To the Editor:
. . . Permit me a few words in commentary on the exchange between Messrs. Levin and Lynd [“Letters from Readers,” January].
As for my Marxism, I would suggest that the real issue is a bit different than Mr. Levin allows. He says “yes.” The orthodox arbiters of these matters say “no.” I suggest that it is a rather silly and largely irrelevant discussion. Marx was a man who offered some useful insights and ideas, not a man who offered his name as an adjective for oversimplifying and confusing substantive problems. . . . Thinking so much in terms of him usually results in obscuring the central issues.
Hence I agree wholly with Mr. Lynd . . . that the question Mr. Levin is raising behind all the rhetoric about Marxism is extremely perceptive and relevant. But I am somewhat perplexed by two aspects of Mr. Lynd’s response. First, I am surprised by the way he oversimplifies my presentation of the abolitionists, and by the way he misses what seems to me the implication of his own argument about the abolitionists. Second, I am somewhat taken aback by the negative character of his conception and definition of radicalism.
. . . The real point about radicalism is to create and act upon it in the here and now rather than to invest so much energy and talent in finding its roots in the American past. True, the two are not wholly unrelated, and the study of history is one of the connecting tissues between them; but in this context the fundamental purpose in studying history is to find out where we are, and what dynamic elements define that reality, so that we can then proceed to act intelligently. . . . An emphasis on finding roots is very apt to distract one from the labor of evolving new ideas, and to reinforce the congenital human propensity to take the roots without realizing until too late that they are bait for the trap of the past.
I am inclined to believe, at least on the basis of what he has written, that Mr. Lynd has come close to doing this in connection with the abolitionists. It seems to me that a radical view has to be evolved from the axiom that man is a social being. Yet the abolitionists were not only highly individualistic, but as a group failed in connection with the Negro to carry through—even in their thinking—on the individualism they proclaimed. They were in many respects the moral and ideological shock troops of laissez-faire (which is to say, as I have said, much more than that they were simply “individualistic egoists”).
The abolitionists did mount slashing attacks on slavery and the three-fifths clause of the Constitution. But they were not the first to do so: other men who entertained a conception of community as a conservative, stratified society assaulted slavery from its inception in the United States. Indeed, those men (including some Southerners) had created the north as a region free of slavery long before the abolitionists came on the scene. I do not see the abolitionists as offering any comparable, but radical, idea and ideal of community including the Negro.
If the roots of an American radicalism, therefore, are to be found in the slavery question they are rather more apt to be located in the Negro half of that story. That suggests that the roots of American radicalism may in fact be rather young shoots, a point I implied in the closing sections of The Contours of American History. It may be more helpful, then, to look for the roots of an American radicalism within the confines of the 20th century—beginning, say, with William E. B. Du Bois, Eugene Debs, and the Wobblies. For that matter, James Baldwin may be more of a root than any of us history-conscious white folk have yet realized.
William Appleman Williams
University of Wisconsin