An appreciation of Seymour Martin Lipset
by John Richards
John Richards is co-publisher of Inroads. He was a member of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly from 1971 to 1975. This article was initially published as a chapter in David Smith, ed., Lipset’s Agrarian Socialism: A Re-examination (Regina: Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy, 2007).
In his youth, the author of Agrarian Socialism was a Trotskyist; in his mature years, he figured prominently among neoconservative intellectuals, a group whose ideas and debates played an important role in shaping American public policy over the second half of the 20th century. It is an understatement to say this was a wide swing in political ideology. Admittedly, Seymour Martin Lipset’s swing never went all the way. He never identified as a Republican. His natural political allies were centrist and conservative Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Nonetheless, he contributed to the set of ideas that American conservatives now embrace.
Lipset, who died in December 2006 at the age of 84, studied at City College of New York, a decidedly non-elite institution that formed many who, like him, were second-generation Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. An excellent introduction to the importance of CCNY graduates in advancing neoconservative – but not only neoconservative – ideas is the documentary film Arguing the World, which traces the intellectual evolution of four graduates from youthful radicalism in the 1940s to reflective maturity in the 1990s. (Three of the four have neoconservative links; one remained faithful to the ideas of the left.) Lipset does not figure in the film but it inspired him to write what to my knowledge was his only movie review.1
At the heart of CCNY’s political life in the early 1940s, when Lipset was an undergraduate student, were three alcoves in the student cafeteria. Here is his description:
The alcoves were … a venue for a steady stream of debate and invective between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists. They were room-sized chambers in the college cafeteria with wooden benches on three sides and an opening to the main eating area. In front of each alcove was a large table, strong enough to hold the orators who frequently stood atop it to harangue those who gathered. The Stalinist or Communist alcove was known as the Kremlin, and the one next door, inhabited by a variety of anti-Stalinist radicals – Trotskyists, Socialists, anarchists, socialist Zionists, members of assorted splinter groups – was called Mexico City in honor of Leon Trotsky’s exile home. Proximity, of course, led to shouting matches, even though the Communists forbade their members to converse with any Trotskyists, whom they defined as fascist agents. My recollection is that students, occasionally joined by some junior faculty, were there all day, talking, reading, arguing, and eating.
What united those in his alcove, says Lipset, was the moralistic tone of their arguments. They knew what they wanted for the world; they were less sure than those in the two other alcoves (the third was occupied by ardent Zionists) as how to realize it. Whether the Soviet Union would have been a more humane empire if Trotsky and not Stalin had succeeded Lenin is one of the great hypothetical questions of the 20th century. At the time Lipset and others in his alcove were debating such questions, Trotsky himself had recently died in Mexico, a martyred exile. A Soviet agent, who had successfully insinuated himself into Trotsky’s entourage, had planted an ice pick in his head.
By the mid-1940s, when Lipset launched his doctoral studies, he had abandoned Trotskyism. But he retained the moralism of his CCNY alcove. He decided to study the CCF in Saskatchewan not for reasons of professional advancement or because his supervisor at Columbia University was particularly interested, but because he hoped to find in the Canadian prairies a model for a democratic, noncommunist socialism capable of taking root in North America. Agrarian Socialism, his revised doctoral thesis, was first published in 1950.