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An excerpt from From Socialism to Sociology

By Nathan Glazer

 

A young scholar, Douglas Webb, has been at work for a few years on a book he proposes to title From Socialism to Sociology. I hope he does not mind me appropriating it for this memoir, for l am one of those – we seem to be legion – who has followed that trajectory. There are different variants of those of us who have managed the passage. I am tempted to construct one of those fourfold tables beloved of sociologists with the horizontal axis reading "strong or weak final commitment" and the vertical reading a strong or weak initial commitment." The upper left-hand box holds those who were solidly socialist and ended up solid sociologists. Three other possibilities exist, including the lower right-hand box containing those whose commitment to socialism was not as firm as it might have been – and whose commitment to sociology is not as firm as it might be.

Despite Saint Paul's injunction against those who blow neither hot nor cold, I feel I am best placed in that lower right-hand box. This is not to say I have no commitments, but they were not to socialism then, nor to sociology now. It is true that before college, during college, and after college I thought of myself as a socialist. But by 1947 1 was no longer writing articles in which, directly or indirectly, I indicated such an affiliation. My transition from socialism to sociology occurred rapidly. My. fourfold table does not include all crucial possibilities: there were those who were socialists before becoming sociologists and remained socialists after becoming sociologists. But in the mid- and late 1940s there was something about sociology – for those of us who were socialists and were becoming sociologists – that undermined faith.

Certainly, the kind of sociologist I became was affected by the kind of socialist I was. I was a socialist not by conversion but by descent. My father always voted for Norman Thomas for president. I recall-it must have been the 1936 election, when many New York socialists and social democrats were voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the new American Labor party ticket, designed for such as they-becoming aware on election day that my father, a quiet man who did not try to convert anyone to anything, had voted for Norman Thomas. His children of voting age had voted for Roosevelt and the others naturally supported Roosevelt. (He had seven children, and I was the youngest.) But the term socialist by descent in New York City in the 1930s requires further definition: I was what would be called today a social democrat. Again, it was a matter of descent. My father, though mild, was strongly anticommunist. He was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and, after the fierce battle over control of the union in the 1920s, communists had as bad a reputation among ILGWLJ members as among middle Americans. Had he been a member of the Fur Workers Union, my politics by descent would very likely have been communist.

Undoubtedly other parts of my early political and cultural makeup must also be ascribed to family influences. My father was an observant Jew, but he read the Forward, not the Morning Journal, and did not like those who made too much of their orthodoxy. He expected his children to go to synagogue, as he did. Since he did not base his expectation on intellectual or theological grounds, there was no way of disputing him on those grounds, had we been of a mind to. To him it was simply what was done, without explanation or justification. His mildness extended to Zionism: ours was not a Zionist household, but neither was it anti-Zionist. He was content to send his children to a Hebrew school that taught Hebrew and displayed a map of Palestine, the Jewish national flag, and the Jewish National Fund collection box. He did not especially seek out a Yiddishist school, though that was the language he and my mother used at home and, I am sure, at work. I cannot recall him ever speaking English, though I think he could. In the clothing shops in which he worked, while there might be Italian and other workers, there were always enough Jewish workers, and Jewish foremen and owners, to make Yiddish a shop tongue. I do remember my mother speaking

some English, however: I would go shopping with her and not all the tradesmen were Jews.

I suspect that Jewish eclecticism was common in New York when I was growing up: socialist, but not too socialist; Orthodox, but not too Orthodox; friendly to Palestine, but not a Zionist; Yiddish-speaking, but not a Yiddishist. I was aware – who could not be? – of those who were more intense about some part of this mix and of those who were communists. Even in my father's Landsmanshaft, a club or organization of people who came from the same town or village in Eastern Europe, there was at least one reader of the Jewish communist daily Freiheit Our family culture rejected the extremes-an intense commitment to communism, Orthodoxy; freethinking, anarchism, Yiddish. Of all the Jewish variants of the day, the one for which I think my father had the most respect was Young Israel-the "modern" Orthodox youth organization that supported the creation of a Jewish state.

