by S. Myers
Continuing our ongoing discussion on what it means to be a radical, we submit the following excerpt from The Conscience of a Radical (1965), by Scott Nearing. The book is a response to The Conscience of a Liberal (1948), a now-largely-forgotten book by Chester Bowles, and The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), which still to this day functions as a sort of bible for conservatives.
We have chosen this selection because it challenges the popular confusion regarding the epithet radical, which is taken to mean extremist. A radical is not an extremist! A radical is someone who goes to the roots.
While Nearing is a very odd and singular kind of radical, he nevertheless demonstrates the quality of unshakeable sanity that genuine radicals always possess. This fundamental sanity is what motivates him to question the insanity of his own society and propose a way of life that differs radically from what exists. He is independent and courageous enough to overcome the superficial explanations that society gives and penetrate to the roots of the problem.
This is in direct contrast to the pseudo-radical extremist, who proposes fanatically simple solutions, usually involving violence. The extremist absolves himself of the the hard work of going to the roots, of the painstaking investigation into reality, into real potentials that have not come to fruition, and of the hard and patient work of nurturing these potentials. Instead, brute force is always offered as the only solution to every problem. Fanaticism is usually the product of brutal conditions of existence, such as those faced by the most marginalized sections of the population, and those whose way of life is destroyed by new historical developments. Without hope, extremists produced by such conditions have the ‘courage’ to propose ‘radical’ solutions because deep down they really want to watch the world burn, as they no longer have a place in it.
The dedication page is worth reproducing here. Nearing dedicated the book to “…those who revel in the unity of thought and action – for those who are prepared to devote their abilities, energies, skills and, if need be, their lives, to help establish a productive, creative, cooperative, world community.”
The following is taken from the foreward to the book.
My Conscience and I
My conscience is aroused, outraged and anguished by the dangerous drift of mankind toward self-destruction, and by the satanic role which the United States is playing in the fateful drama. My conscience assails me so unbearably that I have no choice in the matter – I must speak out.
More than sixty years ago, while still in high school, I began to look around and wonder why in a pleasant, beautiful, fruitful world so many people were living such hard, dismal, limited, unrewarding lives. At this early age I felt that there was more to life than my own personal interests, needs and satisfactions, that all about me and at many levels there were social problems. Heartless disregard for the general welfare seemed all too prevalent. My own family was well enough off, so there was no need to worry about their welfare. But round about me people lived in slums; children tended machines in factories, picked slate in coal breakers; working hours for adults and children were long; wages were low; prices and profits were high; big businesses forced little businessmen to the wall, gobbled them up and organized huge combines and trusts. Why were not individuals and families concerned about other individuals and families? Why the “me and my wife, my son John and his wife, we four, no more” attitude? Why were not people consumingly concerned with the welfare of the whole race and every last one of its members?
As a result of what I saw, heard, read and felt in those early days I decided to devote my life to a study of the problems of living and livelihood and to search for solutions that would increase security and enhance happiness. My studies and my personal experiences led me to avoid superficial living, led me to dig to the roots of personal life and social problems; led me, in other words to become a radical. And I have remained a radical to this day.
In my early years I went into the slums and helped out in settlement houses. I took jobs in mines and mills for long hours at low pay. I saw at close range how hard people worked for the little they got, while grinding poverty twisted, warped and stunted them. I saw rich idlers wasting their inherited money and their purposeless lives. Many of them did nothing useful – only chased after happiness like children after butterflies. In some ways they were worse off than the poor; in the end their lives were even more barren than the lives of poverty-stricken workers.
The inequalities and injustices and immoralities I saw profoundly concerned and plagued me. I asked myself: “Is this the best we humans can make of life’s opportunities on this green planet? Is it for this rat race that discoveries and inventions have brought us such marvelous powers over nature and society?” The waste in daily living particularly horrified me – waste on frivolities, waste of food, waste of productive energies, waste of talent. Human life, which might be so wonderful, rich, rewarding, was so small, so mean, so selfish, thoughtless, so close to the barnyard and the jungle.
