The US and the 21st Century

Introductory Note:

This essay is an adaptation and reworking of a historic 1963 document of the Students for a Democratic Society.  Its original was mimeographed in several thousand copies and distributed jointly by the SDS National Office and the newly-created Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP).  America and the New Era was intended to be a follow-up to the Port Huron Statement, but for a variety of reasons it never received the attention of the stunning, often reprinted statement of generational sensibility.

We members of the Movement for a Democratic Society, nearly 50 years later, have taken it upon ourselves to use the structure of the original document as a framework, but to insert contents appropriate for our time.  We presented a much-condensed portion of it at the “Port of Providence” MDS/SDS meeting on April 15, 2007.

The following is a collective document, in the nature of the PHS and “American in the New Era.”  Richard Flacks did the yeoman’s task of drafting the 1963 original, with help of Robert Ross and others.  This version has been drafted by several MDS and SDS activists with criticisms and suggestions from Bruce Rubenstein, Jay Jurie, Penny Rosemont, Mark Rudd, and Devra Morice for MDS, Senia Barragan and Josh Russell for SDS, and a valued friend from War Times, Max Elbaum.  Paul Buhle did most of the drafting and rewriting.

The New Era

We stand at the beginning of a new social movement as well the beginning of a new century.  The global overreach of US strategies has created divisions in society unknown since the 1960s, in some ways unknown since the 1890s.  Here, a soldier is shot to death after a fourteen-hour domestic standoff because he is driven mad by the prospect of his return to Iraq.  There, casualty figures are systematically underreported, the degree of military brutalization and eco-poisoning warfare hidden as effectively, or ineffectively, as in the early years of the US invasion of Southeast Asia.  In Washington, powerful forces with billions of dollars behind them (and clearly more at stake) rage against each other, hopeful of protecting Empire but blinded by their past triumphs and unable to find a way out.  New SDS, with several thousand members and several hundred chapters, takes the field in the name of a newly rebellious generation, its membership reaching into community colleges and high schools far from the liberal arts limits of the 1960s, and across borders to Canada, Germany, Indonesia, and elsewhere.  We also see the beginning of yet a new project: the founding of MDS, the Movement for a Democratic Society.

America and the New Era began with a similar “hope for human freedom,” and trends beginning to bring an end to the Cold War Era.  To summarize:

  • The emergence of a new Europe, from the largely collapsed, US-dominated post-Second World War Western Europe, into a vigorous society ready to compete with the US
  • The emergence of the Third World, the success of the colonized world in throwing off its colonizers, at least in formal terms
  • The disruption of the international communist movement, i.e., the Sino-Soviet split and the proliferation of poly-centered State Socialist economic form no longer dominated by the USSR
  • The obsolescence of nuclear weapons, “because it has become clear that nuclear weapons cannot effectively deter popular upsurge and forestall revolution.”

The authors concluded most presciently that “no existing mode of thought, nor entrenched institution, will remain unchallenged.”

Over the next quarter century, none did remain unchallenged.  And yet at the end of the day, the end of the century, the System survived.  The US reigned as all-out victor over the Soviet model, with post-colonial societies returned to neocolonialism (not excluding Russia, remnant of the Soviet Union), and with the supposed Chinese alternative drifting toward integration into global capitalism at every level.

The world of permanent US hegemony and permanently successful military intervention was hailed by authors as widely-quoted as the like-minded (and long-winded) Samantha Power, Vaclav Havel, and Jorge Castaneda, but it was not destined to last.  This was not the end of history after all.

The acclaimed humanitarians described a world in which militant opposition to US policies had become foolish, reactionary, and downright dangerous.  “Civil society” as a rationalized, militarized internationalism run from Washington, through NATO or the UN whenever possible but with no doubt as to the controlling hand, emerged as the neo-liberal ideal, the globalized corporate world economy, the day-to-day reality.  Increased “diversity” of race and gender among the rich and powerful now justified the expanded operations of power.  Scarcely the home to every giant corporation or legally entitled to the world’s natural resources, Washington would nevertheless decide, as if it determined all moral judgments.  The decent, acceptable people of the world would obey, perhaps offering minor criticisms but not actually opposing the inevitable invasions and mass bombing campaigns necessary to maintain this version of order.  The protests of anti-globalization radicals in the 1999 Seattle demonstrations and elsewhere around the world were brushed aside as Luddism, deeply irrational or at most a call for minor adjustments to the emerging global system (but we now see them as the vital precursors of today’s radical movements, emphatically including SDS and MDS).

No doubt, the ostensibly liberal intellectuals, like so many others, later came to regard the George W. Bush regime as a disaster, recalling with tearful nostalgia the dear, dead days of Clintonia.  They, and many others like them in positions of power and prestige, are today hoping that another Clinton (or a like-minded competitor) will bring those neoliberal days back again, with a “redeployed” US military freed to assault other resource-rich or merely uncooperative nations on one pretext or another.  At this writing, and if the Bush administration doesn’t act first, Iran seems the most likely target for the military adventure of some future Democratic administration, though more suitable for nuclear bunker-busting than old-fashioned invasion and occupation.  Nothing, in other words, has been learned that cannot be swiftly unlearned.  Nor has the threat of nuclear warfare been averted; on the contrary, US moves since the collapse of the Soviet system make it more rather than less likely.

