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Elena Kagan, Radical?

11:06 AM, May 6, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Earlier this week, President Obama called Republican Senator Orrin Hatch to discuss the vacancy on the Court left by Justice Souter. According to Hatch's office, the president "assured Hatch...that he would appoint a pragmatist, not a radical, to this important position." Among the names considered at the top of President Obama's short-list is that of Elena Kagan, the recently confirmed solicitor general and former dean of the Harvard Law School. Yesterday THE WEEKLY STANDARD obtained a copy of Elena Kagan's senior thesis, written almost thirty years ago while an undergraduate at Princeton. The title of the thesis: "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933"

Obviously, one imagines that Kagan's views have evolved significantly over the last three decades, but given Obama's stated aversion to radicalism, it's certainly worth noting the radical roots of the nation's top lawyer. In her acknowledgments, Kagan writes:

"Sean Wilentz painstakingly read each page of this thesis - occasionally two or three times. His comments and suggestions were invaluable; his encouragement was both needed and appreciated. Finally, I would like to thank my brother Marc, whose involvement in radical causes led me to explore the history of American radicalism in the hope of clarifying my own political ideas."

What were Kagan's own ideas?

"In our own times, a coherent socialist movement is nowhere to be found in the United States. Americans are more likely to speak of a golden past than of a golden future, of capitalism's glories than of socialism's greatness. Conformity overrides dissent; the desire to conserve has overwhelmed the urge to alter. Such a state of affairs cries out for explanation. Why, in a society by no means perfect, has a radical party never attained the status of a major political force? Why, in particular, did the socialist movement never become an alternative to the nation's established parties?"(pp. 127)

"Through its own internal feuding, then, the SP exhausted itself forever and further reduced labor radicalism in New York to the position of marginality and insignificance from which it has never recovered. The story is a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialism's decline, still wish to change America. Radicals have often succumbed to the devastating bane of sectarianism; it is easier, after all, to fight one's fellows than it is to battle an entrenched and powerful foe. Yet if the history of Local New York shows anything, it is that American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope." (pp. 129-130)

Her political sympathies (at the time) seem quite clear -- and radical.

HT: Princeton University Library