In its 1998 obituary for Alfred Mitchell Bingham, The New York Times said Bingham was “a well-born, well-heeled radical who made a broken field run through 20th Century intellectual history, coming of age as a rock-ribbed Republican in the 1920s, veering left in the 1930s as a leader of the quest for an American-style collectivism, then returning to the capitalist fold in the 1940s as a straight-ticket Democrat”.
Alfred Bingham, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 20, 1905, the second of seven sons, and grew up in an imposing house on Prospect Avenue, attended Groton, then Yale and its law school, where what he once described as his smug Republicanism began to unravel. Fired with a democratic zeal by two of his law professors, Felix Frankfurter and William O. Douglas, Bingham shelved his law degree and worked briefly at a series of menial jobs. Then, financed by his Tiffany grandmother, he set off on a two-year world tour, using family connections to gain interviews with Mussolini, Gandhi and other world leaders and paying a visit to the Soviet Union, where he was impressed by the apparent success of the first Five Year Plan.
Back in the United States in 1932, Bingham plunged almost immediately into radical politics. Settling in New York, he founded Common Sense, a militant journal whose slogan, “production for use not for profit” underscored its stated belief that “the capitalist system cannot be saved and is not worth saving”. Bingham, who saw the journal becoming the organ of a militant new third party, advocated a cooperative, planned and classless society that, with appropriate taxation, nationalisation of banks and the like, would, he insisted, assure an average American family an annual income of $5000.
With the outbreak of World War II Bingham reconciled himself to the two-party system. Repairing to the Bingham family's ancestral home in Salem, Connecticut, he reinvented himself as a New Deal Democrat and rode the Roosevelt coat-tails to victory in 1940 for what turned out to be a single term in the State Senate. He served in the Army and later became a lawyer in Connecticut, but continued his interest in politics. He made a failed bid for Congress in 1952.
In 1974, at the age of 81, the radical old war horse was stirred anew when a son, Stephen, a young lawyer, was accused of smuggling a pistol used in a fatal, failed prison break, to a San Quentin inmate, George Jackson. After 11 years as a fugitive, the younger Bingham turned himself in and was acquitted at trial, but not before his father had spent what was described as the bulk of his fortune on legal fees. Bingham died on November 2, 1998, at his home in Clinton, New York, aged 93.