The neoliberal rhetoric of the 1990s had seemed so marvelously effective, the restless natives of various continents so easily kept under control, their leaders effectively discredited for behavior that, as it turned out, was no better or worse, bomb for bomb, pollutant for pollutant, than that of the victors.  No one, or hardly anyone respectable, rose to question the use of Depleted Uranium weapons in the name of peace: these were deployed by NATO under US direction, just as Agent Orange and napalm had been applied a generation earlier by the American military, evidently Manna from Heaven, liberating the flora and fauna alike from countless millennia of natural evolution.  DU, like the house-to-house sweep in Iraqi cities, like detention without charges, like rendition and torture whenever useful, above all the craving for total control of natural resources, had become the visible reality of America’s policy of wars and was certain to remain so.

These illusions survive but they have been seriously damaged.  The truth is out and the subservient backers of American military conquests have grown sheepish and silent on many subjects, including, at times, even the economic and social blessings of globalism under bankers’ control.  The events of September 11, 2001, with the crash of hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — the ultimate emblems of corporate and military power — have badly tarnished the imperial sense of self-confidence.  No longer could the disaffection of distant others be held at arm’s length.  Rather than engage in the sort of introspection that would reveal the role and purposes of U.S. power projected across the globe, however, these acts were quickly capitalized upon by those seeking to spread and solidify Washington’s influence through the famous Shock and Awe.  The strategy that can be neatly encompassed as a Patriot Act for the whole planet has, however, proved a failure, at home and abroad.

On the forty-fifth anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, then, we once again face a world in which existing modes of thought are treated by the public with contempt.  Institutions both old and new seem to be threatened as they have not been since the last days of the Second World War and the late days of the 1960s.  Not threatened, to be sure, by the ideology or organizations of avowed socialist beliefs and cooperative practices — except perhaps in Venezuela and Bolivia, among somewhat wider currents in Latin America and the Caribbean including Cuba — but threatened, nevertheless.

We are faced with the thoroughgoing exhaustion of the old models, liberal as well as conservative, socialist as well as capitalist.  The golden age of confident socialism, in the first decade of the twentieth century, can be book-ended with the golden age of capitalism during the final decade of the same century.  Both can now be laid to rest for their myopia, their willingness to treat most of the planet as a region for “development” rather than a moiling world of people with their own visions and their own paths forward (or backward).  Both of these old forms need to be discarded.

Why did the self-confident predictions of the Marxists and equally self-certain predictions of the 1980s-90s globalizers fail so miserably?

During the first half of the twentieth century, the decline of capitalism was confidently predicted by a wide range of thinkers from left to right, its successor envisioned as some kind of State control.  Reform-minded non-communists expected — or still hoped, notwithstanding the disillusionments of European socialist support for World War One — to see a gradual, seamless, and almost painless drift of capitalism into a social democracy.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, in saving capitalism, actually encouraged social movements that improved the lives of millions and appeared to bring that promise closer.  Victory over Fascism seemed to bring it yet closer.  Then FDR died, however, and Harry Truman entered the White House.  The Cold War began at home and abroad with a march toward total global hegemony at any cost.  Labor leaders, screenwriters, even career diplomats associated with leftwing causes either abandoned their ideals or found themselves banned and discarded.

A new world of atomic bombs and Cadillacs emerged, with light weapons and Chevrolets for small-fry wars and consumers, respectively.  The corrupt chief of the new AFL-CIO labor federation, George Meany, described America as a society in which everyone had a chance . . . even if the historic labor vision of a cooperative society or serious re-division of wealth had been dropped as outdated and unpleasant, and even if solutions to racial problems evidently demanded patience and government action rather than reform of unions themselves.

After the excitement and the new radicalism of the 1960s accompanied by an economic boom, the severe economic recession of the following decade seemed, for a moment, to bring back classical Marxist visions of capitalist decline.  The picture afterward, and not only in the US, was something very different, pronounced by experts — perhaps for the thousandth time — to be the absolute refutation of Marxist, socialist, anarchist, and all radical ideas in the name of victorious economic liberalism (or neoliberalism).  That prediction has proven one more illusion, even apart from the vast ecological degradation at hand.  Any sensible examination of the economic picture reveals a world not truly anticipated by the wisest savant.

A recent, keen economic analysis updating a century of Marxist predictions thus notes that stagnation and sluggish growth in the old-fashioned categories of GNP and productive capacity have continued as leftwingers long predicted they would.  But remarkably enough, these disappointments have not impeded profit levels, nor brought down the world’s leading capitalist power, its center still situated on Wall Street.  Neoliberalism, as a recent Monthly Review essay notes, is the natural ideology of a “financialized” capitalism as Keynesianism was of an earlier monopolized economic phase.

No one, neither Keynes nor Milton Friedman, had sufficiently credited the power of seemingly bottomless debt.  (Marxist theorist Harry Magdoff, admitting later he had underestimated the debt effect, nonetheless came the closest to accuracy.)  Nor had anyone predicted the degree of the financiers’ takeover, displacing actual production with the concentration of paper.  The strange contemporary conjunction — punctuated by the Chinese State-directed bailout of Wall Street — is an apt metaphor that marks the urgent need of fresh radical analysis of society, the social forces, and the role of a future Left.

Perhaps, and this is a grim thought, slow growth and wild speculation are locked together in a downward spiral of widening class differences and ecological decline.  Making money steadily displaces the making of anything else, goods or services.  Debt creation and the collaterization of debt, the magic instruments of recovery (or pseudo-recovery), demand ever taller towers of cash.  These disproportions come, naturally enough, from a vast heightening of exploitation in every respect, now no longer draining only the lives of people on the planet but the earth itself.  Lacking a successful challenge, they will, within two generations, have wiped out nearly every species of fish, eviscerated all but the least of rainforests, and set the planet upon a near irreversible course of global warming.  The lives of suffering humanity, in the face of these threats, can only be imagined.

