New Left, New Right

"New Left, New Right." The Public Interest, Summer 1966.

First, on all the evidence, the one worst way to cope with this crisis in values is through organized political-ideological action. Most of the hysteria, much of the stupidity, and a good part of the bestiality of the twentieth century have arisen from efforts to do precisely this. Not only do such efforts fail; they fail in the costliest fashion. And if modern history can be said to teach anything, it is that, intolerable as the crisis in values may be, it invariably turns out to be far less intolerable than any kind of “final solution” imposed by direct political action.

Secondly – and nevertheless – there is no way of removing this issue from politics. A great many people would like to think that the New Left and the New Right are passing eddies on the mainstream of American politics, and that after a while we shall all happily return to politics-as-usual, bickering amicably over who gets what, when, and how. I do not believe this will happen. And I am not even sure that I would like to see it happen. Though I approve, on the whole, of the various programs for a Great Society, I too am full of doubt about their potentialities for a good life in a good society. There are a great many things wrong with the way we live now, and I have little faith that they will automatically right themselves. Above all, I cannot persuade myself that a democracy whose notions of public and private virtue are slowly being emptied of their substance can sustain itself. Democracy, after all, means self-government; and such self-government is, in the long run, utterly impossible without adequate self-definition, self-certainty, self-control. All of modern life and modern culture have combined to make the self a question to itself. I regard it as utopian to expect that people will not turn to politics for answers. And I regard it as certain that they will take vicious answers rather than none at all.

Is this not playing with fire? Of course it is. But that, I do think, is what “the great game of politics” is going to be like, in the period ahead of us. It will be anything but amusing; indeed, it could well be the most dangerous game of all.

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