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DRAPED IN THE AMERICAN FLAG
Cold War Liberals and the Resistance to Theory
In those years, I was told, when I became terrified, vehement, or lachrymose: It takes time, Jimmy. It takes time. I agree: I still agree: though it certainly didn't take much time for some of the people I knew then—in the Fifties—to turn tail, to decide to make it, and drape themselves in the American flag. A wretched and despicable band of cowards, whom I once trusted with my life—friends like these!
—James Baldwin, Preface to the 1984 edition of Notes of a Native Son
War is hell, even when it's a cold one.—The Professor, North by Northwest
In The Vital Center (1949), one of the most influential books of the postwar period, when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wanted to emphasize the conspiratorial nature of the American Communist party, he compared it to the gay male subculture. Engaging in the kind of political tactics perfected by McCarthy and his followers, Schlesinger alleged that the American Communist party had an "underground arm, operating apart from the formal organization of the [party] and working as the American section of the Soviet secret intelligence corps." According to Schlesinger, this arm was composed of "secret members" (127) who were committed to infiltrating and subverting the American government through covert strategies. Unknown to one another, these members reported directly to a representative of the party's National Committee and interacted with one another in ways that allegedly resembled homosexual "cruising." Although they supposedly had no local affiliations, were exempt from party discipline, and were "unknown to most of their Party brethren" (127), Schlesinger claimed that these members could recognize one another almost instinctively. He suggested that they could "identify each other (and be identified by their enemies) on casual meeting by the use of certain phrases, the names of certain friends, by certain enthusiasms and certain silences" (127). Contributing to the anti-Communist hysteria then sweeping the nation, Schlesinger compared the way in which these members identified one another to the way in which he alleged homosexuals made contact when looking for sex. He charged that their methods of making contact were "reminiscent of nothing so much as the famous scene in Proust where the Baron de Charlus and the tailor Jupien suddenly recognize their common corruption ..." (127).
Comparing the way in which the "secret" members of the Communist party supposedly interacted to the way in which homosexuals identified one another when looking for sex enabled Schlesinger to accomplish two things crucial to the project undertaken by Cold War liberals in the 1950s to reclaim liberalism from its history of Communist fellow traveling. First, it helped to consolidate the Cold War consensus by making membership in the Communist party and other forms of political dissent seem "unnatural." Second, it helped to insure that gender and nationality functioned as mutually reinforcing categories of identity by suggesting that engaging in homosexuality and other "perverted" sexual practices was un-American. Like other anti-Stalinist intellectuals, Schlesinger refused to believe that Americans joined the Communist party because they were genuinely committed to communism. He thought that Marxist categories of analysis were simply not applicable to postwar American society. He pointed out that America had witnessed the longest period of liberal government in its history and that the labor movement had won major concessions from American industries. For this reason, he tried to explain membership in the Communist party psychologically. He suggested that despite the economic prosperity of the postwar period, America still had "its quota of lonely and frustrated people, craving social, intellectual and even sexual fulfillment they cannot obtain in existing society" (104). For such people, the discipline of the Communist party, its demand for unceasing loyalty, was supposedly not an obstacle but an attraction. Membership in the party offered such people the possibility of belonging to a group. Schlesinger speculated that "communism fills empty lives. Surrender to the Party gives a sense of comradeship in a cause guaranteed by history to succor the helpless and to triumph over the wealthy and satisfied" (105). In other words, membership in the party did not reflect a commitment to Marxist ideology but a longing for comradeship fostered by the atomization of postwar American society.
