[This is Chapter Eight of Murphey's book Liberalism in Contemporary America.]
Emphasis on Social Change
Modern liberalism has focused on the value of social change. To this end, it has stressed the impermanence of values and institutions. On issues of method, such as those that are involved in "civil liberties" and confrontational techniques, it has taken positions that facilitate change rather than impede it. It would not be off the mark to say that the emphasis on change has been as central to modern liberalism as the emphasis on stability has been to traditionalist conservatism.
The relationship of this focus to liberalism's tactical situation is apparent. Liberal thought has not relished the existing culture -- has, in fact, been deeply alienated from it -- and has been anxious to move to something else.
For most liberal thought, that "something else" has been, as we have seen, one form or another of socialism. Although this has not been nearly so true for the other components of the liberal coalition (such as the South, organized labor, the big city political machines, and the ethnic minorities) as it has been for the intellectual culture, most of those other components have at least wanted an active program calling for social and legislative changes.
At the same time that liberalism has emphasized change, it has intuitively kept in mind its need for dissimulation. During most of modern liberalism's history, liberals have avoided directly advocating socialism. What has been needed, instead, has been a philosophical formulation that would focus on change as a process rather than as a conflict between well-defined alternative systems. This explains why "pragmatism," American liberalism's most distinctive version of relativism, has been so popular within liberal thought. By denying theory and insisting that only the short-term and the concrete count, pragmatism has been consistent with the reluctance to reveal long-term aspirations.
This chapter's discussion of the liberal emphasis on change will examine four specific aspects of liberalism: the uses of pragmatism and of relativism; liberal educational theory; the role of "civil liberties"; and the liberal attitude toward confrontational techniques as catalysts of social change.
Relativism and Pragmatism
In Chapter 10 of my book Socialist Thought I discussed the role that relativism has played in socialist thought. That chapter is important as background for our present discussion, since most of what I said there would apply equally well to an analysis of liberalism.
One of the points made there was that relativism arises in part out of the perspectives of science. Those who seek evidence and verification for their views are led to the "methodological individualism" of a Descartes and a Heisenberg. In addition, those who are primarily empirical come quickly to see that there is great variety within the world. Their studies constantly remind them that any particular set of values, institutions, laws or acculturations is simply one alternative among many.
This is illustrated by what John Chamberlain said about William Graham Sumner's sociological discussion in Folkways: "The one great idea that you take away from 'Folkways' is the idea of the relativity of cultures, the feeling that no custom or habit-pattern is right or wrong except in relation to a time and a place." Chamberlain's review was part of a New Republic series on the books that had most influenced liberal thought. Even though Sumner was a devout follower of Herbert Spencer's classical liberalism, his empirical relativism was congenial to liberal intellectuals, who have closely identified with the main trends of modern intellectuality.1
The rapid communication and travel that are available today constitute another major source of relativism. Local provincialisms become ever more difficult to sustain.
Because of these sources of relativism, it would be a mistake to attribute the modern relativistic philosophies exclusively to the tactical needs of the Left. Nevertheless, it would be an equally serious mistake to overlook the role played by the Left's needs, which have served as a third great source of relativism.
Eric Goldman was commendably candid in his book Rendezvous With Destiny about liberalism's tactical use of relativism as a "social acid." He said that liberals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found it necessary to attack the "steel chain of ideas" by which the American public was bound to classical liberalism. Goldman summarized this aspect of liberalism in the final sentence of his chapter called "Dissolving the Steel Chain of Ideas." He said that "between the depression of 1873 and the beginning of World War I, and especially during the early 1900s, these thinkers developed ideological acids capable of dissolving every link in conservatism's steel chain of ideas."2
Arthur Bestor discussed the same point in a New Republic article in 1955. He observed that "the alliance between pragmatism and liberalism was a fortuitous one, called forth by a particular historic situation... Pragmatism constituted, in essence, [a] sacred act of intellectual spoliation." Speaking from a liberal perspective, he said that "it was as a dissolvent of untenable dogmas and misapplied certitudes that pragmatism served the liberal cause" (emphasis added). (It is worth noticing that he was not himself enthused about the relativism. He observed that pragmatism "revealed its fundamental inadequacy" in the late 1930s when it became necessary to articulate definite convictions to oppose the totalitarian systems. But we should notice, too, that there has been no repudiation of relativism by liberals in general. It has been used extensively in liberal ideology during the four decades since World War II.)3
We should not let it confuse us that Bestor's article uses the word "pragmatism" instead of "relativism." Pragmatism is nothing but the name given to the relativism that was put forward under that label by such thinkers as Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Relativism without the label has continued to be used by liberalism as a "social acid" despite the reputed demise of pragmatism as such. When in the late 1960s we were told so often that "middle class values are just 'artificial structurings,'" we were being presented with a relativistic undercutting, even though nothing was said about pragmatism. In the 1970s we heard a similar argument, this time from feminists, that "the role assignments of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' are just artificial acculturations, with no inherent justification." Again, relativism was being used to dissolve people's attachment to existing norms. In both instances, it was quite successful. The relativistic undercutting has sufficient plausibility that most people, lacking a philosophical understanding of the values they hold, have no defense against it.
