After the last presidential election Bill Ayers, whose relations with Obama had been made an issue by the right wing, wrote a piece for In These Times describing his experience of notoriety. Reflecting on the events of half a lifetime ago and following up on Ayers' article, I wrote this.
Bill Ayers was certainly right when he noted in “It’s Been a Long Strange Trip,” (ITT, November 7) that his few contacts with Obama were in no way relevant to the election, that the Republican propaganda that featured his name so prominently is neither more nor less than McCarthyism, and that a wise leader will seek a broad variety of input, including the opinions of social critics. Though talk about Ayers, SDS, and the Weather Underground was only a distraction in this recent campaign, the fact remains that thoughtful examination of that era remains significant for historians and for all those engaged in activism today.
Few today would dispute the “rightness” of his generation of activists in the two chief causes of the day: support for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. In this broad sense, participants can be proud that their work hastened civil rights legislation, the end of the draft, and the cessation of hostilities in Southeast Asia. Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn are two of many examples of 60s radicals who went on to rich and productive careers without abandoning the goal of advancing social justice.
Still, Ayers is correct to criticize an attitude of mere nostalgia. Just as those of the New Left pointed out elements in the Old Left that they found erroneous or ineffective, progressives of today can benefit from the experience of Ayers’ generation. These impressionistic notes reflect the experience of one rank-and-file SDS member.
In one unfortunate way at least, the New Left replicated the Old it had meant to replace. Rejecting both the Soviet and the American empires, it was clear to SDS members that many dedicated leftists of their parents’ era had mindlessly “trailed” the policies of the USSR. This is obvious in the case of the CPUSA, and those who took a Trotskyist line, though capable of naming Stalin’s crimes, could be equally doctrinaire. Well aware of the problems this created, 60s activists nonetheless idealized third world leaders with uncritical adulation. The Fair Play for Cuba group could not criticize Castro. Progressive Labor ended up sharing the hero-worship of Mao that was sweeping China. The fact that Ho Chi Minh earned the title “father of his country” does not negate the fact the North Vietnam imposed policy on the equally heroic NLF from the south after the foreigners were finally expelled.
Surely it is better to acknowledge the mixed character of even a charismatic leader whom one generally supports. Today the temptation to follow a great man might lead some to Subcommander Marcos, others to defending every move of Hugo Chavez or the insurgents who now govern Nepal. It is always wrong to concede one’s own critical judgment in the service of an individual or a rigid ideology. Apart from the actual mistakes that may ensue, the adoption of a foreign “idol” isolates the activist from the American he must convince.
Of course, such self-isolation was a satisfying and intentional activity in the 60s. Apart from a few small groups who were inspired by older models of organizing such as the CIO or Saul Alinsky, many in the movement, especially as the decade wore on, strove to separate themselves from American society. Indeed the very concept of “revolutionary youth” as an interest group was culturally based. Whereas old labor demonstrations often carried the flag, and the first civil rights demonstrators wore suits, many SDS youth came to cultivate an appearance and a rhetoric designed to alarm and alienate the very American people whose minds they needed to change. Of course, in a complementary way, this created great warmth and solidarity among the protestors and a nation-wide network of easily identifiable, like-minded conspirators.
Similarly, the left of the 60s engaged toward the end of the era in a competitive drive toward stances of ever greater militance, regardless of material conditions. From attempting to address the general population, radicals came to concentrate on jockeying for influence within the small realm of the movement. Unfortunately, it is long been the case that, while the toppling of capitalism may be all but impossible, it is far more feasible to topple the largely like-minded competing faction. Only a few can accurately recall the “tendencies” that argued at the 9th National Convention that marked the end of SDS as a mass organization. What meeting was it in NYC where people were admitted only if they responded correctly when asked their position on Albania?
The 60s leftists got a great deal right as well, or they would not have been as effective as they were. They realized that the Vietnam War was not an expression of LBJ’s wickedness, or Nixon’s stupidity. Imperialism is not a mistake; it is a coherent and internally logical system that emerges naturally from capitalism. The opponents of civil rights are not necessarily ignorant people or those with inherently narrow minds. Racism assists some to have more power than others, and thus it is perfectly “rational” with regard to those people’s self-interest. The ill, the young and the aged, the newly arrived in America, all are vulnerable, not because their needs are unknown, but because they don’t generate the profits that lead to campaign contributions.
The tactical implication of this kind of analysis is striking. Just as the nobler factions of the labor movement always celebrate solidarity, and the general strike is the ultimate weapon of the working class, in the multiplicity of social movements today, people will have a chance to win only if they unite. For success, even perhaps for survival, anti-racist activists must cooperate with supporters of gay rights; anti-war people must link themselves with both welfare recipients and labor unions. One minority may be suppressed, even in a democracy, but non-white and gay and poor and handicapped and foreign-born and women and all the others short-changed by capitalism together are no minority at all, but a substantial, an overwhelming majority.
It is necessary to recall that politics is oriented to practical ends, to making things happen. It is a matter of compromise, negotiation, and constantly changing conditions. As a union person I always maintained that anything is possible with organization but, at the same time, admitted that few tasks are more challenging. As an Eisenhower-era adolescent fascinated with the ferocious example of John Brown, the romance of the IWW, and the dramas of the 30s sit-down strikes, I sometimes felt I was born too late. In fact, of course, it is never too late. May the struggle and the discussion continue.