Remembering Marc Raskin: A Progressive Leader Whose Legacy Outlives His Death

With the sudden passing of the Institute for Policy Studies co-founder Marcus Raskin on Christmas Eve, we've lost a life that paralleled most of the important progressive movements of the last 60 years—and conceptualized some of their boldest ideas.

Marc left his position at the Kennedy White House in 1962, dismayed by that administration's aggressive war drives in Vietnam, Cuba, and nuclear weapons development. Along with Dick Barnet, who left the State Department at the same time, he created the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), the first-ever independent progressive think tank—designed to change the world from outside Washington's centers of power.

IPS's history from then on tracked the civil rights and Vietnam anti-war movements; the anti-nuclear movement; the early women's, environmental, and gay rights struggles; the movements against corporate globalization, South African apartheid, and the wars in Central America, right up through the post-9/11 anti-war mobilizations; and the racial and economic justice, immigrant rights, environmental, women's, and LGBTQ rights movements of today.

Marc's own history of activism is pretty amazing. Here was a former music prodigy, philosopher, lawyer, and government wonk, jumping into what would eventually be called the New Left before anything had that name. He welcomed SNCC activists and others to IPS for months-long seminars on how Washington worked, providing desperately needed respites for exhausted civil rights workers beaten down—literally—by police and Klan violence, and the massive political suppression that enabled it.

Marc organized early draft resistance that led to his indictment in the Boston Five conspiracy trial, and traveled back and forth to the Soviet Union building citizen diplomacy to counter the Cold War. (According to one—ahem—fellow traveler on one of those trips, Marc, a former Juillard student, got into a piano competition with their government minder, each trying to outdo the other in complex music. History doesn't record who won.) Decades later, Marc envisioned the plan that led to IPS creating the Cities for Peace movement in the run-up to the war in Iraq. His imagination never stopped.

But what is sometimes left unmentioned in the stacks of appreciations of his life pouring in from around the world, and too often passed over—even by those of us who were privileged to work with Marc over these many years—is the extraordinary challenge he and his very small band of confederates confronted as they took on this work in the post-McCarthy era of the late 1950s.

They faced a U.S. society devastated by anti-communism, anti-liberalism, untrammeled racism, unacknowledged sexism, and cultural censorship. When Marc turned from music to politics the country lacked a viable national left or progressive movement. The no-longer-influential Communist Party was barely surviving, a shell of its once vibrant, movement-linked past. The civil rights movement was just beginning to rise, mostly limited to pockets of the South, while racist assaults remained constant and lynchings were still a common occurrence. The once-powerful labor movement was barely reunified, with the number, strength, and principles of unions still diminished. What would eventually become the New Left, distinguished from the old pro-Soviet communist left, had yet to emerge in any coherent way.

It was into that unwelcoming quagmire that Marc, in his early twenties, abandoned a promising music career to come to Washington to change the world. He worked first in Congress, drafting a set of essays known as the Liberal Papers that analyzed what a rebirth of political liberalism might look like in that terribly illiberal period, and mobilizing the best members into what would later become the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

He then moved to the White House, where he quickly saw through the gauzy illusions of Camelot to recognize the dangerous drive toward war underway in the institutions Marc would be the first to name the "National Security State." CIA-paid mercenaries had just been defeated at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, discussions of a build-up of war in Vietnam were just beginning, and nuclear weapons were rising in U.S. military planning. The imperial dangers led Marc, joined by Dick Barnet, to leave the Kennedy administration to better challenge the threats of war and the national security state—this time from the outside.

That all sounds so logical, such a clear trajectory. But looking at it in the context of the United States of the late 1950s and early '60s, it's all the more extraordinary. McCarthy had been officially rejected, but McCarthyism was still influential, so anti-communism remained powerful in public discourse and threats of war with the Soviet Union continued to rise. The post-war national ideal ignored the diversity of human beings in the country (people of color were then a quite small minority) to instead privilege and idealize a white middle-class suburban conformity of men at work and women at home.

Without a coherent national movement, there was no informal network of progressive organizations to welcome Marc to D.C., there was no to search for jobs where student activists could match their post-college passion to a paid (even if not always well-paid) position in some non-profit. There was no model of what a left-wing activist think tank—a band of public scholars linked to the movements just beginning to rise—might look like. Marc and Dick had to figure it out for themselves—in a political moment where such undertakings challenged not only political power but the overarching dominant political and social culture of the country. Daunting doesn't capture the half of it.

Following a recent conversation about this era with Heather Booth, a champion of community organizing and longtime friend of Marc and IPS, I've been consumed with this—for me—previously unconsidered reality that Marc, along with Dick, and a few others faced. They were, in some ways, the in-between cohort. They were half a generation younger than the heroes who fought in Spain, who were jailed as "premature anti-fascists," who fought in WWII and then came home to fight against racism and Jim Crow segregation and McCarthyism—and as a result were blacklisted, jailed, or forced into exile and sometimes suicide. And they were half a generation older than the '60s activists who built SNCC and went south as Freedom Riders; who created the New Left and turned their campuses into bastions of resistance; and who organized teach-ins based on The Vietnam Reader that Marc edited with Bernard Fall, and that quickly became the bible of the anti-war movement.

They were on their own—and what a world they transformed. Every movement creates its own leaders, just as much as leaders create movements. Our leaders today are different—far more women, more people of color. They are amazing.

But now, with Marc gone, few are left of that extraordinary earlier generation. Those few remain among our pantheon, our touchstone to our own past—for they are the ones on whose shoulders we stand as we move forward through this newly-dangerous period. Go well, Marc. We'll keep working in your name—challenging the new threats, stopping the next wars, transforming the new world, finding the new leaders. Go well.


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