We have heard a good deal lately about the dissension between the New Left and the Old, and here at hand are two books that very conveniently lend themselves to analysis as authentic expressions of both these main currents in American radicalism. Containment and Change consists of two separate essays dealing trenchantly but in quite different ways with American society and foreign policy, while The Radical Imagination is an anthology of articles drawn by Irving Howe, the Editor of Dissent, from the backfiles of his magazine.
Dissent must be credited with the accomplishment of having kept alive some kind of radical consciousness in the dreary 1950s when all ideas of leftist origin were virtually taboo in the American intellectual community. However, the pieces in Howe’s collection not only lack thematic unity, ranging from outright political to outright cultural subject matter, but are of unequal quality, and so various in assumption and basic allegiance that they do not add up to anything that might be called a unified ideological view, let alone a political program or platform. Hence I do not propose to assess the contents of the anthology item by item, an unrewarding procedure in any case. My present interest is chiefly in noting and perhaps defining the difference between two political positions, and from that standpoint the most important pieces in the book are doubtless the Introduction by Michael Harrington and Howe’s “New Styles in ‘Leftism.’ ” Both explicitly and implicitly, these articles are sufficiently revealing of the Old Left. In contrast, the long essay by Carl Oglesby, a past president of the Students for a Democratic Society, seems to me fairly representative of both the strength and weakness of the New Left. There is considerable political dynamism and audacity in his statement, incisive phrasing, uncommon moral force, and a welcome release from the rigid and by now wholly anachronistic attitudes and slogans generated among Western intellectuals during the Stalinist-anti-Stalinist polemics of some decades ago. But when the question arises of what is to be done, of outlining a “positive” plan of action, Oglesby falters and his ideas become somewhat fuzzy.
IT MAY WELL BE, however, that the demand for “constructive ideas” and immediate solutions is not very helpful at this time; indeed, the demand may be a further maneuver on the part of Establishment liberals who wish to back away from the hard choices and severe struggles that lie ahead. Perhaps it is unrealistic in this period to expect of a young American radical like Oglesby to be as persuasive in his programmatic ideas as he is in his critical assault on the present regime in America and its anti-Communist consensus—both of which he sees as sustained by a “quasi-religious doctrine of the Great Conspiracy” that justifies reactionary-subversive and imperialist-adventurist activities anywhere within the reach of US power. But at least Oglesby is vigorous and always consistent in his assault, not given to muting it for fear of scaring away the centrist, middle-of-the-road members of some future and utterly nebulous newstyle lib-lab coalition. Maybe, so far as the Left is concerned, there is room today only for political activism in America, and not for the immediate political success that Harrington and Howe so patently crave. The activists of the anti-Vietnam and anti-poverty movements, combined with those of the Negro revolt, have shown themselves capable of discommoding the power-holders in Washington (and even in implanting doubts in small segments of the ruling elite as to the wisdom of our national dedication to the Cold War) but not of achieving a breakthrough, such as stopping the war in Vietnam or electing radicals to national office. This situation, however, is not so discouraging as it sounds. Clearly, the painful but necessary process of what Hegel once called “the labor of the negative” is far from completed among us. Neither in depth nor extent has the shattering disillusionment with the native pieties gone far enough. Especially hard to dislodge is “the sentimental faith in American benevolence,” as Noam Chomsky calls it, “the belief in American good will that persists through each calamity, notably among the self-styled ‘hard-headed and pragmatic liberals,’ and that stultifies political thinking and debases political discourse.”
But activism, even if not productive of tangible results right now, should by no means be underestimated on that account. It is of particular value as a school of politics for people without political background and previous commitment—an indispensable training ground for a new generation of militants that are even now learning some truly concrete lessons about the real difficulties of coping with our social and political condition. This type of activism, not bolstered by a long-range theory, nor by a program promising either an immediate or ultimate advance, is likely to disenchant many but is also bound to steel others and throw them into the struggle for good. True, we need theory, for, as the Marxists used to say, practice is blind without it. But it cannot be manufactured out of the whole cloth, as Oglesby tries to do in the last few pages of his essay.
