U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Left Confronts Harold Cruse: Responses to Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

The book Harold Cruse released in 1967, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, garnered numerous responses from reviewers on the American Left. As mentioned in previous posts, the year 1967 featured not just the work of Cruse, but also Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here (which I’ve already discussed) and Black Power, written by Stokley Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton. I’ll discuss Black Power after next week, but for now it’s important to pause and think about the reaction to Harold Cruse’s landmark work on Black intellectuals in the 20th century.

The late 1960s provided much fodder for Left thinkers to reconsider their ideas about how American society should progress into the future. By the fall of 1967, when Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was released, the United States was already well into its war in Southeast Asia. Another summer of rioting in major American cities had come and gone. Conservatism was on the ascendancy after being declared dead with Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election. Yet, despite all these problems, there was still hope amongst American leftists that things could still turn around for the better.

Reviewing various liberal and left-wing publications from this time period, I’m always struck by both the fear of the present tumult and the hope that things could still turn around. Liberalism had yet to be fundamentally sent into retreat; here, in the pages of the New Republic, for instance, was still a confident, vibrant liberalism. That’s another reason I’ve chosen to focus on 1967 for this series of posts. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. aren’t dead yet. There’s still a chance the United States can get out of Vietnam if the right person is in the White House. And perhaps we can also solve the urban crisis.

Harold Cruse’s book is, in many ways, a rebuke to that optimism. He chastises most of the Black Left that existed in the 20th century, taking shots at everyone from W.E.B. Du Bois to Paul Robeson. It’s no surprise that an ex-Marxist like Cruse would be so aggressive in his critics of former allies. Nonetheless, the Left’s response to his work is important to examine in light of Cruse’s former allegiances and liberalism’s precarious, yet hopeful, position in 1967.

For now, I’ll stay with the more “mainstream” Left, meaning white Leftist publications and individuals. In particular, I’m zeroing in on Christopher Lasch, who wrote extensively on American liberalism, and the magazine Partisan Review, itself a site of considerable debate about the future of America in general, and the American Left in particular.

The Partisan Review’s take on The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual offers some stinging rebukes to Cruse. In “What is to be Done?, Michael Thelwell zeroes in on the title itself, setting a tone for a review that is, to put it charitably, hostile to Cruse’s central thesis. “Even the title of this book constitutes a kind of heresy,” Thelwell wrote, “in that liberal tradition which maintains that the community of “intellectuals” is raceless and shares only work-related problems of methodology, analysis, craftsmanship, for it sets up a “class” of black intellectuals with common problems not shared by nonblacks.”[1] Thelwell, a Black American writer and novelist, born and raised in Jamaica, is still going strong today at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (founding their Afro-American Studies Department in 1970). Of course, Cruse is critical of Black intellectuals for this very reason: he sees many of them as being corrupted by outside influences (whether white Marxists, Jewish nationalists, or West Indian activists) and unable to aid Black America and its many problems. You get the sense from reading the review that Thelwell understands Cruse’s point, yet he is also uneasy with Cruse’s analysis of the unique issues Black intellectuals must contend with in the public sphere.

“One consequence of the inherent and pervasive irony in the situation of blacks in this country can be seen in the fact that Cruse is not entirely successful in escaping some of the very same contradictions for which he so mercilessly and much of the time unjustly flays the entire tribe of black intellectuals,” Thelwell points out later in his review.[2] In other words, Cruse may try to move on from his Marxist, white-influenced past, but he can’t successfully do that in the confines of his book. The book itself, Thelwell points out, was born within those very confines that Cruse wants other Black intellectuals to escape or avoid: “Yet his own book had to be published “downtown,” has been mostly reviewed in white journals and is clearly not directed to the black masses. He certainly should be more charitable.”[3] Thelwell makes some excellent points here that also speak to historians doing Black American intellectual history. How much can one really separate Black intellectuals from the rest of American intellectual life? It’s hazardous to attempt to do so, unless one can show positive, absolute breaks from American influence. And in reality Black intellectual history is, crudely summarized, the response of Black intellectuals to overarching currents in American intellectual life that are most harmful to Black Americans. In Cruse’s book, he is responding to general currents in Black intellectual life on the Left, but those currents were still born out of the problems facing Black Americans.

Thelwell’s contribution to thinking about Cruse also takes a spatial turn, when he criticizes Cruse for looking only at Harlem’s intellectual scene. This is Thelwell’s best argument about Cruse, and should also be taken into consideration by anyone doing Black intellectual history. “It is perhaps this obsession with the truly Byzantine maze of Harlem radicalism during the past fifty years—Cruse’s justification is that Harlem is “the intellectual and cultural capital” of black America—that is the most unfortunate limitation of the book,” Thelwell begins, setting the stage for his critique of Cruse’s focus on Harlem. For one thing, Harlem’s claim to preeminence, once legitimate, is now questionable. Demographic patterns in the black community during World War II have changed things. Moreover, Harlem is the only major black community without a black or predominantly black university, and in cities like Washington, Chicago, Detroit and notably Atlanta, where there are at least four, the university has had some effect on the cultural and intellectual climate among black people.[4] (Emphasis mine.)

