He taught us about liberation and how to fight for it

December 17, 2018

Pat Gallagher celebrates the life of Tom Lewis, an SW contributor and longtime member of the ISO, who we will remember for his years of dedication to revolutionary socialism and his commitment to helping connect Marxist thought with action.

WE MOURN the passing of Tom Lewis, a longtime member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). With Tom, the socialist movement lost one of its finest fighters.

Tom was radicalized in his freshman year in college: 1969-70. That year ended with a national student strike in protest of the U.S. bombing of Cambodia and the shooting of students at Kent State and Jackson State Universities.

Tom once said that he was caught by surprise in some ways: “I was just finishing my freshman year, and so maybe I was a little naïve, but when they said walk out, I thought we would stay out until the end, when U.S. troops were withdrawn from Cambodia and Vietnam. I was so surprised and disappointed when we went back to class.”

Tom completed his undergraduate and graduate studies and was already an assistant professor at the University of Iowa in 1978, teaching in the departments of Comparative Literature and Spanish and Portuguese.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis

He quickly made a name for himself as a Marxist academic teaching classes on post-structuralism, the French Marxists Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey, and other figures we now associate with variants of postmodernism and the general move away from Marxism after the 1970s.

Given this trajectory, it is remarkable that Tom charted a different course. Instead of concluding, as so many other radical academics in the 1980s were, that revolutionary politics and building socialist organizations were passé, perhaps even a little embarrassing, Tom joined the ISO.

It was in 1989 that I got to know Tom, when I began working on my PhD in Spanish literature and took the class on Althusser. He was the most patient professor I had ever seen, even as many of us struggled with Althusser’s writing. I remember always leaving class wanting to know more about what Tom thought about the readings, and not just about what Althusser was saying.

After that, I took every class I could with him, and he ended up as my dissertation director. I started going to ISO meetings after Tom gave me a flyer for a talk by Ahmed Shawki in the spring of 1990 called “Is Marxism Dead?” in the midst of the crumbling of the USSR-aligned regimes in Eastern Europe.

I wasn’t alone in my admiration for Tom’s ideas and teaching method. In those days, geography, history, sociology and literature students from across the languages found their way to his classes on critical theory.

At a time when situating one’s own writing in opposition to so-called grand narratives, such as Marxism, became dogma in academia, Tom armed his students with critical tools to take on the post-Marxist onslaught.

OUTSIDE OF class, Tom was organizing against U.S. imperialism, especially in the Middle East, the Klan and police brutality; defending abortion rights at clinic defenses; and supporting graduate students as they fought to organize a union.

The 1990-91 movement against the Gulf War represented a major point of revival of the left and antiwar protest following the conservative Reagan years. Activism on campuses played a particularly important role in the anti-Gulf War movement, and it was the work of people like Tom, in bringing students and others together, who made that possible.

When the Ku Klux Klan tried to organize in Iowa in the 1990s, Tom along with his comrades was part of organizing the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan, which helped bring together anti-racists to counterprotest the racists wherever they tried to rally and recruit to their side.

This was also the case when anti-abortion bigots mobilized to try to shut down women’s clinics in the 1990s — Tom and the ISO were there to help build as large and loud an opposition as possible to their message of hate.

Plus, any time Tom spoke for the ISO on campus, we knew there would be a full house.

Tom played a huge role in our campaign to defend academic freedom when graduate instructors were targeted by the Iowa Board of Regents for including LGBTQ material in their courses: Tom organized a building-by-building democratic poll of faculty and graduate student instructors to declare “free speech” zones that embarrassed the administration and forced the regents to back down.

On top of all this, Tom organized extracurricular study groups on the Marxist classics, women’s liberation, racism, fascism and more. It would be hard to understate the significance of having a professor of Tom’s stature actively building socialist politics on campus.

Tom’s activism was a large reason why the University of Iowa was a great place to study and organize in the 1990s, even in the circumstances of a Clinton presidency — when many liberals and even progressives treated the president with kid gloves, even as he bombed various countries on a near daily basis, ballooned the capacity of the racist prison-industrial complex and “ended welfare as we knew it” by targeting women and people of color.

TOM’S LEGACY reaches far beyond Iowa and campus politics, though. For one, he wrote frequently and brilliantly for the International Socialist Review. His two-part series on Marxism and the national question has been read and reread by countless activists.

He participated in the international debate over nationalism, contributing to the more recent discussion among socialists in Spain, and especially in Catalonia and the Basque Country, over how socialists there should approach the national question in relation to the Spanish state.

Back in the early years of the 2000s, Tom was also a regular attendee of the World Social Forum (WSF). At the first WSF in 2001, he learned of the recent victory for water rights in Cochabamba, Bolivia — one of the first important working-class victories against neoliberal globalization of the era.

Tom’s book with Bolivian trade-union activist Oscar Olivera, ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, helped to bring the story of Cochabamba’s water wars to the attention of activists outside of Latin America. Since then, Tom turned his attention to working class and Indigenous movements in Latin America, speaking and publishing on Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and more.

At the time of his death, Tom was an emeritus professor living in Florida, but he was writing and organizing to the end. In the week that he passed, Tom participated in a conference call of activists working on a national anti-fascist initiative, and the day before he was scheduled to go into surgery, he was making arrangements to lead a Marxist study group in the assisted living facility where he had arranged to spend his recovery.

Tom’s family, friends, and comrades will miss him. And though he is now gone, his contributions to the socialist movement will live on.

Tom Lewis, ¡presente!

Further Reading

From the archives