Remembering Paul Siegel (1916-2004)

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Alan Wald

PAUL SIEGEL, AN internationally known authority on the role of Christian thought in Shakespeare’s plays, and a devoted member of the organization Socialist Action, died on April 26, 2004 in New York City.

Siegel was 87 years old and had been suffering from stomach cancer. His wife, Edith Zwerling, an antique dealer and a Trotskyist militant in New York in the 1940s, had predeceased him in 1999 at the age of 92. He is survived by a daughter, Rosalind Robertson.

Siegel was born in 1916 in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of Nathan Siegel (a salesman) and Jennie Rabinowitz. His parents were both from Czarist Russia, where his father had been active in revolutionary movements. In the United States, however, Nathan Siegel tended to romanticize his experiences and was somewhat cynical about the possibilities of social change.

Siegel’s mother was religious and the family kept a kosher home. Paul was not required to attend synagogue, although a bar mitzvah was obligatory.

Growing up in Paterson and Hackensack, Paul was very bookish. At age 12 he read Tom Paine and announced himself an atheist; afterwards, he read utopian socialist works. His older cousin, Noah Greenspan, was already radical and an influence on him. At age 15 Paul decided he was a socialist and identified with the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas.

Because the Siegels had trouble making ends meet, Paul used an uncle’s address to enroll at City College of New York, and commuted there each day. While on the campus he read Leon Trotsky’s critique of British reformism, which convinced him that social democracy was not the answer. Following his cousin, he became a member of the Young Communist League (YCL).

In 1936, however, the year of his graduation, he read about the Moscow Trials and broke away from Stalinism, as did his cousin. At the same time, he decided that he wanted to become a teacher because it would afford him the opportunity to spend his life reading and studying.

Literary and Political Education

Siegel was admitted to the Harvard University Ph.D. program in English, arriving on campus as an unaffiliated Trotskyist. Each week he bought the Socialist Appeal at a local news stall, and eventually the owner of the stall mentioned this fact to George Weissman, a Trotskyist student at Harvard who was in charge of distributing the paper.

Weissman recruited Siegel to the newly formed Socialist Workers Party (SWP)  there was no youth group in the area  and Siegel soon recruited enough Harvard and MIT students to form a Cambridge branch. Eventually the Cambridge branch folded into the Boston Branch, led by the dynamic Larry Trainor.

During his five years at Harvard, Siegel participated in the newly formed course of study in Literature and Intellectual History, founded by F.O. Matthiessen and Theodore Spencer. The latter joined with Douglas Bush to supervise Siegel’s dissertation, “Studies in Elizabethan Melancholy.”

Since it was somewhat disjointed, the dissertation never became a book, although several sections appeared in literary quarterlies. Inasmuch as Bush was also a Christian Humanist, he also predisposed Siegel in the direction of his future work on Shakespeare.

In 1940 there was a split in the SWP between the supporters of Max Shachtman and James P. Cannon, ultimately over the class character of the Soviet Union. Siegel was swayed by Trotsky’s interventions to support Cannon.

In June of 1941, Siegel received his doctorate but failed to find a teaching job. After an unsuccessful attempt to industrialize, he was drafted in December 1941. He then spent four years and three months working in Medical Administration.

Siegel was mostly stationed in the United States, but eventually went to England and France. He kept in touch with the SWP through correspondence with Harry Ring, and meanwhile went to Officers Training School and rose to the rank of Captain. While in the army he continued publishing articles in scholarly journals.

After leaving the army, Siegel found that teaching jobs were plentiful. He taught briefly at the University of Connecticut, and then spent 1946 to 1949 as an instructor at the City College of New York. At this time he was a member of the NYC branch of the SWP. He sold the SWP newspaper The Militant and distributed leaflets, and also met Edith.

Between 1947 and 1950, Siegel published numerous book, film and drama reviews, as well as occasional articles, in The Militant, under the name “Paul Schapiro.” Some of the writers discussed were John Hersey, James T. Farrell, Willard Motley and George Orwell.  

Teacher and Writer

In 1949, a year after his marriage, Paul failed to get tenure at City College. With jobs now scarce once more, he and Edith moved to Wisconsin where Paul launched a career at Ripon College. While back in New York City on a fellowship, he became aware of the factional struggle between Cannon and Bert Cochran, and concluded that Cochran’s charge that the SWP had become sectarian was correct.

Returning to Wisconsin, he became a supporter of Cochran’s organization, Socialist Union, after Cochran’s supporters were expelled from the SWP in 1953 for allegedly abandoning orthodox Trotskyism. Thereafter he contributed reviews to the SU publication, American Socialist.

In the meantime, he successfully led a struggle at Ripon to prevent the establishment of a conservative think tank. Although rapidly promoted to full professor due to his copious and noteworthy publications, as well as his accomplishments as a teacher, he and Edith longed to return to New York. Thus he jumped at the opportunity to become Chair of the English Department at Long Island University, a position that he held for 15 years before he returned to the regular teaching faculty prior to retirement in 1978.

In the 1950s Siegel established himself as a principal contestant in the academic debate regarding Christian interpretations of Shakespeare, originally associated with scholars such as R.H. Tawney, Lawrence Stone, and H.R. Trevor Roper.

The central thesis of his first book, Shakespearian Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise (1957), substantially elaborated in Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (1968), is that Shakespeare’s plays are partly a literary expression of the world view of the “new aristocracy” that evolved in Queen Elizabeth’s time.

