Echange entre Adolph Reed, Jr., Timothy W. Luke, Alex Willingham, David Gross, Paul Piccone, Andrew Feenberg, Jennifer Jordan et Joel Kovel paru dans le livre édité par Adolph Reed, Jr., Race, Politics, and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1986, p. 245-273
What’s left ? : An Exchange
The opening paragraph of The Eighteenth Brumaire might be applied to radical activism in the 1960s. When the counterculturists and black nationalists proclaimed a revolutionary break with bourgeois culture, they did so in a language that affirmed the mass-marketing culture’s principle of self-definition through commodity consumption. When the New Left sought wholesale theoretical clarity, the principal turns taken — Marxism-Leninism and Pan-Africanism — entailed departure from lived history and initiation of a search for authenticity in the past. In each case the goal of authenticity — ultimately a variety of the quest for selffulfillment — overrode engaged political critique.
Each of the radical political and cultural movements of the 1960s endorsed a view that connected politics and personal revitalization. To that extent — notwithstanding their other considerable accomplishments — those movements hastened their own demise by overloading personal relationships (thus feeding the logic of “burnout”) and banalizing political action by making it an instrument of self-realization. This tendency was exacerbated as actual political movement slowed, and, combined with the commoditized “alternative” vision of counterculturism — black and white — it left us in the last decade’s apolitical and commercially orchestrated hedonism. A central aspect of the tragedy of 1960s radicalism, therefore, is its inability, even in its apparently most radical manifestations, to transcend the irony of mass culture — i.e., the fragmentation and reification of the atomized identity and the constraint of all types of purposive activity by the requirements of the (self-defeating) desire to overcome atomization.
Although this is hardly the only area that should be searched for clues about the natural history of the New Left, examination of the normative vision invoked by radicalism — tacitly or otherwise — may illuminate elements within New Left praxis that undermined the movement. Given that it at best addresses only one aspect even of the Left’s normative vision, how do you react to the view proposed here ? Is it accurate, even in a limited context ? Does it help us comprehend the dynamics of dissolution in the New Left ? Does it help us make sense of the present situation ? Is it mean-spirited, misanthropic, “Marxist neoconservatism” ?
These questions are difficult to answer. The contemporary social spectacle integrates anything and everything into its logic of commodification, including historical time itself. In the bright, familiar packaging of “the Sixties,” a decade serves as the fungible containerization of uniquely diverse social upheavals, cultural innovations, and political struggles. Significance is marked in differences; the disjunctures from decades similarly packaged as the “Fifties,” “Thirties,” or “Seventies.” To answer these questions and judge the New Left, one must pick through the incomplete pieces, last signs, and remaining fragments of an era jumbled into “the Sixties” container. But, in answering, one also feels like a Vekhi critic, writing off unhappily the sad realities of the 1905 revolution not knowing 1917 will come.
Still, like it or not, the opening passages of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire accurately capture much of the radical spirit and substance of 1960s radicalism. Maturing in the wake of McCarthy’s antileftist pogroms in the 1950s, New Left activists and black nationalist cadres clearly had to borrow from others the names, battle cries, and costumes of their revolutions. To grapple with the pressing crises of the “Other America” (as Harrington defined it) that the “Amerika” (as SDS epithet framed it) of mainstream suburban society ignored, 1960s radicals turned to Gandhi, Nkrumah, Mao, Che, and Ho for their critiques of advanced industrial society.
Images, illusions, and icons of revolution, packaged in film, voice, and videotape in Moscow, Peking, Algiers, Havana, Cairo, New Delhi, Accra, Hanoi, Leopoldville, Djakarta, Nairobi, Belgrade, and Conakry, incessantly were broadcast and rebroadcast in the American mass media as a spectacle of global revolution. From these prepackaged metatexts of transformation, 1960s radicals — black, white, brown, male, female, young, and old — borrowed the names, battle cries, and costumes of their revolutions. As a result, Marxism-Leninism and Pan-Africanism, which had virtually no groundedness in the lived history of advanced industrial America, were adopted as schemas of “wholesale theoretical clarity” into the countercultures of the 1960s. Yet, in presenting these time-honored disguises and borrowed languages as their own, America’s Black Power, New Left, and counterculture movements fell far short of revolutionizing themselves anew or creating something new that had never yet existed. The New Left intended to create a revolution, but, in the process, it unintentionally revolutionized the workings of corporate America.
Clearly, the central tragedy of 1960s radicalism was its inability to transcend these ironies of mass culture. As members of a society of bureaucratically controlled consumption, telegenic spectacles of opposition, resistance, critique, or negativity projected from abroad in the mass media provided most of the revolutionary forms and goals of the New Left. With the eclipse of blue-collar industrial work by white-collar service work in the 1950s, and the effective domestication of proletarian union power in the 1940s, the strategy and tactics of America’s Old left were defined as obsolete by 1960s radicals. Instead the spectacles of media culture projected new models of action: Gandhi’s humiliation of British rule, Ho’s defeat of French and American military force, Nasser’s appeals for Pan-Arab/Pan-African unity, Che’s call for Third World uprisings, Nkrumah’s model of African revolution, and the new Islamic awakening across the Eastern Hemisphere. To transform America, many among the New Left mindlessly mimicked these anticolonial models of struggle, debating endlessly whether or not committed radicals should fight in the mountains, out in the countryside, or from within the ghetto. One need only remember those endless debates during the 1960s, late at night, in one, two, many dorm rooms, over the relative strengths and weaknesses of Gandhi’s satyagraha, Maoist peasant war, or Che’s focoismo in mobilizing “the people” of Oregon, Illinois, Alabama, or Vermont. In these spectacular images of rebellion, 1960s radicals found the illusions needed to conceal from themselves the corporate limitations on the content of their struggles, while keeping their enthusiasm on the high plane of great historical tragedy. Thus, America’s counterculture, which had produced rebels without a cause in the 1950s, generated revolutionaries without a base in the 1960s and 1970s.
Likewise, 1960s radicals, armed with the names of peasant revolutionaries, shouting the battle cries of national liberation wars from colonies in European empires and clad in the costumes of Ho, Castro, or Gandhi, projected their quest for personal realization, communal authenticity, and self-development into the transformation of advanced industrial society. In turn, the revolutions of 1968 — marking a single moment that summarizes an entire period — were failed revolutions, just as the uprisings of 1848 were failed revolutions. By the manifest criteria of their borrowed revolutionary theories, the revolutions of 1968 were a “failure” in America — as well as France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Europe — to the extent that both black and white radicals in the 1960s failed to substitute a new political order for the old regime through either force or nonviolence.
As revolutionaries, then, what exactly did the New Leftists and black nationalists change ? Even after Johnson’s resignation and the massive street demonstrations of 1968-1970, the Vietnam war did not end. Great Society legislation from 1964 to 1966 did more for the outsiders of the “other Americas” than did the SDS, Black Panthers, or La Raza Unida. The oil crisis of 1973 had more impact on changing the wasteful ways of the affluent society than did all the New Left’s criticism during the Age of Aquarius. Yet, the New Left and black nationalist and counterculture movements, both in the 1960s and continually ever since, have been identified in political debates, academic writing, and the mass media as powerful agents of social transformation. Why has the narrow reality of revolutionary change not matched these expansive spectacles of revolutionary transformation ?
A hardline analysis of the 1960s may miss the real thrust of these events. The “revolutionary break” of the New Left with “bourgeois” culture, society, and politics actually was defined almost entirely in the codes of mass marketing. The Woodstock nation plainly formed at a complex intersection of automobile, rock music, drug, and outdoor lifestyle consumption. The counterculture’s ultimate principle was simple: individuals find their self-actualization through commodity consumption, material goods and wish-fulfilling images. Thus, the revolt of the repressed in the 1960s was denominated in the “product revolutionization” of corporate capitalist product demography. Such revolutions, it now would appear, turn out as episodes of corrective, weak, negative feedback than as events of destructive, system-transforming violent change. “America,” like everything in a society of the spectacle, was and is an evolving “product” for mass consumption.
