Translate

Friday, April 22, 2005

This piece was meant to answer whether radicals in the 1960s were victims of circumstance, or whether the beliefs contained internal contradictions that made for failure. Thanks to David Horowitz for his autobiography Radical Son: A Generational Oddysey, which provided the backdrop for this response.

JK

What Happened to Liberalism?

Radicalism itself (whether from the left or the right) is by definition the suggestion that ordinary electoral means are inadequate to achieve desired goals. To be radical in the truest sense is to hold that the United States cannot redress the grievances of its people in any form, or that it in no way represents the people it governs. It cannot be equated with liberalism, because the United States was being governed during the most relevant part of the 1960s (1961-69) by liberals. One could possibly claim that those Democrats were not authentically liberal; however, Kennedy began the rudiments of the Great Society right away, and Johnson oversaw the biggest federal government expansion (and intrusion into the economy) since the New Deal. In one of the Berkeley films, Jack Weinberg noted that the Free Speech Movement was joined by everyone from the progressives to the Youth for Goldwater, implicitly confirming that such a wide swath conferred legitimacy on their demands. In that way, the protests represented a way to remain in the social contract while having concerns addressed. The civil rights movement was liberal in both the classical sense, with black Americans seeking rights that were inalienable and specified in the Constitution, and in the more narrow political sense, as the legislative achievements of the period were accomplished by members of the liberal party.[1]
These facts alone would demonstrate that this radicalism was distinctive from liberalism, but there is another piece of information to add to the argument: the radicals’ ideological self-awareness. The group was well aware that they were not liberals; indeed, as Horowitz noted, they used the specific term liberalism as one of derision. The only remaining question was whether the election of 1960 could provide a means to achieve the revolutionary ends they desired. By arguing that Kennedy was the lesser of two evils, Horowitz had already sealed his political fate, in my view. He was never a Marxist in the truest sense, because even then, he sensed possibility in electoral politics. His journey was destined to wind through the ideological territory where he now resides. The discussion went beyond using Kennedy as “cover”—Horowitz was not a member of the Communist Party as his parents had been, and his context as a collegian made a pretense pointless. At the least, this fact casts doubt on his status as a revolutionary, but as I said before, revolutionary leftism is what makes Marxism different from other left-leaning political formulations (if such distinctions are possible).
Having established the difference between liberalism and radicalism, we must ask why radicalism failed. Was the failure externally caused by events, or is there something inherent about the Marxist impulse that is self-defeating? The answer, I believe, is the latter. There are three reasons why Marxism cannot succeed: Marxism is a broken religion missing an essential element; there are no intermediate goals anchored in reality, and Marxism fundamentally cannot respect individual dignity, because that dignity implies responsibility. And that responsibility would be so extensive that the blame could not be laid at the feet of the capitalist system (at least not in the whole). Horowitz touches upon all of these, and the case is compelling.
Horowitz believes that Marxism is a religion; it has essential features of a religion, and is carried out with such as missionary zeal that it is difficult to argue with this assertion. Christianity (including its Jewish precursor) provides apt metaphorical material for Horowitz to make the case. Creation, sin, a Savior, Scripture, and redemption are present within the Marxist myth. “Creation” would refer to the world before private property, an ideal state typified by the Garden of Eden. “Sin” might refer to the enormous amount of pain and suffering in the world. Notice here that I’ve referred to it in the aggregate, or more generally, because any more narrowness would suggest responsibility. The Savior would be Vladimir Lenin, who led the Russian Revolution, and bears no taint (in the minds of Marxists) from Stalin’s crimes. Scriptural truth can be found in The Communist Manifesto, and in Das Kapital (and sundry other writings). Finally, a kind of redemption can be found in the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in the final classless stage, which we might rightly call the consummation. But what is missing? Why is it broken? I would argue (and so, I think, would Horowitz) that a concept of personal fallibility is the missing piece. That the pain and strife of working-class existence might indeed be caused by human beings, and their flawed relations with one another, rather than a system, is so powerful a thought that it destroys the system if conceded. As a matter of fact, I’d say that “God” in this typology would be the state itself. But acknowledging human fallibility would mean that the central planners themselves were unable to view reality rightly, in order to make the best possible collective decisions. We’ll return to this point again later in another context, but let’s now explore another facet of the case against Marxism—the lack of intermediate goals.
