David Greenberg and Tony Michels: Elena Kagan Could Have Been a Great Historian

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998. Tony Michels teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York.]

Given the absence of judicial opinions by Elena Kagan, observers have taken to mining her other writings for clues about what kind of justice she would be—right down to her 1981 Princeton undergraduate thesis. Indeed, last week the demand for it reached such a pitch that the White House agreed to release it for public consumption. At a time when the moldy charge of "socialism" has been dragged out of the cupboard to label Barack Obama as un-American, Kagan's varsity opus—tantalizingly entitled "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933"—will undeniably pique people's interest, even if it's far from the Rosetta stone that some have imagined it to be.

To study something doesn't imply agreement or even sympathy with it, as Kagan's thesis adviser, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian Sean Wilentz, cautioned in the New York Times. Though such a caveat should be obvious, it needs reiterating, given the determination in certain right-wing precincts to see the thesis as proof of some hidden radical agenda. (Similar proof, inevitably, will be found in the sponsorship of Wilentz, who rose to national fame, and antagonized the right, by defending Bill Clinton before Congress during his 1998 impeachment hearings.) That Kagan wrote her thesis almost 30 years ago at the age of 21 gives us additional reason not to count on it as a guide to what Kagan thinks now.

Still, scholars—let alone college kids—usually aren't drawn to early-20th-century, internecine, left-wing sectarianism unless they feel some visceral connection to it. The wistful note in Kagan's conclusion offers a hint of that feeling: "In our own times, a coherent socialist movement is nowhere to be found in the United States. Americans are more likely to speak of a golden past than a golden future, of capitalism's glories than of socialism's greatness." Kagan doesn't exactly pledge her lasting fealty to the socialist cause there, but she does evince a certain underlying affection for the idealistic New Yorkers—heavily working-class, immigrant, and Jewish—who, laboring in sweatshops and living in squalid tenements, saw left-wing politics as a route to taming the inequities of industrial America....

Historians in graduate school are still presented—at least we were, not too long ago—with the perennial riddle, first posed by the German sociologist Werner Sombart, of "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" Where the advanced European nations often had (and still have) thriving socialist parties, in this country, liberalism has always been the dominant ideology for the left (broadly defined), and the electoral prowess of socialist and communist parties was comparably meager and short-lived. Although countless eminent historians have weighed in on this question over the last century, Kagan as a college student gamely and impressively entered the crowded historiographical debate, producing arguments of considerable merit.

The first part of Kagan's answer is that historians have formulated the question incorrectly. In fact, she reminds us, socialism did exist in the United States and was quite promising during the first two decades of the 20th century. So she reframes Sombart's question to ask, more usefully, why did the Socialist Party fail?

The nub of her answer is that socialism's collapse, while ultimately triggered by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, really stemmed from long-standing disagreements—over philosophy, methods, and goals—between revolutionaries and moderate (or "constructive") socialists. The biggest difference had to do with how radicals and moderates expected socialism to be achieved: The radicals believed socialism would come by way of revolution, "as an overthrow, more or less sudden, more or less violent, physical, social, and economic," in the words of Louis Boudin, one of the party's leading left-wing intellectuals. By contrast, the "constructive" socialists, represented by state party leader, Morris Hillquit, envisioned that socialism would be ushered in by accumulated legislative reforms. This basic difference played out in countless disputes, from whether the party should involve itself in union affairs to how it should publicly represent its commitment to the existing political system....

These talents leave little doubt that Kagan would have become a superb historian if she had wanted to be one. Of course, even back in the 1980s, there was a tough academic job market in the humanities, and given the way things have worked out for her with her career choices, she probably made the right call.

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