The Radical Liberal: New Man in American Politics
Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority
The New Left, together with the war in Vietnam, has moved many liberals several degrees leftward; this may be its chief contribution, so far, to American politics. Today the call for a “new politics” is sounded not only by radicals but by liberals opposed to the war and increasingly alarmed by the breakdown of representative government and the drift toward violence. Even though the Left itself has failed to put together a movement capable of revolutionizing American society, it has communicated to many people a sense of crisis, an awareness of the system’s unresponsiveness to their needs, which has turned them from admirers of American democracy into harsh critics.
After the ruins of the Conference for New Politics, which better than any other event illustrated the weakness, confusion, and incompetence of the New Left, there has grown up another kind of new politics, scorned by the far Left but capable of organizing masses of voters behind the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Kennedy’s assassination, appalling in itself, also dramatizes the condition which gave rise to these movements in the first place, the failure of the political system to function as it is supposed to function. The system no longer responds to the expressed wishes of the voters. If they elect Lyndon Johnson as a dove, he turns into a hawk; if they try to end the war by voting for Robert Kennedy, the arbitrary, unpredictable, and meaningless act of an assassin thwarts this choice as well. The nomination of Hubert Humphrey would only drive home the point, leaving those who briefly caught a glimpse of hope despairing and embittered, and at the same time determined to carry on in some form the revolt against the Johnson policies which for a time promised to capture the Democratic party.
SINCE THE “NEW POLITICS” promises to be with us for some time, it is important to ask whether it expresses anything more than opposition to the war, a growing concern about the divisions in American society, and a revolt against the present Democratic leadership. Some of the spokesmen for the antiwar movement and for democratic reform at home have begun to refer to themselves as “radical liberals” and to seek ways of extending liberalism beyond the cold-war consensus. They envision a new coalition of middle-class reformers, enlightened labor unions, students, and the poor, united behind a program of social change that would substantially alter American institutions while stopping short of revolution—an objective which the “radical liberals” consider unrealistic and probably undesirable as well. Their commitment to work within the existing political system distinguishes them from the militant leaders of the New Left, with whom, however, they share a dissatisfaction with the present state of American society so deep that it is unlikely they could be reconciled to a continuation of the old politics. As a new element in American politics, therefore, “radical liberalism” deserves careful attention. Is it capable of becoming a new majority? And if it did become a new majority, would it be capable of democratizing America?
The new books by Arnold Kaufman and Michael Harrington give some indication of the potentialities and limitations of the “new man in American politics”—the man who recognizes that liberalism can save itself, in Kaufman’s words, only by “a resolute turn toward radicalism.” By a turn toward radicalism, however, Kaufman means only that liberal rhetoric must be squared with liberal practice. He thinks that liberalism, with its emphasis on individual liberty and “rational choice,” still “possesses moral and intellectual resources richer than those of any competing tradition.” This dubious statement is defended on purely philosophical grounds. (Kaufman is a philosopher by profession, and one of the founders of the teach-in movement.) He shows that the liberal tradition embodies enduring aspirations and insights, but he does not demonstrate that they can provide a way out of the present darkness. Indeed he does not even demonstrate, except by wholly spurious comparisons, that these aspirations and insights are peculiar to liberalism. It is true that “liberal emphasis on the importance of liberty and human rights, and the corresponding sensitivity to the danger of tyrannical abuse of corporate power, has resulted in an insistence on the fundamental value of political democracy.” But it is not true that “this conviction marks the most important difference between liberalism and Marxist humanism.” Many Western Marxists have absorbed these values; they differ from liberals not in holding political democracy in contempt but in asserting that political democracy in itself—even if we assume it existed in the United States—does not prevent class rule. This assertion would have to be successfully refuted before one could agree with Kaufman that the conflicts, injustices, and violence that now pervade American society derive not from the inherent inadequacies of liberalism but from the failure to put liberal principles into practice.
Kaufman’s argument throughout is so abstract that he can reconcile contradictory points of view to prove that “radicalism” is merely a logical extension of liberalism—and not a criticism of some of its leading assumptions. If it is objected that parliamentary democracy lends itself to manipulation by elites, Kaufman reminds us that “participatory democracy,” after all, is itself part of the liberal tradition. Participatory democracy and “coalition politics” should be combined: “both are essential.” If it is objected that the civil rights movement failed to solve the race problem, Kaufman agrees with the criticism—“it is certain that only a minority actually received significant aid during the last decade of effort”—but then goes on to suggest that “the central tendencies of the Black Power Movement are liberal” and that what the country needs, therefore, is a judicious mixture of civil rights agitation (even though it failed) and black power (although separatism is of course unthinkable). “Conventional civil rights activity has accomplished much; it has much yet to accomplish. There is plenty of room for people who, by temperament or aptitude, can do their best work in the new or the old.”
