Linguistics; drawing by David Levine

When I was an undergraduate at Columbia it was unfashionable to study sociology. Those who did were, one felt, the future businessmen of the class of 1949 or the dentists, the careerists, the politicians. My friends and I studied literature and not contemporary literature either. That too was unfashionable. It did not repay deep study, nor did American literature. Proust and Joyce, Emerson and Melville were for summer vacation. During the year we concentrated on Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and then, when we were seniors, we were thrust into the modern world through the great rolling surf of Blake and Wordsworth and Goethe and Byron. This is how we first learned of the French Revolution, the vicissitudes of the bourgeoisie and the problem of democracy—through the direct and passionate, if also the wilful and incomplete, record of these writers who, it seemed to us, experienced the emergence of this world most acutely. Only then did we catch sight of Bentham and Mill and still later of Max Weber strenuously casting his nets after abstract fish in waters which seemed to us too shallow to support real life.

By degrees and upon closer acquaintance this snobbism, if that is what it was somewhat abated. Max Weber, and even John Dewey, came to seem more nearly poets than some of the poets themselves, while the world itself had grown so complet as to thwart and finally shrink the prophetic or political ambitions of imaginative literature. It had begun to seem that perhaps there was a place or a need for these social scientists, despite the mechanistic crudity of the idea, which most of them held to one degree or another, that politics or society or history could be understood “scientifically,” as if human affairs and social institutions were analogous to a geological specimen or a problem in logic and thus did not engage one’s feeling or, as one observed them, affect one’s vision.

There remained, however, a stubborn difficulty. Many of us in those years at Columbia had been miniature Thomists, at least to the extent that we believed that the form of a statement was inseparable from its content: that the meaning of what one said depended rigorously upon how one said it, in a poem or an historical work as much as in a mathematical expression. Sociologists, especially in America, were often poor writers, occasionally so imprecise as to be hardly intelligible. And this fault seemed to increase the more they pretended to be scientists. Such imprecision could reflect only a clumsiness of thought and, beyond that, an uncertainty of feeling. Thus there arose a sort of moral problem. For the social scientists, and among them the sociologists, were not, after all, so neutral in their ambitions as their scientific pretensions would suggest. Some of them presumed to plan our cities and administer the education of our children while others were turning up as propagators of the faith for dubious articles of commerce or political candidates. Some of them had even got into the Pentagon and other government departments and were, one felt, inching their way to the shelf where the keys to the atomic closet were hidden. These Laputans were becoming or had become an intellectual bureaucracy not lightly to be dismissed simply because they seemed, much of the time, from one’s high-minded perspective, to be illiterate or incomprehensible. The original Laputans made no sense either in their mathematical dialogues and musical analogies, and the practical results of their methods were deplorable as, for example, the suit of clothes which was fitted to Gulliver by quadrant and compasses. But the floating island which these would-be scientists inhabited could, when its king was so inclined, be made to descend on the poor wretches who lived below and crush them, or it could hover over them for days, blocking out the sun. It would be the better part of valor, surely, as well as a matter of general curiosity, to take these sociologists, the progeny of these odd Laputans, into account.

But how to begin? The sociologists and their colleagues are, after all, often so dull to read that the common reader approaches them with misgiving. Their dullness seems almost to be a protective device against such scrutiny, like the colcration of certain birds or insects. What is worse, they frequently claim to be in possession, like surgeons or physicists, of a special discipline, a mystery which only those in the know can enter. Still, one has heard of emergencies at sea in which cooks have performed appendectomies with can-openers, and even in the case of physics a determined layman can, with studious application, grasp the method and even the substance of a complex proposition. But with The First New Nation by S. M. Lipset, who is a world famous professor of sociology at Berkeley, and whose new book is a compendium of sociological methods as well as an attempt to apply them to the vexed question of American political values in relation to the current world revolution, one despairs.


