The history of liberalism in our times is not, for liberals, a happy one. Modern liberalism originated in the first third of the twentieth century, dominated the middle third, and then all but came apart in the final third.
The simplest indicator of that decline is the flight from the term itself. Franklin Roosevelt, frustrated over the connivance of Southern Democrats with Republicans in defeating New Deal measures, expressed the desire that party alignments might more precisely follow liberal/conservative lines. He assumed, it is clear, that an arrangement that consistently matched liberal Democrats against conservative Republicans would result not only in a more rational politics but also in perpetual Democratic supremacy. Conservatives implicitly conceded the point. When Dwight Eisenhower midway through his presidency told a gathering of Republicans that they should not be afraid of the term “conservative,” he was thought courageous, even foolhardy, for his daring.
Not that long afterwards, matters had turned upside down. Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 appeared to mark the fulfillment of FDR’s dream, but just a few years later the Great Society, riven with conflict over the Vietnam War and racial unrest, self–destructed virtually overnight. Liberalism has never recovered from that debacle. Politicians of progressive tendencies fled from the “L” word, while Republicans, flaunting their conservatism, won five of the next six presidential elections, losing only to Jimmy Carter in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Bill Clinton, a Southern moderate, recovered the presidency for the Democrats, but he never ran as a liberal. Indeed, he famously proclaimed the end of the era of big government—and big government had been what liberalism was most fundamentally about. Even so, after the 2000 election, the Republicans—unashamedly (if compassionately) conservative—controlled, for the first time in almost a half century, both Congress and the White House.
But if liberalism, or at least liberalism as it was generally understood from the Progressive era up through the Great Society, has fallen on lean days, not everyone has given up the faith. Its adherents make up an aging congregation, consisting mainly of those who came to maturity in liberalism’s glory years, 1933–1945, the era of the New Deal and World War II. Of those who still practice the Old Religion, no one is more steadfast, or more engaging in its defense, than Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who helped write its history even as he was expounding and refining its doctrine. His memoir, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950 (Houghton Mifflin, 557 pp., $28.95
), provides a lively and elegant apology worth the attention even of those who find baffling the author’s unshakable and unquestioned commitment to liberal orthodoxy.
The simplest and truest thing to say about Schlesinger is that he is thoroughly his father’s son. The memoir is suffused with a warm, unforced filial piety. The senior Arthur Maier Schlesinger was himself a successful American historian whose teaching career took him from brief stints at Ohio State and Iowa to a long tenure at Harvard. (The history gene was apparently matrilineal as well: family lore had it that Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger was a descendant of the great nineteenth–century whig–progressive historian and ardent Jacksonian Democrat George Bancroft.) From his father the young Schlesinger inherited not simply his professional bent but his general approach to political life. Father and son alike were utterly dismissive of conservatism, drawn enough to radicalism to flirt with a mild socialism (though never for a moment susceptible to communism), most at home in a social democratic left–liberalism. The most striking evidence of Schlesinger’s devotion to his father is his name: at his birth on October 15, 1917, his parents named him Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger, but at about age fourteen—the age at which most young men enter on a period of adolescent rebellion against their fathers—Schlesinger decided quite on his own that he would henceforth be Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Interestingly, Schlesinger was perhaps least like his father in his approach to history. The elder Schlesinger was an advocate of the New History—an early version of social history most closely identified with James Harvey Robinson—while his son became a master of the old–fashioned analytical narrative focused on traditional political events and leaders. In discussing his father’s career, Schlesinger is admirably delicate. He praises his father’s accomplishments while noting only by indirection his relative lack of scholarly productivity. (The senior Schlesinger, to his ultimate regret, edited more volumes of history than he wrote.) The fact is that the son outstripped the father professionally by a considerable margin, but if that ever complicated their mutual high regard there is no evidence of it here.
The deep love lavished on Schlesinger by both his parents got him through the storms of childhood and adolescence relatively unscathed. (He is reticent about his relations with his brother Thomas, five years his junior, who is scarcely present in these pages.) Those years, first in the Midwest and, beginning at age seven, in Cambridge, could not have been entirely easy. A precocious student, Schlesinger skipped the second and fourth grades, which put him socially and physically behind his classmates, and he suffered both from poor eyesight, which required thick glasses, and, later, poor complexion. Still, he remembers his childhood as a “generally sunny time.” Much of his time he spent in reading. Even with allowance for his precocity, Schlesinger was a voracious, and attentive, reader. The chapter on his childhood reading depends, as does much else in the book, not just on the vagaries of memory but on the detailed, if intermittent, journals and diaries he kept over the years. Those sources, from which Schlesinger quotes extensively throughout the book, give the reader more confidence than is normally the case that the memoirist is not simply creating for himself a usable and compatible past.
