I have just returned from a wonderful start-of-the-year party thrown by the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department at the Horace Williams House in downtown Chapel Hill. To my delight and astonishment, I discovered that many of the folks there had been reading my blog. They all greeted Susie with open arms, and said, rather meaningfully, that they "know a lot about you," which made Susie a trifle nervous. As I was chatting with some of the young folks [young here means, of course, anyone under forty], a thought occurred to me that has crossed my mind many times over the years.
When I was young, in the Fifties, there were very few older academics and intellectuals who could serve as role models for young people like myself on the left. As a consequence of the disaster of Stalinist Russia and the aftermath of the Second World War, it seemed somehow that all the men and women who had been on the left in the Thirties had turned to the right. Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook, Max Lerner, Seymour Martin Lipset -- none of them had managed to stand firmly on the left as the years went by. It seemed to be a fact of nature -- as one grew older, one's hair fell out, one's belly sagged, and one's politics became neo-conservative.
There were a few, of course. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, still editing The Monthly Review, but they seemed to us to be dinosaurs. There was C. B. McPherson up in Canada, and William Appelman Williams out in the upper Midwest somewhere. And of course, there was Herbert Marcuse. no one knew what Herbie was talking about, but he was clearly an enemy of Capitalism, and that was some consolation. Then too, as Susie reminded me on the way home from the party, there were the Quakers and Pacifist ministers -- the A. J. Mustes and all. But we youngsters really had to invent a way of being if we wanted to grow old without tilting right.
I have always thought that I had a responsibility to my students and other young people to show them that their progressive politics was not merely a life stage, like the Terrible Twos and the Thirty-Somethings. Now, of course, there are lots of us who have kept faith with our radical politics as our hair has turned grey. Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, even my old student Todd Gitlin, who qualifies as an oldster, though I find it hard to believe. I don't know whether anything I have written will outlive me, but I would like to think that there are young men and women somewhere who will learn from us older radicals that a commitment to social justice and a hatred of the inequities and irrationalities of capitalism can be the unchanging core of an entire life.