An interminable war in Indochina; the revolutionary movement elsewhere in disarray; the American left fragmented and driven onto the defensive; Nixon acting belatedly but with apparent success to disarm his opponents; public services in decline; the quality of public discussion lower than ever; demoralization and drift on every side—the political scene has seldom looked more dreary. Only three years ago the glacial rigidity of American politics appeared to be breaking up. Even habitual pessimists proclaimed a “great thaw.” Columbia, Paris, the dumping of Johnson seemed so many proofs that the diverse strands making up the new left had finally coalesced as a movement, a political force.
Now it appears that the new left, even in the moment of its apparent triumphs, had already passed the peak of its influence. The Chicago convention was an end rather than a beginning. The nomination of Humphrey and, even more important, the smooth handing-on of the war from a Democratic to a Republican administration showed how limited was the left’s capacity to influence national events; while the government emerged from the turmoil of ’68 slightly shaken but capable of carrying on a hateful war, of intimidating or outflanking its critics, and even—as recent events have shown—of acting with decisiveness and imagination.
The collapse of the new left became unmistakable in 1969 with the split in SDS, the emergence of the Weathermen, and the virtual disappearance of the antiwar movement. The Chicago trial, the Spock case, the Berrigan affair, and the harassment of the Panthers forced radicals on the defensive and obliged them to expend their energies on self-preservation. Meanwhile the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy removed the foremost leaders of an aspiring liberal resurgence, while the failure of the McCarthy campaign solidified the defeat of left-leaning liberals.
Throughout the Sixties, there had been a reciprocal relation between Kennedy liberalism and the new left, easily overlooked by radicals who insist that the left thrives on repression. If the radical opposition widened the space available to respectable dissent and forced some establishment politicians to the left (the growing radicalism of Robert Kennedy himself being the clearest example), it is also true that the new left was helped into being in the first place by the new sense of expectancy introduced into American politics by John F. Kennedy, whatever his intentions, and kept alive by his brother.
The advent of Nixon, Agnew, and Mitchell coincided with the dissipation of the moral energies of the black movement (briefly revived—a last gasp—after the death of King), the collapse of the antiwar movement, the sudden decline of campus militancy after Cambodia, and the spread of a new mood of uncertainty and resignation.
The degree of its dependence on the surrounding political environment reveals the failure of the American left to develop an autonomous life. The new left either refused or was unable to learn much from its predecessors, even from their mistakes, and in the end paid heavily for its indifference to the past. Conceived in many ways as a direct repudiation of the old left, it rejected not only the dogma and sectarian factionalism of the old left but whatever might have been gained from a more sympathetic understanding of its history. Too often the new left confused dogma with ideas and tried to live without them, preferring pure intentions to clear thinking. When it turned out after all that the movement needed an “analysis,” many elements of the new left embraced Marxism in its most rigid and sterile forms, or Third World revolutionary doctrines quite inapplicable to the US, and began to engage in sectarian polemics as pointless and trivial as those of the 1930s.
The absence of continuity in American radicalism—in American life generally—made it possible for the radicals of the Sixties to discover all over again the existence of oppression and exploitation, the power of the ruling class, and the connection between capitalism and foreign wars. In their excitement, they quickly proceeded from reformist to revolutionary ideas, not only leaving most of their followers behind but glossing over a host of difficulties—both tactical and theoretical—that were inherent in the adoption of revolutionary goals. It should at least have been treated as an open question whether classical conceptions of revolution, deriving from a conjunction of historical circumstances not likely to recur, have any meaning in an advanced industrial society.
A major theoretical problem for the new left was precisely to work out a new conception of social reconstruction, in other words to formulate new ideas about revolution itself instead of being content with unanalyzed images from the past. In the absence of any real analysis of the concept or its applicability to contemporary American life, “revolution” quickly became the emptiest of clichés and was used indiscriminately by radicals, liberals, conservatives, advertising men, and the media, usually to describe changes that were nonexistent.
Useless as the word soon became, it had important effects on those who continued to take it seriously. Consider its influence on the antiwar movement. As soon as the leaders of the movement realized that the Indochina war could not be attributed simply to diplomatic bungling but had roots in the social structure of advanced capitalism (roots which have yet, however, to be fully explained), they began to insist that this recognition be immediately embodied in the movement’s practice. This at least seemed to be the intention of the much publicized transition “from dissent to resistance,” announced in 1966-1967, although it was not always clear whether this slogan implied an escalation of strategy or merely more militant forms of civil disobedience. (Even in the latter case, however, the almost unavoidable tendency was to justify new sacrifices by the announcement of revolutionary objectives.)
In any case, “from dissent to resistance” was a misleading slogan for a movement that would continue to depend on “dissenters” for much of its effectiveness. Even as a tactic, “resistance” led the antiwar movement into attacks not only against the war but, increasingly, against the entire apparatus of military-corporate domination both at home and abroad, while at the same time the adoption of an “anti-imperialist” perspective unavoidably narrowed the movement’s ideological appeal and its base of support. A dangerous dispersion of energies followed from decisions made by the antiwar movement in 1966 and 1967—decisions that arose not so much from calculation of their political consequences as from the need to make an adequate response to the rising militancy of the young, to the agony of the choices confronting men eligible for the draft, to the atrocity of the war.
The history of the student movement in many ways paralleled that of the antiwar movement, if indeed their histories can be disentangled. After the student left discovered the university’s links to the war machine and the corporations, it needed to develop an analysis of higher education that would simultaneously explain why the university had become the center of opposition to the war. An analysis that treated the university simply as an agency of oppression could not explain why so many students had apparently resisted brainwashing and consistently took positions more critical of American society than those taken by other citizens. The problem confronting the student movement was to expose and attack the university’s “complicity” in war and exploitation without forgetting that it was precisely the relative independence of the universities (or, more accurately, of the colleges of arts and science), together with the fact that they were at least formally committed to values directly counter to those of industrial capitalism, that made them a good ground on which to fight.
The adoption of revolutionary points of view did nothing to clarify these issues. It encouraged on the one hand a misplaced class analysis of the university itself, in which student “proletarians” confront a ruling class made up of administrators and faculty, and on the other hand a preoccupation with the “real” problems outside academic life, especially those of the working class, which led student activists to abandon the attempt to reform the university and in many cases to leave academic life altogether. These positions, however much they differed from one another, shared an unwillingness to confront the difficulty of explaining the university’s relation to society or the relation of students to the class structure as a whole.
Were students to be regarded as future members of an oppressive bourgeoisie, whose defection from this class and rejection of “bourgeois life styles” therefore constituted the first stage of the “cultural revolution” called for by Abbie Hoffman? Or were they apprentices to a new kind of technical intelligentsia, in which case student rebellion might be considered, in Norman Birnbaum’s phrase, as an anticipatory strike of the work force? These questions concealed an even more fundamental issue: had the class structure of industrial society changed in such important ways as to render much of traditional Marxism obsolete? The inability of the “Marxist” left to answer these questions helps to explain the rapid growth of a left based on youth culture, on “liberated life styles,” which at least takes a clear position in favor of the first of these hypotheses, and which is prepared to interpret even a change of costume as a “revolutionary act”—thereby reducing the complexities of revolutionary action to an absolute minimum.
