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The Social Studies Major 50th Anniversary Celebration Party and Bitter Internal Ideological Power Struggle

By my rough count, one-third the people who had ever taught in and one-fourteenth of those who had ever graduated from Harvard's Social Studies major showed up in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the last Saturday in September this year for the major's fiftieth-anniversary celebration and bitter internal ideological power struggle. And that is not counting those graduates who did not attend but looked on via the Internet, or those outsiders--Nick Kristof, James Fallows--who felt compelled to comment on the exercise.

That is, I think testimony to the amazing intellectual strength of the program.

And, indeed, as one senior member of the faculty said, those who came to the party got just what they bargained for: serious engagement with political action and moral responsibility at a rarified intellectual level rarely seen on this green earth.

For example, the Q-and-A period of the afternoon panel:

Elliott Prasse-Freeman: This question is for Ms. Gorelick. I want to start with Professor Walzer's invocation to take "theoretical imperialism" seriously. While I do not agree with his rubbishing of Foucault, I do think that it is a good thing to do. I would like to do this in the context of Marty Peretz. I am going to read a Marty Peretz quote. And I want us to think: "what theory comes through here?"

So many of the Black population are afflicted by... cultural deficiencies. I would guess that in the ghetto a lot of mothers do not appreciate the importance of schooling...

What kind of theory comes through here?

Do we have an account of biopolitics, perhaps?

Differential access to resources and opportunities that, perhaps, makes education less desirable for certain populations?


It's just either stupid, or racist, or both.

So now I turn my question to you, Ms Gorelick: a person who has that kind of model for the world--what kind of teaching can they really be doing? If they have that much hatred of one entire aspect of humanity, what exactly would they be teaching you?

I finish my little diatribe by asking you to defend such a disgusting person, and also to say that people like you allow him to have the power that he does. (applause)

Jamie Gorelick: He was a fantastic teacher. He was generous with his time. He encouraged debate. He encouraged us in our studies. And we honor him for that by creating a fund to help undergraduates continue their work. Most of us have known Marty for a long time, and we disagree with him on many of his opinions. This is not an endorsement of any particular view. I will tell you that, as Richard Tuck said at the outset, when we heard of this convocation we thought that this would be a nice way to honor a teacher who has meant a lot to many of us. And we sent out notes to people who had had Marty as a tutor, and they responded with contributions and a desire to fund the fellowship. It is pretty much as simple as that. Marty has been a loyal and good friend to many people. He has views that he has explicated and changed, some of which I agree with and some of which I do not. And that is what I have to say. As E.J., who has been a partner with me on this on this effort has said, if anyone could hold two contradictory thoughts in his head at the same time, it should be people in this group, and you can honor someone as a teacher without endorsing everything that they have said.

Nisha Agarwal: I want to make a general comment on the theme of this panel--Social Studies and social change. Let me start by saying, how excited I was to be invited to this event. I did not go to my ten-year college reunion. But when I got the email about this, I signed up immediately (applause). The reason that I am part of a movement for racial justice is this program. So that is the love part that I am going to put out there, before I provide the alienation part. (laughter). Coming here today ,I felt somewhat disappointed and a little bit naive in thinking about the connection between Social Studies and social change. I have really enjoyed the panelists. But I do not feel that the selection of panelists throughout the day reflects the diversity of the communities that Social Studies cares about, writes about, and thinks about. I not think that the curriculum of Social Studies 10--though I saw that Franz Fanon has crept in there--is still very western-centric. And I think, most important, that the decision to honor Marty Peretz who has said things like the previous commentator said, and also said things like "Arab-Americans are hidebound and backwards," is really not my memory of what the Social Studies Committee is about.

I suppose that this is my recommendation for the next fifty years of the program. If there is a true commitment to Social Studies and social change, it will turn a well-developed critical gaze on ourselves. Realize that what happens in rooms like this: who we invite to speak, who we read, and certainly who we choose to honor very much impacts that product of social change that is happening out in the world today. That is my embedded critique. I urge Social Studies to rethink what is going on here today in terms of who is honored and who is invited to speak (applause).

