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The Future of Radicalism

In response to:

The New Politics: 1968 and After from the July 11, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

In rejecting the “radicalized liberalism” of Michael Harrington and calling for the formation of a “socialist” and “revolutionary” political party, Christopher Lasch [NYR, July 11] has courageously enlarged the boundaries of respectable political debate. Nevertheless, the strategy Lasch outlines does not differ from Harrington’s as much as Lasch would have one believe. This is because both men share certain key premises. These are: (1) That “politics” is essentially electoral politics; (2) That the way to create a radical “movement” is first to create a radical “party”; (3) That “a mass movement for radical change cannot grow in a setting of repression.”

(1) Lasch criticizes Harrington’s hope that the Democratic Party can be radicalized. He does not criticize Harrington’s more fundamental assumption that the “power structure…cannot be dislodged nonviolently except by a politically organized majority” because, like Harrington, Lasch believes that in the long run radical change will come through the electoral process. Thus at the end of his essay Lasch counterposes “politics” and “guerrilla warfare,” “political action” and “insurrectionary violence,” as if voting and violence were the only alternatives. But that dichotomy takes no notice of the most potent instrument of social change in this country for the past decade: non-electoral politics, or nonviolent direct action, such as sit-ins, draft resistance, and the rebellion at Columbia University. The recent near-revolution in France suggests that political action of this non-electoral variety may be more effective than “politics” narrowly defined.

(2) Despite their commitment to electoral politics, both Harrington and Lasch recognize the need for a “movement” as well as a “party.” Harrington calls for “a movement which would play the role of the CIO in 1937 or the civil-rights organizations of 1960,” and concedes: “all of the reforms urged throughout this book can take on their proper meaning only when people are in motion.” Similarly Lasch evokes the vision of a Left which will “begin to function not as a protest movement or a third party but as an alternative political system.” Yet the step Lasch advocates for “bringing such a movement into existence” is—a third party. Lasch does not really explain how a new political party will make it possible for radicals not “to devote the better part of their lives to work in existing institutions,” how it would support “people who realize that their talents are often wasted in their present jobs.” It is something of an anticlimax to be told, after the sentences just quoted, that the new party would “generate analysis and plans for action,” would provide “skills, plans, program, theory.”

Where Lasch would appear to differ from Harrington is in calling for the creation of a socialist party at once. To this Harrington might reply that he is already the national chairman of such a party, the Socialist Party, Even the tactical differences between Lasch and Harrington fade when one recognizes that just as Harrington thinks that socialists, for the present, should work within the Democratic Party, so Lasch believes that, if an independent McCarthy candidacy materializes, “radicals should certainly support it.”

In contrast to both Lasch and Harrington, the New Left has stressed the building of a movement which, as it matures but only as it matures, uses electoral politics as a subsidiary form of work. We have rebelled precisely against Old Left parties which began by formulating “analysis, plans, program, theory.” Our alternative style of work has been for individuals to engage themselves in specific direct actions which influenced others by example. Thus Rosa Parke’s refusal to go to the back of the bus unexpectedly created the Montgomery bus boycott; the unanticipated consequence of four men sitting-in at Greensboro was sitting-in across the South and SNCC; from Bob Moses’s solitary journey to McComb, Mississippi grew COFO and the MFDP; isolated draft resisters in 1965, such as David Mitchell and David Miller, laid the basis for the mass movement of 1968; and so on.

This style of action is also relevant to the task which (I would agree with Lasch) is now central for the student movement: that students—one might include professors—move off campus and find ways to sustain their radicalism while having children, working at straight jobs, and growing over thirty. I am not sure that the existence of a socialist party, producing analyses and plans, is the essential precondition for the lonely individual decisions which will have to be made. I am more sure that when and if the draft resister, the teacher who chose a community college rather than the Ivy League, the group of families sharing the risks of unemployment and jail through some kind of “urban commune,” get around to creating a political party, they will create one more likely to produce the parallel institutions of government and the alternative system of government which Lasch and I would both like to see, than if the party had come first.

(3) Both Harrington and Lasch see repression as a potential danger which could disrupt their scenarios, rather than as an existing trend resistance to which can build the movement. (In exactly the same way, the Vietnam War was for Harrington an unfortunate interruption to his plans for coalition politics within the Democratic Party.) Harrington warns that if students fail to make alliances with white workers, the black community, and middle-class professionals “there would be incredible problems…but no progressive political force capable of resolving them…. The moment would be counter-revolutionary, a sort of American analogue to the German breakdown of 1932 and 1933.” Again Lasch says the same thing in a more sophisticated way. “Even a fundamental crisis in American society would not necessarily lead to the modification of the present system,” he writes; and warns, like Harrington, that if radicals fail to ally with McCarthy liberals they may throw away the chance “to save the country from a general reaction, in which even the possibility of change would be lost for generations to come.”

In my opinion the weakness in this analysis is that it mechanically separates the protection of democratic liberties from “a deeper reconstruction of American life.” The only occasions on which developed capitalist societies have come to the point of revolutionary crisis have been what Lasch calls “settings of repression.” Germany in 1918, France and Italy in 1944, France in 1968, were societies threatened by repression from without or within, which came to the verge of socialist revolution in the process of resisting that repression. The same generalization holds for the successful socialist revolutions of this century in less industrialized economies. Tsar Nicholas, Chiang, Batista, Diem: these have been the targets of national resistance movements which, in the process of seeking to protect or secure democratic liberties and national independence, developed (often at the expense of those democratic liberties) into movements for the socialist reconstruction of society.

