Radical Paradoxes: Dilemmas of the American Left, 1945-1970
Four Reforms: A Guide for the Seventies
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 …
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Still Powerless? November 28, 1974