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Friday, August 16, 2013


The NY TIMES today carried the obituary of Jean Bethke Elshtain, well-known as a neo-conservative political theorist.  The news of her passing triggered in me a series of recollections and musings about a phenomenon I have never really understood.

When I was a young man, there were very few distinguished senior White American intellectuals on the left to whom those of us coming up could look for guidance and inspiration.  One after another, men and women who had been strong voices on the left in the thirties turned to the right and ended up supporting Republicans and conservative causes with a patriotic fervor they would have mocked when young.  Some turned away from progressive politics because of the Moscow show trials, others after the Molotov-Ribbentrop entente.  Many, who were Jewish, turned conservative because of the establishment of Israel.  For young men and women of my generation, coming to maturity in the early fifties, there were precious few role models.  I have always thought that was the appeal of Herbert Marcuse.  Even if we could not really understand what he was writing much of the time, we could see that he had somehow made it to middle age and older without suffering what seemed almost a genetically encoded turn to the right.  My own father, son of a socialist leader and a socialist himself as a teenager, eventually came to support the blackballing of communist teachers in the New York City public school system to which he had devoted his life.  My letters home from college in the earliest years of the 50's are filled with my arguments with him about that shameful episode in New York history.

In the late 50's, a group of young Harvard graduate students and Instructors formed something that we jokingly called The New Left Club of Cambridge.  We would meet for bag lunches from time to time in my office and talk about politics.  Among the most ardent and committed leftists in the group were a young graduate student couple, Steve and Abby Thernstrom.  Stephen Thernstrom was on his way to a distinguished Harvard career as an historian of lower class life in Puritan New England.  His wife, Abby, earned a doctorate from the Harvard Government Department.  Something -- I have never understood what -- turned them from committed progressives into embittered apologists of the Right.

I met Jean Elshtain in 1973 when she joined the UMass Political Science Department as a young Assistant Professor.  She was bright, lively, focused, and a strong progressive voice then, a colleague of my friend and sometime fellow seminar leader William Connolly.  I invited Jean to take part in my left-leaning interdisciplinary undergraduate program, Social Thought and Political Economy, and for several years she did.  I really liked Jean, and had great hopes for her.  And yet, as the years passed, she turned more and more to the dark side of the Force, eventually becoming one more in the panoply of neo-con intellectuals.

What is it in America about growing old that does this to so many promising young thinkers?  Not all, I am happy to say.  My generation [interpreting that term somewhat loosely] includes Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Gar Alperovitz, Sam Bowles, Rick Wolff and a number of other strong left-wing voices who never wavered from their commitment to progressive causes as they aged.

My own difficulty as a young man in finding older figures to identify with and seek inspiration from stirred in me a desire to provide this sort of guidance to young men and women coming after me.  If I have managed to do that to one or two, I will feel that my time on this planet has not been wasted.


Chris said...

I don't actually agree with Chomsky's characterization of Lenin, but here's his reason why people switch from the left to the right so suddenly.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks, Chris. It was fun to see Noam in his prime. I remember him as a young man, fresh from the Linguistics Department at Penn, come to Cambridge to be a Junior Fellow at Harvard. Although he is five years older than I [which was a lot when you were as young as I was then], we became friends.

Chris said...

Love Noam. When he passes the world will be remarkable worse off.

John Seed said...

I was intrigued by your comments on generational shifts from left to right in the US. I was reminded of Robert Frost's quip that he never dared be radical when young for fear of being conservative when old.

But thinking of recent generations of leftists in England I am struggling to think of any significant intellectual figure who shifted from left to right. Raymond Williams, EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and a younger generation such as Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel and Perry Anderson did respond to changing circumstances but turned from young leftists to old leftists. Others might be able to come up with a different English story here, of course.

I would be fascinated to read any further reflections you had on this question, Robert. And thanks for your blog which I enjoy very much.

Matt said...

What is it in America about growing old that does this to so many promising young thinkers?

Do you suppose it's particular, or particularly strong, in the US? There is, of course, the Hackneyed old quote by (or perhaps only attributed to) Churchill, but that always seemed like description, or post-hoc rationalization, rather than explanation to me. One semi-British example might be Christopher Hitchens. He, like Elshtain to some degree, was driven insane by the Sept. 11th attacks, but he'd been on his way before that, too (also like Elshtain), and had been living in the US for some time, so perhaps he should get to count as an American.

I was trying to think of a good case from the young reformers in the late Soviet Union/early days of the new Russia, but while many of them became criminals or toadies for the powerful, with the exception of Grigory Yavlinsky, there's not much evidence that they were thinkers or particularly intelligent, and Yavlinsky is one of the few who hasn't turned.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think I will try to write something more about this in a few days. It is a very striking fact about the US, and seems [although I may be wrong] to be especially true of that generation that started life before the depression, around the turn of the century, , and lived through the Second World War and into the Cold War.

TheCeltiberian said...

Unfortunately Bowles, along with his longtime collaborator Herb Gintis, has taken a dramatic right-wing turn in recent years - due, in no small part, to his embrace of sociobiology. The once staunch advocates of workers' self-management are now supply-side economic supporters of democratic capitalism (sans labor-managed firms).