The Spectacle Blog

Kagan’s Senior Socialism

By on 5.14.10 | 5:06PM

I've been reading through young Elena Kagan's most impressive senior thesis on early 20th century New York socialism. What a loss to the history profession that she did not continue in this vein. Such easy, clear command of material and felicity in presentation is rare to come by.

As for those who insist her interest in socialism betrayed no real sympathy for it -- most recently Dave Weigel, the Washington Post's leading scold of America's right-wing -- wishful thinking aside, they may be ignoring a real giveaway in her thesis, where time and again she tries to correct impressions that socialists were only marginally significant. Instead, in her view, a socialist party "whose program and ideology were winning over increasing numbers" was done in mainly by its internal divisions, by its "failure ever to achieve internal harmony." To me that comes across as a lament -- "an expression or feeling of grief," according to my dictionary. And one only laments when what one hoped would happen did not.

By the way, Kagan may not have been up on her Russian history. The first mistake I've noticed comes on page 20 of her thesis, in this sentence: "In Russia, a very few had enrolled in People's Will, a terrorist group that could claim responsibility for Czar Alexander I's assasination [sic]." The pre-spellcheck misspelling aside, the czar assassinated by People's Will was Alexander II, in 1881. Alexander I died in 1825, of causes unknown. You'd think Kagan would have had a greater sense of who freed Russia's serfs.

On the other hand, maybe she did have some sense of Russian history. The very title of her senior thesis -- "To The Final Conflict: Socialism In New York City, 1900-1933" -- is an unmistakable play on the title of Edmund Wilson's classic, sympathetic study of socialism's rise and its culminating with Lenin's return to Petrograd's Finland Station in 1917. Talk about a giveaway.

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