Remembering Murray Levin
By Howard Zinn in The Monthly Review, February 2009
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 political 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.” Murray, like C. Wright Mills, saw “the city on the hill” as corrupted by racism, economic inequality, imperialist adventures.
In 1960, Murray’s first book, The Alienated Voter, anticipated what would become a critical theme in American political science for the next several decades—the deep estrangement from the political system of at least half of its citizens. In the presidential election of that year, between Kennedy and Nixon, voting reached a high of 60 percent of eligible voters. But from that point on, the percentages kept decreasing, until barely half the electorate went to the polls. This illustrated—with startling clarity—the phenomenon that Murray Levin had described. The alienation, Murray insisted, was not the result of superficial factors which could be easily modified, but came from deep flaws in the American system itself.
Although his political instincts were impeccably radical, Murray had never been involved in political movements before. But by the mid-1960s—as with so many others in academe—both the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement propelled him into action. He was a featured speaker at antiwar rallies and teach-ins, marched in demonstrations, walked on picket lines. This was not pleasing to the Boston University administration, especially after 1971, when the tyrannical John Silber, who had a special fondness for the military and the police, became university president. But Murray never wavered.
Despite his huge teaching load (which included advanced courses on American political ideas and Marxist philosophy), as well as his political involvement, Murray never stopped writing. He wrote several iconoclastic books on Edward Kennedy—refusing to go along with the reverence of so many liberals in Massachusetts for the Kennedy clan. His book Political Hysteria in America: the Democratic Capacity for Repression was in many ways an ideological companion to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man in its puncturing of the myth of American tolerance.
While the war was raging in Vietnam, Boston University itself became a battlefield, with student demonstrators and faculty supporters on one side and the administration of John Silber on the other. Silber was ruthless in dealing with opposition. For student demonstrators, he was quick to call the police. Faculty faced the kind of punishment overbearing administrators can deal out: if untenured, they had little hope of getting tenure, whatever their record in scholarship and teaching; if tenured, raises in salary were withheld.
Murray, long tenured, with a distinguished record in teaching and publications, saw his salary held down again and again. But he never wavered in his outspoken opposition to what was becoming more and more of a police state at Boston University: censorship of student newspapers, intimidation of activist students, the taking of photos of faculty and students who walked on picket lines. The Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts issued a report on Boston University, saying it had never before received so many complaints of violations of free speech about any other institution in the state.
The campus conflict came to a head over the refusal of the Silber Administration to recognize the newly formed American Association of University Professors (AAUP) faculty union, the District 65 union representing secretaries and clerical workers, the union of library workers. While resisting decent salaries for secretaries, Silber was raising his own salary year after year by huge increments, until he was getting more than the presidents of Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton—indeed, he became the highest paid university president in the country. And his captive Board of Trustees, which faculty came to see as a politburo doing the dictator’s bidding, was giving Silber special bonuses and real estate deals.
In a National Labor Review Board (NLRB) election, the faculty voted to unionize. But after a contract was negotiated, Silber reneged and, in an unprecedented action, the faculty went out on strike. Picket lines went up immediately in front of all the major buildings on campus. Murray Levin was a stalwart of the union. Our radical corner of the political science department consisted of Murray, myself, and Frances Fox Piven—and we all became heavily involved in strike activities. The secretaries, their union still unrecognized, within days went out on strike, and the streets around Boston University now saw a rare sight in academe—faculty and secretaries walking the picket lines together in solidarity.
When the faculty accepted an administration offer of a contract and went back to work, with the secretaries still on strike, a number of teachers refused to cross the secretaries’ picket line. Five of us—including Murray Levin—were immediately charged with violating the no-strike clause of the faculty contract and were threatened with dismissal. The case of “The BU Five” became notorious and aroused national—even international—protest. The heat became so intense that Silber finally dropped the charges.
Murray Levin retired from Boston University in 1997, but he could not give up teaching. He began teaching black high school students in Roxbury. The kids loved him. He devised all sorts of imaginative ways to begin discussions with them about important political ideas. He took them out for hamburgers and cokes and talked with them about their lives. He tape-recorded hundreds of hours of their ruminations, persuading them that their ideas about the world were important. These experiences went into his book Teach Me: Kids Will Learn When Oppression Is the Lesson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).
Murray married late, in his fifties, and when his wife Helen—already the mother of three children from her first marriage—bore his child, it was the happiest event of his life. He was a wonderful father; he and Josh were inseparable pals. I think that he would not have bonded so beautifully with the kids in Roxbury were it not for this new exciting experience of fatherhood.
Josh was fourteen when Murray, long plagued by heart trouble, died. At the funeral service, Josh delivered the most eloquent and touching of eulogies—expressing his love for his father and recalling incident after funny incident involving Murray. For Murray had a wonderful sense of humor—it was an important part of his rapport with young people, whether privileged and white or black and poor. To be with him was always great fun.
I thought it important to bring Murray Levin to the attention of people who did not know him—who did not know of his political steadfastness in the cause of justice and who did not have the enjoyment of spending time with this wonderful teacher, this acute social critic, this delightful, exuberant human being.
Originally published in The Monthly Review • February 2009