Any thoughtful radical might at any time since the first decade of this century have chosen the melodramatic title Christopher Lasch has selected for his essays and reviews of the past two years on American radicalism past and present1 Discussions of the “decline” of populism, the “collapse” of socialism, the “isolation” of the intellectuals, the CIA's manipulation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and the revival of a black nationalism that is of doubtful relevance to the plight of the Negro in this country, document the failure of American radicals even to hold firm to a body of coherent doctrines and values, let alone to build a durable political movement Lasch attributes this failure to the Left's paucity of adequate theory and its proneness to self-defeating habits and attitudes vituperative factionalism, the sacrifice of larger goals to compromised short-run gains, the sell-outs of intellectuals moved by “elitist” concern for their own narrow interests as a professional class, over-susceptibility to foreign ideologies inapplicable to American experience, revolutionary romanticism mindlessly exalting violence, and attraction to the glamor of heroic action and the pathos of defeat as opposed to the prosiness of organization and disciplined thinking
Presumably there are also objective circumstances accounting for the limited achievements of American movements of the Left—their failures are unlikely to have entirely resulted from the defects of mind and character of their supporters But Lasch is less concerned with the history of radicalism as a subject of scholarly interest—most of these essays were originally published in the New York Review of Books—than with exhorting the New Left to avoid the shortcomings of its predecessors and chastising it where it has given signs of following, usually unknowingly, in their path In the closing chapter, he presents his own prescriptions for a viable and durable American radicalism, and here, as well as in his penetrating discussion of black nationalism, he expresses his discouragement over the nihilism, violence-worship, contempt for civil liberties, and addiction to the new crude guerrilla Marxism of Third World revolutionaries, of both black militants and student radicals Someone told me the other day that a Columbia SDS leader had recently laid down two new criteria for differentiating liberals from radicals the liberal fears the reactionary backlash that might result from continuing confrontations and disruptions on the campuses, and he still regards the university as more enlightened than other institutions Lasch flunks both these tests of radicalism His disillusionment with the New Left has undoubtedly increased in the six months since he wrote the criticisms included in the present book
The need felt by spokesmen for new political or cultural movements to denounce their immediate predecessors even as they re-enact their errors, is perhaps an inevitable response to the extraordinary discontinuities of contemporary history As a would-be mentor to the New Left, Lasch runs true to form in his long account of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its covert links with the CIA Better-documented than other recent attacks on the “cold-war intellectuals” and free of any disposition to defend Communist versions of the cold war, this essay nevertheless has most of the characteristic faults of indictments of a past political tendency from the vantage point of retrospective knowledge of the more unsavory consequences to which it led
I have, in fact, the almost surrealistic sense of having been disturbed in much the same way that Lasch's account now disturbs me by the very writers who are his targets here Writing in 1955 and with Leslie Fiedler's political essays—cited by Lasch as a glaring example of cold-war chauvinism in the 50's—serving as one of his main exhibits, Harold Rosenberg asserted that “what is remarkable about the manufacture of myths in the 20th century is that it takes place under the noses of living witnesses of the actual events and, in fact, cannot dispense with their collaboration” Lasch is perhaps too young to qualify as a true “living witness,” but what is one to make of Mary McCarthy who in the New York Review of Books (where else?) recently speculated that George Orwell, who died in early 1950, might have supported the Vietnam war had he lived “because of his belligerent anti-Communism, which there is no use trying to discount”? Now Miss McCarthy, whom today Lasch himself finds a bit outre for advising opponents of the war “to provoke intolerance,” addressed public forums of the American branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and was a charter member of its organizational predecessor, Americans for Intellectual Freedom, created in 1949 Nor was her anti-Communism in those days noticeably less “belligerent” than George Orwell's And why the invidious adjective, as if to suggest that Orwell favored preventive war? Moreover, are the anti-Communist convictions of a man who has been dead for twenty years to be “discounted” because they can retroactively be made to appear discreditable in light of Vietnam? This reasoning perfectly parallels that of Fiedler in his An End to Innocence essays
Peering into the latest wing added to this hall of distorting mirrors, one is reluctantly moved to insist that the 50's, unpleasant as it is to have to bother with them again, cannot be written off as the Red, White, and Blue decade any more than the 30's were the Red decade they were cracked up to be back in the 50's. Lasch's view of the 50's reveals the same distortions and simplifications of previous efforts to look back in anger: earlier and later events are telescoped together ignoring their immediate political contexts, quite distinct groups are combined to make it appear they shared a single ideological tendency, no mention is made of the strong opposition at the time to the more extreme manifestations of the tendency under attack. On this last point: the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, at least in the official positions it took, was itself widely perceived as shrill and monomaniacal in its anti-Communism even in circles that were no less firmly anti-Communist and gave qualified support to American foreign policy in the early phases of the cold war. If I may cite myself as an example, I attended several public forums of the ACCF and one private meeting confined to members and their guests, but when invited to join the organization I declined out of disgust for the soft-pedaling of McCarthyism that Lasch reports and that I, along with others, attacked in print at the time. If the CIA financing of enterprises like the Congress and Encounter had been made public when it began (as, of course, it should have been), while efforts to justify the whole arrangement would certainly have been less apologetic, it would have created no less of a scandal in the intellectual community than it did two years ago when aired by people eager to discredit the immediate past.