"Pragmatism," as such, is almost impossible to define, since, as F. C. S. Schiller said, there have been "as many pragmatisms as there were pragmatists." The entry by H. S. Thayer in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy traces the origin of pragmatism to the "Metaphysical Club" conducted at Cambridge in the 1870s by, among others, William James and Charles Peirce. Thayer says that James credited Peirce with having coined the name.
Readers who would like an introduction to the technical philosophical dimensions of pragmatism will do well to read Thayer's entry and the one preceding it by Gertrude Ezorsky on the "Pragmatic Theory of Truth." Dewey best expressed the technical aspects in his book Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.
Our concern here will be with the application of pragmatism to social philosophy. This will center of John Dewey's version of pragmatism, since it was Dewey who used it to become perhaps the leading philosopher of liberalism. Peirce and James played no similar role.
As understood by liberal commentators, Dewey's pragmatism, which he preferred to call "instrumentalism," emphasized that knowledge is tentative and must come from an experimental attitude. Randolph Bourne praised Dewey for his "scientific method, with its hypothesis and bold experimentation." Morris Cohen thought its essence was that Dewey used ideas as "instrumental for reforming the world" (my emphasis). Dewey was consistent with this when he spoke of "a conviction that consequences in human welfare are a test of the worth of beliefs."4
This amounted to a value-laden flexibility, with an emphasis on the particular rather than the general. The values were those of liberalism. Dewey's pragmatism was a rationale for Fabian gradualism. We see these same ingredients in Charles Forcey's discussion of the views of Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl when he said that "pragmatism did not mean for [them]... mere expediency and drift... 'The democracy, though compromising in action,' wrote Weyl, 'must be uncompromising in principle... and realized as opportunities permit.'" We should remember that Weyl considered himself a socialist; his reference to "democracy" was to the "industrial democracy" that was so popular at that time among British socialists and American liberals.5
It is no secret, of course, that John Dewey was also a socialist. The focus on experiment, on looking to social consequences, on judging ideas by their usefulness for social change, was ideal for an ideology that wanted to stress method, process and change while at the same time making its own criteria of social value the largely unarticulated measure for judging validity.
As a social philosophy, there was little that was new or profound about Dewey's pragmatism. His popularity as a social philosopher was due to his ideas' usefulness to liberalism. The same homage that was extended to Dewey as a philosopher was afforded to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., for having applied relativism to law. Both men's positions must be understood in the context of liberalism's tactical needs at that time.
Even though "pragmatism" as a movement under that name may have died, references to the need to "be pragmatic" continued to be useful to liberalism after World War II. As we will see in the chapter on "the process of politicization," liberal thinking has seen virtually all human problems as appropriate subjects for governmental solution, preferably at the national level. The most direct way to address a problem was to establish an agency and to arm it with a few billion dollars. Whenever a conservative would object, he was implored to "forget that nonsense; be pragmatic." Direct action through government seemed much more immediate, "practical" and "compassionate" than to wait for people to work out their own problems or for the market to address them.
In this connection, it is worth noting that pragmatism is closely tied to at least three separate aspects of the modern mentality. It reflects the politicization that I have just mentioned. It relates, too, to the use of the state as a "direct action" tool, which is something that the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset considered in his book The Revolt of the Masses to be a major part of the primitive psychology of "the mass man." And it reflects the type of "rationalism" that has appealed to intellectuals of the Left, who have not thought in terms of simply using reason to create frameworks for otherwise unplanned human interaction.
