(Jacket design by Samuel Hanks Bryant)

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr.

THE VITAL CENTER: THE POLITICS OF FREEDOM

- a brief excerpt -
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949)

Take a look at the dustjacket material for this edition and at a brief biographical sketch of the author; and at The Politics of Hope (1962).


The Foreword

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity ...
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
--W. B. Yeats

This work is not designed to set forth novel or startling political doctrines. It is intended rather as a report on the fundamental enterprise of re-examination and self-criticism which liberalism has undergone in the last decade. The leaders in this enterprise have been the wiser men of an older generation. But its chief beneficiaries have been my own contemporaries; and its main consequence, I believe, has been to create a new and distinct political generation.

This new generation can be briefly defined by a few historical--and biographical--notations. If I may use myself as a convenient example, I was born in 1917. 1 heard Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address as a boy at school, fifteen years old. Since that March day in 1933, one has been able to feel that liberal ideas had access to power in the United States, that liberal purposes, in general, were dominating our national policy. For one's own generation, then, American liberalism has had a positive and confident ring. It has stood for responsibility and for achievement, not for frustration and sentimentalism; it has been the instrument of social change, not of private neurosis. During most of my political consciousness this has been a New Deal country. I expect that it will continue to be a New Deal country.

The experience of growing up under the New Deal meant too that Communism shone for few of one's generation with the same unearthly radiance that it apparently shone for other young men a decade earlier. It was partly the fact that we did not need so desperately to believe in the Soviet utopia. Franklin Roosevelt was showing that democracy was capable of taking care of its own; the New Deal was filling the vacuum of faith which we had inherited from the cynicism and complacency of the twenties, and from the breadlines of the early thirties. Partly too the Soviet Union itself was no longer the bright dream of the twenties--the land of hope encircled by capitalist aggressors and traduced by newspapermen sending lies out of Riga. What we saw in the Russia of the thirties was a land where industrialization was underwritten by mass starvation, where delusions of political infallibility led to the brutal extermination of dissent, and where the execution of heroes of the revolution testified to some deep inner contradiction in the system. This conclusion was not, for most of us, a process of disillusionment for which we had to pay the psychological price of a new extremism. We were simply the children of a new atmosphere: history had spared us any emotional involvement in the Soviet mirage.

The degeneration of the Soviet Union taught us a useful lesson, however. It broke the bubble of the false optimism of the nineteenth century. Official liberalism had long been almost inextricably identified with a picture of man as perfectible, as endowed with sufficient wisdom and selflessness to endure power and to use it infallibly for the general good. The Soviet experience, on top of the rise of fascism, reminded my generation rather forcibly that man was, indeed, imperfect, and that the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world. We discovered a new dimension of experience - the dimension of anxiety, guilt and corruption. (Or it may well be, as Reinhold Niebuhr has brilliantly suggested, that we were simply rediscovering ancient truths which we should never have forgotten.)

Mid-twentieth-century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped by the hope of the New Deal, by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism and a reassertion of the ultimate integrity of the individual. This awakening constitutes the unique experience and fundamental faith of contemporary liberalism.

This faith has been and will continue to be under attack from the far right and the far left. In this book I have deliberately given more space to the problem of protecting the liberal faith from Communism than from reaction, not because reaction is the lesser threat, but because it is the enemy we know, whose features are clearly delineated for us, against whom our efforts have always been oriented. It is perhaps our very absorption in this age-old foe which has made us fatally slow to recognize the danger on what we carelessly thought was our left--forgetting in our enthusiasm that the totalitarian left and the totalitarian right meet at last on the murky grounds of tyranny and terror. I am persuaded that the restoration of business to political power in this country would have the calamitous results that have generally accompanied business control of the government; that this time we might be delivered through the incompetence of the right into the hands of the totalitarians of the left. But I am persuaded too that liberals have values in common with most members of the business community--in particular, a belief in free society--which they do not have in common with the totalitarians.

The experience with Communism has had one singularly healthy effect: it has made us reclaim democratic ideas which a decade ago we tended to regret and even to abandon. The defense of these ideas against both right and left will be a continuous and exacting commitment. But there lies in that commitment the possibility of recharging the faith in democracy with some of its old passion and principle. I am certain that history has equipped modern American liberalism with the ideas and the knowledge to construct a society where men will be both free and happy. Whether we have the moral vigor to do the job depends on ourselves.

Cambridge, Massachusetts
January 19, 1949

[Brief excerpts from the book's chapters]

Optimism gave the progressives a soft and shallow concept on of human nature. With the aggressive and sinister impulses eliminated from the equation, the problem of social change assumed too simple a form. The corruptions of power--the desire to exercise it, the desire to increase it, the desire for prostration before it--had no place in the progressive calculations. As a result, progressivism became politically inadequate: it could neither persuade nor control the emotions of man. And it became intellectually inadequate: it could not anticipate nor explain the tragic movements of history in the twentieth century. Ideologies which exploited the darker passions captured men by appeals unknown to the armory of progressivism.

Doughface progressivism--the faith of the present-day fellow traveler--may be defined briefly as progressivism kept alive by main force in face of all the lessons of modern history. It is this final fatuity of progressivism which has turned it into, if not an accomplice of totalitarianism, at least an accessory before the fact. For its persistent and sentimental optimism has endowed Doughface progressivism with what in the middle of the twentieth century are fatal weaknesses: a weakness for impotence, because progressivism believes that history will make up for human error; a weakness for rhetoric, because it believes that man can be reformed by argument; a weakness for economic fetishism, because it believes that the good in man will be liberated by a change in economic institutions; a weakness for political myth, because Doughface optimism requires somewhere an act of faith in order to survive the contradictions of history.

The weakness of impotence is related to a fear of responsibility--a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences. Problems are much simpler when viewed from the office of a liberal weekly than when viewed in terms of what will actually happen when certain ideologically attractive steps are taken. Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world. Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.

Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it. But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in MacDonald's phrase, to accomplish "in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality." Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action. Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night's rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts. Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire.

The progressive attitude toward history is sufficiently revealing. The responsible conservative, we have seen, finds in history a profound sense of national continuity which overrides his contemporary fears and trepidations. The Doughface, less humble in his approach, is like the neanderthal conservative, looking at history long and wistfully until it reassembles itself in patterns which support his current vagaries. Mr. [Henry] Wallace and his followers, for example, have proclaimed repeatedly that they are doing no more on behalf of the Russian Revolution than Thomas Jefferson did on behalf of the French: it is their support of social change that exposes them to the same reactionary persecutions as those which harried Jefferson in the nineties. It is quite true that Jefferson was an enthusiast for the French Revolution. But he was too intelligent a man and too profound a believer in human freedom to let his enthusiasm survive the transformation of the Revolution into an aggressive military despotism. Napoleon, Jefferson observed, was "the Attila of the age . . . the ruthless destroyer of ten millions of the human race, whose thirst for blood appeared unquenchable, the great oppressor of the rights and liberties of the world a cold-blooded, calculating, unprincipled usurper, without a virtue." Mr. Wallace, who restrained his passion for Soviet Russia in its revolutionary days and opposed its recognition as late as 1933, became a great enthusiast for the Soviet Union only after it was embarked on its Napoleonic phase.

In life one must make a choice and accept the consequences; in Doughface fantasy, one can denounce a decision without accepting the consequences of the alternative. Ask a progressive what he thinks of the Mexican War, or of our national policy toward the Indians, and he will probably say that these outbursts of American imperialism are black marks on our history. Ask him whether he then regrets that California, Texas and the West are today part of the United States. And was there perhaps some way of taking lands from the Indians or from Mexico without violating rights in the process? Pushed to it, the progressive probably thinks that there is some solution hidden in the back of his fantasy; but ordinarily he never has to push the question that far back, because he never dreams of facing a question in terms of responsibility for the decision. For him it is sufficient to dissociate himself from the Mexican War so long as he is not required to dissociate himself from the fruits of victory.

Or take the question of the "robber barons." The phrase itself suggests the attitude of disfavor with which the progressive regards the industrialists of the second half of the nineteenth century. The robber baron, of course, used to sally forth from his castle and steal the goods of innocent travelers. His was a thoroughly nonproductive form of economic enterprise. Does even the most unregenerate Doughface consider this to be analogous to the achievements of Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller? And, to save the nation from the "robber barons," would the Doughface reduce our industrial capacity to the point where it was when the "robber barons" came on the scene? Or has he some other formula for industrialization in a single generation? The fact is, of course, that this nation paid a heavy price for industrialization--a price in political and moral decadence, in the wasteful use of economic resources, in the centralization of economic power. But the price we paid, though perhaps exorbitant, was infinitely less in human terms than the price paid by the people of Russia; and it is not clear that the managers who charged more have done the better job.

Everyone has seen the ignorant dogmatism of Doughface progressives at work on current issues. People who had barely heard of Spain in 1934 became world champion Spanish experts by 1937, though if you asked them what a Carlist was they would have been hard pressed for an answer. They did not know anything about history, but they knew what they liked. The system of falsification operated on contemporary lines, too, so that the average American progressive got the impression that the Spanish Republicans were a united group undone by the wicked fascists. Dreams are better than facts. Books like Franz Borkenau's Spanish Cockpit and George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia were simply not published in America; it was left to Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Dos Passos a few years later to report the savage political differences in the Loyalist ranks and, in particular, the unsavory role of the Communists in delivering Spain to fascist tyranny.

The belief that man is perfectible commits the progressive to the endless task of explaining why, in spite of history and in spite of rhetoric, he does not always behave that way. One favorite Doughface answer, borrowed from the Communists, is that contemporary man has been corrupted by the system of private ownership; let us change all this, they say, and our problems will be solved. This form of economic fetishism can be seen nakedly in the Webbs' dreamlike Soviet Russia: a New Civilization, where the nationalization of the means of production is believed to have liquidated injustice in society and evil in man.

But is private ownership the root of all evil? Private property, Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, is "not the cause but the instrument of human egotism. It is only one embodiment of the will to power. "By abolishing private property," as Freud puts it, "one deprives the human love of aggression of one of its instruments, a strong one undoubtedly, but assuredly not the strongest." Some social arrangements pander more than others to the human love of aggression; but aggression underlies all social arrangements, whether capitalist or Communist, and it remains a question whether aggression is more checked and controlled by Russian totalitarianism than by American pluralism. In any case, the root remains man.

At the bottom of the set of Doughface illusions is a need for faith. As the gap has widened between the sentimental abstractions of Doughface fantasy and the cruel complexities of life, the need has increased for mythology to take up the slack. One myth, to which the Doughface has clung in the face of experience with the imperturbable ardor of an early Christian, is the mystique of the proletariat. This myth, given its classical form by Marx, himself so characteristically a bourgeois intellectual, states that the action of the working class will overthrow capitalist tyranny and establish by temporary dictatorship a classless society. Its appeal lies partly in the progressive intellectual's sense of guilt over living pleasantly by his skills instead of unpleasantly by his hands, partly in the intellectual's somewhat feminine fascination with the rude and muscular power of the proletariat, partly in the intellectual's desire to compensate for his own sense of alienation by immersing himself in the broad maternal expanse of the masses. Worship of the proletariat becomes a perfect fulfillment for the frustrations of the progressive.

At one time perhaps there was prima facie support for the myth. Before capitalism raised mass living standards, the working classes had a genuinely revolutionary potential. This was visible in Britain and America in the early days of the nineteenth century and in France as late as the Paris Commune. In countries like Spain and Yugoslavia, where industrialization and its benefits have been delayed, the revolutionary potential existed well into the twentieth century. But, contrary to Marx's prediction of increasing proletarian misery, capitalism, once it has had the chance, has vastly increased the wealth and freedom of the ordinary worker. It has reduced the size of the working class and deradicalized the worker.

As a result, workers as a mass have decreasingly the impulses attributed to them by Marxism. They too often believe in patriotism or religion, or read comic strips, go to movies, play slot machines and patronize taxi dance halls. In one way or another, they try to cure their discontent by narcotics rather than by surgery. The general strike is in principle the most potent weapon in the world, but it always remains potent in principle. The last great moment for the general strike was perhaps 1914, when syndicalist agitation had at least kept alive mass revolutionary emotions. But, even had Jaures survived and led the call, the working classes would probably have succumbed to the bugle, the flag and the military parade. Marx recognized that many workers were not Marxists and so invented a classification called the Lumpenproletariat in which were dumped those who did not live up to theory. Lenin recognized this too and so invented a disciplined party which announced itself as the only true representative of the proletariat, reducing non-Communist workers to political non-existence.

Progressives defending their belief in the proletariat sometimes cite the trade-union movement. Yet the trade union has, in fact, surely been the culminating agency in the deradicalization of the masses. As an institution, it is as clearly indigenous to the capitalist system as the corporation itself, and has no real meaning apart from that system. Thus trade unions, while giving the working masses a sense of having an organization of their own, insure that the goals of this organization are compatible with capitalism. And, as unions become more powerful, they increase their vested interests in the existing order. Labor leadership acquires satisfactions in terms of prestige and power. Only acute mass disaffection could radicalize the union leadership; and, up to this point, at least, the increase in capitalist productivity has enabled the labor movement to bring the rank-and-file steady benefits in the shape of higher wages, reduced hours and better working conditions.

What operational meaning, indeed, does the conception of the proletariat as an agency of change have? Can it mean anything more than the proletariat as a pool of discontent from which leaders can draw recruits for a variety of programs? The technical necessity for organization, as Robert Michel showed long ago, sets in motion an inevitable tendency toward oligarchy. The leadership after a time is bound to have separate interests from the rank-and-file. A working-class organization will soon stand, not for the working class, but for the working class plus the organization's own instincts for survival plus the special bureaucratic interests of the organization's top leadership. No loopholes have yet been discovered in the iron law of oligarchy.

For these various reasons, the mystique of the working class has faded somewhat since the First War. In its place has arisen a new mystique, more radiant and palpable, and exercising the same fascinations of power and guilt: the mystique of the USSR. Each success of the Soviet Union has conferred new delights on those possessed of the need for prostration and frightened of the responsibilities of decision. In a world which makes very little sense, these emotions are natural enough. But surrender to them destroys the capacity for clear intellectual leadership which ought to be the progressive s function in the world. In an exact sense, Soviet Russia has become the opiate of the progressives.

"The facts of life do not penetrate to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished," writes Proust; "as it was not they that engendered those beliefs, so they are powerless to destroy them; they can aim at them continual blows of contradiction and disproof without weakening them; and an avalanche of miseries and maladies coming, one after another, without interruption into the bosom of a family, will not make it lose faith in either the clemency of its God or the capacity of its physician." 6 The Soviet Union can do very little any more to disenchant its believers; it has done about everything in the book already. I remember in the summer of 1939 asking a fellow traveler what the USSR could possibly do which would make him lose faith. He said, "Sign a pact with Hitler." But two months later he had absorbed the pact with Hitler; and so the hunger to believe, the anxiety and the guilt, continue to triumph over the evidence.

Conservatism in its crisis of despair turns to fascism: so progressivism in its crisis of despair turns to Communism. Each in a sober mood has a great contribution to make to free society: the conservative in his emphasis on law and liberty, the progressive in his emphasis on mass welfare. But neither is capable of saving free society. Both, faced by problems they cannot understand and fear to meet, tend to compound their own failure by delivering free society to its totalitarian foe. To avoid this fate, we must understand as clearly as possible the reasons for the appeal of totalitarianism.


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