Between Lefts

In this issue of AREA, devoted to a retrospective of the 1960s and its traces in our DNA, I thought it might be helpful to get a sense of the political climate before the 1960s. The politics we on the Left inherit, though heavily influenced by the 1960s, didn’t miraculously begin in that decade, but rather, had roots in previous epochs. Many of us are familiar with the New Left (NL), a movement that coalesced around Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the early 1960s. The campus radicalism of the NL was bound up with various social movements of 1960s: the Civil Rights movement and racial self-determination, the Vietnam anti-war movement, “Third-world” national liberation movements, and the gender and sexual liberation movements. The remnants of the forms of political activism of the NL are just under our breath and fingertips.

Less familiar to us is the period of the Old Left (OL)[1]. The term OL in general refers to the Left before the 1960s. It was composed of various groups and tendencies: socialists and anarchists of all stripes; the big trade union organizations: the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); the Socialist Party (SP); the Communist Party (CP); Fourth International Trotskyites; and “fellow travelers,” those sympathetic to communism but not card-carrying members of the CP. Both the SP and the CP organized around social democratic reforms, but only the CP had an explicitly anti-capitalist platform. Marx’s theory of the transition from a feudal to a capitalist and ultimately a socialist society through class struggle was adjusted by the American Left to fit the more fluid, less rigid, class structure in this country. After WWI and the repression of the OL by the first Red Scare, emphasis was placed on the mass organizing of industrial workers with the aim of dismantling the inequities of bourgeois society through steady democratic reforms that one day might lead to revolution and socialism. If you are member of a labor union or a Left sectarian group you may be familiar with the organizational structure, forms of political organizing, and even some ideological tendencies of what is called the OL.

The decade of the 1930s was a high water mark for the OL, a time when trade unions gained political power and the strength of the American Communist Party was at its height. The economic hardships of the Great Depression and the massive state intervention of FDR’s New Deal, along with the “popular front” against fascism and a brief U.S.-Soviet alliance, gave the OL a platform to engage directly with the state, bringing socialist politics into mainstream American political discourse. In 1939, the American CP had 38,000 members. In 1942, at its peak, it had 50,000. 17 years later, in 1956, during the period of “de-Stalinization,” there were still 20,000. But by the end of 1958, after the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism, the CP, the most significant component of the OL, had all but collapsed. The political power of a strong trade union movement built by the OL lasted into the 1960s, but by the time the NL had emerged, the more radical elements of the OL had splintered into small sectarian groups, entered liberal politics, or died.

Continuity or Discontinuity?
So what was the relationship of the OL to the NL? How did those in the NL—mostly youth—engage with the ideas and actions of the older generation? What forms of OL politics did the NL either jettison completely or modify to fit the social conditions and aspirations of their generation? How critical was the NL in their approach to assessing those aspects of the OL they found relevant or useless? Why ask these questions at all? The OL “died” a long time ago. For that matter, so did the NL. But the OL is more “dead” to us than the NL. Is this simply because the NL is closer to us in time and temperament? Or is there a more fundamental ideological divide that separates today’s Left from its grandparents? Were the goals of the OL and NL actually quite similar, and how they differed was the means of achieving those goals?

I’ve posed these kinds of questions to a handful of Chicagoans who were politically active on the Left in the period of the 1950s to the early 1960s. With one exception, all of them were born before or during the Great Depression. Some of them felt that the categories of OL and NL weren’t that helpful in explaining the complexities of those times because they make a hard distinction where often, in reality, there was none. Sylvia Fischer told me “there was a sense of being influenced by the Left all through that period of time. To me, it was reflected in the fact that wherever I worked I was always part of the union and very involved in union activity.” She experienced the transition period less as a break and more as a continuum: “It’s normal for young people to tell old people: you don’t have anything to teach me. I’m not sure that any generation can say: I’m not going to have anything to do with the past, because you are automatically influenced by it. Whether you accept the specifics of it or not, you can’t deal with any kind of development without having had some impact from the past onto the present.”

