Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley, Review of Carl Mirra's "The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970" (Kent State, 2010); and Andrej Grubacic ed., From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2010)

Jul 5, 2010 2:19 pm

Ron Briley, Review of Carl Mirra's "The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970" (Kent State, 2010); and Andrej Grubacic ed., From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2010)

Staughton Lynd’s odyssey as a scholar and activist has earned the ire and admiration of the historical profession. During the 1960s Lynd was essentially blacklisted by the historical establishment for his political activism, while his scholarship was criticized for being driven by ideological considerations. Nevertheless, many contemporary historians credit Lynd, along with his radical colleagues such as Howard Zinn and Jesse Lemisch, with fostering a historiography which examines the contributions and stories of common people in addition to elites—in other words, history from the bottom up. Lynd’s legacy is addressed by Carl Mirra, associate professor in the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education at Adelphi University, in an excellent study which investigates Lynd’s life and career within the historical context of Cold War culture in the United States between 1945 and 1970. Readers of Mirra’s volume should also consult the Lynd reader From Here to There, edited by Andrej Grubacic, which includes many talks and articles from somewhat obscure journals tracing Lynd’s thought from the 1960s to the present.

Borrowing his title from Lynd’s 1963 essay on Henry David Thoreau, reprinted in From Here to There, Mirra perceives Lynd as an admirable radical whose scholarship and example of direct action could not be silenced by the suppression of dissent during the Cold War and who continues to provide inspiration for the creation of a more just social order. Mirra does not attempt to conceal his admiration for Lynd and his political ideas; seeking to place the historian within an American radical tradition which is often ignored in celebrations of American exceptionalism. Nevertheless, Mirra asserts that he does not seek to create a cult of personality with Lynd. As a scholar, Mirra insists that he attempts to navigate a fine line between affection for his subject and scholarly objectivity; concluding that what makes Lynn such an attractive figure is his authenticity. Mirra argues that from the 1960s to the present day, Lynd’s radicalism is guided by the right of revolution on behalf of the oppressed as enunciated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Lynd believes that this vision should be achieved through nonviolence and horizontal decision making which presupposes people making choices for themselves—or participatory democracy as it was termed during the 1960s.

The Admirable Radical is less a traditional biography than an examination of Lynd’s intellectual response to the Cold War mentality of the United States that produced the Vietnam War. Thus, Lynd’s personal life is of less concern to Mirra, and the role of Lynd’s wife, Alice is somewhat downplayed. Mirra frames much of the intellectual biography around Lynd’s search for a response to James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World (1941), which Lynd read at age sixteen while riding the New York City subway. Burnham chronicled the transition from feudalism to capitalism as new structures such as guilds and cities were created within the shell of the old system. Lynd was challenged by what he termed Burnham’s dilemma; how could a socialist society evolve out of the womb of capitalism as organizations such as trade unions tend to perpetuate the capitalist order. Lynd has pursued this question into the contemporary Zapatista revolution in Chiapas, Mexico.

Lynd was born 22 November 1929 to noted scholars Robert Staughton and Helen Lynd who authored Middletown; the classic 1920s sociological study of Muncie, Indiana. The young man was certainly influenced by the pacifist and socialist principles of his parents, although Lynd found his father’s politics to be somewhat elitist. Seeking to follow in the academic footsteps of his parents, Lynd enrolled in Harvard, but he found the intellectual atmosphere of the institution to be stifling, and he left the school in 1948. During the Korean War, Lynd was drafted into the Army as a conscientious objector with noncombatant medic status. In 1954, Lynd moved his family to the Macedonia Cooperative Community in northeast Georgia. The Lynds embraced the communal ethic of Macedonia, but the increasingly Christian fundamentalist orientation of the community led to their departure in 1957.

