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Look Out Kids: On the New and Next Left

A reply to Eli Zaretsky

Bundled into Eli Zaretsky’s unmistakable claim that second wave feminism was substantially to blame for the undoing of the 60s-era Left is another curious charge: that no American Left exists today, or has for a long time [“Rethinking the Split Between Feminists and the Left”]. In their response, Ann Snitow and Vicky Hattam expose the flimsy basis and maladroit construction of the first charge [“The Women Did It?”]. While adding to their case, I address mostly the second. I do so not as one who “was there” in the 1960s but as both a scholar of the period and an activist since the 1980s in what I’ve always considered the Left. Zaretsky’s rebuttal of the Snitow/Hattam response further confuses his original argument while modestly improving its terms. I deal with it briefly at the end.

Uniting both of Zaretsky’s claims is a dismissive view of the experiences and perspectives of others. Second wave feminists might feel proud of their efforts to establish battered women’s shelters, health and day care collectives, rape crisis centers, alternative schools, peace camps, and more accepting versions of the family. But feminists’ most fateful action, Zaretsky insists, was to eat their own through internal schism, while taking down the Left with their separatist fury. Defined by its most extreme tendencies in its most charged settings — and regardless of feminists’ recollection of their own movement — feminism is for Zaretsky the hidden culprit in a great American tragedy.

Today’s activists in diverse struggles might likewise bristle at Zaretsky’s implication that their work to change the world, whatever their sacrifice, amounts to little because not graced with the majestic vision of a Left knowable only by someone of his generation, when the last meaningful radicalism existed. It’s hard enough fighting the powers that be. One shouldn’t have to contend with being told from an ostensible ally that you don’t count within some mystified designation of political authenticity.

* * *

At stake in Zaretsky’s harsh judgments are not wounded feelings but what kind of analysis does justice to the achievements, flaws, and complexities of past movements and helps the Left to flourish today. Consider, in this light, Zaretsky’s sweeping claim:

[I]t is partly thanks to this split [between feminism and the New Left] that there is no Left in the United States today. We do, of course, have protest movements of all sorts, but no Left in the more emphatic sense of a social and intellectual tendency capable of understanding American capitalism as a whole.

What does it mean to be capable of such awesome wisdom, and when last were Americans so blessed with it? Zaretsky’s argument depends on his ability to define and locate this capacity historically.

Zaretsky presumes that the New Left indeed had it, but little supports his generosity. The Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the quintessential New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was mostly a liberal treatise that assailed alienation and injustice, while demanding for individuals greater power to shape their destiny. Capitalism was barely in its sights. Later on, SDS’s Education Research and Action Project, in which members lived among and sought to organize the poor, yielded mostly a new appreciation of the terrible effects of poverty and the difficulty of cross-class alliances, not any grand revelation about capitalism.

New Leftists of the late 1960s cast about for such illumination as they sought models for making revolution. These ranged from “New Working Class” theory, holding that in a late capitalist society knowledge workers displace in importance and function the proletariat; to the canned binary of wage labor versus capital, prompting anachronistic embraces of the industrial working class; to a view of (white) American workers as a global “labor aristocracy” on the wrong side of anti-imperialism and history. And, in an irony Zaretsky surely must recall, the more insistently Marxist the New Left grew — the more it claimed a holistic critique of capitalism — the more dogmatic, primitive,and shrill its analysis typically became. With some exceptions, New Left veterans mostly cringe when recalling the movement’s high Marxist phase.

The Civil Rights and Black Power movements, whatever their deep insight into American society, also proved poor bearers of some master perspective on capitalism. In the first place, the Civil Rights Movement was hardly socialist in analysis or aspiration, no matter the attention Dr. King and others paid to economic injustice. Even the Black Panthers often demanded simply greater inclusion in the social welfare state, while some Black Power adherents saw Black capitalism as key to self-determination. And in no one’s rhetoric was Marxist-Leninist-Maoist sloganeering, from which Black militants were hardly immune, any triumph of understanding.

Even Herbert Marcuse — the great New Left lodestar — was flummoxed by the capitalism of his day. Assuming the objective integration of workers into capitalist prosperity, he ceased to view them as an insurgent force. He therefore advocated a new kind of revolution waged on moral and aesthetic, not conventionally material, grounds. But he also felt that revolution without the working class was “unimaginable.” He never solved this quandary.

