For the last few years I have looked with increasing skepticism on the analyses and the actions of the radical Left in America. By the radical Left I mean those who believe there is something fundamentally and irredeemably wrong with our society, and who think the chief way of righting it lies in mobilizing the power of all the disadvantaged groups among us behind a drive for radical change, change going to the roots. My own skepticism in the face of so much passion and indeed accomplishment often troubles me, and it will certainly annoy radicals. They may say that to have been radical or liberal in one's youth, and to become relatively conservative in one's middle years, is so common an experience that it needs hardly any explanation at all. However, just as I would not explain the radical mood or outlook on psychological or temperamental grounds, so I would hope that radicals might suspend such easy judgments on my own outlook. There have been, after all, young conservatives and old radicals, even if not as many as the other way around. And just as I would accord the radical outlook full respect—as a perspective on the world that has its own rationale, its own roots, its own great thinkers, its own successes—so I would hope that radicals might for a while consider the point of view that is skeptical of their analyses, their programs, and their hopes.
There are three principal areas in which the new radicalism expresses itself: the problem of the Vietnam war, and by extension the whole question of the role of the United States in world affairs, and in the development of the poorer countries; the problem of achieving equality for Negroes, which now centers in the crisis of the great urban ghettos; and the problem of higher education—in particular the role of youth in the administration of the campus and the shaping of the curriculum. In none of these three areas can we point to much to be happy about. I need not describe the sense of catastrophe that hangs over us whether we consider the war, or the black-white conflict. I would not apply so grand a term as catastrophe to the campus situation, and yet there is a growing sense of the triviality of much of mass higher education; and while I would hesitate to go so far as to say that the hearts and minds of our young people are being destroyed, I think the crisis in the universities is as serious in its own right for American youth as are Vietnam and race for the larger society.
In all three areas, radicalism, true to the term, wishes to go to the roots because, it says, what is wrong in each case is wrong at the roots. To find a half-million Americans in Vietnam, killing and being killed, burning villages and destroying crops, is sufficiently outrageous to make it plausible that there is a horror within the bowels of our society which has called these outer horrors forth. To find in the ghettos vast numbers of poverty-stricken people who have lost all faith in society, their fellow man, and their own power, who present a picture of disinheritance that no other advanced industrial society can show us; and to find on the other hand among many whites a ferocious hatred of these unfortunates that again no other advanced society can show us—this too is sufficient cause to assume that the roots are poisoned. To confront, finally, in the colleges and universities a host of petty demands and restrictions irrelevant to understanding and education, makes it easy enough to believe that something very basic is the operative cause.
Faced with these evils, and the general sense that something fundamental is wrong, the radical chooses between two broad general approaches to getting at the roots. One is the whole grand scheme of Marxism, in its various modern formulations. Capitalism is too old-fashioned a term to arouse much interest—it is now replaced by imperialism. Similarly, the increasing misery of the working class is replaced by the increasing misery of the underdeveloped world, and by that of our own “colonials” at home, the Negroes and other minority groups. The machine presumed to be at the heart of the misery has also been modernized, but fundamental to it still is the selfishness of a ruling class which cannot or will not give up its power and which therefore must be smashed. The mechanisms of a better society are still not studied much—they fall under the ban Marx and Engels imposed on utopianism and reformism. Thus the Communist country where the most serious effort to establish such mechanisms has been made, Yugoslavia, is of no great interest to today's radicals. They are more concerned with Cuba and China, which still maintain a pre-institutional—or a post-institutional?—revolutionary vigor, in which the thought and decisions of the central leader of the revolution are capable of overturning the new and barely established social structures every other day.
