Ira Straus: “My reminiscence of my teacher, Stephen Cohen”

Bookcase file photo, adapted from image at

Subject: My reminiscence of my teacher, Stephen Cohen
Date: Fri, 9 Oct 2020
From: Ira Straus <>

Stephen Cohen, memories of my teacher
Ira Straus
U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe & Russia in NATO; Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; former Fulbright professor in Moscow (paid by the U.S. not Russia, of course, but sometimes one has to say it)

It was a brisk spring day in 1975 when Professor Stephen Cohen trotted onto the auditorium stage to give his lecture on Radical Politics. It was one of the largest lecture halls in Princeton, and it went to this popular young professor. He started out with an announcement:

“Last night a poster appeared on my office door. It had an old man driving a truck down the road, with a sign that read:

Trotsky & Sons
Moscow — Mexico City

After a pause for a quite ample round of laughter, Cohen said sternly, “I want to see whoever did this after class.” And then with a grin, “I’d like to meet you.” The next day I dragged the culprit — my roommate, David Stone — into his office.

The occupant of the neighboring office, Professor Robert Tucker, expressed jealousy that he didn’t get a poster too. We duly came up with one, not as inspired I’m afraid as the one for Cohen.

Come April 1, the Daily Princetonian featured a front page photo of Stephen Cohen, or rather his head plastered on the torso of a conductor, leading an orchestra in a performance of his symphony, “Bye Bye Bukharin”. Cohen’s pioneering biography of Bukharin had recently come out and it would have been impossible not to notice how deeply Cohen felt for him. Everyone understood that Cohen identified with Bukharin as the locus of hope for the future of the Soviet Union, the linchpin, even after Stalin had him killed, of the reformist faction that inevitably kept reviving no matter how often purged.

In his years at Princeton, Professor Cohen was always fun in argument, enjoying controversial views and differences. Of the latter, he and I both expressed plenty. There were plenty of opportunities for Cohen to look askance at my views; I was by then a conservative, having departed from my family’s left-liberal orthodoxies at a young age. But Cohen was a distinctively open-minded about this. In contrast to many of the milder liberals around him, he was not sparing on ideological differences in debate, yet was genuinely uninclined to discriminate against people on that basis. Indeed, he cherished the sharp differences of view from students like me. Later I ran into a former student of his who told me how he was always arguing with Cohen and devoted his dissertation to disproving Cohen’s view — and got along great with him.

It is, then, with personal as well as professional sadness that I learn of the passing of my teacher Stephen F. Cohen at age 81.

My work for Cohen on American Trotskyism and the New Class

In 1974-5 Cohen was my junior paper advisor, in ’75-6 my senior thesis adviser, shepherding me through the writing of what turned out to be a dissertation-length thesis on “The Outcome of Trotskyism in America”. He generously wrote of it as one of the most important and illuminating theses he had read.

I wasn’t sure at that point whether he liked it because of, or despite, the fact that it focused on the development of the theory of the New Class as the ruling class of the Soviet Union by Trotsky’s followers. As they observed the reality of Stalin’s Russia, they concluded it disproved not only orthodox Trotskyism but also orthodox Marxism. To be sure, Bakunin and Machajski — the anarchist opponents of Marx — had back in the late 1800s held that the Marxist movement, far from being a mere selfless aid to the working class, actually had a class character of its own, was an advocate for putting the intellectual class into power, used Marxism as its ideology for doing this, and it served its own class interest by toppling the existing order, expropriating the capitalists, and putting the means of production under a bureaucratic state. The ex-Trotskyists gave this theory a form independent of anarchism. In face of the huge reality of the Soviet Union, they gradually freed it from being a matter of sectarian debate among revolutionaries about an imagined future, and brought it into the mainstream as a general public concern about the present, where a new class tyranny was running a major global power. From Max Eastman to James Burnham and Max Shachman and their successors, they played an important role in American public life. Burnham’s highly influential books of the time, “The Managerial Revolution” and “The Machiavellians”, were summarized in the imagined pamphlet, “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”, within Orwell’s novel “1984”; O’Brien-Goldstein was Trotsky in form, Burnham in substance.

