The First Privilege Walk
How Herbert Marcuse’s widow used a Scientology-linked cult’s methodology to gamify Identity Politics and thus helped steer the U.S. Left down the dead-end path of identitarian psychobabble.
In the summer of 2021, a social justice training exercise called the Privilege Walk made headlines when outraged Republican lawmakers Tom Cotton and Dan Crenshaw denounced it on the U.S. Capitol floor as racist. The so-called Privilege Walk, or Power Shuffle, is a workshop activity much beloved by the diversity training industry, in which a group of participants stand together on a line, then each take one step forward or backwards in response to a facilitator reading a series of statements such as: “If you’re a white male, take one step forward. If you were ever made uncomfortable by a joke about your ethnicity, gender, appearance, or sexual orientation, take one step back.” At the end participants find themselves arrayed along a continuum of “privilege.” Thus sorted, discussion ensues.
The Privilege Walk is now a standard element in the diversity training used by nonprofits, churches, universities, corporations, and even some parts of the U.S. military.1 Proponents of the Walk say it helps us “unlearn oppression” and “build alliances across difference.” Mainstream critics say the exercise propagates divisive identity politics and mock it as foundational to the Oppression Olympics. A Marxist critique would say that the Walk transmogrifies material problems into cultural ones, economic exploitation becomes the more nebulous problem of oppression. Both are forms of domination, yet they are each very distinct. When rendered as oppression, the material problem of class power is replaced by the attitudinal problem of “classism.”2 Furthermore, the Privilege Walk relies on a methodological individualism that assumes macro-level social phenomena have micro-level causes and solutions. This fixation on individual choice and personal attitudes reproduces the epistemological fallacies of neoclassical economics and most of right-leaning social science.3
As chance would have it, I was among the first generation of people to do the Privilege Walk, when the exercise was just five years old, still confined to a small circle of Bay Area educators, and was known only as the Power Shuffle. In the decades since, the exercise and its ideology have spread far and wide.
Typically, the Walk’s origin is ascribed to Peggy McIntosh sometime in the 1990s. McIntosh, a feminist, anti-racism trainer, and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, is famous for describing “white privilege” as an “invisible knapsack.” However, as McIntosh told me in an email: “I did not invent the exercises you refer to and in fact I urge people not to undertake such exercises. They are too simple for complex experiences relating to power and privilege. I don’t know where they originated. They seem to answer a craving for instant One-size-fits-all awakenings. I think they are counterproductive.”4
The real story of the Walk’s origin turned out to be weirder than I had expected. It involves one of the most famous philosophers of the last century—Herbert Marcuse; a Scientology-linked cult with a twisted fixation on the Left; and a classic tale of intergenerational conflict pitting a young woman of the New Left against her larger-than-life father, a communist-adjacent hero of the struggle against fascism who then became a jet-setting steel tycoon.
Inventing The Walk
To find the Privilege Walk’s origins, I leaned into the Walk’s logic of biography and started with my own experience. My Walk took place in San Francisco in the autumn of 1989. I was twenty years old, had just hitchhiked from Vermont to San Francisco, found a job moving furniture, and a month later enrolled in the New College of California, a now-defunct, bizarre and free-wheeling little institution in San Francisco’s Mission District that would accept almost anyone, even last minute. The exercise took place in the classroom of a young anthropology professor who had picked it up working with its primary creator, Erica “Ricky” Sherover-Marcuse, at a nonprofit called New Bridges that taught high-school students to “unlearn oppression.” Ricky helped lead New Bridges until she passed away from cancer in late 1988. She had also been Herbert Marcuse’s graduate student and then third wife.
Because Sherover-Marcuse died young her legacy is not well known, yet she was one of the most important pioneers of the diversity, equity, and inclusion training industry. Robin DiAngelo, best-selling author of White Fragility, stands, without attribution, on the shoulders of Ricky Sherover-Marcuse. It was in her capacity at New Bridges that Sherover-Marcuse and her co-director, Hugh Vasquez, invented the Power Shuffle/Privilege Walk. Vasquez, now a trainer at the National Equity Project, says that in the summer of 1984 New Bridges experimented with a workshop technique borrowed from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. (That organization is now called the National Conference for Community and Justice.)
“I used their method of dividing people into identity groups and having them say lots of really difficult things to each other to expose their prejudices. But it blew up in our faces. People were really upset,” Vasquez explained over the phone. “Ricky was really angry about the hurt we had created. Recovering from that we realized we needed something better. We covered her kitchen table with butcher paper and started brainstorming. What we came up with was the Power Shuffle. It is an exercise, but it was really guided by Ricky’s theory of oppression.”