Without making any excuses for them, Irving Howe has already described in COMMENTARY2 the complex ideological history that led some Old Left intellectuals to become undiscriminating supporters of American cold-war policies, and a very few of them even to accept CIA funding in full knowledge of its source, so there is no need to go over that ground again. But there are a few items in Lasch's long indictment that cry out for correction in detail and hardly add to the luster of his credentials as a historian.
He begins with an account of the 1950 Berlin conference at which the Congress for Cultural Freedom was founded, complaining that the very choice of a meeting-place was a “symbol of the cold war.” Of course it was: the Russian blockade of West Berlin had occurred less than two years before and the aim of the conference was to rally Western intellectuals to resist Soviet pressures in Europe in the aftermath of several earlier conferences of “peace-loving” intellectuals held under Communist auspices. These were also the years of the trials and executions of “Titoist” Communists in Eastern Europe and of Zhdanov's purges of artists and writers—many of them Jewish—in Russia itself. North Korea invaded South Korea on the second day of the Berlin meeting. The American delegation, the nucleus of the later ACCF, consisted of the leaders of Americans for Intellectual Freedom, an organization which had been created to expose the Moscow-sponsored international peace conference held the year before at the Waldorf.
Yet in his essay Lasch tells us nothing of this background to the Berlin meeting, a background that makes it clear that the Congress was created as a counter-move to Soviet thrusts on the political, military, and, most notably, the cultural fronts. Should those intellectuals who were veterans of the old anti-Stalinist campaigns long before there was a cold war have stayed home, turned their backs on international politics, settled for denouncing lynchings in the South? All of this occurred, of course, before the CIA entered the picture, although, as Lasch himself notes, the Congress modulated its singleminded anti-Communist line after the Berlin meeting and the ACCF, to which he next directs his fire, was never supported by CIA money and often opposed the “softer” line of its parent body.
Lasch pictures Arthur Koestler and the late Franz Borkenau as typifying the spirit of the Berlin conference, relying on a hostile British press report of a speech by Borkenau and a gross misreading of a published version of the speech. The only thing he apparently knows about Borkenau is that he was once a Communist, from which Lasch infers that Borkenau's statement that “totalitarianism grows dialectically out of liberalism” reveals “the amazing persistence and tenacity of the Bolshevik habit of mind” in continuing to show contempt for “bourgeois liberalism” and “liberal intellectualism.” A reading of Borkenau's speech indicates that Lasch, incredibly, is ignorant of the fact that “liberalism” to Europeans means the doctrines of laissez-faire economics—in effect, 19th-century capitalism—as well as constitutional freedoms. Borkenau's point was the fairly elementary one that democratic socialism and both the Communist and Nazi versions of totalitarianism were different forms of revolt against the insecurities of an unregulated market economy.
