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Looking Backward

Radical Paradoxes: Dilemmas of the American Left, 1945-1970

by Peter Clecak
Harper & Row, 358 pp., $11.95

Four Reforms: A Guide for the Seventies

by William F. Buckley Jr.
Putnam’s, 128 pp., $4.95

American political thought is slowly recovering from the turmoil into which it was thrown by the protest movements of the last decade. Extreme views and hard-line ideological positions which were enthusiastically accepted by many when they were thrown up by the antiwar movement are now being subjected to a more critical scrutiny, and found wanting. That, certainly, is the message of Peter Clecak’s measured assessment of the American left since the Second World War; and a similar attitude is implicit in William F. Buckley’s concrete approach to political change, and in his claim that his four reforms are relatively free from ideological bias.

The two books are not strictly comparable, since they are trying to do different things. Clecak, writing from a position on the left, looks back to the recent history of the radical movement in order to learn from the mistakes of the past; while the “conservative” Buckley shows less interest in the fate of his predecessors, writing as if all he needs to do to get his ideas made law of the land is explain how obviously sensible they are.

Clecak’s book is a detailed examination of the hopes and beliefs of four leftist thinkers: C. Wright Mills, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Herbert Marcuse. Clecak generally makes good use of the subjects he has chosen, although the inclusion of both Baran and Sweezy leads to some duplication, since they wrote their major work jointly. The substitution of, say, Paul Goodman for Baran might have broadened the discussion. Still, the dramatic point of the selection is achieved; there is a mounting tension from chapter to chapter, as each successive thinker is forced to realize that his predecessor’s hopes for revolution will not materialize, and searches elsewhere for some agent of change that he can continue to believe in, so as to retain some prospect of revolutionary change.

The basic problem for all these thinkers is the recognition that the left in America is rootless. Capitalism has developed to a higher form in this country than in any other, so according to standard Marxist theory the stage should be set for the last and greatest revolution of them all—but the principal actor is missing. Revolutionary ideas have no mass following among the working classes, nor any foreseeable prospect of gaining one. Without mass support the left has no power base. It is helpless, condemned to empty theorizing or even more futile acts of random violence.

This helplessness is the more agonizing, at least to those who are of the left or sympathize with it, because it cannot be attributed to the acceptability of the present system. True, workers’ wages have not been forced down to subsistence level, as Marx expected them to be, but there are still people in our cities who are under-nourished and ill-housed; work, for |most people, remains a tedious necessity rather than a source of satisfaction; and even where there is material abundance the result seems to be new needs, artificially fostered by industries which make us consume ever more goods, rather than the contentment and social harmony which Marx thought abundance, rationally directed, would make possible. As for the influence of American capitalism on the rest of the world, enough has already been written on this topic to make further comment redundant.

C. Wright Mills, although perhaps the least optimistic of Clecak’s four leftists, placed what hopes for radical change he had in the intellectuals—particularly social scientists—and the young. Mills died in 1962, too early to know how shrewdly he had guessed the direction from which the impetus for change would come—and the insufficiency of that impetus to accomplish most of what he had hoped for.

Baran, together with Sweezy, went in for prophecies of the doom of the capitalist system; the whole rotten structure, they thought, would collapse from its internal contradictions, even without a revolutionary working class to undermine it. (To read this kind of Marxist speculation, through every decade, from letters exchanged by Marx and Engels in which they enthusiastically greet every economic downturn as a sign of the imminence of collapse, to Baran and Sweezy, is like reading Christian anticipations of the Second Coming, from the New Testament onward.) Baran also had hopes for the socialist nations, including the Soviet Union, in spite of the “excesses” that he recognized had occurred in the course of their development. Paul Sweezy, aware that there was more the matter with the Soviet system than the personality of Stalin or the pressures of industrialization, finds enough in the progress of Cuba and China to retain his optimism about the growth of a truly socialist society.

Finally, Clecak’s discussion of Marcuse shows that, in his most sober and realistic moods, this writer could not help divorcing the real and the ideal, so that the goal of revolutionary action is liberated from the mundane world of real possibilities. One-Dimensional Man ends with a utopian vision, and a gloomy realization of the improbability of its achievement. Although the romantic rebellion of the Paris students in 1968 led Marcuse to become more hopeful, his utopia requires a drastic change of consciousness, a change in human nature almost, that has shown no signs of penetrating beyond students and their cohorts to the masses. There is still no replacement for the agency of a politically aware working class.

Clecak rounds off his analysis of the old left with a critical account of the rise and fall of the new left, whose utopian aims—in particular “the quest for community on a grand scale”—he sees as having brought about the disintegration of the movement into |marginal revolutionary sects. All this is plausibly argued, although Clecak’s constant search for internal sources of the breakdown of the movement leads him to overlook such external influences as the loss of a unifying issue once the American withdrawal from Vietnam began.

