The New Left, together with the war in Vietnam, has moved many liberals several degrees leftward; this may be its chief contribution, so far, to American politics. Today the call for a “new politics” is sounded not only by radicals but by liberals opposed to the war and increasingly alarmed by the breakdown of representative government and the drift toward violence. Even though the Left itself has failed to put together a movement capable of revolutionizing American society, it has communicated to many people a sense of crisis, an awareness of the system’s unresponsiveness to their needs, which has turned them from admirers of American democracy into harsh critics.
After the ruins of the Conference for New Politics, which better than any other event illustrated the weakness, confusion, and incompetence of the New Left, there has grown up another kind of new politics, scorned by the far Left but capable of organizing masses of voters behind the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Kennedy’s assassination, appalling in itself, also dramatizes the condition which gave rise to these movements in the first place, the failure of the political system to function as it is supposed to function. The system no longer responds to the expressed wishes of the voters. If they elect Lyndon Johnson as a dove, he turns into a hawk; if they try to end the war by voting for Robert Kennedy, the arbitrary, unpredictable, and meaningless act of an assassin thwarts this choice as well. The nomination of Hubert Humphrey would only drive home the point, leaving those who briefly caught a glimpse of hope despairing and embittered, and at the same time determined to carry on in some form the revolt against the Johnson policies which for a time promised to capture the Democratic party.
SINCE THE “NEW POLITICS” promises to be with us for some time, it is important to ask whether it expresses anything more than opposition to the war, a growing concern about the divisions in American society, and a revolt against the present Democratic leadership. Some of the spokesmen for the antiwar movement and for democratic reform at home have begun to refer to themselves as “radical liberals” and to seek ways of extending liberalism beyond the cold-war consensus. They envision a new coalition of middle-class reformers, enlightened labor unions, students, and the poor, united behind a program of social change that would substantially alter American institutions while stopping short of revolution—an objective which the “radical liberals” consider unrealistic and probably undesirable as well. Their commitment to work within the existing political system distinguishes them from the militant leaders of the New Left, with whom, however, they share a dissatisfaction with the present state of American society so deep that it is unlikely they could be reconciled to a continuation of the old politics. As a new element in American politics, therefore, “radical liberalism” deserves careful attention. Is it capable of becoming a new majority? And if it did become a new majority, would it be capable of democratizing America?
The new books by Arnold Kaufman and Michael Harrington give some indication of the potentialities and limitations of the “new man in American politics”—the man who recognizes that liberalism can save itself, in Kaufman’s words, only by “a resolute turn toward radicalism.” By a turn toward radicalism, however, Kaufman means only that liberal rhetoric must be squared with liberal practice. He thinks that liberalism, with its emphasis on individual liberty and “rational choice,” still “possesses moral and intellectual resources richer than those of any competing tradition.” This dubious statement is defended on purely philosophical grounds. (Kaufman is a philosopher by profession, and one of the founders of the teach-in movement.) He shows that the liberal tradition embodies enduring aspirations and insights, but he does not demonstrate that they can provide a way out of the present darkness. Indeed he does not even demonstrate, except by wholly spurious comparisons, that these aspirations and insights are peculiar to liberalism. It is true that “liberal emphasis on the importance of liberty and human rights, and the corresponding sensitivity to the danger of tyrannical abuse of corporate power, has resulted in an insistence on the fundamental value of political democracy.” But it is not true that “this conviction marks the most important difference between liberalism and Marxist humanism.” Many Western Marxists have absorbed these values; they differ from liberals not in holding political democracy in contempt but in asserting that political democracy in itself—even if we assume it existed in the United States—does not prevent class rule. This assertion would have to be successfully refuted before one could agree with Kaufman that the conflicts, injustices, and violence that now pervade American society derive not from the inherent inadequacies of liberalism but from the failure to put liberal principles into practice.
Kaufman’s argument throughout is so abstract that he can reconcile contradictory points of view to prove that “radicalism” is merely a logical extension of liberalism—and not a criticism of some of its leading assumptions. If it is objected that parliamentary democracy lends itself to manipulation by elites, Kaufman reminds us that “participatory democracy,” after all, is itself part of the liberal tradition. Participatory democracy and “coalition politics” should be combined: “both are essential.” If it is objected that the civil rights movement failed to solve the race problem, Kaufman agrees with the criticism—“it is certain that only a minority actually received significant aid during the last decade of effort”—but then goes on to suggest that “the central tendencies of the Black Power Movement are liberal” and that what the country needs, therefore, is a judicious mixture of civil rights agitation (even though it failed) and black power (although separatism is of course unthinkable). “Conventional civil rights activity has accomplished much; it has much yet to accomplish. There is plenty of room for people who, by temperament or aptitude, can do their best work in the new or the old.”
