An excerpt concerning the growth of modern liberalism in the 1960s from the forthcoming book The Revolt Against the Masses.
Substantively, as opposed to stylistically, there was no New Left. The old left’s delusions about the USSR were replaced by new delusions about Third World dictators such as Castro, Nkrumah, and Nasser. The underlying utopian tropes of the old left were refurbished not replaced. Utopian fantasies about eliminating private property were supplemented with utopian fantasies about free love and polymorphic perversity.
It was a matter of old wine in new bottles. The battle against Babbitry, carried out in the 1950s through the assault on mass culture, grew more intense. Liberals still searched for the authenticity and energy denied them by the artificiality of capitalism and democracy. And like the lyrical leftists of the period between 1900 and 1917, liberals sought energy and authenticity in the promise of sexual fulfillment. Waldo Frank, the anti- capitalist literary leftist of the 1920s who had become a Communist in the ’30s, reemerged in the late ’50s, still searching for the fount of vitality, as a chair of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a front group for Castro. Liberals, trapped in the left—right dichotomy of the 1930s, still saw them- selves as fending off the impending arrival of fascism, this time borne by Cold War anti-Communism.
William Phillips, an editor of Partisan Review, which anti-Stalinists had founded in the 1930s, noted that “suddenly the intellectual mood became a radical one again” in the late 1950s and early ’60s. “It looked as though we were back in the ’30s again.” Writing in the early 1980s, philosopher William Barrett saw it similarly: “Immured in the ’30s, we failed the decades that were to come. As the attitude of a liberal Marxism, vague enough to begin with, became even vaguer and more vaporous, it infected the whole of American Liberalism, and was to erupt again as the infantile Leftism of the 1960s.” The nuanced, empirical, and anti- Communist liberalism of the 1950s was but a brief passing phase in the long-term ideological realignment of American politics begun by President Roosevelt in the 1930s.
The first federal equal-rights legislation for women passed in 1962, the year that saw the first hint of the electoral politics to come. MIT historian H. Stuart Hughes drew rousing crowds as a peace candidate in the Massachusetts Democratic senatorial primary that was won by Ted Kennedy, who would soon adopt much of Hughes’s program. The campaign, which aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons, produced a mass mobilization of students and “of educated prosperous suburbia.” “As I came to understand my followers better,” wrote Hughes, a self-described Socialist, “I began to understand that for years they had been waiting for this sort of campaign. They longed to challenge the consensus, to question the basic assumptions by which their fellow citizens lived. Through the 1950s, they had quietly gone about their business, behaving as their neighbors did, swallowing down their anger and their fear for their children. For a whole decade the tension of self-contained protest had been building up… The result was an emotional explosion.”
This was before Vietnam and racial violence had heated up.
The early 1960s resembled the pre—World War I period of the lyrical left, when utopian expectations ran high. In the early 1960s, the expectations were for more than just a new Camelot. The achievements of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement promised a new era of racial harmony; the development of the birth control pill promised a new age of sexual freedom; automation promised an end to drudgery; and the economic boom of the 1960s promised a new level of shared well-being.
National income doubled in the course of the ’60s. The poverty rate was cut in half as unemployment dropped to only 3.5 percent and inflation- adjusted personal income grew by nearly 40 percent. Home ownership reached record highs that have been difficult to surpass.
The unadulterated euphoria ended with Kennedy’s assassination, but utopian dreams were kept alive by the apparent promise of mind-altering drugs. The seeming debacle of the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign further stoked liberal optimism. In the wake of LBJ’s 1964 landslide, liberals dominated all the branches of federal government, which were gushing with revenues thanks to an economy that had grown 25 percent in just four years.
Inspired by this bounty, at the signing ceremony for the War on Poverty legislation in August 1964, Johnson promised, “The days of the dole in this country are numbered.” The “conquest of poverty,” the 1964 Economic Report of the President explained, was “well within our power.” “About $11 billion a year,” the report claimed, would bring all poor families up to the $3,000 income level that had been defined as the minimum for a decent life. The next year, notes anti-poverty activist Peter Cove, “the government allocated even more than the report had called for—$14.7 billion—to transfer payments” designed to lift the poor out of poverty. At the 1964 Christmas-tree lighting, President Johnson declared, “These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”
Johnson was seconded by futurists and utopians for whom a society of spontaneous pleasure seemed at hand. But the rise in crime, the eruption of racial riots, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam soured the country on first Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon, who, with their old-hat New Deal policies, were both depicted by liberals as the second coming of the Third Reich. For a decade, from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, public life was roiled by the intersection of millenarian reveries and apocalyptic fears. The promise and pretense of an all-encompassing expertise capable of conquering poverty clashed with the dystopian realities of cities caught in the violent grip of an increasingly feral underclass. The clash kept the country continually off-balance.
