Mark Greif and The Partisan Review
This is an open letter to my son, Jeremy Adelman, and a response to the article he sent me by Mark Greif’s on the history of The Partisan Review in particular and, more generally, both the character and role of the public intellectual as the phenomenon emerged over the last eighty years. (See “What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 February 2015 – http://chronicle.com/article/Whats-Wrong-With-Public/189921/)
Granted I came on board as a minor activist and quasi-public intellectual after the heyday of The Partisan Review in 1955 “when it started to lose energy.” omentary in America had taken its place as the premium read, when The New Left Review was read for thought even more distant from the mainstream, and just before The New York Review of Books began publishing. But in my university days, The Partisan Review was still a major reference for discussion, though, in Canada, we also had Canadian Forum and, in the sixties, This Magazine and Our Generation as nationalist reference points.
Quite aside from his relative youth, as well as from my age and spatial location, I am bound to have a different take on Greif’s interpretation of intellectual history in the mid-twentieth century and how that history reflects on the present. Further my comments, of necessity, will not be about his observations about The Partisan Review and whether it was “impossibly good” and retained “a taut momentum for a score of years.” Rather, they will be about Greif’s analysis and conclusions about the significance and role of pubic intellectuals, about the historical conditions that brought them into being and influenced their outlook, and about how their ideas impacted upon history and how that history was transformed by the world of ideas.
In light of your current book project, Greif’s statement that, “we don’t have convincing speculative histories or insightful accountings of the qualitative effects on ideas,” is a propos. I do not think Greif’s efforts provide an adequate sketch of the interaction between historical causes and conditions and how they affect and are affected by the world of ideas. But, at least, it is a stimulating and well-written try.
As Canadians, we had a much more modest view of the role of the public intellectual. In my recollection, we were not elitists at all. We did not adopt “a slightly superior pose.” Perhaps we were not entitled. Though we batted around and wrestled with ideas and conundrums, only a very few postured as sophisticates. Nor did we believe our work in the public sphere had the same exactitude and precision of scholars like C.B. Macpherson. Northrop Frye or even Marshall McLuhan. On the other hand, neither were we dumbing down. We were merely engaged in public life with the intellectual tools endowed by our university education. And we highly respected people like Bob Fulford, who, without such an endowment, brought into the public sphere a superior intellect, acuity of insight and rigour of argument that we all, and I mean all, admired.
Fulford never stood in opposition to the university nor did we. However, we were critical of the staid silo mentality that the professions – including the humanity and social science professions – had found for themselves. We sought university as well as public reform so that the university should become more engaged in society. This was not the same in the United States where the universities were much more diverse and many of its great public universities had a century earlier defined themselves as oriented to and focused upon problems within society rather than addressing society as a mass in need of uplifting. Thus, even though only 3% of the population in Canada at the time went to university, we were in the process of championing the university to be open to more of the population. Thus, whereas Greif saw the opposition to the university as a myth compared to the reality – the vast majority of these public intellectuals were not only products of the university, but employees of such institutions – I do not believe we were ever caught up in such a mythology. We always appreciated what the university had done for us while retaining a very critical posture.
Not all of us. Dimitri Roussopoulos in Montreal stridently stayed out of any university position. Though he attended university in Montreal and London, where he came under the influence of Bertrand Russell, I do not know if he ever got a degree. Our Generation that he founded in 1961 was a rare journal founded by the new left instead of inheriting an old left tradition. However, perhaps because it lacked that inherited historical rigour, it never emerged as having anywhere near the quality, profundity and influence of its American competitors.
Dimitri made a career of founding one movement after another, and usually taking full credit for their initiation in true anarchist trope and in contrast to the fellowship that founded the CCF and its successor, the NDP. He was a conspiratorial type and adopted a conspiratorial mien and we never knew where his funding came from for all his activities and travel. While he took sole credit for organizing the big protest in Ottawa in 1964 against Bomarc missiles in Canada, he never gave credit to the Toronto chapter that raised two-thirds of the funds to transport and feed people on that march. So there were those who defined themselves as other, and such people, such as Rick Waern, would achieve control in such institutions as Rochdale, and with their anarchism help drive them into the ground. All in all, however, these were as peripheral as the activists who stayed away from any involvement in universities as in the U.S. But we Canadians did not have the mythology that surrounded the memory of public intellectuals in the U.S.
