Harvey Goldberg: An Appreciation

Against the Current, No. 11, November-December 1987

Patrick M. Quinn

IN A TYPICALLY antiseptic fashion the New York Times reported the death of cancer on Wednesday, May 20, in Madison, Wisconsin of Harvey Goldberg, Calling Goldberg “a historian and political advocate,” the Times noted that “while specializing in European social history and advocating leftist causes” Goldberg taught at Oberlin (1948-51), Ohio State (1951-63), and the University of Wisconsin (1963 until his death).

What was not said, however, was that Harvey Goldberg was perhaps the finest Marxist teacher of his time; that he served as the inspiration for an entire generation of radical students at the University of Wisconsin, this writer included, during the 1960s, and that he never abandoned his vision of, and quest for, a just, humane, socialist society.

Goldberg was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1922. He did both his undergraduate work and doctorate in history at the University of Wisconsin where he was a contemporary of C. Wright Mills. He published two books, American Radicals (1957), an edited collection of essays, and a magnificent study of the life of the French socialist leader Jean Jaures who was assassinated on the eve of World War I.

Storyteller & Social Scientist

But it was as a teacher and lecturer, and ardent champion of socialism that Goldberg will be remembered. Much of his research conducted during sabbaticals in Paris and at the Institute for Social History in Amsterdam was woven into the fabric of his legendary lectures. Goldberg would stride vigorously back and forth across the stages of the largest lecture halls at the University of Wisconsin delivering his lectures on European social history nonstop, save for appropriate dramatic pauses, for the full fifty minutes without recourse to notes.

In the crowded lecture halls, invariably crammed to capacity, with those unable to find a seat spilled into the aisles and hallways, the always enraptured audience sat mesmerized as Goldberg brought alive accounts of the class struggle in France and elsewhere. Although a diminutive man, almost emaciated, he had a tremendous capacity to describe vividly. His retelling of the struggle for socialism in the 19th and early 20th century ‘”was at once impassioned and rife with dramatic tension.

Yet Harvey Goldberg gave his audiences much more than good theatre; he taught his students to think, to accept no facile answers, to countenance no glib formulae. In the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, he insisted upon subjecting the historical record to the most rigorous scrutiny and the contributions of these giants were not exempted.

Although Goldberg was fiercely independent and, at least as a mature adult, never joined a socialist organization, he most certainly was influenced by a Trotskyist perspective and held the work of the French Trotskyist historian, Pierre Broue, in particularly high esteem.

An essentially shy and diminutive person, Goldberg did not hesitate to spend whatever time requested of him to discuss this or that aspect of a given lecture, or of a disputed political point. Nor was he an arm-chair academic who merely taught history. He could always be counted upon to address a mass gathering of students assembled in Madison, whether it be the strike of Black students in 1969, the strike of teaching assistants in 1970, or the massive antiwar demonstrations that occurred throughout the period.

Prior to Goldberg’s arrival in Madison in 1963, the left at the University of Wisconsin had been under the influence of the mild, benign socialism of the historian William Appleman Williams (who was a close friend of Goldberg’s) and the sociologist and mentor of C. Wright Mills, Hans Gerth, and the anti-communist liberalism of the historian George Mosse. Harvey Goldberg almost immediately filled this rather pallid vacuum with an impassioned, cutting-edge Marxist perspective that gave real meaning to Marx’s observation that “philosophers only study the world, the point, however, is to change it.”

The Marxist method Harvey Goldberg advocated was scarcely a sterile, contemplative academic exercise. He taught that one had to understand history in order to make it and he resurrected Marxism as an essential, vital system for countless thousands of students who took his courses.

His death is a significant loss, but his legacy will endure as those of us who learned so much from him help to provide the continuity from our generation of American radicals to our successors, who will join us in the struggle for a just and humane socialist world, much as Harvey Goldberg served as a bridge linking our generation with the lives of those recounted in his book American Radicals.

November-December 1987, ATC 11

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