I was the Left Opposition

Stuart Middleton

  • Max Eastman: A Life by Christoph Irmscher
    Yale, 434 pp, £35.00, August 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 22256 2

American radicalism, the art critic Hilton Kramer claimed in a review of Max Eastman’s autobiography in 1965, produced ‘not an intellectual tradition that illuminates current problems but a collection of case histories’, of which Eastman’s is ‘in some respects the most dismaying’. It isn’t difficult to see what he meant. Eastman’s career as editor, essayist, philosopher, translator, activist and poet made him a major figure in American intellectual life, and at times a glamorous one. But his journey across the political spectrum, from the bohemian radicalism of pre-war Greenwich Village, to Trotskyist left-oppositionism, to the conservatism of William F. Buckley’s National Review, seemed to exemplify the failures of socialism in the 20th century. In his final years Eastman himself was sometimes overcome by a sense of personal futility; he complained on his death bed that his life had been wasted. Christoph Irmscher’s new biography uncovers some new details of that life, but also gives us an opportunity to reconsider the hopes and failures of radical politics in the 20th century, and their possibilities in the 21st.

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