The Left, 1960-2010: Downhill From Greensboro

by Alexander Cockburn, February 12, 2010

Half a century ago, a new decade ushered in the rebirth of the American left and of those forces for radical change grievously wounded by the savage cold war pogroms of the 50s. If you want to draw a line to indicate when history took a great leap forward, it could be February 1, 1960, when four black students from Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina. The chairs were for whites. Blacks had to stand and eat. A day later they returned, with 25 more students. On February 4 four white women joined them from a local college. By February 7, there were 54 sit-ins throughout the South in 15 cities in 9 states. By July 25 the store, part of a huge national chain, and plagued by $200,000 in lost business, threw in the towel and officially desegregated the lunch counter. (Recently on our CounterPunch.org website we had a piece by one of the participants in that sit-in, Cecil Brown, about the new museum in Greensboro honoring that event, and Obama’s letter doing the same.)

Three months later, the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, 80 miles east of Greensboro, saw the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), seeking to widen the lunch-counter demonstrations into a broad, militant movement. SNCC’s first field director was Bob Moses, who said that he was drawn by the “sullen, angry and determined look” of the protesters, qualitatively different from the “defensive, cringing” expression common to most photos of protesters in the South.

That same spring of 1960 saw the founding conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Ann Arbor Michigan, the organization that later played a leading role in organizing the college-based component of the antiwar movement. In May the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was scheduled to hold red-baiting hearings in San Francisco. Students from the University of California at Berkeley crossed the Bay to jeer the hearings. They got blasted off the steps of City Hall by cops with power hoses, but the ridicule helped demolish the decade-long power of HUAC.

Within four short years the Civil Rights Movement pushed Lyndon Johnson into signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 1965 the first big demonstrations against the war were rolling into Washington. By the decade’s end there had been a convulsion in American life: a new reading of America’s past, an unsparing scrutiny of the ideology of “national security” and of Empire. The secret, shameful histories of the FBI and CIA were dragged into the light of day, the role of the universities in servicing imperial wars exposed; mutinies of soldiers in Vietnam a daily occurrence; consumer capitalism under daily duress from critics like Ralph Nader. By 1975 the gay and women’s movements were powerful social forces; president Nixon had been forced to resign. The left seem poised for an assertive role in American politics for the next quarter century.

Of course a new radical world did not spring fully formed from the void, on January 1, 1960. Already, in 1958 a black boycott of lunch counters in Oklahoma City, suggested by the eight-year old of daughter of NAACP Youth Council leader Clara Luper, a local high school teacher, had forced change in that city. Luper was greatly influenced by Rosa Parks, who famously refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, starting the bus boycott that launched Martin Luther King’s public career.

Parks was a trained organizer who, like King, attended sessions at the Highlander Folk School, founded by Christian Socialists, close to the Communist Party, one of whom, Don West, began his career as an as a high-school agitator organizing demonstrations in 1915 outside cinemas featuring D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a violently racist movie praising the Ku Klux Klan for protecting whites from black violence after the Civil War.

So there are political genealogies that must be honored — but this is not to occlude disasters endured by the left in the 1940s and Fifties — disasters whose consequences reverberate to this day. The first was the historic bargain struck by Roosevelt with organized labor from the late 1930s on, by which unions got automatic deduction of members’ dues for their treasuries sanctioned by the federal government, in return for witch-hunting the Trotskyist and later Communist left out of the labor movement.

Hugely important was Roosevelt’s ouster of the great progressive, Henry Wallace, from the vice presidential slot in 1944, substituting the appalling machine-Democrat Harry Truman who stepped into the Oval Office on Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and promptly dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then presided over the birth of the cold war and the rise of a permanently militarized US economy. Wallace headed the Progressive Party ticket in 1948 in a four way race which, with Truman’s victory, inscribed the unvarying Democratic-Republican either/or on the American political landscape.

By the end of the 1940s there was no powerful independent left political formation, an absence which continues to this day. By the mid-1950s the labor unions, the academies, all government establishments had been purged in the witch hunts —a bipartisan auto-da-fe whose most diligent red baiters included not only Senator Joe McCarthy but Robert Kennedy. The surviving left was mostly in the peace movement, notably in the Quakers. A prime issue was atmospheric nuclear testing, at that time dooming thousands of Americans to premature deaths from cancer.

In terms of organized politics the explosion of radical energy in the 1960s culminated in the peace candidacy of George McGovern, nominated by the Democrats in Miami in 1972. The response of the labor unions financing the party, and of the party bosses, was simply to abandon McGovern and ensure the victory of Nixon. Since that day the party has remained immune to radical challenge. Jimmy Carter, the southern Democrat installed in the White House in 1977, embraced neoliberalism, and easily beat off a challenge by the left’s supposed champion, the late Ted Kennedy. The antiwar movement which cheered America’s defeat in Vietnam mostly sat on its hands as Carter and his National Security aide Zbigniev Brzezinski ramped up military spending and led America into “the new cold war” fought in Afghanistan and Central America.

Demure under the Democrat Carter, the left did organize substantial resistance to Reagan’s wars in Central America in the 1980s. It also rallied to the radical candidacy of Jesse Jackson, the first serious challenge of a black man for the presidency. Jesse Jackson, a Baptist minister and political organizer who had been in Memphis with Martin Luther King when the latter was assassinated in 1968. With his “Rainbow Coalition,” Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and in 1988, with a platform that represented an anthology of progressive ideas from the 1960s. He attracted a large number of supporters, many of them from the white working class. Each time the Democratic party shrugged him aside and elected feeble white liberals — Mondale and Dukakis — who plummeted to defeat by Reagan and George Bush Sr.

