The Crossroads Papers
Seeds of Liberation
Hans Morgenthau, in his Introduction to The Crossroads Papers, a volume of essays initiated by Americans for Democratic Action, delineates a problem with which contemporary political analysis might well begin. “The abdication of political will on the part of the electorate is duplicated by the abdication of political leadership.” The great issues of the day—especially those involving foreign relations—present themselves to ordinary people as questions too remote and too abstract to elicit strong feelings and opinions. Political leaders then cite public indifference as an excuse for drifting along with policies which long ago proved to be inadequate. “How can the gap be bridged between these great issues and our modes of thought and action?”
But the authors of The Crossroads Papers do not explore these questions. They try conscientiously to strike out in bold new directions; they sense that much of what passes for political discussion has nothing to do with the kind of society America has become. But their commitment to new ideas is largely rhetorical. Many of them still see “conservatism” as the enemy and take inordinate satisfaction in the Democratic victories of 1960 and 1964. The general tone of the volume is closer to John Roche’s concluding essay, “The Breakthrough to Modernity,” than to Morgenthau’s Introduction. In its vulgarity and sentimentality, Roche’s piece reads like a parody of contemporary liberalism. The “breakthrough,” we learn, was Kennedy’s election, coming after eight years of Republican stagnation. Recalling the election of 1952, Roche, former chairman of the ADA, says: “We all died a little on that somber November night as we learned that the Age of Banality had begun.” Kennedy changed all that, and the reaction to his death “indicated a new mood of public maturity.” “To the great dismay of European ideologues…we did not launch a great hysterical witch hunt for ‘conspiracy,’ but rejected social paranoia for the common-sense assumption that the deed was done by an isolated psychotic.”
Bad as it is, Roche’s essay merely echoes themes that recur, in slightly more sophisticated form, throughout The Crossroads Papers. There is altogether too much “common sense” tells us that American society is basically sound, that the voters are sensible if misinformed, and leadership capable if badly advised. This is the essence of the liberal view. Leon Keyserling concludes an essay on the economy by reminding our leaders that their “duty” is to lead and that public opinion, meanwhile, must be “properly informed and articulated.” But anyone who really confronts the issue raised by Morgenthau’s Introduction has to consider the possibility that it is precisely such traditional democratic concepts as leadership and public opinion that have to be reconsidered if we are to “bridge the gap” between social and political realities and our outdated “modes of thought and action.” If American leaders have “abdicated,” what good does it do to remind them of their duty? As for the voters, the problem goes beyond “informing and articulating” them in the traditional sense. As Morgenthau points out, the voters have resigned themselves to government by experts. What is clearly called for, but what even Morgenthau does not seem willing to consider, is an attack on the experts themselves. The new liberalism which these liberals recommend should begin by showing what a mess experts can make when left to themselves—as witness the U-2 incident, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, or the Dominican Republic. It would show that the kinds of decisions which experts claim can be handled only by experts actually involve basic decisions about the general goals the country is to pursue—decisions of broad political and moral import, on which the general public, according to every definition of democracy, has a right to be consulted. (For instance: do we really want to impose a pax Americana throughout the world, and are we prepared to pay the price?) A new liberalism would show, finally, that experts—the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department, the captive professors, the Dulleses and the Bundys and the Rostows and all the others—are not only incompetent to make such decisions alone but that they are incompetent, as experts, to make them at all. As experts, they have lost all feeling for democracy. They are inflated with a sense of their own infallibility and contemptuous of the ordinary citizen, whom they suspect of being, at heart, a “Yahoo,” in Roche’s phrase, even as they are congratulating themselves on having taken “the United States away from the Yahoos.”
