Location: Bowdoin / Daniel Levine / Retirement Lecture: May 2006


Another Sort of Radicalism


Thank you very much Allen Wells and Sarah McMahon, for that introduction. I want to introduce myself a bit further. I am a white wine drinking, brie eating, latté sipping, New York Times, New Yorker and ­New York Review of Books reading, PBS listening, eastern, urban, intellectual liberal. I say that so that you can tell your children and grandchildren that you have actually seen a living specimen and in its natural environment. I don't think we're an endangered species, threatened perhaps, but threatened species have been known to come back.

Now to the substance of my talk.


There are three interlocking themes that I want to discuss tonight, and to keep things from becoming too confusing, I'll outline them at the beginning. In 1936, the journalist Marquis Childs published a book called Sweden: the Middle Way, arguing that Sweden was a middle way between the excesses of capitalism on the one hand and the tyranny of totalitarianism on the other. I want to argue, as one theme, that American liberalism is indeed a middle way, but between capitalism and "another sort of radicalism." I will define this "other sort of radicalism" in a few minutes but for the moment, let's call it a Social Ethic. The second of my interlocking theme is the nature of this "other sort of radicalism." The last theme runs throughout the talk. That is, the persistence of social assumptions in society, ours or any other. This is the reason that this "other sort radicalism" could not succeed.

Since this theme underlies the other two, I am going to start with that: the persistence of social assumptions.

My 1988 book, Poverty and Society, about the ideological basis of welfare in Germany, Denmark, England and the United States received generally positive reviews. But a number of my friends said that I neglected the possibility of change, of alternatives. "Oh no, I responded. Contingency and change are always possibilities." But now I realize that my friends were right. I do believe in the persistence of social assumptions. Let me explain:

People do not react to reality. They react to their perceptions of reality.

Societies or nations develop a series of ground assumptions about reality which pretty much endures through all kinds of historical traumas, even revolutions like the Russian or periods of tyranny and war, like the Hitler period in Germany. Maybe in traumatic times, people cling even more firmly to the familiar. These are assumptions about the way history works, the relationship between state and society and so on. The reason that they endure is because they are so basic that people are not explicitly aware of them: they are as basic as air, they control the nature of peoples' very perceptions of reality and therefore the nature of the conceivable or thinkable solutions to dilemmas. When new situations come into being, for instance an increasingly urban industrial society rather than a rural one, the problems are approached such that the solutions are in accord with, or can be made to seem in accord with those ground assumptions. When sharply variant solutions creep in, say from other social systems, or are proposed by radical thinkers of one sort or another, the proposals are either rejected, or massaged in such a way as to fit existing social assumptions, basically because in a literal sense, alternate realities are unthinkable.

The social psychologist, Gordon Allport, long ago argued that a prejudiced mind holds on to its prejudices no matter what the evidence. If some one says, for example, "The trouble with Jews is that they only take care of their own group,' and then is confronted with the information that Jews contribute disproportionately to the Community Chest, the prejudiced person might say, "That shows they are always trying to buy favor and intrude into Christian affairs. They think of nothing but money; that's why there are so many Jewish bankers." Then they are confronted with the statistic that there are not many Jewish bankers, the answer would be "That is just it; they don't go in for respectable business; they are only in the movie business or nightclubs."[1] Information is absorbed into already existing presuppositions. I am arguing that this is true not just for the prejudiced mind, but for the human mind in general.

These ground assumptions come partly from explicit arguments, say, of teachers or parents, but are absorbed through all sorts of sources in society, so that people grow up simply assuming that that is the way the world is.

My point in what follows is that the radical formulations, the "other sort of radicalism" that I'm talking about was rejected and that only those bits of it which could be made compatible with American assumptions, were incorporated into the American system.

We often think of 20th century American liberalism as a compromise with radicalism, a radicalism defined as some sort of socialism in a Marxist sense.

The trouble with this formulation is that Marxian socialism and even more, Communism, has been a very weak force in American history. A recent documentary more-or-less sympathetic to American Communism, claims that in the period before World War II, "more than a million people passed through the Communist party." That's such a small number that it can't have been significant. It doesn't make sense that American liberalism and liberal reform has been a middle way between Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism, because the Marxist pole of the middle way has been so tiny. Yes, Communism was briefly significant in some segments of American society, but it had very little mass appeal, even during the Depression. A more diffuse sort of socialism has been somewhat more widespread, but it has often been difficult to distinguish that socialism from populism or liberalism. After all, Norman Thomas ended up being a supporter of the New Deal. And yes, a more generalized Marxism had an appeal—mostly in the academy, and without much influence outside of the academy.