The most attractive aspect of the new radicalism is that it has developed a second and more popular approach to getting at the roots—more pragmatic and empirical, more humanist, less mechanical and dogmatic. This is the approach suggested in the Port Huron statement of 1962, a document characteristic of the early spirit of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). But the candid and open stance of the New Left in its first phase of development—that something deep was wrong but no one quite knew precisely what it was or what would change it—could not be maintained forever as a basis for action. Thus an explanation began to emerge. The simple analysis of the Old Left, that capitalism or imperialism is at the root of the matter, was not very satisfactory, if only because it was too easy to point to the example of capitalist countries like Sweden and England on the one side and Communist ones like Soviet Russia and East Germany on the other to prove that no necessary causal relation exists between oppression and the institutions of capitalism. Referring to real experience—“where am I bugged?, where do I feel the pinch?”—the New Left began to decide that the problem lies not in the institutions of capitalism as such but rather in all types of fixed and formal institutions. The university administrator is not involved in the search for private profit, nor is the indifferent slum school teacher, the insensitive social worker, the hypocritical mayor, the technologically minded general. Rather—so goes the new argument—they are all small men trapped into serving big and powerful institutions that have grown hopelessly distant from immediate human needs and satisfactions. The institutions nevertheless draw on strong personal motivations to achieve their inhuman ends—the desire for money and power and advancement, for security, for a comfortable home-life in suburbia. In the view of the New Left, the minor and more benign motivations of men emerge as having greater potentialities for evil than the grander ones. It is the man who wants to do his best for his wife and children, keep up the mortgage and buy a new car—it is this man who also releases the gas in the chambers and who makes the napalm containers. He may even be a good union member and vote Democratic.
When one sees institutions themselves as the source of our present evils, and when one sees these institutions fed not by the limited and distorted motivations of rampant capitalism, but by such ancient and well-rooted human impulses as the drives for comfort, security, and family, then one has forged an analysis which is indeed powerful.
Nevertheless, the New Left has an answer—a conception of democracy in which our traditional mix of civil liberties and elected legislatures and officials is supplemented or supplanted by new rights and new forms of democratic intervention in the process of decision-making and administration. Thus attempts have been made to establish such rights as those of the poor to direct representation in the institutions that affect their lives, to financial support with dignity, to legal counsel. These new conceptions have already scored remarkable successes. We have seen formerly unshakable Boards of Education begin to bow to demands that only a year or two ago may have seemed extremist and irrational—for example, the demand for community control of ghetto schools. We have seen “student power” in higher education reach levels that were inconceivable four years ago. To be sure, the forging of foreign policy still appears to lie beyond the reach of New Left ideas. And yet is it? In recent demonstrations we have seen revolutionary techniques employed that are justified less by resort to the traditional rhetoric of revolution than by the argument that new forms of “representation” of minority points of view are required in a democratic polity.
The question of how enduring these new developments will be still remains open, but it is clear that they already serve as extremely effective weapons to advance the argument that something fundamental is wrong with American society. Of course, the argument that something fundamental is wrong leads easily to the conclusion that something grand and apocalyptic is required to set it straight. And indeed, the two positions reinforce each other: given the inclination toward some tremendous change, some tremendous flaw must be found to justify it (just as the reverse is true). But a powerful analysis of what is wrong with society may be too powerful. The radical Left explains what is wrong by the tendency of men to act within institutions which develop their own dynamic, and a dynamic which may become irrelevant or positively subversive of the ends they are set up to realize. As instances, they point to the tendency of educational institutions to act in such ways as to inhibit education, welfare institutions in such ways as to reduce competence, defense institutions in such ways as to increase the likelihood and the ferocity of war. When I say that this analysis may be too powerful, I mean to raise the question: what alternative is there to institutions designed to deal with problems, calling upon the more common and everyday motivations, and developing their own rigidities and blinders?
There is an answer on the New Left even to that—and the answer is to release man's natural creativity and spontaneity, whether through revolution, or through participatory democracy, or through the smashing of the old institutions, and to hope that these newly released forces will finally lead to the overcoming of ancient social dilemmas. For the New Left believes that man is good by nature, and corrupted by institutions; that the earth and its riches are sufficient to maintain all men in comfort and happiness, and that only human selfishness and blindness prevent the emergence of this ideal state. One can appeal to the early Marx, who is so popular today, and his vision of a society in which man can fish in the morning, work in the afternoon, and criticize the arts in the evening, just as he will, and entirely according to the rhythms of his own being. Some on the New Left believe that only a violent overthrow of the institutions of society can bring such a world to birth; others believe that a steady and determined and unyielding pressure on power elites and power holders, if applied long enough, ingeniously enough, unflinchingly enough, will force these groups to give up their power and their goods and to desist in their willful obstruction of those who wish to create a better and more beautiful world.
There are, in my opinion, three serious flaws in this position.
The first is the assumption that the problems of bringing a better society into being are fundamentally problems of power. This has become a matter of gospel, and not only with the New Left. Yet the fact is that only certain basic problems can be settled, and even those only to a limited degree, by direct clashes between conflicting interests; and in advanced societies, the number of such problems grows progressively smaller and smaller. The natural history of social problems seems to involve an initial stage in which a selfish power monopoly must be defeated or overthrown. But clear evils to fight against are rapidly succeeded by increasingly ambiguous evils, whose causes and solutions are equally unclear. The minute we move to this later stage, we confront one important limitation of the radical perspective.