On the strength of this misunderstanding, Lasch concludes that “the ideology of the anti-Communist Left tended to merge into fascism” and proclaims that Borkenau's “central European, quasi-totalitarian sensibility” stands fully revealed when he attacks “totalitarianism at length without referring, except in passing . . . to the Nazi regime.” As if the very term “totalitarianism,” however much it may since have been misused, had not come into general use in the 40's precisely to emphasize the similarities between Nazism and Stalinism! After this, the reader will surely be startled to find Lasch himself announcing in a later chapter that “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.” Although the liberalism Lasch thinks has expired is not 19th-century free-market capitalism but 20th-century welfare statism, his very words, let alone the idea, are almost identical with those he finds so sinister when Franz Borkenau used them twenty years ago—which may suggest no more than that intellectuals ought to be more chary of proclaiming the death of such portentous abstractions as liberalism, socialism, ideology itself, or, for that matter, God. If Borkenau, Koestler, and others stand condemned of intellectual elitism, not to mention “quasi-totalitarian sensibilities,” when they criticize liberalism, what are we to conclude when Lasch uses the New Left tag “corporate liberalism” to describe the contemporary American status quo he opposes?
Lasch singles out Borkenau in order to suggest that the European intellectuals associated with the Congress were mostly embittered ex-Communists or crypto-Nazis (“German nationalists,” as he delicately puts it). Turning to the American scene, he accurately reports the anti-Communist sermonizing and the reluctance to define McCarthyism as a threat to cultural freedom of the Congress's American branch; however, it soon becomes apparent that he is after bigger and more contemporary game than the small group of New York intellectuals identified with the ACCF. Sidney Hook's views in the early 50's on the Smith Act and the rights of Communists to teach are certainly open to challenge—and were widely challenged at the time—but it is puzzling to find Lasch attacking Hook and the ACCF for maintaining that universities should be free to decide for themselves the issue of Communist teachers without interference from Congressional committees. Surely, even if this problem was a false or inflated one, their position favoring “self-determination for the academic community” does not differ from that of college administrators, faculties, and most student demonstrators today who insist they want no intervention by federal or state authorities in coping with student protests on the campus. Yet to Lasch the ACCF stand is simply further evidence of the intellectuals' inveterate “elitism” and “glorification of experts.”
The point of this strained argument is to link the ACCF to Noam Chomsky's “New Mandarins”—the technocrats, policy scientists, and “social accountants” of the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation who have placed their claimed expertise directly at the disposal of the “war-making and propaganda machinery of the State.” But, one is driven to insist, it is a long jump from the political and intellectual worlds of Sidney Hook and the New Leader to that of Herman Kahn and McNamara's “Whiz Kids,” from, as Philip Rieff once put it, the Rand School to the RAND Corporation. The intellectuals of the ACCF were mostly literary men and journalists whose outlook had been shaped not by the academy but by the movements and conflicts on the Left in the 30's and 40's. By the 50's the main component of this outlook was a principled anti-Stalinism that had become for many a rigid and mechanically applied dogma.
The “New Mandarins,” on the other hand, are academic men steeped in the apolitical scientism and technicism prevalent in much of American social science. The two groups are fundamentally dissimilar; the journals and associations, such as the ACCF, created by the former changed or vanished in less than a decade. The cold-war strategists and war-games theorists may indeed be moved by a longing “to be on the inside of things” and “to share the secrets ordinary people are not permitted to hear,” or even by “despair of democracy,” but this kind of elitism was alien to the intellectuals of the ACCF who, if anything, were only too ready to invoke the ignorant anti-Communism of the ordinary man to justify their own views. It is impossible to imagine such vociferous and argumentative people as Sidney Hook or Diana Trilling hankering for hush-hush jobs in the Pentagon, let alone being offered them. One expects a professional historian to make such distinctions even if he is writing about the very recent past and is animated by a worthy desire to chart new political directions for the democratic Left.
