'Rethinking Liberalism': '60s idealism meets '80s realities; Rethinking Liberalism, edited by Walter Truett Anderson. New York: Avon Books. 296 pp. $4.95 paperback.
ARE America's liberals naive about evil? Are there too many sacred cows on the domestic liberal agenda? Can a liberal foreign policy forged in an era of American geopolitical isolation cope with the complexities of today's global interdependency and nuclear brinkmanship?
Don't jump to conclusions. These questions are not being raised by conservatives or supply-siders. Instead, they come predominantly from thinkers who were liberals in the '60s but who have increasingly distanced themselves from the liberal camp, as the spirit of the civil rights movement and social reform became frozen into vote-getting political doctrines, and as the glib assumptions of automatic economic progress and unlimited, cheap natural resources were undermined in the '70s by an energy crunch, pollution, housing shortages, inflation, and unemployment.
Further, for the most part, the 17 essayists (including Richard Falk, Amory Lovins, Theodore Roszak, and Rollo May) would rather refer to themselves as ''post-liberals'' than ''neo-liberals.'' They feel that the politics brought on by the mounting necessities of the 1980s will require more than a redefinition or retooling of liberal solutions. They feel, in fact, that these necessities signal the end of New Deal liberalism and the beginning of a new post-liberal period - a period in which a new ideology and a new politics will have to be painstakingly thought through. The modern world's mathematics has changed, they say, and we need to discover the new math. This book is an attempt to begin doing just that. Given the giant nature of the task, it does so with some success.
In his very fine introduction, Walter Truett Anderson writes, ''We do not think as we did before about race or American interventionism or the environment or the role of women in society. . . .'' The rethinking now going on, he continues, is ''always hard work'' but it is necessary work. ''This time around, we are likely to be taken deeper into the underpinnings than we have gone before , as we look at the liberal philosophy that has formed the structure of government - Democratic and Republican - for nearly half a century.''
There are some gaps in the different pieces (perhaps due in part to the limitations of the essay form). Roszak's essay, ''America After Affluence,'' for example, argues convincingly that a healthier society depends on individuals developing a better understanding of themselves and their own capacities for health and intelligence. But in his criticism of materialism and affluence as a retardant to such understanding, Roszak casually writes off the buildup of American industrial society since the turn of the century, as if the labor and ingenuity of generations of people were merely a temporary aberration.
In the final essay, Rollo May criticizes liberal humanism for taking politics onto a course in which the evils of the world were being naively ignored. While May still holds to liberal ideals, he feels such ideals will not be realized until liberals develop an ''adequate myth of evil.'' Translated, this means: Don't pretend you won't have to deal with the dark side of human nature.
Some of the essayists included here use the language of religion and psychology in order to discuss more completely the full range of human experience that overlaps politics. Readers in these disciplines will have to be careful not to bring their own preconceptions to these terms but remain open to the essayists' usage.