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They’d Rather Be Left

To be white and a radical in America this summer is to see horror and feel impotence. It is to watch the war grow and know no way to stop it, to understand the black rebellion and find no way to join it, to realize that the politics of a generation has failed and the institutions of reform are bankrupt, and yet to have neither ideology, programs, nor the power to reconstruct them. This should be a summer of despair, of flights to Italy or trips on Haight Street. But although there is some of that, it is a time of engagement, not withdrawal. The energy of movement has been not only conserved, but generated. Suburban housewives canvass for anti-war referenda, students counsel their fellows on avoiding the draft, peace candidates gather support, professors plot demonstrations of protest and non-cooperation. Organizers for a hundred causes roam across Appalachia, through urban hillbilly slums and into white suburbs.

On a continental scale, they are less than a minority, hardly a margin. Together, the active, organizing, risk-taking white radicals would fill a quarter of a big football stadium, and the cheer they could raise would barely be heard ten blocks away. For all its vigor and imagination, the Left, old and new, can produce little evidence of success, at least as the newspapers and networks expect it. There is no mass party, nor the hope of one; it is doubtful that the radicals could affect the balance of power in national politics even if they tried. At the local level—in universities, city halls, and county courthouses, anti-poverty agencies—radical forces have created nuisances but few new bases of real power. Some have been suppressed, many bought off, and most ignored.

Such statistical marginality should count for more than it does, if people weighed their lives against the usual standards of achievement. But there is an internal logic of movement which denies failure, or at least keeps it slightly below full comprehension. People stay working. Activity is better than acceptance, and for some reason it is better to do something than to do nothing. More than that, conditions quickly change, and relevancy is always just around the corner. The war makes shock-waves, here and abroad, that can be neither seen nor foreseen. The black revolt does not proceed step by step, but by explosions and eruptions, of unequal periods and unpredictable intensities. The disasters that make people radical also suggest things for them to do and create a movement to support them. So it is America that makes radicals fight, and if they do not succeed, that too is America’s fault.

THE PARADOX of energy and frustration suffused the National Conference for the New Politics “Convention ‘68 and Beyond” which spread out through the Palmer House in Chicago during the Labor Day weekend. Its call was vague and its objectives undefined, but perhaps for that reason it attracted much of the curious Left in the country, or at least those representatives who could raise the fare. There were Bonwitted peace women, blue-jeaned students, and African-robed Negroes, all mixing uneasily in the halls and public rooms, but rarely breaking through one another’s costume and style. It was hard enough for most people just to get used to the hotel, and there was a rumor at least that the difficulty was mutual: the man who made the booking with NCNP was reportedly sacked by the Hilton chain. The management obviously tried to pop the convention into a memory hole. No mention was made of it on a publicity brochure listing the summer’s events. Guests on convention floors were cut off from room service by executive fiat. One can imagine the chagrin of the Max and Wasserman families whose children were marrying during one of the NCNP sessions in a (barely) screened-off section of the main hall. Tuxedoed guests later picked their way through the radicals. At one point, a bongo band with dancers and hangers-on traveled up and down in an elevator car, making music as it went, and stopping on occasional floors for roomier performances. Students and ghetto delegates camped out every night in the foyer by each floor’s elevator bank; the house dicks decided not to interfere.

The disruption was even more complete on the convention floor. Half the agenda items were lost to history. Committees disappeared and their members were said to have vanished without a trace. There was hardly more agreement in delegates’ perspectives than there was in their appearance. The lowest—and the only—common denominator of rhetoric seemed to be the paraphrase of Joe Hill’s dying imperative, red-lettered on a white banner over the grand ballroom: “DON’T MOURN FOR AMERICA—ORGANIZE!” The conventioneers were free to take it literally or symbolically, as they chose.

But if there is a radical movement in America it was there. Its limitations of size may have been depressing to some who entertain fantasies of masses surging down boulevards, and its unruliness certainly disappointed those who prefer discipline to anarchy. But to most, the scene in the Palmer House was exciting enough. Of the four or five thousand who came, an incredible number stayed until the end. For the Left, there had been nothing quite so big since the Progressive Party convention twenty years ago, although the consequences of that affair were enough to chill nostalgia. Still, there was a Third Party mood in the air, despite disclaimers by the convention leadership, and the obvious hostility of the younger delegates.