In the 1960s, the American dream machine was not “performing” as its civics book operating manuals and formal constitutional warranties had guaranteed to the buyers. Urban squalor, black inequality, rural backwardness, spreading pollution, denials of civil rights, suburban anomie, mass poverty, and conscription for an undeclared war all were obvious signs of a poorly performing product or an increasingly faltering service. Hence, a complete change in methods, conditions, or models of operation — a product revolutionization — was launched in the 1960s, which the black and white countercultures strongly aided and abetted. Old, rundown, unimproved America was “broken with” in this “revolutionization” of 1960s radicals; but, as with most products of corporate change, this revolutionary breakthrough only led down the aisles of collective choice to a redesigned model: new, improved America.
Ironically, the revolution of the New Left, Black Power, and other
counterculture movements in the 1960s assisted the previous projects
of corporate growth and economic liberalism, accelerating the collapse
of arbitrary limits imposed upon the individual pursuit of life, liberty
and happiness. American had not delivered the individual goods of
industrial democracy before the 1960s to entire categories of “individuals”— blacks, the young, women, ethnics, latinos, gays, old people, ghetto dwellers, the rural poor. Many social taboos, political rules, and cultural attitudes in traditional American society constituted a restrictive culture of petty apartheid, preventing goods and services from circulating far beyond the secure sphere of middle-class, middle-aged, male, straight, WASP communities.
Newsclips of the Watts, Detroit, or Washington, D.C. riots encapsulate
the revolutionary situation of the 1960s. Within a society of spectacle — which defines identity, purpose, and meaning in terms of commodities — marginalized, underemployed consumers leap out of shattered store windows, carrying away the best icons of identity — TV sets, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, reclining chairs, stereo systems. Denied the leisure time, wages, or legal equality to acquire these totems of consumption more conventionally, the outsiders rioted; and, in the revolt of the repressed, these riots became “the shopping spree” denied to them by the petty apartheid of the traditional marketplace. In the name of revolution, women’s liberation, Black Power, gay rights, or flower power, the New Leftists — in their theories — fought for authenticity, personal fulfillment, and self-actualization, which meant — in practice — increasing access for these outsiders to corporate capitalist goods and services.
Despite its best radical intentions, the New Left unexpectedly served
as the shock troops of mass culture and its corporate producers, tearing down the last constraints on circulating all commodities to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Except for the most radical fringe, the New Left engaged in guerrilla theater not guerrilla terror. Its agitprop was performed by the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jefferson Airplane rather than underground professional revolutionaries. The exemplary community of New Left activities was the rock concert and televised sit-in, both spectacles of consumption and personal self-definition in consumption. The diverse countercultures of the 1960s quickly were colonized and instrumentalized by corporate culture as a “look,” a “style,” or a “mindset” to be sold nationwide as corporate products. Hip capitalism, by the same token, emerged in sandal shops, waterbed stores, record shops, Leftist bookstores, health food outlets, and head shops to sell satisfactions for these newly mobilized needs. Revolution was a product. It could be bought into. With the correct investment of time and effort in new costume, language, and attitude, anyone could become a revolutionist. Yet, as New Left activists donned their berets, dark glasses, jungle fatigues, and leather jackets, their attempts to apply Maoism, Fidelismo, and Gandhism to America revolutionized not society but the corporate marketplace.
Not surprisingly, then, the New Left has not produced any texts of critical reappraisal, like Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, Marxism and Philosophy, 1905, The Prison Notebooks. Instead, its self-understanding is memorialized in “Bye-Bye, American Pie,” The Doonesbury Chronicles, and The Big Chill. Real revolutionaries in the 1960s would be either in power, dead at the hands of the state, still struggling underground, or plotting the final offensive from abroad (perhaps in Switzerland ?). As The Big Chill reveals, however, the revolutionizations of the 1960s were only a valorous phase of youth, marked by a special mode of language, solidarity, dress, and attitude. The counterculture revolutionaries survived those days of fear and loathing; but, today, instead of instructing their cellmates in revolution along the Lena River or furtively sketching out new radical theories in jail, they sell running shoes, deal dope, practice law, raise kids, or work in the media. Yet, to its credit, this revolution does have a powerful soundtrack. Those rock and roll classics of the 1960s, which can be turned up all the way on the Walkman, will ease the sufferings of the long march through the institutions; and these tunes always take one back to the days of “revolution,” recreating the illusion of rebellious upheavals, without forcing the renunciation of personal self-actualization in consumer goods.
With its street demonstrations, sit-ins, and revolutionary communiques,
the counterculture broke with and broke down traditional America. In winning victories for the “other Americas,” however, the Playboy philosophy, a Jordache look, Cosmo girls, a sense of Miller Time, the Dodge Rebellion, a New Pepsi generation, a Virginia Slims “progress,” and L’Oreal values all were mobilized as the mop-up units, following behind the sweeps of the countercultures’ shock troops against Nixon’s-GM’s-Wallace’s-Dow Chemical’s “Amerika.” In the last analysis, the New Left cannot transcend the irony of mass culture because it is mass culture’s ultimate irony.
Indeed, the spectacle system has not only survived the commodification of New Left revolution; it actually has been made stronger through occasional doses of this self-administered “artificial negativity.” The videos, soundtracks, and texts of the revolutionary 1960s now are the spectacular models of social movements in the 1980s. The peace movement, the antinuclear movement, the Central American solidarity movements — now organizing thousands who were infants or not yet born in the 1960s — all have borrowed, in turn, the disguises and languages of “the Sixties” in their political campaigns. Here, the answers to hard political questions, rising from debates such as this one, might serve an important purpose. In recognizing the real roots of revolutionary activity in the 1960s, these new activists might not repeat the tragedies of the 1960s radicalism as the farces of a new “revolution” in the 1960s.
1) I don’t think the search for authenticity was just in the “past” but in what I would call “extrinsic” directions of diverse kinds including the past. Thus those radical blacks who resisted Marxism, for example, because it was somehow outside the black experience did not realize that in their turn to Pan-Africanism they did the same thing, Pan-Africanism, of course, being just itself another specific ideological school (?). This may exclude Du Bois, of course, but they also excluded him ! If this appears to equate Pan-Africanism with Marxism as a system it is not intended. This point merely extends and reinforces the point about how “engaged political critique” was avoided. I only want to assert that it was not just a turn to the past.
2) Political action was banalized by some kind of personal level needs, but I tend to see that (perhaps in retrospect) as certainly an effort to find in political movements, or better, to approach political movements with unresolved personalism (?) which skewed our view of politics. Some of this did come from the atomization caused by mass society/culture, but some of the rest of it came exactly as Marx saw in The Eighteenth Brumaire, i.e, from well-embedded values and identities settled in socializing agencies which formed so much of what we were. Thus from the perspective of the grandmothers and mothers of “the Sixties,” radicalism was just one more temptation like loose women, gambling, or strong drink. That was one reason why I was always so sensitive to the association of radical ideas with “youth.” The commonsense notion that “new ideas” will appeal to the young was one thing, but the very notion that a call for broadly transformative behavior (revolution ?) should be restricted to those who have no experience not only flies in the face of the dynamism of the link between exploitation and remedy, but it raises the large question of what would be the basis of the humanism of the new society ? Michael Jackson ? My sixteen-year-old ?
a. On the problem of burnout: there may be something respectable about this fortyish phenomenon, but I doubt it. It is difficult for me to treat as “burned out” one who made it by shouting the most radical (read unrealistic) slogans unless, like Baraka (who is not burned out), the end is in the assertion. I’ll think more about this.