Further, I cannot ever recall us having a sense of an uneducated mass that needed us. We knew that we were read by relatively few. And, further, the public had many other sources to influence them. We were just a very minor faction hoping to have some influence. It is not that such elitist posturing before and towards the masses could not be found. They were plentiful. The most important in Canada was perhaps the National Film Board. John Grierson, its English founder in partnership with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, was a socialist elitist who believed in agitprop, who believed in using film as propaganda to make us all aware we are Canadians while all along celebrating the common man in films like Coaltown. And he brought his message to the common man in a way none of us could aspire to – through the quality of the filmmaking, through the outreach programs to schools and communities. The message was not a sophisticated one. It totally lacked critique and was ridden though with racism and class consciousness. It was the epitome of Fabian socialism totally at odds with the view of “the equalizing power of the Great Depression” that Mark Greif describes.
How different two decades make! We were born in the later years of the Great Depression, but our lived experience was of the prosperity and enormous growth after the war. We were not levelers so much as strivers eager to stay near the top as the high tide increased everyone’s income and lifted us all. Though our family was left behind, it was seen as the fault of an irresponsible father not of a failed capitalist system. Though communism was an integral part of our milieu – Gerry Bain was a communist, David Berger was a Bundist and socialist, others in our class were conservatives (Donsky) or Liberals (Cheskes) or Labour Zionists (Ricky Rappaport) or religious (Judy Ochs). Though the class was intensely political in many varied ways, it was taken as part of our family heritage rather than as a matter of fundamental difference. So we went on the marches organized by the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO) to protest the execution of the Rosenbergs in the mistaken belief that they had been framed by anti-Semites even though most of us were not communists.
There was another major difference. Greif writes: “first-generation Jewish founders linked up with young American intellectuals, like Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, educated at Yale or Vassar, who brought in money and connections to keep the magazine afloat; PR, was launched by this combined demographic.” Though we came into the intellectual period of our lives fifteen years later, I do not believe we had any sense of a union of a WASP establishment linked with Jewish intellectuals. Rather, our predecessors like David Lewis, a Rhodes scholar and other Jewish socialists, linked up with Methodists from the British and Scottish working class movements to create a real political and public socialist party, the CCF, with such greats as Stanley Knowles and Tommy Douglas who followed the path set by Woodsworth and Coldwell and such public intellectuals as Frank Underhill and Frank Scott.
So we had a direct political entry for our activism. And Canada was a relatively small place with less than the population of New York at the time. Further, though we were not immune from its contagion, we did not go through the McCarthyism of America. Our member of parliament was J.B. (Joseph Baruch) Salsberg, a communist, and the only result was that when we undertook military duty as militias at school between 1950 and 1955, we were not allowed uniforms or guns. Premier Frost of Ontario, a small-town conservative from Lindsay, Ontario, and J.B. Salsberg remained friends throughout their lives.
Thus, America may have had the Partisan Review, but Canada had the Regina Manifesto advocating public ownership, universal healthcare, en route to eradicating capitalism. I could become involved in co-operative housing with the support of the state, for we never conceived of our activities as “revolutionary”. Another public issue peculiar to Canada dominated our lives – the English-French issue. While CBC and the NFB stayed one with two different branches, even when the NFB moved from Ottawa to Montreal, we pioneered in the development of two parallel systems. I led the Ontario delegation at the national meeting of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND) supporting developing two cooperative but different institutions working to stop nuclear testing.
I always remember how angry Dimitri Roussopoulos, the national head based in Montreal, was with me. He charged me with betrayal. But as I explained my position, when we sit around a long table as delegates from across Canada and listen to speakers who cannot speak French stating how much they do for their French colleagues in Quebec in ensuring everything was translated into French, when all the French-Canadian delegates could speak English and did not require the translation services, the arrogance and patronizing attitude of English Canadians even on the left stared us in the face.
So we had political outlets for our activism that got us out of our academic and intellectual silos. The most important in my period was the doctors’ strike in Saskatchewan when your uncle Al, and a small coterie of our close friends graduating from medical school, went out to Saskatchewan as strikebreakers and founded community medical clinics that helped break the strike.
I believe another major difference in Canada was the relationship with Europe. I think Greif is correct in characterizing Europe in the thirties as still centering the world of ideas. As he wrote, “War which pitched Europe into New Yorkers’ laps; the bulk of established European Jewish, leftist, or simply antifascist scholars and artists were on American shores, as refugees in the orbit of New York or Hollywood.” Canada received only a dribble, in part a relic of the anti-Semitic Canadian immigration policy of, “None Is Too Many.” But we did get some. They made the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto the most advanced centre of its kind in the world. Etienne Gilson, who helped found it ten years before the war broke out, was a major attraction. The Institute attracted Catholic and non-Catholic scholars from all over the world. Emil Fackenheim, a Jewish refugee from Germany interned in Canada, encouraged Gregory Baum, another German-Jewish internee, to attend. Gregory converted to Catholicism and became a leading light in the reform movement in the Catholic Church. Emil himself moved from the rabbinate in Hamilton to becoming a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto. So we had far fewer Jewish refugees and they followed a radically different trajectory.
