Apr/May 2005

LEFT BEHIND

Daniel Bell and the Class of '68

Paul Berman


I.

A few years ago, Daniel Bell invited me to dinner at the Century Club on Forty-third Street. We sat together in the ornate dining hall, surrounded by empty tables on nearly every side, and Our discussion wended its way into the long-ago past of 1968. A big student strike broke out at Columbia University in the spring of that year. Bell had been on one side of the strike, and I had been on the other. he had been in the Department of Sociology, and for him the strike had proved to be, I am sure, a thoroughly miserable experience. The atmosphere at Columbia among the professors and a good many students was poisoned for a long while afterward. Bell must have tasted many a bitter drop, and soon enough he gave up on his friends and career at Columbia and moved to Harvard. And his life entered a new phase.

The strike had a big effect on me, too, as I pointed out to him—probably an even bigger one, given that in 1968 I was a freshman, precisely at the age to be molded and shaped by every passing wave. I was too shy during the strike to go around orating to the masses or to address any of the large student meetings, except on a couple of occasions. But I did throw myself into the revolutionary task of backroom conspiracy. My organization was Students for a Democratic Society, and I spent a lot of time hanging out with the freshmen and sophomores who made up the bulk of SDS's Action Faction—the radical wing of our radical organization, arrayed against the slightly older and more thoughtful (these terms are relative) Praxis Axis.

DANIEL BELL IN HIS OFFICE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK, 1968.

In the months before the strike, the Action Faction ran around committing all kinds of outrageous provocations (we threw a pie at an army recruiter; we staged an indignant walkout at an official university memorial for Martin Luther King Jr., who had then just been assassinated; we led antiwar crowds through the streets of Times Square) in the hopes of stirring our somnambulent fellow students. And these hopes turned out to be entirely realistic. In my finest hour as revolutionary conspirator, I succeeded in bringing together SDS's leader, Mark Rudd, who was my friend, with the newly elected president of the Student Afro-American Society, likewise my friend, in a midnight negotiation—the three of us, camped around Rudd's kitchen table under the Mao posters in his apartment on 110th Street. Our little meeting formed a somewhat shaky pact between the mostly white SDS and the all-black SAS, at least on the single issue of protecting the students' right to mount demonstrations. The atmosphere was already electric and tense—because of the Vietnam War, because of racial segregation, and because of the economic inequalities in Upper Manhattan: three enormous social issues. And, in this heated atmosphere, the mere fact of our brand-new if unstable alliance proved sufficient, at a campus rally twelve hours later, to ignite a student uprising.

Our movement occupied most of the central buildings on the Columbia campus and held them for a week, and a while later we invaded another couple of buildings. The striking students pointed an accusatory finger at the peculiar geography of Morningside Heights, with the elite and mostly white university up the hill, and the downtrodden blacks down the hill, in a cartoon image of American inequity—and a good many people in the Harlem streets down below responded with warm and visible gestures of solidarity. Our movement went marching into Harlem, led by the black students, and people lined the sidewalk to cheer and encourage Columbia's militant students—an amazing turn in the history of town-gown resentments. Everyone knew that, given a few chance events, Harlem might erupt in an insurrection of its own, something bigger and more violent than anything taking place up the hill at Columbia—and this was a source of genuine power for our strike. Crowds of hippies and radicals journeyed uptown to lend us still more support, until we could count on probably tens of thousands of people to stand at our side, and potentially even more—an enormous left-wing public, squaring off against several thousand other people, the uniformed phalanxes of the New York Police Department, who lined Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue in their boots and helmets, ready to invade the campus.

The phalanxes did eventually invade, and the consequences were horrible—more than a thousand people jailed, offices vandalized, windows smashed (sometimes by the students, sometimes by the police), undercover cops racing through the dorms with guns drawn and delivering terrible beatings, hundreds of people injured, dozens hospitalized. No one was killed, somehow, though a number of my friends and other students suffered what I believe were permanent physical injuries. At least one of the cops, too, was badly and probably permanently injured. In my case, nothing worse happened than to find myself locked up for a sleepless night in the Tombs. But when I returned to campus the next morning, I stared in horror at a blackish stain of dried blood on the red-brick pavement in front of my dormitory—the blood of one of my SDS brothers (we were "brothers" and "sisters," not "comrades") who had been pitilessly beaten. And all of this, the uprising and then the repression, generated a giant wave of indignation, rage, ecstasy, delusion, disorientation, and enthusiasm—a wave of supremely complicated and deep emotions that lifted up many thousands of people and sent them and me hurtling along currents of life and politics that might never have seemed imaginable, before.

