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College Quarterly
Summer 2012 - Volume 15 Number 3
The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970
Carl Mirra
Kent OH: Kent State University, 2010
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

I met Staughton Lynd (b. 1929) only once. He had just given a speech to a large crowd of university teachers, students and other suspicious and possibly subversive elements of Canadian society. The year was 1965. He impressed me as almost saintly—if I can use that word in a secular way, and without a hint of irony.

Lynd spoke in a solemn and somber mood. He began by quoting Robinson Jeffers, (1887-1962), an American poet who wrote:

While this America settles in the mould
of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten
mass hardens …

The poem was entitled, “Shine, perishing republic.” It was prescient, as was Lynd.

Staughton Lynd said that he was an American citizen in a revolutionary world, who “belonged to that once revolutionary nation, which now seeks to crush revolutions outside itself, in the process destroying its own revolutionary past. I feel separated,” he went on, “from those who know that women are being burned alive and that children, as they cower in underground shelters, are torn to bits by grenades …”

Lynd knew whereof he spoke. He was a promising historian of the American Revolution, who had already written a book, Anti-Federalism in Dutchess County (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1962) about the colonial rebellion from the perspective of ordinary Americans in a manner that more or less paralleled the revolution of British historiography and social history led by men such as Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson. It was social history, which is to say, history not as a cavalcade of Kings and of Military Battles, but “from the bottom up.” It paid attention not only to the experience of ordinary people as worthy subject matter, but also as markers and instruments of stability and change. Great leaders, it suggested, were less important than broad and deep changes in social life. Understanding technology and the social relations of ownership and control of the means of production and distribution in any society were more important than the rote learning of the names of prime ministers and warriors, no matter how popular the cult of personality. Soon afterward, Lynd would publish a broader exposition of the relationship between different social classes and the US War of Independence—Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (New York: Pantheon, 1968). And in the middle of that spurt of intellectual creativity, he would be expelled from the vaunted heights of American academia. He had managed to win an Assistant Professorship at Yale University, the intellectual home of Presidents George H. W. Bush and of George W. Bush. It would not last long.

Staughton Lynd was an activist. His parents, the legendary sociologists Robert Lynd (1892-1970) and Helen Lynd (1896-1982), were the joint authors of the sociological classics Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture [1929] and Middletown in Transition [1935]. They believed deeply in the importance of academic excellence and social commitment. They saw no necessary distinction between them; in fact, they did not imagine that it was easy to be one without also being the other.

Young Staughton anticipated the emergence of the “New Left” in his rejection of the old, orthodox and ossified “communist” forms of Stalinism and Trotskyism. He preferred experiments in participatory communalism. Call it a “lifestyle” choice, if you must. He and his wife Alice lived in the Macedonia cooperative community in Georgia a few years after he had graduated from Harvard in 1951 and prior to his admission to doctoral studies at Columbia. He also served as Coordinator of the Student Non-violent Co-coordinating Committee’s “Freedom Summer in Mississippi” project in 1964. He pioneered the notion that participatory non-governmental organizations should seek emancipatory social change without the compromises necessitated by working through established political parties. His scepticism of the progress to be made by joining forces with the Democratic Party, for example, proved timely and stands as a model for young “Occupy” and other activists today.

In his speech in Toronto, Lynd also invoked the message of Pastor Niemöller, who spoke of the moral failure of German citizens a generation before and who is credited with saying: when the Nazis came for the communists, I was not a communist and said nothing; when they came for the trade unionists, I was not a trade unionist and said nothing; when they came for the Jews, I was not a Jew and said nothing; and when they came for me, there was no one left to say anything at all. Staughton Lynd believed deeply in the importance of individual moral conscience as an essential element in redemptive social change.

Updating Niemöller’s message by almost two decades, Lynd urged his fellow Americans and others complicit in its messianic urge to world hegemony to say that “when [Patrice] Lumumba was murdered, I was not an African. When Santo Domingo was invaded, I was not a Latin American. When women and children were burned and tortured in Vietnam, I was not an Asian. And when Americans are imprisoned, it will be too late.”

Staughton Lynd also spoke of his disappointment with the new American president who had been elected on a platform of hope and, above all, because voters felt that his opponent was too warlike. He implored his compatriots to return to the values that had inspired “America’s Tom Paine” who claimed that “my country is the world. My countrymen are all mankind.”

Of course, the pernickety among us might object that Tom Paine (1737-1809) was not entirely an American, that he was loathed by the grander American Revolutionaries and that—after spending most of the 1790s in France, supporting and then running afoul of the French Revolutionaries—he died unnoticed and was buried unlamented on his farm outside New York City, after he was denied burial by the Quakers, as had been his wish. Only six people showed up to mourn his passing.