To be sure, the New Left’s Marxist tilt had some benefit. Understanding the Vietnam War in terms of imperialism was a true breakthrough that enabled a structural analysis of American militarism and an internationalist purview. Some middle-class New Leftists reinvented themselves as factory workers, bringing a new militancy and ideological depth to a generation of labor struggle. But all too often, radicals’ dedication to a class (or anti-imperialist) politics was rolled up in a fantasy of a moribund US capitalism in its final death throws. A common refrain of erstwhile militants is that they “underestimated the resiliency of capitalism.” Ya think?

Less glibly, one may conclude that the New Left’s Marxism was, at best, equally a liability as an asset. Whatever one’s score sheet, the New Left emerged from the Sixties mostly confused about capitalism and class, which the voguish New Communism of the mid-1970s did little to cure. And feminism was scarcely to blame for the fuzzy (if also doctrinaire) thinking.

Thrown back at itself, Zaretsky’s logic further undermines his autopsy of the Left’s alleged demise. To his proposition that without a robust critique of capitalism there is no Left, one could counter that without an analysis of patriarchy — and the sexual division of labor especially — there is no true critique of capitalism. How, then, did feminists ruin a political trajectory by exposing its blind spots? They might instead be credited for helping to rescue it by urging that it be more perspicacious. So too, African Americans in the Sixties charged that without a thorough understanding of race there could be no apprehension of American power, economic or otherwise. Queer people made similar claims with respect to the marginalization of issues of sexuality within various political tendencies. Behind what Zaretsky likely sees as the Balkanization of the Left on group lines often laid a trenchant awareness of the partial nature of any grand analysis and the necessary limits of a politics based on it.

Seeking to exalt the New Left, Zaretsky instead nearly defines it out of existence by setting as the criterion for belonging something so elusive and abstract as an understanding of “capitalism as a whole.” A more useful understanding of the New Left, influential among scholars, is as a “movement of movements.” In this capacious view, the New Left spans the student, youth, and antiwar movements; the Civil Rights, Black Power, Native American and Chicano/a struggles; second wave feminism and gay liberation; and so forth. This description is also problematic, as it obscures whether members of these movements at the time saw themselves as part of “the New Left” (Blacks rarely did, as the term generally referred to white students and youth) and minimizes the tension between them.

Setting aside issues of nomenclature, this image of “a movement of movements” gives cause to question Zaretsky’s vision of feminism as simply a self-segregating movement apart, hostile to others. Rather, second wave feminism largely behaved as a movement alongside others. Among movements, there was surely tension but also mutual influence and solidarity. And as a practical matter — whether by virtue of the intersectionality Snitow and Hattam note or simple inclination — countless individual feminists participated in multiple struggles. Consider Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of a well-known memoir. She participated in women’s groups, wrote feminist tracts, and called out the sexism of comrades; went to Cuba on the Venceremos Brigades; worked with the Panthers and Young Lords; and ran with the Revolutionary Union. For many, in sum, the fabled “split” was hardly a clean break but rather the expansion of contexts, scenes, and idioms in which to be political.

Zaretsky’s reductive view of both the Left and feminism feeds his most strained charge. To him, whites in the heavily male, early New Left exhibited “a shattering of social identity and a reaching out at the deepest possible level to achieve solidarity with people utterly unlike oneself,” epitomized by white participation in Freedom Summer and horror at the napalming of Vietnamese. Feminists, by contrast, were myopically focused on their “own” oppression, to the exclusion of that of others.

From one side of the coin, the courage and solidarity whites exhibited in Freedom Summer was the exception, not the rule. In no way should the white New Left as a whole be defined only by among its greatest heroes during the integrationist phase of the Black struggle. White politicos were continually dogged by both the perception and reality that they could not easily renounce an embedded racial privilege to work graciously and effectively in multi-racial coalition. SNCC, after all, kicked whites out, telling them to organize “their own.”

Indeed, any rich understanding of the era must appreciate as well the incredible difficulty of “shattering social identity.” Scholarship on the 1960s overflows with accounts of the debilitating hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality within and between all sectors of the Left. Put otherwise, the solidarity Zaretsky touts hardly transcended all divisions. A middle class antiwar organizer who wept for napalmed children, Penny Lewis’s superb new book about the working class and the antiwar movement reminds us, could still have little clue as to how talk about the war to workers, whose widespread dislike of the conflict could have fueled greater protest. From the Sixties, today’s activists need to know the sources and dynamics of division, not just the alleged perils of separatism.