Just a half century ago, a few years before the founding of SDS, a manifesto of sorts declared “the whole world today lives in the shadow of . . . an ever-present self-perpetuating body” of concentrated military-industrial power and noted hopefully that “against this monster, people all over the world . . . are rebelling ever day in ways of their own invention. . .  Always the aim is to regain control over their conditions of life and their relations with one another.  Their strivings, their struggles, their methods have few chroniclers.”  These phrases were written by the followers of C.L.R. James against the background of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the short-lived creation of workers’ councils (until the Russian tanks arrived), the colonial rebellions of the Third World, the civil rights movement, and the wildcat strikes of American auto workers against employers and union officials alike.  What hits home now, a half century later, is that optimism has grown scarce while the struggles against the military-industrial complex and its war-making continue in ever-new forms.


What has happened, meanwhile, to us, to the social forces that we SDSers had seen as the future of our movement?  It is valuable to look back at the period briefly following the collapse of Old SDS because so many of its members set themselves, in the name of “economic democracy” or more classically Marxist political formulae, to reach beyond the campus to the blue collar communities.  Developments of the early 1970s, with especially intense struggles of African American workers, public workers (notably the postal employees but also teachers and other public workers), women workers in occupations that formerly had seen little militancy, such as health care, and various activities of returned veterans from a failed war — all these and the continued surge of the Black Power movement in new forms reinforced the recent SDSers’ sense of determination and also of a kind of optimism.

The terminal crisis of the Nixon administration, the sudden rise of oil prices, rents, and of interest rates with no sensible regulation induced the widespread feeling that the State had failed, and not just failed to deliver.  It was the “Fiscal Crisis of the State,” a favorite phrase of the time pointing altogether accurately to the eclipse of Cold War liberalism.  The old formulae didn’t seem to work anymore for Democrats, not even in the face of Republican disgrace.  Military spending, welfare checks for the poor and assorted assistance to the middle class, consumer readiness for bigger, better products like the ever-new lines of automobiles no longer commanded the political heights.  The New Right’s determination to roll back 1960s gains, energetically assisted by labor leaders and erstwhile liberal intellectuals now eager for military recovery from the Vietnam debacle and lifestyle recovery from the counter-culture, was already on the move.   Public savants who had proclaimed the “end of ideology” at the dawn of the 1960s now turned their guns on what passed for New Left ideology in the pages of the New York Times and the slick magazines.  The organization that had vanished, SDS, remained somehow the lasting image of horror that was worse than war, worse than racism, almost worse than communism.

Here and there, meanwhile, in Chicago where Mayor Harold Washington ran the Midwest metropolis, but also in Detroit, Gary, Oakland, and scatterings of other cities, former SDSers joined other  radicals in bringing left-leaning black officials into power.  In the counter-culture cities such as Madison, Eugene, Burlington, later Santa Cruz and elsewhere, student protesters and their allies put forward progressive candidates and often won.  These were small but not insignificant victories for activists hanging tough, finding new friends or renewing old alliances. They linked with the briefly huge and in some ways entirely effective anti-nuke campaign of the early 1980s, the ultimately effective anti-Apartheid movement aimed at South Africa’s regime, the heroic but doomed support movements for Sandinistas and El Salvador’s FMLN, as well as the 1988 Jesse Jackson nomination campaign, and a trove of other, less-remembered moments.  Such left-leaning city governments, temporarily displacing the familiar real estate interests, expressed themselves against US global projects and created a sense of panic in high places.  They also reinforced the conservative and neo-conservative determination for revenge.

Conservative religionists enraged at the Jackson campaign in New York and at feminism’s growing influence sharpened their knives and looked for Great White Hopes like future police-state champion, Rudolph Giuliani, to restore moral order.  Conservative labor leaders, along with rising Roman Catholic figures like the future Cardinal O’Connor, joined these campaigns and gave each other cover.  A new round of CIA activities to exterminate threats (Salvador Allende of Chile was among the first, with many others to follow), to break up unstable Soviet-style societies (with Yugoslavia topping the list), destabilize popularly elected socialistic leaders like Michael Manley of Jamaica, all proceeded whether with Nixon, Ford, or Carter in the White House.  The rhetoric sometimes changed, and the CIA offered fresh rationalizations for human rights abuses and war crimes.  If the Iranian Revolution of 1979 marked the apparent blunder of the forces of order, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan offered a fresh opportunity to find or, if necessary, to create a US-funded winner.  The real cost would come later.

In a larger sense, these moves preceded and were part of the globalization project that proceeded at ever swifter speeds during the 1980s and 1990s.  Unions, long useful as stabilizing mechanisms, had by this time become increasingly unnecessary to the ruling strata and were  undermined, and eventually eliminated, as obstacles to the large plan shared by most Democratic and Republican power-brokers.  Social expenditures on education, healthcare, and public services, the entirety of the safety net, were to be diluted and gradually eradicated, on the installment plan.  As early as the 1970s, this process gained the twinned names, “neoliberalism” and “neoconservatism,” variations on the same rightward-drifting Cold War liberalism joined to more traditional conservative impulses revived by the fears of feminism, secularism, and multi-racial democracy.  The bankers, gaining leverage year by year over old-fashioned capitalist producers, saw in the 1970s disorder their opportunity for a free hand . . . and took it.  Labor historian (and labor activist) Peter Rachleff has summarized the consequences:

