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Malcolm Bradbury’s novel The History Man is set in the autumn of 1972. Students are returning to Watermouth University on the south coast of England, and it’s time for sociology professor Howard Kirk and his wife Barbara to throw a party.

Kirk parties aren’t light entertainment. Ever the sociologist, Howard prepares for the party by pulling beds to the walls, clearing floor space, opening doors. His aim is to “have as little forbidden ground as possible, to make the house itself the total stage,” organized according to a code of “possibility, not denial.” Howard will let the party happen “without hostly intervention, or rather with the intervention of that higher sociological host who governs the transactions of human encounter.” He erects one boundary. Howard has written a book entitled The Defeat of Privacy (which argues “there are no more private selves, no more private corners in society, no more private properties, no more private acts”), but he places several chairs to block guests from trespassing on his basement study.

Howard has found a home at Watermouth, where classes aren’t about instruction but experience. Students are perpetually nervous because they never know what kind of experience will be thrust on them: “There are classes where you have, on arrival, to eat something, or touch each other, or recount last night’s dreams, or undress,” whatever it takes to ensure the class will be “interesting.” Sometimes, students listen to “tutors in self-therapy”; sometimes, students become the “problem-bearers” as tutors “dive down into your unconscious with three shrewd inquiries and come up clutching something in you called ‘bourgeois materialism’ or ‘racism.’” The pedagogy facilitates Howard’s educational purpose, that of radicalizing his students.

Of course, radicalizing students involves breaking down sexual inhibitions, a topic on which Howard is both a practical and theoretical expert. After Barbara had an affair early in their marriage, the Kirks came to an understanding. She now takes occasional “shopping” trips to London, while Howard beds colleagues and students at every opportunity. During the party, one student, Felicity Phee, comes to him with a dilemma: “I’m tired of being a lesbian,” she tells him. “I’ve found that my sexuality isn’t the one I’ve come to terms with, if you see what I mean.” Felicity’s friend Maureen condemns her return to heterosexuality as a reversion to a “slave mentality.” “What would you do?” she asks Howard. “There’s only one rule,” he replies. “Follow the line of your own desires. Don’t accept other people’s versions.” Relieved, Felicity kisses his cheek: “You give such good advice.” Later in the evening, Howard will spend a few fumbling moments with Felicity on the floor of his study.

On campus, Howard is faculty adviser to the Revolutionary Student Front. In a talk to the group, Howard “generates images of violence . . . of armed struggle, the need for unity, the claims of blood and force.” When he invites discussion their minds “contemplate the techniques of bloodshed, the degree of warfare, the bright new reality at the end of it all.” Peter Madden, the Front’s student leader, isn’t satisfied: “You don’t radicalize people by talk . . . you get them in by action.” Howard agrees, and he has just the thing. As soon as he steps on campus for the fall term, he asks another sociologist, Moira Milikin, if she’s heard the rumors: They’ve invited Mangel to speak—“Mangel the geneticist, Mangel the racist.” No such invitation has been issued, but it comes up at a departmental meeting. As soon as Mangel’s name is mentioned, the faculty members divide into ideological camps: liberals and radicals. The liberals say the university should invite Mangel in the interests of free inquiry; social psychologist Flora Beniform once worked with Mangel and insists he’s no racist. The radical members of the faculty warn that Mangel’s presence on campus will provoke a response. When the chair, Prof. Marvin, puts the question to a vote, the liberals win the majority. Howard has what he wanted—a disruptive event that will strain the university.

Barbara discerns that Howard’s pranks aren’t driven by conviction. “You’ve lived off the flavours and flashes of the mind,” she says, calling him a “radical poseur” who has “substituted trends for morals and commitments.” In practice, Howard is a sadist who manipulates students and colleagues. The morning after the party, Felicity is waiting for Howard in his office. She wants to matter to Howard, and she’s able to worm her way into his house for a few weeks as housekeeper and nanny to the two Kirk children. Howard continues to sleep with her, but Felicity eventually turns Howard’s radicalism against him: “I’m tired of being exploited,” she tells Barbara, before she packs.

Howard is especially cruel toward George Carmody, a clean-shaven “square” who wears a blazer and a tie, both with the university seal. Asked to analyze social change in Mill, Marx, and Weber, Carmody presents a lengthy paper of close textual analysis. In front of the class, Howard calls it an “anal” presentation from an “anal” student. Carmody meets privately with Howard after class and asks to be transferred to a different tutor. He explains he’s an individualist who hates “this cost-accountancy, Marxist view of man as a unit in the chain of production.” In his view, “superstructure is a damned sign more important than the substructure.” Howard says his beliefs are “incompatible with sociological analysis” and insists Carmody must “either accept some sociological principles, or you fail, and that’s your choice.” Carmody sees the issue clearly: “I fit in, or I fail. . . . Can’t I exist as well?”

Howard’s response is terrifying: “You can . . . if you’re capable of changing.” Carmody lodges a formal complaint, but Howard deftly positions himself as the victim of a conservative purge. After students stage a sit-in with signs reading “Preserve academic freedom” and “Work for Kirk,” Carmody flees the campus. Howard stays on to radicalize and brutalize another crop of students.

When Bradbury’s novel first appeared in 1975, some reviewers complained that Howard doesn’t get his comeuppance. But that’s not a flaw. Bradbury understood how soft liberalism’s underbelly was. The liberal spirit is personified by hapless Henry Beamish, Howard’s oldest friend and erstwhile radical. He delivers an indictment of Kirkism: “I’ve stopped wanting to stand up and forge history with my penis. And I’m rather sick of the great secular dominion of liberation and equality we were on about then, which reduces, when you think about it, to putting system over people and producing large piles of corpses. . . . The only thing that matters for me is attachment to other knowable people, and the gentleness of relationship.” It’s an impassioned and touching speech, but it’s not a program for winning back the campus. 

Henry is chosen to introduce Mangel. He’s at the podium when Peter Madden grabs the microphone and announces, “This lecture is forbidden by radical opinion.” The students roar back, “Forbidden, forbidden” and “Fascist, fascist.” Pushing Madden aside, Henry shouts, “You’re the fascists; this is a crime against free speech,” before he’s knocked to the floor. Students break into his office, strew and steal his papers, pour tea on his Norwegian rugs. And the coup de grace: Mangel doesn’t show, having died of a heart attack the previous night.

Faculty liberals lack the resolve to combat the creeping radicalism. They also lack the weapons. What can they do? If they act forcefully, they turn radicals into martyrs and forfeit their own high-minded ideals. More than anything, Henry wants peace; he has his opinions yet respects other points of view. The respect isn’t mutual, and radical disrespect wins the day.

Liberals expect radicals to play by liberal rules, but liberal fairness, with its commitment to apolitical neutrality, is the specific target of the radical onslaught. Liberal Henry trampled by outraged students: It’s the most prescient moment in a prescient novel.

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.

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