Conservative Man

Politics and the Social Sciences

edited by Seymour Martin Lipset
Oxford, 328 pp., $7.50

Student Politics

edited by Seymour Martin Lipset
Basic Books, 403 pp., $8.95

Students in Revolt

edited by Seymour Martin Lipset, edited by Philip G. Altbach
Houghton Mifflin, 561 pp., $8.95

The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970

by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab
Harper & Row, 576 pp., $12.50

The year 1968 marks a watershed in the history of democratic mass politics: the quiet years of accommodation, integration and domestication were finally over, new waves of mobilization and countermobilization brought a number of Western democracies out of equilibrium, a new generation challenged the assumptions and the rhetoric of the old.

The year 1968 also marks a watershed in the history of the international discipline of political sociology: the violent eruption of new forces did not only challenge the models and the theories of the fifties and the early sixties, but also forced a revaluation of data-gathering techniques and analysis strategies.”

This is not criticism, but self-criticism. The passage comes from the Preface by S.M. Lipset and Stein Rokkan to a collection of conference papers on political sociology, published in 1968.1 It provokes a number of interesting questions. What kind of science is it, one may ask, that can be so completely overthrown, in the space of a few months, by a student revolt? And if it has been overthrown, if the events of 1968 do really oblige us to revise fundamentally the theories, models, and methods of research in political sociology, what new ideas and approaches are to be discovered in the work of Lipset himself, who was, in the 1950s and the early 1960s, one of the chief exponents of those notorious doctrines, proclaiming the “end of ideology” and the achievement of “stable democracy” in the Western industrial countries,2 which are now to be abandoned? More widely, what alternative theories have emerged in the social sciences to take the place of the discredited views which Lipset once propounded?

The growing dissatisfaction with the state of sociological and political theory at the present time is unmistakable. Lipset alludes to it in one of his most recent papers—the Introduction to Politics and the Social Sciences (1969)—where he writes: “some now see in system theory only another variant of a conceptual scheme whose basic utility is as an intellectual organizing framework, but which in fact does not submit itself to the cardinal test of science—empirical verification.” But although system theory, especially in its sociological version—functionalism—may in this way provide a set of categories for classifying social phenomena rather than a body of explanatory propositions, it does nonetheless convey a particular interpretation of the nature of human society.

The essential idea upon which it rests is that every society should be conceived as a system in equilibrium; and that any disturbance of this equilibrium should be seen as provoking a responsive adaptation in the various subsystems of society so that equilibrium is restored and the society is maintained in its original, or a slightly modified, form. This idea found its strongest expression in that version of functionalism (expounded principally by Talcott Parsons) in which the force that brings about equilibrium, adaptation, and integration is defined as a “central value system”; that is, a set of fundamental values, presumed to be accepted by all or most members of a society, which determine the form of each particular social system.

It is easy to see how the ideas of “stable democracy” and the “end of ideology” fit into this functionalist scheme. A “stable democracy” can be represented as a well-nigh perfect example of a society in equilibrium, while the cessation of ideological conflict—notably in the specific form of the conflict between classes—can be interpreted as the culmination of a process of adaptation and integration, which is accomplished through the working of the central, democratic values. In Lipset’s words: “the workers have achieved industrial and political citizenship,”3 “class conflict is minimized,” and “the history of changes in political ideologies in democratic countries, from this point of view, can be written in terms of the emergence of new strata, and their eventual integration in society and polity.”4

In The First New Nation (1963), Lipset formulated his method explicitly as a matter of “equilibrium” and “values”: “For the purposes of this book, I have tried to think in terms of a dynamic…equilibrium model, which posits that a complex society is under constant pressure to adjust its institutions to its central value system, in order to alleviate strains created by changes in social relations….”5

But it would be a mistake to regard the particular ideas which Lipset expounded at that time as simple inferences from a functionalist view of society. These ideas depended to a large extent, as did functionalism itself, upon the political climate of the age. The heyday of functionalism in sociology coincided with the period in which social conflict assumed predominantly the character of conflict between nations, and especially between different types of social systems. In the 1940s and 1950s the Western democracies were engaged in conflict, first with the Fascist states, and afterwards with the USSR and the newly created communist states of Eastern Europe; and democracy as a form of society was sharply contrasted with these other forms.

