I MET John Patrick Diggins (aka “Jack”) only once. It was at the Century Club, and my publisher had lined up a meeting with Diggins and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I remember barely hearing a word that Schlesinger was saying to me, across the big wooden table and amidst the numerous conversations spinning around.
But I remember Diggins turning to me with a glass of wine in his hand and inquiring, “You’re a writer and you’re not going to have a drink?” I bashfully told him that I had a book talk to give and that the drinking would occur afterwards, thinking we might meet up again after the talk. He shrugged and took another sip. We unfortunately didn’t meet again that evening.
DIGGINS IS featured on Dissent’s about page. This makes sense: he was perhaps our best-known intellectual historian, and one who paid special attention to the left. But that is not all that made him amazing. He was a rarity in the history profession, not just for taking ideas seriously but also for ranging and roving through the American past. In our day and age of specialization, Diggins was an anomaly–and because of that refreshing.
I have before me a copy of The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (1984). As I reread it, I am overwhelmed. The book covers the usual suspects: writers from antiquity, John Locke, figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, and numerous political thinkers during the American Revolution and the writing and debating over the Constitution. But then Diggins leaps and bounds through the thought of John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, Andrew Jackson, the Whig intellectuals, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Herman Melville, and Abraham Lincoln.
The work becomes dizzying at moments. Sometimes there’s the inevitable weakness of a thematic book trucking its way through figures who deserve a more thorough treatment on their own grounds. But mostly there are enormous insights about the theme of virtue and why classical language dropped out of American public rhetoric. At core, the book asks probing questions about squaring individualism and civic virtue, materialism with public-mindedness. And it does so with a playfulness of mind that is rare among historians.
Consider Diggins’s oeuvre. The man wrote entire books about Thorstein Veblen, Max Weber, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Eugene O’Neill, and Ronald Reagan. Plus, books on Italian fascism in America, conservative intellectuals, the “proud decades” in American history right after the Second World War, and pragmatism. His fluency in ideas and his willingness to play with them is what made Diggins such an impressive writer and so prodigious.
The book that Dissent readers should go back to now is The Rise and Fall of the American Left. Here Diggins gallops through the “lyrical left”—especially figures like Max Eastman and John Reed—before turning to the brief history of American socialism and the dawn of the “Old Left.” Coming upon the mid-century, he tells the familiar story about the “deradicalization of intellectuals,” including an insightful comment about Irving Howe, who “gave way to a feeling for the moral complexities of political action and the structural complexities of political power.”
Diggins has little good to say about the New Left in The Rise and Fall of the American Left. He dismisses it as utopian; its “naïve ideal” of “participatory democracy” is too rosy for his own more chastened views about human nature. He sees little merit—and here he is certainly right—in the romantic social theory of Herbert Marcuse.
If Diggins is tough on the New Left, he is even tougher on the “academic left” that followed. He derides the trendy ideas of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. For him it is baffling how “the Academic Left was the first Left in American or European history to distrust the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.” In response to attacks on “logocentrism,” Diggins counterposes his own version of “skeptical Enlightenment,” the principle of holding onto rationalism without overvaluing its ability to direct human affairs. It is an enticing conclusion to a book that has traveled so much ground and that has watched the left move from the party of rationalism to the party of post-structuralism.
Diggins himself was not a man whose values were completely in synch with the left. He was, like the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, “in the middle.” He was “critical of the anticapitalist Left for seeing in the abolition of property an end to oppression” but also “critical of the antigovernment Right for seeing in the elimination of political authority the end of tyranny and the restoration of liberty.” That wasn’t a bad place to be, when you think about it.
Yet, Diggins didn’t reject the left’s project, and, at times, he sounded as if he was transmitting the spiritual lesson of Dissent’s founder, Irving Howe:
The Left’s saving remnant is the tension between its promises and its failures. It may be that the failures are inherent in its promises, particularly if one sees the goals of the Left as impossible to realize. At this point the temptation arises to taunt the Left with the label ‘utopian,’ pinned on those who are supposedly out of touch with reality. Yet striving after another world in defiance of reality is the Left’s categorical imperative. One might say of members of the Left what Reinhold Niebuhr said of the fate of moral man and woman in immoral society: they must seek after an ‘impossible victory’ and adjust themselves to an ‘inevitable defeat.’ No matter how often defeated, the American Left was born to seek and struggle.
WHEN I got news of Diggins’s death, I thought, damn, I never got to have that drink with him. A friend of mine who knew him well emailed me when Diggins had passed away, and we both toasted his memory over the internet. It wasn’t the same as hearing the man take another sip of Chardonnay and discourse on Dewey, Weber, and Foucault in one breath. His was, as a biographer of Emerson once put it, a “mind on fire.” For that and more, he will be missed.
Kevin Mattson is on the editorial board of Dissent and is author, most recently, of Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America.