Liberalism and Its Discontents, by Alan Brinkley,
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 384 pages, $27.95
The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America, by Richard J. Ellis, Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 426 pages, $34.95
Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century
America, by Richard Rorty, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 159 pages, $18.95
The American left is in crisis. For most of the 20th century, it thought that the only significant debates were among its own factions. Now it has lived through the election and re-election of Ronald Reagan. It has witnessed the collapse of planned economies. Political correctness, the left's latest gift to an ungrateful nation, has become the object of popular derision. Republicans control both houses of Congress, and politicians run from the appellation "liberal." The left increasingly asks what went wrong and where it should go from here. These works are three diverse contributions to that discussion.
In Liberalism and Its Discontents, Columbia historian Alan Brinkley offers a set of essays and lectures loosely linked under the topic of what has happened to liberalism. They are uneven in quality, covering topics that range from the young FDR to Southern politics to the career of Allard Lowenstein, the prime mover of the revolt against LBJ's candidacy in the Democratic Party in 1968. In his brief history of the 1960s, "The Therapeutic Radicalism of the New Left," Brinkley rightly sees the counterculture as a revolution of rising expectations. He fails, however, to understand the authentic passion of anti-Stalinism on the Old Left (would anyone keep referring to anti-Hitlerism as an "obsession"?) and blames the apolitical hippies rather than the ultraradical crazies for the counterculture's "failure" (if he's right, we can chalk up one more obligation to the hippies).
It is a mark of the sad state of American history as a profession that Brinkley correctly congratulates himself for the freshness of his own view that there has been serious opposition to modern liberalism in America, alive in various populisms, sundry traditionalisms, and a vibrant libertarian school of thought. Despite his best efforts, however, Brinkley hopelessly confuses these three intellectual and political tendencies. "The Problem of American Conservatism" (meaning its problem for historians, not its internal problem) conflates F.A. Hayek, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and the Chicago school of economics, among many equally disparate other elements, as "the right." For mainstream American historians, the "problem" apparently remains.
The heart of Brinkley's thesis about the fate of liberalism is that the inspirational vision of the New Deal gradually has been undermined by regional differences, unsolved problems, structural changes, and the whirlwind of the New Left and the '60s. Brinkley is best as a scholar of the New Deal and its legacy. His narrative of the phases, improvisations, camps, debates, and transmutations of the New Deal is fresh and probing, and it sheds genuine light on individuals, tensions, and turning points. He understands well that the deep recession of 1937 caught the New Dealers wholly by surprise and forced more-radical revisions in their thinking than the experience of 1932. He accurately concludes that the New Deal "did not end the Great Depression and the massive unemployment that accompanied it." Rather, it "greatly, and permanently, expanded the role of the federal government in American life." Although this was more a "symbolic" than "substantive" change as measured by the quality of people's lives, it altered their expectations of government, which now became the broker among competing demands for security, protection, and advantage.
In the final analysis, Brinkley writes, activist government reconciled the reformist instinct with the essentials of capitalism. That is not a new thesis, of course--the radical left, above all, has looked at the New Deal that way--but it is well argued here. In contrast to left-wing, right-wing, and libertarian critics of the New Deal, Brinkley sees this reconciliation as an inspirational accomplishment that freed liberals to pursue their other exhilarating but problematic "crusades": "fighting for civil rights, eliminating poverty, saving the environment, protecting [the world from] communism, reshaping the world." He does not assess their success in any of these.
Richard Ellis's The Dark Side of the Left is an effort to explain what seems problematic to him though obvious to many of us: How does it happen that leftist egalitarians in America often begin with humanitarian idealism and end in violent intolerance? Before tackling this question, Ellis, a professor of politics at Willamette University, seeks to establish his liberal bona fides. He makes certain we know that he voted for Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and Clinton (twice); that he supports, among other things, public broadcasting and environmentalism; and that he believes "politicians, bureaucrats, and the federal government generally make this country a better place." Thus assured of his wisdom and virtue, we are prepared for his attempt to "toughen" the liberal tradition by criticizing it.
Ellis examines how egalitarianism turned "illiberal" in three periods of American history: the 19th and early 20th centuries (radical abolitionists, utopian communities, elitist democratic disdain for common lives); the 1960s (Students for a Democratic Society and the New Left in general); and the 1980s and '90s (radical feminism and radical environmentalism). Ellis creates a confusing congeries by terming all of this "illiberal egalitarianism."
When the issue is self-ownership vs. slavery, for example, almost all lovers of liberty have embraced the tragic necessity of violence. David Donald's classic study of the abolitionists' hatred of Lincoln, Lincoln Reconsidered, tells us far more about the dysfunctional sides of the radical abolitionists' absolutist politics than Ellis's sense that there was something fearsome about their either-or approach. He calls their attitude "Manichean," even though this was one of the rare cases where the issues actually were, literally and metaphorically, black and white.
In his account of utopian communities, Ellis ignores the essential point that these were wholly voluntary associations. The inability of such communities to sustain or even realize their cooperative ideals may be instructive about human nature and small communities, but it is not of a piece with efforts to coerce others into ways of life in which they lose their freedom to choose.
Nonetheless, there is lots of grand stuff in Ellis's work. He is
at his best, displaying a fine ear for detail, when examining the
dissonance between the love of radical intellectuals for the masses
in the abstract and their contempt for ordinary lives in
the particular. He probably errs, however, in seeing the myriad New York artists and intellectuals who fall into this category as the "heirs" of Walt Whitman, in whose work it is often difficult to distinguish between poetic hyperbole and actual judgment. He's got the textual goods on Whitman, but this poet usually overflows the categories in which we try to contain him, as a student of American culture should know.
On SDS and the New Left, Ellis offers an astute descriptive autopsy--pathologies, failures, ideological narcissism, self-defeating social organization, and sectarianism gone over the edge --even if he lacks a convincing theory about the etiology of the patient's fatal malady or about why the plague emerged in France, Germany, and England at the same time it appeared in America. Despite reiterated assurances that he is not doing so, Ellis wrongly contrasts the supposed tolerance of the New Left's first generation with the murderous furies and detachment of the second generation, which came of age after the Tet offensive. As he knows (well enough to qualify his thesis frequently but always inadequately), the "dark side" of the New Left was displayed first and foremost by its early members as they grew older. Ellis sees clearly that when the objects of the radicals' love, the American "underclass," refused to love them back--wanting, of all things, a better material life for themselves and their children--the radicals turned against an "Amerika" that could not even produce a worthy set of domestic victims and began their romance with revolutionary killers in the Third World.