Norm Geras has a post Broken Lineages, that raises an interesting issue that has subliminally bothered me for some time – the apparent resemblance between the Stalinist left of the past and much of today’s left. Taking up this single point in response to a book review Norm says:
I have my reservations about a theme King claims to detect in the writings of this ‘dissident Left’, namely:
“that those Left-liberal voices ready to excuse (or even support) Islamic fundamentalism or the Iraqi insurgency are directly descended from those on the Left who excused (and frequently supported) Stalin, and that the anti-totalitarian Left is directly descended from those who opposed him.”
Unless ‘directly descended’ is supposed to mean only that there’s some loose connection between the style of apologetics of the Stalinist period and that of the apologetics of today, I don’t think this is true. What is so dispiriting about the present vintage is how much of this stuff has come from people with no Stalinist formation or background to speak of, many of them, indeed, very well educated about the evils of Stalinism.
Norm is a scholar of the left as well as having lived through the periods in question from a European point of view. I have not devoted my career to the study of politics but I have lived through the relevant periods in America. I have felt a similar disconnect in terms of the development of the American left.
I remember as a child the fight within the American left after the war because my father was a passionate American Liberal who sided with the ADA (Americans for Democratic Action). The ADA was founded by Elenore Roosevelt, Water Reuther (head of the AFL-CIO), John Kennith Galbraith, Arther Schlesinger, and a young Hubert Humphrey among many others in 1947. According to Wikipedia it was founded:
…..in order to combat what those leaders perceived to be an acceptance of, or even an alliance with, American communists. The ADA’s leaders considered communism (especially as practiced in the Soviet Union) to be both morally wrong and a threat to the United States.
While the words anti-totalitarian characterize the ADA and the political atmosphere I grew up with, it was not often directly stated. Partly, it didn’t need to be directly stated because the stark differences between Fascism and Communism were too fresh. More importantly, Fascism was defeated – the pressing question for the American left was how it was to relate to Communism. My father, as a student in New York prior to the war, had very much feared that American democracy would not survive and that the future would be either Fascist or Communist. I think he came by his anti-totalitarianism honestly. So even if he didn’t put it that way, I certainly got the message. At the same time my father also recognized the demagoguery of McCarthy for what it was.
In 1948 Henry Wallace, FDR’s Vice President from 1940-44, who had been dumped for Harry Truman, ran for president on the progressive party ticket and accepted the support of the American Communist party. The ADA supported Truman who won against Republican candidate Thomas Dewey in a squeaker and against expectations. The anti-totalitarians like my father were triumphant, the radical left in disarray. Wallace even wrote a book about his involvement with the Communists called Where I Went Wrong.
When the radical left’s comeback came in 1968 at the Democratic national convention, I was in the middle of it but chose – to my own surprise – not to get involved. Abbie Hoffman was crashing at my house in Chicago because I had been part of the NY art world and his NY friends found me through my NY friends. All the violence at the convention repelled me although I didn’t understand why at the time. Still Hoffman and his friends didn’t feel like the old Reds of the forties, but part of a larger cultural revolution of which I knew I was a part.
Abbie Hoffman: I once owned a shirt very like this one and though it is long gone, it is still my favorite. My father viscerally disliked it. I think if you could photograph a Bob Dylan track it would look a lot like this. (Photo Fred McDarrah, 1970)
There were probably old style Marxist revolutionaries in Chicago in ’68 doing their best, but straight Marxism didn’t sell any better to most of us in the sixties than the outspoken anti communism of people like Richard Nixon. Indeed, even ADA founder Hubert Humphrey’s squareness annoyed me and many others beyond all reason. It all seemed passe – part of the older generation that just didn’t get Elvis – much less Bob Dylan. We didn’t go as far as putting dunce caps on our parent’s heads, as the Chinese youth did in their cultural revolution, but we sure felt like it at times. I can remember laughing in recognition as I read Eldridge Cleaver claiming that American Blacks had taught the younger generation of American Whites how shake our backsides. I also remember not swallowing his revolutionary political message. In trying to get a handle on why Americans of my generation – even those of a generally left orientation – were more attracted to cultural change that political change the Wikipedia article on the ADA unearths another relevant core belief I inherited from my father:
Those that were part of this group [the ADA] did not approve of dogma because they believed that America should be ideology free. The reason for the rejection of ideology was because they didn’t believe that there was any type of theory that would solve and be the end of all society’s problems.
I still say: Amen to that. With the perspective of time it is easier to see that the majority of post war American youth grew up in a period where a pragmatic centrism had triumphed over extremism. Comprehensive ideological solutions were just not that appealing. FDR’s New Deal had created a new America and it was working. Things were getting better, so it was specific problems like the plight of American Blacks or the Vietnam war that took our attention politically. But again the cultural tended to dominate. Even Abbie Hoffman who had studied under Marxist intellectual Herbert Marcuse was as much a political performance artist as a hard core revolutionary. He once tried to get 50,000 protesters to levitate the Pentagon in order to end the war – unsuccessfully as far as I know.
So I find the same disconnect in American politics that Norm finds – there is little direct relationship between the Stalinists of the forties and the current part of the left that tends to “excuse (or even support) Islamic fundamentalism or the Iraqi insurgency”. Looking at my own background so heavily influenced by the center of the Democratic party I can see how my anti-totalitarian feeling did evolve out of the anti ideological and anti Communist stance of the ADA in the forties. At the same time a quick look at the ADA web site reveals that the ADA’s position on the current war is quite opposite to my own. They are looking to strengthen congress to curb presidential war making power. I believe that the president’s war making powers should be preserved regardless of the president’s party. Again, this seems to confirm the disconnect between the left of today and the left of the forties.