— By Bettina Aptheker (continued: page 2 of 3)
Ricky was born in New York City. She grew up in Mexico City between the ages of five and nine. While there she was deeply influenced by the family governess, a German Communist who was a political refugee from the Nazis. It was from her that Ricky and Yeshi first became aware of issues of social justice. When the family returned to the United States in 1947, the governess was not permitted to enter this country because of her political affiliation.
The separation was particularly traumatic for Ricky who never forgot the lessons of her first teacher. As a youngster she rebelled against the roles people were forced to assume by social convention. She was particularly incensed when she was rejected from a Little League baseball team solely because she was a girl. In response, she cut her hair very, very short, assumed boys’ clothing, and insisted that her mother introduce her as “my son, Eric.”
Also from a young age, Ricky was a social activist. She used music as her primary form of expression, and became an accomplished folksinger. Ricky attended the Riverdale Country Day School, and went on to Oberlin College in Ohio. She began graduate studies at Brandeis, and it was there that she met Herbert Marcuse. Their relationship was to evolve over more than twenty years from teacher-student, to colleagues, and finally, in the last years of Herbert’s life, to husband and wife.
Ricky was, above all else, a revolutionary. She was, in fact, a Jewish revolutionary in the classical model of women like Rosa Luxemburg who devoted themselves completely to the struggle. Ricky was also, and within this tradition, an extraordinary theorist. This can be seen in her work, in the way she tackled the thorniest of political issues, and the most convoluted of Germanic philosophical texts, in the original.
Her teachers, in some cases personally, and in others via their works, were among the most influential Marxist thinkers of this century, including Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jurgen Habermas, Franz Neumann, and, of course, Herbert Marcuse. All were affiliated with what is referred to as the “Frankfurt School” of social theory.
Ricky’s life work was shaped by her training among the Frankfurt scholars. Reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, the revolutionary intellectuals of the Frankfurt School, many of whom were Jewish, sought to overcome what they saw as the limitations of Marxist theory. Briefly, this is how I understand the central problem addressed in their work. According to Marxism, a successful strategy for socialist revolution requires that the workers achieve a consciousness of themselves as a class in opposition to the capitalists.
This class consciousness should then lead to a revolutionary consciousness on the part of the workers and their potential allies (e.g. students, the middle classes, peasants or agricultural workers, etc.) that they are the only class capable of overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism. In Marxist terms, this consciousness is social, engendered by life conditions, and most particularly by the “social relations of production,”–by who labors and who profits. Beginning in the 1930’s, and deeply influenced by the rise of fascism, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School sought to account for the apparent absence of this class consciousness among a sufficient proportion of the working classes in Europe to prevent the Nazis from coming to power. They proposed that a revolutionary theory must also account for individual or personal consciousness; that is, it had to account for the psychology of social consciousness. For this, many turned to Freud, suggesting a synthesis between Marxist and Freudian analysis.
Ricky’s book, Emancipation and Consciousness (Basil Blackwell, 1986) was her contribution to this discussion. She examined the varying perspectives on consciousness in the writings of the young Marx (the writings of Marx prior to the completion ofCapital). Then she entered into a sparkling dialogue with the mature Marx, ferreting out a model for what she called “an intentional practice of subjectivity” with which “to rupture the historical system of domination” internalized within each individual as a seemingly natural ordering of values and beliefs. The book was Ricky’s theoretical grounding for her “emancipatory practice.”
The “unlearning racism” workshops were the tool for her practice. She based them on the belief that racism was one of the greatest obstacles to achieving political consciousness because of the ways in which it has been institutionalized in the United States and emotionally embedded in each individual. Ricky’s practice, then, was to combine therapeutic skills in individual and group process to acknowledge the (subjective) emotionally impacted misinformation about racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, etc. with an (objective) analysis of the historical roots of these and other forms of oppression. She believed that once released from personal fear and suffering, people would embrace revolutionary action.
Ricky was driven to do this work because she believed that the success of any movement for social change depended upon it. The fact that she was a Jew, that she believed in the liberation of Jewish people, was absolutely central to her experience and her passion. Never again! The Holocaust would never happen again so long as she could draw breath, not to Jews, or Palestinians, or African-Americans, or Japanese Americans, or Native Americans, or Puerto Ricans, or Chicanos, or lesbians and gay men, not to another soul, not to another people, ever. Ricky had a will of iron. She fought to live for the sake of this work. This was her choice, the way she saw things, the way she felt herself to be in the world.