I enjoy opening my introductory History classes by telling the students, “I study the past because I am interested in the future.” Carl Mirra’s careful intellectual biography, covering the first half of Staughton Lynd’s adult life, reveals a scholar-activist who has constantly sought to bring the present with him into his investigations of the past, and – likewise – to bring the past with him as he seeks to envision a better future. Although this is a book about dissent and activism, its pages are populated by historians, including Howard Zinn (who wrote the Foreword), Jesse Lemisch, E.P. Thompson, C. Vann Woodward, Edmund Morgan, Eugene Genovese, John Morton Blum, and more. They didn’t all share Lynd’s views of history and politics, but they all linked activism with their own scholarly work.
Staughton Lynd recently turned 80. The present book supplements a recent collection of essays on his work, as well as memoirs by both Staughton and his wife Alice Lynd.1 Viewing Lynd’s work as a whole, one finds the links between past and present at every point. As Mirra argues in his introduction, these connections focus on the right of revolution among the oppressed (whether slaves and indentured servants in the 18th century or peasants in southern Mexico in the 21st century), the priority of human needs over property rights (from workers’ quest for the eight-hour day in the 1880s to the struggle to keep steel mills open in the 1980s), and direct democracy as the foundation of freedom (from upstate New York small farmers’ actions in the era of the American Revolution to rank-and-file steelworkers’ demands to set policy for their own unions in the face of deindustrialization).
I can illustrate Lynd’s drawing of such links from my own experience with him. In the early to mid-1990s, there was intense debate inside the American labor movement. Despite its size and resources, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions had been unable to prevent plant closings, capital flight, concessions, and the weakening of unions in the workplace. Union organizing campaigns were rarely succeeding, and elected officials were delivering little on their campaign promises. The debaters, engaging the specifics of the Hormel, Chicago Tribune, Staley, Caterpillar, and Detroit newspaper strikes, NAFTA, and the WTO, disagreed over how deep the problems went. Some contended that a new leadership group could turn things around, while others insisted that the recent crises reflected deep structural, organizational, and ideological problems. Staughton and a group of younger scholars, including me, were drawn to a similar debate in the labor movement in the early 1930s, as activists challenged the apparent inability of the AFL and its affiliates to mount an effective response to the Great Depression.
Staughton was a magnet for the eight of us, spread across the country, who had been drawn to the pre-CIO labor movement as a model for grassroots worker activism. Some of us knew each other; some did not. We had all been inspired by Lynd’s ideas of local democracy and worker empowerment, and we knew that there was something about the current crisis of the labor movement that had steered us to explore workers’ activism before the institutional and structural shifts occasioned on the one hand by the creation of the CIO and its industrial unions and, on the other, by the government-influenced apparatus initiated by the Supreme Court’s legitimation of the National Labor Relations Act in 1937. Even though he insisted that he was not the “leader” of our project or the “editor” of our book, Staughton helped construct our framework out of the specifics of each our case studies, and he articulated it in a brilliant, lengthy introduction to the resulting book.2 We all realized that the past did not provide a tidy template for contemporary activism. We were especially aware of the persistence of racism and sexism, the difficulties of maintaining democracy while moving from the local to the national level, and the challenges workers face in drawing sweeping conclusions from their own experiences. The relationship between the past and present is rich, we learned, but it is also riddled with complexities.
In The Admirable Radical, Mirra shows us how the young Staughton Lynd developed his insights through a combination of reconstructing history and engaging in movements for social change. The narrative begins with Lynd’s youthful quest for community, fraternity, and solidarity as the teen-aged son of progressive academics. At Harvard in the post-WWII years, he participated in a number of left – old left – organizations, which frustrated him even as it introduced him to Marxism and socialism. As US intervention in Korea reached a war level, he turned to Quakerism and pacifism. He sought conscientious objector status, but was drafted nonetheless and then given a dishonorable discharge (which would be changed to “honorable” in 1958). In 1954, Staughton and Alice moved to an intentional community in Macedonia, Georgia, where they explored the possibilities of building a new world within the shell of the old. But the world was changing very fast, and they chose to throw themselves back into it.
In 1959 Staughton returned to academia, pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Columbia University. While debates about racism, civil rights, the Constitution, and the expansion of democracy were heating up, Staughton was drawn to research on the American Revolution, particularly the roles played by small, “yeoman” and tenant farmers in upstate New York, as class conflict within the colonies percolated along with conflict between the colonies and the British crown. His study challenged the dominant historical interpretations of the day, as his introduction of class and, particularly, the agency of non-elites, questioned our society’s understanding of its own formative experience. His work inspired a cohort of new historians and dove-tailed with the burning issues of the rapidly growing civil rights movement. Staughton joined that movement as a professor at the historically black college, Spelman, as a participant in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and as the director, in 1964, of SNCC’s Freedom Schools in Mississippi. His academic and activist work were linked by his search for grassroots empowerment, democracy, and community, whether in upstate New York in the 1770s or the Mississippi delta of the 1960s. Mirra’s reconstruction of Lynd’s scholarly and activist projects reveals how each drew from the other, strengthening both.
At the time, however, he came under fire from both directions. Lynd was discharged from Spelman because his activism unsettled the school’s staid hierarchy, and he was marginalized in the civil rights movement as it turned toward Black Power in 1967. His determination to be true to his search for community, democracy, and popular empowerment, would lead Staughton to the exit doors of a succession of institutions, professions, political organizations, and even social movements – via blacklisting, loss of employment, and ostracism. But he continued his work, in whatever settings he could find, seeking and building community, teaching and empowering poor and working people, and conducting research which connected the past and the present. His later work would entail a shift from academia to the law, engagement with struggles for union democracy and against plant closings, and, later still, against privatized prisons, the carceral society, and the death penalty, and for prisoners’ rights.
Throughout these shifts, Staughton’s life and work continued to be informed by a clear vision: 1) the importance of understanding that the present had grown out of the past; 2) the centrality of human needs, democracy, and the right to make social change; 3) “accompaniment” as the mantra of the activist, to progress with others rather than at their head; and 4) a responsibility to mentor the ensuing generations of scholars, activists, and scholar-activists, even if one is no longer operating from within an academic institution. I am one of many who have benefited from his mentorship, and, as I mentor others, I transmit the lessons he taught me.
History Department, Macalester College
Saint Paul, Minnesota
1. From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader (New York: PM Press, 2010); Staughton and Alice Lynd, Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together (Boston: Lexington Books, 2009); Staughton Lynd, Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).
2. “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).