Commentary Magazine

The Politics of Hope, by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

New Frontiers

The Politics of Hope.
by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Houghton Mifflin. 298 pp. $5.00.

This collection of essays, written in the 1950’s and early 1960’s for a variety of magazines, reflects the amazing catholicity of Mr. Schlesinger’s tastes and interests. His range is wide indeed. There are pieces here on the virtues of dissent (written in the age of Eisenhower) and pieces on the need for greatness and heroic leadership (written at the onset of the Kennedy age). Mr. Schlesinger has discussed the Oppenheimer case (in the Atlantic), Whittaker Chambers (in the Saturday Review), and in Esquire he raised the question, “What has unmanned the American man?” Other essays comment on the careers of Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr, on the causes of the Civil War, and on numerous other subjects. This variety makes an assessment of the book difficult enough; the difficulty is compounded when one realizes how much Mr. Schlesinger’s role on the intellectual scene has changed during the period covered. He used to be a critical and unattached intellectual. He is now attached—to the White House. Hence one must distinguish carefully between the old Schlesinger and the new, even though the book’s organization, topical rather than chronological, plainly was not meant to invite such distinctions.

The earlier pieces, those written in the 1950’s, continue in the vein of the author’s Vital Center. They show a genuinely curious and troubled mind trying painfully to define a new liberal politics after the collapse of some of the traditional liberal certainties. Persuaded by Reinhold Niebuhr of the futility of Utopian visions in an immoral society of sinful men, Mr. Schlesinger here attempts to define the lineaments of a new pragmatic liberalism in tune with realistic requirements and the conduct of practical affairs. Aware of the stubborn recalcitrance of political facts before the grand schemes of certain of the older liberal thinkers, Mr. Schlesinger counsels caution, a politics of responsibility, a plunge into the course of history rather than a desperate struggle against its current. If his translation of the somber pessimism of certain theological thinkers into the idiom of high-level political journalism often sounds rather shallow, this is perhaps not entirely Mr. Schlesinger’s fault. He evidently does the best he can. And it remains that certain of these essays, those on Lippmann, De Voto, Niebuhr, and Chambers, for example, are perceptive, engaging, and sympathetic examinations of the life and thought of these men. In addition, certain of the polemical pieces of the 1950’s—against the New Conservatives, against Time’s disparagement of intellectuals, against those “revisionist” historians who would persuade us that the Civil War could have been avoided had everybody but been a bit more reasonable—are fine examples of the polemicist’s craft. But all these are products of a phase of his career which Mr. Schlesinger has now left behind. His newer pieces are no longer questioning and tentative; instead, they bristle with new-found muscular certainties.

The new style reveals the new man. Invigorated by the sweet taste of power, Mr. Schlesinger writes now with aplomb. His more recent essays abound in “forward motion,” “revived national energies,” “faith in leadership,” and long strings of similar clichés. Take, for example, the essay on “The New Mood in Politics,” written in 1960. Here Mr. Schlesinger assures the reader that “From the vantage point of the 60’s, the 50’s . . . will seem simply a listless interlude, quickly forgotten, in which the American people collected itself for greater exertions and higher splendors in the future.” Does this sound like political analysis or does it sound like campaign oratory? In fact, it is campaign oratory, indistinguishable from the highfalutin speeches of Mr. Schlesinger’s master and hero—which, come to think of it, were at least partly written by the same author.

The old Schlesinger often probed deeply and was aware of the complicated ambiguities of political action. The new Schlesinger has wholly succumbed to self-congratulatory certainty. He can now write: “Our national leadership is young, vigorous, intelligent, civilized, and experimental. . . .” All this is a bit hard to take, coming as it does from the pen of a man whose official address is The White House. Were there no self-employed trumpeters available?

The new Schlesinger, perhaps because of what John Dewey called “an occupational psychosis,” seems to have developed a trained incapacity to perceive the somber side of the American experience in the 1960’s. His complacency is formidable. He can now write, for example: “There are still pools of poverty which have to be mopped up; but the central problem will be increasingly that of fighting for individual dignity, identity and fulfillment. . . .” Some pools these! A spate of recent books—see Dwight Macdonald’s superb discussion of them in a recent issue of the New Yorker—have shown that at least one-fourth of the American population still lives in poverty. Reading Mr. Schlesinger’s cultivated prattle about identity, fulfillment, and the like, one cannot help recalling Bertholt Brecht’s “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” Brecht was often vulgar, but at least he was never smug.



