“In the end I shall have to renounce optimism.”

Among other, more profound things, Dostoevski’s anti-revolutionary novel, The Possessed, is a withering dissection of liberal intellectuals. In its pages, liberals parade as hostile and irresponsible critics of a society that affords most of them a life of comfort and status. They are the “fathers” of those nihilist sons who pursued the logic of liberalism to its ultimate and destructive end. Horrified by the ruthless and cynical animal his revolutionary son Peter has become, Stepan Verkhovenski, a parasitic but high-minded liberal, cannot bring himself to repudiate the younger generation’s radical vision of a new Russia because “it’s our own idea—we were the first to plant it, to nurture it.” But he does complain to a friend about “how it’s expressed! It is so incredibly distorted and twisted around! You don’t really imagine, do you, that that’s what we were striving for? Who would ever recognize our original idea in that?” It is a question that many American liberals recently had reason to ask themselves as many of their disciples made of the United States a carnival of infantilism and violence. Perhaps, some of them concluded, Dostoevski was right after all—liberalism contains within it the seeds of its own debasement and dissolution. When they finally regained their voices, they spoke in the accents of neoconservatism.

More than a decade has now-elapsed since the “Movement” of the 1960’s ceased to be prime-time news, but many of its partisans are continuing the struggle, now focused on the quest for cultural “hegemony” and projected well into the future. Impatient with what they regard as a reactionary detour on the nation’s road to revolution, their contempt for their former liberal mentors has begun to manifest pathological symptoms, witness Richard Cummings’ reckless attack on Allard Lowenstein and, by extension, on a brand of politics that, despite its limitations, was patriotic, meliorist, and anticommunist. By discrediting this popular and well-known liberal activist, Cummings intends to destroy any residual faith in the prospects for nonrevolutionary change. Liberalism, he insists, must make room for “radicalism,” a political ideology that includes, but is not restricted to, communism.

Although Lowenstein was not the most illustrious liberal of his time, he was certainly the most ubiquitous. As leader of the National Student Association, a civil rights organizer, antiwar activist, and one-term congressman from New York, he was an indefatigable campaigner for such cherished liberal ideals as peace and justice, both at home and around the world. He achieved his greatest celebrity when he orchestrated the successful “Dump Johnson” movement prior to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Widely respected within and outside of the liberal community, he was an inviting target. In order to expose liberalism as a sham, Cummings knew that he would have to smash its icons and make its most trusted spokesmen appear to be “inauthentic.”

Cummings’ principle charge is that Lowenstein was a secret CIA operative from 1962 to 1967 and that he always shared the liberal anticommunist objectives of the “good wing” of the agency. Accordingly, he advocated timely reform in the United States, as well as in such potential trouble spots as South Africa and Franco’s Spain, in order to defuse the explosive material contained in more radical—often communist—movements. In this way, he was able to establish a reputation as a progressive while at the same time sabotaging the only forces that Cummings recognizes as legitimate, those that reject “the system” in its totality. Just so, we are encouraged to believe, all liberals are traitors to the noble cause of radical change, naive dupes, if not active collaborators, of American Intelligence. In Cummings’ excitable imagination, the CIA directs a sinister and international conspiracy that perpetuates U.S. domination of the world. Under every bed, he sees a CIA agent—where there should be a good communist.

Nothing in Cummings’ indictment is likely to occasion undue alarm among reasonable people. But these same people may be disturbed by what he counts as evidence, particularly in view of his outspoken opposition to McCarthyism and all its works and ways. Lowenstein, he states categorically, joined the CIA in 1962; this according to “sources.” Turning to the notes, we learn that “one of these sources served with U.S. Army Intelligence. The others, also with backgrounds in intelligence work, are close to the CIA.” Not impressed? Neither, apparently, was Victor Marchetti, a disgruntled former CIA agent who once opined that the U.S. government is “intent upon imitating the methods of totalitarian regimes in order to maintain its already inordinate power over the American people.” This impeachable source advised Cummings to “stick with the circumstantial evidence. What matters is the close association and cooperation.”

But to characterize the evidence that Cummings presents as circumstantial is to be charitable indeed. It comes to this: Lowenstein loved his country and understood the nature of communist ambitions. So did agents of the CIA, or at least some of them. Ergo? In a lame effort to buttress his case, Cummings notes that Lowenstein traveled a good bit on a relatively small income. Yet he himself points out that there was a great deal of money in the Lowenstein family and that Al Lowenstein, who was very frugal, counted many friends upon whom he was wont to call for free room and board. A colleague of mine who knew Lowenstein well assures me that this was indeed the way in which the man operated. In the final analysis, then, Cummings’ brief against Lowenstein is invertebrate, and he knows it. “Lowenstein’s exact relationship with the CIA is vague,” he concedes, “as it no doubt was meant to be, and as it was with many of their people.” Or as Tailgunner Joe once explained to a skeptical Richard Rovere, the absence of evidence only serves to demonstrate how clever the communists are.

Cummings’ handling of evidence—or rather lack of it—is even more surrealistic in his handling of his second, and complementary, charge: that Lowenstein was a homosexual. Not that that is so bad, mind you; like all advanced thinkers, Cummings is always careful to speak of “sexual preferences.” What seems to annoy him is Lowenstein’s refusal to come out of the closet. It seems that the liberal spook always practiced his vice (preference) under cover. There was, for example, the seemingly innocent wrestling matches with some of his young friends. And the smoking gun: Lowenstein went to bed with one of his male disciples. Or so we are told. Cummings does not cite a source, even an anonymous one. Instead, he identifies several “friends” who, after some prompting, “speculate,” “believe,” “hint,” and hear from “the grapevine” about Lowenstein’s homosexuality. Appropriately, he concludes with “a howler,” remarking that Lowenstein knew that he was—how to put it?—so inclined, “but he didn’t spend much time wrestling with it.”

So eager is Cummings to believe every evil report about Lowenstein that he repeats Dennis Sweeney’s charge that The Pied Piper once made physical advances to him. This, be it known, is the same Dennis Sweeney who shot Lowenstein to death in 1980 and who believed that the CIA had implanted fillings in his teeth that were addling his brain and controlling his will. Like Cummings, who professes once to have admired Lowenstein, Sweeney was a former protege and a product of the 60’s, one of The Possessed who smoldered and burned “with an almost uncontrollable passion for social justice.”

Compared with such men as these, Al Lowenstein appears in a favorable light. And yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that his liberalism helped to pave the way for latter-day radicalism. In his last years, he himself seems to have sensed this, for as his friend William F. Buckley observes, he began to retreat “from the vanities of liberalism.” These vanities include a weakness for a certain kind of sentimentality about (as opposed to a love for) human beings and a tendency to think abstractly. Lowenstein was always relatively indifferent to reality and to historical thinking; his confidently held views concerning South Africa, for example, were almost identical with those recently advanced by liberals who would prefer to see blood (someone else’s) running in the streets of Johannesburg than to moderate the demand that full democracy be instituted immediately. Like so many liberals, he believed that unflagging devotion to abstract principle, coupled with determined effort, could remake the world, that political and social democracy would triumph over injustice and evil. Despite, however, the undeniable popular appeal of these heady notions, action predicated on them almost always results in mischief, because it is untempered by historical consciousness and by a recognition of the stubborn perversity of human volition.

Not all liberals, of course, are as naive as Lowenstein was, Walter Berns being a case in point. His essays In Defense of Liberal Democracy are impressive not only in their want of illusion, but in their intellectual sophistication. A distinguished student of constitutional law presently associated with the American Enterprise Institute, Berns is critical of many of our most prominent public nuisances: judges who seek to transform the Constitution into a personal credo; opponents of capital punishment who “do not understand the connection between anger and justice, and between anger and human dignity”; university professors who do not wish to give so much as the appearance of being out of step with the times; and 60’s radicals who claimed immunity for their lawbreaking by virtue of their opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Having done time at the United Nations, Berns is also instructive on the inanities of pacifism and on Russian shamelessness. And he presents a coherent and convincing argument in defense of censorship, that most maligned of civilization’s champions. That being said, it is also true that he is quintessentially liberal in his reliance on abstract reasoning. To take only the most obvious example, he insists that the Constitution can be distinguished from its interpretation. With John Marshall, he argues that “the times, to the extent possible, must be kept in tune with the Constitution”—not vice versa. Given the ideological enthusiasms of Justices such as Douglas, Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall, there is something to be said for this position. But it cannot stand the test as a permanent project. The Constitution is not, and it cannot be, an 18th-century document; rather, it is a body of interpretation, the record of a people’s historical decisions. In 1954, for example, it was not the case that the Supreme Court suddenly awoke from its dogmatic slumber to find that the Constitution prohibited “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. Instead, it was that the weight of American opinion had shifted decisively in favor of integration.

Berns’s penchant for abstraction ought not to come as a surprise, for he is a disciple of the late Leo Strauss, a charismatic teacher for whom historical thinking was a form of nihilism. In setting forth his own philosophic position, Berns rehearses Strauss’s views concerning modern natural right theory (Hobbes and Locke). He argues that the “fundamental human right” is that of self-preservation and the “fundamental law of nature,” the attendant search for peace. By identifying himself with this redefinition of natural right and natural law, he seeks to sidestep the difficulties that accompany any effort to spell out the content of a higher natural law. Yet, like Strauss, he is convinced that without some conception of natural right, men will be left without a standard by which to judge positive law. The natural, he writes, is “that order outside the conventional according to which the conventional may be criticized.”

It is, however, simply not true that the denial of natural right must lead to relativism and nihilism. We judge one law to be better than another in the same way that we judge anything—by means of comparison. We do not need an absolute right or law in order to be able to make discriminations, any more than we must show Shakespeare to be the absolute (or perfect) writer or else confess our inability to make any valid claim respecting his literary preeminence. To be sure, absolutes are available to those of us who credit divine revelation, but except in a community with settled—and like—religious convictions, our testimony is almost sure to fall on deaf ears. Thus, for most practical purposes, we are obliged to rely on finite—which is not to say arbitrary—comparative judgment.

Perhaps more disconcerting than Berns’s abstract thinking is his belief in the essential goodness of nature, including human nature. He maintains, for example, that “voyeurism is by nature a perversion.” If he means by this that a perfected nature would recoil from the practice, well and good. But if, as I think, he means that voyeurism is unnatural as men are presently constituted, he must make a better case. In the absence of the unnatural restraints imposed by civilized moral authority, such behavior appears quite spontaneously. Deciding the bent of our nature—toward good or evil—remains finally a matter of belief, but both Christianity and history argue against the Rousseauian faith that continues to inspire the radical imagination.


[The Pied Piper: Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream, by Richard Cummings; New York: Grove Press]

[In Defense of Liberal Democracy, by Walter Berns; Chicago: Regnery Gateway]