A word of warning is in order, however. Many practical-minded people in American life have prided themselves on their "pragmatic" willingness to "solve problems." When a politician or a businessman calls himself "pragmatic," he usually means nothing more by it than that he is practical. He does not understand himself to be part of Dewey's movement, and he would certainly deny that he has any Fabian intentions. There is no particular ideological significance to the word "pragmatic" when it is used in that manner, other than that such a man's lack of general convictions will tend to make him a tool of whatever is fashionable during his lifetime (and in recent decades that has usually been "liberal").
Although what I have just said is true in its own way, I believe that this popular usage does have a dimension that is significant to our discussion of the ideologies. I made the point in my book about classical liberalism that individualistic liberalism was forced onto the defensive more than a century ago, and that that posture has kept it from being as reformist and as critical as it otherwise would have been. The theory of a free society in the classical liberal sense has accordingly not been developed in a fully adequate way. I am thinking especially of its failure to deal with the problems raised by market imperfections, although there are other issues that are equally affected.
If we understand this, it becomes evident that politicians and businessmen within our society have often felt a need not to adhere strictly to the too-narrow rationale that has been spelled out by free-market theorists. They have felt the insufficiency of that rationale.
Without an alternative theory of their own, they have justified their departure from the rationale by saying that they are "simply being pragmatic." It is likely that most such people have little, if any, socialist affinity; their common sense just tells them that they need to be free to act independently of a theory that most Americans have continued to embrace in general but have intuitively felt to be insufficient. Pragmatism's focus on the concrete allows a downplaying of theory. For liberals like Dewey, it has been a vehicle for bypassing conservative theory and for not having to articulate their own. For the average American, it has allowed a commonsense adaptation of inadequate theory to felt needs.
Another point about relativism that we should notice is that "true believers" within the American Left have often rejected relativism, just as they have rejected dissimulation. Such people have wanted to make a forthright statement of their values and social preferences. They have had a sense of the timidity and essential dishonesty of liberal dissimulation.
Thus it is that in 1932, during the period when liberal intellectuals were most moved to repudiate the dissimulation, Waldo Frank wrote with disgust about "that flabby relativism which goes by the name of liberalism in the West and which is so often nothing but a want of conviction...." Lewis Mumford, another who chafed in the same way, added in 1934 that the New Deal "is pragmatism in action: aimless experiment, sporadic patchwork, a total indifference to guiding principles or definitive goals." John Dewey, of course, would have denied that pragmatism as he favored it lacked goals, since he fully intended it to embody socialist values; but Mumford's statement is a good illustration of the irritation that some felt.6
In the context of this debate, I should point out that it is entirely possible to be both a relativist and a devotee of theory, principles and long-term values -- and to combine them without using relativism as a mask for unarticulated theories. I myself see real truth in the methodological individualism of science and in the cross-cultural awareness of empiricism. And yet I am attached to classical liberal values and to a modified form of classical liberal theory. My quarrel with relativism as it has been used by the Left in the past century is that it is intellectually insufficient when used as a debunking mechanism. This is because it is not enough to point out to somebody that "your values and institutions are just one cultural alternative among many" -- and to let it go at that. It is incumbent upon a serious analysis to go further. It must examine the comparative utility of the various cultural alternatives for the service of a number of values that most human beings would agree are important to civilized life. Unless we are to assume that all alternatives are equally serviceable, this step is essential. But it is almost invariably omitted when relativism is used as a debunking tool.
A final point that I will mention has to do with the relativism that Eric Goldman refers to as "Reform Darwinism." He says that in the late nineteenth century liberalism countered the popularity of Herbert Spencer's individualistic "Social Darwinism" by advancing an opposing form of evolutionary theory. Spencer theorized in terms of the struggle of individuals, with the most fit surviving. Reform Darwinism spoke of the evolution of societies as a whole, moving from one phase to another.
It was the vogue at that time to express most things in an "evolutionary" context. What Reform Darwinism did was to restate the historicist thesis of the German Historical School in Darwinian terms. The content was the same. The German Historical School was arguing that cultures pass through phases, and that any given phase -- such as the bourgeois period of the nineteenth century -- had no rightful claim to permanence. Among other things, this provided the basis for an attack upon the claims of classical economics, which saw permanent validity in its descriptions of how a market economy works.
