Commentary Magazine


Radicalism among the Young

To the Editor:

I was pained and puzzled by Joseph Adelson’s “Inventing the Young” [May]—pained because I have long thought of him as a friend whose work I respect, puzzled because I have no way of understanding the roots of his angry ad hominem comments like, “No doubt if [radicals] told [Keniston] they could walk on water he would believe that too.”

In his querulous essay, Mr. Adelson is at pains to disagree with whatever I have written on radicals. He thereby chooses to ignore large areas of agreement between us. For example, we both deplore moralism, professors who encourage trashing, upper-middle-class smugness, violence, self-righteousness, over-identification with patients, and so on. I also share his repugnance for “pervasive anti-intellectualism,” “preference for jargon, slogans, and cant,” “target hunger,” “public piety and private cynicism,” “self-pity, self-indulgence, and self-admiration,” and a host of other nasty traits which, in his vague phrase, characterize “so many members of the Movement.”

There remain, however, several substantive issues about which we disagree. I will mention only three of them.

First, on the issue of conscience, the super-ego, morality, and moralism, Mr. Adelson and I at least agree that this issue is extraordinarily complex and that neither of us fully understands it. He believes that my account oversimplified the issue. But to me, his citation of Psychoanalytic Scripture, which has it that the superego in secret alliance with the aggressive impulses often successfully conspires to topple the ego, is an even greater oversimplification of the complexities of moral life. Rage and conscience do sometimes join to overwhelm reason, and I too have warned of a self-righteous moralism that sanctions evil in the name of abstract morality. But to use psychoanalytic theory, as Mr. Adelson does, to neglect the role of genuinely moral factors in human behavior, or to condemn a group of radicals he has never met because of their presumed unconscious psychodynamics, seems to me a misuse and even a perversion of psychoanalysis. Indeed, I think it ironic that so many psychoanalytically-influenced psychologists today use the concepts of their rebellious and radical mentor, Freud, to explain away the rebellion and radicalism of the young.

A second, closely related issue is that of violence. Writing in 1967, I did not predict the events of the ensuing four years: e.g., the subsequent disintegration of the old student movement, the rise of the Weathermen and the Progressive Labor party, or for that matter the 1968 Chicago Convention, the election of President Nixon, the invasions of Cambodia and Laos, the killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the University of Wisconsin. I did, however, stress the issue of violence, both intrapsychic and external, at great length throughout Young Radicals. And I warned, “For all of his efforts to control violence, sadism and cataclysm, the young radical continually runs the danger of identifying himself with what he seeks to control, and through a militant struggle against violence, creating more violence than he overcomes. The issue of violence is not resolved for these young men and women. Nor can it be.”

Young Radicals was a collective biography of the leaders of Vietnam Summer 1967. It did not claim to be “psychoanalytic,” nor did it claim objectivity. I had little data on most of what interests psychoanalysts, and I repeatedly made explicit my sympathy and involvement with those I studied. But in retrospect, I think my treatment of the issue of violence in these young radicals was essentially accurate. Most of them, for example, have been dismayed by the rise of terrorist groups that advocate urban guerrilla warfare, especially since it is their Movement that is being destroyed. And most of the other radical students and ex-students I know share these sentiments: they remain radical but they are as repelled by the machismo violence of the Weathermen as they are by the kitsch Maoism of the Progressive Labor party. We cannot begin to understand the “eerie tranquility” on American campuses this year without understanding that, as I argued in Young Radical most middle-class American students are, at a psychological as at a moral level, afraid of and opposed to overt violence. There are disastrous exceptions, contemporary Raskolnikovs who have come to consider their distaste for violence a “bourgeois hang-up” to be overcome by bombing; and Mr. Adelson’s psychoanalyzing from afar may help us understand their motives. But it leaves out the dominant motives of the majority.

The most basic issue that separates us has to do with the relative weight we place on intrapsychic and external factors in human behavior. The factors that Mr. Adelson mentions are exclusively intrapsychic: e.g., “target hunger,” “externalization,” “id-super-ego alliance.” He airily dismisses as “contemporary chic” any efforts to point to the war in Vietnam, the persistence of racism in America, the threat of thermonuclear holocaust, or the impact of affluence in creating the context that helped generate contemporary radicalism. In my view, however, an exclusively intrapsychic account leaves out at least half of the story. It is no more possible to understand radicalism among the young without attending to the realities of contemporary history than it is to understand it without attending to their childhoods, their early fantasies, their Oedipus complexes, their ids, egos, and super-egos, and their conscious values. To have adopted the exclusively intrapsychic approach of Mr. Adelson, I believe, would have made Young Radicals a far less adequate account than it is.

