The Radical Tradition


by Irving Howe.

Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, $17.95.

OF THE HALF-DOZEN essays in this volume three deal with the past, from the bright promise of the Debs era (1912—1920) to the disaster of 1936, when the Socialist Party broke with organized labor and opposed FDR’s reelection, and ending with the formation of the popular front with the Communist Party in the late thirties. The remaining essays reflect on why socialism failed and what its future should be.
In the course of the volume Irving Howe—literary critic, editor for thirtyone years of Dissent magazine, and winner of a National Book Award for his history of the Jewish emigration to America, World of Our Fathers—manages to disavow virtually all the distinguishing tenets of socialism and to settle into a comfortable working relationship with neo-liberalism. The impression of alienation conveyed by Howe’s title is in the end not dispelled, only transferred. Howe emerges as firmly in America but alienated from socialism. Nonetheless, these essays are worth attention. Their author suggests that they are written from a radical and democratic position; I will argue that Howe’s views are neither radical nor democratic and that the moribund state of socialism is a consequence of its inability to connect with the democratic tradition in America. The failure of socialism has confirmed Louis Hartz’s insight of thirty years ago, that America makes it easy to be a Lockean liberal, loving the politics of consensus and compromise, rediscovering the Bill of Rights and the value of private property, acutely sensitive to the first sign of “extremism,” and genuinely regretful of the widespread inequalities that seem to be the cost of progress.
According to Howe, socialism has been defeated by “the distinctiveness of American culture.” Howe’s emphasis on culture and his silence about class conflict hint at the true nature of the unacknowledged struggle in his political world. Two cultures implicitly confront each other in this book. One is immigrant in origin, urban (or, more precisely. New Yorker), literary in its discourse, and academic in its values. The other is native, not in the ethnic sense—except for Indians there are no native Americans—but in the sense of political traditions, populist in its values, and local or regional in its base. Howe professes to be analyzing how the “American myth,” especially as represented by “Emersonian” individualism, defeated socialism. But his real enemy is the native radicalism that was fed by covenantal theology, Protestant fundamentalist fervor, agrarian populism, and militant trade unionism. Academic socialists and liberals have typically felt uncomfortable with this amalgam and what they perceive as its hyper-emotionalism, xenophobia, intolerance, and anti-intellectualism. The descendants of immigrant Jews, especially, view American populism as a species of nativism not far removed from the socio-political mix that encouraged Nazism. Howe’s distrust of moralism, fundamentalist fervor, and communitarianism puts his socialism at odds with the American radical tradition, which stretches from early New England Separatism to contemporary grass-roots politics, and denies it grounding in some of the historical elements that have differentiated American political experience from European.
Beginning with the Colonial experience of creating new political societies and defending them against the distant authority of the British Crown, Americans have evolved a distinctive tradition that includes self-government, active involvement in a politics of manageable scale and complexity, distrust of centralized power, support for equal rights, respect for law but skepticism about the exercise of legal authority, and suspicion concerning claims that convert unequal possessions (whether of wealth, skill, or intellect) into claims of political authority. Despite the strains of racism, antiSemitism, and anti-intellectualism in this tradition, these elements constituted a democratic tradition that was not deradicalized by America’s extraordinary economic growth and social opportunity, because it was not about the pursuit of wealth but about shared power and equal dignity. It is the true jewel in the crown of American “exceptionalism.”
Howe seems a stranger to this tradition. The present task of socialism, according to him, is to humanize capitalism by defending “the social reforms we associate with the welfare state.”The welfare state is the cornerstone of contemporary liberalism, and in merging socialism with it Howe is so intent upon retaining custodial rights as keeper of the New Deal flame that he is prepared to surrender the basic strength of American radicalism and to accept the fundamental contradiction that renders liberalism an incoherent political doctrine. The “lasting contribution” of the New Deal, Howe asserts, was “the socialization of concern, society seen as a community.” These words are crucial, for the idea of community has been the nourishing element in virtually all forms of American radicalism, including, of course, the radicalism of the sixties. However, the “yearning for community,” Howe warns, leads to “the total state.” In his nostalgia for the New’ Deal, when society was “seen as a community,” Howe is confessing a preference for the appearance or image of community over its reality, but, what is worse, he is endorsing the very object the abhorrence of which had led him ostensibly to condemn the “yearning for community.” For “the socialization of concern” is simply a euphemism for the welfare state ushered in by the New Deal. It is the interventionist, omnicompetent state, centralized, bureaucratic, and unresponsive except to powerful organizations that are equally centralized and bureaucratic. It, and not the voluntary association of free persons who choose to join in common endeavors, is the blood-relative of the “total state.”
The misalliance of democracy with
the welfare state is crucially revealing. For welfare brings dependency, and it serves as a means of social pacification. It is an essential instrument if the dominant groups are to cope with the consequences of a superfluous population created by technological change and also are to ensure a docile and mobile work force. What the welfare state most fears is the radicalization of the casualties and the supernumeraries, which is why it rejects fervor and embraces the bargaining style of politics conducted within the framework set by “the rules of the game.” The welfare state is symbolic of a politics that is ultimately more apprehensive of the losers in the political and economic system than it is critical of the power elites that dominate the state.
ONCE UPON A TIME, even in capitalist, opportunity-laden America, socialism was, in Durkheim’s phrase, “a cry of pain,” an angry protest against the humiliating lot of working people, indignation over the economic and political arrogance of capitalists, and dismay at the degradation of democracy. In Howe’s socialism there is no indignation over what Marx called a system of “unqualified wrong.” Instead, there is a nofault society with “problems.” For Howe the absence of passion is a virtue, for socialism no longer needs “fervor.” The distrust of passion colors his critical portrait of Debs, who in 1920 led Socialists to their strongest showing ever in a presidential election. Debs stands for the political incarnation of “American Protestantism.” His “intransigent” and “defiant” leadership in opposing Ameri-
