The Clare Spark Blog

May 6, 2013

The New Left activist scholars

activist_scholarshipIt was once my fantasy that scholarship entailed a thorough comprehension of the field under discussion, and that recent events were the purview of journalists, not scholars (who were supposedly waiting for the opening of archives and all primary source materials before rushing into print).

But with the antiwar movement that was contemporaneous with the student strikes all over America during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the activist scholar came into her own.  I remember one such, Temma Kaplan (author of The Anarchists of Andalusia), introducing herself to a seminar at UCLA as “an activist” (or possibly as “an activist scholar”).

Assistant Professor Kaplan’s self-introduction suggested a sea change in the teaching of the humanities and social sciences. It is true that it is difficult to escape ideological biases, but Hugh Thomas’s mammoth book on The Spanish Civil War used sources from the Nationalist Right, interviewed many of the survivors, some of whom lived in Franco Spain, and was careful to footnote many accounts that might differ from his own generally moderate narrative and interpretations. (For instance, I call him a “moderate” because he blamed socialist factions for not cohering to prevent the rightist nationalist rebellion led by General Franco in July 1936 that finally prevailed over the Spanish Republic in a conflict that rocked the world. For some estimates of the HBO treatment of the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/. I saw the movie as another bow to the Popular Front that formulated interwar and postwar conflicts as ‘the People’ vs. ‘Fascism.’ ).

But with the New Left there was no such eclecticism or acknowledgements that recent events might be too polarized for a relatively objective reading, not to speak of the usual inaccessibility of government or other official documents, hoarded by interested parties or descendants protecting the reputations of their illustrious ancestors.

Alexander Saxton, my own Stalinist dissertation director, upon seeing my first draft of an introductory chapter, explicitly ordered me to delete criticisms of his ideological allies (e.g. Ellen Schrecker), and never to praise his enemies (e.g. John Dos Passos, author of the USA trilogy). Later, he also let me know that he and his [communist?] wife had met one of my chief Melville revivers and his wife (Jay Leyda and Si-Lan Chen) and liked them very much.  I pressed ahead and devoted a long chapter to Jay Leyda, an outspoken and versatile Stalinist, and after years of stubbornly sticking to primary sources (some either previously restricted, misreported, or only briefly opened) got my dissertation approved. It was a Trotskyist scholar of international fame who agreed to be my co-chair after Alex Saxton retired. (Saxton even wrote a strong letter in support of my dissertation, telling me that I was the first student for whom he had done such a favor.)

Mine is not an unfamiliar story in academe. Since I had been studying multiculturalism during the period of my dissertation research (1984-1993), and had objected to its racialist discourse in various academic forums and conferences (sometimes to the screams or taunts of tenured left professors in both public and private spaces), I discovered that David Horowitz and Peter Collier were publishing a periodical called Heterodoxy that accurately described the PC takeover of teaching. At that time, Horowitz was living in my neighborhood, and running into him with some family members, I introduced myself to him as a reader of his work, which jibed entirely with my own experience as a hounded graduate student.

Somehow word got out that Horowitz and I were allies, since he and his wife April came to my first book talk at Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood, shortly after 9-11-2001. Not long after that, I was interrogated by two well known Marxist professors (one a sociologist, the other an art historian) whether DH was a friend of mine. I take friendship very seriously and resent interference with my choices.  I should have known that I was likely being marginalized by the academic left as at least an “unreliable” or “uncontrollable.” The final blow came when Christopher Hitchens gave a talk at the Horowitz Wednesday Morning Club in favor of the Iraq war, and numerous old friends, activist scholars and journalists, saw that I had entered the Devil’s realm. In retrospect, it was not surprising that Verso Press backed out of publishing my book on the Melville Revival (after telling people it would be published), because I refused to downplay the importance of John Milton, or to puff F. O. Matthiessen and Lewis Mumford. This was during the mid-1990s. To my sorrow, none of my once close allies, gathered when I was program director at KPFK (and had power, it seemed to them), lifted a finger to criticize Verso, which after all was publishing their work.

