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August 1968: A Seminar on Restructuring American Society Printer Friendly Version

[Prefatory Note, April 2007: I was just starting to work my way out of mainstream social science, after the revolts of 1968. (Actually, my move into radical social thought must have started a year or two earlier. I couldn't possibly have discovered all the radical works listed below between May and August 1968, more especially since there was very little time for research or reading that summer with the revolt at Columbia University still going full blast.) Only someone whose brain had been fogged up by a couple decades of this junk could have written: "We do not yet have a satisfactory explanation of how the upper groups manage to preserve their disproportionate social and economic advantages ...." And I was still using the mainstream sociology term "industrial society." Evidently, an awareness of capitalism was not yet a living reality in my mind. Anyway, this is where I was at in August 1968, and it's not bad, and may be useful still, with appropriate additions and corrections. I regret to say, however, that by and large, my generation failed to carry out this program of clarification. There have been advances, of course, but we are still far too confused about the alternative society we want as well as about a strategy for achieving it, although a lot of good work has been appearing in the past decade.]

A Seminar on Restructuring American Society
A Proposal to Interested CRV [Committee of Returned Volunteers] Members

James Herod
August 1968

  It is unlikely that any society can be intentionally transformed in a preconceived direction, but we must try. Failure is guaranteed however without at least:

  (1) an adequate knowledge of the existing structure of society;
  (2) a clear image of the alternative structure to be established;
  (3) a plan or program for changing the existing structure into the new structure; and
  (4) the power to carry out the program.

  The New Left has none of these essentials at the present time. It will probably never have much power, but it certainly can't even begin to accumulate or generate relevant or appropriate power until it has a coherent, practical program of radical politics to act upon, and such a program cannot be designed in absence of an adequate theory of American society – as it exists now, as it is most likely to exist in the future, given present trends, and as it might conceivably exist in the future under the impact of appropriate radical action. The single greatest defect of the radical movement in this country is its inability to move beyond criticism of, and protest against, the existing social order, and to outline a feasible alternative to it. This impasse is reached time and time again. Nearly all critical discussions of American life end on this note. No one seems to know what to do about the defects of contemporary American society. No one, it seems, can describe what a decent society would look like under modern conditions. In an industrial society, what can democracy possibly mean? Is participation in fact possible for most people? If so, how? Is an elite inevitable? What would a just authority structure look like? In short, we must direct our attention to alternative modes of organizing political and economic power. What alternative modes can be imagined or invented for industrial society and would they work? Anarchism? Participatory democracy? Constituent democracy? Workers control? Planned decentralization?

  Because of this serious theoretical impasse which threatens the effectiveness and even the existence of the radical movement in this country, it seems necessary at this point to establish study groups and research activities with the aim of developing an adequate radical critique of American society. Radicals themselves must generate a defensible analysis of the ills of industrial life and a program for correcting them. Theoretical work must be undertaken simultaneously with political practice, otherwise the effort will lead nowhere; it will be superficial; it will deal with symptoms but not with fundamentals. Protest against specific aspects of American life – racism, imperialism, poverty – must be linked to, and comprehended as part of, the fundamental structure of American society. It is this structure that must be corrected, not merely the unpleasant by-products of it.

  For all these reasons I would like to see undertaken in CRV a Seminar on Restructuring American Society. All we need initially is about eight or ten people with theoretical inclinations, preferably with good backgrounds in history and social science, who are willing to read a book a week or so and sit down once a week and argue. We must acquire a command of the relevant facts, formulate the questions properly, and hammer away at the analysis. We are not likely to succeed any time soon, if at all, but it is imperative that we make the effort.

