The Accidental Century.
by Michael Harrington.
Macmillan. 322 pp. $5.95.
This is a book of great ambitiousness. That it is only a qualified success can hardly be surprising. How could it be anything else, when its subject is the meaning of all that has happened since the emergence of industrialism in the Western world? Such a book must be judged by the standard of intellectual force and courage, not by that of exactitude and completeness. So judged, The Accidental Century is quite marvelous, as much for the temptations it resists and chances it takes as for the cause it defends. Most of its answers are too brief, and some are ill-argued. But it identifies the right questions.
In its main outlines, Harrington’s thesis is that Western intellectuals have responded to the “sweeping and unprecedented technological transformation of the Western environment” with an almost total lack of comprehension. While the human capacity to act, to master reality, to do and undo, has grown ever greater, Western political and moral thought has remained obtuse, trivial, or irrelevant. Whether in the form of cultural pessimism or activist optimism, nay-saying or yea-saying, the famous systems of thought have all turned out to be useless. The result is that men blunder along unguided, unaware that life can be much better than it is, victimized by their own misunderstood techniques, and confused in their apprehension of the sources of danger and suffering. The revolution in human affairs proceeds, for the most part, accidentally; the impulse to order and conscious direction is stifled by the prevalence of bad thought.
Harrington writes as an unrepentant democratic socialist. To say that he is unrepentant is not to suggest, however, that the conventional statements of democratic socialism please him: they do not: they too are as faded, if not as harmful, as the competing idealisms and nostalgias. Nothing escapes Harrington’s censure. In fact, one of the most pleasing aspects of The Accidental Century is precisely its unrelieved dissatisfaction, a quality it shares with another recent radical book, Herbert Marcuse’s splendid essay on One-Dimensional Man. But where Marcuse writes out of a continental tradition dependent on Hegel, Marx, and their French and German inheritors, Harrington is unmistakably American. American experience, American disappointment, American resilience fill his pages. And the socialism to which Harrington is committed is also American: it is the socialism of affluence, socialism dominated by love of abundance and by concern for the right uses of abundance.
Given a temperament like Harrington’s, the European mind in some of its more intense manifestations will fascinate and demoralize at the same time. Devoting a few pages each to Nietzsche, Dostoevski, Camus, Yeats, Joyce, Proust, and Malraux—the treatment is inevitably sketchy—Harrington tries to get to the heart of what he calls “the magnificent decadence.” More interesting than anything he says about these writers is the simple fact that he chooses to consider them at all: they must be dealt with by anybody out to do what Harrington is out to do. He neither writes them off as reactionary aesthetes, nor insists that a genuine radicalism must grow more noble by assimilating them. He admires them for the way in which they wring great art out of the travail of Europe; but he doggedly faults them for saying or implying that great art is worth great travail, or that travail alone is compatible with human dignity. He will love them without compromising with them. The point is not to let beauty turn into distraction, or console too well, or become a substitute for an altered social reality. Harrington risks a great deal by taking on, one after another, the supreme “singers” of the 19th and 20th centuries, the romantic writers and the existentialists, the writers of the haughty, anti-bourgeois spirit. And, of course, he cannot get round them; they throw him back; they will not be dealt with in a few pages, if at all. Nevertheless, he knows that something must be said about the aesthetic peril to the cause of radicalism, “vulgar” though the anti-aesthetic critic must sound.
One of Harrington’s best chapters is on yet another source of political debilitation, the various theories of mass society: “. . . fear of the masses affected every faction in the age, moving from the Right to the Center and Left.” Much of modern social theory concludes in scorn of the crowd, the mob, the herd, the domestic barbarians, the mass-man, and so on. Sometimes pity or anguish takes the place of scorn. But it all comes to the same thing: the overwhelming majority is either destructive or inert, subversive of the old order or stupidly its most stalwart support, the plaything of cynical opportunists or the master of cowardly opportunists. Harrington is especially harsh on pessimists of the Right and Center, typified by Ortega (The Revolt of the Masses) and Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism). In a fine sentence, he says, “So tumultuous and concentrated has twentieth-century experience been that it has run through intellectual systems, sociologies, and metaphysics with cruel brusqueness.” On the one hand, there has been no revolt of the masses; on the other hand, Nazism is not the model of mass participation in political life, not the necessary shape of the future.
