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What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik—a better tactical response—rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn't this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 48 | July–August 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

If the Bolshevik Revolution is—as some people have called it—the most significant political event of the 20th century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader. Not only in the scholarly circles of the former Soviet Union, but even among many non-Communist scholars, he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx.

— Encyclopedia Britannica

2011—year of revolution?[1]

Time magazine nominated “the protester,” from the Arab Spring to the #Occupy movement, as “Person of the Year” for 2011.[2] In addressing the culture of the #Occupy movement, Time listed some key books to be read, in a sidebar article, “How to stock a protest library.”[3] Included were A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci, Multitude by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Žižek.


 Cover of Time magazine vol. 175 no. 28 December 26, 2011–January 2, 2012, design by Shepard Fairey.

Time’s lead article by Kurt Andersen compared the Arab Spring and #Occupy movement to the beginnings of the Great French Revolution in 1789, invoking the poem “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement” by William Wordsworth. Under the title “The Beginning of History,” Andersen wrote that,

Aftermaths are never as splendid as uprisings. Solidarity has a short half-life. Democracy is messy and hard, and votes may not go your way. Freedom doesn't appear all at once…. No one knows how the revolutions will play out: A bumpy road to stable democracy, as in America two centuries ago? Radicals' taking over, as in France just after the bliss and very heaven? Or quick counterrevolution, as in France 60 years later [in 1848]? (75)

The imagination of revolution in 2011 was, it appears, 1789 without consequences: According to Wordsworth, it was “bliss… in that dawn to be alive” and “to be young was very heaven.” In this respect, there was an attempt to exorcise the memory of revolution in the 20th century—specifically, the haunting memory of Lenin.


1789 and 1917

There were once two revolutions considered definitive of the modern period, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Why did Diego Rivera paint Lenin in his mural “Man at the Crossroads” (1933) in Rockefeller Center, as depicted in the film Cradle Will Rock (1999), about the Popular Front against War and Fascism of the 1930s? “Why not Thomas Jefferson?,” asked John Cusack, playing Nelson Rockefeller, ingenuously. “Ridiculous!,” Ruben Blades, playing Rivera, responded with defiance, “Lenin stays!” [video clip]


 Detail of Diego Rivera, “Man at the Crossroads” (1933), mural at Rockefeller Center, New York City, photographed by Lucienne Bloch before it was destroyed on Nelson Rockefeller’s orders in 1934.

Still, Jefferson, in his letter of January 3, 1793 to U.S. Ambassador to France William Short, wrote,

The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins of France…. In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.[4]

The image of 18th century Jacobins and 20th century Bolsheviks haunts any revolutionary politics, up to today. Lenin characterized himself as a “revolutionary social democrat,” a “Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organization of the proletariat… conscious of its class interests.”[5] What did it mean to identify as a “Jacobin” in Lenin’s turn-of-the-20th century socialist workers’ movement? Was it to be merely the most intransigent, ruthless revolutionary, for whom “the ends justify the means,” like Robespierre?

But the question of “Jacobinism” in subsequent history, after the 18th century, involves the transformation of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century. To stand in the tradition of Jacobinism in the 19th century meant, for Lenin, to identify with the workers’ movement for socialism. Furthermore, for Lenin, it meant to be a Marxist.



There is another date besides 1789 and 1917 that needs to be considered: 1848. This was the time of the “Spring of the Nations” in Europe. But these revolutions failed. This was the moment of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, published in anticipation of the revolution, just days before its outbreak. So, the question is not so much, How was Lenin a “Jacobin”?, but, rather, How was Lenin a “Marxist”? This is because 1848, the defining moment of Marxism, tends to drop out of the historical imagination of revolution today,[6] whereas for Marxism in Lenin’s time 1848 was the lodestar.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her speech to the founding congress of the German Communist Party (Spartacus League), “On the Spartacus programme” (1918), offered a remarkable argument about the complex, recursive historical dialectic of progression and regression issuing from 1848. Here, Luxemburg stated that,

Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today’s deliberations. The time has arrived when the entire socialist programme of the proletariat has to be established upon a new foundation. We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago…. With a few trifling variations, [the formulations of the Manifesto]… are the tasks that confront us today. It is by such measures that we shall have to realize socialism. Between the day when the above programme [of the Manifesto] was formulated, and the present hour, there have intervened seventy years of capitalist development, and the historical evolutionary process has brought us back to the standpoint [of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto]…. The further evolution of capital has… resulted in this, that… it is our immediate objective to fulfill what Marx and Engels thought they would have to fulfill in the year 1848. But between that point of development, that beginning in the year 1848, and our own views and our immediate task, there lies the whole evolution, not only of capitalism, but in addition that of the socialist labor movement.[7]

This is because, as Luxemburg had put it in her 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution, the original contradiction of capital, the chaos of production versus its progressive socialization, had become compounded by a new “contradiction,” the growth in organization and consciousness of the workers’ movement itself, which in Luxemburg's view did not ameliorate but exacerbated the social and political crisis and need for revolution in capital.

By contrast, however, see Luxemburg’s former mentor Karl Kautsky’s criticism of Lenin and Luxemburg, for their predilection for what Kautsky called “primitive Marxism.” Kautsky wrote that, “All theoreticians of communism delight in drawing on primitive Marxism, on the early works, which Marx and Engels wrote before they turned thirty, up until the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath of 1849 and 1850.”[8]


Marxism and “Leninism”

In 2011, it seems, Time magazine, among others, could only regard revolution in terms of 1789. This is quite unlike the period of most of the 20th century prior to 1989—the centenary of the French Revolution also marked the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union—in which 1789 could be recalled only in terms of 1917. A historical link was drawn between Bolshevism and the Jacobins. In the collapse of 20th century Communism, not only the demon of 1917 but also 1789 seemed exorcized.

Did 1917 and 1789 share only disappointing results, the terror and totalitarianism, and an ultimately conservative, oppressive outcome, in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Empire and Stalin’s Soviet Union? 1917 seems to have complicated and deepened the problems of 1789, underscoring Hegel’s caveats about the terror of revolution. It would appear that Napoleon stands in the same relation to Robespierre as Stalin stands to Lenin. But the problems of 1917 need to be further specified, by reference to 1848 and, hence, to Marxism, as a post-1848 historical phenomenon.[9] The question concerning Lenin is the question of Marxism.[10]

This is because there would be no discussing Marxism today without the role of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The relevance of Marxism is inevitably tied to Lenin. Marxism continues to be relevant either because of or despite Lenin.[11] But what is the significance of Lenin as a historical figure from the point of view of Marxism?

For Marx, history presented new tasks in 1848, different from those confronting earlier forms of revolutionary politics, such as Jacobinism. Marx thus distinguished “the revolution of the 19th century” from that of the 18th.[12] But where the 18th century seemed to have succeeded, the 19th century appeared to have failed: history repeated itself, according to Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[13] Trying to escape this debacle, Marxism expressed and sought to specify the tasks of revolution in the 19th century. The question of Lenin’s relevance is how well (or poorly) Lenin, as a 20th century revolutionary, expressed the tasks inherited from 19th century Marxism. How was Lenin, as a Marxist, adequately (or inadequately) conscious of the tasks of history?

The recent (December 2011) passing of Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) provides an occasion for considering the fate of Marxism in the late 20th century.[14] Hitchens’s formative experience as a Marxist was in a tendency of Trotskyism, the International Socialists, who, in the 1960s and early 1970s period of the New Left, characterized themselves, as Hitchens once put it, as “Luxemburgist.” This was intended to contrast with “Leninism,” which had been, during the Cold War, at least associated, if not simply equated, with Stalinism. The New Left, as anti-Stalinist, in large measure considered itself to be either anti-Leninist, or, more generously, post-Leninist, going beyond Lenin. The New Left sought to leave Lenin behind—at least at first. Within a few short years of the crisis of 1968, however, the International Socialists, along with many others on the Left, embraced “Leninism.””[15] What did this mean?


The New Left and the 20th century

Prior to the crisis of the New Left in 1968, “Leninism” meant something very specific. Leninism was “anti-imperialist,” and hence anti-colonialist, or, even, supportive of Third World nationalism, in its outlook for revolutionary politics. The relevance of Leninism, especially for the metropolitan countries—as opposed to the peripheral, post-colonial regions of the world—seemed severely limited, at best.

In the mid-20th century, it appeared that Marxism was only relevant as “Leninism,” a revolutionary ideology of the “underdeveloped” world. In this respect, the metropolitan New Left of the core capitalist countries considered itself to be not merely post-Leninist but post-Marxist—or, more accurately, post-Marxist because it was post-Leninist.

After the crisis of 1968, however, the New Left transitioned from being largely anti-Leninist to becoming “Leninist.” This was when the significance of Maoism, through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, transformed from seeming to be relevant only to peasant guerilla-based revolutionism and “new democracy” in the post-colonial periphery, to becoming a modern form of Marxism with potential radical purchase in the core capitalist countries. The turn from the 1960s to the 1970s involved a neo-Marxism and neo-Leninism. The ostensibly Marxist organizations that exist today are mostly characterized by their formation and development during this renaissance of “Leninism” in the 1970s. Even the anti-Leninists of the period bear the marks of this phenomenon, for instance, anarchism.

The New Left leading up to 1968 was an important moment of not merely confrontation but also cross-fertilization between anarchism and Marxism. This was the content of supposed “post-Marxism”: see, for example, the ex-Marxist, anarchist Murray Bookchin, who protested against the potential return of Leninism in his famous 1969 pamphlet, Listen, Marxist! In this, there was recalled an earlier moment of anarchist and Marxist rapprochement—in the Russian Revolution, beginning as early as 1905, but developing more deeply in 1917 and the founding of the Communist International in its wake. There were splits and regroupments in this period not only among Social Democrats and Communists but also among Marxists and anarchists. It also meant the new adherence to Marxism by many who, prior to World War I and the Russian Revolution, considered themselves “post-Marxist,” such as Georg Lukács.

The reconsideration of and return to “Marxism/Leninism” in the latter phase of the New Left in the 1970s, circa and after the crisis of 1968, thus recapitulated an earlier moment of reconfiguration of the Left. The newfound “Leninism” meant the New Left “getting serious” about politics. The figure of Lenin is thus involved in not only the division between “reformist” Social Democrats and “revolutionary” Communists in the crisis of World War I and the Russian and other revolutions (such as in Germany, Hungary, and Italy) that followed, or the division between liberalism and socialism in the mid-20th century context of the Cold War, but also between anarchists and Marxists, both in the era of the Russian Revolution and, later, in the New Left. It is in this sense that Lenin is a world-historical figure in the history of the Left.[16] “Leninism” meant a turn to “revolutionary” politics and the contest for power—or so, at least, it seemed.

But did Lenin and “Leninism” represent a progressive development for Marxism, either in 1917 or after 1968? For anarchists, social democrats and liberals, the answer is “No.” For them, Lenin represented a degeneration of Marxism into Jacobinism, terror, and totalitarian dictatorship, or, short of that, into an authoritarian political impulse, a lowering of horizons—Napoleon, after all, was a Jacobin! If anything, Lenin revealed the truth of Marxism as, at least potentially, an authoritarian and totalitarian ideology, as the anarchists and others had warned already in the 19th century.

For avowed “Leninists,” however, the answer to the question of Lenin as progress is “Yes”: Lenin went beyond Marx. Either in terms of anti-imperialist and/or anti-colonialist politics of the Left, or simply by virtue of successfully implementing Marxism as revolutionary politics “in practice,” Lenin is regarded as having successfully brought Marxism into the 20th century.

But perhaps what ought to be considered is what Lenin himself thought of his contribution, in terms of either the progression or regression of Marxism, and how to understand this in light of the prior history leading into the 20th century.


Lenin as a Marxist

Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet, The State and Revolution, did not aspire to originality, but was, rather, an attempted synthesis of Engels and Marx’s various writings that they themselves never made: specifically, of the Communist Manifesto, The Civil War in France (on the Paris Commune), and Critique of the Gotha Programme. Moreover, Lenin was writing against subsequent Marxists’ treatments of the issue of the state, especially Kautsky’s. Why did Lenin take the time during the crisis, not only of the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire but of the First World War, to write on this topic? The fact of the Russian Revolution is not the only explanation. World War I was a far more dramatic crisis than the Revolutions of 1848 had been, and a far greater crisis than the Franco-Prussian War that had ushered in the Paris Commune. Socialism clearly seemed more necessary in Lenin’s time. But was it more possible? Prior to World War I, Kautsky would have regarded socialism as more possible, but after World War I, Kautsky regarded it as less so, and with less necessity of priority. Rather, “democracy” seemed to Kautsky more necessary than, and a precondition for the possibility of socialism.

For Lenin, the crisis of bourgeois society had matured. It had grown, but had it advanced? For Lenin, the preconditions of socialism had also been eroded and not merely further developed since Marx’s time. Indeed Kautsky, Lenin’s great Marxist adversary in 1917, regarded WWI as a setback and not as an opportunity to struggle for socialism. Lenin’s opponents considered him fanatical. The attempt to turn the World War into a civil war—socialist revolution—seemed dogmatic zealotry. For Kautsky, Lenin’s revolutionism seemed part of the barbarism of the War rather than an answer to it.

Marx made a wry remark, in his writing on the Paris Commune, that the only possibility of preserving the gains of bourgeois society was through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx savaged the liberal politician who put down the Commune, Adolphe Thiers. However, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx regarded his followers as having regressed behind and fallen below the threshold of the bourgeois liberals of the time. Marx castigated his ostensible followers for being less “practically internationalist” than the cosmopolitan, free-trade liberals were, and for being more positive about the state than the liberals.

Lenin marshaled Marx’s rancor, bringing it home in the present, against Kautsky. World War I may have made socialism apparently less possible, but it also made it more necessary. This is the dialectical conception of “socialism or barbarism” that Lenin shared with Rosa Luxemburg, and what made them common opponents of Kautsky. Luxemburg and Lenin regarded themselves as “orthodox,” faithful to the revolutionary spirit of Marx and Engels, whereas Kautsky was a traitor—“renegade.” Kautsky opposed democracy to socialism but betrayed them both.


The relevance of Lenin today: political and social revolution

All of this seems very far removed from the concerns of the present. Today, we struggle not with the problem of achieving socialism, but rather have returned to the apparently more basic issue of democracy. This is seen in recent events, from the financial crisis to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy, to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little. The need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself. Political revolution seems necessary—again.

Lenin was a figure of the struggle for socialism—a man of a very different era.[17] But his self-conception as a “Jacobin” raises the issue of regarding Lenin as a radical democrat.[18] Lenin’s identification for this was “revolutionary social democrat”—someone who would uphold the need for revolution to achieve democracy with adequate social content. In this respect, what Lenin aspired to might remain our goal as well. The question that remains for us is the relation between democracy and capitalism. Capitalism is a source of severe discontents—an undoubted problem of our world—but seems intractable. It is no longer the case, as it was in the Cold War period, that capitalism is accepted as a necessary evil, to preserve the autonomy of civil society against the potentially “totalitarian” state. Rather, in our time, we accept capitalism in the much more degraded sense of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous expression, “There is no alternative!” But the recent crisis of neoliberalism means that even this ideology, predominant for a generation, has seemingly worn thin. Social revolution seems necessary—again.

But there is an unmistakable shying away from such tasks on the Left today. Political party, never mind revolution, seems undesirable in the present. For political parties are defined by their ability and willingness to take power.[19] Today, the people—the demos—seem resigned to their political powerlessness. Indeed, forming a political party aiming at radical democracy, let alone socialism—a “Jacobin” party—would itself be a revolutionary act. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why it is avoided. The image of Lenin haunting us reminds that we could do otherwise.

It is Lenin who offers the memory, however distant, of the relation between political and social revolution, the relation between the need for democracy—the “rule of the people”—and the task of socialism. This is the reason that Lenin is either forgotten entirely—in an unconscious psychological blind-spot[20]—or is ritualistically invoked only to be demonized. Nevertheless, the questions raised by Lenin remain.

The irrelevance of Lenin is his relevance. |P

[1]. On December 17, 2011, I gave a presentation on “The relevance of Lenin today” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, broadcasting it live on the Internet. This essay is an abbreviated, edited, and somewhat further elaborated version, especially in light of subsequent events. Video and audio recordings of my original presentation can be found online at <>.

[2]. Kurt Andersen, “The Protester,” Time vol. 175 no. 28 (December 26, 2011 - January 2, 2012), available online at <,28804,2101745_2102132,00.html>.

[3]. Time vol. 175 no. 28 print edition p. 74.

[4]. Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence and other writings (Verso Revolutions Series), ed. Michael Hardt (London: Verso, 2007), 46–47. Also available online at <>.

[5]. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904). Available online at <>.