Fond of reconciling irreconcilables, Kaufman is forever exhorting his readers to avoid “either-or’s.” He spends much of his time cautiously steering between extremes. On the one hand he denounces the “pseudo-realism” of those liberals, for instance, who insist on knowing what critics of the war would do if they were in the President’s place: on the other hand he attacks the politics of “self-indulgence,” which preserves radical purity at the expense of political effectiveness. His criticisms of both positions are well taken but irrelevant to the question of whether his own radical liberalism is adequate to the crisis of American society. An affirmative answer to this question demands more than a criticism of “defective political styles”; it demands a rigorous analysis of American institutions which would show that they are capable of the kind of change Kaufman thinks is necessary.
In place of analysis he offers vapid generalities. “Again and again Marxists and socialists have had to learn that the institutions of countries like the United States are resilient enough to defeat their ominous predictions.” “Even if a power elite exists, there is little reason to suppose that its members have identical interests or even perceive developments in precisely the same ways.” “For all its defects, American society is progressive in the perspective of history.” The validity of these assertions is by no means self-evident.
Michael Harrington’s book, on the other hand, contains much critical analysis. He calls for radical changes, but since he expects them to be carried out within existing political structures, he should be understood as advocating, like Kaufman, a radicalized liberalism. The difference between them is that Harrington makes a serious effort to show that such a movement could grow out of the existing situation and that it would be capable of solving existing problems.
Up to a point, Harrington’s analysis derives from John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State. Like Galbraith, he argues that there are two economies in the United States, the economy dominated by large corporations commanding advanced technology and therefore relatively independent of the market, and the old-fashioned market economy where “one finds transients, such as migrant farm laborers and casual restaurant employees, and the steady workers in the shops of cockroach capitalism.” Affluence in the one coexists with chronic depression and unemployment in the other. The corporation has evolved from an entrepreneurial to a bureaucratic institution, and now exercises de facto planning authority. Because this planning is dictated by private rather than social objectives, the industrial system has brought the country to the edge of disaster.
Harrington, however, disagrees with Galbraith’s contention that the modern corporation “brings into existence, to serve its intellectual and scientific needs, the community that, hopefully, will reject its monopoly of social purpose.” According to Galbraith, the intellectual and scientific community, working through the universities and the state, will demand that, since corporations are already public bodies in effect, they should be treated “as a detached and autonomous arm of the state,” necessary for efficient production “but responsive to the larger purposes of the society.” Meanwhile the members of the corporate “technostructure,” having absorbed the liberalizing influence of the universities in which they are trained, and no longer concerned in their jobs with maximizing profits,” will come to see the corporation in the same way, “as an essentially technical arrangement for providing convenient goods and services in adequate volume.” The industrial system will thus be corrupted from within at the same time that it is subjected to increasing control from without.
Harrington thinks this is “just a bit too hopeful.” It is irrelevant, in his opinion, whether the corporate manager’s power rests on property or expert knowledge. “As an institutional entity, as a whole, the corporation acts like a throwback.” Harrington is surely right about this, in general. Even if the corporation is not strictly speaking a throwback, it should be noted that Galbraith’s own analysis shows that the new corporate goal of “more efficient production”—that is, growth—comes to the same thing, for many social purposes, as the maximization of profits. “Social thought in the industrial system does not allow of inquiry as to whether increased or more efficient production of a particular product is a good thing. It is, per se, a good thing.”
In The Affluent Society Galbraith attacked precisely this mystique of growth and noted its hold not only on corporate managers but on the presumably enlightened members of society—the “intellectual and scientific estate” which in his more recent book he sees as the main hope of social change. Harrington correctly concludes that new elites will not become the agents of democratic progress.
If the scientific and educational estate were to make more and more decisions, but in the absence of a dynamic political movement asserting its own democratic priorities, these refined and sincere men would turn out to be the servants of the old values refurbished rather than the creators of new values.
The same phenomenon on which Galbraith builds his hope of change—the emergence of a community of technicians and experts moving back and forth between industry, the university, and the federal government—Harrington sees as sinister. Whereas Galbraith expects the values of the university to prevail over those of the industrial system, Harrington thinks it more likely that the “social-industrial complex” will take over the university. Thus the expansion of the communications industry—IBM, Xerox, CBS—into the educational market is a portent that “fundamental decisions about learning will become a function of the corporate struggle for shares of the knowledge market.” And the universities’ subservience to the “military-industrial complex” is too well known to require further comment.
