George Packer has a fine review article, “Turned Around,” in the Feb. 22 issue of The New Yorker magazine that prompted some reflections of my own. Packer is commenting on Daniel Oppenheimer’s first book, “Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century” (Simon & Schuster), which is a series of essays about defectors from the left whose influence is still felt in many ways throughout the United States, and indeed in the world.
I haven’t read the book, and likely won’t. The people Oppenheimer chose to write about are well known, but perhaps not to younger readers. They include:
Whittaker Chambers, a Communist in the 1920s who betrayed his former comrades and became an informer for the likes of Richard Nixon;
James Burnham, former Trotskyist, who came from a comfortable bourgeois background and returned to it, penning screeds promoting the Cold War that eventually earned him a Medal of Freedom in 1983 from President Reagan;
Ronald Reagan himself, former supporter of FDR’s New Deal, who became a leading anti-Communist first in Hollywood, and then on the global stage;
Norman Podhoretz, longtime editor of Commentary magazine, who succumbed to the Lorelei song of fame, success, and the American Way perhaps in compensation for his widely recognized reputation as basically a mediocre talent with little inspiration or vision;
David Horowitz, son of Communists and an editor of Ramparts magazine in the 1970s who became disillusioned by the violent turn some radicals took in that period, and later became a crusader against the movement for racial justice and against Marxism in the academy;
and Christopher Hitchens, political writer, who made a similar trajectory from the left toward defending Western civilization from barbarism with a newfound bunch of conservative friends.
At the end of his review, which includes thumbnail sketches of the above figures, Packer calls for a new book about standard bearers of the New Right in America who have left it, disgusted and disillusioned with the movement’s white supremacy, chauvinism and junk science.
In the course of his discussion, Packer asserts that after the 1960s “leftism rapidly burned out,” and that’s what got me thinking.
Did I “rapidly burn out?”
Yes, the heroic phase of the post-war left that “mounted the barricades” in the radical Sixties was expended by the time President Nixon eventually wound down the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, then doing away with the draft in 1973, thus depleting the ranks of protestors. That arc mirrors my own activism during those years, much of it in Students for a Democratic Society, around opposing that horrific war and fighting my draft board.
But did I “rapidly burn out?” Did most of my friends in “the movement” follow that course?
I rather think not. I believe that in one way or another the veterans of the Sixties movements for civil rights and anti-imperialism comprised the cadre for the protest and reform movements of the Seventies. The Sixties was not the end point of leftism, but a launching pad for the feminist movement, for the LGBTQ movement, and the environmental movement, all of which rose to unforeseen prominence in the 1970s. These have all borne magnificent achievements and awakened new generations to activism around themes we barely spoke of during the Vietnam years.
Needless to say, civil rights struggles have continued on apace, incorporating new groups of people demanding justice, and over time new winds of political independence started blowing in the labor movement as well.
In my own case, my disillusionment with the authoritarian and self-destructive forms of leftism that came to dominate the student movement and even certain sectors of the new “identity politics” groups led me to embrace what I saw as a much more benign anarchism. Of course I had no use for that caricature of anarchism represented by a few advocates of “propaganda by the deed” who blindly trusted that a few bold, dramatic actions against the state would instantly mobilize millions into opposition. I had seen enough of that futile idiocy promoted by the Weathermen and the urban guerrilla movement in various countries.
No, I was attracted to anarchist philosophers such as the individualist Max Stirner or the collectivist Peter Kropotkin, and their modern heirs such as Murray Bookchin and Paul Goodman, who taught the reinvention of ecology, of education, of sexuality, of the workplace, of prisons and rehabilitation, of every aspect of life that could be managed, arguably better, without hierarchical methods. In 1971 I and my then-girlfriend (my last, as it turned out) represented the United States as its sole delegates to the International Anarchist Congress in Paris. We left it despairing of a useful future for anarchist politics.
I have to admit that all the time I considered myself an “anarcho-communist,” i.e., an anarchist who believed in collective, communal social organization, I continued to vote in elections, hoping for the better outcome given my choices under the present circumstances.
Gradually I came to see that we would be living “under the present circumstances” for quite some time to come; and that in fact one could see evidence of progress within the prevailing political system – decent candidates elected, reforms passed, laws changed, freedoms expanded – if there were sufficient popular movements organized to demand them.
On a global scale – again, given the actually existing world we lived in – I realized that for certain kinds of progress to take place, such as decolonization, ending apartheid, reducing the threat of nuclear annihilation, or improving international cooperation on the environment, a decent respect for the power of nations to come together for mutual interest seemed absolutely necessary. To those ends I was active in groups such as the US-USSR Friendship Society and the US Committee for Friendship with the German Democratic Republic, among others. By that point I don’t think any objective person could call me any kind of anarchist.
This New Leftist had not “burned out,” but rather had become older and hopefully wiser, more patient perhaps, willing to sit back and take a longer view of humanity. And I believe that’s true of most of my generation as well. In the particulars, of course, each person’s story is different. But I believe that the essential narrative of our Sixties movement is not the burning out, but the conversion of fire into slowly smoldering embers that will stay warm till the end of our lives.
With the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992, a man of my own generation who had protested the Vietnam War, we had for the first time a president younger than myself. And now, just as I see our generation receding into the first blur of oblivion, Surprise! Another of my Civil Rights/Vietnam Era cohorts – who is older than me – has become a strong contender for the Democratic Party presidential nomination! So there’s another New Leftie who has clearly not “burned out.”
We will continue to stay active in political campaigns, union retirement groups, community organizations, in the struggle for senior rights, and in the movement to preserve the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society as part of the greater fight for socialism. We gladly add what we can to encourage the new movements that come along and give them our blessing -and yes, hope that once in a while someone might ask us to recall how things were back then and maybe ask for a bit of advice.
Well, that’s my plan anyway.
Photo: (left to right) The author; South African refugee, psychologist Michael Jospe; writer and lecturer on Soviet and Chinese education Elizabeth Moos; and former editor on the New Masses, writer and photographer Betty Millard. At Millard’s farmhouse in Dutchess County, N.Y., 1976.