Staughton Lynd
Staughton Lynd; drawing by David Levine

The publication, almost simultaneously, of both these books by Staughton Lynd provides an opportunity to assess his position both as a historian and as an ideologue of the New Left. Normally, it would be bad manners to confuse the two roles, but Lynd has argued forcefully that they ought not to be separated, and both books, especially Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, are plainly meant to serve political ends. As a contribution to American radical historiography, Lynd’s work must be evaluated as part of the present effort of recent scholars, most of them under forty, to establish an ideological foundation for their political movement. These men and women have been in revolt against a vulgar-Marxist tradition based on economic determinism, a glorification of the lower classes, and the self-defeating tendency to read the past according to the political demands of the moment. Historians like W. A. Williams, Aileen Kraditor, and Christopher Lasch, starting from such different ideologies as Christian socialism, orthodox Marxism, pragmatism, and existentialism, have recently converged in an attack on the economic determinism and romanticism of the earlier tradition and, especially, the assumption that myth-making and falsifying in historical writing can be of political use. It is ironic that even historians who do not consider themselves Marxists are steadily building a genuine American version of Marxism by the very act of destroying the caricature to which they fell heir. Lynd speaks as part of this current, but, as these books reveal, he might more properly be placed in the tradition being overthrown.

Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, by far the better of the two books, contains excellent empirical work on a number of important questions, but also reveals much methodological and philosophical confusion. Its value lies in its painstaking analyses of local responses to the political and social crises of the Revolutionary and Constitutional eras. By making careful studies of selected areas in New York State, Lynd tests the familiar theses of Beard and Becker, with their strong suggestion of a counter-revolution by large property-owners. In particular he writes well about the position of the artisans and lower middle-class radicals who played an important part in the Revolution and the constitutional crisis. When, for example, he demonstrates, with impressive skill, how foreign policy considerations played a major role in the radical thinking of the lower classes, he begins to discuss class positions as a complex mixture of material interests, ideologies, and psychological attitudes, and implicitly comes close to replacing economic determinism with a sophisticated class analysis of historical change. These four essays in Part One, together with Lynd’s other published work on the Revolutionary period, justify his reputation as a thoughtful scholar of early American history.

IN “BEYOND BEARD,” the introductory essay, however, Lynd seems unable to pull the threads of his empirical work together into a coherent theory that would in fact go “beyond Beard.” The narrow economic analysis characteristic of so much of Beard’s work is based upon an investigation of the role of interest groups, the most important of which he defined as holders of real and personal property. Today, the best radical scholars agree that such forms of vulgar Marxism should be replaced with serious research on the nature and role of social classes, considered not only as representative of specific material interests but as complexes of goals, cultural assumptions, and social and psychological relationships. In this way, these scholars are moving from a concern with mechanistic details to the mainsprings of social and political behavior. Lynd has no trouble in destroying Beard’s crude class analysis—in any case, the criticism of Forrest McDonald and others has prepared the way—but in this introductory essay he never breaks with economic determinism itself. Thus we are left with a view only slightly different from that of the older, admittedly sterile one; the broader implications of Lynd’s diligent empirical work are forced into a theoretical frame too narrow to encompass them.

In Parts Two and Three Lynd turns to the slavery question, which he sees as of decisive importance for an understanding of the Revolution and the Constitution; and it is here that his agreement breaks down. He attempts to demonstrate that the antagonism between the slave-holders and the Northern middle classes helped to shape the early national period, but he fails to place the significant conflicts of interest. That the interests of the two emerging classes diverged in some important respects is beyond doubt, but for the most part that divergence arose from different expectations of the future and from different ways of thinking. Lynd fails to analyze the slaveholders as a class and seems to gag on the notion that they could have been developing their own system of morality, reflecting their particular social system. Thus he cannot explain the nature of the antagonism between them and the Northern middle class, and consequently he overestimates the immediate political and economic conflict. His argument is finally no more than an indictment of the Founding Fathers for having failed to take a moral stand against slavery. He refuses to see the ideology of nascent American capitalism as a process that had not yet matured to the point of regarding slavery as morally and materially incompatible with its own assumptions and insists on holding up to it moral standards abstracted from any time and place.