The most interesting aspect, and greatest drawback, of Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, is how personal a work it is. Cruse publically calls out certain intellectuals, but the fact that they’re all based in Harlem skews his narrative. Here, Thelwell argues that a solid critique could be made of black colleges as places where, too often, acquiescence to middle-class norms comes at the price of genuine radical intellectual discussions and training. As Thelwell argues, “Neither the black intellectual’s “Crisis” nor the problems of the community originate in the ideological shortcomings of individual figures, as Cruse’s method might suggest. They arise from the role of black colleges as conduits, steering black professionals into “the mainstream.””[5]

While Thelwell was highly critical of Cruse’s book, Christopher Lasch heaped considerable praise on it. Lasch, already having written on the crisis American liberalism was facing in the late 1960s, found The Crisis of Negro Intellectuals to be an exciting and fresh take on Black intellectuals. Lasch devoted considerable space in his landmark book, The Agony of the American Left, to Cruse’s ruminations on Black leftists. In the preface to his 1969 edition, Lasche notes, “I should also like to acknowledge once again my obligation to Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, which has been an indispensable guide through the complexities of American cultural history.” He went on to write, “Although this work continues to be deliberately ignored by reviewers, it will eventually come to be regarded as one of the landmarks of social criticism in the twentieth century.”[6] Certainly high praise for a book that, by 1969, had only been out for two years and only referred to one subculture of Black intellectual life.

Lasch grapples with developments in Black culture in the late 1960s, including Black Power. His chapter, “Black Power: Cultural Nationalism as Politics” (derived from an essay published in the New York Review of Books) examines where Black cultural nationalism could make a difference for Black Americans and help revitalize the American Left. Lasch also sees the Civil Rights Movement as failing to create this culture: “The civil rights movement does not address itself to the question of how Negroes are to acquire a culture, or to the consequences of their failure to do so.”[7]

Black Power is critiqued as being too “nihilistic” for Lasch’s tastes, which is one of the reasons he is drawn to Cruse’s book. “Cruse is a radical, but his book gives no comfort to the “radicalism” currently fashionable,” wrote Lasch.[8] He continued, “It deals with real issues, not leftist fantasies.”[9] In many ways, Lasch praises Cruse because of his hard-heartedness in writing about American Marxism since the 1920s. The book becomes a report on “not only the failure of Negro radicalism but the failure of American radicalism in general, which lives off imported ideologies and myths of imminent revolution in which Negroes have always been assigned a leading part.”[10] Lasch also shows the more pessimistic side of American leftist ideology in the late 1960s, disillusioned by the inability to make further inroads on behalf of Black Americans and against Vietnam. The earlier weary optimism I referred to being in some liberal publications is noticeably absent for Lasch. Where Thelwell sees an incomplete argument damaged by a narrow focus, Lasch sees a needed critique of the entire American Left.

But what about Black intellectual publications? They, above all other critics and writers, had the most at stake in interpreting Cruse’s work. That’s where I’ll turn to next week, and it will serve as a reminder of the complexities of thought among the Black Left in the late 1960s.

[1] Thelwell, Michael. “What is to be Done?”, Partisan Review, Fall 1968, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, p. 619-624, quote on p. 619.

[2] Thelwell, pg. 620.

[3] Thelwell, pg. 620.

[4] Thelwell, pg. 621.

[5] Thelwell, pg. 624.

[6] Lasch, Christopher. The Agony of the American Left. (New York: Vintage Books), 1969, p. ix.

[7] Lasch, pg. 126.

[8] Lasch, pg. 154.

[9] Lasch, pg. 154.

[10] Lasch, pg. 161.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It is interesting that Lasch labeled Cruse as a “radical.” Could you expand a bit on how Lasch uses the idea of radicalism? It is certainly a slippery label; I think the best way to define according to its etymology: radicalism seeks to intervene at the “root” of the problem and thus aims to transform economic, cultural, and political structures of society (not necessarily through violent means).
    Anyhow, can’t wait for your next post, there must have been some heavy fire from the Black leftists.

    • He seems somewhat dismissive of “radicals” in this context, but his book “The Agony of the American Left” was a clarion call to reform what was left of radicalism. As he wrote in his preface, “The deeper explanation of the present crisis of radicalism, however, lies in events that happened in the early part of this century. It lies in the collapse of mass-based radical movements which grew for a time and then aborted: populism, socialism, and black nationalism.” I think he’d agree with your definition of radicalism, but in context of Cruse, Lasch agrees with him that the Black Power advocates are too nihilistic, too adrift to provide any real leadership.