In 1961, the editors of the journal Dissent, who were ideologically aligned with the “Third Camp” Socialism [2] of the OL, were worried that the emerging NL seemed “singularly, even willfully, uninterested in what happened before the Second World War.” They were right “in feeling the need to avoid the errors of the past,” they wrote, but made a huge mistake in thinking “they should also avoid a knowledge of the past.” [3] We can see this borne out in the reflections of Tom Hayden, one of the “leaders” of SDS, who wrote in his memoir that SDS members “learned a distrust and hostility to the very people we were closest to historically, the representatives of the liberal and labor organizations who had once been young radicals.” [4]

Dr. Quentin Young, one of those “elder liberals” from the time, agreed: “It’s amazing how quickly the NL went from Port Huron, a beautiful statement really, to a kind of romantic impatience with everything, and I don’t mean romantic in a pejorative sense but a descriptive one. They became very impatient very quickly. They had a difficult time achieving solidarity with trade unions. They were kind of super-activists with a rather adolescent rejection of the older generation. By the late 60s, some of them had turned towards violence, they had completely lost relevance, and helped to elect Nixon. So they had a short lifetime. I don’t think they deserve much attention really.” Because he had volunteered to assist SDS with medical support, he was given more access to the group than others from his generation. He recounted a time when he and a trade-unionist colleague were invited to a large national SDS gathering in Michigan in the mid-1960s: “We were the only people there who were over 30. We weren’t asked to talk, so we just sat and listened to the program. One committee or group after another explained their work. We noticed how young women really dominated the lower echelon discussions. But when the leadership groups began talking they were all white boys. That didn’t seem to fit with their public statements about breaking down society’s dominant patriarchal structures.”

Franklin Rosemont, a high school student in the late 50s, experienced both the “rigidity” and “integrity” of the OL through student groups like the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), the youth affiliate of the SP that was active on several university campuses across the country. “I wasn’t really into folk music. I was a Free Jazz enthusiast. So were some of the others in YPSL. We had a connection on the cultural level. That was really important. YPSLs had a lot of intellectual integrity. I learned about Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and libertarian Marxism. But a problem was that when you attended meetings or read the texts or were lectured to you got the feeling you couldn’t think for yourself. It too was doctrinaire, too authoritarian…and humorless.”

Organized Labor
The three biggest labor organizations in the OL were the AFL, the CIO, and the IWW. The AFL, which began as a petty-bourgeois crafts union in 1886, was consistently the most conservative of the three. The CIO split off from the AFL in 1938 to organize mass production industrial workers, who tended to be more progressive. When they re-merged in 1955 as the AFL-CIO, they were a far more moderate organization than the CIO had been alone. In contrast, the IWW, whose organizing focused more on semi- and un-skilled laborers, had a more militant approach that involved direct action through boycotts and strikes. Their membership peaked in 1923, after which their power declined due to internal conflict and state repression. Though coming from very different backgrounds and political tendencies, most of the people I interviewed felt that a strong trade union movement was the backbone of the progressive and more radical politics of the OL. They lamented the precipitous decline of the political power of organized labor since the 1960s, which they attributed to both internal and external forces. Some characterized the OL as practicing a “politics of accommodation” that was able to develop consensus through strong leadership. It was this leadership that in part sustained the OL, in contrast to the “episodic” politics of the NL, which because they were so “fragmented” were unable to generate any serious power.

Here are some other perspectives on the issue of organized labor:
Nelson Peery: “I didn’t agree with everything the CP did. For example, almost all the strikes that took place during WWII were against upgrading blacks, not on wage incentives. There was a strike at Boeing plant in California (c. 1940) where 5,000 white workers walked out of the plant when they hired one black worker. That was the kind of strikes that were going on. To lump the political strikes in with the economic strikes, and say we’re against strikes during the war, as the CP’s ‘no strike pledge’ did, gave the employer an open hand to do what they wanted to shape the trade union movement for what it would be after the war. I remember the first real argument I had with the CP. They thought blacks were the leading element of the revolutionary process in the U.S.. I told them, look, African Americans are ready to die fighting to get into the system, to be an equal part of that system, rather than overthrow it. It was the Supreme Court that opened certain doors for blacks, but at their leisure to be sure. They weren’t opened by the trade union movement. The trade union movement excluded blacks. So how could the CP have a doctrine that says that the most oppressed section of the working class is going to be a vanguard when that vanguard is so isolated and so oppressed that it has to rely on the government for protection?”

Sylvia Fischer: “Take a look at what’s happened to the labor movement since the early 1960s. It was quite strong and now it’s very fragmented. I remember when I first came to school in Chicago through Indiana on the train (c. 1940) I saw the steel mills and how impressive that was…you had a sense of these blast furnaces going and a country that was so vibrant and so alive. That’s all dead and gone and we’ve become a service country. So certainly there’s a total shifting of power. I think the industrial workers are what gave strength to the labor movement.”

Marilyn Nissim-Sabat: “One of the failures of the OL and particularly the Communist movement was that they moved the unions steadily in the direction of so-called “bread and butter” issues and totally stopped any interest in the work place, in the humanization of the work place. The original labor movement was a broad social movement. What they wanted was not simply more income, they wanted a humane work place. They wanted breaks. They wanted lunch. They wanted to be treated decently on the job.”
Charles Nissim-Sabat: “Let me give you another example of where the labor movement fucked up in the U.S.. The United Auto Workers (UAW) got their workers excellent health plans, guaranteed through the contract. But what happens to a worker who because of illness, injury, age or whatever, can no longer work? She quits her job and she has no health plan. And what happens if GM has to lay off workers because of economic conditions and they have no health plan? What the UAW, the United Steal Workers and other large unions should have done was to go to management and say listen: we can demand that you give a us a health plan or we can work together so we have a national health plan. The UAW said: why should we aim for a national health plan? On the contrary, it’s better the workers have a health plan through the union. That would give them an incentive to join the union and stay with the union. So it’s a capitalist competitive type of mentality for the union. The unions say, we offer health insurance, rather than saying we offer a better society. So the workers are screwed. There’s no health plan for them when they’re laid off.”
Franklin Rosemont felt closer to the less structured forms of organization of the IWW that relied on the self-expression of workers’ diverse cultural backgrounds as sources of inspiration and solidarity. “The biggest OL influence on me was through the IWW. The old IWW really understood how important culture—music, poetry, art—was in building a strong movement.” Franklin recruited about 100 people to the Chicago IWW during the 1960s. “It was the IWW old-timers that brought art and humor to groups like SNCC and CORE.” [5]
Issues of Race… and Class
The 1950s are often referred to as the “silent” decade because of the perceived lack of political ferment. The second Red Scare, which lasted from 1947-1957, all but gutted the CP and its influential role in the OL. But depending on who you were and where you lived at the time, the ‘50s as a “quiet” decade is largely a myth. It was period of huge increases in productivity that led to the rise of the American middle class. Along with the increased prosperity came lots of babies. The post-war expansion of higher education through the GI Bill meant that more people, including working class and people of color, were entering college. Blacks were continuing to leave the rural south for cities in the south and north, increasing potential Black voting strength and permanently altering American politics. In 1955, the bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, voter registration, mass mobilizations, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement began in the Jim Crow south. The struggles for civil rights in the U.S. coincided with anti-colonial and national self-determination struggles around the world: the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the Algerian Independence movement, and the Cuban Revolution, among others.
Sylvia Fischer: “While I was working at Kenwood Elementary School (now Cantor) in Hyde Park, I met Jim Foreman, who later became the Executive Secretary of SNCC. He was the only black teacher at the school. At the time, Jim worked with a relief committee for Tent City [6] in Fayette County, Tennessee. Blacks who sought the right to vote were being dispossessed from their homes, living in tents. Both the United Packing House Workers and The United Auto Workers brought attention to their plight, providing much needed financial assistance. On our way back to Chicago from New Orleans, we stopped at Tent City to pick up Jim. I remember that he sat only in the back of the car and when we stopped for lunch he wouldn’t sit down with us at the table. I guess you just didn’t understand, coming from the north, what was really going on. I was certainly familiar with racism, but this was my first experience with conditions in the south.”
Nelson Peery: “An old drunk Irish communist once told me: “White people aren’t your enemy. It’s the relationship between white people and you that’s the enemy. You can kill all the white people you want and someone else will still oppress you until you do away with that relationship.” That was the end of it for me. I finally understood. The fact is that white people oppress and lynch black people, but the truth is that the relationship between the two is what makes it necessary. That relationship of inequality is not only from history but an integral and indispensable part of the capitalist system. If you only deal with facts and not with truth, you cannot be a serious revolutionary. Facts often contradict the truth. This is what turned me into a communist. I always thought facts and truth were the same thing, and they’re not.
When we look at the 1960s, everybody could see that the industrial process was beginning to come to an end. The U.S. dominated the world economy so there was a necessity of them continuing wars against national liberation movements, of which the African American movement was a specific part. The young idealists of the NL couldn’t help but attach themselves to this, especially after the Watts uprising (Los Angeles, 1965). I think identity politics arose out of Watts. The face of racial oppression in the U.S. and later the national liberation movements around the globe were suddenly thrust into the American living room. This couldn’t happen in 1932 because there was no television. This made it possible to place the African American freedom movement on the American people’s moral agenda. On the 18th of August of 1965 there were more Americans killed in Watts than fighting in Vietnam. It was a horror story. The U.S. Army invaded an American city. Now the world knew about it and it was a political question that they had to deal with. There was never a really serious Black Nationalist movement in this country until Watts. The CP condemned the Watts rebellion along with groups like the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization). It was the Vietnam War and the explosion of identity politics that prevented the unity of the whites against the blacks. In fact a huge percentage of whites, including President Johnson, realized they had to deal with this, that they were going to have to grant certain civil rights. There was a possibility of forcing the U.S. government to take positions they’d never taken before on questions of civil rights.”
Although South Africa had its own unique history, some of the circumstances around the issue of race, legalized segregation for instance, shaped the development of the Left in ways that were similar yet also different from the U.S.. I asked Hymie Rochman, who was active in the Anti-Apartheid movement beginning in the 1950s, if there was a sense of solidarity with the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. that was taking place at the same time:
“We knew it was happening, but it wasn’t something we were particularly interested in because the everyday problems in South Africa were so pressing. The politics of the Left in South Africa were very much affected by race, not just class. It couldn’t have been just class because the mass of people were subjected to both race and class. So even though the same thing pertained in the U.S., because the majority of the population was white, it did tend to have a different history. The Left in South Africa originated in the white population. This was significant because when the Black Left-wing came onto the scene, some of them accepted the whites as comrades but there were others who felt that whites, because of their privilege and position, could never be part of a progressive movement. So there were many blacks who were progressive but they kept distance from white progressives. For example, a white progressive had a much higher standard of living and more opportunity for education than black would have at the time. Blacks had to carry passes and couldn’t easily enter areas where whites lived and worked. And they were discriminated against by the government, the police, the army. They couldn’t vote…they didn’t have any say. Black workers who came to the cities had to leave their families behind in the Reserves. In the major cities where there was a Black Left-wing they were totally controlled. They could be easily deported out of the city. This gave the movement a disadvantage. We weren’t able to bring blacks and whites together as we would have liked. The result was that you had a Left-wing movement like the Unity Movement that had few whites. And that’s how race deformed the movement. At one time the CP had a slogan calling for a Black Communist Republic. Fortunately in the later years the more progressive people in the white and Black movements came together to form one progressive movement.
After I began demonstrating, most of the Jewish community would have nothing to do with me. And for obvious reasons, they were part of the establishment. You see, race masked everything. Jews would tell me: let them deal with the blacks and they’ll leave the Jews alone. That was the mentality. It was almost childish to think in terms of a multiracial society. You were looked upon as being immature, as being totally unrealistic.
We used to have massive arguments at [Cape Town] University in the fellowship meetings. They were essentially between blacks who said the revolution could only come through the peasantry. There was validity. The blacks in the townships didn’t have freedom of movement and the blacks in the countryside couldn’t use the land. The best agricultural land was taken by whites. Intellectually, the Trotskyites won those debates. But in terms of numbers—you could fit all the Trotskyites into this room—the non-Trotskyite Left-wing won because we had the African National Congress Black leftists with us. Jack Simons [7] was the leading Marxist ideologist in Cape Town. He always made a class analysis, but he also made an analysis showing how race affected class. So in that sense it wasn’t a classical Marxist situation like in European countries, or Czarist Russia, or India, or China. But when it came to Algeria or South Africa, it was thought a consideration of nationality or color or whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t mean that a Marxist analysis wasn’t correct. We always knew that giving people the vote was just a fig leaf. You can give political democracy to everybody but as long as you don’t change the economic situation you’re left where you started.”
From “MASS” to “ME”
In a 1993 essay [8], Todd Gitlin, one of the elder intellectual voices of the NL, characterized the ideological gap between the OL and NL as a politics based on “commonality” (a means to social liberation based on what is shared, not different), versus a politics based on identity (a means to social liberation through self-liberation based on one’s identity; e.g., race, gender, sexuality). The legacy of the 1960s, he said, was that “Difference came to be felt more acutely than commonality.” In 1956, the editors of Dissent wrote that in Left politics “responsible determination of one’s personal life may perhaps be linked with responsible codetermination in public life.” [9] In this statement, we see an expanding of the mass organizational logic more typical of the OL, to include a politics based on the ethical organization of the self, prefiguring the NL’s articulation that “the personal is political.” [10]
What follows is part of a conversation I had on this theme with Marilyn and Charles Nissim-Sabat:
CNS: ”The personal is political” was a tremendous discovery of the ‘60s. But what they didn’t understand was that the structural is also the political, the economic is also the political. The political is everything.
ET: Was that the argument that the OL was trying to make to the young radicals of the 60s?
CNS: The OL said nothing about those issues.
MNS: The OL were the most impersonal people with the most impersonal views you could ever know. The OL were anti-psychology, anti-psychoanalysis. They were totally against any consideration of the psychosocial developmental aspects of human beings. Totally. They hated it. They were not introspective. They were not self-reflective. There was the whole dedication to the movement. It was easier for them because they never questioned themselves. They didn’t know how. They were the negation of ”the personal is political.” Civil Rights, Feminism and the NL movements were a corrective to that.
ET: Do you think the pendulum swung back too far, so to speak? Did “the personal is political” create a politics around identity and difference that lacked the structural analysis?
MNS: In my view it represented the conquest of capitalism. Marcuse said the so-called “sexual revolution” was repressive desublimation. [11]
CNS: The problem is that capitalism pollutes everything. When you say “the personal is political,” in most people’s minds, including the NL, it became like consumerism. I can go into a store, or life, and get whatever I want. I want more sex, I get more sex. I want a different kind of art, I get it.
ET: Did the fact that “the personal is political” could be commodified, strip it of its radical potential?
CNS: No. It’s still there.
ET: So forms of self-liberation can express forms of social liberation?
CNS: Yes.
MNS: I totally disagree. Marcuse’s point was that the sexual revolution never occurred. There was no deepening or humanization of our sexual inter-relatedness. It was just window-dressing. The NL’s notion of sexual liberation was the freedom to have sex with anybody.
The issues these comments address, which are by no means exhaustive nor definitive, are still hotly debated on the Left today. Because the questions I asked were fairly general, there was a lot of “off-topic” conversation—most were more interested in discussing the election or the present economic crisis than anything that happened 50 years ago. Of course, it’s all related. My hope is that their comments, rather than giving any conclusive answers about the transition from Old to New Left, will offer a thread for anyone interested in finding their way through the overwhelmingly complex labyrinth of combustible dreams, ideological twists and factional acronyms that litter the history of Left politics in this country. Whether the OL or NL accomplished their goals doesn’t really matter. Today’s Left inherits it all. Because of this, I think it’s worth interrogating the various forms of politics—the means—we’ve inherited and salvaging those ideas that might still be useful in the struggle to achieve universal human emancipation. How we define emancipation may differ, but I’m pretty sure it is still the goal of the Left.  ◊

