Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2009

Leon and me

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 1:06 am

With the exception of the 10 years I spent in the Trotskyist movement, my four years at Bard College from 1961 to 1965 were the most intense of my life. I entered Bard at the age of 16, a voluntary exile from my oppressive high school. As a freshman, I was elated to discover that Bard was a haven for people exactly like me. Moving into my dormitory in early September, I was amazed to hear another student reciting lines from Arthur Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” in the original French as he walked upstairs to his room. I had arrived! Whether it was heaven or hell, I didn’t care. Just as long as it wasn’t Fallsburg Central High School.

Bard was part of a handful of “experimental” colleges that had been launched in the early 20th century in a bid to integrate work and study. Others included Black Mountain College, Antioch and Goddard. The first two have folded and a downsized version of Goddard continues. Apparently contemporary American society is not a fertile ground for educational institutions that go against an ever-increasingly corporate grain.

Bard would have suffered the same fate unless it had been “rescued” by Leon Botstein, who assumed the office of President in 1975 at the tender age of 29. He was always the wunderkind, having graduated from high school at the age of 16-like me. He lined up his first job as President of Franconia College in 1970, setting a record for the youngest man to hold such an office in American history. Of course, it helped that his father-in-law was on the board of trustees of Franconia. From an early age, Leon grasped the importance of such old boy’s networks, which are essential to the capitalist system-including its blue chip colleges and universities.

Although Botstein landed the Bard job on the strength of his achievements at Franconia, some blame him for the school’s ruin. In the year he left for Bard, Franconia went bankrupt. His successor there claimed he had been left a $339,000 debt. Botstein prefers not to talk about Franconia, which was a kind of internship for him. He muses “It was such a long time ago”, which was for him “a youthful rite of passage that he likens to a hospital residency.”

That is according to a fascinating interview with the wunderkind that appeared in the October 4, 1992 N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine. The Times reports that “mention of the college’s closing, and any attempt to blame its demise on him, uncorks indignation that counters his happy public image.” He told the interviewer, “his usually well-crafted sentences unraveling in a sputtering rage”:

When I was offered the job, many people said you’re committing professional suicide. Don’t deviate. Stay on the track. Be an assistant professor someplace, blah, blah, don’t, you know, don’t, don’t take any risks.

In the mid-1970s Bard College was supposedly in the danger of going bankrupt and Leon Botstein was hired to rescue it. Rescue it he did, but in the process he turned the school into a completely different type of institution. It became larger and more prestigious. The Bard I knew was a haven for “losers” like Chevy Chase, who had flunked out of Dartmouth or many lesser-known free spirits who were probably much less interested in material success than the average college student today. After all, it was the prosperous early 60s and getting a job was not the ordeal it is today.

Not long after I dropped out of the SWP in 1978, I went up to Bard for graduation ceremonies-it must have been around 1983 or so. Now that I had cut my ties with people I had known since 1967, I was hoping to develop new social networks-possibly with other Bard graduates. At least that was the hope. The most interesting part of the graduation ceremonies was Leon’s address to the assembly in which he quoted some 19th century philosopher, as he put it, who was urging young people to go out and change the world or words to that effect. He then revealed that it was Karl Marx who said these words.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Leon was quite skilled at leftist camouflage, so necessary to sustain one’s credibility in a college that Walter Winchell called the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson.” He was still up to his old tricks when he told the graduating class of 2008 to follow the example of one Abe Osheroff:

About a month ago, my eye caught a lengthy obituary, with a photograph, of one Abe Osheroff in the New York Times. He died in his early 90s on the West Coast. I doubt if anyone in this vast crowd has ever heard of him. I certainly hadn’t. Mr. Osheroff grew up on the Lower East Side, went to City College in the early 1930s, and joined the Communist Party. His claim to fame was that he was a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade and fought on behalf of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Despite the defeat of the Republic, Mr. Osheroff, like most Lincoln Brigade veterans, remained fiercely idealistic and committed to progressive causes. Mr. Osheroff made a documentary on the Spanish Civil War. He was a carpenter and a kind of professional gadfly, protesting and speaking out against all sorts of injustice and causes, including the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. He became a legend in the Pacific Northwest, an embodiment, if not a caricature, of the left-wing Jewish, liberal activist, born of working-class parents, armed with convictions forged in the competitive and inspiring crucible of City College in the era of the Great Depression.

