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Where We Are Now

On February 1, 1960, four neatly dressed freshman students from a Negro college took seats at the whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, politely asked for coffee, and refused to leave until the store closed. Ten years and a thousand marches later, Fred Hampton lay dead in Chicago, the latest casualty in the police war against the Black Panthers. In early 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society adopted the Port Huron Statement, which argued that both “the liberal and socialist preachings of the past” were inadequate to the present, and pledged the formation of a “New Left” based in the universities and committed to the methods of “participatory democracy.” On March 6, 1970, a few young members of that New Left, now divided and dispirited, accidentally obliterated themselves with their homemade bombs. The decade of the metaphorical “youth explosion” ended with a literal bang. One era had ended and another begun.

During the Sixties, the young achieved a distinctive status for themselves, a status almost as sharply defined as that of other accursed or blessed groups, such as blacks, Jews, Junkers, and right-wing deviationists. The young demanded and received recognition of their distinctiveness as a group bearing its own values, possessing a unique culture, and dedicated to its own ends. Youth made a deep impact on politics, education, fashion, art, and the consumer economy. The entire nation was aware of the new presence: a Gallup Poll of March, 1969, reported that campus disorders had replaced the Vietnam was as the primary concern of Americans.

Nowhere was the youth presence more visible than on the political scene, where it brought into being a phenomenon requiring a special name. Throughout most of our history, Americans, whether young or old, have not shown a great passion for politics. But the youth of the Sixties showed more political passion than any earlier generation, giving promise of a revitalization of American politics, perhaps even the birth of the American as a political man. The generation experimented with a rich variety of truly political actions and showed a genuine concern for public things, thereby reversing the long trend toward privatization. The young argued, sang, marched, organized, sat in, milled around, walked out, and disrupted. And always the system responded too little, too late, or not at all. Starting with the last half of the Sixties, the politics of the young grew more desperate and factional; and, since the Democratic Convention of 1968, more frantic, more clandestine, and more violent. Apparently fearing that political energy could not move the system, more and more of the young began to seek political substitutes in the illusions of potency provided by Woodstock, dynamite, or drugs.

It is now evident that the youthful politics of the Sixties is over. The mutilated bodies in the rubble of that Greenwich Village house speak loudly of desperation and exhaustion—of too many hopes and dreams wrecked, too much enthusiasm thwarted. The swift, savage years of the Sixties may come to be seen as the time when America said “no” to much of the best that was herself.

It is too early yet to assess the full impact of the youthful politics of the Sixties on the larger political system, but some things can be said.

Over the course of its first ten years, the New Left failed to create the new radical theory beyond both liberalism and socialism which the Port Huron Statement had called for. Although the New Left gradually has moved away from the single-issue, basically reformist outlook of the early Sixties over toward a general indictment of the system, that movement was not powered or accompanied by an increasingly coherent and comprehensive theory. Rather, it is a mood, a feeling of rage and revulsion, which is increasingly impatient with theory, or even thought and argument. The anti-intellectualist strain which was present in the movement from the beginning has triumphed. Theory on the New Left is now reduced to the vulgar Marxism and Maoism of Progressive Labor, or to the Weatherman view of white radicals as a suicide squad providing cover for black urban guerrillas, the true vanguard of the revolution.

Nor was the New Left able to develop a conception of political action coherent and effective enough, over the long pull, to sustain its members in a political vocation—to answer the questions: What does a radical look like in American politics, and how does he define himself in action which goes beyond the episodic and theatrical? Even the heroes, the ego-ideals, of the New Left are drawn from Cuba and China, despite the fact that the only indisputable statement that can be made about any future American revolution is that it will not look at all like any foreign revolutions we have read about. To mistake the many sporadic outbursts and uprisings of the past decade for the American Revolution is to misunderstand the nature of the political system within which these events have occurred, and to underestimate the capacity of that system to assimilate or to suppress anomalies.

Many modes of action have been tried by the New Left—civil rights work, community organizing, on-campus organizing, antidraft unions, factory organizing, political action as guerrilla theater, even electoral politics—but none offered a decisive lever for radical change. There are now few hopeful projects on the left, and the only likely alternative life-styles seem to be Weatherman adventurism and the Yippie freakout. Maybe the only hopeful possibility for action—perhaps it was always the best one—is Rudi Dutschke’s “long march through the existing institutions.”

