Talkin' about my generation by G. William Domhoff

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Wed Jul 16 23:41:26 MDT 2003

Can Radicals Be Liberals, Too?

By G. William Domhoff

Can young radicals-fired by great zeal, but often short on patience-be
convinced to channel their prodigious organizing energies into activities
that might build larger constituencies and have a greater long-term impact?
Can young activists ever learn from the experience of aging radicals with
fabled pasts?

Such are the questions that '60s activist turned sociologist and media
commentator Todd Gitlin implicitly tries to answer in the affirmative.
Letters to a Young Activist is an effort to draw on his own experience and
subsequent reflections to help the current generation of young activists do
better than his generation did. His stated purpose is to address "big
questions about the activist spirit," not to provide a "precise political
outlook" or present a list of "positions," except when he "can't resist."

His rhetorical strategy is first to affirm the essential need for
"agitators," who have "good character" and "the nerve to face reality," and
then to express emotional solidarity with them, primarily by reminding
readers of his activists credentials, like his anti-nuke sit-ins in Boston
in 1960 and his arrest for anti-apartheid picketing outside Chase Manhattan
Bank in 1965 ("we didn't get much media and we didn't care"). He recounts
the complex feelings (a mixture of exhilaration, rage and fear) he
experienced during his participation in the violent Stop the Draft
disruptions in Oakland in 1967, when his wing of the anti-war movement
"seceded from our own people" by blocking streets, trashing stores, and
fighting with cops, coming to be "despised" by most local citizens in the
process. He says he still feels a sense of "urgency." He praises the
anti-sweatshop movement, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and

After embracing activism and his own past, he next tries to influence the
current generation of radicals by expressing deep regrets about some of the
things he and his peers did, and for not saying things he knew he should
have said at the time. He accepted the blurring of the distinction between
the private and public spheres in the '60s, but now thinks that was a
"dangerous idea." He regrets that he did not take voting and the two-party
system more seriously, and ignored the fact that Richard Nixon would be a
real disaster ("we had no idea how bad things could get"). He wishes he had
spoken out against the direction taken by the Weathermen and the Black
Panthers, and he now thinks it was a mistake to be uncritical of China, Cuba
and North Vietnam.

In a searing comparison of the left and right, in which he excoriates the
right-and in the process reminds activists once again that he hasn't sold
out-he laments the fact that the left is so ambivalent about power, and so
fragmented and disputatious, that it cannot bring itself to try to win
power. He says his generation was "anarchistic" in temperament. He notes he
was elected president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963, despite
his lack of experience, because four people with more experience would not
run for the office.

Warning against such anti-leadership tendencies, Gitlin calls on young
activists to resist any temptation to think they can create an "earthly
paradise," and to avoid "apocalyptic thinking." Act on the basis of duty,
love and adventure. Recognize that a movement needs both outsiders and
insiders, and that the insiders are usually older (and often former
activists). Learn to accept "imperfect allies," and don't be purists.
Cultivate an attitude of irony, and don't let justifiable anger turn into
rage, which leads to a self-righteous attitude, becomes a substitute for
analysis, and then a reason for violence that goes against core leftist
values. Don't let frustration lead to a fundamentalism of the left, which
isn't any different from other kinds of fundamentalism. Don't tolerate any
anti-Semitism, and don't succumb to knee-jerk anti-Americanism. In short, be
a leftist who is also a liberal in the best sense of the term.


Most of this works extremely well. Perhaps it might have worked even better
if Gitlin had refrained from delivering various ex cathedra opinions-like
Marx was a "brilliant but monomaniacal prophet," Lenin was "intellectually
dishonest," Chomsky is a "simple-minded" anti-American, and the
property-destroying anarchists are "parasites" who have "contempt" for other
activists. These kinds of undeveloped arguments, which seem to create
categories for "good" and "bad" leftists, do not serve to overcome the
divisions he is trying to transcend. Nor will his passé critique of identity
politics, bristling with phrases such as "self-encapsulation,"
"anti-intellectual mood," and "mocks universalist hopes," gain a hearing for
his general argument.

Nor is it enough to cast aside hopes for some form of economic planning
through committees and government agencies (i.e., socialism) by saying that
"The remedy for market fundamentalism is not antimarket fundamentalism,"
which is characterized as a "grim road" that we've been down before. There
are indeed strong historical, sociological, and economic arguments against
non-market solutions for economic injustices. There are also hopeful ways to
use "planning through the market" to work towards a far less exploitative
economic system. However, these issues need to be carefully discussed before
those who still believe in some form of planning through committees and
agencies, whether decentralized or centralized, are going to abandon this
longstanding left strategy for creating greater economic equality and social

Although it makes great sense to reaffirm the importance of the activist
spirit, it may be that today's young activists would feel more respected if
key strategic issues were discussed and analyzed in a serious fashion.
Regretting that you may have played a role in electing Nixon in 1968, and
noting that third parties are impossible in a single-member district
electoral system, is hardly enough to convince Greens that they should form
Green Democrat Clubs and take over the Democratic Party through challenges
in primaries. A discussion of cross-national studies of electoral rules, and
of the great successes of leftists in Democratic Party primaries, along with
some description of the great passion and dedication of past third-party
activists who were unsuccessful in their efforts, might have been more

Gitlin expresses retrospective amazement that SDS "abolished its presidency
and vice-presidency" in the mid-'60s, but he does not discuss this decision
in the context of the strong preference for "participatory democracy" within
the organization and the New Left in general. Participatory democracy is a
laudable goal, but in actual practice it may lead to invisible power
structures based on charisma if it is not balanced by "representative
democracy" as well. Evidence suggests that this is exactly what happened in
SDS from 1963 to 1965, as summarized by Richard J. Ellis in The Dark Side of
the Left (University of Kansas Press, 1998). But Gitlin is generally silent
on the coercive informal power structures that develop even among those of
seemingly anarchistic temperament, a problem that popped up again recently
in the global justice movement, according to some of the articles in the
collection The Battle of Seattle (Soft Skull Press, 2001).


Gitlin says that the "anger" of his generation was most productive when they
had good arguments, stayed nonviolent, won a hearing from reasonable
insiders, and mobilized outside forces to jam the officials and
functionaries. In that context, they could "offend a lot of well-meaning
bystanders and still get results by making intelligent nuisances of
ourselves." This strikes me as a good analysis of why they were effective,
but it does not contain a much-needed electoral strategy or a majoritarian
orientation. In effect, it is a statement that the left is a small activist
elite, mostly young and well educated, which does battle with liberal,
centrist, and conservative elites, who are usually older, settled into their
routines, and wealthier.

Since this formula is the implicit strategy of most activist organizations
even today, maybe that is the best the left can do. But it clashes with
egalitarian and participatory values. So perhaps the real need is for a
strategy that links social movements to the electoral arena in a way that
success in one leads to more success in the other. That's where a network of
Green (or Wellstone or Egalitarian) Democratic Clubs would come into the
picture, along with a total commitment to strategic nonviolence in the
spirit of the early civil rights movement.

The egalitarian activist spirit that Gitlin celebrates is a dynamic and
liberating force, but it can turn into the unproductive rage and despair
that characterized the end of his own generation's effort if it is not
guided by good strategies based on an accurate analysis of the current
social system. These days, it is not the spirit that is lacking. As in the
'60s, the strategy is the problem.

G. William Domhoff is the author of Who Rules America? and The Power Elite
and the State. He lives in Santa Cruz, where he is a sociology professor at
the University of California.


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