[Marxism] "we were never the radical caucus"

Brian Shannon Brian_Shannon at verizon.net
Sat Jan 28 15:09:29 MST 2006

A self-analysis of his 1960s radicalism by a just-retired professor.

from Brian Shannon

The Last Page: Being a Liberal

I retired in August 2004, with two presentations at literature  
meetings in Liverpool providing a satisfying punctuation, then  
returned to volunteer for the MoveOn.org effort to change the  
administration in Washington. The effort worked in Maine but not well  
enough across the country, and I descended into depression and  
alienation, the intensity of which startled me.

What happened to my country? Actions and attitudes that would have  
been unthinkable 10 years ago now characterize the government to  
which I pay taxes and pledge allegiance. The most striking instances  
(including some made manifest after the election) include:

— The bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq, a war of choice  
dishonestly justified, pursued at incredible cost in human life and  
material resources with no end in sight, and which makes us more  
rather than less vulnerable to terrorism.

— A bullying belligerent view of the world. A belief that we are  
exempt from the provisions of the Geneva Convention and a willingness  
to kidnap, torture, maim, and kill human begins on flimsy evidence  
and without due process;

— Economic and tax policies that would return us to the 1920s, are  
indifferent or hostile to the poor, reckless about our environment,  
and pander to the very rich and powerful;

— A political culture defined by the school of Lee Atwater and Karl  
Rove, whose view of truth is entirely instrumental, who makes Nixon’s  
people (back in the news because of the revelation of Deep Throat’s  
identity) look Miktoastian (see the outing of Valerie Plame).

Election Wednesday was a deeply discouraging moment. I had not been  
so invested in politics since the late 1960’s, and I naturally  
thought again about those turbulent years. I had arrived at Cornell  
to teach English in 1963, just after my 30th birthday, about the same  
time as Mario Savio’s slogan from Berkeley, “Don’t trust anyone over  
thirty,” and I was soon caught up in the politics – campus and  
country, academic and “real” – of that moment. Here is an attempt at  
self-definition and group identity from an essay I wrote about  
academic freedom at Cornell, November 1969:

We are generally without tenure and our chairmen fret about too much  
politics and too little publishing … We thought, a few years ago,  
that we were the liberal caucus, and were surprised to discover that  
everyone else thought they were too. We have observed with chagrin  
the erosion of liberalism and the discrediting of liberal  
establishment, its endless talk and willful self-deception. Without  
systematic intent, with some amusement and more confusion, we have  
become the radical caucus: which means, since we are also teachers,  
that we are hung up. We believe that the university is one of the  
last places left in America where we can work, where life might  
possibly the critical, decent, and humane. So we want to preserve the  
university. At the same time we see that the university is manifestly  
not alive and well; … that it must be decisively reformed if it is to  
be anything worth preserving. So we support – sometimes  
enthusiastically, sometimes nervously – various reform movements. We  
are increasingly distressed because the “Movement” seems too often  
either dead or crazy, and the university, particularly its faculty,  
seems to be getting more nervous and rigid.

I’ll stand by those words, but it is true that they do not seem  
wholly apt today. What has happened in 35 years – besides my being  
older, a little tired and creaky, maybe cranky?
That war is over. America lost. Vietnam is united and a tourist  
destination. We are in another war, even less justified and probably  

Universities have changed and good undergraduate colleges like Colby  
foster student participation in both academic governance and  
community service.

Right-wing fears of “tenured radicals” are largely self-serving  
fantasies – the Movement really is dead and faculties more settled  
and establishmentarian – but it is true that teachers are likely to  
be left of students, providing the delicious closet drama of  
conservative youth correcting reckless middle age. People like me  
feel some nostalgia for a solidarity with groups of students that  
rarely happens in this century, at least not so far.

What seems most clear to me now is that we were never the radical  
caucus, however heady and gusty that might have felt, but – willy- 
nilly, like it or not, warts and all-liberals. Our perspectives and  
values were those created by the liberal tradition with its roots in  
the French and American revolutions, the reform movements of the  
nineteenth century, especially in England and America, and the  
creation and implementation of the welfare state at the beginning of  
the twentieth.
And – here’s the point – this was a huge historical achievement and a  
Good Thing. How have we allowed “liberal” to become a term of abuse  
or one to evade? What’s wrong with a state that declares human  
welfare to be its chief goal? That radical caucus has moved to the  
far right and we have allowed sway to authoritarianisms. For all the  
differences in intellect and experience, Vice President Cheney and  
Pope Benedict are profoundly united by what they felt as the trauma  
of the sixties, their belief that the right people are finally in  
control, and their determination to keep it that way. They are not  

What’s an old guy to do? I joke with my children that I follow two  
slogans: “Keep the Faith” and “Living Well is the Best Revenge.” That  
means golf, movies, nice meals, good book, the occasional peace  
vigil, regular volunteering at the homeless shelter. It means working  
locally – Maine really is special – and thinking not so much globally  
(though that’s OK) as historically. One of my courses of reading has  
been literary biographies I never got to while working; that recently  
included E.Thompson’s big book about William Morris. Morris’s  
outcries against Victoria and Disraeli’s imperialism and the ravages  
of the unchecked industrial capitalism in the 18809s sound like home  
truths now. And Morris was right. And he was vindicated. The times  
they will change.

Douglas Archibald – Roberts Professor of Literature emeritus, former  
dean of faculty, authority on Yeats, Joyce, and others – retired in  
2004 after a 40-year career that began at Cornell in 1963. Post- 
retirement events have moved Archibald to reflect on the place of the  
liberal, now in his own political past.

-- Douglas Archibald


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