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  • An Alternative to RevolutionMarcus Raskin's Theory of Social Reconstruction
  • Brian S. Mueller

In the fall of 1969, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), firmly under the control of the revolutionary Weatherman faction, printed a pamphlet encouraging activists to come to Chicago in October. On the cover of this pamphlet in large print appeared the slogan "Bring the War Home!"1 Known as the Days of Rage, the protest led to hundreds of arrests and nearly USD 200,000 in damage and other costs to the city of Chicago. Yet fewer protestors showed up for the event than did police officers. Revolution did not appear imminent.2 The Weatherman contingent represented just one of several groups to appear in the late 1960s and early 1970s encouraging a violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Many of these organizations, in fact, sought to imitate third-world revolutionaries like Che Guevara. For such groups, the repression of activists and minorities at home, in addition to peasants abroad, signaled the need for an entirely new form of government in America.3

Marcus Raskin and his colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a radical liberal think tank in Washington, DC, did not disagree with the conclusion reached by the revolutionary radicals regarding the need for significant change. At the same time, Raskin and his cohorts abhorred the use of violence by groups like the Weatherman as much as the government repression that followed such actions. Violent outbursts not only stymied change, but also slowly tore away at the human fabric of each individual [End Page 43] employing violence. Raskin and his fellow IPS intellectuals did not deny that America needed fixing, but neither piecemeal reform, as advocated by liberals, nor overthrowing the government would fundamentally alter society. Rather, change would require revolution from below, brought about by the transformation of consciousness and the knowledge that undergirded existing institutions and customs. To that end, Raskin developed a theory of social reconstruction that would, through nonviolent means, create society anew by democratizing the production of knowledge and using it to create nonhierarchical "projects" predicated on humane values and decentralization. Only through social reconstruction could America both preserve its humanity and go about rebuilding itself from the bottom up.

Raskin is best known for having established IPS in 1963 along with Richard Barnet, an organization that would serve as one of the premier think tanks for the left. Besides the tendency to see a rightward trend in America since the 1960s, IPS's absence from histories of the 1970s and 1980s is due to the inherent difficulties associated with identifying the Institute's Weltanschauung. According to IPS's conservative critics, its members served as either naive dupes or, worse, ideological foot soldiers for the Soviet Union.4 The reality is far less sinister, but such conspiratorial claims point to the need to look at the intellectual foundation of IPS. Though perhaps less familiar than IPS's other work on the Vietnam War, the arms race, and myriad other foreign and domestic issues, Raskin's theory of social reconstruction served as a springboard for these projects and thus merits further attention.

Responding to Kim Phillips-Fein's recent advice to historians to "focus as much on the history and evolution of liberalism as they do on analyzing the right," this article explores Raskin's theory of social reconstruction to reveal a missing piece in the story of post-1960s liberalism.5 The first wave of historians of the New Left, whose work centered on SDS, tended to portray the 1960s as a period of "declension" as activists transformed from youthful, idealistic, reform-oriented protestors to violent revolutionaries.6 In reality, not all activists followed such a trajectory, nor did their actions come to a screeching halt. References to humane values, authenticity, hierarchy, consciousness, and public debate appear throughout IPS intellectuals' writings and discussions about social reconstruction, highlighting the shared vocabulary of IPS and the New Left. Thus, while the representative organization of the New Left, SDS, took its last breath in the late 1960s, the movement's ideas lived on in [End Page 44] Raskin's theory of social reconstruction. While chastised liberals responded to...