The Marching Saint

The Marching Saint

Staughton Lynd, although he would never admit it, is one of the visible saints of the modern American left.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

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).

Lynd was too trusting to see that he had thereby baited a trap for himself. Yale’s liberal historians as much as its conservatives made sure he wouldn’t get tenure. We can’t identify the exact sources here, although poison-pen letters were the favorite reward for New Leftish professors, but clearly someone made sure that the provocative teacher-author wouldn’t get a professorship again. Lynd found himself at a professorial dead end in Chicago, so he made an unanticipated turn toward labor and the law.

At first, he threw himself into the memorable effort of rediscovering the rank-and-file histories of Indiana steelworkers in the early C.I.O. era, before the unions became stultifyingly bureaucratic. A few years later, he shifted his base to northeast Ohio, himself becoming part of labor’s saga. He made his stand there for twenty years, legal aide-de-camp to every struggle for the revival of union democracy and against the lethal deindustrialization of the regional Rust Belt.

Living Inside Our Hope (the title is taken from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams) is above all a rumination on the connectedness of all these experiences. Looking at its cover, a famous sixties photo of Lynd, David Dellinger and Robert Moses splattered with red paint but marching undeterred on Congress (and singing!), we know that Lynd is going to bear witness in every essay on every page. He is still the careful scholar, but scholarship cannot confine him.

Lynd makes a key point, too often lost on both the revolutionary Marxist and the social democratic left–that the participation of ordinary folks in the decisions of their movements is finally determinant. Their actions push those movements forward to new levels of collective power–or they collapse into bureaucratic inertia and power-mongering. Characteristically, he insists that veterans of the thirties and forties upsurges, drawing common-sense conclusions from their own experiences, provided the insight that transformed his understanding of American class dynamics.

Although he does not say so, several of Lynd’s inspiring rank-and-filers had been collaborators in the forties with the Marxist dialectician (and Pan-African historian) C.L.R. James, who devoted great philosophical energies to analyzing the triumph of bureaucratic elites both East and West. But one feels that Lynd would somehow have reached the same point on his own. His Quaker radicalism, taken to its logical conclusion in the blue-collar communities of the seventies through the nineties, demanded nothing less.

Living Inside Our Hope traces the ongoing struggle around Youngstown and Pittsburgh to redefine community and its possibilities. Lynd told earlier of meeting the English peacenik historian E.P. Thompson, who impressed the young scholar with the necessity of understanding the law’s double edge. Property owners used it against ordinary people; but English common law and our constitutional system, in various ways, also marked the constant negotiation between the weak and the powerful.

Joined by retirement-age activists and the bishop of the Youngstown diocese (and even by Msgr. Charles Owen Rice, who had once been the champion redbaiter for the C.I.O.’s bureaucratic conservatives), Lynd urged community takeovers of failing plants. From an organizing standpoint, the results were often spectacular: Part of the hidden history of the seventies and eighties can be found in mobilizations that staged parades, sold sweatshirts, mounted legal challenges and united working-class groups in ways they had not been since the early C.I.O. At the end of a Palm Sunday 1987 service in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, the Lynds joined hundreds of others carrying palms from St. Titus Church to the gates of the L.T.V. Corporation. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that had made the Wagner Act secure as law.

The cards were stacked against any populist outcome. What steeltown politicians and businessmen were demanding of the federal government was not funds for restarting production or renovating the decayed urban infrastructure but for building new prisons, the real make-work of the eighties. And the unions themselves were led at the highest levels by cold warriors who had abandoned the domestic agenda, and at the middle levels by officials willing to trade the rights of younger workers for decent pensions and slightly delayed plant shutdowns. As Lawrence Weschler noted in The New Yorker, the direct action and intimate democracy of Poland’s Solidarity in its early days–an inspiration for Lynd and his Ohio comrades–was the last thing most U.S. labor leaders wanted to see at home.

If Lynd’s arguments do not always convince, it’s because the weight of history is so much against his kind of democracy, within the left almost as much as outside it. Ordinary Socialists, Communists, even Wobblies (one of Lynd’s favorite examples), as well as feminists, civil rights activists and New Leftists have often craved powerful and charismatic leaders to represent them, or simply wanted any leadership that could get past incessant internal squabbles. We are not so morally strong as Lynd wishes us to be. Nevertheless, his example, at once political, intellectual and even spiritual, continues to inspire. Staughton Lynd is the proof of his own words, and no others can expect to live better than that inside their own hope.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy
x