That theory of oppression insists that racism is everywhere, central to everything, and inescapable, yet also insists that it is a form of “misinformation” and a social construct. Ditto for antisemitism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and what Sherover-Marcuse called “adultism”—the domination of children by adults.
The exercise that Vasquez and Sherover-Marcuse invented at her kitchen table was, in many ways, merely a modification of practices that Ricky had already been using since the late 1970s as part of her unlearning racism workshops. By the time she and Vasquez were brainstorming, Ricky had already spent most of the last decade leading unlearning oppression workshops in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel, where, as the New York Times put it, “she assembled Arabs and Jews to air their innermost feelings about each other.”5
The earliest written mention of Sherover-Marcuse’s unlearning racism workshops was in a 1976 issue of the Feminist Bookstores Newsletter, a publication known to mount pressure campaigns on publishers that mishandled feminist titles. By the early 1980s, Sherover-Marcuse’s workshops were being written about with growing regularity. In her earliest published interview, done by a locally-oriented feminist newspaper in Northern California, Sherover-Marcuse discusses the workshops:
Q. What is your goal in giving these workshops?
A. To assist people in becoming more effective agents of social change.
Q. How did the presentation of these workshops evolve?
A. Well, I noticed that myself and many other of my friends were consistently making the same mistakes even though our consciousness was “politically correct” so called, and we read all the right books. Nevertheless, we tended to do the same silly, stupid things and kept on putting the same foot in the mouth. I realized that the difficulties that we were running into were not the sort of things that could be corrected by either reading more books or by more political discussions… They had to do with undoing, on the emotional level, some of the consequences of prior conditioning and some of the misinformation… that has been glued together as a result of that conditioning.6 [ellipses in original]
Anyone who has ever been involved in political activism has to admit the truth of Sherover-Marcuse’s comments. The left, like the rest of the world, is full of poorly behaved, hostile, destructive, socially inept weirdos, many of whom are more bigoted than they realize.
Yet, at the same time the flaws of the left’s current pathologies were all there at the beginning. The scale of the intervention is fundamentally individual and psychological. Change hinges on a stereotypically middle-class concern with manners and etiquette; the diversity, equity, and inclusion training industry would call it “interpersonal interaction” and would invert the norms. Instead of children being seen and not heard they are taught to claim their space and find their voice. Yet in other ways the diversity training industry teaches lessons not much different from knowing which fork is for salad.
This framing of politics as etiquette links today’s cancel culture to a deeper history of the mugwump Republican club women of the Progressive Era who sought to eradicate urban poverty by teaching uncouth European peasant-immigrants to act more American. Today the lessons are different, but in both cases issues like wages, benefits, commodification, workplace decision making, public spending priorities, and collective action are entirely evacuated. And, like the do-gooders of the Progressive Era, diversity training receives prodigious foundation funding.
In 1982 Sherover-Marcuse produced “Unlearning Racism,” a 132 min audio recording sold as four cassette tapes.7 As one critical reviewer in Contemporary Psychology put it:
The basic problem in this approach is its confusion of levels. This definition of racism stresses behavior and discrimination (“mistreatment”) as well as social structure (“power imbalance”). But the term is actually used throughout the tapes to describe a psychological condition—a complex of feelings, fears, and misinformation. What is clearly needed is a differentiated set of concepts that are formally linked, such as James [Jones’s (1972)] influential development of “individual racism,” “institutional racism,” and “cultural racism.” Use of Jones’s carefully crafted conceptual structure would have helped Sherover-Marcuse avoid numerous logical and psychological inconsistencies that mar her presentation.”8
Further on the reviewer noted, “A spirited debate erupts over the question of whether Israel is or is not a racist state. Sherover-Marcuse closes the entire program by asserting her belief that to single out Israel in this manner is indicative of anti-Semitism.”9
The earliest written description of Ricky Sherover-Marcuse’s Unlearning Racism workshops was penned by Willow Carol Simmons in June 1984. It was the account of a May 22nd workshop conducted for the Matrix Collective, a small national political network of self-described lesbians. As Simmons put it in 1984:
The bottom line is that there is no escape from racism. The sooner we admit this, the sooner we may begin to become truly compassionate. … Once she [Sherover-Marcuse] heard a little of my background, that I was raised on a farm in Southern Maryland among a large family of Black sharecroppers who worked our land, she dug right into my white guilt trip. “Say to the whole group now,” she instructed me, “I’m a white southern woman and I’m proud of it.” I gagged on the words. “The only way to get to the place where you can work with racism is to get through your white guilt,” she said, and she pushed me through some of mine by insisting that through my sobs I repeat, “I’m a white southern woman and I’m proud of it.”10
Later in the essay Simmons describes a woman whose mother was white and father Chicano.