Still, Lynd had a point. The United States of America in the mid-twentieth century appeared to have abandoned its revolutionary ideals. It was embroiled in conflicts and was propping up tyrants all over the world. It feared any Third World leader whose policies included significant economic reform—especially those that favoured indigenous control of natural resources or redistribution of land. It connived and colluded, when it did not actually command and control, in the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in places such as Iran, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. It enabled, where it did not actively support, the repression of reformers and revolutionaries of a newer sort, and it imposed economic restrictions on poor countries that far exceeded those which the United Kingdom had imposed on the American colonies two centuries earlier.

The complaints expressed by Staughton Lynd should seem familiar, because they identify a pattern of behaviour that has become well-established. When Lynd gave his speech in Toronto, the bogeyman was international communism; today it is international terrorism. Then, the American president who had promised peace was Lyndon Baines Johnson; today it is Barack Hussein Obama. To his credit, Mr. Obama has at least officially ended the illegal war in Iraq and has largely withdrawn American forces from that particular quagmire; to his discredit, he remains engaged in dubious military adventures elsewhere and, at the least, offered consent through silence to those who overthrow of the elected leader of Honduras in 2009. Lynd’s position on such matters has not changed.

Staughton Lynd—ever a Christian and never a Marxist—did dabble in orthodox leftist politics as an undergraduate, but his analysis and agenda differed from his own commitments to pacifism, egalitarianism and participatory democracy. Carl Mirra’s admirable book closes the story of Staughton Lynd in 1970. He provides a fair and detailed account of one man’s journey. Lynd has suffered and continues to suffer the fate of many activists throughout his life. Mirra’s book should go some way toward ensuring that Lynd is better remembered. Edward Thompson said of his own work, that he sought “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” Mirra’s task is similar and well done.

In bringing Lynd’s personal story back into the dim and flickering light of academic discussion, Mirra has performed two important services. One, of course, is to pay tribute to a man who, like his one-time colleague and mentor Howard Zinn (1922-2010), served as a point of radical consciousness and conscience in a land that has far more time for “reality shows” than reality. Alas, such somber acts of respect, while sincerely intended and heartening to friends and families, are ultimately acclamations (if the subject remains alive) or eulogies (if the subject has expired). They are honourable epitaphs, and seldom more.

The other and more important service is to bring to mind a tradition of dissent in which more and more principled intellectuals can, if they have the wit and the will, begin once again to play a public part in political discourse. Collections of essays dedicated to philosophers, historians, scientists and others who live at least partly by books need not be nails in their intellectual coffins, but invitations to readers to continue the struggle. Carl Mirra’s homage Staughton Lynd serves the first purpose well, but it should also be seen as aid to the second.

Currently, the whining of corporate media pundits and right-wing politicians would have us believe that institutions of postsecondary learning are safe harbours for “avowed leftists,” “crypto-communists,” “radical feminists” and postmodernist pirates ready to make off with authorial voices, grand narratives and the grounds of reason itself. The hunt for such threats to social stability and corporate ideology, of course, is not as spectacular as it has been in the distant and relatively recent past. Few dazzling cases of ideological repression make the daily news and not many educational managers bother to seed their speeches with references to the urgency of rooting out subversives.

In fact, however, matters may actually be worse. At least when a Frank Underhill, a Harry Crowe, an Angela Davis or a Marlene Dixon ran afoul of the authorities and were centred out and subjected to a political purge (or a failed attempt at it), issues could be openly addressed. After all, an unjustly dismissed teacher could—if the stars were properly aligned—become a rousing cause célèbre. Now, postsecondary institutions have become corporatized to the extent that conformity is so extensive (and job security so vulnerable) that alternatives to the dominant ideology can be conveniently ignored, co-opted or simply shuffled into an academic niche which exists only to prove how open-minded institutions have become (Marcuse, I think, called this “repressive tolerance.”)

So it is that the honourable life of Staughton Lynd can be read as an endorsement of the man himself, but also as encouragement to contemporary carriers of his torch. Of course, Lynd should be absolved of any blame for the failures of people who have tried to carry on his quest for peace, equity and whatever truth our species can engender; but his life, now in its ninth decade, has surely been a moral beacon for others whether or not they share some, most or all of the his beliefs. Accordingly, when I think of Staughton Lynd, I think also of Chris Hedges, Henry A. Giroux, William Rivers Pitt, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Naomi Klein, John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler and any number of public intellectuals who may or may not retain ties with academia, but who have taken to the Internet to further their ideas and ideals.

