Sunday, 3 February 2019

Norman Birnbaum obituary

Norman Birnbaum, who has died at the age of 92, was a highly valued and regular contributor to Political Quarterly over many years. In 2011 he received the Crick Prize at the Orwell Awards for the best article in PQ in 2010. He travelled to London especially for the prize and delivered a memorable speech. The prize was awarded for his article ‘American Progressivism and the Obama Presidency’ (read it here) (PQ 81:4) and was typical of his writing which always embodied the qualities PQ exists to promote – engaged, direct, authoritative, and written in plain English. Norman was a public intellectual of a rare kind. Born in Manhattan to a Jewish family (his grandfather was an immigrant from Eastern Europe and his father a school teacher) he was raised in the Bronx, graduated at Harvard and taught at many Universities across the Atlantic, including LSE, Oxford, the New School and Amherst College, and for twenty years at Georgetown University. He remained on the political Left his whole life, unlike many of his contemporaries, and was noted for the range of his contacts with intellectuals and politicians across the political spectrum. They included Willy Brandt, Edward Kennedy, Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Herbert Marcuse, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. He was involved with many journals such as Commentary, Dissent and Partisan Review, but he had a particularly long association with The Nation and was a founding member of the editorial board of New Left Review in 1960. His many books include The crisis of industrial society (1969), The radical renewal: the politics of ideas in modern America (1988), After Progress: American social reform and European socialism in the twentieth century (2001), and his absorbing memoir From the Bronx to Oxford and Not Quite Back (2018). Norman won respect from all who knew him for the breadth of his knowledge and understanding, for his civility and wit, and for his strong and unwavering commitment to radical politics and progressive ideals. He once declared ‘I never believed in a social science made by and for academics, a dispassionate account of the world. I do believe that the present is history, but that we are not its prisoners. Only a God can make the world anew, but humans fail in their humanity if they do not try to make it better.’ His life is an example of how to be an engaged public intellectual even through the most difficult political times.

Andrew Gamble

You can read some of his other PQ articles here: