Commentary Magazine

Annals of an Abiding Liberal, by John Kenneth Galbraith

Ideologue of the New Class

Annals of an Abiding Liberal.
by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Houghton Mifflin. 384 pp. $12.95.

Although John Kenneth Gal braith is best known for his books and articles on economics, he has also played an important role, both as writer and activist, in the promotion of political ideas, causes, and candidates. As the title of this collection of essays, reviews, and travel pieces suggests, Galbraith continues to regard himself as a liberal at a time when many think liberalism to be in decline, both politically and intellectually. Galbraith certainly is aware of the widespread perception of conservative momentum and liberal retreat. He strongly disagrees with this perception; one of the principal aims of Annals of an Abiding Liberal is to debunk what Galbraith calls the “conservative majority syndrome,” the notion, recurring at regular intervals during the past decade or so, that “conservatism is the wave of the American future.”

It is fitting that Galbraith should take up this challenge, since he is responsible for conceiving or popularizing many of the more controversial liberal policies and ideas. Galbraith, in fact, has probably exerted more intellectual influence than any other person on those liberals who preferred McCarthy over Johnson, McGovern over Humphrey, and Udall over Carter. This is true even though on a number of issues, particularly those more directly connected with economic policy, his views run against liberal and socialist theories which blame modern corporations, especially the multinationals, for the world’s economic difficulties, and pose various forms of decentralized, “participatory” socialism as an alternative to capitalism. Galbraith believes that inflation can be brought under control through rigorously enforced, permanent wage-price controls. He thinks breaking up the largest corporations through antitrust action to be economically unsound. He is favorably disposed toward multinational enterprises, and unenthusiastic about codetermination and other models of industrial power-sharing.

But on other issues, especially those relating to social policy, foreign affairs, and election strategy, Galbraith clearly shares the attitudes and objectives of the Democratic party’s McGovernite wing. Even before affirmative action had become an issue of emotional contention, Galbraith was calling for racial and sexual quotas in university admissions and corporate hiring. He supported the McGovernFraser party-rules changes; here, typically, Galbraith eschewed rhetoric about “participation” and “openness,” declaring bluntly that the new “reform” forces who would be assisted by the guidelines were more enlightened and deserving of power than the party professionals and labor leaders who would be supplanted. Along similar lines, Galbraith once urged liberals to withhold support from any Democratic Congressman, no matter how humanitarian his record on domestic affairs might be, unless he was prepared to help bring the military “under firm political control.” And despite his oft-stated contempt for the American labor movement, Galbraith served as a fund-raiser for self-styled rebel Ed Sadlowski during his unsuccessful campaign for the United Steelworkers presidency, justifying this intrusion into internal union politics in part on the grounds that a Sadlowski triumph would produce changes in the Steelworkers’ traditional anti-Communist foreign-policy orientation.



Although these and the other debates and controversies in which Galbraith has been involved address a wide range of political questions, they share a common characteristic insofar as they have served as cutting-edge issues of political struggle within the Democratic party. These are the issues which divided individuals, groups, and forces: blacks against Jews; anti-Communists against anti-anti-Communists; middle-class reformers against the unions. In these contests, Galbraith has assumed the role of intellectual “point man” for what some call the New Class or New Politics movement, but which he prefers to describe as the “educational and scientific estate.” Many of his writings are devoted to building a case for both the inevitability and desirability of this grouping’s dominance in government and economic affairs.

As ideologue of the educational and scientific estate, Galbraith is often willing to assert opinions which the estate’s rank-and-file draw back from for fear of being called irresponsible or elitist. (Others might go through contortions attempting to define the difference between goals and quotas; Galbraith comes right out for the enforcement of quotas throughout society.) Indeed, although the word “elitist” has suffered from overuse in the past few years, for Galbraith the label is entirely appropriate. Elitist sentiment oozes from his account of a ’round-the-world tour, replete with observations on the fine food, excellent conversation, beautiful and interesting women, and sumptuous accommodations which made the journey an altogether memorable one. Although Galbraith derives great enjoyment from mocking the “rich and powerful” (probably the most recurrent phrase in the book), he himself has acquired a strong taste for a style of life that comes only with wealth and high influence.

More disturbing in this regard is his benign view of totalitarian societies, and their effect on individual men and women. Galbraith is a leading proponent of the “convergence” theory—the idea that the differences between Communist and Western democratic societies are steadily diminishing through a process of economic interdependence. Galbraith maintains a certain ambiguity, one suspects purposely, as to whether Communist-capitalist convergence constitutes a narrow phenomenon of raw economics, or applies as well to political and civil rights. Whatever the case, life inside Communist society, for Galbraith, may not be as free or pleasant as we in the West are accustomed to, but then it’s not all that bad either. Visiting Berlin, Galbraith climbs atop the Wall. “The Wall is, indeed, an insulting thing,” he tells us.

But it is also . . . a monument to the errors of experts in foreign policy. All thought it a prelude to a deeper, sharper, more dangerous conflict in and over Berlin than ever before. There has been no further crisis since.

Later, Galbraith is driven through East Berlin, where he is

reassured to be reminded how close we and the Communists agree on our indices of achievement. The young East Berliners were indistinguishable from the young across the Wall. Both sexes wore the same abused jeans, had hair of the same length. In one pack of adolescents near Alexanderplatz were two who had “Dartmouth” on their T-shirts.

The hair styles and attire of these young people do not, of course, reflect a coming together of two societies, but the enthusiasm of the young in an authoritarian society for the popular culture of a democratic one. And if Galbraith had taken the time to speak to the youths loitering around Alexanderplatz, he might have discovered that they regard the Wall as something more than an insult, and that democratic rights ranked high on their index of society’s success.