In short, Lynd moves from the economic-determinist view of the first part of his book to a subjective and ahistorical one in the second. Unable to justify his moralistic condemnation of slavery according to his materialist theory, he asserts a moral absolutism that contradicts the theory itself.

We may perhaps account for the contradiction between the two parts of Class Conflict in its origin as a collection of separate essays written over a period of five years or more. In any case, that contradiction disappears in Intellectual Origins, which abandons all attempts at a materialist interpretation. The book is based on carefully selected statements from Lynd’s favorite English theorists, Revolutionary War heroes, and philosophical anarchists and middle-class radicals—from Cartwright and Paine through the Abolitionists to writers like Henry George—and is designed to establish certain of their ideas as the core of the radical tradition. The intellectual tradition of radicalism Lynd describes in this way:

The tradition I have attempted to describe made the following affirmations: that the proper foundation for government is a universal law of right and wrong self-evident to the intuitive common sense of every man; that freedom is a power of personal self-direction which no man can delegate to another; that the purpose of society is not the protection of property but fulfillment of the needs of living human beings; that good citizens have the right and duty, not only to overthrow incurably oppressive governments, but before that point is reached to break particular oppressive laws; and that we owe our ultimate allegiance, not to this or that nation, but to the whole family of man.

Lynd views the Declaration of Independence as the most relevant expression of these ideas, and makes large claims on its continuing fascination for some American radicals. He does not mention that many American radicals have disagreed—imagine Daniel De Leon peddling such stuff! Still less does he tell us anything about the role of class or the historical setting of the debates among radicals. For Lynd, this moralistic version of radical doctrine is all that matters; he seeks merely to trace its history and its relation to conservative thought—which is, by the way, more abused than presented or criticized.

The book is, therefore, not history at all—how could one write a history of “self-evident truths”—but a political testament with historical references added to establish a pedigree. Leaving aside possible disagreements with Lynd’s particular readings, we find little surprise or controversy in his account of how the English Dissenters developed Lockian doctrine in a democratic direction, or of the importance of the inner light in egalitarian movements during the seventeenth century, or of the link between radical Protestantism and Abolitionism. The historical record is familiar. The claims of the book rest on Lynd’s interpretation, or, rather, on his assumption, that moral absolutism is what the radical tradition has to offer radicals today.

THE USES to which Lynd puts moral absolutism reveals much about his attitude toward history itself. We are told that the “great truths” are intuitively accessible to the average man and that conscience, not constituted authority, must be the ultimate arbiter of political good and evil. Lynd has no trouble in showing that these and related “Inner-Light” doctrines served revolutionary ends in the European peasant wars or the English Revolution, but somehow he thinks that this demonstration, now standard fare, proves his case for their contemporary importance. Previous revolutionary movements were millenarian or bourgeois, and hence these doctrines could serve a revolutionary purpose, but Lynd seeks to graft them on to a socialist revolution, the content of which he never discusses. He merely asserts that they form the kernel of revolutionary socialist thought, although no socialist movement has ever won power with such an ideology; indeed the history of modern Western society suggests that the working class would laugh its exponents off the political stage.

Since Lynd never discusses the relation of these ideas to the social groups that hold them he is freed from a concern with unpleasant questions. Writing as a historian, he nevertheless denies the importance of the social context in which ideas occur—the “great truths” are to him self-evident and absolute—and he thereby denies the usefulness of history except for purposes of moral exhortation. He frankly asserts an antirationalist position:


Therefore, the neo-Lockians of the eighteenth century, like the neo-Marxists of the twentieth, were obliged to reintroduce the ethical dimension. They insisted on the reality of the good and on man’s ability to recognize it, defended the intuitions of the heart against the paralyzing analysis of the head.

It is difficult to know where to begin criticism, all the more so since Lynd’s hippie neo-Marxists go unnamed, and we are not told just whose (or which) heads become paralyzed by analysis. Lynd seeks to prove that the essence of radicalism is something akin to obscurantism. The counter-tendencies and opposing views of the Left are ignored; the book is therefore a travesty of history.

