Remembering Tomorrow: A Review
By Robert Petersen at May 05, 2009
Why should anyone read Remembering Tomorrow: A Memoir by Michael Albert? Well, several reasons! Primarily, the book is as much a journey through the turbulent 60's and 70's as it is the story of a revolutionary life. The book will significantly appeal to those of us old enough to remember how tumultuous those early golden years of American protest were, but should also appeal to a younger generation looking for a first hand account of what those days really looked like. Remembering Tomorrow is not just the journey of a life; it also sets out, intentionally I believe, to educate and inform readers of the possibilities of a better tomorrow. Simply, what good is reading about an American Revolutionary except to education and learn?
First, the book is very casually written. Obviously, it was written with a very wide general audience in mind, which certainly helps circulation. This is important for a growing segment of our American population who speak English as a second language. Thick, showy language is avoided, but nothing is lost in communication skill. The book is written to be direct and straight to the point. Nothing is lost in transmission, and it reads like a general conversation with the author. This is so vitally important when the intention of a book is to reach as large an audience as possible, and Mr. Albert certainly scored huge in this category.
Second, and just as important as the first, one gets the impression that the memoir is very honest, blemishes and all. No one lives the life of a saint, and I would have been very suspicious if the author tried to paint himself as one. But that is not the problem here, and candor prevailed over glitz. By his own account, the author was born into a family and social setting of greater relative privilege than most of us. The son of a successful attorney and living an upper middle class life style, the young Michael had opportunities open to him in those dark ages of 1950's American pop culture that most never knew existed, let along dreamed of. Very few readers of this memoir will connect with a parent's ability to send their offspring to an elite institution such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But veracity is not a problem. Everything from the brutish hitting the neighbor kid on the arm, (not quite the neighborhood bully, but almost) all the way to the very, very poor idea of ripping up railroad tracks (I don't believe successful) to protest the bombing of supply trains in North Vietnam, we quickly learn we are engaged in an explicit, hard hitting journal. But the most brutal honesty comes as Mr. Albert describes how the group November Action Committee, or NAC, which he was a member of, was planning to shut down a war research building at MIT. As a meeting of NAC organizers and building employees progressed, the author states that "We made a case for our right to shut down their workplace. They made a case for their right to work". This, it is stated, produced a very obnoxious statement from the upper middle class Albert that they (NAC) would be "their future bosses".
So, this is an open and honest account of a journey from privilege all the way to protest at injustice, and landing the author on the path of a revolutionary. But the true value of the book belongs less with its beginning, and more with it's destination, however important that path and journey was. If I were to criticize the book at any juncture, I would comment that the author spent precious little time describing how or why he saw injustice, and choose to act, where so many others did nothing. Yes, Mr. Albert describes in detail how he and others were motivated to act in the face of the brutal war in Vietnam, the gross injustice of patriarchy and an economic system that benefited the few at the expense of most, but why draw those conclusions? Was it altruism? Could it be influence from his parents about what justice in the world should look like? What makes a person that exceptional? More than likely that answer will come from someone else who writes a biography, and not from the author himself. Perhaps my criticism here is unfounded.
But the true value of this book is the product of a lifetime of work, trial and error. It's not enough to understand that we have an economic system that benefits only the few, that in the area of race we're little better than we were in the Jim Crow South, or in the area of gender relations patriarchal hierarchy persists. And it's not enough to say one is a socialist; after all, what does it mean to be a socialist? So we want a better world! The key question to ask is how we get there and what socialism should look like. This is the work of Michael Albert. This is his journey.
From undergraduate study at MIT and protest against the war in Vietnam, we proceed to Graduate level study and teaching at U Mass. Here we find a serious critique of Marxism, and the birth of what was to become Mr. Albert's life long passion, along with friend and colleague Robin Hahnel, the development of what they call Participatory Economics. Parecon, as they call it, answers the question of what constitutes a good economy, and what socialism was always meant to be. But to cross this hurdle, it was critical to answer what must certainly be "the Marx question". Should Marxism be the only undisputed path to a socialist future, or should the good Dr. Marx be called out on what Mr. Albert understands to be failures tested by history? If the lesson of what was called socialism in the world during much of the 20th century was any indication, the influence of Karl Marx left very little to be desired. What good is it, Albert and Hahnel ask, if we replace capitalism, which is a top down structure with privilege for the few, with another system that basically does the same, but calls itself socialism? For the average worker, there is very little difference. With Marxism/Leninism "undone", the path to a better future can be paved. A very healthy discussion of Parecon is included in the memoir, which serves very well for those with no previous exposure. Neither capitalism or socialism, as it was known in the 20th century, answered the basic questions of what a good society should include.
Did Soviet style communism, or so called market socialism so popular among socialists in the world today, promote solidarity among producers and consumers? Or does it leave in place what Albert and Hahnel call the coordinator class; a class of technocrats and conceptual workers between owners and workers in capitalism, and the ruling class in communist economies? This is a concept that Albert admittedly nicked from Barbara Ehrenreich, and gives full credit to in the course of the memoir. Do we find anywhere in the world of Marxism a system that promotes diversity and equity? And do we find anywhere under Marxism/Leninism a world where bosses are rejected and self management promoted? If not, then socialism must be reinvented. Mr. Albert calls on us to use vision and strategy to pave the way into the future, and to reject the same worn out rhetoric that has failed us in the past.
Taken as a whole, Remembering Tomorrow: A Memoir is a must read for anyone, especially young folks, who desire a first hand account of what life in the 60's and 70's was like from the perspective of the growing discontent of a self styled revolutionary. It is also the story of the birth and growth of what should be considered the only real alternative to capitalism, that is, participatory economics. I don't believe that, as a reviewer, I'm committing a gross transgression in accentuating my belief that Parecon is Michael Albert's life defining work.
Much is missing from this small review. For example, Mr. Albert's entry into the publishing world, and running South End Press as a committed example of Parecon at work. Also missing from this expose are Z Magazine and the growth of the internet and birth of Znet; not to mention the growing influence of Parecon everywhere on the planet except here in America; a source of bitter frustration for the author.
I began by asking why anyone would want to read this book. I didn't read this book, I devoured it! Simply, anyone who reads Mr. Albert's memoir will benefit from his experience. Nothing is better than first hand experience, but we also learn from the life of another who has fought in the trenches. His hands are dirty and his shirt is soiled from a lifetime of battle. If you want the world to change for the better, read this book.