E.J. Dionne: This was an effort to honor a great teacher. I have disagreed with Marty on all kinds of things over the years. I argued with him in a friendly way--and friends can argue, friends can passionately disagree about. Some of the recent comments. I understand the passion that has been aroused by this. I think there is a fascinating division here. It could be the object of some interesting social science. People who knew Marty a long time ago and have worked with him and argued with him and even had disagreements with him understood why people would honor him for the teaching. People who have never met Marty, who have seen some of the stuff that he has written which, as I say, I have disagreed with Marty only know him through that. They don't know that he stood up for the Roma. They don't know that he stood up for gays very early, when others were not. They don't know that he stood up for the Kurds. This is a very complicated person like most of us are. And I think that is the split here. Honoring Marty because we really loved him as a teacher and his passion.... In terms of our speakers, we should have had two days because we could have gotten more voices up here. I have enjoyed this so much and I would stay for a second if I could. Thank you very much. It seems that was a fair comment. (applause)

Michael Walzer: With respect to the previous questioner, I wonder if you have undertaken a survey of everything that every present member of the Social Studies faculty has said in postings, in footnotes, in lectures to make sure that nothing they have said is offensive or hurtful or embarrassing. If you are not doing that, well you had better start doing that because you will find a lot of things that you do not like.

Abdelnassar Rashid: My name is Abdelnassar Rashid and I am a junior in Social Studies. I would like to point out that Social Studies actually did make the decision to honor Martin Peretz. They did meet last Friday and over the weekend. They did finally come to the decision to honor him. It is not just his former students who are doing this. The Standing Committee made the decision itself. One thing to notice is that Marty Peretz has made a pseudo-apology for the latest bigoted thing that he has said. He took back his comment about Muslims not deserving first amendment protections. Since we have three friends on the panel, I would ask you for a commitment to ask him to apologize for twenty-five years of bigotry. Thank you (applause).

Richard Tuck: I let Abdelnassar Rashid speak because he is somebody that I have had dealings with and whose substantive views on this matter I respect. But I do not think it is appropriate for us at the moment to pursue these issues any further. If there is any other question about the substance of the panel I would be reasonable to have that. Otherwise I am afraid that we should accept that this has been a very difficult issue which has understandably throughout our meeting and we should reflect on its implications. Are there any other questions specifically to the points being raised by the panel?...

And Robert Paul Wolff's luncheon talk:

You see before you a coelacanth, a survivor from ancient days swimming up to the surface from the depths of time. I was there at the very start of Social Studies--I have with me the original reading list from 1960-1. Yet when I look at today's Social Studies 10 reading list--it is much the same.

Why is it that the core readings in Social Studies have not changed for fifty years? I will try to answer that question with yet another story from the early days of Social Studies, but it will take me a moment to sketch the background, so bear with me.

In the early '50s, a famous Swarthmore social psychologist named Solomon Asch did an experiment to study the effect of social pressure on belief and perception. [Asch published an article about his research in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. You can find it if you Google it.] Briefly, Asch put a small group of young college men in a seminar room and told them he was studying perception. In fact, only one young man was a real subject; the others were Asch's collaborators. Asch then showed the men two cards. On the first were three straight lines of very unequal length. On the second was one line, obviously equal in length to one of the three lines. He asked each student in turn which line on the card of three the single line matched. At first, as he went around the table, everyone gave the same correct answer. But then, as he showed them successive pairs of cards, everyone but the last to be called on [who was the real subject] gave the same obviously wrong answer. The first or second time around, the real subject, looking puzzled or troubled, gave the correct answer, but as the experiment continued, with everyone in the room giving a wrong answer, a significant percentage of the subjects -- more than a third -- started to go along with the group and give the wrong answer also. When Asch interviewed these men later -- the ones who had switched to the wrong answers -- some said they just did not want to "spoil the experiment." Some said that at first they thought everyone was wrong, but after a while they began to think something was wrong with their own judgment. And some even said that although the line chosen by the group looked unequal to the other line, when they looked closely they could see that it was really equal.