My argument is that 20th century American liberalism can be more fruitfully seen as a middle way towards another sort of Radicalism. The social outlook which the radical reformers—this other sort of radical—reformers-- was not adopted, while some of the specific reforms could be incorporated within accepted ways of thinking.

What is basic throughout most of American history is one sort of individualism, mostly an economic individualism. This could mean "touch me not." Leave me alone unless it is absolutely necessary to do otherwise. It also means that each person is responsible for himself, and if some one has good times or bad times, it's his own doing; and this can be applied to individuals but also racial or ethnic groups.  Individualism can also lead to inventiveness, entrepreneurship, originality and just plain wackiness. The assumption also is that the sum of individual goods equals the social good, and also that the market makes better decisions on the social good than other mechanisms. Another assumptions is that of abundance. The historian David Potter has argued that Americans are "people of plenty," that is, that material abundance and the sort of thinking that comes from abundance or the perception of abundance, is fundamental to American character.

Yes, there have been traditions like barn raising and sharing harvesting machinery, but that is more doing something for which you expect reciprocation, not a challenge to individualism.

There have been challenges to individualism from the Oneida Community, the Mormons, but this is a "come outer" tradition, groups who removed themselves from American society to form a new society. The examples I am going to give are of people at the very center of American society, people who were highly honored or elected to major office and who argued not for leaving American society behind but for reforming it in ways that would reject those ground assumptions I have been talking about. And they failed!

I should make clear that I am not saying this out of regret, that we would be a better society if we accepted what I have called, following Jane Addams, a "social ethic." That "social ethic" is in a real sense un-American.

I'm going to illustrate what I mean by examining three periods about which I've written: the Progressive years at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century; the New Deal years; and the Civil Rights years.

During the Progressive years, Jane Addams was honored in a way similar to Dr. Schweitzer in a later age, or Sister Teresa in our day: a person transcendently good. Miss Addams, as she was always termed in the press, was often called the most important person in America. She would sometimes get thunderous applause merely for appearing on a lecture stage. Addams was one of the very early pioneers of the Settlement House Movement in America and was certainly its most prominent member. She was praised for "rousing the new conscience." In 1902 her book Democracy and Social Ethics appeared, drawing upon her first decade at Hull House, the name of her social settlement.

The very name of the book summarizes the point she was making. She was asking not for an individual ethic, but a social ethic.

"To attain individual morality in an age demanding social morality, to pride one's self on the results of personal effort when the time demands social adjustment, is utterly to fail to apprehend the situation."[2] Democ and Soc Eth. 2-3

"It is as easy for most of us," she wrote, " to keep from stealing our dinners as it is to digest them, and there is quite as much voluntary morality involved in one process as the other." (Ibid. 1) She goes on to argue that we are usually ethical towards our family, perhaps a small circle of friends, but in fact the times now demanded "a social test" of morality, "a code of social ethics."  Jane Addams, as central as she was to the development of modern American liberalism, was not alone in this radical stance. Her friend John Dewey, at the University of Chicago, wrote in ­The School and Society that in the existing public schools, "the conditions of the social sprit are eminently wanting." There was an emphasis on "positively individualistic motives and standards" and instead the school should foster the social spirit.[3]

Isaac N. Rubinow, an American expert on German social insurance and an advocate of similar measures in the United States, wrote that any time he suggested such a thing "the answer is invariably given that. . . .state labor insurance is utterly at variance with the individualistic ideas of the American people."[4]

