Jonh F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy reports to the nation on the status of the Cuban crisis from Washington, D.C. on November 2, 1962. (AP Photo)

Christopher Lasch’s The Agony of the American Left [Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages, $4.95] is a useful book which attempts to deal with the intellectual and political failure of the Left in America. He begins by asking the question invariably asked by the old of the young, “What’s your plan? What’s your program?” His answer is in part the one Paul Goodman gives. The young hardly know what to do because the old have held the difficult task of social reconstruction in abeyance while the American intellectual class informed their students and children that “the ideological age was over.” In practice this phrase did not mean an end of ideology. It merely meant that there could only be one official ideology, allowing no possibility or need of fundamental change.

This fashionable view of the 1950’s was the framework for the New Frontier which allowed innovation only within the limits of tidying up the administrative pyramid. The country was to get moving in the same direction it was going. In the spring of 1961, the President was to give a speech at Yale on the new economy. I sent in my suggestions saying that the fundamental problems were moral and political, not technical or managerial. The speech read that our problems are managerial and technical, not political.

Since the second world war, it mattered not a whit who was running the great institutions; the perception of America as the great empire whose functions and assumptions were essentially correct went unchallenged. As Lasch says, “…each administration (whether conservative or liberal) whatever its predilections, whatever its ostensible peculiarities, ends by perpetuating the already bankrupt policies of its predecessors.”

Lasch argues that it is a mistake to think of the question of the failure of this class of mandarins and liberals as merely a problem of the last generation. Failure of the Left is something that has its roots in the post-civil war period. The populist movement did not founder because it was too individualistic, bordering on anarchism, or too ignorant—as some of the professors of the prestige universities tell their students. It failed because it was sanguine about the idea that the United States could bring about profound changes without a fundamental restructuring of American society and a long period of education of the “victims of capitalism.” It was not that they had too little faith in America. It was that they had too much. What about the socialists? While the populist feared centralized control by corporate power, the socialist seemed to favor a strong centralized government. Indeed, as it is said ad nauseam, the socialist conception of governing (their plans) was taken over by the conservatives of the New Deal to save the capitalist system.

Lasch analyzes the work of James Weinstein who pointed out in his book on American socialism how widespread socialism was in the United States. In 1912, there were 323 avowedly socialist publications with a circulation of over 2 million, Debs polled six per cent of the Presidential vote, and the socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states. Weinstein and Lasch’s view is that the Socialist Party was destroyed by the rise of a militant new left wing which insisted on immediate revolution and gave up on the long term goal of the socialists to build constituencies and to be responsive to those constituencies. There was, of course, another related reason which was external to the sorry bloodlettings which the Left enjoys almost as a way to ensure impotence. The thunder of the Left was stolen by the reformers in the two parties.

Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson undertook to rationalize the corporate system in ways reminiscent of the work of Count von Bismarck at the end of the 19th century. Just as von Bismarck adopted various socialist welfare ideas to save the Second Reich, so the American establishment used the rhetoric of the populists and the socialists at the beginning of the 20th century (and now) when it appeared that there was serious unrest in the body politic.

One analysis of politics is that there are really no problems, just competing interests and classes. This view would hold that if this is so we are able to give the appearance of dealing with certain problems without actually doing so. This is the status quo ruler’s view. But the point is that the problems which were raised in Germany were real when they were raised by its Left. Not having answered them led to Nazism. The problems which are raised by the American Left about racism, nuclear disaster, authoritarian institutions, meaningless work, channeling colonies which pass for schools are not rhetorical. These are real issues that define the way of life of our people and, if they are not resolved, will surely dictate our collective death. Merely attempting to buy off those who raise these points and to separate them from their constituencies in order to silence their constituencies does not mean that anything has changed for the better.

Well, now what? First of all, it is true that we are at a place in American history which demands a new political party. This is not to say that there are not honorable men in the two major parties. It is only to say that the major purpose of the two political parties is to represent the hierarchic corporate-military relationships. They can do no other. They created this constituency and they are not about to dismantle it.

Lasch also concludes for a party of the Left. He discusses the ideas of Michael Harrington and Arnold Kaufman, both of whom still believe that the Democratic Party will bring about major restructuring of the American body politic. I agree with Lasch that there is room for a new political party which attempts to represent rather than manipulate its constituency, starts action projects (health centers, mini-schools, etc.) and begins councils of reconstruction in the major institutions of American life. 1968 should have taught us that there is little room for maneuver within the two parties. But, more important, there is no way that those parties can divorce themselves from their constituencies which at this stage are tied to death-oriented expenditures, high taxes, and education which does not threaten the status quo.

Where will the constituency come from to support such an effort? My judgment is that it will come from the student class, the black poor, the workers on the line who do not support a calcified labor bureaucracy at least a generation older than them—those who are interested in finding meaning in their work, but instead know either instinctively or empirically that their work is foolish, dangerous, or quite mad—and women who are attempting to gain independent political strength.

