[Marxism] RE Sean Wilentz on Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 18 13:52:06 MDT 2005

>The more interesting question is where Wilentz comes from.
>Bob M

Wilentz wrote a stupid attack on Nader that I answered here:


Sean Wilentz, Ralph Nader and the early 1960s

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 term 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 

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 not as much 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 

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 buses?"

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 



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