In 1931, Schlesinger entered Phillips Exeter Academy, where, for the first (and last) time in his life, he found he had to work hard to get good grades. “After Exeter,” he says, “Harvard was a breeze.” When he graduated from Exeter two years later, his parents decided that at age fifteen he was too young to begin college, and so his entry to Harvard was delayed for a year while he accompanied his family on a year–long tour of the world.
Harvard was indeed a breeze: Schlesinger received his only B in a required course in biology. He flourished in the History and Literature program, where his tutors were the literary critic F. O. Matthiessen and the brilliant historian of American Puritan thought Perry Miller. He wrote his senior honors thesis on the then obscure nineteenth–century intellectual Orestes Brownson. Brownson had a notably erratic career, beginning as a Calvinist minister, then moving successively to Unitarianism, Universalism, and Transcendentalism. At the same time he wrote radical political tracts, including “The Laboring Classes,” an 1840 essay that predicted class war and proletarian revolution. (This, Schlesinger notes, came eight years before The Communist Manifesto.) Yet just a few years later he shifted radically to the right, joining the Catholic Church in 1844 and encouraging the presidential ambitions of John C. Calhoun. The thesis received a summa, and, on his father’s urging, Schlesinger expanded it into his first book, Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published in 1939.
His academic exploits did not prevent Schlesinger from enjoying a rich extracurricular life. He was active in literary circles on campus and made frequent trips to New York to indulge his interests in theater, jazz, and especially movies. He began a lifelong interest in film at Exeter, and during both prep school and college he spent a great deal of time in movie theaters. Between 1931 and 1936, he reports, he saw 482 movies, for each of which he wrote a brief review, followed by a letter grade. In his extensive recording of the literature, music, movies, and plays of these and later years, as well as in his witty, affectionately bemused (and remarkably detailed) recall of the events of daily life, large and small, Schlesinger provides a kind of capsule social history of his class and generation.
Harvard also solidified Schlesinger’s politics. He had been one of the few in his class at Exeter to prefer FDR to Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, and at Harvard he ardently supported the New Deal against enemies right and left. Republican conservatives, tied narrowly to business interests, were unenlightened, uninteresting, and unintelligent; and Marxism, while analytically challenging, was “a sideshow, irrelevant to the American future.” Even in the depths of the Depression, Schlesinger never doubted “that FDR and the New Dealers could work things out and do so within the system.” He has not for a moment wavered in that political allegiance: “I remain to this day a New Dealer, unreconstructed and unrepentant.”
In his personal life, Schlesinger was not, he admits with chagrin, unimpressed with his own abilities, and he often displayed the arrogance of youth. He reports an argument over dinner at which his mother finally said to him in frustration, “Why are you shaking your head? Can’t I say what I believe?” His reply: “No, mother, not when you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In his romantic life, he was not so assured. Like many undergraduates he fell in and out of love frequently. In his junior year, when he was nineteen, he fell seriously in love with Marian Cannon, who was five years his senior. Their rocky, up–and–down courtship led three years later to a marriage that, Schlesinger suggests, was not always serene. (His account of all this is subtle and restrained.)
Following graduation in 1938, Schlesinger spent a year at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, on a fellowship. He seems to have studied little, but he socialized widely, and he offers brief, vivid descriptions of the wide range of British academics and political leaders he encountered. Schlesinger as a historian has always had a remarkable ability to sketch and capture personalities within a paragraph or two, and his memoir exploits this talent to the utmost. By the end of the book, after experiencing an immense and absorbing variety of these mini–biographies, the reader gets the sense that Schlesinger has come to know virtually everyone in the Anglo–American political–intellectual establishment. Perhaps his was the last generation in which that was possible. In any case, scores of prominent figures crowd the pages of Schlesinger’s memoir, many of them appearing and reappearing in shifting circumstances and unusual coincidences. He is a great fan—odd, given the work’s conservative politics—of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s masterful twelve–volume novel of life within the English governing class in the interwar period. Powell’s complex work captures for Schlesinger what he, out of his own experience (and invoking Powell’s title), calls “the circularity of life”: “Characters appear and disappear and then reappear in vividly different settings and circumstances, the rhythm of life sooner or later bringing them together again ‘as in the performance of one or another sequences of a ritual dance.’”
In fall 1939 Schlesinger returned to Harvard, where he had been elected to a three–year term in the prestigious Society of Fellows. The Junior Fellows could work on any project they wished, except the pursuit of a doctoral degree. The Society had been created in 1933 to escape what William James called “the Ph.D octopus.” (The no–Ph.D rule eventually gave way to the pressures of academic credentialism, and Schlesinger is rare among academic historians in his lack of an earned doctorate.)
While beginning research on his presumed forebear George Bancroft—a project that gradually expanded to become The Age of Jackson—Schlesinger maintained his intense interest in politics. Like Bancroft, he wanted both to make history and to write it. He loved working in archives and he wrote easily and with grace; at the same time he envied the engaged and energetic New Dealers he met while on research trips to Washington. In the end he opted for the academic life—though with recurring forays into politics—but the history he wrote always reflected the politics he practiced.
