New Left History
Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism.
by Staughton Lynd.
Pantheon. 184 pp. $4.95.
Much of the history written in the United States today makes deadly reading. Aside from a handful of gifted amateurs, American historians are largely college or university professors, who publish books in order to secure academic promotions or, once they have tenure, to win recognition from other academic historians. Not long ago a great medievalist told me proudly that when the book on which he has worked for many years is completed it will be comprehensible to only three other men in the country—all of them professors of medieval history. Devoid of passion and divorced from social concern, most of the volumes reviewed in the historical quarterlies are monuments of labor, of erudition, and of inconsequence.
In the past few years some of our younger historians have engaged in a conscious rebellion against this sterile academism. Styling themselves the historians of the New Left, they have demanded that historical writing be socially engaged. More specifically they urge historians to make it their prime task to strip off the complacent facade of American society and to reveal the intense class and racial struggles that have gone on behind this apparent consensus. But in rebelling, the historians of the New Left have frequently discarded not merely the weaknesses but the strengths of the professional discipline of history. Where conventional historians have tried to be objective, they are unabashedly partisan. Where scholars heretofore have sought perspective, they rush to write instant history. Too often they make rhetoric a substitute for research and consider a social conscience compensation for defective logic.
Of all the New Left historians, only Staughton Lynd appears able to combine the techniques of historical scholarship with the commitment to social reform. His Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism shows how exceedingly fruitful such a marriage can be. Though brief, this is a major work in American intellectual history. It is primarily a study of the ideas of a group of 18th-century Anglo-American publicists such as Joseph Priestley, John Wilkes, Granville Sharp, and Thomas Paine, and of those of New England abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau.
Mr. Lynd's book originated (as he recounts in a recent issue of the New American Review) in his desire, “as one considerably alienated from America's present,” to learn “if there were men in the American past in whom [he] could believe.” This is a common concern among liberal and radical Americans, who have often felt both a need to assert their independence from an alien Marxist ideology and to find security in belonging to a viable American past. Too frequently it has led to egregious distortions, such as those of Vernon L. Parrington, who found American history seeded with proto-Populists. But Mr. Lynd is too sound a historian to fall into this trap. If he finds in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence “the single most concentrated expression of the revolutionary tradition” to which he himself belongs, he does not in consequence idealize Thomas Jefferson but expresses “shame and distrust toward Founding Fathers who tolerated slavery, exterminated Indians, and blandly assumed that a good society must be based on private property.” Though he discovers in the writings of abolitionists a justification for his own advocacy of “the concept of world citizenship: the belief that ‘man as man’ had duties superior to his duties as a citizen of a particular nation,” he does not, like some of his neo-abolitionist colleagues on the New Left, deify Garrison and Phillips. Instead, he recognizes that the anti-slavery crusade ultimately led to Civil War, Republican dominance, and that “benevolent imperialism which insisted, as it bombed and strafed, that it had only come to help.”
Mr. Lynd's quest has led him, then, not so much to men as to ideas in which he can believe, and the great contribution of his book is to demonstrate that there has been a strong and continuous stream of Anglo-American radical thought down to the Civil War era. Boldly challenging the views of Carl L. Becker, Bernard Bailyn, and Clinton Rossiter, he shows that spokesmen of this dissenting tradition from the very beginning raised fundamental questions “which threatened private property and the authority of the state.” Persuasively he puts this radicalism into a broader perspective. He argues not that Rousseau directly influenced the drafters of the Declaration of Independence but that “the natural rights theorizing of Anglo-American radicals in the months . . . immediately preceding . . . the Declaration made the same key affirmations that Rousseau did.” Similarly he demonstrates, in a series of strikingly parallel passages, how Thoreau's “critique of alienated labor” resembled the contemporaneous writings of Karl Marx.
As Mr. Lynd realizes, this subtle and scholarly book will probably “not fully satisfy the reader to whom [it] is addressed: the ‘critic of the American present.’” Nor is it likely to become a handbook for advocates “of a third revolutionary movement prepared to be critical, not just of property in man, but of private property in all its forms.” But his Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism will abundantly satisfy any serious student of American thought. What is better yet, it offers to academic practitioners of history proof that social involvement can sharpen rather than blunt a historian's perceptions and to New Left critics evidence that careful research and scholarly objectivity are compatible with revolutionary zeal.