Not being members of academic sociology circles, neither of us had encountered Richard Lachmann’s work until fairly recently. We are both part of the new generation of socialist activists swept into the political arena by the Bernie years. After an era of feverish activity—building DSA chapters, campaigns for universal healthcare, immigrant rights, rediscovering principle and practice of labor solidarity, all bookended by two presidential campaigns, finally followed by the largest protests seen in U.S. history—the lockdown-enhanced lull that follows political defeat made for a natural time of reflection. Where are we and where are we going? We needed to catch up on understanding the world we were trying to change. It was here that Richard’s final book, First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship, found many of us.
Others will be better positioned to describe Richard’s intellectual biography and how he arrived at his analysis over the years. All we can say is that his final book was an incredible breath of fresh air. Representing some of the best political and socio-economic analysis in the Marxist tradition, his work combined a sweeping historical scope with an attention to specificity that allows such a narrative to meaningfully inform strategy in the real world. All too many authors take the easy road of hand-waving their way through the details, or alternately losing themselves in myopic minutiae. To our great benefit, he did neither.
In activist circles, intra-elite conflict is poorly understood and rarely considered. When it is discussed, it’s either painted as a grand conspiracy or reduced to the level of conflict between personalities. Richard not only explored these dynamics in detail, but in comparing our current context to hegemonies of the past, he gave us a rare sense of perspective. Anyone wanting to understand the interplay between global, national, regional and local, corporate, state and social centers of power will be well served by grappling with First-Class Passengers.
Earlier this year we invited Richard to give a book talk to a group of organizers. Even more so than in his book, what was immediately obvious was his intellectual honesty. He never gave into the temptation to make his conclusions conform to a tidy political narrative. He treated his audience like adults, and he expected that we could all grapple with the complex analysis his research had led him to. Outlining his book at the start of the event he said:
“The very last chapter of the book is one that looks at the future. Certainly many other people have written books like these and they more or less they all end the same way. They paint this dire picture of what is happening in the U.S., then they say we can solve this. But the solutions they present are ridiculous: we all need to come together, we need to turn off the TV and get serious. The one thing I knew was I didn’t want to finish the book by making a fool of myself and writing that sort of chapter.”
Richard achieved many things with his First-Class Passengers, but making a fool of himself was not one of them. There is no shortage of socialists proclaiming the need to fight capitalism “strategically”. But as in any other realm of life, talk is cheap. Richard was committed to the rigour necessary for any work of social science worthy of the name. The passing of anyone with such a breadth and depth of knowledge, along with a commitment to social change, is a huge loss to the political left. We will have to make do with the body of work he left behind, which will remain an invaluable resource to Marxists for years to come.
Andrej Markovčič and Melanie Amaral are organizers with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)