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27 August, 2010

Remembering Franz Schurmann

By B.R.P. Bhaskar

Franz Schurmann, who passed away in San Francisco on August 20, was a sociologist, historian, political scientist, journalist and futurologist all rolled into one. He could be all these at the same time because he had a scintillating mind which was constantly reviewing the past, observing the present and looking into the future.

Franz did not rely on secondary sources. His desire to get to primary sources led him to study many languages. He could handle a dozen of them.

I had the privilege of being a house guest of Franz and his partner Sandy Close twice. There was a gap of nearly two decades between my two visits to their home. I was amazed by the breadth of his intellectual vision which enabled him to switch interest from one challenging area to another in that period.

Franz was professor of Sociology and History at the University of California at Berkeley and Sandy was his student. I first met Sandy when she stopped in India in 1965 on her way home from Hong Kong where she had worked with the Far Eastern Economic Review for a year. She wanted to see rural India, and I showed her round a couple of villages in Uttar Pradesh.

I first visited Franz and Sandy in 1969 soon after they had set up home. He was a China expert then. He had studied the Chinese language and personally interviewed many refugees from the mainland living in Hong Kong for his book “Organization and Ideology of Communist China”, published the previous year.

At that time the United States administration, aided by an obliging media, was pretending that Taiwan was China and that a band of exiles holed up in that island constituted the government of China. The Nixon presidency was on but the secret Kissinger mission and US recognition of the Beijing regime were yet to come.

Franz was one of the first Americans to realize the folly of the Vietnam War. He visited Hanoi while US planes were bombing the Communist North. The upsurge of peace sentiment among young Americans and media persons’ exposure of crimes which made the war unpopular were yet to come.

When I visited them again in 1988, I found that his focus had shifted from China to the Arab world. Not only the problems that had been haunting the region since long but also the new ones that had arisen in the wake of the oil boom engaged his attention. He had learnt Arabic. He came home in the evening with bundles of Arab newspapers to pore over at night.

A few years ago Franz was in Kerala to lecture on the New China. He had come at the invitation of a leftist organization, which had arranged the talk for the benefit of state leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Franz and Sandy were co-founders of the Pacific News Service, which began operations in 1970. By delving into areas neglected by mainline American newspapers, it quickly gained acceptance as a reliable alternative source of information. As California’s minority population grew, PNS developed into a broad-based ethnic network named New America Media.

Sandy Close, who is Executive Director of NAM, sums up his role in the building of the organization in these words: “Franz was constantly shifting and expanding his lens, drawing on his readings of foreign-language media. PNS would never have made the breakthrough to NAM had it not been for his example.”

Franz’s weekly PNS column “Predictions” provided rare insights into developments across the world. It testified as much to the brilliance of his mind as to the wide range of his interests.

Friends and admirers have opened a Franz Schurmann Memorial Page on Facebook and announced plans to set up a Franz Schurmann Memorial Fund to support freelance journalists on special travel assignments.

Sandy Close’s write-up on Franz Schurmaann in the Berkeley Daily Planet

NAM Senior Editor Andrew Lam’s tribute: A Curious, Restless American Soul

New York Times obituary: Cold War expert on China dies at 84

More tributes and links to selected writings of Franz Schurmann at

1 comment:

anto said...

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