A great many students came out of that strike, and out of a series of similar events around the country, convinced that still larger insurrections lay in the future, and that we and our new mass movement were going to join together with liberation movements in other parts of the world and finish off capitalism and its crimes once and for all. These beliefs were preposterous. But no belief seems preposterous so long as you can look to your right and your left and see that thousands or perhaps millions of people in circumstances like your own are marching at your side. Besides, each day's New York Times brought front-page news of ever-worse crises in American life, which made anything seem possible—a theme of how many leaflets written by myself! We thought we were launching a new kind of political system. This too was preposterous. The beloved community was not at hand—even if, as Bell would agree, sometimes it is useful and good to draw up imaginary pictures of beloved communities. We thought that, in our own political and social circles, we were launching spectacular new ideas and practices regarding social hierarchies, sex, and culture, and these ideas and practices were going to sweep away the wretched customs and habits and thinking of the past. Was this belief similarly preposterous? Yes and no.

On cultural matters, something in our cocky self-confidence turned out to be true and justified. And in this mood of anger and utopian expectation, we swelled with disdain for our critics and opponents—and above all for our professors, except for the very few who stood loyally on our side. We looked on the professors as either uncomprehending Mr. Joneses from a Dylan lyric or sinister enemies. We were indignant at the Olympians of Claremont Avenue—at Lionel Trilling (some of my friends drew up a "Wanted" poster of him and pasted it to the walls) and the champions of irony and sophistication, not to mention at Richard Hofstadter and his theories of status anxiety. But I think that the professor who aroused the sharpest indignation may have been Daniel Bell. This was because, in the circles of the Left in the late '60s, sociology was the king of academic disciplines, which had the unfortunate effect of focusing a lot of undiscriminating student wrath on the elders of the field. Then, too, in the '50s Bell had played a role in the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an organization of anti-Communist intellectuals, and to quite a few SDSers this seemed like the epitome of evil. But Bell's gravest sin of all was to have written The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. The very title suggested that Bell was trying to tamp down the possibility of a new surge in radical intellectual thought—of any new possibility of a systematic radical challenge to the dominant views of the moment.

Now all this was fairly idiotic. Nothing is more bovine than a student movement, with the uneducated leading the anti-educated and mooing all the way. I'm glad to recall, looking back at those times, that my own radical activities pretty much avoided the student custom of persecuting the professors. I was much too fascinated by them to want to rail against them, except now and then. Besides, the anti-intellectual atmosphere began to weigh a little heavy on the bookish students. Hofstadter, in his study of American anti-intellectualism, had already put his finger on these moods and fads, as if predicting the uprising at his own university. And so I can understand, in restrospect, why Bell chose to flee Morningside Heights. To be sure, though, the student uprisings spread to Cambridge, too. There was no escape.

II.

Over dinner at the Century Club some thirty years later, Bell reminisced about one of his favorite graduate students from those days, Al Szymanski. Bell had been fond of Szymanski, and seemed a little rueful in thinking back on him. I was thunderstruck to hear Szymanski's name. Szymanski had been quite a few years older than me, yet I too remembered him fondly, and with a real sadness. I told Bell—I supposed he already knew this—that Szymanski had committed suicide in 1985. I had learned about it at a strike reunion in 1988. Bell and I grieved together for a moment at our dinner. Szymanski had cut a remarkable figure in SDS. He was six foot two, and pretty heavy, which meant that every time SDS wanted to project a sense of physical force, Szymanski would stand at the front of the demonstration and cross his massive arms. And the mere look of his beefy form and shaggy hair was bound to intimidate anyone who considered putting up even the slightest resistance.

