Fred Newman and his Critics

There was a time – in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s – when a viable, vibrant Left existed in the United States. Seething with sectarian antagonisms, the Left during those decades nevertheless possessed a social vision, organization, and broad-based support from one end of the country to the other – in the trade unions and in the black community, among urban intellectuals and artists, Appalachian coal miners, sharecroppers in the Deep South and small farmers in the Midwest.

Fred Newman, first schooled in the airless confines of the machine shop and later in the rigorous environment of analytic philosophy, but not in the ways of the Left, first came to know it in the early ’70s. By then, however, this “old” American progressivism had long been so compromised and outmaneuvered that it was barely breathing.

As for the New Left, it too had already fallen on hard times. In 1974 Newman accused this self-styled “Movement” of being, at best, the embodiment of naïve liberalism.

In “BEWARE of the Movement” Newman took pains to distinguish between the New Left – “this large, amorphous group of groups” and the “traditional” Communist Left. He would subsequently have harsh things to say about the traditionalists, although they would be said with some sadness and with respect for their earlier role in American political life. But just as he wanted nothing to do with what he took to be the pseudo-left movement, he rejected the moribund old Left as a model. He made no secret of his desire to create something new, what he sometimes referred to as a postmodern form of Marxism, without knowing in advance what that might be or how to go about doing it. 

Within the left system of belief, this is Fred Newman’s original sin – hubris. The leitmotif of the anti-Newman critique – nearly all of which originated from the left side of the political spectrum, some of which has spilled over into the pages of the ultra-right New York Post – is that, despite appearances, he isn’t a “real” leftist. To this charge, Newman would likely have pleaded guilty, insofar as “real” leftist means having direct genealogical ties to either the “old” or “new” Left, or an attachment to their modernist mainframes. What’s more, the custom-made political, therapeutic and cultural products that he began designing in the late ’60s have become increasingly successful and competitive in the mainstream marketplace, fueling antagonism from numerous corners of the left/liberal universe.

As Dr. Kenneth Gergen, the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College and the best known of American postmodernists, suggested in his “Foreword” to Lois Holzman’s anthology of essays by and about Newman, Performing Psychology (Routledge, 1999), Newman challenged the self-evident truths that are the bricks and mortar of modernist life and thought. Gergen writes of Newman’s “concerted attempt to explore new potentials – new ways of understanding knowledge, methodology, and conceptual work on the one hand, and the place of the psychologist within historical, political, cultural, and aesthetic context on the other. These explorations have also been accompanied by a singular willingness to take risks – to move from talk about ideals and alternatives to precedent-breaking action.”

Newman’s controversiality has been especially linked to his efforts to create an alternative to psychology (an anti-psychology) from the earliest days of his public activism. Yet Newman’s detractors never note the thoughtful consideration with which his “brand” of postmodern therapy – social therapy – is discussed and debated in the ever-widening international circles of postmodern psychology. For the detractors, indeed, there is no such thing as postmodern psychology or a meaningful challenge to the boundaries enforced by traditional psychology. [See New York TV Journalists Shocked by Newman’s Postmodernism

Newman is not a trained psychologist. Yet Routledge, among the most prestigious academic presses in the world, saw fit to publish the Newman/Holzman contribution to the postmodern dialogue in psychology, as articulated in the first and third installments of their anti-epistemology trilogy, Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist (1993) and The End of Knowing (1997). The second work in that series, Unscientific Psychology (1996), bears the similarly regarded Praeger imprint. Routledge is also the publisher of Performing Psychology (1999). In 2013, 20 years after its first appearance, Routledge has republished Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist  as part of their Psychology Press Classic Editions Series.

Newman’s work and the wealth of responses to it by a broad spectrum of people – leading figures in psychology, academia, business and the theatre, the people whose lives have been touched by social therapy and the programs of the All Stars Project, the audiences for his plays at the Castillo Theatre, grassroots activists in the independent political movement and the dozens of political figures from across the ideological spectrum, including elected officials with whom he has “done business” over the years – are waiting to be examined. Newman’s critics, however, never pursue any of this. Instead, they surround him with allegations of cultism [New York Times], “shadow empires” [NY Post], inappropriate and/or unethical connections between politics and psychology, and anti-Semitism.

The Origins of the Cult Charge

More than 30 years ago, in November of 1977, an “exposé” of Fred Newman and the small group of community organizers associated with him appeared in Heights and Valley News, an alternative newspaper that ordinarily covered tenant issues in the neighborhood of Columbia University. The author of “West Side ‘Therapy Cult’ Conceals Its True Aims” was Dennis King, a left-winger active in the Progressive Labor Party, one of the many left splinter groups that proliferated in the 1970s. King, who would subsequently seek to make a name for himself as a specialist in political cults, was personally acquainted with Newman and several of his colleagues, but abruptly turned against them in the wake of a fizzled romance with a woman in Newman’s close circles.

King did not say what he took to be the “true aims” of Newman and his colleagues in the 1977 piece, but the “cult” label became an ongoing refrain. That year The Public Eye, a pamphlet published irregularly by the National Lawyers Guild, allied with the Communist Party USA, ran an article in which Newman was identified as one of several “cult leaders” gaining ground within the American Left.