Lasch has learned all the lessons of his elders on the baneful influence of Stalinism on the American Left. His foreign-policy views, however, may be properly described as neo-isolationist, although he does not include in the present book an article he published last year in the New York Times Magazine praising the revisionist historians of the cold war, some of whom come close in their zeal to criticize the United States to denying or excusing postwar Soviet expansionism. Before the 1920's, isolationism was, of course, the traditional posture of the American Left, and for good reason. The immense prestige of the Russian Revolution among American radicals, two World Wars, the cold war, and the two Asian wars arising out of it have centralized power in the federal government, created a military-industrial complex, and weakened and divided the forces of the Left. There is something enormously appealing in Christopher Lasch's wish to have done with all this history that we did not want; in his description of Debs's pre-1914 Socialist party as the proper model for a new American socialist movement rather than the Wobblies championed by most groups of the New Left; in his hope for “a collective effort among critics and scholars to take up the great themes of the 19th-century where they were abandoned in the 20's and to use them as theoretical guides to the present situation.”
Looking beyond the United States, I am moved to paraphrase a bit of Faulknerran rhetoric from Intruder in the Dust. Faulkner wrote that “for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence . . . and Pickett himself [is] waiting . . . and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet. . . .” Every middle-aged socialist cherishes the far nobler vision that it's still that August morning in 1914 and the deputies of the great German Social Democratic party, the party of Marx and Engels, the leading party of the Socialist International, are filing into their seats in the Reichstag to vote on the Kaiser's request for war credits and “it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet”
But this is the stuff of myth If early in this century the socialist movement missed major historical opportunities and then was engulfed by events that were scarcely of its own making, we are nevertheless incapable of recreating it in a world and an America that are so fundamentally changed Regretfully, therefore, I remain un-persuaded by Lasch's arguments for a new independent party of the Left dedicated to the values of “decentralization, local control, and a generally antibureaucratic outlook”
I have the impression that, except for a brief hiatus in the 50's, I have been listening for almost as long as I can remember to debates on the Left over the advisability of starting a new party But in the past the advocates of this course always argued from three major assumptions First, that the unions and the working class would provide the major organizational and mass support for such a party Second, that the Democratic party was hopelessly tied to its reactionary Southern wing And third, that a major economic crisis would sooner or later radicalize large segments of the population which would rally to the new party Today, however, these assumptions seem to have vanished For example Lasch fails to mention labor at all, suggesting that the professions, sections of suburbia, the ghetto, and “above all” the university provide a sufficient initial base for a new party Then, too, one of the most striking things about the New Left, which has rediscovered or revived so many of the old, half-forgotten ideas and slogans of past political protest in America, is the almost total absence in its rhetoric of apocalyptic forecasts of an inevitable depression arising out of the “contradictions of capitalism” Nor does the New Left appear to have noticed that the South has finally abandoned its lingering Democratic allegiance in Presidential elections and is beginning to do so at lower levels, and new national convention rules reduce the possibility of the boss-controlled state delegations that insured Humphrey's nomination in 1968 In political terms, then, this would seem to be the most inappropriate moment in years for liberals and radicals to cease working in the Democratic party and to attempt to launch a new socialist party, even if there were not considerable evidence that the Left surge of the 60's has spent much of its force and that we may soon find ourselves resuming once again a defensive posture in an effort to hold on to what has already been achieved
But Lasch is hardly so naive as to expect quick political success for a new party In fact, he occasionally seems to conceive of it chiefly as a kind of holding company for radicals who have so often dissipated their energies in single-issue third-party campaigns, or as a way of providing continuity in “the Movement” for student rebels after they have graduated and are forced to come to terms in their personal lives and careers with established institutions Elsewhere, drawing heavily on T B Bottomore, whom he mistakenly identifies as a Canadian rather than an Englishman, Lasch stresses the role a radical party might play in giving political focus to the brand of American social criticism that from Veblen to Mills has so often been produced in isolation strongly marked by the authors' personal idiosyncrasies Lasch seems to envisage a party that would function as a kind of Church for the Left, ecumenical in its breadth of outlook, welcoming radicals of many shades of opinion without degenerating into one of the purist sects that have been the sole survivors of past periods of protest
