Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970

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Born in 1966‚ a generation removed from the counterculture‚ Kevin Mattson came of political age in the conservative Reagan era. In an effort to understand contemporary political ambivalence and the plight of radicalism today‚ Mattson looks back to the ideas that informed the protest‚ social movements‚ and activism of the 1960s.

To accomplish its historical reconstruction‚ the book combines traditional intellectual biography—including thorough archival research—with social history to examine a group of intellectuals whose thinking was crucial in the formulation of New Left political theory. These include C. Wright Mills‚ the popular radical sociologist; Paul Goodman‚ a practicing Gestalt therapist and anarcho-pacifist; William Appleman Williams‚ the historian and famed critic of "American empire"; Arnold Kaufman‚ a "radical liberal" who deeply influenced the thinking of the SDS. The book discusses not only their ideas‚ but also their practices‚ from writing pamphlets and arranging television debates to forming left-leaning think tanks and organizing teach-ins protesting the Vietnam War. Mattson argues that it is this political engagement balanced with a commitment to truth-telling that is lacking in our own age of postmodern acquiescence.

Challenging the standard interpretation of the New Left as inherently in conflict with liberalis‚ Mattson depicts their relationship as more complicated‚ pointing to possibilities for a radical liberalism today. Intellectual and social historians‚ as well as general readers either fascinated by the 1960s protest movements or actively seeking an alternative to our contemporary political malais‚ will embrace Mattson’s book and its promise to shed new light on a time period known for both its intriguing conflicts and its enduring consequences.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Kevin Mattson has done an invaluable service in recovering a vital thread of the intellectual history of the New Left. With sympathy and tough-mindedness‚ he examines the political thought of several key intellectuals: C. Wright Mills‚ Paul Goodman‚ W. A. Williams‚ and Arnold Kaufman. The intellectual foundations of the New Left‚ he reminds us in this deeply researched and clearly written book‚ are more diverse‚ more strategic‚ more material‚ and more political than so much common memory‚ which focuses on personal liberation and new cultural styles and values. He also shows how deeply this work of creating a radical liberalism was rooted without any sense of embarrassment in a sense of American history and traditions. By recovering the political ideas and commitments of this important group of left intellectuals working as intellectuals‚ he invites contemporary intellectuals into a workshop of political change. At a moment when liberalism again seems exhausted‚ it is a timely and important book.”
—Thomas Bender, New York University

“As a self-confessed ‘Gen X-er‚’ historian Kevin Mattson approaches the debates and conflicts of the 1960s Left without direct memory or emotional investment. Instead‚ he brings to the subject an ability to distinguish essence from ephemera that serves him well. This is particularly apparent in his willingness to discard the timeworn dichotomies that supposedly defined the era: liberalism versus radicalism‚ youth versus the ‘over thirty’ generation‚ activism versus intellectual engagement‚ and so on. Mattson’s argument that the New Left at its best represented a creative synthesis of radicalism and liberalism will surely provoke debate among historians and others interested in the history of the 1960s. But I expect consensus to reign on one point: Intellectuals in Action represents an impressive achievement by a talented young historian.”
—Maurice Isserman, Hamilton College

“Historian Mattson (Creating a Democratic Public) breaks new ground with this informative and revealing study of the American New Left’s intellectual roots. . . . In the last two chapters, Mattson outlines the decline and demise of the New Left as a political movement, but he expresses a hope that the New Left’s main ideas will once again take root in ‘a viable democratic left.’”
—Jack Forman, Library Journal

“Mattson deserves much credit for unearthing and exploring an eclipsed strand of New Left thinking and declaring that today, too, there is a ‘need for a chastened sort of radical liberalism.’ Other historians, including this writer, have deplored the later New Left’s self-destructive lust to undermine the liberalism that was the ground upon which it stood. Mattson goes further. He insists that the New Left harbored a self-subversive streak, a subterranean intellectual tendency that deserves resurrection and cultivation. Radical liberalism fights with the more expressive, grander spirit of going it alone, a line whose contemporary incarnation is Green-Nader recklessness. Affirming conscience and demanding results, it fights, too, with the backward-glancing, republican romanticism that flickers in the often luminous work of Mills and Goodman. Appreciative yet without illusions, Mattson goes beyond criticism or empty yearning. In a dark time, he lights an affirming flame.”
—Todd Gitlin, Dissent

“Kevin Mattson’s new book is a superb and inspiring account of the sixties as a moment of public intellectual engagement. Mattson interprets New Left debates as continuous with earlier debates about the meaning of American democracy and the possibilities of a radical liberalism. His book is more than a history. For it seeks to remind us of the strengths and limits of New Left discourse so as to inform our own democratic engagements in the present.”
—Jeffrey C. Isaac, Indiana University

“A remarkably fine portrait of a coterie of intellectuals who‚ for all their differences‚ shared an interest in forging a ‘radical liberalism’ that would conjoin participatory democracy and social justice‚ local deliberative polities‚ and a strong welfare state. As remarkable for its clear-eyed view of the failures of these writers and of the New Left generally as for its appreciative account of their possibilities‚ Kevin Mattson’s book will be welcomed by historians for the complications it introduces into our understanding of an important period of dissent and reform and by those who continue to struggle for a more democratic America for its unsentimental account of their inheritance.”
—Robert Westbrook, University of Rochester

“A novel and revealing view of the early New Left as democratic intellectuals in search of a public.”

—Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago

“A novel and revealing view of the early New Left as democratic intellectuals in search of a public.”

—Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago

Library Journal
Historian Mattson (Creating a Democratic Public) breaks new ground with this informative and revealing study of the American New Left's intellectual roots. In separate chapters, he examines the philosophical and political contributions to the New Left of five people: Dwight McDonald, C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, William Appleton Williams, and Arnold Kaufman. The book's preface discusses McDonald's writings after he left the Communist Party in the 1940s and especially his ideas on pacifism, "radical individualism," and "communitarian anarchism." Against this backdrop, Mattson analyzes the thought and political actions of Mills, Goodman, Williams, and Kaufman, all of whom were instrumental in starting up New Left political action movements, such as the Vietnam War protest demonstrations, the university teach-in movement, and the formation of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). All four, however, were repelled by the gratuitous confrontational tactics SDS and similar groups adopted, and eventually they disassociated themselves from their own creations. In the last two chapters, Mattson outlines the decline and demise of the New Left as a political movement, but he expresses a hope that the New Left's main ideas will once again take root in "a viable democratic left," although he offers little explanation of how this will happen. Recommended for large public libraries and specialized collections. Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib., San Diego, CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780271022062
  • Publisher: Penn State University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Mattson is Associate Professor of American History at Ohio University. His previous book, Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy During the Progressive Era (1998), is also available from Penn State Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Preface to the politics of Intellectual Life in Postwar America:
The Possibility of New Left Beginnings
The end of ideology closes the book, intellectually speaking, on an era, the one of easy "left" formulae for social change. But to close the book is not to turn one's back upon it.

—Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology, 1960

We seem to be in the early stages of a new concept of revolutionary and socialist politics, where we can hope for the present only to clear the ground, to criticize the old methods that have landed us in a blind alley, and to grope in a new direction.

—Dwight Macdonald, "The Root Is Man (II)," 1946

The 1940s are often taken as a decade of American triumph. In 1941, the famous and wealthy publisher of Life magazine, Henry Luce, wrote that the twentieth century "is ours not only in the sense that we happen to live in it but ours also because it is America's first century as a dominant power in the world." This sort of bold enthusiasm seemed appropriate. America, after all, was victorious in World War II and now stood as a leading world power. Even if communism challenged the "American way of life," as increasing numbers of writers referred to it at the time, there at least was a well-defined enemy that only helped highlight America's own excellence. After all, World War II unleashed economic prosperity, represented in the cornucopia of commodities made available to large numbers of Americans. Inthe 1950s, when debating Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President Richard Nixon simply unveiled a model of a modern American kitchen to his Soviet sparring partner. It seemed that the abundance of commodities was enough to prove America's superiority over Russian totalitarianism.

    Intellectual life in America reflected this rising prosperity and confidence. As Richard Pells explains it (without endorsing the view), there has been a fairly standard and sweeping interpretation of the shifts in intellectual life from the early twentieth century up to the 1950s: "Starting out as exuberant reformers in the Progressive Era, writers are supposed to have gained wisdom as rebels during the 1920s and as radicals in the 1930s, before reconciling themselves to society in the 1950s.... By the 1950s, they had finally grown up and settled down." Prosperity induced intellectual comfort, so the story goes. The intellectual historian Stephen Longstaff argues that American "culture" during the Cold War "not only had careers, comfort, and fame to offer. It also wanted distinguished intellectuals to provide some tone to public sanctions at home and abroad, and it expected them to take their place among the representatives of the various interests and constituencies that make up the country's official and unofficial elite." As with the rest of the country, intellectuals grew fat and comfortable during the Cold War.