The authors of The Crossroads Papers make plenty of sensible proposals for change. Keyserling says that we can’t solve any of our economic problems without making a real attack on poverty. Amitai Etzioni urges us to end the cold war (even while issuing the usual warning that the Soviet Union has not lost “its global ambitions or messianic urges”). Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., suggests that we cannot rely indefinitely on the Supreme Court to be the sole guardian of civil liberties. Christopher Jencks, in an essay on education, argues for a system in which students would have more choice of schools at all levels. Norton E. Long points out that the problems of large cities cannot be solved without federal action. And so on.
Why don’t the authors of The Crossroads Papers go beyond these commonsense proposals and attack the cult of the expert? It is because they fancy that they are experts themselves; and The Crossroads Papers, whatever the intention of its editor, is not a democratic manifesto or a call for “a rebirth of liberal morality” (Roche again), but a series of position papers addressing themselves to various pre-defined areas, neatly detached from each other, in which “problems” are vaguely felt to exist—civil rights, education, foreign policy—and reflecting nothing more radical than these experts’ wish that somebody, somebody important, would listen to them, instead of to their present advisers. The book can be recommended to other experts and to those who would like to become experts; it cannot be recommended to anyone who thinks of politics as something more than “issues” about which knowledgeable people must have knowledgeable opinions.
Seeds of Liberation, an anthology compiled from the magazine Liberation, is a very different sort of book, though not, finally, a much more helpful one. Liberation, founded in 1956 and edited by A. J. Muste, Paul Goodman, and others, advocates nonviolence. Its contributors, people who feel themselves deeply at odds with American life, have no use for experts. They write about America from the outside looking in and from the bottom up. They can tell you what it feels like to be a prisoner in the city jail, Albany, Georgia (Barbara Deming, “Prison Notes”), or to walk from San Francisco to Moscow (Jules Rabin and Karl Meyer, “San Francisco to Moscow Walk”) trying to get governments, and people, to think about peace. This perspective has the advantage of showing how American society presents itself to people without power, people who lack the defenses of money, status, or a white skin. America presents itself to the defenseless as raw power: a policeman’s club, the bars of a jail, the wire fence surrounding a military installation, the physical reminders of an implacable determination, reinforced by all the institutions of respectable society, to keep you where you belong, “in your place”—out. And this is a more accurate version of America than the liberals’ picture of a good-natured but befuddled democracy.
The disadvantage of looking at America from the outside in is that it quickly leads to a hopeless state of mind from which the only escape is thoughts of revolution—thoughts, as Dwight Macdonald once put it, “about sabotage, resistance, rebellion, and the fraternity of all men everywhere.” But as Macdonald himself went on to point out. “A revolutionary change…never seemed farther away.” That was in 1945. Twenty years later, it is as far away as ever. Yet most of the essays in Seeds of Liberation implicitly or explicitly assume that social revolution is a real possibility in the United States. The “Tract for the Times” in which the editors, ten years ago, set forth their program, strikes the note which sounds throughout this collection. “The very presuppositions on which human relationships are based must be revolutionized.” Conflict must give way to cooperation. People must learn how to live “creatively.” The old order is doomed. “We do not want to stay in or go back to the City,” writes A. J. Muste in “Politics on the Other Side of Despair”; for the City—the world-order based on power and regimentation—“is doomed.”
What signs are there that it is doomed? Marx could point to the “contradictions” in capitalism, but the editors of Liberation are not Marxists, and in any case they realize that Marx’s capitalism is not the capitalism we have today. Where then are the visible symptoms of revolutionary change? The contributors to Liberation are obliged to find them in the peace movement itself—and perhaps in the civil rights movement, although they disagree on the important question of whether the two movements connect (see the exchange on this point between Robert F. Williams, non-pacifist, former official of the NAACP, now an exile in Cuba, and Dave Dellinger, an editor of Liberation). The mere existence of a protest, in other words, becomes the proof of its own revolutionary potential. The characteristic style of the “new Left,” accordingly, is not political and social analysis in the Marxian tradition but a ritualistic celebration of the new Left itself. A typical example is an essay by Theodore Roszak, a history professor and editor of the English weekly Peace News, on what Roszak calls “the Loony Left.” The essay is significantly entitled “The Disease Called Politics.” “Politics,” says Roszak, “is the organization of power, and power is the enemy of life.” The present political “awakening” is a protest against power. It is made up of
inscrutable poets and crackpot painters, of visionaries and folk singers and angry old philosophers, of marching mothers who want their babies’ bones made of calcium not strontium, of kids from Yale scrambling aboard submarines in the New London Navy yard, of kids from Fisk singing on their way to jail…. Here are the foolish things of this earth who confound the wise. For the essence of their politics is not power, but love: the sheer love of being alive. The future, if there is to be one, belongs to them.
