But Howe’s central point was far more serious than these occasional descents into shrillness would suggest. In turning its back on liberalism, the left was doing itself irreparable harm. Responding, no doubt, to the mutation of liberalism into the aggressive anti-communism of Lyndon B. Johnson, the left had decided that liberalism was a sham, that democracy itself (or ‘bourgeois democracy’) was merely a veiled form of capitalist domination. For Howe, terms such as ‘liberal fascism’ and the use of the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe US society – Norman Mailer was one of the culprits here – were revealing of a profound confusion. Yes, the Cold Warriors in the US government were as invested in ‘liberalism’ as Dr King, but any left that dismissed the principles of humane tolerance and disinterested speculation that were the essence of the liberal tradition was making a mighty rod for its own back.
I can recall the confusion I had in the variants of this thinking in the tension between liberalism and the left of that. But now that argument doesn’t tweak one’s political science conscience as it did before. The critique of the Marxist gang now seems more than apt, it seems bull’s eye: the liberals are close to laughingstocks, assuming any of it were funny. The very idea of a democratic revolution begins to seem well portrayed as the ‘bourgeois revolution’ of the marxist theorists of revolution.