Szymanski was sweet and affable, even so—a man who radiated physical power and geniality at the same time. SDS and the student uprising as a whole were always, at their core, ambiguous affairs—a movement that meant to be extremely radical, with the intention of imposing real changes on society and especially on our own university, yet, at the same time, a movement that didn't necessarily subscribe to every wild slogan scrawled across a leaflet or on a wall. The movement was theatrical as much as political, and this ambiguity was a secret of its appeal, for a while; and Szymanski seemed to me a symbol of this ambiguity. He looked like he could crush you with his bare hands, if he wanted to; but he also looked like he didn't want to. Mostly he was active in the radical sociologists' movement of the '60s and '70s and the journal The Insurgent Sociologist. A bruiser, if only by dint of size, and an intellectual.

I still don't know why Szymanski committed suicide. His friend Ted Goertzel, one of his closest comrades from the radical sociologists' movement, remembered him in a 1992 book called Turncoats and True Believers: The Dynamics of Political Belief and Disillusionment, but not even Goertzel knows precisely what drove him to do this. Still, Goertzel makes a few comments that, together with my own observations, suggest to me what some of the contributing factors might have been. On my shelf at home I have a book that Szymanski published in 1979 called Is the Red Flag Flying? The Political Economy of the Soviet Union. Szymanski wanted to know whether the Soviet Union could be considered an authentic socialist state, which ought to be regarded with gratitude and admiration by sincere revolutionaries around the world. Or, alternatively, whether the Soviet Union had betrayed the revolution in order to become, as the Chinese Maoists insisted, a "social-imperialist" entity. Or, then again, whether the Soviet Union was something else—a society of "bureaucratic collectivism," along the lines suggested by Max Shachtman, tyrannically exploiting the working class. Szymanski puzzled over these questions with a lot of energy, for reasons that may seem hard to comprehend today. Yet his reasons were clear enough at the time, in the aftermath of the student uprisings.

The hopes and passions that were aroused by the insurrections of the period led a great many people to want to build something larger and firmer and more powerful than a student movement could hope to be—a revolutionary party for the adult world and not just for the student neighborhoods. A party without any of the playful ambiguities of the student movement—a party of the steely and the hard. But what sort of organization would that be, exactly? A great many people pictured this as a Maoist party—a Marxist vanguard, treading along the Chinese path in the belief that China was the world's largest and most fervent and most far-seeing center of revolution.

All over the world in the '70s, on every continent, a large number of young leftists went drifting in those Chinese directions, and likewise in the United States. The original Maoist organization in America, the Progressive Labor Party, was a splinter of the Communist Party and never did prosper, except at Harvard—though it did succeed in capturing SDS's national administration, and swiftly wrecked the organization. But several thousand people, a genuinely large number, gathered around the "New Communist" movement that was sponsored by the National Guardian newspaper, with the intention of building such a party. Still other people enlisted in the Bay Area Radical Union, which evolved into the Revolutionary Communist Party; others joined the October League and a number of tinier groups—Maoist organizations, one and all. Szymanski's research was intended to address these many thousands of people, and the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands who hovered around them. He wanted to demonstrate in scholarly detail that, on balance, the Chinese Communist accusations against the Soviet Union were unjustified. "The Chinese Communist Party is mistaken," he wrote. The Soviet Union was a society in which a technical petty bourgeoisie of scientists, economists, and professionals ruled "together with the manual working class." In world affairs, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union played a progressive role, by and large—though Szymanski did take notice of a Soviet "tendency toward hegemonism," which he thought regrettable. All in all, he reasoned that anyone who wanted to organize a Maoist (and therefore anti-Soviet) party was making a big mistake. The world's most admirable Communist parties, in his estimation, were those of the Vietnamese and North Koreans. But he didn't want to follow them, either. Szymanski wanted to promote what he described as a "Communist Movement" that would take whatever was admirable from Chinese communism and go on recognizing the Soviet Union's magnificent achievements, even so—an ecumenical communism, to put it that way.

This entire discussion, the earnest debate between pro-Chinese and nondenominational Marxists and Leninists in the years after 1968, seems like sheerest delirium today, and not just because of the fantastical delusions about communism in both the Soviet Union and China (not to mention North Korea!). These debates were conducted with a practical purpose in mind, namely, to produce a large and serious political organization; and not one shred of such an organization came into being. Oh, a few tiny sects have lingered on. The Revolutionary Communist Party, among the Maoist groups, has survived, and it even managed to play a backroom role in helping to organize some of the mass demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. The group still runs its slightly dishonest ads (you won't see the word Communist) in The Nation, fishing for recruits.

