Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The sixties: liberals vs the left

Some of the polemics over Obama and Clinton have tried to cast Obama in the role of the "new politics" activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This period is so crucial to the ideology of the "culture war" that Republicans especially and the media drones keep referencing current politics back to that time. But it's a sloppy comparison. I have high hopes that Obama could wind up leading a dramatic reform movement, even though he approched his political career as more of a conciliatory moderate. Happily, he seems to be taking serious account of the fact that today's authoriarian Republican Party has no use for any kind of conciliatory political strategy.

But it's hard for me to cast Hillary Clinton in the role of Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or 1972. And if Obama turns into the leader of a Bobby Kennedy type coalition, it will be because he recognizes the possibilities in the mood of the public and the Democratic base, not because he's approached politics that way so far. On health care and economic issues, Obama seems to be more conservative that Clinton. He had a more emphatically anti-Iraq War position than Clinton. But he's not only joined the Republican chorus that Democrats aren't respectful enough to religious people - although his recent "pastor problems" may have convinced him that dog won't hunt for him. He's even made rhetorical gestures toward the Republicans Social Security privitization scam! In organizational terms, his campaign has some resemblances to McGovern's in 1972 in tapping underutilized sources of funds (direct mail to small contributors then, the Internet now) and in building political networks more independent of the established Party structures. But ideologically and even demographically, comparing the current Party divisions over Obama and Clinton to the 1972 situation that has embedded itself in the minds of the "culture war" ideologists doesn't seem to be a very helpful viewpoint in understanding it.

But we're already entering a period when some people who have criticized the Bush administration for various problems, especially the spectacularly ill-advised invasion of Iraq, are finding Obama even less to their liking than the Republicans' Bush-on-steroids candidate John McCain. The "paleo-conservatives" like Pat Buchanan who have applied isolationist criticisms against Bush's foreign policy will, if Buchanan himself is any measure, find the Democratic Presidential candidate far more distressing than McCain. And since come next January there's at least a chance we'll have a Democratic administration inheriting two overt wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and less overt ones in Somalia and Pakistan, it doesn't hurt to think about reasons that democratic reformists and the Democratic base may have to find real differences with a liberal Democratic administration. The "sixties" experience can at least serve as a reminder.

One of the challenging things about the politics of the 1960s is that the civil rights and Black Power movements, the opposition to the Vietnam War, and the New Left in its various manifestations were to a large extent directed against Democratic Party liberalism.

Liberalism means something different in the United States than in most countries. The classical liberals of the nineteenth century and their most direct ideological descendants, like the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in Germany today, advocated constitutional government, civil liberties, and minimal regulation of business activity. Something like American Libertarians.

American "liberalism" in the sense we know it today is pro-labor and believes in affirmative government action on social and economic problems. That labeling happened in America in the wake of the First World War. Reformists had called themselves Populists and Progressives in the preceding decades, because "liberalism" was understood in the classical sense. But after the war and the collapse of a distinct Progressive movement, then pro-labor, pro-affirmative-government reformers began to use the label "liberal" in a new way to distinguish themselves from the Progressives and also from the scary Bolsheviks who had taken over in Russia. That fear also had led the Wilson administration to promote a Red Scare ("red" meant Communist then, not Republican), and it wasn't overly scrupulous in respecting civil liberties in going after scary radicals. So there was also an urgent need to emphasize the "liberal" virtues of the rule of law and human rights at the time.

In terms of the left/liberal distinctions in the 1960s in the US, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. made a wide-ranging commentary on the issues that were highlighted in conflicts between the New Left and Democratic liberals in The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power and Vilence in America (1969).

In what could be seen as a stereotypical liberal framing, he compares the New Left to what he call the New Right, by which he apparently means the George Wallace movement, with its fury against the elites and a heavy dose of racism and authoritarianism:

In particular, the New Left and the New Right are agreed in their condemnation of the central institutions of American power, whether real (the national government), semi-mythical (the Establishment) or mythical (the power elite) [the latter being the title of C. Wright Mills' most influential book]. However much they detest each other, the two extremisms have common methods and common targets. "The real enemy of the radical left in America," writes the New Left Washington Free Press, "is and always has been liberalism." Karl Hess, who as Senator Goldwater's speech writer in 1964 reputedly wrote that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," recently said, "I take my stand with the anti-authoritarians, and so does the New Left. ... This is one of the reasons I find many of the statements and actions of SDS very satisfying."

