• Email
  • Print

Still Powerless?

In response to:

Looking Backward from the July 18, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

In his generally measured discussion of Radical Paradoxes: Dilemmas of the American Left, 1945-1970 [NYR, July 18]…Peter Singer finds my…final chapter, “The Future of Socialism,” “disappointing” because I fail to imagine a way out of the central paradox of powerlessness. I, too, am unsatisfied with this chapter (increasingly so after reading Robert Heilbroner’s An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect), though for reasons other than Singer manages to cite. Singer reminds us, gratuitously, that “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.” Perhaps, but this is not my hope. Beyond a desire to construct balanced critical portraits of some neglected figures (C. Wright Mills, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Herbert Marcuse), the central point of examining the theoretical trajectory of old Left thinkers (and the experience of sectors of the new Left that it illuminates), was to show that under the pressure of disappointing events in America and elsewhere, the casting of radical issues as paradoxes can lead to utopian communist syntheses that are romantic in theory and destructive and/or self-defeating in political practice. Rather than exchanging socialist for communist myths, with their inflated implications about the nature of human nature and their (at best) apolitical implications in America, then, I argue that we ought to redefine more conservatively the dimensions of democratic socialism, and use this as a guiding myth of concern.

The concluding chapter, incidentally, contains a discussion of the theoretical bases of democratic socialism, and a survey of the relationships between humanistic values and my perception of general socio-economic trends in various parts of the world—none of which Singer bothers to mention. But let us stick to the United States: the vision of democratic socialism, admittedly modest by comparison with earlier hopes, is the most realistic one open to American radicals. At the same time, it obviously lacks a mobilized political constituency. Thus, in one sense the radical paradox (or if you like, dilemma) of powerlessness to achieve even democratic socialism remains in effect for those who adhere to the vision. And the prospect of losing the vision in the process of pursuing piecemeal (or even coherent) reforms remains a clear danger. But these are not sufficient reasons for abandoning a politics of reform, as I suggest in the closing pages of my book….

Considered as a whole, the present economic and social order is irrational. It may be theoretically dissected and condemned, but not changed as a whole all at once. People, after all, live and act in the parts of society, and it may be that we can change these parts—and even ourselves—significantly. This is a possibility as opposed to a series of utopian illusions. What more can we ask? [P. 299]

Singer’s failure to mention these conclusions, which clearly suggest a politics of reform without pretending to specify it, seems odd inasmuch as he proposes a similar path: “…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.” And he concludes his essay by declaring that “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.”

…The convenient omission of my conclusions serves Singer’s larger design: he uses my book and William Buckley’s Four Reforms: A Guide for the Seventies as foils for a display of his own critical intelligence and political cunning. Singer suggests that Buckley has the right idea—a series of specific reforms—though he pursues it from a conservative rather than from a left perspective, whereas I apparently remain unable to imagine an ideology “that helps to shape the direction of reforms….” This is simply not true: after closing off what seem to me (and to most everyone else by now) dead-end roads on the Left by delineating the circumstances and patterns of thought that led to them (and might lead again to similar impasses), I conclude with an ideology, a myth of concern whose political dimensions entail, among other things, a politics of reform. By ignoring this, Singer invests his review-essay with a neat symmetry. But it comes at the considerable price of distorting and trivializing the closing sections of Radical Paradoxes. This may not be the worst of it: having examined Singer’s piece, I now feel obliged to read Buckley’s book.

Peter Clecak

Irvine, California

Peter Singer replies:

I did not omit Clecak’s conclusions in order to display my own critical intelligence. In fact I did not omit Clecak’s conclusions. I conveyed the substance of what Clecak now claims I omitted in the following passage:

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.

I expected the reader to recognize the agreement between this view and my own rejection of the dream of remodeling America in one glorious upheaval. I did not put forward my view as in any respect novel….

My disappointment with Radical Paradoxes lies in its failure to provide any answer to a different question: given that we must limit our goals, how can the Left achieve more modest reforms without the mass support which the classic left-wing theorists counted upon, and which left-wing parties outside America have often received? This is, as Clecak now reiterates, the “central paradox” of Radical Paradoxes. Yet several readings of Clecak’s letter merely confirm me in the opinion I formed when I first read the book: Clecak does not offer even a hint of the solution to this paradox.

The same may be said on the topic of an “ideology”—by which I mean, as I said in the review, “a worked-out conception of the good society.” In neither book nor letter is there anything that can seriously be considered an ideology. Of course my sympathies are with Clecak and I share his concern; but a “myth of concern,” whatever that may be, is not enough. A book that consists largely of an analysis of the failings of the Old and New Left to resolve the central paradox of the powerlessness of the Left in America arouses the expectation that some advance toward a solution of this problem will be made. When this expectation goes unfulfilled, disappointment is inevitable.

  • Email
  • Print