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 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.
This tension between ideological opposition to state action and concern for those who will suffer without it runs through Buckley’s reforms; and the most serious objection to them is that, when the going gets tough, Buckley falls back on his principles and haughtily ignores the consequences. His excuse for so doing is that his reforms are “entirely procedural in character,” designed merely to “free up constricting molds and to flush out accretions of government, so as to induce greater freedom of movement.”
So Buckley tells us, for instance, that he is not concerned to solve the welfare problem, but merely to “set the stage” for solving it. But the formal nature of his proposals does not absolve him from the responsibilities of considering their consequences. To assume that because a procedural reform satisfies some apparently logical doctrine of sound government it will necessarily have good consequences is to fall victim to the very kind of ideological rationalism that a conservative who knows his Burke and his Oakeshott could be expected to avoid.
Thus on welfare Buckley’s reform involves abolishing the present system of allotting federal welfare funds to each state proportionate to the amount the state itself is prepared to spend. This system, Buckley says, gives Californians (for example) the impression that by voting for more welfare they can draw federal funds from an inexhaustible fountain, at no cost to themselves. In reality, if each state votes along these lines they are, collectively, voting to be taxed more heavily by the federal government. An obvious irrationality. So why not give federal welfare money only to the poorer states, and let those states with above average per capita incomes get on with the job of deciding for themselves how much welfare they want to provide?
This reform, Buckley thinks, has obvious advantages. It will make it clear to the voters that all welfare programs must be paid for, and it will allow the states greater freedom in running their won programs without federal interference. But it will also have an obvious disadvantage that Buckley does not notice (or perhaps he does not think it a disadvantage): the thirty-three states which on present statistics are not poor will most likely reduce their welfare programs sharply—and although these states are not, on average, poor, they do, of course, contain many very poor people.
The present system, in spite of the irrationality which Buckley claims to find in it, operates so as to provide an incentive for each state to spend money on welfare—otherwise the state will find that it is being taxed to pay for other states’ welfare programs. If we think adequately financed welfare programs a good thing—and in spite of the much-publicized abuses they surely are a major source of the relief of simple human misery—then we will reject Buckley’s reform. Rejecting the reform does not imply, of course, that we regard the present system as ideal. The proposed “negative income tax” which would give everyone a guaranteed minimum income might be a better way of eliminating some defects that concern Buckley, and it would have the major advantage of not requiring low income families to go and ask for welfare handouts from officials who must, because of the nature of their task, eye many requests skeptically.
Buckley might reply that to argue as I have done is to take decisions away from the smaller political entities and place them in the hands of a remote government out of touch with local affairs. If a state will not pay for its own welfare scheme, how can it be consistent with democratic principles to induce it to do so, under penalty of losing revenue to other states?
The point must be accepted, as far as it goes. As democrats, we should prefer the smaller political unit. As utilitarians, however 9and we are nearly all utilitarians at least to the minimal extent that we value the reduction of misery), we must, in this instance, prefer the larger unit. To refuse to balance the reduction of misery against the democratic preference for smallscale decision making is to reveal, once again, a doctrinaire approach to social questions.
There are good reasons why within one country some decisions may be better left to the whole nation. These reasons emerge clearly when Buckley argues for another of his pet projects, the elimination of the progressive federal income tax, and the substitution of a uniform 15 percent federal tax on all income (no deductions or exemptions). Buckley objects to progressive taxation as a kind of injustice. He sees it as a penalty that treats a person who earns a lot of money as if he were a criminal. This attitude assumes that most rich people deserve their incomes, a claim that would be hard to make out in many cases, and it also overlooks the fact that a progressive tax is needed if the man earning $100,000 is going to feel the tax burden as much as the man earning $8,000. Still, Buckley is prepared to leave the states free to levy their own progressive taxes if they want to. The reason he considers progressive state taxation less obnoxious than progressive federal taxation is that the wealthy citizen can leave a state with steeply progressive taxation in order to avoid paying the tax. Buckley seems to admire tax dodgers who establish residence in a foreign country, but doesn’t like the idea that they have to go all the way to, say, the Caribbean. How much better it would be if your typical New York tycoon could escape to Connecticut!
Certainly this procedural reform would lead to “greater freedom of movement”; but it would also lead to those states with highly progressive tax scales losing part of their tax base, and whether this is a good thing is by no means a matter of procedure; it is a substantive question the answer to which depends on one’s attitude to redistribution of wealth. If one favors redistribution, there is no alternative to taking the decision at the federal level.
Of Buckley’s other two reforms, that on education also suffers from respect of form and neglect of content. Buckley would prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or color in public schools, but he would do so in a way that would stop integration through busing as effectively as it would stop a simple color bar; and he would allow any legislature, state or federal, to provide aid for nonpublic schools without interference from the Constitution. Again, simply a procedure for reducing restrictions, isn’t it?
Well, not exactly. One result would be the survival of the currently endangered, mainly Roman Catholic, private school system (a cause which Buckley keenly champions). Another consequence, quite possibly, would be a revival of segregation in those states sympathetic to it, whose legislatures may foster the growth of a private, white school system, supported by tax relief measures, alongside a public school system that would become predominantly black. Buckley’s constitutional provision against a color bar applies only to public schools. When discussing tax reform, Buckley had insisted that tax relief for one means an extra burden for another: when discussing education he supports not only sectarian but even racist tax relief!