  • Free Trade, the right of capital to move unhindered without regulation, while labor was constrained or limited in movement.
  • Financialization, the power of capital to shift from one sector to another via speculation, credit, and stock manipulations, the collection of huge commissions for squeezing companies dry, adding to cash collections even while plants closed and fleets of planes or trucks stood idle.
  • Deregulation, marked by the deregulation of transportation in particular, with labor still regulated and capital free to take its opportunities where it can.
  • Commodification, the long-accepted public goods of water, electricity, telecommunications, and even air now subject to takeovers and/or deregulation, making clear that nothing could be closed off to class privilege.
  • Privatization, contracting out and outsourcing of government infrastructure, from the postal service to the military.
  • Dispossession, the displacement of farmers and whole urban neighborhoods, zones marked for commercial activity and zones marked for highways or dump sites, with winners decided by big-money deals among politicians and their patrons.
  • Labor cost reduction, with full-time jobs replaced by contingent and part-time labor minus benefits and protections, with longer hours, stiffer competition among employees, and more stress in every aspect of work receiving the highest accolades, and multiple family members in multiple jobs a new standard.
  • Social wage reduction, above all health care, now grown steadily more expensive for those who lack insurance but even for those whose deductibles race upward.  Borrowing against home ownership, in response to a sharp reduction of labor costs and social wages, increases steadily as decisions are made to sacrifice one value to another.
  • Increased social inequality with staggering increases in the distance of the very wealthy from the very poor, with understandable anxiety or panic among those in the middle to hold on, if not advance, as promised through hard work.

The racist character of the emerging prison-industrial system, the creation of a vast nonwhite, largely but not entirely male underclass that  spends much of its life behind bars or on probation (largely without the right to vote), needs particular emphasis here.  Old-time segregation and discrimination stood blatantly outside the American ideals of freedom and equality and could be condemned in that manner.  The new incarceration offer a drastic modification of racialization far more acceptable to all who fear for their lives and their property, not excluding the new class of wealthy nonwhite businessmen.  Then, too, the domestic prison system mirrors global militarization, the well-paid and sometimes unionized guards a counterpart to the defense industry worker with the suburban home.  Economic stability and growth in hundreds of communities large and small depend upon services and punishment given these inmates, just as the mortgage market of the Southwest and Northwest, among other spots, had for so long depended on ever-new generations of weaponry.

To this list should be added the pillaging of global ecology on a scale heretofore unimaginable.  Under the sign of global warming, this pillaging actually intensified, with a return of nuclear power increasingly blessed but energy efficiency only winked at, and promises of reduction in greenhouse gases discussed but randomly, mostly for the purposes of putting off blame.  That Brazil’s worker-president, elected by the poor and backed by environmentalists, should turn around to defend investors and attack the defenders of the rapidly dwindling rainforests was, in the balance of global forces and the weakness of official morality, perhaps predictable.  Just as sad as Vaclav Havel, long ago a severe critic of the automobilized society, in power and basking in the sprawl that was historic Prague, surrounded by symbols everywhere, preaching the charisma of wealth and overshadowing the remnants of a fast-fading historical city.  Recycling?  Rudolph Giuliani ridiculed it, and his backers guffawed at ignorant environmentalists.  Species eradication?  Tell it to the snow mobilers, the international investors plundering Russia’s vast forests and what remains of African woodlands.  Water shortages?  Build up Las Vegas: someone will deal with the problem, sometime in the future.  For now, profits prevail and the opinion-makers applaud.

These are all, of course, universal tendencies, their effect on display as much in post-Communist China as in the post-liberal United States.  But they are experienced with an observable intensity even in the most privileged society the world has ever known.  Americans seemed forever (within the short time-span of the society) to assume that empire is their natural right, their destiny, given by fate if not by the Deity.  In the twenty-first century, they face a rude awakening.

The Crisis of Empire

The explosion of simultaneous crises, as leading scholar of empire William Appleman Williams noted long ago, stems from the demands for absolute planetary control.  As America and the New Era already made clear, President Harry Truman’s dream for total supremacy through atomic weapons was doomed whenever the nuclear club grew larger.  The alternative postwar plan offered by former vice-president Henry Wallace, to cool the Soviets by peaceful coexistence and to embrace rather than reject the third world rebellions against the colonial powers, was denounced by Cold War liberals more forcefully than by traditional Republicans like Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover.  Old-fashioned conservatives actually viewed military occupation of the globe as madness; Truman, but also Adlai Stevenson, his scriptwriter Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and the carefully created politician-intellectual John F. Kennedy, saw in military-industrial expansion at home and abroad a recalibrated welfare state, one in which they themselves would become prestigious and influential.

The Soviet Union and China would need to be “contained,” but the restless Vietnamese and Guatemalans, among others, would need to be crushed into submission.  Long before the global reach of the US military transferred from the borders of Communist states to the paths of oilfields, the alternative to nuclear intimidation had become clear.

But this, too, was an elusive dream or rather contained so many elusive dreams that would become nightmares.  Russia, remnant of the Soviet Union would, in Wall Street’s vision, be recreated as a virtual colony of the US, rushed forward (or backward) into capitalism through “shock therapy” guided by US economists.  Thus a former leading world power was reduced to second or third world status in a matter of years, with vast differences introduced between rich and poor, social services reduced or eliminated, falling birth rates, higher mortality, and other symptoms that more closely resembled the effects of war than “transformation.”  The arming of the religious anti-communist rebels of Afghanistan like the crushing of Marxists at the hands of American-appointed regimes (the Shah’s Iran a prime case in point) created a massive blowback, with no end in sight.  For that matter, America’s ever-faithful but also ever-hawkish Jewish State ally, with its big-money supporters in the US, endangered Jews (and not only in Israel) more than all the weapons in all the hands of fanatics in the world.  The endless suffering of the Palestinian population and the demonization of Arab populations could bring only worse crises ahead, yet Democrats as much as Republicans deflected all efforts at changes in US Middle East policies.

