Will Miller: The Life of an Activist-Educator

In many parts of our country—in communities large and small—there are activists engaged in a wide range of struggles for social and economic justice. In some communities and states there is one person who stands out as a consistent force for social change. This person inspires others and provides continuity over the years. In Vermont, University of Vermont professor of philosophy Will Miller was such a major force for left education and change—in local communities, at the university, and in the state. A committed socialist and Marxist, Will’s devotion to activism was inseparable from his role as teacher. His devotion to change and knowledge and understanding of history and economics—and his willingness to discuss almost any issue at the drop of a hat—meant that he was an educator both inside and outside the classroom. Unlike most academics (radical or not), Will choose to concentrate on teaching and social change through various means instead of on publishing articles in scholarly journals.

Will was different from many activists because his interests and involvement included a wide range of problems. He viscerally understood that almost all the issues of concern to him and many others were in one way or another caused by, or made worse by, capitalism—the persistence of poverty in a land of plenty, racial discrimination, homophobia, the imperial drive of the United States that continues to take so many lives, the persistent class structure as well as the war being waged by the wealthy and their representatives against workers and their unions and against the social programs of the FDR and Johnson eras, and so on. Although a committed socialist, Will understood that—even if capitalism is the root cause of the problems—you just can’t wait around for the creation of a more humane and democratic society before trying to make peoples’ lives better. The continuing struggle for social and economic justice and peace is important for two reasons. First, it’s the right thing to do and many battles are winnable. Second, it’s through these struggles that people learn, as Will knew, that the many troubles and crises that occur—each frequently with it’s own constituency—are not individual isolated issues, but rather symptoms of an underlying unjust economic and political system.

One must always try to be as radical as reality itself. This quote attributed to V. I. Lenin describes Will Miller’s life as a Marxist teacher and revolutionary. Never one to bow before mammon like so many of his colleagues in the halls of academia, Miller paid a price for his refusal to temper his thought and action. Unlike many of today’s academics, Will grew up in a working-class environment. His father was an electrician and, from Will’s stories, a sometimes very hard man. This perception of his father combined with Will’s determinedly independent streak was fundamental to Miller enlisting in the US Army at the young age of seventeen. After boot camp and a few weeks of specialized training, Miller found himself in Germany as a member of the Army Security Agency’s gravesite mapping detail. Of course, gravesites were not what Will and his fellow soldiers were really looking for. In a charade that was understood by both militaries during the Cold War, the “gravesite locators” on both sides of the Iron Curtain were allowed to cross the newly-constructed boundaries between the East and West where they would take pictures of the enemy’s military installations. These pictures would then be sent to headquarters for analysis.

After his enlistment was up, the military discharged him. His contract, however, had the stipulation that he could be called up again if there were a “national emergency.” As it turned out, the Berlin Wall was erected soon after his discharge and the Cold War was ratcheted up again. Will and hundreds of other former GIs found themselves at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. As Will told the story, they spent a lot of time saying yes sir and picking up trash that wasn’t there. The stay at Otis AFB would be the trigger for Miller’s first organizing effort. He and some fellow soldiers petitioned members of Congress to demand an explanation for the soldiers’ reactivation and confinement on the base. This petition evolved into a series of hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, a front page story in the Chicago Tribune and an embarrassed Pentagon retracting the order, thereby allowing Will and 150,000 soldiers to leave the military once and for all and get on with their lives. Having received his GED while in the Army, Miller took advantage of the GI Bill and applied to university, where he spent most of the next decade, eventually obtaining a PhD. in Philosophy. These years were educational for the strikes and protests going on outside the classroom as much as they were for the work in the classroom. In 1969, he headed to Vermont to teach and organize. His life is defined by these years.

