Mark Frezzo Interviews
Walda Katz-Fishman Scholar-Activist
Mark Frezzo Interview with Walda Katz-Fishman
1. Since the 2004 Conference of the American Sociological Association (ASA), there has
been considerable debate on the concept of “public sociology.” On the one hand,
proponents of public sociology have been divided between those who advocate deploying
sociological research to alleviate inequalities of gender, race, and class—something akin
to “applied sociology”—and those who favor mobilizing sociological acumen to support
the agendas of activists. On the other hand, opponents of public sociology have fallen
into two camps: those who find the concept tautological and superfluous (on the
assumption that professional sociology is, by definition, geared to the service of the
public); and those who find the concept contradictory (on the assumption that
professional sociology is duty-bound to avoid taking political positions). What is your
perspective on public sociology? To what extent does the concept inform your research
and teaching at Howard University? To what extent does it inform your activist work
with Project South?
The ASA in 2004 was a wonderful confluence of events. It was the year of Michael Burawoy’s
presidency, with his programmatic focus and address on public sociology, as well as the year
Jerome (Scott) and I received the ASA award for public sociology. Not surprisingly, as you
suggest, the whole concept and practice of public sociology is a highly contested terrain between
those who embrace a sociology dialectically connected to social struggle and collective human
agency, and those who profess a value-neutral sociology, which of course supports the politics of
the status quo and is quite the opposite of apolitical.
And even among those who support engagement with various publics, the question is always
which publics and whose interests are we really serving? Are we putting sociology in the service
of the interests of the mandarins of the state and NGOs looking for policy reforms and program
funding to extend the life of capitalism in crisis, or are we linking sociology as theory and
practice to a liberatory vision and praxis that serves the interests of those most dispossessed and
oppressed in today’s world, and the very survival of humanity and the planet?
Public sociology exists within a historical context of change and the dialectical unity of theory
and practice. But, because even that can mean different things, the point is the content and
quality of change, actors, and agency. For some, change is reform – better policies for those
marginalized, excluded, exploited, and oppressed; and change agents are policy makers, research
experts, and advocates.
But, from my perspective, having grown up in New Orleans during the black freedom struggles
against US apartheid in the Jim Crow South and having participated in the anti-imperialist wing
of the anti-war movement as a graduate student in class-conscious Detroit, public sociology has to be from the bottom-up. It embodies theory and practice as social struggle, vision, and strategy for building today’s anti-capitalist / anti-oppression movement and for revolutionary
This understanding of public sociology deeply informs my praxis as a scholar and an activist –
my teaching and research at Howard University since 1970, and my movement building work in Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty & Genocide since several of us began the organization in 1986 (till my recent transition in 2008). Liberatory education, study, and research, and political struggle are part of the fabric of social life, whether in formal classrooms at the university or in the school of life and the larger movement. To resist compartmentalization, segmentation, and alienation, and the separation between these aspects of life and work has been at the core of my intellectual and political struggle.
As scholars we are not outside of society, but are integral to society’s education process and all that entails – from social reproduction, to the collapse of our educational institutions, to critical
education, resistance and struggle. As scholar activists we are not outside of the movement, but are part of it. Project South included activists from grassroots and academic communities coming together as equals to understand the tasks before us in bridging the historic divide between our communities (especially dating from the McCarthy / anti-communist era) and creating a community-based movement space to do the work necessary for that.
In whatever space and context we find ourselves, it’s essential to walk the talk – in the classroom,
in the profession, and in the larger movement for systemic transformation. It’s been really important to strive for integrity, consistency, and transparency about my theoretical worldview and political practice; and to model for students (and colleagues and activists) another way of being a sociologist and moving in the world as an intellectual and scholar grounded in movement building and a pedagogy of liberation, especially in this revolutionary moment.
My teaching and research at Howard University – in social theory and society, all forms of social
inequality and oppression and their systemic structural causes, and social movements and social change – are deeply informed by Marxism and a revolutionary worldview, as well as by the
works and praxis of Paulo Freire, Myles Horton (Highlander Center), and bell hooks on developing the voice, consciousness, vision, and power of those most adversely affected and dispossessed by the crisis of global capitalism and its multitude of oppressions. They are rooted in dialectical and historical materialism, always identifying underlying philosophical assumptions, historical context, forms of exploitation and oppression, and where we are in the revolutionary process. This means analyzing and understanding the objective aspect of society and revolution in terms of the economy and the new electronic forces of production, the resulting economic polarization and social and ecological destruction, and the subjective aspect in terms of consciousness among working people and revolutionaries from all sections of society, a vision of the world we are fighting for, and the political polarization, clarity, and strategy from the bottom-up that is essential for the reorganization of society cooperatively to meet the needs of humanity and to protect the earth.