I speak of my father, not my mother, though she was by far the more vivid personality. She did not have strong views about anything outside the realm of proper personal and familial behavior. There she could be a tenor. But when it came to all those variants of Jewish religion, politics, and culture into which the Jewish population of New York had splintered, she had no strong views except that, like my father, she opposed all excess and extremism.

In education, once again I think we were placed with that very large group, not written about much in memoirs and histories, in which the passion for education was muted. This meant we would get more education than our Italian neighbors, but we were not expected to go to college. My father's formal education was limited to a few years of religious school in Poland; he read Yiddish and the Hebrew prayer book. Both my parents wrote long letters in Yiddish to those they left behind in Poland.

We knew there were Jewish parents who were indifferent to education and showed their indifference by insisting that their children go to work, in the family store, or as errand boys, or doing whatever they could to bring in some cash. Poor as we were, there was no pressure to work while we were going to school. And I suspect my older brothers and sisters simply followed the norm for Jewish immigrant and second-generation children of their ages. My oldest brother went to work at twelve or thereabouts – but at that time graduation from high school was far from universal. The next two children, my older sisters, went to high school and took the commercial course. The next brother was the first to go to a regular high school my parents, thinking of our needs, insisted to: his distress that he attend a trade school. Graduating during the Depression, he never worked at his trade.

The three youngest children all began college my brother finished (and went beyond), and my sister left after a few years to go to work. I am enough of a sociologist to know that the fact that I was not put under any pressure to work or contribute to family expenses was simply because I was the youngest. I showed no sign of being the brightest; indeed, some evidence indicates that I was not. But I was able to pursue my education wherever it would take me. I do not recall my parents ever making a suggestion as to what I should become or do. My next oldest brother, the only other sibling who graduated from college, was my "manager," noting that I did well at school and figuring out what would be best for me.

I liked drawing. In another family someone might have suggested that I pursue a career based on that. But by the time I entered high school, it seemed clear – why, I do not know – I would do something with words, not in math, science, or the arts. The fact is role models were in scarce supply. I recall there was someone on our block who

became a high school teacher. He was the object of universal admiration, as it was known to be very hard for Jews to become high-school teachers. It was believed they could not pass the oral examination be-cause of their Jewish accent But enough did: there were quite a few Jewish teachers in my high school, James Monroe, which we were told was the largest in the world – sixteen thousand students. Most of them attended "annexes," high-school classes in elementary school and junior high-school buildings and even when we got to the main building, we attended only a half-session, morning or afternoon. Classes were large, and it was not possible for teachers to pay much attention to us. We seemed often (perhaps more commonly in elementary school and junior high school) to be arranged by sire, the smallest in the front and the largest, unfairly, doubling up in the back seats.

But the education must have been sound. For one thing, the curriculum was dictated by the requirements for entry into the city colleges, City, Hunter, Brooklyn and Queens: three years of one language, two of another, four years 'of English, two and a half years of math, and similar amounts of history and science. One did have electives: most of my classmates added physics or trigonometry to their two or three years of math and science. In my senior year I took the course that made the deepest impression on me, fourth-year French, and found myself in a small class in which the first assignment was to read eighty pages of a detective story. (I had never before been asked to read more than three pages of French.) It certainly did wonders for my facility in reading, if nothing else.

The first glimmer of what was to end up as a career in sociology was neither an exceptional curiosity about the social world nor a bent arising from family culture. Rather, I realized that one should pursue one's best chances, and since I was not particularly good at math and science, and no one dreamed of a career in the arts, it had to be words. But what to do with words was not cleat

I entered City College in February 1940 (City in those days had two entering and graduating classes a year, keyed to the New York City public-school calendar) and majored in history. I liked history and had a good memory. But my academic life soon had to contend with another interest. I was persuaded by a fellow student to attend a meeting of Avukah, the student Zionist organization. I was not a Zionist but was willing to hear what there was to be said for Zionism. It was an accident that had a strong impact on the rest of my life. The speaker was Seymour Melman, a recent graduate of City College who had just spent a year in Palestine and was reporting on his experiences. Had Avukah been simply a Jewish organization, I doubt that it would have made much impact on me. But these were socialist>Zionists. What is more, they were intellectual socialist Zionists and looked down on nonintellectual socialist Zionists.

