Reflections of a 104-Year-Old Marxist

Kevin Lindemann and Cathy Campo kklcac at
Sat Dec 4 14:42:22 MST 1999

Dirk Struik: A life that touches three centuries

By Nell Kathryn

This article was reprinted from the December 4, 1999 issue of the
*People's Weekly World.* For subscription information see below. All
rights reserved - may be used with PWW credits.

How many people have lives that can claim contact with three centuries,
one of which begins a new millennium?

Thus will have been the life of Dirk Struik when 1999 yields to year
2000. Even fewer will have this experience after a century that
encompassed work, personal joys, and professional success that earned
world-wide plaudits.

To usher in the new millennium has been a Struik ambition for some time.
And as a self-proclaimed optimist, he looks to the coming century to
move human society toward a better social and economic arrangement
throughout the world - in a word, toward socialism.

Who is this audacious man who, at 104 years, can smile over a pleasant
turn in the conversation as he expresses his dismay at a world
distraught with multiple wars on four of our five continents, and an
environment heading for catastrophe even as solutions become more and
more widely known.

A Boston celebrity, though of Dutch origin and early training, Struik is
professor emeritus of mathematics at MIT; the author of numerous books
on mathematics, its history and theories; a popular lecturer and an
outspoken ally of progressive causes, with a lifetime commitment to
Marxist analysis. His book, Yankee Science in the Making (Dover Press),
is still in print and available in book stores.

He makes his home in Belmont within easy distance of family and
grandchildren, though he still has many close ties to family in the
Netherlands (he visited them again two years ago), where the elders are
still engaged in farming, while many of the younger folk have left for
the city and the professions.

In his high school years (1910-1914) Struik had a math teacher who
stimulated not only his interest in math, but, as a socialist,
introduced him to the concept of socialism as the next stage of
development beyond capitalism. In 1915 Dirk Struik joined the Socialist
Party, which became the Communist Party of the Netherlands in 1919. He
simply continued his affiliation. He was among those who opposed World
War I as an imperialist struggle.

He attended the University of Leyden. He met his wife Ruth, who had
earned a Ph.D. in mathematics and who, though German, was teaching in
Prague. They moved to the U.S. in the 1920s.

Struik has great admiration for this country, its people and its
potential; though his fears of possible self-extermination of humanity -
by the world-wide stockpiles of nuclear weapons with an incomprehensible
destructive power - are ever present in his daily life.

An often reprinted publication is The Communist Manifesto (International
Publishers), which Struik edited (with an introduction and appendices).
He was a founder of the Marxist magazine, Science and Society, where he
continues as editor emeritus. Also, he is renowned for his writings on
the history of mathematics and the life of mathematicians, which he
bases, in part, on friendships worldwide and developed over many years.

When asked to account for his long life and continuing good health, he
enjoys telling you that it's because of his three Ms - marriage,
mathematics, and Marxism. He has had only one illness - diphtheria at
the age of four. Ruth was with him for 70 years until her death in 1993.

On the afternoon we visited, a grandson met us at the door of Struik's
modest home located on a quiet, tree-lined street. He took us over to
his grandfather's easy chair by the living-room window, where he has
phone, books and magazines ready at hand ... but no TV. He did not jump
up quickly to greet us, but leaned forward with a hand-shake and smile.

Unperturbed, perhaps even a bit pleased, by the prospect of a brief
interview (he's had this experience many times before), we begin our
talk. What follows is a paraphrase of the conversation.

Q: What are some of your first thoughts about the world today and its
prospects for the 21st century?

DS: Will Cuba survive the stringent U.S. economic embargo that has
amounted to a stranglehold on its development for three decades? Will
the world survive today's intensified danger of nuclear annihilation?
Barring the latter, I see no reason why humanity should not progress to
ever higher levels of civilization.

Q: What do you think caused the downfall of the Soviet Union?

DS: Too much bureaucracy, too many opportunists, and not enough study
and application of modern technology, the lack of which caused the
production of consumer goods to falter. To have kept the country strong
there was needed a strong emphasis on the rank and file. The idea and
practice of democracy must be embedded within the lives of all the

Q: What do you think of the concept of a mixed economy - a socialist
state with capitalist activity within it?

DS: Reasonable. In China I think there is such a situation - two
economic constructs, capitalist and socialist, in confrontation as to
which will prove to be more successful.

Q: What of the notion that music and mathematics can often be expected
to be linked interests in one person?

DS: Probably more myth than fact; I have found some mathematicians very
interested in music, others not.

Q: Do you enjoy movies, novels?

DS: I used to enjoy movies, but my present lack of mobility prevents
this. But I have always enjoyed detective stories. As for poetry, I read
and can savor it in four languages: English, French, German, as well as
my native Dutch.

Q: What kind of physical regimen - what do's and don'ts - accounts for
your continuing interest in life and his good health, in spite of his
limited mobility?

DS: I could recall no particular urgency about food, drink, or exercise,
more or less fulfilling my needs on a day-to-day basis according to the
convenience that developed. One of my pleasures was pipe-smoking.

As the sun faded and after we clicked the camera a few times, it seemed
appropriate for us to fade away, too. We left with a warm feeling, an
inclination toward an "au revoir" kiss on the cheek and a promise to be
in touch by phone.

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