Cohen appreciated what I wrote about this intellectual history. He might have liked it even better, as I learned later, had I gone more into Shachtman, whose party eventually became the core of the Social Democrats, gaining an important influence for a time within the AFL-CIO. I left that for a sequel project, but it was one that I never got around to. I had hoped to write also more substantially on the group of young neo-Burnhamites who, after splitting with Shachtman’s party, went on to become leaders in American sociology: Philip Selznick (their leader, under the Party pseudonym of “Philip Sherman”), Seymour Martin Lipset, Irving Kristol, and several other notables. Some of their cohort, such as Daniel Bell, himself never a Trotskyist, but were still in the same student group at CCNY that had formed its radical identity separate from and against that of the pro-Stalin Communist crowd, and were important in the development of the same New Class theory.

As the years passed, my would-be sequel topic developed into an ever larger theme in American intellectual life. The Shactmanites as Social Democrats remained an organized group and gained an important foothold in the 1980s in leading the National Endowment for Democracy. Meanwhile, several of the young Burnhamites of the 1940s had become in the 1970s the original neoconservatives. So did a certain Lewis Feuer, whom Lipset described to me as “the one Stalinist who was interested in what we were doing” — an intriguing comment, Lipset still treating the youthful division into Trotskyist and Stalinist radical cohorts in NY as a defining identity for himself and the others, despite decades in which he had taken on a substantial nationwide identity as a leading figure in American sociology and the American Political Science Association. Feuer meanwhile had become one of my professors at graduate school; through him I deepened my engagement with the post-Trotskyist group and its thinking. This group had by the 1970s developed the theory of the New Class as something that went far beyond the Marxist subsector of the intellectual class, and far beyond a description of a unique Communist form of regime; they saw the knowledge industries as a whole as a class with a growing role in all modern societies, and inevitably growing at that, given the knowledge society and knowledge economy that Daniel Bell (a part of their group though never a Trotskyist himself) described. Many of them came together in a relatively brief book, “The New Class?”, edited at the end of the ’70s by B. Bruce-Briggs. They provide the background for today’s critique of “the administrative state” and its support structures in media and academia. They viewed these structures, like Bell, as a naturally growing sector of society and as such a class not just an elite, and one with a growing power that was becoming disquieting. This class, in their analysis, is both enduringly strong and inevitable, yet in a certain sense fragile, as it a class that defines a kind of membership by mutual ideological identification and tends to exclude from its structures those who don’t share the identification, rather than being defined by objective sociological factors. In its majority that mutually identifies through the progressive orientation, it is seen as having become — in the old Marxist language — a “ruling class”: a class “for itself” not just “in itself”; a socially predominant class that sets the rules for respectability; and a class that is “ruling” in a sense more literal than in the Marxist usage because, in our post-modern times as in medieval times, it combines direct political and administrative power with economic power and with organizational control in its specific non-state sector of society.

But I diverge from my discussion of Cohen here to explain the pertinence today of the themes he guided me on. Or do I really diverge? The critics of the intellectual class have a more than passing relationship to Cohen’s own critique of the media in recent decades in its attitudes on Russia. The New Class theory is the underpinning of today’s conservative critique of the conformity and power of the mainstream media. Meanwhile a President hated by the predominant media says things about common interests with Russia and the preferability of good relations; things that are common sense, and that Cohen spent his last years defending as such, in face of demonization by the same media.

It might seem like just a convergence on one or two points from the opposite end of the spectrum. But it was not a small point or two. It had a theoretical background of some substance, one that Cohen appreciated all his life. It was more like an overlap, limited but significant.