[6]. See my “Egypt, or history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848,” Platypus Review 33 (March 2011), available online at </2011/03/01/egypt-or-history%E2%80%99s-invidious-comparisons-1979-1789-and-1848/>; and “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at </2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>.

[7]. Available online at <>.

[8]. This is in Kautsky’s critique of Karl Korsch’s rumination on Luxemburg and Lenin in “Marxism and philosophy” (1923), “A destroyer of vulgar-Marxism” (1924), trans. Ben Lewis, Platypus Review 43 (February 2012), available online at </2012/01/30/destroyer-of-vulgar-marxism/>.

[9]. See my “1873–1973: The century of Marxism: The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at </2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.

[10]. See Tamas Krausz, “Lenin’s legacy today,” Platypus Review 39 (September 2011), available online at </2011/08/31/lenins-legacy-today/>.

[11]. See my “Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011), available online at </2011/06/01/lenin%E2%80%99s-liberalism/>; and “Lenin’s politics: A rejoinder to David Adam on Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 40 (October 2011), available online at </2011/09/25/lenins-politics/>.

[12]. See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), available online at <>.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. See Spencer Leonard, “Going it alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left,” Platypus Review 11 (March 2009), available online at </2009/03/15/going-it-alone-christopher-hitchens-and-the-death-of-the-left/>.

[15]. See Tony Cliff, Lenin (4 vols., 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979; vols. 1–2 available online at <>); however, see also the critique of Cliff by the Spartacist League, Lenin and the Vanguard Party (1978), available online at <>.

[16]. See my “The decline of the Left in the 20th century: Toward a theory of historical regression: 1917,” Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at </2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>

[17]. See my “1873–1973: The century of Marxism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at </2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.

[18]. See Ben Lewis and Tom Riley, “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at </2012/06/07/lenin-and-the-marxist-left-after-occupy/>.

[19]. See J.P. Nettl, “The German Social Democratic Party 1890–1914 as a political model,” Past & Present 30 (April 1965), 65–95.

[20]. But Lenin is more than the symptom that, for instance, Slavoj Žižek takes him to be. See “The Occupy movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism today,” Platypus Review 42 (December 2011–January 2012), available online at </2011/12/01/occupy-movement-interview-with-slavoj-zizek/>.

David Haack

Platypus Review 45 | April 2012


In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx disagrees with Hegel’s famous quote about history when he writes, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce…”[1]

Occupy is not a return to the New Left, a farce of the sixties. Usually history becomes codified once the right academic authorities have made their case most palatable to other academic authorities. However, Occupy exasperates this by being a horizontal movement that has avoided so far being pigeonholed by meta-narratives. Occupy is a meeting and molding of older forms of thought, which is why it is so important that it remains open. It marks a paradigm shift that is, even after the eviction of the park, still reshuffling time narratives.

In this piece, “time narrative” is a story about a time period told while this time is present. This is not the story dominant within academia. But it is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. A dominant narrative about a time is different from an ideology, which would be the dominant belief system of a time. An “alien time narrative” is therefore the story of a past time reinserted out of context into the present as if the two temporal points were continuous, and even though there is a disconnect between the original commentator and present conditions. From the post-World War II years into the first decade of the 21st century, we saw the longest alien time narrative over a period of time. This was a form of narrative warfare that worked so effectively to define the concept of the Left that it constrained the Left from going beyond the discourse it had carved out for itself nearly 30 years before. The discourse of what is known as the “New Left” in part set itself up for this problem by calling itself “new.” Because of its self-proclaimed novelty, it was hard for someone to further claim that they were part of a “new” New Left. New Leftists used the word “new” to try to get beyond what they saw as the politics of the “Old” Left that had evolved before World War II. This break is best exemplified by the Port Huron Statement and American sociologist C. Wright Mills’s essay, “Letter to the New Left” (1960).[2] But by creating this conscious break, this generation of leftists used language that allowed their narrative to be projected decades into the future when the conditions they were addressing no longer existed. One element movements from 1955 to 1975 all shared was a focus on culture and tactics, in addition to a demand for what Richard Rorty has called “a less socially sadistic culture.” While the New Left achieved valuable ends, as these politics dragged on through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and into the ‘00s, it aged into a far less useful set of concepts and into what is now the zombie of the New Left.

The experiences from a vastly different time cover up the incongruencies even within the same subject. During the first decade of the 21st century, anti-war activists compared the Iraq War to the Vietnam War, thus allowing for the continued domination of the narrative of the baby boomers. This nostalgic invocation of experience led to a blind narrative of time-warped empiricism. The slogans of the anti-war movement of the ‘00s avoided allusions to the roots of the war in a permanent war economy. Often the word “economy” was removed, and only the word “war” remained. In this way, discourse from the past helped paint over what is most important: that there is indeed a permanent war economy.

In Capital, Marx tells us that, if left to itself, capitalism will lead to the consolidation of firms until they become larger and larger. The corrosive laws of competition will make life worse (relatively, not absolutely) for the majority. After 1973, with the transition from Keynesian to neoliberal capitalism, from rigid to flexible accumulation, we saw this formula mirrored. A middle class sank into the lower class. The result was that the period of working class “prosperity” was effectively over. A huge global proletariat emerged in what we in the West call “sweatshop labor,” a phenomenon without parallel in the ’60s.[3] While these changes occurred, further action was suppressed by the presence of the alien time narrative of the New Left.

Occupy Wall Street has freed us from the grips of the New Left and the paralysis that has prevented the arrival of a new movement aligned with the present. Occupy presents an opportunity to once again relate to our moment. This has occurred in two intertwined ways: tactics and culture. Culturally, all it took was for the Occupy movement to target Wall Street with populist rhetoric. The movement made the simple complex, and as a result it created a pluralistic and deeply egalitarian space. The simple phrases exemplary of this approach are “Occupy Wall Street!” and “We are the 99 percent.”

These two slogans were enough to end the cultural focus of the last 40 years. A myriad of different sub-narratives appeared under them, awe-inspiring in their multiplicity. Occupy is not just another call for a less socially sadistic culture with the class dimension drained out of the analysis—characteristic of  most of the New Left and the whole period after it. It has an economic and populist focus that has galvanized a cultural shift in America. This could happen because the dam that had kept the alien narrative in place was not strong enough to hold back the weight of the economic recession in addition to Occupy’s novel tactics. Discourse and conditions finally met once again after a 30-year disconnect.

The different tactics aligned with these new conditions created a triangle: time narrative, tactics, and conditions. The tactics were wildly different than what the zombie New Left had supported. Instead of picking a day, getting a permit, and fighting a particular cultural battle (e.g., “End War,” “End Racism”), Occupy did not seek anyone’s permission, thus remaining deliberately illegal. And, despite all odds, people camped out and stayed in one place. This was not a one-day affair, rather it was far more permanent and drastic. It was in no way the same as the temporary college takeovers of the ‘60s or the “People’s Park,” a park re-appropriated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1969. The occupation of Wall Street was fundamentally different. By taking Zuccotti Park, OWS took a space that was open to the public, but owned privately—a great metaphor for neoliberalism right in the heart of the symbolic home of finance capital. In occupying Zucotti Park, OWS protested against finance capital, a kind of capital that has been empowered through the shift from rigid to flexible accumulation. In this way, Occupy is a movement that fits the times and has helped create time narratives that do as well.

Occupy’s openness is also in no way a return to the ’60s. Douglas Miller’s New York Times Op-Ed best expresses what Occupy is not. With the New Left in mind, Miller writes that Occupy’s horizontal process could lead to what he calls “extremists”—insert “Weathermen”—taking over. But the horizontal process does exactly the opposite. It discourages any unpopular faction’s interests or narratives from being pushed through unilaterally and, furthermore, is more clearly worked out than ’60s “direct democracy” was. People involved in the present movement are well aware of the issues from the New Left and understand that their failure then was largely a result of the lack of proper definition and process. From the start, Occupy did not make these mistakes. Occupy set up a system that, by having a clearly defined process, will avoid SDS’s 1969 convention. This is why there is no need for a defining document explaining what Occupy is since this has already been done through praxis and a clearly defined process. Although the ‘70s saw the initial formation of something like a consensus process in response to the splits of the ’60s, this process was never as clearly defined as it is within Occupy.

The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, has written that Occupy has retained a “carnivalistic ’60s element.” On the first day in New York, September 17, this was certainly true, but as Occupy developed it started to lose this carnivalistic element as an overt feature while allowing for this strain of activism to develop internally. By merging with an already more serious and economically focused protest environment, this form of protest politics turned into a comedic release in a populist environment with a different tone to it.

The Occupy movement has, however, retained some elements of the ’60s. These are the things about this era that I, and many others, see as overwhelmingly positive: Occupy continues to see fighting racism, heterocentrism, ageism, sexism, ableism, and cisgender privilege as important battles. In short, Occupy has left behind the negative elements of the alien narrative while upholding, and pushing even further, the positive demands fought for by the New Left.

One form of thought that has had a considerable influence on Occupy is anarchism, but this too has undergone a transformation in and through the Occupy movement. During the last ten years, anarchism has been mainly preoccupied with culture. This focus was an attempt to push politics even further in the direction of what the New Left established. The politics of this counter-cultural anarchism supported small-scale cultural production. Within the movement, anarchism shifted the focus to economic issues, thereby shedding its earlier counter-cultural form. The new focus of this form of anarchism is economic as well as populist. Populist appeals counter the fetishization of small-scale production to create the perfect balance of plurality and focus. This is why anarchism in Occupy did not do what all other politicized counter-cultures do, retract into themselves and shut out outside influence.

There have been some writers on the Left who see anarchism as the primary ethos in Occupy Wall Street. But really it was a coming together of progressive, “leftish,” economic reformism with anarchism that helped shape Occupy in its early days, coupled with David Harvey’s and Henri Lefebvre’s respective views. Marxists and unaffiliated socialists were also part of the movement from the beginning. A dialogue between Marxists and anarchists is as old as the ideologies themselves are, with both originating from post-1789 France. This dialogue is now going through yet another round of mediation and re-negotiation in and through Occupy.

This is why I think it is problematic when I see Marxist or socialist writers in socialist newspapers, or the Platypus Review itself, trying to decide how they can insert their perspectives into Occupy. Their influence is already there, and so is Marx’s analysis. But it simply does not dominate. When socialist papers make the statement that there needs to be a place for Marxism within Occupy, it seems like they are trying to subvert what is at its bottom an essentially plural movement. Occupy is based on a methodological ethos, not ideology. This is essential for the constitution of a new time narrative. Therefore, the Left should not get so caught up on the fact that the word “left” itself is not being used.

After the corporate era ends, and perhaps even after the fall of nation-states, the words “left” and “right” will still be useful since the cultural norms and views shaped by former politics will still be present. The common anarchist “post-ideological” claim that they are neither left nor right does not entirely make sense to me. However, it is possible that this will help clear the ground for a pluralistic reconstruction taking place within Occupy. In the same way that the French Revolution gave us these new terms, “left” and “right,” Occupy may do the same.

After the corporate order falls, we will not reach the end of history. We will not come to something that we can somehow call “history” any more than we can call the period we live in today, history. We will meet new problems, have new ideas, and discover new ways of thinking. All major shifts of a new era take from the preceding era its ideologies and mixes and molds them into something new. Occupy is coming out of an era with material conditions that no longer fit the dominant narrative of struggle. It has answered the Platypus question of when a “significant left” will return, although perhaps not in the way many Marxists are happy with. It is self-evident that Occupy is rooted in ideas associated with what is called the Left. The movement does not identify itself with the term “Left,” but this should not trouble us. Perhaps the term’s abasement will aid in the feeling that something new has come.

It is worth considering Occupy as another major turning point in history. In response, we need to let go of alien narratives and work within the new paradigm shift. Perhaps only now, in and through Occupy, can we free ourselves from the zombie of the New Left. |P

[1]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Available online at <>.

[2]. C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left,” New Left Review, I/5 (September–October 1960): 18–23.

[3]. See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990).

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 41 | November 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]

Last fall, editor Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Michael Dawson, Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. The interview, which centered around a discussion of Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm X, was broadcast on September 30, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is a revised and edited transcript of the interview.

SL: Like many others in recent months, you have contributed to the controversy raging around Manning Marable's book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. In your review of the book, you argue the importance of Marable’s firmly situating Malcolm X's politics within “a long, primarily 20th century tradition of black nationalism.”[1] You then go on to say, “Marable ascribes the foundation of [Malcolm X’s] politics within the tradition established by the influential early 20th century nationalist, Marcus Garvey (founder of the largest black urban movement ever created, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA) and the black Muslim organizations, of which the Nation of Islam was neither the first nor initially the largest… in urban black communities.” What does Marable's book capture about the deep history of black nationalism that Malcolm X tapped into in the early 1960s? After Malcolm X’s death, how was his reception of it carried forward in the 1960s and 1970s?

MD: One controversial aspect of Marable's analysis is his grounding of Malcolm X’s life and politics in a relatively unknown earlier history of black nationalism in the United States. This is an essential component of many forms of African-American political thought, including many forms of black radicalism. Marable attempts to recapture the degree to which black nationalism influenced progressive movements in the 20th century, including the New Left and the New Communist Movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Where I disagree is on the issue of whether there is anything left of the legacy of Malcolm X that might teach us something about rebuilding a black politics in the 21st century. Are we in fact beyond questions of self-determination, self-defense, and black nationalism? Are these no longer germane to today's problems and social conditions?

SL: In your review you argue that what was consistent in Malcolm X's thought was “his outstanding ability, because of his own life experiences, to identify with and articulate the anger and demands of the poor and working class… masses of black people.” This distinguishes him, you argue, from other, mostly middle class civil rights leaders. You then add,

Another lasting legacy of Malcolm X was his insistence that black people as a people define themselves culturally, socially, and not least politically. Marable states that Malcolm X believed that black people constituted a ‘nation within a nation.’ Even as recently as early 2010, survey data inform that nearly 50 percent of African-Americans believed that they constituted a nation-within-a-nation and not just another American ethnic group.

What was most significant about Malcolm X and his ability to articulate the discontents of poor and working class blacks?

MD: Most black movements—radical movements of the New Left and the New Communist Movements included, but also earlier radical black movements—have historically been led by the middle class, sometimes with, but often without, the interests of the great majority of black working and poor people at the center of their agendas and organizing. Malcolm X took as his political starting point the interest of the person on the street, the worker, the homemaker, the small business person, in other words, the lower middle class and the working class. Certainly by the 1950s and 1960s, many were being pushed out of the American economy. Malcolm X understood that they would be central to whatever task black politics might set itself.

As to whether black people constitute a nation, Malcolm X did not originally theorize this, but he did argue that black people constitute a separate people based on their oppression and distinctive history in the United States. What holds the two issues together is that national movements throughout the world have often been captured by the middle class usually to the detriment of the great majority of members of the nation, whether they are peasants or workers or what have you, depending on which nation we are talking about. Malcolm X insisted both on the fact that black people constituted a nation and that the political interests of poor and working people should be at the forefront of any national movement.

SL: Of those who grappled with Malcolm X and his ideas in his own lifetime, one significant figure is James Baldwin, who, in his criticism of Malcolm X, argues that his black nationalism fails to adequately reckon with history. This is from a debate in 1963:

Whether I like it or not the issue of integration is a false one, because we have been integrated here since as long as we’ve been here. . . The history which has produced us in this country is something that, in any case we are going to have deal with one of these days… This country has lied about the Negro situation for 100 years. Now. . . the lies are no longer viable. . . No one in this country knows any longer. . . what he means by freedom. . . [or] equality. We live in the most abysmal ignorance. . . You cannot live for 30 years with something in the closet which you know is there, but which you pretend is not there without something terrible happening. . . Silence has descended upon this country.[2]

Was the crisis of history and of historical consciousness Baldwin identifies addressed in the years following 1963? Does Baldwin’s way of posing the issue constitute a powerful criticism of Malcolm X? In the age of Obama, have the legacies of racism and slavery been adequately addressed?

MD: Baldwin’s is a strong critique of Malcolm's position in 1963, though I think he incorrectly thought that Malcolm X's claim about African-Americans constituting a separate people was incompatible with the fact of black people’s integration into the American economy, first as slaves, sharecroppers, and agricultural workers in the South and, later, as industrial workers. Those facts of economic integration, along with hundreds of years of residing in the United States, do not preclude the possibility of black people’s constituting a separate nation. Malcolm X in his own work never rules out the possibility of staying in the United States both as citizens and as full and equal partners. What he did argue was self-determination, that you have the right to choose what your destiny is as a people, whether that means to stay, leave, or renegotiate the terms of staying. That’s why, in addition to the revolutionary nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party, many Latino and Asian-American Marxist groups also supported the right to self-determination in the 1960s and 70s.