In the 1960s, American society, thanks to automation, was reconfigured from a mass-manufacturing to a post-industrial and increasingly knowledge-based economy. The number of Americans between ages twenty-five and twenty-nine who had a college degree nearly tripled from 1950 to 1970, growing from 7.7 to 20.7 percent of the population. In the late nineteenth century, William James famously argued that college graduates would have to do for democracy what dukes and earls had done for monarchy—they would have to become an aristocracy of sorts.
Before WWI, Randolph Bourne had envisioned an army of youth who would transform the land:
“It could have for its aim the improvement of the quality of our living… I have a picture of a host of eager young missionaries swarming over the land spreading the health knowledge, the knowledge of domestic science, of gardening, of tastefulness, that they have learned in school… Food inspection, factory inspection, organized relief, the care of dependents, playground service, nursing in hospitals—all this would be a field for such an educational service.”
The “army of youth” Bourne envisioned was the advanced brigade of what emerged as a “New Class.” The political generation that came of age in the turmoil of the 1960s tended to divide between those with bohemian temperaments and those with a bureaucratic bent. Both were disdainful of the torpid ways of Middle America, which they would come to blame for racism at home, imperialism in Vietnam, and sexual repression in the bedroom. The bohemian-libertarian strain rebelled against what Paul Goodman called “the social machine” that “processed” people. But while the bohemians were far more colorful—each year on the anniversary of Woodstock, we still have TV specials to celebrate its sheer wonderfulness—it was the future bureaucrats who, as part of the New Class, reshaped the Democratic Party and liberalism.
The technocratic strain of American thinking pioneered by Thorstein Veblen and advanced by New Dealers Adolph Berle, George Soule, Stuart Chase, and Thurman Arnold, as well as their heir the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, argued that control of economic life was passing from the owners of capital to the professional managers who actually ran the country’s production facilities. In his best-selling 1958 book The Affluent Society, Galbraith argued that managers and technicians and scientists uncorrupted by the entrepreneurs’ excessive self-interest worked for the inherent pleasure of their endeavors. Capitalism would be transformed from within, he contended. Rather than maximizing profits, the vanguard of university-trained managers would reshape the American economy according to the Wellsian values they had studied in college.
Galbraith’s influence among liberals derived from his snobbish wit, as when he constructed straw men whom he could mock as captives of “the conventional wisdom.” Galbraith, more than any other liberal, was able to meld two of the central strands of 1920s liberalism: a Menckenesque contempt for the burghers and an undue regard for technocrats who cloaked their prejudices in the language of social science.
In the early 1960s, the New York intellectual David Bazelon suggested that education had become to the new economy what capital had been to the old one, such that “trained thought is becoming the value that commands other values.” Galbraith saw in the Kennedy administration and its new Brain Trust the merger of reason and power that led him to pronounce: “The question [of the elimination] of poverty is less one of feasibility than will. Educational deficiencies can be overcome. Mental deficiencies can be treated.” Few listened to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning that the Kennedy Brain Trust had engaged in “a serious misreading of the Eisenhower years,” when “it had seemed that men of vigor and purpose could not but do infinitely better than such a crowd of Rotarians and press agents.”
In January of 1963, Time chose fifteen American scientists as its Men of the Year. “Statesman and savants, builders and even priests are their servants,” intoned Time. “Science is at the apogee of its power.” The sciences, including social science, made people almost giddy with expectation. The moon race, heart transplants, the polio vaccine, miracle wheat, super pesticides, think tanks, anti-poverty programs, systems analysis, computers—all were potentially world-changing. “The land” said journalist Ward Elliot, “rang with calls for more Ph.D.s to win all the wars that we were fighting with a grand mobilization of expertise.” He continued:
“The hippy strain aside, both flanks of what became the left-liberal civil war between New Deal social democrats and New Leftists shared the belief in the power of trained intelligence. The founding document of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], the 1962 Port Huron statement, criticized liberalism for its timidity. Liberals, they insisted, possessed the knowledge to transform the world but were too cowardly to actually see the job through, so that the young radicals would have to step forth and finish the work. As an example of the new knowledge, the Port Huron statement endorsed the development of nuclear power. Thick with “red diaper” babies, some of whom celebrated the dashing Tom Hayden as “the next Lenin,” SDS was inspired by the Freedom Riders. Referring to the courage of African-American students who engaged in sit-ins, Hayden admiringly noted that they were “miles ahead of us” white students. They already understood, argued Hayden, “the sterility of liberals.” There was a smooth transition from militant liberalism to what was dubbed New Leftism.
