Commentary Magazine

Radical Politics

To the Editor:

Despite its closely reasoned and at times unarguable conclusions, Tom Kahn’s article is more of a projection of his own politics than a description or discussion of the New Left [“The Problem of the New Left,” July]. As one of those about whom Mr. Kahn probably thinks he is talking, . . . I would like to raise my objections to what appear to be serious misunderstandings of the New Left.

When Mr. Kahn says “voluntary poverty, precisely because it is voluntary, is never real poverty,” he does not know what he is talking about. Carried to its logical conclusion, Kahn’s argument would imply that those of us who have been killed in the South or imprisoned for draft refusal didn’t really die or go to prison since those were “voluntary” acts. . . . While it is true that none of us has starved yet and there may be a few people in our midst who have romantic illusions about poverty, the reason some of us are poor is not because we like poverty, but because our commitment to changing a society which produces it has meant that some of us have worked with people who are poor and a few of us are now poor ourselves. I, certainly, need more money—and would welcome any contributions. Nor do those of us who are poor have the option of “escaping poverty,” as Kahn asserts. And the reason for that is simple: the middle class is not an escape—as race riots, tasteless suburbs, TV, and futile sex lives all suggest, and as a nuclear war may soon prove.

As for Kahn’s charge of anti-intellectualism—my own feeling is that SDS, for example, is too intellectually topheavy in some ways. Their arguments about “corporate liberalism” can become as abstract and unconnected with our experience as the debates among the “old” Left or those between the “old” and “new” Left. Nevertheless, the fact is that Oglesby, Lynd, Hayden, Parris, etc. do represent a very creative coterie of intellectuals. If U.S. political scientists don’t recognize that, so much the worse for them and for us.

I agree that one issue that has not been well thought out by the New Left is the issue of anti-Communism. . . . We do not have to repeat the mistakes of the 30’s, but this does not mean that the experience and problems of the 30’s are irrelevant. On the other hand, the refusal of the New Left to become anti-Communist has to do with a concern that Kahn and others of his ilk do not understand. . . .

Basically, our attitude is this: we have a legacy of millions of people murdered in the name of ideologies. Those people were Jews, Communists, Fascists, Christians, Shintoes, Negroes, whites, Orientals. Just as one does not have to be anti-Catholic in order to be a Protestant, or anti-Protestant in order to be a Roman Catholic, we do not believe that the struggle for democracy and anti-Communism are synonymous. Perhaps the experience of the religious wars of the Reformation is more germane than the battles of the American 30’s. In any case, the equation of Protestantism with anti-Catholicism and the equation of Roman Catholicism with anti-Protestantism did a disservice to both religions, and just as Protestants and Catholics have learned to live and work with each other, “democrats” and “Communists” are going to have to live and work with each other or perish.

But a greater failing on the part of Mr. Kahn is his attempt to describe the “Hayden-Lynd” influence” as a faction within the Left. A. J. Muste’s description of Lynd as “leading intellectual spokesman for the New Left” notwithstanding, it is precisely our refusal to let anyone else—including Staughton Lynd—speak for us that characterizes the New Left. Many of us feel that what Oglesby and Lynd and Bayard Rustin say is important—and Lynd included an ample selection of Rustin’s comments in his own recent anthology of non-violence in America—but they don’t speak “for us.” Nobody does.

I, for one, do not feel that Bayard Rustin is a “labor lieutenant of capitalism”—and I don’t think that was what Staughton Lynd really said if you look carefully at his speeches on that subject. In any case, Messrs. Kahn, Howe, and Harrington have all been overly concerned about that one remark and have taken it as a personal insult, with the result that their “objective” reporting about the New Left has been highly-colored and very undispassionate. . . .

Lou Clay Hill
New York City



To the Editor:

I don’t know where Tom Kahn gets his facts, but they are as distorted as his analysis. For example, the DuBois clubs, recognized by most of the New Left groupings as a constituent member of the New Left, and hardly dismissable in a footnote as just “pro-Soviet,” do not have “fewer than a thousand members” but rather a paper membership of 5,000 of whom nearly 3,500 are activists. . . .

As for Mr. Kahn’s analysis, he seems to share the paranoid concern of his old social-democratic “Left” heroes—Harrington, Rustin, and Howe—that the New Left doesn’t accept their particular brand of McCarthyism from the “Left”—i.e. their nearly hysterical “Stalinophobia,” and sterile, divisive, vitriolic anti-Communism, . . . which only harm the movements for social change and seek to create disunity. Witness Harrington’s (and I believe Kahn’s) role at the 1962 Port Huron SDS Conference where there was the injection of the irrelevant anti-Communist issue and an attempt, led by Harrington and his YPSL clique, to red-bait, smear, and isolate Tom Hayden (labeling him “Stalinoid”) and those forging a New Left. Such attitudes (reflected so fully in Kahn’s piece—one with which I’m sure Phillip Abbot Luce would find himself in basic agreement) objectively can only injure the movement, Left unity, and social progress, and aid and abet the power structure and the Johnson administration. Is it any wonder then that the Lynds, Haydens, Oglesbys are so harsh in their attacks on sterile anti-Communism, be it Katzenbach’s or that of the League for Industrial Democracy?