3) Is the view Reed proposes accurate ? Generally speaking, yes. However, Karenga would argue that external forces caused the dissolution. He is wrong. Yet there is a need to make sure that we situate Left activity within a dynamic context composed of diverse “players,” “allies,” and such.
It’s true: “the Sixties” explosion got caught up in and banalized by a mass-marketing culture; political action was too often (but not always) simply a facet of the quest for self-realization, and the Left destroyed itself partly because it became infatuated with foreign models at the expense of a regard for lived history.
An awareness of these failures is easier to come by now, thanks to the clarity of hindsight. Many of us didn’t always notice them as they were happening — or, if we did, we expected that everything would somehow work out all right in the end, that even failures would dialectically turn into successes. In rereading much literature from the 1960s recently, I was struck by how much optimism there was then, only fifteen or twenty years ago. The world, it was assumed, was about to be radically transformed, and it would be youth (and youth culture) that would help do it. Jerry Rubin, for example, imagined that it would not be long before “every high school and college in the country will close with riots and sabotage… Millions of young people will surge into the streets… High government officials will defect… Revolutionaries will break into jails and free all the prisoners… and Workers will seize their factories and begin running them communally, without profit.” This was only partly tongue in cheek. It’s hard to remember now, but hundreds of thousands of young people believed that this scenario, or something close to it, could actually happen — and soon. Not only the optimism, then, but also the naivete of that decade appears startling today. The Left and the counterculture as a whole could have stood some heavy doses of pessimism and been better off for it; or, if the optimism was to be kept, it ought to have been draped as Ernst Bloch once put it — “with funeral crepe flying.” If this had happened, the letdown of the 1970s might have been endurable, simply because people would have been prepared for it. Also, it might have been easier to continue some of the more important cultural and political projects begun in the 1960s instead of abandoning them altogether as many did.
All this, however, has to do with the 1960s and 1970s. We’re now in the 1980s. One of the most pressing questions we have to face, therefore, is how to deal with what happened. We are in a period of setback and defeat, there is no doubt about that. This means we live in the shadow of something that went wrong. We can’t escape this depressing fact; we can’t pretend to be able to start afresh with “new ideas” as if the past had never occurred. That road is a perilous one, though not a few are now in the process of taking it. On the other hand, we can’t go back and try mindlessly to repeat what happened. That would do no good either: it would only lead, as Marx put it, to the repetition of tragedy which is farce. What, then, can we do ?
I would suggest several things. First, we need to understand exactly what went wrong in the 1960s and why. I mean this not superficially; we need to grasp in detail the logic of failure, the mechanism of defeat and cooptation, or else all of it will likely happen again. Those of us who experienced the 1960s firsthand have to make ourselves wiser for the next time, if there is a next time. The counterculture has been criticized for its inability to “transcend the irony of mass culture.” Actually it was a longshot that it would be able to do so, for the counterculture was little prepared to ward off the blandishments of the market and media. After all, virtually everyone in the counterculture had grown up within the artificial paradise of mass culture; even when the young rebelled against it, they still accepted many of its presuppositions. What is required, then, to break away from something apparently so all-consuming ? How does one free oneself from a condition which seems able to buy or coopt everything, even dissent ? These are questions which have to be addressed, and the 1960s provide an excellent setting for studying them.
Second, we need to go back to that tumultuous decade and try to recover its unrealized possibilities. There were a lot of things that happened during that period, both in the political and cultural realms, which were highly original. A great many imaginative forms of all types were created which briefly saw the light of day and then were quickly commodified. It might be well to return to these original moments and see what can be learned from them. They could serve as takeoff points for new developments in the future.
Third, those of us who were affected by the 1960s need to be careful not to turn on that decade like frustrated lovers. We expected much and it was not forthcoming. Under the circumstances, the inclination exists to reject what happened then as a mistake or a seductive illusion. This may be a natural reaction, but it is not the best way to handle disappointment. Actually we have almost exactly the opposite obligation. We need to do what we can, publicly and privately, to preserve the memory of what was highest and best in the 1960s before these traces disappear altogether. This is not an easy task because of the ambiguity many of us feel about that period and the problematic relationship we still have toward it. However, it can’t have escaped anyone that we’re now in the midst of a wholesale assault not only on the values of the 1960s but on the factual truths of that time, on what actually happened and why. Part of the assault is politically motivated; it’s the usual kind of reinterpretation that the victors impose upon the vanquished. However, part of it also has to do with the way the culture industry chews up and reprocesses “facts” and “values” until they
become cliches. In either case, the effect is the same. What was once
meaningful soon gets reduced to trivia. Already the generation just now coming of age has no idea what the 1960s were about. How could they ? They know nothing but distortions. This situation imposes a responsibility on those who believe that there are things worth salvaging from that decade. First of all, however, these things have to be seen before they can be salvaged. Simply making them visible is a task that cannot be shunned; if it is, then the best of the 1960s could be lost forever.
Finally, we need to learn better than we have so far how to live in periods of retrenchment. Perhaps a closer study of history would be useful here. It may be satisfying to read about the heady successes of earlier movements — the 1776s, 1789s, and 1917s — but what about the aftermath of defeats ? How did people hold themselves together in bad times ? What attitude did they take toward a past which they had once heavily invested themselves in, only to find it later effaced or denied by the new political and cultural realities ? It might not be edifying, but it would be helpful to understand how the radicals of the French Revolution coped with Thermidor, or later with the Restoration; how the German revolutionaries of 1848 dealt with the bleak years of the 1850s; how the French working class preserved remnants of solidarity and hope after the devastating suppression of the Paris Commune; how German radicals tried to keep alive the “council idea” after the defeat of the Revolution of 1918-1919; or how disappointed Russian revolutionaries confronted the “betrayal” of their ideals in the 1920s and 1930s (a careful study of Victor Serge, to mention only one example, would be especially rewarding).
The list could go on; it is unfortunately a long one. The point I want to make, though, is that there is a lot more to be gained by looking back at this regressive side of history than one might think. To keep us going forward, the historical experience of the past is about all we have. We certainly can’t fall back any longer on the kind of revolutionary optimism which led Rosa Luxemburg to declare that we may lose all the battles — but we would win the last one. We know now that there is no guarantee we won’t lose the last one as well. Still, I think we could go at least a little way toward insuring against this by following some of the suggestions I have made here. The 1960s, it’s true, have ended in shambles. Nevertheless, it’s possible to try and pick up the pieces and put them together again but this time in different combinations.
I can almost fully endorse Reed’s statement. My possible reservations have to do with elaboration of details and different emphases. Let me begin with what I find most interesting in Reed’s account.
Unlike most Left analyses of the New Left as either a consciously mediated product of the more enlightened sectors of the Old Left (Denitch) or a spontaneous outburst of creativity and frustration (Breines) — both accounts certainly true in part — Reed’s statement relates the phenomenon to the dynamics of American mass culture: the extension of commodification to intellectual production and political movements. Seeing the New Left in this light allows us to focus on the logic of system shifts from the New Deal to the post-New Deal model and relate the rise and demise of that New Left to broader social processes. That the predominant visions tended to be derived from the past and that their realization was sought by politicizing the personal dimension testifies to the cretinizing effects of mass culture in blocking the formation of genuinely new visions and the instrumentalization of the various movements as shock troops of the commodity form’s penetration of the last bastion of resistance to further capitalist rationalization: the self and the personal. This also explains why, with the effective reconstitution of a new mediational black elite and the phasing out of the Vietnam war the most lasting result was generalized narcissism.