The left’s rout was consummated in the 90s by Bill Clinton who managed to retain fairly solid left support during his two terms, despite signing two trade treaties devastating to labor — in the form of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the WTO; despite the lethal embargo against Iraq and NATO’s war on Yugoslavia; despite successful onslaughts on welfare programs for the poor and on constitutional freedoms.

Two important reminders about political phenomena peculiar to America: the first is the financial clout of the “non-profit” foundations, tax-exempt bodies formed by rich people to dispense their wealth according to political taste. Jeffrey St Clair and I wrote several pieces about this in our CounterPunch newsletter in the mid-90s. Much of the “progressive sector” in America owes its financial survival — salaries, office accommodation, etc. — to the annual disbursements of these foundations which cease abruptly at the first manifestation of radical heterodoxy. In other words, most of the progressive sector is an extrusion of the dominant corporate world, just as are the academies, similarly dependent on corporate endowments.

The big liberal foundations were perfectly happy with Clinton’s brand of neoliberalism and took swift action to tame any unwelcome radical tendencies in both the environmental and the women’s movements. Clinton’s drive to ratify the “free trade” treaty with Mexico and Canada provoked a potentially threatening alliance of labor unions and environmental groups. Eventually the big liberal foundations exerted some muscle, and major enviro groups came out for the Treaty.

It was John Adams of the Natural Resources Defense Council who crowed, “We broke the back of the environmental resistance to NAFTA.” The major funders of these latter groups included the Pew Charitable Trusts, a foundation set up in the 1940s by heirs to the Sun Oil company. By the mid-1990s Pew was giving the environmental movement about $20 million a year. Two other foundations, both derived from oil companies, gave another $20 million. The Howard Heinz Endowment and the Heinz Family Philanthropies, run by Teresa Heinz, Sen John Heinz's widow (now John Kerry's wife) has played a major role in funding a neoliberal environmental agenda. Also influential is the Rockefeller Family Fund, which oversees the Environmental Grantmakers Association, pivotal in allocating the swag, hence controlling the agenda. By the end of the 90s the green movement — aside from small radical, underfunded grassroots groups — had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, hence of corporate America.

For its part, the women’s movement steadily devolved into a single issue affair, focused almost entirely on defending women’s right to abortions — under assault from the right. Women’s groups, many of them getting big money from liberal Hollywood (which devotedly supported Clinton), swerved away from larger issues of social justice and kept silent as Clinton destroyed safety nets for poor women. The gay movement, radical in the 1970s and 1980s, steadily retreated into campaigns for gay marriage and “hate crime laws,” the first being a profoundly conservative acquiescence in state-sanctioned relationships, and the second being an assault on free speech.

A second important reminder concerns the steady collapse of the organized Leninist or Trotskyite left which used to provide a training ground for young people who could learn the rudiments of political economy and organizational discipline, find suitable mates and play their role in reproducing the left, red diaper upon red diaper, tomorrow’s radicals, nourished on the Marxist classics. Somewhere in the late 80s and early 90s, coinciding with collapses further East — presumptively but not substantively a great victory for the Trotskyist or Maoist critiques, this genetic strain shriveled into insignificance. An adolescent soul not inoculated by sectarian debate, not enriched by the Eighteenth Brumaire and study groups of Capital, is open to any infection, such as 9/11 conspiracism and junk-science climate catastrophism substituting for analysis of political economy at the national or global level.

Thus the Bush years saw near extinction of the left’s capacity for realistic political analysis. Hysteria about the consummate evil of Bush and Cheney led to a vehement insistence that any Democrat would be qualitatively better, whether it be Hillary Clinton, carrying all the neoliberal baggage of the Nineties, or Barack Obama, whose prime money source was Wall Street. Of course black America — historically the most radical of all the Democratic Party’s constituencies, was almost unanimously behind Obama and will remain loyal to the end. Having easily beguiled the left in the important primary campaigns of 2008, essentially by dint of skin tone and uplift, Obama stepped into the Oval Office confident that the left would present no danger as he methodically pursues roughly the same agenda as Bush, catering to the requirements of the banks, the arms companies and the national security establishment in Washington, most notably the Israel lobby.

As Obama ramps up troop presence in Afghanistan, there is still no anti-war movement, such as there was in 2002-4 during Bush’s attack on Iraq. The labor unions have been shrinking relentlessly in numbers and clout. Labor’s last major victory was the UPS strike in 1997. Its footsoldiers and its money are still vital for Democratic candidates — but corporate America holds the decisive purse-strings, from which a US Supreme Court decision on January 21 has now removed almost all restraints.

Labor has seen its most cherished goal in recent years vanish down the plug. This was Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) amendments to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that would help boost organizing and bargaining in the private sector. The latest statistics from the US Department of Labor show why EFCA is necessary, if not entirely sufficient, for a union revival. As Steve Early wrote recently on CounterPunch.org organized labor in private industry lost 10% of its membership in 2009 mainly in manufacturing and construction — the worst annual decline in the last quarter century. Obama was explicit, even in the campaign, in telling labor leaders that as president he would not press labor law reform.

For the rest of his term Obama, can press forward with the neoliberal agenda that has now flourished through six presidencies. He and the Democratic Party display insouciance towards the left’s anger. Rightly so. What have they to fear?

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