As a skilled journalist writing political biography, D. D. Guttenplan uses American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone to advance his own arguments, which are aimed squarely at the present day. He sees a critical press as essential to healthy democracy, while independent journalism is perpetually endangered by the machinations and obfuscations of entrenched political power. I. F. Stone’s life and work as an American political thinker and iconoclastic journalist demonstrate for Guttenplan “the compatibility of [Stone’s] beloved Jefferson and his equally beloved Marx,” and he seeks through this biography to show that an extended study of one remarkable life can illuminate the tensions inherent in history while sparking fresh political insight and the energy for democratic political action.
Guttenplan does not argue that the legacies of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), philosopher of the American Revolution, and Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher of socialism, coexist easily in either the history of the United States or the life of I. F. Stone, nor does he ignore the deeply contradictory historical trajectories of these legacies. He does, however, show that Stone’s life and work demonstrate that it was, and remains, possible in the United States to fuse and nurture the best elements of both political traditions while standing up to challenge the worst historical developments evolving out of each. American Radical is not only a meticulously detailed analysis of an exemplary twentieth century life but also a book seriously engaged with political realities of the twenty-first century. A cover-to-cover reading will reward a variety of readers holding an extremely wide range of political perspectives.
I. F. Stone was born Isadore Feinstein in 1907 to Jewish immigrant parents whose struggles with pressures to assimilate shaped Stone’s lifelong stance as an essentially skeptical and “outsider” social critic. Guttenplan’s sketch of Stone’s childhood shows clearly the formation of this future reporter’s critical interpretive lens, while highlighting the Yiddish cultural atmosphere of Stone’s upbringing and his precocious early passion for books, ideas, writing, and left-oriented politics. Guttenplan very effectively draws out key formative moments for Stone’s life within the broader historical context of early twentieth century American culture and politics.
Stone’s lifelong critical engagement with the American and international left is described in extended detail throughout the book, which not only relates that engagement to his work as a political journalist but also forcefully argues that Stone is best understood, not primarily as an iconic journalist, but rather in broader terms as a political thinker, writer, and activist. For decades, Stone worked with, argued with, and criticized his political allies and opponents across the spectrum of American and international politics. He worked on and wrote about issues related to labor organizing, economics, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the Popular Front, World War II, the Korean War, African American civil rights, the formation of Israel, the resulting displacement of Palestinians, the Vietnam War, and the New Left.
One of Guttenplan’s several significant journalistic accomplishments in American Radical, in addition to his own exhaustive archival research, is represented in the collection of interviews he conducted for the book. The list of his interviewees presents a fascinating portrait of twentieth century intellectual history. It includes thinkers as diverse as Isaiah Berlin, Murray Kempton, Victor Navasky, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Clancy Sigal, Paul Sweezy, Edward Said, and Andrew Kopkind.
Guttenplan spends considerable narrative time analyzing two key dimensions of Stone’s political involvement. First, he places Stone’s writing and activism in relation to left politics generally to Stone’s evolution more specifically as an American radical responding to the Soviet Union, the Popular Front against international fascism, and American communism. Second, Guttenplan catalogs Stone’s ferocious and lifelong defense of civil liberties in opposition to efforts by the U.S. government to suppress free speech, especially the free speech and free press of those Americans on the Left or liberal-left.
Stone was a democratic socialist for most of his life, and, like many on the American left, his assessment of the Soviet Union and especially of Stalin and later the Cuban Revolution vacillated between early optimistic support and later full-scale critical condemnation. As Guttenplan extensively documents, Stone was right in the middle of key...
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