Lessons from the Youth Movement of the 1960s

by John Reimann, North Star editorial board member on March 27, 2017

(This article originally appeared on the Oakland Socialist on July 28, 2015, hence the reference to Tom Hayden not reflecting his death in 2016.)

Protests outside Democratic Party Convention, Chicago 1968.

Today, as a new youth movement is developing across the United States, it’s important to draw some lessons from what was probably the largest youth movement of US history – the movement of the 1960s.

In 1964, UC Berkeley exploded around what became known as the “Free Speech Movement.” In a speech at that campus in December of that year, Mario Savio, the best know leader of that movement said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.” (Note the last sentence; it implies that the ultimate goal is to pressure the capitalist class rather than remove it from power.)

“New Left”

Inspired by the black liberation movement and feeling the pressure of the Vietnam War, tens possibly hundreds of thousands of college students nationwide moved into political action, mainly against the war. Disgusted with the war as well as with the racism of US society, many of these students became part of what became known as the “New Left.”

The New Left offered some lasting advances. As opposed to most Marxists of the day, youth of the New Left took up issues like the environment, women’s liberation, gay rights, etc. (They all responded to the black liberation struggle; that was not new.) These are lasting benefits of that then-youth movement.

However, there was also a down-side.

Throwing out the Baby with the Bath Water

In rejecting the “old” left, they threw out the baby with the bath water. Not only did they reject the revolutionary role of the working class; they saw themselves as inventing something entirely new, a movement that didn’t have to study and learn from the revolutionary movements of the past. Most important, they attempted to avoid really considering the main debates that had raged through those past movements; they failed to take a clear position on them.

The result was that the New Left got disoriented and it disintegrated in just a few years. Unclear on the role of the working class, they were also unclear on the role of the capitalist class as a class and the role of its parties. Some rejected those parties, including the Democrats, on the immediate grounds that its president (Lyndon Johnson) was the one conducting the War Against Vietnam. But there was no clear analysis beyond that, so in 1968, six short years later, many on the New Left got sucked into the campaign of “peace candidate” Gene McCarthy for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

Chicago, 1968

In 1968, mass protests in Chicago outside the Democratic Party national convention led to the arrest and trial of 8 leaders on conspiracy charges. The evolution of some of the most prominent of those leaders is instructive:

  • Tom Hayden got elected as a liberal Democrat to the California State Assembly. He ispresently a functionary of the Progressive Democrats of America.

    Tom Hayden today.

    Tom Hayden today.

  • Jerry Rubin became a Wall St. stock broker who advocated liberal capitalism.

    Jerry Rubin. He became a stock broker.

    Jerry Rubin. He became a stock broker.

  • Abbie Hoffman never sold out; instead he moved to the fringes of society, lost all influence, and ended up committing suicide.

    Abbie Hoffman back in the day.

    Abbie Hoffman back in the day.

  • An eighth leader took such an independent and courageous stance that he had his trial separated. This was the courageous Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. Still alive today, while he hasn’t capitulated, he has clearly backed off from his radicalism, recently declaring, for example that “There are (some) good cops, straight cops. They don’t run around brutalizing people for the sake of brutalizing people. They’re my friends. I want people to make that distinction.”

    Bobby Seale (left) with singer D'Angelo today.

    Bobby Seale (left) with singer D’Angelo today.

The Science of Revolution

Today, the lessons of that movement bear studying. Most important, those of us who are looking for a road to revolution should consider the fact that while revolution is one part art, it is also one part science, and like any science it has to be studied. We cannot afford to ignore all the huge issues, the questions that raged through the revolutionary movements and the events that flowed from those questions, from the Chinese and Cuban revolutions to the revolutions in Africa and, yes, the Russian Revolution (and its aftermath), nor the more recent revolutionary movement in South Africa in the 1980s nor the revolutionary movement of the Arab Spring. As the youth movement of the 1960s shows, we fail to clarify and take a position on those issues at our own risk. This includes:

  • Whether national liberation movements can be won within the confines of capitalism or whether the struggle against oppression and colonialism has to be linked with the struggle against capitalism itself.
  • Whether any sector of the capitalist class and its organizations/political parties can be an ally.
  • What is the role of the working class as a whole and whether is it necessary to find a road towards the working class as a whole?
  • What were the perspectives for how a wider scale working class movement could develop? What was the then-existing mood, what were the factors that created it and how might it change?

All of these issues have been settled by the harsh judgement of historical fact.

There is no need nor is there time to reinvent the wheel.woman fist up

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Manuel Barrera March 27, 2017 at 10:49 am

Nobody really cares. Let’s really try to do something else if we want “reach the youth”

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Justin Schein March 27, 2017 at 10:55 am

Hi- I think the record on Abbie Hoffman need to be corrected here… Yes he never sold out, but he did not “lose all influence”. While he did go underground after being arrested on cocaine charges in 1974 he assumed an identity of Barry Fried and became a very effective environmental activist. He successfully led a group to protect the St Lawrence River, testified before congress and was awarded a commendation from then Gov of NY Hugh Carrey.

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Kurt Hill March 27, 2017 at 10:59 am

“Abbie Hoffman never sold out; instead he moved to the fringes of society, lost all influence, and ended up committing suicide.”