Clecak’s analysis of the past is perceptive. The final chapter, on “The Future of Socialism,” is, however, disappointing. Understandably, Clecak suggests we abandon, for practical purposes, the visionary goal of a nation-wide organic community of unalienated individuals living in peaceful and harmonious cooperation. We should accept the impossibility of altering human nature on a large scale. Instead we should work with people as they are, trying within these limits to achieve greater equality, while preserving liberty. Liberty and democracy are, Clecak stresses, worthwhile values, and not to be sacrificed for fantasies of perfection.

Well, this is sensible enough, though hardly new. But how are we to achieve even these modest aims? How are we to overcome what Clecak portrays as the central “radical paradox,” the problem of powerlessness, which, apart from the brief period when resistance to the Vietnam war reached its height, has baffled the left throughout the period Clecak discusses? Here Clecak really has nothing to say, except that it would be “facile” to hope for a solution, and the paradoxes will persist. If so, surely much of the promise of a book like Radical Paradoxes evaporates. George Santayana once wrote that those who do not study the past are doomed to relive it: Clecak appears to be telling us that we are doomed to relive it anyway.

I have one other criticism. It is a depressingly common experience to find that a book has been written around some catch-phrase or gimmick, intended to lend it a distinctiveness it would not otherwise possess. Clecak’s reiteration of the idea of a “radical paradox” introduces this kind of gimmick into a book that could have stood on its own without one. The worst of it is that Clecak appears not to understand what a paradox is. He informs us that he will use the definition given by Paul Watzlawick et al. in Pragmatics of Human Communication:1 “a contradiction that follows correct deduction from consistent premises.” As a definition, this will do. It fits, for example, Bertrand Russell’s famous paradox of the barber who shaves all, and only, the men in his village who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself? There doesn’t seem to be anything inconsistent about the assumption that such a barber exists, but whichever way we try to answer this question, we get a contradiction. Hence, a genuine paradox, albeit not a “radical” one.

But what has this to do with what Clecak is talking about? How does the powerlessness of the left, or the gulf between ethical standards and political reality, constitute a paradox? Clecak shows that radicals have their problems, and the world, or more particularly America, is not as they would like it to be, but the entire book does not bring to light a single genuine “radical paradox.” The title and subtitle of his book, read together, reveal that Clecak confuses two different terms: “paradox” and “dilemma.” Such a casual obliteration of a useful distinction suggests a sloppy conception of the idea around which the author has chosen to construct his work.

Reading from left to right—passing from Clecak to Buckley—we find that radical and conservative have more in common than we might have expected. For Clecak, as we have seen, argues that we must work within the limits of human nature as it is. Neither a government nor a revolutionary movement can change the way people are, he assumes; and this assumption is also central to Buckley’s outlook. In fact, Buckley introduces his reforms with a quotation from Michael Oakeshott that echoes Clecak’s central criticism of much recent radical thought and action: “The conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.” Clecak would probably substitute the more general notion of “politics” for “ruling.”

Distrust of state activity is the driving force behind Buckley’s reforms. This too is a concern that many radicals share with conservatives. To appreciate the extent of common ground, we need only note that when Buckley wanted a statement of the case against central urban planning for his recent anthology of American conservative thought,2 he chose an extract from Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The attempt to wrest control of local planning from a rigid, centralized bureaucracy and restore it to the people who live in the neighborhood and are aware of their own unique needs is in accord with the fundamental principles of both radicals and conservatives.

Admittedly, this should not be pushed too far. Radicals and conservatives tend to distrust different kinds of state activity. Radicals are more concerned with the powers of the military and the police, which conservatives are ready to defend on grounds of national and personal security. Conservatives (and now we are coming to Buckley’s reforms) distrust federal intervention in, for example, welfare and education, which some radicals would allow because of the obstacles to satisfying important human needs by other means.

In this case it is the conservative who is the more doctrinaire. Whereas a radical tends to oppose state activity on pragmatic grounds, unless he is an anarchist, for Buckley this opposition is a matter of principle. In spite of his claim that his reforms are relatively free from ideological bias, antistatism lies behind three of his four proposals. Buckley, one feels, might have been happier in the days when to be a liberal meant to take a laissez-faire approach to both economic and social questions, trusting that Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” would produce a sweet harmony between private interest and public weal. Earlier proponents of laissez-faire claimed that the only legitimate purpose for which the state may restrict freedom is the protection of freedom. It is to his credit that Buckley does not go this far; he is saved by a modest amount of sympathy for those who just cannot make it in a competitive world, and is therefore prepared to say that the federal government should continue to play some redistributive role, taking from the richer states and giving to the poorer.

  1. 1

    Norton, 1967.

  2. 2

    Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (Bobbs-Merrill, 1970).

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