The Agony of the American Left

From the Shelf

WE'VE COME a long way in a very short time. Only a few years ago the country's problems were safely cooped up in Mississippi and Alabama, and the Federal government was on our side. The Movement was a good-hearted affair with plenty of idealism and not too much analysis. Its politics were still those of the fifties: everyone pretty much agreed with everyone else about most everything, and young people had to go South to find things that were obviously wrong.

The war, of course, changed all that. In the early stages, it showed us that the liberal ideology and leadership in which we had trusted was capable of monstrous and stupid acts. The lines hardened with our growing desperation: by the time of the mass marches in New York and Washington, the government was transforming itself into a hierarchy of evil. We discovered "complicity" and "resistance," and for a time fought the war in emotional, personal acts of confrontation. Then generalizations began to appear, explanations of the war in terms of various theories of imperialism. Our attention was directed inward, first to corporations involved in the war, and finally to the universities.

All of this development occurred as a succession of improvised responses to unexpected situations. All the way along, the left has been picking up bits and pieces of experience and incorporating them as ideology. From the early antiwar days, we have the mystique of resistance and myths about the feebleness of illegitimate authority. The growth of the hippie movement contributed to the left a hodgepodge of cultural notions that were dubbed "revolutionary" and stuck into the movement. Finally the success of the Viet Cong has helped to create a tremendously powerful mystique of Third World Revolution.

The result, though few people on the left have yet been willing to admit it, is that the New Left today is a mess. It is a morass of slogans and apocalyptic visions, full of desperation and despair. It is a movement without ideology, without anything that can be called strategy, and without a coherent program for social or economic change.

IN HIS NEW book, The Agony of the American Left, Christopher Lasch attempts to explain the current state of the left in historical terms. His central thesis, spread out over the several articles which comprise this volume, is that a succession of disastrous failures and compromises over the past fifty years has so debilitated and corrupted American radicalism that there now exists no body of leftist thought to guide the new generation of radicals that has grown up in the sixties.

The betrayal of the American radical tradition has, according to Lasch, taken two general forms. The first was the tendency to substitute foreign revolutionary models for programs based on conditions in America. Discussing the decline of the Socialists after the First World War, Lasch argues that their downfall can be traced to the rise of Bolshevism within the movement. The Russian Revolution provided many American socialists with a new revolutionary model, a model which seemed to transcend orthodox Marxist categories. In their excitement, the American Bolsheviks tended to forget the total dissimilarities between conditions in Russia and America, and began to propagandize for a transplanting of the Russian Revolution to the United States. In so doing, the Bolsheviks reduced the Socialist movement to a group of internally divided and increasingly irrelevant factions. The movement, which had grown to considerable proportions by 1917, was virtually extinct by the mid-twenties.

The second and more recent misdirection of the American left came with the defection of the intellectuals following the Second World War. In a long essay dealing with the history of the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, Lasch attempts to show how the sterility and lack of ideas which characterized American politics in the fifties can be traced to the enlistment of the liberal intellectuals into the Cold War struggle. During a period when they should have been formulating alternatives to the Cold War and the moratorium on domestic political controversy which accompanied it, the liberal intellectuals were allowing themselves to be herded into the cultural arsenal of the state. Within those rigid confines, they deplored Soviet repressions and "unofficial" vigilanteism at home, while failing utterly to subject official state policy to critical scrutiny. The limits of the "free" debate which engaged the American intellectual community in the fifties was so narrow as to be meaningless, and from this debate, these intellectuals produced nothing of value to offer their successors.

THE ELITIST bent of Lasch's argument should by now be apparent. Lasch makes no apologies for his emphasis on the importance of intellectuals in producing social change. He sees intellectuals as essential catalysts in the restructuring of societies, and believes that the history of major periods in American history is in large measure the history of its intellectual elite.