It has been said that Marxism lacks intermediate goals, but why? Did its practitioners forget to include them? I do not think so. As we will begin to see, if Marxism is revolutionary leftism, it cannot include them. Radicalism is continuous deconstruction. If that is so, then any state less than the ideal is still a prison, and the only recourse is to attack the current state of affairs. Horowitz had set out to rescue Marxism from Stalin, the murderous excesses of who were embodied in the Khrushchev Report. To look upon that accounting with any sense of horror at what took place would be to acknowledge that Stalin, nor any other man or woman, had a right to destroy others in such a fashion, no matter the goal. To pause and reflect on the moments of history would be a betrayal of revolution on two fronts: the ceasing of hostility against the bourgeois order, and putting on the lenses of that order to judge a fellow revolutionary. The imperfection of the state of affairs disqualifies the judgment.
As we have already alluded, to hold individuals responsible for their behaviors precludes one from ascribing all blame to “the system.” To subject humans to the rules and governance of other humans is to facilitate their exploitation, in Marxist thought. What happens if we accept the Marxist premise? We must necessarily treat the victims of the revolutionary struggle as non-persons. This was the natural outgrowth of the New Left’s concept of alienation. Marcuse pioneered this concept, saying that alienation was the result of the oppressive class order, and acting against the laws and mores of society was a revolutionary act. Also, it was a cry for help, frustration in search of self-actualization. But alienation was a necessity, since the working class in America had been pretty effectively co-opted by the postwar affluence in America. Class struggle was highly unlikely at that point. Horowitz claims that no one in his circle on the Left cared about Betty Van Patter, or the crimes of Huey Newton. The extent to which that statement is true about them is the extent that they were radicals. There must have been a large number of people who believed that any action against the government was justified, because of the rifts in the Democratic Party in 1968. Hubert Humphrey could not plausibly be called a conservative then, yet he barely secured the nomination under pressure from his left, and the radicals overwhelmed the liberals in 1972 with McGovern’s candidacy. If every action, including violence, was justified because of the order of things, how could that be democratic at all? What normative standards would be applied? The Marxists by definition would not accept them. The result could only be described as nihilism of a most destructive variety. Horowitz notes that even excessive actions by the state can be addressed through normal political channels, and I do not think he’s simply cheerleading here. If an objective standard of behavior is applied (or even the pretense) eventually all people will be made to account. That is of course assuming that every person affected uses the normal channels. There is some kind of special relationship between the rule of law and the consent of the governed that breaks down under Marxism. The rule of law is the consensus of the governed in their consent. The democratic process is the means to change the terms of that governance through nonviolent means. If one outright rejects that democratic consensus as inauthentic, violence is the only alternative. To use violence against people in rejection of a democratic consensus is to deny the value of that participation, collectively and individually. In that we deny the dignity of that person, a dignity which transcends our political goals and objectives. In Marxism, the goals and objectives are the transcendent reality, and the people, with their disparate ideas and plans become the means to an end. Therefore, Marxism cannot coexist with individual or collective dignity.
To sum up, radicalism in the 1960s was Marxist in character. It is a religious philosophy in which policy determinations rely on fallible humans. The irony here is that its practitioners could see the fallibility in those they would rule, but not in themselves.
The second reason Marxism fails is that it is oriented toward the final goal only. The revolutionary definition does not allow for reflection on the actual results of any action. It lionizes violence in pursuit of good intentions, and violence for its own sake.
The third reason Marxism cannot succeed is that it does not respect individuals, either by holding them responsible for their actions, or respecting choices expressed by nonviolent, non-revolutionary means, like voting.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with liberalism; its defenders found their ideas under siege by an ideology which perverted their intents.
[1] Though, as has been noted countless times since then, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have passed without Sen. Dirksen and his merry band of Republicans.