From the other side, Zaretsky ignores how solidarity among women could be the basis for a broad politics of justice, such as when women organized qua women against rape, domestic violence and war; or environmental threats; or in support of the rights of women globally. (In a contemporary analogue, Code Pink uses gender solidarity as a basis to address everything from drone strikes in Pakistan, to war in Syria, to skewed federal budget priorities.) How is a woman working to prevent another woman from being sexually assaulted merely an expression of a solipsistic “identity politics,” as opposed to a genuine, even universalist magnanimity? Doesn’t everyone have the right not to be violently attacked? Moreover, it is its own myopia to view, for example, domestic violence — surely the most pervasive, literal violence in American daily life, often with drastic consequences for male perpetrators — as simply a women’s issue. Zaretsky’s taxonomy of the meaning and reach of various kinds of struggle is so parochial that it becomes untenable.

* * *

Seeing the Left as a “movement of movements” enables one, at last, to properly recognize a post-60s Left, which has likewise been a plurality of struggles. This was certainly the Left I knew coming of age as a student activist in the mid-1980s. We had our constellation of often interconnected causes, from Central American solidarity, to divestment from apartheid South Africa, to anti-CIA activism, to campaigns against sexual assault. Moreover, we thought ourselves to be proudly participating in the 1960s legacy of anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist activism and advancing the broad cause of justice. It was not mere “protest.”

As in the 1960s, the women rightly complained that so-called “women’s issues” were never given the attention they deserved from campus men, seemingly more concerned with the distant, suffering other than oppressions closer to home, in which they may be more directly implicated. Sometimes with men, but often without, the women threw themselves into the front lines of struggles such as protecting abortion clinics from right-wing zealots. “The Left,” as we experienced it, was strengthened and not diminished by that commitment. And what mattered to us was doing the work, not what political label we adopted.

My activist birth is my own story, worthy in itself of no special attention. I invoke it here to stage a concluding point. In any setting, milieu, and era since the 1960s one finds similar constellations of causes, taken up by countless individuals and groups sometimes winning real change. As the assemblage of such struggles, the Left of course still exists, and every generation of activists deserves plaudits for its contributions, even as its failings may be criticized.

To be sure, in its pluralism the American Left often lacks a common analytic compass and unity of purpose. At real cost, efforts since the Sixties to found a multi-issue, national, radical youth organization akin to SDS have foundered. So too, the relative inattention to issues of political economy following the decline of the late-1990s’ alter-globalization movement, which had synergized diverse struggles, was a loss.

But it would be dearly cynical to read the Left’s heterogeneity as primarily the effect of the system’s divide-and-conquer cunning, or a failure of radical resolve, or neo-liberal dissipation. In part, it reflects the extraordinary diversity of the United States, ribboned with multiple and intersecting lines of difference and possessing a strong doctrinal commitment to freedom. As a historic consequence of slavery and the need for collective emancipation, the United States developed as well a pronounced emphasis on group rights. This cross-hatch has also been, we must recognize, deeply enabling, beyond even the country’s borders. Not by accident, both second wave feminism and gay liberation took root first in the United States, and they are — as they helped catalyze similar movements elsewhere — among the country’s greatest exports. (Saying so is not to deny the validity of critiques of cultural imperialism often leveled at Western feminism.) Inspired in part by decolonization efforts, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in turn fed the struggles elsewhere of peoples and groups, whether national, sub-national, or subaltern.

Zaretsky is doubtless right that the advent of a robust, long-haul movement to address the deep structures of neo-liberalism would be a good thing. In his book Why American Needs a Left he has important ideas on the subject, and I hope it gains a wide audience. However, if he has any wish of being an intellectual leader of that effort — and of moving young people especially — he would do well to recall true leadership’s requirement, considered an article of faith by the Civil Rights giant Bob Moses: that leaders inspire, empower, and make those they want to mobilize feel good about their efforts. Instead, Zaretsky’s essay dismisses and diminishes even presumed allies.

Look out kids.