Among a few of the Senior Fellows Schlesinger encountered “the first intelligent conservatives” he had ever met. Dealing with their arguments, he reports, forced him to reshape his liberalism to “give it a more realistic and hard–edged cast.” That process further developed under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Schlesinger first met when his wife dragged him, against his protests, to hear a Niebuhr sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church in the winter of 1940–41. Schlesinger was immediately drawn to Niebuhr’s unlikely combination of liberal political activism and conservative Christian theology.
It was not the theology as such that attracted Schlesinger. His parents were mildly religious at best—when they moved to Cambridge they exchanged their lukewarm Congregationalism for Unitarianism. On the evidence of the memoir, Schlesinger’s own attitude toward religion ranged between indifference and hostility (he hated the compulsory daily chapel and Sunday worship at Exeter).
But he nonetheless found Niebuhr’s skeptical view of human nature intellectually more compelling than the typically American faith in “human innocence and virtue” that prevailed among most progressives. The doctrine of original sin made anthropological, if not theological, sense of human life. Schlesinger had been prepared for Niebuhr by his undergraduate studies with Perry Miller. Miller was himself an atheist, but as a student of the New England Puritans he absorbed from them—and passed on to Schlesinger—“insights into the dark power of the Augustinian strain in Christianity, the anguished awareness of human finitude, failure, guilt, corruptibility, the precariousness of existence and the challenge of moral responsibility.”
Niebuhr’s neo–orthodox theology would almost certainly have been less attractive to Schlesinger had it issued in the political quietism and sense of resignation normally associated with Augustinian perspectives. But Niebuhr, though resolutely anti–utopian, was neither quietist nor resigned. He was always a man of the left—first a socialist and later a social democrat—and as Professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York he remained a major political presence in left–liberal circles from the 1930s into the 1960s. His Christian realism did not excuse sinful humanity from acting against evil in the world. He had broken with liberal Christianity over what he considered its sentimental pacifism in the face of the Fascist threat in Europe. Power must be met by power, and in the sermon that introduced him to Schlesinger he urged America not to turn away from the war that had begun with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939.
The message resonated with Schlesinger. He had himself, in the wake of Hitler’s blitzkrieg in the spring of 1940, forsaken his earlier isolationism and become an ardent interventionist. The isolationist/interventionist debate of 1940–41 is not much remembered today, but Schlesinger recalls it as the most bitter and divisive of his lifetime—more so than the quarrels over communism in the postwar forties, McCarthyism in the fifties, or Vietnam in the sixties. None of these, he insists, “so tore apart families and friendships” as that earlier conflict. The debate cut across ideological and class lines. The cynicism of American Communists during the period—insistently anti–interventionist following the Nazi–Soviet pact that immediately preceded Germany’s strike into Poland, even more insistently pro–interventionist following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1940—confirmed Schlesinger’s already well developed anti–Communist instincts.
Pearl Harbor, of course, ended the debate over America’s role in the world conflict. (Indeed, it virtually put an end to the isolationist impulse itself. After December 7, l941, America would never again seek to distance itself from international affairs.) Schlesinger’s poor eyesight kept him out of the draft, and he sought a job in Washington in support of the war effort. In September 1942 he joined the Writers Division of the Office of War Information (OWI). On the side he performed ghostwriting chores for various New Deal officials, including the drafting of low level proclamations for President Roosevelt. His first assignment—ironic given his anticlerical inclinations—was a statement by FDR in support of Universal Bible Sunday. In it, Schlesinger had FDR call the Bible “a book not for a day or a week but for eternity.” (“I was deplorably adept,” Schlesinger notes dryly, “at a ghostwriter’s duplicity.”)
Schlesinger enjoyed his work with OWI, but he soon found himself embroiled in a dispute within the agency pitting its bureaucratic leadership against the young New Dealers who staffed the Writers Division and who worked to insure that the war effort would not obliterate the Administration’s reform purposes. After a series of murky internal squabbles, Schlesinger and several of his liberal colleagues resigned in protest in April 1943. The next month he signed up with the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), but he found his work there frustrating and inconsequential: “In OSS it was as if one put a message in a bottle and threw it into the sea.” He maintained his independent streak, not only over against his superiors but against the numerous Communists and fellow travelers who infiltrated the agency’s ranks. His efficiency rating reports, obtained years later, ranked him as “excellent” in every category but “cooperativeness,” where he was only deemed “adequate.”
By 1944 Schlesinger was desperate to get closer to the fighting in Europe, and he applied for a commission as a naval intelligence officer. The commission never came through (despite his anticommunism, Schle singer’s liberal activism made him suspect on political grounds), but he wangled an assignment to the OSS office in London with the civilian equivalent of the rank of major. (The following spring, after the eyesight requirements for military service had been lowered, he found himself unhappily drafted into the army in Europe as a buck private.) In the meantime, in his intelligence investigations in London, Paris, and elsewhere in Europe, he became persuaded that the U.S. should cast its political lot in the postwar years neither with the increasingly popular Communists nor with the conservatives who had dominated most prewar governments but with the emerging “non–Communist left.” He returned to America in October 1945 and was mustered out of the military in December.
