The Fate of the Left

Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War, By Howard Brick,Christopher Phelps, Cambridge University Press, 2015

THIS MIGHT BE described as a book for its time, our time, although perhaps it might be even more timely if it were delayed a year, because the effects of the global austerity crisis (not to mention the refugee crisis) and the bold socialistic campaign of Bernie Sanders in the United States—no doubt influenced by the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party—just might take the last chapter in a different direction. Or maybe not … and we will be disappointed again, as we have been so often across the decades.

Still, Radicals in America is a generous overview, well-written and rich with detail, offering readers a lively way to grasp a subject that has often seemed more discontinuous and elusive than understandable. It astutely follows leading movements and personalities across almost three generations of American history. It takes us from the optimism of the immediate post–World War II era, when fascism/Nazism had been defeated, to the bitter reality of the Cold War, up to the left’s own daily reality—domestic repression, blacklisting, breakup of left-leaning unions, and so forth.

One of the early strengths of the text comes from its discussion of the late 1940s and early 1950s; even a repressed, depoliticized left had many hidden powers outside the logic of the great, intensely organized movements of the 1930s. Pacifism, foreshadowing today’s Nuns on the Bus, showed itself, and not only in religious garb. The notion that a sort of anarcho-pacifism could actually confront the Arms Race and the nuclear juggernaut at home seems, at first glance, nearly preposterous. But the activists themselves took no apparent notice of their disadvantage and set the tone for the anti-war movement to follow in the 1960s. Never mind that one of the great souls of the early movement, Bayard Rustin, jumped off the train and joined the other side; he had, before his decades-long defection to the neoconservative Freedom House, done his work well.

The sheer localism of the 1960s movements—not only in anti-war and student activism but in community peace work, black liberation, women’s liberation, and gay liberation—makes it seem almost impossible to recount in under several thousand pages. Here, I think, the writers take the expeditious course of telling the story that can be told, given the task before them. Personal memories will not be encompassed. And we, the underground newspaper sellers, leaflet passers, and meeting goers (but not big speakers), will not be mentioned by name. But that’s okay.

The decline and collapse of the New Left, the violent repression of the Black Power movement (not to mention the infighting of assorted Marxist-Leninist factions), and what might hesitantly be called the domestication of radical feminism (that is, redirection to breaking the glass ceilings into offices of power rather than taking over the building) all yield difficulties of understanding so painful that the survivors have hardly figured them out yet. Why do the movements that seemed so amazingly powerful in 1969 seem so weak a decade later?

The empire, as they suggest, has taken hold again, notwithstanding the fall of Nixon and in part because of the end of the Vietnam War. Revanchist claims, made broadly by a rising, vastly funded right but vigorously supported by hawkish Democratic Party hacks and top labor bureaucrats, led the way to Ronald Reagan’s election and political survival amidst scandals and breaches of law far more serious than those that brought down Nixon. The Vietnam War had not been lost militarily, but rather through sabotage—this argument was defeated with great difficulty, and then the right’s narrative changed again, claiming that our dead soldiers had sacrificed themselves only to be shunned by ungrateful, unpatriotic liberals.

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