Paul Buhle was born in Champaign, Illinois on September 27, 1944. During his years as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, he served as a spokesman for the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and he also spent a brief period (beginning in 1963) as a member of the Socialist Labor Party. Buhle obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1966 and then earned a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut in ’67. He subsequently moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where he collaborated with the local SDS chapter to launch the journal Radical America, of which he became the founding editor. Buhle thereafter worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin from 1968-71; taught at the Cambridge-Godard Graduate School from 1971-73; earned a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1975; and founded Cultural Correspondence, a journal of left-wing thinking about culture, that same year.
Buhle was deeply influenced by the historian/journalist/social theorist C.L.R. James, whom he has described as: (a) “the Marxist with the deepest sense of culture” and (b) “the last great Pan African figure, a universal thinker who could see the entirety of human history within details, and write about it brilliantly.”
In 1976 Buhle created the “Oral History of the American Left” archive at New York University’s Tamiment Library. This voluminous collection of documents pertaining to American labor and radical activism, contains hundreds of interviews that were conducted with leaders as well as and “rank-and-file activists” of the Left between the 1910s and the 1970s. Buhle directed this “Oral History” project until 1990.
In the ’80s Buhle served as a historian for Grandma Was an Activist, a radio series about radical women of the 1930s. From 1986-93 he lectured at the Rhode Island School of Design. And from 1995-2010 he was a lecturer in History and American Civilization at Brown University.
In 1990 Buhle spoke at the annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City. That same year, he co-edited—with his wife, Brown University historian Mari Jo Buhle—the Encyclopedia of the American Left, wherein he downplayed the massive Soviet subsidies that were funneled to American Communists for the purpose of supporting anti-American espionage. Buhle even dismissed altogether the widely documented cases of Communist spying as “intrigues” that “had almost no role in the day-to-day activities of the American Left.”
In 1998 Buhle endorsed a Brecht Forum presentation “celebrat[ing] the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto” at Cooper Union in New York.
Buhle’s historical work is replete with condemnations of Communism’s foes. Typical was a 1994 article he wrote for the Radical History Review, wherein the professor made clear 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 was equally derisive toward Cold Warriors like Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, whom he described as a hard-line ideologue and “weapons lobbyist.”
In his 2001 Radical History Review essay entitled “Reflections of an Old New Leftist,” Buhle explained that his approach to history disavowed the “distorted” account of America’s past, reducible for Buhle to a chronicle of “dead generals, presidents, and bankers.” Instead, Buhle focused on the activities and interests of the proverbial everyman—such as, for instance, “the history of popular music from folk to jazz or rhythm and blues.” According to Buhle, themes like this 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,” he said, “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.
Historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes have described Buhle as a “revisionist” historian vis-à-vis American communism. In a 2002 essay in The New Criterion, they observed that Buhle’s Encyclopedia was prone to adduce sources that offered 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 “played a prominent role” in “the shipment of arms and assorted war materials to the new state of Israel” during the latter’s 1948 War for Independence.
In 2002 Buhle served on the editorial board of Democratic Left, the newsletter of the Democratic Socialists of America. That same year, he endorsed a group of San Francisco leftists—most of whom were affiliated with STORM or the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism—who founded the anti-Iraq War newspaper War Times.
In 2006-07, Buhle was one of the founding figures of the new Students for a Democratic Society, and afterward, of the Movement for a Democratic Society, where he served as a vice chair and board member.
In 2009 Buhle was listed as an endorser of the Center for Labor Renewal, which maintains that “class struggle … is built into capitalist society,” and that “capitalism is hazardous to the health of the working class and other oppressed groups.”
Buhle retired from his teaching career in 2010, in order to work full-time on producing radical comics.
On the premise that the United States is an irremediably racist nation, Buhle in October 2015 co-authored an article titled “Intersectional Black Power,” which said: “Part of the reason why institutional racism remains intractable is because well meaning white people work to overcome their personal racism without applying the same vigor to undoing systems that affords them white privilege. We need less emotional expressions of white guilt, and more work on policy that rights the wrongs of the past 300 years. It is possible to treat someone like a ni**er without calling them one.”
Buhle has contributed frequently to such publications as The Nation, The Village Voice, The Journal of American History, Tikkun, Monthly Review, Jewish Currents, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The San Francisco Chronicle.
In addition to the professional and activist pursuits described above, Buhle at various times has served as a board member of The Minnesota Review; a contributing editor with Tikkun; an editorial advisory board member of Radical Americas (an online publication of the Movement for a Democratic Society); a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); a sponsor of the magazine New Politics, which is staffed and run almost entirely by DSA members; and an adviser on documentary biographies of Marxist historian Howard Zinn, comic artist Will Eisner, and the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
For additional information on Paul Buhle, click here.
Further Reading: “The Search for a Useable Past: An Interview with Paul Buhle on Radical America” (Libcom.org, 4-9-2015); “An Interview with Paul Buhle” (Counterpunch, 3-8-2004); “Radical America, 1967-1999,” Brown University Library); “Paul Buhle’s Curriculum Vitae“; “Cultural Correspondence, 1975-83” (Brown University Library); “Guide to the Oral History of the American Left Collection” (NYU.edu); “Paul Buhle” (Keywiki.org); “History Afflicted” (Washington Times, 1-26-2003, re: Buhle’s 1994 article in Radical History Review); “Reflections of an Old New Leftist” (by Paul Buhle, Radical History Review, Winter 2001); “A Challenge to Paul Buhle” (by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, re: Klehr and Haynes’ New Criterion article of June 2002); “Intersectional Black Power: CLR James on Capitalism and Race” by Lawrence Ware and Paul Buhle, 10-28-2015).