U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Studies on the Left,” 1959-1967: Towards an American Western Marxism?

Studies on the LeftLast week I posted about an OAH panel proposal that I put together on Marx and Marxism. The proposal is very speculative, which no doubt helps explain the remarkable conversation that ensued in the comments section. This post, which is my paper proposal for the proposed Marx panel, is even more speculative. Here’s hoping the conversation is every bit as productive and compelling.

My proposal:

Studies on the Left was one of the most important journals of leftist thought in postwar America. Founded in Madison, Wisconsin in 1959, its editors sought to publish a scholarly-inflected journal that debated the issues of the day from a leftist but consciously non-sectarian perspective. Indeed, Studies on the Left featured articles by a roster of some of the most important leftist intellectuals of the twentieth century, including Herbert Aptheker, Noam Chomsky, W. E. B. DuBois, Philip Foner, Eugene Genovese, Eleanor Hakim, Langston Hughes, Staughton Lynd, Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, William A. Williams, and C. Vann Woodward.

Historians have analyzed Studies on the Left as an arm of the New Left. This is entirely reasonable, given that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) founder Tom Hayden was brought on as editor in 1964 in order to better connect with a growing student left. The theories that animated the journal, particularly the idea of “corporate liberalism,” were nicely suited to the politics of the New Left. But what goes unnoticed in these examinations of Studies on the Left is the journal’s explicit attempt to fashion an Americanized Western Marxism, less pessimistic than the European-centric Western Marxism of the Frankfurt School, but equally rigorous in its attention to literary form and cultural theory. This paper will cast attention on the theoretical Marxism of the journal. Was Marx and Marxism relevant to the milieu of the American left in the sixties? Did its Marxism help or hinder the mission of Studies on the Left?

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As for the question, “Was Marx and Marxism relevant to the milieu of the American left in the sixties?,” I would answer, yes and no. “No,” and for example, because the New Left, at least in the beginning and as defined primarily by the SDS, was deliberately distancing itself from what it perceived as the debilitations of the Old Left, including fairly arcane or technical ideological and theoretical debates believed to be distractions and thus, in effect, excuses, for failure to engage in meaningful “direct action,” for vigorous political engagement “in the streets” as it were. Consider, for instance, the following from Kirkpatrick Sale’s examination of the SDS (1973), which notes that while early New Left leaders were not “anti-intellectual,” their intellectual orbit was fairly circumscribed, in Leftist terms, compared to the Marxist (and Trotskyist, etc.) intellectual milieu of their elders: “…[T]hey were generally without exposure to this kind of learning…, they were nervous and often inarticulate in public debates with old-guard radicals; and they emphasized ‘morals’ and ‘values,’ action and bodies-on-the-line, honesty and courage, not ideology and theory and what they called ‘Old Leftism’ and ‘all that thirties horseshit.’” On this reading, Marx and Marxism are relevant by way of breezy dismissal. Later, of course, and if Todd Gitlin is to be believed, the pendulum would swing erratically back in the other direction, as some of this generation’s best youth activists discovered theoretical, doctrinal, and ideological debates with a vengeance, thereby contributing to the New Left’s “implosion.”

