Look elsewhere for amusement this month. This is not a lighthearted letter. It is a reflection on the life of a man who was once a friend of mine, a man whose life and work demonstrate that meaning well is not enough.

Al and I were graduate students at Columbia in the 60’s. For a short time we worked together in an informal study group preparing for comprehensive examinations. But our politics (construing that word broadly) made us poor harness-mates. Al was ferociously bright, very well-read, and extraordinarily hardworking, but we just had too little in common even to study together.

If Communists still carry cards, surely Al carried one. He was, by his own description, an orthodox Marxist-Leninist. I would say that his politics were more important to him than his academic work, except that he saw no distinction between the two: his “socialist” politics were his life. He was always dashing off to civil rights demonstrations in Mississippi, or to support striking miners in Harlan County. In ordinary, nonpolitical discourse, he was a good-natured, sensitive soul, but such discourse with Al was rare. He took politics very seriously indeed, and when the subject came up (far too often for my taste) he displayed a blinkered sort of humorlessness. For him, revolution was no laughing matter. When a friend of ours spent a research year in Romania and came back a fervent anti-Communist, Al told him, “You’re a good man, Dan. Too bad we’ll have to shoot you.” Dan swears to this day that Al meant it.

My usual defense against leftwingers is to tease them, but that didn’t work with Al. He either didn’t know he was being teased, or he responded with flat scorn. Either way, it wasn’t any fun. On one occasion, though, I couldn’t resist. Al and some of his comrades had started a magazine called Ripsaw, reviving the title of a long-defunct journal of hairy-chested radicalism. When their posters went up on bulletin boards around Columbia, I pointed out to Al that a real proletarian would know that the saw teeth on the magazine’s logo were those of a crosscut saw, not a ripsaw. He looked at me suspiciously and stalked off, but I bet he looked it up, because the next day all of the posters were gone.

In an atmosphere vibrant with the enthusiasm of the New Left, Al was a constant, stern reminder of the old. During Columbia’s troubles in 1968, he was in the thick of things, rushing from one meeting to another, drafting statements, addressing caucuses, posting placards. He had deep misgivings about what he saw as the amateur revolutionaries around us, and phrases like “infantile leftism” came easily to him. But when push came to shove, he and I wound up on opposite sides of the picket lines. I never had an easy conversation with him after that, probably as much my fault as his, but I regret it.

We went our separate ways, geographically as well as politically. Al took a college-teaching position in the Northwest, where he belonged to the “editorial collective” of a journal called The Insurgent Sociologist. From time to time I saw him at conventions, peddling the journal. We barely spoke on these occasions, if we spoke at all; the last time, I wouldn’t swear he recognized me.

Occasionally I ran across one of Al’s dreary, unreadable, party-line books—attacking Solidarity, praising the USSR’s human rights record, that sort of thing. I gathered from mutual friends that he had achieved a modest fame: the man to call when you wanted a specimen Stalinist to spice up your program. Someone told me that he vacationed at Soviet resorts in the Crimea; my informant may have been putting me on, but it would have been perfectly in character.

I heard, too, that Al had campaigned unsuccessfully for the chairmanship of his department. Academic etiquette says you’re not supposed to campaign for such a job (you should at least pretend that you have more important things to do), but Al never gave a damn for etiquette, academic or otherwise. He reportedly campaigned as “Big Al, the People’s Pal,” and I smiled at what I saw as evidence that middle age was mellowing him, giving him finally a sense of humor and perspective.

Then, last year, at the age of 43, he took a gun and blew his brains out. According to The Insurgent Sociologist, his final words on a last note were, “The working class will prevail. Carry on.”

Al defended and worked for—well, damn it, for an evil empire. Yet he was an intelligent man, and a decent one, selfless and sincere in his devotion to what he believed was human welfare. Last month I wrote about Bob Jones University: to compare Al to the people there would have annoyed him, and them, too, but while Al’s answer appeals to me far less even than Bob Jones’s—indeed, Al’s answer is part of our problem in a way that Bob Jones’s is not—there is no denying that true believers of both sorts share some of the same admirable qualities.

It bears repeating that all of the hellish ideologies of our time appeal to good impulses as well as bad ones. It is comforting to think that evildoers are always evil people, but we deceive and to that extent disarm ourselves by believing that. Karl Marx himself insisted on the distinction between motives and objective consequences; he was right to make that distinction, and we can start by applying it to Marxists. Our collectivist adversaries’ actions may have ghastly, Satanic consequences—may lead inexorably to the Gulag—but some of them are driven by something very like Christian charity. If we judge on motivation alone, Al was the people’s pal.

And he used to be mine. When we were students together, he saw life as incessant struggle, and he relished both the life and the struggle. But he had become depressed, I’m told, and tired—so much so that he sought oblivion in death. I hope he has found rest. And mercy, too. In the next world that Marxists don’t believe in, good intentions may count for something.