Remembering Murray Hausknecht, 1925-2012

Remembering Murray Hausknecht, 1925-2012

His commentary was sharp, as much of Dissent is, but I always imagined him writing with a smile on his face, while many of our other writers write with grim determination.

If Murray was working on a piece for Dissent in his last weeks, it would have been his sixty-third contribution to the magazine—and he also wrote five times for the website. Horst Brand, who died only a short time before Murray, was working on his fifty-seventh magazine piece. Murray may have written more often than anyone else—though I am up there too. For all of us, Dissent has provided the space for what Irving Howe, retelling an old Yiddish joke, called “steady work.” Left-wing politics is steady work.

It certainly was that for Murray, whose first article appeared in Dissent’s third issue, in the Summer of 1954. It was called “The Politics of the Lie Detector”—a response to Joe McCarthy’s demand that government employees submit to lie detector tests and an early warning against the repressive uses of technology. That first title was like many of his others: “Hard Hearts and Empty Heads,” “Gorillas…and Real He-Men,” “Informers and Other Villains”—and, more recently, “Sex, Viagra, and Taxes.” A lot of Murray’s articles were short, sly, ironic commentaries on contemporary social life. He wrote witty pieces in a magazine not as marked for wit as we would like. His commentary was sharp, as much of Dissent is, but I always imagined him writing with a smile on his face, while many of our other writers write with grim determination.

I learn from Murray’s daughter Gina that in high school and college he went to meetings of the Young Communist League, the Young People’s Socialist League, and, later, different Trotskyist groups. That suggests, it seems to me, an admirable open-mindedness, though some stalwart members of those organizations would probably have accused him of political promiscuity. In the army in the ‘40s, he became skeptical of Popular Front politics, and after the war he distanced himself from the Communist Party, politically, and from Marxism-Leninism, intellectually. I am not sure how he came to Dissent in that first year, almost sixty years ago—probably through Bernie Rosenberg, a fellow sociologist. Murray wrote a piece for Dissent after Bernie’s death in 1996, remembering his friend as someone “always in opposition.” But I am sure that he would have found us on his own. He was a natural dissentnik, hostile to every conservative defense of hierarchy and inequality and never taken in by pseudo-left apologies for authoritarianism and terror.

Steady work requires moral steadiness, and in his steadiness, Murray was exemplary. Those sixty-two articles are matched by even more editorial board meetings. That’s where I knew Murray; he was always there, and in the years after Irving’s death in 1993, when much of the burden of the magazine fell on me, I was deeply grateful for his presence. He knew what we should be saying, and he helped us say it. All of us at Dissent will remember him as a smart, generous, humorous, and faithful colleague and—he would not want me to omit this—a comrade.

-Michael Walzer

My friendship with Murray (“Butch”) Hausknecht spanned a period of well over seventy years. We met in high school and quickly became friends as part of a larger group consisting of four teenagers.

We were a very serious group of boys with interests in the nature of American society—particularly the Depression as a consequence of a capitalist economy; with interests in the unfolding events on the international scene—the rise of fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany; and in particular with interests in how to make our society a better society, politically, economically, and socially. In many ways our basic values as intellectuals and socially concerned individuals were shaped in this group.

After the war, when we were confronted with making occupational decisions, the members of the group strongly influenced each other. Three of us decided to go into sociology and one into clinical psychology(one of the sociologists subsequently went into physics). Our occupational decisions reflected our strong social concerns with “making this a better world.”

In 1949 I left New York and my contacts with Butch became sporadic. However, whenever I visited New York and got together with Butch and another group member, our common intellectual interests were always quickly reactivated, and our intellectual exchanges were exciting. Our group was still there.

I remember one of my final meetings with Butch. It was in 2007, and I was in New York to receive an award. I was sitting in the hall waiting for the ceremony to begin and strangely feeling quite alone. My parents were long gone as was my sister and her family. Suddenly I looked up and saw Butch coming into the hall. I was so pleased and I ran up and hugged him. “Butch, I never expected to see you here.” “What did you expect, Joe? It is a friend’s pleasure to share such an occasion with a friend.” Butch had enabled me to make an important connection with my intellectual roots.

