Wanted: American Radicals
JAMES BRYANT CONANT, President of Harvard university, like his famous
predecessor, Charles W. Eliot (who was also a chemist), has a way of speaking
out on national issues in words that carry far beyond the confines of
Cambridge, Massachusetts. The continuity of President Conant's thinking is
worthy of note. The Atlantic regards this article as a splendid successor to
his often quoted "Education for a Classless Society," which appeared in our
May, 1940, issue.
by James B. Conant
THE unconditional surrender of the Axis powers in the shortest possible span of
time is the present goal of our national effort. To that end we must be
prepared for heavy sacrifices in the months ahead. The demands of our military
leaders must be met whatever the cost to the home front, for in no other way
may we hope to shorten the present agony of the world. Such being the case, it
seems to some like tempting fate even to think about the state of the nation
after the war is won. Yet the debate on the post-war world has started and
the clarification of the United Nations' war aims is an essential part of the
war effort. Certainly a public discussion of these issues must prove of
benefit. But to my mind our post-war domestic problems should take at least
equal rank with the more colorful job of planning for the international order.
For it would be my contention that the future of our foreign policy depends on
the solution of our internal problems.
Unlike some others, I do not fear a recurrence of old-fashioned isolationism.
The contracted world of the airplane and its lethal weapons will argue more
eloquently against isolationism than a thousand orators. The facts of the
military situation will persuade the American people that they cannot ignore
the problems of war and peace beyond the seas. Therefore, the question before
us when the war is won will not be, Shall we play a part in the international
scene? but, How shall we play our part? And until we settle within the United
States our approach to such difficult questions as the relation of management
and labor, and the control and ownership of the tools of production; until we
square away on a course that will make us both prosperous and free, we shall be
irresolute in deciding upon our foreign policy.
One needs no apologies for turning his eyes on the domestic scene. If we are to
consider the post-victory era, we must give earnest thought to the organization
of the economic and social life of these United States. And one already sees
the line-up of contending forces on this front. To one observer, at least, it
would appear that the 1940's underline the truth of William Allen White's
statement of the 1930s, that the American liberal is in the doghouse. No longer
are the Gilbert and Sullivan words applicable, that "every boy and every gal
that's born into the world alive is either a little liberal or else a little
It is not only the liberal but the conservative who seems to have disappeared.
For who can locate more than a trace today of a point of view which might be
correctly designated as conservative? Who can find many men who correspond to
the famous definition of a conservative -- that is, a person who feels that "when
it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." In the midst of
a war economy, where military necessity determines more and more every aspect
of the national pattern, who is to be found who does not believe that a change
is necessary once the war is won? A total war has automatically eliminated the
We must therefore classify those who think and talk about political and
economic matters in terms of the direction of the proposed change:
reactionaries who would try to return to a condition approximating the pre-war
status (or some earlier date), radicals who look forward to a radically
different situation. I hasten to assure the reader that I have no desire to
read into the words "reactionary" and radical any of the usual praise or
condemnation. The overtones of such words change with the generations; the
radicals of the late 1860's were radical not on the economic issues which now
seem to us to be the primary concern of man, but on the issue of racial
equality and the political realization of this equality.
Into the debate between reactionary and radical I should like to see introduced
a third voice -- the voice of the American radical. I use the adjective
advisedly, thus distinguishing this third line of approach from that of the
chief vocal groups now discussing the American future -- whom I shall designate,
with due apologies, "American" reactionaries and "European" radicals. The
adjectives, I submit, represent the background of the hopes and aspirations of
each movement: For example, numerous businessmen today are saying, "If, when
the war is over, the government will move out and leave us alone, we will
restore the American system of free enterprise and with it American
prosperity." There can be no question of the propriety of the word "American"
as applied to this side of the domestic controversy. And if some object to my
use of the word "reactionary," I would remind them that those who wish openly
for a restoration are by definition reactionaries.
The use of the adjective "European" for our radical friends will probably
offend as many as the use of the word "reactionary" for the other group. But I
think it can be shown that those who have the most clearly defined objectives
in their social philosophy today are those who stand to the extreme left. For
them a new world is waiting to be born. The choice before our generation, to
their mind, is clear-cut. To use the words of one spokesman for their new
world: "On the one side there its private ownership, spiritual vulgarity, and
some independence; on the other there is communal ownership, moral dignity, and
police supervision. The direction of evolution seems to be from the first to
the second. . . . One may therefore hope that mankind will quickly learn the
conditioned reflexes necessary to live communally, so that the "amount of
police supervision may not increase indefinitely, and may soon decrease."