Melman was a charismatic figure. (The author of many books, he is now a professor of industrial engineering at Columbia University. At the time there was no hint of what he might become as was true of most of us.) What led me to speak to him after his lecture I do not know. But soon I was on the staff of Avukah Student Action (the organization's national newspaper) and had become a Zionist; indeed, before that was settled, I was named editor. No loyalty oaths were required to become a member of Avukah. We had a three-point program, presented in documents portentously titled "theses," and in theoretical pamphlets. The organization may have been Zionist but the culture was in most ways left sectarian. We were generally allied on campus issues with the anti-Stalinist Left – the socialists and the Trotskyites.

The three points of our program were to build a "non-minority Jewish center in Palestine, to fight fascism, and to foster a democratic American Jewish community. This program represented a somewhat off-center Zionism. The term non-minority was meant to leave room to for a binational state of Jews and Arabs. In those days we believed it possible for the two nations to share power, with neither being in the minority in a political or cultural sense. Our notion was that if both nations were guaranteed equal political rights, the Arab majority of Palestine would allow unrestricted Jewish immigration. At a time when

Jews were being hunted down by the Nazis, when the doors of the United States and other Western countries were closed to Jewish refugees, and when Palestine itself had been closed to Jewish immigration by the British, unrestricted immigration was the minimal demand of every Zionist group, even one as eccentric as ours. In retrospect, our views were naive.

Avukah was a switching point on the road from socialism to sociology. At first it emphasized the socialism, of which I knew little until 1 became

involved. But Avukah, following the pattern of other left sectarian organizations, had "study groups," in which we read not only Zionist classics but also socialist classics: Bukharin's Historical Materialism was particularly favored by some of our elders. But we were not Leninists. Though left, and critical of social democrats, the radical leaders of Avukah who tried to influence us were (Rosa) Luxemburgian – revolutionary but against a directing central party and for education of the working masses.

It was a very congenial bent. The only issues that called for action were Zionist ones; for the rest education was sufficient. The doctrine hardly

mattered, I am convinced. It is almost embarrassing to say we believed in revolution. The only way to relieve the embarrassment is to confess that we really did not.

What actually mattered to us was not our doctrines but the people we met and the things we read. For example, we read Partisan Review

and The New International, in which Sidney Hook, James Burnham, and Dwight Macdonald then wrote. We often invited Macdonald to our

summer camps, devoted to intensive "education." He had started the journal Politics; some members of our group attended the early meetings and some wrote for it. My predecessors at Avukah Student Action had been Chester Rapkin then beginning a career as a housing economist that would lead him' to Columbia and Princeton, and Harold Orlans, who studied anthropology at Yale while working in an insane asylum as a conscientious objector during World War II (he wrote brilliantly on the joint experience for Politics). Alfred J. Kahn, one of the three (very modestly paid) officers of Avukah, was to become a leading social worker and analyst of social policy; another, Meir Rabban, was to become, after some years in Palestine and Israel, a professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence. It would be impossible to list all the members of Avukah who became professors. No one expected that they would become professors before the war.

As editor of Avukah Student Action one of my duties as Chester Rapkin explained-was to liven up the pages with pictures and cartoons, and I could find them free at the New Leader by burrowing through a pile of cuts they received from unions and other sources. There 1 met Daniel Bell. An informal seminar took place every Friday afternoon at the New Leader office. I did not participate directly hut listened as I looked for something we could use in Avukah Student Action. Seymour Martin Lipset, with whom for a while I took the subway to college, joined Avukah briefly. He told me about the gifted and learned new Marxist refugee, Lewis Coser.

Thus a second effect of Avukah was to introduce me to the New York intellectual milieu. I will not exaggerate my modest position: I went to more meetings than I can remember on what is living and what is dead in Marxism, and I heard Philip Selznick, then moving steadily toward sociology, speak brilliantly. Just what he said I no longer recall.

A third effect, as the names Bell, Selznick, and Lipset suggest, was to make sociology a possibility-not as a job (who dreamed of any job except a clerkship with the government?) but as a role definition. I recall I abandoned history for economics, economics for public administration, public administration for sociology, and graduated in January 1944 with a degree in sociology…


 
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