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What Politics Does to History

Before Staughton Lynd vanished from intellectual society, he was one of the country’s most recognizable and controversial academics. “I was to be an American Lenin and a tenured professor at an Ivy League university,” he has recalled of the hopes he inherited from his famous parents, Robert and Helen Lynd. By 1970, the year Carl Mirra concludes his new biography, Lynd represented a new model of scholarly activism. But Mirra, a former U.S. Marine and conscientious objector, identifies with his subject so completely that the biography is best read as a collaboration. And this absence of critical distance confirms the old suspicion that Lynd’s scholarly activism abolished distinctions worth preserving. Lynd was never a historian who selects significant problems for study, but one who knows most of the answers in advance.

The current revival features a new collection of Lynd’s political writings, a memoir, Stepping Stones (written with his wife, Alice), and new editions of Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, and Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, books that made his reputation. Like Progressive historian Charles Beard, Lynd accused the founders of staging a counter-revolution that betrayed the democratic potential of the early republic. Yet Lynd went “Beyond Beard,” reviving the abolitionist interpretation of the Constitution and moving slavery from the margins to the center of debates over the founding. The righteous indignation he applied to these difficult questions helped initiate the long fashion for sneering at dead white men of ideas, and turned history from a means of understanding to a record of heroes and villains.

Lynd entered Harvard in 1946 at the age of sixteen, and joined the John Reed Society, the Young Progressives of America, and the Committee for Henry Wallace. A Quaker, he declared himself a conscientious objector. After he modified his position to allow for non-combatant service, the Army inducted him as a medic, but, citing anonymous accusations of his communist sympathies, soon discharged him as an undesirable. He spent the rest of the 1950s living in communes.

In 1959, he entered graduate school in history at Columbia, his father’s university. During a meeting of the American Historical Association two years later, he met Howard Zinn, the chairman of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta. Zinn, who wrote the foreword to Mirra’s biography, hired him on the spot. Teaching the American Revolution to black students as their peers protested segregation exemplified for Lynd the power of history in the cause of justice. “The professor of history,” he decided, “should also be a historical protagonist.”       

Zinn was fired from Spelman in 1963 on suspicion of encouraging a student rebellion. Lynd resigned in protest, and accepted an offer from Yale to join its history department as an assistant professor. Before returning North, he agreed to direct Freedom Schools, an educational initiative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Mississippi Summer Project. Under his direction, Freedom Schools, a summer alternative to the state’s segregated public schools, recruited two hundred teachers and enrolled more than two thousand students in forty-one schools. It also made him a national figure.           

Indeed, the combination of personal courage, moral commitment, organizing experience, and intellectual credibility qualified Lynd as a natural leader in the double struggle for civil rights at home and peace abroad. In 1965, the breakthrough year, he chaired Students for a Democratic Society’s first major anti-war demonstration in Washington DC, and spoke to an audience of twelve thousand at a Berkeley teach-in. Over Christmas, he went with SDS activist Tom Hayden and communist historian Herbert Aptheker on a trip to Prague, Moscow, Peking, and Hanoi, an act of civil disobedience. Four years later, he ran as opposition candidate for the presidency of the American Historical Association—the first time in the association’s history that anyone had contested the position—on a platform that would have put it on record against the war. He received 28 percent of the vote.

Carl Mirra says it was the Hanoi trip, much publicized by hostile newspapers, that doomed Lynd’s academic career, and quotes a statement by Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale’s president, accusing Lynd of giving “aid and comfort to a government engaged in hostilities with American forces.” Nobody at Yale said openly that Lynd was denied tenure for political reasons. But the circumstantial evidence seems strong.          

And it extends beyond Yale. Receiving the adverse news in 1968, Lynd received offers from other history departments, but the administrations vetoed them. An offer from Chicago State University won the support of the department and the dean, but the Illinois Board of Governors rescinded the offer, citing his “public activities.” Lynd filed a lawsuit with the support of Cook County Teachers Union, and won a settlement. The bad publicity made it impossible to find another academic job. In Illinois and Indiana, according to Mirra, eight to ten more colleges rejected him.         

Lynd’s case established the tacit boundaries for politically committed scholarship. Within those boundaries, a movement for radical history flourished, with many of his younger colleagues gaining tenured university positions on the strength of monographs such as William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism, and Aileen Kraditor’s The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement. Yet some of Lynd’s radical peers balked at the anti-intellectual strain he represented. The University of Iowa’s Christopher Lasch conducted a teach-in with him, and defended him after Chicago State rescinded its employment offer. Lasch collected 1,500 signatures, including those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for a petition that called Lynd’s case “a particularly flagrant invasion of academic freedom,” and “an indication that a new McCarthyism may emerge from the tensions of the Vietnamese war.” 

But the friendship of Lasch and Lynd was coming apart over the movement’s double-standards. “To you the radical tradition is sacred and must not be analyzed, except to murmur approvingly,” Lasch complained in a 1964 letter to Lynd. Another letter from that year shows Lasch bridling at his “glorification” of radicals, which “strikes me as leaving us as historians absolutely nowhere.” Lasch thought he detected in Lynd’s stridency “the special blend of simple-minded sentimentality and real ruthlessness…that is emerging as the chief characteristic of the ‘new’ Left.”           

