Response to Kevin Mattson

Response to Kevin Mattson

Call this a reckless claim, but I know I made the main point of my article clear—that is, Dissent magazine’s editors and writers in the 1950s didn’t criticize the liberals for not being socialists; they criticized liberals for not defending liberal principles vigorously enough, for compromising those principles too often. What mattered to Dissenters, and to my argument, were the many instances when liberals caved on civil rights, civil liberties, and foreign policy. So, a useful reply would have demonstrated that the liberals had, in fact, taken principled positions on those occasions or that they had no choice but to surrender or that I had misinterpreted Dissent’s position or perhaps a combination of all three. Such an analysis would have added something to the debate about how to evaluate cold war liberalism.

Did the liberals really have no choice but to accept a treaty with Spain’s fascist dictator? Did the Americans for Democratic Action really have to equivocate on the Humphrey Communist Control Act? Was Reinhold Niebuhr upholding liberal principles as best he could when he counseled patience to African Americans in the nascent civil rights movement? Actions mattered, so did public stands, and Kevin Mattson has nothing to say about them.

In his nearly two-thousand-word reply to my article, he devotes one paragraph to the relevant issue, stating that I grant the liberals more power than they had and that I seem to forget the “pernicious influence that McCarthyism had on American political culture.” But, of course, I didn’t forget, which is why I wrote, “The witch-hunting atmosphere did create constant pressure to conform, but that didn’t excuse the public intellectuals, whose only job was to speak out, or politicians, whose job was to lead.” What does it mean to be a liberal during an illiberal time if you don’t stand up and shout? Mattson ignores all the specifics and simply says the liberals couldn’t have done better. I say they could . . . and that’s that. The debate on what the liberals actually did during the 1950s has gone nowhere.

So what about the other 90 percent of Mattson’s piece? He devotes it to a convoluted argument—perhaps it’s better described as a group of awkward arguments—that makes the following points:
1. Irving Howe’s faith in the socialist ideal “was the weakest link” in his politics because “it was too damn vague and ill-defined.”
2. Howe’s socialist ideal was not very different from liberalism, and when he “lambasted the excess radicalism of the New Left” in the 1960s, it then became “clear that he saw a great deal of good in liberalism.”
3. “What Barkan admires in Howe was how he held onto a socialist ideal that reached beyond the limits of liberal reform.”
4. “[T]he line between liberalism and socialism is not as clear as Barkan might think.”
5. Utopian thought “hurts Barkan...

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