Sherover-Marcuse encouraged her to reclaim her brilliance by repeating, “I’m a Mexican, and I’m brilliant, of course.” And where I nearly choked with guilt and disgust on my affirmation of white pride, the Latina woman’s affirmation was cause to celebrate. The women of color at the workshop recalled the pain they experienced being raised in a racist environment and realized that they had never been encouraged or given an opportunity to express their legitimate anger.11
At one level this just sounds like the wacky gestalt therapy so common in the 1970s, harmless self-esteem building. A less charitable interpretation might see it as the cultivation of socially destructive narcissism. Why the intense focus on individual subjectivity in the name of politics and done at the expense of political economy? Part of the answer, I believe, lies in Ricky’s biography.
Old Left, New Left
Ricky was born at New York City in 1938. But her story is very bound up with that of her father, Miles Sherover. Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1896, Miles was brought to New York as a small boy; the untimely death of his father meant he had to work while still a youth selling insurance door to door. Yet, he later attended City College.
In the twenties and thirties, he traveled widely, mixing freelance journalism and “ventures in international trade.” A 1930 essay of his included this author bio: “Mr. Sherover is an American who recently returned from Russia after spending 16 months there as a business organizer and efficiency engineer in the employ of the Cultural Building Trust of the Soviet Union. He had previously been in Russia during 1927.”12 During that sojourn he seems to have spent time at the massive new Magnitogorsk steel factory because he wrote about it with reverence and great detail.
Back in the States, Sherover became the first American underwriter of Soviet bonds. During the Spanish Civil War, he worked as the Spanish Republican Government’s purchasing agent in the U.S. Through a company called Hanover Sales, Sherover worked—secretly and illegally but with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal knowledge and consent—to circumvent U.S. neutrality legislation.
In close cooperation with FDR’s brother-in-law, Gracie Hall Roosevelt, Sherover also met with FDR. In exchange for covert aid, Sherover facilitated the transfer of captured German and Italian aircraft technology from the Spanish battlefield to the United States. In 1938, Sherover successfully dispatched 30 shipments of gear to Spain by way of third countries like France. But a scheme to purchase and export $50 million worth of “bombing aircraft” in the same manner was exposed and thwarted by right-wingers in the aircraft industry.13
As one historian put it: “The Mid Atlantic Shipping Company of London, and the Hanover Sales Co. of New York thus helped to sustain the [Spanish] Republican fighting forces for almost two and a half years.”14 In fact, Miles Sherover’s wheeling and dealing helped not only the Soviet Union and the Spanish Republic confront fascism, but also helped the United States—studying and testing those captured German and Italian aircraft greatly facilitated early U.S. preparation for war.
From 1943 when Ricky was five until 1947 when she was nine, Miles Sherover and his family lived in Mexico City where, according to his younger daughter Yeshi (Leslie) Sherover Neumann, “He made documentary films about the revolution—but I don’t think they exist anymore.” The two girls had a “communist German refugee governess,” as one online tribute explains.
Even as Miles Sherover rendered valiant and valuable service to left-wing causes, he seems to have also taken care of himself. After all, he was a businessman. For example, at some point along the line Miles purchased the Eastern Block distribution rights to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In 1947 he sold those rights to the Communist government of Czechoslovakia for $50,000 ($600,000 in today’s prices) which was well over ten times the standard going rate for such deals.15
After that, Miles Sherover left his wife and two daughters, departed for Venezuela, and in 1948 founded Sivensa, which quickly became that country’s largest private steel corporation. Sherover was Sivensa’s single largest investor and the firm’s first president. While developing markets in Israel, Miles met and soon married Latvian-born Gitta Belson. And by 1955 he was dividing his time between Caracas and Jerusalem.
A decade later Miles Sherover was wealthy enough to help found and endow (through a large donation to the municipality of Jerusalem) the eponymous Jerusalem Theater. According to lore, Sherover, who loved music, had complained to his new wife Gitta that Jerusalem’s largest venue, an old movie theater, was no place for concerts. To which Gitta replied: “If you don’t like listening to music in that hall, then build us a better hall.”16 And so he did.
Planning began for the massive modernist complex housing six large theaters in 1964 and the theater opened in 1971. Conveniently, it was built next door to the Sherovers’ villa.