Fond of reconciling irreconcilables, Kaufman is forever exhorting his readers to avoid “either-or’s.” He spends much of his time cautiously steering between extremes. On the one hand he denounces the “pseudo-realism” of those liberals, for instance, who insist on knowing what critics of the war would do if they were in the President’s place: on the other hand he attacks the politics of “self-indulgence,” which preserves radical purity at the expense of political effectiveness. His criticisms of both positions are well taken but irrelevant to the question of whether his own radical liberalism is adequate to the crisis of American society. An affirmative answer to this question demands more than a criticism of “defective political styles”; it demands a rigorous analysis of American institutions which would show that they are capable of the kind of change Kaufman thinks is necessary.
In place of analysis he offers vapid generalities. “Again and again Marxists and socialists have had to learn that the institutions of countries like the United States are resilient enough to defeat their ominous predictions.” “Even if a power elite exists, there is little reason to suppose that its members have identical interests or even perceive developments in precisely the same ways.” “For all its defects, American society is progressive in the perspective of history.” The validity of these assertions is by no means self-evident.
Michael Harrington’s book, on the other hand, contains much critical analysis. He calls for radical changes, but since he expects them to be carried out within existing political structures, he should be understood as advocating, like Kaufman, a radicalized liberalism. The difference between them is that Harrington makes a serious effort to show that such a movement could grow out of the existing situation and that it would be capable of solving existing problems.
Up to a point, Harrington’s analysis derives from John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State. Like Galbraith, he argues that there are two economies in the United States, the economy dominated by large corporations commanding advanced technology and therefore relatively independent of the market, and the old-fashioned market economy where “one finds transients, such as migrant farm laborers and casual restaurant employees, and the steady workers in the shops of cockroach capitalism.” Affluence in the one coexists with chronic depression and unemployment in the other. The corporation has evolved from an entrepreneurial to a bureaucratic institution, and now exercises de facto planning authority. Because this planning is dictated by private rather than social objectives, the industrial system has brought the country to the edge of disaster.
Harrington, however, disagrees with Galbraith’s contention that the modern corporation “brings into existence, to serve its intellectual and scientific needs, the community that, hopefully, will reject its monopoly of social purpose.” According to Galbraith, the intellectual and scientific community, working through the universities and the state, will demand that, since corporations are already public bodies in effect, they should be treated “as a detached and autonomous arm of the state,” necessary for efficient production “but responsive to the larger purposes of the society.” Meanwhile the members of the corporate “technostructure,” having absorbed the liberalizing influence of the universities in which they are trained, and no longer concerned in their jobs with maximizing profits,” will come to see the corporation in the same way, “as an essentially technical arrangement for providing convenient goods and services in adequate volume.” The industrial system will thus be corrupted from within at the same time that it is subjected to increasing control from without.
Harrington thinks this is “just a bit too hopeful.” It is irrelevant, in his opinion, whether the corporate manager’s power rests on property or expert knowledge. “As an institutional entity, as a whole, the corporation acts like a throwback.” Harrington is surely right about this, in general. Even if the corporation is not strictly speaking a throwback, it should be noted that Galbraith’s own analysis shows that the new corporate goal of “more efficient production”—that is, growth—comes to the same thing, for many social purposes, as the maximization of profits. “Social thought in the industrial system does not allow of inquiry as to whether increased or more efficient production of a particular product is a good thing. It is, per se, a good thing.”
In The Affluent Society Galbraith attacked precisely this mystique of growth and noted its hold not only on corporate managers but on the presumably enlightened members of society—the “intellectual and scientific estate” which in his more recent book he sees as the main hope of social change. Harrington correctly concludes that new elites will not become the agents of democratic progress.
If the scientific and educational estate were to make more and more decisions, but in the absence of a dynamic political movement asserting its own democratic priorities, these refined and sincere men would turn out to be the servants of the old values refurbished rather than the creators of new values.