Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians, and the Left

By Stanley Rothman & S. Robert Lichter

With a New Introduction by the Authors

When Roots of Radicalism first appeared, Nathan Glazer noted "this is a major work on the relationship between radical politics and psychological development." He went on to predict "no one will be able to write about the left and radicalism without taking it into account." Now finally available in a paperback edition, with a new introduction, the reader can evaluate just how prescient the authors are in their review of the student radical movement. Replete with interviews of radical activists, their provocative book paints a disturbing picture.

The book raises critical questions about much previous social science research and ultimately about the reason an entire generation of Americans was so infatuated with the radical mystique. Robert A. Nisbet called the book "an extraordinarily skilled fusion of historical and psychological approaches to one of the most explosive decades in American social history." Robert E. Lane added "it will be prudent to read Rothman and Lichter along with our well worn copies of Keniston and Fromm." Writing in Political Psychology, Dan E. Thomas argued "the [book] is arguably the most important and definitely the most provocative book in the field of personality and politics to have appeared in the past several years." Recently, in Forbes, Peter Britmelow referred to Roots of Radicalism as "Rothman's main achievement as a political scientist...his definitive study of the 1960s New Left."

In the new introduction, the authors review the initial reception of Roots of Radicalism and its subsequent treatment. They also review the major literature on the causes, course, and consequences of the student movement of the 1960s which has appeared since the publication of the book. Finally, they update their own analysis.


Phil Ochs's life and death bears a certain resemblance to that of Bob Starobin, although the pathology was clearly more serious. Unfortunately, we know little about the dynamics of his early life, despite a book-length biography and a profile in Esquire, both quite sympathetic. Ochs, a folk/protest singer of the 1960s, thrived on the excitement of mass rallies and the cheers of large numbers of people. His commitment to revolution and hostility to the Establishment were rather incongruously linked with admiration for the macho "gentile" heroes of western movies. As one friend noted: "The interesting thing about him was that he was sixty percent cultural conservative and forty percent political radical. He loved John Wayne, Audie Murphy, William Buckley and Che Guevera."

As the Vietnam War ended and protest faded, Ochs's talent seemed to decline as well. He also grew increasingly paranoid. Convinced that the CIA was going to kill him, he carried about a number of weapons, including a hammer and sometimes a pitchfork. He hired bodyguards and bought an interest in a bar in New York's Soho, which he intended to make the center of the revolution. This activity led to very little, and, given the loss of the narcissistic gratification provided by large audiences, Ochs's pathology grew more severe. He created a whole new personality called "Lewt Train." He would call up his friends to tell them that he had killed Phil Ochs and was just using his body. Eventually Lewt Train became John Train, a persona with grandiose ideas about such exploits as invading Chile on horseback or taking Fidel Castro on a tour of America: "Ochs became a shifting combination of all the heroes he had ever admired: John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Yasir Arafat, Howard Hughes - men of power and action. . . . At times it almost seemed as if he were living a movie and watching it at the same time." He became involved in drunken brawls again and again, threatening to kill people; always trying to establish his masculinity and create the revolution. It was to no avail. His hyperactivity was followed by a severe depression that ended in suicide. After he died, a large memorial concert was held for him. Thousands of the people in the Movement came. To them, Ochs was a tragic hero.

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