Humphrey and Johnson
Humphrey and Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Ever since the Cold War began, the Center in American politics has increasingly had to adopt the policies and outlook of the Right. Thus the Truman Administration, after first ridiculing the rightist myth of an internal communist conspiracy, set up a loyalty program based on the premise that this myth was a reality. Similarly, the Eisenhower Administration outmaneuvered Joseph McCarthy by making his anti-communist crusade official policy, in the form of Attorney General Brownell’s security program. In foreign policy, liberals of the Center adopted as their own the theory that militant communism, bent on world domination, had to be contained by armed force, even though the policy of containment, as originally formulated by George F. Kennan, had not been intended to be exclusively military in its emphasis. When right-wing politicians launched their hysterical attack against Castro, Kennedy obliged them, in spite of his own last-minute misgivings, with the Bay of Pigs. When Goldwater demanded the liberation of South Vietnam, Johnson denounced him as a demagogue while secretly (and later not so secretly) putting Goldwater’s foreign policy into practice.

The dynamics of Cold War politics demanded of centrist liberals a continual effort to outmaneuver the Right by preempting it. This strategy, however, far from putting down the Right, merely contributed to its amazing growth. In taking over so much of the rightist program, liberal politicians raised expectations they were incapable of satisfying—victory in Korea, victory in Vietnam, the defeat of revolutionary movements all over the world. Instead of appeasing the Right, the inconclusive policy of containment encouraged clamor for the liberation of “captive nations,” while at home the unsuccessful attempt to contain explosive forces for change generated a rising demand for their forcible suppression. This demand now threatens to engulf the Center itself.

After twenty years of the Cold War, the focus of American politics has shifted far to the right. The liberal strategy of maintaining economic growth through arms spending, of containing revolution through a series of limited police actions, and of buying off domestic discontent by building superhighways and cars by means of which the newly prosperous ethnic constituencies, still the backbone of the liberal-welfare coalition, could escape the cities to the consumer paradise of the suburbs—this strategy fell apart against the unexpected obstacles of Vietnam, ghetto riots, and student rebellion. Not until Chicago, however, did its utter bankruptcy stand fully revealed. The Democratic debacle in Chicago showed, in the starkest terms, that the Cold War can no longer be maintained under the guise of liberalism; showed, more broadly, that the corporate order can defend itself against its combined opponents within and without only by calling in the assistance of the most reactionary forces in American life. What other meaning can we assign to the savagery with which the Chicago police, unrestrained by their nominal superiors, set upon not only the peace demonstrators but reporters, bystanders, and finally even the delegates themselves?

In Chicago and elsewhere the police are no longer merely agents of corporate liberalism, they have become a political force in their own right, a force that has to be appeased. The brutal events in Chicago, the systematic harassment of the Black Panthers in San Francisco, the unprovoked attack on black militants in a Brooklyn courthouse by off-duty policemen openly sympathetic to George Wallace, all testify to an emerging pattern of unofficial violence that has penetrated deep into official institutions. The police in American cities, like the Green Berets and other military elites charged with the represson of subject populations, have developed a colonial psychology manifesting itself in contempt for civilian values and for the rule of the politicians. Sections of the police have developed what can only be called a fascist mentality, which corresponds, moreover, to anxieties among workers and the petit-bourgeoisie that are already preparing these classes for an American version of fascism. The brutal suppression of riots and demonstrations evokes an instinctive sympathy among “little people,” as Wallace calls them, whose hard-won gains now seem threatened on the one side by Negroes and on the other by encroachments of the federal and local governments. The congruence of semi-official violence with the racist violence of the mob, in order to produce a fascist reaction requires only a crisis so grave—a full-scale uprising of the ghettos, an economic breakdown, another Vietnam—that the dominant powers in America, the corporations, would be willing in their panic to turn away from politicians like Nixon and Humphrey who retain some lingering commitment, however tenuous, to democratic procedures, and to embrace leaders who promise to stop at nothing in the restoration of law and order.