Miles Sherover was friends with Yitzhak Rabin and, after the Six Day War of 1967, was known to regularly entertain prominent Arab guests. When Miles Sherover died in 1976 his obituaries described him variously as a: “leading industrialist,” “millionaire,” or “steel tycoon.”17
Ricky occasionally described herself as a “red diaper baby.”18 Indeed, Miles Sherover may have been a member of the Communist Party—one John Birch Society document contains an accusation that he was the treasurer. But even if he was not a member, he supported many of the same causes. More importantly, he was an old-school Übermensch with decidedly macho, even ruthless characteristics; his politics throughout display an aggressively pragmatic streak. One suspects that for Miles Sherover getting things done, preferably on a very large scale, was far more important than being ideologically pure. The scope of his self-actualization is remarkable, but it is also obvious that when he left his family, he inflicted emotional wounds on his daughters even if he supported them financially.
As her father built a massive fortune in the steel industry and began life with his new wife in Israel, Ricky attended high school in NYC and then went off to study at Oberlin College. Upon graduation she followed her father to Israel, where she worked at Kibbutz, Ein Hahoresh, on the Sharon plain between Haifa and Tel Aviv. She spent two years there and learned Hebrew. According to Elisha Porat, a prolific Hebrew poet who was on the Kibbutz with Ricky, her father Miles “came to visit her, and tried to meet her a few times while she was at the kibbutz, but she was angry with him and didn’t want to see him.”19
Father and daughter eventually reconciled but the biographical sketches of Ricky Sherover-Marcuse that litter the web never mention that she was the daughter of a very rich man; the daughter of an actual capitalist, even if that capitalist was some fading shade of Red. In light of Ricky’s efforts to change the subject from economic exploitation to the more general field of oppression this omission seems to betray not only oedipal rage, but also a guilty conscience. The charge could be: Rich girl convinces people to focus on race and gender instead of class. As it turns out, that is also the story of Peggy McIntosh. Her mother was a blueblood, heiress, wasp, debutante. Her father was a wealthy inventor and manager at Bell Laboratories.20 By nominally devoting her life to purging the Left of its alleged class-first sins, Ricky indulged in a quintessentially New Left reaction against the Old Left of her father.
Returning from Israel in the early sixties, Ricky began graduate work at Brandeis where she became a teaching assistant to the famous Frankfurt School scholar Herbert Marcuse. In 1965 when Marcuse moved to the University of California, San Diego, Ricky and a few other graduate students followed.21
San Diego—a city defined by its connections to the Navy and a cluster of military contractors like Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Rand, and a university dominated by defense linked sciences—soon turned hostile toward the nominally Marxist émigré professor. Marcuse was, after all, Ph.D. advisor to Angela Davis. Before long, right-wing fanatics threatened Marcuse’s life. Armed students defended his house, and a pistol-packing New Left heavy sat in on the philosopher’s classes as an undercover bodyguard. Governor Reagan took a personal interest in seeing that Marcuse was not reappointed. And by the end of 1970, Marcuse was gone. A temporary appointment at UC Santa Cruz followed, but Marcuse spent his final years as a public intellectual with no permanent university post.
Ricky and Marcuse seem to have gotten together in 1974, the year after Marcuse’s second wife Inge Neumann passed away, and were married in 1976, the year Miles Sherover died. Herbert Marcuse would die in Germany only three years later.
Sherover-Marcuse completed her doctorate in 1984 from Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main with Juergen Habermas as her advisor. Two years later, her dissertation was published as Emancipation and Consciousness.22 The book is a highly academic, close reading of Marx’s first two years of explicitly political writing, particularly “The Wood Theft Debate” articles in Rheinische Zeitung and his essay “On the Jewish Question.” Laden with the dense and tedious prose befitting a dissertation submitted to a German university, the book offers a sympathetic but critical reading of Marx.
For Sherover-Marcuse, “Marx’s early thinking about emancipatory consciousness exhibits a tension between two perspectives: one which regards emancipatory consciousness as contingent and problematic, and one which regards emancipatory consciousness as inevitable and unproblematic” (EC 4). She describes Marx as having a “dogmatic conception of the proletariat that exists in tension with the dialectical conception of emancipatory subjectivity suggested by the notion of a struggle against the ‘internal priest’” (EC 16). For Sherover-Marcuse, this “clearly implies that the subjectivity of the proletariat is not already emancipated, and thus that the development of an emancipatory subjectivity is to be conceptualized as a struggle against internalized oppression” (EC 120).
Sherover-Marcuse argues that, “Marx considers the abolition of mystified consciousness only in terms of removing its external causes. He fails to consider the possibility that the abolition of mystified consciousness may require an intentional practice which focuses directly on its continuing existence in the subjectivity of individuals” (EC 95). For Sherover-Marcuse, this means “we cannot seek refuge in these early texts from the dogmatism in the later Marxist tradition.” Because, for her, “Marx’s later thinking about emancipatory subjectivity is also characterized by a dogmatic perspective” (EC 121).