Lasch understands the importance of black power to a left party, although he sees two different strains in the black power movement. He notes that there are blacks who see America as a colonialist society, while there are those among the blacks who merely want space to do their own thing. In my view, Lasch mistakenly believes that these are contradictory positions. In practice, this formulation is only contradictory where the political space of the society is so narrow that it forces people to do nothing but confront. The problem of course is that the system is taken up with ideas which are not workable in terms of black power. The ways in which the urban coalitions, either of the Bundy, Johnson, or the common Gardner variety, attempt to absorb Negroes into the system—as official representatives of “their people,” or as little capitalists replacing the Jewish mom and pop store (where John Garfield was upstairs playing the violin waiting for his Big Chance-Joan Crawford) with a Negro barber shop (where the son is upstairs studying Zacharias’s PSSC physics to get into MIT and then into a corporate conglomerate)—may work for some but it is hardly the answer to what the rest of the 30 or more million non—whites do, or what the rest of us are going to do, about the economic and political system.

And, indeed, what about those who are successful at the American dream? Lasch sees Joseph Kennedy as the opportunity-opportunist who cannot break into the institutional corporate system and must build his own domain from the outside. But this success story is not typical of the 20th century. More typical is the story of Robert McNamara, who by coolness and mastery of technique, climbed the ladder of hierarchic power (the same path open to the Negro barber’s son who studies hard).

This kind of success is the modern American tragedy. McNamara, for too long, accepted the “mission” of the institutions he worked for, whether it was more profits for Ford or higher body counts for the Department of Defense. Because he operated within the assumptions of the mission, he invariably turned out to be wrong, realizing his mistakes too late-which led to the bloated national security state system.

McNamara was an innovator, accepting the most mod foolishness that could be conjured by the RAND Corporation. First he fell for the idea of counterforce and first-strike capability over the Soviet Union, committing us to an endless arms race; then he committed us to a civil defense program, then to the war in Vietnam, then to the TFX, then to a budget which by the time he left the Pentagon was 75 per cent more than when he came. He attempted to buy civilian control over the military by increasing the size of each of the departments of the military.

Invariably McNamara rejected or modified his position after the basic institutional decisions were made that set the wrong direction. The result of his reign and that of others in national security bureaucracy is that the problem of the national security state is very great indeed in American life. With its power base assured by its subsidies to the defense-oriented corporation, it operates by its own rules without recourse to the public, hiding behind technical expertise, classification, and secrecy.

A powerful reaction is setting in. One reason is the failure of the military to win in Vietnam. Another is that the commercial business classes and certain constitutionally-oriented members of the Congress believe that they are losing power to a state bureaucracy, technocrats, the police, and the management of the defense corporations that have mastered their relationship to the federal government. Another reason that this group is now concerned is the very failure of men like McNamara who found that they could no longer ride the tiger of the national security system without becoming its prisoner.

As a tactical and human matter, men like Shoup and Symington, and businessmen as well as scientists, should be encouraged in their attempts at slowing the pace of the national security apparatus. The success of such groups is necessary if we are to go further with the new politics. They are curtain-raisers for their children who are attempting to capture the center stage with a politics of reconstruction that is reflected in populism, Jeffersonianism, and radical pragmatism. Their children are attempting to develop projects which will lead to participatory democracy and the tough political and intellectual work which will result in the dismantling of the national security state, the transformation of the economic system, and the guaranteeing of justice and equality to the citizenry, all within the context of cutting the Gordian knot of American imperialism.

There may be many people who are nominally Democrats and Republicans who would favor such a transformation. However, the two parties are not predicated on the idea of day-to-day active participation in decision-making in the major institutions of the society. The nature of the electoral process today is basically plebiscite. This does not fit the new, active, educated middle class of doctors, teachers, bureaucrats, and workers who are no longer able to live in the characterized role put up for them in the pyramidal system. This sense of wanting to participate and be active will mean that a new political party will undertake to sponsor councils in major public institutions such as hospitals, corporations, and schools. Such political groups would be councils of reconstruction. They would undertake to formulate how those institutions should be democratized, how they should be changed and governed. A question may arise as to whether this is objectively necessary. Take New York as an example.

Can anyone really believe that the situation in New York in the schools, the hospitals, and the welfare system is stable and governable without attempting to build governing councils of each institution comprised of the workers, staff, and communities affected? So that is what most likely will have to go on in order for them to survive. Within each institution of the society over the next generation a new social contract will be drawn with legitimated authority resting with the people, not with the hopeless mandarins in their roles as guardians or with the unmanageable Caligulas who commit us to war, nuclear
destruction, and administrative foolishness. We can then begin to define the new politics. It is to dismantle institutions which have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of those most immediately affected by them. The reason that this goal is so important is that when institutions lose legitimacy, their political and psychological and economic hold over people ends. Redrawing the social contract, redefining legitimacy, and sharing of authority becomes the central purpose and situation of the new politics.

Marcus Raskin

Marcus Raskin is co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies.