Love and Hope in the New Left
A Review of Making History, Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America
In the summer of 1974 Dick Flacks, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, published an article entitled “Making History vs. Making Life: Dilemmas of an American Left” in the political quarterly,Working Papers for a New Society. Long defunct, the publication Working Papers was distinguished, among other things, for featuring several of the more thoughtful political post-mortems of the campus New Left appearing in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s. A dozen years earlier, Flacks, along with his wife Mickey, had been present at the creation of the New Left. Living in Ann Arbor, where Dick was then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, they met and became life-long friends with Tom Hayden, who was trying to revive a moribund youth group, newly renamed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Both Dick and Mickey attended SDS’s famous founding convention in Port Huron, Michigan in 1962. At that time SDS had roughly 200 members. Seven years later, after enjoying a spectacular period of growth to 100,000 or so, the organization imploded in an equally spectacular replay of Old Left sectarianism and macho adventurist fantasy.
Flacks’ 1974 “Making History” essay was one part autopsy of Sixties radicalism, one part prescription for the revival of the American Left in the Seventies and beyond. He argued that radicals of the Sixties generation, chastened by the collapse of the grandiose illusions of the New Left’s final days, needed to build a meaningful and long-term relation between “making history” and “everyday living,” through a focus on local politics combined with a democratic “majoritarian outlook.” He expanded on these ideas in a 1988 book of the same title.
And now he and Mickey have recycled the title of the original essay and book one more time, linking the making of history to the making of blintzes, the soul food of their childhood, and a “stand-in” for the role of “Left Jewish secular culture” in the sixty-plus years their lives have been linked. The blintzes might seem like a whimsical aside in the title, but they are serious about them, including a recipe in the opening pages of the book that takes a militant, not to say sectarian, line on the proper ingredients (farmer cheese only for the stuffing, not ricotta or other inauthentic substitutes).
The other phrase worth noting in the title of the Flacks’ memoir is “Red Diaper Babies.” When they first became involved romantically, as teen-aged New Yorkers in the latter years of the Eisenhower administration, Dick writes that “fundamental to our bonding was, of course, our shared identity as red diaper babies…” In SDS and other radical groups in the Sixties, the term red diaper babies referred to the offspring of former (or, sometimes, continuing) Communist Party members. They tended to be a little more organizationally sophisticated than recruits from non-radical backgrounds, although that didn’t necessarily equate with being politically savvy. In the Flacks’ case, the two seemed to go together.
Making History, Making Blintzes, written in the alternating voices of Mickey and Dick, is an engaging account of two intertwined and well-lived lives over more than a half century of left-wing engagement – more than a century, in fact, counting their parents’ lives, which are briefly retold in the early chapters. Mickey’s mother, Sonia, was born to a Jewish family in Odessa on the Black Sea, in Tsarist-ruled Ukraine, in the revolutionary year of 1905. Her father emigrated to the United States in 1914, planning to bring the rest of the family over when he got settled in New York, but World War and Revolution intervened. Sonia, 12 at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, was finally reunited with her father in Brooklyn in 1922. Along the way, she had become an ardent Communist, and even returned briefly to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s to work as a translator. But by then she was too Americanized to settle comfortably back in the old country (probably saving her life, since many American expatriates in the Soviet Union were caught up in the purges of the later 1930s). Returning to the US with her husband, also a devoted Party member, she moved to the Bronx, where daughter Miriam (Mickey) was born in 1940.
Dick’s mother Mildred, was the native-born child of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. She grew up in Brooklyn, earning a teaching certificate, and finding work as a public school teacher in the black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood at the start of the thirties. She married young, to another teacher, David Flacks, a CCNY graduate. Both became active in the Communist Party and the teacher’s union. Their son Richard (Dick) was born in Brooklyn in 1938.
