Re-Reading The Radical Liberal: Revisiting Arnold Kaufman

Re-Reading The Radical Liberal: Revisiting Arnold Kaufman

Arnold Kaufman’s The Radical Liberal was originally published as an entire issue of Dissent and then released as a book by Atherton Press in 1968. Read today, it smacks of its time. One of America’s most divisive presidential elections is just around the corner, and liberals are heating up for a face-off over Vietnam and urban riots. This makes the book easy to discard as a relic of this country’s tumultuous history during that crash and burn year. But read another way, The Radical Liberal offers critical lessons about our contemporary political predicament. In the whirlwind of 1968, Kaufman envisioned what we need today—traditional social democratic policies aimed at ensuring economic equality infused with community-based participatory democracy. In the midst of hectoring and lampooning from the left, he managed to stay attuned to the moral dimension of modern liberalism.

By the time he wrote The Radical Liberal, Kaufman had spent a lifetime in numerous New Left political activities. He was no aloof academic but an engaged, activist intellectual. Though too young to be a part of Irving Howe’s generational cohort, Kaufman described himself as a “New York immigrant Jew” and attended the alma mater of other famous New York intellectuals, the City College of New York. After a stint in the navy, he acquired a Ph.D. in political philosophy at Columbia University. But Kaufman wanted more than an academic career. During the 1940s, he worked with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), whose nonviolent direct action fueled the civil rights movement and the New Left. He was also an active member of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), SANE, and numerous labor unions. For a while in the early 1960s, he left for England (where E.P. Thompson’s New Left cohorts were “on the move again,” to use C. Wright Mills’s words), working as a freelance journalist and writing for Socialist Commentary regularly. Back in the United States, he lectured on “participatory democracy” at the Port Huron Conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In so doing, Kaufman provided much of the intellectual scaffolding that would guide the New Left in its coming years.

In 1965, Kaufman hit on a big idea—the teach-in. Though distinct, this form of political protest fit well with the new model of politics fashioned by the New Left, that of sit-ins, boycotts, and direct action. The teach-in made good on C. Wright Mills’s hope that intellectuals would play a special role in the New Left, since it engaged scholars in argument with the powers-that-be over foreign policy. Thirty years before political theorists raved about “deliberative democracy,” Kaufman put the ideal into practice first at the University of Michigan (whose all-night teach-in on March 24, 1965, inspired many to follow) and the national teach-in held in Washington, D.C., a few months later. Kaufman explained that teach-ins we...

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