    This is typically seen in the path taken by a group of writers now known as the New York Intellectuals—the most important grouping of intellectuals in the post-World War II period. These modernist thinkers gathered around magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary and included Sidney Hook, the philosopher; Lionel Trilling, the literary critic; Norman Podhoretz, the social critic and editor; and many others. Bound together by similar experiences, many historians refer to these writers as the "New York Family." Most members had grown up in Jewish enclaves within New York City, coming of age during the Great Depression and eventually attending the City University. As young thinkers, they debated their new secular faith of Marxism. Defining themselves predominantly as anti-Stalinists, many of them found consolation in the arguments of Trotsky, who preserved the revolutionary and vanguardist teachings of V. I. Lenin against Stalin's practice of "socialism in one country." These New York thinkers despised the Popular Front and its primary agent, the American Communist Party. They especially eschewed the populist sentiments they saw, rightfully or not, operating in the Popular Front culture of the 1930s, a culture that limped on into the 1940s. The New York Intellectuals embraced instead the intellectualism of high modernism in literature and art. They tried to marry—and it was an odd marriage indeed—the modernism of a T. S. Eliot with the revolutionary politics of a Trotsky.

    World War II, though, challenged their Trotskyist assumption that America acted solely as an imperialist power, rather than as a committed opponent of fascism. After the war, the New York Intellectuals gave up on Marxism entirely and started to drift to more centrist and liberal views. As Irving Howe, once a Trotskyist himself, explained, "No version of orthodox Marxism could retain a hold on intellectuals who had gone through the trauma of abandoning the Leninist Weltanschauung and had experienced the depth to which the politics of this century, most notably the rise of totalitarianism, called into question the once sacred Marxist categories." With the advent of the Cold War, these thinkers grew increasingly comfortable, since "there was money to be had from publishers [and] jobs in the universities," he pointed out. Or, as the historian Alexander Bloom has quipped, "New York Intellectuals began, in a phrase which became infamous in time, to 'make it' in the postwar world."

    Indeed, the New York Intellectuals became increasingly willing to celebrate the "American way of life" and debunk any communist alternative. In 1952, the editors of Partisan Review held a symposium strikingly entitled "Our Country, Our Culture." Here, they declared that "more and more writers have ceased to think of themselves as rebels and exiles. They now realize that their values, if they are to be realized at all, are to be realized in America and in relation to the actuality of American life." Many historians believe that the conservatism of these intellectuals is best symbolized in the founding of organizations like Americans for Intellectual Freedom (AIF) in 1949. AIF began as a protest group against the Waldorf Conference—a gathering of American writers and artists who argued for a friendlier foreign policy toward the Soviets, based upon the incorrect assumption that both countries shared the concept of cultural freedom (something of a reassertion of the earlier Popular Front and the unity found during World War II). AIF protested Soviet totalitarianism and showed its willingness to lend intellectual weight to America's battle abroad, which was becoming consolidated through Kennan's containment policy and the Truman Doctrine, both fueling more aggressive military actions on the part of the United States against Soviet expansion abroad. The group worked with the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an international organization, becoming in the process the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF). The CCF espoused anticommunist ideas in a variety of forums, including conferences, festivals, and magazines (most notably Encounter in England), and provided intellectual justification for fighting a cultural version of the Cold War. Perhaps the organization's ultimate purpose only became clear in 1966, when it was officially confirmed that the group had received funding from the Central Intelligence Agency (something Paul Goodman and others suspected long before). For a critic like Irving Howe, this simply made obvious what he knew all along—that "the impulses of the New York intellectuals" were "increasingly conformist and conservative."

Prosperity Yes, But Also Anxiety

Howe's interpretation and those of others seem largely accurate. In fact, C. Wright Mills and Paul Goodman would do much to pioneer this sort of interpretation during the 1950s. But something is missing from this story. First, the generalizations drawn about American culture during the Cold War fail to capture the spirit of the time. Certainly many Americans felt enchanted by prosperity, but many also expressed anxiety during the 1940s and 1950s. After all, there was the power of the atomic bomb hovering in the background; there was also the sinister force of communism that some (including, eventually, the famous senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy) saw seeping into every crevice of life. No wonder the historian William Graebner termed the 1940s an "age of doubt." The zeitgeist crystallized in the opening pages of Arthur Schlesinger's The Vital Center (1949): "Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety." The purported stability of the 1950s did not necessarily change this. As John Patrick Diggins described the decade, it was "an age of stable nuclear families and marital tension, of student conformity on campus and youth rebellion on the screen and phonograph, ... of suburban contentment with lawns and station wagons and middle-class worry about money and status, of high expectations of upward mobility and later some doubts about the meaning and value of the age's own achievements." Clearly, prosperity and the assumption of world power could not do away with Americans' anxieties and fears.

    So it was with intellectuals. Consider especially their awareness of totalitarianism—represented in the rise of the Nazi regime and then the consolidation of the Soviet Union. There was the increasing concern that America faced a power so completely absolutist that it deserved nothing less than abject fear. George Kennan, the architect of containment, declared that the United States faced "a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be broken." A few years later, Hannah Arendt, a German expatriate, warned that totalitarianism created "a system in which men are superfluous" at home and promised "the elimination of every competing nontotalitarian reality" abroad. This was scary enough, but there was even more to worry about: Arendt argued that totalitarianism grew out of a mass culture and society. Totalitarianism required people to think of themselves as "masses" and certainly "not citizens with opinions about, and interests in, the handling of public affairs." The problem was that America, too, was turning into a mass society and culture. Many popular social critics, including William Whyte, David Riesman, and Vance Packard, began arguing in the 1950s that American citizens were turning apathetic, becoming passive receptacles for the products of a consumer economy. Thus, democracy was threatened not only from outside—by the international forces of communism—but also from within. Intellectuals, if they cared about democracy, could not sit tight.

