When In These Times and I stumbled upon each other in 1978 – when I was hired without a lot of thought on either part as cultural editor – it was the gift of a lifetime for me.
Jimmy’s understanding of politics as the prosaic complex of institutions, structures and actions through which people organize consciously for social change dialed down the noise level on personal-is-political politics.
It helped me to clarify critical challenges, and to ask interesting questions about the constitution of culture. I went on to learn much from Jimmy about the history of the left, and came to trust my own distrust for cant and dogma. I came to admire beyond measure the notion that social justice is not a radical demand but an ordinary aspiration of millions upon millions of people. I came to see Jimmy’s historical vision as rooted in a profound respect for the capacity of human beings to honor themselves with self-respect and to evoke it in others. He was also a real Gramscian optimist of the will. In one of my last conversations with Jimmy, I asked him what his old ex-communist buddies had thought about the current bleak political climate. He said, in his usual wry way, “They can’t see where it can go. But then they remembered that in 1958 they couldn’t see where it was going and in 1960 there was the New Left.”
Jimmy was an astoundingly generous person (I had the desk next to him and overheard while he quietly arranged assistance, sometimes entirely unrecognized, for friends, colleagues and employees), and he was an admirably generous political thinker. He is one of my sources of light in all the dark times.