Lynd describes various strains of radical thought in English and early American history, and invokes the formidable authority of E. P. Thompson’s masterpiece, The Making of the English Working Class, which also seeks to find the roots of modern radical thought in pre-industrial and early industrial bourgeois and petty-bourgeois currents. Regrettably, Lynd omits a decisive step in his argument, and thereby inverts Thompson’s method. He establishes a pedigree for his favorite radical ideas, among which are the right of revolution, the right to disobey personally obnoxious laws, and the primacy of human over property rights, and seeks to relate the ideas of the New Left to the ideas of the American Revolution and Abolitionism.

This procedure has its problems. One of Thompson’s most valuable contributions was to show how utopian and radical religious doctrines passed into the working class and socialist movements and prepared the way for, and helped to shape, English Marxism and Fabianism. Lynd, on the other hand, completely omits the working class, the socialist movements, and everything else that doesn’t fit his formula. Since he deals with early American history, he cannot be expected to analyze those currents closely; but if he is to convince us he should show how the tradition he has “attempted to describe” relates to such main currents of twentieth-century American radicalism as Populism or Marxism. Instead, he implies that the New Left, which in fact embraces many tendencies, is a new manifestation of an earlier philosophical radicalism, and that the rest does not matter. To exorcise the past in this way he must reduce Marx to a European version of Thoreau, ignore the actual history of the American Left, and identify his own particular position within the New Left as the sole embodiment of a relevant radicalism.

Lynd opens Intellectual Origins with a statement by poor Stokely Carmichael, who seems to have enough trouble these days without having to bear the full burden of this cross: “There is a higher law than the law of government. That’s the law of conscience.” Lynd proceeds, “The characteristic concepts of the existential radicalism of today have a long and honorable history.” We are spared an explanation of why an existential anything needs any history at all, but are told, however, that today’s radicals speak of inalienable rights, a natural higher law, and the rights of revolution. It is clear enough that bourgeois revolutionaries of previous epochs were encumbered by these ideas; that today’s revolutionaries need any of them remains to be demonstrated.

Lynd sees the special contribution of Abolitionism to radicalism as the extension of the right of revolution, understood as a majority movement, to the right of anyone on grounds of conscience, to break the law. The reactionaries among us may be permitted some questions as to how one man’s conscience may justify this right and not another’s; once again we need not ask for evidence for “self-evident truths.” Let us grant that “good citizens” have a right to overthrow an oppressive regime; but if we are to speak of such a “right,” what shall we do with the right of self-defense? Officials of the state and men of property, who must also have hearts with intuitive knowledge of the good, surely have a right to shoot down those who threaten them. If we have a right to break any law that outrages our conscience, do not those who feel the need for the protection of that law or of the legal system in general have the right to take their own measures? It does not occur to Lynd that even fascists may be men of strong principle, love of humanity, and clear conscience.

FOR THOSE who regard the existing order as intolerable and barbarous, revolution may legitimately appear as a necessity and a duty, but he who chooses revolutionary confrontations or defies the law cannot easily pretend that he is not appealing to force. There is only one justification for a civilized man’s doing either: the existence of irreconcilable antagonisms, each of which has its claims and neither of which can or will be compromised. When, for example, slaves rose in revolt, they advanced simultaneously their claims to individual freedom and, with varying degrees of consciousness, a notion of a just social order; when the slaveholders moved to crush them, they advanced simultaneously the claims of property and a commitment to the existing arrangement as the foundation of the only social order they could see as just. The interests of the two were irreconcilable. But this view cannot appeal to the heart or the intuition of the common man; it can only appeal to a developing social consciousness based not on some abstract common sense but on that sense of duty and responsibility to humanity which can only be defined in a specific time and place through disciplined, collective ideological and political effort.

Among the difficulties with Lynd’s appeal to self-evident truths and absolute values is an implicit right of counter-revolution. After all, why cannot proslavery, pro-fascist, and other reactionary forces also consult their consciences and discover their own self-evident truths? And what, one wonders, would be the fate of a small revolutionary country, faced with the hostility of a super power, if it were simply to adopt Lynd’s position and grant the right to appeal to individual conscience against the law? It would not last a day, and neither, we suspect, would anyone advocating this doctrine in such a country.