But neither do I see any hope for political success in the used-up formulas of the Old Left as exemplified by Harrington and Howe, who are obviously drifting toward Social-Democratic positions of a specifically American sort. And this well after the most consequential European analysts on the Left have ceased bothering to criticize the reformism of the Social-Democratic parties as “a betrayal of the revolution,” as the Bolsheviks did. They attack these parties now precisely for liquidating reformism itself. Several writers have summed up the viewpoint of certain European radicals very well in a recent number of Studies on the Left. Thus John Cowley writes of
the demise of Social-Democratic reformism, which has been of particular significance…in Sweden, Britain, Belgium, and Western Germany. The Social-Democratic parties of these countries no longer maintain their reformist pretensions. They are now concerned—and are quite open in their concern—with merely managing efficiently and humanely the “mixed economies” of the postwar era. This new phenomenon…of Social Democratic parties which have ceased to be reformist has opened up a tremendous void on the Left throughout Western Europe.
BUT IF such a void can be said to exist in America, the chance for a reinvigorated Social Democracy to fill it has long gone. A socialist-reformist movement, whether organized as an independent party or as a loose grouping allied with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party (as advocated by the spokesmen of the Old Left today), has been tried in the past and has failed; and now it is too late to start again, just as it is too late for the Communist Party, USA, to stage a comeback on the American scene. Only through some unanticipated course of “combined development,” as Trotsky named it, skipping historical stages and generally speeding up the historical process through a concatenation of circumstances that cannot be foreseen in any detail at this time, can America enter a phase of socialist transformation. It is surely revealing that both the New Left and the Old seem pretty much rattled when confronted with formulating any prognosis of the future of American corporate capitalism, or neocapitalism as I prefer to call it. The implications of its being the major component of a system of world economic power eludes them, though Oglesby closely approaches recognition of this fact when he says that
the West wants a world that is integrated and…rationalized in terms of the stability of resources, labor, production, distribution and markets. As the leader of the West, America wants that integrated, rationalized world to run under the management of her own business people. Others do not. They have acquired powers of resistance in the East. Therefore there is an East-West struggle in our time called the Cold War.
But if that is the case, the “powers of resistance in the East” surely must be taken into account in the calculations of Western radicals. Actually they are taken into account in practice if not in theory, by the great protest movement against the Vietnamese war of the past few years, which embraces the widest diversity of political consciousness imaginable. For without the tough and heroic Vietnamese resistance to American aggression, this protest movement would probably have petered out months ago, and widespread acquiescence in the total “pacification” (repression, that is) of South Vietnam and the establishment of a “successful” precedent for more military campaigns of “pacification” the world over would have followed.
Yet both radical camps in our midst basically assume that the American institutional complex, the inner logic of which explains Vietnam and the other Vietnams to come, can only be done away with by domestic forces alone. This appears to me to be a kind of semiconscious “capitalism in one country” thesis, ludicrously caricaturing the Stalinist thesis of “socialism in one country” by turning it upside down. The Kremlin has long ago dropped “socialism in one country” from its repertory of themes; for it has been rendered obsolete by the principal unexpected consequence of the Second World War, after which many countries, including a country as huge as China, broke away from the domination of the capitalist world market. Now people like Irving Howe and myself may not approve of or want to support the kind of socialism established in the East, but that is neither here nor there so far as my present argument is concerned. However unthinkable from the standpoint of pure or original Marxism, it exists as a global force and no consistent radical can afford not to reckon with it. Howe’s attempt to set up anti-Communism as the supreme test of political rectitude on the Left strikes me as a terrible blunder. It leads him to ill-timed thrusts at the militant New Leftists, who can in no conceivable sense be called Communists or Marxists for not recognizing the validity of his supreme test. Presumably a democratic socialist, he puts such illimitable emphasis on the adjective “democratic” that in consequence his “socialism” appears wide of the mark. Oglesby, on the other hand, does not exhibit or stress his anti-Communism. He realizes that an exclusive stress on it can only confuse his position with that Cold War anti-Communism which, as he contends, is fundamentally “an ideological mask for Free World imperialism.” (In his view the phrase “Free World” is in the last analysis a euphemism for the postwar American empire, new style.)
