Twelve years ago in his book, The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. presented materials for a new-style liberalism which has remained the basis of his politics to this day. It is clear that Schlesinger was not using the term “center” simply in order to move liberal philosophy in somewhat from the left; he was also relocating the liberal intellectual. No longer, he felt, could the liberal afford to be an outsider looking upon society and politics from the distance of estrangement and an inappropriate ideology. The new liberal must be an insider, confronting social and political problems from the center of politics itself. Here was a manifesto for leftist intellectuals to renounce some of their rights as citizens of the world and assume some of their duties as citizens of America. “Pragmatic liberalism” was one term which Schlesinger used to describe his position at that time; it is a term which more and more old leftists are today wearing as a badge of honor.
Radicals, of course, are suspicious of liberals who tacitly crown corrupt systems by participating in them. Schlesinger had an answer in kind: his was not a surrender to practicality but the necessary conclusion from a more mature vision of the nature of history and man. History is the key word here. (It is my special word, not Schlesinger’s. I use it because it seems to me it conveys Schlesinger’s message most clearly.) In The Vital Center Schlesinger, under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, projected a view of history substantially altering the view that had become habitual for the radical left.
“Man,” Reinhold Niebuhr has said, “is by nature historical, and the truth about man is mediated historically.” This epigram contains the essence of Schlesinger’s views. Man (if I may now translate) is inextricably rooted in historical circumstance. Whatever truth he perceives about his own destiny is therefore relative to his circumstance, whatever actions he takes to implement that truth must be mediated through it.