The difficulty in this case has nothing to do with the presumed specialness of the methodology. The problem here is not analogous to what one encounters in the attempt to understand, say, the genetic code, without sufficient biological or mathematical experience, for in Lipset’s book the methodological structures are transparent enough. A more appropriate analogy is with Bentham’s attempt to build a model prison on “scientific” principles or with the attempt of Karl Marx to understand history “scientifically” or of Lenin or Mao Tse Tung to elucidate the “science” of revolution and class struggle. The trouble especially in the last three of these cases, as the world has painfully discovered, is that the attempts by these amateurs of mathematics to apply the methods of science has not enhanced or clarified their arguments but distorted them as if, in order to dazzle the clientele, they had applied the calculus to the preparation of omelets. It is the situation of the Laputan tailor exactly, or perhaps worse, for one also senses in these efforts a certain disingenuousness which may be deliberate or which may have become second nature. Nevertheless, it is as if these theorists had in fact determined to evade or obscure the real complexity of their theses for the sake of an ideological predisposition which forbade them to see the truth of the matter—and thus they lose themselves and their readers in a morass of scientific dilettantism.

Lipset is, obviously, no Marxist but he has, I think, a similar habit of mind. For like Marx he is an ideologist who retreats into scientism when the evidence of his senses forces him to question his faith.

The United States, he begins, is the first new nation: the first major colony in history successfully to revolt against a colonial ruler. Thus the history of American political institutions and a comparison of them with those of other countries might be of interest to such other revolutionary states as, one imagines (though Lipset is unclear on this point). Mexico or Cuba or Algeria or perhaps even China. One’s first impulse is to recoil, not only from the imprecision of the thesis (has this sociologist never read the Old Testament? or Gibbon? or heard of the Protestant Reformation?) but from the presumptuousness of it. But Lipset, accommodatingly, recoils first. It is not, he admits, that these new countries should follow our American example for history does make a difference. What seemed possible for the enlightened gentlemen of Virginia and Massachusetts in the eighteenth century may not be possible for the Yorubas or the Ashanti today. But still, let us ask these people to examine our goods, for whatever comparative value they may have, before they take their business to the shop next door where the prices are lower and the service may be quicker. Let us grant, he argues, that democracy may be a utopian prospect for these new countries, and let us admit further that even in our own country democracy nearly failed at the start and is far from perfect even now—but still let us examine the American experience to see how even an authoritarian government in a poor new country may be compatible with the rule, as we conceive it, of law.

The ingredients of our success in America are, to use Lipset’s phrase, “two basic values”: equality and achievement, the one following from the ideals of the Revolution, the other from the Protestant Ethic. Though the evolution of these values has had mixed results—for the impulse toward equality has tended to make us unsure of our personal status while the emphasis on achievement has institutionalized greed—the general effect, Lipset feels, has been salutary. We have achieved a stable and legitimate “polity.” Of course, the process was painful, hazardous, and seldom beautiful, and it depended upon the country’s abundant resources and the fortuitous wisdom of its leaders. Still we are moving toward a “sociologically meaningful” democratic system: one whose “political elite” competes for the votes of “a mainly passive electorate”: an electorate, in other words, which does not run wild in the streets or insist on changing the laws from day to day, but express its will through the various alternatives that are offered it by the “formal authority structure.” A marvelous “polity” indeed and one which the Ghanaians, not to speak of the Chinese, would do well to achieve, though perhaps they would say that they have achieved it already.

But how much practical meaning does this “sociologically meaningful” democracy have here in America? Is this the impression of American politics that even the most kindly Mexican or Turk is likely to take away with him after his Fulbright year at Ohio State and his obligatory trip to Birmingham or his visit to the Ways and Means Committee or his study of the Internal Revenue laws? One naturally wants to know. But here too the author anticipates the reader’s doubts and, as if appalled by the questions he has raised, retreats from them into the swamps of sociological methodology. One would like to know at this point the extent to which America, struggling with its Negro problem and with the notorious poverty of millions of its citizens or with the puzzling consequences of its rampaging technology, has sustained or can sustain a “sociologically meaningful” democracy or any other kind of democracy. One expects Lipset to show how we have tried to deal with these problems in America and how far we have succeeded or are likely to succeed. For then he might also have been able to show, at least by implication, how similar problems, which are bound to arise in the new countries, may be dealt with by American political methods and thus provide the Peace Corps with a useful handbook. Instead Lipset treats us to a demonstration of “pattern variables,” a method of sociological inquiry devised by the eminent Harvard sociologist, Talcott Parsons, which is so obfuscating in the context to which Lipset applies it as to seem a deliberate attempt to change the subject.