The second point I want to argue is empirical. When black people are asked, as they have been many times for the last 30 years, “Do you think you are black, American, neither, or both?” the answer is, overwhelmingly, “both.” African-Americans have always felt a strong attachment to and stake in this country. But they also view themselves as separate. This is due both to the common culture and history and to the ongoing oppression in civil society and from the state. As to whether that legacy still exists today, I read just yesterday about the lynching of a black autoworker in Mississippi by white teenagers.[3] So, no, I don’t think we live in a post-racial society. Being an African-American still leads to lesser life chances, whether we're talking about wealth, employment opportunities, health, education, the ability to live or work where one lives with the sanctity and safety in one's own person, etc. This is racial. Despite the election of Barack Obama, we do not live in a post-racial world.

What has changed considerably, and not at all to the surprise of those whose analysis is similar to the one Malcolm X once had, is the sharpening of class differences among blacks. Today there is not only a strong black middle class, one no longer based on selling services to other black people, but also a fairly well-established black upper-middle class that has risen on the neoliberal tide. Finally, there is the development of a real black bourgeoisie—or, rather, you now have black members of the bourgeoisie. Even though you still see the racial dynamics that Malcolm X, and for that manner Baldwin, recognized intuitively, you also see increasingly economic divisions among black people. The development of a black upper middle class integrated into the mainstream economy, black members of the bourgeoisie, and neoliberal ideology dominating large segments of the black middle and upper classes are conditions that did not exist at the time that Malcolm and others were attempting to build black united fronts. In short, I think Baldwin is wrong to make it an either-or: “Either black people have a stake in the United States, or they constitute a distinct people.” Malcolm X took a more radical view when he said that black people were at the table, but were not diners.[4]

SL: The debate on the Left around the question of black nationalism and of self-determination has always hinged on how to cope politically with the legacy of slavery and racism, that is, the race-divided character of the working class. How does the advocacy of national self-determination for oppressed minorities relate to the project of constituting working class politics?

MD: On this topic I would recommend reading Abram Lincoln Harris, the black Marxist economist, and the work of Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore on the attempts of the Workers’ Party in America (later the Communist Party) to organize workers in the context of racial division within the working class. There are several historic tendencies that demand attention. The Socialist Party insisted on segregation, and insisted that black people keep quiet about racial divisions in the working class. The Communist Party had a tremendous problem, particularly in the 1920s, before the shift in political line, in trying to achieve a unified working class movement while navigating white workers' insistence on, to be blunt, white supremacy in the Communist Party and within the working class.

Another instructive organization is not the Black Panther Party but the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, particularly the theoretical works of James Boggs. This was an important starting point for many black, Latino, Asian-American radicals from the 1960s and 1970s. Boggs argued that the working class was already divided; white workers within organizations and on the shop floor were not willing to give up white privilege. So long as that continued, we still would have to be able to organize black workers, Latino workers, etc., along revolutionary lines. To do this it is necessary to have organizations that are national, or as we might say today, racial, in form—while nonetheless maintaining the long term goal of being to build a unified working class movement and unified working class organizations.

SL: How does that strategy immediately relate to trade unions that already exist among the working class?

MD: In most workplaces in the late 1960s and 1970s, that strategy meant black radical workers would belong to multiple organizations. They would belong to a black workers caucus, and to the union’s progressive caucus, and, of course, to the union as well. Unions in that period, such as United Autoworkers, had extraordinarily racist leadership that actively collaborated with management and police—in other words, management and the state—to oppress the rights and privileges of black workers. So black workers worked in multiple organizations, some that were exclusively black, and some that were multi-racial, with the dual goal of trying to build a unified workers movement and a movement for black liberation. This meant double shifts for black radical organizers. Black nationalist organizations grew not because of any theoretical fondness for nationalism per se, nor simply as a function of more uni-national or uni-racial organizations, but primarily because of white workers’ resistance to any type of program that required the white workers to give up the privileges they had, regardless of whether these programs consisted primarily of working class demands.

SL: In his 1963 debate with Malcolm X that we just quoted, Baldwin notes a distinction between power and equality, whereby an African nation cannot hope for respect unless it is independent and thus “equal.” He then goes on to argue that there is no parallel to the American context in the independence struggles of Ghana, the Congo, Kenya, and elsewhere. Malcolm X disagreed. How do we understand the concurrence of and possible relations between the anti-colonial struggles of the post-war decades and the black freedom movement in this country? Of course Malcolm X himself traveled widely in Africa and in the Middle East in 1964 precisely in order to gauge and strengthen those relations. Does Marable give his readers adequate resources to assess this activity? Or was Tariq Ali right to say by way of criticism,

The emphasis in Marable's account on the Nation of Islam is not totally misplaced, but it is accorded far too much space, at the expense of any discussion of the overall social and political contexts, both U.S. and global, within which Malcolm operated. The result is seriously unbalanced: the events that shaped his continuing intellectual evolution—the killing of Lumumba and the ensuing crisis in Congo; the Vietnam War; the rise of a new generation of black and white activists in the U.S., of which Marable was one—are mentioned only in passing. This is a great pity, because in historical terms their significance far outweighs that of the audience sizes of various Nation of Islam meetings or the sectarian infighting which Marable discusses at length.[5]

Does the biography neglect to adequately contextualize Malcolm X in the wider struggles of his time, with the result of downplaying the significance (and political limitations) of his emerging internationalism?

MD: I generally agree with Ali's criticism. One aspect often lost in the study of African-American political leaders, whether we're talking about Malcolm X, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Martin Luther King, Jr., is the growing significance of their understanding of the world situation and where allies might be sought outside the United States, their growing feelings of solidarity with liberation movements, in Asia and Latin America as well as Africa. This was particularly true in the two strongest periods of black radicalism, the period before World War II and the 1960s and 1970s. Marable largely neglects the fact that black and other minority radicals of that generation had a totally different language available to them, a language of national liberation, anti-colonialism, Third World solidarity, and non-alignment coming out of the Bandung Conference. Moreover, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was not just one socialist state, as was the case for the pre-World War II generation. Radicals in the 1960s could turn to what at the time seemed multiple successful models. Preeminent here, of course, was China, which is why there was a significant Maoist movement from France to the United States. Marable neglects most of that.

There is a second, more theoretical question that you ask, which is to what degree are those models applicable to the U.S. I think we are still puzzling over that. There are some similarities that theoreticians such as Boggs have pointed out. If you look strictly from an economic point of view, for instance, there's super-exploitation of black workers in terms of the extraction of super-profits that allow a deal to be made with American white labor, a process that is not unlike the type of super-profits extracted from colonial labor. But there are also serious liabilities in applying those models to the U.S. One such liability that Baldwin talked about, and that most activists at the time were aware of, is that minority populations within countries are not in quite the same situation as the Africans in South Africa, the Cubans in Cuba, or the Chinese in China, in which a national liberation movement is struggling to free the majority of the population. Few organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, except for some of the more staunch black nationalist organizations, ever had a view that black liberation could be won without solidarity across racial groups, including among progressive whites. So, not only in terms of economics, but also in terms of politics and history, such models of national self-determination in former colonies do break down to a significant degree when applied to the U.S. Just as the vocabulary of the French Revolution was misapplied, or the vocabulary of the Chinese Revolution was misapplied, you also had the vocabulary of anti-colonial struggles that was misapplied, or at least mechanically applied to the situation of blacks and other groups in the United States. That said, the international situation provided important allies in the U.N. and elsewhere that pressured the U.S. government at key points during the history of the Civil Rights and black power movements.

SL: In your review of Marable’s book, you maintain that “[Malcolm X viewed] the struggle of Afro-Americans and other people of African descent [as] connected to that of the other oppressed peoples of the world, especially those who were waging national liberation struggles or who had seized victory in Third World socialist countries such as Cuba and China.” But did Malcolm X in fact have any meaningful relationship to radical anti-imperialism, much less to Marxism? Isn’t it a mistake to focus on Vietnam and China and to ignore his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and his praise of the Saudi regime, to take the most obvious examples?

MD: Clearly, there are extraordinary shortcomings to the development of Malcolm X's theoretical vision, including his embrace of Arab nationalism and autocratic monarchies and his equation of them to the national liberation struggle in Vietnam. Malcolm X says a little bit about the Sino-Soviet dispute that would so shape the left in the 1960s and 1970s, but his comments were along racial, not ideological, lines.

SL: I believe in “The Message to the Grassroots” he claims that the Russian Revolution was white nationalist, and this is revealed in the souring of Khrushchev's relationship with Mao.

MD: Exactly. At the very end of his life, however, he began to emphasize that capitalism as an economic and political system is the problem. He also started to move away from the idea that white people, as a people, are evil, and came to embrace the ideal of the “John Brown” white person and the revolutionary potential of young, white Americans, in particular. But there is nothing like a coherent, systematic view in Malcolm X that one could call socialist. Part of the problem with Malcolm X's legacy is that it allows black nationalists, Justice Clarence Thomas, black Marxists, Trotskyite groups, and Maoist groups all to claim descent from him.

There were paternalistic, patriarchal elements in Malcolm X’s politics that were perfectly consistent with traditional, conservative forms of nationalist politics. There were also elements that pointed in an anti-capitalist direction, but none of those had really crystallized. Rather, these contradictory elements coexisted. Consequently, part of his legacy involves different groups trying to work out the direction Malcolm X was moving in, and developing it further under new conditions. Malcolm X himself left virtually no organizational or institutional legacy. After the split with the Nation of Islam, he formed the OAAU and Muslim Mosque, Incorporated. But these organizations had just been formed.

SL: In light of what you just said, how do you see the relationship between Malcolm X and the Socialist Workers Party in New York City in 1964-65? How did the way in which that party came to adopt Malcolm X and publish his writings, most significantly in the volume Malcolm X Speaks, affect his legacy?

MD: Malcolm X Speaks profoundly shaped how Malcolm X is remembered on the Left. For many years, there was little available outside of the Autobiography, and his speeches and writings from the last two years of his life would have been far more obscure without Malcolm X Speaks. Of course, many of Malcolm X’s speeches remain unpublished. But those collected in Malcolm X Speaks are undeniably significant and give credence to the view that in his last years he was moving in a more post-nationalist, pro-socialist direction, though this movement may not be as coherent and neat as once portrayed by the SWP and other organizations on the Left. Nevertheless, Malcolm X Speaks, along with texts by Amílcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Mao Tse Tung, and others, provided a foundation for black radical thought at that time.

SL: I want to introduce another of Malcolm X’s most important contemporary critics, the labor leader Bayard Rustin, whose social democratic point of view gives occasion to discuss the accusation that Marable's book is marred by the author’s own social democratic politics. Rustin, perhaps more than Marable, would have been sympathetic to a politics of revolutionary integrationism, as part of a Marxian approach.

In his book, commenting on a 1960 debate between Malcolm X and Rustin, Marable paraphrases Malcolm X to the effect that though the Nation of Islam was to be distinguished from earlier black nationalist movements, such as the movement of Marcus Garvey, they shared much in common. He then quotes Malcolm X as saying, "the difference is in method. We say that the only solution is in the religious approach, this is why we stress the importance of a moral reformation." He also noted that Elijah Muhammad was “not a politician,” but a religious leader. Rustin criticized as “conservative, even passive” both Malcolm's Garveyite separatism and, of course, his religious position, arguing that since the vast majority of blacks are “seeking to become full-fledged citizens,” the Nation of Islam was out of step with the black freedom movement in 1960. Opposing the traditional black nationalist demand for a separate black state and, indeed, black nationalism itself, Bayard Rustin also noted that "the great majority of negroes are feeling that things can improve here[;] until you have someplace to go, they're going to want to stay" [176].

In a second debate in 1962, Rustin pressed his criticisms of the Nation of Islam by asking, "who can limit my right of association? Who can tell me who my friends ought to be? And yet the Muslims denounce James Farmer because he's married to a white woman."[6] Rustin went on to argue, in effect, that the Nation of Islam was ultimately a hindrance to black emancipation, which he regarded as possible only through integration. He also argued for the overriding necessity of being able to deliver real gains to working black people. What is the legacy today of a vision like Rustin's? What were its weaknesses at the time, and what greater consequences have attended the loss of the struggle for radical and inter-racial working class socialism in the United States?

MD: Rustin's criticism of Malcolm X in 1960 was mostly on point, although I think he made at least one major mistake, which I'll get to in a second. One great tragedy of the McCarthy era was the erosion of the very strong alliance that had existed between 1900 and 1950 among the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the radical movements. The Civil Rights movement went in one direction, the labor movement in another. This had very dire consequences for progressive politics in the United States.

By 1960-65, Rustin was one of the few strong social democratic voices in the Civil Rights Movement. He argued for economic equality—King wanted that and was willing to fight for it, as were others in the Civil Rights Movement—but Rustin had real ties to the labor movement. Most of the middle class civil rights leadership, many of whom, like Malcolm X, were religious leaders, remained skeptical of the labor movement’s significance, particularly given the often racist practices of the labor movement’s leadership. Because of Rustin’s radical politics and his insistence that the civil rights and labor movements needed each other, he was viewed with suspicion by labor and civil rights leaders alike. We lost a lot due to the fact that Rustin did not play a more central role. I think Marable gets that right.

Now we are in a period in which labor is much weaker, manufacturing has moved off-shore, and labor has never been more politically vulnerable, all of which make even PATCO and the Reagan presidency seem like the good ole days for the American labor movement. It will be hard to rebuild those ties, and what that would look like is something people still have to work out. What Rustin gets wrong, and I think this is a problem of social democracy more generally, including Marable's own book and political stance, is the assumption that all nationalism is the same—an assumption shared by the Communist Party in the early 1960s. Certainly, the Nation of Islam was conservative and anti-political. It often told its own membership, as Marable documents, to stay out of political struggle, to refuse to oppose the suppression of African-Americans, despite its membership wanting to get involved in such struggles in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere. But there are other nationalisms of a different type that are progressive, that organized black workers. Such nationalisms are not separatist, but they do insist on organizing black people, as black people, for black liberation, often in alliance with other social forces, whether it is with other people of color, the labor movement, etc. Nationalists like the Black Panthers used to say we are Marxists who believe we all have to organize as nationalists to bring about a multi-racial working class revolution in the United States.

These different nationalist frameworks may have various flaws, but they are not the same, particularly in terms of the progressive potential some exhibit. By lumping them together in the manner of Rustin, Marable, or the Communist Party in certain phases of its history, you push all nationalism away. This neglects the potential for alliance with some of the most progressive sectors of the population. At least until the 1970s the left in the U.S. was fairly segregated, fragmented along racial lines in ways that ultimately hindered all types of mass movements and radical movements. Those on the American left who see all nationalisms as comparable and inherently reactionary create a huge problem for themselves, and repeat mistakes that go back at least to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

SL: In a recent review of Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented, 1960s radical and black nationalist Amiri Baraka charges Marable with repeating Rustin's criticisms. As Baraka puts it,

… to say of the Nation of Islam, that it was not a radical organization, obscures the black nationalist confrontation with the white racist oppressor nation. Marable thinks that the Trotskyists of the SWP, who were members of the CP, or Committees of Correspondence, are more radical than the Nation of Islam. This means that he has not even understood Lenin's directives as pointed out in Stalin's Foundations of Leninism.[7]

Baraka then quotes Stalin's text to this effect:

The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican program of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement.[8]

I want to repose the question of whether there is in fact a genuine continuity between Manning Marable's treatment of Malcolm X and the social democratic politics of the 1960s and 1970s. Does this opposition between the views of social democrats such as Rustin and possibly Marable, on the one hand, and Amiri Baraka and others, on the other, capture what is essential about the ambiguous legacy of Malcolm X? If not, what opposition better captures the ambiguity?

MD: The first question is straightforward. Certainly, as Baraka points out in his review, there is an ideological and even organizational continuity between the social democracy of the 1960s and 1970s and the political position Marable takes in the early 21st century in analyzing Malcolm X. It is a position that explicitly rejects the view of national liberation struggles, at least in the United States, as being revolutionary or even a primary vehicle for progressive change within this country. But, in chalking up the limitations of Marable’s perspective to his background in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), I think Amiri is playing a little fast and loose with the history. The conflict is not primarily between Leninism, Stalinism, or, as he puts it, Marxism, on the one hand, and democratic socialism on the other. This is not a Third versus Second International fight. The Communist Party of the United States had almost exactly the same view and analysis of the black revolution of the 1960s that Marable and the DSA have.

Rather than a fight between Leninism and social democracy, it is a struggle, with roots going back to the 1920s, between two strains of the American left. On one side are those who make the claim that the black struggle is revolutionary in its own right. Harry Haywood, author of Black Bolshevik, would be a good example of this. Like other early black members of the Communist Party or the Workers Party of America at that time, they came into the party with the ideal that the struggle of African-Americans was explosively revolutionary. They advanced a view that was rejected by most of the leadership in the Workers' Party and Communist Party and they believed in it so strongly as to prompt them to look for allies in the Third International. Eventually they found them in Moscow. Out of that came the 1928 and 1932 Comintern resolutions, which proclaim, over the objections of many members, and particularly of the leadership of the Communist Party of the United States, that the black struggle is revolutionary in its own right. That view has a long tradition in African-American radicalism.