More glaring and inexcusable were the wastes of war: small-scale war in Cuba, South Africa and the Philippines; world wars that swept over Europe and Asia. Petty waste in homes and neighborhoods was bad enough; war waste was cruel, degrading, horrible. Was there no escape from such a senseless, shameful, sterile life pattern? Were sympathy and kindness, human imagination and aspiration, human talent and genius able to turn away from such folly and wickedness without increased determination to organize and act? Could we not make an end to these stupidities, immoralities and injustices and move forward to higher levels of action and broader fields of endeavor?
Over the years, I have been forced to the conclusion that we human beings are doing something less than our best in our personal and our social lives. If that is the case, surely our social conscience as well as our individual consciences must stab and must continue to prod until we have elevated our feelings, thoughts and actions to something more unselfish, inspiring and ennobling.
That “something” must be big, broad and deep enough to command our loyalties and lead us to make the best possible use of our abilities and talents in order to deal with the social and individual issues which face us. If things are not right, we have no business turning aside until we have done our share and more than our share in our efforts to set them right. A radical who merely plays with theory should continue to feel the pricks of conscience until he has pulled off his jacket and lent a hand.
I was brought up in a family of engineers where we were taught to get the foundations broad and deep and to see that the structure was plumb, square and according to plan. If we failed in any essential respect, we tore the whole thing out and started over again.
Liberal patching here and there will not fill the bill. If we are losing water from a pond, it is useless to cut the grass or plant shrubs along the bank. We must find the leaks and plug them, even if we have to build a new retaining wall to make the pond tight. We must go far enough to get to the root of our troubles, to reach the source of our difficulties. We must stay on the job until the leaks are stopped and the water back where we want it.
What conscientious civil engineers do on construction jobs, conscientious social engineers must do on jobs involving the livelihood and well-being of their fellow workers and fellow citizens. If they fail to reach their highest possible standards of excellence, their consciences should and will continue to gnaw until they have done the best job possible with the available materials and know-how.
Like responsible civil engineers on a construction job, we social engineers must scan history for its lessons, pool our knowledge and experiences, survey the field, make our plans and estimates, check and recheck our figures, and utilize our individual and collective energies to help build a life that will bring the greatest degree of wealth and well-being to the greatest possible number of our fellows. If we fail in any essential particular, our consciences should continue to bother us until we have set matters to rights.
Radicals are not alone in feeling the pricks of conscience. Some liberals and conservatives are under the same pressures. There is Chester Bowles who wrote The Conscience of a Liberal. His book is a collection of writings and speeches, many of them appearing while the author was ambassador to India. Bowles is a reasonable, kindly, sympathetic defender of the American way of life. He sees equality of social status, social justice and freedom as sufficient goals toward which men should strive, and the American way as the saving grace for mankind.
In an interview with the Indian weekly Blitz, July 1952, Bowles said: “For the long haul the survival of the things in which we believe lies in a dynamic, liberal movement that rejects reactionaries of either left or right, that is dedicated to land reforms, minimum wages, higher living standards, broader social security, more adequate public health and greater opportunities for all people regardless of their race creed, caste or color. That is the kind of political movement in which most of us Americans deeply believe.”
In a speech before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, September, 1945 (from The Conscience of a Liberal), he developed this theme: “It is my conviction that the only way we shall know true economic freedom in this country, and develop the life of the individual according to our American traditions, is in an atmosphere of full production and full employment, with good profits for business, good jobs and steady wages for workers and high incomes for farmers. Only then are we released from the trammels of fear and insecurity which in the past have rendered millions of us incapable of imaginative and courageous thinking….As a private citizen, I sincerely hope that a program will be developed….which will include social security covering all our working groups, more adequate minimum-wage legislation, an adequate compensation program for temporary and unavoidable unemployment, a broad health insurance program as part of social security, and a farm program which will develop as a national policy the maintenance of a high farm income with ample food reserves for shipment overseas.” Evidently, although he lived in India for some years, Bowles was unaware of a class struggle or of the impassable gulf that separates modernized, industrialized master nations and empires from their exploited, colonial fellow humans.
Barry Goldwater, ex-Senator from Arizona, and an avowed conservative, also has a conscience, which he unveiled in his widely-read Conscience of a Conservative. Mr. Goldwater is a rock-ribbed American who believes that “the ancient and tested truths that guided our Republic through its early days will do equally well for us.” He deplored collectivism and opposes the doctrines of Marx as expressed in present-day socialism and communism. He is equally opposed to welfare-ism which he regards as “a far greater danger to freedom than Socialism-through-Nationalization.” He believes “America is fundamentally a Conservative nation.” “People should be free throughout their lives to spend their earnings when and as they see fit.” On “the day’s overriding political challenge,” he said: “…it is to preserve and extend freedom.” “The Conservatives’ first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?”
Goldwater tests every political proposal by one standard: “Is it helpful in defeating communism?” The key objective of American policy, he feels, “is not to wage a struggle against Communism, but to win it.” To do this, “our strategy must be primarily offensive.” “We must strive to achieve and maintain military superiority.” We must “make America economically strong” and always “behave like a great power.” Foreign aid should go “only to friendly, anti-communist nations that are willing to join with us in the struggle for freedom.” “We should declare the world Communist Movement an outlaw in the community of civilized nations,” “withdraw diplomatic recognition from all Communist governments” and “encourage the captive peoples to revolt against their Communist rulers.” We must encourage political exiles to engage in “offensive operations for the recovery of their homelands” and must “ourselves be prepared to undertake military operations against vulnerable Communist regimes.” In the immediate future “either the Communists will retain the offensive….or we will summon the will and the means for taking the initiative, and wage a war of attrition against them.” “War may be the price of freedom.”
Like most conservatives and all reactionaries, Goldwater spends his time looking backward to some mythical Golden Age, while opposing, condemning and denouncing progressive steps in the future. His outlook is consistently negative. He has little positive to offer, except aggression.
So there you have, in some of their own words, the liberal and the conservative outlooks on the “time of troubles” through which the planet is passing. Both men stand firmly behind the traditional American Way of Life. The liberal is moderate and reasonable, with many suggestions for reforming and improving the old system. The conservative is truculent, dogmatic and ready to initiate war as a means of defending the old way of life.
Liberals, conservatives and radicals all have consciences. They differ as to the extent of their duties and responsibilities. Liberals like Chester Bowles and conservatives like Barry Goldwater limit their field of action to one nation or one class within the nation. Radicals dig more deeply and reach out more widely. This is perhaps the most important difference between liberals, conservatives and radicals.
I, as a radical, disagree with the liberals and the conservatives. I disagree with their assumptions, their outlooks, their programs. As a radical I feel responsible not only for the family into which I was born and the neighborhood in which I live. As a member of the human race I am in part responsible for the well-being of all mankind. As an inhabitant of the planet I must do my best to use its riches wisely and sparingly so that they may be available for those who will need them in the future.
It is with this thought uppermost that I write this declaration about humanity and the role that we humans must play if we are to take advantage of our opportunities and live up to our responsibilities. I write out of a firm belief in the manifold capacities of human beings and in their ability to realize in practice their constructive and creative possibilities.
Also I write out of the deep sense of responsibility which rests on evolving humanity to play an increasingly important part in building, improving and beautifying the world. It is certain that the human race is only a tiny speck in the immensity of the life existing in our expanding universe. It is equally certain that every one of us can contribute something to the betterment and excellence of life on earth.
Any adequate survey of the problems arising out of man’s relation to nature or to society must begin with a study of existing conditions. Such a study of causes and conditions is the background against which programs can be developed and plans formulated. After half a century spent in such a survey I feel that I have a clear idea of some of the causes of the present world crisis; of its character and extend, and of the steps that should be taken in order to extricate mankind from the crisis and to put the human race on the highroad to spectacular advances under conditions of widened opportunity.