Obituary: Alfred Bingham

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"GUCCI SOCIALIST" was not the term for Alfred Bingham. Instead of the nouveau-riche associations of such footwear, his own WASP New England radicalism was more "Brooks Brothers Bolshevik".

As a writer, editor, activist and lawyer Bingham was involved with a wide sweep of American political issues from 1930s New Deal to 1960s New Left. His life also had the curve of classical tragedy, his personal wealth and radical agitation producing in turn a son whose defence against terrorist charges would destroy the family fortune.

In a memoir of his father, Portrait of an Explorer: Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Machu Picchu (1989) he described how:

My mother's maternal grandfather Charles Tiffany founded the jewellery and silverware company and became a millionaire. My father's paternal grandfather led a famed mission to Hawaii, which gave the islands a written language and a Bible. These two great-grandfathers seemed to typify the rival influence that has shaped me.

The book's title hints at his father's most famous achievement - in fact Hiram 3rd, as well as leading the first Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911, also became an important public figure. "His subsequent political prominence as US Senator tended to obscure his earlier career."

If the lineage was impeccable on the Bingham side, with Protestant missionaries stretching back to the Mayflower, the Tiffany genealogy may have been more recent but had distinct compensations. Indeed that one store on Fifth Avenue guaranteed intellectual and social independence to the family for generations afterwards.

Born in 1905, one of seven brothers, Bingham had an archetypal education of his class, Groton School followed, of course, by Yale College and Yale Law School. Whilst his father was a notoriously conservative Senator, young Bingham's Republican beliefs were shaken by the liberal atmosphere of Yale.

Like many independently wealthy American idealists, he abandoned his degree and humbled himself with various menial jobs, perfect revenge on any father, as perfected later by Sixties drop-outs. He then travelled the world for a couple of years, inspecting Stalin's Five Year Plan at first hand, and being apparently impressed, as well as interviewing Gandhi and Mussolini in his Grand Tour of global politics.

He returned to Manhattan in 1932 and began a liberal monthly, Common Sense, which he edited for 10 years, a quintessential intellectual-radical journal of that period, with contributors such as John Dos Passos, James Agee, Theodore Dreiser and Edmund Wilson.

In 1934 he was physically thrown out of the Waldorf-Astoria restaurant after addressing his fellow diners in support of the hotel's striking kitchen staff and that same year was arrested picketing alongside strikers in Jersey City.

In 1934 he published his first book, Challenge to the New Deal, followed the next year by Insurgent America in which:

I sought to show the fallacy of the Marxist expectation that the proletariat would become the dominant class and ventured the conclusion that the technical and managerial middle-classes are slated to be next in the sequence of ruling classes.

This became a central theme for Bingham, not unlike those upper-class socialists whose principal objection to Margaret Thatcher was her lower- middle-class nature. Throughout such writings as "The Technology of Democracy", an essay published in the 1941 anthology Whose Revolution?, or his books Man's Estate (1939), The United States of Europe (1940), The Techniques of Democracy (1942) and The Practice of Idealism (1944), Bingham proved prescient on a range of issues.

His understanding of America's new managerial classes was linked to the power of multi-nationals: "General Motors or J.P. Morgan will perform an essential integrating task in the absence of a responsible authority." He also wrote of those millions of blacks who could not vote and placed a very contemporary emphasis on the sociology of technology:

The revolution which has gripped the whole world since 1914 is, clearly enough, a phase of technological revolution which began with the application of the scientific method to industry.

Bingham ran for public office in 1940 as a New Deal Democrat. He served one term in the Connecticut State Senate as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He was also a central player in the American Civil Liberties Union and Farmer-Labor Political Federation.

War service as an Army Civil Affairs officer was followed by 20 years of law in south-eastern Connecticut. Continually active, Bingham served as Workmen's Compensation Commissioner, a Judge of Probate and started the state chapter of Americans for Democratic Action.

In 1970 he published Violence & Democracy, 26 years after his last book. Bingham's writing became increasingly engaging as he aged and whilst his previous books are unreadable today, Violence & Democracy remains a fascinating analysis of revolutionary chaos from the perspective of a 65-year-old activist. Its flavour can be sensed in index entries such as "Manners," and "Radicalism, traditional", or the chapter heading, "When is violence legitimate?"

Four years later Bingham asked himself that question in earnest when his son Stephen was accused of smuggling a pistol into San Quentin prison where it was used in a botched, fatal, escape attempt. Like many law-breaking idealists of the era Stephen went "underground" for 11 years before giving himself up. Considering his own past and the surprisingly militant tone of his last book it was hardly surprising that Bingham should come to the defence of his son, nor, considering legal costs in America, that he should have almost bankrupted himself by the time Stephen was acquitted in 1985.

If Bingham did not exactly mellow with age he did start writing family history, a welcome improvement for his readers. He began a mammoth twin- family history entitled God and Mammon, before breaking it down into more realistic sections. His 1989 biography on his father was followed by The Tiffany Fortune & Other Chronicles of a Connecticut Family, the only one of his books in print.

Bingham's commitment to democratic ideals despite the pressures of world war, McCarthyism or gun-toting students made him an exemplary American liberal, one well served by his own words from Violence & Democracy:

The absence of sharp class distinctions, in contrast to the rigidities of the old world, was always part of the American dream. Even a wealthy or powerful man might be described as democratic if he behave as if other people were his equals.

Adrian Dannatt

Alfred Mitchell Bingham, writer, politician, lawyer: born Cambridge, Massachusetts 20 February 1905; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died Clinton, New York 2 November 1998.