Mr. Osheroff, like many of his fellow fighters on behalf of Republican Spain, believed that if only the democracies of the world had not been so cowardly, and had actually risen to the defense of the Republican government, Franco would have been defeated and, in turn, Hitler and Mussolini. The carnage and catastrophe of the Second World War would have been prevented. But as Mr. Osheroff got older, he realized the outcome of his generation’s last “great cause”-its failure-was less important than the experience itself. What one does, he concluded, ought not to be measured by the result-the success or failure-but by the principles that guide one’s behavior. The obituary concluded with this observation from Mr. Osheroff: “If you need a victory, you aren’t a fighter, you’re an opportunist.”

I wish to commend Abe Osheroff’s insight to the Class of 2008. As you go forward to choose what you do and how you do it, whether in the private sphere or public arena, if you first calculate the odds for success and failure and avoid risk, you will not only show cowardice but cheat yourself. Be fighters. Resist the temptation to shrink from the odds. It is finally those who challenge the conventional wisdom of probabilities who change the calculus of reality and contribute something new to the world around them.

After having wised up to Leon years ago, I was no longer in any mood to put up with bullshit about some poor harassed commie like Abe Osheroff and dashed off an email to Leon congratulating him for having the chutzpah to praise Abe after he had replaced Joel Kovel with a professional red-baiter in the Alger Hiss chair. Usually he ignores my barbs, but this time he wrote back saying that he probably could do nothing to please me. I suppose that was true, especially after I learned from an alumni newsletter in 1987 that he had appointed Asher Edelman and Martin Peretz to the board of trustees.

Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout artist and Bard Graduate, served as the inspiration for the Gordon Gecko character in “Wall Street”. Edelman’s takeovers often resulted in the permanent unemployment of “excess” workers. Edelman had gained some notoriety that year as an adjunct professor in the Columbia Business School. He promised $100,000 to any student who could identify a suitable target for a corporate takeover. Columbia was so red-faced that they instructed Edelman to withdraw the offer. I imagine, given Leon’s skills as a fundraiser, that he must have viewed Edelman as the perfect addition to the board, mammon-worshipping and all.

Peretz was even worse. In 1987, I had become very involved with sending volunteers to Nicaragua. On trips there, I was always dismayed to hear reports on schoolteachers being tortured or killed by the contras funded by Reagan and trained by the CIA. Peretz hailed them as freedom-fighters in the pages of his magazine The New Republic.

In disgust I sent Leon a letter (this was before the days of email) congratulating him on the new additions to the board. I was sure that they would open up enormous fund-raising possibilities even though one was a crook and the other a propagandist for torturers and murderers. He wrote back a long reply defending his actions. From that moment on, I figured out that I was dealing with someone who had the character of a bourgeois politician. You know how difficult it was to get George W. Bush to admit he ever did anything wrong? That pales in comparison when you are dealing with Leon Botstein.

By the early 1990s, Leon had access to the kind of funding he needed to transform Bard. The goal was to turn it into a quasi-Ivy League college and nothing would stand in the way.

One of his first brainstorms was to set up a Henry Luce chair, one supposes to balance the Alger Hiss chair established around the same time. I mean, after all, if you are going to honor somebody who was hounded by the McCarthyites of the world, you’d better make room for a champion anti-Communist like Henry Luce. Critics, according to the 1992 NY Sunday Times Magazine profile, viewed the incongruity of endowing chairs for both Luce and Hiss as “opportunism”. His upbraided the interviewer:

People have so little tolerance for dissent. What happened to free thought? Individual ideas? What happened to Thoreau? What happened to this tradition in America? You’re either for ’em or agin ’em. What are we discussing, subtle issues with a meat cleaver?

I suppose that Leon finally resolved this contradiction by replacing Joel Kovel with Jonathan Brent in the Alger Hiss chair. Hiss, as you probably know, was hounded by McCarthyites for supposedly being a Soviet spy. So why not put Brent in the chair named after this victim of anti-Communism? After all, Brent has only made a career out of trying to “prove” that American Communists were part of a vast espionage network orchestrated out of the Kremlin. When I first discovered that Brent would now occupy the Alger Hiss chair, I sent Leon a congratulatory email on the appointment. He had topped recent Republican Presidents, starting from Reagan, who had appointed men to run government agencies whose aims they were hostile to. Jonathan Brent was Leon Botstein’s James G. Watt.