Siegel theorized that this social class was the senior partner in a temporary alliance with the nascent bourgeoisie and defended itself ideologically through the doctrine of “Christian Humanism.” Siegel described this world outlook as Medieval Christianity tempered by classical learning.

Due to the anti radical atmosphere in academe in the 1950s, Siegel did not use the label “Marxist” when initially defining his position, but he hoped that his methodology would be recognized for what it was.

Although this turned out to be the case in Eastern Europe, and Siegel was embraced by British Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill, the situation was different in the United States where general ignorance of Marxism caused scholars to assume that he was a Christian apologist. Thus Siegel vigorously clarified his stance in new writings during the 1960s.

Siegel was also a prolific author of essays and reviews throughout his career as well as in retirement. Some of these were collected into Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach (1986), and others appeared in scholarly journals such as Studies in Philology, Shakespeare Quarterly, College English and PMLA, starting in the mid 1940s.

In addition to Shakespeare, he wrote on Edmund Spenser, John Milton and John Donne, and in a few cases on contemporary U.S. writers such as Arthur Miller and Richard Wright.

Literature and Revolution

In the 1960s, living in New York, Siegel became reattracted to the SWP. As a leader of the antiwar movement at Long Island University, he observed the SWP’s activities and concluded that the organization was no longer sectarian.

In 1970, he edited an essential collection of Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art for the SWP’s Pathfinder Press, to which he provided a compelling introduction. Although he held back from rejoining for several years, because Edith was fearful that he would be compromised by having signed a loyalty oath when he took the Long Island University job, he was readmitted to the SWP in 1978 and contributed to The Militant and the party’s then theoretical magazine International Socialist Review.

However, in 1983 Siegel was once more expelled from the SWP, this time for defending Trotskyism against the idiosyncratic version of Castroism championed by a group of former students who had displaced the ageing traditional leadership of the Party.

From that time until his death, Siegel was a prolific contributor to Socialist Action on topics such as democracy, the Nazi holocaust, Zionism, ecology, and the history of the Russian Revolution.

Siegel also published several distinctive books, animated by a classical Marxist politics and perspective, with left wing publishing houses: Revolution and the Twentieth Century Novel (Monad, 1979), The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World (Zed, 1986), and The Great Reversal: Politics and Art in Solzhenitsyn (Walnut, 1991).

In English literary studies in the United States, Paul Siegel was one of the central figures who paved the way for the reinvigoration of the field with Marxist ideas when the political climate changed in the 1960s.

In particular, Shakespeare in his Time and Ours was addressed to radicalizing students and attempted to present Shakespeare as “a kind of subversive counterforce acting against the dehumanizing forces dulling us to the horrors of contemporary life” (“Introduction” to the 1983 reprint of Shakespearian Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise).

Siegel’s efforts helped to plant the seeds for Marxist and radical caucuses in the profession, and in 1974, after initiating a “Marxist Interpretations of Shakespeare Seminar” for the Modern Languages Association, Siegel was asked to be the guest editor of a special “Marxist issue” of The Shakespeare Newsletter.

Steeped in the Classics

Like many scholars of his generation, Siegel was trained in the idea of the sanctity of the classical British canon; for example, in the 1930s at Harvard, contemporary U.S. literature was considered a subject that one might independently study on weekends.

Similarly, Siegel’s Marxism was mostly that of the 19th and early 20th century masters, although he had admired the work of Ernest Mandel since the 1940s.

Siegel did express some sympathy for quasi Marxist developments such as the “New Historicism” in 17th century studies, but he remained skeptical of the possibilities for new directions in aesthetic theory generated by the post World war II revival of the Frankfurt School, Third World Marxism, and Working Class Studies.

This placed him somewhat on the sidelines of Marxist literary discussions after the 1970s. Personally, as a specialist in “non canonical” writers -those forgotten or misunderstood by the dominant culture  I found Paul warm and forthcoming, and exceedingly thoughtful, when we discussed Shakespeare as well as contemporary political concerns.

However, Siegel was certainly a unique and inspiring figure among literary scholars by virtue of his loyalty to working class traditions and classical Marxism, and his belief in the necessity of socialist organization.

While other initiators of the 1960s academic Left were variously drawn to neo Stalinist and postmodernist versions of Marxism, and a number abandoned activism in the difficult years of Reaganism, Siegel, although a full generation older, remained on course.

In a 1983 autobiographical interview that I conducted with Paul in Oberlin, Ohio, he told me that he came to Shakespeare originally because of the challenge that the conventional scholarship of the time posed to Marxism.

The “greatness” of Shakespeare was in the 1950s based in the belief that his work “transcended ideology,” whereas Paul held that Shakespeare was, in fact, expressing the dominant ideology of his epoch.

With characteristic personal modesty, Paul insisted that his own talents were unexceptional, but that the writing of Marx and Engels, and to some extent Christopher Hill, had allowed him to leave a mark on the world of scholarship.

To those of us who had the honor of his friendship and comradeship, Paul Siegel was much more than this.  He was an inimitable link in the continuity of U.S. Marxist scholarship, and in the tradition of intellectuals allied with the revolutionary socialist movement. We are privileged that he bequeathed such a bountiful legacy of writings for us to read and discuss in years to come.

ATC 111, July-August 2004