Photo credit: Raskin Fans

January 2, 2018; Washington Post

Will it be possible to learn from the past, distilling from it those guides which will enable humanity to live with itself and nature in peace and with dignity, well-being, and freedom? […] And are the literally thousands of local projects and social inventions around the world the basis of a global life affirming transformation in attitudes and purposes or will these humane impulses remain on the margins without much effect on dominant world trends that hurtle toward mutual disaster of contending forces?

—Marcus Raskin, 2008

On December 24th, Marcus Raskin, cofounder of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), author of over 20 books, and a leading public intellectual for over five decades, died from heart failure at the age of 83. The obituary accounts in both the Washington Post and the New York Times describe the Institute he cofounded with Richard Barnet as a “liberal think tank,” which in some respects is fair, but misses so much.

Take, for example, the above quote, which comes from Paths for Reconstruction in the 21st Century. Raskin’s central questions speak quite directly to the stories we write and our guiding philosophy at NPQ of fostering “an active, engaged, and sometimes disruptive civil sector,” which we see as “critical to a healthy democracy.”

Importantly, in many respects, IPS was founded against the dominant liberal institutions of its day. The divisions that led to the creation of IPS in 1965 are reflected in the Democratic Party still, as seen in the 2016 primary election face-off between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The impetus to form IPS came from people like Raskin and Barnet (who had worked at the State Department). Raskin and Barnet were horrified that a self-styled liberal government was backing the Vietnam War. Their work soon broadened to encompass a comprehensive critique of the nation’s economic system, the security state, and a military strategy premised on nuclear annihilation known as “mutually assured destruction.” Raskin was tried and acquitted for his role in supporting draft resistance (including being the coauthor of this pamphlet) and also helped with the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The struggle for peace was never far from Raskin’s work.

Raskin himself hailed from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city known for its “sewer socialist” mayors (very much of the Bernie Sanders variety), with Milwaukee’s last socialist mayor, Frank Ziegler, serving as mayor from 1948 to 1960, when Raskin was growing up. Raskin moved to Washington, DC in 1958, where he worked initially as a legislative aide to Robert W. Kastenmeier, who had won a congressional election that helped end a period of Wisconsin politics dominated by Joseph McCarthy and his supporters. It seemed that a new era of possibility had opened. But, just as many young activists became disillusioned during the Obama years and joined movements like Black Lives Matter, Raskin, Barnet and their colleagues founded IPS due to their own disillusionment with the limits of conventional US politics.

As Katrina vanden Heuvel notes in the Washington Post, “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.” Vanden Heuvel adds that Raskin “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 … 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.”

Raskin could be scathing in his critiques—even, or perhaps especially, when those critiques were of liberals. As Jesse Walker of the journal Reason points out, in Notes on the Old System, published in 1974, Raskin wrote:

From the end of the Second World War, liberals provided the music for the corporations and asserted the need for a strong national leader who would operate benevolently through rhetoric and the bureaucracy for the common good of the System. His powers would verge on the dictatorial …Lyndon Johnson was a master at managing bills through the Senate which were thought of as reforms, but whose fine print left the major institutional forces of the society untouched, or even greatly reinforced.

Raskin himself advocated an alternative that he called social reconstruction, outlined in a 1971 book titled Being & Doing. Social reconstruction, the IPS notes, involved, “a peaceful process of non-Marxist reconstruction that will replace authoritarianism and the status quo with politics of the people and a redefined social ethic.”

Raskin’s vision for social reconstruction and an empowered civil society is also restated in the 2008 paper on Paths of Reconstruction cited above, where Raskin called on activists to center their work on common values. “The human spirit,” Raskin added, persists,

  • In the desperate efforts to define political participation and equality, both of which demand the practical articulation of human responsibility through the recognition of caring and empathy;
  • In the attempts to find a common good that all institutions are part of and which includes the distribution of wealth and income so that all might benefit, thereby recognizing that the human endeavor is more than the production of things and information for the few but is also the fashioning of humane freedom for all;
  • In the attempts to recast knowledge inquiries so that conceptions of science and development of world civilization become mutually reinforcing;
  • In the attempts to struggle for justice and a measure of happiness through vibrant democracy;
  • In the attempts to find means of taking the most humane from each culture and using those values as a basis for American society and then as one path to world civilization;
  • In the struggle to find the means of developing local communities and economies of scale;
  • And in the search for nonviolent and just solutions on all levels of human existence, from the interpersonal and family to the state.

—Steve Dubb