Greif’s main thesis, however, is not about these intellectuals on the left as it is about the public they addressed. The New York intellectual scene had become Americanized. Public intellectuals then spoke to an American public. During the thirties to the sixties, the Canadian intellectual scene also became nationalized (in Québec it became provincialized.) But Canadians never saw themselves as the intellectual centre of the universe as heirs to Europe’s tradition. We just became marginal to the American centre, both participating in it and resisting its magnetic attraction and strong bear hug.
A much more important difference is that the mainstream of pubic intellectuals did not enter into the history of schismatics inherited from the Trotskyites. This was true whether the organization was the CUCND, SUPA or Praxis. The latter was the activist research centre on democracy we established in the seventies that the RCMP broke into and burned, after first sending our files to the editor of The Sun newspaper. It exemplified a Canadian trope. We not only tried to include all leftists. Canadian organizations tried to reach across the political spectrum and be inclusive rather than self-identified leftist organizations.
That also illustrated one of the fundamental paradoxes of the history of Canadian public intellectuals. We were always beholden to the state – whether it was for the mortgage provided to Rochdale College or the support the Canadian government gave to our small publishers – House of Anansi, New Press, Coach House Press, and even Demitri Roussopolus’ Black Rose Press. At the same time, the most iconic institution of the Canadian state, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, had become an organization that made the political shifty characters in the Watergate scandal. How naïve we were in how out-of-control the Mounties would become. But however bad, they never harnessed the power or role as saboteurs of dissent as the FBI, as much as the Mounties tried to emulate their American cousins. So we never lived under a dark cloud with theirs of McCarthyism and instead inherited some of America’s best who headed north to escape the underhanded methods of the American intelligence agencies.
Both American and Canadian public intellectual life, however, shared in a development that was more important than all the others: “vocational integration in which formerly independent literary arts (fiction, poetry, even cultural criticism) came to be taught as for-credit courses and degree-granting programs.” Writers, critics and activists did not have to remain outside the university to follow their muse. Though many did, like Margaret Atwood, others found a secure position in the university from which to pursue their critical and aesthetic vocations.
But one difference remained. Greif wrote re his experience with the journal N+1 that he founded. Speaking of the graduate students and young assistant professors he sought to write for the journal, “When these brilliant people contemplated writing for the ‘public,’ it seemed they merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial language with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the ‘general reader,’ seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than themselves. Writing for the public awakened the slang of mass media. The public signified fun, frothy, friendly.” In my terms, they may not have sold out to an establishment elite; they did sell out to populism, which has a much deeper strain in the American social fabric than in Canada. Our Prairie and Québecois populism was of a very different order, far less dumbed down and much more committed to the rising tide of intellectual resources and helping raise the public with that rising tide rather than via a chummy camaraderie.
The part of the story I found missing in Greif’s peace was the role public intellectuals, both in the U.S. and Canada, perform in citizens forging a common understanding of who they are – heroic winners, I believe, in Americana, and beautiful losers in the Canadian intellectual ferment. We have no illusions that the public needs us and without us would bumble and stumble. Canadian public intellectuals are simply adjuncts in the process of social change, not strident explorers marking a new path, even though Innis, McPherson, Frye and McLuhan did precisely that. Our mission was not to convert the masses to our way, as John Grierson believed, but to interact and learn as well as teach so that we all became better as a result of the exercise.
In our quest for social justice, Canadian academics and intellectuals, with some clear exceptions, have, and I believe most of us, would not view themselves as the repository of truth and virtue to be shared with the plebs and the bourgeoisie equally, We are just workers tolling in intellectual fields and do not see our task as facing off against them on farms or in factories. We do not see ourselves as marshalling our resources “against the pseudo-public culture of insipid media and dumbed-down ‘big ideas,’ and call that world what it is: stupid.” That is Greif’s most stupid idea.
So the lesson I take from Greif’s piece and my reflections upon it is not, “to participate in making ‘the public’ more brilliant, more skeptical, more disobedient, more capable of self-defense, and more dangerous again—dangerous to elites, and dangerous to stability; when it comes to education, dangerous to the idea that universities should be for the rich, rather than the public, and hostile to the creeping sense that American universities should be for the global rich rather than the local or nationally bounded polity.”
That would not be Canadian.