While some means of freeing education from the hold of a huge centralized bureaucracy is desirable, tax relief for private education is not the best way to do it. So long as we still have progressive taxation, tax relief will help the rich more than the poor, and private education will be a means of passing on the advantages of wealth to one’s children. A voucher system, providing federal funds for attendance at private schools, might be preferable if suitable standards were set and maintained for the education provided. This scheme has been proposed by those with whom Buckley has some sympathy (Milton Friedman, for example) as well as more radical critics of the state educational system. Since it neatly removes education from state control, it is surprising that Buckley does not discuss it.
There are, however, strong objections to the voucher system too, for it threatens to turn education into a business run on profit-making lines. It is potentially divisive, and it would be difficult to ensure that the children of those least able to assess educational standards for themselves would not receive a still worse education than they now receive. It may be better to loosen the hold of the bureaucrats on education from within the public school system rather than outside it. There is no reason to suppose that a state educational system has to eliminate progressive ideas and experimental methods. Experience elsewhere—Britain for instance—suggests that individual schools and school districts can benefit from greater autonomy within the public school framework
On the question of de facto neighborhood segregation, which Buckley would allow, he may be right, or partly right, in his claim that busing is unpopular and has not been proven effective in raising the level of black education. In any case, he is on strong ground when he argues that a court is not the appropriate place for deciding this issue. Nevertheless it seems irresponsible to revert to segregated schools until we have some provisions for ensuring that those schools will provide as good an education for minority pupils as they provide for middle-class white children; and Buckley has no proposals for achieving this.
Of the four reforms, only the last, on crime, appears directed primarily at results, rather than the curtailment of federal government activities. Buckley wants to repeal the Fifth Amendment, as currently interpreted, and substitute court procedures that would make it easier to convict the guilty, without, he hopes, significantly reducing the odds against convicting the innocent. The object of this reform is not an abstract increase of freedom, but a weighing of the interests of society and potential victims of crime against the rights of the accused.
Buckley has a case here, although it would be a mistake to think that this reform could do much to reduce, say, street crime, where the problem is more the apprehension of the criminal than his conviction. And even if a conviction is obtained, do our jails effectively reduce crime, or do they foster hardened criminals? In the light of these much larger problems, to expend the energy necessary to amend the Constitution in order to obtain a few more convictions may simply not be worth it. Buckley does not establish the essential connection between the Fifth Amendment and crime prevention; if this connection could be established—but only then—we might find force in his argument that the rights or values protected by the Amendment, as currently interpreted, do not outweigh the safety of the ordinary citizen.
Clecak’s survey of the left concludes without indicating any path that the left can follow with much enthusiasm. Buckley, at least, knows where he is going. The left might do well to copy his approach, though not his direction. None of the four thinkers Clecak discusses is much interested in practical measures of reform that fall short of revolutionary change—there is even a tendency to oppose piecemeal reforms as mere props to the capitalist system. But if it is true that the prospects for a socialist revolution are negligible anyway, we can hardly be doing much damage to those prospects by advocating reforms, and we might in the meantime be doing some good. In America the left has usually been so isolated that it has let practical policy-making go by default to liberals and conservatives, or else to people outside the usual spectrum of electoral politics, like Ralph Nader.
Here there is a marked contrast with the British left and the European left generally, which have been prepared to work for the politically possible, and have achieved a great deal in so doing. Where, for example, is there in this country an organized political campaign for a National Health Service, in place of the expensive mess that our medical services are in? Since we lack organized political groups working for change, the misleading propaganda of the American Medical Association goes without effective challenge. Yet this is an instance of a reform that would be desirable in itself, capable of gaining popular support, and at the same time a step toward a society in which essential goods and services are allocated on the basis of need rather than of ability to pay—in other words, a step toward the kind of community that the left aims to bring about.
If the left is to put its energy behind practical reforms of this kind it will need to redirect its thinking, away from grand schemes based on the premise that capitalism is about to collapse, and toward detailed factfinding and rigorous argument on particular issues.
All this may sound as if the pendulum is swinging back to that characteristically Fifties idea of “the end of ideology.” That would be a mistake. Now that the prospect of a continued unlimited increase in material wealth has faded, we need, more than ever, a worked-out conception of the good society if we are to discuss policies intelligently. Ideology helps to shape the direction of reforms; it can point toward a distant goal without losing touch with concrete changes. I have already mentioned health care as an example of this. A more rational transport system deserves similar attention. Increasing participation by workers in the running of their factories is still another step that has been shown to produce immediate benefits while being in accord with long-range left-wing aspirations.
Ideology is certainly essential when we discuss the questions Buckley raises: is it really unjust to seek to redistribute income by progressive taxation, as Buckley claims? To answer this we need both a theory of justice and a theory of the causes of inequality of income. What should we try to achieve through our schools? This too has no ideologically neutral answer.
Ideology cannot and should not be avoided. What can and should be avoided is the kind of ideological position that makes thought rigid. We do not have to fall back into the complacency of the Fifties in order to think about piecemeal reforms once again. We merely have to remind ourselves that our dream of remodeling the entire structure of American society in one glorious upheaval is precisely that—a dream.
Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (Bobbs-Merrill, 1970).↩
Still Powerless? November 28, 1974