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 and utterly nebulous newstyle lib-lab coalition. Maybe, so far as the Left is concerned, there is room today only for political activism in America, and not for the immediate political success that Harrington and Howe so patently crave. The activists of the anti-Vietnam and anti-poverty movements, combined with those of the Negro revolt, have shown themselves capable of discommoding the power-holders in Washington (and even in implanting doubts in small segments of the ruling elite as to the wisdom of our national dedication to the Cold War) but not of achieving a breakthrough, such as stopping the war in Vietnam or electing radicals to national office. This situation, however, is not so discouraging as it sounds. Clearly, the painful but necessary process of what Hegel once called “the labor of the negative” is far from completed among us. Neither in depth nor extent has the shattering disillusionment with the native pieties gone far enough. Especially hard to dislodge is “the sentimental faith in American benevolence,” as Noam Chomsky calls it, “the belief in American good will that persists through each calamity, notably among the self-styled ‘hard-headed and pragmatic liberals,’ and that stultifies political thinking and debases political discourse.”
But activism, even if not productive of tangible results right now, should by no means be underestimated on that account. It is of particular value as a school of politics for people without political background and previous commitment—an indispensable training ground for a new generation of militants that are even now learning some truly concrete lessons about the real difficulties of coping with our social and political condition. This type of activism, not bolstered by a long-range theory, nor by a program promising either an immediate or ultimate advance, is likely to disenchant many but is also bound to steel others and throw them into the struggle for good. True, we need theory, for, as the Marxists used to say, practice is blind without it. But it cannot be manufactured out of the whole cloth, as Oglesby tries to do in the last few pages of his essay.
But neither do I see any hope for political success in the used-up formulas of the Old Left as exemplified by Harrington and Howe, who are obviously drifting toward Social-Democratic positions of a specifically American sort. And this well after the most consequential European analysts on the Left have ceased bothering to criticize the reformism of the Social-Democratic parties as “a betrayal of the revolution,” as the Bolsheviks did. They attack these parties now precisely for liquidating reformism itself. Several writers have summed up the viewpoint of certain European radicals very well in a recent number of Studies on the Left. Thus John Cowley writes of
the demise of Social-Democratic reformism, which has been of particular significance…in Sweden, Britain, Belgium, and Western Germany. The Social-Democratic parties of these countries no longer maintain their reformist pretensions. They are now concerned—and are quite open in their concern—with merely managing efficiently and humanely the “mixed economies” of the postwar era. This new phenomenon…of Social Democratic parties which have ceased to be reformist has opened up a tremendous void on the Left throughout Western Europe.
BUT IF such a void can be said to exist in America, the chance for a reinvigorated Social Democracy to fill it has long gone. A socialist-reformist movement, whether organized as an independent party or as a loose grouping allied with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party (as advocated by the spokesmen of the Old Left today), has been tried in the past and has failed; and now it is too late to start again, just as it is too late for the Communist Party, USA, to stage a comeback on the American scene. Only through some unanticipated course of “combined development,” as Trotsky named it, skipping historical stages and generally speeding up the historical process through a concatenation of circumstances that cannot be foreseen in any detail at this time, can America enter a phase of socialist transformation. It is surely revealing that both the New Left and the Old seem pretty much rattled when confronted with formulating any prognosis of the future of American corporate capitalism, or neocapitalism as I prefer to call it. The implications of its being the major component of a system of world economic power eludes them, though Oglesby closely approaches recognition of this fact when he says that
the West wants a world that is integrated and…rationalized in terms of the stability of resources, labor, production, distribution and markets. As the leader of the West, America wants that integrated, rationalized world to run under the management of her own business people. Others do not. They have acquired powers of resistance in the East. Therefore there is an East-West struggle in our time called the Cold War.
But if that is the case, the “powers of resistance in the East” surely must be taken into account in the calculations of Western radicals. Actually they are taken into account in practice if not in theory, by the great protest movement against the Vietnamese war of the past few years, which embraces the widest diversity of political consciousness imaginable. For without the tough and heroic Vietnamese resistance to American aggression, this protest movement would probably have petered out months ago, and widespread acquiescence in the total “pacification” (repression, that is) of South Vietnam and the establishment of a “successful” precedent for more military campaigns of “pacification” the world over would have followed.
Yet both radical camps in our midst basically assume that the American institutional complex, the inner logic of which explains Vietnam and the other Vietnams to come, can only be done away with by domestic forces alone. This appears to me to be a kind of semiconscious “capitalism in one country” thesis, ludicrously caricaturing the Stalinist thesis of “socialism in one country” by turning it upside down. The Kremlin has long ago dropped “socialism in one country” from its repertory of themes; for it has been rendered obsolete by the principal unexpected consequence of the Second World War, after which many countries, including a country as huge as China, broke away from the domination of the capitalist world market. Now people like Irving Howe and myself may not approve of or want to support the kind of socialism established in the East, but that is neither here nor there so far as my present argument is concerned. However unthinkable from the standpoint of pure or original Marxism, it exists as a global force and no consistent radical can afford not to reckon with it. Howe’s attempt to set up anti-Communism as the supreme test of political rectitude on the Left strikes me as a terrible blunder. It leads him to ill-timed thrusts at the militant New Leftists, who can in no conceivable sense be called Communists or Marxists for not recognizing the validity of his supreme test. Presumably a democratic socialist, he puts such illimitable emphasis on the adjective “democratic” that in consequence his “socialism” appears wide of the mark. Oglesby, on the other hand, does not exhibit or stress his anti-Communism. He realizes that an exclusive stress on it can only confuse his position with that Cold War anti-Communism which, as he contends, is fundamentally “an ideological mask for Free World imperialism.” (In his view the phrase “Free World” is in the last analysis a euphemism for the postwar American empire, new style.)
Even Howe’s opposition to the war in Vietnam rests on very shaky grounds politically (though not morally) so long as he implicitly assents to the logic of the anti-Communist consensus. He has fallen into the habit of holding an ideological pistol to the head of insurrectionary peasant movements led by Communists: he repeatedly poses the peremptory question: Are you democratic or not? If not, what? Are the rebels then supposed meekly to accept American hegemony? His argument that democracy is immediately possible in underdeveloped countries strikes me as profoundly antihistorical, as well as contrary to the findings of nearly all analysts of the process of modernization of backward areas. Precisely because it cannot be implemented, this utopian demand opens the way for collaboration with American power as the “lesser evil.” Howe seems to me stuck in the attitudes of the 1930’s and ‘40s, when American radicals largely identified either with Stalin’s regime in Moscow or with its opponents of the “Left opposition.” We were living in America then, but our political imagination was transfixed by the Soviet experience, even when we hated Stalin’s evil rule. That bizarre historical episode is over, and the song is different. The second time around its melody cannot be the same. To insist on the term “totalitarianism,” as Howe does, without bothering to redefine it in the light of present-day realities, is futile. Can it truly be said that Russia is today totalitarian? Or Hungary? Or Yugoslavia? As for the situation in China, I am quite sure that Howe knows as little about what is really going on there as I do.