Counterposed to this view is one with a pedigree that reaches back into the history of American Communism and also into the history of the Socialist Party, as well as organizations that developed much later, such as the DSA. This view focuses on the unity of the working class even to the point of ignoring deep racism and sexism within progressive movements. Proponents of this framework emphasize, in the history of working class revolution and the working class movement in the United States, the need for unified and multi-racial progressive movements, but do not understand or downplay the actual history of racism and oppression in America. Nor do they understand the super-exploitation of black workers. They are willing to ignore the just claims of African-Americans in such a way that it impedes the multi-racial unity from developing.

Despite my earlier, perhaps somewhat catty criticism of Baraka's commentary, I come out of a radical tradition that is much closer to his than to Marable's, which is probably reflected in my review of the book. To clarify, my main criticism of Baraka's review concerns the way he makes it sound as if there's a Marxist-Leninist position and then there is a Social Democratic position akin to Marable’s. Baraka basically says that the Marxist-Leninist position is the correct one—that you go back to Lenin and Stalin to find the right position on the National Question. That is the right understanding of blacks in the United States, and it is what Malcolm X understood. Malcolm X’s may not have been a Marxist-Leninist position, but it was still a revolutionist position, in that it stood against imperialism and one can mobilize around that. Then there is this other, Second International, reactionary position, which is wrong, and which Marxist-Leninism needs to defeat.

What I would say, pace Baraka, is that it is not that clean. In fact, historically Marxists-Leninists have taken the same position that Baraka is criticizing, whether it is the Communist Party or the New Communist organizations in the 1970s. There are these two basic positions, but they do not map cleanly on divides in the international communist movement, or for that matter, in the progressive movement in the United States, in the way that Baraka suggests.

SL: What about Baraka's implication that the Nation of Islam is somehow a richer legacy for the Left than the struggle by Left and Trotskyist parties for a revolutionary, socialist, interracial project for overcoming capitalism in this country?

MD: I think Baraka did not articulate his position in this piece as well as he might have. This argument has been going on for at least 50 years. Significantly, Baraka has said that the Trotskyists and others, on paper, may be the more revolutionary groups. What Baraka had in mind, I think, and certainly what I have heard many African-American activists claim, is that we have to look at populations on the ground, many of whom voice support for groups like the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist groups, and yet these populations that support the Nation of Islam are in fact a more reliable resource for progressive change than either the Nation of Islam, as such, or various sectarian groups. They are more likely to actually go out and do something. I don't think Baraka is making a claim about whether it is desirable to have a multi-racial, progressive movement in the United States. Rather, he is claiming what many black activists would claim, which is that, in order to build such a movement, you are going to have to work with the populations and organizations on the ground. And that is a claim one can make empirically. |P

[1]. Michael Dawson, “Marable's Malcolm X Book Puts Icon in Context,” posted at <> 4/29/2011.

[2]. “1963 Debate with James Baldwin,” on Malcolm X: All Time Greatest Speeches Vol. 2, Master Classics Records, 2008. MP3 download (Amazon).

[3]. Verna Gates, “FBI to Probe Mississippi Killing for Hate Crimes,” August 18, 2011, available at <>.

[4]. Dawson is here quoting from a famous opening section of the speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” It reads as follows:

As long as you and I have been over here, we are not Americans yet. Well, I am one who doesn't believe in deluding myself. I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate. Being here in America doesn't make you an American. Being born here in America doesn't make you an American. Why, if birth made you American, you wouldn't need any legislation, you wouldn't need any amendments to the Constitution, you wouldn't be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C., right now.... No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism… I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare. [George Breitman (ed.), Malcolm X Speaks (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 26.]

[5]. Tariq Ali, “Leaving Shabazz” New Left Review 69 (May-June 2011): 159.

[6]. “Bayard Rustin Debate,” on Malcolm X: All Time Greatest Speeches Vol. 3, Master Classics Records, 2008. MP3 download (Amazon).

[7]. Amiri Baraka, “Review: Marable on Malcolm” May 13, 2011, available at <>

[8]. Joseph Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, quoted in Baraka, “Review: Marable on Malcolm.”

Carl Davidson, Tom Riley, and Mel Rothenberg


Platypus Review 40 | October 2011

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

On May 19, 2011, Platypus invited Carl Davidson, formerly of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Guardian Weekly, Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency, and Mel Rothenberg, formerly of the Sojourner Truth Organization, to reflect on “The Marxist turn: The New Left in the 1970s.” The original description of the event, which was moderated by Spencer A. Leonard at the University of Chicago, reads: “The 1970s are usually glossed over as a decade of the New Left’s disintegration into sectarianism, triggered by the twin defeats of Nixon’s election and the collapse of SDS in 1968–69. But the 1970s were also a time of tremendous growth on the Left. The embarrassed silence retrospectively given to the politics of this time contradicts the self-understanding of 1970s radicals’ finally "getting serious" about their Leftism, after the youthful rebellion of the 1960s. After a decade of searching for new revolutionary agents, and faced with the reordering of global capital towards post-Fordism, the 1970s saw a return to working class politics and Marxist approaches, in both theory and practice. The conventional imagination of the 1970s as the long retreat after the defeat of the late 1960s occludes an understanding of the political possibilities present in the 1970s. Our contemporary moment provides an opportunity to rethink the politics of this period. The collapse of the anti-war movement and the disappointments of the Left's hopes for a reform agenda under Obama have exhausted the resurgence of 1960s-style leftism that took place in the 2000s. The reconsideration of Marx in the wake of the current economic crisis, which parallels the neo-Marxism of the 1970s (if much attenuated by comparison), raises the question of the possibility of a Marxian politics that could fundamentally transform society. Therefore, in this panel discussion we will investigate the neglected significance of the legacy of 1970s-era Marxism for anticapitalist and emancipatory politics today.” Full audio is available online by clicking the above link.


Opening Remarks


Q & A

Opening Remarks

Mel Rothenberg: The big question behind this topic is whether it’s possible to build a viable, significant movement nationally and internationally in this period. I do not know the answer, but I am certain that the failure to build a significant socialist movement over the next decade will mean the deterioration of environmental, social, and economic conditions to an unprecedented level of barbarism and misery for the vast majority of the world’s people. Such a catastrophe will not wipe out modern society, but it will be unlike what any of us would wish on our children, and many decades of social conflict will ensue. What is at stake in discussions like this therefore is very high.

In terms of my own experience on the Left: I was a red diaper baby. My parents were Jewish immigrants who came from Poland and Russia in the 1920s as teenagers. The revolutionary rhetoric and activity of the Communist Party attracted them, and they stayed reds for most of their adult lives. My father first became a union organizer, then a union official, and spent a year in jail in Pennsylvania convicted of “anarcho-syndicalism” in the 1920s. My parents represented the core elements of the communist movement of the 1930s and 1940s: working class activists for whom the Russian Revolution represented the hope of emancipation. Their decisive political experience was in the trade union movement and the movement opposing fascism. The central political values which grew out of these movements were, first of all, a belief in the leading role of the working class; second, a belief in the international character of the struggle; and, third, a hatred of militarism and racism. After World War II they became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet Union and then with the Communist Party. My father, along with many other comrades, left the party in 1939 to protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They returned when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, which resumed its United Front policy against Fascism. In any case, by 1948 my parents had left the Communist Party and become extremely critical of the bureaucratic repressiveness, the police-state character, and the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union.

I entered the significant social movements of the 1960s, first with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketing Woolworths in Berkeley in the late 1950s, one of the earliest campaigns in the Civil Rights movement, then in Chicago with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which played a leading role in the fight against school segregation in the early 1960s. When I started college in 1951, at the height of McCarthyite anti-communist hysteria, I had absorbed the central political doctrines of my parents’ period of activism but also their rejection of “totalitarian communism.” I was a radical Democrat who shared the social-democratic rejection of revolution and belief in piecemeal reform as the key to social change. The politics of SNCC, SDS and the peace movement fit in with this. However, the worldwide revolutionary upheaval that began in the mid-1960s pushed against this reformism. Everyone is aware of the mass uprisings from Paris to Beijing, from Chicago to Los Angeles, all in the midst of a war engulfing Indochina and rebellions in Africa against Portuguese colonialism and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The radical leadership of the Civil Rights movement, now that it had realized its initial aims of ending legal segregation, turned more favorably to the revolutionary black nationalism, African Marxism, and anti-imperialism of Fanon and Nkrumah. The leadership of SDS constituted the radical wing of the anti-Vietnam war movement—actively identifying with the Vietnamese and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Disenchantment with the liberalism of the Democratic Party led to the search for more fundamental change. That was the background of the 1960s that led to the turn towards Marxism and radicalism in the late 1960s and 1970s.

I was buffeted by these forces and currents. In the fall of 1969 I went to Paris and spent a year as a visiting math professor. While the wave of revolutionary activity had ebbed by this time, the Maoist students were still active and dynamic. I took the opportunity to study and read their theoretical works, which were at a higher level than what was available in America. Along with many others, I was at that time won to a Marxist revolutionary politics. When I returned to Chicago I became involved with the Black Panthers support group and within a year I joined the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a Maoist collective. By that time, the most radical elements of the movement had turned to party building. Many joined small collectives, some of which, STO included, later became larger, even national organizations. I joined it largely because they took the issue of working class organizing seriously.

STO was led by people who had experience in point-of-production organizing. Some came out of the old Communist movement and were very sophisticated in this respect. Most of the organization was involved with plant-level organizing. I left STO after about four or five years because I didn’t believe that they were making progress. The involvement in organizing workers was successful, but marred by some very serious mistakes characteristic of the broader Left, the most fundamental of which was their over-assessment of the revolutionary potential of the U.S. working class in that period.

Mao had convinced us that revolution was in the air. That is why Sojourner Truth and other groups went into the working class. We thought the workers were ready for revolution, that they were going to break with their traditional unions. There were formidable working class struggles in the 1970s in a number of industries—mining, steel, auto. The unions all had radical caucuses organized by leftists who had come out of the earlier movements. The conviction that the 1970s would be a period in which the industrial working class turned to the Left was not entirely mistaken, but it was seriously overestimated. The divisions within the working class, particularly racial divisions, were underestimated. When the working class movement encountered the full resistance of the social and economic order to a working class advance, they went into retreat. Revolutionaries were stranded. The failure to involve broad sections of the working class in party building and the Marxist movement was the basic failure of the 1970s and its legacy remains. Any movement that seeks to overcome the current impasse must overcome that legacy.

Tom Riley: It’s important to recall the close connection that existed between the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and the Old Left of the 1930s and 1940s. The Communist Party (CP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were, of course, the two largest groups, the CP being considerably bigger in the 1960s. Both played important roles in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. But the manner in which they had influence was subtle as well, and certainly few New Leftists read The Daily World or The Militant. Much of their influence came indirectly through more militant split-offs: Progressive Labor, the Communist League, Workers’ World, Workers’ League, and the Spartacist League. Such groups brought a lot of the CP’s or SWP’s politics with them. Some had a direct and lasting impact on the New Left. Like Mel, many New Leftists were red diaper babies, including Bob Avakian, Noel Ignatiev, Mike Klonsky, Kathy Boudin, and many others. These people knew something the rest of us did not. There was a real continuity. The SDS itself, which became the main organized forum for student radicalism in the 1960s, originated as the youth group of a social-democratic wing of the Old Left. Even the Panthers, who initially had no connection whatsoever to the Old Left, were pushed by murderous FBI repression into the orbit of the CP.

I first became active in 1969. In fact, the first demonstration I ever went to was in Chicago, called “Days of Rage.” It seemed to us then as if the movement was just going to continue broadening and deepening until one day we arrived at the revolution. The high point of the New Left came in May 1970, when millions of students were on strike across the country, closing down almost every campus in America in a protest against the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State. Everybody in the New Left with any sophistication at all was well aware of how the strike by French students in 1968 had spread to the working class general strike involving 10 million workers. American workers didn’t follow the French example, but the May and June events in France had a lasting impact on the consciousness of the New Left.

By 1971, however, it was pretty clear the movement was losing momentum: SDS had disappeared, state repression neutralized the Panthers, the ruling class had pretty much decided to get out of Vietnam because the draft army was starting to come apart. At home, the war was hugely unpopular, as well as expensive. By the early 1970s, the movement had created a layer of people, perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 young Americans, including thousands of combat veterans, who may not have openly identified with the communist enemy we were supposed to be fighting, but who were serious on some level about their own subjectively revolutionary commitments. On May 23, 1970, at the height of the student strike, Mao Tse-tung issued a statement in which he declared, “Nixon’s fascist atrocities have kindled the raging flames of the revolutionary mass movement in the United States. The Chinese people firmly support the revolutionary struggle of the American people. I am convinced that the American people who are fighting valiantly will ultimately win victory and that the fascist rule in the United States will inevitably be defeated.”

It’s hard to exaggerate how inspiring it was that Mao, our hero and the scourge of the bourgeoisie all over the world, would predict our inevitable victory. So imagine our shock when, less than two years later, Richard Nixon, the world’s leading imperialist pig, was invited to Beijing. He turned up quoting glibly from the Red Book as Mao hummed “America the Beautiful.” It was a traumatic experience for us Maoists. Red China was aligning itself against Soviet “social imperialism” which, according to Peking Review, had recently become “worse than Hitler.” China’s earlier support for reactionaries like the Shah of Iran and Madame Bandaranaike, both of whom had wiped out thousands of leftists in their own countries, was something that Maoists were uncomfortable with, but which many managed to ignore. A wholesale reconciliation with U.S. imperialism, on the other hand, no one could ignore.

There were different responses. The true believers thought, “Well, if Mao did it, it must be okay. Maybe it is some sort of trap for the imperialists.” Some said, “Maybe China is still a revolutionary country, but the leadership for some reason has adopted a counter-revolutionary foreign policy.” Others wondered the degree to which China was ever revolutionary. Mostly there was a lot of confusion and demoralization. This was at a moment when the broader movement was already winding down, while, at the same time, the more serious of us were beginning to coalesce around the idea that if there was going to be a socialist revolution in the United States, it would first be necessary to build a revolutionary party like Lenin’s or Mao’s.

The party-building orientation went hand-in-hand with a turn to the working class. A lot of small leftist collectives spread across the country. I was a member of one of them called the Workers’ Group. We had about twenty politically serious members with significant experience. We had a two-point basis of unity: first, no existing Left group was worth joining. Second, capitalism had to be overthrown and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, which deterred the social democrats. Implicitly there was a third requirement: a proletarian job.

I eventually worked as a meatpacker. We had the charmingly innocent notion that, by sinking roots in the working class, we would somehow be able to hammer out a common program among ourselves on the basis of our experience in the class struggle, rather than reading books and quarrelling about what went on somewhere else. Of course, this did not work out, and within a year or two former members of the Workers’ Group splintered to a variety of different groups, mostly Maoist, but some became Trotskyists, as I did.

The New Left’s turn to the industrial proletariat and the idea of the vanguard party marked the end of the New Left since it represented a return to the core precepts of the Old Left. Neither the pro-Democratic Party unity mongering of the CP nor the peaceful, legal suit-and-tie socialism of the SWP appealed to anyone I knew. But suddenly a lot of the old disputes seemed to be relevant again. Brother Davidson contributed an influential pamphlet “Left in Form, Right in Essence” that combined criticisms of contemporary American Trotskyist groups with arguments recycled from Stalin’s purge trials.[1] (The Spartacist League replied with “The Stalin School of Falsification Revisited.”)[2]

Much of the debate between Trotskyists and Stalinists revolves around the question of whether the workers’ movement can find allies among the progressive capitalists, such as the Democratic Party in America, or whether the workers’ movement has to remain independent of the bourgeoisie. The “good cop–bad cop” Democrat-Republican division provides a very useful mechanism for maintaining capitalist rule. As Malcolm X put it, when you keep the Democrats in power you keep the Dixiecrats in power, and if you put the Republicans in, you get pretty much the same thing. This is why Marxists often refer to them as the twin parties of racism and imperialist war.

As it happens, I first came to seriously consider the question of the role of the progressive bourgeoisie after reading a publication by STO critical of the call by the Revolutionary Union, now called the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), for a United Front against imperialism. STO argued that there could be no progressive wing of American capitalism, so there is nothing to unite with or vote for. That made sense to me, and it still does. The idea of politically supporting the Democrats was introduced, of course, in the 1930s as part of the Comintern’s “Popular Front.” In countries like France and Spain, the CP sought to participate in Popular Front governments with democrats and progressive capitalists, whereas in the U.S. the CP didn’t have the weight to make a direct approach to the Democrats for an alliance. So the Popular Front meant voting Democrat under a banner of “unite against the right.”