James A. Kennedy
Chicago, Illinois



Mr. Kahn writes:

To Mr. Hill, these points:

(1) It is impossible to write about the New Left without projecting one’s own politics. If my politics were identical with those of the New Left, there would be no basis for a critique. I do not believe that I distorted any facts, but, clearly, my interpretations and emphases flow from my own conceptions of social change, from my own assessment of the current American scene—which is to say, from my politics. For this I make no apologies.

(2) Mr. Hill’s analogy between voluntary poverty and “voluntary” imprisonment or death is silly. By “real poverty” I meant present material deprivation plus a sense of entrapment, helplessness. That kind of poverty, devoid of apparent concrete alternatives, is what most poor people experience and what most radical students do not.

Actually, I suspect that a man imprisoned for draft refusal—i.e., “voluntary imprisonment”—does experience confinement somewhat differently from men without a cause. But the distinction is less important here than in poverty because in prison the range of options is narrower; in death, of course, it is non-existent—which is what makes the analogy silly.

(3) The middle class is, by definition, an escape from poverty—even if not from “race riots, tasteless suburbs, TV, and futile sex lives.” But then I wasn’t talking about these. Mr. Hill simply offers another example of the middle-class radical’s tendency to confuse his alienation, his sense of the society’s spiritual poverty, with the real poverty of the poor. If all the poor were to achieve middle-class economic status, no doubt Mr. Hill would consider them still poor—which would be news to them!

(4) Not speaking for others of my ilk, I understand perfectly well the concern that motivates “the refusal of the New Left to become anti-Communist.” I just disagree.

Yes, millions of people have been slaughtered in the names of ideologies. Would Mr. Hill conclude that ideologies are therefore inherently bad, or that all ideologies are equally bad? Would he include the ideological assumptions (if not yet a system) of the New Left? Is he calling for an end to ideology? No, he is merely entangled in an intellectual confusion.

Clearly a socialist is anti-capitalist and a capitalist is anti-socialist. If this is not true, then definitions have gone out the window. The issue is, what is one for and against, and how one expresses his position.

My argument is that while anti-Communism is not synonymous with democracy, a democrat is necessarily anti-Communist. He cannot be for, or indifferent to, totalitarianism. This does not gainsay the obvious fact that, for various reasons of human survival, the democrat may have to coexist with the totalitarian. Nor does it mean that the democrat must engage in mass murder of totalitarians. On the other hand, to coexist with an enemy does not mean to merge with him or to surrender differences with him. To suppose so is to obscure ideological distinctions, which is to destroy the possibility of politics.

(5) Okay, nobody speaks for the New Left. If that’s true, either the New Left is voiceless or everybody speaks for it, in which case a host of questions arises concerning organizational responsibility and democratic representation of viewpoints. If the New Left has not chosen its own spokesmen, then am I not free to pick out those who, in my judgment, best articulate certain of its ideas? (I did say, incidentally, that I thought the Hay-den-Lynd influence was waning, though not the magnetism of their rhetoric.) As it happens, I picked out three of the four people Mr. Hill says “do represent a very creative coterie of intellectuals.” Are they not spokesmen? You cannot have your cake and eat it, too. You cannot enjoy the immunity from criticism afforded by the absence of spokesmen (“Did he say that? Well, you understand, nobody really can speak for us”) and then hold up these spokesmen as examples of the movement’s intellectual quality, bemoaning the failure of the outside world to recognize it.

I did not presume to judge the intellectual quality of individuals like Oglesby, Parris, Hayden, or Lynd. My criticism was that the New Left as a whole exhibited an anti-intellectual tendency precisely because it fails, as Mr. Hill does, to make important political-intellectual distinctions. This criticism is shared by many in SDS, particularly by the initiators of the Radical Education Project, affiliated with SDS by action of the latter’s National Council.

(6) Staughton Lynd’s suggestion that Bayard Rustin is a “labor lieutenant of capitalism” may be found in the June-July 1965 issue of Liberation magazine (page 18, paragraph 7). In the same article (same page, paragraph 6) he charges that Rustin is “in coalition with the marines.” The first phrase, incidentally, was originally “social fascist” until Liberation’s editors prevailed upon Lynd to moderate his language!

Mr. Kennedy’s letter hardly merits serious discussion, for it is a tiresome recitation of the Popular Front litany. There is nothing new or Left about his view that anybody who is anti-Communist injures the movement and abets the “power structure.” The only surprising thing about his brand of McCarthyite political blackmail—he would equate me with Katzenbach, although he knows that democratic socialists of my persuasion have an unequivocal record of opposing government inquisitions into anybody’s political beliefs—is that it is still on the scene, bedecked in the old phrases about “Left unity” and “social progress,” but this time posing as an emanation of the youthful naivete of the New Left.

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