What Movement History Do We Mobilize? In Which Michael Zweig Begins The Conversation and Tenured Radical Continues It

October 29, 2011, 9:47 am

Illustration/Design Fran Luck; Special Collections, Duke University Library

SUNY-Stonybrook economist Michael Zweig has a great piece up at the HuffPo (October 28 2011), linking the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement to a longer history of radical youth protest. “In challenging the 1%,” Zweig writes,

“OWS has taken the moral high ground at a time when our country seems to have lost its moral compass. The growing movement holds corporate elites and their political representatives responsible for the moral failings exposed by the great and growing inequalities between the 1% and the 99%, and the widespread suffering of mass unemployment and home foreclosures in the midst of highly concentrated personal wealth and political power. OWS challenges the deep immorality and total unacceptability of the economic and political arrangements that generate and secure this inequality.”

This contemporary movement has lessons to learn from the past, lessons that are relevant precisely because of the historical parallels Zweig sees between OWS and the New Left. A few that he notes are early ties between the New Left and labor, and the connections between the civil rights and anti-war movements and the women’s and gay liberation movements that emerged from these earlier struggles.

But isn’t this view the New Left as it should have been, rather than the New Left as it was?

We need to be careful here.  The brevity of Zweig’s history occludes the barriers and hostility that women, people of color and queers faced within the civil rights and anti-war movements, despite alliances with committed activists who tried to address these issues. This hostility from and frustration with larger Left movements often pushed women and queers to radical action on their own behalf.  These activisms sought to transform and enlarge pre-1968 critiques in new movements that were often ridiculed and opposed by former New Left comrades who saw the claims of women and gays in particular as a distraction from the revolution.  AS Sarah Evans famously argued in Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (1980), it was the derision with which women’s demands were received in SDS, and the silencing of their critiques, that caused women activists to begin caucusing separately as feminists.  As Ellen Willis put it in her “Letter to the Left” in 1969,

“Except for a hip vanguard movement, men have tended to dismiss the women’s movement as ‘just chicks with personal hangups,’ to insist that men and women are equally oppressed, though maybe in different ways, or to minimize the extent and significance of male chauvinism (‘just a failure of communication’).  All around me I see men who consider themselves dedicated revolutionaries, yet exploit their wives and girlfriends shamefully without ever noticing a contradiction.” (Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, eds., Dear Sisters:  Dispatches From the Women’s Liberation Movement, Basic Books, 2000; 51.)

An earlier version of Willis’s letter can be found here.  We might also recall that, despite the prominence of women in the 1970s revolutionary underground, Marxist vanguard groups like Weatherman elevated a macho-movement style and derided feminism until the mid- to late 1970s.

One might also look at Martin Luther King and other key leaders’ cowardice when Bayard Rustin’s homosexuality, and his arrests for public indecency and solicitation, were used as a weapon against the March on Washington coalition in 1963.  For this, and A. Philip Randolph’s threat to pull out of the demonstration unless Rustin was retained as an organizer, see John D’Emilio’s The Last Prophet:  The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Free Press, 2003.) Similarly, check out Ian Lekus’s “Queer Harvests: Homosexuality, the U.S. New Left, and the Venceremos Brigades to Cuba”, in which gay male Marxists were articulated by Brigade organizers in the early 1960s as unsuitable for the task of supporting post-colonial socialist revolution.  And do we need to add that, despite the presence of working-class youth in the Movement, the white, unionized working classes were threatened by New Left activisms? Workers in the street often opposed the anti-war movement and bullied demonstrators, and actively resisted the incorporation of women and workers of color into traditionally make, white jobs (see Nancy MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough:  the Opening of the American Workplace, Harvard, 2006.)

So yes, there are lessons, lessons about what the New Left accomplished and how it transformed our political world.  But let us not be utopian about that past and by doing so, occlude the difficulties that are surely arising in this contemporary activism as well. Race, class, gender and sexuality both inspire and challenge left solidarity.  The history of racism, sexism and  homophobia on the left is worth recalling too, when we read #OWS Tweets asking us to “support our brothers;” when we listen to “mic checks” that inevitably privilege the louder, deeper voices of men; when we observe the overwhelming whines of Occupy encampments; or when we view this complex and video in which Occupy Atlanta debates (and rejects) Congressman John Lewis’s request to speak before the General Assembly at Occupy Atlanta, which recalls the bitter conflicts over the participation of “stars” within Women’s Liberation.  Although one man who spoke to the Assembly honored Lewis’s past, rumor has it that many in the crowd did not actually know who Lewis was as a movement figure or understand to what history the speaker referred.  The cry at the end:  ”John Lewis is not better than anyone! Democracy won!” is both right and wrong — surely a man who took a crowbar to the head in the service of black civil rights should have as much status within a contemporary resistance movement as Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, who took a rubber bullet to the head in Oakland, is in critical condition and is now being elevated to the status of movement hero?

Finally, the history of the 1970s suggests that non-hierarchical movements are difficult to sustain.  But they become more fragile when those movements actually begin to succeed, without a commitment to self-criticism and attention to whose voices are, and are not, being heard.

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