The Rise and Fall of an Idealist

Never Stop Running: Allard Lowenstein and the Struggle to Save American Liberalism

by William H. Chafe
Basic Books, 556 pp., $28.00

If any one person can be said to represent the political awakening of young Americans in the 1960s, it would be Allard Lowenstein. From his undergraduate years at Chapel Hill in the 1950s to his murder in 1980 by a psychotic former protégé—from a time well before most young people became politically active to a time well after many of them had ceased to be—Lowenstein was deeply engaged in public life, constantly seeking a way, as he often put it, “to make a difference” in the fight against racism, war, and social injustice.

He was one of the first to organize student protest against South African apartheid, and had an important part in the early struggles of the civil rights movement. One of the leaders of student protests against the Vietnam War, he was perhaps the principal organizer of the movement that, in effect, drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House in 1968. Most of all, perhaps, Lowenstein had a remarkable ability to inspire the people who worked with him, he had a strong effect on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of younger men and women—many of whom are prominent in public life today. Bill Bradley, Barney Frank, Tom Harkin, and Bob Kerrey are only a few among them.

But while Lowenstein’s effect on the political activism of the 1960s was considerable, he was himself inescapably a product of the 1950s; and almost everything in his life reflected that very different, more guarded, time. He seemed a man intent on stripping off the masks that kept white, middleclass Americans from recognizing the injustice in their society. But other masks, constructed by himself and others, shaped and even dominated his personality and allowed him to hide from his complicated, even tortured inner life. As William Chafe’s excellent biography suggests, it was Lowenstein’s inability to escape the repressive elements in his own life that encouraged him to devote himself to political causes.

Lowenstein grew up in comfortable middle-class surroundings outside New York City. His father ran a successful Manhattan restaurant business that made Allard financially secure throughout his life, free to pursue political causes that only rarely earned him an income. He was a brilliant student at the private Horace Mann School and, from an early age, precociously political; at seven, in 1936, he was handing out leaflets for Franklin Roosevelt on Central Park West.

But Lowenstein’s childhood, like his adulthood, was also characterized by denial and deception—on the part of his parents and of Allard himself. His father, Gabriel, had come to the United States from Russia in 1906 to avoid being jailed for political activity. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia and dreamed of an academic career; but he was also determined to build a secure, middle-class life for his family and decided to become a businessman instead. His regrets about that choice affected, and perhaps poisoned, the rest of his life and encouraged him to transfer his own thwarted ambitions onto his children, with relentless and often suffocating…

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