Carol L. McAllister (1947–2007)
by Paul Le Blanc
What can I say about this dear friend as these different emotions and memories swirl through me?
remember meeting her on a public transit bus, I believe in 1980 — when, almost
out of the blue, she approached me and started talking to me about
This person struck me as just a little odd, with clear blue eyes looking out at me so vibrantly through wire-rimmed glasses, with fairly short blondish-brownish hair, incredibly animated, perhaps a bit geeky but also very bright and articulate and interesting. No, I wouldn’t mind if she shared her thoughts with me, and, yes, I would try to give her feedback on what she was saying. I had no idea that she would become one of the most important people in my life. We became involved in 1983 in a relationship that ended in 1999.
More than a quarter of a century later this initial connection, I returned from a national antiwar demonstration to learn from my friend, comrade, and stepson Jonah McAllister-Erickson that his mom, Carol McAllister, passed away at about 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 15th, in Shadyside Hospital. They were just ending a pleasant visit, and her dinner had been brought in. She indicated that she was tired and wanted to rest for a few minutes before eating. She closed her eyes, her breathing became a little irregular, and then her heart stopped beating.
Carol had been hit by breast cancer a number of years ago — and for a time she had beaten it. A little over a year ago, it returned. A couple of weeks ago, it became evident that she was now engaged in her final battle with cancer, although it was not clear whether this would last for days, weeks, or months, and she had recently expressed a wish that her final days would not be spent in pain.
For a number of years Carol
was active in movements for social justice — anti-war struggles, anti-racist
struggles, women’s liberation struggles, and more. Once a “new left” activist,
Carol became a revolutionary Marxist while in Pittsburgh — briefly as a member
of the Socialist Workers Party, then for a number of years as a member of the
Fourth Internationalist Tendency (as one of its representatives, she attended
the 1991 World Congress of the Fourth International, a global network of
revolutionary socialist groups), and later, again for a short time, as a member
of Solidarity. She was also a very fine anthropologist, researcher, and teacher
Since the mid-1990s, she had also connected with spiritual and progressive-Christian currents that were very much in harmony with all that she was and had been. A reverence and joy in relation to all of creation — reflected in her love for gardening, camping, hiking, canoeing, running, photography, music, poetry, and other creative interactions with the world around her — animated her entire life.
Carol just turned 60 on September 7th. She deserved more years, but she was also fortunate in many ways. She had a good life — with some truly hard times, but also many satisfactions and some happiness. She was a very fine person, with wonderful qualities, who touched the lives of many.
Carol had no brothers or sisters, but her
cousin, Janice Kinney, was like a dear younger sister to her. Janice and her
husband John were able to have a very good visit with Carol about a week before
her death. Jan has also been able to be of help to Carol’s mother as she
attempts to deal with this terrible loss in the retirement home in which she
lives in upstate
Carol came from a
working-class family in Port Jervis,
Carol’s mother, Harriet, had
to raise her daughter as a hardworking single-mother, for many years employed
in a garment factory, while at the same time battling against government
bureaucracy (ultimately with success) for the full benefits due to John
McAllister’s family. By her own account, Carol was not an easy child to raise. In
her was combined a vibrant and self-expressive temperament, an unquenchable
curiosity, and a quirky sense of adventure. The first time she broke her arm
was in an extremely optimistic decision to learn how to fly. A few years later,
a split in the
The more liberal-minded minister and his family who led the
non-rebel congregation soon exerted a more positive influence, as did a number
of capable, caring, and liberal-minded high school teachers. Carol later
described how her youthful “Better Dead Than Red” conservatism gave way to
Social Gospel perspectives consistent with those of Rev. Martin Luther King,
Jr. She was also influenced by the writings of such socially-critical authors
as John Steinbeck and
Carol was able to attend
When she told her mother, in
the autumn of 1967, that she would be going to
Much happened to Carol while studying at Cornell. Politically, she rapidly evolved from a liberal supporter of Democratic peace candidate Eugene McCarthy to a somewhat ultra-left opponent of what she was starting to refer to as “Amerika” — although the influence of the radical-pacifist Father Daniel Berrigan helped her and some others at Cornell to find their way to more thoughtful forms of activism. Her senior year culminated in her participation in a student strike, replete with building occupations and other actions that received national attention. She had started off determined to major in the sciences (in which she was very capable) in order to become a doctor, yet her interests shifted dramatically so that she graduated as an English literature major — yet by that time her interests had shifted again, causing her to pursue graduate studies in anthropology. Also during her Cornell years she fell in love with and married Robert Erickson, who was completing studies in economics, urban sociology and public policy. Her wedding announcement, which she designed, included a quote from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “… and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The wedding itself, I am
told, was a creative, outdoor event, with poetry and music, bright colors and
flowers, and social consciousness. After this, Carol entered the Anthropology
Department at the
Carol and Bob connected, for
a while, with a fairly broad, radical “new left” milieu that was expanding in
Carol’s anthropological field
work, during the late 1970s, was carried out in a rural area in
Her experiences were among the most valued and transformative realities of her life. She became fluent in the language spoken there, described with insight and passion the way of life she had studied, and shared stories about people there who had become friends — in some cases almost like family. For many years afterward, she loved to cook very hot Malaysian dishes. (I remember when a number of us were treated to our first Malaysian meal, which caused profuse perspiration, tears, and more to come pouring from almost every opening in our heads — but at least some of us were able to stick with it in order to learn how to savor the wonderful new tastes.)
