Intellectuals in Action

The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 19451970

By (author) Kevin Mattson

Paperback - £33.95

Publication date:

15 May 2002

Length of book:

320 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271022062

Born in 1966‚ a generation removed from the counterculture‚ Kevin Mattson came of political age in the conservative Reagan era. In an effort to understand contemporary political ambivalence and the plight of radicalism today‚ Mattson looks back to the ideas that informed the protest‚ social movements‚ and activism of the 1960s.

To accomplish its historical reconstruction‚ the book combines traditional intellectual biography—including thorough archival research—with social history to examine a group of intellectuals whose thinking was crucial in the formulation of New Left political theory. These include C. Wright Mills‚ the popular radical sociologist; Paul Goodman‚ a practicing Gestalt therapist and anarcho-pacifist; William Appleman Williams‚ the historian and famed critic of "American empire"; Arnold Kaufman‚ a "radical liberal" who deeply influenced the thinking of the SDS. The book discusses not only their ideas‚ but also their practices‚ from writing pamphlets and arranging television debates to forming left-leaning think tanks and organizing teach-ins protesting the Vietnam War. Mattson argues that it is this political engagement balanced with a commitment to truth-telling that is lacking in our own age of postmodern acquiescence.

Challenging the standard interpretation of the New Left as inherently in conflict with liberalis‚ Mattson depicts their relationship as more complicated‚ pointing to possibilities for a radical liberalism today. Intellectual and social historians‚ as well as general readers either fascinated by the 1960s protest movements or actively seeking an alternative to our contemporary political malais‚ will embrace Mattson’s book and its promise to shed new light on a time period known for both its intriguing conflicts and its enduring consequences.

“A remarkably fine portrait of a coterie of intellectuals who‚ for all their differences‚ shared an interest in forging a ‘radical liberalism’ that would conjoin participatory democracy and social justice‚ local deliberative polities‚ and a strong welfare state. As remarkable for its clear-eyed view of the failures of these writers and of the New Left generally as for its appreciative account of their possibilities‚ Kevin Mattson’s book will be welcomed by historians for the complications it introduces into our understanding of an important period of dissent and reform and by those who continue to struggle for a more democratic America for its unsentimental account of their inheritance.”

—Robert Westbrook, University of Rochester