can involvement in the First World War and his criticism of the American Federation of Labor for choosing pragmatic rather than revolutionary unionism were wrong in Howe’s eyes, because they left the party vulnerable to Wilsonian repression. “A nonrevolutionary movement,” Howe maintains, “cannot afford the indulgence of revolutionary postures.”
Howe’s criticisms faithfully echo those made by Daniel Bell in his Marxian Socialism in the United States. Socialism failed, according to Bell, because of the inability of Socialists to relate themselves “to the specific problems of social action in the here-and-now, give-andtake political world.” Bell attributed this weakness to being “in, but not of, the world. . . . Every socialist . . . is in the beginning something of a chiliast” who rejects the “basic consensus among contending groups about the rules of the game.”
Bell’s characterizations of socialism seem esoteric, but they have been influential in setting the terms of discussion and debate. To grasp why, we must consider the political meaning of a typical reference in Bell’s book, to “the fantastic contradictions inherent in the history of the socialist movement—its deep emotional visions, its quixotic, selfnumbing, political behavior, its sulky, pettish outbursts . . .” The clear message is, socialists are psychologically unstable, politically extreme, and intellectually bizarre. When these characteristics are contrasted with a politics that is sober, an ethic that is “responsible,” and an intellectual style that is both sober and responsible, we have a recipe for orthodoxy designed to compel radicals to come in out of the cold. All that is then required is a band of handsomely subsidized enforcers, contras of a neoconservative ex-Trotskyist persuasion, who demand an inverted rabies test of loyalty by which those political writers who fail to froth at the mouth when “communism” is uttered will be certified as soft on communism and hard on America. The political left tends to become more fearful of failing the test and less resolute about remaining constant to its radical principles. Radicals then regard it as their duty first to demonstrate unswerving opposition to communism and second to renounce all revolutionary thinking and swear allegiance to piecemeal politics. Accordingly, Howe commends a politics of “inching forward.”
Ever since Werner Sombart’s 1906 essay “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” scholars have tried to account for the fact that while Western European societies responded to the growth of capitalism with strong workerbased socialist movements, America did not. Explanations of American exceptionalism have varied, but most of them have emphasized the deradicalizing effects of certain peculiarly American conditions, such as ample land in the nineteenth century, unusual social mobility, higher material rewards, the absorption of bourgeois norms by the working class, and the easy access to political rights that deflected worker discontent into bread-and-butter issues that an expanding capitalism could handle, by timely concessions.
Although Sombart’s question has busied a number of social scientists with attempts to answer it, the original question now seems beside the point. If the presence of socialism is to be measured by the activities of the welfare state, the differences between the United States and Western Europe seem negligible. If one wants to give Socialists some portion of the credit for the social policies enacted during the era extending from the New Deal to the Great Society, then one can even argue that socialism was not a failure. But this line of argument only accentuates the harsh fact that the goals of socialism are more remote than ever. ‘The foundations of corporate power are more solidly laid than before; inequalities of wealth, status, opportunity, and access to education and culture have not narrowed in fifteen years; as capitalist influence over politics grows, tradeunion power declines; and American imperialism is on the mend.
The reason that socialism has failed is embodied in what appears, speciously, to be its success. Beginning with Marx, Socialists have accepted “the economy” as the central consideration of their theoretical analyses and public rhetoric. They have also accepted material performance as the test of the good society, but later Socialists, especially in the academy, forgot what Marx had tirelessly preached, that capitalism was not simply an economic phenomenon but a system of social and political power. It followed that capitalism should not be analyzed according to purely economic categories—that it could be analyzed in that way was what classical economics and neo-classical or Keynesian economics were about. The theoretical task of Socialists was to develop not an economic theory as such but a political theory of social and economic power. They not only have failed in this but with increasing enthusiasm have adopted liberal or neoKeynesian economics, which is precisely the apolitical form of theory that Marx was attempting to explode. Capitalism has to be understood not simply as a system for the production of goods but as a system for exercising power which requires deliberate political decisions in order to ensure that both the material conditions and the particular types of human beings essential for its perpetuation will be reproduced.
Marx did not, however, grasp the full implications of his own analysis, and Socialists have tended to repeat his mistake. This was to conceive of socialism as akin to a caboose that hooks on to the moving economic train being pulled by capitalism and then by the magic of revolution is catapulted to the front of the same train to become the engine. Socialism then pulls the train, which capitalism has developed to near perfection, to its appointed destination. In other words, socialism saw itself inside capitalism, defined by it, and committed to completing the historical task begun by capitalism—the task of realizing the full potential of the processes of production made possible by modern science and technology. Socialism has failed because it cannot envision itself as having a future radically different from the material dreams immanent in capitalism. And this is where it becomes crucial that Howe accepts the myth of what Daniel Bell once called “the blackish reactionare dye in populism.” In America democratic radicalism can have a future different from the one being laid down by capitalism, because it has had a past different from capitalism’s and hence a different relationship to capitalism from that of socialism. It has not been opposed to private property, to economicrisk-taking, to profits, or to the idea of material progress. Instead, it has distrusted the concentrations of power and decision, the hierarchical modes of organization, and, above all, the corrupting influence exercised over public authorities by those representing forms of power that were not publicly accountable. But the essential point is that democracy is a different story with no preconceived ending. Its purpose is not to “complete" capitalism but to constitute power in wavs that enable ordinary citizens to decide how their lives will be lived and how and for what ends natural and human resources will be used. □