According to the implications of this argument, Americans who thought of themselves as part of the gay and lesbian subcultures that began to emerge in the postwar period in large urban areas, or who joined the Mattachine Society, an organization founded in Los Angeles in 1950 that defined gay men and women as members of an oppressed minority with its own distinct culture, could be seen as disloyal citizens engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the American government. In suggesting that Americans joined the Communist party for psychological rather than ideological reasons, Schlesinger identified the party as a kind of subculture, or alternative social formation, in which members defined themselves wholly in terms of their membership in the party. He claimed that party members willingly subjected themselves to the sort of "intensive personal supervision, only to be duplicated in a religious order or a police state" (105). A clause in the party constitution allegedly forbade members from entering into relations with "enemies of the working class," but Schlesinger claimed that it was rarely invoked because most members "voluntarily renounce non-Party friendships and activities" (106). Indeed, most members supposedly became so dependent on the party psychologically that "the threat of expulsion strikes them as excommunication would a devout Catholic" (106). In this way, Schlesinger obliquely suggested that gay men who considered themselves members of an oppressed minority or who participated in the gay subculture were as un-American as communists who threatened national security as well. Their identities as homosexuals were supposedly in tension with their identities as patriotic Americans and threatened to displace them. Arguing that Americans joined the Communist party because they wanted a "sense of comradeship" and not because they were committed to Marxist ideology enabled Schlesinger to reduce membership in the Communist party to a form of identity politics. Schlesinger tried to show that communism was no longer a system of political beliefs but had become a category of identity that competed with other categories of identity such as race, class, and nationality. In so doing, he implied that membership in the Communist party was "unnatural." Americans who were members of the Communist party resembled homosexuals in that the bonds uniting them in a common struggle against the capitalist state were supposedly stronger and more enduring than the bonds uniting them as Americans.
In indirectly suggesting that membership in the Communist party constituted a form of homosexuality, Schlesinger sought to reclaim liberalism from the "taint" of its history of Communist fellow traveling. In the 1930s, many liberal intellectuals had embraced the Popular Front and its materialist critique of American society; in so doing, they seriously compromised the liberal tradition, which became associated with the Stalinization of American culture. Schlesinger tried to reclaim liberalism from its allegedly tainted past by declaring the emergence of a "new and distinct political generation" (vii) that had supposedly rejected the cultural politics of the Popular Front and remained faithful to liberal principles. Using his own political development as an example, he explained that his generation of liberal intellectuals had come of age at a time when liberalism had dominated American politics. This new generation of liberal intellectuals supposedly had no reason to embrace the Marxist critique of the capitalist relations of production because Keynesian economics and the emergence of the welfare state had rendered Marxist categories of analysis obsolete. Schlesinger argued that the New Deal had shown that "democracy was capable of taking care of its own" (viii). Moreover, unlike the generation of liberal intellectuals who had come of age during the Progressive Era, he and his contemporaries did not believe in the perfectibility of human nature. With the collapse of the Soviet "experiment" and the rise of fascism, he and his contemporaries had discovered "a new dimension of experience—the dimension of anxiety, guilt and corruption" (ix). Thus they could no longer believe in the possibility of progress. Schlesinger explained that events like the Holocaust and the constant threat of nuclear war "reminded my generation rather forcibly that man [sic] was, indeed, imperfect, and that the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world" (ix).
To show that a "new and distinct" generation of liberal intellectuals had truly emerged in the postwar period, Schlesinger undertook a critique of American society that was materialist but that discarded the category of class and thus could not be confused with the cultural politics of the Popular Front. Although he acknowledged the role material conditions played in determining contemporary social relations, he minimized the importance of the capitalist relations of production and limited his critique of postwar American culture to industrialization. He claimed that science and technology, rather than the capitalist mode of production, were responsible for the emergence in America of an atomized, impersonal society dominated by mass culture. Thus he urged critics of contemporary American society to direct their criticisms "not against any particular system of ownership, but against industrial organization and the post-industrial state, whatever the system of ownership" (3). In this way, Schlesinger formulated a critique of postwar American culture that, despite its focus on material conditions, remained grounded in the liberal tradition and was clearly not Marxist. His emphasis on the role of science and technology in determining contemporary social relations divested Marxism of its explanatory power. If industrialization rather than the capitalist mode of production was responsible for the atomization of postwar American society, then Marxist categories of analysis were no longer applicable to contemporary social relations. Schlesinger thought that the only way in which Americans could contain Soviet expansionism and win the Cold War was by creating social and political structures "within which the individual can achieve some measure of self-fulfillment" (3). Such structures must "succeed where the ancient jurisdictions of the family, the clan, the guild and the nation-state have failed. [They] must solve the problems created by the speed-up of time, the reduction of space and the increase in tension. [They] must develop new equivalents for the sanctions once imposed by custom and by religion" (4).