Schlesinger came back to the U.S. as a minor celebrity. During the war years he had continued to labor nights and weekends on The Age of Jackson, and the work was published to considerable attention and acclaim in September 1944. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1945, was an intellectual tour de force—spirited, ambitious, panoramic, iconoclastic. It ingeniously combined political history with the history of ideas: Schlesinger intended it as “the intellectual history of a political movement.”
The Age of Jackson turned Jacksonian historiography on its head. In the tradition of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which associated the rise of American democracy with the nation’s continuous expansion westward from colonial days through the end of the nineteenth century, Jacksonian democracy had traditionally been viewed as an essentially western phenomenon. It was seen as an extension of Jefferson’s agrarian vision of the nation as a perpetual republican arcadia—a vision in conflict with the eastern Federalist/Whig preference for economic development, urban growth, and government of the few, not the many. Not so, said Schlesinger. He did not deny the influence of the western Jacksonians and their Jeffersonian concern for expanded political democracy. But he argued that the real dynamic of Jackson’s presidency lay in the increasingly urban industrial east, and he emphasized the importance for the Jacksonian movement of the rise of the “laboring classes” and the leadership of eastern writers and intellectuals in the struggle for a more radical economic democracy. Jeffersonian democracy had been essentially a matter of aristocracy vs. democracy; its “more realistic” Jacksonian variant pitted rich vs. poor.
Jacksonian democracy was not so much a sectional struggle as a class struggle. Schlesinger had earlier praised Orestes Brownson for seeing class conflict as “the dynamic force in the evolution of society.” In American terms, that conflict took the form of the struggle over control of the state between the business community and all other groups in the nation. To be a liberal in America meant, for Schlesinger, to be above all else an opponent of business power. Jackson, he indicated, had intuitively understood that, and his titanic (and successful) struggle in the 1830s against the Bank of the United States and the business–government alliance it represented became the prototypical event of the nation’s political history. In a speech delivered shortly after his book’s publication, Schlesinger argued that in sustaining Jackson against the Bank the American people “made unmistakably clear for all time their conviction that basic economic decisions were matters of democratic responsibility and could not be left in private and irresponsible hands” (emphasis added).
In speaking of class conflict in these terms, Schlesinger was not vindicating Karl Marx, he was vindicating Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Critics of FDR regularly charged that the class politics of the New Deal represented a radical break with the nation’s past. Schlesinger intended to demonstrate, to the contrary, that Roosevelt was acting in the great tradition of American liberalism. He concedes that The Age of Jackson “voted for” FDR and against the notion that the New Deal was somehow “un–American”: “I wanted to show that, far from importing foreign ideas, FDR was acting in a thoroughly American spirit. . . . Jackson’s war against . . . the Second Bank of the United States thus constituted a thoroughly American precedent for the battles FDR waged against the ‘economic royalists’ of his (and my) day.”
Yet the radical Jackson–FDR tradition, Schlesinger argued, was not socialist, much less Marxist. Class conflict was inevitable, but class warfare was not. Schlesinger selected a quotation from George Bancroft as the frontispiece of the book: “The feud between the capitalist and laborer, the house of Have and the house of Want, is as old as social union, and can never be entirely quieted; but he who will act with moderation, prefer fact to theory, and remember that everything in this world is relative and not absolute, will see that the violence of the contest may be stilled.” The essential intent of the democratic left, past and present, was to preserve capitalism by taming its excesses. Schlesinger insisted that “the object of liberalism has never been to destroy capitalism, as conservatism invariably claims—only to keep the capitalists from destroying it.”
Schlesinger’s was a bravura performance, but The Age of Jackson, for all its panache, was vulnerable both in its interpretation of the Jacksonian era and in its larger understanding of the American political tradition. Schlesinger himself notes the intense reaction the book provoked, citing the comment of Robert V. Remini, a later biographer of Jackson, that The Age of Jackson “swept the historical profession like a tornado, eliciting both prodigious praise and, within a relatively short time, fierce denunciations.”
In his portrait of the struggles of the Jacksonian period as precursors of those of the 1930s, Schlesinger was guilty, critics charged, of anachronism. Jacksonian America was, after all, still a largely rural society, not the advanced industrial order that FDR had to deal with a century later. In 1830, 91 percent of Americans lived in communities with populations of less than 2,500 people, and Schlesinger’s emphasis on the urban and working–class component of the Jacksonian coalition—not to mention his suggestion of a society divided along class lines—seemed overblown. In any case, other critics noted, the nascent workers’ movement and its radical spokesmen often worked independently of the Jacksonian Democrats.