Translation: Marx is a bit too materialist. It is a classic New Left framing: subjectivity is in the saddle and Marx is critiqued for not producing a full theory of revolutionary consciousness. That task would become the siren song of many New Left radicals who, in their attempts to liberate themselves and others, experimented with everything from LSD and group sex to ethno-nationalism and homemade bombs.
Sherover-Marcuse is correct that Marx does not develop a theory of emancipatory consciousness, but she could be critiqued for missing most of what Marx did address. For example, in her discussion of the Wood Theft Debates, all of Marx’s rudimentary but deep insights are simply skipped. We get nothing about the nature of state power, the violent production of property through the law, and the central role of human-environment interactions that are the ecological heart of nominally “economic” processes.
Emancipation and Consciousness reveals the influence of Ricky’s mentor and late husband Herbert Marcuse. Famously critical of the class politics of an earlier Marxism, by the 1960s Marcuse saw the working classes of the core capitalist economies as too pampered, repressed, and brainwashed to make revolution. A new politics of liberation and transformed consciousness was needed; so too, new constituencies to move the struggle for socialism forward on the basis of a change in consciousness. In Marcuse’s work, psychological repression and political oppression do not merely rhyme, they are ontologically intertwined. He was, after all, Heidegger’s student and one feels the shadow of dasein in Marcuse’s descriptions of the New Left cultural revolution.
All of this is most clear in his slim book An Essay on Liberation, published in 1969. The working class in wealthy countries “by virtue of its sharing the stabilizing needs of the system… has become a conservative, even counterrevolutionary force. Objectively, ‘in-itself,’ labor still is the potentially revolutionary class; subjectively, ‘for-itself,’ it is not.”23
“In the advanced capitalist countries,” Marcuse explained, “the radicalization of the working classes is counteracted by a socially engineered arrest of consciousness, and by the development and satisfaction of needs which perpetuate the servitude of the exploited. A vested interest in the existing system is thus fostered in the instinctual structure of the exploited, and the rupture with the continuum of repression—a necessary precondition of liberation—does not occur. … The entire realm of competitive performances and standardized fun, all the symbols of status, prestige, power, of advertised virility and charm, of commercialized beauty—this entire realm kills in its citizens the very disposition, the organs, for the alternative: freedom without exploitation” (EL 16-17).
Socialist revolution would, in Marcuse’s view, require a wholesale recalibration of the emotional and psychological landscape of the masses; socialism “presupposes a type of man with a different sensitivity as well as consciousness: men who would speak a different language, have different gestures, follow different impulses; men who have developed an instinctual barrier against cruelty, brutality, ugliness.” The new society and the struggle for it would require “men and women who have the good conscience of being human, tender, sensuous, who are no longer ashamed of themselves” (EL 21). In short Marcuse wanted a “new sensibility” that “expresses the ascent of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt,” and “would foster, on a social scale, the vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery” (EL 23–24).
In a passage that presages Ricky Sherover’s unlearning oppression workshops, and our current political moment’s obsession with politically correct and incorrect speech, Marcuse wrote that: “The new sensibility and the new consciousness… demand a new language to define and communicate the new ‘values’ (language in the wider sense which includes words, images, gestures, tones). It has been said that the degree to which a revolution is developing qualitatively different social conditions and relationships may perhaps be indicated by the development of a different language: the rupture with the continuum of domination must also be a rupture with the vocabulary of domination” (EL 33).
If this call for psycho-social cultural revolution seemed utopian, Marcuse countered that it was already afoot. “It has been the great, real, transcending force, the ‘idée neuve,’ in the first powerful rebellion against the whole of the existing society, the rebellion for the total transvaluation of values, for qualitatively different ways of life: the May rebellion in France” (EL 22).
Marcuse was not so naïve as to think revolution was imminent, but with enough political education one could hope: “The constellation which prevails in the metropoles of capitalism, namely, the objective necessity of radical change, and the paralysis of the masses, seems typical of a non-revolutionary but pre-revolutionary situation. The transition from the former to the latter presupposes a critical weakening of the global economy of capitalism, and the intensification and extension of the political work: radical enlightenment. It is precisely the preparatory character of this work which gives it its historical significance: to develop, in the exploited, the consciousness (and the unconscious) which would loosen the hold of enslaving needs over their existence—the needs which perpetuate their dependence on the system of exploitation. Without this rupture, which can only be the result of political education in action, even the most elemental, the most immediate force of rebellion may be defeated, or become the mass basis of counterrevolution” (EL 57).
Where was there any hope in the Global North? “The ghetto population of the United States constitutes such a force” Marcuse explained. “Confined to small areas of living and dying, it can be more easily organized and directed. Moreover, located in the core cities of the country, the ghettos form natural geographical centers from which the struggle can be mounted against targets of vital economic and political importance” (EL 57).