    To get a sense of just how conflicted many intellectuals were during this period of time, examine the intellectual biography of Daniel Bell. Bell's life fit the standard narrative of the New York Intellectual. He began as a young socialist in 1932 (at the ripe age of thirteen), supported America's entry into World War II while remaining a social democrat, and then became increasingly centrist. By the late 1950s he wrote about a supposed "end of ideology." "For the radical intellectual who had articulated the revolutionary impulses of the past century and a half," Bell explained, there had been "an end to chiliastic hopes, to millenarianism, to apocalyptic thinking—and to ideology. For ideology, which once was a road to action, has come to be a dead end." Ideologies like communism needed to be tossed aside, because they were too rigid, too simplistic. It is no surprise that Bell's thinking helped frame the work of the anticommunist CCF. But none of this meant that he thought all was well in America. In fact, while pronouncing ideology dead, he worried, as Richard Pells points out, how "modern work" had an "inherent inability to offer satisfaction to the employee." This was no small fear, as many Americans spent most of their time during the day at work. The "discontents" of such work, especially within large bureaucratic corporations, meant that Americans had not overcome their anxieties about the future, as far as Bell was concerned.

    Though Bell had suggested that ideology could no longer be counted on to respond to social and political problems, not all intellectuals gave up on the search for some sort of radical alternative. The rejection of Stalinism and the Soviet Union certainly led many intellectuals to gravitate toward the right during the Cold War (becoming no less ideological, it should be noted). For instance, writer James Burnham changed from Trotskyist to one of America's Cold War faithful—endorsing John Foster Dulles's fervent call to not just "contain" but even "roll back" communism. Max Eastman, radical bohemian and Trotskyist throughout World War I, wound up an editor at William Buckley's conservative publication, The National Review, during the 1950s. Sidney Hook and Irving Kristol made similar odysseys. This was only one path taken, though. Other intellectuals, of course, moved to the center (like Daniel Bell himself). But there was also another possibility: to reject Marxism—with its inaccurate descriptions of capitalism's downfall—while looking for alternative forms of progressive thought. In other words, anti-Stalinism did not necessitate conservatism. The anxiety of the times could just as easily spur new thinking about the future of the left.

    In fact, as the editors of Liberation magazine made clear in the mid-1950s, there were numerous historical strains of thought that could inform a reconstruction of what they called "independent radicalism" (a term also used by the editors of Dissent around the same time). They cited the prophetic tradition in Judeo-Christian theology, the radical democratic thought of a Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine, the decentralized and democratic socialist tradition that informed the work of a Eugene Debs, the radical nonviolence espoused earlier by Reinhold Niebuhr and eventually by Martin Luther King Jr., and a communitarian version of anarchism. They even admitted that there could be something learned from the "humaneness and tolerance" taught by the liberal tradition (something that will become more apparent later in this story). The editors at Liberation believed that these strains lived on, even into the Cold War. And they knew that they had found their strongest expression in politics magazine (1944-1949), even if only briefly. As Irving Howe described the magazine, it was "the one significant effort during the late forties to return to radicalism." Precisely because it became something of a seedbed for later New Left thinking, I want to examine it briefly here. This exploration is not intended to provide a comprehensive view of the publication or of its editor, Dwight Macdonald. Rather, I want to set out some of the intellectual tools that thinkers possessed during the 1940s, tools that could be used to develop radical thought into the future. As Daniel Bell himself put it, politics magazine was a "unique place in American intellectual history." This is especially true in the context of New Left intellectual history.


Excerpted from Intellectuals in Action by Kevin Mattson. Copyright © 2002 by The Pennsylvania State University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Go Back? 1
1 A Preface to the politics of Intellectual Life in Postwar America: The Possibility of New Left Beginnings 23
2 The Godfather, C. Wright Mills: The Intellectual as Agent 43
3 Paul Goodman, Anarchist Reformer: The Politics of Decentralization 97
4 William Appleman Williams, Republican Leftist: History as Political Lesson 145
5 Arnold Kaufman, Radical Liberal: Liberalism Rediscovered 187
6 Studies on the Left and New University Thought: Lessons Learned and Disintegrations 229
Conclusion: Lost Causes, Radical Liberalism, and the Future 263
Selected Bibliography 275
Index 297
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