As to the struggle over the Bank and related issues, one school of historians saw the conflict as matching not so much rich vs. poor as rival groups of agrarian and commercial entrepreneurs. Jackson’s opposition to the Bank, in their view, stemmed in large part from economic ignorance, in particular a rigid devotion to a reactionary hard–money monetary theory that, had it been consistently followed, would have hampered the nation’s economic growth. More than that, and as Schlesinger himself concedes (despite his vigorous objections to the rival–entrepreneurs interpretation), in contrast to the antistatist Jacksonians their Whig Party opponents “had a sounder conception of the role of government and a more constructive policy of economic development.”
Later scholars offered more fundamental criticisms of Schlesinger’s analysis. Like other Progressive historians, they charged, he had misconceived the fault lines of American politics. From early on, American political divisions had had more to do with complex ethnocultural differences, religion chief among them, than with economic or class issues.
The ethnocultural critique dovetailed with the analysis put forward by the emerging school of Consensus historiography. In opposition to Schlesinger and others of the Progressive school, Consensus historians emphasized that what was distinctive about the American experience, compared with that of Europe, was the relative lack of fundamental disagreement about the constituting elements of the nation’s political economy. Most Americans most of the time had agreed on the essentials of democratic capitalism: political equality, individual rights and responsibility, private property, free enterprise, limited government, equality of opportunity. The political spectrum was more narrow in America than anywhere else in the West. The U.S. had little of the intense anti–Enlightenment spirit that marked elements of the European right, even as it was unique among industrialized nations in its lack of a significant Socialist movement. Americans had, to be sure, quarreled among themselves along socioeconomic lines—and those arguments were not about nothing—but the heat of political rhetoric had obscured just how narrowly circumscribed, in comparative terms, those quarrels had been. Attachments of ethnicity and religion generally counted for more in American politics than attachments of class.
Yet whatever the weaknesses of The Age of Jackson—it is, one might fairly say, a great book but an unreliable history—most critics recognized the abundant talent of its author. Several universities made offers to Schlesinger, but he was initially inclined, given his activist impulses, to pass up academia and make his way as a reporter on politics. “My thought,” he says, “was to try, at least for a while, the life of a writer. I could always in the end retreat to the cloisters.” The retreat came more quickly than he had anticipated. In April 1946, he reports, “Harvard made an offer I could not refuse.” Part of the unrefusability of the offer was that the university agreed to put off the beginning of his teaching duties until September 1947, and in the intervening period he pursued his freelance ambitions, writing a wide range of articles—on, among other things, the American Communist Party, U.S. relations with Latin America, the Supreme Court, and the future of American socialism—for a variety of journals.
Schlesinger was a natural optimist, but the immediate postwar political situation appeared decidedly unpromising. The Republicans, as always, were beneath consideration, and the new Truman Administration seemed not appreciably better. “Not only is [Truman] himself a man of mediocre and limited capacity,” Schlesinger wrote dismissively in 1946, “but . . . he has managed to surround himself with his intellectual equals.” The announcement of the Marshall Plan for European recovery the following year somewhat improved Schlesinger’s estimation of the Administration, as did Truman’s liberal 1948 State of the Union address, but he shared the widespread assumption that Truman could not win election on his own in the fall and that he might well drag his fellow Democrats in Congress down to defeat with him.
The situation appeared so desperate that Schlesinger joined the short–lived effort in spring 1948 to draft General Dwight Eisenhower to replace Truman at the top of the ticket, even though he concedes, looking back in embarrassment, that “no one knew how Eisenhower stood on the issues or whether he was even a Democrat.” It turned out, of course, that Eisenhower was neither a liberal nor a Democrat, and after he withdrew his name from consideration Schlesinger looked forward gloomily to the fall campaign.
The Democrats’ prospects looked especially hopeless because they faced opposition not only from the rejuvenated Republicans, who in the off–year election of 1946 had won control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 1928, but from splinter movements on both the right and the left. The first, the so–called Dixiecrats, began with southern Democrats who had walked out of the party convention in July when northern liberals (enthusiastically cheered on by Schlesinger) inserted a civil rights plank in the party platform. The dissidents organized themselves officially as the States’ Rights Party and nominated Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. The second threat, which initially seemed all but certain to guarantee the election of Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, came from the new Progressive Party, a coalition of left–liberals, fellow travelers, and Communists. Their candidate was Henry Wallace, a veteran of the left who had served as Vice President during FDR’s third term and who had emerged as chief spokesman for those opposed to the Truman Administration’s increasingly anti–Soviet foreign policy.
The Wallace campaign marked a critical moment of truth for the postwar American left. Most American liberals, like their counterparts throughout the West, had found it difficult entirely to discard their initial estimate of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the extension, even the ultimate fulfillment, of the eighteenth–century revolutions in France and America. Glimmers of disillusionment crept in during the twenties and thirties, at least among those open to the evidence, over periodic revelations of the brutalities of the Lenin and Stalin regimes; but majority liberal opinion, while willing to concede certain “excesses,” held to the view of the Soviet Union as a progressive force in world–historical development. That attitude hardened with the rise of fascism, and most liberals endorsed the anti–Fascist Popular Front movement of the thirties, with its doctrine of “no enemies to the left.”