These “pattern variables,” though they are irrelevant and confusing as Lipset applies them, are interesting as an example of the persistence of the Laputan temperament. “Pattern variables” are sets of opposed social values or preferences, such as the preference within certain societies or groups for personal achievement and in others for hereditary status, and these preferences occur with variable intensity under different circumstances. By applying these “variables” Lipset hopes to “derive,” as he puts it, some of the social or political differences among the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany, and, later on, among these countries and Canada and Australia. This seems a peculiar way to answer the reasonable doubt, which is by now well established in the reader’s mind, that American democracy is in suitable shape to be packed and shipped for export. But one’s bafflement only increases upon being told by the author that he will apply not one pair of these “variables” but four pairs to his comparative study of these six countries, and that he will conduct his study not with respect to the six countries generally but to the various social classes and institutions within these countries. The permutations at this point become hideous to contemplate, and once more Lipset, in what has by now become a characteristic gesture, recoils from them. These “pattern variables” are not, he insists, to be taken literally, for they hardly account for the exceptions within societies, nor, he implies at a later point, are they even to be taken seriously, for the way in which one specifies them is “at best by means of an informed guess.” But what kind of “science” is this which is necessarily founded on such provisional, such impressionistic data? Such a “science” encounters the risk that it will be empirically vacuous, that it will not be “science” at all but, as happens here, chaos. The points that Lipset makes in this digression emerge, insofar as they emerge at all, in the form of Sunday journalism: a scum of platitudes on a sea of confusion. We learn, for instance, that in the United States achievement is valued over inherited (or, in the language of The First New Nation, “ascriptive”) status, except in the South where the opposite is generally true, though perhaps the situation is changing. Britain, meanwhile, has tended to value “ascription” over achievement, except in business, though the status which an Englishman achieves in business is not likely to improve his “social” standing. But now and then it may. Whatever the value of these profundities may be, they have succeeded, at least, in taking the reader’s mind away from the complicated and depressing question of the relation to the poor countries of America’s political evolution and not only from that but from the more important question of America’s own relation to its presumed values.

But this is the very question to which Lipset does not care to address himself seriously in this book, and of which his book is finally an elaborate evasion. Nor is this evasiveness apparent only in the methodological excursions. It is there in the language itself:

The modal personality response which encourages democratic stability in a society emphasizing the values of achievement and equality may be very different from the one best related to a social system organized around ascriptive and elitist norms.

This mess, which is fairly typical of the work of a man who wants urgently to be understood. It is, rather, the literary language throughout, is surely not the speaker’s defense against the impulse to counterpart to a stutter, which, according to one psychological theory, is to say things he knows he shouldn’t.

The source of Lipset’s stutter is. I think, obvious. He wants, on the one hand, to give the USA a sociological flag with which to impress the world (a wish reminiscent of the efforts of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Summer to provide a similar service to the Anglo-Saxon ruling class two generations back), but he knows too that for the sake of his intellectual credentials he must also acknowledge the inescapable consensus of his peers that America is not the promised land, that it perhaps never had been and that it probably never will be; that events require us now to be humble about our successes and to fight for our lives against our failures.