“Marxism-Leninism” had something of the same effect on the Black Panthers as it had on SDS. It widened the split between political and cultural radicals. It also widened the split between liberals and the left, although in the case of the black movement this split had already become irreconcilable by 1966 and was precipitated not by the adoption of explicitly revolutionary objectives but by the revival of militant black nationalism.
The advocates of black power did not at first regard themselves as revolutionaries. For some time they remained indifferent to socialism or Marxist ideology. Their criticism of the civil rights movement went deeper than anything that could be summed up in the formula “revolution vs. reform.” They attacked the whole idea of integration as a social goal. Arguing that the genuinely distinctive features of the culture of American blacks had been wholly overlooked by the civil rights movement, they held up, by implication, the goal of a culturally pluralistic democracy in place of the homogenized society toward which civil rights agitation seemed destined to lead. In some ways their conception was similar to the vision of a “transnational America” advanced by Randolph Bourne and other cultural radicals during the First World War and later taken up by the Harlem renaissance.
The idea of cultural pluralism was, to be sure, only a single strain in the movement for black power. The movement also split from the civil rights movement over tactical issues: expulsion of whites, willingness to use violence. By insisting on the connection between black politics and black culture, however, the advocates of black power broke decisively with the civil rights movement and the liberalism of the early Sixties (which regarded culture as a matter of private choice, hence as something falling outside the domain of politics), while at the same time anticipating many of the themes of the later new left.
Unfortunately the black power movement did not succeed in working out a political program that incorporated its insights into black culture. Self-determination for the ghetto was all too clearly exposed to the criticism that it would perpetuate poverty under a more dignified name. Without an adequate politics, cultural nationalism tended to lapse back into political quiescence and into the religious fantasies from which, among other sources, it had originally sprung.
The political activists, on the other hand, in the process of distinguishing themselves from “reactionary” cultural nationalists like Ron Karenga, tended to lose sight of cultural issues altogether. The Panthers’ “revolutionary nationalism” provided a purely verbal resolution of the difficulty. Even the political ideas of the Panthers, which at first promised to unite elements of the Marxist tradition with a recognition of the need for decentralization and “community control,” degenerated into a vague summons, reminiscent of the late Thirties and early Forties, for a “united front against war and fascism,” as the exigencies of self-defense forced the Panthers into an alliance with elements of the old left.
“Left politics,” Michael Miles writes in his interesting book, The Radical Probe, “abhors an ideological vacuum.” When the makeshift radicalism of the early Sixties proved incapable of giving strategic direction to the movement, it gave way to “Marxism-Leninism,” the most easily available leftist ideology. Old leftists emerged from their obscurity and offered ideological advice. It did not matter that they themselves were rudely repudiated; the prestige of their ideological tradition overcame generational barriers. By the late Sixties, two varieties of Leninism had emerged—an old-fashioned economic determinism mindful of “objective conditions” and stressing the need (as PL contended) for the left to place itself under the guidance of the proletariat, and an extreme voluntarism that treated revolution as a pure act of will and never tired of intoning the meaningless slogan of Che: “The duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution.” The adherents of the two positions, equally addicted to a belief in the decisive role of political vanguards, contended for mastery of what remained of the left.
Bored or repelled by their polemics, the new left constituency broke into fragments—“new politics” people, peaceniks, Catholic anarchists, feminists, Trotskyists, cultural radicals of one sort or another. The revolutionary fervor of the later Sixties had raised the usual euphoric expectations which, subsiding, left a familiar residue of disenchantment. Cultural and political radicalism, briefly joined in a period of rising political hopes, split apart, the political radicals increasingly absorbed in their ideological pronouncements, the cultural radicals denouncing all politics as a snare and a delusion.
Deprived of its political basis, the youth “culture”—the vaguely defined revolt against affluence still led, in so far as it is led at all, by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman—has turned sour and ugly, even as it spreads downward through the generations. Very young adolescents—precocious fugitives from respectability, prematurely hardened tramps and migrants—are now appropriating the forms of cultural revolt, but with little understanding of the political content which formerly gave to the rebellion of youth such moral power as it had.
Long hair, ragged clothing, rock, drugs, a contempt for the authority of the past—these persist as the outward trappings of alienation but are emptied of their political core. The claim of alienated youth to represent society’s embattled conscience is correspondingly diminished. Formerly the uneasiness and disgust with which the liberal middle class confronted the youth culture was tempered not only by a wish to believe, as good Americans, that idealism and moral purity are always on the side of youth, but by the undeniable seriousness underlying the movement, which manifested itself as political courage.
To many young people today, however, the risks once associated with radical action seem to have gone for nothing; even the very recent past appears remote and “irrelevant.” The political struggle appears lost—has already, in fact, become incomprehensible—and in its place appears a new cynicism and toughness, a suspiciousness extending even to brothers, and a casual acceptance of crime and violence—feebly justified as “ripping off the system”—as a means of survival. These tendencies are naturally strengthened by the willingness even of many middle-class liberals to countenance severe repression, as the moral claims of the youth culture grow more and more attenuated. Desperate and bitter, brutalized by drugs and police, the youth culture sinks into the underworld and becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the lumpenproletariat.
There are signs, however, that many of those who were demoralized and disoriented by the collapse of the political left and the degeneration of the cultural revolt—including some of the cultural radicals themselves—are once again finding their way back to political action. Some of the academic dropouts have returned to school, with the hope of changing the professions from within. Having tried to survive as independent activists or intellectuals, they are rediscovering the importance of institutional ties. Professional work and organizations turn out to be not purely imprisoning; they also provide some minimal support for the creative use of one’s talents, together with the necessary fellowship of one’s peers. Nor are the professions completely closed to innovation, as many radicals had supposed. The old guards are still entrenched, but the number of dissidents is growing.
All the professions, even medicine, are in ferment. Ralph Nader has uncovered among young lawyers an unexpected devotion to public concerns. Young architects are challenging urban renewal, young teachers the stultified schools. Biologists and physicists are debating whether they have an ethical obligation to concern themselves with the uses to which scientific discoveries are put. So far little has come of all this, although Nader’s activities have done more to publicize certain specific evils of corporate power than all Democratic politicians put together. Two or three years ago, all these efforts would have been dismissed as well-meaning reformism.
Revolutionary rhetoric, however, though it still thrills the media, no longer commands the terrified respect of the left, the revolutionaries having all too obviously failed to revolutionize even their own lives. Besides, many of the present-day reformers are themselves former revolutionaries, graduates of SDS, and cannot be intimidated or impressed by the ostentatious display of revolutionary manhood. They have no illusions about reform, but neither are they without hope. Is it possible that these stirrings in the professions foreshadow a more general movement of people at their work, trying to turn their work into something at once more satisfying and less deleterious in its social effects—a new kind of labor movement?
Whether the present collapse of the left signifies the beginning of another long interlude of political stagnation—an interlude American society can scarcely afford—or whether it proves to be only a temporary setback depends in part on whether we can assimilate the experience of the Sixties and profit from it. We need sober historical guidance to these events. In place of that, publishers offer a flood of books on student rebellion, the “counter-culture,” the “black revolution,” and women’s liberation—books more or less indistinguishable from one another in the haste with which they are thrown together, in the shrillness with which they compete for attention, and in their inability to say anything that is not already worn from overuse.