Let me be concrete. In the South not long ago, the resistance to equality for Negroes was centered in an irrational and inhuman racist ethos that denied to Negroes the most elementary rights of man in a democratic society, such as the right to a fair trial, to the security of life and property, and to the vote. The task of confronting these evils was simply to fight them, to organize to fight them, to insist that the Constitution be obeyed—even, if one was heroic enough, to die or risk death in the process.
But this was the initial stage of reform: equivalent in its moral clarity to earlier battles like those aimed at extending the franchise, banning child labor, establishing labor's right to organize, setting up systems of unemployment insurance and social security. After the principle has been established there comes a second stage, in which the problems are more complex, often more technical. It is in part for this reason that the administrators and the experts now take over, together with those whose interests are directly concerned, while the army of reformers moves off to issues in which the conflict between good and evil is still clear cut. This is precisely what happened after the victories of the civil-rights movement in the South and the shift of the movement to the North.
We are often very sympathetic to cynical explanations of human behavior, including our own, and we are thus attracted to the belief that when Southern whites only were affected by Negro demands, Northern whites could be staunchly militant in defense of Negro rights, but that when the Northerners themselves were affected, they fell silent or slunk off the battlefield. But something rather more important occurred as the battleground of the civil-rights movement shifted from the South to the North. In the South, the issues were civic equality and the vote; in the North, because both these goals had long been attained, the issues became employment and upgrading in jobs, income, education, housing. These are all highly complex matters that no simple law can settle. It cannot be decreed that Negroes and whites should have the same income regardless of their skills and education, or that they should have the same education regardless of their home backgrounds, or that they should have the same home backgrounds, regardless of their history, their culture, their experience.
Of course it is possible, even in this later stage of reform when the key element has ceased to be the obdurate political power of a selfish interest group, to insist that nothing has really changed. Thus, many who argue that it is “white racism” which is keeping the Negro down—an idea strongly encouraged by the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—are in effect trying to cast the enormous problems of creating a true and widespread equality for American Negroes in the pattern of the heroic battles to change the cruel social structure of the South. Yet this interpretation flies in the face of the fact that racist attitudes have been in steady decline in this country for two decades. And if “white racism” refers to practices, it contradicts the reality that most of the major institutions in American life—government, big business, higher education, the foundations—have been engaged for years in a variety of efforts to increase and upgrade Negro participation in every area of American life. Paradoxically, “white racism” has become a rallying cry precisely at a moment when it has never been milder.
The truth is that it is not white racism but the difficulty of the problems which has so far frustrated us in finding satisfying jobs for the hard-core unemployed, or improving education and housing in the ghettos and slums. Not even the enactment of such legislative proposals as are being put forward by the Poor People's March on Washington would by itself settle matters—as, in its time, the enactment of the right to collective bargaining did. If the government were to become the “employer of last resort,” there would still be thorny questions concerning rates of pay (certainly minimal wages would no longer be a solution, as they were with WPA in the depression), civil-service protection for these workers, and policies for dealing with incompetence and absenteeism—for after all we are speaking of people who cannot get jobs or will not take those which are available in a fairly brisk labor market.
If we consider education, no reform has yet been proposed or envisaged that can reasonably promise better education for ghetto youth, though we can passionately support community control of schools as a measure which might at least help to affect the tricky factor of the child's motivation. And even when we speak of housing and neighborhoods, where simple physical facilities alone are important, we have no easy solutions—as becomes evident once the question is raised of how much happier the poor have proved to be in public housing projects than in slums. In none of these major areas is there a major reform that can promise what social security or the right to collective bargaining promised. This is only an index to the increasing complexity of our problems; themselves the result of the increasing sophistication of social demands—not any job, but a good and meaningful job with security and promise of advancement; not merely free education, but education with certain effects; not just a minimally adequate dwelling, but one located within a network of social supports that we can often scarcely divine, let alone set out to create.