Eugene Genovese’s review in 1968 of Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution and Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism mirrored Lasch’s concerns. “As a contribution to American radical historiography,” Genovese complained, “Lynd’s work must be evaluated as part of the present effort of recent scholars, most of them under forty, to establish an ideological foundation for their political movement.” What his work revealed, Genovese wrote, was a moral absolutism that abrogated the historian’s obligation to objectivity and exhibited “contempt for and distrust of the intelligentsia.” Genovese found outrageous the “grotesque assertions” deployed in Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism to limn an easy equivalency of Karl Marx and Henry David Thoreau, as if Marx and Thoreau had shared a method, a manner of abstraction, or a conception of the good society.           

Mirra cites inter-departmental correspondence suggesting Genovese’s review was used in New Haven against Lynd’s tenure case. And he notes, suspiciously, that Genovese himself was soon recruited for a visiting position in the history department, the same department that cited budgetary constraints for Lynd’s termination. “I fear that you’re right,” Genovese said when Mirra reviewed the events with him, “and it doesn’t do any good to say that wasn’t my intent. I never gave a damn about Yale.” Genovese added that, “probably” he would have voted for Lynd’s tenure if given the chance. Really? At the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association, as Lynd was running as opposition candidate for the presidency on a platform of “guerrilla history,” Genovese rose in response: “Put these so-called radicals down, put them down hard, and put them down once and for all!” Lynd was put down—and out.

Moving to Chicago, he worked at Saul Alinsky’s school for organizers, earned a degree in labor law, and produced oral histories of draft resisters and working-class organizers. His recent writings evince his disdain for ideas and those who represent them. “Ideally,” he wrote in 2008, “guerrilla history would be produced by the guerrillas themselves.” Why? “Those directly involved may understand what happened much more profoundly than academic historians.”

Lynd’s refusal to acknowledge the many-sidedness of history has been part of his method from the beginning. Consider Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, now touted as a classic of historiography. The book identifies “an essentially unchanging vision of a decentralized good society” beginning with the American Revolution and culminating in abolitionism. “In one sense the concern of the following chapters is ahistorical,” Lynd concedes in the preface. “I am less interested in eighteenth-century radicalism than in twentieth-century radicalism.

The book makes natural law available to “existential radicals of the mid twentieth-century” at the cost of ignoring a century of social theory in Europe and the United States. Not only Marx, but John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., had rejected the tradition as tautological. Lynd, to be sure, does not demonstrate that the principles of natural law are true, but asserts that such principles are self-evidently true. “The idea of a natural law,” he writes, is “self-evident to the common man.” Nowhere in his ersatz tradition, however, does he note the revival of the natural law by conservatives and conservative liberals. In The Good Society and The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann put natural law at the service of elite political morality. “If there is no higher law,” Lippmann wrote in a sentence that could appear in Intellectuals Origins, “then there is no ground on which anyone can challenge the power of the strong to exploit the weak.”

Lynd promotes radical history as an “alternative” to liberal and conservative thought. Not a clash of ideas, but a subjective alternative is what his reader needs. “Because he is (or should be) an actor as well as an onlooker, the reader will ask from a historical discussion of ideas the identification of ideas which he can trust. To be dialectically conscious of the ongoing many-sidedness of every historical phenomenon does not altogether speak to his condition.”          

The liabilities of this subjectivist approach became clear in the 1980s and 1990s, as “alternative” became a marketing technique employed to sell commodities that also were supposed to “speak to” personal identity, and radical historians grew little closer to understanding their opposition. In the Age of Reagan the movement was never stronger in personnel, nor weaker in ideological achievement. Alan Brinkley, writing in the American Historical Review in 1994, faulted the movement for its formulas of commitment. “New Left scholarship, which attacked the consensus with great effectiveness for ignoring or marginalizing the Left, had relatively little to say about the Right. That was in part because of the way much of the New Left celebrated, even romanticized, ‘the people.’ Having repudiated the liberal suspicion of ‘mass politics’ and embraced instead the concept of ‘participatory democracy,’ scholars of the Left had difficulty conceding that mass movements could be anything but democratic and progressive.”          

Such complaints are as valid today as they were then. “The Sixties” is now an academic journal, functionally identical to all the rest. And epigones of the Lynd-Zinn school of historiography, having turned the past upside down in search of exploitation, oppression, and injustice, are met by a question their righteousness has never permitted them to confront. If history should be written to serve political movements, then what should happen to the history when movements fail, or, ironically, change shape?

To compare Lynd’s attempt to revive the Continental Congress for the 1960s with today’s conservative revival of the Boston Tea Party is to scratch the surface of such ironies. From radical historians to the conservative faction on the Texas Board of Education and the Arizona government, everyone today wants their country back, by way of their own, “alternative” history. Eager to discover what the past can do for them, few seem as eager to know what it may demand of them.

“Radicals are those who decry the status quo, who demand fundamental change, who seek transformation,” write radical historians Timothy McCarthy and John McMillian, editors of Protest Nation: Words that Inspired a Century of American Radicalism. Their new anthology, “a field guide” to the culture wars, is dedicated to Zinn and offered, in the spirit of Lynd’s Intellectual Origins, to the already convinced. “These kinds of people almost always make others nervous,” McCarthy and McMillian write, with a suggestion of menace that is almost comical. Of Zinn and Lynd, this was all too true. Forty years on, “these kinds of people” are everywhere.

John Summers is visiting scholar in history at Boston College.