For Lipset, whose citations in this book suggest that he has pillaged an entire library, surely has read enough to know that America’s “democratic polity” has succeeded no more in the 1950’s than it had in the 1930’s in confronting the demands of a rapidly growing and diversifying population or in making rational use of its multiplying technology. If we avoided an economic collapse in the last decade, we seem to have done so mainly by supporting an enormous, wasteful and incredibly dangerous military establishment (which is not to say that this establishment was not occasioned by the corresponding political obtuseness of Russia), while for the present decade we seem to have found no better use for our technological abundance than to spend it on a trip to the moon. That America has found no better way than this to adjust its resources to the needs of its people suggests more than a failure of democracy but that the society itself may have failed. We may, at last, have found it impossible to administer a society as large and complex as ours has become and, at the same time, to respect the freedom of opportunity and rights of privacy which, in an earlier and less complex age, had seemed the main hope of democracy. It is unfortunate that this laborious study should have dealt so much with the political differences between the United States and Canada, and so little with the question of how the new countries are to contend with the West’s (and the East’s) enveloping technology as it reaches their shores and penetrates their jungles. Is it the fate of the world to become simply a monstrous Brooklyn or Alabama or, still worse, a Peking: “a mainly passive electorate” ruled by “a formal authority structure?” In still another of his digressions, Lipset seems to answer this question by arguing with David Riesman (and agreeing, it seems, with Caesar and Lenin) that the social customs of a country do not necessarily determine its political structure: that the political structure can be changed by the “political elite” and that social customs will, in time, change accordingly. This is blunt indeed. A more subtle writer than Lipset might, also have been more restrained. For while the political morality of the West may, for all its weaknesses, be the best the world can currently hope for, there remains the doubt that it may still be inadequate to the barely imaginable difficulties which it has yet to face in the world and which it has only now begun to face in America itself.

The troubled evolution in America of the ideals of equality and achievement has begun to harden. And though we are too close perhaps to see the whole result, there is reason to think that we may have bred a monster soon to be selected out of nature, or perhaps so powerful and so blind as to prevail, at last, over nature and finally wreck it. Equality of opportunity—the freedom to make one’s way in the world—seems in America to have become the occasional privilege of a limited class which is tightening its defenses at the very moment it should, if it is going to survive, be releasing its energies. The skeleton in the closet of American history has opened its door. No wonder Lipset stutters.

In an epilogue, of all places, Lipset finally turns to face this skeleton, but without much courage. America has, he admits, seriously failed, and failed not simply to perfect its system of government. There are, first of all, the Negroes, and still worse, there is the question of poverty. We must, he urges at last, get to work. His statistics are appalling. Fifteen per cent of Americans own “nothing” (nothing at all?), a detail which Lipset chooses to minimize by observing that in Great Britain, that other “democratic polity,” 34 per cent of the people own nothing at all. But in America, he adds, one-fifth of the people live in families whose reported income is less than $1500 a year, a statistic which cannot so easily be offset. Still, Lipset adds, while this is bad, it is not so bad as it seems. These unfortunates are scattered and politically impotent. They hardly constitute a social class, much less a voting bloc. They cannot therefore threaten the orderly formation of our “democratic polity.” Thus one day, if this “polity” perfects itself, it can attend to such problems as the Negroes and the millions who are now living on thirty dollars a week. In the meantime, the rest of us, Lipset says in a particularly insensitive passage, are better off than ever. We are reminded once again of Laputa, whose scientists, floating in their academies, explained that though they had so far failed to extract sunlight from cucumbers or, on the analogy of bees and spiders, to build their houses from the roof down, they would soon be able to do so. It was only a matter of perfecting the theory.

It was at this point that Gulliver’s patience came to an end. It was time for him to leave Laputa or lose his mind. That he chose to leave only to encounter the Yahoos later on is evidence of his sanity, if not proof of the ultimate perfectibility of the species and of its institutions. That S. M. Lipset has chosen to stay is perhaps evidence of no more than timidity, a refusal to risk the consequences of his thoughts and feelings. But he pays a price for rejecting this much of his nature. And the price, in the case of his new book, is incoherence, which, if I may now venture a scientific analogy, is, according to the laws of thermodynamics, the proof of the corruption of organisms, the very sign of death.

This Issue

October 31, 1963