U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ellie Hakim’s Letters from the New Left

Over the holiday break I spent a few days in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, on the beautiful if cold University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, looking at the papers of Studies on the Left, the lively journal that ran from 1959 to 1967. (I’m giving a paper on Studies at the upcoming OAH meeting as part of a panel titled “Marx and Marxism: Taboo or Totem”—other panel participants: Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen [chair], Claire Rydell, Andrew Zimmerman, and James Livingston [comment].)

The most joyful aspect of my time in these papers was reading the funny, smart, provocative, unflinching letters of Eleanor “Ellie” Hakim. Somebody should edit a collection of Hakim’s letters. They are that good. But also surprising because I know so little about Ellie Hakim.

Aside from Hakim’s brief stint as the managing editor at Studies, a Google search reveals next to nothing. After she resigned from Studies in 1963 due to a conflict with the other editors—namely, it seems, James Weinstein—she fell out of public view. One essay Google led me to briefly mentions the “late Eleanor Hakim,” but I can’t find an obituary so I can’t confirm her death or anything about her life post-1963.

One thing I can confirm however: Hakim was crucial to the early success of Studies. Her voluminous correspondence and outreach played an enormously important role in Studies becoming one of the leading journals of a rising New Left. In this way she is also underrated since those remembered as the brains behind Studies are the men who went on to do other important things: Weinstein, editor of In These Times and author of The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State: 1900-1918; Martin J. Sklar, author of The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916 and eventual Sarah Palin fan; and Saul Landau, who became a prominent left-wing journalist and documentary filmmaker.

Hakim is less remembered than Weinstein, Sklar, and Landau for the obvious reason that she never went on to write groundbreaking books or direct award-winning films, and for the perhaps equally obvious reason that she was a woman. In Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties, which includes a chapter on Studies, Matthew Levin describes Hakim as “the most prominent of the several women who worked on the journal,” yet not so prominent that she bears another mention in the book aside from in the final chapter when Levin correctly notes that despite Hakim’s role at Studies “the New Left was a male-dominated movement.” Hakim is thus a case-study in the oft-noted sexism of the New Left—sexism that helped propel the women’s liberation movement. Hakim made Studies go with her correspondence and thankless administrative work and yet is barely remembered.

That Hakim is a forgotten left intellectual is unfortunate because, as her letters demonstrates, she had a great mind and a wicked sense of humor. In an hilarious letter exchange with Eugene Genovese in June 1961, Hakim used a fictional softball game between “The Flying Bolsheviks and the Maoist Maulers” as a metaphor to distinguish between Genovese’s Old Left and the New Left she and the young Madison radicals were attempting to forge. “It does seem,” Hakim chided Genovese, who was at that time editing the Old Left-inflected Science and Society, that “in order to stay in the running with history the old left must resort to more and more blatant tactics, and strong arm methods as skills diminish and as they get more and more on the wrong side of History!” (Thanks to Tim Barker, who wrote a fantastic undergraduate thesis on Studies, for pointing me to this particular correspondence.)

Sometimes Hakim put her razor-sharp sense of humor to use in devastating ways. In a 1961 letter to Landau—who referred to Ellie as “sweetheart” in their frequent correspondence—Hakim defended her editorial decision to reject a piece by one of Landau’s friends by mocking it and its intended audience. The article, a “talky, chummy comment on American mores and values as regards the question of sex as presented in the image of Henry Miller,” was “all very well for KPFA listeners,” Hakim wrote, “but it is rather inadequate for Studies on the Left readers.” She was not interested in publishing articles that could have passed for “book-of-the-week radio script commentaries to the San Francisco sophisticates.” Admitting that she was “sounding like an academic purist,” Hakim’s ridicule had the effect of marking out the territory Studies wished to cover. Its editors wanted to appeal to the left, but not at the cost of diminished scholarly standards.

Hakim’s letters also reveal her as one of the few in the Studies milieu who preferred her Marx leavened with Thoreau. In reviewing an article Staughton Lynd submitted to Studies, titled, “The Admirable Radical: Henry Thoreau,” an article that she trashed as “unacceptable for publication,” and “poorly written,” Hakim was the sole member of the editorial board who saw the potential merits of an article connecting the ideas of Thoreau to sixties radicalism. Even though she thought the article was poorly executed, she agreed with Lynd’s premise that Thoreau was a patron saint of young radicals. She wrote: “I am afraid that the kind of radicals on the Board of Studies on the Left, getting their impetus from Marxist political and economic approaches, fail to appreciate or even recognize the validity of the radical of conscience. Lynd is certainly correct, in my view, to characterize the new radicalism as being essentially moral in impetus and action oriented.” In sum, Hakim defended a humanist or moral version of radical politics that could indeed be channeled by Thoreau.

In addition to the historical theory of corporate liberalism that Weinstein and Sklar made famous, the radical humanism that Hakim helped foster is partly what helped set Studies apart from the many journals of the Old Left, and why Studies helped shape the New Left. It also might be why Hakim split with Studies. Although there were some obvious personal antagonisms behind the schism—Hakim called Weinstein “manipulative”—and also a bureaucratic rationale—more than a few of her fellow editors were unhappy with how she had handled the journal’s taxes—Hakim had divergent intellectual objectives for Studies. She wanted to bring new people onto the editorial board who, in the words of Studies editor Michael Lebowitz, would have meant handing Studies over to “Kultur.” In this way, Lebowitz joked, “Ellie begins to look like the Trotsky of Studies on the Left.”

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    • P.S. She left “Studies on the Left” not the “New Left Review”–honest slip since “Studies” was at the time the US equivalent to the UK “NLR.” The latter of course is still going strong. And who can keep all these little left magazines straight! 🙂

      • Ugh. Sorry. I don’t know where that came from. But yeah — some days it’s all I can do to keep Leftists and Liberals straight.

  1. …and, per JSTOR, it looks like she was writing (or being published) as late as the 1980s, with a couple of very elegiac essays, one on Janis Joplin (1980) and one on the British Museum’s marble frieze from Halicarnassus (1983). Here’s her entire authorial oeuvre as indexed by JSTOR

    Eleanor Hakim

    She seems pretty dang interesting, Andrew. Thanks so very much for this post!

  2. Thanks for this, LD. Hakim was such an elegant and prolific letter writer. It’s too bad for us this didn’t carry over into her published writings. The prolific part that is. Her published works that I’ve read are high quality.

  3. This is really good stuff. I’m intrigued to know more about this person as well–and the correspondence, from what I read here, does sound like fantastic reading!

  4. In 1964 I took two classes at The New School taught by Eleanor Hakim: Existential Themes in Modern Literature and Existential Themes in Modern Film (think Ingmar Bergman). She was perhaps the best, smartest, kindest, most interesting teacher I can recall from the three universities I attended.

  5. Elie Hakim was my TA for freshman English at Madison in 1960 and left a lasting impression upon me; she was witty, helpful and smoked Camels. In debate with her, and her friends, I was moved to participated in the civil rights movement and later was a war resister.

    • George, thank you — so much — for this comment. It is deeply encouraging to be reminded that our teaching matters, that it can and does transform students’ lives. Of course academics know that at some level, or we would not be academics. Still, it’s good to be reminded — and that’s especially true for those of us who are “just” TAs or adjuncts or lecturers. There’s no “just” anything about good teaching or good teachers. May heaven bless and keep those who have been so good to you and to me.

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