To say this is not to wish for repression. It is simply to argue against changing one’s fundamental political strategy because of the danger of repression. The danger of repression led many radicalized liberals to vote for Johnson in 1964. For the same reason a Harrington or a Lasch now urges them to support a Kennedy or a McCarthy. If “support” means “vote,” that is a ten-minute expenditure of energy on election day which many radicals will want to make. But if “support” means, say, temporarily shelve draft resistance (as civil rights demonstrations were shelved in 1964) to ring doorbells for McCarthy, in my judgment that would constitute an expression of liberalism considerably less radicalized than it imagines itself.

Staughton Lynd

Chicago, Illinois

Christopher Lasch replies:

I do not advocate a “third party,” as I have already explained. Nor do I make the mistake of equating “politics” with electoral politics. On this point my position is exactly the same as Lynd’s—that electoral politics should be regarded as a “subsidiary form of work” designed not so much to win votes as to win a hearing for radical ideas; or as he puts it in another connection, to “enlarge the boundaries of respectable debate.”

Our disagreement—the precise nature of which Lynd obscures by misrepresenting my position—concerns the role of what he calls direct action. Where I see “confrontations” as one tactic in a broader struggle, he sees them as the struggle itself. Lynd confuses tactics with strategy, forgetting that neither the tactics of nonviolent confrontation nor any other tactics can be effective except as part of a general strategy for social change. The very example he cites to prove the efficacy of “direct action”—the “near-revolution” in France—proves the opposite; for the “near-revolution” ended in the triumph of De Gaulle. One has to ask, not why the French students succeeded in disrupting the country for a few weeks, but why the disruption, even though it occurred in a country with a long revolutionary tradition and in which the working class, moreover, at least partially supported the students—occurred, in other words, under conditions far more favorable to change than any we can soon expect in the United States—nevertheless failed to win even important reforms, let alone the downfall of the existing regime.

The explanation of the collapse of the French student movement lies in its inability to develop a coherent program of its own. Having no idea what to do with power once it had been gained, unable even to decide whether power was what they wanted, the students were unable to press their initial successes to a conclusion. Such is the fate of all movements based on “direct action” and nothing more.

Therein lies the need for a party. Only a party can unite diverse types of protest and give them a common purpose, develop an ideology and a program, and engage people not simply as demonstrators but, for instance, as intellectuals, thereby making it possible for people to commit not only their bodies but their brains and talents to radical action. Only through a party, in short, can radicals begin to get together to decide in detail what kind of society they want, and to convince others of the superiority of the proposed alternatives. This will be arduous and even tedious work, with no prospects of immediate success; only people, however, whose political development has been arrested at the state of protest and moral “witness” could possibly describe it as an “anti-climax.” But then some revolutionists would find revolution itself an anti-climax.

Lynd still equates radicalism with “lonely individual choices,” without seeing that this kind of radicalism is self-defeating. One of the purposes of a radical movement is precisely to create conditions in which people who oppose the existing system will no longer have to make “lonely individual choices” in order to express their opposition. When large numbers of people no longer find it over-whelmingly difficult to imagine alternatives to the present system or to face the personal consequences of defying it—when it is no longer necessary, in short, to be a hero in order to be a radical—one of the essential conditions for social change will have been created. In the process the moral glamor of radical commitment may have been somewhat diminished, but the radical constituency will have been enlarged, creating the possibility of a socialist majority without which there can be no political transformation at once socialist and democratic.

The creation of a radical majority also demands, as I pointed out in my article, that “the avenues of discussion remain open.” This is why radicals should fear repression. Lynd’s indifference to the dangers ahead strikes me as irresponsible and ill-informed. It arises in part from the belief, implicit in much of his argument, that a minority of committed activists can make a revolution in an advanced country. (It was not so long ago that Lynd was entertaining fantasies about demonstrators investing the capital and proclaiming the republic of the spirit.) It also arises from his ignorance of history, particularly the history of revolutionary movements. In support of his curious argument that “the only occasions on which developed capitalist societies have come to the point of revolutionary crisis have been…’settings of repression,’ ” Lynd cites examples of abortive movements (a) which were not revolutionary, since they failed precisely because in each case the rebels had no plan or even any intention of taking power, and (b) which in any case cannot be said to have occurred during repression. On the contrary—and this holds true for successful revolutions as well as for the failures from which Lynd wishes to draw comfort and support—they took place at precisely the moment when repressive regimes, owing to military defeat, internal dry rot, and other debilitating influences, had lost their capacity to repress. On the other hand, revolutionary movements have repeatedly been stifled by repression, as in Russia at various times in the nineteenth century, in all of Europe after 1848, or in Italy under Mussolini—a particularly notable example because the Italian Communists, following a line of argument similar to the one now advocated by Lynd, contributed to their own undoing by refusing to join bourgeois elements in resisting fascism while there was still time.

As for the approaching elections, I have never asked anyone to suspend draft resistance in order to work for McCarthy or to suspend any other radical activity except that of endlessly denouncing McCarthy as a liberal, as if the discovery of his liberalism were the highest political wisdom. It is true that some draft registers, without any urging from me, have abandoned draft resistance in order to ring doorbells for McCarthy. This reflects the degree to which the “resistance movement” is still rooted in pragmatic opposition to this particular war and has therefore failed to develop a radical perspective that would enable it to transcend the immediate crisis. The weakness of the “resistance” is the weakness of the peace movement as a whole: organized around a single issue, it waxes and wanes with the immediate prospects for peace. It is foolish to expect a radical movement to grow automatically out of resistance to the war or any other form of struggle. Only when the struggle comes to be informed by a new kind of consciousness does it become revolutionary. In the meantime McCarthy’s unambiguous opposition to the war, his attacks on the FBI and CIA, and his genuinely democratic instincts make him clearly preferable to any of the other principal candidates.

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