Did the blood-drenched crushing of Liberation Theology’s forces from Sandinista Nicaragua to deepest South America in the 1980s provide the nourishment for the martyrs as the egalitarians of Venezuela and Bolivia?  Or did the policies of neoliberalism, along with a growing sense of desperation among indigenous peoples, prompt a desperate move against the US plans for total domination of daily life?  Whatever the case, the end of classic Marxism as the opposite to classic capitalism redefined the oppositions.  The cooperatives of indigenous groups, aided (or unaided) by elected governments opposed to the US, reflected the sentiment that had been seen decades earlier in de-centralized SDS.

From William Appleman Williams’ empathetic standpoint, Americans had built their faith upon expansion of empire from the beginnings of colonization and could not imagine any other way of being.  To block expansionism was to deny Americans their way of life, their very purpose: this had been Jeffersonian as much as Hamiltonian, Carteresque as well as Bushian (twice over).  Were the global economic system perfectly well-set rather than fragile, had 9/11 and the succeeding wars never happened, the drive for total domination would be as great as it is today.  At the end of this road (as Williams stressed about Washington’s “Cuban dilemma” after the Missile Crisis that nearly blew away civilization and the whole planet) lies madness.  Along that road, endless agonies, waste of global resources on weapons, the undercutting of all efforts to avoid the catastrophe of global warming, among other woes.

How much does “the average American” feel the suffering of others in less fortunate places of the planet?  This question cannot now be posed with the usual pessimism or cynicism expressed after the post-1960s disappointments, because so much of this society is new, that is, renewed by a fresh influx from abroad.  Immigrant-population levels have returned to those at the turn of the twentieth century, and, with them, huge sectors dispossessed, one paycheck away from the poorhouse.  And, more to the point in some ways, they are linked to relatives abroad and struggling for life . . . as were the radicals of a now-gone age.

A Short History of the Old and Heroic Left

It would be too much to attempt to make an analysis of Left history on a global scale, but mistaken not to attempt to construct some framework within which the situation of an American radical movement can re-emerge.  A special moment in the 1840s-60s saw abolitionism, women’s rights, and pacifism predict the movements of more than a century later and offered a legitimate counterpart to the emerging class struggles in Europe and elsewhere.  If the Communist Manifesto and the Paris Barricades of 1848 had any single counterpart anywhere, it was surely the Seneca Falls Convention and the declarations of Woman’s Rights.  Likewise, in the decade after the Civil War, Black Reconstruction of the South, with its northern supporters, held out the promise of a trans-racial democracy as the world had not known.  It was, of course, a promise crushed underfoot.  This first glorious, then tragic scenario offered lessons for the world, and those lessons have not lost their meaning.

The organized socialistic movements came mostly from other directions, immigrant working people of certain types, especially German-American skilled workers, their neighborhoods, their social, cultural, and labor institutions.  Old World socialists, among whom were also East European Jews, and in lesser percentages Slavs, Hungarians, Italians, and other “new immigrants” who followed the Germans to the US, were determinedly atheistic and proudly part of a global movement.  For them, the Yankee radicals seemed irregular as well as insufficient in numbers, given to wild schemes like attempted utopian colonies in the wilderness, emerging in political movements in spurts and then disappearing again.  Yet it was Yankee radicals and African Americans who, along with handfuls of others, spearheaded the opposition to the world’s ascending Empire.

A contemporary robber baron claimed, with a certain accuracy, that he could pay half the working class, so badly divided by ethnicity, race, and gender, to kill the other half.  The immigrant Left, lacking all resources but numbers and location in the new, giant factories, were  beaten down.  The execution of the Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs, heroes of the labor struggles of the 1880s, offered a symbol of order restored.  Socialistic labor leaders would be replaced by arch-racist Samuel Gompers, whose “White Label” cigars were pledged to be free from the taint of Asian fingers.  A Yankee Left, this time craftsmen and farmers, schoolteachers and ministers, reappeared with the great symbol of railwayman Eugene Debs and his moral appeal for socialism in the first two decades of the new century.  Since the days of Abolitionism, Women’s Rights, and Black Reconstruction, the American radicals had one more new thing to add, which was destined to influence SDS widely: the Industrial Workers of the World.

Here was a cause whose creation owed much to workers’ organizations and self-taught intellectuals in many parts of the world, especially those connected with the unskilled workers outside existing craft unions.  The IWW, founded in 1905 in Chicago, identified itself with the immigrant, the female worker, the nonwhite worker, the free speech advocate who stood on a soap box until dragged down by the cops, the birth control agitator, the bohemian radical and future hipster who refused to accept the rules but believed in some larger sense of human solidarity.  The Wobblies, as was well known, also believed in funny songs about the stupidity of the worker who loved his boss, and the preacher who told listeners to get their reward not on earth but the “Sweet By and By.”  The IWW had a special appeal as well to the Latino workers sympathetic to anarchism, to Japanese-American and Filipino-Americans whom existing labor movements had shunned, and to young workers too rebellious for existing organizations.

The IWW believed in something more than a change of the existing rules and better politicians in office.  It wanted to abolish the offices themselves, the whole political state, and run society from below, with committees of people who did the work making all the important decisions.  It was an incredibly radical idea.  Their “sit-down strike” in a factory, occupying the factory instead of going outside to strike, became the strategy that won industrial unions during the 1930s.

