Professor Armando Arias remembers back to a conversation between critical theorist Herbert Marcuse and labor organizer César Chávez, as part of a larger project on the coming together of Chávez and science.
Herbert Marcuse warned César Chávez: Unless immigrant Mexican farm workers are transformed, unless they become ‘multidimensional,’ they will remain conservative in their outlook (ideology) and unknowingly continue to side with the far-Right.
Herbert Marcuse in La Jolla, California
In his public lectures, the eminent Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse started pointing to César’s ideas, thoughts and to the actions of the United Farm Workers; he did so for the first time at the 1964 German Sociological Association Meetings. The focus of Marcuse’s talk was “beyond ideology,” a theoretical idea he could ground in César’s leadership. Marcuse spoke in his mother language, “Dem Lebendigend Geist” (“To the Living Spirit”).
When this was brought to César’s attention, it struck a spiritual chord that never left him and got him thinking about how his actions were being observed and analyzed by intellectuals like Marcuse, who essentially were both translating and interpreting his ideas and actions surrounding social change to or in the world of higher education into “academic speak.” Highly educated people surrounding César found this deeply complimentary and knew it would add to his theatrical effect. As a direct result, César came to an understanding that intellectuals were for the most part much like armchair quarterbacks dreaming up plays but never playing in a football game, rarely grounding their ideas in social action, stuck in ivory towers, and that they viewed him as one who takes social action. But in the absence of theory, César often took the opportunity to drive home this point as he had many times before:
All my life I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: to overthrow a farm labor system that treats farmworkers as if they were not important human beings. That dream was born in my youth and nurtured in my early days of organizing. It has flourished and it has been attacked.” (From César’s speech given to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, 1984, published in Vida Nueva, 2006.)
More to Marcuse’s goal, to “drag the gown into the town,” he saw as César’s task, to “drag the town into the gown [university].” Concomitantly, Marcuse’s message to César was an articulation (of his theory of “repressive tolerance”) with the message that: Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence.
César linked Marcuse’s theory to the plight of farm workers and how farmers marginalized them, saw them as something less than human, in turn allowing for the creation of an atmosphere in American society that systematically promotes and thus tolerates the “moronization” of farm workers, which results in a structure of dependency, more tolerance for low wages, austere living conditions, and no health care–what César called “modern-day slavery.” He thought it ironic that people in American society enjoyed their fruits and vegetables, yet they didn’t make a connection to the people who toiled in the fields to make the food possible.
In the early 1970s, Herbert Marcuse was recruited to a senior academic post in what was once referred to as the School of Philosophy, the first department formed at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). At the same time, Marcuse became an associate at the acclaimed Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI) located down the hill from the university (in La Jolla) where I was also an associate. The institute was started by the famed psychologist Carl Rogers.
Marcuse’s university’s office door seemed always to be open and was down the passage way from my own overlooking the large plaza, which was often a scene of public student protest; a student lit himself on fire there in protest of the Vietnam War. No sooner had he set up his office then Marcuse proffered the idea of inviting César Chávez to speak at the university and wanted to know if I could talk to the higher-ups about the idea. He felt that due to much of the controversy he was experiencing at the time both on-and-off campus (death threats included) that I (rather than he) might be more effective in proposing the idea.
Carl Rogers knew that no matter how much he wanted to bring César to the university, in the minds of many the “jury” on public opinion was still out as to whether or not César was a radical or extreme leftist. Interesting to note is that even at the height of UFW activities (protesting work conditions), the only thing the FBI had in César’s file was that one of the members of the UFW had purchased a controversial book called, The Anarchist Cookbook, which had instructions on a variety of things from how to get high on nutmeg to how to wire-tap; the FBI knew it was a UFW member because a signature and address were required to purchase the book. Interesting to note is that at one time Angela Davis, former member of the Black Panther Party and one of Marcuse’s star students, was also on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Through my contacts with César’s son-in-law, who headed up the Braille Institute at UC San Diego, I set up a lunch meeting between Marcuse, César and Carl Rogers. When César arrived with his son-in-law, all I could think of was, “If Helen Copley, owner of the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper (directly across the street with a bird’s eye view of our offices), only knew what we were up to, she would have her reporters in our office in a heart-beat.” (I noticed that my father, who worked at WBSI, was in awe of César; it was a rare moment for me as I had never witnessed any emotional response from my father about anything.) Rogers led César and Herbert out a side door and down the alley to a point just across the street from La Valencia Hotel and suddenly excused himself.