1. It’s important to point out that the categories OL and NL are tools of thought and not identical with social reality. As tools for thought, they are not neutral, but rather, are socially and historically constituted, and bound to specific ideologies with specific political interests.
2. Irving Howe, Editor of Dissent, was a follower of Max Scachtman, the main proponent of “Third Camp” Socialism in the U.S., which was in support of neither the USSR nor western liberal democracies.
3. Dissent 8 (Autumn 1961), 496-498.
4. Tom Hayden, Reunion: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1988).
5. Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality
6. In the winter of 1960, after hundreds of black tenant farmers were evicted from their lands during the fight to gain the right to vote, they formed makeshift communities known as “Tent Cities.”
7. Jack Simons, a leading member of the South African Communist Party, was a lecturer in African Law and Administration at the University of Cape Town from 1937 to 1964. He was banned from teaching in 1964 and went into exile.
8. Todd Gitlin, “The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1993, adapted from “From Universality to Difference: Notes on the Fragmentation of the Idea of the Left,” Contention: debates in society, culture, and science, 2:2 (Winter 1993).
9. Dissent 3 (Spring 1956), 156-163.
10. Though disputed, the origin of the phrase “the personal is political” is usually attributed to Carol Hanisch and second-wave feminism of the late 1960s.
11. “Repressive desublimation” was a concept developed by Herbert Marcuse that fuses Marxian and Freudian categories in which social control can operate not only by direct control, but also by the manipulation of desire.