It is a happy symbiosis. George Wallace needs Tom Hayden and Eldridge Cleaver; Tom Hayden and Eldridge Cleaver need George Wallace. As Hayden put it in Chicago in August 1968, "America is reaching a point of bankruptcy and decay so complete that only military tools can protect the political institutions. ... As reform has failed, the reliance on police power has become more visible. . . . Our victory lies in progressively demystifying a false democracy, showing the organized violence underneath reformism and manipulation." This is exactly what Wallace requires for his followers; and Wallace's promise to save law and order by stationing paratroopers twelve feet apart on every block is exactly what Hayden and Cleaver require for their followers. Thus New Left and New Right verify each other's claims and witness each other's pretensions. For all their vast differences in values and objectives they end as tacit partners in a common assault on civility and democracy. (my emphasis)
SDS and antiwar leader Tom Hayden seems to have really been bugging Schlesinger at the time he wrote that book.

What makes that a stereotypical liberal framing is that it present the liberal viewpoint, which he is applying there, as defending bedrock American values against the midguided forces of barbarism on the far left and the far right.

The problem is, that construction relies on rhetorical abstractions. The Wallace movement that he called the "new" Right was what the Southern Democrats were from, oh, the end of the Civil War to the 1960s. Wallace in non-racial policies was more liberal than many of his fellow Southern Democrats.

The New Left in the US was directing its criticism against liberalism, or "corporate liberalism" which is probably a better name for it. That was in no small part due to the fact there was a liberal Democratic President in the 1960s who was prosecuting the Vietnam War.

Schlesinger distinguishes between the "new politics" ativists, those antiwar and reform-minded activists who backed Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the "New Left". That's a meaningful distinction. But it wasn't clear-cut, either. "New politics" activists often had some background in the civil-rights or studewnt movements. And their priority concerns around civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War were similar.

Schlesinger, a close associate of Bobby Kennedy, was sympathetic to the "new politics" activists but was anxious to distinguish himself from groups like the Black Panthers or the SDS with explicitly revolutionary goals. And that in itself was fair enough. Schlesinger was not a revolutionary. And, of course, neither was Bobby Kennedy.

But the mirror-image equivalence he draws between New Left and New Right was unrealistic, particularly on the issue of violence. However reckless some of the talk about violence from left militant groups may have been, it also came out of years of seeing nonviolent protests being met with violence: in the South, on college campuses, in antiwar demonstrations. The resonance of the Black Panthers' slogan of armed self-defense with so many in urban ghettos was due to real experiences of chronic police misbehavior by nearly all-white police forces in their communities.

The Wallace movement, on the other hand, represented a harsher and more authoritarian version of that institutionalized violence on the national level. But it didn't represent anything "new" in the Deep South. Wallace represented the kind of repression and violence that had been the "establishment", the dominant practice of government, in the segregated South.

Sure, any groups that stand outside the mainstream can be equated in some of the mechanics of their movement, e.g., trying to get third parties on the ballot. But the content of the politics of the movements Schlesinger was calling "New Left" and "New Right" is essential to any meaningful description of them.

And even if he defined the New Left as being in his eyes a totalitarian movement in its goals, or maybe "objectively" a totalitarian movement as Marxists and neocons might put it, it's still pretty basic that the real existing New Left movement in 1968-9 was a radical-democratic movement. The Wallace movement was antidemocratic and authoritarian. The New Left were looking for more active forms of "participatory democracy". The Wallace movement defended the segregationist version of "states rights" so that the local shurffs would have maximum discretion in dealing with uppity Negroes. Sure, there are levels of abstraction where those differences would not look so great. But they would have to be stratospheric levels of abstraction.

The New Left did not succeed in creating a permanent, distinctive political force in American politics. In Europe, the Green Parties can reasonably be seen as a long-term instutitional successor to the New Left. Though, I might add, so far as I'm aware none of them has declared their parties to be officially guided by the philosophies of Franz Fanon or Herbert Marcuse.

In the US, the two major parties of the 1960s have not been displaced. The Republican Party has become essentially what the George Wallce movement was in 1968. Let's be fair to Wallace, though. I don't believe he ever officially and openly endorsed torture as the present-day Republican Party does.

There was no comparable takeover of the Democratic Party by the New Left. And the actual influence of ideas that could be considered distinctively New Left is very diffuse, though by no means without lasting influence in some ways. Considering that Barack Obama's politics appear to be distinctly more conservative than Bobby Kennedy's, I think it's safe to say that the Democratic Party has not been taken over by followers of Franz Fanon, either.

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"It is the logic of our times
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