Going from strength to strength, Leon next convinced multimillionaire investor and liberal Leon Levy to set up an Economics Institute at the College. Like Leon Botstein, Leon Levy is quite skilled at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. In the 1990s he occasionally wrote for the New York Review of Books, where his preoccupations about income inequality and “irrational exuberance” were presumably intended to redress injustices in America, just as long as they didn’t impact his personal fortunes as I would soon learn.

Not long after I discovered the Internet at Columbia University in the early 1990s, I signed up for the Progressive Economics Network mailing list (PEN-L) where I ran into a trade union organizer who was on the list. He had sent a message to PEN-L asking if there were any Bard College graduates there. It seemed that the Levy offspring were owners of an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan whose waiters were attempting to win bargaining recognition. The organizer needed an alumni directory so that letters informing them about the situation could be sent out. It gave me sheer pleasure to send said directory to the union as well as to learn that the administration went ballistic over the “misappropriation” of school property.

It turns out that Bard College, like just about all institutions of higher education in the U.S., have about as much regard for its own workers as the Levy family had for its waiters. Not long after I posted my blog article about Kovel being terminated, another trade union organizer named Chris Townsend chimed in:

I led the organization/unionization of the service staff workers at Bard College more than 20 years ago. The workforce had suffered for decades in a captive company union, set up and run by Bard. From the time we started organizing until the day we triumphed we were witness to every despicable tactic imaginable by the college. Countless bogus NLRB delaying tactics, attempted terrorization and alternate bribery of workers, surface bargaining, you name it. We finally shoved Mr. Botstein off-balance by revealing our intent to publish an ad in the NYTimes revealing the fact that he was a member of the American Federation of Musicians (at least back then) and that, among other things, his college paid women “cleaners” one dollar per hour less than male “janitors” for the same work. He seemed concerned enough about it to order his underlings to settle a union contract with us. I never had much faith or trust in liberals, and nothing I experienced with the Bard management changed my mind. Good luck in your struggle, Joel!

Not satisfied with having a multimillionaire like Leon Levy in his stable, Leon next moved up the food chain and landed a real whopper: George Soros, a bonafide multibillionaire. As it turned out, the first step was lining up Susan Soros, the investor’s wife. Showing a talent for deal making that would have landed Leon a high-paying job on Wall Street, he figured out that the best way to cement relations with George was to get his wife on his side. And what better way to do that than to provide a prestigious position for her in Bard’s rapidly expanding empire in just the way that his father-in-law once landed him a job running Franconia.

In 1991 Susan Soros was turned down for the job of director of graduate education at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. So with $20 million of her husband’s money, she started her own school at 18 West 86th Street. Naturally, she couldn’t get away with calling it the Susan Soros Museum, but Botstein suggested that calling it the Bard College Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts might work. One can only assume that such a generous gesture has benefited Bard College in ways that transcend art.

At the 2000 commencement ceremonies, Susan Soros was on hand to present an honorary degree to Ludmila A. Verbitskaya, the first female rector of the State University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Ms. Verbitskaya profusely thanked Botstein for all the help Bard College had made available in the transformation of her institution into one befitting Russia’s new ‘open society’. The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. That victory ensured that a generation of Russian youth would end up as Yeltsin-era alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes. It was only with Putin’s closing down of that “open society” that some kind of normalcy has returned to Russia.

I have to admit that I get enormous pleasure discovering that I am not only the only Bard graduate who is fed up with president-for-life Leon Botstein. The Facebook group set up to discuss and organize around the termination of Joel Kovel has tapped into a powerful mood of disaffection from Bardians who came of age during the Botstein era, unlike me:

One writes:

The issue at hand is neither politics nor religion.

Censorship and Discrimination are intolerable in any institution. Their occurrence is even more disgraceful at a school renowned as a haven for liberal thought and intellectual dissent.

However, Professor Kovel’s experiences do not exist in a vacuum. There is a clear history of bias against faculty and students who disagree openly with President Botstein.

The man is an ivy tower despot, more intent on furthering his personal & political agenda and pet projects than the welfare of Bard College, its students, or its faculty.

Further, he is willing to use his unadulterated power as President to malign names and destroy careers of anyone out of step with his “Vision”.