He joined the philosophy department at the University of Vermont just as the school was waking from its nineteenth century slumber. The department had hired a number of philosophers who, like other young faculty around the country, wished to make their teaching a vehicle for social change. Will and other faculty members took the philosophy of Marx and others and applied it to the society at large. This naturally meant opposing the US war in Vietnam, the corporate system of profit, and the racism rampant in US society. Miller managed to stay on in the department because he received tenure right before the dismissal hearings of his colleagues began. Instead, he was refused sabbatical and salary increases. He once noted that if he weren’t a homesteader and a journeyman electrician, he could not afford to live on the salary paid to him by the University of Vermont. The fact that Miller was a homesteader and electrician informed his understanding of what it meant to work with one’s hands in twentieth century capitalist society. Not only did he understand the nature of physical labor and the concept of surplus value from an intellectual point of view, he knew the rate of return he received from his gardening, sheep-raising, and electrical services.

I met Will in 1994 soon after I moved to Vermont. I had heard of him before, however. His name came up in conversations on the West Coast whenever there were student protests at the University of Vermont. Usually it was a former student of Will’s who knew of him. Will’s students are like the followers of the late Dreadful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. You can find them in every part of the planet and in almost every profession, although I doubt that you will find too many in the war industry or the military (Will would probably feel that he failed those folks if he knew). It wasn’t just the subject matter of Will’s courses that inspired his students; it was his presentation, the non-judgmental seminars that discussed those ideas, and it was Will himself. He didn’t demand respect, he commanded it. Will didn’t want respect just because he was the teacher; he hoped to gain your respect because he helped you teach yourself.

Attorney and former student of Miller, Michael Cassidy, tells the story of his first political acts while a student of Will’s. The time was the mid-1980s and the struggle was around the issue of university divestiture from corporations that did business with South Africa’s apartheid government. Like other universities across the United States, UVM had a number of holdings in such companies and was obstinate in their refusal to relinquish those holdings. Students, faculty and staff had worked long and hard organizing opposition on campus and in the state of Vermont to urge the university’s trustees to disinvest. Finally, the Trustees were going to vote on the issue. The public packed the meeting, which had been moved to one of the largest halls on campus due to the interest in the vote. After a period of loud and often angry debate, the trustees voted to maintain the holdings. As Cassidy tells the story, it was only minutes later that students and Miller angered but not surprised at the decision began to build a shantytown on the campus green. It is important to note that this construction took place in the cold of Vermont’s winter. The shantytown became a community of learning and a center for activism. Miller’s presence was constant and his lessons on the nature of imperialism and how to oppose it took on a new and much deeper meaning. The immorality of that system had been exposed by the trustees vote. The movement grew wider and deeper because of the shantytown and ultimately achieved its goal of divestment. Not only did the participants learn about the nature of imperialism, they also learned that the people can win—the University eventually did decide to divest.

One of Will’s heroes was the abolitionist John Brown. Like Brown, Will’s hair was long and his beard was often unkempt. Also like Brown, Will believed in the propaganda of the deed. For example, soon after the Clinton gang launched the aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia and Kosovo in the spring of 1999. Will, other activists, and I spent many hours tabling in front of the University of Vermont library distributing literature against the bombing and arguing with so-called leftists who supported that “humanitarian” assault. It wasn’t long before we decided that something of a more agitative matter needed to be done. We were joined in our opinion by Dave Dellinger, folksinger Jim Page (who happened to be on tour in Vermont), activists Orin Langelle and Anne Peterman, Jay Moore and many others. Given that all of Vermont’s Congressional delegation supported the killing, we decided to stage protests at each of their offices and stage a sit-in at the last one on our tour. That office happened to be the office of Bernie Sanders. After making it clear to the folks working in Bernie’s office that we fully intended to stay until they threw us out, Will fumbled with his wife’s cell phone (something new to us older folks back then) and called the local media. They showed up soon afterwards and recorded our thoughts and the arrests that followed the office’s closing. There were those on the Left who didn’t understand why we chose Bernie’s office. However, our job wasn’t to support Bernie no matter what—although we agreed with much of what he was doing; it was to point out the imperialist nature of the war.

