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Herein an odd recap of the New Left (circa 1968-72). The differences suggested between Lefts, ‘New’ and Newest are more superficial than real. Most of it has to do with the novel terminology one finds today, which I assume stems from arcane post-modernist academic discourse.

As in the olden days, characteristics of a tiny minority of the already tiny left tend to be attributed more widely than is justified. When you say New Left, a frequent association is to bombings by the Weatherpeople. This was a minority faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that became even smaller when they started running amuck in 1969. SDS actually had an extended sequence of different vintages of Left, starting in the early 1960s, ranging from old-fashioned democratic socialists inside the Democratic Party to a smorgasbord of assorted Marxist and anarchist factions. One such faction, the widely reviled Weatherpeople (a minority, in numbers), were responsible for some tragic deaths, including a few of their own people, though compared to the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Japanese Red Army (sic), Weather was a bunch of bratty teenagers.

Today you can find talk of “intersectionality,” “positionality” and privilege checking, but this too is a feature of a minority of a minority. Typically the setting for this discourse is not activism. It is the pastime of people who tweet. I’d be amazed to hear there were challenges of privilege checking at gatherings of Moral Monday in North Carolina. Or the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building. Or the sit-ins of the Dream Defenders in Florida. To quote an old old lefty, it’s a “hurricane in a drop of water.”

Much that is old has become new again. Intra-left racial exchanges today echo the split in the civil rights movement that launched Stokely Charmichael’s “black power” message and black nationalism more broadly. The original Black Panthers, with their interest in cross-racial coalition, actually did a lot to offset that divisiveness, until the cops shot them up.

Gender conflicts originally broke out as women’s groups started forming around 1969, if memory serves, in reaction to cloddish behavior and deficient analysis by radical men. (Men’s groups formed quickly after, but as a much less common activity. You couldn’t have dragged me to one at gunpoint.) Since then gender identification has gotten much more complex. So that’s one genuinely new thing that would have mystified a time-traveler from 1968.

Finally, class. The New Left was substantially middle-class or greater, though this tends to be exaggerated. It should not be forgotten that there was parallel, connected agitation in the labor movement and among veterans. No less than today, the class issue provoked endless navel gazing, since the objects of New Left students’ organizing were racial minorities and/or the working class. Historically, the leaders of insurgencies often come from privileged backgrounds. How much time is it worth dwelling on this? I’d say not much. It’s old news. A fair amount of the self-examination focused on racial bias. I wouldn’t say that none of it was productive. It’s certainly not new.

How much of the problems with the left today are due to bias stemming from the racial, gender, or ethnic identities of its members? I would suggest for all practical purposes none, zero, nada, zilch. The left’s problem is that it is small. You might quickly note the left is also fragmented, not least by identity-connected concerns. I suggest that if the left was larger — if it had larger, all-inclusive organizations — the fragments would come together to advance their concerns, and legitimate concerns would be well-served. How to grow the Left? Damned if I know.

The masses are not abstaining from left politics because of identity bias within the left. Rather, a certain notion of identity in the white middle class or working class, particularly in the South, has become a pole of attraction that animates the GOP and a nasty assortment of neo-fascist groups that blow up buildings, shoot doctors, and assault people with dark skin. That is the principal identity problem in the U.S.

The recent Stephen Colbert brouhaha is instructive. What began as Colbert’s sortie against racism out in the world, through SC’s defense of native Americans against racist epithets, was preempted and transformed into a complaint about Colbert. That sort of intervention does not contribute to any plausible concept of progressive activism. It is at best a distraction, at worst a modern echo of COINTELPRO.

 


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Check your credibility — 7 Comments

  1. “The left’s problem is that it is small.”

    Disagree. The left’s problem is the worn out metaphor of the political spectrum. What do I care about the seating arrangements in the Assemblée Nationale during the French Revolution? This bogus spectrum image leads to all sorts of mechanical analogies between social categories and political responses.

    I get a laugh at the intersectionality kids and their nasal “check your privilege” whine. Seven syllables for one lousy word! What a waste of post-grad breath. One less syllable than the whole sentence: why don’t we do it in the road.

  2. A time-traveler from 1968 would be surprised that marijuana was legal in Colorado and Washington and that gay marriage was legal. And that a black man was a two-term President. Then they’d be surprised by the levels of inequality, the decimation of the union movement and the tenacity of RBC/Austrian/neoclassical ideas.

  3. To follow up on the Sandwichman’s point regarding the use of a left to right spectrum I’d add that the original context of that polarity had nothing to do with communism of socialism. Those labels were added to the description of the left long after the French had settled their differences. The original seating plan is in fact more accurate as a ideological description in the present. The right side of the gallery was occupied by the royalists and their supporters. The left side would better be described as an amalgam of what we might today call social democrats, some more radical than others. Those seated on the left were not espousing ownership by the state. If anything one could better describe the French nobility as the state and they owned nearly everything. Like today the left want a fairer share of the benefits of our economic system. Better to use a more general term like social progressives given the false association the term left wing has come to have with communism. And that association has been tainted by its own misapplication to 20th century regimes that would have better been described as totalitarian. As we are seeing more recently both the Chinese and many of the Russian “communists” are and were little more than the ruling classes and they appropriated all the wealth for themselves. In human history there is little evidence of political change other than the new boss being the same as the old boss.

  4. “The left’s problem is that it is small…” Brilliant. Really. To many that sounds almost tautological. But if we would spend more time contemplating why more folks don’t identify with us, and more time organizing to take on the powers that keep us small, we might get some where. I don’t have a clue either…but I have a hunch we wont get bigger debating post-modernism or arguing about whether the Democrats are just as bad as the Republicans.

    Another point: The real New Left (not the Weathermen or the PLP) had its roots strongly in the old left. Many of its early founders got their start in the Civil Rights movement that was rooted in the efforts of labor organizers such as A. Phillip Randolph. Many were “red diaper babies.” And the seed money for the SDS came from the Reuther’s and the UAW. SDS was an off-shoot of the Socialist Party’s League for Industrial Democracy.

    So glad you are blogging again.

  5. Naah, the organised old fart left likes to imagine that the tumblr kids are a small minority, but in fact many more people who don’t really think of themselves as being leftist worry about racism and sexism and transmisogyny and privilege and because they’re the generation that grew up on the internet, not just with it, their activism takes place online.

    It’s easy to dismiss it and of course all the usual accusations of navel gazing and (ugh) political correctness apply, but words matter on the internet and fighting for a space for people who aren’t white, male, middleclass there matters too.

    And in that context Colbert’s (or rather, unnamed intern at Colbert’s media machine) tweet satirising racism aimed at native Americans by erm using racism aimed at Asian Americans is a justified target of criticism no matter how well he meant. As always the use of racism to satirise racism just doesn’t do much other than to flatter white people that they get it, while harming people already targeted by racist attitudes.

    And of course those occupiers in Wisconscin? They did talk about checking privilege online as well, but then the idea that you can be an activist both offline and on should not be difficult for anybody who can walk and chew gum.

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