In 1905, in the preamble to their constitution, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) stated flatly that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” That proposition has always separated revolutionaries from reformists, Bolsheviks from Mensheviks, and Trotskyists from Stalinists. In the 1970s many of the cadres who went in with the intention of importing revolutionary politics were soon swept up in supporting various oppositionist formations that existed in the unions. Many of these had as their main activity suing the unions in the interests of democratic reforms. But class-conscious militants do not, and cannot, as a matter of principle, appeal to the bosses’ courts to settle differences in the workers’ movement. That was the policy of the Wobblies, the Communist Party, and of the Trotskyist movement.

Very few of the thousands of young New Left militants who went into the unions succeeded in recruiting significant numbers of workers. One who did is Jack Heyman, recently retired from the International Longshoremen in the Bay Area. Three years ago this month 25,000 longshoremen along the west coast closed down every port from San Diego to Seattle on May Day. They were protesting the continuing American occupation of Iraq. That was significant, and it was big news on the west coast, though I bet it got little if any coverage in the Chicago Tribune. The union militants who carried out this action did so in defiance of both the shipping bosses and the government labor arbitrators who declared it to be an illegal action. They also had to contend with the obstruction of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) bureaucracy who were concerned that it might make trouble for the Democrats in November. Still, the strike was exemplary in that it constituted the first strike ever conducted by American workers against an American imperial military adventure. It did not, unfortunately, signal an historic shift in class forces, but it did show what can be achieved by the intelligent intervention of serious militants with coherent class-struggle politics. Most of the Left ignored it, or downplayed it, either because they no longer regard the organized working class as a potential agent of social transformation or because of political hostility to the people at the core of it, because they were Trotskyists.

In 1967 Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, addressed New Leftists in Binghamton, New York, as follows:

You call yourselves New Left not because you have a new philosophy, but because you want to be distinguished from the previous generation of Marxists. You think that your elders have done badly and you want to make a new start. This sounds very tidy. New people make a new beginning, and call themselves [the] “New Left.” But in what sense are you new people? You are young. Young people can be very old if they start with very old ideas….If you just announce this is the end of ideology, you start from their own bankruptcy…[3]

The best cadres of my generation ultimately recognized that, if we want to move towards socialism, there is no alternative to developing social consciousness in the working class. Those who looked for shortcuts, other ways of doing it, ended up as radical liberals or worse.

In the 1970s our generation renewed the Left and the workers’ movement, but we contributed very little that was new. Almost everything was learned or rediscovered from those who had gone before us. In his autobiography, My Life, Trotsky wrote that, upon being converted to Marxism, “I had a feeling that I was joining a great chain as a tiny link.”[4] I had exactly the same feeling in 1973 when I came over from Maoism to Trotskyism. I believe to this day that the struggle to create a viable, mass, working class, revolutionary Leninist party in this country and internationally, though extremely difficult, is nonetheless possible. I believe there’s no other way out.

Carl Davidson: I started out with no connection to the Left. I was a culturally alienated kid from a working class family, living in a working class town in the late 1950s—so, I wanted to be a beatnik. A steelworker veteran of the Korean War handed me a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems at a pool hall in the town where I grew up in 1959. That was the first piece of left-wing literature that I ever saw. After that I read everything that Jack Kerouac wrote. When I finally lucked my way into college, my rebelliousness led me to identify with the kids from SNCC and the anti-war movement. People around me at that time read French existentialists—Sartre on “Marxism and Existentialism” and Camus’s The Rebel. Then I read Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man (1961)[5] that contained large sections of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The ensuing study of Hegel was actually my entrance into Marxism. It came from trying to make sense of this huge institution that we were all alienated from that was racist and tied to the war machine. I read Marx’s Capital and other books by Marx to try to understand what it was, exactly, I was alienated from.

Regarding students, there was a pamphlet at the time saying, “student is nigger.” I knew that wasn’t true. Some people said students were the new workers. I knew that wasn’t true. Some people said, “we’re the intelligentsia,” to which I replied, “not in the way that it used to be, because we are children of the working class, not the bourgeoisie”—at least, this was the case at the school I attended. My first efforts at Marxism were dedicated to thinking through a theory of where students fit in to the productive process. I wrote a number of pamphlets for SDS trying to understand knowledge as a commodity. This was tied up with opposition to the war because of the war machine’s presence on campus. Parallel to the question of the war was the upsurge in the Civil Rights movement. These kids on the front lines in the South were our heroes. John Lewis came up to my apartment when he was raising money for SNCC. Eventually I went to Mississippi myself. That was the crucial turning point in my life, the point where I became a revolutionary, walking through Mississippi, sleeping at night in small cottages, going to out-of-the-way, rickety old churches for mass meetings with sharecroppers talking about Black Power, watching that electrify the audience, fighting with the Ku Klux Klan, getting tear-gassed and beaten by the Mississippi Highway Patrol. By the time I came back from that, I was a different person.

There came a time when SNCC addressed the young white students, saying, “Your time down here is over. It’s time for you to take a trip back into white America. If you want to fight racism, there’s plenty of it back there. We need a division of labor.” I took that seriously. I went back north, joined SDS, and became part of the national leadership after about a year or so. We tried to develop Marxism by viewing the student as a constituency in its own right and understanding its connection to the wider society. At the time of the student strike at Columbia in 1968, there was a group of us who tried to develop this into a whole picture of the new working class, drawing upon some French neo-Marxists like André Gorz and Serge Mallet. We wanted to put it out in a paper called the Port Authority Statement, to supersede the Port Huron Statement, but it was never published.

Then in 1968 the shit hit the fan. January, the Tet Offensive, then the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rebellion in 180 cities, and tanks in front of SDS headquarters on Madison Street. Everything was in flames around us. We had to make sense of a huge, mass revolt that was taking a national form, but half of our organization took the position that all nationalism was reactionary, including the Black Panther Party. We knew that was wrong. I knew from my experience in the South what Black Power was and what it meant to those sharecroppers. Of course, our opponents were claiming to be communists. So, we had to enter Leninism through the door of the national question, by studying national liberation struggles in order to understand the dynamic of the Vietnamese and the Chinese Revolutions, and the black question in this country. After SDS fell apart, we formed another group called the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) and worked in different collectives. We had long debates on the question of agency and finally settled on the working class as the agent of change. We also come to realize that all of our models were led by a communist party, but the Trotskyist parties were insanely left, and the CPUSA was too right. So I was with the trend that said, “When there is no communist party, the first task is to build one.” And to be a real communist party, workers have to be involved; it has to be built in the factories. So, that’s what my comrades and I did at the beginning of the 1970s.

I joined the October League in 1976. They sent young people into factories all around the country to build an organization. Once it developed a core of young workers who had been recruited into the organization, it opened up and brought in intellectuals like myself. When the October League fell apart in 1981, I joined the League of Revolutionary Struggle until it fell apart, sometime in the late eighties. The time from Mao’s death to the exposures of what Pol Pot was doing in Kampuchea, up until the end of Gorbachev, constituted a crisis in socialism. Eventually, I reassembled my old cell in Chicago, and we spent the next 16 years reconsidering everything, trying to work out a new position. But that’s another story.


MR: I disagree more fundamentally with Tom, for while our experiences are perhaps not so different, the conclusions we draw from them are. When I was in STO, it was serious about working class organizing. The conclusion I drew when I left was that a working class socialist movement had to emerge in a different way. It was not a matter of explaining Marxist ideas to workers who will then become revolutionaries. Revolution has to grow out of experience, and community, and one’s own culture in a very deep way. In the 1970s this was not going to happen.

Where would a revolutionary working class movement come from today? I think it would somehow have to emerge from the workers themselves. I am not saying this could happen without intellectuals, since I agree that there’s a necessity of building a party, an organization of revolutionary intellectuals. In that sense I am a Leninist (although, in this matter, Lenin followed Kautsky). But the issue is whether in fact the revolutionary intellectuals are the people that somehow bring socialism to the working class by serving as direct organizers of socialist activity within the working class. The intellectuals bring to the working class a broad conception of political issues, not the question of the immediacy of the class struggle. The daily grinding oppression of workers is something that the workers know better than any intellectual. So there’s a kind of ambiguity, even with Lenin, on this issue. A movement for socialism cannot be built purely on the basis of the industrial proletariat, and never has been. Still, I would argue that the movement for socialism cannot come from missionaries, intellectuals, and students going into the factories and promoting Marxism. It would need deeper sources. I will only add that the failure of the trade union movement in our time is worldwide. The situation is more dire than at any other time in my life.

TR: On Lenin’s proposition that intellectuals have to organize and recruit for Marxist ideas: A few scattered intellectuals criticizing this or that signify nothing unless they are able to make a connection with the fundamental forces in society, with those who might benefit from creating a new society that does not consist in a worldwide political order likely to result in inter-imperialist war, which, if it happens again, means there probably won’t be a lot of pieces to pick up.

The Spartacist League opposed the Vietnam War by going into the working class and calling for labor strikes against the war. It never happened. After the Pinochet coup in 1974, the Spartacists in longshore unions wrested enough support for a boycott of Chilean cargo for one day, on one ship, for one shift. Flash forward—the Spartacist League goes crazy and walks away from the unions. Yet, in 1984, one of them again succeeded in stopping cargo bound for South Africa. For eleven days they stopped this ship. After three court injunctions, the cops come and bust them, which led to a shutdown of the entire West Coast in 1999 in solidarity with Mumia [Abu-Jamal]. This is not a series of random coincidences. There’s a chain, a line of continuity that we are trying to keep alive.

CD: Yet the vast majority of workers participating in such actions probably also vote Democratic!

For the last several years, I’ve been spending all my time organizing in an entirely blue-collar milieu, and I believe that we have to build two types of interlinked organizations at the same time. First, an organization that can unite a progressive majority of the workers in our country. For that we use the PDA, the Progressive Democrats of America, which is not affiliated with the Democratic Party. Second, we also build an organization that can unite a militant minority, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Step by step, I am trying to build a group of workers who form a militant minority, but it is the interplay between those guys and the broader group that enables us to have anti-war actions every week, to take part in the mobilizations in Washington D.C., and getting union guys into office. How does this fit in with Trotskyism, Stalinism, or Maoism?

Spencer Leonard: How did your assessment of the 1970s change in retrospect? How do you view it now within the long history of the American and the international revolutionary movement?

MR: In the late 60s we all thought there was a real possibility for revolution in the United States. There was a revolutionary wave around the world, so that our task in the United States where there was no revolutionary party, was to make it. Most of us thought of ourselves as Leninist organizers.

And although we never succeeded, a major concern of mine and of STO’s was the overcoming of the racial barriers in the United States. White skin privilege and the divisions between black and white were extremely sharp. We felt this was the major barrier to working class revolutionary struggle. Different organizations tried to deal with this in different ways. Some Trotskyists went back to the old Socialist Party position whereby socialists have nothing in particular to offer blacks or people of color—they should become union men and socialists like everybody else. The Maoist view was that black workers constituted a special category of workers and that this involved a national question that had to be integrated with a working class perspective. And nationalism was a very strong current among black workers; the Panthers and the Muslims had more of a following than did the Marxists.

TR: In every organization I’ve ever been in the black question has been understood as key for working class revolution in the United States. That was true when I was a Maoist. It didn’t change when I became a Trotskyist. Moscow had a hand in foisting the “Black Belt” theory on the American party and this disoriented it significantly. It’s our view that blacks in the U.S. are not a distinct nation, but rather a color caste that have been forcibly segregated. It’s not a matter of simply “unite and fight,” but that the class interests that bind workers together can transcend the sectional differences that separate them.

I was very impressed by Weatherman. There were no Weathermen where I was from, but my friends and I were RYM II-ish. We were Maoists because Mao was our leader. You would read the Red Book, threw rocks at the cops, were arrested, and supported strikes. But as I started reading histories of the Russian Revolution to try to figure Marxism out, I was quite open to the idea that it all went wrong with the Workers’ Opposition when Lenin and Trotsky clamped down on Kollontai’s syndicalist faction within the Bolshevik Party, though eventually I came to a different conclusion. Everything was up in the air: Stalin was good, Stalin was bad, Russia became capitalist when Stalin died as Mao taught us, or perhaps not.

CD: Looking back, I sum up my insight in one word: waves. Light moves in waves, gravity, water, everything moves in waves. So do social movements. They have ebbs and flows. We were in the middle of an ebb in the 70s, but we did not know it, since we thought it was always onward and upward. So when the wave that peaked around 1970 started to recede, we were caught out in left field. It’s very important to make adjustments. One has to know when to cast the net out and when to haul it in.

Another thing that I learned is that the South is a national homeland for African-Americans. This was not completely imposed by Zinoviev. A number of African-American comrades were involved in devising that theory. The African-American revolt of the 1960s had a national character. African-Americans are an oppressed nationality, and have the right to self-determination. I still believe that.

Q & A

What explains the shift towards Marxism if the Left was politically in decline in 1970s?


Today we are seeing a decline in college attendance by the sons and daughters of the working class. How does this change things from what the three of you experienced?

CD: When I went to Penn State, my tuition was $1500 a year, so if I decided to drop out of school and go run around the country organizing against the war, nobody’s mortgage was at stake. I had no $50,000 student loan burden. The conditions under which the first wave of the baby boomers went to the newly expanded state universities and community colleges were new. It was relatively easy to get into school, and when you got out, it was relatively easy to get a job. The conditions that students face today are different. But the characterization of students as a multi-class stratum still holds.

We are now paving the road as we travel. I have learned that every revolutionary victory that has been won has broken the mold of the one that went before it. So you can’t pick up some formula from 1917 or 1905 and think you are going to repeat it today. There is not a single revolution since 1917 that could copy what the Bolsheviks accomplished.

MR: When I was a student at the University of Michigan, I worked in an auto plant, which was possible then. It’s not possible today. As to the first question, it is true that there were more people in the 70s who thought of themselves as revolutionary Marxists than there were in the 60s, but in the 60s there was a much bigger mass movement of people who thought of themselves as radicals of some sort. That is what reached a culmination around the world in the late 60s.

TR: The changing character of the student population is part of the generalized assault on working class living standards since about 1970. So why was there an expansion of post-secondary education in the United States to begin with? Because of Sputnik. The Russians were getting ahead, communism was going to win, so we had to invest in teaching our working class kids. Now there is no money for education, healthcare, or anything else. This is because STO and the Spartacist League and the October League failed to build large, powerful communist movements but instead quarreled among each other.

As regards the contrast between the 60s and the 70s, there was no difference when I was going to high school in the 1960s between smoking dope, having sex, and growing long hair and going on demonstrations and being gay.

The 60s ran until 1971 or 1972. After that came the turn to Marxist party building, the working class, etc., which exhausted everyone. You could feel the Left decomposing.

I completely agree with Carl about 1917. But 1917, which happens to be the name of our publication, is a special case. It is the only time that a politically conscious working class led the masses of the exploited to expropriate the capitalists. Prior to 1917, Marxism was seen by intellectuals as nice in theory. The Bolshevik experience shows how it is possible to recruit people, build cells, and intelligently address what the workers are concerned with. The IBT attempts to continue that work as best we can. And in our edition of Trotsky’s Transitional Program we have incorporated a lot of historical background on trade union work up through the 70s that has been exemplary. Where STO went wrong, in my view, was not in attempting to bring Marxism to the working class, but in thinking they were going to create new unions.

To achieve socialism, the working class has to acquire political consciousness and has to act in its own interests. Outside of that, you can overthrow capitalism, as happened in Cuba, in China, in Albania, and various other places, but you cannot set out on the path to consciously achieve a classless society. That is impossible unless the producers have political consciousness, unless they themselves understand, participate in, and drive the process forward. It takes leadership, but leadership that is organically part of the class. Lenin’s conception is that the party is the most self-sacrificing, the most revolutionary-minded and the most far-seeing element of the class itself. To me nothing is achievable without that. But I can’t show that we’ve made a socialist revolution yet so therefore the proposition remains to be proved. |P

Transcribed by Ryan Hardy and Jacob Cayia

[1]. Originally published in the Guardian weekly (1973). Available online at <>.

[2]. Originally published in the Workers Vanguard no. 22–30 (1973). Available online at <>.

[3]. Isaac Deutscher, Marxism in Our Time, ed. Tamara Deutscher (Berkeley, CA: Ramparts Press, 1971), 65.

[4]. Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 99.

[5]. Available online at <>.