But the tiny sects remained tiny. Nor did the many intense post-'68 discussions of Maoism and the Soviet Union contribute in any sizable way to some other, more levelheaded movement. Nor did these debates contribute to a larger political understanding on the American Left (unlike in France, where the debates over Maoism helped generate the New Philosophy). Nor did they contribute to the cultural reforms and triumphs that did come out of the New Left. On the contrary, in America the sundry participants in the debate over launching a new orthodox Leninist party—pro-Chinese, pro-Soviet, Trotskyist, and nondenominational alike—tended to be, on cultural questions, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, roughly in the style of the trade unions, save for an outlandish Marxist rhetoric and a tweedy touch of campus life. This is a conservative aspect of the New Left that hardly anyone remembers today.

Recently I read a political memoir by Régis Debray called Loués soient nos seigneurs: Une éducation politique—an ironic and somewhat melancholy account of his own political education and disillusionment over revolutionary Marxism. Debray observes that, at the end of the '70s, a number of Marxists in France committed suicide, and he reflects that the allure of suicide was not hard to discover in some other corners of the Left, beginning with his own comrade in Latin America, Che Guevara. Debray doesn't mention the United States in this connection. Yet his observation does apply to the American scene as well. The radical hopes that came out of the '60s were spectacularly intense, and the letdown that came in the '70s and '80s was, in its fashion, equally intense, as if the entire movement were going through an episode of manic depression.

A great number of people fell into psychological crises in the United States—and, for that matter, in left-wing movements all over the world. And the suicides followed. The most famous was that of Abbie Hoffman—no Marxist-Leninist, but certainly a man with a deep and sincere commitment to the revolutionary cause. I wonder how many other people may have done the same. I think that Szymanski's suicide should probably be considered in this light. His friend Goertzel observes that Szymanski kept a pistol at the side of his bed, in the belief that the coming revolution would require such a thing—a pretty common belief in those days, wild as it may seem now. But Szymanski ended up using his revolutionary weapon only on himself.

One detail in Szymanski's Is the Red Flag Flying? strikes me as especially poignant, as I look at it today. The book contains a proper scholarly apparatus, including an index. But the index advances from "Baran, Paul" to "Bernstein, Edward," with no entry for "Bell, Daniel." This omission seems surprising from a personal point of view, considering what I learned at the Century Club—that Szymanski had been a favorite student of Bell's. In a chapter of The End of Ideology called "Ten Theories in Search of Reality," Bell conducts a swift survey of theories about the Soviet Union—anthropological, sociological, psychological, Marxist, geopolitical, and so forth. It seems to me obvious in retrospect that Szymanski, in composing Is the Red Flag Flying?, had set about doing something similar, tabulating the sundry theories about Soviet life and taking note of their strengths and weaknesses. Here was a student treading in his professor's path, as students are supposed to do. But I doubt that Szymanski ever pictured himself in that light. The New Left's grand purpose was to rise up in rebellion against the intellectuals of Bell's generation—except for the people who seemed to have staked out a place on the extreme Left, such as Paul Baran and the Monthly Review circle. Bell's work and that of any number of other scholars ceased to be, for a few crucial years, even a reference point. And this was a terrible misfortune for the younger generation—the greatest misfortune of all, in some respects.

My own response to the Columbia strike and its revolutionary offshoots differed from Szymanski's almost entirely. The fervor for Marxism-Leninism in its several variations dismayed me from the start. The conservative Bolshevik instinct on cultural matters struck me as absurd. And so I rebelled against the rebels, and I did this by veering off in anarchist and anti-Communist directions—which always seemed to me truer to the original spirit of the New Left. I mentioned this to Bell, and he told me that he too had come under an anarchist influence as a kid. He had known the New York group around the German emigré anarchist Rudolf Rocker, and because of those connections he had come across an early exposé of Soviet tyranny by Alexander Berkman. Berkman's pamphlet had inoculated Bell against any temptation to join so many others of his generation in venerating the Soviet revolution.