In order to support a growing family, Lynd returned to the academy, entering graduate school at Columbia University where he earned a Ph. D. in 1962. His dissertation focusing upon Dutchess County, New York during the Revolutionary era plowed fertile new intellectual ground by documenting that tenant farmers were motivated more by economic self-interest rather than abstract ideological constructs. Although Lynd’s intellectual reputation led to Ivy League offers of employment, Mirra asserts that the historian’s commitment to activism led Lynd to join Howard Zinn at Spelman College in Atlanta, where the white professors labored with their black students to confront Southern racism and Jim Crow. In 1964, Lynd accepted a position with the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as coordinator of the Mississippi Freedom Schools; helping to foster a “pedagogy of the oppressed” in a learning environment which he described as a “blessed community.”

Mirra also notes that 1964 was a period of political disillusionment for Lynd following what he perceived as the betrayal of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party by President Lyndon Johnson and the liberal Democratic establishment at the party’s national convention in Atlantic City. Lynd concluded that attempting to form a coalition with centralized power undermined the grass roots appeal of the civil rights movement. SNCC’s frustration led the organization into the direction of black power, while Lynd left Spelman after the school administration dismissed Zinn for his political activism.

Lynd accepted a position in the history department at Yale University in the fall of 1964, and his academic reputation was enhanced by his investigation of the centrality of slavery to understanding the Constitution. In Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution (1967) and Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1968), Mirra argues that Lynd influenced a generation of younger scholars by emphasizing issues of race and class within the context of a radical egalitarian tradition in American politics and history. Some scholars, including the Marxist Eugene Genovese, chastised Lynd for “presentism” in his scholarship. Mirra, however, challenges this interpretation of Lynd’s work, asserting, “Lynd was not arguing for an isomorphic or a one-to-one correspondence between the Revolutionary age and the 1960s. He did argue, though, that activists of the decade inherited a revolutionary language and tradition that upheld the right to revolution” (88).

Mirra also argues that what really drew the ire of traditional historians was Lynd’s activism in opposing the Vietnam War, culminating in his 1965 journey to Vietnam with New Left radical Tom Hayden and the Communist scholar Herbert Aptheker. The goal of the mission was to understand the “other side,” but instead Lynd was denounced for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Influential Yale alumni called upon the university to dismiss the dissident scholar, and Lynd’s contract was not renewed in 1968. Officially, Lynd was denied tenure due to financial considerations and a lack of collegiality. Mirra, however, concurs with Lynd that his social activism and opposition to the Vietnam War culminated in his blacklisting from the historical profession.

But Lynd and his radical colleagues did not go quietly into that good night, challenging the historical establishment at the 1969 Washington convention of the American Historical Association (AHA). Although Lynd’s candidacy for the AHA presidency and calls for democratic reform in the structure of the professional organization as well as a resolution condemning the Vietnam War were defeated at the convention, Mirra concludes that in 1969 the radicals “set in motion a process of badly needed change in the association,” which today includes “schoolteachers, public historians, women, and African Americans on the council and committees” (155).

Although ousted from the historical profession, Lynd refused to accept martyrdom. Focusing upon local organizing and disenchanted with the left’s growing intolerance and democratic centralism in the 1970s, Lynd earned a law degree and settled in Niles, Ohio, where he labored for rank-and-file workers against the closing of steel plants and advocated for prisoner rights while opposing American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. While these activities are beyond the scope of Mirra’s volume, he concludes, “Lynd’s current activities staunchly maintain the central preoccupation of his life: his scholarly examination of the inherent inequalities of the capitalist system together with his emphasis, as historian and activist, on the importance of local, communal organizing as key to a better system” (169).

Thus, Mirra asserts that Lynd remains an admirable radical who embodies the activist principles of his scholarship in his everyday life. Mirra’s reading of the 1960s, however, will not satisfy all scholars of that turbulent era. By emphasizing the spiritualism of the early antiwar and civil rights movement, along with Lynd’s growing disenchantment with the sectarianism of the left during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mirra appears to place Lynd within what Van Gosse calls the “declension school” of 1960s historiography which focuses upon the collapse of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. Mirra, however, reminds his readers that Lynd did not locate the origins of the New Left in the student movement but rather the spontaneous grass roots civil rights movement of the 1950s.