However, the system shift for which the New Left may have been a social catalyst did not quite take place as smoothly as it should have, and the pathological recycling of a pre-New Deal model within a New Deal administrative context that could not be effectively dismantled in spite of immense efforts to do so only means that the conditions which generated the New Left are still with us — only in temporary remission. If anything, the original problems have been intensified: the more effective administration of black marginality, the intensified disintegration of the traditional family in the absence of an alternative working model, the impossibility of the system to rationalize itself or function independently of a growing and counterproductive central bureaucracy, the ineradicability of inflation and unemployment — these and other anomic conditions make the introduction of a not-yet-existing alternative model of further capitalist rationalization all the more urgent. When an alternative model will be eventually excogitated, and it becomes necessary to politically implement it in order to overcome the forces of stasis and reaction, it will become expeditious (as usual in American history) to precipitate a crisis and vent latent discontents. It is then that a functionally equivalent version of the New Left will be once again allowed its day. If the lessons of the history of the New Left will have been learned, maybe the outcome will not be once again only instrumentalization and integration into computerized misery, but also emancipation and the beginning of qualitative change.
I think the view expressed in the opening statement of this section is sadly accurate, but there was a real dilemma behind the problems. Old Left styles of activism, what in French is called “le militantisme,” could not be revived effectively in the 1960s. The mainstream of the movement rejected the impersonality and “puritanism” of traditional activism. The movement arose from a protest against a technocratic system in which, to paraphrase Fanon, “objectivity is always against the rebel.” The struggle for personal self-realization on the Left contained an implicit protest against “reality,” or what, in any case, American society used for reality in this period. There was no question of basing a long-term “disciplined” activity on an “objective” analysis of the situation in the traditional style.
The sectarian groups were engaged in what we might have called at the time a “nostalgia trip,” doomed to failure from the start. The longing for an ordered world in which objectivity and discipline guaranteed success was necessarily frustrated by the absence of a traditional intelligentsia or working-class support for the movement. Thus the personality structures and motivations presupposed by traditional organizational forms were never available as a basis for old-fashioned activism. The caricature of the Old Left these sectarian groups managed to produce was a destructive dead end.
So what could the movement fall back on ? The apparently radical refusal of normal daily life and the heavy burden of repression carried over from the 1950s led to ultimately cooptable changes in the sexual compensations for alienated labor. The moral fervor and hopes born in the struggles faltered or lost their immediate relevance. All attempts to find a middle term between counterculturism and sectarianism proved unable to resist attack from those currents, which were far more influential with the mass of participants in the movement.
I suspect that we are not so much clearer today than we were in the 1960s on how to organize and struggle effectively in a society that no longer produces the human types and problems out of which grew traditional forms, and in which traditional “bourgeois culture” has all but collapsed. If there should be another upsurge of mass struggle in the 1980s, for example, around war in Central America, I believe we would quickly confront similar problems once again. Perhaps the existence of a well-known historical precedent offers hope.
I don’t feel that Pan-Africanism ever “sought” or found “wholesale theoretical clarity.” I do agree, however, that in its devitalized state during the 1970s its focus was personal actualization through a combination of ritual, nostalgia for a nonexistent, romantic Africa, and mysticism.
Pan-Africanism, or even black nationalism, was primarily a cultural, rather than political, position, but in its most radical period, probably around 1969 or 1970, Pan-Africanism (at least as it was expressed in art) talked of violent revolution and attacked the bastions of political power (both the predominantly white power structure and its black middle-class allies). Perhaps the hostility and rebellion expressed through rhetoric and art were no more than middle-class youth’s equivalent of the riots of the poor. In many ways the antiwhite rage of black nationalists and their refusal to participate in the system were cathartic and, thus, primarily therapeutic.
The theoretical impulses underlying the Pan-Africanism of “the Sixties” were not initially egocentric (although one could argue that the rage and sense of injustice that create a radical is extremely personal). Pan-Africanism, or more generally black nationalism, was born out of a belief that to become a part of the American system was to integrate into a “burning house” and out of a sometimes sentimental and patronizing identification with the problems of the black poor. I feel that the reduction of Pan-Africanism to a cultish and mystical orientation (Islam, the Yoruba religion, an interest in authentic African culture that required considerable, individual study, plus accompanying interests like vegetarianism and astrology) resulted because political activity was stymied by repression and police violence. In other words, radical theory was not at first interested in “personal revitalization” that led radicals away from political action. Rather, the emphasis on “getting oneself together” came about because people had reached a state of alienation that made reform inconceivable to them but was not sufficient to fuel a revolutionary response. The failure to move the sincerely felt rejection of the system to another level and to redirect the political rhetoric to an analysis of ways to confront the system resulted from fear of harassment, imprisonment, and perhaps death, and from the Pan-Africanist’s contentment with his essentially comfortable middleclass and/or bohemian existence.
I think there is a problem if you start out by assuming that the New Left failed en bloc as if it were a total disaster and utterly failed in all of its emancipatory goals. Because the more grandiose expectations of the movement weren’t fulfilled tells us nothing about the actual advances that may have been won during the period; more, it leads us in the direction of a nihilistic totalization instead of a critical analysis.
I am impressed, rather, with the fact that a considerable degree of transformation did take place as a result of the counterculture and the black nationalist movement, despite the overall failure to lead the faithful into the promised land or to overturn the main relations of domination. Some of this has been substantive in the sense of providing a matrix for ways of living that are absolutely more liberated now than they were in 1959, for example, those of the women’s or gay movements, neither of which could have happened were it not for the opening provided by the counterculture. Some has been prefigurative, in the sense that the movements of the 1960s provided the theoretical break which permitted today’s most promising movements, for example, the social-ecological, to take root. Another example, not widely appreciated: the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua is profoundly affected by countercultural ideology, much of the leadership having grown up in that decade and having considerable exposure as students to the main emancipatory tendencies of the time.
In general, there is much more of a healthy distrust of authority now than in 1959, thanks in good measure to the movements of the 1960s. I am not trying to be Pollyannaish; the country as a whole is in disastrous shape, with most progressive social movements in disarray. Insofar as the Right has triumphed, some degree of the responsibility must be borne by the Left; and to a degree, the mechanism Reed outlines of the failure of the Left would apply: mass culture is that strategy chosen by capital to absorb, blunt, and fragment mass spontaneity, whatever form it takes. However, I don’t think the process is seamless; it may shift the terms of the struggle but cannot abolish them. Also, I don’t feel that the mechanism outlined is the only one by which the hegemony of the Right has been reasserted in recent times. Others have been more straightforwardly external, for example, the fact that Nixon abolished the draft and pulled U.S. forces out of Indochina, thus undercutting the material impetus behind the youth rebellion. Another mediation is more directly mass-psychological. I believe that the Oedipal implications of the youth and black rebellions provoked massive anxieties among the petit bourgeoisie and workers, and this, in turn, fueled much of the reaction that followed. Lacking material alliances with these classes — indeed, such alliances were inherently impossible given the basic alignment of forces in America — it was inevitable that the counterculture would be sacrificed. Once the culture industries figured out how to use the impulses behind it for the purposes of consumerism, its days as a major political force in America were finished. Under these altered objective circumstances, it scarcely mattered what choices the New Left made: it was bound to be squashed, to survive only as a prefigurative remnant of the revolution that is yet to come.
Your various responses raise several critical issues concerning the significance of the radicalism of the 1960s in relation to the developmental logic of the American social order. Taken as a whole, moreover, those responses suggest certain tensions which might be explored usefully.
