The Young Radicals: A Symposium

The Young Radicals: A Symposium

I view this undertaking with skepticism. Perhaps I am influenced by the grotesque product of the Commentary effort, but I think that my objections to a symposium on Young Radicals go deeper. Such a symposium presupposes that there is in existence a community of persons with a sufficiently coherent outlook to consider one another as a natural audience. It presupposes further that the term “radical” has enough content to withstand careful analysis. I find these suppositions very dubious indeed.

My doubts are only intensified by the evidences of “a significant upsurge in the interest of young people in politics,” to quote the letter which accompanied the symposium questions. When one examines the examples cited, one discovers that they are without exception a-political or non-political in character. The first is the sit-ins and the response to them in the North. Now segregation is a totally non-political question, at least in any sense which is relevant to “radicalism.” The Negroes desire to be admitted to existing American society. At best, this desire is neutral with respect to the value of that society, and at worst it implies an endorsement of it. The Negro problem is, in the language of the philosopher, accidental to left-wing politics, not essential to it. It is not even really the case that the Negroes provide a pool of cheap labor, and hence in that sense are involved in a conflict of economic interests. I am reminded here of Marx’s brilliant (and much misunderstood) essay on the Jewish question. Marx argues that the only way to liberate the Jews from religious persecution is to liberate society from its capitalist form entirely. To expend one’s energies opening up the ranks of the bourgeoisie (Ivy League schools, managerial levels of business, etc.) to the Negro is simply to ignore the radical problem, however much it may be in accord with the interests of justice. When the class distribution is identical for Negroes and whites, will we cease to be interested in the Negro workingman, as we have already lost interest in his white brother?

The same is true for the fight against capital punishment, which has no special connection with left-wing politics. Even the anti-HUAC campaign is a-political, for no question is ever raised about the function of congressional committees in general, or the sources of right-wing strength. The fight is solely against abuses of the existing system, and hence quite conservative persons can join the campaign. Finally, as I shall point out below, the peace movement is utterly a-political.