Containment and Change
The Radical Imagination
We have heard a good deal lately about the dissension between the New Left and the Old, and here at hand are two books that very conveniently lend themselves to analysis as authentic expressions of both these main currents in American radicalism. Containment and Change consists of two separate essays dealing trenchantly but in quite different ways with American society and foreign policy, while The Radical Imagination is an anthology of articles drawn by Irving Howe, the Editor of Dissent, from the backfiles of his magazine.
Dissent must be credited with the accomplishment of having kept alive some kind of radical consciousness in the dreary 1950s when all ideas of leftist origin were virtually taboo in the American intellectual community. However, the pieces in Howe’s collection not only lack thematic unity, ranging from outright political to outright cultural subject matter, but are of unequal quality, and so various in assumption and basic allegiance that they do not add up to anything that might be called a unified ideological view, let alone a political program or platform. Hence I do not propose to assess the contents of the anthology item by item, an unrewarding procedure in any case. My present interest is chiefly in noting and perhaps defining the difference between two political positions, and from that standpoint the most important pieces in the book are doubtless the Introduction by Michael Harrington and Howe’s “New Styles in ‘Leftism.’ ” Both explicitly and implicitly, these articles are sufficiently revealing of the Old Left. In contrast, the long essay by Carl Oglesby, a past president of the Students for a Democratic Society, seems to me fairly representative of both the strength and weakness of the New Left. There is considerable political dynamism and audacity in his statement, incisive phrasing, uncommon moral force, and a welcome release from the rigid and by now wholly anachronistic attitudes and slogans generated among Western intellectuals during the Stalinist-anti-Stalinist polemics of some decades ago. But when the question arises of what is to be done, of outlining a “positive” plan of action, Oglesby falters and his ideas become somewhat fuzzy.
IT MAY WELL BE, however, that the demand for “constructive ideas” and immediate solutions is not very helpful at this time; indeed, the demand may be a further maneuver on the part of Establishment liberals who wish to back away from the hard choices and severe struggles that lie ahead. Perhaps it is unrealistic in this period to expect of a young American radical like Oglesby to be as persuasive in his programmatic ideas as he is in his critical assault on the present regime in America and its anti-Communist consensus—both of which he sees as sustained by a “quasi-religious doctrine of the Great Conspiracy” that justifies reactionary-subversive and imperialist-adventurist activities anywhere within the reach of US power. But at least Oglesby is vigorous and always consistent in his assault, not given to muting it for fear of scaring away the centrist, middle-of-the-road members of some future…
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