When John Dewey said that conservatism talked "as if the only individualism were the local episode of the last two centuries," he was simply repeating the critique made by the German Historical School. Lester Ward had made the same point in 1881 when he wrote that "all truth is relative. Doctrines that were true for one age cease to be true for a later one; principles which really worked the salvation of the last century cannot be utilized in the present one."7
Eric Goldman describes Reform Darwinism's emphasis upon the evolution of institutions and cultures: "Why not insist on thoroughgoing evolution and argue that contemporary institutions could and should change rapidly?...Why not, in short, work out a Reform Darwinism that would dissolve away conservatism's steel chain of ideas ...?" The result would be a philosophy that would "replace dreary inevitabilities with a philosophy of flux that justified experiment and change." From this, we can see that, despite the application of different labels over the past century in keeping with whatever was most in vogue, there is no significant difference between the German Historical School, Reform Darwinism, Dewey's Pragmatism, and the tactic of gradualism advocated by the British Fabian socialists.8
John Dewey's educational theory
In addition to being a philosopher of pragmatism, John Dewey was the leading theorist for "progressive education." There is a great deal of similarity between the two. They are much the same thing, applied to different areas.
Just as with pragmatism, the emphasis within progressive education was upon flexibility, experiment, openness, a getting-away from the discipline and forms of the past. As with pragmatism, there was a socialist content, since the experimentation was not intended to be value-free. A third similarity was that the state would be a vehicle to accomplish these purposes; Dewey was quite clear about his willingness to use education for ideological indoctrination.
We see these elements in what Dewey himself had to say about the type of education he desired. That he wished to dissolve the connection between education and the existing social system appears from his comment in 1914 that "every ground of public policy protests against any use of the public school system which takes for granted the perpetuity of the existing industrial system...." That he wanted education to serve socialist values appears in such statements as the one in 1930 about the need to create "a new psychological and moral type." He desired "the creation of a type of individual whose pattern of thought and desire is enduringly marked by consensus with others, and in whom sociability is one with cooperation in all regular human associations." He called for "a new individuality... that is social."9
Morton White has described the thesis of Dewey's book The School and Society (1899), which White says was Dewey's "most widely read book and the earliest exposition of his theory of progressive education." White says that "Dewey's school was to be socially minded, imbued with the values of community life, rather than with the values of individual acquisitiveness." (We should notice that community values and "individual acquisitiveness" are seen as opposing values. Classical liberal individualism differs from socialist thought in considering them complementary. It thinks both important.)10
That Dewey was anxious to use education for ideological indoctrination is apparent from his statement that schooling should involve "indoctrination, or, if one prefer, teaching, with respect to preparation for a different social order."11
It was in 1928 that John Dewey wrote his series of six articles for The New Republic about Soviet education, reporting on his trip to Soviet Russia. A passage in his second article not only typifies the series in its mixture of caution and enthusiasm, but also shows how much he thought the Soviets were carrying out his educational goals: "In spite of secret police, inquisitions, arrests and deportations of Nepmen and Kulaks, exiling of party opponents,... life for the masses goes on with regularity, safety and decorum... There is an enormous constructive effort taking place in the creation of a new collective mentality...." (emphasis added) This is precisely the goal that he made central to progressive education.12
What are we to think of this? All cultures use their educational systems for the transmission of values. Children nowhere possess existential freedom. Although the New Left, reflecting anarchist thought, argued for such freedom, it is a "freedom" that would be inconsistent with maintaining an advanced civilization and even of a free society. A middle class society rooted in classical liberal values uses family, church, school and other mechanisms to transmit its heritage. It does this every bit as much as Dewey or the Soviets would inculcate socialist norms. An objection to the indoctrination of children must be directed to the content of the indoctrination rather than to the fact that it occurs. But this does not mean that Dewey's proposed indoctrination should be accepted by us. It comes down to this: if we are socialists, we will welcome it; otherwise, we should very emphatically reject it.
