Sunday, June 30, 2013

Political violence and "existential politics"

I've posted an essay at that I just completed called Herbert Marcuse, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Political Violence and "Existential Politics."

We think of the "culture war" in the United States as largely a product of "the Sixties", which in American political-cultural terms extended to 1972 (the McGovern-Nixon election) or 1973 (the formal end of direct US participation in the Vietnam War).

But there was also a conventional liberal front in the "culture war" which found them partially on the same side as conservatives. On the one hand, the liberals sided with the civil rights movement against the segregationists, and there was a considerable overlap between liberals and the civil rights movement. But liberals were also supportive of the general direction of Cold War policies and, to varying degrees, many were supportive of the Vietnam War although that supported waned with time and military failure there. One of the things that distinguished George McGovern’s position on foreign policy from what McGovern's adherents in 1972 were known to deride as "Cold War liberals" was his straightforward opposition to the Vietnam War and his broader criticism of Cold War assumptions about the special virtue of American power and the external threat of Communism.

As I was reading a 1968 article by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Existential Politics and the Cult of Violence", largely devoted to criticizing Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the New Left movement with which he was identified, it occurred to me that Schlesinger's argument had an awful lot in common with the more bewildered reactions to the Occupy movement. (Schlesinger's piece appeared in The Phi Delta Kappan 50/1 (Sept 1968), pp. 9-15. The text is based on an address Schlesinger gave on June 5, 1968, the day after Robert Kennedy’s assassination.)

Engaging with Schlesinger's piece led me to compose the essay, which covers several themes of particular concern for me: political violence; the complex relationship of political ideology/philosophy and political practice; the liberal variant of Cold War political ideology in the US; the thought of the Frankfurt School, framed by Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse as "critical theory"; and, in particular, the enduring insights contained in Marcuse's essay "Repressive Tolerance" which Schlesinger attempted to skewer in 1968.

Much of Schlesinger's criticism of Marcuse and his "Repressive Tolerance" essay of 1965 borders on the tendentious, apparently due to an attempt to pigeonhole Marcuse's thought as a familiar Marxism that could be ritually refuted, a Marxism that was defined as part of "that which is not of the Establishment" in the "publicized and administered" language of the day, to use Marcuse's words from "Repressive Tolerance".

Schlesinger's actual discussion of "Repressive Tolerance" doesn't even qualify as a bad caricature either of Marcuse’s thought or specifically of the essay on which he focuses. Schlesinger basically rolled out some of his favorite Cold War, anti-Communist clichés, found passages in "Repressive Tolerance" on which to hang them, and threw in an "evil" here and a "Stalinist" there.

It certainly doesn't rise to the level of Schlesinger’s professional historical work.

And perhaps ironically, Schlesinger shares with Marcuse and the Sen. Jack Kennedy of the famous "Algeria” speech of 1957 a straightforward recognition that political violence in the real world has played and continues to play a real and significant role, even recognizing that (in Schlesinger’s own words) a "limited amount of violence may stimulate the process of democratic change."

Despite his eagerness to brand Marcuse as an instigator of violence, he provides no real solution to the real-life dilemma that, even though, "Violence [and] the irresponsible promotion of insurrections are bad practices in democracy," (Mario Wainfeld, La chispa y las realidades Página/12 23.12.2012) nevertheless a "limited amount of violence may stimulate the process of democratic change" (Schlesinger).

In his caricature of Marcuse's political thought, Schlesinger makes use of a dubious concept of "existentialist politics" which doesn't seem to be founded on a real understanding of either Herbert Marcuse's thinking or of the philosophy of existentialism. In the process, Schlesinger provides a good illustration of what narrow constraints that framework of Cold War liberalism could impose on clear thought.

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