Osha Neumann, Mark Rudd, Tim Wohlforth, Alan Spector

Platypus Review 30 | December 2010


On November 9, 2010, Platypus hosted the public forum, “Rethinking the New Left,” moderated by Spencer A. Leonard. The panel consisted of Osha Neumann, a former member of the New York anarchist group in the 1960s, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers; Mark Rudd, former member and national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later a member of the Weather Underground; Tim Wohlforth, founder and national secretary of the Young Socialist Alliance in 1959; and Alan Spector, a full-time organizer for SDS for more than five years in the 1960s.

Opening remarks

Osha Neumann: First, I wanted to say something about the structure of this event, because I think form gives meaning as much as content. I wrote the organizers of the panel when I found out the lineup: “Goodness gracious, this feels like a blast from the past! No women, no people of color—What could come out of a panel like this?” They wrote me back saying,

We are primarily interested in reflecting on political experience, more than on identity, so we did not make those concerns determinative. As it happens, a black activist and some women were invited to participate, and some will likely participate in the sister panel to this one, on the radical turn in the 1970s. But none could make it for this panel.

This is a very old problem. It makes it easy to universalize our experience, to make a white experience into a universal experience. I know this gets at the contentious issue of identity politics, but I have always felt that you cannot get to the universal if you bypass the particular. You cannot get to a unified movement by doing an end-run around identity.

Now, about the general form of these panels at universities. To hear a bunch of guys talking on, fanning their peacock tails of intellect—in the old days I would have thought this lacked the urgency and connection to action that I found absolutely crucial. My impulse would have been to get up from my seat and shout at this panel, “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!” I’m not going to do that now, but I still remain frustrated with theory that has nothing to do with practice. It is a lot safer just to talk things over than it is to go out on the streets and do something. However, I do think that our fixation on the propaganda of the deed also became a problem for the movement.

In the 1960s, we had a movement but not a crisis of capitalism, and now we have a crisis of capitalism, but no movement. Certainly we have no movement adequate to our situation now, a movement capable of turning the current crisis into an opportunity. I believe this is what lies behind the thinking of this panel. It is presented rather neutrally, but I have a feeling that our actions back then are somehow being blamed for the lack of a movement now. It is claimed that it was our fault—our expressive, narcissistic, thrill-seeking, confrontational politics never targeted capitalism, never did the hard work of organizing, and so on. I have this feeling because one of the questions for this panel spoke of the liquidation of the Left, worldwide, during and after the 1960s. At this point, I must rescind my earlier reluctance, stand up, and shout: “That’s bullshit, and you know it!”

First of all, it is wrong to say that we liquidated a pre-existing left. In the 1950s, the Left was moribund. There was nothing to be liquidated. The Old Left had already self-liquidated, or else was liquidated by McCarthyism. Secondly, how can one say that the Left has been liquidated, worldwide? Just look at what is happening in France, in Greece, in Latin America. In some ways the Left is stronger than ever in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Chile, where it has gained power. Even in the U.S. I would not say that the Left has been liquidated, only that it has been dispersed. It has burst open like a seedpod, spreading many different movements. Anyway, the movement was never that unified, even back then.

However, this does not mean that I am opposed to analyzing the shortcomings of the movement in the 1960s. Indeed, I have made my own list of some of the failures back then. We failed to reign in the loosened id when it led us to ignore the warning signs that we were in danger of self-destruction. We failed to marry reason with imagination, and leaven imagination with reason. We assumed a vocabulary and practice derived from other peoples’ struggles, and assumed it would work in our situation. We relied too much on action and organizing. We idolized those who took up the gun and had contempt for any who hesitated or compromised. We swept away the distinction between the personal and the political, without questioning the degree to which we thereby limited our appeal to those who still had to actually live within roles, and who thus valued their privacy. Finally, we failed to find a way to expand and deepen our base while retaining our militancy.

But our mistakes were linked to our strengths, and both were rooted in the fact that we were a movement of outsiders to the system. We did not consist of the working class, those embedded in the system and whose lives were shaped by the necessity of being a part of it. There was no possibility of a general strike, as the workforce continued largely to be satisfied—it functioned and was rewarded. Because it came from the outside, the movement could be total. It rejected all aspects of the self-regimentation and regulation required to be a good worker, citizen, and family member. But this meant that participation was restricted to those who could make a complete break. The problem was that our revolt against reason then took the shape of this preference for action over theory, the demand for immediate gratification, and the thrill of direct action. We were unable, at the same time, to shout “freedom now,” and “freedom not quite yet.”

We thought we were incandescent. It was thrilling to be alive, to feel ourselves as part of a movement of liberation, to dedicate our lives to that movement, to be caught up in the urgency of transformation of ourselves and lives and planet, to take risks, to transgress, to feel a new love, and to feel a new rage. I do not want to romanticize this period, but there was a great deal within the movement that was and remains profound, moving, and true. I do not believe that, had we done it right, somehow everything would have been different. There were historical limitations. The system was too strong. It delivered the goods. The conditions were not ripe for revolution.

As for how things stand now, the most novel aspect of the current situation is the crisis of nature. Human beings are now becoming a problem for the planet. We now fear our species could become endangered. Reflecting on this, I want to end with a quote from Evo Morales, the Bolivian President. He says, “For Bolivians and for indigenous peoples, the idea is to live well… Capitalism to live better pillages resources in an unbridled manner, exploits the children of mother earth…. [It] destroys nature…. [and] causes so much damage to humanity.” He goes on:

We have two paths: either Pachamama, or death. We have two paths: either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives, or Mother Earth lives. Of course, brothers and sisters, we are here for life, for humanity, and for the rights of Mother Earth. Long live the rights of Mother Earth! Death to capitalism!

When Morales speaks of the need to live well, rather than to live better, I feel the vivifying presence of that utopian dream of a liberated and emancipated reality that, for me, was the best part of the 1960s. Would that there could be a movement that captured that, again.

Mark Rudd: In the 1960s we thought world revolution was imminent. We thought that military defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam and elsewhere could lead to the overthrow of imperialism, and we didn’t just want to stand on the sidelines cheering it on. We wanted to get involved. At Columbia University I learned from the red diaper babies about organizing, and it paid off after three years: We had this big rebellion. But we took that experience and we perverted it. The lesson we mistakenly drew was that audacity and militancy will gain you support. This was, in essence, an application of Che’s foco theory. It is not as though we were just these dumb kids who were impatient. We had a theory, and it was Che’s.

So we went from good organizing to bad organizing, in somthing called Weatherman, which was my faction of SDS. As the last national secretary of SDS, I was involved in the decision to destroy the largest radical student organization, with about 100,000 members, right at the height of the war. Basically, I did the work of the FBI for them, because I mistakenly thought I had a better idea—namely, guerilla warfare.

If there was anything good in the 1960s, it was the development and experience of mass movements, in particular the anti-war movement, and its predecessor, the Civil Rights Movement. What we really need today is for young people to commit to organizing, to growing the movement. The best way to learn how to organize is to study SNCC, in the South. SDS learned from them and used the technique of organizing that was developed by Ella Jo Baker. She organized for the Civil Rights Movement, and she taught the young people in SNCC how to organize. Her method for organizing is rooted in an organizing tradition. Its techniques were passed down from women who had organized rural black churches.

My goal is Social Democracy. I think we need to have a society with a little more compassion and a lot less militarism. We must strive to narrow the gaps and take off the worst edges of capitalism. The best I can think of in the real world is European Social Democracy. That’s our goal. We need to turn the Democratic Party into a party of the people, to make it a party representing the opposite pole from capitalism. We can do this through community organizing. We can build a base among the wretched of this country, the half of the population who do not vote. They are the disenfranchised, the people like those in the Mississippi Delta who had been completely cut off from politics. They are out of it and they have given up hope. We need community organizing to build this movement, to force a realignment of the Democratic Party by developing a mass-based movement within the Democratic Party, as was happening in the lead up to the 2008 elections, with the movement around Obama.

Tim Wohlforth: I entered socialist politics in the 1950s, which gives me a somewhat different way of looking at things. It was a dark world, and there were not many of us young socialists. I was searching for a way out of the polarized world of the Cold War. I felt the U.S. stifled civil liberties at home and supported reactionary governments abroad, like Franco’s Spain. Yet I also rejected the oppressive totalitarian regimes of the so-called “socialist” states.

For this reason I joined the Young Socialists League, led by Mike Harrington and affiliated with Max Shachtman. I went on to become national secretary of the Young Socialists Alliance, affiliated with James Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party. I was a Trotskyist—part of the Old Left to be sure, but a dissident part—and I was young. I could sum up my convictions in three notions, which I now see, retrospectively, as the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I will start with the good. We Trotskyists held that so-called “actually existing socialism” was in fact ruled by a bureaucratic elite, with a poorly functioning command economy, an undemocratic one-party political system, and an all-pervasive secret police. We suspected that these features were characteristic not only of the USSR, but also of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, China, and Vietnam. We have been proven right in this assessment. However, our vision of the future was based on the past. We projected onto the future our idealized vision of the course history might have taken in the 1930s. Once a new economic crisis developed, we were sure the working class would become radicalized, opening up fresh revolutionary opportunities. There was nothing evil about this vision—it was just wrong. Not only did the apocalypse not take place on schedule, but today, as we suffer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, we find the Left paralyzed and in retreat, while the anger of the people is captured by the extreme right, as seen in something like the Tea Party. That is the bad. As for the ugly: We saw ourselves as a chosen few, professional revolutionaries organized in a disciplined combat party whose program held the key to the victory of the working class. In this sense we remained communists. Since then, this vanguardist notion has led to the splintering of both Trotskyist and Maoist sects and, in many cases, the transformation of political organizations into cults.

The 1960s exploded on the scene in a way none of us could have predicted. The heart of this explosion was the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle against the Vietnam War. The student movement went on its own chaotic, fitful radical way, with the SDS at its center. Our Trotskyist dicta fell on deaf ears. But while the New Left rejected the Old Left, it did not negate it. They were simply uninterested in theoretically understanding the states of the Second World, as it was called, which in those days covered a third of the world’s surface.

SDS had ideas of its own. Perhaps the most important of these was the notion of participatory democracy, a form of self-government and decentralized organization based on consensus. This worked quite well on the local level, fitting the mood of students, and providing just the modicum of organization needed for local protest. But it never worked on a national level.

By 1968, the SDS national leadership faced the invasion of the Progressive Labor Party body-snatchers. I remember a young woman getting up at one conference and reciting in singsong fashion,“We must ally with the workers, and not the liberals. I have been working in this factory for the last three weeks, and all the workers agree we must break with the liberals and fight for socialism.” That was the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). In reaction to their invasion of SDS, the non-PLP forces broke into warring Maoist factions: Revolutionary Youth Movement-I [RYM-I] (the Weathermen), RYM-II (Michael Klonsky and Bob Avakian), and later, Marlene Dixon’s Democratic Workers Party, along with several other groups. They rejected what was good in Trotskyism—the critique of “actually existing socialism”—and thus tended to be more Stalinist than mainstream communism. We all shared a common vision of a socialist future, and we knew students alone were incapable of bringing this future into fruition. The key problem lay, and still lies, in the question of how.

During all of this, I was off in my own sect, with our particular interpretation of the Marxist seven seals. Of course, we were there at all the marches, the civil rights demonstrations, and the conferences. Our growth came in the aftermath of the breakup of SDS. We recruited our share of those who felt deserted by SDS. With these new forces we tried something different. We won over some minority students from community colleges. For a while it worked, but the promised labor upsurge never took place. Our recruits dropped out one by one.

Regarding the Civil Rights struggle, neither the Old nor the New Left had much to do with this movement, which emerged from the black masses themselves. I agree with Mark on the importance of SNCC’s work in the south. But one of the reasons SNCC worked is that it came out of a movement. It did not try to create a movement out of nothing. When SDS went into the white neighborhoods and tried to organize the white poor through what it called the Economic Research and Action Program (ERAP), when there was not yet a white poor movement, it failed. For all its work, SNCC also failed to produce a lasting organization. Stokely Carmichael turned to black power. Black nationalism rendered itself prey to sectarianism and isolation. This, in turn, led to political collapse. Of course, the black political struggle survived in other, more traditional forms: first, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and, now, Obama.

The 1960s were a bubble in history. Everything was possible in the moment. Miraculous events took place. At the time many of us projected this magic into an indefinite future. But the normal always follows the abnormal. We had the opportunity to build a relatively large and sustainable socialist political party in the early 1970s. It might have been more reformist than revolutionary and, certainly, it would have been messy, a diverse party connected to, yet separate from, the Democratic Party. But we flubbed it—all of us.

Alan Spector: Students, from the 1960s up through today, tend to think that social change would come from students. How convenient! In the 1960s we thought the working class itself was disappearing, or that it was weak and helpless. But it did not disappear. Everything continues to be built by workers somewhere. The difference now is that, because of globalization and imperialism, in major parts of the world the working class consists of 15-year-old girls making the shirts that you are wearing, or 18-year-old girls making the computers on which intellectuals write papers about the disappearance of the working class.

Working class struggle never disappeared. What has been mainly discussed here is the white campus Left. This was an important movement, but only one movement. It would take volumes to talk about the black liberation movement, the struggle against racism, and everything else happening in the 1960s.

I do not want to disappoint, but I have not changed at all. I renounce nothing I ever did. I am critical about some aspects of the past, but even then I don’t renounce any of it. And I’m not tired.

I was a student at the University of Wisconsin. After graduating, I worked as a full-time chapter organizer for SDS in Boston. What I saw in SDS at that time was a great deal of confusion. I remember one SDS convention in 1968 when the anarchist group Osha was involved in, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, stood up and denounced the PLP as Stalinist. Some SDS national officers seemed to approve of this. But then they got up, quoted Stalin, and said that the PLP had betrayed his true message. At this the supposedly anti-Stalinist anarchists applauded wildly. At that point I said to myself, “There’s something really unprincipled going on here.”

The revolutionary Left today is in much worse shape than people realize. I place no hope in reformism. Capitalism leads to fascism and to rivers of blood. I wish reforms might forestall this, but they cannot. And you cannot cross that river of blood without getting bloody yourself. The world left movement probably began its decline in the 1950s. There was a burst of optimism in the 1960s, but now we see Vietnam and China welcoming Wal-Mart. As a world movement the Left is weak. There are scattered movements here and there, but I’m not particularly optimistic about Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez.

The white campus movement reached its limit by 1968–69. It had to reach out to the working class. This meant more than simply telling white workers, “We want to get you more money.” It meant reaching out to the community as a whole, which was black and Latino, by the way. The failure to do that, the failure to fight racism and the corresponding capitulation to separatism, was a key factor in the decline of the Left.

Beyond this, there were the drugs. Woodstock hurt the movement. The Beatles tailed the movement, they didn’t build it, and the bosses found ways to get on with the counterculture. There were also the elections and the illusory feeling that the defeat of Nixon would set things right. Finally, the devastating impact of the Weather Underground on the movement cannot be overestimated. It was difficult to go to steelworkers in Pittsburgh and press them to oppose the war the day after some Weatherwoman took her blouse off and ran through a high school shouting, “Free yourselves! Free yourselves!” Thank God that nail bomb the Weathermen put at Fort Dix did not go off. If it had and the newspapers ran photos of police dragging the bodies out of the rubble, police oppression against us would be the least of our worries: The masses themselves would have beat the crap out of us.

As for today, you don’t have to choose between running and hiding or putting yourself out there as a martyr. There’s a lot going on today. The revolution will not happen tomorrow, but we cannot fool ourselves: This system has to come down, and it is not going to come down through elections, countercultural institutions, or terrorism. There’s no easy way out. There is only the long struggle.

Panelists’ responses

TW: The central lesson of the 1960s was that devoting your political activity to the idea of creating a revolution that is not on the agenda, and which is not going to be on the agenda in this country for the foreseeable future, is tantamount to taking talented, thoughtful people and steering them into a blind alley. Change occurs, but generally not through spectacular revolution. Rather, change has been primarily incremental. I used to attack the American Communist Party constantly, but at its best the Party recognized that there is no contradiction between favoring an alternative to capitalism and acting in the actual political processes of the working class. No workers would have ever turned to socialism if socialists had not actually fought for immediate changes in their real life.

ON: About organizing, I wonder if the SNCC model is what’s needed today. There’s a less heroic story of organizing in Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father. It is about organizing right here in Chicago and it has a decidedly downbeat tone, involving lots of door-to-door soliciting that doesn’t really pay off. This balance between “freedom now” and “freedom not quite yet” is still something we have not mastered. Yes, we have to be in it for the long haul. But there are breaks, moments of enlightenment, unexpected breakthroughs of utopian vision, and I am not prepared to discard that aspect of the revolution. As a public interest lawyer, I supervise what we call a neighborhood justice clinic for low and no-income people. People suffering from this crisis are constantly streaming into our office and every one of them has got a tale to tell. They all feel isolated but I cannot, for the life of me, direct them to any political project. Next door to us is something actually called The Long Haul—an anarchist infoshop started by Al Haber. The anarchists are these young guys that drop by sometimes and I love them all. They go out to demonstrations, put fliers out, and so on. They plant community gardens. But there’s no connection between them and the people I see at my clinic. Somehow there has to be that. There has to be something to offer, but I have got no damn idea what that is.