  As a start, let me outline a program of study. (This is obviously purely suggestive, an aid to be used by the study group in setting up its own program.) We could begin with an examination of Towards Socialism, edited by Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn. This volume apparently represents the most sophisticated social analysis to come out of the New Left in Britain. Also, as a start we might read some essays from the American New Left (e.g., selections from Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, eds., The New Radicals; and M. Cohen and D. Hale, eds., The New Student Left). This should serve to convince us of the usefulness and urgency of our own efforts. Next, we should study two recent volumes on the socio-economic structure of the United States – J. K. Galbraith's The New Industrial State, and P. Baran and P. Sweezy's Monopoly Capital. It would be wise to acquaint ourselves right off with the Soviet Union for comparative purposes by reading at least Barrington Moore's Soviet Politics: The Dilemma of Power, and Maurice Dobb's Soviet Economic Development Since 1917, and perhaps some essays on the Soviet class structure. Then we should move back to other basic assessments of modern capitalism – John Strachey, Contemporary Capitalism; C. A. R. Crosland, The Future of Socialism; S. Tsuru, et al, Has Capitalism Changed? Somewhere along the way we will want to consider other important post-war contributions to socialist thought, such as Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution; Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man; and Andre Gorz, Strategy for Labor. Next we should study the following more specialized works on various aspects of American history and social structure: Victor Perlo, Militarism and Industry; G. W. Domhoff, Who Rules America?; W. A. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy; Louis Hacker, The Triumph of American Capitalism; Walter Mills, Arms and Men; G. Kolko, Wealth and Power in America; Charles A. Reich, ``The Law of the Planned Society,'' (Yale Law Journal, Vol. 75, No. 8, July, 1966); Charles A. Reich, ``The New Property,'' (Yale Law Journal, Vol. 73, No. 5, April, 1964); T. S. Bottomore, Critics of Society: Radical Thought in North America.

  At this point it will be necessary to begin to focus in depth on two of the central theoretical problems of social thought:

  (1) the system of inequality (how is it maintained; how does the upper class maintain its position; through what mechanisms?); and
  (2) the continuing extension of administrative controls (the continued expansion of bureaucracy, the growth of administrative law, the rise of a monolithic authority structure).

  The literature on inequality is fairly abundant, even if inadequate. To establish a theoretical footing we would need to read first of all the following: Max Weber, ``Class, Status, and Party,'' in Essays From Max Weber; T. H. Marshall, ``Citizenship and Social Class,'' in Class, Citizenship and Social Development; Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. For an informed discussion of some of these themes in contemporary terms the two short studies by T. B. Bottomore might be useful, Elites and Society, and Classes in Modern Society. But after this we would have to plunge into such serious studies as Richard Titmuss, Income Distribution and Social Change; Herman Miller, Income of the American (new edition, 1966); Simon Kuznets and Raymond Goldsmith, Income and Wealth in the U.S.; and F. Lundberg, The Rich and the Superrich.

  The problem is that these recent books do not advance, for the most part do not even attempt to advance, an adequate explanation of the causes of inequality. They focus on establishing the fact of inequality and the effects of inequality, but not the causes of inequality. We do not yet have a satisfactory explanation of how the upper groups manage to preserve their disproportionate social and economic advantages, and this should be the central concern of any radical seminar on restructuring American society. Until we understand precisely how the dominant military-industrial structures are perpetuated, the linkages between these institutional structures and the American upper class, and how basic control over the shape and direction of American society is maintained and extended, until we understand this we cannot embark upon an effective radical program to improve American society. It might help at this point to back up and examine some of the classic statements on inequality, like Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, John Millar's The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, Schumpeter's Social Classes, or Tawney's Equality.

  We are in more serious trouble (as far as the literature is concerned) when we get to the problem of the monolithic control system that is being erected in modern times. This theme, of an ever extending administrative or bureaucratic control system, was developed by Weber (``Bureaucracy,'' in Essays From Max Weber). The only outstanding current treatment of the problem is by Robert Nisbet, Community and Power, a book which the seminar should consider without fail (see also the previously mentioned essay by Reich on ``Law in the Planned Society''). Nisbet explores the significance of the rise of a monolithic state bureaucratic authority system that increasingly replaces all local authorities, with the result that all functions, all decision-making, all effective control and power come to be centralized in the state machinery. This is the problem of mass society and total atomization of society that is so often discussed today, and just as often misunderstood. We would do well to re-examine in this context Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Marx's On the Jewish Question, Durkheim's Professional Ethics and Civil Morals, and Simmel's ``Metropolis and Mental Life,'' (in the Sociology of Georg Simmel). These are the original formulations of the problem of mass society. Weber and Nisbet however will be enough to get us into the question.

