Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Greensboro and Beyond: The Left Is Not Dead

Every few decades or so, a new wave of 60-something blowhard cynics who did not get what they wanted when they were 20 write opines about how everything they believed in failed. Contrary to the musings of some of those disappointed ex-Marxists, progressives are alive and well. We are only dead to the Quislings who never believed in our values to begin with (and probably only believed in any of it when they were younger because it was fashionable to their peers). This is not to impugn the character of everyone who was in the New Left, but progressives were around before and will be around long after you have been incinerated and placed in some urn to preserve your spiritual essence.

So, we do not follow your political methods of the ‘60s. Guess what? You did not follow the politics of the Old Left, either, who was much closer to the level of actual working people than the college students from the ‘60s. And considering the lack of political success of the New Left, why should anyone want to copy your tactics and approach to politics anyway?

And we do not have interesting debates and demonstrations? We torched Seattle at an international trade summit, nearly caused a riot in Philadelphia, and forced all of Pittsburgh to shut down from our demonstrations. True, we are not having sex openly in the streets as much anymore. The younger crowd prefers video cameras now, but you can blame technology for that phenomenon. We still believe in the values that most of the New Left deserted when their revolution did not come to fruition and decided to become like David Horowitz and the ex-Marxist-turned-libertarian hiding out in his hinterland shack in northern California. Just because you abandoned your beliefs does not mean that we have, or that we no longer exist as a political force. As hard as this might be for some of the turncoats to accept, the Left today has as much, if not more, influence than the New Left ever obtained, which admittedly is not saying much, but our victories are not imaginary (be it abortion rights, gay rights, women’s rights, etc., and achieving those gains in a political culture that forty years ago criminalized these movements’ goals or made them seem unreachable).

If one is to write the history of progressives in the US, our lifespan is much greater than the five decades the losers of the last revolution spent hating themselves over. True, we very rarely win political battles in this country. That has always been the case. Even on those occasions when we do win (the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the New Deal), we are inundated with numerous successive defeats (desertion of Reconstruction, post-civil rights backlash by working class whites, the desertion of the New Deal by the Democrats, etc.). Those ebbs and flows have been an ever present feature of our history. So, to the defeatists, I do not know how to disappoint you, but you are not that special. You are not the first generation to face political defeat in your lifetime.

Moreover, while it is true progressives have too often vested election fortunes in a Democratic Party that rarely seems to care, I do not respond to that inattentiveness by sleeping with my enemies who want to banish labor unions, the right to collectively bargain, along with the National Labor Relations Board Act, and also thinks that the Confederacy was right during the Civil War. How is it that any so-called leftist can hold the Democratic Party accountable for its shortcomings, and then campaign for the likes of Bob Barr and Ron Paul? If these ex-New Left folk had not gone native and joined the right, I might be more willing to listen to their critiques, but I at least maintain my censures of the Democratic Party from a progressive viewpoint.

I would fully agree with critics that the Democrats are not our savior, and not infrequently our enemies, but I do not take the delusion over to mean I was wrong about my own beliefs. No one party is worth my values. That is what disappoints me about the self-hating philistinism of so many on the New Left as they have aged. You would think that Dos Passos and Whitaker Chambers would be instructive to us about what happens to older leftists when they begin to care more about augmenting their houses or their stock returns (or worse wanting to substitute fighting the injustices of capitalism with bombing Muslims).

Could one imagine what it was like to be a union organizer before the right to collectively bargain? Well, my grandfather and great grandfather did, and their activities operated under the threat of death, in a political establishment that until the post-WWII era almost universally despised them (and still does in many places to this day). They lived with disappointment their entire lives, knowing they were going to lose most of their battles, but they also won a few, and those victories contributed to making it possible for many workers in the steel and automobile industry in having something like a decent life many years later (and better, safer working conditions). Those careers long predated Greensboro, circa 1960, and I am sure a few decades from now there will be somebody from my generation who will be lecturing a younger progressive about the hopelessness of life in a world that did not give them everything they desired in youth. That is the political cycle of progressivism in American history. Defeat, followed by a few small victories, and besieged by further defeat.