They and other less famous dissenters owe much to Staughton Lynd. He was not the first to pay the price of criticism, nor will he be the last; in some ways, however, his story is singular. According to Mirra, the precipitating cause of Lynd’s exit from the elite domain of officially sanctioned historical writers had mainly to do with a trip he took to Prague, Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi at Christmas, 1965. One of his “fellow travelers” was Tom Hayden, who went on to become a California State Senator. Not long afterward, a similar visit to North Vietnam was taken by Jane Fonda, who went on to sell fitness videos and marry both Hayden and CNN founder Ted Turner (though not at the same time). Lynd did not rebound so easily. Although no university administrator would admit it, it seems quite clear that he was fired by Yale for explicitly political reasons. Despite several offers from other institutions, his appointments were always rejected by governing authorities regardless of faculty support. His story is proof enough that, although Joe McCarthy was well and truly dead, McCarthyism was alive in the 1960s and Professor Lynd was effectively and permanently blacklisted.

The flagrant violation of academic freedom in Staughton Lynd’s case was nonetheless something of a turning point. At the time, it was a kind of litmus test (though certainly not the only one) which no doubt weighed heavily on the consciences of scholars whose commitment to academic freedom and social reform was to be severely tested. In Mirra’s account, some historians come out rather well and a few, like William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko, went on to write radical history which met and exceeded mainstream scholarly standards. Some, like Christopher Lasch appear to have wavered. Some, like Eugene Genovese arched their backs and recoiled from those whom they deemed to be overly ideological. Howard Zinn, of course, remained firm until his death just two years ago. At the same time, traces of a sort of yeasty rebelliousness could be found, often in unexpected places.

In 1969, Lynd outraged the sanctimonious professoriat by daring to challenge the establishment’s candidate for President of the American Historical Association. Among others, Eugene Genovese, who had been heralded for exploring and applying the works of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci to American history, turned on Lynd and shouted for the profession to  “put these so-called radicals down, put them down hard, and put them down once and for all!” He got his wish, and Lynd was purged from the profession. Elsewhere, however, others were taking notice. In the social sciences—not least in my own field of political science, but in sociology and other disciplines as well—the foundations were given a good, hard, shake as radical caucuses were formed, new associations begun, vibrant journals started. The late 1960s and early 1970s were remarkable times. Careers were won and lost. Opportunities were exploited and squandered. Scholarship of unprecedented scope and depth emerged. Suddenly, and for a desperately short time, it seemed, life in universities and colleges became, as the cliché had it, “relevant.”

The lasting effects of the struggles for which Staughton Lynd was an embodiment and a symbol are hard to discern. The academy has shifted in many ways. Corporate ideology and business models predominate as education is commodified and teaching and learning are made the subject matter of technological innovation. Critical analysis has next to no function (despite all the empty talk about “critical thinking) and what dissenting views exist are largely shoved into the anterooms of identity politics. Preoccupation with Foucault’s gaze appears to have replaced more ambitious projects. Reflection takes the place of praxis. And, the radical left has mainly exchanged revolutionary slogans for polysyllabic excursions into dialectics of oppression in the contested terrain of popular music, tattoos and advertising motifs.

Students have changed too—ideologically and demographically. The triumph of vocationalism and the pedagogy of on-line learning have transformed the “ivory towers” into plastic workstations. The ideas that people in postsecondary education should bear the moral burden of systemic, structural criticism and should understand teaching to be an inherently political act are tolerated to a degree, so to speak; but, as we have learned to say, they are “marginalized” in the universities and extinguished wherever possible in the colleges.

It is therefore easy to patronize heroic figures such as Lynd. They can be treated as curiosities and oddities, or they can be romanticized as part of a dream-time when idealism, however imprudent and ill-advised, nonetheless captured the imagination of young people just prior to their move to the suburbs and assumption of mortgages and surrender to “real life.” The aim of both sorts of interpretation is to stash Staughton Lynd in the fetid dustbin of historical antiquarianism well before his time. Before that happens, however, it is important to glance in his direction. After all, despite the calumny of the authorities and the cowardice and hypocrisy of too many of his colleagues, Staughton Lynd is still alive and he is still working.

Since 1970, Staughton Lynd has remained active, earning a degree in labour law, working with the community organizers associated with Saul Alinsky in Chicago, recording oral histories of workers and political radicals of various descriptions. He has returned in kind and quantity the disdain with which professional historians treated him forty years ago, more than slightly hinting that history—especially “guerrilla history as he calls it—should be written by those who make it and not by liberal professors whose commitment to the cause is always in doubt.

Lynd has remained loyal to his cause, and to the inspiration that he felt and shared at that speech in Toronto forty-seven years ago. He closed it, by the way, by referring to Eugene B. Debs (1855-1926). Debs, Lynd reminded us, was “stripped of the rights of citizenship … for protesting World War One.” In following his example, Lynd acknowledged that opposing imperial practices “may mean going into a kind of exile within one’s own country.” If that should happen, he concluded, “we can respond as Debs did, ‘They have made me a citizen of the world.’”


Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com.

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