This type of radical philosophy stems from them great Continental thinkers of
the nineteenth century. The names of the predecessors of the European radicals
are to be found on the lists of the Fabian Society of England of a generation
back. The nearest approach to their ideals is to be seen in the miraculous
Russian state. Their cultural heritage has been derived from Germany, France
I hardly need to make plain at this point that I am not pinning labels on
either of our two major political parties. I am speaking rather about a
general line of cleavage which is often spoken of as left and right. The
points of agreement and disagreement between these two groups -- this rough
division by which I have oversimplified the economic and political forces of
today -- are not to me the significant issue. It is the lack of a third choice.
For I believe that if the America of the future is to emerge from the conflict
of only these two groups, the chances are not great that it will be the kind of
America in which most of us would like to live. If the extremes of the two
contending forces continue to align as they do now, I fear greatly for the
cause of freedom on this continent.
Hence, my hope that a new group of thinkers and of speakers will arise: a group
of modern radicals in the American tradition, who will make the conflict
triangular and at the same time contribute elements which are lacking in the
present picture. Not that I think this American radical whose importance I am
urging, can alone solve the nation's problem any more than the American
reactionary or the European radical can, but I do think he is needed in the
Now what is this American radical to be like this successor to the men who
abolished primogeniture at the founding of the Republic, who with destroyed the
Bank of the United States in the times of Andrew Jackson?
In the first place he will be obviously more indigenous than our friends the
European radicals or even our friends the American reactionaries. He springs
from the American soil, firm in the belief that every man is as good as his
neighbor, if not better, and is entitled to a real chance for a decent living.
Instinctively in the early days of the Republic his predecessor supported the
ideas of Jefferson, as against the more aristocratic and monarchical
conceptions drawn from Europe.
The American radical traces his lineage through the democratic revolution of
Jackson when Emerson was sounding his famous call for the American Scholar.
His political ideal will, of course, be Jefferson: his prophets will be Emerson
and Thoreau; his poet, Whitman. He will be respectful but not enthusiastic
about Marx, Engels, and Lenin. We I believe he can make a good case that his
kind were the only radicals in the United States on economic matters until the
close of the nineteenth century. What would this influential native-born
thinker of our past advocate were he confronted with our problems of today?
Let me try your patience with an exercise in imagination. Let me attempt to
describe a revised and recreated being -- an American radical of the 1940s.
First of all, like all radicals and also all reactionaries, in his extreme
moods he will be utterly impractical. In general, however, being rooted in the
American soil he will be endowed with a considerable amount of earthy common
sense and a certain willingness to apply to the changes which he effects the
typical American question, " Does it work?" and to take up cheerfully another
trial if the answer should be no.
No one needs to be told that the American radical will be a fanatic believer in
equality. Yet it will be a peculiar North American brand of doctrine. For
example, he will be quite willing in times of peace to let net salaries and
earnings sail way above the $25,000 mark. He believes in equality of
opportunity, not equality of rewards; but, on the other hand, he will be lusty
in wielding the axe against the root of inherited privilege. To prevent the
growth of a caste system, which he in abhors he will be resolute in his demand
to confiscate (by constitutional methods) all property once a generation. He
will demand really effective inheritance and gift taxes and the breaking up of
trust funds and estates. And this point cannot lightly pushed aside, for it is
the kernel of his radical philosophy.
He will favor public education, truly universal educational opportunity at
every level. He will be little concerned with the future of private education,
except as he values independent competing groups in every phase of American
activity. By the same token he will be forever harping on the dangers of
Federal control of institutions concerned with youth.
Decentralization, local responsibility, all the old shibboleths which his
European radical friends have hurled into the dustbin, he will take out, polish
up, and see if by any chance they may be more applicable to the future than we
suspect. Of course, like the intelligent members of the other two groups, he
will recognize that we are going to live in the 1950's in a highly mechanized,
industrialized age. He will know that the transition from a totalitarian war
economy to the kind of utopia he envisages cannot be made with safety
overnight. For the American radical above all others is in the tradition of
having a job for everyone; he will rack his brains to find the equivalent of
those magic lands of the old frontier.