The “sit-down” was also the forerunner of the “sit-in” by black students during the 1950s, and also of the “teach-in” of SDSers in the 1960s — even of the counter-cultural “be-in” and “love-in.”  But more important, it was also the precursor and model of the peaceful occupation of university buildings and offices at the peak of the antiwar movement.  The IWW taught non-violence, although sometimes it was necessary to warn the boss about the prospects of a little sabotage.

The Wobblies were crushed during the First World War.  Their leaders were arrested and by a new law enacted in 1917, any immigrant could be deported, without trial, for simply associating with a Wobbly.  (The obvious precursors to the Patriot Acts.)  The Wobblies were the first “Enemy Aliens” of federal legislation.  They were beaten, tortured, strung up, branded, and sometimes killed by mobs of American Legionnaires while the sheriffs looked on, or attacked by vigilantes sworn into official status to protect certain corporations, or infiltrated and manipulated by the agents of the new Bureau of Investigation (soon to become the FBI).

They didn’t leave behind much more than a precious memory, but their interracialism, the organization of shipworkers black and white from Philadelphia, was a marker in radical history.  Their legacy, in curious ways, was borne onward by the Black Nationalist impulse of Garveyism, and by the dedication of a surviving, Communist-dominated Left that made race and racism a central issue in American society.

Without the 1930s Depression, without the terrifying rise of fascism overseas, this little antiracist Left, fanatically loyal to the Soviet Union, might never have escaped isolation.  The economic crisis and the urgent need for antifascist unity gave them their chance, and in forces reaching far beyond Communist Party ranks, the industrial unions assembled, the left-of-center political movements blossomed, and something else remarkable happened, with deep and lasting effects for the movements of the 1960s and beyond.

Culture, the active creation of vernacular multi-racial, democratic culture became as large an influence as the creation of any labor union or fraternal organization.  “Folk music,” as a vehicle for left-leaning sentiments but also a claim upon fundamental cultural legacies, emerged and grew powerful overnight.  Films with dramatic realism, or escapist plots about revenge against the brutalizing system, could be seen in proliferating numbers.  Radio drama waxed socially conscious, a new kind of dramatic art.  World War II diluted the radicalism of these messages but also opened up media to wider democratic claims.  Lacking any recognizable political message, small record companies produced music for the former rural audiences, Muddy Waters or Hank Williams, and offered new and powerful lessons about culture’s claims.  So did Bebopper Dizzy Gillespie with his interracial youth entourage, and the rock ‘n roll disk jockeys to follow the path of LA’s Johnny Otis.

The civil rights movement offered a movement of black people that became vastly more than a movement of black people.   Negro Americans Take the Lead, the title of a 1964 pamphlet published by a Detroit following of Pan African leader C.L.R. James, tells the story.  This was a new beginning for democracy at large, and none led it or articulated its purposes as forcefully as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It was, simultaneously, an essential element of a global movement toward Black Liberation, the clearest indication that what happened in the US South (or North) echoed from the Caribbean to Mother Africa and elsewhere.  Black had become Beautiful, a cultural revolution in so many ways;  SNCC was to inaugurate the New Left, and the Black Panthers symbolized the redemption of the oppressed and the socially discarded.

The orthodox (or Old) Left, much reduced after 1950, still had its hopes.  Staggering under disappointments, remaining Communist sympathizers saw the world going the way of Russia, only better.  Or, as dissidents in their ranks believed, a world going Chinese.  In either case, further revolutions would correct the faults of the Soviet-style regimes, truly liberate nonwhite peoples moving on their own destinies, and bring about a fraternity of all peoples.  Some bold non-communist radicals and pacifists held out visions for a syndicalist alternative, “workers’ councils” that were seen briefly in Hungary of 1956 and in Polish Solidarity almost twenty years later.  Only a small handful of thinkers, barely Marxist at all, pointed toward a drastic ecological adjustment, and they were properly considered Utopians.  None were vindicated by what followed in 1960, although the syndicalists, pacifists, and environmentalists were doubtless closest to the ideas of the Students for a Democratic Society.

And these, altogether, were the makers of the next generation’s radical inspirations, something far outside the traditional Left, but already hinted and, without any particular ideological adjustment, adopted by the shrewdest and most open-minded radicals.  The ferocity of the Red Scare, the hatred of liberal and conservative intellectuals alike for leftwing screenwriters, lyricists, and other holdouts from Cold War culture, beat back the impulses and disguised the symptoms.  But for those who found their (or our) way into SDS, the markings along the way became clear in retrospect.  The cultural war that had extended from film to comics would produce, as a counter-force, the desire to understand the forbidden and banished, to feel the weight of the condemned and make sense of it in its own terms.  Thus Allen Ginsberg, thus Lenny Bruce, thus Little Richard, but also television’s Robin Hood (written by banned writers) and Jean Genet’s The Balcony (made into a stunning independent film in 1963) — they were the counterattack by an avant-garde against the Cold War champions, conservative and liberal alike.

And now we truly have reached 1962, the year of Port Huron.  Most SDSers would hardly have known what “syndicalism” signified, although they would have heard of the Industrial Workers of the World, rather vaguely.  Most saw themselves as future Democrats as well as democrats, and a handful of the ambitious made no bones about being presidential advisers one future day. They were about to enter a 1960s that no one anticipated.

Perhaps there is also one decisive thread from the old SDS to here today.  The counter-cultural “Age of Aquarius” may have been the larger thought somewhere within the Port Huron Statement after all.  Not that one can find a single sentence in that document to support a mystical vision of the cooperative future.  But the sense that modern society had hit up against its limits was very strong, the need for cooperative solutions not based upon any previous socialist idea equally strong, and the feeling that it was possible for a new generation, a young generation, to make that possibility real — these went to the heart of the document and of SDS.