Given a clear choice, most Americans would have rejected Dewey's educational theory, while the main intellectual culture would have embraced it. Consistently with liberal dissimulation in general, the socialist purpose was rarely revealed. Dissimulation has befogged liberal educational philosophy with the same ambiguity that has befuddled so many other issues. Nevertheless, despite the obfuscation and the pressures that the intellectual culture has been able to bring to bear upon people to accept liberal thinking under threat of otherwise not appearing sophisticated, a great many Americans have opposed progressive education.
A different set of issues is raised by the fact that liberalism has often sanctioned the use of the state and of the mass media for the ideological indoctrination of the adult public. At the height of the the anti-Vietnam War movement, for example, the editors of The New Republic justified the politicization of the universities on the ground that, after all, "the times are abnormal." In 1977 the federal government sponsored a series of women's conferences leading to a large national conference. Gloria Steinem argued for the exclusion of conservative women: "The legal purpose of these conferences is to further the status of women and, therefore, there is no legal obligation to include representatives of groups who want to retard the status of women."13
Individual examples of this sort are insignificant, however, in comparison to the willingness of the intellectual culture to use television and film quite egregiously as propaganda vehicles for the Left. During my lifetime, the propagandistic content has been so blatant that I cannot help but feel that it demonstrates an almost complete lack of respect for the intelligence of the American public. This is an attitude that would be consistent with the cultural critique that liberalism makes and that I reviewed in the immediately preceding chapter. Unfortunately, the critique seems in large measure an accurate one, since, despite the many conservative voices raised for many years against the propaganda, most people accept it without a second thought. (Those in the future who want to view examples of what I am talking about would do well to find an archive copy of the excellently made movie Reds -- or, on a lower level, of the films Poltergeist, Shampoo or Prophecy.)
It would be utopian and perhaps not even sound to expect government as an institution (as distinct from the political leaders, who necessarily express views on controversial subjects) always to be strictly neutral with respect to the ideas that are currently under debate within a society, or to expect the intellectual culture wholly to eschew propaganda. Nevertheless, a free society should always to be concerned about the health of its processes of debate and discussion. There is basic inequity, as well as grave danger, in government's using tax money and its vast organizational strength to institutionalize a certain position that does not already enjoy a substantial consensus. [Note in 2002: There is even danger where a substantial consensus does exist, since such agreement is by no means a certification of immutable truth.] And for the intellectual culture to approach the public forum with a partisanship that is so overwhelming that it colors and selectively censors all discussion, as the liberal media has during my lifetime, and especially during the 1960s and early '70s, is not consistent with a healthy marketplace of ideas.
It is appropriate to comment upon these aspects, despite (or even especially because of) liberalism's oft-repeated devotion to free speech. The actual performance of liberalism does not show its advocates to be more tolerant than are people who support most other points of view. It is worth remembering that there is a totalitarian Left which explicitly urges the repression of all non-socialist points of view. This was a position that was advocated prominently by the New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse in his Essay on Liberation. It is the spirit reflected in the statement I just quoted from Gloria Steinem and in the 1990s' insistence on "political correctness" and "ethnic sensitivity."
The role of "civil liberties"
American liberals have prided themselves on their support for "civil liberties." This is a term that they define differently than classical liberals define "liberty" in general. In common with democratic socialists, modern liberals intend the term to denote the freedoms associated with free speech and political participation as distinguished from property rights and freedom of contract. (The famous "Footnote 4" in Justice Stone's 1938 Carolene Product decision, which in effect laid down the rationale for liberal Constitutional doctrine during the decades after World War II, is a perfect example of this. It allows government free rein over property rights and market transactions, but offers a high degree of judicial protection to "insular minorities" and to "the preferred freedoms" that make up the "processes of democracy.")
It is a serious mistake to believe that most of the proponents of an ideology are not sincerely committed to the values they espouse. This is certainly true with regard to modern liberalism's championing of civil liberties. Just the same, a complete understanding requires an awareness of additional aspects:
1. The liberties of speech and political participation are not simply values within a model of society that liberals favor; they also have an instrumental value. They are directly serviceable to the liberal desire for social change. Since they play a tactical role, it becomes important to examine the permanence of liberalism's attachment to them.
2. The enthusiasm that so many liberals felt toward the totalitarian Left during the 1930s, and again during the late 1960s, suggests that, at least to a good many liberals, socialist values, when they appear within grasp, take priority over civil liberties and what have come to be called "human rights."
