Commentary Magazine

People or Personnel, by Paul Goodman

Getting out of Power

People or Personnel: Decentralizing And The Mixed System.
by Paul Goodman.
Random House. 247 pp. $4.95.

Paul Goodman’s latest book, like his earlier ones, tends to divorce the idea of politics from the idea of power. His analysis of what is wrong with American society is as convincing as ever, and it is hard not to sympathize with his plea for decentralization and a return to “community”; but how are these things to come about? By putting off the politics of power, according to Goodman, and putting on the politics of love; by learning to live “communally and without authority”; by working “usefully” and feeling “friendly.” As so often happens in American radicalism, power and authority themselves are defined as the source of evil. Politics then becomes non-politics; for politics is not “feeling friendly” but that which has to do with power.

Goodman has heard these arguments, of course, and he can reply that the “psychology of power” is itself a “neurotic ideology.” So it is, when it becomes an ideology; but an understanding of the neurotic obsession with power should not be used to rule out power, arbitrarily, as a subject of political analysis. Ruling out power simply means that Goodman’s proposals become subjects not for political discussion at all, if politics is concerned with the institutional relationships among groups of people, but for psychology. Having analyzed the evils of centralization—a political question, because it involves the distribution of power—Goodman prescribes not political solutions but therapy. As Robert L. Heilbroner has pointed out, he does not call on anyone to give up power; he only asks them to give up the psychology of power—an appeal that is not so disturbing as Goodman likes to think.



Two essays in particular, in the present collection, raise questions about power. One is a fine piece on the Columbia University Seminars, in which Goodman shows that important educational ends can be achieved by an institution that engages neither in teaching nor in research. When they were set up in 1944, the Seminars were supposed to do the things which modern universities consider so important: train advanced students, publish books and papers, solve problems. In fact they have never done any of these things. They exclude students, they sponsor no research, and they have not solved the problems (such as how to keep peace) which they were supposed to solve. Instead, they provide a setting in which scholars can talk and think together, without regard for formal academic boundaries, about what interests them, rather in the spirit of the 18th-century scholarly associations. They furnish a means of reviving the general discourse among scholars which the modern university, with its bureaucratic structure and its insistence on “production,” has so much disrupted.

Some of the members of the Seminars have grown impatient with this state of affairs. Paul Lazarsfeld wants to publicize the Seminars, to integrate them into the university, and to use them to compete with other schools in attracting students—in other words, to use them to serve conventional academic purposes which have nothing much to do with thinking and talking. Frank Tannenbaum, director of the Seminars, replies that “if this were to become an administrative operation, the Seminar movement would ultimately wither away.” Goodman adds that the conflict between these points of view was probably inevitable, “because our society is centralized and bureaucratized and rich, and the Seminars are decentralized and autonomous and poor.”



As an example of the desirability of “spontaneous administration,” Goodman’s discussion of the Seminars seems completely convincing. The question is what conditions are necessary to bring more such examples into being, or even to preserve this one. Goodman mentions three:

In any spontaneously administered community, it seems to me, two factors are of major importance: the power of the idea and needs that makes the members cooperate, and the nature—especially the social nature—of the members. (A third important factor is a surrounding environment that allows the community to live and breathe.)

Goodman characteristically states the last of these requirements as a parenthetical afterthought. It would nevertheless appear to be in some ways the most important. If Columbia had not been willing to tolerate the Seminars for twenty years, neither the members’ willingness to cooperate nor the ends which united them would have generated very much spontaneous administration. This fact reminds us that the university itself, whatever its defects, in some ways still remains an enclave in American society and devotes itself to objects which are not those of the society as a whole—just as the Seminars are an enclave within Columbia University. But if the business of American society as a whole is production and power, as Goodman says it is, what chance does “spontaneous administration” have outside a university or other intermediate institution which is willing to let it exist? In other words, the important fact in the success of the Seminars may be the power of the university to withstand outside pressure (just as the universities, on other occasions, have protected their faculties from witch-hunting politicians). What is distressing, of course, is that the price of the university’s power seems to be the very preoccupation with competing for top students and attracting government and foundation money that now threatens to destroy the Seminars. In the face of this situation, one can either resign oneself or try to hold the university to its real purpose—at least to prevent it from encroaching on the few genuinely educational experiments that have sprung up, by accident, in its midst. In any case the power of the university, for good or evil, exists; it cannot simply be ignored.

Another essay in People or Personnel deals with H. Stuart Hughes’s candidacy for the Senate in 1962. As a diagnosis of the “psychology of power” and of the American radical’s preoccupation with “getting into power,” this essay, like the one on the University Seminars, is extremely persuasive. But it is not so easy to agree with the proposition that the way to get rid of “our system of government” is to get rid of the psychology of power itself. Indeed it is not easy to agree that getting rid of the “system” ought to be the aim of those who object to it. Not that the system works; but neither can it be overthrown. To put it crudely, nobody has the power to overthrow it—not even the Negroes, even if overthrowing it, was what was on their minds. “Pacifism,” Goodman says, “is revolutionary: we will not have peace unless there is a profound change in social structure, including getting rid of national sovereign power.” This is not politics but day-dreaming.

It is true that many intellectuals, ostensibly critics of the present social order, covet its rewards and envy those “in power.” But Goodman cannot show this attitude to have characterized Hughes’s campaign for senator. He can only argue that such campaigns fail by definition: even if elected, a peace candidate “could hardly take a Constitutional oath to proceed to ring down the flag.” And “nothing less will serve,” Goodman argues.

Goodman writes feelingly of the sense of powerlessness that pervades American society, but it does not seem to me that the antidote for a sense of powerlessness is to be told that “nothing less will serve” than ringing down the flag. If we can’t have peace without a revolution, then we are powerless indeed. We had better assume that we can have peace by changing our foreign policy; or to go a step further, that we can restore something like democracy without engineering a revolution. A good place to begin would be to persuade people to stop believing everything the government tells them about its defense of the “free world.” The sense of powerlessness above all reflects an excessive respect for authority, a deference to “experts,” a feeling that our problems are too complicated for ordinary people to deal with. There used to be, in this country, a healthy suspicion of authority, rooted, however, not in the spirit of non-resistance but in the egalitarian belief that one man’s opinion was as good as another’s. This attitude no doubt ignored certain complexities of government, but its revival seems to me something worth working for, with the traditional techniques of political agitation—writing, speaking, arguing, even running for office. Before anything can be done along these lines, however, one group of social critics—the one Goodman rightly criticizes for its fascination with “getting into power”—will have to stop pretending to be experts themselves and secretly envying the experts in Washington. And another group of critics—the one exemplified by Paul Goodman—will have to stop pretending to be revolutionaries. We need a revolution, but making the need for revolution the basis of political agitation is a good way to defeat even the possibility of meaningful reform.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.