THE McCARTHY-KENNEDY movement represented what may prove to have been the last chance to maintain the American empire under liberal auspices, by cutting its losses in Vietnam, diverting money into the ghetto, and providing young people with a plausible outlet for their dissatisfaction with the emptiness of American life. Not only the fact but the manner of Humphrey’s nomination—the refusal to compromise on the Vietnam plank; the silencing of dissenting voices from the floor; the packing of the hall with Daley forces; the harassment of McCarthy delegates; the cruel battle raging in the streets while Humphrey sat undistracted before the televised unreality of the roll call; above all, Humphrey’s refusal to disavow the actions of Daley’s thugs—all these things make clear the price that must now be paid by those wishing to carry on the politics of American world power. The price in repression will mount as the cities and campuses erupt in despairing violence. The Republicans, already sensing the shape of things to come have devised a “Southern strategy” to counter what they correctly perceive to be the only serious threat to their campaign—not the peace movement, which a few weeks ago seemed destined to play an important if not decisive part in the outcome, but the Wallace candidacy. With New York and California virtually unrepresented in either party, the South, together with the reactionary industrial states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois, emerges as the major battle-ground of the 1968 campaign.


In the face of the grim choices before us, some people are tempted to see Hubert Humphrey as a lesser evil. Humphrey is counting on this. He hopes that the antiwar forces will take it for granted, while he goes about the more serious business of competing with Nixon and Wallace for the votes of the law-and-order constituency. As the campaign proceeds, he will no doubt attempt to protect his left flank by dwelling on Nixon’s hawkish views and his long record of redbaiting. But those who hate what Humphrey stands for must not be seduced once again into the familiar mistake of voting for the Democrats on the grounds that the Republicans are even worse. If anything, the Republicans are even the lesser evil in this election. Both parties, having repudiated their moderate wings, are thoroughly militarized; both are committeed to the war; neither has any program for dealing with poverty and racism except force. Nevertheless the Democrats, as the party in power, must take the greater share of responsibility for the disasters of the last eight years. The antiwar forces should combine in refusing to vote for any of the major presidential candidates; if the election appears to be close, as now seems unlikely, they might even consider voting for Nixon.

The main thing is to defeat Humphrey, not because Nixon is more likely to end the war nor because, even if he tries to carry it on, he will at least have to face a Democratic opposition in Congress—although both these things may be true—but simply because it is unthinkable that the Democrats should be returned to power. It is unthinkable that the Democratic Party, after embarking on a war it promised to stay out of, high-handedly putting down a popular uprising in Santo Domingo, suppressing dissent at home (as in the Spock trial), letting the cities decay while maintaining a multi-billion-dollar budget for defense, and conducting its convention over the bodies of young people protesting a war the Democrats themselves once agreed was not to be countenanced—it is unthinkable that any party with such a record be rewarded with reelection. A Democratic victory, moreover, would prove that the Democrats can flout the popular will with impunity. A Republican victory would preserve at least a façade of democracy. In this case, one must respect the instinctive popular determination to throw the rascals out. At the same time, it is obviously desirable that anti-war Democrats, most of whom face serious challenges in their home constituencies, be returned to Congress.

BEYOND the elections there is the much more important question of whether an effective radical movement can be organized in time to save what is left of American democracy and to begin the job of replacing the existing social system with something better. Radicalism is the only long-term hope for America. The erosion of the liberal Center makes it difficult for liberals even to undertake palliative reforms. This is why liberals like Arnold Kaufman realize that liberalism can save itself only by making an alliance with radicalism—whether in the New Party, a restructured Democratic party, or in some other form will be the subject of much debate among radical-liberals. A radicalized liberalism under a leader like Ted Kennedy or John Lindsay might force concessions to the Negroes, forestall disastrous military adventures abroad, turn back the right-wing assault against the Warren court and against civil liberties in general, and thereby postpone the collapse of liberal capitalism.


