The Anxious Pilgrim

The Anxious Pilgrim

A New Left veteran who navigated the streets of 1968 and Henry Kissinger’s Harvard alike, Norman Birnbaum remains a uniquely searching voice of the democratic left.

Norman Birnbaum, 2011 (The Orwell Prize / Flickr)

From the Bronx to Oxford and Not Quite Back
by Norman Birnbaum
New Academia Publishing, 2017. 722 pp.

Norman Birnbaum’s memoir chronicles eight decades of detached engagement—if such a thing can exist—with the leading intellectual and political figures of the United States and Europe. A sociologist with extraordinary range, Birnbaum has sought to draw European traditions of critical thought into America, relentlessly tweaking the complacency that once, long ago, dominated the American scene. A progressive steeped by turns in the Marxian and liberal traditions, he can perhaps be described as one of what E.P. Thompson once called “an ‘International’ of the imagination . . . detached unequivocally from both Stalinism and from complicity with the reasons of capitalist power.”

Birnbaum’s stance was forged at Williams and Harvard, then in London and at Oxford, and onwards to Strasbourg, on France’s German border, with frequent sorties to Berlin, Paris, and Rome, back to the United States at Amherst. Along the way he had easy access to the White House, to the French elites and revolutionaries of 1968 and after, to dissident and official Germans on both sides of the Wall, to the Italian Catholics and communists, and above all to the salons and high tables of academic Britain and the United States. His memoir deflates the posturing self-importance of life at Harvard and Oxford, with astute—often admiring, sometimes icy—insight into the great brains and academic celebrities of the time.

The arch riposte is a Birnbaum specialty. For a small example, consider the East German guard who refused to admit him to East Berlin in the late days of the GDR (the reason being his habit of visiting with the dissident communities behind the Wall). “I asked him if he could tell me why I could not visit and he drew himself up to his not very impressive full height: they were not obliged to answer such questions. I excused myself fulsomely, declaring that of course I should have realized that his own rank was not high enough for him to have the answer. . . . He regained control of himself and changed his tone: ‘Bitte.’”

A bit later, Norman was at dinner at the home of the East German ambassador in Washington. He asked whether he was indeed on the sovereign territory of the GDR, and then declared his pleasure at visiting the one part of the country from which he was not barred. “The US government officials present later told me that they were prepared for a time to forgive my other transgressions.”

I have known Norman for at least thirty-five years and he knew my parents before that. I revere him, have dedicated a book to him, stay often at his house, and lap up his conversation and his hospitality. I have a blurb on the cover of this book. This review, while violating the rule that blurb-givers should not write reviews, is in the spirit of John Steinbeck, who once wrote to my father about critics: “If they haven’t got the courage to give unstinting praise, screw ’em.”

And yet, I didn’t really know Norman until reading this book. Surely there was never an autobiographer so self-effacing, so deeply unsure of his place in the world, while being at the same time so widely respected by others.

This memoir begins with a portrait of family—to his striving father sympathetic, to his mother unsparing—and of his high school in Manhattan—“I cannot say that I enjoyed Townsend Harris, since I could not enjoy anything very much”—before moving on to Williams, personal crisis, dropping out to work in New York in the Office of War Information, then ultimately back to postwar Williams and a measure of academic success, though not much in love or personal self-confidence: “it took years before I could understand that hidden beneath my ambition, bravado, desire, was the conviction that I was entitled to very little.” And yet doors kept opening: an encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt at Campobello in 1942, another with Clement Greenberg at a soirée of Partisan Review, and then to Harvard and such men as Sam Beer, Carl Kaysen, and Henry Kissinger, along with the senior sociologists of that time, above all Talcott Parsons.

For all of its occasional sparkle, Harvard combined self-assurance with conformity. Birnbaum writes, “The best, we believed, was being thought and said, at that very moment, at Harvard, and we were not given to concessions to antiquarian pretenders. . . . What I now find remarkable is the intellectual docility with which we conducted ourselves. . . . True to Harvard, we treated the possibility of criticism as an achievement and did not push it excessively.” Max Weber was “canonized;” Marx was to be disparaged or ignored.

From Harvard, on to Germany in 1952, ostensibly to research a dissertation on the Reformation, even though “all the books and journals I needed were in Harvard’s library, which was much larger than any in Germany itself. That wasn’t the point.” The point in part was to unravel the mystery of Nazism. In broader part it was to launch himself on a process of discovery and definition. What Birnbaum found in Germany had, in a fashion, continuity with Harvard: the combination of pretense and dishonesty in the service of self-justification; there were no Nazis in Germany after 1945. And yet, among the rapidly rebuilding ruins, he also finds a role model: Wolfgang Abendroth, social democrat, veteran of Nazi prisons and a penal colony on Lemnos from which he’d defected to the Greek resistance, and by that time ensconced in a chair in political science at Marburg. Of Abendroth, Birnbaum writes, “He understood the ordinariness of ordinary life, the constraints of ambition and circumstance. He also was able to laugh at pomposity and vanity, and derided the rigidity of much social convention. These were qualities I was later to find in Henri Lefebvre and Herbert Marcuse. They were all three artists, constructing a possible world out of familiar everyday materials. The humanity they imagined was far different from the one whose measure they daily took.” Much the same can be said of Norman.

