Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

New International, January–February 1951


William Barton

The Liberal in the United States

Offering a Point of View on Socialist Attitude


From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 1, January–February 1951, pp. 51–55.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(Concluded from last issue)

Several recent volumes by liberal ideologists have more or less blueprinted their desired political world. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (whose Vital Center is, with all possible criticisms, one of the more able presentations of the administrative liberal position) is aware of the dangers of administrative rule, but offers no noticeable plan for alleviation. Irwin Ross’ Strategy for Liberals offers the hope that bureaucrats will be reeducated to become “liberal administrators.”

As advocates of administrative action in politics, and as people with a long heritage of political frustration, administrative liberals have also become adherents of success in political behaviour, which has often made them negate the role that criticism has usually had in the liberal ideal. Some have even been willing to turn a sympathetic ear to Stalinism because of Russian “successes,” including, surprisingly for a “liberal,” those gained on the battlefield. FDR is considered a greater man than Wilson, because the former had more “practical” political achievements. Theodore Roosevelt looms as a larger historical symbol than Bob LaFollette because he was an “achieving” president and got more votes as a third party candidate. Schlesinger finds much praise for successful machine politicians, little but patronizing derision for those who exposed the Robber Barons, morally criticized the U.S. side in the Mexican War, or took the Oxford Oath during the Thirties. Many liberals have gone out of their way to show their critics that they can be as “practical” as anyone.

As people strongly addicted to the idea of success, contemporary New Deal liberals are very reluctant to build a political organization outside the Democratic Party. Many are unhappy automatically supporting the political organization over which they now realize they have no substantial control now. But they do not want to try any alternative that may not be immediately successful. In addition there is an uneasiness about building mass movements. Administrative action seems so much easier to keep in harness, especially with the possibility of Stalinist infiltration always around.

We trust we are not charged with overdoing either of these assertions. Some New Deal liberals would fervently like to build big movements outside the Democratic Party apparatus. They are overjoyed at whatever strength ADA has shown, and many, like Lerner, were glad that the last convention did not completely commit itself to the Democratic Party. In their own way, liberals tried a Washington mobilization for FEPC. These do desire that independence of movement which is in line with the liberal ideal.

But, there is a prevailing reluctance to favor the noisy, sweaty, turbulence of democratic mass movements. Even in the CIO, the greatest of all American popular mass organizations, smooth negotiations around the conference table and deals with the “right” people have become preferable to the “difficult” modes of operation of large-scale democratic initiative, administrative acts against Stalinists favored over the political caucus that destroyed the political capital of the Stalinists in the UAW. Smooth bureaucratic efficiency has become a deeply imbedded quality of the administrative liberal psyche.

Since they have accepted the administrative state and are not enthusiastic about building mass movements to control, oppose, or change it, they must find some; other symbol for mass support of their ideology. The favorite device is the search for a “hero,” as true of a Schlesinger as a Lerner. With adherence to administrative modes of operation and the desire for success has gone an adulation of the great manipulators of political processes and political opinion. Schlesinger has a profound dread of such dangers in the modern world. But he never seems to realize that the frenzied worship by him and so many of his political co-thinkers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, even when he acted in violation of the liberal philosophic creed, is part of the same “escape from freedom.”

Lerner has conveniently provided the perfect psychoanalytic imagery – the need for the all-protecting father-hero. However, at least FDR was a real hero for the liberals. They have also frantically tried to create synthetic substitutes. There is the case history of Henry Wallace. With a great penchant for rhetoric and one of the least impressive New Deal records among the New Deal officials, he became the New Deal liberals’ darling as Vice-President. One day they woke up and discovered he had been captured by the Stalinists. (A few continued to go along with him even then.) He has again returned home, with no more political principles or great heroism than he had previously displayed. He is the liberals’ baby, and most broke with him because he was striving to set up a political organization opposed to the Democratic Party and with little chance of success.