This is not a very fashionable stance for an American leftist today. The Movement is characterized by anti-intellectualism; the cult of direct action and all the nonsense about guerrilla warfare in America leaves little legitimacy among radicals for intellectual concerns. The activist proves his worth by "doing" rather than by "talking." Such theory as will be needed, the argument goes, can be developed as the Movement progresses: a program can work itself out.

It is this anti-intellectualism which is the greatest weakness of the left today. It is not a surprising characteristic, given the lack of a radical intellectual tradition on which the New Left could draw. The left of the sixties has had to work everything out on its own, and the results were bound to be confused and contradictory. But things shouldn't be allowed to stay that way.

As Lasch emphasizes in his current book, the most pressing task is to develop a coherent program for social change, based on actual American experience and conditions. Such a program would break loose from the current fascination with revolutionary struggles in the Third World, and from the facile talk of violent rebellion which has accompanied it. There is not going to be a violent revolution in America; the "lessons" of Cuba, China and Vietnam have no particular bearing on this country, and the sooner that American leftists stop freaking out on Third World revolutions, the sooner serious work can begin.

There is a great deal of serious work to be done. Our understanding of the modern American economy needs to be greatly improved, and radical critiques developed. Alternative systems of industrial organization and of education need to be formulated. The whole concept of decentralized democracy needs to be worked out intelligibly and plausibly. In short, credible alternatives to present forms of production and social organization must be proposed.

Lasch would employ a New Party as the instrument of these new proposals. His New Party bears no resemblance to the reform movements within the Democratic Party with which New Party proposals have sometimes been linked: Lasch's party would be avowedly socialist, and would not seek quick electoral victories. Rather, its task would be a long range one, "to introduce socialist perspectives into political debate, to create a broad consciousness of alternatives not embraced by the present system, to show both by teaching and by its own example that life under socialism would be preferable to life under corporate capitalism, and thus in the long run to fashion a new political majority."

Lasch's proposal, of course, is based on the simple premise that no Leninist revolution is possible in the United States, and that therefore radical change can only come about by creating a radical mass movement. Lasch's movement would be spearheaded by the intellectuals from the universities whose lives would be devoted to the posing of social alternatives. Their success would eventually be due to the demonstrable superiority of those alternatives.

Such a proposal requires great faith in people's ability to perceive their own interests. It may be that such faith is outmoded in this age of manipulation by mass media. But the fact remains that there is no plausible route to radical change in America that does not involve the support by the majority of the population. The Cubans or the Vietnamese are not going to save us, and there can be no talk of violent revolution from within while the government continues to control the instruments of violence. The second fact is that the radical solution, in whatever precise form it eventually comes to be presented, has common sense on its side. It is possible to demonstrate the enormous social costs of modern capitalism. The need for change can be clearly shown to people. This does not mean that these things will be done. I am merely suggesting that we should begin by assuming that change is not impossible, that there are alternatives to giving up or flipping out.

ALL OF this has important implications for people at universities in this country. If a full-fledged radical critique is to develop in America, it is essential that a certain level of conventional liberal civil liberties be preserved. Such a critique cannot develop in an atmosphere of intense repression. And since the universities are the most strategic center for the development of a radical program, the integrity of the liberal university must be maintained.

The university, in other words, must not be considered as the battleground. It is true that the American universities support the American empire abroad and corporate capitalism at home. But this, from a radical standpoint, is simply not the most important thing to be said about them. For the universities can also serve as centers of radical criticism--or, if one prefers the term, of subversion. There is nothing particularly incompatible about these dual functions of the American university, and history may yet show that the university's subversive role was far more important that its supportive one.

For this reason, American radicals should be far more wary of inviting repression than they have been in the past. "Revolutionaries" at such schools as Columbia and San Francisco State have shown an almost incredible inability to relate means to ends in any rational manner: by making their revolutions within the university, they have jeopardized the revolutionary capacity of the university in the real world outside. Tearing down universities over symbolic issues is lunacy. If such spastic revolutions succeed in provoking a real repression in this country, the question of radical change in America will be settled for a long time to come.