'Then, like now…': The roots of radical geography, a personal account

'Roots of radical geography' by Clark Akatiff, August 2012What follows is a version of the paper one-time Professor (but life-long professor) of geography Clark Akatiff presented at the 2007 AAG annual meeting in San Francisco. Clark’s reflections on the early days of radical geography in the 60s and 70s, his time in the wilderness beyond the academy, and on the present condition of the field, while not easily filed under ‘history of geography’, make a great read…

The roots of radical geography (2007 AAG annual meeting, San Francisco)Then (1970), like now (2007)

I last stood before an audience at the AAG some 37 years ago.

Then, like now, the meeting was held in San Francisco.

Then, like now, our country was engaged in an Imperialist War, which had grown increasingly unpopular as the war foundered upon the shores of resistance.

Then, like now, our country was led by a power intoxicated man of third rate ability and first class ego.

Then, unlike now, the country was in the throes of a cultural and political revolution.

Then, unlike now, I spoke before a large captive audience, who “…knew something was happening, but didn’t know what it was…”.

Then, unlike now, I was under the influence of LSD, which no doubt contributed to my conviction that entire world was on the edge of a completely transformative revolution.

Then I was a young man, now I am an old man.

I still have hope for geography and revolution.

Forward and fiaca!

Issued at San Jose State University, 1971

Part one: Introduction

I’m Clark Akatiff, I was a pioneer of radical geography – out of the academy for 37 years.  I was employed as a Professor of Geography during the decade 1966-1976, at the end of which time I entered the hourly working class.[i] Thanks to the advocacy of Bill Bunge and the editorial judgment of  John Fraser Hart, my ‘March on the Pentagon’ was published in the Annals in 1974[ii] – a capstone to my truncated career. It was the fact that Don Mitchell cited that article in his summary of current radical or critical geography[iii] that has led me to present this memoir; that, and the fact that the AAG is again meeting in my home town of San Francisco.

I came of age in the late 50s having discovered Marxism[iv] and Geography at essentially the same time. As an undergraduate at San Jose State College, I was a organizer of student anti-war and civil rights demonstrations – actions which, as the 60s progressed, became known as the ‘New Left’.[v] Once I had entered graduate school at UCLA, I found myself in a position of leadership of the then burgeoning student protest movement, since my experience and continuing relationship with the Bay Area movement gave me a certain cache. I taught a class in socialism and Marxism on campus in 1961[vi], which almost cost me admission to the PhD program in Geography.

At that time there was a revolution gestating in professional geography. Geography was a stodgy old study, dominated by orthodoxy and exclusivity. Also down on its luck, being retired at Harvard, then Stanford, and also substantially inhabited by government hacks, often with military and intelligence connections. Empirical to the extreme, suspicious of theory.

I played a small, but critical role in the transformation of geography. It is especially my relationship with William Bunge that provides the fulcrum upon which this narrative turns. No one person is more important to radical geography than William Bunge, aka ‘Wild Bill Bunge’. A giant of a man, overwhelming in his assumptions and presence. A Communist then and still one. A tireless battler for the cause of both theoretical advances in geography and the political relevance of the discipline.[vii]

I met Bunge during my tenure as an assistant Professor at Michigan State University. I had been told, indirectly, that I would be hired so as long as I didn’t establish a working relationship with the notorious Dr. Bill Bunge who was stirring up trouble for geography in Detroit. And I guess I was a disappointment because I did. Establish a relationship that is.

While a student at UCLA I had learned about Bunge. His Theoretical Geography[viii] had everyone talking, though we were decidedly anti-quantification. More importantly, I had heard, through leftwing channels, that he was a Communist.[ix] He was the only geographer I knew of who, like myself, had a real karmic wedding to the leftwing radical movement that was coming into full focus in the late 60s. And like him, I was deep into geographical theory, but not mathematical. It took years for me to realize that there was and always had been ‘left geography’ because it had been so successfully stifled.

Bill is of the old left, an aristocrat by birth and by temperament. He could play the piano like Jelly Roll Morton, and sang: ‘Big Bad Bill’s Sweet William Now’, but he did not dig the 60s scene. Maybe knew a little about Bob[x], doubt if he ever listened to the Beatles, and I’m sure if he ever even heard of the Dead it would have been years later. He drank, but he was down on drugs.

Thought drugs were a plot by the CIA to enslave the working class and keep the vanguard distracted. Almost hit me when I said, after having heard his rap for hours as I drove him from Detroit to DC, that what he needed to do was to drop acid. We were going to the 1967 AAG convention. He got so mad he nearly exploded. I had to calm him down later. Said I was sorry, that I was just some hippy kid, and he shouldn’t allow being pissed at me from keeping him from the important work only he could accomplish.