In my case, I became something of a follower of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the libertarians of the French Left, who were already wandering in the direction that would take them, after a while, to New Philosophy or to the "liberal-libertarian" politics that Cohn-Bendit has been espousing for quite a while now. In the years after the Columbia strike, I subscribed to a bizarre set of publications—Le Monde Libertaire from Paris, L'Espoir (the exile journal of the Spanish CNT-FAI) from Toulouse, and La Batalha from Lisbon, together with (just to shore up my social-democratic side) Dissent from New York. I too ended up hanging around the anarchists who used to know Rocker—by then an elderly group of amiable and sometimes-cranky retired proletarians. I threw myself into a course of reading in the left-wing classics. I breathed the air of 1848. And I made my way to the temple of left-wing historical knowledge in New York, the old library of the Socialist Party's Rand School, where (if I may continue citing these parallels) Bell had once been active, during his socialist youth.

This was the Tamiment Library. Today the Tamiment forms a part of the NYU Bobst Library on Washington Square, but thirty years ago it was housed in the Machinists' Hall on Union Square, amid the matching bronze busts of Eugene V. Debs and Abraham Lincoln. I spent a good amount of time at the old Tamiment. And among the books I read there was Bell's Marxian Socialism in the United States, from 1952, which formed part of a multivolume publication by various authors on American leftism. In 1996 Cornell University Press brought out a new edition of the book, with a useful introduction by Michael Kazin, who happens to be Bell's nephew. Kazin identifies a number of points on which Bell's research has been overtaken or complemented by the work of later writers—by James Weinstein on the old Socialist Party; by Maurice Isserman and other scholars on the grass roots of the Communist Party in its heyday; and by various writers on leftism among African-Americans. I would add that Paul Avrich and other scholars have had a lot to say about non-Marxist leftisms of various sorts as well—the anarchists, the Wobblies, and the syndicalists. In short, 1952 is a very long time ago for historical scholarship—and yet, in some respects, not so long ago.

Marxian Socialism in the United States is a work of great psychological acuity. Martin Luther said of the church that it was "in the world, but not of it," and Bell quoted this remark to evoke a quality of unworldliness in the American Left. He meant that, over the decades, the socialist movement in America had never quite been able to accept the political world as it was, preferring instead to dwell apart, in a world of dreams and moral postures. Marxian Socialism in the United States has received, over the years, mountains of criticism for this one quotation from Luther. And yet something about that phrase has always been on the mark, as I think anyone can see, with a glance at Debs's four presidential campaigns at the start of the twentieth century, and at Ralph Nader's two campaigns at the start of the twenty-first.

The phrase "in the world, but not of it" strikes me as pretty astute on the topic of the New Left, too—the New Left that commanded the allegiance of several million Americans in the '60s and '70s but was never able to break into conventional political life, with a couple of exceptions. For the New Left too preferred to dwell apart, in its own world of dreams and moral postures. This habit did the movement no harm at all, by the way, in regard to cultural issues—which is why it succeeded in capturing whole neighborhoods in a number of cities, and used those neighborhoods to conduct experiments on cultural matters, and sent those experiments orbiting outward to the rest of American society. Nor did a few unworldly habits do the New Left any harm at the universities, once the graduate-student militants had succeeded in shoving aside the populist anti-intellectuals. But the kind of movement that was capable of capturing a student neighborhood or an English department was never going to capture a state assembly.

Bell's book made two additional observations that seem to me on the mark. He noted a strange and repeated tendency on the part of the American Left to lose the thread of continuity from one generation to the next, such that each new generation feels impelled to reinvent the entire political tradition. This was true of his own generation, the young radicals of the '30s, who brought to bear very little knowledge of what their own parents had done in the 1910s. The same observation applied in spades to the '60s and '70s—which is why so many young intellectuals of the New Left dismissed Marxian Socialism in the United States as merely a dusty relic of the discredited anti-Communist past. But I am struck still more powerfully by Bell's third observation.

"Among the radical, as among the religious minded," he wrote, "there are the once born and the twice born. The former is the enthusiast, the 'sky-blue healthy-minded moralist' to whom sin and evil—the 'soul's mumps and measles and whooping coughs,' in Emerson's phrase—are merely transient episodes to be glanced at and ignored in the cheerful saunter of life. To the twice born, the world is 'a double-storied mystery' which shrouds the evil and renders false the good; and in order to find truth, one must lift the veil and look Medusa in the face."