Even the demands for a guaranteed annual income, or a negative income tax, or a family allowance—demands that are, it is clear enough, pressed because there is no rapid and easy path to equality through good jobs—raise further technical questions that will not be solved by the passionate insistence that Congress decree an end to poverty or that communities do away with white racism. The guaranteed annual income or negative income tax would have serious and undetermined effects on those who work for rates at or near the legal minimum. If such workers (maids, messenger boys, janitors, hotel employees, restaurant employees, etc.) are to retain any incentive to work, the guaranteed annual income or negative income tax return must be set below the minimum wage—at which point we are back to welfare and the painful issues it involves (who qualifies, for how much, etc.?). The family allowance is less problematic, but as generally proposed it is too small to permit the abolition of the welfare system; nor can we be happy over the inevitable support it entails for population growth at a time when for other good reasons we might want to discourage large families.
At the moment it is fashionable among radicals to ignore these details and to justify their indifference by an assault on the idea that work is necessary to society. But anyone who looks concretely at what human beings in this country want, and what radicals feel is the least they should have (good housing, good education, various social services, good health care, recreational opportunities, etc.), and then simply adds up what that requires in the way of material and human resources, would soon be disabused of the notion that we can ignore the effects of various social measures on the incentive to work. Quite characteristically, the radical wants it both ways—he wants services that are enormously costly in manpower, and he wants social measures that will encourage fewer people to work.
If the issues become thus complex, when there are no simple slogans to proclaim—or, when such slogans are proclaimed, there are no visible routes to their immediate realization—then understandably the fervor and commitment of many reformers and radicals fall off. This is in part what happened when the issue of civil rights for Negroes in the South was replaced by the issue of achieving effective equality for the Negro throughout the nation. We can trace much the same development in all the earlier areas of reform; indeed, the advancement of a society can almost be measured by the extent to which political issues are transformed into technical issues—when this happens it is generally a sign that the central power struggle is over. In Scandinavia and England the provision of good medical care, for example, has come to involve such questions as how many doctors and nurses are needed, how they should be trained, how they can be kept from going to America or induced to move to small towns and distant rural areas, what kind of hospitals should be built, etc. Of course, politics enters into all this, with parties taking positions according to their class composition, their history, and their ideology. Yet such differences are relatively marginal, and only one element of many—among which they are by no means the most important—going into the framing of solutions.
To my mind, there are fewer and fewer major areas of American domestic policy in which the old-fashioned conflict between interests representing clearly reactionary forces, and the interests of the society in general, still remains central. One is the continued Southern resistance to legislation aimed at bettering the lot of the Negro; another is the continued resistance of organized medicine to an adequate program of medical care. In most other areas, I would argue, complex technical issues have superseded the crude power struggle between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress. This is not to deny that self-serving interests still operate throughout the political sphere, but so long as care is taken to pay them off, they do not constitute serious roadblocks in the way of improving our society. The drive for security is a massive one—in farmers, in businessmen, in workers—and I am not sure that our special interests are so much stronger than their counterparts in other societies which manage their problems pretty well, or in any imaginable future society.
A second argument against the perspective of radical leftism follows from this general point that in an industrially advanced society, whatever its background and history, social problems become more and more complex, more technical, and less political: Because change is continuous in such societies, no solution is ever complete or final, and consequently there is no alternative to bureaucracies, administrators, and experts. Of course, certain issues are on occasion structured so that solutions really can have a once-and-for-all character—in particular those issues which can be posed in strictly political or legal terms. Thus, the right to organize, when put into law and upheld by the courts, finally ended one great battle in American history. But most of the problems we face are not so simple and require continuous expert attention.
Consider, for example, public housing. No directly political measure, like a huge appropriation of money, could solve the problem of housing in this country; nor could the introduction of some new principle, like the once-new principle of public housing itself. For no matter what we might do on the political front, we would still have to decide what kind of housing to build, where to build it, in what size developments and at what scale; we would need to know the effect of setting different income limits, of excluding or not excluding those with criminal records, of accepting this proportion or that from the relief rolls; and we would have to determine the further effect of these and many other decisions on the balance of integration and segregation. There is no way of reaching such decisions from any large political position, radical or conservative: indeed, these questions (and they are increasingly becoming the ones that any advanced society must settle) make those very distinctions irrelevant. A few years ago I visited Warsaw and spoke to researchers in the field of housing and other social services. The problems we spoke about, that troubled them, were not very different from those of anyone dealing with housing in New York or Chicago, or, I would hazard, in Stockholm and Moscow.
