Moving Away from the 1960s Left
by Matt Stoller, Sun Dec 31, 2006 at 09:05:34 AM EST
I've greatly enjoyed the discussions on the 1960s left and our movement. It's a complicated story with lots of swirls and eddies, and since we're all in the thick of what we're doing, it's hard to have any sense of distance. It's not clear that the internet left matters, but I believe that it's important to know who we are and where we come from as we concurrently develop a vision for the country we want to live in. As a nascent movement, we could flame out or not rise to the level of modern challenges, but hey, that's life. Sometimes stuff, even really cool stuff, doesn't work.
First I'd like to state a couple of assumptions. This is not a '1960s kidz' versus '2000 kidz' pissing contest. While there are inherently generational gaps in how I'm describing what's going on, I am not representing the internet left as a youth movement confined to one generation. The white part of the 1960s left movement was youth-based, but this one includes lots of people of all ages, including many who got their start in the 1960s. I am young for a blogger, at 28 - there are plenty of people working in this movement who are much older. In fact some commenters who bristle at how I characterize their memories are themselves part of the new progressive movement. I'm not just making this up to encompass as many people as possible. If you take the internet left as a coherent group, just look at some of the major concentrations - Moveon members are not young, and Dailykos readers are not young either. I was at Yearly Kos, and I was a whipper snapper. Certainly that's not representative, but still I don't see major college organizing centers today as catalytic to what we're doing, unlike in the 1960s when the Students for a Democratic Society or Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee played major leadership roles. Maybe that's because we have the internet and the 1960s generation had pop culture, though I would trace it differently.
Second, in terms of capturing the political system, the New Left, the liberals, and radical organizers of the 1960s failed, and the New Right of that period won. Culturally it's a very different story (they lost, we won), but institutionally speaking right-wingers have as much or more power than they did in the 1960s, though it's manifested less through cross-burning and more through extreme ghettoization, inequality, a fear-based health care system, and radically higher economic risk for the middle class. We can't pretend that this isn't the case just because it makes the right feel good. The 1960s left lost, and politically speaking in terms of strategy they should NOT be emulated.
This is not a universally held assumption. This comment from Frenchman and this one from Paul Rosenberg bristle at this idea; these two insightful and brilliant commenters are defending the purity of the 'Dirty Fucking Hippy', and point out that this archetype has been mischaracterized for all these years. Rosenberg argues that bloggers need to dream big and stop following the ins and outs of the 2008 race - in this they should imitate the DFHs. I don't really understand why 2008 shouldn't be a vehicle for debate over vision and big dreams, but I do have a question for those who want to defend the 1960s left and the strategies that generation pursued. Just where have all the DFH's gone? I'll tell you where they haven't gone - into the electoral system. Do you know who the 1960s left created in terms of successful political leadership? Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry. And those are the best of the bunch - sitting under them is an entire superstructure of less talented or less fortunate political figures who aspire to their place. Those are transactional leaders, a far cry from the transcendental revolutionary ardor of the time focusing on social justice. The 1960s left-wing didn't just cool of ardor, it disappeared and allowed its legacy to be captured by triangulating reflexively anti-liberal political creatures who trip up their immense talent with caution and big money politics. And it's ironic, because it's not necessary to do this anymore within the liberal culture that the 1960s New Left helped create.
The failures of the 1960s left are legion - from splinter groups supporting North Vietnam and third world tyrannical revolutionary movements and castigating America as an evil force to not working within the electoral process to venerating flashy conflict over organizing to valuing cultural conflict over persuasion. And yes, the right-wing likes to use these memes to discredit left-wingers as unAmerican, but that doesn't mean that these stereotypes had no basis in reality. They did, and they were excesses of a minority of the New Left that felt betrayed after years of organizing work. But they did exist, and the later abandonment of politics hardened these youthful passionate excesses into serious branding and institutional obstacles to liberalism . Even if the unAmerican 1960s left was all PR, the problem is still one of abandonment - PR needed to be rebutted, and it wasn't. There was no Atrios in 1971, just technocratic liberalism. Our right flank was totally exposed.
I'm not trying to frame this as the right does, that New Left radicals were funded by Communists and hate America. They weren't. There was some excess. Lots of people did and do stupid things. The war in Vietnam was much much worse than smoking dope and throwing a pie in someone's face on TV. And Bohemianism and attacks on radical leftism and liberalism go back to World War I, and prior to that. But so does economic populism and anti-corporatism, yet the PR battle of 1970-2000 was left to those who characterized the left as a bunch of pot-smoking lazy dilettantes and the right as manly soldier fathers. I don't care that DFHs existed, and I don't doubt that a bunch of them thoughtfully made critiques of contemporary politics (though many were apolitical young people that just wanted sex and fun). What frustrates is the abandonment, the capitulation to the reaction. It was as if Nixon won, and so everyone went home.
