Barely a year after the death of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1957, the voters of his home state sent Robert Kastenmeier to the US House of Representatives. A passionate foe of McCarthy and McCarthyism, the young Democrat sought to break the spell of Cold War fear and reaction that the late senator had exploited to such destructive ends.
To do this, Kastenmeier began working with a handful of progressive members of the House—including California Congressman James Roosevelt (FDR’s eldest son)—to establish what came to be known as the Liberal Project. Kastenmeier suggested that a young congressional aide from Wisconsin, Marcus Raskin, draw up a plan for advancing this transformative “new politics” in Congress and in what they hoped would become a dramatically more progressive Democratic Party.
Raskin’s Liberal Project memo argued for a “much broader [agenda] than the kind of economic liberalism promulgated in the 1930s,” suggesting that what was needed was “a complete…restatement of all areas of public policy, foreign policy, defense policy, industrial policy, agricultural policy, legal and judicial policy. Finally, what is needed is a formulation of the philosophic condition of Man in the Twentieth Century.”
Working with Kastenmeier, Raskin drew leading intellectuals into the process of establishing a “rational program” for postwar liberalism that might “serve as a basis for writing a suggested Democratic Party platform for 1960 and as a campaign text for liberal candidates.” They produced “The Liberal Papers,” an ambitious agenda that Commentary magazine described as an “indication of a resurgent citizenry in America.”
For the next six decades, until his death Sunday at age 83, Raskin advanced a resurgent and expansive citizenship as a preeminent advocate for peace and for economic and social justice. He argued, on Capitol Hill and university campuses, from union halls to the parks where mass rallies were held, that voters should have a far greater say with regard to foreign and domestic policy. His was a clear-eyed vision that recognized how an “endless war” footing cost Americans physically, economically, and morally, and it helped to shape the understanding of generations of activists, academics, and elected officials from city halls to the White House.
In 1961, Raskin’s skills as a thinker and organizer were recognized by the new administration of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He joined the National Security Council’s Special Staff, serving with National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. In that capacity, he was part of the US delegation to an 18-nation disarmament conference in Geneva. But Raskin’s prescient concerns about the escalation of US military involvement in Southeast Asia and a host of other issues led to a split with Bundy and his eventual departure from the administration.
With Richard Barnet, who had served as a State Department official in the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Raskin created an independent think tank to critique the policies of the government in which the two men had served. The Institute for Policy Studies became an essential source of opposition to the Vietnam War—so much so that, in 1968, Raskin was indicted (along with William Sloane Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Michael Ferber, and Mitchell Goodman) for conspiracy to aid resistance to the draft.
IPS would continue to oppose unwise and unnecessary wars and the excesses of the “national security state” that Raskin described in his brilliant books and essays (many written for The Nation, where he served as a member of the editorial board). The Milwaukee-born author also served as the chair of the Sane-Freeze campaign (now Peace Action) at a peak moment for the US antinuclear movement, and later as a counselor to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (His son, Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, one of the nation’s finest constitutional scholars, now serves as a vice chair of the CPC.)
From his various positions, Raskin practiced his resurgent citizenship with research, writing, and activism on behalf of a “social reconstruction” that would address inequality and injustice.
In his last years, Raskin guided IPS’s groundbreaking Paths for the 21st Century Project, which built on his decades of engagement to propose a vision for radical change.
Fiercely opposed to the Iraq War, Raskin wrote in 2007 that:
We need to learn from this debacle. That requires that we reevaluate America’s role in the world. As a start, the United States should shift its policies 180 degrees in the United Nations and work to establish a program of economic and social development, in which the United States pledges to give between 1 percent and 2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for economic development, education and confidence-building measures between peoples and states.
The United States should also resurrect George Washington’s view of “No Passionate Attachments” to any particular nation. In the 21st Century, this entails a passionate attachment to all people, for that is the nature of human rights. Such an idea does not begin with armed conflict. It begins with a careful analysis of how the United States will operate in the world as one of many nations, rather than as the superpower that knows best.
Furthermore, the United States must avoid making more global messes. The nuclear option must be removed from the table, including threats of “preemptive” and “preventive” war. No one should feel secure in a command structure that gives any U.S. president the power and authority to use nuclear weapons in a first strike. Nor should one feel any more secure bestowing that power to any nation that has nuclear weapons, whether it’s India, France, China, Israel, Pakistan, Russia or others attempting to acquire them. Instead, negotiations need to go forward on general disarmament and real security, as envisaged by the 1975 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
“The 20th Century was one of unprecedented devastation, genocide, broken ideals, and foolish promises, collapsing into organized institutional evil and individual evil,” he argued. “Yet, the last century was fed by various strands of socialism, communism, democracy, anarchism, populism and enlightened capitalism that promised a better tomorrow, a world of dignity linked to universal justice.”
Yes, he wrote in 2008, “the specter of authoritarianism, religious intolerance, imperial wars for resources and domination, and economic suffering haunts humankind.”
“Nevertheless,” Raskin added, “the human spirit 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.”
Raskin understood as well as anyone the challenges involved with the reconstruction of the American experiment. Yet he kept the faith that ideas and activism could yet lead to the necessary transformation.