Richard Cloward, Public Intellectual.

by Robin Marie


Richard Cloward being awesome.

Cross-posted from the US Intellectual History blog. Which explains the first sentence.


Few questions are brought up more frequently at this blog than the question of the public intellectual. Who is a public intellectual? What does a public intellectual do? Conversely, who isn’t a public intellectual? Often, these discussions revolve around problems of definition – if we are going to debate what we mean by a “public intellectual,” we must surely define what we mean by “public” and “intellectual” in the first place. Moreover, as L.D. Burnett has recently pointed out, we would do well to decide which portion of the term – the “public” or the “intellectual” – is the most important to our conception of the title. By way of one of the primary figures of my dissertation, sociologist and social activist Richard Cloward, I am going to hazard offering my own answers to each of these questions.

Before addressing what makes an intellectual “public,” it of course seems necessary to grapple with the whole idea of what comprises an “intellectual” in the first place. As many discussions here have attested to, this is a task fraught with epistemological and ideological problems – the collected baggage of race, class and gender are inevitably incorporated into our conceptions of the intellectual, and therefore to some it seems of little value to try and salvage the idea at all. Yet my response to this problem – however admittedly related to my inability to divorce myself from my own middle-class romanticism – is not to abandon the term, but to attempt to reinvent it by dressing it down. A democratic notion of the intellectual, in other words, would be one with remarkably minimal standards for admission – as I once argued in a review of the delightful documentary The Examined Life, all one need possess in order to qualify as an intellectual is a genuine, passionate interest in ideas and their consequences for the lived experience of being human. This does not require any set standard or amount of knowledge – although when the interest is sincere, a certain amount of education is usually acquired one way or another – nor of course a college degree or publically scrutinized body of work. For even the quest of the classic privileged white male intellectual is, ultimately, a deeply human one, and it is in this broadly shared humanity which can be found the lustful yearning with which we recognize each other as intellectuals.

Yet if this standard seems excessively broad and undiscriminating, fear not – I’m about to get much more stringent. If it does not take much to be considered an intellectual, it takes quite a lot, in my view, to be considered a public one. For in order to be endowed with the title of a public intellectual, one must produce thinking which is publically relevant – one must take a position on The Way We Live Now. And ultimately, if pursued honestly and fully, this means one has to become political – in the deepest sense of the term. A public intellectual, in other words, is an intellectual who takes a position on contemporary power arrangements.

The life of Richard Cloward provides a useful illustration of the distinction – for in the course of a few years, Cloward underwent a transformation from a mere sociologist to a politically committed public intellectual. Trained at Columbia, Cloward’s early research focused on the social and psychological dynamics of prisoners, and he was particularly interested in Robert K. Merton’s theory of anomie, which drew from Durkheim’s concept of the same name. At the turn of the 1960s, Cloward applied these interests to research on juvenile delinquency, a field that was enjoying heightened attention amidst widespread public concern about escalating rates of youthful rebellion and criminality.

This research resulted in a 1960 book, co-authored with sociologist Lloyd Ohlin, entitled Delinquency and Opportunity. In their book, Cloward and Ohlin identified poverty as the culprit behind delinquency. Delinquency, they argued, resulted from poor people aspiring to success just like the rest of Americans – but upon finding the avenues to achievement blocked, they resorted to illegitimate means to achieve such material success or recoiled into retreatist despair. The key to reducing delinquency, then, lay in expanding opportunity. At the time their book was published, Cloward and Ohlin were working with a coalition of settlement houses in New York to secure funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to launch a program which would test their theory. This program, called Mobilization for Youth, was one of several such anti-poverty and delinquency programs developed – largely by philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation – at the turn of the 1960s.

Federal policy makers also became interested in the new social scientific work on poverty. During his administration, John F. Kennedy, responding to the public concern about juvenile delinquency, established the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency (PCJD). The man put in charge of heading the committee, David Hackett, quickly narrowed in on new theories of delinquency emerging from social science as the most promising avenue to new policy, and he was particularly impressed with the work by Cloward and Ohlin. Other sociologists, such as Leonard S. Cottrell – who as the research director of the philanthropic Russell Sage Foundation possessed great influence over the allocation of grants – also played central roles in the deliberations and recommendations of the committee. Thus heavily influenced by sociologists, the PCJD quickly narrowed in on poverty as the primary cause of juvenile delinquency. Consequently, the PCJD became a primary site for collaboration between social scientists, policy foundations, and federal policy makers investigating the causes and consequences of poverty.

