Staughton Lynd, although he would never admit it, is one of the visible saints of the modern American left. His life has been full of the determined idealism, small kindnesses and self-abnegation that recall Catholic Worker Dorothy Day even better than Socialist Eugene Debs. What in the world is he doing in a thoroughly unsaintly American labor movement?
Working-class radicalism was hardly Lynd’s first choice. The son of Middletown sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd, the young radical Staughton turned to Quakerism, favorite faith a century earlier of the abolitionists and women’s rights pioneers. In 1954, abandoning graduate school, he and his wife, Alice, joined an intentional community of voluntary poverty, the Macedonia Cooperative in northeast Georgia. Lynd claims this three-year stint of physical exertion, collective decision by consensus (rather than voting), and spiritual contemplation made him what he has become.
Lynd’s autobiographical essays in Living Inside Our Hope pass modestly over an early learning experience. The cold war’s political fallout left Manhattan grass-roots housing advocates disorganized just as New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses unveiled assorted monstrous schemes (including a four-lane highway through Washington Square). Social worker Lynd and activist Jane Benedict successfully joined Jane Jacobs and Eleanor Roosevelt to prevent the worst, while bridging the gap between the forties and the sixties, between the Old and New Left.
The real bridge was, of course, civil rights. Leaving graduate school again in 1961, Lynd headed south to teach at Spelman College, where Alice Walker was one of his students. In 1964 he became director of the Freedom Schools during Mississippi Freedom Summer, plunging into SNCC’s internal conflicts at the same time as the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. His deeply personal reconstruction of these events brings back the intensity of the moment.
Perhaps because so much contemporary neoliberal commentary has aimed at co-opting Martin Luther King Jr. to discredit his anticapitalist impulses, the radicalism of nonviolence, American-style, has been lost. (Garland Press’s recently published but little-noticed Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action From ACT-UP to Women’s Suffrage should be in every radical’s library.) In its moral power, its ethos of rejecting the ethics of the profit system as well as the power of the state, nonviolence was the kernel of almost everything good in the New Left. No one, save King himself, seemed to live and breathe it better than Staughton Lynd.
Returning from the South, by now a serious scholar of politics in America’s revolutionary era, Lynd apparently had a brilliant academic career ahead at Yale. Thousands of undergraduates and townsfolk, including college chaplain Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., heard him speak of his trip to Hanoi in 1965-66. His fifth book, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1969)–condemning the legacy of expansionism under all-powerful leaders as self-destructive rather than a proof of national virtue–was the scholarly-political-generational answer to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s cold war classic The Vital Center (1949).