During his presidency, Kennedy had repeatedly criticized the irrational- ism of far-right-wing anti-Communists and their segregationist cousins. In April 1963, the police in Birmingham, Alabama, had set dogs upon peaceful civil rights marchers, and in June, segregationists in Mississippi assassinated NAACP leader Medgar Evers. In October, protesters in Dallas had harassed Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy’s United Nations ambassador. Dallas was a notoriously segregated city, and the John Birch Society (whose members thought President Eisenhower had been under Communist sway) was a part of the city’s political culture. The society’s Dallas leader was General Edwin Walker, whom Lee Harvey Oswald had tried to kill in April of 1963 by shooting at him through a window in his home. (Oswald just missed.)
Thus, when Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, it was widely assumed that his killer was the kind of hate-filled reactionary who believed that Kennedy was selling out America to Soviet Communism and showing too little resistance to the civil rights movement. Such an assumption was buttressed by the great liberal intellectuals of the 1950s, such as Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell, whose writings had attempted to show that segregationists and the followers of Joe McCarthy—with their “paranoid style” of politics, in Hofstadter’s phrase—were insecure, backward-looking extremists who threatened America’s bright future.
In the minds of liberals, then, Kennedy’s killer should have been a right-wing fanatic. But he wasn’t. Oswald was a left-wing autodidact who had defected to the Soviet Union. When he found the USSR too bureaucratic, he returned to America and began proselytizing for Fidel Castro and his supposedly new brand of Third World revolution. Nor was Oswald an irrational, discontented Dostoyevskian loner, as some depicted him. He was in fact a joiner of movements and something of a self-defined intellectual who thought that his mixture of Marxism and anarchism made him smarter and more sophisticated than his frivolous peers. More problematic was the argument of James Reston, the influential New York Times columnist who, just after the assassination, argued in a column called “A Portion of Guilt for All” that Kennedy had been crucified on the altar of American violence. Brushing aside the evidence, Reston held that “all of us had a part in the slaying of the president.” This claim was but a step from what became the standard-issue 1960s argument that American was a “sick society.”
But Reston was the soul of reason compared with the conspiracy theorists who laid the assassination at the feet of a shadowy business cabal or the CIA—or even President Johnson. It turned out that the paranoid style described by Hofstadter was equally a property of the left and right. Liberals were becoming unhinged. But at the same time that liberals were losing their grip on reality, Lyndon Johnson’s landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election amped up both utopian expectations and attacks on Johnson by anti-Vietnam-war intellectuals who compared Johnson to Hitler. Their motives were mixed. They had reason to be appalled by Vietnam, but also, as Paul Potter of SDS put it directly: “The intellectuals want power.”
Bill Moyers, a young aide to Lyndon Johnson, made no bones about it: “Johnson has a talent for power,” and “power these days is brains, and he goes for it.” The prominent journalist Theodore White agreed. In 1967, he grandly pronounced that there is a “new power-system in American life—and the new priesthood… of American action-intellectuals.”
Half of Johnson’s cabinet was composed not of businessmen and politicians but academics. The secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, John Gardner, had a slip of the tongue that captured the moment: “When the faculty gets together—I mean, when the Cabinet gets together. . .” The politics of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, Teddy White asserted, were at an end, as were the old limited-government ideas that had sprung from it. By contrast, he concluded, “[for] intellectuals, now is a Golden Age.”
But the Golden Age was short lived. It was already over by the time White wrote. “The elite intelligentsia,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan in response to the brutal attacks he suffered for acknowledging the break- down of the black family, “are turning against the country—in science, in politics, in the foundations of patriotism.”
Enhanced education brought with it claims to a superior social status. Princeton professor and historian of liberalism Eric Goldman, a key LBJ adviser, saw that a new power group was abroad in the land. He called the members of this new highly literate formation “metromericans.” He described them as the self-conscious junior executive, the lawyer, the accountant and his wife in the suburbs of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco who “derived a sense of status from reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, John Kenneth Galbraith’s Affluent Society, and David Reisman’s Lonely Crowd.” The metromericans tended sincerely to react to public figures and public issues in a way similar to these intellectuals, and they “cared about political leaders who cared about men like Bellow, Galbraith and Riesman.”
Goldman’s “metromericans” were reinforced by the emerging New Class of young highly educated professionals. The young professionals- in-training had been told time and again that they were, in the words of one of their chroniclers, Village Voice columnist Jack Newfield, “the brightest and most sensitive members of their generation.” They were a “prophetic minority,” said Newfield, “the best young this nation will produce for generations.” They were taught that they needed to plan for others who were less capable and less worthy than they were. Herbert Croly’s 1909 book The Promise of American Life, the Ur-text of early liberalism, became the political Baedeker for the would-be clerisy of the 1960s. In 1965 alone, The Promise was reprinted by three major publishers, each featuring a new introduction by a prominent liberal historian (in one case, Arthur Schlesinger).