In these conditions it is comprehensible that the sources of conflict within societies should have been temporarily overshadowed and neglected. Indeed, the importance of such conflicts may actually have diminished in some societies, not only because the feeling of national unity was enhanced by this involvement in external conflicts, but also because, in the postwar period, the Western democracies (as well as the countries of Eastern Europe) entered upon a period of exceptionally rapid and sustained economic growth, which has undoubtedly affected in various ways the relations between classes and between political groups. Thus the idea of the democracies as stable social systems which had attained their definitive form (and by implication a similar view of the communist societies) took root in fertile soil.

The crucial weakness of functionalism in sociology was that it reflected uncritically the features of this particular historical conjuncture. The source of this failing was its own unhistorical character, not only in the sense that it did not include a historical theory (as has often been said), but more significantly, in my view, that it created in its adherents an extreme insensitivity to the potentialities for change in human society and encouraged a propensity to regard the fleeting present as an eternal order. The shock produced by the new radical movements, culminating in the political crises of 1968, was correspondingly great, and it plunged the social sciences into intellectual disarray.

But what has emerged from the crisis? Lipset, at any rate, seems to have recovered quite quickly, and the radical reconstruction of political sociology which he urged in 1968 is scarcely apparent in his own subsequent work. The most significant change is the appearance of a new subject matter; his preoccupation with political immobility has given way to a concern with political movements. Much of his recent writing, from the time of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement at the end of 1964, but more particularly since 1968, has been devoted to the student movements and to some other manifestations of dissent and opposition in the Western industrial societies.

But the manner in which he treats these subjects remains substantially unaltered. In his essay (with Philip Altbach), “Student Politics and Higher Education in the United States,” in the volume on Student Politics (1967), he is still largely engaged in establishing a descriptive classification, this time of various elements in the student movement—the family backgrounds of radicals, the situation of faculty, the characteristics of different universities—and he discusses the development of the radical movement solely by dealing with these internal features of the university, without any reference to the sources of radicalism in the condition of American society. Moreover, he remains convinced that American society is basically unchangeable and does not need to change radically.

Basically, in the United States, with its relatively stable social system and a fairly long tradition of political tranquillity, radical social movements of any kind have had difficulty in establishing themselves…. It is possible that the new student left of the mid 1960s may imply some changes in American society. On the other hand, it is much more likely that it is one of many unsuccessful attempts in the United States to create a radical movement in an essentially infertile environment.

Only in a later essay on the student movement does this attitude momentarily waver. In Students in Revolt (1969), following the rapid growth of radicalism on most university campuses, Lipset is forced to abandon his attempt to analyze it purely as a matter of internal university influences. He quotes some research which, he says, “sheds strong doubt on the hypotheses that relate American activism to characteristics of different types of universities or administration policies”—that is to say, upon the very hypotheses which he had advanced two years earlier. And he now relates student radicalism explicitly to the wider society:

…the sources of political activism among students must be found in politics, in the factors associated with different types of politics…. [O]ne should learn to expect a sharp increase in student activism in a society where, for a variety of reasons, accepted political and social values are being questioned, in times particularly when events are testing the viability of a regime and policy failures seem to question the legitimacy of social and economic arrangements and institutions. [pp. 497-8]

This, however, marks the limit of Lipset’s excursion into criticism of the established order. In his latest book (with Earl Raab), The Politics of Unreason (1970), he reverts to a preoccupation with “stable democracy,” in the context of a study of right-wing extremist movements in America. The stage is set by defining democracy as “pluralism,” and extremism as “that impulse which is inimical to a pluralism of interests and groups.” From this point of view, left-wing extremism and right-wing extremism are “very much the same,” since they both have an anti-pluralistic orientation.

I think it is very doubtful whether “extremism” is a useful term in political analysis, but this is not the aspect of the matter which concerns me here; it is rather the nature of Lipset’s discussion of extremism in relation to democracy.

Like all conservative thinkers, he is anxious to emphasize the formal structure of checks and balances in a democratic system (without inquiring too closely into how it actually works), and to obscure or eliminate the more radical idea of democracy as a political movement of subject classes and groups against their rulers, which seeks to establish as fully as possible government by the people. From the latter standpoint there is nothing at all undemocratic in popular movements which aim to get rid of those interest groups whose activities are harmful to a majority of the population, even if this involves reducing somewhat the “plurality of interest groups” which Lipset so much admires.