    In other words, by the mid-1960s, we can answer the question of relevancy in the affirmative. Sale narrates the development in 1964 of “spontaneous seminars,” teach-ins, the critique of university education and a corresponding notion of “alternative” universities, indeed, the articulation and praxis of a radical pedagogy by way of the “free university” or “new school,” contributed to a more explicit theoretical and ideological orientation, evidenced in topics for discussion, debate, and the content of the “curriculum:” “By the spring of 1966 writes Sale, “the free-university movement was a live force, taking root in perhaps ten different cities.” The catalogues had a wide range of topics, so they included but were not limited to “courses in Marxism and socialism.” By the fall of 1966, “references to Karl Marx were studded without apology through various pieces now, and regularly the idea of ‘socialism’—which no early SDSer could have used without embarrassment, was being championed….” Sale reminds us that Radical America, begun by Paul Buhle and fellow SDSers, following the demise of Studies on the Left, was “the only theoretical journal of the American New Left,” while New Left Notes itself began to include more “theoretical” articles. Vicarious identification with European Leftists and “third-world” revolutionary liberation struggles are further evidence of this newfound relevance, such as it was, of Marx and Marxism. Sale’s scathing assessment of the immediate consequences of this endeavor to embrace varieties on the Marxist theme is telling if only because it seems commonplace in much of the literature (from Gitlin to Flacks): “Debate tended to become contentious and positions rigid, friendships would be formed and broken on the basis of whether this or that dogma was acknowledged, and the consentient and tolerant spirit of the early days of SDS gradually disappeared.” In such a stifling atmosphere, continued recruitment of new students to the cause became difficult if not impossible, as “youths in search of an integrative ideology to supplant the tattered theories of corporate liberalism…had only the imperfectly fashioned tenets of a borrowed Marxism and an untransmittable attachment to the theories of other revolutionaries; not even the serviceable explanations of an earlier day were available—The Port Huron Statement, for example, or Oglesby’s Containment and Change, or the initial explorations of the new working class—having now been assigned to the junkheap of history.”

    Of course this is not simply a matter of holding Marxist texts and traditions responsible for what was done with them, any more than we hold contemporary Catholics and their religious dogma accountable for the Church’s history of anti-Semitism or the Inquisition, although some, like the late Leszek Ko?akowski, would find fault in the tone, tendencies, and ideas in the texts themselves as contributory factors to the New Left’s organizational and ideological implosion into esoteric dogma and dispiriting factionalism. Sale himself takes care not to blame “all of the apparently sudden misfortunes of SDS” on Marx, Marxism, and “revolutionary politics” (to paraphrase, the ‘pell-mell rush into the comparative safety of one or another variety of Marxism’), but one can’t but infer that the sudden (re-)discovery of this unholy Leftist triune was a centripetal force for the worse. Sale’s discussion of the June 1969 National Convention of the SDS does serve as compelling symptomatic diagnosis of the later political pathologies of the New Left. In any case, a more temperate judgment might at least concur with Michael Harrington that the New Left’s praxis “was often superior to its theories….”

    As far as Black radicalism in the 1960s, I share Michael Dawson’s observation that “No single ideology dominated.” Self-defined Black Marxists are comparatively few, although the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) represents a powerful instance of an avowedly Marxist (if not Marxist-Leninist) orientation in one corner of the Black radical tradition generally and the Black power movement in particular. And Black Marxists arose over time within the ranks of SNCC, coming to associate themselves with revolutionary nationalist organizations (e.g., League of Revolutionary Black Workers that led to the formation of DRUM) that advocated this or that type (e.g., ‘scientific’ or ‘African’) of socialism.

    I hope this gets the conversation and debate started.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    I wonder about the specific Marxism lens. Were these figures Marxists, or, perhaps some type of world socialists who wanted to distance themselves from Communism?
    Interestingly enough, in some of the curricular debates at Dartmouth that I’ve examined, C. Wright Mills (a visitor to Dartmouth’s “Great Issues” course) was accused of being “definitely pink.”

    • From what I know (which at this point is limited, I admit) the editors were explicit about “Studies” being Marxist in orientation, but they were eclectic, non-dogmatic, and were open to publishing non-Marxist leftists like Chomsky. It was a sort of rethinking of Marxism in view of the New Left and all that was swirling in the 60s. They were also conscious about how being situated in the Midwest, in contrast to New York, allowed for less sectarianism. They were not wed to the old CCNY alcove wars.

  3. Andrew–great topic. Tim Barker has done excellent work on Studies on the Left… between Tim, Brick, Buhle, Elbaum, and others, I think there is a persuasive counternarrative to the “Marx didn’t matter” or “Marx ruined things” New Left stories.

    But I wonder about this question: “Did its Marxism help or hinder the mission of Studies on the Left?” How would one evaluate this? And–maybe more provocatively–why choose this question? Given that Marxism clearly was a central concern of SOTL–might it not be more interesting to ask about what contradictions it coped with (or didn’t), how it understood its own relation to the suppression of Marxist thought after the 1930s, how it related to simultaneous European Marxist renewals, etc?