Instead of addressing myself to this inconsequential outpouring, I have picked out a handful of books that are distinguished from the others by their modesty and by a quiet assumption that the age of radical politics is not over—and that therefore there is still much to be learned from the recent past. Except for Michael Miles’s The Radical Probe, these books do not directly address themselves to the radicalism of the Sixties, but every one of them has been deeply affected by it. Because their authors, with varying degrees of deliberation, have tried to absorb the events of the past decade, these books implicitly raise questions of historical interpretation and force an attentive reader to make his own assessment of the period. Yet they do not cater to the fashionable interest in radicalism; nor do they strike radical poses.
Miles’s book is by far the best account of student radicalism to have appeared. The author, a young Berkeley-trained historian, not only provides a convincing explanation of the roots and development of the student movement (including some neglected aspects of the black student movement), he discusses and rejects official interpretations of its origin, dissects the official liberalism on which these interpretations are based, and places the conflict between student radicalism and official liberalism within the larger antagonisms in industrial society.
The student movement, Miles argues, is neither a generational revolt, an expression of youthful alienation, nor the product of permissive child-rearing. Radical students often share their families’ values; “alienated youth and radical youth are distinct, not identical groups.” The former are more likely to be drawn to cultural rebellion, which Miles regards as a species of pseudoradicalism living vicariously off the achievements of technology and echoing “the dominant order’s confidence in ‘automation’ and ‘technology,’ even as it disassociates itself from them in rural communes.”
Still less can the new left be understood as a movement of technologically obsolescent intellectuals. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s theory that intellectuals are “historical irrelevants” who “will have no role to play in the new technetronic society” is shown by Miles to rest on a vulgar technological determinism and on “the unstated assumption…that in the ‘technetronic age,’ technicians are the men of power.” On the contrary, he argues, it is still generalists, not specialists, that wield power. “Managers, not technicians, dispose of technical resources; while politicians, not their advisors, make political decisions.” As for the intellectuals, expansion of higher education and the growth of an educated mass constituency, which is at least potentially amenable to their influence, assures them, in Miles’s judgment, of a larger role than ever before.
Behind the assumption that student intellectuals belong to a displaced class Miles detects a larger assumption, namely that the United States has become what is variously described as a postindustrial, postscarcity, cybernetic, or technetronic society. It is essential to his argument that the fraudulence of such theories be exposed. Miles accomplishes this not only by showing that power has by no means shifted from the owners and managers of property to the technicians, but by challenging the belief—shared by the technocrats and the cultural radicals alike—that automation has eliminated the need for work.
The current rate of increase in productivity per man hour “is not higher than the rates of other periods of industrialization. Automation does not represent a rise in the rate of technological change so much as an increase of productivity in new fields outside heavy industry.” The service sector of the economy, in particular, has been growing far more rapidly than the agricultural and manufacturing sectors—especially government, which increasingly supplies not only welfare but “the infrastructure of capitalist development,” and education, which now accounts for 6 percent of the gross national product. The “knowledge industry” as a whole—the part of the economy that, “broadly defined, has to do with the production and distribution of information and knowledge,” including data processing and “research and development” as well as education—accounts for 30 percent.
Here lie the origins of student rebellion, according to Miles. “The student movement is a product of the industrialization, under capitalist forms of organization, of new areas of human enterprise: education, knowledge, and culture among them.” The need of government and the corporations for research and development—especially in military technology and counter-insurgency—and for large numbers of trained technicians and professionals has led to an unprecedented expansion of higher education. It does not matter that much of the training offered by the university is demonstrably irrelevant to the jobs for which students are being trained. The university retains a monopoly of certification, and increasing numbers of people are therefore obliged to pass through it in order to qualify for work.
In the course of its expansion, the university has come more and more to be operated on industrial lines. Its service functions take precedence over teaching and scholarship. Financing is assumed by the state. “As less faculty time has been available for teaching and the quality of the effort has declined, [the universities] have employed industrial solutions: high inputs of educational technology and the sweat labor of graduate teaching assistants.” The student body becomes increasingly heterogeneous, and the sense of a university community gives way to “an educational ‘city’ with more subcultures, ferment, and personal options but also with more impersonality and less loyalty to the central administration.”
The administration itself grows into a many-headed monster, effectively controlling the new “conglomerate university” through the budget while encouraging faculty illusions of autonomy. (Miles thinks that latent opposition between faculty and administration, hitherto softened by growth, will become manifest in the academic depression of the Seventies, which will cruelly expose the faculty’s lack of power.)
The enormous growth of the university and of the knowledge industry transforms old institutions and creates the possibility of new political alignments, but it does not therefore signify the transition to a new form of social organization. “This is not post-industrial society; it is super-industrial society.” Miles argues that the student movement must be understood as a protest against the industrialization of higher education—more specifically as a protest against deteriorating conditions of work in the “knowledge factory.” This last interpretation requires us to consider students as apprentices for technical and professional work. Miles is not altogether consistent on this point; at times he regards them as consumers—a highly misleading analogy, I think.
The student movement has so far, in Miles’s view, been led by “a critical, left-oriented intelligentsia,” and has taken the form of an ideological war between intellectuals and mandarins—“the scholarly and technocratic professionals.” Professional and even technical students have occasionally been drawn into the movement, however, especially when it has raised the issue, however tentatively, of whether intellectual workers are to control the conditions of their work and the uses to which it is put. Architecture students occupied Avery Hall during the Columbia uprising; at MIT, scientists and science students organized the research stoppage of March 4, 1969.
The professional and technical students—a new middle class in “embryo”—are the natural constituency of the student movement, according to Miles. The movement has a “symbiotic” relation to this new stratum. Although neither student radicals nor their families are rooted in it, many radical students are bound for careers in teaching or some other sector of the knowledge industry, and the underlying issue raised by the student rebellion—control of that industry—is of special concern to technicians and professionals.
“The most profound question concerning the future of the student movement is whether it portends the emergence of a radical movement in other sectors of the population.” Miles understands that this depends on how deeply radicalism penetrates into the new middle class and whether that class is able to make effective alliances with “the new working class, the oppressed minorities, and such progressive elements of the blue-collar working class as may appear.”
He does not underestimate the obstacles to radicalism among professionals and technicians, of which the most important is the habit of specialization and the bureaucratic outlook usually associated with it. On the other hand, the industrial system’s need for the carefully controlled production of knowledge means that increasing numbers of intellectual workers will face declining autonomy, regimentation, and loss of status. A diminishing proportion of them will reach the higher levels of the technical elite.
Many will sink to the level of the intellectual proletariat, swelling the already growing numbers of teachers, low level civil servants, public employees, and clerical workers, among whom there have already been signs of labor unrest, as in the stirrings among young schoolteachers against city bureaucracies and their own unions. Their common subordination to bureaucratic control may overcome the many barriers between the professional and technical strata and the new working class, bringing into being a new labor movement.
