Todd Gitlin, a Voice and Critic of the New Left, Dies at 79 – The New York Times

He earned his stripes in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. In his later years, he was often critical of his erstwhile kindred spirits.

The author and cultural historian Todd Gitlin in his office in Berkeley, Calif., in 1988. He personified the cultural and political ambitions of the ’60s, with a readiness to confront orthodoxies of whatever stripe.
Credit…Terrence McCarthy

Katharine Q. Seelye

Todd Gitlin, whose immersion in the student rebellions of the 1960s laid the foundation for his later work as a writer, a cultural historian and both a voice and a critic of the left, died on Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 79.

His stepdaughter, Shoshana Haulley, who confirmed the death, said he suffered cardiac arrest on Dec. 31 while staying at his home in Hillsdale, N.Y., and had been hospitalized in nearby Pittsfield ever since. He also had a home in Manhattan.

Dr. Gitlin personified the cultural and political ambitions of the ’60s, with a continuous readiness to confront orthodoxies of whatever stripe. He was a president of Students for a Democratic Society, the national flagship student organization that called for constructive social change, whose ranks swelled with protesters against the war in Vietnam and then collapsed into factionalism. At S.D.S., he assisted in organizing the first national demonstration against the war and helped lead the first protests in the United States against apartheid in South Africa.

He later became a chronicler of the decade. He was sometimes a caustic commenter on the left and its tactics, which opened him up to harsh judgments by erstwhile kindred spirits.

Dr. Gitlin spent his entire adult life as an academic, practicing his commitment to social change through teaching and writing. He considered himself first and foremost a writer; in an interview, Harvey Molotch, a sociologist and longtime colleague from the 1960s, called him “a contemplative activist,” one who “searched for ways to integrate the urgent needs of everyday life with larger political and social goals.”

By late 2021, for example, Dr. Gitlin’s activism had taken the form of organizing a group of ideologically disparate writers and activists to oppose continuing efforts by Republicans, under the sway of former President Donald J. Trump, to undermine free and fair elections.

“Todd was sui generis,” the historian David Nasaw said in an interview. “I don’t know any other old S.D.S. guys who would define themselves not only as teachers and scholars but as activists and organizers.”

From his perches at the University of California at Berkeley, New York University and Columbia, Dr. Gitlin produced poetry, novels, memoirs, cultural histories, media analyses, essays, opinion pieces and journal articles. His work appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, The New Republic, The New York Observer, Dissent and The New York Review of Books.

Calling himself “a not very private intellectual,” he wrote nearly 20 books over half a century, many of them with sociopolitical themes. His first was “Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago” (1970), written with Nanci Hollander, his first wife; one of his more recent was “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street” (2012).

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Credit…Penguin Random House

His best-known book was “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” (1987), a firsthand account, part history and part autobiography, of the rise and fall of the left during that decade of upheaval. The leftists who held sway, he said in the book, were never prepared to govern. “Often,” he wrote, “I’m glad we’re in no position to take power: If we did, the only honorable sequel would be abdication.”

As time went on, he continued to write from a progressive perspective but became increasingly critical of his own cohort. In “The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars” (1995), he said the left had become distracted by identity politics, multiculturalism and political correctness when it should have been focused on issues like economic justice.

“While the right has been busy taking the White House, the left has been marching on the English department,” he wrote. Kirkus Reviews said the book made for “provocative and convincing reading that will doubtless earn Gitlin demerits from the P.C. orthodox.”

Indeed it did. His critics said that his politics had turned to mush, that he offered no new ideas and that his writing had devolved into score-settling.

“Gitlin sees himself as an independent thinker and heretic who dares to dissent from common left wisdom,” Douglas Kellner, who specializes in media literacy at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in 2006. But, he said, “the positions Gitlin himself ends up affirming are ever more frequently simply those of conservatives, such as his trashing of theory, cultural studies, postmodernism, the ‘academic left’ and university-based activism.”

Even friends said he could be testy. “He did rub people the wrong way sometimes,” Michael Kazin, a historian and longtime friend who is a former co-editor of Dissent magazine, said in a phone interview.