Three-quarters of the assemblage was white, of a politics ranging from angry-liberal to revolution-now. The center of gravity was somewhat closer to the former. The press billed it all as the New Left, but that was true only in the sense that it was current and Left. Just a fraction of the people there were the community organizers, the student strikers, and the formulators of “participatory democracy” which define the New Left political mentality. There were large blocs of Old Left Communists (both under and over thirty), Trotskyites, Maoists, and the usual complement of socialist sects. Probably the majority had no particular doctrinal affiliation. They were united only by what they did not like—the war and Lyndon Johnson—rather than what they liked.

NCNP was white from the beginning. It was formed nearly two years ago in a Washington loft belonging to a legislative assistant to a liberal congressman. Its shape was defined by Arthur Waskow, a hard-working, imaginative Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. On occasion, Waskow describes himself, perhaps too narrowly, as “the last liberal.” NCNP was a bit that way too. Waskow and a few companions invited a number of “last liberals” and new radicals to a discussion during the weekend of a SANE anti-war rally in Washington in late November, 1965. The NCNP board came out of that gathering, and two presentable and (at that time) exciting political figures were rounded up to serve as co-chairmen: Julian Bond, the young ex-SNCC Georgia assemblyman, and Simon Casady, the recently fired chairman of the California Democratic Party. Both were suffering for their anti-war stands; Bond had been denied his seat and Casady got the axe from Pat Brown. Both were in the Democratic Party, both were putting almost all their energies into electoral politics, and both were busy dissociating themselves from the extremes of their respective scenes.

Given the new location of the political center, NCNP then was not much more than a jazzy model of an ADA. During the election primaries of the spring of 1966, NCNP began operating in a number of localities. Money was raised from wealthy liberals wisely placed on the board of directors, and funds were parceled out on the basis of only the sketchiest priorities. Thousands were given to Howard Morgan in Oregon, a “dove” Democrat who ran a disastrously dull race against Robert Duncan in the Senate primary. Morgan was a hopeless candidate from the start. But only small amounts went to Robert Scheer for his much more promising, and more radical, Democratic primary campaign in California’s seventh congressional district against liberal Jeffery Cohelan. It was one thing to spend against a “hawk,” and another to spend against a liberal.

After a while, NCNP realized that it was going to waste a great deal of money promoting boring peace candidates who were building no lasting Left constituencies. They were running as living referenda on the war, which might have been all right if they had won, which they did not. Waskow and the more radical directors (the most radical were uninterested in election work) pushed money toward the tougher political organizers. Scheer’s Community for the New Politics, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Lowndes County “Black Panther” independent party, Robert Cook’s (Connecticut) American Independent Movement, and various committees for independent political action were the favored models. Scheer had done well in the California primary, but he was the only one. Last autumn, in the general elections, NCNP candidates hardly made a dent at all.

All the time, the directors were planning for the 1968 drive, and the obvious strategy was national. They were hoping for the big “hoo-ha” (in the NCNP idiom): a mass in-gathering of the Left, to give new politics a higher order of visibility, and perhaps even do something about Lyndon Johnson. It was still unclear exactly what new politics was—something about openness, independence, and participation—and the criteria for newness as against oldness were liable to varying interpretations. As the idea of a national convention began to intrigue NCNP directors last spring, lists of left-wing organizing groups were compiled on a scatter-shot basis. Since “non-exclusionism” was one of the few firm principles of the new politics theory—and perhaps the controlling one—there was no problem in drawing lines against one or another Left faction. If the CP and the “Trots” could stand it in the same hall, so much the better.

At some point in the planning of it, the convention changed from a manageable conference of political activists to a monster rally of the whole Left. The staff was unprepared for its direction, and the fund-raisers were hard put to finance it. The staff director, an affable, somewhat distracted college professor named William Pepper, was never the tough political boss necessary for such an operation. He wore dirty white bucks and cared about the war in Vietnam. As the advancing mood of crisis in the country touched more and more people, the guest list swelled. Categories were invented: delegates (from invited organizations), single representatives, and observers. At the end, anyone who wanted to could wander in and find a seat up front.

Although most of its sharpest leaders and all of its financial benefactors were white, NCNP had at least made an effort to secure black representation. Stokely Carmichael, in his pre-black-power incarnation, was at the November 1965, meeting, and although he seemed at the time not to think much of the idea, he joined the NCNP Board. A sprinkling of moderately radical Negroes was also thought to be attractive at NCNP gatherings. Few took a continuing interest, and in fact the power—in money and constituencies—lay firmly with white power on the Board. Most of the white members, of course, were keen for the civil rights movement; Waskow was a theoretician of non-violent action, and most of the others had been excited, and in many cases politicized, by the early sit-ins and marches. The birth of black power may have given some Board members pause, but NCNP came through bravely and supported the new temperament.

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