Miles does not stress the point, and I am here extrapolating from his argument, but it is important to recognize that such a labor movement would bear little resemblance to traditional unionism. It would not demand the improvement of working conditions in the narrow sense; it would demand control of the intellectual “product” by the producers themselves.
Whether the student movement becomes the basis of a new labor movement depends in considerable part, according to Miles, on whether student radicalism overcomes the influences that have recently crippled it—dogmatic Marxism, infatuation with the traditional working class, terrorism, chic cultural protest. Miles thinks that the black movement may offer an alternative, in the form of what he calls “Pan-Africanism,” to the current vogue of “left-wing communism.” But in his book “Pan-Africanism” seems no more than a set of desirable principles. It would reject simplistic two-camp theories of international politics (a world divided between capitalism and communism), insist on democratic forms of socialism, and rely on mass political action rather than guerrilla warfare.
This part of Miles’s argument is vague and unconvincing. To lump together figures as different in their views as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael ignores the complexity of black responses to oppression and the divisions among black intellectuals. The contention, otherwise unexplained, that these men represent “the Pan-Africanist tradition of radical black intellectuals” is meaningless. Certainly the type of “Pan-Africanism” that identifies itself with Algeria, Cuba, and El Fatah bears little relation to the thought of any of them (except perhaps to Carmichael’s), and little relation to the principles that Miles wishes the black movement to embrace. With the principles themselves, however, there can be no quarrel.
Nor would it be wise to quarrel with Miles’s insistence on the “ideological dimension” of student protest, although many would be inclined to do so—even those who might otherwise accept his conclusions. One of the signs of current political exhaustion is a renewed distrust of ideology. As we shall see, this distrust runs through all the other books under consideration. Many observers would regard the ideological element in student protest as regrettable and unnecessary; Miles regards it as central. In his judgment, the underlying seriousness of the student rebellion reveals itself nowhere more clearly than in the conflict between a technocratic and managerial ideology on the one hand and the ideology of the radical intelligentsia on the other—mutually exclusive views of the world which, indeed, postulate the historical extinction of the adversary. Just as Brzezinski regards the intellectuals as “historical irrelevants,” so the left-wing intellectuals hope to eliminate the technocrats as a class.
It is just because it has an ideological dimension, in Miles’s view, that student rebellion may portend a larger movement, “since there is not the slightest possibility of the left organizing these social forces [the new middle class, new working class, etc.] without a systematic alternative vision which first identifies these progressive social forces in its analysis and then appeals to them in its social content.” An ideology in this sense is inseparable from the search for a constituency and serves not to encourage but to check the left’s propensity for fantasy.
Miles’s analysis of the student movement raises a number of general questions that will be discussed in the course of this essay. In summarizing the arguments advanced in The Radical Probe, I have unavoidably presented a somewhat schematic picture of the book, particularly of Miles’s use of concepts like the new middle class and new working class—the limitations of which he himself seems to be fully aware of. These concepts have been taken over by the more intelligent wing of the American left from C. Wright Mills and from radical French theorists like Serge Mallet, André Gorz, and Alain Touraine. When these social groupings are treated at a high level of abstraction and assimilated to established categories like “middle class” and “working class”—categories that have fairly definite empirical content—an impression of concreteness and precision can be produced that belies the highly amorphous quality of these new “classes.”
At the present stage of empirical knowledge about advanced industrial society, the use of such terms represents a drastic simplification of reality. The superficiality of theories of “post-industrial society” ought to warn us of the dangers of the sort of instant social analysis that is becoming more and more prevalent on the left as well as among technocrats. At the same time, the complexity of the existing class structure should not become an excuse for rejecting theoretical speculation of any kind.
Michael Walzer’s book, carefully and deliberately confined to a discussion of tactics, reflects the current disenchantment with ideology and diminished expectations of what political action can accomplish. In spite of his caution, however, Walzer has written a useful essay. Even though it concerns tactics rather than substantive issues facing the left, in its own way it is another attempt, by one who took part in the civil rights and antiwar movements, to understand the meaning of the recent past and to draw practical conclusions from it.
Walzer’s milieu is the world of “citizen politics”—of meetings in living rooms and church basements, of petitions, canvassing, and marching, into which normally quiet men and women, temporarily forsaking their well-ordered private lives, are drawn by indignation and “concern.” Walzer believes that amateur politics is the only way to save the country from the disasters wrought by professionals, but he recognizes its principal limitation: this kind of politics is ephemeral and lacks deep roots in the life of the community. Because people pursue “citizen politics” only at their leisure, influence and leadership tend to gravitate to those who have plenty of free time, together with the patience to endure interminable meetings—that is, to “people who are marginal to any particular local community.”
Citizen politics stands in marked contrast to “established political parties and labor unions which are essentially associations of adult males rooted in their communities.” Nor does the disproportionate role played by women—who do have strong community ties—compensate for this tendency, since the women too often play subordinate roles, as in everything else. Marginal types, particularly upper-class college students, wield an influence out of proportion to their numbers or to the soundness of their political ideas, overawing and intimidating the others by their radicalism or driving them away in desperate boredom.
Moreover, it is an unfortunate characteristic of amateur movements that the people likely to be attracted to them, finding themselves for the first time plunged into political action and newly conscious both of injustice and of the strength of the forces apparently attempting to perpetuate it, fall easy victim to sweeping ideologies.
Once a man has taken a stand on a particular issue, he is tempted to take a stand on every issue. One thing leads to another; everything interconnects. He is pressed toward a total ideological position; he yearns for intellectual coherence, unity, completion…a total view of political life [which] …can be expressed, politically, at meetings, marches, and demonstrations, in those stark slogans whose loud reiteration is a hall-mark of sectarian militancy and a hostile act against the unbelieving world.
This passage indirectly but accurately describes the experience of a considerable segment of the antiwar movement.
In order to counter the exaggerated influence of militancy, Walzer advocates “plain” speaking and the semiprofessionalization of amateur politics. If movement workers were paid for their time, ordinary citizens could take a more active part, and discipline would improve. The movement should try to earn money rather than beg for it. Fund raising “enables large numbers of people to express their support for the movement in ways that also utilize their everyday competence”—thus “a successful auction, book fair, or bake sale is a (minor) triumph for peace, integration, women’s rights, socialism, or whatever: so many people are doing something and not merely waiting for the Revolution.”
This passage illustrates the strength of Political Action—its understanding of the need for radicals to respect the plain facts of everyday life—but also shows the limits of Walzer’s political imagination. Leaving aside the demotion of socialism, itself an all-encompassing theory unavoidably productive of “ideological” disputes, to the level of another political cause, one can surely draw on people’s “everyday competence” in more interesting and important ways than by involving them in bake sales. Walzer’s eminently sensible and sometimes acute perceptions of tactical problems are tied to an extremely narrow conception of political strategy, all too evidently derived from the early phases of the peace and civil rights movements and from “reform” Democratic politics.