In one sense, then, Cloward already qualified as a very public intellectual. For if all that is required to make one a public intellectual is playing a role in providing public institutions, such as the federal government, with knowledge that assists them in their goals, then Cloward, Ohlin, and indeed an entire army of federally and privately employed social scientists and social policy specialists can be granted the title. Indeed, Cloward and Ohlin’s thesis – and the program designed to test it, Mobilization for Youth – provided theoretical inspiration and justification for the creation of the Community Action programs under Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Yet despite the centrality of the work of Cloward and other sociologists in informing the anti-poverty programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the influence of their social science should not be mistaken for social power. The appeal of Cloward’s work lay not so much in his prestige as a social scientist or an intellectual, but rather in the compatibility of his research with the goals and existing power structures of the liberal state. For despite their emphasis on improving what they called “the opportunity structure,” Cloward and Ohlin said remarkably little about how that opportunity structure ended up looking so shabby in the first place. They did briefly point to some developments, such as mismanaged urban renewal projects and the death of urban political machines, which they argued aggravated the conditions of lower-income neighborhoods. However, Cloward’s work did not expand its analysis past the purely local to ask larger questions about political economy or the role racism played in patterns of poverty in urban areas. Instead, Cloward –like liberal social scientists in general – partook in a discourse of silence: questions about the justice of the post-war social-economic order could not be explicitly answered, because post-war social scientists rarely explicitly asked them. Thus, although Cloward and other social scientists sought to improve the conditions of poor people in the United States, their reticence on fundamental questions of politics ensured that their work would be appealing to a liberal state looking to mitigate, but not fundamentally address, the social problems of poverty and racism. Thus when it launched its program, Mobilization for Youth enjoyed the explicit endorsement of President Kennedy and a reputation as the most promising of the new anti-poverty programs. Cloward played a direct role in Mobilization, and as research director he was one of the most important administrative figures in the early years of the program.

However, in this new role as on-the-ground social worker, Cloward quickly encountered the limitations of his theory that Mobilization itself had been designed to test. As Mobilization staffers went about encouraging and creating community organizations intended to expand opportunity in the Lower East Side of New York city, they quickly discovered what residents were up against as local institutions responded to poor people’s organizations with negligence, resistance, and sometimes overt hostility. In response to these obstacles, Mobilization staffers turned to more radical approaches – such as rent strikes and welfare office sit-ins – to ensure that the institutions of the city of New York responded to the concerns of its least fortunate people. In many community action programs across the country, a similar dynamic played out – and the response from local elites to this mobilization was unified and unambiguous. As the director of the Housing Authority in Syracuse put it, “[w]e are experiencing a class struggle in the traditional Karl Marx style in Syracuse, and I do not like it.”[1] Decades later, Cloward would sum up the response from city mayors by explaining that, “as Mobilization and then the anti-poverty projects around the country began engaging in conflict…the mayors across the United States went absolutely ape shit, to put it bluntly.”[2]

Thus Cloward had a front row seat to these escalating conflicts and contests of power – and the experience changed his perspective dramatically. As Cloward would later explain, “I think once the project was on the ground and in the field, and we began dealing with the Welfare Department, and the Public Housing Authority, and the police, and things like that, and seeing these agencies through the eyes of the people themselves – I think it was radicalizing, to put it mildly.”[3] At a debate with a representative from the Office of Economic Opportunity (the federal agency tasked with carrying out the War on Poverty) in 1966, Cloward elaborated on his new position. Any detailed analysis of poverty, he argued, revealed that the structures and institutions which perpetuated poverty would have to be fundamentally challenged in order to substantially reduce poverty.  As he explained it, “[a]t a time when government is expanding its structures, its services and thus, I might add, its control over people, we need independent action more than ever before: not, as conservatives would argue, to permit each man to pursue personal and private interests unfettered by any government restraint, but, rather, to exert a counter-force against oppression by government, and to secure a more equitable distribution of resources and power.”[4] Moreover, Cloward argued that contrary to empowering poor people, the anti-poverty programs of the federal government actually contributed to their disempowerment. Because city institutions did not rely on the poor for tax dollars and support, Cloward argued, the only way to really force them to respond to the poor would be to disrupt and prevent their normal functioning. On the other hand, attempting to organize the poor into traditional political lobbies – as the federal programs aimed to do – would guarantee failure yet maintain the illusion of political inclusion. Indeed, Cloward argued, this is exactly why such programs appealed to liberals.  Thus Cloward fully repudiated whatever role he previously played in supplying the knowledge needed to buttress the ideological rationale for the poverty programs of liberal administrations – or, as he aptly put it, “In a manner of speaking, I came to burn my poverty card.”[5]

Therefore Cloward, by critiquing rather than assisting liberal elites, surpassed his role as a mere sociologist, or even a mere intellectual, and became a truly public intellectual – for what Cloward now offered was an explicit commentary of who had power in the United States, why they had that power, and whether or not they should continue to possess it. And any act of thinking or argument that we can truly call public, it seems to me, must ultimately grapple with these questions of power. In this formulation the term public, then, refers not so much to a certain level of exposure or renown – which may be necessary to becoming a public intellectual but is hardly sufficient – but rather to the type of thinking an intellectual does. This does not mean, however, that an intellectual must be only or primarily engaged with producing political theory or commentary on current partisan battles – for since questions of power are involved in nearly all intellectual endeavors, from the work of a dissertation to the design of a public park, intellectuals can tackle these questions in multiple ways through multiple disciplines and mediums. However, some attempt to address them explicitly must be made. If an intellectual does not do so, he or she may still quietly reinforce the status-quo, or educate and entertain a given sub-set of the population with knowledge presented as apolitical – but unless they make themselves explicitly politically relevant to some portion of the public, they have not taken on the significance of being publicly relevant, either.