I think that my old brother Al Szymanski, Bell's student, was inescapably trapped by all three of these fateful traits of the American Left. It was sheer unworldliness that allowed Szymanski to sink into dreams about the marvels of world communism and its forthcoming triumphs in America. It was the gap between generations that accounted for the poignant omission of "Bell, Daniel" from Szymanski's index—the failure to appreciate what Bell had already done and was continuing to do. I am filled with sadness to realize, looking back, that if anyone could have introduced Bell's perspective into the surly quarters of the New Left during its angry period, that person was Al Szymanski.

The great virtue of Marxian Socialism in the United States lies in Bell's ability to gaze at the world with not one lens but two—to gaze at social reality and, at the same time, to take note of the history of ideas, and even of literature: to think, and to think about his own thinking. Bell's analytic instincts in this work took on a 3-D quality, in this respect. His perspectives had perspective. But Szymanski could not possibly have appreciated these virtues—at least not while he was caught up in the exalted mood that led him to compose Is the Red Flag Flying?. I suppose he was never able to develop what was missing, either. I can imagine that, having been crippled by unworldliness and the split between left-wing generations, Szymanski was simply unable to undergo the psychological maturation that Bell's book described—the leap from once- to twice-born. This was the transition that might have taken Szymanski from his debate with Maoism, and his moderately pro-Soviet conclusions, to an awareness of the mythological quality of his own thinking, and from there to a new style of thinking altogether.

Looking at the passage in Marxian Socialism in the United States on the once- and twice-born, I think I can recognize that, blessed with better luck than Szymanski, I did manage to make the leap that Bell described. This wasn't because I adopted some dramatic new political position—although, like any thinking person, I have adopted all kinds of political positions over the years, and intend to keep on doing so. My leap into the twice-born was strictly intellectual—a event that took place to some degree in the reading room of the Socialist Party's Tamiment collection. It was this small and altogether natural leap that led me to appreciate books like Marxian Socialism in the United States. It is a work of historical scholarship, scrupulous and thorough, marvelous in its easy command of the color and arcana of the left-wing past. But it is also a writer's meditation, composed in the tone of a man who is in touch with his own soul and who is moved to speak about more topics other than simply the one at hand. A work of history, yet also a commentary on human nature—a book that owes as much to William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience as to any conventional political history.

In modern America, an amazing number of people have thrown themselves into the work of researching and writing the history of the American Left—many more than are justified by the relative importance of the topic. These scholars have taken up the subject in order to understand something about their own lives—to explain how and why they came to feel so alienated from the mainstream of American politics, and what their alienation was like, and what uses might be drawn from their experiences. Books on these themes—on the history of the Communist Party USA, on the old Socialists, on the New Left, and so on—make up a main current of the modern historical literature. Yet none of these books has ever managed to eclipse Marxian Socialism in the United States—the classic of classics in this particular field. In any case, as I glance back at Bell's book today, I see in it one of the inspirations for my own adult life and work.

My transition from once-born to twice-born turned me into someone who was curious and eager to write about the history of the Left—sometimes in order to promote a political agenda, but mostly for another reason: I wanted to discover truths, if I possibly could—about America and other parts of the world; about political movements; about social theory; about human nature. This is a gloomier project than merely advancing a political agenda. Agendas tend to be hopeful; truths, not so hopeful. A triumphal spirit runs through a great deal of American history, but not through the particular subset of American history that contains the political Left.

A shadow fell across my dinner with Dan when we reminisced about the strike of 1968—the shadow of what had happened to him at Columbia; what had happened to the left-wing movement that emerged from the strike; and what had happened to our common friend, his fondly remembered student and my SDS "brother," who had concentrated in his own person all the disasters of the era. But it is in the nature of the second-born to live in the shadows. The blue sky, in Emerson's phrase, belongs to the first-born, and afterward comes the lifting of the veil and the gazing at Medusa's face.

Paul Berman is the author of Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003) and The Passion of Joschka Fischer, forthcoming from Soft Skull this spring.

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