Walzer seems to be asking us to return to these modes, characteristic of the Fifties and early Sixties, without asking himself the question that will surely be asked by historians of the period: if this kind of politics held out any promise, why was it supplanted by the more militant radicalism of the mid-Sixties? Walzer’s impatience with the histrionic and suicidal tendencies of the new left prevents him from seeing that the movement was a response, after all, to a genuine historical need, the demonstrated failure of polite reformism: the failure of the peace movement to end the cold war or to prevent Vietnam, the failure of the civil rights movement to achieve racial justice, the failure of reform Democrats to reform the Democratic party.
To be sure, we must not belittle the real though minor achievements of these movements; we should not expect change to be sudden and total; above all we should not leap from their failures to the conclusion that it is “no longer possible to work within the system.” But an awareness of these dangers does not justify an attempt to return to the politics of the early Sixties as if nothing had happened in the meantime. To treat the radicalism of the later Sixties as simply a prolonged mistake, from which only negative lessons can be drawn, is to miss what now emerges as its most interesting feature—the new left’s groping toward a new political strategy in which reformist tactics are used to promote objectives that go beyond conventional reformism and are informed by a vision (unfortunately not yet a very coherent one) of alternatives to the existing structures within which, nevertheless, political action has to take place. For all its confusions, the recent election in Berkeley showed that radical ideologists were capable of effective political work.
Walzer dismisses hope of revolution as a delusion—rightly, I think, if revolution means a traditional seizure of state power. But he assumes that this leaves us with only electoral and pressure group politics: “I am inclined to think that there are no other kinds.” He does not consider the possibility that the student movement may point to a third type of politics—a politics that aims to change the structures of powerful institutions by challenging prevailing modes of work. His conception of “citizen politics” achieves a necessary realism and modesty by excluding in advance questions that are likely to give rise to “ideological” disputes, but nevertheless have to be confronted by any movement hoping to bring about real changes.
His argument needs to be taken further than he is willing to take it. If the object is to bring movement politics closer to everyday life, doesn’t this suggest that the movement needs to identify itself more closely with people’s work? The dangers of marginality and super-militancy seem to be attributable in large part to the fact that people engage in citizen politics only in their spare time. Amateur politics, therefore, becomes preoccupied with the ways in which industrial society impinges on people in their capacity as householders, members of neighborhoods, parents, and consumers. The job stands off to one side (as it does in our social life too); amateur politics appeals to “citizens,” not workers.
By no means do I intend to suggest that the alternative lies in a revival of trade union strategies, such as is currently being advocated by certain doctrinaire Marxists under the guise of spreading “revolutionary consciousness” to the working class. Trade union politics demands higher wages and better working conditions for auto workers, for example, without asking about the social consequences of the unlimited production of automobiles. Wage demands reinforce the capitalist premise that everything has its price and help to sustain the illusion that the deterioration of the public environment is somehow unrelated to the policies of “private” corporations. The flight of industry to the suburbs leaves urban neighborhoods impoverished and contributes to the so-called crisis of the cities, but the working class, so long as it views that crisis from traditional trade union perspectives, has no way of explaining it except to blame everything on the government, the blacks, outside agitators, or the general decline of morals.
“Citizen politics” as defined by Walzer avoids these pitfalls by concentrating on issues that affect the community as a whole. But it is no better able than trade unionism to show the connection between conditions at work and deteriorating neighborhoods, schools, and public services. Neither amateur activists nor old-time trade unionists challenge the fatal split between home and work—the system under which people are in effect compensated for loss of dignity and autonomy at work by increased leisure and higher wages to spend on consumer goods and leisure-time activities. It is because work is seen merely as a means to something else, instead of an intrinsically satisfying and necessary activity, that people no longer concern themselves with its social consequences.
The auto worker who drives long distances to work along choked highways, under polluted skies, suffers directly from the social consequences of the automobile. But his union does not concern itself with those consequences or with the corporate policies that help to bring them about; nor does the worker dream that he himself might have something to say about what use is made of the cars he produces, or about better ways to produce less harmful cars. To him the production of cars is his means of support, nothing more. The civicminded conservationist and amateur reformer, on the other hand, tend to forget that the production of cars is, among other things, people’s means of support; they think solely of the car’s effect on the “environment.”
What seems to be needed, then, is a fusion of community politics and trade union politics—two dissident traditions that have increasingly grown apart. The product of this fusion would not be simply a new unionism or a new kind of community organizing but a new form of politics altogether, centered on the factory—and on the research and development laboratory, the intellectual assembly line, the professions, the media—but always heedful of work in its larger social implications.
As we have already seen, it is precisely because the “working conditions” in the modern university in some ways approximate those of the more highly developed sectors of modern industry, and because the underlying issue raised by student politics within the university—the social uses of knowledge—mirrors the overriding issue for society as a whole, that the student movement of the Sixties can be regarded as anticipating, perhaps even as a preparation for, whatever the new politics will be in the Seventies and Eighties.
If we think of the problem of radical politics as that of combining styles of action inherited from the labor movement with a determination to see work in its relation to all phases of community life, we ought to be able to learn something from the career of Saul Alinsky. When he turned to community organizing in the late Thirties, Alinsky consciously borrowed techniques he had learned in the labor movement. A new political type emerged—the professional organizer, whose constituents are not workers but citizens.
After reading Walzer’s plea for a partial professionalization of citizen politics, one immediately recognizes in the organizer the professional calm and skepticism by means of which Walzer hopes to counter the disproportionate influence of fanatical militants. In a long career beginning in the “back-of-the-yards” section of Chicago and including work with Canadian Indians, the organization of FIGHT in the Rochester ghetto, and the building of the Woodlawn Organization in Chicago, Alinsky has had to rely on the fact that he is a professional with marketable talents and a demonstrated record of competence. He has often been able to encourage new alliances of unlikely groups—e.g., priests and street leaders, as in Chicago—and to mount campaigns against formidable powers, as when FIGHT forced Eastman Kodak to employ more blacks.
Alinsky describes the organizer’s work with a candor verging on cynicism. He stresses the need for the organizer to keep himself discreetly in the background. “Much of the time,…the organizer will have a pretty good idea of what the community should be doing,” but if he tries to prevail through the force of his own arguments the community will reject him as an outside agitator. Instead he uses “guided questioning” and learns to rely on “skillful and sensitive roleplaying.” Alinsky anticipates and disarms the objection:
Is this manipulation? Certainly, just as a teacher manipulates, and no less, even a Socrates. As time goes on and education proceeds, the leadership becomes increasingly sophisticated…. [The organizer’s job] becomes one of weaning the group away from dependency upon him. Then his job is done.
To those who would argue that Alinsky proposes merely to give his clients the illusion of deciding for themselves he can reply that it is only by means of this illusion, artfully encouraged in the initial stages of organization, that exploited people overcome the habit of deference and feelings of helplessness engendered by the vastness and impenetrability of modern society.
It may be further objected that the poor ought to furnish their own leadership from the beginning. Why should they rely on outside organizers at all? Shouldn’t they oppose to their oppressors not the slick expertise of the organizer but the strength and dignity of their own ways? These objections, in Alinsky’s view, betray the middle-class reformer’s inclination to romanticize the poor, although he realizes that poor people themselves may seize on these ideas in order to explain their own inaction. He sees the poor—like all people—as normally lazy and uncurious even about their own oppression, preferring the safety of known misery to the uncertainty of action. At the same time they are embarrassed by their failure to act, especially in the presence of an organizer, and appeal to middle-class rhetoric about “cultural identity” in order to excuse it. A conversation between Alinsky and a group of Canadian Indians shows how this self-deception works.
