Remembering Frank Rosengarten

1. Michael E. Brown

Frank Rosengarten and I were colleagues at Queens College from 1967 until his early retirement, which I remember asking him to reconsider in the light of what he had to offer students. By then, however, he was uncomfortable teaching and had a number of projects that he needed time to develop and complete, and I am sure that there were family considerations as well. Frank and I got to know each other during the sit-ins of 1967-69 at Queens. Both of us spoke often at meetings of students and faculty. I believe that it was at the end of the sixties that Frank interviewed me for an Italian newspaper as someone he considered to be an activist of the New Left. The result used two full pages of the newspaper, and when I look back on what I said about what inspired me as an activist, I realize that knowing Frank in the subsequent years helped my view of left politics to mature, or at least I hope it did. I was struck by his productive ambivalence toward the Communist left in the US, and by his attempt to reconcile his own political interests and dispositions with those on the left with whom he had differences of opinion. He was willing to work with them because his conception of a left was broad enough to sustain what Castoriadis referred to as the “revolutionary perspective.”

I remember going to a convention of the Socialist Workers Party in the late ‘70s. While I was impressed with the discussions, and found them more informed, more complex, and in some ways more open and interesting than what I saw in various meetings of the CPUSA (which I occasionally attended with friends who had remained members), I remained convinced that there were many ways of realizing a socialist vision and that the history of the CPUSA was part of all of our history and not something to be dismissed as “the old left” as my friends and comrades in SDS described it (often somewhat lovingly at any rate). I was more favorably disposed to the Russian Revolution and its long aftermath than Frank, and our discussions always left me with a greater understanding of the usefulness of ambivalence on the Left.

When we began the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy, and started publishing the journal in the form of a newsletter, we thought of it as far more limited and local than it turned out to be. When we expanded it to the form of a journal, our first aim was to publish different points of view on the left, views we might have disagreed with but felt should be part of the general discussion. Our second aim was to consider methodological and theoretical problems intrinsic to the continuing debate over the Russian Revolution and the history of American Communism. Thanks to Frank’s willingness to devote an enormous amount of time to building Socialism and Democracy, we found ourselves with a fine group of board members and with regular correspondents from around the world. Randy Martin and George Snedeker eventually joined us and helped assemble the papers given at our conference on the history of the CPUSA. The book we edited is still in print and remains one of the important contributions to the literature on American communism.1

Between meetings and the work involved in assembling the issues of the journal, acquiring mailing lists, and mailing it, Frank and I put in what, in retrospect, was an incredible amount of time and energy. Frank was deeply involved in everything that appeared in the journal. The two of us wrote many introductory essays to issues, and always tried to sustain a sense of dialogue on the left rather than promoting a specific line. Still, we had our own way of understanding the left, and articles written by Frank, me, and Randy reflected both our differences and how we reconciled those differences. Frank was a generous colleague, willing to discuss issues on the left at a moment’s notice and with a thoroughness that one finds in all his scholarly work, which was itself of considerable importance in various areas of study. Frank was not only generous and tremendously hardworking; he was creative and able to reach out to others so that Socialism and Democracy gained a reputation as an important interdisciplinary journal of the Left.|

When Marie and I moved to Boston, and Frank could no longer support the journal primarily on his own, it seemed that that chapter was over. However, John McDermott called me and suggested renewing the journal in the Boston area, which we were able to do with the help of Victor Wallis, who eventually became its executive editor. As one would have expected, the change in personnel led to a change in content and focus. Under Victor, the journal has continued to be important and its influence has expanded.

Frank later rejoined the journal, but as a participant rather than an editor, and he was supportive of the new direction. Frank was a model of a left thinker who was always willing to listen to the ideas of those who differed profoundly with him. I found the few times I heard him speak to audiences about political issues inspiring because he was so thorough in his preparation, so modest and open in the ways in which he developed arguments in favor of and potentially critical of his own point of view, and so respectful of the other speakers – some of whom were occasionally quite disrespectful toward him. Students lucky enough to have attended those events learned, I believe, how to be a serious thinker and yet never take one’s mind off the most fundamental ideas at the heart of the left project. Like so many others, I miss Frank as a good friend, a colleague, and an exemplary thinker and humanist in the best sense of the term.

2. George Snedeker

The first time I met Frank Rosengarten was in 1982 when he came to a talk I gave at the CUNY Graduate Center about E.P. Thompson’s theory of culture. Frank showed an interest in my remarks and asked several thoughtful questions. He and Mike Brown had recently founded the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy (RGSD) in the sociology department of the Graduate Center. They invited me, along with several other graduate students, to become involved with the RGSD, which began publishing Socialism and Democracy in 1985, with Frank and Mike as its first editors.

Frank and I became friends, and he participated in several study groups which met at my apartment. One of these focused on the history of the Communist Party USA. In 1989, largely upon Frank’s suggestion, the RGSD organized a conference on the history of the CPUSA. The focus of the conference was on the revisionist historiography of Communism that was then being produced by a new generation of historians and sociologists. The book we edited, New Studies in the Culture and Politics of U.S. Communism, was widely reviewed and is still in print.

Frank was very supportive of my scholarly work. After reading my article about the radical black sociologist Oliver C. Cox called, “Race, Class and the Struggle for Democracy,” he suggested that I submit it to S&D, where it was published in 1988 (a revised version appears in my book, The Politics of Critical Theory). Frank’s editorial comments were always helpful to me. It was easy to see that he had read my essays with great care.

Frank read my satirical novel, The Cutting Edge (published under the pen name David Lansky). He told me that he enjoyed my criticisms of contemporary college life as well as my sense of humor. He laughed as he said this. Frank had a great love of literature. He was always telling me that sociologists should read more novels to get a broader understanding of society.

Frank believed strongly in the values of liberal humanism. His commitment to the goal of achieving a socialist society was grounded in a belief in liberty, equality and democracy. He was confident that creating a socialist society was possible. He believed that the choice we face is between socialism and barbarism.

During one of our last phone conversations, Frank and I discussed his review of Lawrence Friedman’s biography of Erich Fromm (in this issue of S&D). Frank told me that he greatly enjoyed the biography, particularly its discussion of Fromm’s participation in the Frankfurt School research project on German fascism – comparing middle- and working-class families, with a focus on the role of the authoritarian personality in Hitler’s rise to power. Erich Fromm became one of the most important public intellectuals in post-war America. Like Fromm, Rosengarten was a socialist humanist.

Recent developments in social theory was one of Frank’s major interests. His intellectual curiosity led him to consider new ideas on the nexus between the personal and the global dimensions of capitalism. I never understood how Frank could get so much work done. He produced one book after the other: from Proust to Gramsci to C.L.R. James to the Italian poet and philosopher Leopardi. Frank was a Renaissance Man. He seemed to have an endless supply of energy. After his retirement from teaching, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program in French at the CUNY Graduate Center where he wrote a dissertation on Proust’s early writings. He had a particular interest in the novel as an expression of culture.

Frank’s scholarly work as an Italianist focused on the struggle against Fascism. It would be an understatement to say that his intellectual interests and scholarship were wide-ranging. I read his book on Proust as well as his innovative study of C.L.R. James. Both were well researched and carefully written.

Frank Rosengarten was one of the most generous people I have ever known. His death was a great loss to me, as I’m sure it was to everyone who had the good fortune to know and work with him.

1. New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993).

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