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Volume 11, Issue 13.   May 22, 2000.

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Why Liberals Need Radicals
Robert Kuttner

The demonstrations last November in Seattle and last month in Washington have made some liberals uneasy. For many, the street activity suggests both a rowdiness and a know-nothing attitude toward global commerce. A recent New Republic cover, caricaturing a protester, asks, "Does the New New Left Have a Brain?"

I've noticed that my liberal friends divide into two camps: those who posit a Manichaean dividing line between "liberal" and "left," and those who appreciate the necessary role of radicals. I'm with the latter group, though at the end of the day I count myself a liberal.

For one thing, nearly every great social justice movement was initiated by radicals before it became safe for liberals. This includes the antislavery movement, women's suffrage, birth control, modern feminism, industrial unionism, civil rights, and the movement against the Vietnam War. Even causes that seem fairly tame today, such as pure food and drugs and safe workplaces, were initially the handiwork of such self-identified radicals as Upton Sinclair, Ralph Nader, and Tony Mazzocchi.

When the political right, crusading for school "choice," piously invokes civil rights martyrs, it helps to remember that conservatives of a generation ago were clinging to states' rights to condone segregation while student radicals risked their lives against vicious southern sheriffs in street demonstrations, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives to redeem the promise of American liberalism. Rosa Parks, now it can be told, was not a random lady with tired feet. She was an agitator.

Radicals, famously, make the best organizers. They push outward the boundaries of the possible. In a ferociously capitalist society, liberals in government and politics need pressure from radicals. Roosevelt could move left because he had mass popular movements providing the tailwind. The Kennedys and LBJ could finally end segregation because they had the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, CORE, and Martin Luther King, Jr., pressuring them, not just from the left but on the ground. Of course, radicals also need liberals--to carry the reforms out.

For another thing, radicals are more likely to appreciate the political dynamics of capitalism as an obstacle to the reforms that liberals would like to carry out. When you think about it, every major social reform--even modest ones like clean water, child labor prohibitions, and medical care for the aged--has been fiercely resisted by organized business. One of the most touchingly innocent syllogisms of neoliberal economics holds that we optimize economic outcomes by letting market forces allocate resources; then if we don't like the distributive result, we redistribute from winners to losers after the fact. Lovely, but who are "we"? It comes as a revelation that winners actually resist redistributing some of their (presumably earned) winnings to losers, who are, after all, losers, and that winners enjoy substantial political power. Uh, that would be a question for politics. Not our department.

If the Nader left sometimes seems almost obsessively anticorporate, it's with good reason. Who exactly do we think opposes universal health insurance? Environmental cleanup? This anticorporate stance troubles Democratic Leadership Council types who are pro-corporate (and are richly rewarded for it). "Old" Democrats were said to be too antibusiness, but liberals have to execute a necessarily tricky straddle. Economically, we want business to thrive, but politically, we need to minimize its power as a reactionary political force. And we need radicals to remind us of that.

Neoliberals are often too quick to accommodate to power. My first boss, the radical journalist I.F. Stone, stayed far from White House dinners and inside sources. He pieced together hard truths from the public record.

Jane Mansbridge, researching the spread of feminist values, cites the phrase "male chauvinist." It began as a Communist Party expletive, analogous to ethnic chauvinism; the phrase was embraced by the radical feminists of the late 1960s and passed into mainstream language. But until women (and men) had their eyes opened, by radi-cals, the concept was literally unthinkable because male privilege was so entrenched as to be unchallengeable. In academic political science, there was a long-standing debate between liberal "pluralists" who analyzed power by looking at visible conflict and radicals who called attention to conflicts that never even surfaced because the power of the dominant group was so complete.

So if the terms of global capitalism are finally becoming debatable, we can thank the young radicals for forcing the issue. Defenders of the prevailing global order now feel compelled to offer decent space to dissenters. Even The New Republic, as the saying goes, published World Bank dissenter Joe Stiglitz.

My own heroes include radical liberals like John Maynard Keynes, Walter Reuther, César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and our feminist foremothers. All were damned as dangerous radicals in their time, though they had no truck with Bolshevism and were really radicals seeking to redeem a liberal society.

Why, then, publish a self-consciously liberal journal? Why not just join the radicals? Observing and participating in political movements, I've never managed to view myself as a radical. Too many radicals think that most ills in the world can be traced to the United States of America. On balance, I consider the United States--its Constitution, its political liberties, the economic opportunity it offers, and its openness to invention and reform--a force for good in the world. America needs redemption, not contempt. Radicals, as zealots, are often demagogues and dictators when they attain power. Too many have excused dictatorships that brutally ruled in the name of workers.

So for better or for worse, I'm a liberal. But I'm glad my radical friends are there. American liberalism is weak today not because there are too many radicals to our left, but too few. ¤

Robert Kuttner

Copyright © 2000 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Robert Kuttner, "Why Liberals Need Radicals," The American Prospect vol. 11 no. 13, May 22, 2000. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to


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