Indians: Well, we can’t organize.
[Alinsky:] Why not?
Indians: Because that’s a white man’s way of doing things…. You see, if we organize, that means getting out and fighting the way you are telling us to do and that would mean that we would be corrupted by the white man’s culture and lose our own values.
It was quite obvious what was happening since I could see from the way the Indians were looking at each other they were thinking: “So we invite this white organizer from south of the border to come up here and he tells us to get organized…. What must be going through his mind is: ‘What’s wrong with you Indians that you have been sitting around here for a couple of hundred years now and you haven’t organized to do these things?’ ”
Because the new left so often ignores such self-deception or unwittingly encourages it, Alinsky impatiently condemns much of the radicalism of the Sixties. The new left, he says, valued the purity of its principles more than practical results. Instead of taking the poor as they are, it romanticized and at the same time patronized them. It spoke in abstractions about the class struggle, instead of confronting the immediate issues that matter to the poor: jobs, inflation, discrimination, violence in the streets. “If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair.”
These criticisms accurately expose many of the weaknesses of the new left, but they do not necessarily leave us with a workable alternative. For one thing, Alinsky exaggerates the effectiveness of his own methods. He speaks of “bringing to heel” one of the Chicago department stores and of engineering the “downfall” of Eastman Kodak, when all he means is that these companies made certain concessions to organized pressure from blacks. Alinsky’s habit of setting himself limited objectives causes him to overestimate the importance of their achievement.
No doubt it is tactically necessary for the organizer “to convert the plight into a problem,” but the problem should not be allowed to obscure the underlying plight. To personalize the adversary, as Alinsky urges again and again, is, moreover, to regress to a more primitive level of political awareness. It is important to insist on the concrete as against empty slogans and abstractions, but this does not mean that every general question can be dissolved in a discussion of tactics.
Although Alinsky’s organization has often concerned itself indirectly with job discrimination and other matters pertaining to people’s work, it is mainly concerned with citizens and consumers. Currently Alinsky is attempting to organize middle-class stockholders to use their proxies against corporate policies that lead to pollution and despoliation of the environment. In Rochester Alinsky persuaded Kodak stockholders to assign their proxies to FIGHT or to come to stockholders’ meetings and vote against Eastman’s discriminatory hiring policies. He now argues that this tactic should be used on a wider scale. “The way of proxy participation,” he believes, “could mean the democratization of corporate America”—nothing short of a “revolution.” A more “revolutionary” strategy, however, would attempt to put the corporations under the control not of the stockholders, but of those who work in them. The community organizer thinks of his constituents almost automatically as consumers. This is at once his strength and his weakness.
In Reveille for Radicals, written in 1946, Alinsky attacked the labor unions for dealing with the worker only as a worker, instead of keeping “clearly in mind the obvious and true picture of the worker who votes, rents, consumes, breeds, and participates in every avenue of what we call life.” Whatever was fruitful in Alinsky’s subsequent career sprang from this initial insight. At the same time, the shift from union politics to community organizing precluded the possibility of describing industrial society in class terms. Alinsky had to reject a socialist orientation in favor of neo-populism—the “people” against the “tycoons.”
Like many radicals of the late Thirties and early Forties, Alinsky rejected the stupidities of American socialism, by that time almost exclusively identified with the Communist party, only to fall into a Deweyite celebration of democracy as process. “The objective is never an end in itself,” he wrote in Reveille. What mattered was “the passionate desire of all human beings to feel that they have personally contributed to the creation and the securing of any objective they desire.” Having divested his movement of any suspicion of “ideology,” having substituted “citizens” for “workers” and interests for classes, and having exalted process over objectives, Alinsky was free to define “participation” itself as the objective of community organization—of politics in general.
Alinsky’s attack on the new left overlooks the degree to which this exaltation of participation, which his own career did so much to identify with American radicalism, not only was a major influence on the early new left ideas of “participatory democracy” and “community organizing” but helped to mislead young radicals and to prepare the way for subsequent disappointments. Instead of providing a historical explanation for those features of the new left that he dislikes—its cult of revolutionary purity, its infatuation with failure, its dogmatism—Alinsky psychologizes about them, characteristically attributing these failings to bourgeois affluence and generational revolt. But the sectarianism of the later new left, as I have already suggested, might better be seen as a consequence of the poverty of its early ideas—and notably of its own obsession with participation as an end in its own right.
For the idea of “participatory democracy,” while it may have served initially as a necessary corrective to the bureaucratic centralism so long associated with parties of the left, rapidly degenerated into political primitivism, the old dream of a primary democracy without factions or parties—in other words, of a political community without politics.
As Robert A. Dahl observes in his new book, the notion that primary democracy is the only pure and acceptable form of democratic authority rests on a pair of fallacies—the belief that small communities can achieve complete independence from the surrounding society, and the belief that they can avoid the development of factions. Since parties and factions make their appearance anyway, the advocates of primary democracy
…seem either naïve or Machiavellian: naïve when they speak of “the people” as if the people were a single, well-defined, harmonious unit, Machiavellian when they use the rhetoric of “power to the people” to conceal their attempts to gain power for their own faction.
This observation, though stated in the form of an abstract principle, provides us with another clue to the degeneration of new left organizations. The early advocates of participatory democracy believed that it was possible to submerge ideological differences in appeals to love and brotherhood. This delusion exposed them to the manipulation of well-disciplined factions such as those which eventually gained control of SDS and destroyed the organization in the course of trying to destroy one another. The experience of the new left shows that a mystique of participation is no substitute for well-defined political ideas and a political program.
For all his tactical realism, Alinsky shares with the early new left a disposition to dismiss ideas and programs as “ideological.” Again and again he tells us that ideas are merely a cloak for self-interest, that action takes precedence over understanding, and that the objective of political action is “never an end in itself” but a means of rousing people “to a higher degree of participation.” No one can deny that the size and complexity of modern societies have given rise to feelings of powerlessness or that apathy has become a political issue in its own right. It is dangerous, however, to equate democracy with participation and to encourage the belief that it is possible for people to take part directly in every decision that “affects their lives.” Efforts to implement these beliefs end by integrating people more securely than ever into structures in which, whether they are controlled by the existing powers or by demagogues of the left, popular control is strictly an illusion.
The mystique of participation has had a profoundly misleading influence on recent American radicalism. It is a symptom of the general malaise of modern culture that watching a play, reading a poem, or getting an education are defined as passive and spectatorial, inherently inferior in the quality of their emotional satisfaction to acting in a play, writing a poem, or simply “living.” The notion that education and “life,” art and “reality,” understanding and action are radically opposed derives ultimately from the opaqueness of the structures in which we live and from a despair of understanding them.