In the long run, however, liberalism cannot eliminate the contradictions of that system. It cannot liquidate the overseas empire or liberate the cities, because these things require the destruction of the power of the great corporations. If America is to become a democracy, the only question is whether the power of the corporations can be destroyed piece-meal—for example, by creating autonomous enclaves of socialism in the ghettos and elsewhere—or whether it will be destroyed only through some ultimate confrontation in the future. Liberalism does not address itself to this question; it proposes only an extension of the welfare state. Nor does it address itself to the disintegration of values, the alarming spread of nihilism and alienation, which is bound up with the social and economic crisis of liberal capitalism. The liberal values of self-reliance, sexual self-discipline, ambition, acquisition, and accomplishment, while in some ways admirable in themselves, have come to be embodied in a social order resting on imperialism, elitism, racism, and in-human acts of technological destruction. They have therefore lost their capacity to serve as a guide to any but individual conduct. As a social philosophy, liberalism is dead; and it cannot survive even as a private morality unless it is integrated into a new moral and philosophical synthesis beyond liberalism. Such a synthesis, it seems clear, will only emerge in connection with a political movement that tries to demonstrate, both in practice and theory, how the unprecedented technological achievements of post-industrial society can become the basis for a new order in which men will no longer be slaves to production.

THE PROSPECTS for such a movement, it must frankly be confessed, are even gloomier than the prospects for enlightened liberalism. A few months ago, when the clouds of the Cold War seemed to be lifting slightly, there was some reason to think that it might be possible to unify the Left around the search for a new ideology, in which tactical militancy against the war, the corruption of the universities, and the expansion of the police power would coexist with an awareness of the need for positive programs, cultural alternatives to liberalism, and new modes of consciousness. The battle of Chicago, by appearing to vindicate the tactics of violent confrontation as the only strategy radicals need, has strengthened those elements in the Left that are completely insensitive to the need for a broader strategy. Having won what they consider to be a notable victory in Chicago, some of these militants are now more contemptuous than ever of anyone who dissents from their view that destruction is the sole object of radical activity.

It is useless to argue with student militants that “exposing the system” is not enough, especially when most people are still prepared to support the system no matter how brutal it becomes; or that muckraking—even “muckraking by event”—is no substitute for theory. Some of the new militants are as indifferent to arguments, in their own way, as Dean Rusk or Mayor Daley. Large sections of the student movement, indeed, have come to be dominated by people who, as one writer describes them, “feel automatically excluded whenever rational debate threatens to break out.” If SDS provides a foretaste of the future—a terrifying thought—we seem to be headed toward an implacable tyranny of inexperience and ignorance.

Given the obscurantist anti-intellectualism that is increasingly prevalent among student radicals, there is no immediate hope of uniting the Left. It may be possible, however, for more disciplined radicals to provide an alternative to the nihilist Left addressed, at first, principally to those in the academic community who wish to save the university as a center for critical thought—unlike those who wish to bring it to a stop—but who are appalled by its subservience to the military-industrial complex, its willingness to call in police to beat up students and dissenting professors, its bureaucratic and hierarchical structure, its promotion of academic careerism—in short its absorption by the corporate society whose values are deeply opposed to the values the university is supposed to represent. The coming struggle for the universities may end either in their complete paralysis or in the emergence of a new political movement, made up of teachers and students newly politicized by the struggle and conscious of the need to organize themselves as the intellectual vanguard not simply of university reform but of the socialist transformation of American society. By seeking to create “a hundred Columbias,” SDS may inadvertently bring into being the instrument of its own undoing, in the form of a radical movement which speaks to the real needs of the community instead of taking refuge in a revolutionary mystique of direct action.

The university is the most likely environment in which such a radicalism might be expected to emerge; “but it is still questionable,” as Ellen Trimberger writes in her account of the rebellion at Columbia (Trans-action, September 1968), “whether faculty leaders will arise and make the attempt” to reform the university—much less to give intellectual leadership to a broader movement for radical change. “Columbia, therefore,” Miss Trimberger predicts, “faces more polarization, confrontation, and probably repression.” The same thing could be said of practically any other university. Clearly the creation of an effective radical movement in the universities or anywhere else will require years of patient effort. In the meantime radicals and radical-liberals will find themselves hard-pressed—even if they can work together for limited reforms that would keep open the possibility for more sweeping changes—to arrest the rightward drift of American politics.

This Issue

October 10, 1968