What I learned later about Cohen’s personal interest in American Trotskyism

It turned out that Cohen’s appreciation of my thesis was because of his interest in the new class theory, not despite it. Cohen thought — rightly, as was proved decisively in the Gorbachev years — that Bukharin not Trotsky was more relevant to reform in the Soviet Union. But he mostly agreed with the post-Trotskyist, Shachtmanite analysis of the New Class as a “Bureaucratic Collectivist” ruling class. It seems that, while he identified with the practical side and moderation of Bukharin school, he also appreciated the theoretical side of the Trotsky and Shachtman school. Indeed, he at one point suggested that I subtitle my thesis something like, “a school for us all”. I didn’t take the suggestion.) Significant, that he was calling it a school for “us all”? Seemingly including in that “all” himself, not just those I was writing about.

There is an intriguingly parallel aspect within America to his take on Trotsky’s school as the theoretically interesting one and Bukharin’s as the one with better policy views and practical relevance to reform in the Soviet Union. Here in America too, the Trotskyists were also the more intellectually interesting opposition to the official line in the Communist Party USA, compared to the Lovestonites — the American Bukharinists. The latter had been the majority in the American Party, and had always had a more sensible policy line and analysis than the Trotsky supporters. Their majority status and commonsense didn’t protect them from being kicked out by Stalin, indeed put in danger of their lives, echoing what was happening in a far more terrible way to the Bukharinists inside the Soviet Union, and soon after to their semi-successors, Kirov and his supporters. The Lovestonites, like the American Trotskyists, went on to be leaders in American thought and policy after giving up their Communism: Bertram Wolfe wrote his famous history, “Three Who Made a Revolution”; Jay Lovestone himself, one of the founders of the CPUSA, went on to become the firmly anti-Communist foreign policy director of the AFL-CIO.

The point about Kirov, who was murdered in 1934, takes us back to the USSR. The murder was a pivotal point in Cohen’s interpretation of Soviet history. He, along with Robert Tucker and Robert Conquest, held that Stalin had Kirov killed as the leader of the Party’s more moderate faction, then turned around and blamed his murder on Stalin’s opponents, using this as a pretext to purge those opponents and all party moderates en masse. In this they agreed with Khrushchev and Gorbachev; agreed with the aborted reinvestigation of the murder that Khrushchev had ordered; and agreed with the many Party members-turned GULAG inmates, whose personal reports on the intra-Party struggle and how the great terror had come about were conveyed to the world by other GULAG inmates who had escaped to the West.

The larger picture

Cohen didn’t tell me his own views on Shachtman and the post-Trotskyist theory of the New Class — that he basically agreed with it — while after I had finished writing my thesis on it. This was in keeping with proper academic scruples, and with his fairness in those years, which formed a sharp contrast to too many others in academia.

Cohen sparred cheerfully with me on my thesis work as on all things. He was always sparring cheerfully in those years. He showed — as an independently thinking radical, one who was still, like most all of us Right or Left, at heart a liberal in the broad Enlightenment meaning of the word — a considerable appreciation for conservatism as an approach that had regard for and theory on historical development and societal coherence. He would express caution in his lectures about liberalism as a theory that did well in drawing out the logic of principles and their theoretical implications, but was often short on attentiveness to their potential unanticipated consequences in the varied sociological contexts and developmental circumstances of the world. In his later years he applied this caution, to considerable public interest and sometimes consternation, to the evaluation of post-Soviet politics and the West’s Russia policies.

Professor Cohen was one of the several formative pillars of my intellectual universe, and will remain one. My mental universe has had, to be sure, many pillars, most of them a long distance ideologically from Cohen — figures such as Clarence Streit, Lewis Feuer, Adam Watson… Despite their mutual contradictions, or perhaps thanks to them, they all contribute to such virtue as there may be in my thinking, which is of course fully my own responsibility not any of theirs. All of them were great intellects. All of them taught me important things. All of them get necessarily called back to mind, as issues keep arising to which their ideas are of great importance.

My personal contact with Professor Cohen dropped off over the later years. It was perhaps a natural drift, but one for which I silently felt regret from time to time. I did not do enough to reach out and change it. The time to do that has now passed; I miss him today the more for it. I am left with a debt of gratitude for all that he did for me, and for the considerable things he did, now seen in the panoramic view of a completed life, in the world at large.