They’d Rather Be Left

H. Rap Brown
H. Rap Brown; drawing by David Levine

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…

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