Dick Walker, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Geography and a longtime member of the California Studies Association, penned this retrospective on the life and legacy of Jeff Lustig.
Jeff Lustig was a stalwart of the Berkeley Left for almost fifty years and my friend, collaborator and comrade for much of that time. He was variously a teacher, union organizer, campus activist and scholar, and he excelled at all of them.
Jeff grew up in San Diego, then came to Berkeley as a student in Fall 1961. He was radicalized by a trip to Cuba in 1963 and then played a significant role in the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65. He went on to organize anti-war protests and other actions around campus. He received his PhD from the Political Science Department under Jack Schaar, but the conservative professors who dominated that department drove Schaar and other political theorists to leave and effectively blacklisted Jeff and other left students, like Frank Bardacke, from key tenure posts around the country.
Jeff took several itinerant jobs before landing at Sacramento State, including lectureships at Deep Springs College and UC Berkeley and Assistant Professorships at UC Riverside and Humboldt State. I met him in the late 1970s at Berkeley when he was teaching here, then serving as an organizer for the AFT on campus. Jeff couldn’t convince the faculty to unionize, but did get the ball rolling for librarians, teaching assistants and laboratory workers. We forged a close bond over our mutual love of California and distaste for the state’s agribusiness, water giveaways, and anti-tax movement, among other things. We would later write a tract in support of immigrants during the dark days of Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187 in 1994.
Jeff eventually secured a career position as a professor in the Department of Government at CSU Sacramento and appointed Director of the Center for California Studies in 1988. The next year he launched the annual California Studies Conferences and single-handedly created the California Studies Association; both are still going strong after two decades. They became the touchstone for all of us with a serious interest in what makes the Golden State tick. At Jeff’s insistence, California Studies featured an eclectic mix of writers, poets, activists, teachers and others of a progressive or unconventional bent – a refreshing alternative to standard academic fare.
Apparently, Jeff’s kind of progressive ecumenical spirit in California Studies was not the CSU President’s vision of what should be done with a staid center for government policy wonks in Sacramento, so there was always tension with the administration. But Jeff had a clear vision of what he wanted and was never one to be brought to heel, so at the end of the 90s he decided to go back to teaching full-time. He also decided to leave California Studies to others at the end of the 1990s – although he came back to help out with a couple CSA conferences in the late 2000s. For all his great work, the association gave him the Carey McWilliams Award in 2002.
Jeff had found a new outlet for his immense energies. His new mission was to reactivate a sleepy California Faculty Association, the union that represented faculty in the CSU system, and, naturally, he succeeded. That union is today a progressive force fighting for public higher education in the state.
Jeff retired in 2010 to work on a new book. Because he was such a committed public intellectual and activist, Jeff’s scholarship is sometimes overlooked. His first book, Corporate Liberalism, is a great read and an important disquisition on 20th century liberalism and its inevitable distortion by capitalist power. Jeff’s articles were always sharp and to the point, whether it was on the failure of Leninist parties, the tension between race and class on the left, on the legacy of 1960s communalism, or the decline of public higher education.
But Jeff’s great love was for California and the state’s politics. He put out a wonderful collection on the contemporary crisis in state government in 2010, Remaking California, and was well along with a book on the political history of California and the roots of the present impasse when he died. I discussed that book with him at length after his cancer was discovered, and his brother Steve and I will do our best to complete it in the near future.
I already miss Jeff’s razor wit and cackling laugh, and the way he tilted his head as he was about to speak. Jeff was a character, all right, with a certain western, folksy affectation in the way he talked. But he was a fabulous raconteur, always ready with a new story and a deftly delivered punch line. He was ever opinionated, never boring and forever engaged with ideas and the people around him.
Jeff’s passing this June was a great loss to me and to us all. Our hearts go out to his wife, Nora Elliot, brother Steve Lustig, sister Nancy Lustig, and son Jake Lustig, and their families. It’s hard to imagine Berkeley without Jeff’s presence in the old house on Roosevelt Street.
July 11, 2012