Elsewhere Marcuse began to describe the new revolutionary coalition: “The mutilated consciousness and the mutilated instincts must be broken. The sensitivity and the awareness of the new transcending, antagonistic values—they are there. And they are there, they are here, precisely among the still non-integrated social groups and among those who, by virtue of their privileged position, can pierce the ideological and material veil of mass communication and indoctrination—namely, the intelligentsia.”24
To be fair to Marcuse, his pessimism about rich country working classes coincided with the zenith of the postwar class compromise during which industrial action and social democratic politics had delivered remarkable victories to working people. But shortly after the philosopher’s death, all that was ground under by the endless ruling-class counteroffensive that is neoliberalism.
A far weirder influence on Ricky’s work was her involvement with a large but publicity-shy Scientology-related psychotherapeutic cult.
“You have to understand Re-evaluation Counseling,” explained Ricky’s younger sister Yeshi Sherover Neumann when I reached her at her home in Muir Beach, an exclusive coastal enclave separated from the main population centers of Marin County, California by the Mount Tamalpais State Park. “Ricky was very deeply influenced by Re-evaluation Counseling. You need to really understand and research that,” Yeshi tells me with the ponderous deliberation of a sage.
Yeshi has carried on her sister’s work of unlearning oppression training. As one of her online bio blurbs explains, Yeshi co-founded and directed “The Women’s National Leadership Project and the Multicultural Alliance Project, and has been a life-long activist committed to social justice and racial, religious, and ethnic understanding.” In a strange twist, Yeshi married but later divorced Herbert Marcuse’s son from his second marriage, Osha (Thomas) Neumann, who spent much of his career as a housing lawyer and political activist in the Bay Area.
In one of her few pieces of published writing Yeshi described a very early political memory that involved her getting in the way of an African American housecleaner. “Dora was a tall smooth-skinned dark woman with fierce eyes. I remember being lonely and hanging around Dora’s edges, wanting to be next to her, as she bent down to change my mother’s sheets. Somehow I got tangled in Dora’s feet, and she angrily kicked me out of her way so that she could finish making the bed. I understand now something that no one explained to me as a child: the painful intersection of the legacy of slavery and class.”25 Yeshi does not elaborate how this intersection works, or what it means that this intersection exists.
Following Yeshi’s instructions, I looked into Re-evaluation Counseling, or RC, as it is often called. Doing so was like finding an evolutionary missing link: RC is to the origins of left psychobabble as the Lucy fossil was to the paleontology of human evolution.
Re-evaluation Counseling was started and run by the left-leaning secular guru Harvey Jackins as a direct outgrowth of Scientology. Harvey Jackins had been in the Communist Party in the 1930s but was expelled. He was a union organizer in the Pacific Northwest until he was blacklisted and hauled before HUAC in the early 1950s. Strangely, Jackins was pals with L. Ron Hubbard, and when Hubbard founded Dianetics (as Scientology was called in its early years) Jackins was on its board of directors. In 1952 Jackins broke with Hubbard to launch his own version of what Hubbard was doing. Re-evaluation Counseling’s articles of incorporation even admit the Scientology connection by describing the organization’s purpose as being, “to engage in, conduct and teach the art and science of Dianetics.”26 Defenders of Re-evaluation Counseling, or Co-counseling as it is often called, would point out that when their modality was early-on linked to Scientology, Scientology had not yet metastasized into the bizarre and bullying monstrosity it is today.
Central to cults like Scientology and Re-evaluation Counseling is the act of confession and self-abnegation in front of a group. That is what the Privilege Walk is all about—there being no standardized set of questions, the statements that one answers with a step forward or backward can become quite intimate and potentially very embarrassing.
As Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth put it in their book On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, “Artificially engineered peak experiences have long been known to induce extreme conformity. In the case of RC, the supremacy of emotion over thought means that the discharge process is exalted as the most important part of the counseling experience… Research suggests that when people engage in embarrassing behaviors in front of a group they are inclined to exaggerate the benefits gained from group membership. Given what they have been through, they are in urgent need of some justification for their behavior. Who wants to admit having just made a prize fool of oneself? Counseling individuals in front of large crowds at workshops, while encouraging the strong display (or dramatization) of extreme emotion, unleashes precisely this dynamic within RC.”27
Richard M. Childs, one of the few psychiatrists to ever get wrapped up in RC, argues that Jackins’s book The Human Side of Human Beings (1965) essentially plagiarized Hubbard’s Dianetics (1950). Allegedly, Jackins merely recast Hubbard’s Scientology jargon: Scientology’s “engrams” became Re-evaluation Counseling’s “distress patterns,” “release” became “discharge,” and “to become clear” became RC’s “to re-emerge.”28
Translated into more familiar terms, we have something like “original sin” or the source of all adult discontent usually linked to childhood trauma, a process of confessions and expiation, a coming to the light or rebirth and redemption by way of accepting the totalizing belief system of a group and its founder or leaders or messengers. This concatenation is the nuts-and-bolts sequence of religious conversion; you will find it in Pentecostal churches, New Age spiritual communities, and at the workshops and retreats of the nonprofit identitarian left.