As an experiment (to test an old but languishing friendship), I invited one of the academics who was a close friend in the 1970s to friend me on Facebook. From what I can gather, he visited my FB page, and was appalled that I was writing about Fox News and continued to link to articles from Horowitz’s Frontpagemagazine.com, and announced that he was going to block me, but that we might still be friends, and that he welcomed a face to face discussion of our political differences (where he would have an opportunity to tell me to my face that I was now an enemy to the working class?). I responded that I had not changed; that I was still doing class analysis, and still defending the cultural freedom of every individual. Then I asked him if he had read at least part of my book. He responded that he had, but was too busy to read much of it. That did it. I thought that I understood what impelled the second wave of feminism. Here was my reasoning: he liked me before I was a scholar and had no tools to question his anti-art, anti-bourgeois cultural politics. I supposed that I was a worshipful female in his eyes. Now that I too was a scholar, I surmised that he was too burdened with committee meetings and other academic responsibilities (complained about in one of his many e-mails) to expend any effort on a book that purportedly changed Melville scholarship forever, and moreover, notwithstanding that it was mostly written from the Left (though not with any orthodoxy)! (In a subsequent email exchange, he denies that he thought any such thing.) As for my claim that my book changed Melville scholarship, I make no apologies. That is what scholars are supposed to do: find new sources and revise all previous scholarship! If they can’t do more than take other scholars  down, without providing a reconfiguration of old problems, and providing new syntheses, then they are not scholars at all, but ideologues parroting some party line. You can be a scholar, or a journalist, or a party hack, but not all three at the same time.

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I have told these stories because I want my readers to know that activist scholars have designs on their students, and must be outed and opposed. These activists use academic freedom to abuse it, and to smother all dissent, even among themselves. (Ironically, before his death, my dissertation director, wrote to me with great affection and appreciation as he enclosed his last book. But then he had the soul of an artist, and every now and then, it peeped out from some chinks in the Stalinist armor. I have forgiven his erratic conduct–sometimes censorious, sometimes approving– long ago. Bottom line: Saxton allowed me to write a Melville dissertation in the history department. No English department would have allowed me to write about “a major figure.” Such erratic conduct as Saxton demonstrated ironically fit in with Melville’s own wavering between aristocrat and democrat.)

Therefore, “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

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June 3, 2012

Connecting vs. connecting the dots

George Wallace, ca. 1960s

In this campaign year, pundits are constantly complaining that Romney is not “connecting” with the electorate, because he is wealthy (but lacks “the King’s touch”?). The same accusation was directed at him by his populist competitor Rick Santorum, who did “connect” with Pennsylvania coal miners, because, he stated, it was in his blood. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-me-not/.) This emphasis on a vaguely stated  blood and soil “connection” should scare us, for it evades the question of policy, and which candidate offers better economic and diplomatic policy recommendations to maintain American institutions and national security. In the blog that follows, I will try to show how two major books, in their zeal to keep America steady,  fail to inform us of lingering irrationalism in American political culture, an irrationalism that is characteristic of the middle, not the “extremes.” These books are

Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself  (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), and Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab: The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1970).

Here are two meticulously documented books written for the general reader. The first, by Klehr and Haynes,  concludes that although the communist movement was messianic and directed from Moscow, it was never a substantial threat to the American consensus; indeed, Communism did itself in through such errors as the blunder in running Henry Wallace for president in the Progressive Party campaign of 1948, preceded of course, by the zig-zagging moves of the late 1920s-early1930s, as it veered against the New Deal (seen as “social fascism”), followed by the Popular Front of 1935 onward, then the shock of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 (that killed the Popular Front), then after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, shifting back to Popular Front politics, only to be sunk once again by the revelations of Khrushchev in 1956. Klehr and Haynes see the years from 1960-1990 as “twilight years.”

I remember reading Ellen Schrecker’s book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford UP, 1986), when I first started my dissertation research.  She claimed that communism had always been relatively weak, and that the crusade mounted against it by the Right and by Trotskyists, had over-reacted to the detriment of our political culture. When I finished the Klehr-Haynes survey of (now defunct) communism in America, I had the sinking feeling that their book was not incompatible with Schrecker’s argument; that two scholars I greatly admired had not deviated from the “moderate” line of liberal anticommunism, which, while stigmatizing Marxist-Leninism as a religion, did not demand that it, along with its statism/bureaucratic collectivism, be banished from the democratic pluralist spectrum of competing interest groups; nor were they alarmed by the arrival of New Leftism and black nationalism from the 1960s onward. Such a drastic erasure would have linked the authors to the dread anti-intellectual, paranoid extremism of the far right, i.e. to the subject of Lipset and Raab’s survey of irrationalist social movements in the U.S.

