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Neil Smith, 1954-2012

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Neil Smith, 1954-2012
Bill Roberts and Hector Agredano

A Passionate Scholar and Socialist

Bill Roberts, a founding member of the ISO, and Hector
Agredano, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate
Center, remember the life of a determined activist.

Neil Smith, the renowned scholar, beloved teacher and
devoted activist, died on September 29 at the age of
58.

Neil is best known for his academic work. He was a
professor of anthropology and geography at City
University of New York. In particular, his writings on
the patterns of social development in cities--drawing
on history, economics, political and social theory, and
ecological studies--are among the most prominent left-
wing views on the subject.

But Neil will also be remembered as a committed
socialist and activist. He came to the U.S. from his
native Scotland in early 1977 to complete his graduate
studies with David Harvey at Johns Hopkins University
in Baltimore. He wasted no time becoming an activist on
campus, helping to establish the Graduate
Representative Organization.

In 1978, Neil joined the International Socialist
Organization (ISO), then only newly formed, and helped
to build a campus chapter at John Hopkins of a dozen
committed socialists. Neil became a frequent
contributor to Socialist Worker, then a monthly
newspaper. One memorable article of his in 1981, titled
"It's Right to Rebel," put the London urban riots of
that summer in the context of the severe economic
recession and the hopelessness it produced.

As Kathy Ogren, a fellow student at the time and now a
recognized scholar in her own right, remembered, Neil
was "a great popularizer of Marxist ideas...and a good
listener to a person's evolving political
consciousness. He could help one sort out the
connections between personal and structural questions
and conditions."

Though Neil left the ISO in 1984, his comrades and
students remember the humor and fearlessness he brought
to his political organizing. "Neil was one of the most
creative thinkers I've ever met," Ogren said. "He saw
connections, applied his prodigious energy to
researching an answer, and then found innovative ways
to write or speak about what he had learned."

**

As a scholar, Neil's intellect was evident from early
in his academic career. In 1979, he wrote an
influential article titled "Toward a Theory of
Gentrification: A Back to the City Movement by Capital,
not People." More than scholarly research, this was a
political intervention in the field of urban geography
at a time when questions on urban decay and
ghettoization were riddled with inconsistent theories
and contradictory research.

His most important theoretical contribution to the
understanding of the geography of capitalism is
outlined in Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and
the Production of Space. Here, Neil laid out a coherent
explanation for the unevenness and distortion of
economic development, specifically in urban areas,
because of investment and disinvestment in the built
environment by capital markets.

Inspired by insights from Lenin and Trotsky, Neil's
thesis is based on the contradictions of capitalism
outlined by Karl Marx in Capital. However, in applying
these ideas, he helped to anchor disparate theories
from disciplines that often remain separated in the
academy.

Neil would expand on these theories to develop analyses
on the commodification of nature under capitalism,
politics in the study of geography, and U.S.
imperialism. One of his most celebrated books, American
Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to
Globalization--for which he received the Los Angeles
Times Book Prize for Biography for 2002--traces
American military interventionism through the age of
globalization. The book would prove prophetic when, one
year later, the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq.

Upon his arrival at the City University of New York's
Graduate Center, Smith's scholarship and sharp politics
attracted a crowd of activists, intellectuals and
radicals of all stripes to his courses. From seasoned
anti-gentrification activists of Washington, D.C., to
peasant organizers from Costa Rica, and the curious
from everywhere in between, they all found a seat at
the table. His classes were lively with dissension and
debate, and it was alright to be political; in fact, it
was encouraged.

During the last years of his life, one of Neil's main
concerns was that radicals and revolutionaries were
losing hope. He was frustrated that it was easier for
radicals to imagine an environmental apocalypse than a
triumphant revolutionary movement against capitalism.
During class and in meetings, he would raise the
concern that one of the victims of the ruling class
offensive had been the utopian imagination of the left.

This was one of the most inspiring things about Neil--
he never gave up hope. And when the Occupy movement
burst on the scene last fall, he welcomed it with open
arms. Class discussion would turn into strategy
debates--he encouraged students to participate, and
would hold class at the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti
Park or cancel them to allow us to participate in major
demonstrations.

Neil leaves a lasting legacy of scholarship and
dedication to geography and to Marxism. As a socialist,
he always placed himself in the revolutionary
tradition--he spent his last years trying to raise
revolution to the agenda in people's imagination and
political frontiers. He left us too soon and will be
sorely missed by friends, colleagues, students and
loved ones.

Neil Smith, ¡presente!