  4. Patrick, thank you for the long, learned comment. But, you write: “Sale himself takes care not to blame “all of the apparently sudden misfortunes of SDS” on Marx, Marxism, and “revolutionary politics” (to paraphrase, the ‘pell-mell rush into the comparative safety of one or another variety of Marxism’), but one can’t but infer that the sudden (re)discovery of this unholy Leftist triune was a centripetal force for the worse.” This is definitely a polemical debate I’m not interested in rehashing. So I blame myself for posing this question: “Did its Marxism help or hinder the mission of Studies on the Left?” I think Kurt is right in saying it’s an unhelpful question.

  5. Andrew, I might have added that my own views on the Marxism of this period more or less align with what Buhle writes in his book on same (I probably would prefer, however, a more nuanced discussion as to what it means to be a ‘Marxist’ in a critical or normative sense), although I think he might have attempted more by way of explanation than narrative description. For instance, and one can cite several other examples, he writes: “Our work tended to be skewed between popular vulgarization and inaccessible scholarship. We felt sure we had time to overcome these obvious weaknesses. We were wrong.” Or, in comparison to earlier and similar episodes of Left decline, demise, and so forth: “The New Left simply plunged the dagger into itself more swiftly and more dramatically.” Finally: “Confounded by the limits of New Left success, they reverted to self-insulation from all the organic traditions of American radicalism.” I find much undigested food for thought in such remarks. I hope I did not leave the impression that I simply agree with the conclusions with regard to Marx and Marxism that Sale, Gitlin, and even in some important respects, my former teacher Dick Flacks, have made popular. And I much prefer discussion and debate over merely “polemical” debate (several of my comments on a recent post on ‘philosophy as conversation’ at the New APPS blog attest to this preference).

  6. I have a lot to say about Studies, but here I’ll just try to make two initial points.

    The first is to call attention to the essential ambivalence of the Studies renovation of American Marxism. Even as the editors sought to renew American Marxism and to endow the nascent political movements of the 1960s with its specific benefits, their project was constitutively defined by a deep conviction of the poverty of all heretofore existing American Marxism. So foreign thinkers like Gramsci (introduced to the magazine by John Cammett and Antonio Gramsci) and Andre Gorz were favored for their potential to save American Marxism from “vulgar” CPUSA theoreticians like Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner. To add a further wrinkle, the Studies crowd was very loudly concerned with finding a specifically “American” Marxism, and even complained that CP thinkers (as well as anti-communists) had given to much though to Russian concerns. But in naming alternatives to this ostensible mistaken focus on Soviet concerns, they looked to Western Europeans (like Gramsci and Gorz), so that paradoxically, recognizing American particularities came to depend on categories derived by non-Americans.

    The second is that the intellectual history of Studies calls for careful periodization. For example, their “attention to literary form and cultural theory” was concentrated in their initial issues, roughly coinciding with the tenure of Eleanor Hakim as managing editor. Hakim wrote about Brecht, and during her time, the magazine printed the first U.S. translation of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay and founding editor Martin Sklar tried (unsuccessfully) to commission James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Hakim’s departure in 1963 (for obscure reasons that probably justify a gender analysis of the magazine’s internal politics) was followed by the editorial ascendancy of James Weinstein, a NY based socialist with deep pockets and big ambitions. Under Weinstein, the magazine moved toward engagement with the New Left and started publishing movement heavies like Staughton Lynd, Norm Fruchter, and Tom Hayden. “Culture” remained important, but in a sense that focused on historical studies and political theory far more than on popular culture, the plastic arts, or imaginative literature. Then, in a final phase, socialists like Sklar and Weinstein came into conflict with these “movement” types (who were usually less keen on open Marxism) and the magazine folded in 1967, just as the New Left was reaching its biggest mass audiences. So any question of the journal’s relation to cultural politics, or to avowed Marxism, has to placed into these shifting contexts.

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