  This brings us directly to the problem of democracy – participatory democracy, direct democracy, representative democracy, constituent democracy, mass democracy, or what have you. Or, as I prefer to phrase the matter, it brings us to the problem of just authority (or is any authority by definition unjust?). The questions of inequality and injustice are obviously related. They are in fact two aspects of the same problem. It is precisely the ability of certain groups or sections of the population to maintain control over the shape and direction of American life – against the interests of most people (not necessarily against their wishes, however; a very sticky problem) – that creates inequality and constitutes injustice. The most frequent complaint heard today is that ``people do not have a voice in decisions which affect their own lives.'' This is what the revolts are all about evidently. And the conviction is entertained that something can be done about it; hence the emphasis on participatory democracy. Contemporary radical thought is especially weak on this point however. What we are considering here is surely the critical failure of modern thought in general – the failure to comprehend the relationship between the individual and society – what it is, what is wrong with it, and what can be done about it. It is an even more critical failure for modern society, because millions of human beings are being irredeemably damaged and even totally destroyed.

  We don't have much to work with. On the one hand, we have a still much too dim perception of the historical trend of wider and wider extension of ever more effective and efficient mechanisms of control over increasingly atomized or isolated individuals, individuals deprived of any significant relationships to family, church, or community. On the other hand, we have the whole range of more or less inadequate theories, beginning with classical democratic theory (Locke and Rousseau), and followed by the numerous responses to it: the class (socialist) critique (Marx); and the Weber thesis of bureaucratic authority; then the `elite theory' critique (Mosca, Pareto, Michels) of the Marxian critique; which in turn spawned the pluralist critique of the elitists (Schumpeter, Truman, Dahl, Reisman, Beer); and of course the anarchist critique of them all (Kropotkin). Recent decades have added another version in an almost grotesque `can you top this' performance – general systems theory (Parsons, Easton, Etzioni).

  A seminar on restructuring American society could profit by examining, comparing, and criticizing each of these conceptions of the authority structure of a modern society, in hopes of generating an adequate theory of its own. Let me list the needed references:

  (1) Classical democratic theory: Rousseau, Social Contract; Locke, Two Treatises on Civil Government;

  (2) The Marxian critique: Marx and Engels, Selected Works (the new one volume edition published recently by Moscow, 1967);

  (3) Weber's thesis: Weber's theory of legal-rationalistic (bureaucratic) authority and his sociology of the modern state should be read in its entirety in the relevant chapters of the forthcoming English translation of his complete Economy and Society (Bedminister Press);

  (4) The elitists: Robert Michels, Political Parties; Gaetano Mosca, The Ruling Class; and Vilfredo Pareto, Sociological Writings. (The Bottomore essay, Elites and Society is a polemic against the elite theory in favor of the ruling class model. The debate over C. Wright Mills' thesis of the power elite, which is somewhere between the class model and the elite model, might be examined in the recent volume edited by G. W. Domhoff and H. B. Ballard, C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite);

  (5) The pluralist argument: Joseph Schumpeter, ``Socialism and Democracy,'' part four in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy; Robert Dahl, Pluralist Democracy in the United States; Samuel Beer, British Politics in the Collectivist Age. At least two critiques of pluralism should be mentioned here: W. Wesolowski, ``Class Domination and the Power of Interest Groups,'' in the Polish Sociological Bulletin, January-June, 1962, 53-64; and Robert Wolff, ``Beyond Tolerance,'' in R. Wolff, et al, A Critique of Pure Tolerance;

  (6) Anarchism and syndicalism: A. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, and G. Sorel, Reflections on Violence. For some recent thoughts on anarchism, see the essay by George and Louise Crowley, ``Beyond Automation,'' in Monthly Review, Vol. 16, No. 7, November, 1964;

  (7) General systems theory: David Easton, A Framework for Political Analysis; A. Etzioni, The Active Society; Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn, The Social Psychology or Organizations.

  These forty-odd books could form the basis for a very useful year of study and discussion. Other topics might be added: we could examine the radical critiques of the welfare state; we will want to discuss recent proposals for a guaranteed annual wage; we could examine Yugoslavia's industrial democracy (F. Singleton and T. Topham, ``Yugoslav Workers' Control: The Latest Phase,'' New Left Review, No. 18, 73-84).

  The important point however is that with this kind of background we could begin to think on a more sophisticated level about a radical critique of American society and a radical political practice to do something about it.