And he was a mover. Succeeded in securing Andrew Young to address the 1967 AAG. Marched with King in Selma[xi]. Was honored by being listed between Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael as one of the most dangerous radicals in America by the renamed Un-American Activities Committee of the mid-60s.[xii]

Bill Bunge gives geography revolutionary legitimacy. He should be honored by this Association.

Also a most difficult personality for those used to the conventions of polite society. His life is littered with broken alliances with those people with whom he once worked, but for whom his commanding presence eventually burned them out. Never a tenured professor, he has lived in Canadian exile for nearly 40 years. He is nearing 80, and in sound health.[xiii]

Part two: The 1970 AAG Plenary Session, San Francisco

In those days, AAG conventions were not the multi-venue, ‘all things considered’ events they have become. Rather, sessions were highly limited, papers were reviewed, and few were accepted. The entire program was contained in a six page folder, which included field trips and ‘Ladies’ Events’.[xiv] The strength of the nascent radical geography movement was manifest in the large number of the young ‘radicals’ who had first emerged at the insurrectionist Ann Arbor meetings in 1968 and were given prominent roles in the proceeding.[xv]. Above all, Bunge and his Detroit Geographical Expedition were given the plenary session entitled ‘Toward Survival Geography: Reports in Human Exploration’. Never before, to my knowledge, had something so far out of the mainstream been given center stage.

The Detroit Expedition was essentially a group of young Afro Americans from Fitzgerald, Bunge’s neighborhood in Detroit.[xvi] The previous year, in Ann Arbor, three bus loads from the Expedition brought the presence of the black streets to the walls of academe. There were acts of showy militancy. Free Huey was scribed on the wall. Militant interventions were forced on staid academic panels about ‘the problem’.

In the year that had passed the Expedition had grown in size and seriousness. An alliance had been forged with young progressive geographers at Michigan State[xvii], and I, having returned to home base in California, became the host for the expeditioners and the moderator of the Plenary.

A small number of expeditioners flew to California for this meeting.[xviii] They were in their late-teens and early-twenties. Although they took the expedition seriously, the whole thing was a bit of a vacation. Most had seldom left Detroit. They came and stayed with us in our new tract home on the east side of San Jose. They, and especially Bunge, found it a disappointment. We did not have beds for them, out in a new tract. Far from San Francisco. No swimming pool.

In addition, we were basically hippies, and that didn’t go over real well.

A big part of the sixties was smoking pot and dropping acid

Part three: The Acid Test comes to Geography

I was an early and continuing experimenter with psychedelics. Indeed, on the day of the plenary session my wife and I and my brightest student[xix] had taken LSD, which may seem a little crazy from this distance, but which was true to the radical, ‘might as well get as high as we could spirit of the time and place[xx]. So instead of hanging around the Convention we went to Golden Gate Park, where we almost got killed as the acid peaked, being pelted by large stones by a gang of Afro American teenagers as we rowed around Stowe lake. Then we came back to Chinatown where we met Jim Blaut. We were supposedly looking for someone from the Indian occupation of Alcatraz to come to the plenary. Couldn’t do it. Although we did briefly hook up with a Native American on the streets of San Francisco, but he just needed a cigarette. Nothing came of it, and we were coming down at the time.

The plenary was about to start.

We went back to the Palace Hotel as people were gathering around. The session was held in a large ballroom and as it started the room seemed near full. As usual, Bunge had taken charge of things, and though there was some irritation at me for the fact of my absence all day, nothing much. The plenary was divided into two sections: academics and activists. It was a confusing mix of radical activism and academic shopsmithing. Perhaps most emblematic of this confusion was the closing presentation of the academic portion. It involved long and complicated statistical analyses, illustrated by unreadable and incomprehensible slides on a topic which was only tangentially, if at all, related to the theme of survival geography. It was by far the longest of all the presentations, and though it might have been appropriate for a specialized session, it was clearly out of place at the plenary. Many people left the darkened ballroom during this dreadful presentation.

If the academic portion of the plenary session was confusing, the ‘People’s Geography’ segment did little to clear things up. Gwendolyn Warren, co director of the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute, was given center stage as a representative of ‘People’s Geography’. At that time, Gwen was a young, relatively unschooled person, street smart, but not a practiced speaker, or experienced in academic settings. Her presentation, though filled with true insights that only a person of her background and intelligence would have, nonetheless was rambling, discursive and filled with ‘you knows’ and the argot of the street.