I recall an article by Joshua Kunitz in The New Republic in 1933 justifying the Soviet execution of six people for stealing and selling food. "That the decree is terribly drastic there can be little doubt. The Communists, however, believe it to be supremely just." Kunitz also justified a decree punishing "a single unexplained absence from work" by discharge, loss of living quarters and loss of ration card. "They had to be broken in, educated to a realization of their duties as Soviet citizens." In 1935, Anna Louise Strong, a frequent contributor to both of the main liberal journals, wrote about the Soviet concentration camps that "there are 'labor camps' in many parts of the country, as part of the Soviet method of reclaiming anti-social elements by useful, collective work."14
This gives us pause. Such passages directly contradict the liberal emphasis on civil and human rights. In my opinion, it would be a mistake to consider them aberrations. They are, instead, terribly meaningful glimpses into the hierarchy of values that exists within liberal ideology.
3. The tactical usefulness of these liberties almost certainly explains why liberals are willing to carry them beyond the limits that classical liberals, who are also devotees of the same liberties, think desirable.
The Warren Court declared in the Yates decision that the abstract advocacy of revolution is protected by the principle of free speech. Only when this advocacy is followed with some form of action can it be considered illegal.
This is a principle that will appeal primarily to those who ignore important other values. It overlooks entirely the type of world in which this "abstract advocacy" is to exist. The twentieth century world is one in which terrorist killings and kidnappings are rampant and in which totalitarian states with great military power have sought on ideological grounds to expand their power. Any group founded upon the "abstract advocacy" of violence stands as a ready reserve for terrorism and aggression. In case of war, it is an existing reservoir for espionage and sabotage. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to say that it does not at each moment constitute a "clear and present danger." (Sometimes I think that those who speak of "abstract advocacy" forget that it is assassination, mass carnage, destruction of property and the overthrow of free institutions that is being talked about. The word "abstract" seems to make it bloodless to them.)
In other connections, liberals have had little hesitation to affirm the need of a free society to protect itself. After Hitler gained power in Germany, a 1933 New Republic editorial asked appropriately: "Was not the ultra-liberal tolerance of this [Weimar] Republic largely to blame, which respected the right of association so scrupulously that it allowed the formation of party-armies?" A New Republic article by Stetson Kennedy in 1946 favored the mandatory registration of any group, such as the Ku Klux Klan, "having more than 20 members and requiring an oath as a condition of membership." Liberals acknowledge the right of a society, such as West Germany (and now in the unified Germany), to outlaw Nazi organizations. In stark contrast is Morris Ernst's 1949 argument that "I believe Communists have the right publicly to advocate the overthrow of the United States."15
Attitudes toward confrontational techniques
Classical liberal theory has long seen coercion as the central problem among people. It seeks a society in which coercion is reduced as much as possible, with voluntary interactions accentuated. When a society actually exists that approximates these objectives, classical liberals identify with it, as distinguished from those who stand in an alienated relationship to it. They also think of its processes as sufficient to allow the expression of freedom.
Modern liberalism, on the other hand, has often endorsed methods of social change that are either coercive or confrontational. This posture is consistent with (a) their theoretical frame of reference, which does not see coercion as the central problem; (b) their alienation from the predominant society; (c) their impatience for more rapid social change than would come about without such techniques; and (d) their belief that there is a significant flaw in the communication that goes on in the absence of confrontation, since those wanting change do not otherwise seem to be able to "get the public's attention."
When I speak of coercive techniques, I do not mean that liberals have favored violence, at least directly. (My reason for qualifying the disclaimer will soon become apparent.) Coercion is a category that includes but is much larger than violence.
Labor conflict has been one of the areas in which this has been important. In the nineteenth century, classical liberals were favorable to "friendly societies," associations of workers who joined together for mutual support and improvement. They opposed, however, the "right to strike," since they saw a strike as coercive in the same way that a concerted boycott by suppliers is coercive. Modern liberalism, on the other hand, has been strongly influenced by the Left's perspective that workers are exploited by their employers, and has accordingly thought in terms of industrial conflict. It has sanctioned a number of coercive devices.