What was attained in the progressive years? Many reforms we now take for granted: a stab at regulation of monopolies, more direct democracy like initiative, referendum and reform, direct election of Senators, workman's compensation, housing regulation, votes for women and, for a brief while until it was rejected by the Supreme Court, federal legislation against child labor. Jane Addams was heavily involved in the latter three. They are, or could be steps in the direction of a social ethic, but in fact they secured, made stable individualistic democracy and an individualistic capitalism. Jane Addams and the other reformers attained some of the specific reforms they wanted, but fundamental American assumptions continued. The United States as a whole did not adopt a "social ethic."  What was characteristic of the Progressive reforms was formulated by another reformer, Henry Demerest Lloyd.  "Mankind are crowding upon each other in the centers, and struggling to keep each other out of the feast set by the new science."[5] If we just remove barriers and provide some social protections, then every one could participate in the feast.
Jane Addams died in 1935 just as the Social Security act was nearing passage in the Congress. Which brings us naturally to the New Deal of the 1930s. Much was achieved in the New Deal. There was banking and securities legislation. There were old age pensions, fair labor standards, prohibition of child labor, aid to dependent children and other specifics. Most importantly there was the acceptance of the idea that the Federal government was ultimately responsible for the economic health of the country. That is the acceptance of the idea that the economy did not always function as a self-regulating mechanism. Important as these achievements are, there were radicals in the 1930s, this different sort of radical, who wanted a somewhat different direction, including to some degree, the President himself. To explain my point I have to make a brief excursion to Britain.

In 1942, at the height of World War II, the British government issued a long report of The Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services , known as The Beveridge Report after William Beveridge, its chief author. The Beveridge Report is the basis for the post-War version of the welfare state in Britain. The Beveridge Report spoke about the feeling of common fellowship among Britons that the war was generating and proposed a flat insurance premium and a flat rate of benefits for everyone against all major threats to economic welfare. Beveridge's goal was nothing less than the elimination of poverty in Great Britain.

To get back to the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt saw the Beveridge Report, he exclaimed to Frances Perkins, "It is not the Beverdge Plan. It is the Roosevelt Plan."[6] Roosevelt had been thinking along these general lines for years. In May of 1934, his close associate, Harry Hopkins, known informally as the Minister of Relief had outlined in general terms a broad system of social insurance in a speech to the National Conference on Social Work[7] and surely he would not have done so without approval from "the Boss."   FDR had been talking in general terms about the same thing. "I don't see why not, he remarked at one meeting, "Cradle to grave—from the cradle to the grave they ought to be in a social insurance system." In his reaction to the Beidge Report, he may well have been referring more specifically, to a report of something called the National Resource Planning Board , a presidentially appinted commission. Although neither William Beveridge or the National Resource Planning Board knew about the other, the proposals and even much of the language of the two reports are very similar. Like the Beveridge Report, the NRPB study pointed out that the country had developed a network of service and welfare programs, but that these were uncoordinated, that some people might not fit into any category and in any case the system was so complicated that even if they did, they would not necessarily be able to find the right program. As with Beveridge, the NRPB report proposed one system, that any one could understand. "The overall objective of public aid should be the assurance of access to minimum security for all our people"[8]

The timing of the Report could not have been worse. It was submitted to the President three days before Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt did not submit the Report to Congress until March 10, 1943, with the briefest accompanying note, which essentially referred to it as a review of existing programs.[9] Whereas the Beveridge Report had been received with virtual unanimous enthusiasm in Great Britain, the NRPB Report had a different reception in the United States.  The Nation and New Republic wrote favorably of it, but others called it "economic Fascism" and similar phrases.  There were a considerable number of editorial about it the month it was published, but then it was simply ignored. In August of 1943 both the House and Senate removed funding for the NRPB and the Board ceased to exist. The nation could accept banking and securities legislation—they would make capitalism work better—could accept the Social Security Act. After all, it was insurance. It could accept fair labor standards.  It could even accept public works for periods of crisis. These could all be interpreted as within American assumptions. But it could not accept a clear move toward a "social ethic." Change there was, but not an abandoning of ground assumptions.

The aims of the Civil Rights Movement cannot be called radical in any economic or political sense. They were simply that African Americans be allowed participation in the American system: education, public accommodations, the economy, voting. It is significant that such simple basic, non-radical demands aroused so much opposition. With the partial victories of the sixties, the demands could be met without any serious intellectual challenge to American perceptions of reality. African Americans could go to university, could join law firms, run for office and even become C.E.O.s of Fortune 500 companies. It is not that part of the Civil Rights Movement I am talking about.

In an interview in 1967 Bayard Rustin said:

"What we have to do is to force the American society to reevaluate its values, to set up new priorities. . . ." He was proposing what he called "A Freedom Budget for All Americans."[10] Rustin did not see Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty as that reevaluation. Although there were some social service components in the War on Poverty, the main thrust was on altering the poor, through various education and training programs, so that they could take advantage of the existing American economic system. Rustin's Freedom Budget was carefully worked out by the economist Leon Keyserling, and proposed massive social spending based on a portion of the expected expansion in federal revenues.