It is important to note that this definition is by no means intended to exclude conservative thinkers. The question is not one of choosing a particular side, but simply explicitly choosing some side, and then advancing an intellectually honest argument in defense of your choice. There are clearly scores of public conservative intellectuals who have either defended contemporary arrangements or, as Corey Robin has recently written about, imagined brave new hierarchies of power which, they hope, will replace unjust or decrepit ones. As with those on the left, then, it is also possible to be a conservative intellectual without really being a public intellectual – for if one merely assists those maintaining current power arrangements with carrying out their functions, they act as mere advisers or specialists: but if they speak directly to arrangements of power, rather than passively reinforcing them, then they produce knowledge that is truly public in the full, political sense of the term.

Another example where we can see this distinction in play is in the academy – and the field of history, I think, illustrates it particularly well. Occasionally, even lowly historians obtain a certain amount of fame and success in broader markets – the privileged few who make it out of the academic press and into the Barnes & Noble. However, merely being a well-known historian does not necessarily make one a public intellectual; even if, in his or her more private and personal affairs, a scholar should clearly be considered an intellectual, these qualities are not necessarily incorporated into their work. Indeed, it is quite possible to be a famous historian without being a public intellectual – many scholars know how to tell a story, tell it well, and keep things in context, but they have certain notions about keeping away from presentism or speculating beyond the sources that they never really do much more than that — they never really tell us why any of this matters, or what it could mean to us in the future. But such questions are the bread and butter of the public intellectual, and when a broader public gravitates to them for these reasons, and not merely to learn about a particular era or interesting person, then they are serving the public as a public intellectual.

There is a sense, however, in which the distinction between a well-known scholar and a public intellectual speaks to even deeper differences in one’s intellectual life. Those who are more engaged in “thinking publicly,” so to speak, usually share a trait that distinguishes them from those who refrain from such politically loaded content – they love to take a position. And although I started out this essay by crafting an incredibly broad conception of the intellectual, it does seem to me that there are differences in the types of thinking different kinds of intellectuals do, which might help determine whether or not any given academic might gravitate towards public thinking. In my own mind, I formulate the difference like this: Scholars love to ask questions. Intellectuals love to answer them. Now certainly, this is a polemical and simplistic thing to say. But for me, it gets at something fundamental – and I have a suspicion that the distinction between an intellectual and a public intellectual is, in part, an elaboration of this difference. But where that difference comes from – and what its content is composed of – is not yet entirely clear to me.

So in an essay where I have been ambitious and foolish enough to offer an answer to the question of the public intellectual, I suppose I ought to stop there and end with the modesty of the question of whence it comes. For it may be said that my definition offered here is too narrow, or too unimaginatively confined to a person of my own personal and political predilections, and these are fair criticisms. However I can only fall back on the impulse which shapes the argument, which is simply that I find the answering of questions as productive as the asking of them – for as the historiography of scholars responding to such brave answer-givers as Frederick Jackson Turner and Richard Hofstadter have taught us, even wrong answers stimulate incredibly good thinking. The public intellectual, then, is an intellectual who recognizes this – and finds in the answering of the questions of politics and power a joyous and creative hope for the future.

[1] Quote from Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1984), 248. Narratives of these various community actions programs can be found in Matusow, The Unraveling of America, 254-265, and Cazenave, Impossible Democracy, particularly Chapters 6 and 7, 105-170. Also see Cazenave, 156-157, for the activities of the Syracuse Community Action program.

[2] May 28, 1992, Oral History Interview with Richard Cloward. Conducted by Noel A. Cazenave, 38. Oral History Research Archives, Columbia (New York).

[3] May 28, 1992, Oral History Interview with Richard Cloward. Conducted by Noel A. Cazenave, 36-37. Oral History Research Archives, Columbia (New York).

[4] Poverty and Power: Two Points of View, Fifth Annual Alumni Symposium, April 16, 1966, School of Applied Social Sciences Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, 19, at Lehman Social Sciences Library, Columbia (New York).

[5] Poverty and Power: Two Points of View, Fifth Annual Alumni Symposium, April 16, 1966, School of Applied Social Sciences Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, 11, at Lehman Social Sciences Library, Columbia (New York).