Lewis Coser: 1913-2003

Lewis Coser: 1913-2003

Lewis Coser, who died July 8 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the last of an intellectual generation. This is true in the literal sense that he, along with Irving Howe, Stanley Plastrik, and a small nucleus of others, invented this magazine and put out its first edition in the McCarthy-dominated-America of 1954. More broadly, Lew was a preeminent representative of a social type that has since become something of an endangered species in America-a scholar who was also a public intellectual, a social commentator endowed with both enormous scholarly depth and authentic political passion.

Lew was born in Berlin. His father was a wealthy Jewish industrialist, his mother an upper-class Protestant. These differences seemed to have produced a contentious family-and to have set the stage for a life in which conflict and ambivalence were a leitmotif. Lew upped the ante of contention by embracing radical politics-further roiling his relationship with his father, becoming something of a celebrity in left-wing circles in his early youth, and accordingly having to flee Germany in 1933 to escape the attentions of the Nazis.

He went to Paris, where he seems to have lived from hand to mouth, insecure economically yet immersed in the incredibly rich political and intellectual culture of the inter-war years. I remember his anecdotes of figures like Nicolai Bukharin and Arthur Koestler, Marcel Mauss, and many others. Escaping again from the Germans under the occupation, he made his way at the last possible moment to the United States, where he married Rose Laub, later also active with Dissent.

For ten years or so after coming to the United States in 1941, Lew once told me, he supported himself largely as a “left-wing journalist.” In the fifties, he enrolled as a graduate student in sociology at Columbia University, taking his Ph.D. at the age of forty-one. By that time, he had already experienced at first hand some of the greatest extremes that twentieth-century history had to offer, and none of that experience was lost on him. He had become what he remained: a socialist in economic matters, a defender of democratic principles in politics, an enemy of conservative and centrist complacency in the face of human suffering and of left-wing apologists for totalitarian practice.

Perhaps it was this extended period of living through history and supporting himself by his freelance talents that forestalled Lew’s becoming a conventional academic. Like the other founders of Dissent, he always remained a generalist. It was axiomatic to him that to be an intellectual meant developing and proceeding from a coherent worldview, which one would then apply, with imagination and flair, to virtually any subject matter. It was this sense of being a whole thinker, a minister without portfolio, that distinguished him from academic writers who viewed themselves as expert practicioners of circumscribed specialties. Lik...