Michael Wreszin, Biographer of American Radicals, Dies at 85

September 20, 2012 | Faculty

By PAUL VITELLO

September 16, 2012

Michael Wreszin, a biographer of radical 20th-century American intellectuals who were prominent antiwar activists, among them the social critic Dwight Macdonald, died on Aug. 12 in Manhattan. He was 85.

His son, Dan, announced his death this week.

Mr. Wreszin, a history professor at Queens College and an antiwar activist himself, was a student of the American left and the many ideological movements competing for dominance of it between the 1920s and 1960s, including socialism, communism, libertarianism and anarchism.

His subjects were cosmopolitan, humanist thinkers who saw a growing militarism in American political culture but whose scrupulous habits of mind could make them misfits in the ideological camps they joined.

In his preface to “A Rebel in Defense of Tradition,” his 1994 biography of Macdonald, Mr. Wreszin described the sliver of ideological ground occupied by one generation of such radical outliers.

“I wanted to study and inform my students about radicals who opposed Stalinist Communism,” he wrote, “but who were also critics of the liberal cold warriors and of much of American foreign policy, as well as capitalist consumer culture.”

All his subjects were of the same type: fiercely independent, sometimes contrarian, lonely freethinkers. The subject of his first book, “Oswald Garrison Villard: Pacifist at War” (1965), was publisher and editor of The Nation magazine from 1900 to 1932.

Villard began advocating for racial equality in 1910, founded the American Anti-Imperialist League and supported the New Deal, urging nationalization of American industry to end the Great Depression. In the late 1930s, he lost many friends on the political left when he joined the America First Committee, which opposed America’s entry into World War II, and allied himself with Senator Robert Taft, Republican of Ohio, the New Deal’s most prominent opponent.

Albert Jay Nock, the subject of Mr. Wreszin’s biography “The Superfluous Anarchist” (1972), was an Episcopal clergyman and editor of the 1920s anarchist journal The Freeman. He opposed federal taxes and American entry into both world wars, which he said would militarize the country and lead to fascism. His magazine published progressive writers like Lincoln Steffens, Bertrand Russell and Thorstein Veblen. But Nock’s elitist views and distrust of democratic rule alienated him from liberals, and after his death in 1945, his work became influential among conservative thinkers, including Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley Jr.

The biography of Macdonald, more than a decade in the making, was his most popular book and was credited with helping to restore the reputation of a once-prominent American dissident.

Macdonald (1906-1982) founded Politics, one of the few American periodicals openly critical of the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From the 1930s to the 1950s, his political views evolved from Communist to anti-Stalinist Trotskyist and on to pacifist, anarchist and what he called “anarcho-libertarian.” He was later a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam as well as a critic who wrote about movies for Esquire and whose observations on literature ran beside the luxury ads in The New Yorker.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his New York Times review of the Macdonald biography, wrote: “Despite such wrong turns and self-contradictions, Mr. Macdonald emerges as a hugely appealing figure in these pages. Mr. Wreszin lends sense somehow to every step in his subject’s sometimes erratic reasoning.”

Mr. Wreszin was born on Oct. 9, 1926, in Glen Ridge, N.J., one of two children of Mavis and Henry Wreszin. His father was a New York stockbroker. His parents divorced when he was a child. After serving in the Navy at the end of World War II, he received his bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University and his Ph.D. at Brown in 1961. He began teaching history at Queens College in 1965.

Besides his son, he is survived by his wife, Carol; a daughter, Sarah; and a granddaughter.

Robert Westbrook, a history professor at the University of Rochester, described Mr. Wreszin as a scholar of “American radicals who were hard to pin down.”

“What I think he found interesting,” he added, “was how difficult it was for intellectuals to be disciplined members of ideological movements. And I think he believed that was how it should be: difficult.”

Mr. Wreszin was a prolific writer, whether reviewing books or composing letters to the editor. (He ventured that The Times’s letter editor kept a wastebasket labeled “Wreszin Discard.”) In one review, in 1997, in New Politics, an independent socialist journal, he offered something of his own credo in discussing another book about Macdonald.

“For those despairing souls who identify with the left,” Mr. Wreszin wrote, “this is a history of a group of dedicated radical intellectuals who experience almost nothing but defeat, disillusionment and ultimate loss of hope,” he wrote. “This story offers an example of the message in Albert Camus’s novel ‘The Plague.’ The struggle is endless and futile, but engaging in the struggle is what makes one human.”

Originally published by The New York Times