One of the most wondrous
developments for Carol in
The term “globalization” was
yet to become trendy at that point, but Carol was especially alert to its
realities. She embraced the amazing multiplicity of cultures, and often
delighted in (and actively engaged with) aspects of their accelerating
interpenetration and blending. She was not uncritical of all aspects of
globalization — she disliked what she saw as trivializing impacts of Western
capitalist commercialization. More than this, she clearly saw the predatory
nature of multinational corporations, whose profit-driven expansionism (or
imperialism) she saw as degrading, exploiting and oppressing the rich variety
of the cultures and peoples around the world. In the 1980s, I came to know her
because of her (and my) growing involvement in the
Carol became a key organizer and eloquent spokesperson in what, from 1982 to 1986, was a very substantial and politically diverse organization that met every week (with meetings ranging from 15 to 50) to carry out educational, cultural, and political activities having to do with revolutionary struggles in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala to oppose counter-revolutionary intervention by the U.S. government in Central America.
From late 1982 until 1995,
Carol was active in the socialist movement. She was drawn to the Socialist
Workers Party (SWP) because she was becoming convinced that there was a need
for an effective organization of revolutionaries that would be capable of
helping to build popular movements in the here and now to oppose various
aspects of oppression, injustice, and war. But Carol felt that it would also be
necessary to build a political consciousness and experience among more and more
people in the
Unfortunately, the SWP was in
the midst of a very severe political crisis. Carol found an atmosphere of
increasing rigidity — with far-reaching political changes being engineered by a
relatively new party leadership that was determined not to allow an open or
democratic discussion. The revolutionary movements of Central American and the
Caribbean (especially the Cuban Communist Party) were being stridently
idealized, and the
About a year later, she
decided to join a small fragment of people (about 30 or 40) who had been driven
out of the SWP — the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (the FIT). There were two
other major fragments at the time. One was called Socialist Action, which
sought to build an alternative to the SWP based on its interpretation of
traditional Trotskyist politics. The other was called Solidarity, which sought
to build an alternative to the SWP through a broader, more loosely-defined
socialist politics. Those of us who were part of the FIT did not seek to build
an alternative to the SWP. Instead we sought to bring about the reunification
of the SWP as a
At the same time, FIT members
sought to participate in the struggles of our time, to carry out revolutionary
socialist analysis and education, and also to participate as an organized group
in the Fourth International. Among the most important qualities of the FIT, for
many of us, was the genuinely democratic and principled way we functioned, and
also the fact that there were a number of older and experienced comrades —
When it became clear to a majority of FIT members that the SWP would no longer be part of the Fourth International and would never allow for reunification, the FIT voted to go out of existence, and a number of its members decided to become part of Solidarity. Carol was one of these, although there were many tensions involved in this for her. She was also part of a short-lived Pittsburgh Solidarity initiative to function as part of a break-away from the Communist Party called Committees of Correspondence. In addition, she became very involved in a hopeful (but ultimately failed) effort in the early 1990s to work with a number of left-wing trade unionists and others to create a Labor Party.