From Germany, on to a demeaning assistant lectureship at the London School of Economics, in a grim, grey postwar London and the peculiar British academic setting in which “a man under forty should be too modest to write a book and one over forty too proud to need to do so.” And yet, in the monotone haze, figures of weight and influence cut through: Ernest Gellner, Ralf Dahrendorf, Eric Hobsbawm, Ralph Miliband. A project to “modernize Marxism” took shape, in a “not quite invisible and certainly not inaudible large international college,” freed not only from the “matter-of-fact” shackles of British social thought, but also from the “unbounded flight of American fancy, with its imperial description of the US as the new master of all space and time.” The project included journals such as the New Left Review (of which Birnbaum was a founding editor) and the creation of a sociology for the postwar era. When asked at one point why he felt qualified to teach the new sociology curriculum at Oxford, Birnbaum responded that, perhaps, it was because he’d written it himself. Yet, later on, he found himself “prisoner of the categories of a critical sociology”; this ambivalence never quite goes away.

An example of the “unbounded flight” comes on a summer visit to the United States:

Harvard had money to invite an eminent European to lecture for a year. I was asked by an assistant to McGeorge Bundy, then the provost, for suggestions: I suggested Sartre. My interlocutor, Michael Maccoby, objected that Sartre did not speak English. Since no one at Harvard would admit to not knowing French, I replied, his lectures would be even more crowded. Maccoby intimated that Sartre’s political views might be an obstacle; he was not in the forefront of the Atlanticist party in Europe. Even better, I suggested; it would be an American gesture toward the Europeans. Maccoby . . . drew himself upright: “Harvard doesn’t make gestures.”

Along the way, we get capsule profiles of the emerging world of intellectual journalism. “Partisan Review maintained a good deal of its generalized aggressiveness and permanent sense of indignation. Capitalism was no longer the problem . . . the trouble is that it wasn’t being spent on the right sort of cultural goods.” “Dissent was the work of unreconciled American progressives . . . of obdurate democratic socialists.” “Commentary could not escape the question, ‘Is it good for the Jews?’” When an article by Dwight MacDonald critical of the United States was refused at Encounter, Birnbaum penned an open letter asking where the Congress for Cultural Freedom got its funding. “I was not the first to do so and my own record was not impeccable. I had published an article in Encounter in 1958 . . . and however small the fee, was a beneficiary of whatever funding the Congress had.” The question remained unanswered until 1967, when the hand of the CIA was finally exposed.

Having gained tenure at LSE, Birnbaum went on to Oxford once again taking an the job on unfavorable terms. Oxford, suffice to say, was Harvard writ large and ancient, an “academic Disneyland” whose routine business was to educate the ruling class. It was (needless to say) a terrible place for women, especially for faculty wives, who were left alone and could not even have “adventures”—it was said, because all the men were “in college.” His career at Oxford was doomed in part by Isaiah Berlin, who made promises he did not keep. “Isaiah had a reputation as a sage . . . whose wisdom included moral dimensions which went well beyond his intellectual capacities and scholarly achievements. These last were certainly very large. As for his larger humanity, a certain amount of doubt strikes me as justified.”

Back in the United States, Birnbaum went to Amherst, and the story becomes at least as political as academic. It was the fall of 1968. The American ruling class was represented at Amherst by the chair of its Board of Trustees, John J. McCloy, chairman of Chase Bank and the Council on Foreign Relations, leader of the Establishment: “The Chairman,” in Richard Rovere’s memorable phrase. Of that class Birnbaum wrote at the time, “It was incompetent: who else could win an empire and set about, as in Vietnam, losing it? It was murderously hypocritical. And finally, unlike its British counterparts, it lacked manners and style; one did not usually insult those one wished to have as diligent servants.” McCloy demanded an apology from Amherst and Birnbaum, failed to get one, and shortly resigned from the college’s board. The Vietnam war, the McGovern campaign, Richard Nixon came and went. Eventually Amherst played out, and Birnbaum came on to Washington and to Georgetown, where he remains, a sentinel of democratic socialism in an imperial capital beset by intellectual and moral decay.

Norman’s enduring international connections spanned East and West in the period of late communism, and his political commitments preserve an equal distance from the capitalism of Reagan and the state socialism of Brezhnev or (worse) Honecker. He would visit Budapest, for instance, to see György Lukács, who had survived 1956, possibly because he had Western connections, but also, possibly, because “they might have decided his exceedingly dense prose would bring no one onto the streets.” He retells an old story of the Polish communist leader Gomulka’s release from prison: the good news from his comrades was that he would be released; the bad news, that he was now General Secretary of the Party.

Throughout these tales and vignettes, Birnbaum’s appreciation of the complexities of the political and social life of other places, gained first perhaps as a Jewish American in early postwar Germany, remain with him. One is left with the question posed in a Munich cartoon in 1989, of two East German border guards peering at the Wall through binoculars: “Get a load of that bearded demonstrator over there. Is he on their side, and a courageous friend of peace? Or is he on ours, and a dangerous enemy of the state?”

The answer in Norman Birnbaum’s case, of course, is: both.


James K. Galbraith is the author of Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe and of Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know. He teaches at The University of Texas at Austin.


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