I thought to myself “nice strategic move.” Just like Carl, as he put it, “I caused instant rapport between the two.” César’s son-in-law and I stayed back acting like bodyguards: he was accustomed to acting as César’s and I was used to acting as Marcuse’s bodyguard as I regularly walked with him from his home to the university, because the UC San Diego Underground, an organized group of faculty and students from the School of Philosophy who feared for Marcuse’s life, wanted him safe. Interesting to note is that the Underground admired César greatly and took a cue from the UFW’s organizing newspaper, El Malcriado, to start their underground newsletter to the on-and-off campus communities and called it The San Diego Free Press (1968).
Once inside La Valencia Hotel, we sat at two separate tables overlooking La Jolla Cove. Their presence was certainly turning heads in this lavish setting–people couldn’t believe their eyes. As our waiter “Carlos” from Oaxaca, Mexico, offered us some water. I heard César speak to him in Spanish and in turn the waiter spoke in broken English, “I not a-llow-ed speak Spanish….” César looked a bit dismayed but went with it when Marcuse (a trilingual with a heavy German accent) replied, “Well then, let’s try speaking English, shall vee?”
The two men sat looking mostly into each other’s eyes, almost unaware of the beautiful vistas overlooking the nearby nude beach—they were fascinated with each other. They talked a lot about the transformation of cultures, how we live in interesting and dangerous times and also at a time in a world that requires their assistance and that people all over the globe are watching their actions as charismatic and effective individuals. At one point Marcuse turned to César as if a light went off in his head and said, “César do you know that even scientists are watching you for ideas on how to advance their scientific movements?” Marcuse told César that he wished that he were more like him, acting from real life social protest experience, and in return César exclaimed to Herbert, “I wish I had your imagination.” Specific to the idea about inviting César to speak at UC San Diego, Marcuse was powerfully convincing, yet he seemed suddenly to have had a change of heart. He reflected on the time when Playboy Magazinewanted to interview him and his response was that he would only agree if he could appear in their magazine as the centerfold, admittedly, it was a great analogy. Within this context, I overheard César repeat what Marcuse asked him never to forget and that was what the philosopher Victor Hugo points out: Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing.
Following our wonderful lunch filled with fresh paella (the best in San Diego), we met back at WBSI where Carl Rogers took the opportunity to say that he thought the idea to bring César to speak was fantastic, but then added, “We [WBSI] are afraid the institute, which was funded only by grants in its capacity as a non-profit agency, might lose government grants and contracts due to César’s and Marcuse’s controversial perspectives.” In short after all was said and done, bringing César to speak was deemed simply too great a risk for either the institute or the university. As an outcome of their meeting at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, César remained attentive to Marcuse’s writings; he sometimes referenced a book Marcuse had written while in residence at WBSI and dedicated to him prior to their departure–it was Marcuse’s epic book, One-Dimensional Man, written at WBSI.
César said Marcuse “spoke to him” through that book, because much of his understanding about contemporary capitalism and new forms of social repression in American society were gleaned from his thoughts. In later years during meditative states, César said he could literally hear Marcuse’s voice speaking to him. Over the years César would ask about Marcuse’s activities at UC San Diego. When you take a close look at archival pictures of UFW history housed at the Geisel Library (UC San Diego), you can see a paperback copy of the book in the right hip pocket of César’s khaki pants. Some of the most powerful ideas César took away from the book were that of the “great refusal,” the power of “negative thought,” and the integration of marginalized people (a la farm workers into American society). Fred Ross, a UFW lead organizer, said, “One Dimensional Man became a handbook of a sort.” It was following his historic encounter with Marcuse that César stepped up his critical examination and abilities for other ways of knowing American society, repeating one of his most widely quoted sayings:
Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.
