When Barrington Moore, Jr., died October 16 at age ninety-two, I remembered the mandatory meetings for coffee he scheduled with students at the place he called “the greasy spoon down the block” in Harvard Square. At the time—1966 and 1967—I had enrolled in his graduate seminars in the Harvard Government Department. He was tall and gaunt, and looked stern and humorless; we were all deeply intimidated by his knowledge of the history of pretty much everything. His new book, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, dealt with the histories of the United States, England, France, Russia, China, and India—displaying a breadth and depth that inspired awe.
He seemed to personify the life of the mind. But the spirit of the sixties had somehow reached him, and he wanted to know more about what his students were thinking and doing. So he invited us to have coffee with him after class. We were divided into small groups and assigned different days—by his secretary, Rose deBenedetto—and we understood that attendance was required.
Around the table at the University Restaurant, our goal was to find out more about this austere figure. We learned he was best friends with Herbert Marcuse—an odd couple if ever there was one. He told us he went skiing every winter at Alta. I had never heard of Alta, but he said the snow was driest there, and he liked the way everybody ate dinner at one big communal table, including Robert McNamara and his kids. We learned that Moore sailed his own boat all summer off the coast of Maine with his wife and a big pile of books. We noticed that it didn’t seem to occur to him that he should be organizing against the war door-to-door in East Cambridge over the summer. Clearly, he led an old-fashioned, upper-class WASP kind of life—except for the thinking and the writing.
In his seminars, he wanted us to think and write about the possibilities and limits of revolution and democracy. He said we needed to read Karl Marx, but also Max Weber. We needed to learn about the roots of fascism. He wanted us to consider the potential of violence to bring about an increase in freedom. He wanted us to weigh that potential against the often-forgotten everyday violence of the status quo. For young Harvard New Leftists, nothing could have been more intellectually thrilling. And so we stayed up late studying the revolutions of seventeenth-century England, eighteenth-century France, and twentieth-century Russia and China. And, with him, we tried to figure out what kind of transformation was possible, and what was impossible, in 1960s America.
At a time when we were obsessed with the necessity for action, he shamelessly advocated the life of the mind. He was explicit about this, openly defying Marx’s dictum in the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: the task, Moore told us, was “to understand the world.” That was a full-time job, and it would take everything we had. We shouldn’t have been s...
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