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The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment.

Alan M. Wald, a cultural historian who teaches at the University of Michigan, has been an activist and scholar on the Left since he came of age in the 1960s. In the introduction to his The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment (Humanities Press. 250 pp. $45.00) he offers an important answer to the question of when and how the Left went astray. Antiwar activism and other radical movements of the 1960s, he writes, not only carried on traditions of the older American Left, but also began to develop the "liberatory strains" of feminism, the nationalism of the oppressed, and lesbian and gay rights. But he adds:

"In retrospect, however, the 1960s manifestation of commitment was also retrogressive in the failure of its leading participants to construct a serious, internally democratic, coherent socialist organization with a pro-working-class perspective that could have embodied the experiences of the past and synthesized those of the present. By the end of the decade a polarization had begun. On the one hand, there were groups of self-proclaimed 'Leninist parties' that evolved at different rates into tight-knit dogmatic political sects. On the other hand, there was a general retreat from militancy accompanied by a simplistic rejection of caricatures of classical Leninism. By 1990 most of the left groups had become hermetically sealed cults, reduced to impotency. From the ex-radical apostates came tragic-comic declarations of allegiance to 'post-Marxism.'"

The twenty pieces collected in The Responsibility of Intellectuals (the title is borrowed from a justly celebrated essay by Noam Chomsky) encompass more than a decade's work and thought and cover a broad range of subject matter: individual writers, artists, and thinkers; academic controversies; historic perspectives on the Stalinist, non-Stalinist, and anti-Stalinist sectors of the Left. Wald's approach to his sometimes arcane topics is always lucid and, considering his own vigorously held views, remarkably fair, rational, and unpolluted by sectarian venom. It is not necessary to agree with all of his positions--I take strong exception to his support for movements to regulate "hate speech"--to appreciate his willingness to conduct a reasoned discourse.

Considering the varied ground Wald covers, it is remarkable how often he addresses the question with which I began this review. And the answer that emerges, consistently and, I believe, undeniably, is that the Left cannot succeed unless it adheres to the values it professes to seek: democracy within the movement, intellectual rigor, absolute candor, and faith in people. Or, as Wald puts it, a serious, coherent, democratic movement that remembers the lessons of the past.

With a little luck, we'll eventually find that kind of movement, or it will find us.
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Author:Knoll, Erwin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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