You are right that Abbie never sold out. He suffered all his adult life from bipolar problems; many brilliant people do. However to claim that he “lost all influence” is bullshit…Many people continued to respect Abbie, and while the MSM may have considered him on “the fringes of society,” many of us continued to look to him for leadership. His death was a tragedy for us “Yippies” as well as for the broader movement.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

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Martin Zehr March 28, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Missing in the article is the pernicious legacy of “White Skin Privilege”, long a keystone of the Weatherman. This concept has warped an work that is not defined as “anti-racist” and has promoted separatism, frivilous identity fetishness and a negation of a defined revolutionary programme, strategy, analyses and organization. The Weatherman ended the way it did BECAUSE of WSP and its entire organization and its role in dividing the existing student movement flowed from WSP. The mass movement of students was engaged at the campus level. It was focused on non-electoral strategies. It was consciously anti-imperialist and built unity with others in other areas of work and community. The role of the Federal agencies in diverting the struggle found an active tool in doing so through WSP and it continues to manifest such a role that promotes posturing over organizing. The individuals who came from the struggles in the ’60s were not looking for Band-Aids for the system that daily bombed Vietnam, overthrew the government in Chile and promoted death squads in El Salvador. There is less to show in terms of existing support or organized mass struggle because everyone has been gamed to focus on Trump. The result? The faux-left is marginalized and lacks significant support despite its massive presence throughout American society in the ’60s. Now, the working class is pitted against one another. No concessions have resulted that empower the people or address the needs and concerns of poor and working people. The ’60s did show that we could build those struggles when we stopped kowtowing to others, whether the two parties or the non-profits or the spies amongst us. How do we fight? Who are our friends? When do we stop walking down a dead-end road. That is up to every one of us.

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Joaquín Bustelo March 31, 2017 at 12:48 am

This is religion, not politics. It is idealism of the purest water.

The counterposition of “most Marxists” to the “New Left” and then the caricature of the New Left as personified by certain “leaders” is a fabrication. The New Left wasn’t a political current, organization or ideology. It was a movement and part of a broader social transformation that went well beyond politics.

“[R]evolution … like any science must be studied. We cannot afford to ignore all the huge issues, the questions that raged through the revolutionary movements and the events that flowed from those questions,” we are lectured. “As the youth movement of the 1960s shows, we fail to clarify and take a position on those issues at our own risk.”

The alleged failure of the New Left to have Correct Ideas is supposedly what doomed it:

“[T]hey attempted to avoid really considering the main debates that had raged through those past movements” and, oh so much worse, “they failed to take a clear position on them.”

“The result was that the New Left got disoriented and it disintegrated in just a few years.”

The main reasons for the decline of the youth radicalization of the 1960s didn’t have to do with bad ideas. The notion that with correct tactics, strategies or ideas things would have turned out much differently is so voluntaristic that it blows my mind.

Much, much broader political forces and developments on a world scale were decisive, including a decline in revolutionary movements in the Third World as neo-colonialism consolidated; the defeat of important movements like the French May and the Czech spring; and the sino-soviet split and its skillful exploitation by Nixon and Kissinger with detente.

Not considering the “main debates” and failing to come to “clear position[s]” was not the problem. On the contrary, there was too much of that going on,.

Revolution is not not not “science” in the sense meant here. The idea that you can study it like physics, that there are laws of politics, even a rulebook of “lessons” that should be obeyed is doesn’t come from Marx & Engels:

“Communism is not a doctrine but a movement; it proceeds not from principles but from facts.” (Engels, The Communists and Karl Heinzen, 1847)

And most especially, radicals from the 1960s should STOP trying to preach about the “working class.” We really don’t know much about it. From shortly after the end of WWII until the 2008 depression, there was no working class in the United States, not in any meaningful sense. It’s not just that there was no working class movement worthy of the name; there was no mass class identity.

Of all the “identity politics” that people have debated, applauded or denounced, the one that NEVER came up was “working class identity politics” because there was no sense of coherence or identification as a class, no class for itself.

That began to change with Occupy’s “We are the 99%,” primitive, I guess, but clearly there.

A very strong class identification was also a central element in Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

It is incumbent on us who were part of it to recognize that the Marxist groups of the Baby Boom generation were an unmitigated catastrophe. Not a single one understood that they were sects.

Any Marxist group in the United States in the second half of the 20th Century was doomed to a semi-sectarian existence, isolated from the class movement because there was no class movement.

But worse, we married that with the bureaucratic fiction of the “Leninist Party” and especially (but not only) in the case of the Trots, with defense of the sacred dogma, the correct program.

That is the very essence of being a sect: a group whose borders are defined by dogma (or, if you prefer, “ideas”).

It is the opposite of a party, which is the (more or less) organized expression of (in this case) the working class movement in the political arena. Note that I say, “more or less” — when M&E wrote the Manifesto, political parties as we think of them were barely starting to develop.

Finally, marry the cult of the organization with a sacred dogma that, in the last analysis, can only be kept pure by a Pope (as the Catholic Church has always understood) and you get the sorry list from Hugo Oehler to Jack Barnes, Bob Avakian and countless other Lenins of our times.

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