The World War II alliance with the USSR solidified the benevolent view of Stalinist Russia, a view actively encouraged by the Roosevelt Administration. For the Popular Front left, therefore, Truman’s gradually developing skepticism concerning Soviet intentions following FDR’s death in April 1945 seemed a betrayal of his predecessor’s legacy. In the Popular Front mind, the world was still divided between Fascists and anti–Fascists, and in the emerging Cold War conflict, with the U.S. pitting itself against a progressive–by–definition USSR, the nation was placing itself on the wrong side of history. Wallace, like many around him, was given to vague but ominous reflections on the dangers of American fascism.
Schlesinger, as we have seen, never succumbed to Popular Front illusions. His memoir plays down—excessively in my view—the influence of communism on American political culture in the 1930s and ’40s, but at the time he consistently and honorably fought that influence wherever it arose. When the postwar Popular Front forces consolidated at the end of 1946 in forming the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), he eagerly allied himself with the anti–Communist liberals in the formation just afterward of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Despite their agreement on the need for a revitalized and extended New Deal, the difference between the organizations was stark. The PCA, in varying degrees of innocence and cynicism, still thought of the USSR as a natural ally in the ongoing struggle between Fascists and anti–Fascists. For the ADA the defeat of fascism in 1945 had reconfigured world politics, and it was the Soviet Union that was on the wrong side of what, in fact, had always been the more fundamental division—that between totalitarians and anti–totalitarians.
Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of the USSR’s expansionist and anti–democratic policies in Eastern Europe, the great majority of liberals came down on the anti–Communist side, and Truman’s unexpected victory in 1948 marked, among other things, the elimination on the respectable American left of pro–Soviet sympathies. (Even Wallace came around when, two years later, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea.) Schlesinger rejoiced in Truman’s triumph—he had come to a grudging admiration for the President—but the confusions of the campaign and the perceived need, in post–New Deal and postwar conditions, to rethink liberal assumptions led him to the writing, in the winter of 1948–49, of The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, an influential work that in the words of one critic “announced the spirit of an age to itself.”
In a sense, one could summarize The Vital Center as an extension of The Age of Jackson’s political argument taking into account the confrontation with communism and the infusion into liberal thought of Niebuhrian perspectives. “Mid–twentieth–century liberalism,” Schlesinger wrote, “has . . . been fundamentally reshaped by the hope of the New Deal, by the exposure [of the evil] of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man.”
The left–liberal Vital Center faced significant challenges on both right and left. The forces of the business community against which democratic leaders struggled disqualified themselves from political leadership by their narrow preoccupation with class interests, their consistent political incompetence, and their lack of vigor and purpose. Schlesinger filled out the sketch of American history suggested in The Age of Jackson in which an inept business class, perpetually enfeebled by its lack of a will to govern, created inevitable crises whenever in power from which it had to be rescued by the “radical democracy.” By 1949, Schlesinger was so fearful of business rule that he warned that an America returned to business control “might be delivered through the incompetence of the right into the hands of the totalitarian left.”
But Schlesinger continued to reject the Socialist alternative. He recognized—though not sufficiently, as his memoir concedes—capitalism’s strengths, particularly its economic vitality and its commitment to a free and open society. More strongly still, he recognized socialism’s weaknesses: its problems with amassing the necessary information and skill truly to plan and direct an economy and, above all, its dangerous propensity towards the concentration of power in a few hands. Variety of ownership and control was the answer, “as much variety . . . as is consistent with energetic action by the government.” The prophet of the new radicalism was not Marx but John Maynard Keynes; the triumph of the New Deal was the triumph of the middle way between unregulated capitalism and orthodox socialism.
The dynamic required to prevent this Vital Center from slipping into a slack and banal centrism was the creative social conflict provided by perpetual group struggle. Where Marxism envisioned that struggle as warfare to the apocalyptic death, Schlesinger’s version kept it, through an emphasis on gradualism, pragmatism, and parliamentarianism, as a “perpetual tension” issuing not in actual warfare or final resolution but in an ongoing balancing and rebalancing of social forces that offered society the best guarantee of freedom, stability, and progress.
Schlesinger’s insistence that his preferred program of democratic radicalism (he did not hesitate to use the terms “liberal” and “radical” interchangeably) be kept distinct from Marxism stemmed from his generation’s experience of Stalinist oppression. The revelations in the late thirties of Soviet labor camps and mass purges bred a new skepticism toward unlimited state power and a renewed commitment to individual liberties. His subtitle, “the politics of freedom,” marked the enduring dividing line between democracy and communism.
