Book Review

Book Review: Mueller on Mirra’s The Admirable Radical

Review of Carl Mirra’s The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970. (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2010). ISBN 978-1-60635-051-5. 224 pages.

Review by Brian Mueller
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Like many other academic disciplines in the United States between the 1940s and 1970s, the historical profession included a number of well-known intellectuals within its ranks. Far from being known only among their colleagues in their specialized fields, these historians achieved recognition from the general public. The most prominent American historians of this period include such luminaries as C. Vann Woodward, Henry Steele Commager, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., William Appleman Williams, and Richard Hofstadter. Though writing from different positions on the liberal spectrum, these intellectuals, among others, represented modern liberalism. In addition to their academic roles, the intellectuals mentioned above actively engaged in debates and protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War, or, in the case of Schlesinger, entered the halls of power as government officials. Thus, their influence and interests greatly exceeded the ivory towers from which they lectured and wrote their historical monographs.

For the most part, the aforementioned historians have been the subject of either full-length books or articles. Largely ignored in the intellectual history of the 1960s is Staughton Lynd, whose civil disobedience often overshadowed his acumen as a writer. Whereas the abovementioned historians taught at such prestigious institutions as Yale University, Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of Wisconsin, Lynd, after initial appointments at Spelman College and Yale, was refused tenure at a major university. Carl Mirra’s The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970, tells Lynd’s story by focusing not only on his battles in the streets, but also his efforts to overcome liberal animosity towards his radical view of history. In the process of chronicling Lynd’s professional activities, Mirra also reveals how physical protests on the streets fostered a greater concern over historical scholarship that favored the study of influential elites over ordinary Americans.

Born on November 22, 1929 to famed sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, Staughton Craig Lynd grew up in a household that encouraged social action and academic accomplishments. Helen Lynd belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union and Robert Lynd encouraged Staughton to embark on intellectual pursuits that would allow him to eventually work in academia. Beginning his education at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, Staughton enrolled at Harvard University in 1946, at age sixteen. While at Harvard, Staughton entered his first radical group, American Youth for Democracy. After a brief time away from Harvard, Lynd graduated with a B.A. in social relations in 1951. Making a decision that would have an impact on his future historical and political thought, Staughton and his new wife, Alice, joined Macedonia, a Cooperative Community in Clarkesville, Georgia in November 1954. When Macedonia closed down, Staughton and his family moved to New York City, where, in 1959, he followed in his parents’ footsteps and embarked on a Ph.D. in history at Columbia University.

Though focusing mostly on Lynd’s intellectual thought and activism in the 1960s, Mirra suggests that many of Lynd’s ideas and actions were a response to James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World, which Lynd read at age sixteen. Mirra portrays Lynd as going through life trying to find the solution to Burnham’s dilemma. The dilemma involved the unlikelihood of constructing a socialist society in an America in which capitalism had such deep roots. While numerous organizations and countless activists meant to reform society, rarely did they ever consider completely doing away with the capitalist system. Through both his writings and activism, Lynd spent the rest of his life working to restructure society into a more just and equal community.

Lynd’s yearning for community is evident in many of his intellectual and social activities throughout the 1950s. Mirra’s description of Lynd as a “premature” New Leftist owes greatly to Lynd’s early support of cooperative communities, such as Macedonia, and his later views on the civil rights movement. Elucidating ideals that would soon become associated with Students for a Democratic Society and their emphasis on participatory democracy, Lynd feared that the wealthy and powerful held too much power, thereby diminishing the voices of individuals seeking change. As a result of these concerns, Lynd showed an aversion to working with the government as an activist. While several civil rights activists wholeheartedly approved of an alliance with liberal Democrats as a means to further their cause, Lynd warned them of the possible adverse consequences of such a strategy. For instance, while Bob Moses and other civil rights leaders sought government protection from racist violence in the South, Lynd hesitated to go to the federal government. Lynd understood that activists needed security, but working with the government also threatened the ultimate goal of the civil rights movement, which was complete freedom. African Americans would not, according to Lynd, obtain complete economic and social freedom from the wealthy elites and those in power unless they formed parallel institutions of their own. As the events at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City unfolded, Lynd’s questioning of the government’s willingness to enact change proved prescient.

Prior to the debacle at Atlantic City, Lynd, while teaching at Spelman College, accepted a position as coordinator of the Freedom Schools during Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Though Mirra spends an entire chapter on civil rights activism in 1964, it is difficult to see how great of a role Lynd played in these events. With the exception of an excellent section on Lynd’s involvement in constructing the curriculum used in Freedom Schools, the rest of the chapter is more of an account of the Freedom Schools and the convention. While these two events proved Lynd’s concern over depending too much on government correct, what influence did his ideas have on the Freedom Schools?