Another critic, attempting to be charitable, put it this way: “Respected academics who have described the positive effects of their experiences in RC… are proof that RC need not reduce its participants to a childish, narcissistic state. Yet its baseline is deeply anti-intellectual, and its haphazard practice of eliciting strong emotions could damage already fragile people.”29
Something similar could be said of Sherover-Marcuse’s RC-inspired workshops that are now a central feature of the diversity training industry. Such workshops are profoundly anti-intellectual, inculcate emotional immaturity, and elevate solipsism to an epistemology and virtue. Know your truth, speak your truth, do the work.
Sherover-Marcuse’s later writings, a half dozen listicles, bear the hallmarks of RC’s cultish and simple thinking, with titles like “Guidelines for Alliance-Building,” “Working Assumptions for White Activists on Eliminating Racism,” and “Liberation Theory: A Working Framework.” These articles consist of numerically listed aphorisms and bullet points of advice for activists, for example:
7. Speak from your own experience without comparing your oppression to theirs.
8. Assume that your experience is also an experience of victories; be sure to share these—as well as the stories of how things are hard.
9. Expect perfection from your allies; expect them to be able to deal with the “difficult issues” in your struggle. Assume that allies make mistakes; be prepared to be disappointed, and continue to expect the best from them.30
Not only was Ricky influenced by RC, she in turn influenced it. She coined the term “unlearning racism,” and before long Harvey Jackins was also using it. Indeed, from the seventies through at least the early 2000s, RC’s so-called “liberation work” consisted of Trotskyist-style “enterism” in which small numbers of RC members join left political organizations and then push Re-evaluation Counseling and “unlearning oppression” methodologies.31
In 1976 Ricky was quoted in the RC journal Present Time. RC members were asked to answer the question: “In what ways are you a leader and a model for others? In what ways are you a functioning peer to others?” Ricky Sherover writing from La Jolla, California offered this: “I have been a leader and a peer in raising the issue of the oppression of the left in capitalist societies. I have been a model in interrupting oppressive behavior with grace and elegance even in awkward situations.”32 That’s the New Left version of “good manners.”
Sprinkled throughout the written record are occasional testimonies from RC members thanking Ricky for bringing them to the light. For example, the official RC Blog, the successor to its publication Present Time, includes this comment: “I came to RC through Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, a white U.S. Jewish woman. We would be in political meetings together, and Ricky would sit next to me. When someone would say or do something unawarely racist, she would lean toward me and say quietly, ‘I saw that.’ Having a white person independently recognize racism is why I joined RC.”33
RC emerged and took hold as part of a larger New Left reaction to the lifeways of the Old Left. In the eyes of the groovy Boomer Left, the Old Left was square and emotionally repressed. The Old Left, in turn, tended to view emotional expression as childish and irrational. Indeed, fighting violently repressive capitalist bosses and then fascism—whether on the battlefield or by making high-stakes, illegal weapons deals as did Miles Sherover—required real toughness.
“In contrast, many New Leftists,” writes Beryl Satter, a scholar of left-wing cults, “believed that emotional repression created irrational behavior. To think clearly, they claimed, people needed to break through social conditioning and access their ‘true’ emotions… RC adherents’ activism demonstrated that attention to emotions need not undercut political engagement. Yet RC’s simplistic understanding of human psychology encouraged practices that could trigger the solipsism and emotional excess [that] critics warned against. Psychological harm caused by social oppression is real and deserves investigation by those on the left—but not with the simplistic tools offered by therapeutic organizations such as RC.”34
After reading up on RC, I went back and watched a short 1989 documentary about New Bridges, the encounter group for high school students where Sherover-Marcuse and Hugh Vasquez invented the Power Shuffle/Privilege Walk. Set to cloying social justice music, grainy color video of teenagers in small breakout groups then moves to harrowing scenes of the same high school kids (three of them my old New College classmates) divided into identity groups taking turns confessing, crying, and angrily emoting about the various forms of oppression that they suffer, and perpetrate, and pledge to transcend.35
Watching the documentary, I am reminded of Willow Carol Simmons, the woman who wrote the first description of Sherover-Marcuse’s unlearning racism workshop, particularly Simmons’s account of Ricky telling her to repeat: “I am a white Southern woman and I am proud of it.” This tactic is straight from the RC playbook. In On the Edge Tourish and Wohlforth describe the use of self-affirmation in RC: “If a client feels worthless, the counselor may suggest that she repeat loudly, ‘I love myself.’ The contradiction between such affirmations and the underlying negative feeling (or pattern) theoretically brings on voluminous discharge, which eventually frees the client from distress. This is defined as reemergence. The holy grail of cocounseling is complete reemergence from all feelings of turmoil, from self-doubt, from sexist conditioning, and from participation in systems that oppress others.”36
The danger of Sherover-Marcuse’s socio-psychological theory of power became jarringly clear when I tracked down Willow Simmons. Now 81, Willow lives in a coastal town in Northern California. She still has a slight Southern accent from her childhood in Davidsonville, Maryland but she has traveled a long way since that 1984 account of an early unlearning racism workshop.