1) I am struck that white and black radicalisms converged around a common orientation from very different directions. Not only were both camps disposed to commingle the personal and political, but also tended to search for “extrinsic” models, in Willingham’s phrase. Both aggressively and self-righteously contraposed themselves to what they cast as the values and attitudes of their parents and fetishized their own youth and novelty. Both looked to the underdeveloping countries for spiritual revitalization (perhaps rejuvenation ?) and were equally captivated by sloganeering that elevated peasant simplicity over technological prowess. The last was no doubt largely a rationalization of our powerlessness inside the United States, but it was a rationalization already connected with a model of opposition stylized from the mythology of the Noble Peasant either in revolutionary war or in assertion of pastoral authenticity. Is this convergence purely coincidental ? Might it suggest a general condition of stratum or culture of which both types of radical expression were artifacts ? In this light it may be interesting that in maturity the postwar baby boom cohort took as its political symbols John Anderson in 1980 (when not Reagan, who ran stronger in this cohort than in any other) and Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson in 1984 — all of whom demand attention exclusively on the basis of theatrical images of novelty, simplicity, and self-improvement ideology. This may be off the wall, but the strong parallels between these aspects of New Left style and the antimodernist quests among an element of American intellectuals since the Gilded Age might suggest the mediation of a subterranean cultural tendency.
2) There is, of course, a tension around how we should see the New Left (generically, black and white) in relation to capitalist system management imperatives. This tension appears most sharply — not surprisingly — between the comments by Kovel and Piccone, although Feenberg’s portrait of liberatory existential rebellion and Luke’s depiction of that rebellion’s embeddedness in the ontological principles of mass culture may best capture 1960s ambivalence.
A key issue is the extent to which radicalism fomented, precipitated, or was epiphenomenal to the crisis of the model of social management that had prevailed since the New Deal. The potential for political crisis certainly is intrinsic to the proto-corporatist logic through which the “service state” has cemented loyalties. The “squeaking-wheel” pluralism that has served as an integrative mechanism stimulates a proliferation of demands for privileged status that outstrips the normal capacities of the system to pay off. The “urban crisis” is a laboratory case. Now, activism pretty clearly exacerbated this crisis tendency by substantially increasing the level of demand and, as Bowles et al. demonstrate, increasing the costs of social management. In this sense radicalism helped to unravel the governing synthesis by propagating decentralist, participatory ideologies that stimulated the formation of new claimant groups.
At the same time, Piccone and others have argued that the forms that radicalism took in the 1960s drew attention to the irrational core of the social management configuration and provided mechanisms — through the same decentralized and participatory ideologies — for reformulation along more rational lines. From this vantage point, arguably, activism: a) ensured social peace by renegotiating the governing consensus to include black (as well as other racial minority and female) elites among privileged status groups, b) aligned with what we might now call the trilateral wing of the corporate growth coalition to refine the styles of American imperialism, and c) laid the foundation for a new, narcissistic politics that reconstitutes the growth coalition on a conceptual basis that — under the guise of localism and neighborhood on the one hand and national moral revitalization on the other — potentially excludes the labor movement from the matrix of privileged status groups and in the process deauthorizes a discourse of class politics in general and the role of the state as a guarantor of equality in particular. In this regard the Anderson/Jackson/Hart/Reagan phenomenon loses its ironic dimension; the popularity of that peculiar, mass-mediated populism — which began actually in a halting, inept fashion with Jimmy Carter in 1976 — is a culmination of tendencies present in the New Left all along. This is a politics appropriate to the cultural radicalism that Gross, Jordan, Luke, and other have identified.
What sense can be made of all this ? Was the New Left both a precipitant of crisis and agent of reactionary recomposition ? Was Gus Hall right all along ? Can we simply write these developments off to the tragic ironies of history, citing the flight of Minerva’s owl through Hegel and Marx ? How much was structurally determined ? Is there any lesson here at all ?
I would venture an unsupported guess that the majority of 1960s radicals, black or white, had only a superficial interest in any organized and ideological transformation of the political structure of America or Amerika. In retrospect much of the rebellion and the critique seem anarchist in nature. One indulged in a kind of ritualistic chest-thumping and denounced the “pigs” or “whitey.” The rejection of bourgeois values and lifestyle, the focus on the pastoral, and the emphasis on cultural
transformation are reminiscent of the anarchist tradition of William Godwin, Shelley, and other romantics. The rebellion of the 1960s was primarily expressed through violent language; the so-called revolution was a battle of words. Radicals spent the majority of their time proselytizing the previously converted, engaging in verbal struggle within radical ranks, and intellectualizing about the struggle in what Ed Spriggs, formerly of the Journal of Black Poetry and the Studio Museum of Harlem, called “the tea rooms of our revolution” (“For the Truth”).
The preference for talk over action in the insular environment of the college campus was accompanied by an extreme xenophobia. Luke is quite on the mark with his contention that we were revolutionaries “without a base.” The radicals of the 1960s hated and envied the rich and scorned the middle class. However, the greatest contempt, despite all the talk of “the people,” was reserved for the lower classes of America. Perhaps this refusal to transcend class lines was one of the reasons why it was so easy to denounce the Vietnam war without addressing oneself to the psychology, welfare, and revolutionary potential of the American troops. It was a rare breed of 1960s radical who gave any thought to the possibility that the American soldier was anything other than a baby-killer. We of the Black Nationalist persuasion sympathized with the Vietcong and excoriated the dumb niggers who couldn’t avoid the draft or volunteered to be the murderous dupes of the white man.
The insularity of our radicalism grew not only out of class prejudices but also out of racialism. Most black radicals directed their rage against all whites and, except for the Panthers, were hostile to and fearful of the notion of coalition. White radicals seemed enchanted by the ghetto gangsterism of the Panthers and Cinque and were eager to form masochistic and fantastic relationships with the cowboys of black radicalism. Interestingly enough these same white radicals seemed unwilling to interact with their intellectual counterparts in the black world.
Black and white radicals were separated by a cultural and social gulf. Most blacks, whatever their political orientation, were indifferent to the Beatles and even Jimi Hendrix. Segregation was a reality in radical worlds. It is revealing that in The Big Chill the only blacks in that allwhite, yuppie world existed for entertainment purposes. The blacks sang; the solitary Jew provided comic relief.
The revolution failed because nobody was really organizing the troops. How could there have been success when the only person you could convert to your vision of America was your roommate ? Black and white radicals, despite similar analyses, were unable to communicate with each other, and neither group was able to convince even a substantial minority of Americans that something was amiss in their society. The subsequent cosmetic integration of a few black people and women into the system was never recognized by the majority of the people as a response to radical attack but rather was perceived as proof that radicals were wrong all along in their distrust and rejection of the American Dream.
I’m struck by the overall pessimism of the responses to this dialogue, but I don’t feel uncomfortable with it. It doesn’t seem to me that any other position is permissible just now. A note of strident optimism would not only be inappropriate, it would be false for the times we live in. For the present and the foreseeable future, pessimism is realism.
Of course, all of us have been reflecting on a decade which, objectively speaking, was a failure. At least it must be labeled such as far as we are concerned, for the things we imagined or hoped for in the 1960s have certainly not materialized in the 1980s. Already histories of postwar America are being written which treat the New Left, the Civil Rights movement, the black rebellion, and the various forms of cultural upheaval during the 1960s as little more than a footnote to the age. Though these developments are given some attention, it seems to be mainly for reasons of embellishment, since all good narratives need a dash of color or a touch of the flamboyant. In many of these histories it’s clear that those events which continue to have an impact today originated not with the white or black revolutionaries; they stemmed instead from those other longer-lived “revolutions” of the 1960s — the revolutions which took place in technology and telecommunications, in global business investment and corporate mergers, in demographic shifts and the collapse of political party structures.
These texts make a valid point, though they exaggerate the irrelevance of the cultural and political explosions of the 1960s. Even if, as some have argued in this volume, these explosions were shallow or counterfeit; and even if, as others in this book claim, they were engineered by the system, and ultimately served the needs of the system, it is evident nonetheless that they also left residues and directions into the future which haven’t been fully measured or charted — and can’t be yet, since the full effects are still unfolding, still in process. This is not a statement of just that kind of optimism I’ve already said we need to avoid. Rather, it is an expression of the only philosophy I am able to defend today, a philosophy of open-ended pessimism (open-ended in the sense that I’m always ready and willing to reevaluate those things which, at the moment, seem to justify only the worst conclusions).
