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Radical History Review 79 (2001) 81-84

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Forum: Reflections on Radical History

Reflections of an Old New Leftist

Paul Buhle


Readers of the RHR have perhaps heard as much about my New Left venture, Radical America, as they will ever wish to, and assorted essays in History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950-1970 helpfully fill in other blanks. But I have been lately concluding that elements of popular culture reached me much earlier with compelling historical messages. Fanciful films like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1953) treating issues of memory and melancholy helped me establish a sense of more than personal loss; so did photos and drawings of the urban or rural scenes of the 1940s, as the last moment of a more exciting and hopeful time fast receding under the weight of the arms race, suburbanization, and sameness.

The idea of recovering something lost in history leaped out at me as I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood (written pseudonymously, it turned out, by blacklistees whom I would meet decades later) on the first television set in the house. And an African American history teacher in eighth grade made a big impact. Then again, as a young radical or Marxist of the early 1960s, I soon discovered that apart from political work, "history" was the only thing that I could do. Instinctively, I began trying to recover lost radicalism. That I should have chosen that path rather than muckraking capitalism and its apologists may explain why, between civil rights and the peace movement, I joined a group of mostly elderly, Wobbly-like socialists; my arrival and departure from the Socialist Labor Party certainly deepened my interest in the history of the American left.


I'm comfortable with the term "radical history" despite media efforts to portray atavistic forces like "radical Islamic fundamentalists" as proof of the danger that "radicalism" poses to a rational business-led global society. Speaking only for myself here, I look to a number of old favorites, after Marx, for the origins of our work: W. E. B. DuBois and my political mentor C. L. R. James, twin giants; E. P. Thompson; William Appleman Williams, and the RHR's own Herbert Gutman. Each of them provided--in scholarly texts but just as much through teaching, political writing, and personal conversation--the rationale of radical history as political practice. My good fortune in knowing them well (except, of course, for DuBois) no doubt adds to my sense of their personal example, but thousands touched by one or more of them can say the same. [End Page 81]


The first challenge of radical history in my own past was confronting the cold war (or imperial) scholars' consensus without falling back upon the simplistic monopolists-against-the-people model of the Popular Front, or the reductionist working-class-as-a-solid-mass of previous Marxist movements. The New Left historians moved in that direction, but their own overuse of "manipulation" theories (David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh were the most vulgar; we had to apologize for them to undergraduates even when we taught their writings) and dismissal of working-class life, with all its complexities, showed a lack of seriousness toward historical understanding. That said, working out better, more thorough perspectives has required good social history and great faith in the collective scholarly process.

The collapse of social movements from the middle 1970s had a delayed effect on advancing scholarship in black history, women's history and still "newer" areas of gay history, Chicano history, and so on; but eventually the effect was inevitably felt, alongside (or joined with) the deconstructionist assault on all historical usefulness. By the Reagan era, history seemingly offered less to the radical or avant-garde student than English, or still better, media studies. Theorizing, once considered the heavy-duty cerebral project of Marxists like devotees of the Frankfurt School (a good portion of them nevertheless deeply involved in activism), became a substitute for scholarship and for politics.

By the middle 1990s if not before, these modes had practically exhausted themselves or at least exhausted...


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pp. 81-84
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Archived 2004
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