(b. 20 December 1902 near Minsk, Russia; d. 5 June 1992 in New York City), educator, lecturer, syndicated columnist, and internationally recognized liberal journalist.
Max Lerner was the younger son of six children (two of whom did not survive) of Benjamin and Bessie Podel Lerner, keepers of a general store. Shortly before Max’s birth,
his father left for America. By 1907 the entire family had passed through Ellis Island and eventually settled in New Haven, Connecticut, with Lerner acquiring U.S. citizenship through the naturalization of his father. Lerner graduated from Hillhouse High School in 1919 with an outstanding academic record and won a scholarship to Yale University. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, he graduated in 1923. He aimed to be a professor of literature until a sympathetic faculty advisor cautioned that his Jewishness would preclude his ever getting a position at an Ivy League college. Opting for the law, he gained admission to Yale Law School in the fall.
In the intervening summer of 1923, he participated in a workshop in Woodstock, New York, sponsored by the International Student Forum, where he was impressed by the group’s dedication to making a better world. Exposure to the actual law curriculum soon raised doubts about the attractiveness of a legal career. During Christmas break he first read Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. He found a means of learning more about Veblen in a graduate fellowship program at Washington University in St. Louis. There he used Veblen’s ideas as the basis for the M.A. thesis he wrote in 1925. In 1948, he reminisced, ’Among all the thinkers who sought to analyze the nature and consequences of this new business imperium of the West . . . Veblen is easily the towering figure. His critique of our civilization is as unsparing as the Marxian, and at the same time more subtle because it is an analysis in depth, with a psychology, an anthropology, and a theory of civilizations.’
Lerner earned his doctorate at the newly established Robert Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government in Washington, D.C., in 1927. His contacts at Brookings helped place him in New York City as an editor and contributor to the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences project.
The 1930s were productive years for Lerner, with articles and reviews appearing in the New Republic, Ivy League law journals, and the prestigious New York Herald-Tribune Sunday book review section. He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College (1932-1935) and at Harvard (1935-1936), where as lecturer in government, he taught constitutional law and political theory. In 1936 he accepted a post as political editor at The Nation. Personality clashes and policy disagreements with top management led to Lerner’s departure in 1938.
Academia beckoned again that fall. Lerner was pleased to accept a professorship in government at Williams College, where he remained until 1943. He was lured back to Manhattan to become editorial director of PM, an independent newspaper without advertising. Shortly after the demise of PM in 1948, he became a columnist for the New York Post, where he stayed for the rest of his life.
Lerner’s marriage to Anita Marburg, a graduate student colleague at Brookings, on 20 July 1928 ended in divorce on 30 July 1940. His second marriage, to Genevieve Edna Albers on 16 August 1941, lasted over fifty years. There were three daughters from his first marriage, three sons from his second.
Throughout his professional careers, Lerner frequently held several positions concurrently, sometimes as a commuter, to lecture in various parts of the country or to take part in national radio and television shows. An inspiring teacher, he held endowed chairs for some of his numerous academic positions: at Brandeis University (his longest association, 1949-1973), at the University of Notre Dame (1959-1960; 1982-1984), and at the United States International University in San Diego (1974-1977). Abroad, he spent several summers in the Salzburg Seminar in Austria and served as Ford Foundation Professor in parts of South Asia. A prolific writer, Lerner also wrote scholarly introductions to new editions of the works of Machiavelli, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Thorstein Veblen.
As a prominent political commentator for three quarters of the twentieth century, Lerner took positions on almost every domestic and foreign issue before the public. From his leftist perspective, he was skeptical about the New Deal, sometimes regarding it as a possible precursor of the corporate state, at other times as too timid in its response to the Depression. In 1940–1941, he praised Roosevelt’s policy of support for Britain but recognized the president’s circuitous methods. In the early years of the cold war he criticized the Truman Doctrine but approved the Marshall Plan. Objecting to the United States becoming the world’s policeman, he nevertheless supported the containment policy as applied in Korea and (at first) in Vietnam. He upheld the right of Jews to migrate to Israel but urged both sides to accept the internationalization of Jerusalem. By the 1960s he had become a fairly consistent mainstream Democrat, warmly endorsing Adlai Stevenson and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Lerner became alarmed by what he considered the excesses of the New Left and the so-called counterculture. He preferred assimilation to black power and a return to civility in public discussion. He deplored aspects of the sexual revolution that led to broken homes and one-parent families. He considered himself a firm believer in the First Amendment but regarded as incomprehensible the notion that it protected flag-burning. The relief that Lerner found in the presidency of Ronald Reagan reflected Lerner’s shifting views.
Lerner’s magnum opus, published in 1957, was America as a Civilization: Life and Thought in the United States Today, an ambitious and unusual attempt to analyze its subject by drawing on the insights of cultural anthropology as well as on other traditional academic disciplines. Reviewers were in general agreement that the breadth of the study made it a herculean accomplishment. Some critics, while complimentary about the scope of the book, found it lacking in originality and interpretive depth. A second edition contained a final chapter called “Afterword: The New America (1957-1987).” After describing the complexities of the problems facing America in the coming new century, Lerner closed with an act of hope, if not of faith, when he wrote, “If America’s center fails to hold, it will leave the world’s fate to hands less gentle and more guilt-stained than the American.”
Lerner’s involvement in so many notable projects and works of scholarship has been attributed to his remarkable energy, his love of teaching, and his need to support two families. More difficult to explain was the womanizing, known to his family as well as associates, which occurred throughout most of his adulthood.
For much of the last decade of his life Lerner was plagued with heart disease and cancer. He finally suc-umbed to a stroke and died at the age of eighty-nine in Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He is buried in Sag Harbor, New York.
The Max Lerner Papers are deposited at the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the Sterling Library, Yale University. Lerner never completed a planned autobiography but a manuscript of a chapter to be called “From Minsk to Manhood” was published as the first chapter in a full-scale biography by Sanford Lakoff, Max Lerner: Pilgrim in the Promised Land (1998). Most of Lerner’s books were compilations of his newspaper columns, book reviews, and other published articles. They sometimes contain autobiographical materials. His works include: It Is Later than You Thinly: The Need for a Militant Democracy (1938, rev. 1943); Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1939); Ideas for the Ice Age: Studies in a Revolutionary Era (1941); Public Journal: Marginal Notes on Wartime America (1945); Actions and Passions: Notes on the Multiple Revolution of Our Time (1949); The Unfinished Country: A Book of American Symbols (1959);and The Age of Overfill: A Preface to World Politics (1962). For Lerner’s account of his battle with cancer, see Wrestling with the Angel: A Memoir of My Triumph over Illness (1990). Evaluation of Lerner’s work may be found in Sanford Lakoff, “The Mind and Faith of Max Lerner,” Social Research 61 (1994): 245–268, and Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (1961): 95–102. For an interesting comparative study of Lerner and the historian Henry Steele Commager, see Michael Kammen, “They Made American History a Public Matter with Numerous Books and Considerable Patter,” Reviews in American History 27 (Dec. 1999): 636-645. An obituary is in the New York Times (6 June 1992).
Charles E. Larsen