A passage from Herbert Croly's Progressive Democracy (1915), in which he described how workers could bring about a socialist "industrial democracy," illustrates this: "[Workers must engage in] warfare appropriate for the purpose. Their 'Constitution of Freedom' must be gradually extorted from their employers by a series of conflicts in which the ground is skillfully chosen and permanent defeat is never admitted. In that way only can the wage-earning class win effective power... Practically all of the wage-earners as a group should be unionized as the result of this warfare...."16
In 1936, the CIO's United Automobile Workers Union used the sit-down strike in the United States for the first time. Its members seized the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, for six weeks. Robert Morss Lovett justified this weapon in The New Republic: "...the sitdown strike [is] a weapon of industrial conflict. The right of non-working employees to occupy the plant... is one of the industrial liberties which are on the way to becoming legally recognized."17
The liberal call for class consciousness among workers and for coercive techniques failed to result in the great social divisions after World War II that it might have. This is due to the fact that instead of increasing in power, the union movement came to occupy a proportionally lesser place in American life. The intellectual culture began to view it with contempt precisely because it did not on the whole continue a militant posture expressing alienation and a desire for socialism. The liberal imagination was captured by such things as Cesar Chavez's angry "grape boycott," but this was on the periphery of the labor movement rather than central to it.
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements involved mass techniques of coercion and confrontation. Until they had escalated into the burning of cities and an underground terroristic movement of bombings and kidnappings, these techniques received widespread liberal support. As the methods became more extreme, much of the liberal sympathy withered away. But this withering took a long time in coming. It should not be forgotten how much the intellectual culture and the media supported the behavior of the "Yippies" in Chicago at the time of the Democratic convention in 1968. Not the revolutionary Left, but the Chicago authorities who responded to it, were the objects of the overwhelming opprobrium of the intellectual culture.
Probably the main residual of that period within liberal thought is the conviction that "non-violent direct action" is a legitimate means for provoking social change. This is inherent in the recent elevation of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the status of one of America's great heroes.
To place "non-violent direct action" in perspective, it will be well for us to recall the conservative viewpoint on Civil Rights: that, despite all imperfections, the main society was one that deserved fundamental support; that the condition of blacks had been improving dramatically, not worsening as the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement had us believe; and that the most constructive and surest way for blacks to continue to progress was for them to continue on the road to self-development and to gain the respect of the white majority.
From that perspective, a great national agitation was precisely not the best way to seek change. Conservatives stood in horror at the violence that resulted from the frustrations and hatreds that the "non-violent" mass demonstrations occasioned. And conservatives thoroughly opposed the legislation that sought omnipresently to command non-discriminatory human relationships. Fortunately, the vast federal police power of surveillance and prosecution that this legislation implies has not, for the most part, been put to use. This is due, as I pointed out in Chapter 1, to our willingness to be hypocritical. The laws are on the books, but only partly enforced. This has made possible a modus vivendi that is tolerable precisely because of the hypocrisy's softening effect.
In contrast to the conservative perspective I have just described, modern liberalism welcomed both the legislation and a mass movement of confrontational "non-violent" demonstrations.
To assess the philosophy of "non-violence," we must realize that it goes in two directions at once. Its proponents genuinely desire, consistently with theories going back to Gandhi and Thoreau, to avoid committing any violence themselves. Their appeal is to moral strength through suffering. At the same time, they try in every possible way to build passions to a pitch at which violence by others is virtually inevitable. This violence is something they can hardly hope to control. The proponents of non-violence are quite aware that they are playing with fire. And although they fear the resulting violence, they often seek to use it to their advantage. Despite their protestations that they are divorced from it, their posture toward the violence is profoundly irresponsible.