The main worry, though, is the left-wing critics, those who complain about the passivity of the masses. To them, Harrington concedes nearly everything. He is willing to speak of “the decadence of the poor,” willing to acknowledge that the movements of the Left have tended to be bought off too easily by comparative prosperity, or have often proved unable to assert themselves democratically at the expense of their oligarchic leadership, or have endured without complaint the joys of a manipulated mass culture. Common men (at least in the Western world), whatever they once were, are not now the bearers of some transforming sentiment; they have lost their mission. In their present state, they cannot be relied on to serve ideals that go beyond their own interest, narrowly defined. With a mixture of paradox and anxiety, Harrington asks, “. . . if not only the old ideologies, but the conflict of classes that provoked them as well, are finished and done with, where is the political equivalent of poverty that will motivate the new Utopia? Where, in a time of centralizing, concentrating power in every advanced nation, is there a substitute for the creativity of misery?” One is tempted to ask, in return, “If misery is on the way to being ended, is that not Utopia enough?”
Harrington’s answer, one frequently heard, is that the Western world is at the start of a second industrial revolution, the revolution carried forward by automation and cybernation, the radically new methods of production, communication, routine judgment, and management. The tendency of that revolution is to hold out the promise of leisure for all: the social question will no longer be to grant material sufficiency to the great mass of men, but will become the preservation of civilization’s vitality amidst effortless abundance. The relief of misery does not end the task of the reformer; it simply redirects it. And unless the party of reform realizes that this task is as immense and as serious as its earlier one, the world of affluence will be as awful as the older world of poverty. The world will drift, and a “degrading leisure would be society’s substitute for a degrading work.” As Harrington puts it pungently, “It would therefore require a tremendous burst of freedom and imagination to fill up the void left by the disappearance of starvation.”
Harrington gives a chapter to affirming his faith in the joys of leisure. He is all too aware that many have an almost superstitious dread of leisure; at moments Harrington himself whistles in the dark. He exorcises his fears by trying to come to terms with Freud’s notion that work is indispensable for keeping men in touch with reality, and that without work men would go to pieces. Again, he does not so much answer Freud as try to placate him by including him among those that must be reckoned with. In any case, Harrington is all on the side of the future. He will take his chances: surely men must have enough wit to avoid defeat at the hands of their good fortune. It must be better to suffer from leisure than from drudgery, better to suffer from satiety than from want.
Where then will the force come from to arrest the drift and redeem the promise inherent in the second industrial revolution? In conformity to Harrington’s own logic, the people must supply the energy. The social system will not of itself redeem the promise—of that Harrington is absolutely convinced. There must be vision, organization, a movement. But, as we have already noticed, Harrington is convinced also that the people have undergone their own sort of decadence. It is at this point that his analysis breaks down; it is the very point at which Marcuse’s analysis breaks down. Neither writer can plausibly suggest a practical basis for a new radicalism. They both want something more than radical ideas (although the absence of such ideas is one of their most bitter grievances); they want action. Harrington is quick to reject the scheme of violent seizure of power: that would be only to repeat the disasters of others, in circumstances wholly unsuited to revolution. Marcuse’s frail hope is lodged in “the substratum of the outcasts and the outsiders.” Harrington’s frail hope is lodged in the future ranks of unemployed clerks and “middle-level executives.” He says, “. . . if a working-class insecurity were to intrude upon middle-class life . . . a new stratum of society might be energized to seek basic and structural reforms.” Then again, it might not. In “. . . the immediate American future, the struggle of the liberal wing of the Democratic party seems to be the point of departure for any serious hope.” Harrington’s exploration of the century’s turmoil and promise thus ends very sadly. There is no need to mock the liberal wing of the Democratic party; but one does not mock it by failing to see in it the vehicle of democratic socialism, the vanguard of Utopian reorganization. It can facilitate much; it can shower a thousand (mixed) blessings on American society. But it cannot undertake to answer the questions put to human life by the minds arrayed in Harrington’s book, and it cannot take over the accidental revolution without destroying democratic politics.
Perhaps it would have been better to admit that the revolution must proceed accidentally, and that once the Leninist solution is disallowed, as it must be, the only alternative is, in fact, trusting—if one must trust—to the scattered, uncoordinated efforts of an ever-better-educated population. Harrington makes much of education, of what it alone can do, and of the need to extend and improve it. That may be the only request a Utopian thinker can legitimately make of his society, once the raw needs of that society are met: to give intelligence a chance, to encourage it, to dress it up in middle-class manners, and then wait and see. The only truly revolutionary group in the world is the educated children of the neurotic middle classes. How they will revolutionize is not to be predicted; but to say it again, if one must trust, there is nothing else in which to trust than the middle-class young.