Like Jefferson when he had to choose between his antipathy to the powers of the
central government and the national need for the purchase of Louisiana, the
American radical will compromise his objections to governmental action from
time to time. He will be ready to invoke even the Federal government in the
interests of maintaining real freedom among the great masses of the population.
But, unlike the European radical, he will never cease to hope that such
remedies may be only passing sins. He will not place a higher value on property
rights than on human rights, for his political forebears never did. He will
recall that it was " life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," not life,
liberty, and property," which Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of
Independence. And, of course, he will be very sensitive on such old-fashioned
subjects as individual rights as opposed to the police power of the state.
If by any chance the American radical should find his influence increasing, he
might advocate drastic revisions in the Constitution, for there are a number of
fundamentals in our governmental structure he might like to alter. He would
realize, for instance, that in a modern industrial state, government must play
a much larger role than he and his friends desire. And the only hope of
preventing his hereditary enemy, the Federal power, from increasing every
decade is to strengthen local government. Yet when he surveys the odd mixture
of areas and population which history has bequeathed to us as sovereign states,
he might feel that with new areas, fewer in number and more nearly equal in
population and resources, local government might become another matter.
Of course, one brand of native American philosophy stems from the barren rocks
of the chilly country of the Pilgrim fathers. It might be called individual
contrariness. And the American radical would have a fair share of this. He
would be on many matters independent as the proverbial hog on ice. It was one
of his breed in earlier times who was stopped by a friend on his way to the
town meeting: " Don't you know, Ed," said the friend, " there ain't no use in
going to that there meeting? Old Doc Barnes and his crowd control enough votes
to carry everything they want and more too. You can't make any headway agin
'em." "That's all right," Ed replied, " but I can worry 'em some."
Nostalgia is the sleeping sickness against which the American radical would
have to fight. Large cities, modern transportation, big industries would be the
things difficult for his philosophy to encompass, and yet he must take them
into his pattern of thought and come out with modern answers conforming to his
basic philosophy of life. Organized business groups and organized labor will
regard the American radical with equal suspicion; and towards both he in turn
will be equally suspicious, but rarely hostile. Pressure groups are, after all,
one of the recurring features in the American scene. From their conflicts has
emerged the American society of our past.
And the American radical, like the American reactionary, believes it on balance
to have been a good past; only he, unlike the reactionary) thinks the road
ahead leads straight to a better future, a future that can come only with the
change that arises out of the smoke of constant political battle. The American
radical believes in the ever recurring struggle to check and put back in place
groups which have attained too much power.
The fundamental philosophy of the American radical is a threat to much of the
present leadership of both capital and labor. For his equalitarian doctrine, if
only partially successful, would change the complexion of the struggle between
management and labor. And this is the crux of his contribution to the current
scene. He would use the powers of government to reorder the "haves and
have-nots" every generation to give flux to our social order. And given a high
degree of social mobility in America -- a degree comparable to that in a pioneer
community of a century ago -- labor leaders would find themselves often
negotiating with their blood relations. If at the same time ownership and
management of industry rarely if ever were passed on bar inheritance, nepotism,
or patronage, many aspect of the current industrial picture would indeed be
radically altered -- altered in a characteristically American way.
But I must beware of pressing this utopian picture to a logical conclusion. For
even if the American radical were to arise tomorrow, we may be certain that no
more than any other reformer would he ever succeed in bringing about the
millennium. We should judge him by the resultant of his interaction with many
pressures in a social organization which faces a retailoring job if it is to be
adapted to a modern industrial civilization and still preserve the elements of
freedom. We should judge him by this resultant, not by the blueprint of the
future he holds before our eyes.
We may ask the American radical for at led one concrete illustration of a
practical method of d increasing the social mobility on which he sets Ad much
store. He would answer that the demobilization of our armed forces is a
God-given moment reintroducing the American concept of a fluid society. If it
is handled properly (meaning, of course, his way), we can ensure a healthy body
politic for at least a generation. Handle it improperly and we may well sow the
seeds of a civil war within decade.