That line also defined the nature of postwar relations between America and Russia: the conflict between the U.S. and the USSR would be permanent. “A ‘permanent’ crisis? Well, a generation or two anyway, permanent in one’s own lifetime, permanent in the sense that no international miracle, no political sleight of hand will do away overnight with the tensions between ourselves and Russia.” Yet for all his support of the Truman Administration’s firm anti–Soviet stance, Schlesinger insisted that containment no more meant intimidation than it did appeasement, and he warned that America “must not succumb to demands for an anti–Soviet crusade or a preventive war.” He understood as well the subtler dangers of anticommunism. We must not, he said, permit ourselves “to become the slaves of Stalinism, as any man may become the slave of the things he hates.” It was essential that a genuine radicalism be sustained in Western Europe and America, that the non–Communist left of the Atlantic community remain as left as it was non–Communist.
Anticommunism must also not come at the price of the sacrifice of civil liberties. “As we anti–Stalinist liberals saw it,” he writes in his memoir, “communism was a threat to America, not a threat in America.” Freedom meant freedom for American Communists to spread their pernicious ideas. Schlesinger opposed the firing of Communist professors solely on the basis of Party membership, and he suggested that Communists in government should be removed only for disloyal actions or if they held sensitive positions in the national security apparatus.
All in all, Schlesinger maintained the necessary distinctions that, when the time came, would allow him firmly to oppose McCarthyism without for a moment softening his anticommunism. The line he liked to draw between “rational” and “obsessive” anticommunism was not always as precise as he imagined, but, especially in light of the intense and conflicting passions that attended the issue, he struck a commendable balance.
The Niebuhrian influence on Schlesinger’s thought showed itself in The Vital Center’s somber summary of the postwar situation. With traditional faiths under question and with modernity’s dreams of redemption through science, reason, and technology made a mockery by global war and mass brutality, the result was lives “empty of belief” lived in “quiet desperation.” The imperatives of industrialization required of modern man that he “organize beyond his moral and emotional means”; here was to be found “the fundamental cause of our distempers.”
Given these realities, the traditional liberal belief in progress was no longer tenable. The optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had assumed humanity’s essential rationality and virtue, but the twentieth had revealed its capacity for evil. A responsible liberalism would have to discard its progressive sentimentalities and accept people as they are, limited and flawed; and it would have to accept as well the compromises, complicities, and uncertainties of responsible political action.
The threat to America from Soviet expansionism abroad and creeping social malaise at home made it essential that freedom regain its vitality and become once more “a fighting faith.” Yet, Schlesinger noted, democracy’s commitment to tolerance and diversity, its basis in compromise and consent, made such a faith hard to come by. Its renewal and nourishment depended on the maintenance of certain fruitful social tensions: between individualism and community, freedom and security, private initiative and public power. The tensions had to remain forever unresolved, for democracy was a process and not a conclusion; the struggle was without end and without hope of utopia. “All important problems are insoluble,” Schlesinger concluded, “that is why they are important.”
The most striking aspect of The Vital Center was the distance between its philosophy and its politics, the movement from conservative assumptions to liberal conclusions. Schlesinger himself, looking back twenty years later, noted a combination in the book “of a certain operational optimism with a certain historical and philosophical pessimism.” The note of pessimism recurred frequently in Schlesinger’s immediate postwar writings. “History is not a redeemer,” he insisted; it is rather “a tragedy in which we are all involved, whose keynote is anxiety and frustration, not progress and fulfillment.” In denying Whittaker Chambers’ claim that anticommunism must be founded on religious belief, Schlesinger argued that the issue was rather “the sense of human limitation, of human fallibility, of . . . the ‘moral incompleteness’ of man.” Doubters as well as believers could be “tentative and experimental in history and humble and contrite before the mystery which lies behind history.” When one recalls the classic definition of conservatism as a sense of humility before God and history, it is quite possible to categorize Schlesinger as a philosophical conservative. Yet his politics remained unreservedly liberal as well as basically optimistic. The New Deal, whatever its flaws, had made an admirable record and it remained for Schlesinger a source of hope and of faith in democracy.
The disjunction between philosophy and politics was not necessarily a contradiction, as the career of Reinhold Niebuhr demonstrated. But if the movement from realist assumptions to left–liberal politics was not impossible, neither was it at all axiomatic. The tragic vision was hardly a major perspective for most New Dealers, the majority of whom were far closer in spirit to the optimistic pieties of Eleanor Roosevelt than to Niebuhr’s tough–mindedness. Niebuhrian theological perspectives could doubtless be made to conform with a number of political perspectives, but at whatever point on the political spectrum they were applied their influence would inescapably tend in a conservative direction.
As it turned out, Niebuhr’s influence on liberal thought did not much outlast his presence on the political scene. His was a moment in liberalism, not a transformation of it. Niebuhr is not often referred to today—much, in my opinion, to our detriment—and when he is invoked, it is among neoconservatives, not among liberals.