And, as a long time film buff, I was particularly happy to see faculty member Adolfas Mekas, the legendary avant-garde director, weigh in:

I was shocked to read Prof. Joel Kovel’s letter addressed to Bard Faculty. Is this “New” Bard? Has Bard joined Taliban and other theocracies? A College where freedom of expression/conviction is no longer tolerated? What is next? Do you recant? To the stake! Terminate him! Can you imagine this happening in the “Old” Bard? The faculty would be outraged and come to class with their mouths taped, and the student power would shut down the College. To the barricades!

Adolfas Mekas

Professor Emeritus

PS If the Administration had known what I have said in my classes (before and after tenure), I would have been terminated fifty times over.


  1. Thanks for this and the previous post on the firing of Mr Kovel, which I posted on my facebook profile. I didn’t go to Bard (almost did, but that’s a different story), however I have friends from my high school who did back in the late ’60s. I always thought it was weird how it had changed under Botstein, and my friends did too. Anyway, I’ve joined that facebook support group, in solidarity. Oh, btw, Goddard still exists, but not as a campus with students. It’s still in Plainfield, VT.

    Comment by Jay Vos — February 22, 2009 @ 8:10 am

  2. I am in a hospital room in Houston getting over double pnuemonia and couldn’t sleep so after cruising Marxmail latest 100 clicked on this article and I must say enjoyed it immensely. This Botstein is some royal a**hole. It’s a real shame what he turned a great college into.
    Mr. Proyect your witty writing is getting better every day.

    Comment by Joanne Gullion — February 22, 2009 @ 9:28 am

  3. Great post, reminds me of the president of my alma mater San Francisco State University (class of ’08), Robert Corigan. Corigan was brought in during the late 1980s by the California State University Board of Trustees (who appoint all CSU presidents) because SFSU was a hotbed of radicalism and had recently elected Hatem Bazian (professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley), a radical Palestinian organizer. Corigan came in on the reputation of being a “ethnic studies” success of sorts. However, what he did was temper the atmosphere of SFSU, brought in more students from higher class backgrounds, got rid of almost every professor from the old 1968 strike, tempered the College of Ethnic Studies, and generally de-radicalized the campus. He recently didn’t allow the General Union of Palestine Students to have their student government approved mural to have the Palestinian cartoon character Handala on it with the key for the right to return because it was deemed “anti-Semitic” by a bunch of radical right-wingers.

    This shit is the same everywhere.

    Comment by Jack Stephens — February 22, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  4. I mean, the students had recently elected fellow leftist radical student Bazian to the student board. And by “ethnic studies” success he was seen as being “good” for ethnic studies.

    Comment by Jack Stephens — February 22, 2009 @ 9:46 am

  5. Goddard is still around, though a shell of its former self, having had to sell off a lot of its physical plant. I took my Bachelor’s there in 2000, rooting the whole baccalaureate in a study of the problems posed to urban education.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — February 22, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  6. “The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. That victory ensured that a generation of Russian youth would end up as Yeltsin-era alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes. It was only with Putin’s closing down of that “open society” that some kind of normalcy has returned to Russia.”

    Perhaps this is a minor point in a post that is about something else altogether, but I’m wondering, Louis, what evidence you can offer for a “return to normalcy” in Russia, especially under Putin. By arguing that such a return has happened and that it was engineered by Putin, then you are suggesting that he and his team are somehow opposed to Soros-driven “free market fundamentalism.”

    I see (having been on the ground in Russia for most of the last fifteen years) absolutely no evidence that this is the case. If anything, the opposite has been the case: a reckless embrace of oligarchic free market fundamentalism combined with mostly for-show paternalism (tiny hand-outs and ideological sops to the “population”) + truncheons over the head for any form of opposition. And that includes leftists and trade unionists, whom (I would imagine) you support.

    It stuns me to no end how certain western leftists continue to nurture this inordinate fondness for the Russian state, no matter who or what is running it and to what end. Putin has continued the destruction of Russia begun so enthusiastically by Yeltsin and Co. The “Yeltsin-era alcoholics, drug addicts [and] prostitutes” are still around, only now (I guess) they’re the “Putin-era alchoholics, drug addicts and prostitutes.”

    The moral: opposition to Soros’s “open society” is not automatically the embrace of democratic socialism.

    Comment by hecksinductionhour — February 25, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  7. I find much to agree with in Hecksinductionhour’s comment (I am a huge The Fall fan myself!) but I do think that the reversion to state control in Russia has been helpful. Of course if I were in Russia, I would be opposing Putin from the left. I am particularly opposed to the oppression of the Chechen people.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 25, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

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