If one is to believe Mr. Schlesinger, a truly remarkable transformation has occurred in America within a very short time span. In 1958 it was “a pompous society,” the 50’s were a “decade of inertia [when] we squandered, for example, a commanding weapons’ lead until our own officials now frankly concede that by the early 60’s the Soviet Union . . . will have a superiority in the thrust of its missiles and in the penetration of outer space.” Things were falling apart, and the vital center did not hold. But enter the 60’s and everything has changed: “We have awakened as from a trance; and we have awakened so quickly and so sharply that we can hardly remember what it was like when we slumbered.” The old Schlesinger was much given to attacks against the alleged “deterministic” explanations of sociology and to the vindication of “human freedom”; but the new Schlesinger’s belief in indeterminacy runs riot. Everyone has the right, I suppose, to invoke “heroic leadership” and to believe in the seminal and history-making actions of great men. But Mr. Schlesinger abuses the privilege. It is asking a bit much to have us believe that the mere advent of Mr. Schlesinger’s employer on the scene has, as with one wave of a magic wand, changed the major characteristics of an era and of a society. This is no longer social analysis, even if it is dressed up in terms of an alleged law of historical alternation between Innovation and Conservatism “discovered” by Mr. Schlesinger’s father a generation ago; it is just plain chutzpah. Are we really to believe that mass society with all its attendant signs and characteristics suddenly disappeared from America at the moment John F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. entered the White House? “Few,” writes the author, “would describe American society any longer in last decade’s condescending vocabulary of conformism and homogenization.” Is he kidding himself or is he trying to kid us?

Finally, I wish to comment on Mr. Schlesinger’s leading essay which carries the pretentious title “On Heroic Leadership and the Dilemma of Strong Men and Weak People.” This is an important essay, not because it says anything important, but because it seems to express the ideology which is now dominant among the President’s intellectuals in Washington. Here Mr. Schlesinger calls for a reconstitution of democratic theory, since “maintained in rigid purity, it has been an abundant source of trouble.” The citizen in a democracy, he says, simply cannot play the role in which classical democratic theory has cast him. This has led to political estrangement and frustration. Hence, Mr. Schlesinger argues, we need to rely on heroic leadership, we need to divest ourselves of our instinctive distrust of such leadership if the democratic polity is not to flounder in a sea of mass emotions. This, I submit, is a detestable doctrine.

I share Mr. Schlesinger’s view that the American political process has been characterized in recent years by a devolution of democracy, and that at least one of the major reactions to this has been an increase in political alienation. But Mr. Schlesinger’s heroic leadership doctrine, far from decreasing this alienation, would make it a permanent condition. It would institutionalize reliance on the tutelary powers of a government headed by heroic leaders. We would then truly have reached the condition that de Tocqueville always feared would threaten democratic nations: “As each member of the community is individually isolated and extremely powerless, no one of the whole body can either defend himself or present a rallying point to others ; nothing is strong in a democratic country except the state.” In such a condition, de Tocqueville thought, “the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.” According to Mr. Schlesinger, the crisis of democracy can be cured only by a strong injection of personalist appeals by a political hero. This is a pernicious remedy. What is needed is more participation in decision-making by the citizens, not less. If existing institutional restraints prevent such wider participation, they will have to be abolished. In the meantime, lunch-counter demonstrators and Freedom Riders, not Schlesinger’s managerial demiurges, maintain one’s faith in the possibilities of democracy. The future of democracy in America is tied to the chances of breaking up those illegitimate and irresponsible centers of power, both economic and political, which have grown up within the interstices of the democratic polity, and which effectively thwart the exercise of democratic decision-making, even as they strangle economic growth and equal access of the whole population to the good things of life. So far, one waits in vain for Mr. Schlesinger and his Washington co-thinkers to even mention, let alone deal with, this problem. Unless they do so soon, one will be forced to conclude that all this talk about heroic leadership is an ideological smokescreen behind which business can be conducted as usual.

All that I wanted to convey in this review has, in effect, already been said, and in the book itself. It occurs in a passage from Walter Lippmann’s The Method of Freedom which Schlesinger quotes in his essay on its author: “It is only knowledge freely acquired that is disinterested. When, therefore, men whose profession is to teach and to investigate become the makers of policy, became members of an administration in power, become politicians and leaders of causes, they are committed. Nothing they say can be relied upon as disinterested. Nothing they teach can be trusted as scientific. It is impossible to mix the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of political power and those who have tried it turn out to be very bad politicians or they cease to be scholars.” So be it.



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