This kind of writing is surely inspirational; its purpose is to sustain the morale of “the movement,” not to analyze the movement’s political significance. And in any case Roszak, like so many of the other contributors to this volume, has already ruled out politics as a subject of conversation. Likewise Nat Hentoff, one of the more prominent converts to nonviolence (he used to be a jazz critic for The Reporter and other non-revolutionary publications), writes an essay on Lenny Bruce in which that comedian is seen as “a distillation of the unfocused rebelliousness among more and more of the young.” According to Hentoff, the “message” which the young get when they listen to Bruce is “that they will have to be constantly on guard to avoid the so easy—and so diversified—slides to whoredom in this society.” Once again the focus shifts from political analysis to a celebration of protest for its own sake—and not even a genuinely political protest, but a protest moved more than anything else by the need to “get with it,” the need not to be square. “Out” becomes “in.”
So on the one hand we have the conventional politics of “issues” and experts, and on the other hand the nonpolitics of peace, love, and (at its worst) hip. What is common to these two positions is the inability or unwillingness of intellectuals to function as intellectuals—neither as experts nor as rebels but as social critics. One of the more encouraging signs of the last few months—too recent to be mentioned in either of these anthologies—is the emergence of academic criticism of American foreign policy. Even within this body of criticism, there are many people who see themselves essentially as experts and “area specialists” and who think of Vietnam as an isolated problem which can be divorced from the general problems of the cold war and of post-industrial society. There are others whose professorial disdain for students carries over into their politics, blinding them to the fact that students are a necessary part of the international community of scholars the revival of which everybody agrees is so important. But the ideal itself—the revival of a genuinely international intellectual life—holds out some hope. As expert advisers or as self-conscious aliens intellectuals are powerless to change anything, but as members of a community of scholars they represent a fund of moral and intellectual power, the withdrawal of which, from the governments it now justifies and supports, would be difficult for those governments to ignore. By “withdrawal” I mean not a retreat into an absolute pacifism or a utopian internationalism, still less into hip, but a refusal to put intellect—and the moral and philosophical values of which intellectuals are the guardians—at the disposal of nations and nationalisms, whose purposes have nothing to do with those values. What is needed, in other words, is neither expert advice nor empty moral protests but better thinking, better scholarship: scholarship which will be itself informed with moral passion, and which will express itself with deliberate disregard for the conventional distinction between “education” and political agitation. A recent call from Michigan, announcing an international conference on Vietnam in Ann Arbor (Sept. 14-18) puts it very well: “American intellectuals must have the participation of intellectuals from all over the world, not only because the intellectual community, by its very nature, transcends national boundaries, but also because—coming from outside of American society—they are in a unique position to approach American policy from fundamentally different perspectives.” Or as a graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin puts it: “Intellectuals are not policy makers, they are not Senators, they are not arbitrators of international disputes.” They are critics, and whatever power they have derives from that fact and from the power of the students—“the thousands of students who marched in Washington and, more important, the thousands at the campus teach-ins”—who have done so much to goad their teachers into action.
Here, finally, is a politics that holds out promise: not social engineering, not “the disease called politics,” but reasoned criticism in the fullest sense.
The Banality of Liberalism November 11, 1965
The Banality of Liberalism November 11, 1965
The Banality of Liberalism November 11, 1965