Even Howe’s opposition to the war in Vietnam rests on very shaky grounds politically (though not morally) so long as he implicitly assents to the logic of the anti-Communist consensus. He has fallen into the habit of holding an ideological pistol to the head of insurrectionary peasant movements led by Communists: he repeatedly poses the peremptory question: Are you democratic or not? If not, what? Are the rebels then supposed meekly to accept American hegemony? His argument that democracy is immediately possible in underdeveloped countries strikes me as profoundly antihistorical, as well as contrary to the findings of nearly all analysts of the process of modernization of backward areas. Precisely because it cannot be implemented, this utopian demand opens the way for collaboration with American power as the “lesser evil.” Howe seems to me stuck in the attitudes of the 1930’s and ’40s, when American radicals largely identified either with Stalin’s regime in Moscow or with its opponents of the “Left opposition.” We were living in America then, but our political imagination was transfixed by the Soviet experience, even when we hated Stalin’s evil rule. That bizarre historical episode is over, and the song is different. The second time around its melody cannot be the same. To insist on the term “totalitarianism,” as Howe does, without bothering to redefine it in the light of present-day realities, is futile. Can it truly be said that Russia is today totalitarian? Or Hungary? Or Yugoslavia? As for the situation in China, I am quite sure that Howe knows as little about what is really going on there as I do.
IN THE UNITED STATES there has long been no pressure on anyone to become a democratic or any other kind of socialist. In fact, the word “socialism,” though it runs to more than four letters, is still among the few “dirty” words left in the American language, now that a torrent of four-letter words has flooded our fiction and rendered them innocuous. But since Howe has freely chosen to continue identifying himself as a democratic socialist, he has an obligation to adopt a position differing in all essentials from the prevailing anti-Communist ideology—an ideology which fully corresponds to the early Marxist notion of ideology as “false consciousness.” That the Cold Warriors are not motivated by an inordinate devotion to democracy, nor by moral indignation at its absence in the East, is well known; and a hang-up on the formal American version of democracy provides an easy way out from commitment to revolutionary change.
It is true that democratic socialists have no business supporting the East. But their refusal of support (they have no opportunity in any case of seriously influencing events in that part of the world) because of their adherence to different and more humane ideological and cultural traditions does not mean that they can remain indifferent to the conduct and outcome of the Cold War. To be sure, they cannot expect the East to furnish them with models of authentic democracy and advanced thought. Nevertheless they must recognize that the question of which socio-economic system demonstrates its ultimate superiority in competitive coexistence is inextricably bound up with the fate of Western socialism. I have long esteemed Howe as a very clever man, endowed with great fluency in writing both about politics and literature; but he cannot be judged to excel in the sphere of theory and speculation. I must observe, though, that I am astonished by the tendency exhibited in his recent political articles, such as “New Styles in ‘Leftism’ ” which I have all along been criticizing here. That article has more wit than candor. Its unstated assumption seems to be that America’s political economy is so powerful as to be virtually unchallengeable. No revolutionary change is in order; all that can be extracted from the system are certain long overdue domestic reforms, as in the area of civil rights, for instance.
As for the New Leftists, I think that, despite their more optimistic and militant position, they are extremely baffled in their search for a workable strategy. Having no faith (who among us in the US has?) in the messianic revolutionary role of the “proletariat,” they are at a loss to replace it. Hence the frantic shopping around for an ersatz “proletariat”—the poor, the Negroes, just plain lovers of freedom and democracy, or even the mindblowing hippies, of all people. In New Left circles some attractive notions circulate, such as the notion of “participatory democracy,” “the return of decision-making to the people,” or of setting up new local institutions that will some-how bypass the old ones which, unfortunately, possess all the wealth and all the weaponry. Whatever the immediate propaganda value of such ideas (and I do not deny their effectiveness in the short run), their serious theoretical value is very, very small. “Participatory democracy,” for example, is incompatible with our system as it actually functions and cannot be achieved without a revolutionary struggle; and if those proclaiming that slogan understand its revolutionary implications, they should say so openly.