It appears to me that all but one or two of the participants in this discussion share this outlook. It’s a strange legacy to have been passed down from the 1960s, especially given the generally upbeat tone of that decade, but that’s the way things have turned out, and we have no choice but to face that fact. In light of this, and as a hesitant first step, what better can we do in these “dark times” than analyze the internal reasons for the failures of 1960s movements, or uncover and make known the external, managerial needs of the economy and polity which also helped undermine (or coopt) those same movements ?
I may be a little soft on the New Left, since I was not enough a part of it to feel betrayed. For me, the 1960s were a chance to escape from the 1950s. The epoch did not provide an identity so much as allow a previously imposed identity to be modified, and for this I remain grateful. For many others, though, the 1960s offered a great deal more. For all the eschewal of hierarchy, there was an expectation that those anointed in the New Left would somehow end up in command of a higher type of being if not of actual institutions. The hope was there, whether one called it revolution or social transformation; and as this hope became crushed, a sense of bitterness set in.
That the hope has been crushed is a certainty, but does this mean that the New Left was a fiasco ? Frankly, I find much of the critique leveled at the movements of the 1960s to be rationalization of one personal setback or another. To have begun political life so spectacularly and to end up in the ignominy of a tenure battle is galling in the extreme. For the victim of such a humiliating turn of events to turn to grandiose theories of the integrative powers of the capitalist apparatus is understandable, no doubt, but nonetheless totalizing and undialectical.
The New Left failed, beyond question. In case no one has noticed, there has not been a social transformation, much less revolution, in late capitalist society; and, yes, Eldridge Cleaver, Jerry Rubin, and Rennie Davis have become figures of fun. More to the point (since leadership is never to be trusted), the great mass of once youthful rebels have made peace, however uneasy, with the corporate state (there is no real peace to be made with the corporate state). Ultimately, the failure of the movements of the 1960s is measured by the shape of the movements of the 1970s and 1980s. The lack of any coherent Left opposition today is a responsibility of the Left opposition of a generation ago. That the New Left never matured continues to haunt us now. As Reed points out in his introduction to this volume, invoking the cooptive power of capitalist society may be a valid description but is no excuse.
Still, the New Left was no fiasco, and to regard it as such is a wretched substitute for critical thought. Of course, the New Left did not bring the Vietnam war to a close on its own. Since when is a historical process on the scale of a war decided by any one movement ? Is there a rational person, however, who can argue that the antiwar movements of the 1960s made no constructive difference ? Only remember that Richard Nixon himself alleged that he would have used the Bomb on Hanoi were it not for his fear of the ensuing outrage on campuses. If this is indeed true — and there is no reason to doubt it — then all the failings of the New Left can be forgiven.
It makes as little sense to claim that the Civil Rights struggles got nowhere because racism persists in America, or the main activity of black politics has shifted to within the consensus of bourgeois democracy. Notwithstanding these unpalatable facts, real victories were achieved in the 1960s, and the changes in black consciousness resulting from them have been irreversible. The same could be said for a number of other struggles. After all, to say that the masses of participants have given up on radical change says only what everyone can see anyhow — that society was not transformed; but the masses are not everybody. What of the sizable minority of participants in the New Left who have kept their faith ? It is not for nothing that the core of activists in the movements of greatest immediate potential — antinuclear, antiintervention in Central America, ecology — are the over-thirty generation shaped in the 1960s. The New Left failed, ludicrously at times, pathetically at others, but it did not sink without a trace.
Where does this leave us ? Posed between apologetics and self-flagellation, and searching for the ever-elusive dialectic. There has never been — nor will there ever be — a revolutionizing process which turned out very much as its protagonists intended. This is true whether the revolution succeeds or fails by its own terms and no doubt has to do with the illusions immanent in all praxis. However, the only thing that matters is whether we can learn from experience and do better the next time. What, then, is to be learned from the 1960s ?
Huddling against the savagery of Reaganism, it is easy to forget how much was signified by the Indochina War: for the first time, a decisive defeat suffered by Western imperialism in direct combat. It seems to me that what the movements of the 1960s were — and what they had to suffer as a consequence — was primarily shaped by this reality. Both of the main components of the New Left — the antiwar and the Civil Rights movements — were fundamentally anti-imperialist in nature. The antiwar movement was directly so; and the Civil Rights movements were antiimperialist because racism is ultimately an imperialism that has become internalized. Of course, these movements did not become anti-imperialist accidentally, but only because imperialism had been weakening, so that various nationally oppressed groups were able to launch coherent assaults upon the system of metropolitan control. The specifics of the 1960s were comprised by linkages between masses of youth in the metropolitan regions and these rising oppressed groups. This linkage was itself made possible because of the weakening of patriarchal authority under the conditions of the youth-centered consumerist culture of late capitalism.
It is, therefore, quite stupid to berate the movements of the 1960s for their concern with Third World models of liberation, when that concern was the expression of the raison d’etre for the very historical emergence of the New Left. Obviously one has to remain critical of any romanticization that leaves behind the reality of Third World revolution while neglecting what is happening on the home front. A good deal of this happened. However, much of the criticism of the New Left goes further to suggest that it was a mistake in the first place to get involved with emancipation in the Third World. Setting aside the cryptoracism and anticommunism, it can be said that such positions deny the source of what was transcendent in the New Left. They take the very heart out of the 1960s, its universalizing motion.
The failure of the 1960s was, in my opinion, two failures rolled into one: no way was found to get across the generations; and no sustained grip was taken on any force of production. I am enough of an unreconstructed Marxist to believe in the latter as a sine qua non for any revolutionary process; and in the absence of the former conditions, namely, a bridging of the generations which would have permitted linkages with socially productive adults (i.e., workers), the movements of the 1960s were bound to remain ineffective and ultimately puerile. Thus as soon as Nixon removed the principal material incentive for rebellion, namely, the draft, youth had nowhere to turn save the established order, always ready to integrate their desire into its consumerism. It seems to me, then, that the incorporation by mass culture was more the effect than the cause of the collapse of the New Left. I don’t mean to suggest by this that cultural engagement was not close to the heart of the politics of the New Left. It was the creation of a “counterculture” that kept the movement going, just as every truly radical force has to live by its own culture. However, the culture of the New Left, like every culture, could not feed on itself. Once it was established that the movement was not going to really take over, then it was only a matter of time before the counterculture would become negated by the very consumerist forces it had hoped to transcend. One can say that this tendency toward cooptation was present from the start; but that is no more than saying that the inability to develop a full-scale social transformation was present from the start. Ultimately, the New Left was brought down by the same egoism and failure of a genuine communalism as have plagued American radical movements from the beginning. In this sense, that is, in the sedimentation of history into subjectivity, consumerist society may be said to have won out in the end against the radicalizing forces of the New Left.
Can we do better the second time around, now that the crises in Central America, Southern Africa, and around the spectre of nuclear cataclysm provide fresh sources of antiimperialist energy ? It’s hard to be sanguine and impossible to offer blueprints, especially given the cretinization of today’s youth. However, there is something in me — I hope you will call it nonrational rather than irrational — that refuses to accept the given as final. Revolutions are unpredicable not only in their outcome but also in the way they begin.
As with the volume itself, anyone reading these responses would be struck by the terminology of the discussion — there is the free and sometimes interchangeable use of such terms as “movement,” “Sixties,” or “New Left” to describe the object of analysis. In time, perhaps, scholars may stipulate which of these is to be the definitive term, but for present purposes the mixture remains — as if a special commentary on the complexity of the subject matter. Reed, in setting the call for the responses, speaks of “counterculturalists,” and “black nationalists” operating within a “New Left Movement” whose search for theoretical clarity led to “Marxism-Leninism,” and “Pan-Africanism,” respectively. That equation is not entirely satisfatory, but it charts the terrain over which we can discuss the “radical activism of the Sixties.”