The consequences of the abandonment were severe. Where is the defense or institutional memory of the War on Poverty? John Edwards is running with poverty as a major theme, but I don't hear any defense of LBJs masterstroke, or that of government as an organizing force. Indeed the left-wing intellectuals that should have emerged and forcefully argued for liberal politics against a right-wing onslaught just seem to have disappeared. Now of course I'm not going to paper over the civil rights struggle or feminism, but where was the 1960s left when the crack epidemic was destroying urban America? Why is Joe Lieberman still allowed to tread on his few weeks in Mississippi in the 1960s?
The failure of the 1960s left goes back to two structural weaknesses - one is the assumption that liberals, radicals, and Democrats all made, that America was post-scarcity. The failure to understand that economic security allowed a political left led directly to the right-wing manipulation of economic risk to our current situation. The students of the New Left and the liberals of the time just assumed material progress, which left us unprepared for oil shocks. But instead of coming up with new ideas, the New Left turned inward and the liberals were scared away from political combat. You can see this today in how the new and progressive movement is basically without institutional help, mentorship, or funding. Retreat to academia and the personal sphere happened because the 1960s left ignored economics and failed to defend the public as a meaningful concept. So when a pugnaciously liberal populist force emerges, we ally with people like Jim Webb and not groups like NARAL or checklist liberals like Chuck Schumer.
The second biggest structural flaw was failing to coopt the liberal establishment, the big institutions. With the exception of unions (which have turned sharply more liberal), potentially liberal institutions - big foundations, media, government, progressive corporate entities - are all either conservative or cautiously technocratic. The lack of discussion over the War on Poverty, which is accepted as a failure even though it was not, contrasts deeply with the incessant carping about Vietnam. When Nixon took the air out of that tire, the New Left had nothing. The right-wing in the 1960s through the 1990s focused on institutional takeover, which is why many of us see them as people to be emulated and why we see the 1960s left as a group of good-hearted people that just didn't step up to their own ambitions.
Todd Gitlin, who many of you suggested I read, and his passage on page 436 of 'The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage', discusses this phenomenon.
The odds have been against the Left in laissez-faire-loving, race-divided, history-burying America from the start. The two-party system, solidified by law, militates against the ideological margins - even as the parties lose their hold on the voters. The New Left, like its predecessors, failed to create lasting political forms; when the SDS was torn apart, so was the chance for continuity. In the Seventies, affinity group models of participatory democracy helped discredit Leninist politics, but often at the price of discrediting leadership and lucid debate altogether. Whipsawed between anarchism and Leninism, the New Left failed to produce the political leaders one might have expected of a movement so vast; it devalued too much intelligence, was too ambivalent abut personal prowess. The millennial, all-or-nothing moods of the Sixties proved to be poor training for practical politics. The premium the movement placed on the glories and agonies of the pure existential will ill equipped many of us to slog away in coalitions in a society crisscrossed by divisions, a society not cleanly polarized along a single moral axis, a society not poised on the edge of radical change. Therefore, for both long-standing and recent reasons, a substantial Left has been conspicuous by its absence since the McGovern debacle. When Nixon and then Reagan went too far in tier efforts to damage or circumvent legitimate opposition, and suffered the crippling of their war-making powers, there no was Left to say: These are the consequences of imperial passion run amok. With its moderating genius, the political system worked to contain the scandals as matters of lawbreaking, bad judgment, bad character, shoddy administration.
Gitlin is wrong in certain respects, but the book was published in 1987 and at that time few could foresee the rise of the extreme right. What I sort of hope we can do is acknowledge that the left of the 1960s failed in some very serious ways, and move forward from there in not repeating those mistakes. If you want to talk vision, the 1960s left could 'feel' politics with the best of them, but if you want to talk solid institutional structures, it's the New Right or the radical organizers of the 1930s who are the right model. They created a movement that allowed people to be liberal or conservative even after they started families, to build their participation in the public sphere into their economics and their lives. Now of course as a child of the 1980s, I was apolitical until 2002, so it's not like I'm blameless. None of us are. And the point isn't to cast blame, since hey, we can all be part of this newfangled cool internet progressive thingy and all of us are going to have to pitch in if we are going to dodge very angry Arctic ice. And there's a persuasive argument that the internet was built by progressive radicals from the 1960s who went to Silicon Valley, that the culture of the time made strides that I am overlooking. Still, that Arctic ice is very angry.
Anyway, I just want us to know our history. Thoughts? Comments?