NOTWITHSTANDING these criticisms of Galbraith, Harrington does not reject the possibility that “a new class is coming into being,” composed of “scientists, technicians, teachers and professionals.” This possibility, he reminds us, has been advanced not only by liberals like Galbraith and David Bazelon but (in somewhat different form) by writers on the New Left, who talk of a new white-collar proletariat. The new class, however, will not make itself felt, as Galbraith and Bazelon believe, as “a subversive and conspiratorial underground inside the corporate structure.” Nor will it automatically evolve into a force for democratic change. On the contrary, the “profound ambiguity in this emerging social formation” is that it tends as much toward state socialism, as Louis Boudin predicted years ago, or toward “liberalized totalitarianism,” in Harrington’s words, as toward a radicalized liberalism.
The new class can become a democratic influence only if it operates outside the existing structures of economic power, and only if it allies itself with the poor and the unions. Here is another difference between Harrington’s conception of the new class and the Galbraith-Bazelon thesis, which either sees no radical potential in these groups or ignores them altogether. Whereas the Galbraith-Bazelon version of the “new class” theory is characterized by a misguided faith in the creative function of elites, Harrington’s seems to point toward a new populism based on a coalition of poor people, whose “material self-interest…can be satisfied only through united political action,” and the new middle class, “which could well have a non-material interest in basic change.” Harrington does not deny the difficulties of bringing these groups together, but he thinks that a “rational” assessment of their interests ought to unite them.
RECENT EVENTS provide some support for this analysis. In his primary campaigns Robert Kennedy won votes both from Negroes and from the white working class (though not from labor leadership), while McCarthy has been winning support in what Harrington calls the “conscience constituency” of middle class liberals. Taken together these two movements roughly correspond to Harrington’s new coalition. On the other hand, the course of the campaign provides little support for Harrington’s belief that such a coalition can capture the Democratic party, purge it of reactionary elements, and turn it into an instrument of “democratic planning.” Even before Kennedy’s murder, it was becoming more and more obvious that the party leaders, who still maintain effective control, preferred the old politics to the new. Moreover, the Kennedy-McCarthy coalition, at the time of Kennedy’s death, had still failed to coalesce; and this failure reflected not only personal rancor between the two leaders but the deeper problem of uniting such disparate political elements.
Finally, even if such a coalition had emerged, and even if it had captured the party, there was no indication that it was a coalition based on deep popular commitment to “democratic planning.” Neither Kennedy (whom Harrington backed) nor McCarthy indicated support even for the Freedom Budget, which Harrington admits is a minimal reform. (The fact that, in the context of current politics, even this appears hopelessly utopian is a measure of our desperate situation.) “The strategy of massive public investments and of governmental persuasion of the private sector [to construct model cities, etc.] can be put into effect at once,” Harrington writes. “They already command the support of a potential new majority in the civil-rights, labor, liberal and religious movements.” But this assessment of the political scene also appears “just a bit too hopeful.” In the end, his optimism is no better founded than any other optimistic predictions about the immediate future of American politics.
The trouble is that Harrington’s analysis stops short of the conclusion to which it logically leads. He is correct in saying that there are no new social forces automatically evolving toward socialism (which is what “democratic planning” comes down to). Presumably this means that radical change can only take place if a new political organization, explicitly committed to radical change, wills it to take place. But Harrington backs off from this conclusion. Instead he seems to predicate his strategy on the wistful hope that socialism will somehow take over the Democratic party without anyone realizing what is happening. He admits that “there is obvious danger when those committed to a new morality thus maneuver on the basis of the old hypocrisies.” But there is no choice, because radicals cannot create a new movement “by fiat.” It is tempting, Harrington says, to think that the best strategy for the Left might be to “start a party of its own.” But this course would not work unless there were already an “actual disaffection of great masses of people from the Democratic Party.”
AT THIS POINT, however, one has to ask whether large defections from a liberal to a socialist party would be likely to occur in the absence of a socialist alternative. People do not defect from existing parties unless there is some place to defect to. Until the Left creates “a party of its own,” defectors will have no place to go, except perhaps to occasional third-party movements based on single issues. It is not inconceivable, for instance, that an independent McCarthy candidacy will emerge from the Democratic convention. If it does, radicals should certainly support it, if for no other reason than that McCarthy will be the only candidate unequivocally opposed to the war. But the McCarthy movement could not become the nucleus of a new radical majority unless the discontent it reflects were given more radical direction. In its present form the movement is not a force for radicalism for the simple reason that it has not committed itself to radical principles.
