Magazine article Monthly Review

Remembering Murray Levin

Magazine article Monthly Review

Remembering Murray Levin

Article excerpt

I suspect that many on the U.S. left do not know the name of Murray Levin--political scientist, writer, teacher--who died at the age of seventy-two in late 1999. It would be hard to characterize his politics in simple terms; "socialist," "radical," "progressive?" In the thirty-five years I knew him, including twenty-four years as his close friend and colleague at Boston University, there was never any occasion to describe him in any of those ways.

One thing, however, can be stated with confidence: Murray Levin made an important contribution to the radical movement in this country--by what he wrote, how he taught, and how he behaved as a dissident intellectual in the world of academe.

Nothing in his early background would lead one to predict the trajectory of his political ideas. He came from a successful business family with a Harvard tradition. But when he attended Harvard College, the lectures of the political scientist Louis Hartz made a powerful impression on him. Hartz, whose ideas are best expressed in his book The Liberal Tradition in America, saw the absence of the feudal experience in this country as limiting the boundaries of political thought. What Hartz called "Lockian liberalism" meant that the United States would stay safely within the liberal tradition. He clearly was critical of that tradition. Murray Levin, for the rest of his life, refused to accept the orthodoxy of American liberalism--its pretensions to democracy, justice, equality.

Murray, after a stint in the Navy--it was the time of the Korean War and the draft was in effect--became a graduate student in political science at Columbia University. There he came into contact with the ideas of Franz Neumann, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, a political theorist, and a powerful analyst of Fascist ideology. The European political theorists were heavily influenced by Marxism, and Murray became interested in Marxist thought. His doctoral dissertation was on the philosophical antecedents of Marx's political economy.

After teaching briefly at City College and Columbia, he joined the department of political science at Boston University. When I joined the department in 1964, Murray and I immediately became friends. He knew that I had just moved up from the South, where I taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and became involved in the Southern civil rights movement. Murray's views on the race question were unmistakable and powerful. And now, with the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin, American intervention in Vietnam was becoming massive. Here too, Murray's instincts were unambiguous.

He was already a legend at Boston University, as one of the most popular teachers in its history. Every year he taught the required introductory course in American Politics to a thousand students, who crowded into Hayden Hall to hear him lecture. He was a colorful speaker--a giant of a man, bearded, formidable in appearance--who expressed his ideas with utter confidence. For students just out of traditional high schools, most of them the sons and daughters of upper middle-class business and professional parents, Murray Levin's scathing critique of American political institutions came as a shock. It was a rough awakening from the self-congratulation of orthodox political science, which could find flaws in the system but fundamentally saw this country as "the city on the hill"--the democratic hope of the world. His students came away from his course shaken but open-eyed. His teaching would be remembered by tens of thousands of students, over his thirty-five years of teaching, as the high point of their politic al education.

Murray had no illusions about the totalitarian states, left and right, but he did not make the jump in logic that concluded that this country represented the only viable alternative. Many American liberals climbed on the anti-Communist bandwagon of the fifties (identifying Marxism with Stalinism), proclaimed "the end of ideology," and raced for a safe haven in the vital center. …

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