In my own experience, both as programmer and for 18 months as Program Director at a Pacifica  radio station (KPFK-Los Angeles), then in graduate school at UCLA in the Department of History, I felt the sting of Communist ideology and organizing: Stalinists were entirely entrenched at Pacifica, and CPUSA organizing got me fired when I put a few Trotskyists on the air, programmers who were complaining about the Spanish Civil War and other insults to the amour propre of such as William Mandel, who used to read from Pravda as a legitimate source of news. Trotskyist intellectuals called their “progressive” competition Stalinoids, and that is an accurate term, though the CPUSA, directly and indirectly, continues to influence mass media, alternative media, and the humanities departments of the major universities, not with a nod to Stalin, but rather to Third Worldism and what they insist is the lamentable history of crooked capitalism in America. In other words, Klehr and Haynes did not consider the penetration of communist ideas into the progressive mainstream, though they point out several times communist initiatives that were taken up by the Roosevelt administration, also the general communist/populist hostility to “finance capital.” While at UCLA, there was no animus directed against Stalinism; rather I met many famous Communist academics, and those (Leninists) on the faculty supported separatist ethnic and women’s studies, just as 1930s Communists supported a Black Belt in the American South to compensate the descendants of slaves; i.e., the racialism of the multicultural discourse did not discourage Communists in the UCLA Department of History, and the most anti-imperialist students were rewarded with fellowships and jobs.

Moving on to Lipset and Raab. These authors come out of the Harvard school of sociology and social relations as it developed from about 1939 onward, linked most famously to the cultural anthropology  (or “structural functionalism”) of Talcott Parsons and the political science “typology” of Max Weber, along with the diagnosis of urban anomie postulated by Durkheim.  Here are the liberal anticommunists who contrast “democratic pluralism” with the “patterns of prejudice” they see as a continuing theme in U.S. political culture, all too given to hysteria. They too are progressive pundits, though, unlike journalists, as academics they were at the top of their profession and remain hegemonic. Among their targets such easy prey as the anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and George Wallace. They are big on how conservative elites ensnare unwary little people suffering from status deprivation. (And it was the “moderate” line after WW2, that the Nazis won by capturing the lower middle class, atomized by “mass society.” Democratic pluralism is their antidote to “mass culture.)

It was in their big book from 1970 that I saw multiculturalism/groupiness in action, with the notion of multiple group affiliations as the heartfelt solution to excessive cerebration by such “economic determinists” as Ralph Bunche in his late 1930s memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/).  Lipset and Raab’s most important revision of class analysis was to redefine class altogether. Whereas Marxists defined class as a specific relationship to the means of production, analyzing power as distributed in given institutions, these Parsonians define class as a ladder, as “status” (i.e. “caste”) encompassing life style and income. What such a definition does is remove the question of contracts and their potential asymmetry from consciousness. All of mass media buy into this Lipset and Raab managerial definition. This erasure of classes as standing in a particular relation to each other, instead of “life style choices” demonstrates to me that such intellectuals have taken on the task of managing conflict by defining everyone who sees structural problems in our society as extremists. They cut out the anti-statist libertarian right who see free markets as wealth creators and the road to opportunity, and they cut out what is now called “the hard left” who make their case on the premise that capital/capitalism exploits not “labor” but a vaguely defined “middle class.”

Prometheus, Heinrich Fueger, 1817

Say what you will about the failures of the Soviet Union. At least its better advocates saw the communist experiment as the culmination of the Enlightenment and the realization of individuality. The best that the moderate men came up with has been “the inherent tension between social egalitarianism—the democratic impulse—and political liberty—democratic restraint.” (Lipset and Raab, p.514) By restraint, the authors mean the stamping out of excessive moralism and resentment, a moralism exemplified by the awful romantic New England Puritan. Moderates like us do not storm heaven, do not copy Prometheus, are generous of spirit; indeed our groupiness is spirituality personified. Orwell anyone? (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.)

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