The experiment was much commented upon, and everyone took it as distressing evidence of the effects of social pressure on conformity of behavior. But I was interested in another aspect of the experiment. It occurred to me that in order to perform the experiment, Asch had first to take a position on what the correct and incorrect answers were. Otherwise, he would just have statistics about shifting public opinion, which would reveal nothing about the distorting effects of social pressure. Well, obviously, you will say. After all, Asch needed simply to put a ruler down next to the lines and measure them.

I first read the Asch experiment in the early Fall of 1960, just as Social Studies was starting. One day, in October, I ran into Barrington Moore on the street and we stopped to chat. This was during the run-up to the 1960 presidential election in which John F. Kennedy was running against Richard M. Nixon. Everyone at Harvard was mad for Kennedy, of course. He was a Harvard man, his wife spoke French, and he had even won a Pulitzer Prize -- although we did not know then that Ted Sorenson had written the book for which he won the prize. I talked excitedly to Moore about the campaign, and said that I hoped Kennedy would win. Moore looked down his long, aristocratic nose at me and then said, 'There's not a dime's worth of difference between them.' Then he walked on.

I thought that was just Barry being his usual contrarian self, but Kennedy got selected, and the first thing he did was to invade Cuba. The scales fell from my eyes and I realized Barry was right. Now, even back then, social scientists were doing a good deal of public opinion polling, but I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting for someone to do a study of why so many voters perceived Kennedy and Nixon as unequal when they were obviously equal?'

'Ah well,' you will say. 'To do such an experiment, the social scientist would have to be able to look beneath the surface appearances of society to the underlying socio-economic reality. AND THAT IS PRECISELY WHAT THE STUDY OF SMITH AND MARX AND DURKHEIM AND FREUD AND WEBER TEACHES US TO DO. Each of these authors, in his different way, goes beneath surface appearances to examine underlying social and economic realities. That is why those authors have been on the reading list for fifty years.

But, you will protest, it is easy enough for Asch to determine whether two lines are equal or un equal in length. He just lays a rule down next to them and measures them. But to say that Kennedy and Nixon are equal, the social scientist must take a political or ideological position. Any such investigation is, as the French used to say, guilty. That is, it is inseparable from some ideological stance. How will we as students know what ideological stance to take?

You are correct. And what is more, Smith and Marx and Durkheim and Freud and Weber cannot answer that question for you. I will give you an answer, by telling you another story, this time from my years teaching at Columbia. In 1968, as some of you will recall, the students occupied several buildings and brought the university to a screeching halt for two weeks. The next semester, I was teaching a course in which I was anguishing over my inability to find, in the text of Kant's GROUNDWORK OF THE METAPHYICS OF MORALS, an absolutely valid a priori proof of the universal validity of the fundamental moral principle, the categorical Imperative. After class one day, one of the students came up to talk to me. He was one of the SDS students who had seized the buildings, and I knew that he was active off campus in union organizing. 'Why are you so concerned about finding that argument?' he asked. Well, I said, if I cannot find such an argument, how will I know what to do? He looked at me as one looks at a very young child, and replied, 'First you have to decide which side you are on. Then you will be able to figure out what you ought to do.'

At the time, I thought this was a big cop-out, but as the years have passed, I have realized the wisdom in what he said. I want [I now said] to direct these next remarks to the undergraduates who are here today. [There were maybe two dozen among the 200 people at the lunch]. As you complete your studies and go out into the world, you have a decision to make. You must decide who your comrades are going to be in life's struggles. You must decide which side you are on. Will you side with the oppressed, or with the oppressors? Will you side with the exploiters, or with the exploited? Will you side with the occupiers, or with the occupied? I cannot make that decision for you, and neither can Smith and Marx and Durkheim and Freud and Weber. All I can do is to promise you that if you side with the oppressed, with the exploited, with the occupied, then the next time you decide to seize a building, I will be with you.