Mickey’s description of her childhood and teen-aged years, which encapsulates Dick’s experience as well (and probably that of many other red diaper babies), was one of being “brought up in two seemingly contradictory contexts: a sense of alienation (from the larger society) and a profound sense of belonging (to a vitally important and sustaining subgroup.)” Particularly in New York City and its environs, through the 1940s and into the mid-1950s, red diaper babies could take advantage of a dense and sheltering network of left-wing cultural and political institutions. Both Mickey and Dick spent summers at Communist-sponsored children’s camps, in Mickey’s case, Camp Kinderland in rural Dutchess County, New York, in Dick’s case, Camp Wo-Chi-Ca (the Indian-sounding abbreviation for Workers Children’s Camp) in New Jersey. In fact, they met and fell in love while working together as counselors at Kinderland in the summer of 1957. Paul Robeson and Weavers’ concerts were highlights of their early years; the Rosenberg trial (and in Dick’s case, his parents being fired as public school teachers because of the Communist affiliation) were the low points. Both proved precocious students: Mickey graduated from Bronx Science at 16 and went on to CCNY; Dick graduated at the same age from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, and went from there to Brooklyn College.
Along the way, both departed from their parents’ political faith, although remaining respectful of the older generation’s self-sacrificing dedication. Their apostasy originated, in a small way, at Kinderland, which they were determined to drag into the second half of the twentieth century through such innovations as outdoor camping. As Mickey writes: “We could hear our parents’ generation’s voice saying, ‘Did I send my child away from a New York tenement so he could sleep on the ground?’” And, on a more profound level, the revelations of Stalin’s bloodthirsty tyranny (revelations, at least to orthodox Communists) in Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev’s 1956 “secret speech” to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (leaked to the west and reprinted in first The New York Times and then in the Daily Worker) liberated Dick and Mickey from the illusion that the Party, shackled by its “failure of moral leadership and its total subservience to the Soviet line” had any relevance or future “as a vehicle for political hope.”
Mickey and Dick married in 1959, which made them a bit of a throwback to an earlier generation’s social mores as the Sixties unfolded. “Both of us,” Mickey recalls, “were intent on not living like students,” even though she had yet to reach her 20s at the start of the decade. It also made them a stable center in Ann Arbor for a swirling youthful political subculture – the ones with real jobs (Mickey worked as a lab assistant), their own apartment and other markers of middle class dependability. They were drawn into civil rights protests (picketing Woolworths in the spring of 1960, and peace activism (with Mickey joining Women’s Strike for Peace.) And then, and most consequentially, they found their way to SDS. At Port Huron, Mickey was struck by the language of the debates, conducted “in a language that was not redolent of the Germanic phrases of classical Marxism,” plus the use of parliamentary procedure “to promote, not stifle debate.” The delegates worked for days to revise Tom Hayden’s draft of what became known as the Port Huron Statement; Dick helped rewrite the section on Communism and anti-Communism to address concerns raised by Socialist leader Michael Harrington (Harrington’s role at Port Huron, as he would later acknowledge, and as Dick’s own account suggests, was not his finest moment.) It was, for the participants, a transcendent moment. “In retrospect,” Dick writes, “it’s pretty remarkable to me how we folks – in our late teens and early twenties – felt that we were making history on the shores of Lake Huron that week. The very idea that a group of young people could claim the wisdom and insight to rework the framework of the American Left… seems astonishing.”
For a while it worked – and then, in a complicated and oft-told tale that need not be rehearsed again in this space – it didn’t. The Flacks’ book can be read with profit by those interested in their take on what went wrong. But the real point of their memoir is to remind readers of the positive lessons to be drawn from the 1960s, even after SDS’s early organizational promise proved unsustainable. In their own lives as activists in the half century that followed, in Chicago and then in California, they remained convinced of the transformative potential of small-d democratic and participatory politics set forth in the Port Huron Statement. As Mickey writes:
Some people have written about the New Left as a tragic story, in which the bright promise of the early 1960s was degraded and destroyed by the end of the decade. Our experience was quite different. Despite the collapse of SDS and SNCC, and the turn toward madness evinced by the Weatherman and Maoist sects, I’d argue that the spirit of the New Left was carried forward in projects, counter-institutions, and local organizations in dozens of communities… and in the form of new social movements – feminism, environmentalism, [and] gay liberation…
She concludes that the “vision of grassroots democracy that had been expressed by SDS and SNCC” continues to be “put into practice in the wider world.” That, and the blintzes (properly stuffed with farmer cheese), have sustained their hopes for a better world.
Two of those Working Papers essays, Flacks’ “Making History,” and Elinor Langer’s memoir, “Notes for Next Time,” were reprinted in a valuable collection edited by R. David Meyers, Toward a History of the New Left: Essays from Within the Movement (1989).