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.
The left, he argued, must acknowledge its roots in, as well as the necessity to go beyond – to expand upon – the liberal tradition; it must come to recognise the unity of socialism and democracy, to see socialism as the means through which democracy can be spread to the economic sphere, and not fall for the ‘pseudo-Leninist’ line that Western-style democracy is an impediment to social justice. Howe was in no doubt at all that liberalism was insufficient to solve the problems of equality and injustice. But he also knew that any left that failed to give liberalism its due would slide quickly into either authoritarianism or irrelevance. Perhaps it would not be unfair to suggest that the fate of the New Left, in the US and elsewhere, was to slide into the second, while evincing a callow sympathy for the first.