped. But at least I would have the comfort of knowing that I had done everything I could to help. There is a sense in which the personal is political, but Al went too far in subordinating his personal life to his politics.
Although Al was my own age, he was also something of a mentor for me because of his brilliance, personal charisma and strong sense of commitment. He shared my disillusionment with the scholasticism in Marxist sociology and insisted on dealing with difficult political and empirical issues. In a sense, his death was the end of my youth. I realized that we weren't young people having a good time tweaking the establishment's nose. This was real life.
Al's niece, Judith Cosentino,
send me the following letter in December, 2015, and some
I've been meaning to write you for a long time. One night several
years ago, I did a Google search of my uncle, Al Szymanski (my
mother's brother) and came across your well-written article, "Al
Szymanski: A Personal and Political Memoir." From the very first
paragraph, I was completely drawn in to your article - it had so much
vivid description and insight. (By the way, I found your email address
on your Rutgers home page that said you had retired.)
Uncle Al died when I was only five. My memories of him are few, but
they're happy: he would tickle me nearly to death if I called him
"late for dinner." His smile would light up a room. As a joke, he tied
my hands behind my back with my own hair ribbon during the last
Christmas he was with us, and while I thought it was all in good fun,
my mom was rather annoyed.
Ted, it was so wonderful to read your article by a person who knew
Uncle Al well. I still have his scrapbook of many of his achievements,
and it's a fascinating read, but all the same - and especially now
that I'm older - I wish I knew him more as a person. I am proud to
have an uncle that was as involved with noble causes as he was.
I wish with all my heart it hadn't ended so tragically. From what my
mother has told me, he did indeed believe he had liver cancer, but his
lack of a relationship with my grandfather was also a big part of the
equation. Grandpa never even tried to understand what Uncle Al was
trying to do - he all but disowned him because of it. That's terrible.
Thank you for the insight and information in your article. I'd love to
send you a picture of Uncle Al and I during a trip my mom and I made
to Oregon when I was about two or three - I have no memory of the
trip, I'm extremely sorry to say.
Take care and thank you again. I hope we may correspond soon.
This is Al and his sister, Judith's mother.
I don't have a date for this
Judith says this is Al in 1961. I never saw him with short hair.
The following is a letter from a former student of Al's, Rodney Loh, received in November
At the time Rodney was living in Taipei.
A few days ago I came across your Al Szymanski memoir essay while searching
for information on Dr. Szymanski. I'd like to share my rememberences of
that sad event of 20 years ago. I guess it's because of the phone call.
Both you and I received one. And maybe because it's coming up on 20 years
of Al's passing. Time goes fast.
It's funny, I can still remember sitting in my dorm room and my roommate
telling me, "Szymanski's a revolutionary!," and me looking back in total
disbelief. I was a sociology major and still had not taken a class from Al.
I would soon take one of his undergraduate classes on theory and was
introduced to the ideas of Mills, Weber, Durkheim, Fromm, Habermas, and
others. In class he constantly reminded us to never stop thinking and to
always ask why. Whenever he balled up his fist to make a point it was
apparent that he was a man of passion and convictions. Funny though, he
would ball up his fist, yet still be looking down at his notes. At times he
had the look of someone standing on a soapbox somewhere, not of someone
lecturing a bunch of bored looking undergraduates. I remember that more
than once during that term he told us that C. Wright Mills was driven to an
early death. The way Al talked about it, killed would be the word that
seemed to most aptly describe Mills' death. He never really elaborated, but
it was clear that the perpetrators were those associated with Columbia
university. You could see the pain and anger that he felt every time he
mentioned the death of Mills.
In the spring of 1984 I had the opportunity to sign up for another class
with Al. The term wasn't even a few weeks old when one evening I got a
phone call from a close friend who had taken the theory class with me.
Tracy was an admitting clerk at Sacred Heart Hospital and was on duty when
they brought him in. She called to tell me about a suicide victim that had
been brought in whose name was Albert Szymanski and she asked me if I
thought it was Al. She told me he had shot himself and I could hear the
disbelief in her voice and words. I knew it had to be him. With a name like
Albert Szymanski in a town the size of Eugene, Oregon, it had to be.
Anyhow, I told her I was in one of his classes and I would find out for
sure the next lesson.
I went to school and the news had still not made it into the student paper.