Project South was born out of the long history of great oppression and great resistance in the US South. It was sparked in 1986 – in a moment of intensifying repression and neoliberalism – by
the state / FBI attack on the very fighters for voting rights 20 years earlier who were now charged with alleged vote fraud. These heroic fighters won their case, and Project South went on to work with the Southern Region Up & Out of Poverty Now! Network in 1989, to develop popular education toolkits (for community/grassroots and scholar activists in the emerging movement) on globalization, the roots of terror, the critical classroom, among others, for developing the transformative consciousness, vision, and strategy in today’s teachable movement building moment. And, of course, just before transitioning out as board chair, Project South was st ever US Social Forum in 2007, which gathered 15,000 the anchor organization for the 1
activists, organizers, and movement builders from all 50 states and internationally from 68 countries in Atlanta, GA in a historic movement building process that continues on.
All of this expresses my take on public sociology as a public sociology in which intellectual work, research, and education in all spaces and processes represents a dialectical unity of theory and practice, and serves the needs and interests of that section of society most exploited, impoverished, and oppressed. In short, it is a public sociology for building movement from the bottom-up for liberation and transformation.
2. In the spirit of the activist definition of public sociology, Sociologists without Borders has
helped to build the human rights sections of the ASA and the International Sociological
Association. What is your perspective on the sociology of human rights?
3. To what extent has Marxism contributed to the sociology of human rights?
It makes sense to answer these questions together since Marxism informs and is infused throughout my analysis, vision and political practice – in community, classroom, and social
struggle. When I think about the sociology of human rights, I think about the historic context of human rights in the modern era. The bourgeois revolutions of the 1700s, and later the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 that arose as a tool of struggle along side the international financial institutions of Bretton Woods, the IMF and World Bank, that guided the post-WW II expansion of global capitalism in the interests of capital over labor.
I really appreciate the vision embodied in human rights. At the same time I would argue that the struggle to make human rights a reality is the struggle to make socialism a reality. The contradiction between the private property rights of capitalism and the human rights of the people has been ever present; and today is polarizing. It comes back to the essential question: what is the political and economic content of a society that fully embodies and expresses not only the totality of human rights as collective rights, but also the relationship between humanity, the earth, and nature that represents an end to all forms of exploitation, privatization, and destruction. And what does the movement for revolutionary systemic change to realize human rights look like.
A word about how I think about Marxism might also be useful. Marxism is not dogma or doctrine; it is not stuck in historical time and place. Rather, Marxism is a philosophy, a method, and a worldview. It is the science of society that offers a living and dynamic theory across time 3
and space. Marxism is dialectically interconnected with and informs the everyday lived
experience of all of us, as well as the broader processes of structural historic change, political
practice, and revolutionary strategy.
Marxism brings to the analysis of human rights an understanding of the structural root causes of
deep alienation of humanity from its species being; the excessive exploitation of human labor,
nature and the environment; and the powerful forces of domination, multiple oppressions, and
war all in the service of the needs of capital for maximum profits and unlimited wealth
accumulation through “primitive” accumulation and market exchange. What this means is that
human rights reflecting all aspects and dimensions of human life and struggle – economic,
political, social, and cultural – are dialectically interpenetrated and interconnected and cannot be
separated from each other. It also means that the economic base of society and survival is
inextricably intertwined with the superstructure – power and politics, ideology and culture, and
social life – and vice versa.
Today’s economic polarization and crisis is rooted in the economic revolution from industrial
machine and labor-based production and distribution to electronic-based production and
distribution requiring less and less labor, making human labor and humanity increasingly
superfluous. At the very same time there is an objective abundance of all the things people need,
but they cannot access because they lack the good jobs and wages to buy them in the market
The result is extreme social and ecological destruction, continuous war, and growing political
polarization between the needs and interests of the wealthy few and the needs and interests of the
growing poor and dispossessed no longer required for the global capitalist economy.
This reality brings profound clarity to the historic and sharp contradiction between global
capitalism’s rights of private property, ownership and control by the few super wealthy
capitalists to do as they wish to continue to generate wealth (e.g., raid the budget, the treasury,
and continuously expand human biology, nature and natural resources into private property) and
human rights for the satisfaction of basic needs, for protection of the environment, for
sustainable economic and political systems, and for self-determination and democratic
participation in society and culture all in the service of the needs of humanity and the planet. The
revolution in the economy sets the basis for this contradiction to move into an antagonism that
tears society apart.
The challenge for social movements and movement builders from the bottom-up in this historic
moment is to gather and converge our scattered struggles into a coherent, visionary, and
powerful political movement capable of securing the total and fundamental reorganization of
society. Nothing short of a revolutionary movement for the abolition of capitalism, private
property, and market exchange will secure a peaceful, cooperative and egalitarian society that
guarantees to all people our basic human needs and rights and preserves the environment and the
earth for future generations. Our task has never been more urgent.