If their previous Wallace worship makes many New Deal liberals quiver today, how must they now feel about the behavior of some during the spring of 1948? Their potential ersatz hero then was General Eisenhower, a man without political affiliation or expressed political ideas at the time, who has since more clearly announced where he stands. The New Republic cachexia article found the greatest source of liberal delight in the activities of the liberal heroes in Congress, rather than in the activities of liberal citizens as a group.

One of the oddest phases of New Deal liberal behavior has been the relationship to the Stalinists. (The open Social-Democrats have at least been more sophisticated on this score). It has been very similar to the Stalinist line itself, fluctuating with the current international line-up and with a very poor memory of the next previous position. Periods of comparative Russian-American harmony have encouraged, at least for a large section of New Deal liberals, joint movements in which criticism of Stalinists have been all but forbidden. Periods of Russian-American conflict have produced the most violent, often “illiberal” anti-Stalinism. The attitude toward Stalinists has been uncomfortably like the Stalinist attitude toward other political tendencies – either close organic collaboration or purge. Today, some of the closest collaborators with Stalinists a short time ago have become ready to use any means to combat them, including means that are outside the liberal creed.

The desire for success and the need to be close to the going administrative policies of “their” government have been the principal causes of the fluctuation of the attitudes of New Deal liberals toward the Stalinists; at present, it provides the rationale for administrative acts against Stalinists in non-governmental organizations. These tendencies have also, in combination with the growth of administrative powers, set the atmosphere for the Federal Government’s loyalty program (and similar programs within smaller political subdivisions, schools, etc.) This is mostly a substitute for a political method of combating Stalinists, as well as anti-Stalinist political opponents, during the cold-war era. Many liberals have become disturbed by loyalty purges and their stimulation of kindred drives in other areas of American life (though they are so often willing to strive for the same end with different techniques in their own organizations). Not only do the methods appear to be that of bureaucracy in extremis, against which the liberal ideal is compelled at some point to rebel, but many of the people who are affected are their own political blood brothers. Organizations like the Americans for Democratic Action thus propose drastic democratizing reforms in the purge procedure, with the purpose of restricting them to the weeding out of potential spies in “sensitive” agencies. But, few liberals have associated the dangers of witchhunts either to the policies of their Democratic administration or to administrative liberalism itself. They become particularly elated when a Senator McCarthy reduces the whole idea to a mad absurdity and they can then center all their wrath on the “reactionaries.”

With the acceptance of administrative modes of operation, a worship of success, a need for heroes, a reluctance about building mass movements, the characteristic New Deal liberal, is, despite continued verbal acceptance, and usually sincere avowal of the basic liberal philosophical ideal, pursuing a type of political behavior that runs smack up against it. That is the nature of his cachexia, his questioning his own strength despite all the favorable election returns. The inability to have desired congressional legislation enacted can be blamed on the “Republicocrats,” but it cannot be considered the cause of liberal “malnutrition and wasting of the body.” It is the conflict between the fundamental creed and the immediate program that is at the bottom of current ill-feeling.

Neither the liberal ideal, nor the principle of gradual piece-meal changes, nor the variants of the original liberal political and economic program have prepared for the contemporary world. Economic power has grown concentrated, but not in the form of the trusts the muckrakers railed against. The financial and industrial empires, at least in this country, do not need to restrict competition or use shady practices to become even greater repositories of further capital accumulation. They grow almost automatically, with so much wealth already at their command. And whether business conditions permit, corporation officials become quite statesmanlike. The power of the state has concomitantly increased. New Deal liberals are generally satisfied at this development, for they feel it is a "democratic” state, besides moving toward a welfare type. However, as has been earlier described, the situation has been one of partnership, however many the disputes, between big business and big government. Many liberals are becoming apprehensive of some of the possibilities implicit in such a set-up.

But they have little idea of how to combat either powerful administrative government or gigantic capitalist combines. It is easy to denounce the wild allegations of a McCarthy, not so easy to criticize the findings of the FBI under Tom Clark’s jurisdiction, even less easy when under the supervision of Howard McGrath. It was easy to attack General Motors when it was at its union-busting wildest, not so easy now that it has become a symbol of labor-management cooperation. It is much more easy to debunk a Hearst or a McCormick than a Henry Luce, whose publications often show some sympathy with the idea of a welfare state. The administrative liberals are in danger of becoming prey for the "sophisticated conservatives” who edit Fortune and Business Week.

