Historians May Fade Away; Their Students Remain: Eric Foner’s Last Class at Columbia

For more than 30 years, since 1982, Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, has lectured thousands of undergrads and helped 80 doctoral candidates earn their PhD. at Columbia University. He has been a prolific writer, contributor to The Nation, granted numerous interviews and chaired all 3 major national historical societies. He may fade into retirement; his ideas continue.

As you probably know, Columbia is one of the pre-revolutionary colonial universities. Columbia (Columbia.edu) was preceded by Harvard (1636), College of William and Mary (1693), University of Pennsylvania (1740), Yale (1701) and College of New Jersey (1746, now known as Princeton University). Columbia was founded in 1754. Then there was Brown (1764), Queens College (1766, now known as Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey) and Dartmouth College (1769).

Foner was born February 7, 1943. His parents and three uncles were educators in New York City:

  • His mother, Liza (1909-2005), was a high school art teacher and his father, Jack (1910-1999), was an historian active in both the trade union and civil rights movements.
  • Jack’s twin-brother, Philip (1910-1994) was a Marxist labor historian with communist leanings. The Foner twins taught at City College of New York (CCNY).
  • Henry (1919- ) worked in the CCNY registrar’s office and was president of the Furrier’s Union in the ILGWU.
  • Moe (1916-2002) was longtime Executive Secretary of 1199/SEIU, Service Employees International Union, New York’s Health and Human Service Union.
Eric Foner (R) and Steven Blumrosen After the Final Lecture.
Eric Foner (R) and Steven Blumrosen After the Final Lecture.

Jack, Philip and Henry were purged from CCNY in the early 1940s due to the NY State legislature’s HUAC-like Rapp-Coudert Committee. According to “The Struggle for

Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-42, “the techniques pioneered by the Rapp-Coudert Committee – private interrogations, followed by public hearings for those individuals named by the committee’s ‘friendly’ witnesses – became the model for the McCarthy investigations of the 1950s.”

Moe escaped the Rapp-Coudert purge because he worked for a private school.

Jack became a freelance lecturer and Eric’s “first great teacher.” According to Henry, Jack beat the drum for the family band, literally. He was joined by Henry on the alto and Moe on tenor saxophone. Leonard Lyons, in a New York Post column, named the band: “Suspended Swing.” Phil would have played along, but he had a job as educational director of the Fur Floor Workers’ Union.

W. E. B. DuBois sometimes joined the Foner family for dinner. Eric reports that he “imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs – Tom Paine, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and W. E. B. Du Bois – were as central to the historical drama as presidents and captains of industry, and how a commitment to social justice could infuse one’s attitudes towards the past.”

The mere fact that Columbia would support Eric Foner’s work is, itself, evidence of change with the passage of time.

Monday, May 2, 2016, Eric gave his final pre-retirement lecture titled “Looking Forward.” [1]

This was an undergraduate survey course of American Radicalism. The titles of each week’s lecture may provide a history buff with some sense of the breadth and longevity of U.S. radicalism. [2]