Rebuttal to Eli Zaretsky’s response to Ann Snitow and Victoria Hattam

Zaretsky devotes most of his rebuttal to claiming that he was misunderstood by Snitow and Hattam and to further intoning his history of the Left. Conspicuous in the new text is that it contradicts what was stated in the first. In his original essay Zaretsky insists “there is no Left today.” Yet the rebuttal casually refers to “today’s Left.” The original piece describes “the split between radical feminism and the New Left” as a “significant moment” in “the global defeat of the Left.” The rebuttal nonetheless upbraids Snitow and Hattam for somehow thinking that he “‘blames’ women for the demise of the New Left.” His initial essay plainly claims that second wave feminism was constituted by the self-separation of women from the New Left to found a movement of their own. He now writes that “The women’s liberation movement that emerged in the sixties, as well as the gay liberation movement. . . are impossible to imagine except as part of the New Left.” It is difficult to respond to a discourse that flip-flops this way, so I’ll focus only on two of Zaretsky’s most persistent and important points.

In the rebuttal, Zaretsky renews his efforts to spare African Americans the taint of “identity politics” that he reserves exclusively for feminists. Doubling down on the idea of Blacks as a nation, his distinction grows no more convincing. Black nationalism as a strong commitment to formal, institutional and even territorial sovereignty was an important, but still a minority, ideology among African-Americans in the 1960s. It had, as part of a comprehensive Black Power ethos, broader appeal as a commitment to racial pride, self-determination, and power, both within one’s community and the white establishment. For some, this group feeling took form of an overtly “national” consciousness and nationalist demands. But for many others it did not, and the historic window in which large numbers of Blacks framed their experience in terms of nationalism quickly closed.

Zaretsky would do well to note that Peniel Joseph and other scholars of Black Power locate its legacy in efforts to represent the African American experience in curricula of all kinds; establish African American studies programs and Africana centers at universities; bust and reassemble various canons; celebrate Black culture; and win political office — not for the sake of liberal “inclusion” but as an expression of power. Feminism of course echoed much of this valuable work with respect to women. This congruence diminishes both the value of and rationale for trying to declare one movement nationalism and the other something less legitimate. More accurate would be to conclude that Blacks, women, and other self-defining groups, if in different ways, have each participated in the good and potential limitations of a group-based politics. (This is not to exempt white men of particularism, as their de facto political interests are commonly masked as universalism.)

Beneath his hortatory tone, Zarestsky at root sensibly utters a Left-wing version of the Bill Clinton slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!” This stance holds that all political gains will be highly partial if they do not address inequality and its neo-liberal infrastructure. To this, Zaretsky adds the fascinating observation that even as commitments to formal equality and the cultural censure of rank prejudice are in respects increasing, economic inequality is rising. From this he posits the compatibility and even collusion between liberalism and neo-liberalism, limiting the value of bids for greater rights.

About this analysis, three things. The first is that it can be overstated, especially if one minimizes how subjectivity and experience shape priorities. The demand for greater tolerance may seem to Zaretsky and others a politics of a lesser order. But if you are a black man who does not want to be profiled by police or killed because some white thought you were in the wrong neighborhood, issues of prejudice remain vital — literally life and death, as the massive mobilization protesting the Trayvon Martin murder and verdict grasped. Moreover, there is a new slew of racialized codes, some of which barely try to conceal their racism.

The second is that a Left based in the systemic critique of capitalism Zaretsky favors will have to attach itself to concrete campaigns and causes — none of which promise capitalism’s undoing — if it is to be durable. Occupy radicals accomplished an enormous amount with their “no demands,” cry-of-the-heart protest of today’s capitalism. But Occupy’s evident inability to convert that perspective into sustained, concrete projects (on a large scale at least) surely contributed to its dissipation.

Finally, the whole opposition of an ostensibly universalistic politics of economic equality versus a particularistic politics of identity and group rights is often a false one, given how issues of economy and identity interpenetrate. In this intersection exist enormous opportunities to address systemically and further energize issues around which people are already mobilized. The push for higher wages, for example, is a gender and race issue, given that women — often of color and undocumented — increasingly dominate the lowest wage sectors. Racialized mass incarceration, around which activism is rapidly growing, have economic dimensions, from the relationship of poverty to crime, to the privatization of security, to the exploitation of prison labor. The struggle for immigration reform, which has produced stunningly powerful protests, speaks to the labor migration and other dislocations of global capitalism.

The challenges and possibilities of making connections are near endless. Telling others, as Zaretsky does, what kind of politics is worthy of the title “the Left” does little to actually mobilize passion and insight. Making the Left relevant to new constellations of causes, while carving out new issues and approaches, may be its future.

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Jeremy Varon

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