[Marxism] Sean Wilentz, Nader and the early 1960s

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 8 11:26:27 MST 2004

After reading Princeton professor's Sean Wilentz ideological fatwa 
(http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/07/magazine/07ESSAY.html) against Ralph 
Nader in yesterday's NY Times Magazine section (appropriately enough, 
facing a full-page ad for Grand Marnier), it dawned on me that Dissent 
Magazine has filled a vacuum once occupied by SDUSA.

SDUSA was basically a repackaging of Max Shachtman's SP whose members 
served as ministers without portfolio for the Democratic Party 
rightwing. Many were gathered around the 1972 presidential campaign of 
Washington State Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who was dubbed the 
Senator from Boeing for obvious reasons.

In the 1980s many SDUSA figures lurched even further to the right and 
became Reaganites. Joshua Muravchik is typical. He started political 
life as a leader of YPSL, the SDUSA's "youth" group, but now writes for 
the National Review. In between he was associated with the "Coalition 
for a Democratic Majority" that was chaired by Jackson and whose 
politics anticipated the DLC.

Now that the Democratic Party has become recast in the "Scoop" Jackson 
mold, it provides an opportunity for intellectuals like Wilentz to play 
the same role once played by people like Muravchik. Mostly this consists 
of lashing out at any initiatives to the left of the Democratic Party, 
including the Nader campaign and the antiwar movement. Although this is 
the first time that the NY Times Magazine has drawn on Wilentz's dubious 
talents, it has published fellow Dissent editor George Packer on several 
occasions, including a piece promoting the warmongering views of fellow 
Dissenters Paul Berman and Kanan Makiya.

As a guest panelist on David Horowitz's FrontPage website, Wilentz had 
this exchange with the creepy redbaiter:

Horowitz: What exactly does it mean that a North Korean-adoring 
Communist sect is running the "peace" movement? Does this matter?

Wilentz: It means that, as ever, Communist sects are extremely diligent 
and clever at mobilizing large numbers people to march in demonstrations 
by exploiting those peoples' concerns and hiding their own politics.

Clever? Diligent? One wonders why Wilentz did not describe the 
Communists as "masters of deceit" since that word would have captured 
his true intentions. When you read this sort of thing, it makes you want 
to take a long, hot shower with disinfectant soap.

As tedious as Wilentz's attack on Nader is, it does raise some 
interesting questions about American history and electoral politics that 
are worth addressing. The purpose of his article is to review how new 
parties emerge. Except for the Republican Party, efforts such as the 
Bull Moose or Progressive Parties tend to disappear after their purpose 
is exhausted.

Wilentz writes:

 >>But Nader will never be a Lincoln -- for we are not living in a 
latter-day equivalent of the 1850's. Although specific abuses cause 
considerable agitation among liberals and Democrats, the nation is not 
as riven over "corporate power," Nader's diffusely projected target, as 
it once was over slavery.<<

Actually, the nation was not exactly "riven" over slavery. It was 
instead riven over whether it should be allowed in the western 
territories. Lincoln was only prompted to abolish slavery when the 
exigencies of the Civil War required it. In fact, it was direct action 
by the slaves that took the form of a mass exodus to the North and 
service to the Union Army either as soldiers or laborers that led to 
their emancipation. It is not surprising that a committed Democratic 
Party ideologist would exaggerate the commitment of the Republicans to 
the abolitionist cause. Moreover, within a dozen years following the 
war, the Republicans were content to sell out the black population of 
the South as worries about general labor unrest mounted.

Furthermore, even though there is as not mass consciousness about 
"corporate power" as one would like, it is obvious that the American 
people are its victims just as much as black people were victims of the 
plantation system in the 1800s. Although abolitionists got even less of 
a hearing in the 1830s than the Greens get today, there is little doubt 
that the issues they raised were genuine. Wilentz seems to subscribe to 
a popularity contest understanding of politics. If less than 5 percent 
of the population thinks that corporations are exploiting workers 
mercilessly, polluting the planet and producing unsafe products, then 
why bother to run independent election campaigns against the two parties 
that are virtually defined by the word corporation?

Wilentz thinks that "liberal Democrats" are saying the same things about 
corporate greed and domination as Nader. One wonders which candidates he 
would be speaking about. I doubt that given his subservience to the 
centrist wing of the party, he could be talking about somebody like 
Dennis Kuchinich.

Since Wilentz has stated publicly that President Clinton "led the way in 
salvaging American liberalism, particularly the Democratic liberal 
spirit of the early 1960s", it is entirely possible that we simply have 
different understandings of what liberalism is and whether socialists 
have any business supporting it. The Democratic liberal spirit of the 
1960s is a reference obviously to JFK who invaded Cuba and inspired 
Clinton's sizzle without steak image and style

After CORE launched its famous "Freedom Rides" in 1961, JFK became 
furious at the nuisance they were creating. He told his civil rights 
adviser Harris Wofford "Can't you get your friends off those goddamned 

As the rides continued, both JFK and RFK grew more and more upset by 
what they felt were the "giant-pain-in-the-asses" at CORE. Finally the 
"liberal" president and his brother, the attorney general, came to agree 
with J. Edgar Hoover that Martin Luther King Jr. needed to be wiretapped 
because of suspected Communist ties. Both JFK and RFK met with King 
urging him to purge the reds from his staff. To his credit, King 
refused. After reading Wilentz's disgusting cracks about the "clever" 
and "diligent" Commies in the peace movement, it should come as no 
surprise that he would idolize the Kennedys.


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