John Patrick Diggins, RIP


The intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins has died at age 73. I didn't share his worldview—he tended to stress the power of ideas to move events, whereas I give more weight to the power of events to move ideas—but I've learned a lot from his work. The American Left in the Twentieth Century (1973) is a solid survey of the bohemian "Lyrical Left" that emerged before World War I, the stodgy Old Left of the Stalin era, and the antiwar New Left of the '60s and early '70s. (When he revised the book in 1992, Diggins added a new stage of development: the Academic Left.) Up from Communism (1975) is a sharp study of several figures who moved from the left to the right, sometimes in a more libertarian direction and sometimes not. (I drew on it when I wrote about the "crunchy conservative" phenomenon last year.) And while I haven't read Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom and the Making of History (2007), which argues that the 40th president was an Emersonian liberal, I've been meaning to take a look at it ever since Daniel McCarthy's thoughtful review appeared here in Reason.

In his obituary for the historian, William Grimes of The New York Times writes:

Politically elusive, Mr. Diggins described his own position as lying "to the right of the Left and to the left of the Right." He nourished a sneaking fondness for the Lyrical Left but declared Ronald Reagan to be "one of the two or three truly great presidents in history."

"His great virtue was not to occupy a place on the political spectrum," [Paul] Berman said. "He occupied a different kind of space. Readers sometimes found this perplexing, but after a deeper reading it became clear that this was what gave him his unique value."