Kenneth Keniston
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

I read Joseph Adelson’s article criticizing naive and benign analyses of young radicals with some dismay. As a clinical psychologist, I do not like to see professional psycho-diagnosticians bringing the insights and vocabulary of the clinic to the field of politics. Subtly invoked in Mr. Adelson’s eloquent reality instruction was the specter of “dat ole debbil” mental illness and one of the purposes of the article seems to have been to disparage radical ideas and actions by referring these ideas and actions back to the pathological motives (endemic depressiveness that can be relieved by action, compulsive oppositionalism, the search for enemies, etc.) that supposedly inspired them.

Now, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with radical programs (here I offer the inevitable irrelevant declaration that I am not a radical partisan), the technique of measuring political ideas against the imperfect yardstick of mental health is a dangerous one, and if the political ideas of men are said to stem from psychopathology then the next step is to begin to treat men for their “sick” ideas. Such a practice is of course a reality in the Soviet Union where intellectual dissenters now find themselves in increasing numbers in mental hospitals rather than labor camps.

This is not to say that psychopathology cannot be found in the ranks of the radical young, since historically radical political movements have always attracted a mélange of the sick and the well, of flaming psychopaths and existential heroes, of burners and builders, but that the presence of psychopathology is immaterial to an evaluation of political movements. Also, of course, history is the ultimate diagnostician and the success or failure of movements has a large role in retrospectively determining the reputation of the people who form them.

I would also like to point out to Mr. Adelson that the recent development of rural communes seems to me an encouraging indication that there are other forms of existence for us besides life in increasingly unlivable urban concentrations. To go into these communes armed with Rorschach, TAT, and MMPI and discover inevitably that many of the inhabitants are suffering from a neurotic inability to compete in the marketplace seems totally irrelevant in evaluating these institutions.

Jerome M. Siegel
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tennessee

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Joseph Adelson writes:

I hardly know how to respond to Jerome Siegel’s letter, since he so totally misunderstands the intention of my essay. He imputes to me a position I find vulgar and reductionist—that is, the notion that there is some essential connection between “mental health,” whatever that may be, and the nature of one’s politics. Would that life were so simple! I find, to my continuing chagrin, that some of the finest people I know hold views I believe to be mistaken, or deplorable, or outrageous. (As a case in point, very much so, Kenneth Keniston himself, whom I regard warmly, yet whose politics are, I feel, profoundly in error.) There are, of course, some connections to be found between personality and politics—who will deny it?—but these tend to be complicated, entangled, and often remote; in any case, one’s politics are far more often influenced by family heritage, class position, the immediate peer milieu, and the temper of the times. My essay was concerned only marginally with psychopathology and politics; it was more vitally concerned with what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the ambiguity of moral virtue,” and, specifically, with the transformation of the virtuous political will into fanaticism. Fanaticism may indeed grow out of personal psychopathology, but I suspect that more often it does not, that more often it involves a fateful playing out of one’s political perceptions. In this sense, it is not “psychopathology” that induces politics, it is politics that induces “psychopathology.” If Mr. Siegel will reread what I said about the Weathermen, he may understand the difference—the chasm—between my position and that which he ascribes to me.

There is an implication in Mr. Siegel’s letter I find disturbing. He seems to argue that there is a connection between personality and politics, but that one ought to ignore it, since (1) history will deliver the final verdict, and (2) it will lead to psychiatric incarceration, as in the Soviet Union. Neither argument is persuasive. “History” does not render decisive judgments; it changes its mind every few years, with every shift in the cultural climate. As to the Soviet Union, it will oppress its political opposition no matter what; incarceration is one of the specialties of the house, and if it is not the lunatic asylum, then it will be the forced-labor camp. If there are connections, however complex, however tenuous, between personality and politics, then they should be explored, and whether one likes it or not, they will be. Would Mr. Siegel do away with Erikson’s work on Gandhi, or James Barber’s work on the American Presidents, or the literature on the authoritarian personality, to cite just a few examples? Would he, for that matter, do away with political biography altogether? I think not; I hope not. I think (and hope) he has simply phrased his objections carelessly. He is not against the genre, he is against poor examples of the genre. I think Young Radicals is one such poor example, which is why I wrote my critique.

Mr. Keniston’s letter does not much advance the dispute between us, for it stands as a good example of the very habits of mind about which I complained in my essay. In its view of student violence, for example, it reminds me of the story of the borrowed pot: that it wasn’t borrowed, that it already had a hole in it when it was borrowed, and so on. Thus, he argues that the Movement is fundamentally non-violent, and that only a minority is violent; that that minority is violent only because events have made it so; and that in any case the book anticipated the possibility of violence.