AS: I don’t want anybody to assume I was taking a pessimistic tack. The person who brings you bad news, the doctor or nurse who says that you are about to go through some horrible pain, but we think you can make it, that’s the optimist. The person who says, “Let’s have a Christmas party for you,” even though it’s July, is saying that he doubts you will live to see December. Having an imagination means having the ability to understand that the world can be a whole lot worse than you ever thought. Just look at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and the 300,000 people that died there in five short minutes. If you took those bodies and laid them end-to-end, it would stretch from Chicago to Milwaukee and back. The other side of it, though, is that things can be much better than you could ever imagine. The most powerful weapon the oppressors have is their ability to convince people that what exists is natural: Whiteness is natural, America is natural, the peacefulness of America is natural. But one-fourth of all the world’s prisoners are in the United States. That’s part of the river of blood. Sub-Saharan Africa is today’s Auschwitz—that too is part of the river of blood. Then there are the more slowly moving rivers of blood. For instance, many of your generation will contract diabetes in your 40s or early 50s as a result of not being able to cope with alienation, with one’s sense of powerlessness. If you look at history, it is clear that the U.S. is in decline. Either it will go the way of England, through steady, gradual violence, or it will go the way of Nazi Germany, throwing bombs this way and that. I am not happy to say this, but I think it is more likely the U.S. will go the second way. But we might yet have some impact on that. We cannot stop a third world war, but we can make a difference as to whether that war kills 60 million or 600 million. To live your life the right way and keep the struggle going means surrounding yourself with others of the same temperament. And this doesn't mean avoiding involvement in reform struggles.* Those struggles can be ways for people to learn what the system is made of and how to organize against it, but only for that. We do have to meet people where they are, but we can’t simply sit down with them, and leave it at that. It is no good just to stand outside and shout at people and pass out fliers.

[* Erratum: This sentence was originally, erroneously, mistranscribed in the print edition as "This means avoiding...." It is corrected here. — Eds.]

Q & A

Mark, you mentioned that you support Obama, and that your goal is to make capitalism gentler through a version of Social Democracy parallel to Europe. Why do you think it is unimportant to overcome capitalism? Why do you favor a stronger welfare state? Isn’t welfare state capitalism something your generation rebelled against?

MR: People basically tend to be lazy and apolitical. They do not like to sit in meetings, and socialism means a lot of meetings. Capitalism in one form or another is going to be around for a while, so my attitude is, why not try to control it as best we can through the government, understood as an instrument of the collective will of the people? We cannot ignore the fact that every country except Cuba, which still calls itself communist, has gone for capitalism. China is another example. I would like to overthrow the whole thing. I hate it all. I think capitalism is terrible and private property is absurd. But it isn’t going to happen, because people don’t want to sit in meetings! They just want to be left alone! So I think we should only strive to control things a little better.

ON: As suggested in the Evo Morales quotation I read, I would question the idea that capitalism and nature are compatible, or even that capitalism can be reformed in such a way as to make it compatible. One of the slogans we had back then was, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” I still believe in this slogan. In a way, the only realistic perspective now may be that capitalism is incompatible with nature and that it cannot be reformed. Certainly, it is incompatible with democracy. If there is not that drive to question the whole thing, I don’t believe the movement can have the energy it needs.

These sorts of discussions tend to get hung up on ideology, when we should be focusing on what we have to do next. We are decentralized now. No one is reporting to a central party—we are just doing the next right thing in front of our group. It seems we are missing a prime opportunity when 40 or 50 thousand are recapturing the streets in Germany, Spain, Greece, Iceland, and so on. Where are we? In February 2003 we had 15 million in the streets around the world. How could we recapture that?

TW: To put that into perspective, we have to look at politics, society, and history in terms of class struggle. But this does not mean that the class struggle will necessarily and inevitably result in utopia. So we have to struggle inside the Democratic Party, and we have to struggle outside the Democratic Party. We have to be a part of the struggle between private and public, between the interest of the masses and the interest of the few.

ON: I think you are right to say that there is a lot happening right now, and that rather than relying on one organization, it is decentralized, which means that it cannot all get screwed up at a stroke in the way that SDS did. In the 1950s, I never would have expected the sudden burst we experienced in the 1960s, so the impossible does happen, and happens suddenly. It is not going to come from where we expect it. So, we talk about the long haul, and the work we do now in different ways is the seedbed, so that when that spark happens I think it is going to be greater than the 1960s. The result of the movement of our time is that we put Obama into office. This shows that there is a progressive majority in the U.S. Now, of course, that movement has been utterly and horribly betrayed, but the fact that there was that movement is important. What we need now is a movement that is not betrayed, that is not top-down.

[Questioner interjects:] Just to add on to that, talking about “the spark” that would be needed: If Obama gets assassinated, cities will burn. If the draft were reinstated, we would see a lot more people out for events such as this.

MR: Absolutely—they should reinstate the draft. I mean, I will not be drafted, but my grandchildren might be, and I would still say that the draft should be reinstated if it provides that spark.

The New Left, and the new New Left, seems to be inherently marginal in its politics. It seems people are saying that if we work completely outside the system, that’s a big red flag to working class groups. But how do we negotiate the fact that working within the system restricts the tactics available to us?

AS: It is a question of leadership. First, if we say that there should be no leadership, or only weak leadership, so as to avoid becoming bureaucratized, this will only allow rotten leadership to dominate. The struggle is to develop leadership that is beholden to the people they represent. This was a critical aspect of the Cultural Revolution in China, which no one has spoken about here, even though it was one of the most inspiring things to occur the 1960s. The reason to get involved in these reform struggles is to learn, teach, and to try to build collectives and movements that will last. Optimism is key, but one must not become isolated from the real struggle, from authentic rank-and-file people. Otherwise, one gets cynical. Such despair and cynicism are a middle class luxury, a luxury of intellectuals. People in the Congo do not have the luxury of being cynical. They must fight for their lives every minute of every day.

Regarding the organizations you worked for in the 1960s, do you think their failures were necessary, or in some way unavoidable? Why? What were the failures, exactly?

AS: I do not like the words “necessary” or “inevitable.” All truths are probabilistic. We should remember that the Left itself, worldwide, was in retreat at the time. The revolutionary upsurge in 1968 was more like a death rattle. The underlying processes that led to the collapse of communism in China and Russia were already in place. But I don’t know that it was completely defeated. I’m still here. The people on this panel are still trying to do something. Hundreds of thousands of people became schoolteachers, social workers, and community organizers. Many have attempted to spread at least some aspects of Marx’s ideas, whether self-consciously or not. There are ebbs and flows. The question is whether you can nurture that small part of it that is more advanced, so that when these moments that Osha talked about do come, we have a base among common people and are in a position to take advantage of them. About the 1960s, I would argue that it was a failure of the campus movement to reach out to the community. That was only the internal weakness, though. As to as why it shrunk, that was bound happen with the world situation the way it was.

TW: There’s always a tension in Marx between his determinism, on the one hand, and his dialectic of the struggle, on the other. So you can look at capitalism and say, “They control everything. The ruling class runs everything. We can’t fight it. There’s nothing we can do.” But Marx is also saying that the system itself, by its very nature, promotes and even requires rebellion. There is a struggle, essentially a class struggle, and each individual decides how he or she wants to be part of it.

ON: Necessity is only retrospective. At the time we did not know what was possible, and there is a freedom in the moment that disappears retrospectively. Obviously what happened can be traced to some set of causes, but there is also a realm of freedom. How large it is, one does not know until one tries to realize it. At the time, we tried to pursue it, without knowing entirely what it was.

With the Obama movement, and with other movements as well, the discourse centers on the purported values of America’s “middle class.” I was wondering whether what Marx wrote, and in particular the categories he developed in his critique of society, are relevant today with respect to political practice, and to forms of organizing that seek to oppose capitalism?

TW: The concepts of Marx have survived surprisingly well. But terminology itself does not matter so much and, frankly, there is no reason to impose Marx’s 19th century language on the present. However, the concepts of class struggle, the idea that the money has gotten into the hands of a tiny elite at the expense of the many, that the economic system is bound for collapse—obviously, that is what we need to be talking about.

ON: I always tended to think of things in terms of “the system,” which, though it does not sound like it, is Marxist to the degree it underscores how the commodity form of capitalism penetrates all aspects of our lives, and needs to be challenged from within all of these aspects. The shorthand for me has always been that the analysis is Marxist but the practice is anarchist. I try to understand economics, but I cannot—the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit—I just don’t know. What matters to me about Marxism is that it seems to get at how capitalism is going to have problems of overproduction and commodification. But we don’t just have Marx’s categories to worry about, because we are also trying to find a language that speaks to the people I mentioned before, the people who come in to my neighborhood justice clinic. I have to ask myself, How am I going to talk to them? I can have all this shit in my head, but am I going to talk to them about it? We need a language that reaches people, a practice that reaches people. This is a lot more important than whether that practice leans more toward Marxism or anarchism.

AS: Marx’s ideas are important and valuable. It may be fine to use different words, or a different set of terminology, but when we use those different words we risk diluting the concepts. And I think the concepts and categories of Marx hold up to this day.

MR: As I said before, my goal, which I hope others will join, is Social Democracy. Its struggle has always been the struggle of capital and labor. We are so far from Social Democracy in this country right now because capitalism has triumphed to such a great extent and organized labor is powerless, or has given in. It has to be capital versus labor, but what words we use for it, I don’t know. Right now, we have a crisis of capitalism. The only thing that has ever successfully fought capitalism is labor. But, you know, we can call it whatever we want. I don’t know.

I have to say, talking about all of this here with these guys tonight, it reminds me of an old joke: A man covered only in plastic wrap walks in to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist takes one look at him and says, “I can clearly see you’re nuts.” |P

Transcribed by Jacob Cayia and Carl Hess

Public forum of the Platypus Affiliated Society



Mark Rudd
Alan Spector
Osha Neumann
Tim Wohlforth

Spencer A. Leonard

The memory of the 1960s, which has long kindled contestation and debate on the means and ends of freedom politics, is rapidly fading into the political unconscious. The election of Barack Obama and the collapse of the anti-war movement mark the end of a period that has now come full circle. After a half-century of rebellion, many old New Left-ists now call for a “new New Deal” to return to welfare-statist and authoritarian society against which the New Left rebelled. History threatens to repeat itself, this time in an even more dimly recognized and ferocious form.

“In the United States today there is no Left,” C. Wright Mills declaimed in the waning months of the 1950s, making him one of the most beloved intellectuals of his generation, “political activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities -- though formally quite free, tend to become nationalistic or commercial -- or merely private.” If Mills continues to speak to us, it is as a reminder of tasks long deferred, memories long repressed.

This panel attempts to address the current moment, in which many who participated in the moment of the New Left’s beginnings have survived a full cycle of history. Rather than a rehash of old debates or yet another nostalgia- ridden recap of the era, interventions which have ceased to offer critical perspective on the present, this panel seeks to ask the simple but fundamental question: What, if any, is significant for us today in the thwarted attempt by 1960s radicals to re-found emancipatory politics?

Co-sponsored by:
The Global Voices Lecture Program of International House, with the support of the University of Chicago Student Activities Fund

New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008.

Philip Longo

Platypus Review 28 | October 2010


WHAT WERE THE 1960S? The Left is still a bit confused. Activist and lawyer Osha Neumann, in his memoir Up Against the Wall, Motherf**ker, suggests that the 1960s not be thought of as a single coherent movement, but rather as a collection of movements gathered under the umbrella of “liberation.” The civil rights movement overlapped with the anti-war movement, but they were not fully aligned. Similarly, the politically earnest Students for a Democratic Society often came head-to-head with the counterculture and the seemingly more radical tactics of Neumann’s own group, the Motherfuckers.

Yet, despite his gesture toward distinguishing among different strands within “the sixties,” Neumann himself falls into the same trap as many New Left revisionists in documenting his time in “the movement.” The Motherfuckers participate within a mass structure of feeling, “a wet dream of possibilities” during a period of “unrelenting urgency.” Neumann’s sixties are marked not only by political struggles within the Left, but also by a kind of vague collective consciousness. This mutes Neumann’s political narrative and renders it difficult for him to disentangle particular political currents and goals from one another. Looking back, he describes the period as marked by the confluence of revolutionary movements and feelings in a “strange amalgam, [in which] the image of the revolutionary transformed by the revolution fused with acid fueled visions in which all things melted and morphed, all permanence dissolved and nothing withstood change” (162).

While Neumann’s book provides an interesting glimpse into the history of the political movements of the 1960s and a possible case study in activism, the elusiveness with which he treats “the sixties” contributes to the confusion of the book’s second part, the “notes for next time.” Rather than helping us out of the seemingly intractable dilemmas facing the post-1960s left—how do we understand the period so we can learn from it and build on it or, alternatively, discard it and move on?—Neumann’s book reenacts the Left’s ambivalence toward the decade and its failure to reconstitute an emancipatory leftist politics. Like many a 1960s memoirist, Neumann is still unsure what to make of his experience, how to disentangle history from what merely happened. Reluctant to throw the flower child out with the bathwater, Neumann, like the Left, becomes stuck in a cycle of recrimination and nostalgia.

As Neumann tells it, joining the radical activist group the Motherfuckers was part of a rebellion against his upbringing. The son of intellectual émigrés Inge and Franz Neumann who fled the Holocaust and found refuge as professors at Columbia University, Osha (originally named Thomas) grew up in the New York émigré circles occupied by other German Marxist and Frankfurt School intellectuals, like his father’s friends Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer. When the author was 14, his father, who authored Behemoth, the classic Marxist analysis of the Nazi state, died. Shortly after, his mother married Marcuse. Growing up in the extended orbit of the Frankfurt school, Neumann writes, “I concluded that my birthright was an all encompassing theory, Marxism, which sought to determine, in each historical period, the forces which represent humanity’s hope for liberation and a just ordering of human affairs” (15).

Having the author of Eros and Civilization and One Dimensional Man for a stepfather made adolescent rebellion difficult. Still, after an admittedly apolitical tenure at Swarthmore and graduate studies in history at Yale, Neumann began to turn away from his leftist inheritance towards what he describes as the passionate embrace of sex and art. Becoming preoccupied by his own “irrational” sexual passions, Neumann saw in revolutionary activism a mirror and outlet for all that seemingly defied the rational theorizing of his parents’ circle. As he puts it, he could not reconcile “reason’s strict demands to prioritize thinking over doing with the unruly energies of my corrupt, insistent body” (17). Art, sex and activism became his rebellion against the “theoretical” bent of his family. Neumann’s rebellion, unlike that of some of his peers, was not an ideological struggle or awakening, but rather a full-throttled embrace of praxis over an irrelevant and crusty theoretical tradition.

And full-throttled it was. After dropping out of Yale and moving to the Lower East Side in Manhattan to become an artist, Neumann became involved with the Angry Arts Week against the Vietnam War in 1967. Arrested during an event where a poster of a maimed Vietnamese child was unfurled during Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he describes himself as having a “mystical experience” in jail. But rather than changing his life course, this experience seems to have confirmed the direction in which he was already heading. Chanting in jail along with his fellow demonstrators, he felt his new insight allowed him to turn his back on “rationality.” If instrumental reason could not stop the bombs in Vietnam, and had in fact created them, his jailhouse epiphany suggested that the only way to fight back was to embrace the irrational. And so he threw off the dialectic in favor of direct confrontation.

In 1968 Neumann joined the new underground “affinity group,” Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers, which grew out of the Angry Arts Week and Black Mask, another revolutionary artist group founded by anarchist Ben Morea. The Motherfuckers took their name from a famous line in the poem “Black People!” by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones):

You know how to get it, you can get it, no money down, no money never, money dont grow on trees no way, only whitey’s got it, makes it with a machine, to control you you cant steal nothin from a white man, he’s already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up![1]

Though the group was primarily white, drawing from the drop-outs and street kids of New York’s Lower East Side, much of their tactics and style were lifted from the Black Panthers. Describing themselves as an “affinity group devoted to liberation and revolution through any means necessary,” they adopted a stance of extreme militancy. Ideologically they were hard to pin down. If the SDS could be thought of as attempting to lay out the ideological framework for the rebellion, the Motherfuckers, lacking the patience for their hesitancy and abstract theorizing, saw themselves as the soldiers.