There is one more matter about which I feel I must say something. I refer to the controversy to which Richard Tuck referred in his opening remarks this morning [ed. Tuck, the current head of Social Studies and a splendid man, had said a few words about the controversy during his welcoming speech, distancing himself from the content of Peretz's statements.] I have anguished a great deal about this matter, at one point uncertain whether I ought even to attend the celebration. If I were a religious man, I could let my bible fall open at random, relying on The Lord to guide me to a chapter and verse in which I might find some wisdom. But since I am an atheist, that course was not open to me. So I did the next best thing. I took down my copy of Volume One of Das Kapital. As I turned the old, familiar pages, covered with my underlinings and notes, my eye fell on this famous passage from the great chapter on Money. Since you are all former or present Social Studies students, I am sure you will all recall it. Here is what Marx says.

Because money is the metamorphosed shape of all other commodities, the result of their general alienation, for this reason it is alienable itself without restriction or condition. It reads all prices backwards, and thus, so to say, depicts itself in the bodies of all other commodities, which offer to it the material for the realisation of its own use-value. At the same time the prices, wooing glances cast at money by commodities, define the limits of its convertibility, by pointing to its quantity. Since every commodity, upon becoming money, disappears as a commodity, it is impossible to tell from the money itself, how it got into the hands of its possessor, or what article has been changed into it. Non olet, from whatever source it may come.

Marx assumed that the working men and working women for whom he wrote this book all had a classical education, but since I did not, I was forced to look up the source of the Latin tag, non olet. It seems that in the time of the Emperor Vespasian, the Roman state raised a little extra money by taxing the public urinals. One day, Vespasian sent his son, Titus, to collect the taxes from the urinals. Titus was offended by the task, which he considered beneath him, and when he returned he flung the money at his father's feet. Vespasian looked down with equanimity and remarked languidly, "Pecunia non olet." The money does not stink.

In the realm of higher education, Harvard is an imperial power, so quite naturally it adopts Vespasian's point of view toward the money it accepts, Pecunia non olet. But from its founding, fifty years ago, Social Studies has held itself to a higher standard, and so I would hope that it will reject this money for a scholarship, because pecunia olet. The money stinks.

I, by contrast, think that there is much more than a dime's worth of difference between Kennedy-Johnson on the one hand and Nixon-Lodge on the other--and I marvel that Robert Paul Wolff, now 77, does not think that Medicare matters at all.

And I think that the important thing is not to side with the oppressed as an attitudinal pose but rather to do something to enhance freedom. I side with Keynes against Trotsky:

Trotsky is concerned in these passages with an attitude towards public affairs, not with ultimate aims. He is just exhibiting the temper of the band of brigand-statesmen to whom Action means War, and who are irritated to fury by the atmosphere of sweet reasonableness.... "They smoke Peace where there should be no Peace," Fascists and Bolshevists cry in a chorus, "canting, imbecile emblems of decay, senility, and death, the antithesis of Life and the Life-Force which exist only in the spirit of merciless struggle." If only it was so easy! If only one could accomplish by roaring, whether roaring like a lion or like any sucking dove!

The roaring occupies the first half of Trotsky's book. The second half.... First proposition. The historical process necessitates the change-over to Socialism.... Second proposition. It is unthinkable that this change-over can come about by peaceful argument and voluntary surrender. Except in response to force, the possessing classes will surrender nothing.... Third proposition. Even if, sooner or later, the Labour Party achieve power by constitutional methods, the reactionary parties will at once Proceed to Force.... Fourth proposition. In view of all this, whilst it may be good strategy to aim also at constitutional power, it is silly not to organise on the basis that material force will be the determining factor in the end....

Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution if that is what he means. But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation.... He is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for. If we pressed him, I suppose he would mention Marx.... Trotsky's book must confirm us in our conviction of the uselessness, the empty-headedness of Force at the present stage of human affairs. Force would settle nothing no more in the Class War than in the Wars of Nations or in the Wars of Religion. An understanding of the historical process, to which Trotsky is so fond of appealing, declares not for, but against, Force at this juncture of things. We lack more than usual a coherent scheme of progress, a tangible ideal. All the political parties alike have their origins in past ideas and not in new ideas and none more conspicuously so than the Marxists. It is not necessary to debate the subtleties of what justifies a man in promoting his gospel by force; for no one has a gospel. The next move is with the head, and fists must wait.