Radical change, as Harrington himself makes clear in refuting theories of the automatic evolution toward socialism, can only come about through radical consciousness. But how is this consciousness to be created except through a political organization which embodies it, and which dares to call things by their proper names?
It is true, as Harrington says, that “before raising the barrier of a new party…there must be some reasonable expectation that significant forces will join it.” There is of course no immediate prospect that a majority of Americans would join a socialist party. In order to arrive at an accurate assessment of what this prospect means, however, one must realize that the object of a radical party is not primarily to win elections, to register a protest vote, or to influence the major parties, as American third parties have traditionally done, but to introduce socialist perspectives into political debate, to create a broad consciousness of alternatives not embraced by the present system, to show both by teaching and by its own example that life under socialism would be preferable to life under corporate capitalism, and thus in the long run to fashion a new political majority.
In the short run, the success of a new party would depend not on huge electoral victories but on its capacity to gather to itself the widespread discontent that already exists and to furnish it with more enduring forms of expression than either third-party campaigns on the one hand or the existing organizations of the New Left on the other can hope to provide. Neither political campaigns nor protest demonstrations enable people with knowledge and skills to participate in radical politics except as protestors and campaign workers. Those people continue to devote the better art of their lives to work in existing institutions, even though they find much of that work unrewarding. What are needed—and there is a growing awareness of this among those who are talking about a new party—are institutions that would parallel existing structures of government (city councils, for instance) and, without any recognized authority or immediate hope of implementing their decisions, undertake the social planning of which the existing institutions are incapable. In other words the Left has to begin to function not as a protest movement or a third party but as an alternative political system, drawing on the abilities of people who realize that their talents are often wasted in their present jobs. It has to generate analysis and plans for action in which people of varying commitments to radicalism can take part, while at the same time it must insist that the best hope of creating a decent society in the United States is to evolve a socialism appropriate to American conditions.
A PARTY capable of bringing such a movement into existence would have to be at once disciplined and democratic, nonsectarian and at the same time firmly committed to certain basic principles and programs, militant without making a cult of militancy. Whether it is possible to synthesize all these conflicting tendencies is a good question, but it is not the same question as asking whether the potential constituency for a radical party represents “significant forces” in American life. The latter question can be answered, with some confidence, in the affirmative. Without for a moment falling in with the leftist delusion that a minority can make a revolution in the United States, one can say that the basis for a new politics going well beyond “radical liberalism” already exists. The dissident movements ranging from the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns to the militants of the student and black Left have revealed wide areas of discontent not only with the old political leadership but with the general quality of American life. The immediate constituency for a radical movement, it is clear, lies in the professions, in sections of suburbia, in the ghetto, and above all in the university, which more than any other institution has become a center of radicalism.
The university is a radicalizing influence in American life not because it gives rise to a scientific and intellectual elite which is devoted to democratic planning, nor because there is a “correlation between high educational attainment and libertarian views” as Harrington notes, but because changes in the social function of higher education have made the university itself a major focus of political conflict. It is a mistake to imagine that the university produces a superior breed of people and that these people, diffused throughout American society, will gradually make their influence felt on the side of political enlightenment. Even if it were true that the university is bringing into being a “conscience community,” this community would have little power to change the corporate institutions to which in any case the interests of many conscientious people are firmly tied.
What matters is what is happening within the university. As higher education for the first time in history opens itself to masses of people, it becomes increasingly bureaucratized and impersonal, increasingly oriented toward “production.” Moreover, it is increasingly drawn into, and becomes dependent on, military research, research in counterinsurgency, and other activities of the state. At the same time, however, the university remains a repository of humanistic learning and culture. The idea of the university as a privileged sanctuary for heretical ideas survives and still bears some resemblance to reality. Even though the university is no longer in any very meaningful sense a community of scholars, there is still more freedom of speech and inquiry in the university than in American society as a whole, and a deeper commitment to values that run counter to those of the corporation and the corporate state.