When whole thing was over, Jim Lemon asked me “What was that about?”. I wasn’t sure. In that respect it was like the original Acid Tests in the sense that we knew something was happening, but we didn’t know what it was… By the time the session had ended, many had slipped away to enjoy the delights of a San Francisco night.[xxi] As it is said: “They bettah off.”

Part four: What happened to Radical Geography?

The consequences of these activities were mixed to say the least. On a personal level they led to termination of my academic career. No surprise. Certainly not only because of the AAG activities – that was the least of my sins. At San Jose State I found myself in a department that had been the conservative bulwark against the broad-based student and faculty strike that had bitterly divided the campus the year before. Within weeks of my arrival I organized and led an anti-war march from San Jose to San Francisco as part of the Mobilization. In addition, the entire framework of higher education in California was undergoing a purge: Ronald Reagan had been elected Governor primarily through his insistence that the student rebellion and its faculty supporters needed to “return to their studies”.

The state colleges, especially, were hit hard. San Francisco State saw the imposition of Hyakawa[xxii] as president with near dictatorial powers. His right-hand man, Bunzel, was given presidency of San Jose State, over the objections of faculty and students. Their walking orders were clear: end the rebellion, get rid of trouble makers, return to “business as usual”. In this context it was amazing that I lasted as long as I did.

Of course we all know this was being pursued at a national level through the now well documented COINTELPRO program of the Nixon administration as effectuated by Hoover’s FBI.[xxiii] I cannot say how that may have affected me, since I have chosen to ignore those fakers, but I do know that I was on the FBI’s watch-list dating from my early days in graduate school at UCLA. I know this because agents visited my apartment early one morning in 1963 in a futile attempt to enlist me as a covert informant.

More significant than my solitary isolation from the profession is the fact that the 1970s marked a time of general purging of left academics, especially those who politics were activist, as well as academic. This process took place throughout the nation, and it is clear that although radicalism continued to grow within the academy – including Geography – the growth became skewed in an academic and scholarly direction, with less involvement in people’s struggles.

Living with family, I held on as long as I could, playing a role during the early 70s in formation of the Union of Socialist Geographers, but with a large family, living on welfare, and increasingly isolated from the on-going developments in the academic world, I eventually ‘gave up’ and sought work where it could be found.

Part five: Geography, Radical and/or Critical

In preparation for this paper I have tried to read into the literature of radical geography. I find it to be a vast literature, much of which I am unable to complete. I find that it has become something called ‘critical geography’. I find it difficult to access and largely incomprehensible. Although the ideas are often right on the money, they are couched in an impenetrable ontology, much like the paper given that dreadful evening in San Francisco, back in 1970. I suppose that is a true legacy. And I certainly don’t mean to put it down. Far from it.

As an intellectual discipline geography has emerged as a viable counterweight to the triumphalism of neo-conservatism.[xxiv] After all, what is neo-conservatism beyond being class-serving constructs of ideas and evidence, marshaled in the service of privilege and exploitation and against the best interest of the earth and of the people, plants and animals that inhabit it? Geography is particularly well suited to demolish the utopian pretensions of this ‘End of History’ gang. And, as geographical workers, we are both discovering and creating a new geography.

I could go on in this direction, but I would rather respond to my friend Bill Helmer who, having read an earlier draft of this paper, said “forget about the critique of the critique…Just tell them what Radical Geography is”. I have an outline of what it involves, but it is more a seminar than a brief paper.

Question:  What is Radical Geography?

Answer:  Place-based, social science, in service of the earth and its inhabitants.

Theoretical in the sense of: Deterministic Logic; Position of California; Theory of Dialectic of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft; The S-shaped curve; Neo-environmentalism.

Activist in the sense of: Commitment to Democratic Socialism; Solidarity with the Oppressed; Participant Observer of Movement for Change; Non academic – human exploration and family survival; Environmental – the survival shack; Liberationist – Black survival fund – music; Community Involvement; Union of Socialist Geographers.

Regional in the sense of: Place-based – you are where you are at; Becoming a guide and docent for a place; Place Magazine (Kesey’s left overs); Planet Drum (Peter Berg et al. and bioregionalism); Back to the earth – growing things; The Grateful Dead and the Bluegrass Community; Fundamental Geographical Observations; Nature Explorations.

There is no time to talk about the details of this outline. Let me just say that there is an alternate path in geography. One of which I am a pioneer, but on which path many others are passing. Face it young folks…most of you won’t get an offer of THE POSITION and those few of you who do, bless your souls, may find it to be not all it was supposed to be. Just another part of the imperial working class. If you are serious about geography as a science, and as a way of knowing, you will have to find that alternate path. My experience may help.