Butch’s intellectual interests and strong social concerns were there throughout the years. I admired him and always felt that I had a real friend in him. Through his teaching, writings, and intellectual inquiries, he contributed to that “better world.”

I am happy that I knew him and I will miss him. He was a very special person, indeed.

-Joseph Berger

About eighty years ago, when Murray Hausknecht was a little boy in East New York in Brooklyn, the nickname “Butch” would be given to a kid who was tough, dissatisfied, and not easily appeased. And so Murray got this nickname, which stayed with him throughout his life. If you knew Murray as a sociology professor, or as a political science writer, or as an editor, then “Murray” was how you thought of him. But if you knew him in your elementary school years, or in the family, then “Butch” he was.

In the years before we got involved in the Second World War, before and during his early teens, Butch was thinking about what was wrong with the world, whose fault it was, and how to fix it. He scorned the little compromises that were being offered to ease the country’s severe economic depression; he tried out for size the more radical ideas for dealing with international conflict. He thought about the gap between rich and poor; he pondered the Oxford Peace movement, the Communist Party in Brooklyn, Stalin’s party discipline, Trotsky, the labor movement, Max Schachtman. And also, the draft into the military. And with his friends, just as he got into high school, he experimented with writing as a way of expressing himself, as a way of communicating artistically and also politically. He was proud of being one in the cluster of adolescents who formed an exclusive intellectual group they called the HOPPS—the Holy Order of the Pencil Pushers.

He was an excellent student, so it was no surprise that following his draft into the army he was placed in ASTP (the Army Specialized Training Program), where bright young soldiers would be trained in special academic skills. But the timing was bad; he was soon shifted to a combat-ready unit and sent to Europe. Before his rebellious tart tongue could get him into trouble, his friend Joe Berger, a lieutenant in a nearby army unit, got him transferred to Joe’s own unit, Intelligence, and kept his “Butch-ness” from getting him into trouble. Two of the friends from Brooklyn were killed in action in Europe: Henry Falk in Italy, and Calvin Brody in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, the ex-high school boys reconnected. They reviewed their war experiences and explored what the new emerging world was about. And then they went off to colleges around the nation.

The writing urge stayed with Butch his whole life. Even after he retired, his time was regulated so that his friends knew he was busy much of the time, both in the library and at his keyboard at home. And his friends knew that he was occasionally pleased to have a letter printed in the Times, or even an item about New York City culture in Monday’s column about daily life in the city. And he was most proud of his items in Dissent (where better would a “Butch” fit?) and of his contributing editorship there.

Lately, he confided that he was writing some memoir material. “For my grandkids,” he explained; he was writing “Answers to questions not yet asked.” Elana and Jesse have some good reading ahead of them.

At the very end of his life, literally in the last few hours of his ability to arrange and speak words in a sentence, Butch put his toughness aside and asked me to listen to two sentiments he had. First, he wanted me to know he appreciated my wife Dotty and I driving his wife Ellen and him to our first married abode, so we could watch “low-class” TV on our new small black-and-white TV set. At that time, all young intellectuals scorned TV-watching as below their standards. Now, as conscious life ebbed away, Butch wanted Dotty and me to know he really enjoyed it.

More important, Butch wanted to put aside his “Butchness”—his intellectual toughness–and urge me to call Joe Berger. “Tell Joe” he said, struggling to get out this important feeling, “tell Joe I appreciated his taking care of me during the war.” Joe had known that Butch’s unit would almost certainly be sent into combat.

The next day, when I walked into his apartment across the street from my own home, Ellen said Butch wanted to talk to me. It was even harder for Butch to form a sentence. Had I reached Joe? Yes, I had, and Joe sends his caring and love. Ellen wanted to know: did I answer whatever it was that was disturbing Butch? He nodded and slapped his hand down affirmatively and with finality, and maybe with a smile.

As a dignified sociology professor, the nickname “Butch” was not regularly bandied about Lehman College’s halls, but his childhood friends never stopped using “Butch” even though there were times when it felt a little inappropriate. It remained true to him. One doesn’t mollify a Butch easily. But with Butch at one’s side, many of life’s years were made interesting, entertaining, and secure. We are already missing Butch.

-Milton Wilner

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