Barely a year after the death of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1957, the voters of his home state sent Robert Kastenmeier to the U.S. 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 (President Franklin Roosevelt’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 came of age in the era when Wisconsin was a laboratory of democracy, where independent Progressives ran state government, Socialists governed Milwaukee, and a liberal Democratic Party was being shaped by young leaders such as Kastenmeier and Gaylord Nelson. His uncle, Max Raskin, the Milwaukee city attorney in the 1930s and later one of the state’s most well-regarded jurists, was a central figure in the era.
Marcus Raskin brought a “Wisconsin Idea” passion to writing the Liberal Project memo, arguing for a “much broader (agenda) than the kind of economic liberalism promulgated in the 1930s.” He suggested 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 20th 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 Dec. 24 at age 83, Raskin advanced a resurgent and expansive citizenship as a preeminent advocate for economic and social justice and for peace. 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 U.S. delegation to an 18-nation disarmament conference in Geneva. But Raskin’s prescient concerns about the escalation of U.S. 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 U.S. 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. He also served as the chair of the Sane-Freeze campaign (now Peace Action) at a peak moment for the U.S. anti-nuclear 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, which is co-chaired by Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan.)
From his various positions, Raskin engaged in 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: “(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.”
Raskin acknowledged: “The 20th century was one of unprecedented devastation, genocide, broken ideals, and foolish promises, collapsing into organized institutional evil and individual evil,” Yet, he argued, “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.”
Raskin never lost faith in that prospect of 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,” the Milwaukee-born writer concluded, “the human spirit persists … 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.”