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Obituary: Max Lerner

Phillip Frazer
Tuesday 04 August 1992 23:02 BST

Max Lerner, writer and journalist, born Minsk Russia 20 December 1902, married 1928 Anita Marburg (two daughters, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1940), 1941 Edna Albers (three sons), died New York City 5 June 1992.

MAX LERNER was a prolific writer of books and a long-standing syndicated newspaper columnist. His column for the New York Post ran for over 40 years.

Lerner was born in Minsk, Russia, in 1902, and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1907. He graduated from Yale and earned a Ph D at the Brookings Institute in 1927. He then taught social sciences at Sarah Lawrence College before taking his first magazine assignment - as an editor of The Nation magazine - in the late 1930s.

The Nation was at the time embroiled in a dispute over President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies. Lerner was brought in by the publisher to modify the editors' support for FDR's programmes including the President's ill-fated attempt to recast the Supreme Court in his own mould, but Lerner sided with the editors.

After another teaching stint at Williams College, Lerner returned to journalism as the editorial director of PM, a New York newspaper that took no advertising, in an attempt to free itself of commercial pressure. In its five years of publication, from 1943 to 1948, PM represented a rare effort by the American Left to maintain its own daily paper. It was published during the build-up to the anti-Communist hysteria that was generated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and Lerner himself was accused by some on the right of being, at least, soft on Communism.

In fact, Lerner was a humanist and, by his own description, 'a possibilist'. The present editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky, says that Lerner played an important role in the American Left in the late Thirties and Forties, then politically joined the neo-conservative camp. 'But,' says Navasky, 'he was a broader thinker than that - he always had an interest in Eros and politics'.

Critics vary in their assessment of the numerous essays and books Lerner wrote shortly before, during and after the Second World War. He wrote about law, literature, political economics, education and social psychology. During the war, he first argued that the US should join in isolating Hitler without joining the fighting. Disillusioned by the Nazi-Soviet pact, he moved towards intervention and expressed the hope that Stalin would be forced by Hitler's treachery to move back to 'a humanist socialism'. Throughout this period, Lerner urged the US to undertake its own 'democratic revolution' which would empower workers and disempower the propertied interests.

Since the 'red menace' turmoil of the Fifties, Lerner's political views drifted ever rightward. Like many American Jewish leftists, he championed the rights of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel, but by 1954 he had also moved from advocating an accommodation with the Soviets to opposing them at every turn.

In the last two decades, Lerner's views on American social issues became increasingly anti-liberal. He shared with many former leftists of his generation a disillusionment with the US's government-run programmes that seek to promote social justice. Lerner wrote a column for the daily New York Post from 1949 until a few weeks before his death.

Among Max Lerner's many books were Ideas are Weapons (1939), Ideas for the Ice Age: studies in a revolutionary era (1941), It Is Later Than You Think (1938), The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes (1943), Actions and Passions: notes of the multiple revolutions of our time (1949), The Unfinished Country (1959), and The Age of Overkill (1962). After a near-fatal heart attack in 1984, he recovered and wrote a final book on that experience entitled Wrestling With the Angel (1990).

(Photograph omitted)

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