The absence of Western liberties endured by the unfortunate inhabitants of East Berlin pales before the tragic circumstances of the peoples of Southeast Asia. But even here Galbraith remains oblivious to the human tragedy that always seems to follow in Communism’s wake. During his ’round-the-world tour, Galbraith visits Bangkok, where, as in the other cities on his itinerary, he attends meetings with political leaders, journalists, academics, and policy-makers. Yet if we are to believe Galbraith’s account, the events in Indochina since the fall of Saigon, momentous events for Thailand, were hardly discussed at all. Galbraith does offer a personal observation, reflecting with satisfaction that the dominoes—Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore—have not been toppled by the Communists. He adds that the “strategic theorists who gave us the domino doctrine . . . took for granted that the Communist example would be persuasive,” a remark that is characteristic of the misrepresentations which run through Galbraith’s writings about Communism. Persuasion, after all, was never the issue; the issue was Vietnam’s willingness to use its military might. Certainly the fears expressed then have been little allayed by Vietnam’s subsequent conduct in Laos and Cambodia.

Aside from this, we get nothing at all about Indochina: the flight of the boat people, Cambodian genocide, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia are ignored, even though at the time of Galbraith’s Thailand visit, October 1978, Thai refugee camps were bulging with Cambodians fleeing both Pol Pot and the invading Vietnamese, Pol Pot’s butchery was drawing the fire of Senator McGovern, and the expulsion of the boat people was well under way. This rather incredible omission is no doubt largely due to Galbraith’s unwillingness to come to grips with his past view that life in a Vietnam run by the Communists would differ little for the average Vietnamese from life under what Galbraith once called the “repressive, obscene, and incompetent dictatorship” of General Thieu. But there is another, deeper issue at work here, and that is Galbraith’s refusal to draw the obvious connection between the unprecedented human misery in Indochina and the kind of social order, a Communist one, that its rulers are determined to forge at any price.

Galbraith himself believes that for the average person, democracy is preferable to authoritarianism, but he does not believe that the degree of difference between them is as great as those who cling to the “conventional wisdom” about Western society would have it. After all, he argues, repression and the manipulation of the masses through advertising is built into the industrial societies of the West; as he has written elsewhere, “in modern capitalism too there is an inherent conflict between organization with its discipline and the individual.” Moreover, to insist stubbornly on pointing out the darker aspects of Communist society is to invite the Galbraith treatment of amused disdain. One never opposes Communism out of genuine revulsion against its systematic forms of oppression; one is rather a captive of a “global strategic” mindset, a craven apologist for the Pentagon, or a smug defender of the economic status quo in the capitalist world. Critical thought and anti-Communism do not coexist in Galbraith’s world.



Galbraith believes that the Left faces two fundamental challenges in the immediate period ahead: the first is to devise a workable model for a new, publicly controlled structure of corporate governance; the second is to train a cadre of talented and forceful men and women to manage nationalized entities. He offers a blueprint for the public corporation of the future which would transfer authority from private boards of directors to new mechanisms to be dominated, not surprisingly, by the leading members of Galbraith’s educational and scientific estate.

Galbraith’s plan would eliminate private stockholders. The corporate board of directors would be replaced by a “board of public auditors,” a majority of whose members would be appointed by the state, with the remainder coming from the upper ranks of management. Public members would be “men and women of strong public instinct” whose principal responsibility would be to insure that policies of the corporation served the public good. They would, for instance, assess the environmental impact of corporate decisions, determine whether corporate actions adhered to product safety regulations, and insure that the corporation maintained political neutrality. Galbraith emphasizes that the public director’s role would be generally limited to oversight functions. “Management must retain the major powers of decisions and therewith the capacity to perform,” he cautions, noting that uninformed meddling in management areas would have a detrimental impact on corporate achievement and, subsequently, on the public’s faith in nationalized enterprise.

Specifically excluded from representation on the new public boards would be trade unionists, the one group which might be thought to have the most justified claim to a participant role in corporate management. The explanation is that union members would really not be affected by the policies set down by the public board since daily operation of the corporate entity would continue to lie within the province of management. One suspects, however, that Galbraith’s dim opinion of codeterminationtype arrangements is largely a manifestation of his overall view of trade unions as insufficiently enlightened to promote corporate conduct that conforms to the “public good.” He would prefer to reserve the new places of corporate power for his educational and scientific estate, whose members would oversee the policies of the public corporation as well as handle the daily routine of management. Meanwhile, under the Galbraith model, the role of unions would be doubly diminished since collective bargaining, the foundation of trade-union strength in the U.S., would be handed over to the government officials who determine wage-price guidelines.



Galbraith acknowledges that the members of his enlightened estate are concerned about corporations because “that’s where the power is.” But he seems to find it inconceivable that the estate might be moved by common material interests or entertain cultural values antithetical to the interests and values of the majority. And although other groups would have a voice in public affairs, Galbraith would redraw the rules so as to make that voice a relatively powerless one. In the meantime, members of the estate would reign supreme, setting wages and prices, determining economic priorities, reorienting foreign policy, setting down the rules of whom to hire and admit to universities.

Most people would object to the entrenchment of this technocratic hierarchy in society’s commanding heights, just as the majority has in the past often rejected the ideas Galbraith put forth and the candidates he endorsed. Unfortunately, the educational and scientific estate has more than once demonstrated its ability to achieve its goals despite the expressed wishes of the majority—quotas and certain foreign-policy decisions being prime examples. Galbraith would have us believe that he speaks for people who have been unfairly and foolishly excluded from the machinery of power; in fact, Galbraith is the ideological spokesman for a class, or estate, which has a good deal of power, and wants much more.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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