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Mystical Militants

The young radicals whose personal statements have appeared in The New Republic these past weeks are marvelously, and problematically American. They are mystical militants, articulating the authentic miseries of the poor even while maintaining some of the attitudes of the middle class. They are also one of the most significant, hopeful developments in recent American life. I do not emphasize their importance as an uncritical compliment. They have already been subjected to quite enough journalistic flattery, and some of the mass media would probably like to package them as they did the Beats. Moreover, I have differences with the young radicals and have on occasion been puzzled, exasperated and even saddened by them. Yet the happy fact remains that the emergence of a personally committed generation seeking basic social change is momentous. They are a minority of their age group, to be sure, but a creative, activist minority who should place their stamp upon the times. Eventually, and it will probably try the anarchist spirit of some of them, they are going to lead adult movements and change this society. Whatever their shortcomings, the New Leftists hold out the hope for a renewal of American social criticism and action.

I do not intend to respond point by point to The New Republic series. Rather, what follows is an interpretive,discursive reaction to some of the themesthe young radicals raise.

First, there is the Americanism of these rebels against American society.

When I became a radical in 1948 (the last year of the politics of the Thirties), it was taken for granted (on the Left) that the Fourth of July was really a front for the four hundred families. In part, this was a heritage ofEuropean socialist theory, in parta legacy of the American experience of a Depression which had demystified so many clichés. One did not get angry that the powers that-be lied and cheated and manipulated. That, after all, was their function in life, just as it was the task of the Left to create a society which would not need to corrupt its avowed values.

The young radicals of today, it seems to me, did not start with this inherited cynicism. They came to teenage during the American celebration of the Eisenhower years and were, for the most part, not really conscious until after both Korea and McCarthyism. They seemed to have believed what they were told about freedom, equality, justice, world peace and the like. They became activists in order to affirm these traditional values with regard to some ethical cause: defending civil liberties against HUAC, picketing for the life of Caryl Chessman, demanding an end to nuclear testing, fighting for civil rights. The shock generated by the society’s duplicity in this or that single issue then opened their eyes to larger, and even more systematic, injustices.

It is, I suspect, this unique Fifties-Sixties experience which gives the New Left its distinctive flavor: a sense of outrage, of having been betrayed by all the father figures, which derives from an original innocence. And it is also the source of the young radicals’ insistence on sincerity and community. They begin, not with an image of the future which was received, in one war or another, from Europe and involves theory and history, but from a sense of the immediate contradiction between democratic posturing and the undemocratic reality. They descend from the Abolitionists and Wobblies, not from Marx.

This intense, even painful, consciousness of American hypocrisy has led the young radicals to people who do not, or cannot, play the national rhetorical game: the left-outs, the outcasts. And it has involved them in a contradiction between mysticism and militancy.

In the iconography of the Thirties, the proletarian was a figure of incipient power and a Puritan sense of duty. The lumpen proletarian was despised because he did not belong to a conscious class, because he floated; and he was feared as a potential shock trooper of fascism. By the Fifties, much of the old élan had left the labor movement and, with an overwhelming majority of the people satisfied with Eisenhower, there did not seem to be much of a political perspective for insurgency. At this point a cultural rebellion took place among young people. It was expressed among the Beats who contracted out of the system; it informed Norman Mailer’s vision of the white man who aspired to the cool and the hip which white society provoked in the Negro.

As disestablishmentarians, the young radicals continue this tradition of the Fifties. They identify precisely with the lumpen, the powerless, the maimed, the poor, the criminal, the junkie. And there is a mystical element in this commitment which has nothing to do with politics. By going into the slum, they are doing penance for the sins of affluence; by sharing the life of those who are so impoverished that they are uncorrupted, values are affirmed. It is honest and moral and anti-hypocritical to be on the margin of society whether the community organization works or not. Indeed, there is a fear of “success,” a suspicion that it would mean the integration of the oppressed into the corruption of the oppressors.

But, on the other hand, the New Leftists are not Fifties Beats (and, by the way, I do not use the term Beat pejoratively). They are angry militants who see the poor as a new force in America, perhaps even as a substitute for the proletariat that failed. So Stokely Carmichael, one of the best of the breed, insists that the Mississippi and Alabama sharecroppers can choose for themselves. He understands that ultimately, to paraphrase an old labor song, no one can abolish poverty for you, you’ve got to abolish it yourself. And from this point of view, it does make quite a bit of difference whether the community organizing campaign works or not.

An analogy from the Thirties might illuminate the political hope that is here asserted by the young radicals. In 1932 or 1933, many polite Americans believed that if you gave a worker a bathtub, he would put coal in it. And the skilled AFL members thought it preposterous that mass production machine operators could form their own union. On paper, the right to organize was proclaimed by the Wagner Act. In fact, it took at least five tumultuous years of picketing, striking and sitting-in before the CIO turned the brave words into something of a reality. Similarly in 1964, America declared war on poverty; and most of the well-bred citizenry did not intend by that to have field hands and janitors speaking up for themselves; and the young radicals, who have this knack of taking America’s promises seriously, sought a surge from below to give meaning to the phrasemaking on high. But, as I think the New Left realizes, this analogy is faulty in part. The mass production workers were, just as radical theory had said, forced by the conditions of their existence (thousands of men assembled at one miserable place with common problems and interests) into a solidarity which became the basis of union organization. The poor, as Tom Hayden noted in his New Republic contribution, are not grouped into incipient communities. A slum street fragments and atomizes people; the two largest groups of the poor, the young and the old, have little to do with one another; and even if they could get together, the poor are still a minority of the society. Therefore it is going to take even more creativity to help the outcasts into their own than it did to build industrial unionism.

What Hope for the Poor?

