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PAUL BUHLE Printer Friendly Page

Obama’s Boys of Summer
By Daniel Flynn
June 29, 2008


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  • Radical professor of American Civilization at Brown University
  • Champions “radical history” that instructs students in the evils of capitalism
  • Believes that “professorial support and sponsorship of radical activities on campus is elementary”

Born in September 1944, Pual Buhle is a professor in Brown University's Department of American Civilization. He is one of the leading radical historians to emerge from the ranks of the New Left. In the 1960s he was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Socialist Labor Party. In 1967 he was the founding editor of the journal Radical America, an unofficial organ of SDS (which continued to publish until 1999). Today Buhle is prominent in the Democratic Socialists of America, and is a board member of the Movement for a Democratic Society. In his faculty biography, he states that "activity within the civil rights, peace, environmental, and labor movements, along with alternative cultures, has guided much of my research activity."

Though Buhle portrays himself as a politically moderate historian who is fully cognizant of the atrocities committed in the name of radical ideologies like communism, his work is replete with condemnations of communism's foes. Typical was a 1994 article for the Radical History Review, wherein Buhle expressed his disdain for the anti-Communist President Harry Truman. Pronouncing Truman "America's Stalin," Buhle proceeded to register his opinion that "when the judgment of the twentieth century's second half is made, every American president will be seen as a jerk. After Truman, Nixon yields only to Reagan—still another Truman heir—as the jerkiest of all." Buhle vouchsafes equally derisive treatment to Cold Warriors like Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who is introduced in Buhle's writings as a hard-line ideologue and "weapons lobbyist."

Buhle calls his approach "radical history." In a 2001 essay for the Radical History Review, entitled "Reflections of an Old New Leftist," he explained that this is the school of history that disavows the "distorted" account of U.S history—reducible for Buhle to a chronicle of "dead generals, presidents, and bankers"—in favor of, for instance, "the history of popular music from folk to jazz or rhythm and blues," which, according to Buhle, held out the possibility of bringing "together minority lives with rebelliousness."

A suitably radical history, in Buhle's telling, was one that strove to disabuse students of any sympathy for free-market capitalism: "Our task is to use all means available to combat the global race to the bottom (and toward ecological hell); to help students, colleagues, and the public understand that capitalism's much-vaunted 'progress' endangers everything we hold dear." Toward this end, Buhle urged likeminded professors not only to dispense radical politics in the classroom but to play an active role in fomenting student radicalism on campus: "Professorial support and sponsorship of radical activities on campus is elementary, even if time-consuming," he wrote.

Buhle co-edited (with his wife and Brown University historian Mari Jo Buhle) the Encyclopedia of the American Left, wherein he downplays the million-dollar Soviet subsidies funneled to American communists for the purpose of supporting anti-American espionage. Buhle even dismisses altogether the widely documented cases of communist espionage. "Such intrigues," he insists, "had almost no role in the day-to-day activities of the American Left, save for the need of Communists to deny the existence of spying by or for the Russians, and for anti-Communist socialists to insist upon its central importance to American Communists at large."

As the historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes observed in a 2002 essay in The New Criterion, Buhle’s Encyclopedia is prone to adduce sources that offer no supporting evidence for historically untenable claims. An example cited by the authors was Buhle's spurious assertion, made in the Encyclopedia, that American Communists fought en masse in the Israeli War for Independence.

At Brown, Paul Buhle teaches a course called "The Sixties Without Apology," presumably a reference to the eponymous 1984 book of essays by leftwing writers extolling the famously radical decade. Buhle's own thoughts on the Sixties are crystallized in The New Left Revisited, a 2003 book of essays, which he co-edited with the leftist Harvard professor John McMillian. Written by 14 radical academics, the hagiographic tenor of the book is captured in its introductory essay, which references the "Kennedyesque optimism and youthful idealism" of the Sixties-era New Left, whose members "were not communist sympathizers" but simply "refused to declare themselves anticommunist." In a similar spirit, the express aim of Buhle's course at Brown is "to encourage ways of 'seeing' the meanings of the 1960s for the present-day." With this objective in mind, the assigned readings, which take a uniformly positive view of the radical decade, include The New Left Revisited.

Another class taught by Buhle is titled "Theory and Methods of Oral History," which requires students to "interview Rhode Islanders involved in a wide spectrum of cultural activities." Students taking this course in 2002 were required to work on a project called "Underground Rhode Island," where they interviewed leading figures in the local counterculture. This encompassed, according to Buhle, "interracial, gay and lesbian cultures, experimental art, music, comics and so on." Of the endless variety of "alternative" voices that Buhle deemed relevant for his history class, the professor commented, "There's no end in site."

The course itself has its roots in an earlier educational project undertaken by Buhle: the “Oral History of the American Left” at the Tamiment Library of New York University. Created by Buhle in 1976, this voluminous archive of American labor and radical activism spans the years between the 1910s and the 1970s. Still directed by Buhle, the collection contains hundreds of interviews with notables and "rank-and-file activists" of the Left.



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