Marcus Raskin, an Activist Heart and Soul

Marcus Raskin, an Activist Heart and Soul

Marcus Raskin, an Activist Heart and Soul

He was a man at ease in his own skin, though not in the world, which he constantly sought to change for the better.


Marc Raskin, who died on December 24, was a valued friend of this magazine, to which he contributed, over many years, articles, ideas, inspiration, and wise counsel. “Marc mentored and inspired many, and touched us with his brilliance, humanity, and humor,” said Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel. “He was a true radical—never dogmatic, always curious, in search of new ideas, new pathways.” Former Nation editor and publisher Victor Navasky, who originally recruited Marc, commented: “It was my honor and privilege to invite Marc to join the Nation editorial board and work with him over the decades. I always learned from him and counted on him to show us the way. He combined a radical intellect with common sense.”

One is tempted to dub Marc the left’s premier idea man because of his immensely varied contributions to the philosophy and praxis of liberal/left organizations, but that doesn’t begin to describe his influence. True, he sparked many articles, editorials, programs, and dialogues—yet for Marc, ideas were serious business, seedlings that needed to bear fruit in effective political action.

The San Francisco Chronicle recognized Marc’s importance as a thinker early on, extolling his book Being and Doing (1971) as “an important indictment of our society by a political thinker who in some quarters is held to be the most brilliant in the field.” An earlier book, The Viet-Nam Reader (1965), which he co-edited with the legendary Bernard Fall, became a bible for the university teach-ins that enriched the student antiwar movement. In 2003, Marc conceived the Cities for Peace program, creating a network of city governments to pass resolutions opposing the Iraq War.

Sometimes Marc’s activism carried a personal risk. In 1968, he was indicted by the federal government—along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Michael Ferber, and Mitchell Goodman, collectively dubbed the “Boston Five”—for conspiracy to resist the draft. Unrepentant after his own surprise acquittal (he wondered sarcastically if he should demand a retrial), Marc went on to co-write, with Richard Barnet and Ralph Stavins, another book on Vietnam, Washington Plans an Aggressive War (1971).

That same year, Marc received from a source (later identified as the whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg) “a mountain of paper, some 2,000 to 5,000 pages,” that became known as the Pentagon Papers. Playing his customary catalytic role, he put Ellsberg in touch with New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, who drew heavily on the material for his series on the United States’ secret early involvement in Vietnam. A longtime passionate proponent of nuclear disarmament, Marc would also serve in the 1980s as chair of the SANE/Freeze campaign.

Marc’s many articles for The Nation formed the corpus of his intellectual legacy. For example, despite his passion for nuclear-arms control, he displayed his pragmatism by calling for cooperation between the two main anti-nuke groups, which he called, in a 1982 article here, the “prudentialists” and the “abolitionists.”

Marc was one of the first to warn about the national-security state, one of his bêtes noires. As he wrote in these pages, with Gregory D. Squires: “The United States has been at war for more years than it has been at peace. War is not a ‘last resort,’ something we fall back on when diplomacy, sanctions and other tools fail. It has become our normal condition.” He boldly called for the abolition of the warfare state, beginning with its main action arm, the CIA.

Closer to home, he and the late A.W. Singham, who had been a fellow Nation editorial-board member, inspired a 1991 Nation symposium on the left’s need to take a hard look at its own shortcomings amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. “It is time for a wide-ranging dialogue on the left and liberal side of the spectrum,” Raskin wrote in a preface to his essay. “Where we have been wrong we must so state. Where we are in need of rethinking, let us rethink, and where we have been right, morally and politically, let us say so forcefully. We are in need of something more than co-optable reforms, something less open to distortion and more life-affirming than revolution. We are in need of reconstruction and institutional transformation.” Years earlier, Marc made his own contribution to such a rethinking by drawing up a guide to what a progressive program should be: “Everyone is entitled to work; individual accumulation is secondary to the development of the common heritage and common wealth; citizenship must now extend to the workplace; we must reconsider and transform our defense policies and international purposes so as to achieve a truly secure society at home.”

Marc was an activist, heart and soul. In a 1993 piece, he invoked the gap between thought and action: “Are there existential commitments that liberal-minded philosophers are prepared to make that match their ideas with their own political actions? Sartre complained that no professor of ethics he had ever heard of had taken so much as a bop on the head for the wretched.”

Marc’s most lasting contribution to the cause of American progressivism came in 1963, when he co-founded, with his fellow activist-thinker Barnet, the Institute for Policy Studies, which became the left’s leading think tank. That project grew out of Marc’s disappointment with the Kennedy administration; both he and Barnet served as staffers on the National Security Council. The two men bonded after John McCloy, dean of the defense establishment, said at a meeting on arms control attended by Pentagon officials and military contractors, “If this group cannot bring about disarmament, no one can.” Stunned by the bland absurdity of McCloy’s statement, the two dissidents bowed out and went on to create the IPS as a true generator of ideas leading to peace. And they ensured the institute’s ability to speak truth to power by refusing to take money from the government or corporations. Today, more than 50 years after its founding by Raskin and Barnet, the IPS continues its thriving, vibrant work with John Cavanagh at the helm, and many of the institute’s fellows are valued Nation contributors.

Those of us at The Nation who worked with Marc personally knew him as a kindly and reasonable man, as well as a brilliant humanistic thinker who harbored a sensitive artistic soul (Marc had been a child prodigy on the piano and studied at New York’s Juilliard School at the age of 16). He was a person at ease in his own skin, though not in the world, which he constantly sought to change for the better. As a leader in that unending fight, Marc Raskin will be badly missed by his comrades, who must carry it on without him.

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