Thursday, December 23, 2010

One, Two, Many Mario Savios

I was criticised by a poster on eschaton for reconsidering the 'New Left' of the 1960s as at best a mixed blessing, after he cited Mario Savio (Berkeley Free Speech Movement), who found the system so odious that only withdrawal sufficed, and further participation in it acquiescence. I responded thusly:

I watched Mario Savio, Mark Rudd, Ted Kaptchuk and too many others fade into solipsistic irrelevance, as they wildly misunderstood the United States as ripe for progressive revolution rather than reactionary repression. By the time they were finished, having withdrawn from participation in an admittedly deeply flawed, odious system, they were, on the one hand, Weatherpeople and Symbionese, embracing and committing violence, even fatal violence, in potted emulation of third-world anticolonialist movements and the Cultural Revolution credulously viewed, or Progressive Labor people who, seeking sufficient purity, eschewing all music save Beethoven's and, in seeking actual role models amongst the world's nation states, embraced Mao's China, even, in one group I sat in on, Hoxha's Albania. And let's not forget the left's rampant sexism of the times: the classic remark was Stokely Carmichael's 'The position of women in the movement is prone.'

The SDS started out with a principal belief in participatory democracy. Their stance in the Johnson-Goldwater campaign was 'Part Of The way With LBJ'. They could have evolved, as Johnson sank into Vietnam, into more participation, more outreach. They didn't. They did quite the opposite, and played into the hands of the right. I'm entirely aware that this didn't occur in a vacuum: they were opposed with every weapon of propaganda and force the right, the corporatists, the racists, the national security priesthood, all of them could muster. I know that. But in the end, they were complicit in their demise as a viable political force in this country. And, while their opposition to racism, and later (too much later) sexism, racism and homophobia, was enormously positive, many of their other positions and tactics wound up more diversionary than effective, splitting and isolating the left. It needn't have been so. The withdrawal Savio, and others, not only advocated, but demanded as the only admissible moral response, was, and is, wrong.

Only those viewing the past through the rosiest of glasses deny the egotism, ineffectiveness and descent into political irrelevance of much of the 'New Left'. Been there done that. One need concede nothing in hatred and opposition to the right to fault their analyses, their tactics, their blindness to how the vast majority of the country saw them. The right used every fair and foul means in opposition. Some, like the Berrigans and Zinn, avoided the trap. Many did not. I was there, i put myself on the line, I thought long and hard about such things then and now. I'm skeptical of Obama, for all the reasons commonly cited on the left, more than accepting of him in toto. But the suggestion that he isn't completely, irredeemably evil either is far from acquiescence in his every move. I reject entirely the notion that sullen, cynical withdrawal, out of a hopeless view that real change is impossible, is the only correct moral, ethical, political, strategic and tactical response to the ample perfidy we see out there. It isn't true, it doesn't work, it never worked, it plays into our opponents' hands. The New Left never, not once, added members and political strength by shouting 'Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker', watching 'The Battle of Algiers' for the 103rd time, or applauding the Cultural Revolution. Not once.


Anonymous said...

But, if you drop enough acid and chant "rubber baby buggy bumpers" whilst listening to Pet Sounds and facing south, you can dream the world into peace. Screw all that mobilizing and organizing stuff, that's actual work!

ProfWombat said...

We don't, in fact, all live in a yellow submarine...

b.f. said...

Actually, after the Kent State and Jackson State Massacres in May 1970,there was a possibility that (as in France in May 1968), a general strike could have developed in the USA which would have led to revolutionary change in Militaristic USA during the 1970s. Nearly all the major U.S. campuses were shut down by New Left activist-led anti-war student protesters by the end of May 1970. Unfortunately, both the U.S. imperialist establishment (and their GOP and Dem political puppets) utilized illegal COINTELPRO tactics in the early 1970s against New Left groups like the Black Panther Party, etc. to eliminate their radical left anti-war/anti-racist political opponents and, thus, opened the gates to the post-1980s Reagan/Bush Dynasty right-wing comeback, etc.

Caroline A. Phillips said...

Greater evil? You've got to be kidding. Fascism, by a landslide.
True, Stalin was evil, but at least his start-up vision pertained to distributing human rights equally. Whereas fascism was spawned by naught by hatred.

ProfWombat said...

Caroline: Marx's vision, perhaps, but not Lenin's, Stalin's, Beria's, Dzerzhinsky's, Mao's. It's pointless to compare monstrosities. But I addressed in the 27 Dec post the differences i see between Naziism and Communism. I think they're significant. See what you think and let me know; I'd be interested in your opinion.

BF: agreed in part--no argument re COINTELPRO etc. I was in college in May 1970, though, and even in my quite liberal campus there was a perfunctory quality to the shut down. I don't see in any way an American consensus for change even remotely approaching that in France. Many on the left mistook America for France; they were wrong.