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Fri Mar 6, 2020, 02:50 PM Mar 2020

A Warning from the 60s Generation

A Warning from the 60s Generation


Today’s progressives have a real chance to reshape American politics. But they’re in danger of repeating our mistakes.

By John B. Judis
JANUARY 21, 2020

In January 1969, Tom Hayden, a founder of the radical Students for a Democratic Society and a leader of the antiwar movement, came to speak at the University of California at Santa Cruz, on behalf of the SDS chapter where I was a member. At the time, many on the new left thought a revolution was imminent. Major cities had been set ablaze by rioters; gun-toting members of the Black Panther Party had confronted legislators in Sacramento; hundreds of thousands were marching against the Vietnam War; and with Richard Nixon in office — and the war showing no signs of abating — the protests were turning violent.

Hayden, too, was confident about what lay ahead. Perched on the edge of the stage in a denim work shirt and blue jeans, he spelled out his vision for a new American revolution. I still recall him saying — in the language of the period — “We already have the blacks, the browns, the women and the students,” and then adding that if we could also get blue-collar workers, we’d have the basis for a revolution. Personally, I was a bit more pessimistic. At Socialist Revolution, the Marxist journal I began working for in June 1969, the economist James O’Connor branded me “the little black cloud” because of my doubts that revolution was just around the corner.

And yet there were, if you wanted to see them, signs that the new left — which had been concentrated on campuses — might be able to attract support from the white working class. Over the next two years, students joined the picket lines of strikers from General Electric, General Motors and the U.S. Post Office Department. In a special issue on “The Seventies,” Business Week warned that corporations faced a challenge from “the blacks, the labor unions, and the young” that could make “the Seventies one of the tumultuous decades in U.S. history.”

Such heady times may sound like the distant past, but there are more than a few parallels with the present. For nearly a decade now, arguably dating to the Occupy movement of 2011, a new generation of left-wing activism has been stirring. A host of organizations (Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, People’s Action, the Working Families Party, Black Lives Matter, the Justice Democrats, a revived Democratic Socialists of America) and new publications (Jacobin, the Intercept, Current Affairs) are doing what groups like SDS did in the ’60s: elevating left-wing causes and promising dramatic societal change.

These activists and their worldviews have made significant inroads in mainstream politics in a relatively short time. In 2016, Bernie Sanders — a socialist whose platform was well to the left of George McGovern’s then-regarded-as-radical platform in 1972 — almost won the Democratic nomination. This year, Sanders, advocating a “political revolution,” is once again in the top tier of candidates. So is Elizabeth Warren, who’s running on a platform of “big, structural change.”

But at this moment of left-wing optimism, it bears remembering that the ’60s left never fulfilled the vision of Hayden and others. Indeed, even as our cause appeared ascendant, a powerful right-wing movement was also percolating: Young Americans for Freedom, presidential candidates George Wallace and Barry Goldwater, California Gov. Ronald Reagan. By the time I saw Hayden speak in 1969, Nixon had been elected, in part because of a backlash to the new left. In 1972, he would rout McGovern at the polls. Less than a decade later, Reagan was in the White House. If revolutionary change was on the agenda, it was of an entirely different nature from what we had envisaged in 1969.

Will today’s new left stumble down the path of my generation’s left, growing largely irrelevant and then, eventually, disappearing from sight? Or could it come to dominate American politics over the next few decades? Because of key structural differences between then and now, I actually think their odds of success are better than ours were. But to capitalize on those odds, they will have to learn from the failures of my generation — we activists who succeeded in captivating a noisy subgroup of Americans but never came close to commanding a political majority. And there are already, in my view, worrisome signals that they are repeating some of our biggest mistakes.


For the foreseeable future, though, if the left wants to create the political majority that Tom Hayden dreamed of in 1969, it will have to frame its positions in a vernacular that most Americans can understand. It will also have to draw a sharp distinction between the positions it deems essential for “big, structural change” and those that can be delegated to communities to calibrate and debate. The new left of the ’60s failed in this mission. We didn’t just dream big; we ascended into the realm of fantasy and visible sainthood. Today’s left will need to learn from our mistakes.

Correction: This article originally mentioned a strike by workers from the U.S. Postal Service. However, at the time of the strike, post offices were run by the U.S. Post Office Department, which was later replaced by the U.S. Postal Service.

John B. Judis is the author of “The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization.”

Illustrations by Adam Hayes. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Christian Font.
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A Warning from the 60s Generation (Original Post) mahatmakanejeeves Mar 2020 OP
driving force in the late 60's was the draft and vietnam. today's it's apple or android nt msongs Mar 2020 #1

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