  • Origins of American Radicalism,” including the Boston Massacre, utopian societies, Francis “Fanny” Wright, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1776) and Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1773) and “To His Excellency General Washington” (1776).
  • The Crusade Against Slavery,” including John Brown, slave petitions for freedom (1773), Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), David Walker’s “An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” (1829), The Liberator’s Opening Editorial (1831), Nat Turner’s “Confession” (1831), Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852), Martin Delany’s “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States Politically Considered” (1852) and John Brown’s “Last Speech to the Jury” (1859).
  • The Origins of Feminism and the Crisis of Reconstruction,” including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Sarah Grimké’s “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes” (1838), Margaret Fuller’s “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” (1845), Seneca Fall Convention “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” (1848), Lucy Stone’s “Letter to Abby Kelley Foster” (1867) and Susan B. Anthony’s “Appeal to the National Democratic Convention (1868).
  • Early Working-Class Radicalism,” including Henry George, Thomas Skidmore’s “The Rights of Man to Property” (1829), Charles Grandison Finney’s “Lectures on the Revivals of Religion” (1829), Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), Working Men’s Party’s “Declaration of Independence” (1829), Frances Wright’s “Address to Young Mechanics” (1830), George Henry Evans’ “Vote Yourself a Farm” (1846), Ira Steward’s “A Reduction of Hours, An Increase in Wages” (1865), National Labor Union’s “Declaration of Principles” (1867), Colored National Labor Union’s “Statement of Principles” (1869), Joseph A. Ducas’ “The Great Uprising” (1877) and Knights of Labor’s “Preamble” (1878).
  • American Populism,” including Samuel Gompers who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Chicago’s Haymarket where a bomb and gunfire punctuated a demonstration for an 8 hour day – with the ensuing litigation, radicals were galvanized. International Workers’ Day became a May 1 holiday, the People’s Party “Omaha Platform” (1892), Chinese Equal Rights League’s “Appeal” (1892), Pullman Workers’ “Statement on the American Railway Union” (1894) and William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold Speech” (1896).
  • American Socialism,” including Eugene V. Debs, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, William D. “Big Bill” Haywood’s “The General Strike” (1911), Emma Goldman’s “Anarchism: What it Really Stands For” (1911), Mary Heaton Vorse’s “The Trouble at Lawrence” (1912) and Norman Thomas’ “Why I Am a Socialist” (1928).
  • The Birth of Modern Feminism,” including the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), Suffragists, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland” (1915), Carrie Chapman Catt’s “National Call for a League of Women Voters” (1919), Mother Jones’ “Speech to Striking Coal Miners” (1912) and Eugene V. Debs “Address to the Jury” (1918).
  • The Rise of Black Radicalism,” including W. E. B. DuBois, Sacco and Vanzetti, Hubert H. Harrison’s “Two Negro Radicalisms (1919), W. A. Domingo “The New Negro – What is He?” (1920), Marcus Garvey “Africa for the Africans” (1923), Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926). This week, Prof. Foner started assigning chapters from a very readable, yet detailed, book by Stephen Tuck, We Ain’t What We Ought To Be.
  • The Old Left,” including William Z. Foster’s “Acceptance Speech at the National Nominating Convention of the Workers (Communist) Party of America” (1928) and Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” (1935).
  • The Civil Rights Revolution,” including the 1960 Greensboro sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Norman Rockwell painting of a little girl marching to school protected by Federal marshals, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) begun with an $800 grant from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and chaired from 1960-69 by Marion Barry, Charles f. McDew, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, H. “Rap” Brown and Phil Hutchings; A. Philip Randolph’s “Why Should We March (1942), Jo Ann Robinson’s “The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Made It” (1955), Robert F. Williams’ “We Must Fight Back (1959), John Lewis’ “Wake Up America!” (1963), Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook” (1963).
  • New Lefts,” Black Panthers, Mario Savio and Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, Anti-War, SDS and the Port Huron Statement, Pentagon Protests and Marchs on Washington, Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964) and Stokely Carmichael’s “What We Want” (1966).
  • New Kinds of Radicalism,” including Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics: A Manifesto for Revolution” (1970), Susan Brownmiller’s “The Enemy Within” (1970), Francis M. Beal’s “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female” (1971), Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (1973), The Columbia Strike Coordinating Committee’s “Columbia Liberated” (1968), Lucian Truscott IV’s “Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square” (1969), Martha Shelly’s “Notes of a Radical Lesbian” (1969) and Runi Krouzman’s “WTO: The Battle in Seattle (An Eyewitness Account)” (1999).
  • Looking Forward

Of course, having just a list of concepts, people and reference sources provides many hours of reading fun and leads to the question: What does this mean for us?

There is the question fortunate owners of shovel-ready construction projects asked in 2007 when the neo-conservatives of the Bush Administration brought the U. S. to the precipice of a great depression. Jobs and equipment went away; project owners were left with land, building material, and the ability to use their own minds and hands. They asked: What is to be done?

The denouement of Eric Foner’s lecture “Looking Forward” wove together strands of radical history to explain 2016 Democratic presidential politics by differentiating between Hillary’s Neo-Liberalism and Bernie’s Democratic Socialism.

Foner said every president, starting with Ronald Reagan, has held the neo-liberal perspective. I guess he means there is no real difference between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. They emphasize profits and the efficiencies in global economics which result in the rich getting richer, the middle class shrinking and pathways to the top constricting, and the poor remaining without enough (and seeming even worse-off compared with the affluence of consumerism promoted in the media).

In comparison, the Democratic Socialism of Bernie Sanders recognizes there is more to life, culture and society than just economics. In economics, Adam Smith’s invisible hand is not causing individual actions to automatically benefit society. There are real people who, when allowed,[3] work together to structure the economy to maximize their own profits, without regard to the increase or decrease in the wealth of voters or how much happiness people can afford to pursue within their spheres of liberty.

After the lecture, I saw Hamilton.

Not the Broadway show, but a statute at the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in New Jersey; the site where Alexander Hamilton suggested harnessing the power of the falls, and someone did.

According to the NPS sign:
“Hamilton founded the City of Patterson in 1792 to create the world’s first planned city of innovation built around a hydropower system to encourage manufacturing.”

Alexander Hamilton statute at Great Falls, Patterson, NJ.
Alexander Hamilton statute at Great Falls, Patterson, NJ. Photo c/o Steven Blumrosen.

One lesson learned from Foner’s class is that radicals have often pushed to expand ideals such as freedom and liberty for more people.