Miller met Ann Lipsitt, his life partner and companion, during the summer of 1980. They were both involved in work against Jimmy Carter’s reinstatement of the military draft. They were draft counselors. After many years together, they married in 2000 and honeymooned in Cuba. The couple felt that since Vermont had legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, one of the main reasons for holding out (for another level of equality) was won. As noted above, Will’s military service began his life of organizing. The fact that he was a veteran provided him with credibility amongst GIs and other vets when he was organizing antiwar events. In addition, his class background and time in the military provided him with an understanding of the economic and sociological reasons that men and women enlist in the service. This personal knowledge helped him convince soldiers to oppose wars and also silence war supporters who are often quick to assume that those who oppose imperial war have no connection to the military and therefore hate the individual soldier. When Will was diagnosed with cancer last year, he was assisting a young woman in her attempts to get out of a military commitment she no longer wanted to fulfill because of her opposition to the US war on Iraq. David Ross, fellow member of the Green Mountain Veterans for Peace and a onetime regional coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, said this about Miller: “Will Miller is a Marxist revolutionary. Not “revolutionary” as in “a radical new revolutionary consumer product” hyped by Wall Street marketing gurus with an eye to selling in volume…. Will is a teacher, but he is also a learner, always sensitive to other opinions. He always asks for the thoughts and ideas of others and works to build consensus that will lead to action. He also has the strength of character and force of personality to get things moving when the process has bogged down. Some call this being doctrinaire. Others call it leadership.”

A few years ago, the faculty at UVM began a successful drive to unionize. Will was an essential part of that campaign, just as he had been in every union campaign at the university since his hiring. Only four or five years before, he and I were celebrating the victory in a staff union drive at UVM that heralded in the second union in the university’s history. Will’s presence, organizing ability and fervor, and his encyclopedic historical knowledge were instrumental in the success of this campaign—a campaign that provided a voice to the most exploited segment of UVM’s workforce.

Will is going to be sorely missed in Vermont. The consistent example of struggle he lived in and out of the classroom challenged the traditional concept of the university in a capitalist society. Daniel Cohn-Bendit once noted (during his more radical days) that: “the present educational structure ensures that the majority of working-class children are barred not only from the bourgeois society we are trying to overthrow, but also from the intellectual means to see through it.” Miller not only worked to open up the university to the workers’ children, when they got there, his courses provided them with the tools to analyze, challenge and change that culture and political economy. As noted above, his efforts were not necessarily always popular. Indeed, there were several lean years when Miller was one of the very few faculty members to speak out against the administration’s designs for the university. An administrative model that is growing in popularity amongst university boards of trustees is the so-called corporate model. This usually involves hiring individuals with minimal academic experience to fill university administrative positions, who then mimic their business experience by (among other actions) creating a layer of well-paid administrators to buffer the president and trustees from the criticism that is sure to come. This model created an environment that simplified the faculty unionization process at UVM as even politically conservative faculty saw their positions threatened. Will, however, also used this corporatization of the university as another of his many lessons in how capitalism’s need for profit affects even the cloistered environment of the university.

One of the more relaxed times I spent with Will was on a bus going to an antiwar protest in Washington, DC in April 2002. I sat next to him during the overnight journey and we spent a good deal of time in conversation—political conversation of course. The remainder of the time I was awake I spent listening to Will converse with most every other passenger on the bus about some aspect of the so-called war on terror and the Israeli attack on Palestine then going on. He did sleep during the trip, but it was his energy that inspired me to find my inner reserve as that day went on and the effects of the bus ride began to take their toll on my body. Indeed, it is his energy and devotion to a better world that continues to inspire me and a myriad of others as we continue our struggle against imperialism and its ills. One of the last times I rode a bus from Vermont to a protest was in August 2004. Will had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was unable to go along. However, it was his inspiration that provided the fuel for many of the riders.

The last verse of the song about Joe Hill goes:

From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where workers strike and organize,”
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill,” says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill.”

As with Joe Hill, Will Miller will be there on picket lines, at rallies for social and economic justice, and at anti-war demonstrations—from Washington DC to New York up to Montpelier and Burlington, wherever people fight for a better world, that’s where you’ll find Will Miller.

Many thanks to Orin Langelle, Anne Petermann, Jay Moore, Ann Lipsitt and Ken Lipsitt for their assistance on this piece.