The cult charge is identified by some as a postmodern version of what was once known as red-baiting. Ironically, it is left and liberal critics who frequently make use of the cult charge; it resurfaced at regular intervals, usually around the time of political campaigns and elections in which Newman – and African American independent Lenora Fulani, a Newman protégée – were involved.

Newman’s role, via the New York Independence Party, in electing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and defeating his two prominent Democratic liberal opponents – Mark Green in 2001 and Fernando Ferrer in 2005 – fueled the antagonisms of the left-liberal establishment toward him. As a result, the polemical constructs originating in the left sectarianism of the 1970s – including the cult charge – have been grafted onto the press releases of present-day senior Democratic Party elected officials intent upon discrediting Newman and the institutions that are becoming their competition, most notably, the independent political movement.

The Anti-Semitism Charge

George Soros recently wrote in an essay about AIPAC in the New York Review of Books, “The pro-Israel lobby has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism…Anybody who dares to dissent may be subjected to a campaign of personal vilification.” Newman has been a sometime critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East. More provocatively, however, his focus was on how the suburbanization of the working class Jewish community in America, and the simultaneous betrayal of working class, poor and unassimilated Jews, were linked to the popularization of Zionism. Not surprisingly, he has been a periodic target for “personal vilification” within Jewish political circles.

Left Sectarianism Redux

The network of Newman detractors includes several former members of the International Workers Party (IWP), which was founded in 1974 with Newman as its chairman and which later went out of existence, yielding in its place a core collective of socialists. This collective shared a common commitment to building and developing multiple tactics in the fields of psychology, culture, business, education and politics. The dissenters’ split with Newman occurred in the wake of the “Perot revolution” of 1992, as they bitterly opposed forming electoral alliances between white independents radicalized by Ross Perot’s first presidential campaign and Fulani’s base in poor communities of color. They subsequently became promoters of the cult charge against him.

The Last Left Polemic

Anyone who has ever been in or around an unhappy household would recognize the atmosphere of unforgiving hostility that has frequently prevailed within the Left, even during periods when it was relatively successful. Left publications have always filled their pages with polemic, the political version of the bitter quarrels between people who, regardless of whether they’re related by blood or marriage, resent one another’s very existence. The vitriolic attacks on Newman are not an anomaly but are very much how it’s done in this tradition. Indeed, one of Newman’s quarrels with the New Left was that it did nothing else. What is notable about the anti-Newman diatribes, frequently so venomous that they border on incoherence, is that they sometimes show up on the editorial pages of The New York Times [Times Op Ed in October 2005]. 

Why is Newman so controversial? In part because of his and the collective’s success. No other contemporary American revolutionary can lay claim to his portfolio: deep roots in the emergent independent political movement, which included being the “boss” of the independent party that elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg; a location in postmodern psychology as a clinician and highly regarded theoretician; an inner city youth development program he founded that has garnered over $50 million in broad-based financial support from a cross-section of prominent corporate and Wall Street business leaders and their companies; a body of avant-garde theatrical work that has helped to redefine American political theatre; and a core collective of deeply committed activists who co-created with him the varied enterprises of his conglomerate. Newman’s success created his share of enemies. 

Newman’s controversiality can best be understood in the context of the progressive movement’s failures over the course of the 20th century.

As a progressive, Newman would say he must be counted among the Left’s failures. Unlike them, however, he has steadfastly resisted the conservative wave that engulfed America for more than a generation. Like a small but sturdy raft, the development community that the collective has been constructing for nearly four decades has managed to stay afloat when, tragically, much else built by leftists in this country has been destroyed, defeated, or taken over and remade to serve other interests and purposes.

In a sane world, progressives would rejoice that one of their own survived– moreover, that someone who shared their values had the philosophical sophistication, organizing ability, and perseverance not only to survive but to flourish in a climate that has been inhospitable to progressivism.

Yet the circle of Newman detractors, far from rejoicing, appear instead to be driven by a mix of resentment, rage and sheer bewilderment that he and his colleagues have reached new levels of political, cultural, intellectual and financial success and relevance.

But Newman was never one of their own. Forty years after leaving his career as an academic philosopher in the seemingly quixotic pursuit of a dream – community, democracy, development – Newman remained unapologetic. His critique of modernism – including the variety employed by the Left – takes the form of activity; it is not an analysis of what there is (modernist conceptions and categories being of little use in critiquing modernism), but the doing/creating of something new. That is, his critique is developmental rather than static, performatory rather than cognitive, positive rather than negative, active rather than passive.

Ian Parker, managing editor of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology and a member of the Psychology faculty at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, recently summarized the basic pattern of attacks on Newman:

“Every few years there is a new wave of allegations and panic about Fred and Co., and every time the panic draws sections of the Left into alliances those who seek to use psychology against politics, and then, of course, this kind of alliance ends up using psychology as a form of politics to discredit all of the Left.”

Sadly, since the international Left has been so discredited by its failures, Parker’s fears have already been realized. Meanwhile, Newman’s success – and controversy – continue to grow.