“Our country is being taken over by Marxism,” Simmons tells me within the first two minutes. “I’m very critical of Marxism—everything about it.” She’s a Trump voter and a fan of the far-right television and radio talk show host Mike Levin. “I was extremely left-wing for a while. But I absolutely abhor critical race theory. It’s just racist.”
Willow hates the left. She tells me her story of growing up on a farm in Maryland, about her hostile alcoholic father, and how a young female mentor of hers was driven to suicide after being committed to an insane asylum for being too free a spirit. She also tells me about her time in the women’s movement and meeting Angela Davis at Alice Walker’s Mendocino County home. Finally, Simmons tells me about that workshop in 1984 during which they did some sort of proto-Privilege Walk: “She [Sherover-Marcuse] kept dividing us into two groups, oppressors and oppressed. I kept ending up in the oppressed group even though I am white.”
The only idea Simmons seems to have kept from her left-wing days is the concept of a ruling class. As American society became ever more unequal and the Northern California Left drifted away from class, Willow Simmons drifted toward the pseudo-populism of the right-wing media where one can still hear mention of “the working class” and “the ruling class.” Tucker Carlson uses the phrase “ruling class” at least twice a week. Amy Goodman, on the other hand, seems to have almost never used the phrase. If you doubt me, do a keyword search of their transcripts.
Asked what she thinks of her early anti-oppression training now, Simmons says, “It was about dividing people. It was that critical race theory. It’s all part of a transhumanist, globalist, ruling class agenda. A way to keep us distracted from what they are doing. And they have total control now, total control!”
Willow Simmons turning toward the hard right does not prove anything—it’s a mere anecdote. Yet, it nonetheless hints at something important: Despite good intentions, purveyors of the Privilege Walk exercise and its ideology have unintentionally helped produce the very same reactionary consciousness they seek to undo.
The fallacies of the Privilege Walk’s assumptions are revealed in the track record of identity politics. Over the last forty years, even as women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have made tremendous social gains, economic inequality has soared. As formal social barriers are removed, the number of elite posts held by people from once marginalized identity groups have increased, but at the same time the majority of people—regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation—have seen their economic conditions badly deteriorate under the ruling class policy assault that is neoliberalism. Thus, we have three women on the Supreme Court, yet the average woman is poorer than was the average woman in 1975.
In other words, fighting horizontal forms of prejudice, while important, is not the same as, nor does it add up to, the vertical conflict: class struggle over who controls the economy and how the social surplus is distributed.
Ironically, Marcuse had some insight into left-wing thanatosis. On the occasion of Freud’s centennial, he pondered left-wing self-destruction as follows:
We can raise the question of whether alongside the socio-historical Thermidor that can be demonstrated in all past revolutions there is not also perhaps a psychic Thermidor? Are revolutions perhaps not only defeated, reversed and undone from outside; is there not perhaps in the individuals themselves already a dynamic at work which internally negates a possible liberation and gratification, and allows them to submit not only externally to the forces of denial?37
The decoy radicalism of a politics fixated on language and manners avoids the question of what is produced, and for whom? Thus, it avoids class struggle. Instead, its divisive, horizontal war of all against all, and its solipsistic turn inward toward pseudo-spiritual self-interrogation and ritual self-abnegation, have produced a, now officially recognized, opposition. But it is an opposition that the system is entirely capable of managing and even using to manage society as a whole. The struggle against horizontal oppression is now officially deployed by hierarchical institutions such as the military and corporations so as to engender new forms of consent and legitimacy. In short, the Privilege Walk and the seemingly radical ideology it propagates are fugazi—fake. The real effect of a focus on “privilege” is to hide the problems of class power and exploitation that are at the heart of capitalist social relations.