by Matt Stoller, Sat Jan 20, 2007 at 02:13:49 PM EST
Over the past week, the work that we've done together on this blog on the New Left turned into a short essay that sparked a rather heated conversation over at TPMCafe. I don't believe the netroots is a political movement, I believe there is a new progressive movement, a 'Forward Left', and that we are one bridging public space for it. Even posing the question of we think of ourselves, though, and how we describe our ideology, seems to tickle a sensitive spot that makes it difficult to discuss our past.
There are two parallel conversations that bear on this conversation. One is the most important institutional legacy of the New Left - the labor movement. It's not well-understood, even among well-educated and likeable fellows like Ed Kilgore, just how reactionary labor was prior to the 1980s. I recently spoke with several experienced union organizers who came into labor in the 1970s, and we discussed this. The trade union leaders of the 1960s and 1970s owed their careers to the McCarthyite purges of their left wing rivals in the late 1940s. In the 1930s, Communists and sympathizers organized huge new industrial unions, but these people were purged after the 1948 Henry Wallace electoral debacle (Wallace was FDR's VP before Truman, and ran for President under the 'progressive party' label on a peace platform). The left-wing faction of labor recognized the problem of race, and had they remained in positions of power in labor, would have approached the youth surge in the 1960s very differently. But they didn't, and so labor turned towards a more business-oriented guild model of operation, basically a sort of industrial extortion of corporate interests to elevate some workers at the expense of others. As a result, instead of allies, the New Left faced a wall of implacably pro-war conservative labor leaders, and rejected them.
As the 1960s came to a close, the movement that existed fell apart. The end of the draft and the election of Nixon removed the pressure and demoralized a leadership bent on revolutionary change. As such, the exhaust fumes of the New Left in the early 1970s went in a number of different directions. Some members went into politics and academia, many dropped out of public life altogether, but a subgroup went in the labor movement. After thirty years of organizing, these left-wing organizers are now in charge.
It's very difficult to conceive of a new progressive movement that can succeed that doesn't encompass this enormous and powerfully progressive chunk of American politics. Fortunately, because of these New Lefters who stuck with it, we don't have to. Labor has become steadily more progressive over the last forty years, even as it has shrunk in size. It didn't have to be this way. The anticommunist hysteria didn't have to purge the left from labor and from American society at large. The New Left didn't have to come into politics facing an alliance of liberals and labor supporting a war in Vietnam and slow movement on desegregation. Taft-Hartley didn't just destroy the possibility of organizing workers (reversing FDR's legislation), it institutionalized anti-Communism among labor leaders. That legislation was the consequence of the debates of the 1940s, the ones Peter Beinart loves - a devastated left-wing and a labor movement that would no longer speak for working America.
The purges of the left in the late 1940s and early 1950s need to be better understood than they are. Sure we mouth revulsion of McCarthyite tactics, but the silencing of the left in all parts of American culture at that time goes a long way towards explaining our current predicament.
The lack of an institutional left for thirty years answers a question, an important question, that Glenn Greenwald is floating. He summarized a theme that flows underneath a lot of our discourse, the trivialization of war.
In our political discourse, there just no longer is a strong presumption against war. In fact, it's almost as though there is a reverse presumption -- that we should proceed to wage wars on whatever countries we dislike or which are defying our orders in some way unless someone can find compelling reasons not to. The burden is now on those who would like not to engage in a series of endless wars to demonstrate why we should not.
The reason that America treats war so cavalierly is because of McCarthy's anticommunist purges. The Progressive Party of 1948 lost at the polls for opposing the draft, calling for desegregation, and arguing that the Truman Doctrine would usher in a 'century of fear' (how close that sounds to Bruce Schneier's 'Security Theater' concept, or the idea of video-game wars!). Others can make the case that the Wallacites were naive, but it was the vicious repudiation of that group, the refusal to acknowledge that an anti-imperialist worldview was legitimate, that set the stage for what we have to deal with now. It wasn't just big forces that crushed the left of the time, it was specific tactics by both parties deployed against networks of people who then could no longer argue against warfare as the first choice among many. These people were stopped from speaking, and so we are where we are today.
WWII was seen as 'the good war', but since then, American has convincingly won only the first Iraq war and the war in the Balkans. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all damaged American security, with Korea at best a stalemate. The Cold War looked like a 'victory', although judging by Russia's recent actions that's not so clear anymore. But there's been more - the war on drugs, the war on poverty, and the war on terror (even the Cola wars). The post-WWII era has seen liberal wars, conservative wars, even commercial wars. It has truly been the century of fear, a bipartisan consensus for aggressive action without consideration of consequence. That period is coming to an end. Realists are depressed over the fact that our military-industrial complex is no longer capable of winning wars, and so is looking for new strategies to engage the world with an America constrained by severe resource and fiscal bottlenecks. They are going to find natural allies with us, a new progressive movement tired of the McCarthyite tactics of everyone from AIPAC to the DLC to entire Republican edifice.