Today’s post is the fifth in a series of six posts on Mitchel Cohen’s What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. Mitchel calls for direct action strategies, rejecting the formation of top-down vanguard organizations that issue demands and organize protests. I have maintained that vanguard organizations are necessary for societal transformation, and that, in the context of the United States at the present time, an alternative political party should be formed that educates and organizes the people, with the intention of taking political power through the mechanisms of representative democracy. This difference in viewpoint with respect to strategy has been a central part of the story of the New Left.
The New Left emerged in the 1960s among white students. It embraced a liberal agenda of defending the political, civil, social and economic rights of all citizens, but it rejected the anti-communism of liberals. But at the same time, the New Left did not embrace the communism of the Soviet Union, nor did it accept the classical Marxist formulation of a socialist revolution led by a proletarian vanguard. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left by the late 1960s had turned to an identification with Third World national liberation struggles, and it became opposed to US imperialism.
In the late 1960s, in response to the escalation of the US war in Vietnam, the New Left movement divided into three tendencies. (1) A confrontational strategy of disruptive tactics, hoping to create a situation of political polarization, thus forcing the government to seek the means to end the war. Most of the confrontational strategies were non-violent, but they did include the bombing of government and corporate buildings. The tendency was most clearly represented by the Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. (2) Non-violent mass protest, with the issuance of demands with respect to the war. The tendency reached its peak in the period 1967 to 1970. A variety of organizations participated in the anti-war mobilization, which attained a scale never before seen in the history of warfare. However, its efforts with respect to popular education were limited, and they were confined to the single issue of ending the war. (3) The formation of alternative political parties, conceived as vanguard parties in the tradition of classical Marxism, with its conception of the industrial working class in the vanguard of the revolution. The Progressive Labor Party was its best example (Ayers 2009:135-36, 236; Gitlin 1993:288-94, 409-11; Rudd 2009:35-36, 156, 168, 190, 318; Varon 2004:8-10).
None of the three tendencies were responding to what the historic moment required: the organization of a popular political party that follows a long-term project of education and organization of the people, with the intention of ultimately taking political power and attempting to reconstruct US society and US foreign policy on a basis of respect for universal human values. (1) The confrontational strategy alienated the people, inasmuch as there was not a popular consensus that the United States ought to withdraw from Vietnam, and there had not been a US political tradition of strategies of this kind. (2) The mass mobilizations did not create structures for popular education and sustained organization, developing popular consciousness of the fact that the war in Vietnam was a colonialist war that was symptomatic of a general US imperialist policy, in violation of the democratic values that the nation proclaimed and in which the people believed. (3) The vanguard political parties had the right idea in a general sense, but their conception of a proletarian vanguard was inconsistent with social reality, for it was white students and blacks, and not workers, who were at the forefront of the anti-war movement. The conception of the vanguard parties was rooted in a classic European vision of class exploitation, and it was not sufficiently influenced by the anti-colonial perspective emerging in the Third World.
The historic moment of the 1960s created an opportunity for social transformation in the United States, as a result of the emergence of the civil rights/black power movement and the tragedy of the Vietnam War, two phenomena that were national manifestations of a world-wide Third World movement in opposition to colonial and neocolonial structures of domination. But the historic opportunity was lost, in part because of the repression and maneuvers of the established order, but also because of the errors of the movement, particularly its inability to develop the kinds of structures that were required. The conditions favored the development of permanent popular mass organizations, but we failed to do it.
Today, another historic moment establishing possibilities for change has arrived. The present historic moment is defined by a sustained systemic global crisis, which the global elite is unable to resolve (see various posts on the Crisis of the World-System); and by a renewal of the Third World anti-colonial revolution, a phenomenon most clearly advanced in Latin America (see posts on the process of union and integration in Latin America).
We need to learn from our errors of the past, and rectify them, so that we can fulfill our duty. We need to develop vanguard organizations that can educate, unify and lead our people, but they can include direct action strategies, analyzed from a perspective of their repercussions with respect to the sentiments and attitudes of the people.
Ayers, Bill. 2009. Fugitive Days: Memoires of an Antiwar Activist. Boston: Beacon Press.
Cohen, Mitchel, et.al. 2013. What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. Brooklyn: Red Balloon Collective Publications.
Gitlin, Todd. 1993. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, Bantam revised trade edition).
Jacobs, Ron. 1997. The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. London and New York: Verso.
Rudd, Mark. 2009. Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen. New York: Harper.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1974. SDS. New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Jeremy. 2004. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Key words: direct action, New Left, anti-war movement, Weather Underground