Globalized Labor — At Home

If the heart of SDS’s precursor Industrial Workers of the World was transnational working men and women seeking solidarity and going on strike together in a dozen or more different voices, neither the most radical labor savants nor SDSers foresaw the scope and implications of the post-1965 immigration.

The stream of European immigrants including those otherwise certain to be slaughtered by Hitler had been cut off in 1926, a Congressional move with the avid support of the American Federation of Labor.  Some thousands of “migrant” laborers moved back and forth across the Mexican/US border, treated as peons with no legal recourse.  But quotas re-set to bring groups of refugees (overwhelmingly white, with US relatives) after the Second World War dwindled down to special groups like Puerto Ricans (not immigrants at all, properly) and Cubans (the business classes admitted after Castro’s Revolution).  Then came the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, opening the door part way to third world immigrants.  By the 1980s the trickle turned into a flood.

These were populations “seeking a better life” because their conditions had been decimated by the effects of globalization.  More than eighty percent of the “undocumented” have arrived since 1980.  The heaviest migration of unskilled workers came from countries occupied at some point in history by the US military, including of course, Mexico.  “Free trade,” historically developed in US-controlled Puerto Rico and Panama in Free Trade Zones, suspended previous protections, and opened control of these economies to corporations with few limits.  Debts acquired from international loans, always set beyond repayment possibilities, provided the levers that superseded Marine invasions and worked effortlessly.  Prophetically, the Mexican standard of living in real wages declined two-thirds during the 1980s, industrial wages almost by half.  Plantation farming and agribusiness, across the Caribbean, drove further populations off the land.  No wonder the landless peoples, reduced to desperate conditions, found their way to the US: they had no choice.

American employers acquired the lower-cost “help” that they had long desired and have made the most of it.  While union jobs in manufacturing disappeared in droves and unionization of the private sector fell to less than 10%, underpaid labor in services, retail, transport, and construction shot upward.  By and large, and in the face of massive propaganda to the contrary, these new Americans took jobs that no one else wanted or were geographically situated to occupy.  Their massive role in providing remittances, family funds for those still in their native countries, reset regional economies but also offered reason to fear being fired for union activities.

Their participation in the Mayday 2006, “A Day Without Immigrants” demonstrations, came 120 years to the day after the Mayday demonstrations for the Eight-Hour Day in 1886, and proved no less monumental.  The significance of this event has been overshadowed by the war calamity — with relatively slight Latino participation in the antiwar mobilizations — but offers a key to the future of any radical movement, as much for youth organizations as others.  Despite the continuing heavy immigration, nearly half of members of the Latino workforce in the US are still American-born, that is to say, descendents, often the children, of Latino immigrants, a figure destined to grow rapidly inside the workforce and outside.  This is the true face of a newly emerging nation.

To say that familiar social movements and institutions up to now have failed them is a vast understatement.  Until 1996 and the overthrow of the super-corrupt leadership of the AFL-CIO, immigrants were shunned.  Meanwhile, CIA activities in their home countries, maintaining economic and political tyrants in power, offered lucrative partnerships to American labor bosses, increasingly through the operations of the National Endowment for Democracy.  In 2000, and on the verge of its own internal schism and potential near-time collapse into irrelevance, the US labor movement officially blessed the undocumented worker and began, very slowly, the effort to provide them with organization of some kind.  This welcome shift was not a matter of charity but a matter of necessity for this once-powerful, now staggering set of institutions.

Ironically, SDS’s supposed sympathizers within the Kennedy administration and those to whom early SDS leaders sought to ally the movement had been early architects of the whole scheme, known then as the “Alliance for Progress.”  That is, of course, progress toward emptying out the Latin American countryside for agribusiness and the creation of native middle classes wholly dependent upon American-style aspirations and lifestyles.  Bill Clinton and his sixties-generation cohorts carried the plans a giant step further with NAFTA.  Now we observe the dark side of what was euphemistically called “The New Frontier” almost fifty years ago and is truly a frontier of ecological and social devastation.

In the new century, the situation has changed utterly.  In a moment of political recomposition as real as the crisis of the Republican evangelical constituency falling away from George Bush’s war plans and the faking, fumbling effort of Democrats to find the voters’ hot buttons, the neoliberal turncoats of the 1960s promises to restore the rigors of Empire and secure global resources for US purposes, while refurbishing a military capable of wiping out any potential rivals to those resources.

Our new immigrant population, Latino, Asian and other, is at once their victim and a vital part of a new society finding itself.  The World Social Forum, heir to the antiglobalization campaigns of the 1980s, is the connective symbol of those immigrants to their relatives in Latin America most especially — the most hopeful place in contemporary world — but also to the world’s suffering populations at large everywhere.  The defense of the public sector and social benefits against the perpetual rounds of privatization and outright corporate theft had prompted a vision of a “solidarity economy,” a new version of egalitarianism, successor to visions of socialism and anarchism.

In answer to the World Economic Forum and the World Trade Organization, the Seattle demonstrations of 1999, the Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Bamako, Caracas, and Karachi Social Forums have brought tens of thousands of participants engaging one another across linguistic, gender, race, and other artificial barriers.  Intellectual giants, Noam Chomsky (with many links past and present to SDS) and Arundhati Roy among others — the diametric opposite of those 1960s liberal intellectuals — have pointed to the possibility of successful resistance and to the intellectual engagement necessary for the effort.  In these, there is much in the spirit of SDS in its truest self, early and late.

