Appreciating Radical Liberalism

Appreciating Radical Liberalism

The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970 by Kevin Mattson

Intellectuals in Action:
The Origins of the New Left
and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970
by Kevin Mattson
Pennsylvania State University, 2002 314 pp $24.50

Kevin Mattson, a young historian whose shoulders are happily light of chips, has an audacious idea about the sixties and how to make use of them. Having begun his political life in the arid eighties, he writes from inside what he calls the left’s “political void,” yet without undue nostalgia or lamentation. What interests him about the sixties is not its chain of glorious (or ignominious) protests but its ideas, especially the thinking of those intellectuals who were not necessarily its most sweeping philosophical minds or most theatrical masters of ceremonies but who contributed sensible, “undervalued” ideas. These ideas were undervalued even by sixties activists themselves, who, evading their own national history, sometimes preferred to wander exotic third-worldist trails in search of some image of themselves turned inside out to resemble premodern Others. Mattson is properly scornful of sixties mythologies pro and con.

He is also a splitter, not a lumper. That is, he is properly skeptical of the cartoonish notion that the sixties were all of a piece, whether you take them as noble or degraded, the start of a civilization or the end of one, a brilliant failure, a monumental idiocy, or a glamorous tragedy. As a man of the left, he wants to search through a welter of events and writings for what might be usable in the present much different circumstances. Why bother? Because the sixties, in some ways a more hopeful and in others a more desperate time than the present, were rich enough in left-wing energies, fluid enough, hopeful enough, and inspiring enough to drive many talented people to think hard about what an imposing left would be, about how to do good work as political intellectuals, and how to leave something valuable behind when the tide receded. In a time when the left seems to matter less than at any other time than in the last, say, half-century (except for the Greens who helped accomplish the ascendancy of George W. Bush and his cronies, if you call that mattering), he boldly proposes that what was sensible in a decade ripe for the left might remain important in a vastly less promising time.

Histories and evocations of sixties ideas and sentiments go in and out of fashion but they are not what Mattson has in mind. Nor does cultural radicalism interest him, except as an impediment to the difficult work of politics. He presupposes that personal liberation, however delightful, is not good enough for the public weal. It is a particular set of ideas that interests him-ideas about the kind of politics that the left needs, and what intellectuals can do to promote such politics. From among the great swarm of ideas that circulated in the churning, blistering chaos of the sixtie...