U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ellie Hakim’s Letters from the New Left, cont…

Over two years ago I wrote here about Ellie Hakim, one of the unsung yet formidable founders of Studies on the Left, perhaps the leading journal of the American New Left. I had spent some time at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison looking at the Studies papers and came away super impressed by Hakim’s behind-the-scenes contributions to the journal. She was a particularly eloquent letter-writer. Indeed, her intelligence, wit, and, for lack of a better word, humanity jumped off the page of her letters. The best part of that post is found in the comments section, where two of Hakim’s former students confirmed that she was just as memorable and formidable in the flesh—she was, by their accounts, an extraordinary teacher.

A few weeks ago, I returned to the Wisconsin Historical Society to conduct further research on my current book topic, “Karl Marx in America.” The Society’s collections might be the best this side of Tamiment for those interested in the history of the American left. The most revealing papers were those of James Cannon, the leading American Trotskyist throughout the 1930s and beyond. But I will save those details for another post—or perhaps you will have to wait for the book! For this post, I return to Ellie Hakim’s letters—since I found a few that I missed the first time around.

Hakim had an ongoing correspondence with the historian George Rawick, who took his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied with Merle Curti, and who is best known for editing a 41-volume set of oral histories of former slaves, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. In the 1960s, Rawick was a left-wing activist, and thus took an interest in Studies. But as a committed anti-Stalinist influenced by Trotskyism and especially C.L.R. James, he was skeptical that Studies would be interested in his brand of leftism. Rawick assumed Studies was closely affiliated with Old Left Communists, which was enough of a red flag (ahem) for any proper Trotskyist. Rawick was wrong about this, since Studies was genuinely interested in building a non-sectarian left that included most of the various sects leftover from the battles of the 1930s. It was anti-anticommunist, which is one of the first sure signs that it was New Left.

In response to a 1961 letter in which Rawick wondered whether he could publish a review of a new book on slavery with Studies without heavy-handed editorial guidance—which implied Stalinist guidance—Hakim responded in a letter a few weeks later that Rawick could write the essay as he pleased without concern about “any kremlin-gremlin changing it.” Hakim argued that, rather than take a particular political line, Studies editors were skeptics more than anything else. Hakim thought this made them potentially good intellectual leaders of a “New Left.” “We are capable—most of the time,” she wrote, “of recognizing the claptrap of the old lines for what they are…” Rawick was unmoved by Hakim’s defense of Studies, writing that he found it “difficult to write for a publication whose editors are friendly to the Soviet Union…”

In the early sections of Rawick’s correspondence with Hakim, his tone was harsh and dismissive. “Understand one thing,” he sniffed, “I write for you as a favor. Your willingness to print my stuff is no concession on your part.” Again, this was Rawick’s anti-Stalinism showing—and in fact he declared in the same letter that one of the Studies editors (he does not name names) accused him of being a government spy at a Madison party. Eventually, Hakim’s charm and ability to give as good as she got (see my previous post which includes an exchange she had with Eugene Genovese)—an important trait in the hyper-masculine world of left-wing intellectual life—wore Rawick down. He seemed to take a liking to her and even invited her to Chicago to spend time with him and some of his Trot friends.

Hakim made clear to Rawick that she had never been a Stalinist and that she only recently joined the left so had no truck with any of the various sects that had long divided it. She also made clear that she thought an American left should worry about building socialism in the United States. “God-damn it,” she implored, “we’re American left-wingers and don’t have to justify ourselves either one way or another in terms of the Soviet Union.” From then on their correspondence lightened up a bit, and Rawick even called Hakim “brilliant” in one letter. But he also reveled in an easy, ironic sexism. Rawick called Hakim “honey” and, in response to Hakim telling him that she had existentialist leanings, he wrote that though she was becoming a first-rate thinker she was also “given like most women to some sort of idealist mystical nonsense.” Rawick continued: “Oh yes. I am a male chauvinist!”

Hakim’s reply: “Dear George: Since you stated in your last letter that you are a male chauvinist, I shall not strike a plaintive note.”

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Wow, I think I might have to get your book just to read more from her! I have to also admit I appreciate this post because it’s a reminder that as long as there has been an American Left–not surprisingly–there have been divisions within it.

    • Oh contemporary leftwing sectarianism, which might seem bad on twitter, is NOTHING compared to how it was in the 1930s (or the 1960s for that matter). NOTHING. It would actually be really useful for people on the left to go back and study that history, as a lesson in what NOT to do.

  2. Thanks for this, Andrew. I was intrigued by Ellie Hakim when you first wrote of her, so I’m very glad you’re revisiting her writing and her labors as an editor. It’s always interesting to see how women intellectuals have dealt with being women intellectuals, especially in settings where their presence as such is statistically anomalous. Some of those statistically anomalous settings have endured over decades with the same basic structure, just swapping out new faces for old faces. But I’m not sure that’s the responsibility of the Ellie Hakims of the world to fix — and maybe some of them would rather focus on other things anyhow. Getting scrappy, giving as good as you get, laughing it off — these are some ways of being in the world that work all right, I guess, in lopsidedly “gendered” environments or not. But being one of the guys can occasionally take a little more out of you at the end of the day when you’re not actually one of the guys. Or so I’d imagine.

    In any case, I’m very glad you’re going to help us get to know Ellie Hakim a little bit better.

    • Thanks for the comment, LD. I wish I knew more about Hakim after she left Madison in 1963, after she had a nasty separation with the other editors. I wonder if being the only woman in that group wore on her and led to the break in some fashion. I want to know more about her because, how could such a brilliant mind fade from public view?

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