“But,” he added, “he had made a transition that others had not, from revolutionary and radical politics to a more practical politics, a sort of left wing of the possible.”

Todd Alan Gitlin was born on Jan. 6, 1943, in Manhattan and grew up in a liberal Jewish household in the Bronx. His father, Max Gitlin, taught high school history. His mother, Dorothy (Siegel) Gitlin, taught typing and stenography.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1959 at 16 as class valedictorian, he studied mathematics at Harvard. A clean-cut supporter of Adlai E. Stevenson, he fell in love with a woman whose parents had been communists. She opened his eyes to folk music and to an outlaw culture that fascinated him, and he became involved with a peace group called Tocsin.

Before he graduated in 1963, he met Tom Hayden and other leaders of what was then a tiny organization, Students for a Democratic Society. “I wanted to be like them,” Dr. Gitlin wrote in “The Sixties.” “These exalted, clear, somehow devout souls so loved the world.” Within a year he had succeeded Mr. Hayden as president of S.D.S. He served in 1963 and 1964.

At the same time, he began graduate school at the University of Michigan and joined protests across the country. He was arrested in Baltimore trying to integrate a whites-only amusement park. He organized a sit-in in New York to protest the Chase Manhattan Bank’s loans to South Africa. He canvassed door to door in Chicago ghettos to organize poor people. He set up antiwar marches. And he still managed to graduate with a master’s degree in political science in 1966.

After two more years as what he called a freelance agitator, he moved to California. He wrote for The San Francisco Express Times, a short-lived underground weekly; lectured at San José State University; and joined a men’s consciousness-raising group.

“It was a holding action, a way of soothing wounds and greasing our withdrawal from politics,” he wrote. “In truth, our political will was sapped.”

He didn’t plan for a career, he told The Harvard Crimson in 1988, because “I thought the movement was going to be my life.” Eventually, he pursued a doctorate in sociology at Berkeley, saying it would give him the freedom to write, especially about the media.

“I wanted a certificate and a location which would permit me to write as much about whatever interested me, in the ways that interested me, as possible,” Dr. Gitlin said. “In a specialized world, writing about media and popular culture gave me a way of slicing into a whole tangle of political, social, cultural and intellectual questions.”

He had not grown up with television, which gave him a certain objectivity about it. When a TV set finally arrived in his home in the mid-1950s, he had already had the indelible experience of school drills in which students were directed to “duck and cover” in case of nuclear fallout. The dissonance between the threat of atomic war and the trivial sitcoms of the era, he told The New York Times in 1989, clued him in that “‘Ozzie and Harriet’ was a lie.”

He would go on to regard much of the establishment news media as tools of the profit-driven corporate state it covered, the goal of both being to perpetuate the status quo.

His dissertation at Berkeley turned into a book, “The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left,” published in 1980 and revised in 2003. In it, he traced the media’s symbiotic role in political movements, S.D.S. in particular.

After earning his doctorate in 1977, he taught sociology at Berkeley and was director of the university’s mass communications program until 1995. His well-received “Inside Prime Time” (1983, revised in 1994), for which he interviewed 200 people in the television industry, showed how advertisers and network executives colluded to set the cultural agenda.

Moving east in 1995, Dr. Gitlin taught at New York University until 2002, when he joined the faculty at Columbia, where he was a professor of journalism and sociology and chairman of the doctoral program in communications.

His first two marriages, to Ms. Hollander in 1964 and to Carol Wolman in 1976, ended in divorce. He married Laurel Ann Cook, who worked in public relations at Doubleday, in 1995.

In addition to his wife and his stepdaughter, Ms. Haulley, he is survived by his wife’s two sons, Justin and Fletcher Haulley; three step-grandchildren; and his sister, Judy Gitlin.

Beyond writing about politics and the media, Dr. Gitlin wrote three novels and took a decade to write his fourth, called “The Opposition,” to be published this spring. It covered a subject he knew well — life among a group of activists in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1960s.