Reflecting on the Lessons of the 1960’s

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The following text was prepared as a contribution to a discussion on the lessons the 1960's initiated by the primarily Chicago-based Platypus group, which is involved in the revived SDS organization. In the spring issue of their publication, the Platypus comrades reported on their frustration on the cancellation of a public panel discussion on the political experiences of the 1960's after Mike Klonsky and Rick Ayers, prominent SDS leaders from 40 years ago, abruptly withdrew from the forum after seeing the questions that would be posed to the panelists. -- Internationalism

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The comrades of Internationalism1 have read with interest your report on Klonksy and Ayers' abrupt withdrawal from your scheduled panel discussion on the lessons of the 1960's. It's probably not surprising that they backed away when they realized from your prepared questions that they weren't being invited to reminisce about the "glory days" of the Sixties, but to participate in a serious reflection on the shortcomings and failures of the New Left. We salute your effort to go beyond "image" and media hype and subject the political experiences of the Sixties to critical examination.

There was indeed a mass movement in the 1960's that mobilized millions of young people who were outraged at the injustice, exploitation and oppression that they saw around them, but it is also true that  movement ultimately failed to change the world or  build an ongoing movement that could confront capitalism. The questions you posed to the panelists reflect an extremely correct and appropriate preoccupation to understand what happened in the Sixties, why the movement didn't succeed in achieving revolutionary change and what can be learned from that experience so as to avoid needlessly repeating the errors of the past in the future. We ourselves have been publishing a series of articles on 1968 in our press and our web site (www.internationalism.org), which present an in depth analysis, but we would like to contribute some general comments in response to the questions posed to the panelists.

Regarding the heritage of the "Old Left," one of the worst consequences of the failure of the revolutionary workers struggles in the 1917-23 period was the virtual burial of genuine Marxism under a mountain of lies and distortions, which established Stalinism as the personification of communism, whereas it actually represented the advanced guard of the counter-revolution alongside "democratic" anti-fascism. During World War II the false "communist" parties were joined by an equally false opposition - Trotskyism which constituted more of a critical appendage to Stalinism and anti-fascism than a proletarian alternative. Since 1945, this "Old Left" constituted the left wing of capitalist politics defending various brands of state capitalist policy orientations, totally outside the revolutionary Marxist tradition. What marked them most clearly as agents of bourgeois ideology has been their defense of state capitalism by attempting to tie workers to the state, through the left parties, the trade unions, and pointless "reform" struggles that foster the illusion that capitalism can be improved.  This was essentially what the "Old Left" appeared to the emerging revolutionaries in the 1960's as irrelevant, totalitarian, reformist, and sectarian.

Unfortunately most who came of political age in the Sixties were totally unaware of the political work of the small groups of the communist left2, especially the Dutch, German and Italian communist left groups, who had detached themselves from the degenerating Communist International and critiqued the failures of the 1920's and ‘30's, elaborating theoretical analyses of capitalist decadence1, state capitalism, the changed conditions of class struggle, the integration of the unions into the state apparatus, the role of the party in relation to the class, the rejection of substitutionism, the defense of internationalism and revolutionary defeatism in the face of the second imperialist world war, and so on.

Because of this break in knowledge of the genuine continuators of revolutionary Marxism, the Sixties generation fell prey to such aberrations as empiricism, impatience for "action" without a theoretical framework, a rejection of the working class as revolutionary agent in society,  a preposterous search for new revolutionary agents (youth, minorities, students, etc.), and a host of other detours from revolutionary Marxism. The New Left failed to understand that Marxism had identified the working class as the agent of revolution based on its objective role within capitalist society, regardless of the level of its consciousness at any particular moment in history.  

Lacking an adequate Marxist perspective, it was difficult to distinguish between symptoms and causes of social injustices, so separatist politics (Black Power, feminism, identity politics, gay liberation) became predominant. There was a widespread misconception that the elimination of racism or sexism or homophobia was a precondition to develop a revolutionary movement that could change society, whereas, the precondition to eliminate these ideological poisons that capitalism uses to divide the working class against itself is the revolutionary destruction of capitalism itself. There was an inability to understand that these movements, focused on bourgeois legalisms and rights, tied the oppressed to the state, rather than building a movement that could destroy the state.

The rejection of the "labor movement" as part of the problem and not the solution, as you put it, failed to differentiate on the one hand between the working class, as an exploited and revolutionary class, and the trade unions, organizations that had once been working class in nature but had long since become integrated into the state apparatus of capitalism as a means to control workers and derail class struggle on the other. This left the Sixties generation with no effective orientation towards the working class struggle. 

Lacking a theoretical Marxist compass, the movement lurched from one confused orientation to another. Starting out with a rejection of the "Old Left" in the beginning of the Sixties, by the end of the decade "New Left" leaders came full circle and embraced the worst forms of Stalinism, (demanding support for the regimes in China, North Vietnam and North Korea as a condition for membership) and terrorist adventurism.

The "Old Left" and the "New Left" ultimately wound up in the same place - in the ideological service of state capitalism and outside the revolutionary Marxist tradition. No wonder Klonsky and Ayers chose not to confront critically the consequences of their activism. 

Jerry Grevin for Internationalism 15/10/08 

Notes

1.- Internationalism is the U.S. section of the International Communist Current.

2.- For an overview of the history of the communist left see http://en.internationalism.org/the-communist-left

3.- For a description of the theory of capitalist decadence see http://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/decadence