Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Saint Max

Fall 1999

MAX LERNER: PILGRIM IN THE PROMISED LAND
Sanford Lakoff
University of Chicago Press, 1998, xxi + 323 pgs.

Sanford Lakoff admires Max Lerner greatly. As a student of Lerner's at Brandeis University in 1949, his "adulation soon became obvious and made me the butt of jokes" (p. xiv). Our author's hero worship for Max the Great has never flagged in the ensuing years; and he accordingly does the best he can for his subject. Yet the result is a portrait of utter emptiness. Mr. Lakoff, try as he might, cannot dissolve the fundamental paradox of Max Lerner's career. This so-called "public intellectual," once influential but now fortunately forgotten, was utterly bereft of ideas. Though by many accounts a stimulating teacher and an engaging companion, Lerner subordinated all else to his unending pursuit of pleasure. The "public intellectual" was a narcissist.

Lerner's parents sent him to the local school at age six; but, the school, manifesting wisdom unfortunately few others in Lerner's career would display, returned him to the senders. "I was old enough [for school]," he tells us in a memoir Mr. Lakoff cites, "but small and sickly, and my face was broken out in blotchy pimples due to a violent case of eczema. When I presented myself at the school, a nurse there sent me back home" (p. 8).

Lerner fared better the next year, when he reappeared at the school. Now his torrent of words overwhelmed his interlocutors, and the young prodigy was passed from class to class, admired by all his teachers for his eloquence and learning. He was able to excite this sort of admiration throughout his long life.

But did anything ever lie beneath the surface brilliance? The selections from the autobiographical memoir included here help us answer this question. Alert readers of it will sense that Lerner's erudition is a put-up job. We can with charity pass by Lerner's ascription of The Highwayman to Walter de la Mare as a trivial slip, but what is one to do with "`Readiness is all,' the learning theorists have said" (p. 9)?

The pattern of surface brilliance so early established continued as Lerner progressed to more advanced levels. He won a four-year scholarship to Yale, where he enrolled in 1919. Then as now, the college ranked as one of the best in the United States. As one might anticipate given Lerner's gift of gab, he majored in English and won a number of academic prizes.

But all was not well. Yale, Mr. Lakoff stresses, did not exalt the academic life above all else. Quite the contrary, the college aimed to produce gentlemen; and athletes and the socially well-connected outshone our socially ambitious Max. If he could not be the center of attention, he was overcome with misery. He departed for graduate work at Washington University and later at the newly founded Brookings Institution, taking with him his bitterness at Yale for its failure to treat him with honors due a young Adonis.

He displayed at the new institutions his amazing ability to impress the academic elite, as Mr. Lakoff duly brings out. (He should have discussed at greater length, though, Lerner's relationship with the historian Carl Becker.) One scholar, the Tudor historian Roland Usher, saw through Lerner. He complained that Lerner had treated his course in a "perfunctory manner" (p. 37). I am inclined to think that Usher, who thought very well of my father, judged better than most. For there was little of substance behind the glitter of Lerner's prose. Mr. Lakoff tells us that, while at Yale Law School-yet another resting place for our peregrine-"Lerner was intrigued by [Wesley] Hohfeld's table for a time, but came to feel that the case method tore the law from its social context and that efforts to synthesize the cases by abstracting principles only drained whatever lifeblood the case method contracted from the living human beings whose struggles for advantage and justice were what the law was really about" (p. 37).

I have cited this passage at some length to avoid accusations (obviously false) of unfairness to Saint Max. It should be obvious that Lerner's views about Hohfeld are utter nonsense. Hohfeld's "table" is a way of classifying rights and liberties: it has nothing to do with the case method of studying law. As to the charge that the table (or the case method) abstracts from the lifeblood of the law, this is mere verbiage. All generalizations abstract from details: in what way are Hohfeld's categories deficient? Neither Lerner nor his biographer bother to tell us.

You may, if so inclined, continue to press the accusation of unfairness against me. Whatever Lerner's failings as a legal theorist, was not the law but a minor interest of his? Should he not be judged by more representative contributions?

Were I inclined to argument (as of course I am not), I might say that Lerner esteemed himself a legal scholar of high standing. But never mind. Let us turn to a subject central to Lerner's reputation as a thinker- economics.

Lerner believed that economics needed radical reform. Thorstein Veblen had paved the way to a critique of neoclassical economics; and Lerner regarded it as his principal task during the 1930s to develop Veblen's insights and combine them with the wisdom of Marx.