Arguing that the problems facing postwar American society were social and political rather than economic was a strategy anti-Stalinist intellectuals frequently adopted in order to invalidate the Marxist critique of the capitalist relations of production. Schlesinger's discussion of mass culture and the problems it posed for contemporary society in many respects anticipated Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which in the 1950s became the standard interpretation of the emergence of the totalitarian state. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt claimed that totalitarianism constituted an entirely new form of power and could not be adequately explained by the category of class. She argued that the totalitarian state could not be considered a traditional dictatorship because it operated "according to a system of values so radically different from all others, that none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us to come to terms with, or judge, or predict [its] course of action". Making this claim enabled her to discard the category of class as irrelevant to the analysis of the rise of the totalitarian state. She located the emergence of totalitarianism in mass psychology and defined totalitarian movements as "mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals" (323) who had no class affiliations and were disaffected from traditional political parties. Recalling Schlesinger's argument that the Communist party appealed primarily to "lonely, frustrated" Americans, she speculated that totalitarianism attracted the "completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his [sic] sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party" (323–24). In other words, Marxist categories could not adequately explain the emergence of the totalitarian state. If totalitarian movements were made up of "atomized" individuals who had no class or party affiliations, then the most useful categories for analyzing the emergence of totalitarianism were psychological.
In stressing the psychological rather than the economic factors that had led to the emergence of totalitarianism, Arendt adopted Schlesinger's strategy for invalidating the Marxist critique of the capitalist relations of production. Anticipating Arendt's argument, Schlesinger claimed that totalitarian movements appealed primarily to "atomized" individuals who had difficulty adjusting to the complexities of capitalist societies. According to him, the individuals who joined totalitarian movements reveled "in the release from individual responsibility, in the affirmation of comradeship in organized mass solidarity" (54). They were easily swayed by totalitarian propaganda because it provided them with an answer to "the incoherence and apparent uncontrollability of industrial society" (53–54). Arendt similarly emphasized the psychological appeal of totalizing theories that tried to account for every aspect of an individual's experience. Like Schlesinger, she claimed that the "masses" longed for a "completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world" (352) in which the merest coincidence was invested with meaning. Totalitarian propaganda supposedly appealed to the "masses" because it transformed "chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency" (352). In this way, both Schlesinger and Arendt implied that Marxist theory was totalitarian because it was totalizing. In suggesting that social relations were necessarily determined by the dominant mode of production, Marxist theory allegedly treated mere coincidences as if they were part of a "man-made" pattern or design; in so doing, like totalitarian propaganda, it misled the "masses" into believing that experience was predictable rather than random and indeterminate. Both Schlesinger and Arendt thought that no theory could adequately explain the complex structure of capitalist societies. Arendt objected to totalitarian propaganda because it tried to spare the masses "the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations" (353).
Both Schlesinger and Arendt, then, tried to divest Marxist theory of its explanatory power by claiming that totalitarianism and other complex social phenomena reflected the atomization of contemporary social relations and were not reducible to the category of class. According to them, experience consisted of "never-ending shocks" that defied analysis because they could not be predicted or determined in advance; consequently, Marxist theory could not adequately explain the complexity of capitalist social formations. In what follows, I want to examine this attempt to invalidate Marxist categories by shifting attention from the material world to the individual's subjective experience of it. I will argue that Cold War liberals tried to divest Marxist theory of its explanatory power because they wanted to reclaim "reality" from Popular Front intellectuals whose materialist critique of American society had become hegemonic. In stressing those aspects of postwar American society that Marxist theory could not adequately explain or that did not readily lend themselves to a Marxist critique because it lacked a fully developed theory of subjectivity, Cold War liberals sought to limit the fund of interpretive possibilities available to postwar Americans for making sense of their lived experience. If Cold War liberals were right in claiming that experience was composed of "never-ending shocks" that did not correspond to existing theoretical paradigms, then the most useful categories for analyzing the complex structure of American society were psychological. Invalidating the category of class enabled Cold War liberals to produce a relatively united cultural front that combined a multiplicity of dispersed wills with heterogeneous and contradictory aims into a single collective will based on a shared interpretation of reality. By focusing on those aspects of the individual's experience that resisted theoretical elaboration, Cold War liberals established an interpretation of reality to which Americans consented because it seemed to correspond to their lived experience.
Excerpted from In the Name of National Security by Robert J. Corber. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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