But that means that the New Left would have to become less a student and youth movement and more a radical political grouping drawn from and able to work within many sectors of society for many different but unspectacular goals. The goals chosen would be those with high potential for accentuating evident contradictions in particular institutions, thereby undermining their present structures and challenging their present policies.

The New Left, so far, has shown little taste for such patient and pedestrian strategies. New Left radicals, for example, despite their own argument that the knowledge industry is the key industry in advanced societies, never developed much in the way of a theory and practice of counter-education. The “Free Universities,” for example, have accomplished little; and most student efforts toward radical experimentation within the established universities have been suppressed or assimilated. The campuses are quieter now, because their managers have raised the ante on disruption and become more efficient at suppression, because few new leaders have appeared in the New Left since the early Sixties, and also because people have learned that episodic outbursts, powered by indignation and hope but not sustained and directed by theory, are ineffective.

Despite these failings, the political impulses of the young during the Sixties have had decisive consequences for the larger political order. The young opened up many closed questions, forcing them into the arena of public controversy, and making it “safe” and politically profitable for the middle forces in American politics to adopt them as issues. Thus while the young have not stopped the Vietnam war, they have reduced its scope and changed its objectives. Not many years ago only a handful of public men dared to oppose the war. Now opposition is so respectable that any overt attempt to spread the conflict to Laos and Cambodia would encounter strong official and popular resistance. Furthermore, debate about the war has also opened the question of American imperialism and neocolonialism, a question closed in the public mind since the Spanish-American War.

Many other questions were opened to public debate by the young people of the Sixties: civil rights and racial justice; conscription and the impact of militarism on American life; the structure and content of higher education, and university complicity with the military and corporate establishments. The young radicals publicized the issues of impersonality and bureaucracy, and sensitized their peers to the subtlety and ubiquity of the modes of bureaucratic control. It was the young who offered a serious and widespread challenge, for the first time, to the values associated with technology, rationalism, objectivity, and bigness. And now the question of ecology has also been opened. (We shall return to this.)

The young opened all these questions, and made them safe for the middle. In order for the Muskies, McGoverns, and Fulbrights to criticize the Vietnam calamity with political safety, many of the young have been jailed or forced into exile or the underground. In order for civil rights and racial justice to become part of the nation’s agenda, the young—black and white alike—have risked their careers and their lives. In order for the biases and hypocrisy of the legal system to become matters of public concern, and for the institution of the police to be seen as a political problem of the first order, the young have paid heavily in their freedom, security, and dignity.

In order for sexual mores to become more than a matter of polite discussion, the young have been driven to experiments in which they have taken on burdens and undergone experiences beyond their capacities. In order for the colleges and universities to reappraise the meaning of education, the young have had to disrupt their own educations and to pay the price in ignorance. In order for the ethic of technocracy and the cult of objectivity to be questioned, a whole generation had to blow its collective mind in self-experimentation.

What is fantastic about the politics of the Sixties is that this crazy compound of wild energy, bizarre experiments, and the large number of lives whose promise will never be fulfilled has all gone toward getting the moderates of America to address themselves to the problems which have been tearing the society apart. The young may not have radically altered the system, but they have probably saved it, though only at a terrible cost to themselves. This, apparently, is what it takes to move the system.

The impact of the young on the political order does not end with the list of issues opened and made safe for debate. There have been other, equally important consequences.

By insistent criticism, the New Left has also brought into question the moral and democratic pretensions of many of the dominant institutions of this country. One must add, however, that the institutions themselves gave their radical enemies a lot of aid and comfort in this campaign. Certainly when Lyndon Johnson ran for the Presidency on promises of peace in Vietnam and then escalated the war, he did more than the New Left ever could to expose the mockeries of electoral democracy. Judge Hoffman’s antics in Chicago did more to subvert the authority of the judicial system than defendant Hoffman ever dreamed was possible. Similar contributions were made by the faculties and managing directors of a dozen major universities.

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