Public welfare is another example. In the 1930's the basic issue was raised: is the government responsible for providing subsistence to those unable to earn it themselves? And the answer, after a struggle, was given: yes. It was, as is common in this politically complex nation, not as good or sharp an answer as other nations have given, but in the more advanced states of the Union, at any rate, public services of a standard commensurate with that of Northwestern Europe were established for the widowed and orphaned and abandoned and aged and disabled. The battle was over; reformers and radicals rested, or moved off to other fields. Twenty years later they were back, in force, denouncing the social workers, organizing the clients against them. What had happened? Had welfare services deteriorated or been cut back? Quite the contrary. More was being spent on them and they were probably being run more efficiently. Yet where it had once seemed the achievement of a generous society that those without income were no longer required to beg or to depend on private charity, but now received as of right some minimal level of subsistence, it seemed to the society of twenty years later an outrage that they were maintained on a dignity-destroying dole, that they were not rehabilitated, turned into productive and self-respecting citizens. Let me suggest that it is much easier to give someone money than to turn him into a productive and self-respecting citizen. The first task is also a much easier one to place on the banners of a political movement or to write into legislation than the second.
Or consider the poverty program. Within Congress, Left and Right both agree that something should be done about poverty, and that training the unemployed or the not-yet employed is a good idea; in consequence we have now developed a large range of training programs, of varying kinds, under varying auspices. When any one of these programs comes up for renewal, the technical people running it will always argue that theirs is the most important and should be maintained or expanded, and will try to convince their friends in Congress. Now it is true that congressmen, faced with conflicting expert opinion and pressure from differing interests, will tend to fall back on old prejudices and old political commitments—the liberals will generally say, spend more, the conservatives, spend less. But the combat takes place in a surprisingly restricted area. It is not yet as restricted as the area of political combat in England and Sweden, but it is much narrower than it was in this country twenty years ago.
Admittedly the overall scale of expenditures on housing or welfare or work-training programs is still an important political question in America, but this is not really what many on the radical Left are concerned about. For even if we were to spend twice as much in each of these areas as we do now, things would not really change that much, and no one—least of all the radical Leftists themselves—would believe that the millennium awaited by the radical Left had arrived.1 But as a matter of fact, even the scope of politics as regards the scale of expenditure is remarkably restricted. In all advanced countries, taxes are very high and not easily increased; similar proportions of the GNP are devoted to social welfare; and the increasing competition among equally worthy programs—health, education, welfare, work-training, scientific research, and the like—poses similarly perplexing decisions. We may come to a better understanding of these matters, but scarcely by following the assumptions and perspectives of the radical Left.
If, then, the need for reform and change is continuous, and depends on the expert knowledge of technicians continuously applied, there can be no alternative to institutionalization, the permanent bodies devoted to permanent problem areas, with all its consequences. I do not see how any sensible man can still think, as Lenin did in State and Revolution, that institutions and the state will wither away to the point where they can be run on a part-time and unspecialized basis by—in his term—cooks. Yet this is the vague, if not always expressed, hope of the New Left. Knowing that institutions corrupt, they hope to do away with them. One of the major grounds for my skepticism is my belief that, even though they corrupt, there is no chance of doing away with them.
I am aware, of course, of the common wisdom that to put education in the hands of the educators, housing in the hands of the professional housers, welfare in the hands of the social workers is to ensure that traditional practices will become institutionalized, that reformers will be fought, and that difficulties will pile up and get worse. But the fact is that judicious, flexible, creative people are always in short supply. Not every problem can be placed in the hands of the best men in the society—though this often seems to be what we are asked to achieve when we are told that our doctors must be better, our teachers must be better, our social workers must be better. Where after all are we to find a place for the people in our society who are less than the most imaginative, the most energetic, the most effective? The great majority of men, whether or not they lead lives of quiet desperation, certainly hope to lead lives of minimal security and moderate gratification. While we take it for granted that this is a reasonable and humane objective for Vietnamese peasants or Indian city-dwellers, we consider it reprehensible that most American doctors, teachers, social workers, and the like are of the same sort. No doubt this common human tendency seems reprehensible when viewed in the context of the suffering we are called upon to alleviate. But what solution is there? As far as I can see, only the normal political one—when the problems become bad enough, and enough people get angry and protest, new programs are started, new men and new ideas flow in, and hopefully all this leads to a new level of achievement, itself to become institutionalized in its turn, and to require at some later time another infusion of ideas, money, and innovators from the outside.