No one can predict the course of the resistance with any claim to accuracy.  For Latin Americans and peoples of the Caribbean, the linkage of a progressive State-based capital with local cooperatives and the renascence of indigenist claims is viewed as decisive.  In an economic climate where the US military reorganizes its global occupation along lines of petroleum resources, the power of Venezuelan oil or Bolivian natural gas is a necessary counterpoint to CIA strategies and American weapons of mass destruction.  Shunned and exploited for centuries, driven away from ancestral lands by the latest corporate moves (or poisoned in place, like the forest and water around them), surviving indigenous populations reach out for the last opportunities at collective salvation.

Back at home in the US, new institutional efforts such as “workers’ centers” connecting immigrant workplace experiences with those in the neighborhood, recall earlier immigrant (and African American) unionization and radical movements.  More than a hundred such centers, drawing on immigrants from everywhere but especially Mexico and Latin America, unite against subcontracting, sweatshops, relocated and de-unionized industries, new low-age retailers, and the informal economy.  They are, seen differently, what ERAP sought to build and become but could not become — and without the patronage of a cooptive Democratic party.  They also lack what ERAP lacked, the muscle to halt production and distribution and institutional strength that only the rebuilding of the labor movement and sister movements are likely to lend.

But they are certain, if successful, to be a very different labor movement, more like the IWW, considerably more like the dreams of SDSers for a qualitatively different kind of unionism than the grim reality of the corrupt AFL-CIO of the 1960s or the splintered AFL-CIO and its rival federation of the new century.  The day may have passed when the action any industrial workforce is central to social change in the United States.  But the day has not passed when working people, as part of a broad coalition (and not likely to be unionized) can make a decisive difference.

“The Society We Face” — Then and Now

America and the New Era was a document for the time, an optimistic moment despite the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and all the continuing threats of nuclear annihilation.  SDSers evidently had not fully grasped the imperial determination of the day’s liberal savants in and around the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, or had perhaps carefully avoided drawing the logical conclusions that a grotesque invasion of a small country halfway across the world was about to mimic what the US had been doing in Latin America for more than a century — with more deadly technology.  That failing, and the more innocent use of the world “man” to signify humans at large, were perhaps the most obvious flaws in the document.  But the Vietnam escalation, and the sudden growth of SDS to a national movement, was still two years ahead.  Likewise, America and the New Era had not grappled with the rage that produced the Black Power movement and the other associated movements of people of color.  Or with the power of Women’s Liberation Movement, gay and lesbian movements, nor yet the rise of environmentalism.

These were not failures so much as limitations upon where radicals were looking during the early years of the 1960s.  The glory days of industrial unionism and the industrial proletariat were over, and the liberation movements of the future had not yet, in 1963, made themselves apparent.  Nor did SDSers during the rest of the 1960s solve the riddle of what to do when the Empire fought back successfully.  Most especially, the problems and unending dilemmas of how to interact with the genuinely popular constituencies in and around the Democratic Party.

SDS founders lived the contradiction, internalized it in unique ways before 1965, when the escalating war changed the situation drastically.  This time around we have fewer illusions.

Some crucial elements belonging to the SDS worldview, however, had not really changed by 1969, and have not changed to this day, amid another and seemingly more drastic imperial crisis.  Tom Hayden closes his Introduction to the new 2005 edition of the Port Huron Statement in this way:

Perhaps the work begun at Port Huron will be taken up once again around the world, for the globalization of power, capital and empire surely will globalize the stirrings of conscience and resistance.  While the powers that be debate whether the world is dominated by a single superpower (the US position) or is multipolar (the position of the French, the Chinese and others), there is an alternative vision appearing among millions of people who are involved in global justice, peace human rights and environmental movements — the vision of a future created through participatory democracy.

Thanks, Tom, and to the collective authorship of America and the New Era, now all these years later.  We carry on.


Some useful references for this essay:

America and the New Era (1963).

Mari Jo Buhle, et al., Encyclopedia of the American Left (1990, 1998), a mightily useful compendium.

John Bellamy Foster, “Monopoly Finance-Capital,”   Monthly Review, December 2006, a careful analysis of the Debt Economy.

C.L.R. James,, Facing Reality (1957), a little-remembered document drafted largely by the Pan-Africanist James in collaboration with several members of his group, including Detroit community activist Grace Lee Boggs.  If the Port Huron Statement has a near-time single precursor, this is surely the one.

Manning Marable, Black American Politics, from the Washington Marches to Jesse Jackson (1985).

Kim Moody, “Harvest of Empire: Immigrant Workers in the United States,” Against the Current, March-April 2007 and issue following.

Peter Rachleff, “Neoliberalism: Context for a New Workers’ Struggle,” Working USA December, 2006.

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999) offers an incisive analysis of the intellectual-intelligence operation launched by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., run by Isaiah Berlin, Irving Kristol, and others, not excluding a small handful of Cold War intellectuals around the League for Industrial Democracy.  Meritocrats and future neoconservatives, they were paid well for their services.

William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (New York, 1981).

Paul BuhlePaul Buhle, currently a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, is author or editor of twenty-seven books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he coedited Wobblies: A Graphic History (2005) and The New Left Revisited (2003), winner of an American Library Association’s Choice Academic Book Award. He has written for The Nation, Times Higher Education Supplement, The Guardian, and the Journal of American History, among others. He founded the journal Radical America (1967-95), the Oral History of the American Left project (New York University), and the Community and Labor Oral History project of Rhode Island.

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