There is a conflict, therefore, between the humane values of which the university is uniquely the embodiment and the “knowledge factory.” The university produces the technicians and the technical knowledge necessary to operate. an advanced technological society; but at the same time it produces opposition to its own bureaucratic character and to American society in general, the deficiencies of which are epitomized by the corruption even of so “privileged” an institution as the university. Meanwhile the effect of mass education changes the character not only of the university but of the student body as well. It removes masses of young people, at a critical period, from the productive process and, more generally, from any institutional ties to the rest of society. The university takes young people in great numbers from their families and from local and community affiliations, at a time when they have not yet assumed jobs, families of their own, property, or other ties to society. In traditional American education, fraternities and social clubs served as a way of tying students to family, class, and career; but these organizations, as is well known, are elitist in their style and tend to break down in the face of mass education. Thus post-industrial society creates, through the university a new class of people who are “psychological adults,” in Kenneth Keniston’s terms, “but sociological adolescents”—that is, adults who are wanting in “the prime sociological characteristic of adulthood: ‘integration’ into the institutional structures of society.”
THESE DEVELOPMENTS create the potential for a new radicalism. As marginal members of society, students as a class, like black people, are more likely than other classes to be attracted to perspectives highly critical of society, particularly when they are faced with “integration” into society in the form of the draft. But this same phenomenon simultaneously creates conditions which may frustrate efforts to organize student disaffection into a radical movement. Their very marginality predisposes radical students to cultivate a radicalism of “alienation,” of nihilistic gestures and hysterical militancy. Student radicalism, being university-based, suffers from the additional disadvantage of identifying the university as the major enemy, thereby obscuring the fact that it is precisely the tension in the university, between its corruption by outside influences and its continuing independence from them, that creates the possibility of a radical movement in the first place. Thus a recent issue of the Berkeley Barb shrilly proclaims that “the universities cannot be reformed” and calls for guerrilla bands to sweep through “college campuses burning books, busting up classrooms, and freeing our brothers from the prison of the university.”
The student Left is not inherently romantic and nihilistic, but it will probably continue to suffer from these tendencies until it finds ways “for those who become involved in the conventional institutions of society,” as Keniston puts it, “to retain their active commitment to the Movement.” The search for more durable forms of organization would be necessary in any case, because a purely student movement necessarily lacks continuity. It also lacks the skills, plans, programs, theory, and “ideology” that are necessary to the development of alternatives, without which even a fundamental crisis in American society would not necessarily lead to the modification of the present system. All these things can be provided only by a revolutionary party, in its earlier stages largely based on students, disaffected faculty, professionals, and other middle-class dissidents, but defining itself not as a movement of people under thirty but as a prospective majority—a party of all those whose lives are now controlled by decisions in which they have no part.
Radicalized liberalism, as represented by Kaufman and Harrington, is no substitute for a radical party. Nevertheless the emergence of a dissident liberalism, which now finds at least a temporary home in the McCarthy movement, is an important and heartening development. It may be the only political force strong enough to save the country from a general reaction, in which even the possibility of change would be lost for generations to come. No matter what some militants think, a mass movement for radical change cannot grow up in a setting of repression. It demands that the avenues of discussion remain open, that limits be placed on the powers of the secret police and other agencies of “law enforcement,” and that the freedom to convince and persuade, in short, be protected both from vigilantes and from official attacks. So long as the “radical liberal” remains committed to the defense of these principles, he is the ally, not the enemy, of those who are seeking a deeper reconstruction of American life. Essential liberties have survived even in our flawed democracy. If these are destroyed, liberals and radicals will go down together.
The McCarthy campaign and the radicalized liberalism that supports it are important also because they are symptoms of a genuine dissatisfaction with the kind of society America has become. Senator McCarthy himself, in his recent speech in New York to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, criticized the tendency of American society to create people “totally concerned with production or with the sale and consumption of things.” A person growing up in such a society, he said,
becomes more and more like a thing himself…. And under these circumstances any person must begin to feel lonely and anxious, because it becomes increasingly difficult to see the real meaning of life beyond simply that of making a living; [thus he] becomes bored and then undertakes to overcome it by more and more change in consumption and by the seeking of thrills in what may well be meaningless excitement. And his thinking or his being then becomes split from emotions, and his truth from any kind of commitment, and I suppose his mind also from his heart.
This is hardly the kind of political rhetoric to which Americans have become accustomed. It reflects the sense of acute crisis that has drawn so many people into the McCarthy movement as the last hope of saving America.
One must ask what will happen if the movement fails to prevent the election of Humphrey or Nixon. This failure could be taken as the failure of politics itself and interpreted as the signal for “guerrilla warfare” leading in turn to repression and an American fascism. On the other hand, all those on the Left who believe in political action as opposed to insurrectionary violence might decide, in such a contingency, that the time had come to create a political movement based squarely on radical principles. The coming months hold both promise and the possibility of an almost unqualified disaster.
July 11, 1968