In this sense, for example, American populism was a profoundly democratic movement which developed from earlier agrarian radical movements directed against the dominant influence of the banks, the railroads, and big business. One of these, the Granger movement, transmitted to Populism an interest in co-operatives and contributed later to what Lipset himself once called “agrarian socialism.” The Populist movement, especially in the South, took up the cause of industrial workers and Negroes, and established relations with the Knights of Labor.6 More generally, the socialist movement of the early twentieth century enjoyed its greatest success in those areas which had previously been strongholds of Populism.

Lipset and Raab, however, follow the conservative interpretation of Populism in which the anti-industrial, antiliberal elements in some sections of the movement are given excessive prominence, and so they include Populism among their “extremist” movements: “Doctrinal populism thus becomes a seductive form of political moralism, inimical to pluralistic politics.”

The results of a study conceived on these lines are predictable. Since left-wing and right-wing movements are equated as enemies of democracy the distinction between left and right vanishes; the important question of how some popular movements of opposition to the ruling minority become perverted into supporters of the established order is never even formulated; the “American political system” is restored as the model of a democratic order; and the growing disaffection with the two established parties in the United States is regarded as dangerous and undemocratic extremism, which threatens the supreme values of pluralism and stability. The idea of pluralism itself is treated in a curious fashion which seems to imply that every interest group which happens to exist in American society—from commercial television to the Mafia—must be preserved as an element in a democratic order.

What has happened, then, to the challenge presented, in the heady days of 1968, by the “violent eruption of new forces”? What has become of Lipset’s recognition of a pressing need for a revaluation of concepts and methods in political sociology? One is tempted to answer by saying that Lipset has behaved rather like the ideal social system imagined by the functionalists. He has restored his equilibrium by integrating an interpretation of the new radical movements into his established scheme of thought, with a few minor adaptations, and in this way has warded off any fundamental change in his outlook. With the balance thus re-established he can take the field once more as a leading defender of the American status quo.

The importance of functionalist ideas for a conservative interpretation of society can be seen clearly in another study which appeared just at the time when Lipset was temporarily voicing the dissatisfaction of political sociologists with the explanatory powers of their science. Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies is based firmly upon the concept of political stability, and extends its use in order to make a sharp distinction between the industrial societies and the developing countries. According to Huntington: “The most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government…. Communist totalitarian states and Western liberal states both belong generally in the category of effective rather than debile political systems…[they] differ significantly from the governments which exist in many, if not most, of the modernizing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”

But why is this the “most important” distinction? And for whom? Certainly not for the great majority of men, who in modern times at least are more apt to engage in struggles for independence from colonial rule, for democracy against dictatorship, for socialism against capitalism, even at the cost of disorder, than they are to do battle for political order as such. In short, they want other things besides, or more than, efficient government. Is it then the most important distinction for political scientists, because it enables them to understand better, to explain more convincingly, the processes of politics? That seems unlikely in principle, when the distinction corresponds so ill with the distinctions which men make in actual political life. In any case it would have to be demonstrated, and Huntington’s own book, though it provides much interesting information systematically arranged (which can, of course, be done with the aid of any conceptual scheme whatsoever) concludes with considerably less than a half-truth; namely, that “he controls the future who organizes its politics.” The real question which needs to be answered lies behind this statement. What is it—what economic conditions, what relations between classes, what external influences—that enables one group of men rather than another to organize a country’s politics and to determine the kind of regime it shall have?

In fact, Huntington’s assertion about the “most important distinction” is neither empirical nor methodological; it is a value judgment. Its object is to persuade us to view the world in a particular way; to place a very high value upon political stability, and to conceive the political problems of developing countries not as a choice among alternative regimes but as a question of how order can be established. The solution which Huntington himself would prefer is indicated later, when he refers to the possibility that “there may be some evolution toward an American-type system,” in the western European countries at first, as they rid themselves of class conflict, and eventually in those developing countries which have “become more fully modern.” Like Lipset, Huntington sees the American political system as a model for stable democracy.

This scheme of analysis, though it is based upon a valuation, has nevertheless an empirical aspect. The sharp contrast which Huntington tries to establish between political order in one type of society and political disorder in another depends upon the judgment, derived from the ideas of Parsons and Lipset, that the industrial countries do in fact possess stable political systems. Thus, after remarking that politics in these countries “embodies consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, stability,” he describes the condition of the developing countries in the following way:

With a few notable exceptions, the political evolution of these countries after World War II was characterized by increasing ethnic and class conflict, recurring rioting and mob violence, frequent military coups d’etat, the dominance of unstable personalistic leaders who often pursued disastrous economic and social policies, widespread and blatant corruption among cabinet ministers and civil servants, arbitrary infringement of the rights and liberties of citizens, declining standards of bureaucratic efficiency and performance, the pervasive alienation of urban political groups, the loss of authority by legislatures and courts, and the fragmentation and at times complete disintegration of broadly based political parties.

