Milton Fisk, 1932-2022

Against the Current, No. 221, November/December 2022

Patrick Brantlinger and several ATC editors

Milton Fisk speaking in Venezuela, one of the many countries where he traveled to give lectures and offer solidarity.

MILTON FISK, WHO passed away Septem­ber 8, 2022 shortly after turning 90 years old, was widely known throughout the Midwest as a social justice activist with an emphasis on labor issues. Milton was also an astute intellectual and an exceptional human being who radiated kind energy to all those who knew him. His tall stature and quiet demeanor were a familiar and welcome presence to his Bloomington, Indiana political comrades and friends.

Milton grew up in Lexington, Kentucky as the son of two academics. His mother Lucy was a literature professor; his father was the American modernist painter Edward Fisk. Milton took great pride in his father’s art, displaying it in his house and publicly caring for his father’s artistic legacy.

After graduating from Notre Dame University, Milton received a PhD in philosophy from Yale, where he was roommates with fellow philosophers Richard Schmitt and Roger Hancock. Schmitt remembers him as a devout Catholic, who never missed Sunday mass during that period.

Later Milton discovered Marxism, for him both an intellectual commitment and a praxis. He taught both at Notre Dame and at Yale, before joining the philosophy department at Indiana University in 1966, where he served as chair for a number of years.

Milton’s main philosophical emphasis was on ethics, especially as it related to public affairs, through a Marxist framework. Among his seven books and many articles are Toward a Healthy Society and Ethics and Social Survival.

Non-academic writings include a pamphlet Socialism from Below: The Origins of the ISO, and numerous articles on many topics for Against the Current.

Besides his distinguished career at IU, he taught as a visiting faculty member at universities in Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico. He received an honorary degree from Debrecen University in Hungary.

Milton’s partner, Doris Jean Burton, with whom he lived since 2005, survives him. Milton is also survived by his children: Barth Fisk (Peggy Lepp), and their children Jacob (Sarah Hamang), Adam (Kate Wargel), Rachel, and Kaden; Graham Fisk (Nancy Ash), and their children Ezra and Thea; and Melany Fisk (Rick Ingersoll) and their children Edward and Camille; and stepdaughter Maurenis Ibarra Sosa, the daughter of Milton’s late second wife Maritza.

He is also survived by his first wife Ruth (Carroll) Fisk, the mother of his three children, his sister Allie Hendricks of Lexington, Kentucky and her children Chuck and Teresa Hendricks as well as several nieces and nephews.

Social Justice

Milton loved his academic work and remained committed to it even after retiring from IU. For many years afterwards, he maintained a campus office, which was plastered with social justice posters. That social justice work made up the other major thread of Milton’s life.

He was engaged with faculty, student, and community issues throughout his life. Generous with his time and attention, Milton sat through endless meetings without demanding to take the floor or position himself as an expert.

He was much beloved among students and colleagues for his work on different university campaigns. Among other social justice causes, Milton was the main person responsible for establishing an American Federation of Teachers chapter at IU. After 9/11 he was an active member of the Progressive Faculty and Staff Caucus, which for several years organized weekly teach-ins on aspects of foreign and domestic policy.

Milton also played an energetic role in the student anti-sweatshop group No Sweat’s successful campaign to convince the administration to join the Worker Rights Consortium. After one Wednesday evening bargaining session with the Dean of Students, he quipped that his wife was going to kill him for prioritizing the student anti-sweatshop campaign over a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner at home.

With a wry chuckle, he added that the No Sweat campaign was the first success he had experienced in his long career as an activist. Fortunately other successes followed, including the effort to halt an initiative to privatize Bloomington’s water supply.

Whenever there was a labor strike in the vicinity, Milton would try to join the picket line. He established and led a Jobs with Justice chapter in southern Indiana. He campaigned against the Indiana legislature’s “right to work” law.

Milton was a leader in Bloomington’s Living Wage Campaign, which succeeded in passing an ordinance through Bloomington City Council in 2006. This years-long campaign had long-range impacts on Bloomington workers, as it adjusts annually for inflation (and is set for 2022 at $14.01/hour).

Building on the success of the Living Wage Campaign, Milton then became active in Hoosiers for a Common Sense Health Care Plan, which advocated for a single-payer health care system statewide. It was a passionate commitment for him.

Teacher and Supporter

Even as an elder with decades of movement experience, he always made time to listen respectfully and energetically to young scholars and activists, having them over to his house for dinner, reading and commenting on their work, and supporting them kindly and patiently, whether it meant showing up to an event they’d organized or gathering wider support for a cause from his own movement connections.

A skilled carpenter, among his other talents, Milton was a rare individual who could travel to Nicaragua both to present university lectures and to build houses. In addition to Nicaragua, he made frequent trips to Santa Clara, Cuba, as part of Bloomington’s sister city delegations. With other comrades, he participated in the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Well into old age, Milton was healthy and active. A lover of the outdoors, in his youth Milton enjoyed mountain climbing in the Rockies and the Swiss Alps. He also owned a piece of wooded property not far from Bloomington where he built a cabin and often gave friends wildflower tours.

 In the 1970s and 1980s, Milton was an active member of the International Socialists and then the International Socialist Organization. Open with his time and knowledge, he recruited a good number of students to revolutionary socialist politics and organization.

He joined Solidarity at the time of its founding in 1986 and continued to contribute generously after he’d decided that he could no longer actively participate. Committed activist, unapologetic Marxist, and comrade to the world, Milton will be missed. Without Milton the Left will be a duller place.

November-December 2022, ATC 221

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