Yet he does not eschew hopes of long-run political success He argues that a new radical party should avoid defining itself simply as a protest movement or as a “ginger group” to the major parties in the traditional pattern of American third parties The trouble with this is that past movements of the Left (and, for that matter, of the Right) did not start with such limited objectives either the conclusion that their main achievement was to influence some major party programs was reached by historians after their decline, and Lasch fails to convince that a new party today could avoid this fate merely by being forewarned of its possibility If, on the other hand, a socialist party were to succeed, as Lasch hopes, in eventually forging a new electoral majority, one wonders how it would maintain its militance and avoid “capitulationism”—the epithet with which Lasch contemptuously dismisses British Labour and all of the European Social Democratic parties Moreover, what grounds are there for thinking that the American Socialist party would have followed a different course had it avoided being torn apart by the crises of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution? What, for instance, would have been its “decentralist” response to the Depression, since Lasch identifies “socialism” so integrally with decentralization and local autonomy? But the Depression, the New Deal, and the rise of organized labor are, along with American involvement in world politics, part of the tainted history of the past half-century that Lasch hopes to overcome
Lasch concludes that “the experience of the New Left already refutes one of its principal tenets, that a revolutionary movement has no need of theory because theory will spring spontaneously out of the daily struggles of the movement” In a spirit utterly alien to the anti-intellectualism and Irrationalism of sections of the New Left, he eloquently affirms the importance of theory, of a social criticism and a political ideology informed by the best of modern historical and social-science scholarship, as well as of a scholarship guided by concern for equality, freedom, and justice Since he argues persuasively that neither the New Left nor the black nationalists have yet developed such a theory and that contemporary scholarship is sadly deficient in such a concern, his summons to create a new party now seems rather premature
The new left is part of a much larger, even worldwide, movement against rigid centralized bureaucratic organization Weber rather than Marx often appears to be the prophet of the past who has most fully drawn the face of the contemporary enemy In insisting that decentralization and the infusion of democracy into bureaucratic institutions must be “the heart of radicalism,” Lasch correctly recognizes that the revolt against bureaucracy is no more likely to prove ephemeral than has the revolt against the poverty and inequality of capitalism, even reformed capitalism But he minimizes the extent to which it represents a new direction for the Left rather than the revival of an old tradition cleansed of the corrupting influence of the recent past It is, after all, the Right rather than the Left that for some time has used “bureaucracy” as an epithet and affirmed local control and grass-roots autonomy as counter-measures Max Weber even described himself as a “class-conscious bourgeois” To link such values to socialism, one has to hark back not merely to 1910 but to the pre-Marxist Utopian socialism of the first half of the 19tb century Lasch, in effect, here writes off most of the Marxist tradition, trade unionism, the welfare state, and mass political parties along with the warfare state and the American imperium
But “creating autonomous enclaves of socialism in the ghettos,” for example, will hardly eliminate their poverty or, however great the sense of “participation” it might create, satisfy the aspirations of their inhabitants for the materially more comfortable life made possible by modern technology. An urban ghetto is not, after all, comparable with an agrarian commune—a Brook Farm, an Oneida Community, or even an Israeli kibbutz Lasch himself recognizes this in his powerful analysis of the contradictions in black nationalism “Would self-determination for the ghetto threaten General Motors?” he asks, and replies in the negative In short, Lasch's notion that a new radical party could create at the community level a “socialist alternative” that would “show both by teaching and by its own example that life under socialism would be preferable to life under corporate capitalism” is subject to most of the objections he himself raises in his critique of Black Power, particularly if we remember that the communities in question will also for the most part be black communities, asserting the newly-won ethnic solidarity of a minority group Lasch's programmatic statements on the composition and aims of a new socialist party are, unfortunately, as vague and full of wishful rhetoric as the black nationalist and New Left revolutionary manifestoes he takes such pains to examine and refute
If Lasch's hopes for a new radical movement are even on his own evidence much too optimistic, it is still the case that the New Left and the student movement represent only the most visible and directly political manifestation of a far broader opposition throughout the Western world to antiquarian and rigid institutions, ranging from the revolt inside the Catholic Church to the reform of legal and penal codes dating back to the 18th century Benchmarks for future efforts have been set even if we are in for a turn to the Right after the ferment of the past decade Sad wisdom and small consolation, perhaps, but that is the way the world usually moves In this sense the agony of the American Left is the agony of all Lefts, destined always to fall short of goals that then have to be redefined and respecified when they once again come to seem attainable
1 The Agony of the American Left Knopf, 212 pp, $4.95
2 “The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,” October 1968.