In these days of the Great Society, teachers at the best schools taught their students to read The Promise not only as the founding document of modern American liberalism—and a prophesy of the New Deal—but also as a charter empowering them to become the country’s future political and cultural leaders. Their influence would, David Bazelon argued presciently, explode when they achieved “an awareness of themselves as a class.” That self-awareness, their sense of self-consciousness as a group, was borne into public life by the great conflicts in the 1960s over race and war. Endowed with the moral authority that came from their ethically justified opposition to racism and the ill-conceived war in Vietnam, they came to see themselves as a new governing class, and they looked to other dissident elements of society to serve as their cat’s-paws. Blacks, youth, and later women all entered their imagination as possible prosthetic- proletariats who might overthrow the existing order.
The influential left-wing academic Christopher Lasch, at the time a neo-Marxist, argued that the dissatisfaction of the New Class made it part of “the emerging anti-bourgeois movement” in America. “The immediate constituency for a radical movement, it is clear,” he wrote, “lies in the professions, in sections of suburbia, in the ghetto, and above all in the university, which more than any other institution has become a center of radicalism.” Nationally, the coalition of liberals and radicals that Lasch envisioned was first visible in the 1968 Democratic Party primaries when what Michael Harrington dubbed “the constituency of conscience” rallied behind the insurgent candidacy of Eugene McCarthy and pushed President Lyndon Johnson out of the 1968 Democratic Party primaries. By 1968, liberals largely shared the New Left’s moral outrage at Johnson’s presidency and the war in Vietnam. Because they shared so much of the New Left’s disdain for middle-class morality, and its suspicions of capitalism as predatory, liberals found it hard to defend themselves from the radicals’ assaults.
Liberalism of the 1950s had not only been anti-Communist, but it had also feared that fascism in the form of a soul-sapping mass culture was an imminent danger to America. The work of Ortega, Huxley, and the Frankfurt School philosophers gave voice to this fear of homegrown fascism. By the 1960s, this fear had only grown: The ’60s New Left discerned a new and even more pressing fascist threat, coming from what it called “corporate liberalism,” which was in effect synonymous with the expansion of government power at home and abroad under the aegis of the Great Society. The idea that liberalism was a disguised form of fascism became an article of faith for many in the New Left. The literal truth of the claim of fascism wasn’t at issue. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, “the paranoid sense that American liberalism was Fascism in disguise,” explained New Leftist Evan Stark, “defined an oppositional project which broke decisively with the boring machinations of Communists and Trots as well as Social Democratic gradualism, a total opposition pushed to creativity by its very unpredictability.” In ordinary times, such excess would have been written off as crankiness, but with race riots at home and a bloody war abroad, political life became caught up in what the French call surenchère—political one-upsmanship—in which the contestants tried to surpass each other in denouncing the evils of the society.
Subtly, two substantial changes occurred in liberal thinking. Imbued with the promise of an earthly paradise of sexual freedom, the emerging left-liberalism promoted both the privatization of virtue and vice as well as the politicization of the personal. In the new dispensation, repression of individual libidinal desire was equated with the kind of political oppression associated with police states. A merely liberal society, argued SDS leader Tom Hayden, stifles human creativity, leaving men “impotent” and unable to achieve either orgasmic or social fulfillment. “In SDS,” explained an associate of Hayden’s, “fucking is a statement of community” and a cure for alienation. This emphasis on the intensity of experience as the measure of value made possible arguments that gained wide currency, even though such arguments not only resisted facts, they tried to transcend them
Edgar Z. Friedenberg, frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books in the 1960s, noted approvingly that “elitism is the great and distinctive contribution students are making to American society.” But Jack Newfield, who had praised the campus New Left extensively in the pages of the Village Voice, saw an underside to its success. “In the future, it is possible that the new occupational structure will provide the basis of a two-class society of educated technocrats and janitors,” he wrote. “If this were to happen, then the emergence of an unprecedented number of college graduates… would have the most reactionary consequences.”
Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher who watched as the San Francisco docks automated in the 1950s and ’60s, saw the underside of liberalism and how it reinforced the changes that were occurring in the economy. Hoffer celebrated the American exceptionalism that liberals had been bemoaning ever since the 1920s, and he feared that with the coming of the post-industrial age, America would “no longer be the common man’s continent.” “The masses are on their way out,” he wrote. “[The] elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us.” Hoffer foresaw that the New Class would try to govern the working people much as colonial officials governed the natives. They are, he wrote, an “army of scribes clamoring for a society in which planning, regulation, and supervision are paramount and the prerogative of the educated.” And although the California State University system in which there is now one bureaucrat for every professor was well in the future, he anticipated that “since the tempo of the production of the literate is continually increasing, the prospect is of ever swelling bureaucracies.”