Within the last few years, however, a good number of the phenomena thus listed have made their appearance in the “stable” industrial societies (both Western and Soviet), and it seems doubtful whether the term “political stability” can any longer be applied accurately to most of these societies. On the contrary, they may be on the threshold of great political transformations. It would be more realistic then to look at global politics from the point of view of the radical changes which are being advocated and prepared in both the industrial and the developing societies, taking into account at the same time the ways in which the changes in the two parts of the world react upon each other.

To say this, however, is to raise a further problem. Social thought, at the present time, is strongly affected by the revival of radicalism, especially in the universities; just as it was affected in the 1950s by the prevalent conservative mood. The idea of a “critical sociology” which has grown out of various strands of social criticism in the past decade, and especially out of the work of C. Wright Mills, expresses this radical orientation. But it has not yet been embodied in a new social theory. The principal alternative to the conservative sociology of the 1950s as it was elaborated notably by Parsons and Lipset is still some version or other of Marxism, which stands at the opposite pole from functionalism by virtue of its central concern with the conflict of interests and values in society, the rise and development of social movements, the social forces which produce large-scale historical changes; and which is radical in its vision of a future egalitarian society.

But Marxism too has been passing through a protracted crisis as the discrepancy has grown between the theoretical ideas and political ideals of classical Marxism and the social realities of the twentieth century. Revolutions, unimagined by Marx, have taken place in peasant countries. The working class in capitalist societies has lost something of its pre-eminence as a force for change; nowhere is it revolutionary, everywhere its declining numbers and changing social situation pose the question whether it can any longer perform the role which Marx assigned to it. Finally, socialism—the society of liberated, co-operative, and joyful men which Marx envisaged—has turned out to be, in many countries, a bureaucratic nightmare.

The attempts by Marxist thinkers to deal with these difficulties have not led to a reconstruction of Marxism as a social theory capable of explaining the events of the twentieth century. Indeed, that may not be possible. The proliferation of conceptual and methodological disputes, and the increasing uncertainty about the exact boundaries of Marxist thought in relation to other philosophical and sociological ideas (for instance, those of structuralism), are suggestive rather of the breakdown of a distinctive intellectual tradition.

In this process, various Marxist ideas have been absorbed, though in an unsystematic way, into the new “critical sociology.” The most important of these, in the present state of the social sciences, is, I think, the historical conception which requires that particular events should be studied in their wider context, as occurrences within long-term processes of economic and social change. If the “critical sociologists” do not give this kind of orientation to their studies—if, let us say, they treat the upheavals of the late 1960s as unique events or timeless phenomena of revolt, which they applaud—they will be adopting substantially the viewpoint of those they criticize, who conceived “stable democracy” in just the same way as an unhistorical absolute. Their moral response will be different, but they will arrive at no better understanding of the course of events, and they will have nothing of value to communicate to those who are engaged in practical struggles to create a new society.

  1. 1

    Otto Stammer, ed., Party Systems, Party Organizations, and the Politics of New Masses. Berlin, Institut für politische Wissenschaft an der Frien Universität, 1968.

  2. 2

    In the concluding chapter of Political Man (1959) he wrote:

    …the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved…. This very triumph of the democratic social revolution in the West ends domestic politics for those intellectuals who must have ideologies or utopias to motivate them to political action.

    Similarly, in an essay on “The Changing Class Structure and Contemporary European Politics” in S.R. Graubard, ed., A New Europe? (1964), he claimed that “instead of European class and political relationships holding up a model of the United States’ future, the social organization of the United States has presented the image of the European future”—in the sense of a reduction, and eventual disappearance, of ideological conflict.

  3. 3

    Political Man, p. 406.

  4. 4

    A New Europe?, pp. 337-8.

  5. 5

    Pp. 8-9. It should be noted that Lipset does not distinguish very clearly between different senses of “equilibrium”; his failure in this respect is well criticized by Brian Barry, Sociologists, Economists and Democracy, Chapter VIII.

  6. 6

    These aspects of Populism are discussed and illustrated by documents in Norman Pollack, The Populist Mind.