When her breast cancer was discovered in the mid-1990s, this became the occasion for Carol to “give herself permission” to leave Solidarity and organized socialist politics — although many of the core values and ideas that had animated her over the previous decade remained part of who she was. Among the publications for which she wrote in this period of socialist activity were the FIT’s monthly magazine Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, the Fourth International’s weekly International Viewpoint (including under the pen-name of Barbara Wentworth), and Solidarity’s semi-monthly journal Against the Current.
As part of her dealing with the onset of her cancer, beginning in the mid-1990s, Carol became part of the progressive Christian interdenominational Community of Reconciliation. By the end of the decade she had shifted to the First United Methodist Church of Pittsburgh, and was involved in a meditation group that met at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. She also maintained, in a number of ways, longstanding commitments in the feminist movement, in antiracist struggles, and in opposition to war and militarism.
Carol and I became involved
in a relationship as we worked together to build the
Highly intellectual, with a
probing and wide-ranging mind, this was someone at the same time exuding a
lively sensuality in the way she engaged with the world around her. There was
her absolute joy of working in the soil, hands covered in dirt, animated with
both the prospect and the elemental actuality of helping to bring into being an
abundance of flowers, vegetables, and fruits. There was genuine exhilaration as
she rapidly hiked up an incredibly steep, magnificently green mountain during a
summer stay in
When her cancer hit, I was able to be there for her, and was with her when her oncologist told her: “You should now think of yourself as someone who had cancer.” We both ran more than once in the “Race for the Cure” against breast cancer — although she, by far the better athlete, typically ran ahead in more competitive categories. To her delight, I also organized a cheering section for her with myself and her stuffed animals (Thomassina the bossy triceratops, Petunia the critical-minded but accommodating pig, and warm-hearted, slow-witted Bear) when she ran in the much longer, strenuous Great Race.
Although we became estranged in 1999 (around personal difficulties we struggled with but could not overcome), I have continued to love her very, very much. Through our son Jonah, who has remained one of my closest friends, I was able to stay in touch with what was happening in Carol’s life. When the cancer returned a couple of years ago, his love and his strength reinforced her own incredible life force as she sought to make the most of what was left to her.
One of the most important outlets for Carol’s deep commitment to help bring about a better world was through her work as a teacher, first in the Sociology/Anthropology Department at Carlow College from the late 1970s, and then at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health in the early 1990s. Carol was a truly wonderful teacher, but she also became a wonderful researcher, doing cutting-edge analyses of such things as an innovative new facility, Woodside Place, that provided a wonderfully homelike environment — with many outlets for freedom and creativity, and a warm sense of community — for people afflicted with Alzheimer’s Syndrome, and also with a program that was first known as Family Foundations, an Early Head Start Program.
With the onset of her cancer, Carol increasingly shifted her area of political activity from direct politics to supporting those who were more directly involved in day to day struggles. No where was this more evident, and no where did she make a greater contribution, than in her efforts around this Early Head Start initiative.
This program was designed to help families break through the many-faceted poverty cycle — seeking to help families with young children overcome certain specific problems and behaviors that, taken together, often perpetuate that cycle. Carol’s contribution was to add qualitative assessment to quantitative assessment, through a multilevel participant-observer study of the dynamics and activities of agency staff, parents, children, and community. Such sensitive anthropological “thick description” could provide rich and useful insights that couldn’t be gotten at through other means.
In this and in her efforts as part of the Women’s Studies Program (including a stint as its director), Carol’s critical mind, her spirit and compassion, and her keen sense of the interplay of such realities as class, race and gender enabled her to make outstanding contributions.
in life, issues of dignity for people in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender (GLBT) communities engaged an increasing amount of her attention
and energy. She was involved with struggles around equality for GLBT people at
“Although she had stepped away from direct political activity in a day-to-day way,” Jonah has written to me, “when confronted with bigotry and injustice, she was compelled to act even when extremely disabled by the cancer.”
A couple of the last times I
saw Carol were at demonstrations in
This last demonstration was especially gratifying because I was able to work closely with Jonah and other young socialist comrades from several groups to make it happen. I am told that Carol thought it was a wonderful demonstration, was very happy to be there, and was proud of the role that her son had played in helping to organize it.
I do feel that Carol is part of what we do as we continue the struggle for the kinds of things she believed in so passionately. I will always feel sorrow for this loss. I will always feel glad that she was (and is) part of my life.
September 19, 2007
(My thanks to Jonah for feedback and input on this.)