For a number of reasons the New Leftists shied away, until quite recently, from thinking through the problems posed by their own militancy. For one thing, they are indeed “American” in the empirical, activist, anti-theoretical sense of the word. For another, they rejected the scholasticism of some of the traditional Left formulae (as well as the genuine profundity of the Left’s intellectual heritage) and they were imbued with the spirit of the civil rights movement of the early Sixties where the willingness to go to jail was more important than political abstractions. This winter there have been signs that the young radicals are moving into a phase of discussion and debate (at a Christmas vacation meeting at the University of Illinois, the SDS militants discussed political strategy, ideology. Communism, the role of women in the movement, etc.). And this is necessary if the conflict of mysticism and militancy is to be resolved. For if the poor are seen as Dostoevskian peasants whose beauty is their suffering, then politics and the inevitable alliances with others is a contamination; but if they are to be a social force, then coalition is a necessity.

The New Leftists regard the welfare state, rather than the economic royalists, as the incarnation of the status quo. This is an almost inevitable result of trying to look at America with the eyes of the poor. It is very right—and it is a dangerous half-truth.

The welfare state developed in the Thirties was created by, and for, the “middle third” of American society: the liberal middle class and the organized workers. The poor were, and still are, those who were left behind in the Depression because of bad geographical, occupational or political luck: migrants, farm workers, full-time laborers at poverty jobs, racial and ethnic minorities which came into the economic mainstream at the time of the computer rather than of the assembly line. In addition, the poor include all those who have suffered from a relative deterioration in various social insurance and income maintenance programs (social security, unemployment compensation, etc.).

The visible enemies of the poor are not the captains of industry but the landlords, shopkeepers and, often enough, the agents of the welfare state. For the welfare state is, of course, ill-financed and bureaucratic, and this distorts the good intentions of many of the fine people who work for it and it reinforces the vices of the bad. So for the poor the welfare state means a humiliating dependence and fear, and requires a constant, cunning, battle against authority. The young radicals attempt to articulate these fierce resentments which they discovered in the slums, and the experience does not leave them in a mood for sociological nicety. The welfare state is, they say, a fraud. And the liberals, who actually boast of having created this monster in the name of humane values are therefore the worst hypocrites.

In formulating this attitude, it is not simply that the New Leftists overlook some history, which youth always does, but that they ignore some relevant history. The welfare state did not come out of the Thirties as a result of a liberal plot to manipulate the dispossessed. It was created over the violent resistance of most men of property and wealth, and its creation required a major upheaval on the part of the workers, from the bottom up. Business did not begin its conversion to welfare statism until the World War II discovery that a federal agency staffed by corporation executives was not exactly a class enemy of the rich; and its final conversion to “tax cut” Keynesianism waited upon the persuasiveness of Lyndon B. Johnson. There was, and is, a very real element of buying off the restless natives in business acceptance of welfarism.

The relevance of this history is that the current welfare state consensus is not quite so homogeneous as the President and some New Leftists sometimes think. For the apparent agreement conceals the latent conflict between the sophisticated conservatives on the one hand, and the liberal-labor-civil rights forces on the other. One can rightly accuse the liberal welfarists of having been too nostalgically proud of their upheaval to understand the terrible urgency of more change now as seen from, the bottom of society. But it is something else again to equate all present supporters of the welfare state with one another.

Acting Out a Morality Play

And here I think I come to my most serious criticism of the New Radicals: that they sometimes expect the poor to act out the moral values of the middle-class radical who has come to the slum.

I find, for instance, a genuine poignancy in Tom Hayden’s realization that a coalition of the outcasts will not really be able to change the society and that radicalism can only give itself up to, and become part of, “the energy kept restless and active under the clamps of paralyzed imperial society. Radicalism then would go beyond the concepts of optimism and pessimism as guides to work, finding itself in working despite odds. Its realism and sanity would be grounded in nothing more than the ability to face whatever comes.”

This attitude is a logical deduction from theory that all the welfare staters, from Henry Ford to Walter Reuther if you will, are the same kind of manipulative bureaucrats. For if everybody but the poor and outcast are “them,” then “we” must inevitably lose, for by definition “we” are not strong enough to transform a fraud and scandal supported by 60 or 70 percent of the society.

The conscious and committed radical can find his solace in such a vision; most of the poor, I suspect, cannot. Indeed, one of the things that has made the poor so inarticulate, so unorganized, so hopeless, is precisely the conviction that they can’t win. Are they now to be told stoically to treasure their misery which, though permanent, is at least not corrupted by the hypocrisy of affluence? That will be cold comfort. And it will not move them to action, but rather reinforce them in their passivity.

The danger is that the poor will thus be assigned roles as abstractions in the morality plays of the disenchanted middle class. To fight this possibility, the New Leftists must come up with a strategy which offers real hope to the other America. And this means making a more sophisticated analysis of the coalition which supports the welfare state.

For the liberal wing of this consensus certainly did not start with the intention to build a manipulative bureaucracy, and it maintains values which could provide a basis for transforming the present structure. If the social-change movements of the previous generation must be shaken up by the poor, they must be shaken up in order to be made allies. To do this requires an intensification of the efforts to organize the slums and ghettos and backwoods as an independent political force. But if there is to be honest hope, that organization must be thought of as the catalyst of a new political majority in the United States, and not as a doomed last stand of noble savages.

There is reason to hope that these new directions will be taken. An incredibly American generation in our midst has become radical by taking the house platitudes seriously. Its hatred of hypocrisy and its identification with the outcasts are magnificent; its empiricism and its middle class mysticism are sometimes troubling. Now that New Leftists are becoming more reflective, their anger and their activism should become even more effective, their radicalism that much deeper and more profound.