It was such an odd feeling going to class and knowing the prof wasn't going
to be there because he had killed himself. I remember sitting in class and
thinking to myself that "he's not coming because he's dead," and hearing
all the ordinary post-weekend chit chat in the background. It was a normal
day, and I knew that someone was going to come in and tell us that Al was
gone, and the normality would end. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in
the class who knew beforehand. I remember looking around at all the others
in the class for signs that someone else knew the bad news, but there was
no subdued whispering of rumors, no knowing looks, no-one but me looking at
everyone else's faces. Doubt crept into my mind, and then I felt a certain
smugness and superiority that I alone knew the truth and knew what was
going to happen in just a few short minutes. Now I reflect on that moment
and feel a great shame at how I felt. Shame and a great sadness. A few
minutes later Val Burris looking very somber and visibly upset walked into
the classroom with another instructor. I then said to myself it really is
true. Everybody looked up in anticipation, and then Val told us. A girl
started sniffling behind me. I don't even remember who taught us for the
rest of the term. It was the instructor who'd come in with Burris, but I
can't remember his name.
I went to the memorial service. Val Burris said a few words, so did Benton
Johnson, the head of the department. Someone sang Guantanamara accompanied
by a guitar.
In closing, I just want you to know you were very fortunate to know Al
Szymanski. I took only one of his classes and never got a chance to see him
in action in a full blown political debate. I just have memories of
anecdotes people told of him. Stories of how he'd go to Max's Tavern and
engage in lively debates at the bar. And I can still remember my roommate
telling me, "Al's a revolutionary!," and me saying, "No way!"
Here is a letter received in April, 2009:
Last week Al Szymanski's name came up. So, like any modern American, I
went to Google and your loving and insightful remembrance was the first
listing... with that picture.
I first knew Al in 1962-4 at the University of Rhode Island, where he was a
junior when I was a freshman, A bit later I saw him once-or-twice when he
was at Columbia in 1966-7. Your portrait of him as a smart, convivial and
magnetic young man rings true. I always wondered what happened. It seemed
so out of character. But then he was a believer and after a long, grey
winter in Eugene anything is possible...
The last time I saw him was in the late 1960s or early 1970s. He was
standing on the rocks at Point Judith, RI, poking around and looking out to
sea. He was a quite a way off and I didn't stop to speak to him, but I
remember thinking he looked a bit lonely and, after he died, that this was
the only time I ever saw him alone... he was always with a crowd of people.
At U.R.I. I remember him being charismatic and well liked but I don't
remember him dating.
After reading your piece and thinking about the times, I also wondered if Al
wasn't undergoing a period of disillusionment with Soviet-style Marxism and
simply could find no replacement.
And I wonder about Nguyen Chu (I think that's the proper spelling). At
U.R.I Al lived in a small, rundown house- a nest of activism- out in the
turf fields at 80 Plains Rd with Chu and a few others; the place was my
introduction to that seductive combination of idealism, radicalism and
partying. But Chu was an Electrical Engineering student from Vietnam,
politically radical, analytical, quiet and reputed to be the smartest
student in the EE department (4.0 average, etc). Al respected him
intellectually... a lot. Chu went back to Saigon after graduation, helped
run the local power system, earned the level of responsibility he deserved,
and stayed on out of idealism and the urge to serve his country after the
1975 takeover. He was never trusted... too independent and too tainted by
his American education I guess. Eventually he left, I think in the early
1980s, which would make it before Al's death. The U.R.I. Alumni magazine or
the Providence Journal ran an article shortly after Chu came back to the
U.S. I believe he eventually worked for one of the big power
Architect/Engineers in N.J (Burns &Roe?). In any case I'm sure he would
have contacted Al if Al were still alive, and Chu's story of idealism
betrayed would not have sat well with Al's continued, but possibly eroding
belief that Marxism was no more repressive than U.S. capitalism.
In any case, I'm sorry that Al didn't live to be one of those slightly
eccentric, lovable, out-of-date Marxist professors I occasionally meet here
at the University of Texas. And I think you're right; a child and a family
might have made all the difference. Disillusionment without a family life
to fall back on can be very hard. Books are not like children.
So I look back and think of Al as one of the victims of a time of belief
and enthusiasm, like the ROTC Lieutenants I knew dead at 21, the
motorcycle-existentialist who didn't quite make the curve, the bright,
first-generation-to-college Catholic girls- frozen- afraid to lose both
their virginity and their independence, and the cheery,
just-one-more-drug-deal boys who were never the same after they got out a
Many thank for your graceful memorial.