To consider one issue: Before the Revolution, in Pennsylvania, “Religious liberty” was “radicalized” with the notion that a diversity of religious opinion and practice would be protected. Now, it seems, there are anti-radicals who would have the words “religious liberty” mean that they can require others to do, or not do, what they interpret their religion requires of them. In other words, they would have other people’s freedom and liberty curtailed to conform to their own. Anyone who disagrees with them, including the government, is said to be infringing upon their religious liberty. That’s something to talk about!

During his campaign to be the Republican nominee, Ted Cruz did talk about the rights of corporations to determine benefits offered to employees. While this may sound innocuous and neutral, it has a disparate impact on women if a corporation does not include coverage for abortions or childcare. It does not matter what someone’s views on these particular issues are because the radical/anti-radical issue is whether the employer is enabling employees to make decisions for themselves or making the choice for them.

On Tuesday, the people had their say by not voting for Cruz. He withdrew. Political conversation turned to action that changed history.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has an essay by Eric Foner titled “The Contested History of American Freedom” which concludes: “Today, the idea of freedom remains as central as ever to American culture and politics – and as contested. One thing seems certain. The story of American freedom is forever unfinished. Debates over its meaning will undoubtedly continue, and new definitions will emerge to meet the exigencies of the twenty-first-century world, a globalized era in which conversations about freedom and its meaning are likely to involve all mankind.”

To continue the conversation a bit, does Foner mean “mankind” in a sense similar to Jefferson when he said “All men are created equal” or in the sense of one person-one vote, regardless of how “different” and “unmanly” the person may seem? [4]

[1]. Disclosure: Prof. Foner invited me to audit this course.

[2]. For excerpts from the articles in the following list, see The Radical Reader by Foner’s former students Timothy Patrick McCarthy (now at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government) and John McMillian (now at Georgia State University).

[3]. Anti-trust statutes and regulations are still on the books. Radicals with knowledge of history might want to consider modern society’s encouragement of corporate collusion. For example, Frank-Dodd (which was passed in response to the bailout of banks too big to let fail) requires banks with bail-out potential to police the transactions of each other because they are each-other’s insurers. Federal bail-out of one will be reimbursed by the others. Do we believe in competition or do we want competitors to have inside knowledge of other businesses like them?

[4]. Prof. Foner did not assign much recent literature for this history course. However, his former students included in The Radical Reader excerpts from source material for continuing conversations, like:

  • Michelangelo Signorile’s “A Queer Manifesto” (1993)
  • Tony Kushner’s “Matthew’s Passion” (1998)
  • Thomas Frank’s “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” (1995) [Hint: Corporations coopt the language of dissent]
  • asha badele’s “Habeus Corpus is a Legal Entitlement” (1996) [Suggestion: Compare with the sounds of written language in Ta-Nihisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015)]
  • Transgender Movement’s “International Bill of Gender Rights” (1995) and “Read My Lips” (1997) [Quote: “Trans-identity … is the political category we are forced to occupy when we do certain things with our bodies.”]
  • Black Radical Congress’ “Freedom Agenda” (1999) [Hint: After 50 years of integration and recovery from Jim Crow’s separate and unequal segregation, people feeling the effects of racial discrimination and oppression know that “black” has not yet become “white.”]
  • Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s “5 Days that Shook the World” (2000) [Quote: They were not joined en-mass by labor (though the Steelworkers’ ‘Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment’ were there) and later mass street demonstrations did not have the same effect, WTO protesters won significant on-going victories from their action in Seattle, “namely that they had managed to place their issue squarely on the national and indeed global political agenda.”
  • Ralph Nader’s “A Crisis of Democracy” (2000) [Brilliant theorist and public interest organizer who felt deeply that “The unconstrained behavior of big business is subordinating our democracy to the control of a corporate plutocracy that knows few self-imposed limits to the spread of its power to all sectors of our society.” He needed to do something beyond what he had already done. He decided to exercise his right to run for the presidency. Result: In a three-way race, election returns from Florida were so close the Supreme Court effectively selected George W. Bush. Moral: Be cautious of strategies to achieve what you wish for.]
  • Harvard Living Wage Campaign’s “Why We Are Sitting In” (2001)
  • Campaign for Peace and Democracy’s “A call for a new, democratic U.S. foreign policy” (2003) [Quote: “The Bush administration has already exploited its ‘War on Terrorism’ to intimidate critics, undermine civil liberties and push through a blatantly pro-corporate agenda.”]

Steven Blumrosen is an author, foreign correspondent, journalist, OpEd contributor, President of The Democratic Club of Bonita Springs and South Lee County, Instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), computer DIYer, photography enthusiast, jack-attorney, and orphan.

Steven is completing a book with his father about Edward Coles, who believed Tom Jefferson’s battle-cry for equality and may have been the first plantation owner to free, rather than profit from, his slaves.