Here are eleven million men (or will be if did present plans are carried
through), a cross-section of the nation. A large proportion of them are under
twenty-five with their careers and lifework still the making. If their future
role in the United States is determined by their merit, their talents, their
character, and their grit, they and their relating will feel this is a good
land, a land of freedom come what may. If on the other hand they feel they
were replaced in civilian life on the basis of the accidents of geography and
birth, there will be many who will become frustrated and
embittered -- particularly if the general level of prosperity should fall. Here
we have a chance for a grand "Paul Jones."
Do we believe in equality of opportunity or not? asks the American radical. If
we do, we shall set up machinery, state machinery of course (but Federally
financed), to see to it that the returning soldier is retrained and placed in
the kind of employment for which his talents are suited. This has been a total
war: we must still use reluctantly a bit of totalitarian power. To be
practical, we can't promise white-collar jobs to all the ex-soldiers. We could
fix some quotas, perhaps, and see that they are fairly distributed. We could
even set up agendas to lend money to groups of competent veterans who might
start small retail or manufacturing businesses. We could do all within our
power to get the son of a laborer who has the capacity on the ladder of
management, and with enthusiasm put a son of management who does not have the
capacity for desk work in the way of earning an honest living as a manual
So proclaims this fanatic equalitarian. Or else, says the American radical, we
can operate our placement services through private pressure groups and see that
sons of business executives get jobs through other business executives, and
members of union families take up work unionized by their friends. Under such
conditions the layers of society probably would become more impervious than
ever, we could depart further from our American ideal. And a caste-ridden
society is one of potential danger -- danger of eruption, danger for the liberty
of all. Not governmental employment, not pensions, but governmental guarantee
of real equality of opportunity for the veteran therefore would be the lank of
the American radical once the war was won !
To turn from such eminently practical matters as earning a living to the
problems of nourishing the human soul, we see also a difference here between
the members of my hypothetical trio. For the American radical could not
indulge his taste for "Old World culture" without a twinge of conscience.
Therefore he would be impelled to sponsor a most difficult undertaking: the
work of redefining culture in both democratic and American terms. He would
have little patience -- too little patience -- with antiquarians, scholars, and
collectors. The idea that culture is aristocratic would find no sympathy from
his kind. This is one of the few points on which the American radical joins
hands with his other radical friends and the Russians of the new day; his
concept of art and culture would be terms of the present and the future, in
terms of every man and woman and not a special privileged few.
The American radical would be old-fashioned in his notion of the importance of
individual integrity. He would be harsh on cynics and easy optimists alike. He
would be committed to a free press, to tolerance of all doctrines and the
maximum of tolerance for individual action. But since he would bemoan the
cynicism of our youth and the intellectual dishonesty of our age, he might well
be fanatical in his desire for certain reforms in education. He would surely be
both unkind and unjust to this century's methods of advertising and sales
promotion. For like some others he would be inclined to see in the waves of
distorted facts and beguiling half-truths with which our eyes and ears are
daily saturated one of the most insidious maladies of the age. How he would
cope with such a problem, I do not know. But on the subject he would be vocal
if he were true to the real American radical tradition.
Such in brief is my specification for a genus Americans, whose voice I do not
hear. The reader will undoubtedly derive the impression that I am sympathetic
in my own personal views with the hypothetical gentleman I have just portrayed.
That is true. But I should like to make it clear that I am arguing for his
introduction into the American scene not because I believe all his aims should
be achieved, but because I believe his type of thinking would prove a most
beneficial leaven. I urge the need of the American radical not because I wish
to give a blanket endorsement to his views, but because I see the necessity for
reinvigorating a neglected aspect of our historic pattern of development.
We must all agree that the problems we shall have to face at the close of the
present struggle arise not alone from a global war. They arise largely from the
fact that the war itself was a manifestation of a larger maladjustment. To
correct this maladjustment we cannot invoke the shades of the liberals of the
laissez faire Manchester school of thought. Rather in this country we must
invoke our radical ancestors and with their spirit attack the problems of a
stratified society, highly mechanized and forced to continue along the road of
mass production. Without further apologies, therefore, I recommend to the
attention of all who are interested in preserving freedom the need for the
American radical -- the missing political link between the past and future of
this great democratic land.
Copyright © 1943 by James Bryant Conant. All rights reserved.