And this continuing search for solidarity with workers and common people is evident in the Staughton Lynd reader, From Here to There as an accompanying volume to Mirra’s intellectual biography of Lynd during the Cold War era. In the twenty-five pieces gathered by editor Andrej Grubacic, readers are able to perceive Lynd’s intellectual struggle to resolve Burnham’s dilemma of how socialism may be created within a crumbling capitalist order short of destructive and violent revolutionary upheaval. Lynd sees the possibility of a more egalitarian socialist society with the Industrial Workers of the World concept of solidarity unionism, juxtaposed with the liberation theology of Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero, who proposed the idea of “accompaniment” in which intellectuals become not leaders but members of the communities which they seek to serve, as well as the example of Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico in which change implemented from below need not include the taking of “state power.” Thus, Lynd concludes the reader with the thought that resolving Burnham’s dilemma involves “imagining a transition that will not culminate in a single apocalyptic moment but rather expresses itself in unending creation of self-acting entities that are horizontally linked, in a source of quiet joy” (295).

Lynd expects a great deal from scholars and intellectuals, asserting, “Whether as a teacher who chooses inner-city teaching or a scholar who goes outside the boundaries of his specialty to deal with war, race, and class conflict, the job of the intellectual is to be at that place where the critical questions of direction for his society are fought out” (138). Critics might find Lynd self-righteous, but in the pages of Mirra’s intellectual biography and the Lynd reader, one is able to perceive the sincerity of Lynd who expects much of himself as well as the historical profession. Although Lynd has spent much of this life outside the often narrow confines of the academy, there is little doubt that this scholar and activist has influenced the course of contemporary historiography by fostering scholarship on common people and history from the bottom up, in addition to leading a radical reform movement which has contributed to making the historical profession open to scholars from many walks of life. While not all historians will share Lynd’s socialist principles, as Mirra’s volume and Lynd reader attest, there is no denying the sincerity and influence of Lynd’s life and work.

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vaughn davis bornet - 10/4/2010

First, my thanks to the author of this perceptive essay for organization, clarity, and sticking to the subject. This reader's ignorance of Lynd, despite being swamped by largely favorable and partisan commentary about him in mid-century, meant I needed a guide to Lyndness to achieve even a modicum of understanding.

I have to say that Lynd's career annoys me. Doctoral work in History, a Law degree, association with the best and brightest and leadership of same, and hearing "yes" from the like minded whenever he wished to publish, all this makes incomprehensible to this observer his colossal waste of time at the Bottom of society in obscure places. I don't get it.

But then I don't get the joys of yelling on the street--not in the 1960s, not in 2010.

Not if one has laboriously risen above it with sweat, sacrifice, contemlation, interaction, and study--always That! Anybody can Agitate! Get your obviously idle wife to make some signs....

I am not making a comprehensive argument or trying to. It's just that in the World of Learning there is a scale, a gradation, a sense of progress. Lynd skipped around too much for my taste. Comparison with my "hero," Carl Becker, might be illuminating.

One can spend hours, even years, changing the minds of a few individuals, one to one (one on one?), but when they die, what have you got? All that effort diverted from leaving a record of some sort, calculated to change permanently the minds of vast numbers! Direct activism is, to me, something of an exhibitionist self-gratification.

No need to agree with me! And most, I dare say, won't. I wish the author would return with ruminations on whether Lynd was emulating Thoreau or Tom Paine; not Marx certainly; not Jefferson; maybe Debs, a little.

Anyway, it was great to have one of the intellectuals of my era well explained at this late date, especially since I was too busy living a life to pay much attention to his thoughtful yelling decades ago. Apparently he was a Force. And maybe it wouldn't have hurt me to look more often, long ago.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon