Let us pause amid the vulgarities of today’s politics to pay tribute to Marcus Raskin who died Dec. 24 at 83. For more than 60 years, Raskin, a philosopher, teacher, author, activist and citizen, has provided piercing, informed and independent insight into the state of our republic. In a city filled with strivers eager to trumpet conventional wisdom, Raskin saw through the trappings of power and the lies and myths that buttress it, and called on us to change our course and rebuild our democracy.
Raskin was a prodigy in both piano and in public policy. As a young man, steeped in the wisdom of political scientists Quincy Wright and Hans Morgenthau at the University of Chicago, Raskin, a green legislative aide to Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), organized several progressive legislators to produce “The Liberal Papers,” the first in a lifetime work of detailing ideas and visions of a more just and more progressive America.
Still in his 20s, Raskin joined President John F. Kennedy’s national security staff under McGeorge Bundy. From the beginning, Raskin questioned the entrenched assumptions of the Cold War foreign-policy consensus.
Raskin was most appalled by the madness of the nuclear arms race. He watched as the Kennedy administration launched a massive buildup on the basis of a fabricated “missile gap.” He was an early and profound critic of the crackpot logic of mutual assured destruction. He saw how mandarins and generals, backed by an immense military-industrial complex, promoted the conventional wisdom of an imperial America that could police the world.
With remarkable courage and imagination, Raskin chose not merely to critique but also to act. In 1963, he joined with Richard Barnet, a brilliant analyst from the State Department, to found the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), with what he called the “extraordinary conceit” of speaking truth to power. They met at a meeting chaired by John J. McCloy, a baron of the establishment, and packed with generals and national security managers to discuss arms control. “If this group cannot bring about disarmament,” McCloy stated, “then no one can.” Raskin and Barnet laughed. The institute came out of their shared belief that our over-militarized ways of thinking had to be challenged.
IPS was the first truly independent “think tank.” It took no government money. Its fellows — drawn largely from what Raskin called the “civilizing” movements of the times — were encouraged to think beyond the bounds of conventional wisdom, even while staying engaged with progressives in Congress and the administration. IPS, as Sidney Blumenthal wrote, “pioneered the modern politics of ideas” in Washington. According to Paul Weyrich, its effectiveness was one factor motivating him to co-found the Heritage Foundation on the right.
Raskin was the disruptive genius. He warned about the development of the national security state — the complex of war institutions shrouded in secrecy and grounded in claims of executive prerogative — that was and is profoundly at odds with our Constitution and our republic. He criticized the suffocating consensus — anchored by “Cold War and big business assumptions” — that fostered ever-greater inequality at home while committing the United States to endless wars and repeated imperial follies abroad. “Without the context of law and morality for the use of power,” he wrote with journalist Bernard Fall, “we are reduced to the law of the jungle — or the sandbox.”
Raskin thought deeply about the sources and modes of change. He embraced the movements — civil rights, antiwar, women’s, environmental, consumer — that made America better, suggesting that the insurgents were creating a new public philosophy grounded in an “existential pragmatism rooted in experience and experiment.”
He sought constantly to build a progressive political force — a movement, a party, a progressive congressional caucus — that would champion an agenda for economic justice and for peace, arguing that the profound differences between “establishment liberalism” and “progressive liberalism” were centered on the economy and the Cold War, on big business and the national security state. A critic of both the Soviet Union and the United States, he was a skeptic about revolution, calling instead for “social reconstruction,” a decentralized building of alternative experiments while confronting the limits of conventional politics.
He was not simply a theoretician; he was an organizer as well. He believed deeply in what he called “passionate scholarship,” in breaking the barriers between thinkers and doers. “Taking personal risk is the way of maintaining relevance to one’s intellectual work,” he wrote. An early critic of the Vietnam War, Raskin joined with Fall to produce “The Viet-Nam Reader,” which became the basic text for the teach-in movement. As the war continued to escalate, he co-authored the “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” calling for resistance to the draft. For that he was indicted as part of the Boston Five, tried and acquitted.
In the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan launched another nuclear weapons buildup, Raskin and IPS launched an exchange with the Institute of USA and Canada Studies in Moscow. The exchange, in Raskin’s words, brought together both “prudentialists” who favored arms control and “abolitionists” who called for disarmament. The delegations discussed a broad menu of creative proposals designed to break the limits of an arms-control process that seemed only to feed the arms race.
Ideas and projects poured out of Raskin’s creative mind. Fifty-six members of Congress asked IPS for a study of the federal budget. IPS budget studies set forth alternatives based on radically different budget priorities that became a precursor to the Congressional Progressive Caucus annual “People’s Budget.”
In 1978, he joined with United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser to organize more than 100 labor unions and public interest groups into the Progressive Alliance, seeking once more to build a force on the left of the Democratic Party. He was central to the creation of the Citizens Party and the presidential run of Barry Commoner in 1980. Two decades later, he helped spark the organizing of more than 350 cities to pass resolutions opposing the Iraq War. He wrote or edited more than 20 books. His articles as a longtime editorial board member of the Nation (which I edit) — on subjects ranging from the nuclear arms race to the neoconservative assault on free speech to Jean-Paul Sartre and John Rawls — suggest the breadth of his interests and the scope of his intellect.
Washington is a city that suffocates independent thought, less by repression than by seduction. In less than a year, we’ve watched as Donald Trump abandoned his populist disdain for our endless wars in the Middle East to embrace what C. Wright Mills accurately termed the “crackpot realism” of the foreign policy establishment. We’ve witnessed the force of big money in driving through the Republicans’ grotesque tax bill.
That is what made Marcus Raskin so rare and so invaluable. At a very young age he rejected the trappings of high office to create a space that might speak truth to that power. His influence on ideas and on the legions of young people he mentored was profound. The eminent social critic Paul Goodman dedicated his last book, “New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative,” to Raskin, describing him as an old-fashioned citizen. “Leadership is not the answer in the United States,” Raskin wrote in “Essays of a Citizen .” “The answer is an active citizenry that . . . stimulates people to ‘think for themselves’ for the purpose of carrying out a common good.” With his passing, we have lost a true citizen. He should be celebrated. He will be missed.
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