Norman Birnbaum, a left-wing sociologist, professor, and journalist, dies at 92

The sociologist Norman Birnbaum once looked out at the scene on US campuses and was struck by “disorder and chaos” that he worried might “bring upon us unprecedented disaster.”

“Perhaps the time has come for a new American revolution — one in which a technological society re-evaluates its goals and resources,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Globe.

The year was 1970, when Dr. Birnbaum was chairing Amherst College’s anthropology and sociology department. His op-ed was drawn from a letter he had sent to President Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest.


A left-wing sociologist and journalist, Dr. Birnbaum championed progressive causes on both sides of the Atlantic, helped establish the New Left Review in England, and served as a veteran member of the editorial board at the Nation magazine. He was 92 when he died Friday in a Washington, D.C., hospital.

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Dr. Birnbaum had suffered from heart problems and was diagnosed with sepsis, his daughter Antonia Birnbaum, a philosophy professor at the University of Paris 8 in France, told The Washington Post.

A longtime professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, where he applied a socialist lens to the study of American society, Dr. Birnbaum was credited with introducing sociology to the undergraduate curriculums at the University of Oxford and Amherst College in the 1950s and ’60s, a period in which he also helped lay the intellectual foundations of the New Left political movement.

“The students who graduate from college will be entering, by and large, the bureaucratic and hierarchical organizations which dominate our society,” he wrote in the 1970 Globe op-ed, while he was at Amherst College.

“We face a paradox,” he added. “Those with high educational qualifications will be called upon to exercise the maximum of autonomy and responsibility in their occupations, but the fruit of their labors will be used in ways which may well escape their control or judgment.”


By turns incisive and witty, Dr. Birnbaum was part of a group of midcentury New York intellectuals centered around journals such as Commentary, Dissent, and Partisan Review. During a stint abroad, he also served as a founding member of the editorial board of the New Left Review, formed in London in 1960.

Dr. Birnbaum later joined the board of Partisan Review and married one of its editors, Edith Kurzweil. But he was best known for his long association with the weekly political magazine the Nation, where he was an editorial board member for more than four decades and brought what Katrina vanden Heuvel, the magazine’s publisher and editor, called “a radical voice and a voice of history.”

“He knew socialist history as well as anyone and always maintained a progressive if not radical political stance, which informed the Nation,” vanden Heuvel said in an interview with the Post.

In part as a result of graduate work in West Germany and his years teaching in Britain, Dr. Birnbaum maintained a vast circle of friends and acquaintances that included German statesman Willy Brandt, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and fellow journalists Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz.

While the latter two became leaders of the neoconservative movement, Dr. Birnbaum remained a lifelong man of the left, a forthright critic of America’s “imperialist” foreign policy who nonetheless cracked jokes and charmed his Republican political opponents at monthly meetings of the Committee for the Republic, a Washington public policy group in which he served as a board member.


Dr. Birnbaum also served on presidential campaigns for Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Jesse Jackson, was a consultant to the National Security Council under Carter (“any advice I had to give was systematically not followed,” he said), and advised the United Auto Workers.

His books — including “The Crisis of Industrial Society” (1969) and “After Progress” (2001) — plotted the course of 20th-century intellectual history.

While his calls for revolution in the 1960s went unheeded, he argued that the establishment of the modern welfare state was nonetheless a major achievement for the left.

“A sociologist with extraordinary range, Birnbaum has sought to draw European traditions of critical thought into America, relentlessly tweaking the complacency that once, long ago, dominated the American scene,” economist James K. Galbraith wrote in Dissent magazine, reviewing Dr. Birnbaum’s 2017 memoir, “From the Bronx to Oxford and Not Quite Back.”

Dr. Birnbaum, journalist and former Bill Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal once said, combined “the manner of an Oxford don, the method of a German social scientist, and the passion of an Old Testament prophet.”

“I never believed in a social science made by and for academics, a dispassionate account of the world,” he told the reference work Contemporary Authors in the early 2000s. “I do believe that the present is history, but that we are not its prisoners. Only a God can make the world anew, but humans fail in their humanity if they do not try to make it better.”

Norman Birnbaum was born in Manhattan, N.Y., on July 21, 1926, and grew up in the Bronx. His mother was a homemaker, and his father — the son of a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe — was a high school teacher who subscribed to the Nation.

He graduated from Williams College, and at Harvard University, he worked as a teaching assistant alongside Henry Kissinger, receiving a master’s degree and a doctorate. Dr. Birnbaum was a professor at the London School of Economics, Oxford, the New School, and Amherst before joining Georgetown in 1979, where he taught until retiring in 2001.

While at Amherst, he won a $1,000 damage payment from the CIA after an agent illegally opened his mail — a letter he had written to a Soviet colleague about a religious conference. “I’m much more interested that the CIA director and other agency heads take this as a message that many Americans won’t stand for having their civil rights trampled on,” Dr. Birnbaum said then.

His marriages to Nina Apel and to Kurzweil ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, he leaves his companion, Terry Flood of Washington, and a grandson. He was predeceased by his daughter Anna.

Asked in 2007 why he spent his entire life on the political left, Dr. Birnbaum told the magazine Academe: “When I think of the characters and ideas of many of those on the right, the left seems to be the only place anybody with self-respect could be.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.