Official propaganda encourages this belief as assiduously as the so-called “counter-culture,” which in this respect (as in many others) merely reflects prevailing values—or, more accurately, takes them more literally than they are taken by the ruling class. Thus although the cult of participation encourages among other things a distrust of professionalism, the institutions of American society continue to be operated by professionals. It is only the left which, both in its politics and in its culture, clings to the illusion that competence is equally distributed among people of good intentions and regards any attempt to uphold professional standards as a betrayal of democracy.
Clearly this criticism does not apply to Saul Alinsky, who is nothing if not a professional; indeed his professionalism accurately defines the limits of his belief in participation as an end in itself. For the left as a whole, however, belief in the intrinsic value of participation has no such limits. Its distrust of professionalism does not rest merely on a healthy disrespect for “experts” or on an awareness of the ways in which the concept of professionalism has been progressively debased (not least in the academic professions, where it has become synonymous with timid pedantry and a pose of “scientific objectivity”). It reflects an intellectual orientation which, pushed to its furthest extreme, scorns not only professionalism but the “work ethic” itself, on the grounds that spontaneous and sensuous enjoyment of life is the only genuine form of participation in its pleasures, while submission to a discipline is inherently “alienating.”
Applied to politics, the cult of participation results in an unworkable definition of democracy as the direct involvement of all the people in every political decision, no matter how minute. The chief value of Dahl’s book After the Revolution? lies in its sustained attack on the folklore of primary democracy. It is useful to be reminded, however elementary the point may seem, that “participatory democracy” in the strict sense works, if it works at all, only in very small communities; and that because the complexity of industrial society makes it impossible for such communities to achieve complete autonomy, those who advocate direct democracy as a general program are advocating, in effect, a return to a simpler stage of social and economic organization.
One might add that decentralization, a measure of which is undoubtedly desirable, does not automatically lead to democratic results. Unless it is accompanied by a shift in political power, the decentralization of certain administrative functions may serve merely to reduce friction and to placate dissatisfaction with existing practices. (“The organizing principle of the new model [corporate or academic] institution,” writes Michael Miles, “will be centralized control through decentralized structures.”)
In the manner of one starting from the first principles of political theory, Dahl argues that democracy depends not on the direct participation of every individual but on the ability of the people to organize collectively, to make themselves heard as a body, to choose responsible representatives, to recall them at their pleasure, and in short to determine the main lines of public policy. (Clearly these things depend on the distribution of economic and educational resources.)
It is obvious that all institutions in American life are not equally democratic. “Private” corporations, academic or industrial, are not even formally democratic in their organization, unlike the state. Before arguing that they should be, according to Dahl, one must consult the “principle of competence,” according to which authority should be exercised by those who are best qualified to exercise it and who understand the consequences of their decisions. To insist on democracy in the operating room or on the bridge of an ocean liner would be madness for patients and passengers. The argument for democracy in the state therefore depends on the proposition that “the ordinary man is more competent than anyone else to decide when and how much he shall intervene on decisions he feels are important to him.” In order for this argument to apply also to the university or the private corporation, it must be shown that these institutions, although in most cases nominally private, actually embody political power, are intertwined with the state, and are public in everything but name.
Dahl rather uneasily skirts the issue of the university. If we were to apply his categories to this particular case, we should have to distinguish at the outset between democratizing the corporate structure of the university, so as to give the entire university community access to its corporate decisions (for example, whether or not to engage in military research, to expand into the ghetto, to add new departments and programs, or to make major changes in the curriculum), and democratizing the classroom itself, as many cultural radicals are demanding. In the former case, the principle of competence would favor the institution of democratic procedures since there is nothing especially competent about most trustees; in the latter, their adoption would quickly complete the wreckage of an already debased higher education.
It is also important that we distinguish among various kinds of democratic procedures. Those that would assure students a corporate voice in university policy are clearly to be preferred to selective student representation on university committees, a form of co-optation admirably designed to diminish what little influence students now enjoy.
The industrial corporation no doubt presents an even clearer case for democratization, and Dahl’s discussion of this institution makes Alinsky’s talk of “proxy participation” seem shallow by comparison. There can be no question of the political character of the national and international corporation, Dahl argues: “The appropriation of public authority by private rulers…is the essence of the giant firm.” Only a “purely ideological bias” prevents us from thinking of “all economic enterprise as a public service,” in which employees and consumers, and in many cases the public in general, have as much interest as the stockholders.
How can this interest best be served? Nationalization—which Dahl identifies, perhaps too simply, as the “socialist” remedy—by no means guarantees that the public most affected by corporate decisions will be adequately protected. Workers, moreover, may lose their right to strike. A more plausible solution, but one that Dahl believes is no more satisfactory, is the gradual incorporation of consumer representatives on corporate boards. This is the strategy advocated by Ralph Nader and others—a variant of Alinsky’s “proxy participation.”
Dahl thinks that consumer representation, even if it were effective, would simply convert the corporation into “a system of rather remote delegated authority.” It would be difficult to agree on what interests should be represented or on how they were to control their own representatives. Nevertheless this innovation, which corporations might accept in preference to more radical arrangements, “would probably be enough to deflate weak pressures for further change.”
Since the alternatives seem equally unsatisfactory, Dahl has come to prefer the syndicalist solution (although he fails to acknowledge it as such): control of the corporation by its own employees. “Self-management” would “transform employees from corporate subjects to citizens of the enterprise.” He recognizes the objection that the American working class may be incapable of self-management. Even more than the capitalist class, it is imbued with archaic ideas about property, which confuse property with ownership instead of defining it simply as a bundle of rights.
Dahl concedes, moreover, that the American worker regards his job “as an activity not intrinsically gratifying or worthwhile but rather as an instrument for gaining money which the worker and his family can spend on articles of consumption. In this respect, the modern worker has become what classical economists said he was: an economic man compelled to perform intrinsically unrewarding, unpleasant, and even hateful labor in order to gain money to live on.” The transformation of the work place into a “small society” would require a transformation of the worker’s attitude toward work.
Dahl thinks that these attitudes, however, might change once self-management was actually in operation.
If a significant number of employees…were to discover that participation in the affairs of the enterprise…contributed to their own sense of competence and helped them to control an important part of their daily lives, then lassitude and indifference toward participation might change into interest and concern.
Dahl believes that worker control is especially likely to be sought by workers who still view their work as a profession—that is, by the technical and professional strata themselves. At this point he abruptly drops the argument and turns to a discussion of decentralization.
His failure to press it leaves several difficulties unresolved. In the first place, he relies on “external controls, both governmental and economic,” to protect the interests of consumers and the community in general, whereas one of the best arguments for worker control is that corporate employees, because they are also citizens of society as a whole, are competent not only to manage the corporation’s internal affairs, with the help of professional managers, but to protect the interests of society. This suggestion appears utopian only if one refuses to imagine the local, regional, and national relations among various worker-managed industries, or the impact that a takeover of corporate power by workers might have on the political economy.
Dahl argues that it would be “unworldly” to suppose that once the workers control an enterprise they will spontaneously act “in the interests of all.” The trouble with this argument is that it pays too little attention to the political battles through which self-management will have to be achieved and to the possibility that these battles will serve as a political education for those who initiate them. Indeed it is precisely the antisocial consequences of private production that are likely to generate a movement for worker control. To Dahl’s objection—“if self-management were introduced today, tomorrow’s citizens in the enterprise would be yesterday’s employees”—one can only reply that self-management is hardly likely to be introduced from above. It will have to be “introduced” by the workers themselves, not “today,” but after long struggles in the course of which the workers’ outlook could be expected to undergo changes that seem almost inconceivable at the present time.