One could argue that it has always been this way because the US was not founded like a normal nation state (by a feudal aristocracy looking to maintain political supremacy with the nouveau riche and an emerging working class competing for economic resources). We developed under the gun and were established by European settlers who saw this country as something akin to a butcher fest for Indian removal and proprietorship. Is it any wonder that American politics has, excepting for the 1930s, been more conservative than its European counterparts? Those constraints have always been there. They were there when churches and pastors refused Thomas Paine a burial for being agnostic (even though his writings during the revolution were vital in helping to gain sympathy for the Continental Army). They were in force by the white South, who reacted to the black franchise with terrorism, lynchings, and Jim Crow. They have been in force since the beginnings of Wall Street and the stock exchange.

The Left has not always responded well to being the minority in American politics. Typically, like the radicals in Congress in the late 19th century, we fade away, only to come back under different incarnations. This is how one can traverse the Left (however one defines us) over the past century, going from the IWW, the Communists, to civil rights, anti-war, feminism, gay rights, and contemporary progressives, centered around many of those same issues (with a few added over time from previous struggles). We have always been pluralistic and a minority in numbers, at least when we started (and only transformed into a majority opinion in support for any one cause following many years of organizing and political struggle).

In every successive generation of the Left, the older and previous one has expended much of its time conveying sorrow over their era’s failures, projecting them onto ours, and claiming our death. During the New Deal, John Dos Passos declared that Franklin Roosevelt had destroyed the labor movement by co-opting it. Within two decades, Dos Passos asserted that the same New Deal was actually a trojan horse for Communism and had undermined American capitalism (coming full circle of his view of the Democratic Party, from the far left to the far right). Dos Passos was really just the harbinger for those same depressed idealists from the New Left later on.

Yet, in spite of them, progressives never died out. Martin Luther King Jr. did not join the American Legion. Gays and lesbians in California did not commit revolutionary suicide after losing their most important vote in the past three decades last November. They did not for the same reason labor union activists from the late 19th century did not quit, even when Grover Cleveland was crushing them. Quitting is not an option. You simply keep fighting and reforming, knowing full and well you will probably not win in your lifetime, in the hopes you will, but also realizing it might take a generation after you are gone to get what you want. Susan B. Anthony died 14 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, after 60 years of struggle for civil rights and voting rights (for freed slaves and women).

The right-wing gets what it wants because it has money. We get what we want, when we can, because we have people and convincing and organizing them takes longer than buying them. That is the price of living in a country founded on proprietorship, slavery, and Christianity. Those are not exactly ingredients very friendly to our cause, and when we do win, like on women’s suffrage, it normally takes several decades of agitation. It is easy to confuse those years for death. However, it does not actually make us dead. We faced much worse in late 19th century Russia or pre-1950s Germany. We face much worse now in places like Colombia, where our union brothers and sisters are kidnapped, murdered, and dumped in ditches by military-linked militias and guards for foreign corporations doing business in these war zones. You cannot get much worse than being rounded up, bound and blindfolded, and thrown out of helicopters, or having yourself raped and tortured to death, as 60,000 of our brethren suffered during Operation Condor. Sometimes, the Left in this country needs a wake-up call and a sense of perspective. We cannot all be 1793 France (and even the French could not sustain it before degenerating into Bonapartism).

So, to the Hitchens’, Cockburns, Horowitzs, Muravchiks, et al., we do not need your ‘help’ or eulogies. The only ones who have died are you--that is the parts of yourselves that once gave a rat’s tail about people who worked and suffered. Regardless of whatever else anyone could say of contemporary progressives in this country who put too much faith in Obama and the Democrats, they at least do not respond to losing by hiding out in some bunker with their shotguns and waiting for reinforcements from Paul Craig Roberts and the Cato Institute. For us, the lesson of your lives only serves as a template for what not to become when we get your age.

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