Let me end with a quotation. In my readings one thing stuck out. In 1984 David Harvey and Neil Smith wrote: “…because of its revolutionary potential, geography has been marginalized in an academia in which the bourgeois principle of divide and rule prevails” (p. 115)[xxv].

To which I can only add: Geographers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your disciplinary chains, you have the world to win…


In memory of Jim Blaut, birder, calypsonian, geographer, freedom fighter, friend.

[i] I know those concerned with the details of academe will quibble at this since I was a lowly Assistant Prof and then for no more than five years, but I assume the posture and claim the title because, dear friends, I do Profess Geography. I believe in it as a core reality.

[ii] Akatiff C (1974a) The march on the Pentagon. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 64(1):26-33; Simmons T A (1974) Commentary on ‘The march on the Pentagon’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 64(4):607-608; Akatiff C (1974b) Comment in reply. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 64(4):608-609

[iii] Mitchell D (2006) The People’s Geography Project: Popularizing radical geography. In Mizuuchi T (ed) Critical and Radical Geographies of the Social, the Spatial, and the Political (pp10-21). Osaka: Department of Geography, Osaka City University

[iv] My Marxism is a limited one, based on the simpler texts of the early Marx, and Engels, rather than Capital, it is also informed by Lenin’s Imperialism and Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution. I cite L. S. Feuer’s widely-read volume, Marx and Engels: Basic Writings, as the portal though which I entered Marxism. Norman Mailer once said in a radio interview that Capital was one of the two most influential books of his life. He went on to specify that it was not the actual content of Capital that made it so influential – after all it’s mainly a critique of Classical Economics – but rather it was the way Marx thought that made the book so important.

[v] The riotous demonstrations against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in San Francisco in May of 1960 was the kick off of the new student left. With a small group of newly minted student radical from San Jose State College, I was there, and later, while at UCLA, my knowledge of the event allowed me to turn the HUAC produced film, which portrayed the event as an example of innocent students being subverted by evil communists, into a strong tool for growing the ‘new’ left. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_House_Un-American_Activities_Committee_(HUAC)_Hearing_and_Riot_of_1960

[vi] This class was sponsored by the Eugene V. Debbs Club which at UCLA represented the small but persistent presence of the old left in Los Angeles.

[vii] Zachary Forest Johnson on Indie Maps has published a valuable document outlining Bunge’s contributions and opening an ongoing dialogue around the topic: ‘Wild Bill Bunge’ is available here.

[viii] Bunge W W (1962) Theoretical Geography. Lund: Gleerup

[ix] What is a Communist? In the fifties it meant you were a member of the Communist Party, USA or had been expelled or split from the CP for ideological reasons. My memory of this is that Bill got into it with Dennis, then chair of the party, and was expelled. I may be wrong, but it doesn’t make much difference since being a Communist is really just saying you are one. Me, I was briefly in the timid old Socialist Party, but mainly I have been independent of political parties.

[x] Do I have to say Dylan?! Dylan Thomas was before Bob…where young Zimm got his name. The great bardic tradition lives in both of them.

[xi] The May 1965 Selma Freedom March was the climactic event of the Civil Rights struggle which led to the passage in August 1965 of the Voting Rights Act. See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/selma-to-montgomery-march-begins

[xii] See the list in the appendix. The House Un-American Activities Committee, reacting to the widespread criticism of their tactics and goals, changed their name to the House Internal Security Committee in the mid 60s. The Committee had lost much of its clout. In the 50s to be named by the Committee led to blacklists. This list was more an honor role of the 60s activists. Certainly Bunge regarded his listing as such. Typically, though the Committee got it right in placing him on this list of dangerous radicals, they got it wrong in the sense that they listed him as SDS. He was Communist Party USA at the time.

[xiii] My last contact with Bunge was in 2008. I had convinced him to attend the AAG meetings in Boston, where we shared a room one night. He had been injured in a fall on the icy sidewalks in front of his Montreal apartment, so could not circulate easily. He mainly held court to a small group of people who knew of his presence. He was his same old steely self. (See photo taken April 2008 in the appendix.) Since that time I have lost contact. I understand he has moved to a care facility of some sort in Montreal.

[xiv] The program is reproduced in the appendix to this document.

[xv] If one studies the program you find Jack Eichenbaum, Ben Wisner, Ron Horvath, Jim Blaut, Dave Stea, along with older established progressives in geography such as Wilbur Zelinsky and Yi-Fu Tuan. Things were changing. Your author, Clark Akatiff, appears on the program three times. This is remarkable given the fact that I had not even completed the Dissertation at that date.