By ignoring the political movements that would be necessary to make self-management a reality, Dahl exposes his argument to another objection, namely, that his case for worker control is curiously abstracted from current political life. If his argument for “self-management” were to carry more than the force of a political scientist’s recommendation, it would have to be shown that political forces already in motion make it a real and not merely a hypothetical alternative.
It would have to be shown, in other words, that worker control of production is a concrete historical possibility not only in Yugoslavia, where he shows that it works fairly well, but in the US. Dahl’s reluctance to embark on a discussion of this question suggests a lingering belief in the separability of academic disciplines—history, presumably, can safely be left to historians, while political scientists concern themselves with an abstract model of the political process. He prefers to regard the structure of the corporation as a question “more technical than ideological,” a matter “less of principle than of practical judgment.” This is reminiscent of Alinsky’s attempt to turn the “plight” into a “problem.” The reason these formulations are evasive is that changes in the social structure will come about only when they are incorporated into the program of a political movement. Mass politics, moreover—the only agency of democratic change—contains an unavoidable admixture of ideology. Questions of principle cannot be indefinitely postponed.
Whatever the weaknesses of his argument, however, Dahl has identified the central issue of contemporary domestic politics, control of the corporation. Even if the student movement foreshadowed a new “labor movement,” the results would be inconsequential unless the new labor movement confronted this question. The student movement itself has raised it only by implicit analogy with the struggle against the university. For that matter, the student movement has paid very little attention to the possibility of transforming itself into a movement of professional and technical employees. Instead it has cultivated a militantly anti-professional ideology. The emergence of a movement for “self-management” of the corporation therefore presupposes a transformation of student politics itself. The mere existence of a student movement and of young graduates who are carrying its attitudes into corporations, professions, and bureaucracies, however, is one reason to think that the private corporation may yet find itself confronted with a powerful challenge to its very existence.
Another reason, already noted, is the probability that the working conditions of technical and professional employees will further deteriorate. If this happens, they may make common cause with schoolteachers, public servants, and petty civil servants, who already face countless hardships.
Still another development that may have wide-ranging political implications is the revival of the “woman question.” Worker control of the corporation would require a change not only in attitudes toward work but in attitudes toward leisure, consumption, and domestic life. It is now generally recognized that the privatized, mother-centered family is one of the bastions of the consumer economy. No institution more clearly embodies the separation between work and the rest of life, and no institution, not even the corporation itself, illustrates so specifically the bad effects of this separation.
The precarious political and economic stability that was re-established after the Great Depression rested as heavily on a rehabilitation of domesticity, mildly challenged during the Twenties and Thirties by the new sexual freedom and the appearance of a new type of “career woman,” as it did on military spending. The arrangement whereby private consumption compensates for loss of autonomy at work, and for the absence of a vigorous public and communal life, depended on a new sentimentalization of the family, in which the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity was refurbished with images of the suburb as a refuge from the city.
An attack on suburbia—as banal at times as the reality it sought to describe—characterized the new left from the beginning. Recently there has been added to it a more pointed and specific attack on the family. At its worst, this new feminism merely makes explicit one of the tendencies that was implicit in the old—repudiation of men, a heightening of the sex war. At its best, it provides the clearest perspective from which to view the degradation of work into a meaningless routine and the hollowness of the pleasures that are offered in its place. Radical women perceive that the demand for equal access to jobs and equal pay often means very boring work and low pay, while domestic life, far from having been enriched by its isolation from work, has been steadily impoverished. It is more and more difficult to recognize in the contemporary family—although of course everyone knows exceptions to the general pattern—the description of bourgeois domesticity provided by Max Horkheimer in 1941 as the last defense of a rich and autonomous inner life against the encroachments of the mass society.
The middle class family, though it has frequently been an agency of obsolescent social patterns, has made the individual aware of other potentialities than his labor or vocation opened to him. As a child, and later as a lover, he saw reality not in the hard light of its practical biddings but in a distant perspective which lessened the force of its commandments. This realm of freedom, which originated outside the workshop, was adulterated with the dregs of all past cultures, yet it was man’s private preserve in the sense that he could there transcend the function society imposed upon him by way of its division of labor.
Today family life increasingly exists in a vacuum and has become vacuous. This fact in many ways sums up the contemporary plight.
What will emerge from the new criticism of the family is not yet clear. Whether the latest wave of feminism leaves a more lasting mark than earlier waves depends on its ability to associate criticism of the family with a criticism of other institutions, particularly those governing work. If the attack on the family results merely in the founding of rural communes, it will offer no alternative either to the isolated family or to the factory, since in many ways the rural commune simply caricatures the new domesticity, re-enacting the flight to nature and the search for an isolated and emotionally self-sufficient domestic life. To be sure, it reunites the family with work, but with a kind of primitive agricultural labor which is itself marginal. The “urban commune,” in which the members work outside, avoids these difficulties, but it is not clear that it is more than a dormitory—in particular, it is not clear whether it can successfully raise children.
Lately there has been a tendency for the attack on the family, like so many other fragments of the new left, to degenerate into a purely cultural movement, one aimed not so much at institutional change as at abolishing “male chauvinism.” I have already criticized the illusion that a “cultural revolution,” a change of heart, can serve as a substitute for politics. Here it is necessary only to add that the criticism applies with special force to feminism, since the peculiar strength of this movement is precisely its ability to dramatize specific connections between culture and politics—between the realm of production on the one hand and education, child-rearing, and sexual relations on the other.
It ought to be recognized, for example, that large numbers of women will not be able to enter the work force, except by slavishly imitating the careers of men, unless the nature of work undergoes a radical change. The entire conflict between “home and career” derives from the subordination of work to the relentless demands of industrial productivity. The system that forces women (and men also) to choose between home and work is the same system that demands early specialization and prolonged schooling, imposes militarylike discipline in all areas of work, and forces not only factory workers but intellectual workers into a ruthless competition for meager rewards. At bottom, the “woman question” is indistinguishable from what used to be known as the social question.
It would be foolishly optimistic to conclude from the existence of the woman’s movement, the student movement, and the black movement, and from growing signs of uneasiness among professional and technical workers in various strata of the population, that the basis for a “new politics” already exists. These movements are no more than portents; they exist, moreover, in isolation from each other. If we have learned anything from the Sixties, it is that the “system” is much less vulnerable than many radicals had supposed. The realization of its strength can become an occasion for premature despair or for renewed attempts to create a radical coalition.
Those who despair of politics will find it hard to understand why I have devoted so much attention to a few books that deal for the most part with tactical issues and that eschew the claim to sweeping historical synthesis and blinding socio-cultural insight that we have come to expect of political statements emanating from the left. But it is precisely tactical realism, a respect for the commonplace, and renewed attention to the way in which the crisis of modern society is rooted in the deteriorating conditions of everyday life that the left most urgently needs to acquire.
October 21, 1971