The New Left's main answer to the problem of institutionalization is participatory democracy, a concept derived from the Paris Commune in which, according to Marx's account, the people, permanently politicized, permanently in arms, met every day to settle their fate. This is a grand vision and one which makes it possible to argue that all established institutions, even if formally democratic, are actually undemocratic because they do not reflect the desires of the people at any given moment. I cannot imagine, however, how one can ever overcome the danger raised by a direct dependence on the people, permanently in session. For it inevitably means depending on that part of the people that is willing, for one reason or another, to stay permanently in session.
Participatory democracy is suited to truly revolutionary movements and moments—but only moments. No people as a whole has ever been ready to make a primary commitment to political action over a long period of time. Those who assert that formal democracy cannot be true democracy because many do not vote, many who vote do not know, the candidates do not reflect the full range of opinion and possibility, etc., ignore the fact that this limited interest on the part of most people most of the time is actually among the greatest defenses of democracy. It means, as Aaron Wildavsky has pointed out, that there are always enormous reserves to be mobilized whenever significant interests are affected. Wildavsky contends that one of the most critical resources in politics is time—time for talking, electioneering, canvassing—and the poor have as much of this resource as anyone else. Perhaps money decides only unimportant things, such as which of two not very different candidates will carry an election. But if important issues arise, reserves are available that can be brought into battle. Is it not such reserves that the organizers in the slums are now trying to mobilize? If they fail, as they sometimes do, it may be because they have not correctly diagnosed what is really troubling people in the slums, because they have been unable to convince them that the potential gains are worth their sacrifice of time and energy. And if issues are indeed becoming increasingly complex, it also becomes harder and harder to isolate and sloganize action that, if demanded and then taken, will result in a clear improvement of conditions.
In response to all these realities, we find new and astonishing doctrines coming into vogue. Herbert Marcuse, for example, attacks democracy and tolerance as themselves being barriers to the actions required for the overthrow of a monstrous society. In the past, even the Leninists, whatever their actual practices—the suppression of free speech and the murder of political opponents—usually tried to cover them up with such terms as “peoples' democracy” and with such justifications as the paramount need to defend the revolution from the violence of others. But lip service to the virtues of democracy and tolerance are now, it seems, to be abandoned by radicals on the ground that democracy and tolerance only protect an evil society—protect it precisely because they can be displayed as its virtues! We have come to such twisted arguments as one recently given by an American professor against accepting a Fulbright fellowship: he agreed that he was free to attack American foreign policy abroad, but by so doing he would mislead his foreign audience into believing that the United States was a free society and worthy of support by men of good will.
In the universities, participatory democracy has now been replaced by a new doctrine which decrees that when democratic procedures either do not exist (as indeed they do not in many sectors of many universities) or when a democratic system fails to respond to deeply felt needs (as with the Vietnam war) then it is quite legitimate to engage in disruption and disorder to bring about change. This argument has attracted the support of substantial minorities of students and even of faculties, though it has been less effective among the American people at large.
The new doctrine, which we see exemplified at Nanterre and Columbia, is a far cry from the ideals of participatory democracy, especially in the early days of the new Left when meetings were open to all, when discussions to gain consensus went on endlessly, when there was deep soul-searching about the morality of engaging in activity that provoked the violence of political opponents and police. Under the auspices of the new doctrine, the rights of the majority are held in derision, and political opponents are prevented from speaking or being heard. Tactics are worked out to strip authorities of dignity through staged confrontations, to arrange matters so that violence will erupt for the benefit of the press and television, to win over basically unsympathetic students who, owing to their commitment to fairmindedness, will almost always be “radicalized” by exposure to police intervention. In effect, we have moved from the ideal of the politicized masses with direct control over their fate—an unlikely form of organization in any case—to the quite cynical manipulation of the masses by those who themselves object to “formal” democracy and to the public order and tolerance that are its foundation. That small minorities are able to get so far with these tactics is attributable to two circumstances: first that they operate in an environment (the university) which is in fact undemocratic and which is also totally incapable of handling confrontation, disruption, and provocation; and second, that we have in the Vietnam war a case in which democratic processes most certainly do not work well, any more than they do in less explosive sectors of foreign policy in this country.