Well, let us look at these arguments one by one. Is it only the bad radicals who favor violence? A study done just a few months ago at Michigan tells us otherwise: a substantial majority of political and cultural radicals say they believe in violence (in “a noble cause,” of course) . No doubt only a fraction will perform it; but it is the explicit acceptance of it by the majority which disinhibits that fraction, and that was one of the points my paper stressed. Mr. Keniston tells us he could not have predicted the turn to violence since so much of it was a response to external events. But my article pointed out that many of us sensed the possibility of violence even in the halcyon days of 1965-66; there were even some, most notably Lewis Feuer, who in fact predicted the ultimate descent into terrorism. (It tells us something of the nature of current intellectual life that Feuer’s astonishing prescience has earned him nothing but neglect and obloquy.) Will not Mr. Keniston conceive that the problem may lie not in “events” but in an inadequate understanding of the Movement? As to his suggestion that Young Radicals did not foreclose the possibility of future violence by the student Left, let me say that I find this statement just a bit disingenuous. The sentences he quotes are just about the only such in a book teeming with praise for radical non-violence; and even so, they suggest that violence, were it to come, would come only reactively. If the reader cares to pursue this matter further, I suggest he read pages 247 to 256 of Young Radicals, and judge for himself whether I have given a fair account of his position. All in all, as I read Mr. Keniston’s letter, I get the uneasy feeling that an Orwellian memory-hole is being prepared, to which the miserable events of the past few years will be safely consigned, so that we remember nothing and learn nothing.

I do not really believe that Mr. Keniston and I differ that sharply on psychological issues. Yes, perhaps we do give somewhat different weight to intrapsychic as against interpersonal variables. But on the whole, Mr. Keniston and I are, on psychological matters, as alike as peas in a pod. The differences between us are essentially political and philosophical. The failures of observation and analysis I find in his writings on the student Left stem not from faults in psychological doctrine but from a political philosophy which does not, in my opinion, allow him to grasp what would otherwise be evident to him.

Mr. Keniston is a Pelagian in his estimate of the radical young and a Manichean in his view of American society; the young are pure and without sin, the country infectiously corrupt. This comes through plainly in his recent commencement address at Notre Dame—a document he was good enough to send me, and one which I find extraordinarily revealing. There he argues that the student movement was, in its origins (and remains, in its majority), free of evil, free of taint; it was later corrupted—“infected” is the word used—by that very American violence it set out to confront and oppose. Does this sound familiar? It should. It is innocence corrupted by evil; it is Adam and Eve and the Serpent and the Fall.

Committed to this Edenic view of the Movement, Mr. Keniston has been unable to perceive its tragic fault—and that is its easy acquiescence to the totalitarian spirit. The turn to violence is only one side of that acquiescence, only the most palpable and by no means the most worrisome. More worrisome by far is the indifference—the utter insouciance—with which it regards the absence of political freedom in the nations of the totalitarian Left. Some of this is no doubt due to simple naiveté—among much of the student Left Cuba, for example, is seen as a vast and well-organized hippie commune, filled with happy peasants singing folk songs—some of it is that special kind of callousness we see in those who pursue a dream of perfect justice. Most worrisome of all is the fact that the gullible and obsessed are led, increasingly, by very hard types indeed—hack theoreticians and bureaucrats-in-waiting, little Molotovs and Zhdanovs—the sort who, were they to fulfill their visions of power, would clap Mr. Keniston in jail, offering him homilies about omelets and broken eggs. My friend Kenneth Keniston should recognize all of this even better than I do, for he was recently pilloried, in perfect Pravda- like language, by one of the influential organs of the young radical movement.

I am most troubled by Mr. Keniston’s Manichean view of America and its institutions. Perhaps I do him some injustice here, for I am sure he would be able to cite passages from his writings which attest to a more balanced view of American society. But in the writing before me, in the address at Notre Dame, he does not speak of America except in the context of evil: It is America’s “persistent evils,” its “many evils,” to which he alludes again and again. It is this view of America, as sick, corrupt, rotten to the core, which nourishes the apocalyptic yearnings of the radical young. If we define our problems as evils, we are tempted to turn away from the politics which alone will solve them; for we do not solve evils, we extirpate them. No doubt Mr. Keniston would not so reason; but less disciplined, less rational souls will. Since America is evil, then why not bomb, burn, and assassinate? Why not indeed? I know Kenneth Keniston would never so intend. I know him to be a good and gentle person. Yet unwittingly he adds to the climate of “dogmatism and death” on the Left which his address so eloquently decries. It is one more example of the ambiguity of moral virtue.

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