At times deliberately incoherent in their actions and views, the Motherfuckers understood themselves as rebelling against “The System,” a phrase that denoted “more than the economic and political institutions by which the rich wage unequal war on the poor, stealing the fruits of their labors, and despoiling the earth in the process.” In theory “The System” meant “the totality of reality as shaped by, dependent upon, and supportive of those institutions… presidents and penises, the Pentagon and our parents, desires and disaffections, torturers and toothpaste” (66). In practice, as Neumann would later admit, “The System” referred to anything that was not, or did not agree with, the Motherfuckers.

The most interesting part of the book is Neumann’s inside view of power struggles and confrontations with the Lower East Side police, the occupation of Columbia in 1968, the 1968 Chicago Convention, and the “liberation” of the Fillmore East theater, a venue for the new multi-media psychedelic rock concerts so popular at the time. In these sections, Neumann presents some astute reporting with commentary, disavowing many of the more violent and ineffectual forms of protest. Looking back, Neumann calls much of the Motherfuckers’ politics vague both in its ecumenical anti-authoritarianism and its “infantile” rebellion. To this extent the book represents Neumann’s attempt to work through the consequences of this criticism:  “It is easy to dismiss this politics as nothing more than childish tantrums, and to profess a baleful acceptance of the status quo as more ‘mature.’ It’s more difficult to disentangle, delicately, as one would a bird caught in a net, the genuinely radical and uncompromising elements in this politics from those which are self-defeating” (93).  This statement is certainly compelling, if only because it reveals the book’s greatest weakness: Neumann is unable to perform the operation he prescribes.

The memoir portion makes up the first half of the book. The second half is comprised of essays on the legacy of the 1960s, the 1999 WTO protests, and an engaging essay on the academic left’s fetishization of what it calls “theory.” Yet these “notes for next time” are suggestive at best. Other than his gradual return to an embrace of “Reason” (albeit coupled with action), Neumann offers little in his assessment of what lessons we would have to learn to follow through on the ambitions of the best 1960s radicals. Nor does he compellingly argue that such a historical critique and re-appropriation is even desirable. Rather, Neumann simply assumes that any reconstituted left must be modeled on the 1960s movements, albeit with some revisions:

We purged as an infantile aberration the extravagant imagination of unlimited possibilities that inspired our most heroic—or foolhardy—acts of disobedience. But the vision doesn’t really die. The wet dream of possibilities imagined by the counterculture of the Sixties is real, even now, as we struggle to avert an equally real nightmare: fascist regression, the triumph of unreason, the death of nature, the extinction of hope. Our flame smolders underground, waiting for the wind that will fan it back to fury. (165)

In critiquing the methods of groups like the Motherfuckers, Neumann misses a chance to take on the political ideals of the movement. In collapsing fascist regression, the triumph of unreason, the death of nature, and the extinction of hope all into one giant bogeyman, Neumann rehearses the Motherfuckers’ gesture of collapsing all sources of unfreedom or inequality into “The System. ” In short, by attacking the methods rather than the analysis of their historical situation, Neumann seems to believe that all that the Left needs in the contemporary moment is quite simply to pick up where the New Left activists left off. While decrying senseless violence and “infantile rage” Neumann clings to a sense of historical possibility that arose out of the 1960s—surely, a necessary thing today. However, by clinging so fervently to this dream deferred, Neumann becomes blinded by his own nostalgia and recriminations.

This surplus of nostalgia and recrimination is the legacy of the ineffectual left today. Another, related legacy is our current incoherent politics, unable to distinguish between “presidents and penises” or “the Pentagon and our parents”—that is, unable to effectively understand our own historical moment. We are still unable to distinguish between the various sources of unfreedom, where they intersect and where they do not. By insisting on the “The System” as the enemy and a renewed and revised activism to combat it, Neumann’s analysis, like that of the contemporary Left as a whole, leads to the type of random and ineffectual activism we ultimately regret, but at the same time cannot quite let go of. |P

[1]. “Black People!” Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed. William J. Harris (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991), 224.

A panel discussion held on May 29, 2010 at the second Platypus International Convention at SAIC.

Panelists: Greg Gabrellas, Pam C. Nogales C., Spencer Leonard

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the rise of a new militancy and sectarianism on the Left. Whether in the case of the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Gay Liberation Front, or many other currents on the Left, developments from that time did much to shape the New Left's legacy as it comes down to the present. This panel seeks to move beyond the usual antinomies of unity versus fragmentation and idealism versus sectarianism that typically shape the discussion of the political trajectories of the period. Instead, it will attempt to grasp these turn of the decade developments as the results of long-standing problems inherited and confronted, yet ultimately abandoned and left unresolved by the New Left.

Andony Melathopoulos

Platypus Review 23 | May 2010


A bustling city at dawn. Industrious workers set out from their homes, coming and going in a perfect and productive ballet. But by evening the workers vanish. No trace of foul play. No bodies left behind. Mass disappearances like this have recently occurred across the globe, not of humans, but of millions of honey bees.[1]

The ominously titled 2007 PBS documentary Silence of the Bees begins with a montage of the streets of a major U.S. city that had grown silent because its inhabitants vanished. The empty city, we are told, is not unlike the beehives afflicted by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a commercial honey bee syndrome that has resulted in massive apian losses. A few minutes into the documentary, however, we are informed that the metaphor should be considered more literally, as “the bees’ disappearance could have colossal repercussions for humans.” As the documentary continues, a chorus of honey bee experts proclaims the apocalyptic scale of the unfolding CCD crisis, as bees “account for about one third of the food that is produced in America.” One suggests that “unless we only want to eat corn, wheat, and rice, we need bees.” Another supposes that “without bees, life as we know it, I do not think, will exist.”

Abruptly, mysteriously, and on a massive scale, honey bee colonies collapsed across North America at the end of 2006. Similar losses have also been observed in Europe, Japan and the Middle East. Reports from the southern U.S. this spring suggest that the problem continues unabated.

Colony Collapse Disorder was relentlessly incorporated into mass culture. Within a year it was the subject of a host of network documentaries, several popular books, and an episode of The Simpsons in which bees across Springfield suddenly vanished. Even Michelle Obama found it fashionable to include a honey bee colony in her new White House vegetable garden.

Public reaction to the plight of the honey bees was notably hysterical and irrational, as evidenced by the global persistence of a news story connecting CCD to cell phone usage. Less recognized and more pernicious is the prediction, reproduced in Silence of the Bees, that the loss of honey bees could reduce food production by up to 30%, which seems to have readily taken root in the public imagination. Subsequently, public anxiety about CCD and food security has been channeled into a host of popularly organized efforts. Nationwide campaigns to raise money for CCD research quickly materialized, from community bake sales to national consumer product marketing campaigns. Public education initiatives have appeared but seem wholly lacking in direction, such as community drives to have their municipalities proclaim an annual “Day of the Honey Bee.” Community and municipal government projects to cultivate urban apiaries and bee habitats have became commonplace in large cities, in spite of the overwhelming predominance and importance of colonies in rural areas.

While there has been considerable research into the agro-ecological causes of CCD, this has not been matched by investigations into the social impulses behind the fascination and fear that has gripped such broad strata of society. An emphasis on studying “natural” causes highlights the widespread belief among researchers and agricultural professionals that keeping bees alive, as well as solving agricultural or environmental problems more broadly, is largely a technical issue. The result has been an excessive emphasis on the development of technical solutions. This reveals how study of “naturalcauses today can be understood as a reified symptom of an impoverished popular consciousness, since it functions to completely obscure the social character of nature.

Popular understanding of the actual connections between society and “natural” causes are wholly inadequate. The reception of CCD in contemporary mass culture combines a borderline-apocalyptic pessimism toward the last generation of technical “solutions” (e.g., cell phones, pesticides, crop monoculture) with frenzied efforts to raise money for research to fund the next generation of technical innovation. In other words, the “leveraging” of public anxieties should negatively expose that no conscious social movement today could conceivably pull the levers themselves. The overwhelming and irrational public responses to CCD reveal the absence of the capacity to comprehend society that would come if reason could consciously determine its direction. The mania surrounding CCD exposes the fact that no broad-based political movement in the present could possibly shape even a modest agenda for agricultural policy reform today. The impossibility of reform, let alone any kind of substantive restructuring, is more worrisome than the disappearance of honey bee colonies itself. It signals the disappearance not only of the possibility of a mass conscious force that could direct society, but of the consciousness that such a thing might be desirable—or even necessary. In short, it signals the death of the Left.

Honey bees, like fertilizer or herbicide, are an important modern agricultural input. Placing high densities of colonies in fields of pollination-dependent crops increases both yield and quality, which in turn helps maximize profitability. The dependence of crops on pollination, however, varies, and many important staples (notably the cereals) do not require insect pollination. While the most recent estimates suggest that 35% of the food we eat (2.3 billion metric tons (Mt) annually) benefit from pollination—essentially one out of every three bites—this estimate includes some very large bites come from crops grown at present with a disproportionately small number of honey bees.

Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of potatoes, which constitute an enormous 300 million Mt of annual food production, just over one pollination-dependent bite in ten, but which require an insignificant number of pollinators to produce. On the other end of the scale, there is the pollination of the relatively miniscule 8 million Mt of almonds. The pollination of this crop in the U.S., the leading producer of almonds globally, requires the muscle of the entire U.S. beekeeping industry to accomplish, on account of this crop’s extraordinarily early blooming period. By contrast, other highly pollination-dependent crops that are far more deficient in the U.S. diet have not commanded the same attention. Fruit consumption in the U.S., for example, amounts to less than half the USDA recommended servings per capita, yet the number of colonies needed to pollinate almonds, which belong to a group with near-target consumption, is likely equal to the number of colonies needed to pollinate all fruit crops combined. Furthermore, recent surveys of pollination fees paid to beekeepers reveal that they receive three times the fee for almonds than for other crops. It would appear, then, that CCD is a big problem for the production of almonds, rather than a food security issue more generally.

The connection between food security and CCD becomes even less tenable when considering the overarching effect that economic and political factors have had on honey bee colony numbers and the agricultural landscape they pollinate. Massive global shifts occurred with the collapse of the Fordist state in the West and of the command economies in the East. An early indication of this shift was agricultural upheaval. Cold War trade barriers began to be breached in the early 1970s with massive exports of wheat and soybeans into the Eastern Bloc. Spurred on by inflation, itself partly precipitated by labor militancy and wage demands in the West, agriculture became one of the first areas of attempted restructuring.

This restructuring largely escaped the notice of the New Left, which failed in the 1960s and early 1970s to connect the broad social movements of their time, such as the Civil Rights, student, anti-war, and labor movements, into a coherent renewed anti-capitalist politics. This failure meant agricultural instability could only be resolved through a very limited set of mechanisms, all of which seem necessary only if this larger, prior political failure is taken for granted.

The crisis of the 1970s, as it was manifested in agriculture, resulted in a rapid increase in prices. Beekeepers trebled their colony numbers to capitalize on these new opportunities. However, the elevated output, coupled with increasing market liberalization, resulted in intense global competition. Beekeepers in the U.S., previously buffered from world honey prices by New Deal-era farm price support programs, became mired in financial hardship when the government terminated these programs and increased interest rates. North American colony numbers declined dramatically. This was followed a few years later by an even more precipitous drop in colony numbers in the wake of the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union. These colony losses far exceed anything exacted by CCD today.

The crisis failed to reinvigorate a Left that had been in decline for decades, and so instead was addressed from the Right through neoliberal economic reforms. From the beekeeping perspective, this was manifested in the stunning increase in production of higher value pollination-dependent crops, such as almonds. Since 1990 there has been an almost 300% increase in the production of these non-staple foods, an increase in output made possible by a 45% increase in honey bee stocks. Beekeeping has become more integrated into agriculture and its ties to crop production still more rationalized. The mainstay of beekeeper incomes, which traditionally depended on the sale of honey, has shifted. In Oregon, for example, beekeepers now derive over 70% of their incomes come from pollination, and most of this (67%) is derived from almonds. Furthermore, the dependency of beekeeping on external forces such as debt financing, equipment, labor, and other inputs has deepened. In a sense, the neoliberal food system is increasingly dependent on beekeepers and beekeepers have, in turn, become dependent on the new food system.

This new integration engenders new productivity, allowing diets around the world to be transformed in previously unimagined ways. It also creates a situation whereby beekeeping is more dependent on society as a whole, since a considerable amount of the work traditionally done by beekeepers and their families has been transferred to workers in the manufacturing and agrochemical sectors. The full realization of this emerging social productivity, however, would require a break from the forces that gave birth to them. That is, full realization of the potentials of modern agro-business are beyond the capacity of neoliberal or any other form of capitalism to realize. Of course, this view stands in sharp contrast to the conservative positions adopted by many activists and intellectuals of today’s Left who often take a negative attitude toward science, technology, and indeed, productivity. To them, there is no sense of possibility latent in the more dynamic elements of agriculture, notably in biotechnology. The difficult work previously taken up by the Left of trying to identify and advance the potential of the present has been replaced by nostalgia for a preindustrial and pastoral past. This is not to say that contemporary agricultural practices are unproblematic. The non-judicious and profligate use of pesticides in hives, for example, is a formidable problem that is likely linked to CCD itself. Nonetheless, in the absence of a Left, there are severe limits to our understanding of how such a problem could be resolved. The currently fashionable approach has been to turn such problems into moral and lifestyle choices (for example, eating organically produced foods or buying brands that donate profits to CCD research), or else to relegate the problem to public and private agencies. But this strategy has already run up against its limits.

The moral dimensions of present-day agricultural populism are exemplified by a lecture delivered by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Acting State Apiarist Dennis van Engelsdorp titled “A Plea for Bees,”[2] in which the solution to CCD was suggested to be in re-framing the problem as “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD). By romanticizing how humans have “forgotten our connection with nature,” the lecturer claims that “if we are able to reconnect to nature, we will be able to have the resources and interest to solve these problems.” The “easy cure” advanced is to convert urban lawns into meadows.

The phenomenon of CDD does not reveal our alienation from nature but our alienation from social productive forces. The “easy cure” simply reproduces the latter form of alienation by channeling it into the former, satisfying immediate impulses and, in turn, deflecting attempts to reflect or clarify what CCD actually means. While watching bees on flowers in a newly cultivated suburban meadow may seem transformative, in reality the shift would do little more than to reaffirm current modes of food production. “Easy cures” such as those offered in “A Plea for Bees” would only reinforce mass public irrationality in service of undisturbed patterns of production. This is rendered quite clear by a campaign conducted by the premium ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs, which donates money to bee research when consumers purchase products from their Bee-Built Flavors line. In the 1980s, the company licensed to produce Häagen-Dazs in North America, Nestlé S.A., was the target of a successful global campaign against its marketing practices of infant formula in Africa. Having clearly learned its lesson, the company has joined forces with activists in advocating to revoke the New York City Health Department’s ban on urban beekeeping. In effect, it successfully channeled urban anxieties about the food system into a community issue of little real consequence to the large-scale survival of bee colonies.

The opening sequence of Silence of the Bees is of various panned-out urban scenes of masses of people going to work. The footage has been sped up to eliminate any trace of human intention and to prepare for the bee hive footage to follow. The shot is reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s experimental documentary film Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which portrays a city waking as its population goes to work in a similar way. Vertov’s city dwellers, however, have a curious relation with the technologies of labor and leisure, one that fits the description of “labor tending into play.” Vertov’s 1920s masses stand in striking contrast to the bee-like masses of the present. An active and political Left made possible the understanding of how social labor could become conscious through the politics of freedom. It is perhaps because the politicization of the labor movement has no “connection with nature”—unlike the labor of the bee hive—that it was able to push against all preconceived limits of how society might be configured. Its social imagination was not limited to merely emulating patterns observed in the natural world. The framing of human labor as somehow “natural” is precisely what the Left challenged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the disappearance of this challenge that draws us back to look for a “connection with nature” and prevents us from identifying the basis of agricultural problems in our alienated labor.

With the collapse of the Left, society looks to experts to provide technological solutions, even as popular mass culture insists that experts flatten their analyses. Experts, in habituating themselves and their study to a society that refuses to mature, participate in restricting the horizon of possibilities even for the “technical” solutions that society, increasingly lacking a consciousness directed toward mass social transformation, increasingly demands of them. Disappearances in such a society are met with adaptation. We will adapt to the disappearance of bees using new technologies to keep them alive. We will adapt to the disappearance of the Left by telling ourselves that the present could not be otherwise. Registering disappearances rather than passively adapting to them, however, opens the possibility of remembering the future. It restarts the unfinished project of uncoupling our labor from a blind, runaway development. It is the precondition for being able to pose clearly the question, “How could bees be managed to nourish humanity in previously unimagined ways?” |P

[1]. Doug Schultz, Silence of the Bees (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2007), 50 min., 40 sec..

[2]. Dennis van Engelsdorp, A Plea for Bees (TED Conferences, LLC, 2008), 16 min., 23 sec..