I think some good has and will come out of these tactics—university constitutions are being revised, and probably for the better—balanced by a good deal of evil. Alongside the wrong of university administrations which are unresponsive to faculty and student opinion, we now have the new wrong of groups of students who can impose their will on the university, regardless of what the majority of their colleagues and teachers want or think. Just recently, the students of Stanford University voted 70 per cent in favor of allowing the government agencies and Dow Chemical to recruit on campus—but on how many other campuses has policy been made by an aggressive minority, without a student vote to determine majority sentiment? The fact that our universities are not democratically organized has made it possible for small groups to instigate change and reform—and this is to the good. But the ultimate end of these changes and reforms will still have to be something on the order of formal democracy—universal suffrage, free discussion, free balloting, all of which seem remote from the affections of the passionate on the New Left. For when these democratic forms prevail, leftists can claim no greater rights than others, regardless of how strongly they feel they are right.
Through these changes in attitude and tactics, an anti-institutional bias remains at the heart of the New Left position; and at the heart of my own critique of that position is my belief that there can be no substitute for institutions, even though they may become tired, bureaucratic, and corrupt. Yet no more, in my view, can there be any substitute for the organized and aroused people when the institutions become, as they ineluctably will, inadequate to their task. At that point, they must be supplemented or supplanted by new institutions, which will hopefully respond more sensitively to the needs of their clients. I think in the host of proposals and experiments of the past six or seven years there have been many good ones—but then they eventually will become part of the institutionalized system too. We now have neighborhood law firms, which some people around the poverty program saw as the guarantor of a determinedly antagonistic and suspicious attitude toward all institutions. But why? How can they escape becoming institutions themselves? They will have to recruit staff, set limits to their work load, accept some cases and reject others, arrive at a modus vivendi with the rest of the institutionalized world, give security to their employees. And would we want it otherwise? Do we want to devote, each of us, full time to every problem—welfare, education, housing, legal rights, and what have you—or are we prepared to accept the subdivisions of a complex society, leaving some of our resources in reserve, to be called out against the worst problems, the most serious scandals?
One does feel rather like a Scrooge in insisting that spontaneity and feeling can never replace the institutions, with their bureaucrats, clerks, secretaries, forms, computers, regulations, and—hopefully—appeal boards. But there are to my mind more serious reasons than any I have yet suggested for thinking that this dream of the New Left must remain a limited one, and this brings me to the third major failing of the radical perspective. As I look to the future, I see that the expectation of more freedom, of more spontaneity, must be disappointed. Kenneth Boulding has pointed to three factors pushing us inexorably toward a more rather than a less organized society: one is the existence of the terribly destructive atomic weapons, the second is the growth of population, the third the exhaustion of natural resources. To these three might be added a fourth: the pollution of the environment.
The interesting thing about all these problems is that they take on roughly the same character in all advanced societies, and in each case the answer seems to come down to greater controls. Thus, once the atomic weapons emerge, there is no way of sweeping them under the rug. They are a reality, and to deal with them involves a species of considerations which makes the radical perspective all but entirely irrelevant. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps one can envisage the masses raging through the streets of Moscow and Washington demanding the absolute destruction of these horrible weapons, and with full faith in the good will of the other side. But even if we were to get this far, can anyone imagine the same thing happening in the streets of Peking, or Tel Aviv, or Cairo?
The population explosion—and I assume we are all frightened at the projections—constitutes a similar trap, for it means that the most basic of all forms of human spontaneity will have to be subjected to elaborate institutional controls if the world is ever to arrive at anything like the good life, or the good-as-possible life, that radicals so mistakenly tie to the overthrow of organized society. So too the gradual exhaustion of natural resources—which we are less concerned about today but which we will soon be forced to worry about constantly—sets another inexorable limit to the kind of society in which freedom is maximized and controls put at a minimum. As to environmental pollution, it is a more immediate concern, and one ironically linked to higher standards of living, in the form of insecticides, soaps, fertilizers, automobiles. Here too we can only foresee greater and more intrusive controls being imposed—not only in America but in all advanced countries, and not only under capitalism but under Communism (as a glance at the Russian response to these same problems quickly reveals). The radicals have offered no alternative to these imperatives, except the return to smaller communities, and lower standards of living. This I would regard as wholly consistent with their outlook, and one that makes sense in its own terms. Relatively few people, however, are willing to adopt it, and in the underdeveloped world it makes no sense at all.