As this quote became popularized, César began receiving death threats and like Marcuse (who also received death threats), his convictions only became stronger.
César’s quotes can be interpreted in simple, yet not too simple ways. Reading this quote without much analysis affords people only a surface level understanding of the meaning of what he says about education. When we look at this quote we see something that captures the essence of his values and beliefs and of his feelings about education. In order to reveal the core meaning of César’s quote, I am suggesting another way to demonstrate what he is saying by breaking down each of the phrases and getting at deeper levels of predication. Let’s begin with the phrase: Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.
César started organizing farm workers in the 1960s when in American society we saw the advent of a number of social movements, like ending the war in Vietnam, ending school segregation in the South, ending discrimination against women and other minorities. People were finding themselves which often meant aligning with a social movement and it was like the social philosopher, Gustav Lebon says, the “mind of the crowd takes over the mind of the individual.” It was a widespread collective search for identity. The point is that the times were such that people of all ages were open to social change like never before and that feeling alone in an existential way could not be reversed.
César fully realized that in organizing farm workers he had to promote the idea that literacy was important and in his capacity as a union organizer, he felt strongly about people learning to read, but that also people needed to be able to read, understand and take action on new and effective ideas as well, such as joining the United Farm Workers. César always stressed: You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read.
César’s point is that knowing how to read has power and learning to read well at deep levels of understanding can never be underestimated and is always a transformative experience once people come to see the world and their human condition in new ways as a result of new ideas. As we have so aptly observed in America’s past practice to enslave people, throughout our history those dominant cultures that have oppressed other cultures within our own society have fully realized that by keeping those they are oppressing illiterate, by not allowing them to learn to read is a powerful means for creating a structure of dependency on behalf of the dominant culture. This was certainly the overall historical belief system of large U.S. agribusinesses as shown by their mentality and poor treatment of farm workers. Many people would argue that this is still the case as shown by long-standing methods of what César referred to as “modern day slavery.”
Moreover, at the same time César promoted the idea of literacy, he also promoted the idea of unionizing and for many farm workers from Mexico this posed an ideological problem as labor unions were simply non-nonexistent in Mexico and people continued their allegiance to Mi Patria (My Mother country), so it was at first a difficult path for him to lead people; it was a hard sell. Through his efforts, however, César found that once he educated farm workers about the benefits of unionizing he could not un-educate them–this, of course, was the point. Luis Valdez felt that through the advent of the Teatro Campesino, he and César were increasing literacy, transforming people’s values, getting people to see their own human condition in new ways and getting them to join the UFW. For Luis, the transformational process in this way was another way of presenting his personal goal and febrile thought processes for “turning Mexican nationals into Chicanos.” This is what both he and César gleaned from Marcuse’s epic book, One Dimensional Man. At their historic lunch, Marcuse actually warned César that unless immigrant Mexican farm workers are transformed, unless they become “multidimensional,” they will remain conservative in their outlook (ideology) and unknowingly continue to side with the far Right.
Marcuse encouraged César to write up his strategies and experiences as case studies in the form of what he called a “Manual for Organizing and Social Change,” but to no avail as César met an untimely death. Such are the vagaries of creativity. Besides, symbolically César treated One Dimensional Man very much like such a manual. They both agreed that people everywhere had begun taking notice of the successful outcomes of his organizing efforts as well as the plight of the UFW. Marcuse’s point was that American society was ripe for social change, but up until this time lacked tactical and effective means and strategies to do so and that was César’s contribution. César Chávez and Herbert Marcuse were at the same time estranged and enhanced by each other’s presence.
Armando Arias, Ph.D., was part of the start-up team and founding member of California State University, Monterey Bay, where he now serves as a professor in the division of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He is the author of the international award-winning book, Theorizing César Chávez New Ways of Knowing STEM, Somos en escrito Literary Foundation Press, 2020.