BUT HOWE’S PROGRAM of a “coalition or realignment politics,” which is meant to energize “all those forces within the society that want to move forward toward an extension of the welfare state” (italics mine), impresses me as even less meaningful, conciliatory in essence, and empty of any deep social content. The human mind has conceived of many ideals for which people were willing to sacrifice themselves and even die. Simply to extend welfare, and under capitalism at that, does not strike me as being one of them. Indeed, welfare is a mere atavism of the libertarian socialist ideal. And is “welfare state” a really adequate description of the United States today? Having reached the peak of its power, this country is not just another Sweden or Denmark. Although it has some features of welfarism, Oglesby’s characterization of the US and its newly acquired empire as “an imperial house of bondage” seems to me rather more to the point. Admittedly our affluent militarized system can afford to spend more of its GNP on welfare, so long, that is, as such expenditure does not prove fundamentally damaging to the control of the ruling elite. But you cannot mobilize masses, decisively affect foreign policy, and enforce structural changes in the economy by blowing up welfarism into a grandiose undertaking.
Moreover, where are the “forces” that Howe makes so much of to come from? He writes:
Who, twenty-five or thirty years ago, could have foreseen that Catholic priests and nuns would be marching into Montgomery? Who could have foreseen the more thoroughgoing ferment in the American churches of which this incident is merely a symptom?
Written only two years ago, this statement is already out of date. Panicked by this summer’s riots that bordered on civil war, the greater part of the “forces” invoked by Howe have vanished from the political scene. What Andrew Kopkind has recently written in these pages about Martin Luther King, who is a mass leader whereas Howe is not, applies equally well to the latter’s coalition or realignment politics which, as he claims, may well develop “within the framework of a major party” (read: the Democratic Party):
When the going was good, King still had his white liberals and his black marchers. But then the going was bad and getting worse. The white liberals had apparently misunderstood…. They were willing supporters when the goals of the Movement were integration and the embourgeoisement of poor Negroes. When the goal was liberation, the slogan “power” instead of “freedom,” and the consequences were convulsions in the society they wanted desperately to preserve, the liberals dropped back, with their marching feet and then their checks.… It was not that King had chosen the wrong tactics, or picked the wrong allies. He had simply, and disastrously, arrived at the wrong conclusions about the world. No coalitions available and no programs imaginable could “succeed” even in his own terms. Insofar as his objectives were revolutionary, they could not come out of statusquo institutions: insofar as they were not, his followers were not interested.
Let me make myself as clear as possible on the issue of coalition. It is a subject much debated by radicals in the past when analyzing the tactics of the “united front,” as it was once called. Though Howe knows this extensive literature as well as I do, he never mentions it. It goes without saying that one cannot be opposed to coalition in principle. In times of great peril, such as posed, for instance, by the threat of an imminent fascist coup, a united front is essential; an alliance even with the devil himself is permissible in an extreme emergency. Faced with the rise of Hitlerism, the German Communists betrayed their cause (what was it actually?) by refusing to ally themselves with the Social Democrats and the trade unions under their control. Generally speaking, however, the tactics of coalition more often than not raise the question: Who ultimately benefits? Or even who swallows whom? So long as the American Left is composed of a conglomeration of random groups in ideological disarray, undivided only with regard to Vietnam, and lacking an organization or movement or party that has developed a unifying platform and a distinct identity and discipline of its own, the kind of coalition that Howe proposes is hardly more than an invitation to the so-called reform Democrats to pick off individual radicals at their leisure, co-opting and taming them, thus providing more political subsistence for “liberal” recreants like Hubert Humphrey, or at best support for Robert Kennedy in his ascent to power. That may suit political types like Arthur M. Schlesinger perfectly, but I cannot see Irving Howe as a member in good standing in such a line-up.
Michael Harrington asks the following rhetorical questions in his Introduction to Howe’s anthology: “But to what precise degree is American foreign policy a reflex of American domestic structure? Must there be a thoroughgoing transformation of the society at home before there can be genuine support for a democratic revolution abroad? Was the failure of the high purpose of the Alliance for Progress an ‘inevitable’ consequence of the American social system?” It is plain from the context (and I am also basing myself on other statements of Harrington’s I have read) that he means us to answer his rhetorical questions if not with a resounding, then certainly with a simple, No. So it would seem that our repeated interventions, covert and overt, in Latin America and elsewhere, our brutal assault on the Vietnamese people, not to mention our benign inattentiveness to the abolition of democracy in Greece by a few crummy colonels wholly dependent on American arms and loans, are all mere accidents or mistakes perhaps. Furthermore, Harrington has formulated his first question in a guileful manner, to say the least. Obviously no country’s foreign policy is just a mere “reflex” of its domestic structure; to attempt to fix the “precise degree” of the determination of one by the other is to engage in a talmudic exercise. I am afraid that the answer to Harrington’s questions, however grating to our native political susceptibilities, is unfortunately Yes rather than No.