Capitalism is being transformed, in the United States as elsewhere, into a system of bureaucratic economic structures collaborating, in varying ways, with administrative political structures. Schlesinger makes the growth of bureaucratic political-economic world the keynote of his book (adding much valid material about the “impersonality” of modern industrial life). He seems to note the symmetrical development of capitalism and Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism along such lines. But in his entire programmatic statement the awareness of this phenomenon is noted only in passing. His solutions are, apparently, a "mixed economy,” which might be considered a combination of Crolyeanism and Brandeisism, and one or two paragraphs in favor of “voluntary associations” as a check on concentrated power. Irwin Ross is even less aware of the dangers of administrative liberalism, though he does have his hopes for liberalizing bureaucrats. His mixed system would watch big business to see that it was competitive enough. Presumably, competitive enterprises would permit a power balance. Other liberals, learning of the nature of existent administrative power, rush into a Burnhamite analysis of a new ruling managerial class, toward whom they either surrender, hope to convince to be less harsh, or believe they can curtail with their dreams of a diversified economy. The liberal ideal could be a means for fighting bureaucratization, but, so many of its apostles have become alternately junior partners and loyal critics of bureaucratized capitalism in this country, especially when there is a welfare state administration in Washington.

The task of socialists toward those who are their principal political audience in the U.S. today is to indicate this conflict, to point out how bureaucratic administrative rule can be controlled, opposed, and substituted for – all in accord with such elements of basic philosophy as liberals and socialists hold in common. Unless there is a mass reawakening of the working class, or an immediate significant move toward independent political action based on the labor movement, there is little else that can be done in the mass political arena at present. And, neither of the above seems likely at the moment, especially since the Korean War pushed much of the tenor of political thinking further in the prevailing directions.

There have been several openings, however small, created for an appeal to liberals. One of the most encouraging signs in years was the refusal of the ADA convention to become too assimilated into the Democratic Party. The shock of, and resulting opposition to some of the Federal loyalty procedures and school loyalty oaths, however mild the active presentation of resentment, has at least been heartening.

A few immediate areas of appeal by socialists are available. First, and fairly obvious, is the continuing struggle to defend and extend civil liberties – the upholding of an important aspect of the liberal ideal against administrative and legislative usurpation. Secondly, at least one feature of European experiences can be used for the education of liberals. With the bureaucratic elements of British life today, the British do have one check which we do not have here – a mass, popular, democratic Labor Party. Whatever criticisms can be made of the Labor Party regime, besides upholding civil liberties much better than either of the major party organizations here, it does have to answer directly to its popular party organization constituents, especially the trade unions. In contrast, the Democratic Party leadership need but have enough of a mass appeal to do better than its rivals on election day. The third, closely associated appeal, has been earlier indicated. The need for vigorous independent mass movements, as a check on existing powers and a rival power today, as well as a completely alternative power tomorrow, is a lesson that liberals have got to learn in practice over and over again, especially in the field where one would suppose such lessons are most unnecessary – the labor movement.

In the education process, this can all lead to the propaganda presentation of the image of a socialist society, with its dispersal of power, its popular democratic participation in decisions, its limitations on coercion. Here is the answer to the varying bureaucratic administrative rule of both contemporary capitalism and Stalinism. No Utopian blueprint is necessary. History has already given us enough historical examples to furnish at least the major shadings of the picture, particularly under the many situations of beginning or potential social change to a new social order – the early Russian and German Soviets, the Paris Commune, the dual power bodies of the Spanish Civil War, some of the elements of the national resistance movements during the last war. The common ground for socialists and American liberals can be summarized in a paraphrase of an idea of C. Wright Mills – socialism creates a society of the unalienated man visioned by Jefferson and the plebeian rule expounded by Jackson’s adherents in a world of mass production.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 21 November 2018