4. In your capacity as a scholar-activist, you participated in the planning and execution of
the 2007 United States Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta. What did the USSF experience 4
teach you about the US left? Did the USSF contribute to enduring alliances among
community groups, movements, and NGOs?
The USSF experience and social movement struggles more generally reflect the historic
disconnect between theory and practice dating especially from the McCarthy period and anti-
communism in the US. This means a deep suspicion of theory and particularly Marxism in mass
work, and a bow to spontaneity – thinking primarily of the tactics of day-to-day struggle around single issues with little if any grounding in a theoretical and strategic understanding of the
processes of change and revolutionary motion. It also means that “armchair” Marxists and leftists,
when they put forth theoretical analysis, are often doing so without a deep grounding in the
But, what the social forum most taught us about the US left is that they do not have a clear
analysis of the need to be connected with the social movements and to develop an understanding
of the revolutionary process from within the social struggle. On the other hand, the USSF
definitely contributed to enduring alliances among community groups, movements, and NGOs,
who are continuing to work together to organize USSF 2010 and in the larger movement.
Several of us on the USSF 2007 National Planning Committee are pulling together a book that
tells the story of the USSF 2007 by those who organized and participated in the process from the
bottom-up. It really shows the relationship building, infrastructure building, and movement
building of the social forum process. We’ll let SSF folks know when it comes out.
5. What are your hopes for the 2010 USSF in Detroit?
Two realities inform our hopes for USSF 2010 in Detroit. First, if we’re going to win in the US, stwe have to win Detroit. Second, in the 21 century we’re fighting a global enemy; so we’ve got
to have a global movement. (See www.ussf2010.org for information on USSF 2010 as it is
Detroit is the epicenter of the meltdown in the real economy. The Midwest rustbelt did not just
start to rust, it’s been happening since the 1970s. But today’s crisis is graphically seen across the
landscape of Detroit and felt in the daily lives of the people – unemployment and poverty, water
struggles, home foreclosures and evictions, and more. Detroit looks like a city bombed in war:
the enemy is capitalism and Detroit’s workers and the poor are under attack. This is what class
war looks like. But this picture and variations on it can be seen in cities, towns, and villages
across the US and the globe.
This is the context of the social forum process and USSF II in 2010. A really important political
goal is to break our isolation. This means to gather our scattered social struggles in one space and
process in the US; and to put social movements in the US into relationship with social
movements especially in the hemisphere and throughout the world. In Atlanta we brought
together 15,000 folks and this time we’re aiming for 35,000.
Another critical political goal is to bring Detroit and the entire rustbelt into the social forum and
social movement process. This work is already happening. But it requires a lot of intentionality
about developing local and regional leadership, taking the social forum process to local
neighborhoods and organizations, and making sure that social movements in Detroit and the
rustbelt are stronger, more solidified, and more connected after the USSF next summer.
A third political goal of the social forum process flows from its mantra: “another world is
possible” and, for the US, “another US is necessary.” What is our vision? Going into Detroit in
the midst of today’s intensifying economic crisis and social destruction, it is crucial for us to
deepen our vision of the systemic alternative to global capitalism, to get clarity about the world
we are fighting for. Can we reform capitalism, can we get rid of its neoliberal form, bring
Keynesianism and the welfare state back, make it kinder, gentler – sort of going back to the “good old days” (which were never very good for many, especially women, people of color, the
We think not, that capitalism’s crisis is systemic; that revolution is the historic project of our
times, and socialism, a cooperative society, is the next stage of human history. This raises the stquestion of what we mean by socialism in the 21 century. The challenge to our social movements is to vision the content of this society. For US social movements this is the next step.
This brings us to our fourth political goal, to develop a long-term strategy and organizational
forms for today’s transformative movement. We have to understand and frame our day-to-day
tactics in the social struggles within the revolutionary process – in terms of the objective crisis that is our daily reality and in terms of deepening our consciousness and vision. And what is our
strategy, our plan of action for the long haul to reorganize society along cooperative lines to meet
the needs of all humanity with the abundance that electronic technology makes possible and to
save the planet? What are the organizational forms of our movement nationally, hemispherically,
and globally that will create convergence and unity and how do we get there?
We have to have these conversations in planning for Detroit, at the USSF in 2010, and after we
leave Detroit to move our movement forward. As part of conscious and visionary forces within
and with the social movements, we have to participate in pushing forward the political process to
finish off capitalism and build the world we are visioning. The USSF 2010 makes this very real
and tangible. The future is really up to us. Make it happen. 6