THIS HARSH TRUTH is at the very center of Oglesby’s sharp and bitter essay. In his view the survival of the American system depends on ensuring “the availability of fertile frontiers” for American business enterprise. What we want is not just peace but peace on our own terms. “For us peace finally exists when the world is finally safe for American businessmen to carry on their business everywhere, on terms as favorable as they can be made, in settings managed preferably by native middle-class governments, but if need be by oligarchic and repressive ones…or if the panic hits in a pivotal place, by our own Marines.” Our social order demands conferring “esteem and privilege not upon the humane (though humanity is not excluded) but upon the willful and relentless—the powerful.” In international politics this drives us to choose policies of imperialism, which is “most basically the forcible (however indirect) management of one state’s political economy by another.” Of course most Americans are shocked by the stigma of imperialism, but the fact that the images of the colonial governor and the Foreign Legion are obsolete by now enables them to maintain their innocence. The new type of colony is no longer mainly territorial—it is “the site of an open, free-enterprise competition, which of course will be won by the largest economic power.” This is America’s “open-door, free market, anti-colonial, Wilsonian, Free World imperialism.”
By no means did this phenomenon begin since the war; for from the turn of the century American policy-makers have been increasingly concerned with the problem “of pacifying the global commercial environment. As early as the mid-1890s we had already become the world’s leading manufacturer and therefore internationalist in spite of ourselves.” In other words, the American economy is fundamentally expansionist, and secure commercial colonies are essential to its survival. This thesis is not especially new; in their mood of accommodation the spokesmen of the Old Left have managed to forget it. It is to Oglesby’s credit that he has recovered it through his own studies, reformulating it in terms of the present. I have seen reviews accusing him of adopting the theory of economic determinism. Inherent in the profit-oriented way of life, such determinism cannot be an invention of Oglesby’s. He fully documents his argument, and startles us with some surprisingly candid quotations form America’s political, military, and industrial leaders. Here and there he may express himself without finesse or the proper academic modulation, but that is the result of his anger, his commitment, his passion. His essay is a political and a moral act, not a scholastic inquiry. It is mostly concerned with confronting our political rhetoric with our actual practice, and deals extensively with the war in Vietnam and the origins and meaning of the Cold War. The passages taking apart the apologetics of such Administration stalwarts as W. W. Rostow and Dean Rusk are done with great skill.
But there are also weaknesses, such as the disposition to take too seriously the far Right’s criticism of federal power and bureaucracy and its ostensible concern with decentralization and individualism. No matter how sincerely some of its adherents idealize the virtues of old precapitalist America, theirs are at bottom no more than pious propaganda positions—Catonism pure and simple. I see no possible congruence between them and the Left, Old or New. Nor do I agree with Oglesby’s conclusion that in America a shiftover to fascism is practicable in the near future. The political conditions are unfavorable. Though the barriers to it are not insurmountable, to set the stage for such an attempt would take a total defeat in the world-arena as well as tremendous domestic turmoil. And even then it is by no means certain that fascism would emerge victorious in the ensuing struggle. I think that in the showdown the international relation of forces would prove more decisive than rightist desperation.
The companion-piece to Oglesby’s essay in Containment and Change is by Richard Shaull, a theologian teaching at Princeton. He discusses certain revolutionary perspectives with much good will but without any grasp of actualities. His idea, for example, that non-violent guerrilla warfare could take over existing institutions is quite utopian, it seems to me. With the enormous power of seduction at the disposal of the established institutions, the so-called guerrillas would soon turn into captives. Moreover, Professor Shaull’s essay is marred, for me at least, by the intrusion of theological metaphors and references alien to his political context. What is the point of a sentence that begins as follows: “The crucifixion of the Messiah reminds us that the struggle between the old order and the new goes on throughout history…”? The truism propounded by Professor Shaull gains no historical credence whatever from his allusion to the Messiah. The one certain result is a confusion of genres.
October 12, 1967