Thousands of copies were printed, sent to all members of congress, the White House and other prominent Americans, including James Stacey Coles, President of Bowdoin. There was actually a brief hearing in a sub-committee of the Senate Committee on Government Reorganization where Rustin was joined by Martin Luther King. Both men made articulate heart felt arguments for the Freedom Budget. Only two Senators were present. Ribicoff and Kennedy, and no further action was taken.

Early in the days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King had talked about creating a "Beloved Community," without a very specific definition. Later, he spoke of the "evils of capitalism." He has been honored for leading boycotts and demonstrations, but his criticisms of the economic structure of American society have been largely forgotten. John Lewis, leader of SNCC in the 60s and now a congressman from Georgia, gave more content to the idea of the Beloved Community in his autobiography. "The path that remains to lead us to the Beloved Community is no longer racial alone. It is one, I believe, marked by the differences, divisions and canyons created by class. . . .We cannot let this continue. . . . .[S]uch disparity is a recipe for disaster. . . .The poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. We cannot run away from them. We are all living in this house. . . .At the highest level—in the White House, in the Senate, the House of Representatives—somebody needs to say, forcefully and with complete conviction, that we are one nation, we're one society, we're one people." It goes without saying that neither in 1988, when John Lewis published those words, nor in 2006 , are we moving closer to that Beloved Community.

To repeat, changes can be made and incorporated into society, but the ground assumptions remain. For the United States these remain a strong commitment to individualism and a belief in prosperity. Different societies have different basic perceptions of reality, but these perceptions are also unalterable.  Just as an example, the first democratic Danish constitution in 1849, and all subsequent revisions contained the paragraph:

Anyone who cannot support himself and his dependents and is not the dependent of some one else, has a right to help from the public, although he must submit to the relevant laws for such cases.

We should not get too starry eyed about that clause.  It was not a right which could be enforced at law; it was set about with conditions and was often small and grudgingly granted. Yet it shows an attitude that eventually developed into a very thoroughgoing welfare state. [Later in the century, with the constitution under strain, internal violence threatening, moderates from all political parties tried to find an area of agreement to avoid crisis. What they found was social welfare legislation.] Notice too that the 1849 clause talks about help from "the public," which, without so specifying, means help from government. The two are synonymous, or nearly so, in Danish—a concept that is alien to speakers of American English, which precisely illustrates my point.

Attempts to make a "new man" whether American or Russian, are doomed to failure or self-delusion. Those reforms are successful, those that endure, must be those that can be seen by members of the society as reality.

Is this an argument for incrimentalism? Well, yes, partly. But major reforms are also possible, for instance Social Security, just be careful how you design them.

Clinton's health care plan, would fit into my prescription.  It did not pass because of bad politics on the Clinton side and good politics on the opposition side, but it was an attempt to find a plan which fit American assumptions. HMOs do that even better, but have not achieved what was hoped for them. Health savings accounts have some virtues and many drawbacks.

There may be some conservatives in the audience who recall Edmund Burke's "cake of custom." As one of the founders of modern conservative thinking, Burke argued that the "cake of custom" should not be lightly broken. I always think of that cake as a large oatmeal cookie, because the Brits couldn't make a cake worth the metaphor. Conservatives who have heard me argue that social change does not and cannot grow "organically," as conservatives argue; that change comes from some one, a liberal, arguing that this or that aspect of society must change in this or that way, and now, may be saying to yourself, "Aha, Levine has finally discovered the importance of the "cake of custom."  That's not true. What I have done is show how the cake of custom can successfully be subverted.

And with that, I am open to questions, arguments, remarks. . . whatever.

© Daniel Levine 2006

[1] Gordon Allport. Anchor Edition 1958 Originally published 1954, 13-14.

[2] Jane AddamsDemocracy and Social Ethics. 1902, 2-3.

[3] John Dewey, he School and Society,  1900

[4] Isaac M. Rubinow, "Compulsory State Insurance for Working-men," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 24 (September 1904), 331-342.

[5] Henry Demerest Lloyd, Wealth Against Commonwealth, (New York, 1894), 2.

[6] Francis Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, 284

[7] Harry Hopkins "Social Planning for the Future", National Conference on Social Work , 1934, 69-79.

[8] (NRPB, Security, Work and Relief Politics, 545).

[9] Keith W. Olson, "The American Beveridge Plan", Mid-America, 1983 65(2),81-99. P 91.

[10] Check date of interview in Visual Encyclopedia