The most valuable chapters in Mirra’s biography, particularly for intellectual historians, are those dealing with Lynd’s scholarly pursuits. Influenced by Howard Zinn’s dismissal from Spelman for his suspected role in a student protest, Lynd accepted a job at Yale in the fall of 1964. Lynd’s experiences in academia illustrate his continued uneasiness with liberalism as his scholarship contradicted much of what liberal historians had written. Whereas his colleague Edmund Morgan’s history of the American Revolution celebrated the Founding Fathers, Lynd, highlighted the continued existence of social inequality. The liberal historians in the department, including C. Vann Woodward, also believed United States history proved that significant progress had been made for all citizens, regardless of sex, race, or class. Lynd, conversely, chose to look at the American Revolution in order to illustrate the close connection between the ideals of contemporary protestors and the Declaration of Independence. Both Anti-Federalism in Dutchess County, New York (1962) and Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1968) viewed history from the bottom up in order to explore how the various social classes in early American history influenced the American Revolution. Yale eventually refused Lynd tenure, claiming financial restraints. Mirra, however, questions Yale’s contention and posits that Lynd’s political activities, especially his journey to Hanoi in late 1965 with Tom Hayden and Herbert Apthetker, caused his offer of tenure to be denied.

Lynd’s struggle to balance his academic career with his activism is similar to the challenges faced by many intellectuals in the 1960s. Kevin Mattson’s excellent study, Intellectuals in Action, illustrates how intellectuals such as Paul Goodman and William Appleman Williams, despite their own activism, remained ambivalent towards the protests of the New Left in the late 1960s. However, unlike the intellectuals discussed in Mattson’s book, Lynd never gave up on his activism. As a result, Lynd’s career in academia suffered. One of Lynd’s greatest antagonists in the historical profession, according to Mirra, was Eugene Genovese. While reviewing Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Genovese described Lynd as an “ideologue of the New Left” and criticized Lynd’s scholarship for its “glorification of the common man” and “contempt for and distrust of the intelligentsia (129).” As Mirra notes, Genovese favored Southern planters over the actions of the ordinary citizen.

In the aftermath of his struggle to achieve tenure, Lynd, along with many radical intellectuals, questioned whether university appointments tempered activism. As Mirra explains, Lynd feared that working in a university setting threatened an individual’s radicalism by means of “bourgeoisie socialization (154).” Concerns over tenure and funding for research would replace, according to Lynd, concern for the greater good. As a result, Lynd accepted the nomination put forth by the Radical Caucus of the American Historical Association for him to be the organization’s president in 1969 against Yale’s R.R. Palmer. The bitter struggle to reform the AHA, and the history profession in general, resulted in some reforms being instituted, but Lynd’s bid for president fell short.

Though by no means the only opposition to Lynd’s presidency, Mirra recounts how Genovese spoke out most forcefully against Lynd’s nomination. In response to Lynd’s address at the 1969 AHA meeting, which included calls for an antiwar resolution and for “guerilla history,” Genovese pleaded with AHA members to “Put these so-called radicals down, put them down hard, and put them down once and for all (158).” Using Genovese as a counter to Lynd allows Mirra to make clear the distinction between Lynd and other radical intellectuals who became increasingly conservative as protests on the streets grew. The 1969 AHA meeting would be Lynd’s last attempt at maintaining ties to the historical profession. Lynd entered law school at the University of Chicago and continued his activism as an attorney for Legal Services in Youngstown, Ohio, where he supported workers and prisoners. Despite a change in careers, however, Lynd’s activism never waned and his ideals remained the same. Mirra concludes his biography by noting that Lynd continues “his scholarly examination of the inherent inequality 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).”

More than forty years later the question still remains as to what role intellectuals, whether in academia or otherwise, should play in the public sphere. Mirra’s biography of Staughton Lynd leaves no doubt that he believes in the importance of active participation by academics in matters of great social importance. Like the subject of his biography, Mirra, as an academic and conscientious objector during the Gulf War, sees a close connection between scholarship and social activism. Along with Lynd, Mirra served on the steering committee for a panel conducted by the Historians Against the War at the American Historical Association conference in 2004. While Mirra refrains from actively critiquing his subject, his account of Lynd’s life from the 1940s to the 1970s is balanced, never becoming a hagiography.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this review, Brian! It was my distinct pleasure to serve for a number of years on the steering committee of Historians Against the War with both Mirra and Lynd. I’d already been planning to read Carl’s book…your review makes me look forward to it even more.

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