As a grad student in history at CUNY during the 1990s, I was always a bit taken aback by the dislike exhibited by both teacher and student alike at faculty member Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Daring to cite him on a test earned at best a rewrite, and at worst a failing grade (“He’s a 100 years old,” one grader told me as an explanation as to why I didn’t pass a historiography of the New Deal question, while another dismissed him as “a patriachal male” when I included his seminal work, The Age of Jackson, for a question dealing with 1830s America). Students, either naturally or from sensing the wind blowing from faculty offices, saw him as an ideological enemy. “He’s so reactionary,” one student reported, while another, a fan of the antiempiricist Foucalt, nevertheless was willing to violate the postmodernist method by citing a number of facts revealing Schlesinger’s “McCarthyistic tendencies.”
Ideology no doubt played a part in these reactions, as it does with most things at CUNY, but I always suspected a bit of envy as well. No one on the faculty of late has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (as Schlesinger had at the age of 27), nor have they (thank God) served as Presidential advisors (as Schlesinger did in middle age). Whatever the motivation, the CUNY method of pigeon-holing him reveals how the faculty eschews complexity.
The real Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a mixed bag. His life was devoted to an almost constant salvage operation for the Democratic Party, the purpose of which was to revive the New Deal. One suspects his celebrated cyclical view of history ( liberal experimentation which exhausts itself, allowing a period of conservative inaction, then followed by a renewed progressivism) was more to keep liberal hopes alive during Republican administrations. As an activist, he was always trying to makes his candidates less conservative, which he tried to through exposure to The Age of Roosevelt first with Adlai Stevenson and then with JFK.
This desire to resuscitate liberal glory days provoked tendencies in Schlesinger he would deplore in Republican presidents. He expressed horror at Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan’s reliance on covert action, but, among liberals, he was willing to work in a secretly CIA-funded writers congress and construct plausible deniability scenarios for the Bay of Pigs operation.
But for all his knee jerk responses, he would occasionally follow the evidence to a conclusion damaging to his own side. It would have been so easy and strategic, as so many others were at the time, to wrap Alger Hiss in the New Deal flag. Instead Schlesinger accepted his guilt and concluded that the CPUSA did, to some extent, penetrate the New Deal for espionage purposes.
Schlesinger also took the then-unpopular stand among liberals of severing Democratic links to the CPUSA. Accepting this continuing partnership would have kept the Hollywood contributions high, and Schlesinger free from accusations of fascism, but such a course would have compromised the New Deal in a way not even the Wallace candidacy could.
It’s a pity Schlesinger’s willingness to accept liberal folly didn’t make him equally receptive to the possibility of conservative wisdom. In 1981, Schlesinger discounted Ronald Reagan’s prediction that the Soviet Union was about to be on the ash heap of history by stating that a recent visit the historian made there showed a bustling economy in no danger of collapse. When the Soviet Union did soon implode, Schlesigner avoided accepting that Reagan was a better reader of historical trends than himself by writing of “the cunning twists and turns of history” (an odd comment from a cyclical historian).
Schlesinger veered into conservative territory in the 1990s with his trenchant attacks on mulitculturalism and postmodernism, all emanating out from its East Coast nerve center and the university he taught at, CUNY. It took considerable intellectual courage to attack this anti-empirical trend, especially when this allied him with conservatives. His last years proved the liberals of yesteryear have more in common with the conservatives of today than with their leftist counterparts. His willingness to buck his own half of the ideological spectrum is only one reason he will be sorely missed.
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