Lynd scores a point when he notes that the experience of twentieth-century man under totalitarian regimes gives reason to trust the toughness and self-renewing qualities of the human spirit, and no doubt Marxists until recently have not paid sufficient attention to this. But whereas Hannah Arendt, to cite only one example, can write with eloquence, power, and reason on this matter, Lynd merely announces an Absolute Spirit in everyman and its self-evident right to stand against society. He buttresses his assertion by the second, arrogant assertion that the first is self-evident. If we are obliged to admit, and indeed to glory in, the evidence of a human spirit reaching toward freedom, we are not thereby justified in rejecting the counter-claims offered us by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The problem of that celebrated parable remains with us, even if Lynd prefers to ignore it. Freedom, too, is a historically determined process and the outcome of a persistent tension between rival claims. The problem of our day, which no nihilism can remove for us is to expand individual freedom, conventionally defined, as far as possible by so ordering society as to reduce steadily its constraints in a manner consistent with the general safety. From this view, which Lynd ignores, the problem is specific and exists in general only as an abstract ideal shared by all decent men. It is to be solved, however momentarily, in each historical context, and it is likely to remain with us in any social order we may devise.

LYND’S VIEW leads him to do violence to almost every historical question he touches. It is enough for him that Anabaptists or Diggers or primitive rebels here or there raised the banner of equality and inalienable rights. In this way he ignores history itself and also ignores (but never refutes) both conservative and Marxist criticism. Conservatives do not, as Lynd naïvely supposes, generally defend property rights as more important than human rights; they argue, with considerable justification for most of historical time, that, without property, freedom would have collapsed into anarchy, demagogic manipulation, and loss of freedom. Marxism sees freedom as a historical process, not an absolute; it admires early radical movements for their vision of human brotherhood and their war against exploitation, but it also criticizes them for their irrationalism and for their manifestly reactionary side. If it is true that only under modern economic and technological conditions has much individual freedom been possible without the sacrifice of basic material needs and the opportunity for a widespread leisure and culture, then it is also true that the early peasant revolts, however noble and admirable in some respects, were backward-looking and, in the strictest sense of the word, reactionary, when they sought to establish a primitive agrarian communism.

Lynd praises the Abolitionists for raising the question of conscience in a special way: “A minority, even a minority of one, had the duty of living on the basis of God’s law in defiance of all man-made authorities.” This doctrine is respectable for those who believe in God and His law. Their concern is with the individual soul, and they might argue that every other man will have to attend to himself. If the judgment proves wrong, at least their good intentions might commend them to their Lord’s mercy. But once secularized, the doctrine reduces itself to mere egotism and expresses contempt for the collective judgment of mankind. Lynd cannot get around this obvious fact by arguing that an appeal to conscience is an appeal to the judgment of the common man. Common men, like uncommon men, often disagree and kill one another.

LYND’S ARGUMENT collapses totally when he discusses Marx and Marxism. For Lynd, Marx “paralleled” Thoreau and other American radicals, and is of only passing interest. Lynd’s Marx, as might be expected, is the early Marx; and although elsewhere in The Dissenting Academy he says that he knows of and rejects the mature Marx, nowhere does he give the slightest evidence of study or understanding. His readers are left with a wholly misleading impression. Gone are all the essential contributions which, for better or worse, have shaped the thinking of much of the Left for a hundred years: the theory of exploitation, the materialist interpretation of history, and the class analysis of the state. We are offered, instead, quotations from Marx’s early writings carefully selected to show that Marx took only one step beyond the Abolitionists—by attacking private property itself. Since this attack also had American parallels it is of only academic interest. Thus, we are treated to grotesque assertions, such as: “…Marx, whose concepts of alienation and fetishism can be paralleled in the pages of Walden.” If Lynd’s discussion of Marx is worth examining, it is only to reveal his shallow scholarship:

For Marx, responsible social action presupposed a rational survey of the economic situation in which one planned to act. Inevitably the required analysis fell to an elite which had the leisure and training to make it. Despite his emphasis on the dependence of theory upon practice, Marx felt considerable distrust for workingmen who sought to change society from the basis of their own experience and perceptions. In this he somewhat resembled those American Founding Fathers who considered moral outrage against slavery premature and utopian, and placed their hope for its eventual abolition in long-run economic trends.” [Intellectual Origins]

It has been a long time since Marx was so absurdly caricatured by someone who professes respect for him. Lynd does not footnote his statements, nor could he, and the whole weight of Marx’s life, his political and historical writing, and the efforts of generations of Marxists—Communists, Trotskyists, and Social Democrats—are sufficient refutation. If only Lynd’s ignorance were at stake, we could let it pass; other aspects are more serious. Marx certainly did not celebrate the alleged goodness of the working class and the oppressed, but neither did he “distrust” them. Rather, he affirmed that they must make themselves over by collective effort, that they must frankly assess the effects of the degradation the ruling classes have imposed on them, and that they must overcome the banality, brutality, and corruption in their own lives. For this reason he saw the movement as a disciplining force and as decisive for the success of the revolution, understood as something other than a coup d’état, and for this reason he saw an intelligentsia and a leadership as decisive if the movement was to develop. Marx’s view, like that of subsequent serious Marxists, displays a far greater subtlety and sophistication than Lynd imagines. In any case, whatever its political and intellectual value, it deserves to be presented fully and fairly.

LYND’S GLORIFICATION of the “common man”—the words sound strange since the passing of Henry Wallace—is something quite different from that essential respect for and identification with the oppressed which every revolutionary must feel; and it is more than mere sentimentalism. It is in his hands an intellectual device necessary to sustain an egocentric view of the world, and as such, it descends into demagogy: “The characteristic exponents of the revolutionary tradition were poor workingmen who did not go to college and rarely held public offices, such as Paine, Garrison, George, and Debs.” Lynd might have told unwary readers that, during the lives of these men, most Americans, including Rockefeller, Carnegie, and almost all the robber barons, did not go to college either. Lynd’s flattering of the poor, here and elsewhere, disguises the real point, which is a contempt for and distrust of the intelligentsia. The outcome of his line of thought is the cry now being heard that radical intellectuals must leave the university for the redemptive atmosphere of the ghetto.

The most valuable contributions being made by the young radicals of today stem from their revolt against the totalitarian interpretation of Marxist political doctrine. They have reasserted the claims of the led against all would-be leaders, for the experience of the twentieth-century revolutions has clearly shown how easily Marxist notions of class and party can pass over into bureaucratization, dictatorship, and cynical manipulation. Recognition of these dangers and a determination to oppose them hardly justify the obscurantist retreat Lynd proposes, and, in fact, there is encouraging evidence that much of the New Left is now groping in its own ways toward more rational solutions. However, heroic “confrontations,” such as occurred in Chicago, are hardly new. What is at issue is the theoretical framework in which they are set. The old problems are still with us: How do we consolidate such impressive actions? How do we integrate them into a long-term struggle that must also embrace the older and more settled elements in society? So long as the goals are unclear and so long as a rational program for the restructuring of society remains obscure, we have every reason to fear the outcome.

Lynd presents himself as a spokesman for the New Left, but he has only the right to present himself as a spokesman for a particular tendency of it. If there is a “New” Left, it is a many-sided movement, and it deserves to be called new principally for its insistence on by-passing old factional quarrels and for its unwillingness to submit to the discipline of one or another of the older organizations, most of which have discredited themselves by pronounced totalitarianism. It is not new by virtue of its activism, for the Left of the 1930s was nothing if not activist. Its nihilist qualities are not new either, as Lynd implies, for these are very old tendencies, which have everywhere led the Left to defeat and slaughter. Susan Sontag, in one of her more spirited moments, tells us that nihilism is our contemporary form of moral uplift. No doubt. But if it is the best that Staughton Lynd can offer us, either as a revolutionary political ideology or as an attitude toward history, then we shall have to look elsewhere.

This Issue

September 26, 1968