All of these elements are apparent in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, utterances. His genuine dislike for violence was evident when he said that "resistance and non-violence are not in themselves good. There is another element in our struggle that then makes [them] truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation." At the same time, though, his awareness of the violence that his methods could unleash was apparent when he added that "the tactics of non-violence without the spirit of non-violence may become a new kind of violence." He had to be fully conscious of the violence that agitation can produce, since he was still alive when one riot after another led to the burning of substantial parts of major American cities.19
King was often willing to use warnings of violence that might be committed by others as a weapon. Nat Hentoff wrote that King and others "warn of violence [that may be committed] if those victories are not large enough and do not come soon enough. The warning is partly in itself a tactic to frighten the white folks...." Such warnings should also be understood as essentially hypocritical. They were as much goads to and justifications for violence as they were genuine warnings. Edward Banfield pointed this out when he wrote that "one who said that if drastic measures were not taken to end injustice riots could be expected might be correct, but correct or not his words would help form an impression in the public mind that rioting is a natural and perhaps even laudable response to the continuance of an injustice."20
If the main culture were in fact despicable, as so much of the rhetoric of the 1960s described it as being; if blacks had not benefited immeasurably from their presence in American society; and if their condition had not improved rapidly for several years prior to the stirring of the mass movement, the argument that a vast confrontational agitation was necessary would be considerably more compelling than it is. The support that modern liberalism gives to such methods is deeply at odds with classical liberalism. The difference is not a superficial one, but reflects their widely divergent worldviews.
Part of this divergence consists of the willingness by the Left, including modern liberalism, to drop the temporal context whenever it is expedient to do so. They then talk without reference to historical progression. Their historical relativity is abandoned in favor of utopian absolutes when that is useful in creating the critique that is so basic to the moral posture of one of the egalitarian movements. At such times, all perspective is lost, and no recognition is given to the fact that conditions for the particular group have actually been improving. The result is largely ideological fakery. It consists of a storm of cliches and emotions based on partial truths and on an intolerance toward any recognition of the unspoken truths. This process has, perhaps more than any other, given a neurotic, dreamlike quality to modern social philosophy and to the "pop liberalism" that periodically dominates our national mentality with one or another of its issues.
I should not close this discussion without observing that there has been dissent, some of it quite significant, within liberalism itself.
Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote a short book, for example, that sought to delineate strictly the appropriate bounds of civil disobedience. He argued that only the laws that are thought to be unjust should be disobeyed, and not others. He also believed that the activist must be willing to accept the penalties for violating the existing laws, however unjust.21
Much more significant dissent came from the "realism" injected, beginning in the mid-1960s, by those who eventually became known as “the neo-conservatives." These thinkers simply refused to accept the illusions that had been built up as the ideological foundation for the civil rights movement. The main society, they saw, was not the entire cause of the plight of the Negro, but rather there was much that Negroes themselves could do to improve their own situation. Indeed, that situation would stay mired in difficulty until Negroes made that effort. This, of course, was a perspective that was totally at odds with the rationale for alienation and militancy. Instead, it called for constructive building.
1. New Republic, May 31, 1939, p. 93.
2. Eric F. Goldman, Rendezvous With Destiny (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), p. 81.
3. New Republic, August 29, 1955, p. 18.
4. New Republic, March 13, 1915, p. 155; New Republic, March 17, 1920, pp. 82-6.
5. Charles Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 77, 78.
6. New Republic, July 20, 1932, p. 256; New Republic, October 3, 1934, p. 223.
7. New Republic, February 19, 1930, p. 14; Henry Steele Commager (ed.), Lester Ward and the Welfare State (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), p. 23.
8. Goldman, Rendezvous With Destiny, pp. 72-3.
9. New Republic, December 19, 1914, p. 12; New Republic, February 19, 1930, pp. 14-15.
10. Morton White, Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 94.
11. John Dewey, Problems of Men (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 50.
12. New Republic, November 21, 1928, p. 12; the other articles appear in the issues of November 14, November 28, December 5, December 12, and December 19, 1928.
13. New Republic, September 20, 1969, p. 12; Steinem was quoted in a Wichita Eagle-Beacon article in July, 1977, about the Kansas Women's Weekend.
14. New Republic, May 24, 1933, pp. 42-3; New Republic, August 3, 1935, p. 358.
15. New Republic, May 31, 1933, p. 61; New Republic, July 1, 1946, p. 929; New Republic, January 31, 1949, p. 7.
16. Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915), pp. 390-1.
17. Howard Zinn, New Deal Thought (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1966), p. 215.
18. New Republic, May 2, 1960, p. 16.
19. New Republic, May 2, 1960, p. 16.
20. Nat Hentoff, The New Equality (New York: Viking Press, 1964), p. 210; Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City, The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), p. 201.
21. Abe Fortas, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience (New York: Signet Books, 1968).