There were difficulties in Schlesinger’s own appropriation of Niebuhr’s thought. Niebuhr’s pessimism about human nature was countered by an ultimate optimism rooted in faith in God’s providential purposes that was not available to Schlesinger and other “atheists for Niebuhr.” “One felt the irony,” Schlesinger writes, “that unbelievers, appropriating so much of [Niebuhr’s] thought, left off when the part that mattered most to him—the ineffable mystery and grace of God—came in.” Niebuhrian thought stripped of its eschatological confidence could only chasten the left, not sustain it. Schlesinger’s liberalism, for all its musings on Augustinian themes, was in the end, as the title of one of his later books put it, a “politics of hope,” and he perhaps underestimated the extent to which his Niebuhrian rejection of belief in human goodness and social progress undermined that hope.
The potential difficulties in the Vital Center were practical as well as philosophical. The delicate balance between antibusiness politics and procapitalist economics was not easily maintained. How did society give business leaders sufficient freedom for economic initiative and yet create a polity in which they were effectively restricted in political power?
Schlesinger’s social analysis, for all its emphasis on economic forces, tended regularly and almost inevitably to a separation of politics and economics. As a man of the left persuaded of capitalism’s economic virtues, Schlesinger alternated ambivalently between vigorous condemnation of business executives and uneasy acceptance of the business system. To critics to his left, Schlesinger’s liberalism seemed an exercise in futility: in a capitalist system capitalist interests will necessarily prevail. To conservatives, that liberalism seemed counterproductive and even perverse: why continually beat up on those most responsible for national prosperity? Schlesinger had noted that a new depression would discredit capitalism and move the country, probably through a series of New Deals, toward socialism. He did not foresee that an extended period of prosperity—such as in fact developed in the 1950s—would make socialism as irrelevant as it had normally been in America and, beyond that, begin to bring into question the New Deal impulse itself.
Both the pressure of events and tendencies from within, then, acted gradually to drain the Vital Center of its vitality. For a few brief years in the late 1940s, a sobered liberalism, sustained by memories of the New Deal, by a foreign threat, and by a newly sophisticated view of man and society, enjoyed one of the more creative moments in its long tradition. But it could not for long preserve that moment.
Schlesinger of course made necessary adjustments in political tactics and strategy in the long years to follow after 1950, but he never abandoned, or even seriously questioned, the ideological commitments of his youth. At the end of his memoir, he offers this tongue–in–cheek conclusion: “It is, I suppose, evidence of lack of imagination or of some other infirmity of character, but I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I have not radically altered my general outlook in the more than half century since The Vital Center’s publication. Perhaps I should apologize for not being able to claim disillusions, revelations, conversions. But in fact I have not been born again, and there it is.”
There is much to respect in the liberalism Schlesinger has for so long represented. It has been at once optimistic and unsentimental. What Schlesinger says about his friend Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. could as well be said of Schlesinger himself: “An unrepentant New Dealer, he embodied the old, realistic, exuberant American liberal tradition—liberalism without mawkishness, without self–pity, without guilt, without illusion, but with zest in the struggle and unquenchable hope for all humanity.”
But there were costs to Schlesinger’s constancy. The New Deal era was, with the possible exception of the 1790s (and of course the Civil War), the most intensely partisan epoch in American history. FDR’s conservative opponents hated him and everything he stood for, and he returned the hatred. “Zest in the struggle” hardly does justice to the intensity of the political wars of the 1930s.
Schlesinger is not, on the evidence of his memoir, a man given to hatreds, but his writings, historical and political, have always reflected his deep partisan commitments. His liberalism is not so much a conclusion as an assumption. Particular items of the liberal creed may be open to question and revision, but outside the boundaries of liberalism itself there is finally only folly and illusion. Towards conservatives and conservative ideas, Schlesinger is almost wholly dismissive. It is as if conservatives, American conservatives at least, have no ideas, just unfortunate retrograde instincts. (He is rather more tolerant of European conservatism. Its aristocratic tone he finds more worthy of consideration than the “plutocratic” mentality of its American counterpart.)
Schlesinger’s formative experience of the New Deal imbued him with a political philosophy based on the doctrine of liberal legitimacy. America in its authentic expression is necessarily liberal, not just in the broad Lockean sense, but in the specific spirit of the New Deal. Periods of conservative domination are but interludes, in–between times before the liberal legitimists again return to power.
But that makes for a peculiar perspective on the American experience. The era of the New Deal was in fact quite atypical. The economic devastation of the Great Depression and the political polarization that accompanied the Roosevelt Administration’s attempts to deal with it were unprecedented in the nation’s history, which had mostly been marked by widespread prosperity and by consensus on fundamental political ideas.
The irony of Schlesinger’s liberalism is that it held up as normative for the nation’s political experience the most aberrant period in its history. In the broad sweep of the American past, the liberalism of the Vital Center and its author stood on the edge of things.
James Nuechterlein is Editor of First Things.