How to lead the people and be one of them? What's a democratic intellectual to do? This longstanding dilemma for the progressive intellectual, how to bridge the world of educated opinion and that of the working masses, is the focus of Leon Fink's penetrating book, the first social history of the progressive thinker caught in the middle of American political culture.
In a series of vivid portraits, Fink investigates the means and methods of intellectual activists in the first part of the twentieth century--how they served, observed, and made their own history. In the stories of, among others, John R. Commons, Charles McCarthy, William English Walling, Anna Strunsky Walling, A. Philip Randolph, W. Jett Lauck, and Wil Lou Gray, he creates a panorama of reform of unusual power. Issues as broad as the cult of leadership and as specific as the Wisconsin school of labor history lead us into the heart of the dilemma of the progressive intellectual in our age.
The problem, as Fink describes it, is twofold: Could people prevail in a land of burgeoning capitalism and concentrated power? And should the people prevail? This book shows us Socialists and Progressives and, later, New Dealers grappling with these questions as they tried to redress the new inequities of their day--and as they confronted the immense frustrations of moving the masses. Fink's graphic depiction of intellectuals' labors in the face of capitalist democracy's challenges dramatizes a time in our past--and at the same time speaks eloquently to our own.
One cannot but welcome Leon Fink's thoughtful and sympathetic history of Progressive intellectuals in twentieth century United States...This book is exploratory in the best sense, and at the heart of that exploration are the inevitable tensions between the ambitions of intellect and claims of democracy, between leadership and participation, expertise and deliberation.
There is much to admire in this book. The writing is fluent and the ideas are cogently expressed...Fink demonstrates with clarity (and sympathy) the dilemmas and difficulties facing the idealistic intellectual reformers on whose lives he focuses...Perhaps, most importantly, he rescues a number of intellectuals from relative obscurity.
[Leon Fink has] reconstruct[ed] the history of a generation of thinkers who came of age during the progressive ferment of the 1910s and then struggled to maintain a social-democratic presence in the academy and the public sphere...[His] engaging new book urges us to consider...the example of lesser-known progressives whose intellectual commitments led them into close collaboration with the labor movement and the merging welfare state. In a series of finely-drawn portraits, he probes the dilemmas of democratic engagement for a group that included labor historian John R. Commons, Wisconsin reformer Charles McCarthy, the right-leaning socialist William English Walling and his left-leaning socialist wife, Anna Strunsky Walling, the black civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and South Carolina educator Will Lou Gray...At a time when academic celebrity coexists nicely with political impotence, Gray's honorable record sets a high standard, indeed, for measuring the accomplishments of our own generation.
I read Progressive Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Democratic Commitment with consuming interest… Fink’s concentration on the left Progressive community throws a good deal of light on engaged intellectuals in medias res and confronted with the problem of fashioning a proper role with respect to their rank-and-file clients. Fink’s people illustrate graphically the additional problem of sustaining or salvaging a democratic participatory tradition inherited from a Progressive age in today’s world of greatly widened political activity and specific interests… Fink writes clearly and even colloquially; exhibits an impressive command of ideology; and is a deft portraitist.
With Progressive Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Democratic Commitment Leon Fink joins the discussion of public intellectuals that has attracted much attention of late. Wisely adopting a biographical approach, he offers stellar portraits of half a dozen men and women who fit perfectly the definition of public intellectuals who sought, in some fashion, to educate the laboring masses… He tells a cautionary tale of the difficulties inherent in having the well-educated learn from the unlettered and the alienated connect with the masses… All who read this lucid, unsparingly honest work will derive a deeper appreciation of the difficulties involved.
- 384 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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