Sometimes the terms do seem to beg for more systematic analysis, as when assertions about the fate of the movement turn on how we set the categories of the activity. Indeed, Feenberg asserts that the central dynamic of the movement’s decline was the failure of “all attempts to find a middle term between counterculturalism and sectarianism.” Ultimately, how we answer the question — what happened to the movement of the Sixties ? — may be conditioned substantially by how we set the “terms” of discussion.
In his initial provocation Reed notes what all of these writers assume; namely, that a peculiar, important radical activism of the 1960s disappeared from the American political scene. To be sure there remain dynamic bands of activists seeking change in foreign policy, in the use of nuclear weapons, in opposition of the death penalty, or in support for voting rights among racial and ethnic minorities. Despite such efforts a sense of the decline in radicalism is hardly controversial — it is to say what everybody knows. However, to say “why” the movement disappeared raises challenging questions of interpretation which could reach to the very authenticity of the activism itself.
The decline of the New Left is to be found in the way it came into being, i.e., as an insurgent movement separating from its biological and ideological foreparents. Feenberg says a rejection of the “Old Left” was a precondition for New Leftism. Radicals of the SNCC rejected the ideas their elders had used to accommodate racial segregation; SDS founders annoyed by anticommunism repudiated ideology as such. The nonideology had the virtue of protecting the new movement from past squabbles among Left groups. It also eliminated one pretext the government had used to attack radicals (as in the Cold War). Early on, the New Left assumed a quality that set it apart in the evolution of American progressivism.
In avoiding the old anchors the New Left turned to its readiest resource — youth and the energy intrinsic thereto. This was a productive move. Simple, innocent idealism inspired massive, selfless political action that pointed the nation to important social relations in need of change. However, that idealism obscured the difficulty that children of middle-class America could have in forging serious structural change. In retrospect, these authors say, that difficulty came in no small part from the way in which the New Left developed on top of a certain sense of place wherein the activists retained an affirmative stance toward middle-class society and its terms for political change. Political/ideological inquiry was unnecessary as the activism became apolitical, seeking mere “social” change. Jordan: “I would venture [a guess] that the majority of 1960s radicals, black or white, had only a superficial interest in any organized and ideological transformation of the political structure.” Indeed, both Jordan and Gross say that the real gains of the era resulted from the normal operation of American democratic institutions rather than a political program of the movement. The New Left was like a midwife to reform.
Kovel takes pains to credit this idealism with what it did, i.e., it brought some “real victories.” He fears that those victories may be ignored even by the now older idealists looking back at themselves, but he acknowledges that the movement failed. First, it was unable to ever find a way to “get across the generations,” and, second, it was unable to get a sustained grip on any means of production.
Gross makes a similar argument saying that the New Left was characterized by properties of youth — optimism and naivete. Such a perspective could not confront realistically the problems of the activism (failures, miscues) typically leaving the activists unable to counter the response from the state.
How did the state respond ? There is pointed reference (especially by Jordan) to the repressive police actions, but there continues to be special emphasis on noncoercive action: factors internal to the movement itself, and the historical shift in late twentieth-century bourgeois society.
New Left radicalism occurred in the context of a society changing under its own expansionist impetus. This parallelism between change and Left demands meant that legitimations would be borrowed and confused between the two. Piccone and the others assert that the New Left was insufficiently aware of the parallel activity and of the possibility that the “system shift” would alter real relationships of injustice. They insist on an explanation that, in Piccone’s words,
… relates the phenomenon to the dynamics of American mass culture: the extension of commodification to intellectual production and political movements. Seeing the New Left in this light allows us to focus on the logic of system shifts from the New Deal to the post-New Deal model and relate the rise and demise of that New Left to broader social processes.
Such a critique traces the “special quality” of the New Left to the atomization of the individual resulting from the rise of mass society, in which the search for personal identity becomes a central burden of everyday life. Our activists are unable to escape the burden as well. The individual searches for self-realization in movement activity. Such personalism avoided engaged political critique. Involvement became “meaningful” insofar as it was satisfying. The tension over whether activism should be judged by its “political” as opposed to its “cultural” impact caused excited debate that cut across racial and ethnic lines during the radical 1960s.
The New Left was reinforced by the satisfaction of expanding interpersonal contacts and experimentations — a hallmark of the movement. It was fueled by a commonsense view of justice which contradicted the restrictive (racial, ethnic) view of the middle class and its prudery. There was a ready and increasingly holistic repudiation of one’s society, but it was more rebelliousness than rebellion. (Jordan notes how the white intellectual radicals were disinclined to engage in dialogue with their black intellectual radical counterparts due to an “enchantment” with “ghetto gangsterism.”) There was “a preference for talk over action” (Jordan); getting oneself together, resulting in a conversion atmosphere which saw movement leaders swing between ideological positions widely different in content.
In those times such changes were seen as moves, indeed growth, to higher and higher levels of clarity; but the present critics now regard this change as functional at the personal level, if at all. As modes of radical thought, such changes seemed neither fastened on the developing American state (the readjusting New Deal structures) nor sufficiently aware of the seductive pull of political action as an antidote to personal uncertainty and insignificance. It is in this sense that, for all its confrontational aspects, our authors see in New Left radical critique rather more the quality of avoidance than engagement.
There was an inability to keep a critical perspective on the developing state and the changing mix of social repression. This is no easy task in any case. If we grant Marx’s suggestive comments in The Eighteenth Brumaire that youth-driven efforts to break with ascendant institutions are constrained by dependency on the very terms of their upbringing, then the 1960s had even greater temptations. These entailed a variety of “extrinsic” phenomena including, we can now admit, a view that modern complexities are too frustrating given the unchallenged accomplishments of ancient African kingdoms, calming Eastern meditation, or simple life in pastoral Mississippi. There was the growing fascination with various Third World symbols and works (as well as that romanticism by white radicals of the black American “lumpen”). This seemed to substitute for the tight-fisted working-class focus that would have been provided by the Old Left. Our critics now argue that reliance on extrinsic ideology put the burden of accounting for the most advanced society on theories from less developed places. That presents no problem in matters of simple justice, but as one moved to interact with an elaborate market mechanism, things were more difficult. (Kovel warns correctly that this point can be overdrawn.)
The critics believe that, as a movement, the New Left never understood the market or the media. The Manichaeanism crucial to foreign colonialism would obscure the dynamics of pluralist society.
The demand for racial equality masked a state-inspired drive for “more effective administration of black marginality.” The fight against poverty became more meliorative federal welfare programs. The struggle against the Vietnam war can claim more direct impact but mostly in redirecting temporarily dysfunctional imperialist strategy. On the whole the changes made were just enough to rationalize racial and other irrational categories into a system of consumption — to expand the domestic market society while cooling out any split-offs (consumers) that would require specialized appeals or sustain alternative competitive producers.
Thus those who may feel discomfort in subordination to the market are charmed when critics show up in the media. Affirmative feelings replace skepticism when characteristics of derision — being black, poor, gay, southern ? — become a media preoccupation. Nasty questions about the shape of the economic pie or the conditions of work or the basis of allegiance lose momentum as the formerly despised find themselves projected in a welcomed format.