      And yeah, the Black leftists have a LOT to say. I had to break it up into two posts because they had so much that needed to be analyzed on its own terms.

  2. Fascinating stuff on Cruse, thanks Robert. Given his criticism of many black icons and the Black Power movement who among black intellectuals would Cruse have considered an ally? In your earlier post you describe Cruse as a ”black nationalist”, how would you characterize Cruse’s nationalist position?

    • Those are excellent questions. I’m not really sure who’d he consider an ally in the 1960s, but Albert Murray comes to mind. (BTW, Murray wrote a glowing review of Cruse’s work in the Chicago Sun-Times, something I’m hoping to get my hands on and write about very soon.) Where Cruse was concerned with creating a Black cultural nationalism that could survive in the USA, Murray wanted to take the best of Black culture and make it part of a larger American culture.

      I think Cruse’s position as a nationalist focuses more on the cultural side of nationalism. He thinks that, not integration, nor the separatism and radicalism of Black Power advocates, is the best strategy for Black Americans. It’s interesting to think of his stance in context of Black Arts, which often tried to divide itself from mainstream American culture.

  3. Thanks for the post, Robert. I don’t have any comments of substance at this time, but you have yet another silent reader out there! – TL

  4. Great post, Robert, on two of my favorite thinkers: Cruse and Lasch. I think you’re right to say that Lasch liked Cruse for what I would consider Cruse’s realist spin on black nationalism, Black Power, or identity politics. The objective of black thinkers, Cruse argued, was to gain control of those “cultural institutions” responsible for representing black history and culture. Cruse wrote: “The individual Negro has, proportionately, very few rights indeed because his ethnic group (whether or not he actually identifies with it) has very little political, economic or social power (beyond moral grounds) to wield.”

    Lasch, by the way, had been dour on what he considered starry-eyed, sentimental radicalism since at least as early as 1965, when the book that first made his name was published: “The New Radicalism in America.” He believed those like Dewey and Addams were radicals or progressives in part as a way to work out their own personal, middle-class guilt trips. To which I always thought: so what?

    Anyway, good stuff.

  5. Thanks everyone! And yes, definitely an excellent point on Lasch. When I get to the Black Left’s critique of Cruse, it’s important to keep these critiques in mind too. The response is….mixed, to say the least. But I think Cruse tapped into something many on the Left (regardless of skin color) felt in 1967-68: “just what HAVE we accomplished?” they seemed to be asking. “And what’s left for us to do?”

  6. Unless you deal with Cruse’s analysis of the brilliant V.F. Calverton’s singular and unique contribution as a New World Marxist with the concept of “cultural compulsive,” your discussion is somewhat superficial and besides the point. A large part of Cruse’s attractiveness as a theorist and critic hinges on his elaboration and use of Calverton and his magazine, Modern Quarterly, in his critique. What I find stunning is how we carry on about the New York Intellectuals who for the most part were derivative, fussy, self-promoters, and ignore a brilliant, original talent like Calverton! I believe part of Cruse’s project was to bring him back.
    And BTV, Cruse’s attempt was not a myopic focus on black intellectuals. That’s nonsense. He criticized black intellectuals within the context of American culture
    What Cruse was trying to impress upon us readers was the disdain and ignorance the American Left had for the cultural and material values that emanated from our soil, in particular black America. Instead these leftists were trying to Europeanized the American experience, black and white, whether one was pro or anti-communist left.
    Richard Wright and W.E.B. Dubois, though criticized, are the black intellectual heroes of this book. It is true that he expresses some sympathy for Claude McKay, but Cruse rightly suggests that McKay claimed no stake in the black American struggle.

    • You’ve offered some intriguing comments for my post, which I greatly appreciate. However, I just want to note that what I’m talking about in this particular post is how Leftists (in this case, those writing for publications for the “mainstream Left” as it were) responded to Cruse’s work. I think you offer a valued, and correct, analysis of Cruse and his work. However, the reviewers I’ve mentioned above interpreted Cruse’s book through the prism of both late 1960s debates about race, and their own experiences with the American Left. I hope you find my follow up post on what several prominent Black writers and intellectuals had to say about the book an interesting read!

  7. Russell, if I’m not mistaken, the point of this post is to give the reader a sense of a range of Left responses to Cruse’s work, which it seems to do quite well. Is there a particular Left critic whose response to The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual would help fill out the picture above?

    And on this — “What I find stunning is how we carry on about the New York Intellectuals…” — are you speaking for yourself? For the blog? For intellectual historians in general? “We” carry on about quite a lot of people/ideas around here, and if you think there’s more to US intellectual history than the NY intellectuals — well, take a number and get in line.

    And who suggested that Cruse was “myopic”? That sounds like your misreading of Robert, rather than anything Robert has offered in this series of posts.

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