My discussion up to now has concentrated solely on domestic affairs. Perhaps many might agree that our domestic problems are complex, require continuous and expert attention, and in large measure transcend or make irrelevant traditional political distinctions. But what about Vietnam? It is on this issue, after all, that the radical Left now principally expresses itself. Does not Vietnam point to some horrible illness in the American system—a sick reliance on technology as the solution to all problems, an outrageous view of the American role and prerogatives in the world, a suppressed violence which will out in the most grisly forms, an inhumanly narrow view of other societies and other peoples? I would agree that just as domestic politics stops at the water's edge, so my analysis in large measure is relevant only to our domestic problems. Many people look at the war and conclude, as I said at the beginning, that the roots are poisoned, that radical change is needed. Many other people—and this is a constant in the history of radicalism—begin with the idea that the roots are poisoned, and take the war as proof of their original conviction. Like the Talmudic scholar in the old story, they once ran through the streets shouting, “I have an answer! Does anyone have a question?” But now Vietnam has given them a very good question, too.
Nevertheless, I cannot accept the idea that the fundamental character of American society, its political or economic life, is the prime cause of the horrors of Vietnam. In the end, I cannot help believing, the Vietnam war must be understood as the result of a series of monumental errors. The key point to me is this: America would not have had to be very different from what it now is for some President to have gotten us out of Vietnam rather than deeper and deeper into it. Was America so much different or so much better under Eisenhower than it has been under Johnson? And yet all it took was a simple decision by Eisenhower to keep us from intervening in Vietnam in 1954.
The Vietnam war does to my mind point to something basically wrong with the American political system, but it is less apocalyptic than the analyses of the radical Left suggest. I believe-along with Senator Fulbright—that foreign policy, which was relatively marginal for the United States until the late 1930's, has become, or has remained, too exclusively the province of the President and his closest advisers. Whereas in domestic affairs the President must answer constantly to Congress, he has become literally irresponsible in the area of foreign affairs, where he must answer only to the electorate and only once every four years. If he is stubborn or stupid or makes mistakes and insists on sticking with them—and his position as head of a political party gives him every incentive to do so—he can destroy the country before being called to account. Since, moreover, we are still relatively insulated in our day-to-day national life from the world outside, the President can deceive the people as to the extent of his errors in foreign affairs much more effectively than he can in domestic affairs. This is a very serious matter indeed and the United States may be fatally damaged before we find a way out. But I cannot easily reconcile my own understanding as to how we have come to this terrible position with the basic perspectives and criticisms of the New Left. Nor are those perspectives particularly helpful in figuring out what we can do to repair the political system against a defect of this character and magnitude.
Ultimately, my disagreement with the radical Left comes down to this: I see no Gordian knot to be cut at a single stroke, the cutting of which would justify the greatest efforts (as in the past it has seemed to justify great horrors). Nationalizing the means of production, as Socialist countries have discovered, is no all-embracing answer; nor is permanent mobilization of the people, which is in any case fantastically difficult to accomplish, and which, if it were to be accomplished, as it has for a time in China, would create a society that we would find repulsive; nor is the destruction of the upper classes—in the advanced countries at any rate, whatever value such destruction might yield in underdeveloped nations—for the upper classes now consist of the managers, the organizers, and the highly skilled professionals, whom we would inevitably have to re-create.
From the point of view of the heroisms of the past, it is a gray world we are entering, in which technicians and interest groups, neither of whom can be said to bear the banner of humanity in its noblest form, will be the determining forces. The best we can do is to ensure that as things go wrong—and they inevitably will—the people will have an opportunity to protest. They will rarely know, I am afraid, quite what to do to set things right, but their complaints and their occasional rebellious fury will be important “inputs,” to use the dreary language of the future, in setting the matter right. The logic of the situation—the size of our population, the number of our organizations, the extent of our problems, the interrelations among the different parts of our society, the development of science and technology—all point to this outcome. Under the circumstances, even reform and its traditions become part of the system. How much protest do we need to keep the system straight and keep it correcting itself? At what point will protest wreck the institutions altogether and prevent them from functioning? The system is necessary; not this system exactly, but some system, and one which, given the external forces that govern our lives, will turn out to be not so significantly different.
I view radicalism as a great reservoir of energy which moves the establishment to pay attention to the most serious and urgent problems, and tells it when it has failed. To a more limited degree, it is also a reservoir of potential creativity—a reaching for new solutions and new approaches. What radicalism is not, and what it can no longer be, is the great sword of vengeance and correction which goes to the source of the distress and cuts it out. There is no longer a single source, and no longer a single sword.
1 New York City spends twice as much per child in its public schools as most other large cities do, yet these schools hardly serve as a model for the solution of the problems of urban education.