The spread, among the populace, of news about revolutionary personalities or activity is viewed as a saga of autonomous acts supportive of structural change. Free breakfast programs, communal living, neighborhood self-help, draft counseling, etc., seemed to be evidence of the surging appeal of the radical program. In reality the popularity of revolutionaries assumed the form of, and thus legitimated, the ordinary marketeering intrinsic to the capitalist enterprise. The artifacts of counterculture themselves become commodities. In celebrating the growing recognition of their works, the radicals were celebrating the redirection of their thrust. In his response Luke is blunt: “The New Left unexpectedly served as the shock troops of mass culture and its corporate producers, tearing down the last constraints on circulating all commodities to anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
The movement, which enjoyed widespread popular attention, was nonetheless unable to establish reflective discourse to complement mass activity and to focus anticipatory attention to the defensive tactics of the state. The lack of a reflective attitude was due in part to the movement’s open-endedness that had, since its very birth, set the New Left apart from both Old, especially Communist, Left and from the parent generation. However, the very open-endedness of this “belief system” would soon lead to a collective desire for a coherent “world view.” The impatience of youth served the process. Its own superstars would come to ask, “But what is the correct ideology ?”
Ironically in the mid-1970s when the New Left was in the throes of decline, an important ingredient was the serial conversion to one form or another of ideological lines promoted by the traditional radicalism. In one sense this was not surprising. The Old Left was anchored in one or another of the Leftist parties, in the labor movement, in academic or other intellectual professions. Of course, for the New Left these institutions were attacked as irrelevant.
It was this turn to ideology that made it difficult to “continue some of the more important cultural and political projects begun in the 1960s instead of abandoning them altogether as many did” (Gross). Ideological “debate” resulted in the introduction into the movement of formal thought systems with world views.
The Old Left, held at bay by the preclusive assumptions of the New Left, now became a sort of ultimate source for ideological clarity. The prefabricated mode of its thought, however, fitted, rather than challenged, the commercial dynamics and vitiated the emancipatory appeal it could have had. The emancipatory aspect of American progressivism, having at first been rejected by the youth, was now banalized in the way it was peddled by the party bearers. Energetic recruitment schemes into the Party, or the New party, utilized a form that could just as well have served recruitment into the Pepsi Generation.
Shopping among mutually exclusive ideologies and the reduction of movement conferences to arenas for competition among them became a perverse way of subjecting activists to the “market of ideas.” Pretty soon it was not exactly clear what was meant when somebody called for “revolution.” On one coast it was recommended that rape be used as an instrument for politics; on another hallucinogens were recommended. Any given idea deserved attention, a point of view at one with the commodification of thought.
Jordan and Kovel are careful to argue that the decline of the New Left is not fully grasped by mere analysis of ideas. There was an intransigent political system. “… people had reached a state of alienation that made reform inconceivable to them but was not sufficient to fuel a revolutionary response. The failure to move the sincerely felt rejection of the system to another level and to redirect the political rhetoric to an analysis of ways to confront the system resulted from fear of harassment, imprisonment, and perhaps death” (Jordan). Even under affluent conditions, not all revolutionaries are bought off. Those who aren’t face real consequences. Militants found the administration of justice to be arbitrary, especially in rural, white-supremacy counties of the South, and conditions in the state jail systems were oppressive everywhere. On several occasions police got out of hand trying to manage mass demonstrations. Key losses in militant black leadership resulted from unofficial violent attacks by renegades with no formal link to public agencies. A strict ideological focus will obscure the way militancy provoked and suffered from oppressive acts during the 1960s.
Did the failure of the activism of the 1960s mean anything ? Were there consequences for actual people ? Was there some injustice that lived on ? Well, if Malcolm X were to somehow return and pronounce the chickens home to roost, some fingers would have to point not to the physical death of a popular president, but to the deathly social conditions (survival !) of people caught in the self-reinforcing confinement of the welfare state. Herein is the problem, i.e., that the activism of the 1960s came increasingly to reduce the potential for emancipation (and all sense of alternative possibilities) to the welfare state and/or pluralistic politics.
How was one to know, however, that there would come new conservative administration(s) satisfied with the historic social privileges but perceptive about the delicate public-sector engineering necessary to retain them ? The conservatism of presidents from Nixon through Carter to Reagan differed mostly (and not insignificantly, of course) in their policies on popular (especially liberal and black) involvement. The Reagan administration in particular, has shown that “big government” is truly “the executive committee of…” Alas, matters are never as simple as we wish. Insofar as the welfare state made access to electoral decision-making part of its program, then “participatory” demands found an immediate grounding through which reform ideals were offered up to the same (pluralist ?) negotiating principle undergirding the two-party system. Here by cooptation and there by repression, the insurgency was pacified, and expanded participation made room for inclusion of the insurgents !
So what do we fuss about ? Merely the persistence of poverty among a minority of the overall American population ? In the midst of power and glory ? It is measured accurately now by our government’s statistical bureaus. Ministrations thereunto are the cherished provinces of helping agencies who use those statistical measurements to explain their requests for incremental budget increases.
Well, there is cause to fuss for two basic reasons. First, the economic hardship among the population continues. It results from a lack of democracy in economic affairs. Strict (shortsighted ?) adherence to the principle of profit encourages runaway plants, plant closings, and the organization of meaningless work for trivial wages. Those who try are unpersuasive when they say the lack of opportunity open to individuals in poverty is divorced from the activities of economic elites.
Those who make that argument became prominent during the Reagan era. They are “neoconservatives” who say the central political issue is the role of the public sphere in promoting social well-being. Unlike traditional conservatives, they make negative social conditions the centerpiece of their analysis. Poverty among the people is documented to justify eliminating antipoverty government programs; the push for a color-blind society requires elimination of programs to help blacks and other disadvantaged racial minorities. Neoconservatives emphasize the lack of success we have had in removing social ills. There is a teasing confluence here with the progressivism of the 1960s insofar as this failure is traced to a flaw in modern liberal politics. Indeed, the focus on the statistics of victimization and the attack on liberalism seem to checkmate the voice of “the Sixties.” The political thinking of the movement seems exhausted in the critique neoconservatives make of the affirmative state.
The error here is a profound one for which space allows only brief comment. It ignores key aspects of 1960s idealism, particularly the insistence on the salutary role of participation. Growing involvement was the antidote to the lingering effects of isolation. The participatory experience, it was thought, was a precondition for a transformation wherein individuals came to see their well-being in terms of the exercise of choice. In the 1980s, neoconservatives situate the causes for social ills (unemployment) in factors external to and beyond the proper scope of governmental processes (family breakdown, for example). However, they are merely celebrating a bogus choice that remains subordinate to the received sentiments of oppressive traditions. By the expectations of the 1960s, the welfare state — as a humane, if flawed, response to this situation — will inevitably come up short because it fails to generate a kind of participation that is transformative. “Upward” pressure on the political system is eliminated as disadvantaged groups reaccommodate themselves to the prevailing pattern of privilege.
Also, for all its esthetically engaging properties/outrages (i.e., those which tickle our critical faculties), the bottom line is that the cooptation of the personnae and artifacts of the 1960s has come in service of the same commercial motives. Countercultural products of all kinds are promoted materialistically; but aren’t “racism” and others forms of bigotry functionally equivalent ? What are we to expect when (?) they reacquire marketability ? Can’t that be done more readily in the absence of a popular and vigilant movement ? Isn’t it inevitable given the primacy of the commerical motive ?
One answer has been out there all along. It results from the logic of movement decline which suggests that, in America, racial minorities and other disadvantaged groups have been assigned quasi-citizenship. They’ll see a future sometimes bright with freedom and sometimes dark with prejudice. Each entails the other although the offensive quality will be mollified due to internal stratification within those groups. It is not, of course, the worst of worlds — but is it worthy of allegiance ?
An adequate understanding of the 1960s requires some determination as to whether it was a movement against this pattern or an episode in its realization. If, as I contend, there were lively elements of the former, then we are talking about an indispensible source of reflection on the American political system which will challenge us to respond critically and practically to the persistence of injustice.
If it is the latter, then what are we to make of the sacrifices and what are we to tell the children ?