What then does Lerner's Veblenesque critique involve? We shall, once more, let Mr. Lakoff make his case in his own words: "Veblen did not exactly court the acceptance of his mainstream colleagues.... Their static image of exchange...governed as it was by a supposedly timeless interplay among land, labor, and capital, ignored the impact of technological change and the evolution of institutions.... The neoclassical economists assumed that economic actors were individuals, blithely neglecting the rise of corporation, the trust, and the labor union.... The `marginal utility' school was a little better.... The adherents of this school simply read a different set of values, the hedonistic assumptions of Utilitarianism, into economic activity" (pp. 38-39). What nonsense! What exactly does it mean to call exchange "static"? Why does technological change invalidate the notion of factors of production? Indeed, is not capital theory an attempt to deal with the impact of change? The distinction drawn by Veblen and Lerner between neoclassical economics and the marginal utility school escapes me. One would have thought that marginal utility is the essence of neoclassical theory. More importantly, adopting the marginal utility approach does not commit one to utilitarianism.

Not only is the Veblen-Lerner critique of economics false: it was never developed at any length. Instead, the Veblenites simply added biased accounts of episodes in economic history to their empty "theorizing." And to add dollops of Marx to the mixture, as Lerner later attempted, does not help.

Mr. Lakoff has done his best for Saint Max, and he is not to be blamed for the vapidity of Lerner's economics. But he stands open to criticism on two points. He ought to have done more than mention (p. 73) Lerner's notorious Marxist introduction to The Wealth of Nations. Further, to call Clarence Ayres someone who "was later to write about Veblen" (p. 47) is so understated as to be misleading. Ayres, not Lerner, was Veblen's leading disciple.

Once Lerner obtained his doctorate, he faced a problem. The "economics" to which he had devoted his academic work had no value. Emptiness can only go so far, even in a university. What was our Max to do?

With a brilliant stroke, Lerner transformed a problem into an opportunity. Lerner from an early age had worshiped power. Lincoln Steffens, the famous muckraking journalist, rejected Lerner for a lucrative project on the grounds that an early essay showed too much sympathy for J.P. Morgan. Although a radical, Lerner did not disguise his admiration for the power-hungry financier.

Given his love of power, the solution to Lerner's academic problem was simple. He could not carry further Veblenesque theorizing: instead, why not use his gift for words to become a commentator on public affairs? In this way, he could adore power unencumbered by academic niceties. Further, he would have a much better chance than as an out-of-the-way pedagogue to gain popular attention. His Veblenesque pseudo-economics could be used to add a veneer of learning to the pursuit of influence.

The ingredients we have set out can be combined with the accuracy of a chemical formula to generate Lerner's politics, given the historical situation of the 1930s and 1940s. Lerner was a radical, bitterly resentful of the class structure that barred him from social prominence at Yale. He rejected economic theory and loved the powerful. Who would arouse Lerner's hero-worship, above all others?

If you guessed Franklin Roosevelt, you get half-credit. Lerner endorsed the most radical aspects of the New Deal. Where others pulled back before Roosevelt's "court-packing scheme," Lerner openly favored making the Supreme Court a political instrument. However much FDR had what it takes to attract a radical power worshiper, though one person surpassed him.

I of course refer to Josef Stalin, the eminent tyrant and mass murderer. During Lerner's long career as a fellow traveler, he celebrated the exploits of Comrade Stalin in his usual purple prose. Mr. Lakoff endeavors to present Lerner's Stalinist escapades in the best light possible, and he dissents from "the harsh judgement of William L. O'Neill that Lerner had `rationalized the crimes of Stalin'" (p. 151). Nevertheless, he is constrained to admit that Lerner "was even guilty of presenting a ridiculously rosy picture of Stalin, as when he remarked in a passage quoted by O'Neill with understandable relish: `The men around Stalin have learned his sense of power, but they have little of his saving humor and flexibility'" (p. 151).

But is it not unfair to Max the Great to stress his affinity for Stalin during his stint as a columnist for the "progressive" newspaper PM in the 1940s? Did Lerner not reject Henry Wallace in 1948 and soon enlist as an anti-communist in good standing?

True enough, but an explanation lies ready-to-hand. In the 1950s, the Communists were no longer fashionable. Ever the power adulator, Lerner had to be on the winning side. Lerner ended his career a neoconservative, but once more the siren song of the powerful led him to his views, rather than any cogent argument.

Those who doubt my claim that Lerner's verbal pyrotechnics masked a complete lack of coherent thought are invited to perform a simple test. Mr. Lakoff offers an elaborate account of Lerner's allegedly supreme intellectual achievement, his long study America as a Civilization (pp. 163ff). See whether you can extract from that discussion a single thesis worth attention. I cannot.

Since The Mises Review is not an annex to the Starr Report, I have omitted an account of a key element in Saint Max's life-his endless pursuit of women. Suffice it to say that Lerner could pay mawkish tribute to his wife of fifty years while at the same time scheming to leave her for Elizabeth Taylor and, later, a twenty-seven year old student named Mary Ellen. (During the latter escapade, Lerner was a mere seventy-five.) Of course, this pretentious pseudo-thinker had to dress up his visits to the Playboy Mansion with learned references to "the philosophy of Eros." Such is the life and thought of a man whom Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., terms "one of the notable American public intellectuals of the century."

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