[xvi] Horvath R J (1971) The ‘Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute’ experience. Antipode 3(1):73-85

[xvii] Ron Horvath, Edward Vandervelde and Charles Ipcar were all at Michigan State University. None received tenure.

[xviii] Bunge came along with about a half dozen from black Detroit including Gwen Warren and Robert Ward.

[xix] I had many bright students. Jimmy Ginestra shone out.

[xx] Wolfe T (1968) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Scully R (1995) Living with the Dead. London: Little Brown

[xxi] Vander Velde remembered going to the Carousel Ballroom where they danced to John Mayall and the Blues Breakers. Jimmy Ginestra, and his girlfriend, Nancy Koenig, slipped away with Ben Wisner to a hot tub in the Mission District. I – stupid me – went to an after meeting caucus where I mainly just got stoned again by lighting up a joint which I shared with Big Jim Blaut and a few others.

[xxii] If you look closely at the first page of the 1970 AAG program you will see that S.I. Hayakawa – one of the more tragic figures of my times – gave the welcome to the geographers convened in San Francisco. For a true insight into this man and the turbulent times of which I write, read – Haslam G and Haslam J E (2011) In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press – an excellent scholarly biography.

[xxiii] As I worked to complete this paper for distribution, an important new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power (Rosenfeld S, 2012, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), has been published. Based on the FBI files themselves this work documents even further the purges that took place in the academy and elsewhere. Terry Gross of NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ has a instructive interview of the author, Seth Rosenfeld, which can be heard here.

[xxiv] I was puzzled to discover once I started attending geographical meetings that the antithesis had been established in language as ‘neoliberalism’ with no mention of neo-conservatism, our true nemesis. This is a big mistake. Having discussed this with others and reading into the literature of neoliberalism, I understand the thrust, but the language is wrong, especially in a North American context. It reminds me of the useless and fratricidal attacks 60’s and 70’s radicals made on the liberals who chose to work within the system. Stupid.

[xxv] Harvey D and Smith N (1984) Geography: From capitals to capital. In Ollman B and Vernoff E (eds) The Left Academy, Vol. II (pp99-121). New York: Praeger


Bill Bunge, radical speaker

William Bunge, Sheraton hotel, Boston, 2008

1970 AAG p1

1970 AAG p2

1970 AAG p3

1970 AAG p4

1970 AAG p5


  1. Christian

    Fascinating stuff, Clark. You give a great sense for some of the conflicts that were latent then, some of the changes that emerged subsequently, and some of the continuities that we could gain a great deal by continuing to think through today. Looking forward to hearing more in L.A.!

  2. cpakatiff

    Well, I’ll be in LA for sure. I will be doing a repeat and extention of my brilliant presentation at Las Vegas: “Too Many Words, not Enough Pictures: A Comic Book Critique of Critical Geography” Don’t Miss it. Cosponser by Media/Socialist. I would expect to be on some kind of panel or whatever, but I await invitation.

  3. Bill Helmer

    I saw Clark read this article at the meeting in San Francisco, and I considered it the best paper that I heard. He had a lot of competition that year too–Barry Lopez and Rachel Solnit. Clark’s honesty is truly inspiring.

  4. david stea

    Did y’all shave off y’all’s beard? Heck…here in central Mexico, radicalism is by no means dead, but more people need to know about what geography is!
    Bobcat (my Navajo name)

    1. Clark Akatiff

      Any chance for AAG in LA this April? You were the first person I saw when I returned to the meetings back in 07, Frisco. I was not even sure, ahead of time, you would remember me, but los embrasos proved our comradship. No beard, but a big Pancho Villa stash and thinning pony tail.

  5. Les Rowntree

    Thanks for keeping this important history going, Clark, and am looking forward to more from you in the future. Had forgotten about the FBI contacting you back in 1963 about working for them, a topic that’s been on my mind a whole lot lately because of Rosenfeld’s 10 pages about my Berkeley High classmate, Richard Aoki, and his sketchy “evidence” about Richard being an informant.
    Keep in touch.

    1. cpakatiff

      I forget that you are a Berkeley person from way back. I don’t know anything about Richard Aoki but it is clear that Rosenfeld casts him in the role as an asset of the feds. Sometimes people were used without their knowledge. There was a lot of paranoia around the movement, for good reason. Powerful forces of reaction were in play…many people were ruined, or their reputations.

      1. James D Sidaway

        It is odd that Clark’s Annals paper: Akatiff C (1974a) The march on the Pentagon. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 64(1):26-33 rather dropped off the radar in later accounts of radical geography. It is instructive to read it now, in the context of subsequent generations of critical work on the geographies of protest and dissent…..