YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 10, 2014

Why I left “the Left”

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Although I share many of the more libertarian proclivities of social democracy, readers of this website must have noticed that I am a fierce, obsessive critic of social democrats—a passion that may be found on either the neoliberal Right or the Marxist-Leninist Left. Today, under the Obama administration, it is almost impossible to separate social democrats (New Deal liberals/conservative reformers) from any of the Marx-derived sects that dot the landscape of liberal-leftist dissent. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/, for the source of confusion.)

In the sense that most readers will understand “the Left” I was never a member of any Marxist or Leninist sect, but my positions at Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles gave me access to leading figures in the arts in Los Angeles and New York. It seemed to me during the 1970s upheavals that the leftist intellectuals were by far the best educated and incisive on the ills of society that I addressed on the radio in my coverage of the art world and its institutions. Indeed, while Program Director of KPFK-FM I put as many as possible on the air.Then, when I was fired by the manager, Jim Berland, and I lost “power” nearly all of them drifted away, or perhaps I left them.

This blog is about some of the incidents that bothered me while I was in that milieu, and that still disturb me. One reason I went to graduate school in history was to understand my own prior attachments. I will not name names, but assure the reader that my contacts were with leading figures in the arts and scholarship. Many of these nameless ones are superstars in their fields.

On Archives. One critical theorist of great note, up there with Jacques Derrida, asked me to write him a memo on “the archive”. I love archives as I do all research in primary source materials, and I did not know that “the archive” as such was under attack from both Left and Right. (Leftists claim that they are elite-controlled, hence exclude the good stuff—daily atrocities suffered by ordinary people– while one biographer of Joe McCarthy, M. Stanton Evans, is also suspicious, claiming that key documents have disappeared, owing to political hanky-panky from his enemies.)
After reading my memo in praise of archives, my friend confessed that just entering a library gives him panic attacks.

On Hitler. One Leninist read my original work on Hitler’s psyche and we met for coffee to discuss it. He excitedly told me that he agreed with Hitler on many points, but then telephoned me after I got home to deny that he had ever said such a thing. He sounded panicky, so I didn’t argue with him.

On lawlessness. I was advised (almost ordered) by one figure in the arts, to steal from some wealthy art collector so that I would have the experience of rejecting bourgeois rules and morality. This sort of duplicity was advocated by more than one lefty I knew, trying to draw me into opposition.

On fighting to win. I intuitively knew ahead of my firing as PD that it was about to happen as I would have nothing to do with the commandments of multiculturalism and populism, and warned my anti-imperialist supporters at KPFK on a Friday night that we should prepare to defend my job. Sure enough, I was fired the following Monday afternoon; we could have shut down several of the news rooms at Pacifica in protest, but the most action in the defense of the direction I was pushing the station was a letter-writing campaign. The President of the Pacifica station begged me to test the administrative procedures he had put in place, and, naively, I complied, but he still upheld “at will” firings–a no, no among labor activists. (It is interesting that this was in the midst of fund drive preparation in which the theme for the Fall Fund Drive was to be science versus myth.) I concluded that “the Left” at Pacifica was weaker than I am on my own. It was then that I went back to school to study witch hunts and the history of multiculturalism as social policy.

On switches. I had been a Democrat all my voting life, but as I read the critiques of academic neo-orthodoxy by David Horowitz and Peter Collier in the 1990s, I found their observations to be exactly accurate and in line with my own experience in graduate school—where I found myself highly critical of most of the lines handed down by senior faculty—most of whom were somewhere on the Left, either as left-feminists or as anti-Americans. Graduate school was no different than Pacifica Radio or other “liberal” institutions. I ran into David Horowitz on the street in Pacific Palisades where he was then living, and we struck up an acquaintance. When David H and his wife came to my book signing party in Brentwood (shortly after 9-11-2001), one former very prominent lefty faculty friend of mine was present and interrogated my sister regarding the anomaly of David H’s attendance. Sometime during that same period, another academic of the Left asked me if it was true that David H was a friend of mine. Neither of these scholars is speaking to me today. You can’t leave the mob.

Along these same lines, I unwarily told a mentor and close friend, a liberal, that I had voted for Bush in 2000 (on the theory that Al Gore was unstable and that “Dubya” was an acceptable alternative). I didn’t expect him to lash out at me, though, true to his self-image as a liberal, he did call me the next day to apologize for his harsh criticism. Things were never the same after that between us.

On schematic explanations for everything bad. It occurred to me after reviewing my disastrous attachments to persons on “the Left” that the attraction to Marxism and then Leninism on the part of my former friends was the simplicity of Marxist ideology. It was easy to master, and even the most sectarian memberships gave one a substitute family of like-minded individuals, all of whom were, in their own minds, morally and intellectually superior to the rest of America.

Real scholarship is messy, tentative, and you rarely know if your readings of documents or syntheses (narratives) of what really happened are even close to accuracy.

I left the Left because this sort of open-endedness and inconclusiveness is frowned upon. Seemingly, it is imagined by prominent and/or blogging leftist academics that I am either a neocon or a conservative scholar, and a dastardly turncoat. I would rather be known as a scholar with strong pluralist tendencies who never betrays evidence or prematurely draws conclusions—including why I left the Left. This is a partial inventory, nothing more, and is always subject to revision and correction.

[For a more recent blog on internal contradictions within “Marxist Leninism” see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/.%5D

UK politician Ed Miliband

UK politician Ed Miliband


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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