Back to Class
I first became politically active in 1966. By 1969—it was a fast moving time—I had a pretty well developed political perspective. For a couple of decades, along with trying to develop new media institutions and some other left projects, I had a pretty constant consciousness-raising agenda. It seemed to me (and my writing partner, Robin Hahnel) that when people became politically committed they generally gravitated to class analysis and marxism, assuming they became ideological at all. That political trajectory seemed to us to involve two problems that we tried to address.
1. It gave people a conceptual system which either neglected race, sex, gender, and political hierarchy entirely, or at most understood them peripherally and secondarily, merely in their relation to economics. It gave people a view of contemporary economics that highlighted the relations between capitalists and workers, obscuring almost entirely the role of a “coordinator class,” situated “between labor and capital,” and even elaborating the interests of this class into its program.
2. To combat these failings we tried to develop and propel a perspective which could give priority attention to issues of class, race, gender, and authority simultaneously, without subordinating any one to any other. The most succinct statement of this perspective was a book co-authored by ourselves and also Lydia Sargent, Noam Chomsky, Mel King, Holly Sklar, and Leslie Cagan, called Liberating Theory (South End Press). We also enhanced and argued for a theory of the coordinator class building on the work of Barbara Ehrenreich and others, including a new understanding of left economic vision.
I guess the jury is arguably still out on the extent of impact we have had and will have on the second matter. But I feel safe in saying that we didn’t have much luck with the first agenda, though a variant on the message we were offering certainly did take hold. I say we didn’t have much impact because political wisdom rushed right past the perspective we touted in Liberating Theory, for example, not stopping for even a breath, and wound up at something quite different.
Yes, race, sex, gender, ecology, and even authority relations have gained a paramount place on the intellectual and emotional itinerary of progressive people. And that is to the good. But there are two crushing problems.
1. The gain has seemed to come only at the level of attention to issues and events, not structures. Concern with the sex-gender system, the nuclear family, racist cultural structures emphasized by earlier movements in these areas and by perspectives like that advanced in Liberating Theory, has been usurped by an almost endless and at times seemingly knee-jerk recital of the phrase “white male such-and-so,” with little serious understanding conveyed.
2. The gain in attention for race, gender, sexual, ecological, and political matters has not come as an addition to class awareness, and as a corrective to economic reductionism, but in place of the former and as a kind of parody of the latter. The broad community of people who are “leftist” have gone from one side of a coin—previously elevating class as primacy and largely ignoring or only paying lip service to issues of race and culture, gender and kinship, authority and the state, the environment and ecology—to an opposite myopia: highlighting one or more of these previously neglected focuses, but now largely ignoring class and the economy.
Well, this is hardly progress. It is as if we are consigned to a demented trajectory that can only bounce between debilitating extreme positions, never settling on a site that has real promise.
How many more rallies of leftists can we remember in recent times providing support to anti-racist struggles, or to gender or gay struggles, than to labor movements? Or militantly discussing the nature of sexism or racism, as compared to proposing serious economic vision that doesn’t at heart presuppose the continued subordination of working people to bosses? For that matter, how many activists see themselves as anti-capitalist, much less pro- some better economy—as compared to seeing themselves as motivated by concerns about race, sex, or gender? How many speakers are touring the country addressing class as compared to race, gender, or sexual matters? How many faculty or student activists on campuses or organizers in communities are taking serious stands going beyond the obvious complaints about cutbacks, to the espousal of new economic values and goals?
Why has this see-saw effect from one myopia to another happened? Yes, marxism has fallen into ill repute, often for incorrect and even asinine reasons, though there are also compelling reasons to have transcended marxism long ago. And yes, the horribly authoritarian economies which usurped the label socialist have fallen apart, illogically taking hope for a better economy with them. These ill-understood occurrences are part of the story. As is, I guess, the Catch-22 inability of U.S. leftists to retain serious allegiance to more than one focus of attention at a time.
But I suspect that another part of the problem is related to the other half of the agenda some of us were trying to pursue all those years—the fact that the class analysis wing of the movement of the 1960s never really had very deep ties to working people. It was built, instead, on the interests of what we called coordinators, a class of people defined by their relative control over their own lives and the lives of other working people, and their high levels of skill and knowledge. So now, while the U.S. working class is being pummeled into sweat-shop conditions and worse, many of the prior members of that “class-based movement” seem to be most interested in debating the intricacies of whether there is any Truth in the world.
Well, here is a Truth, with a capital T. If “someone” doesn’t develop a class-focused wing of progressive activism in this country soon, to function in solidarity with other perspectives, contributing to their agendas and benefiting from their support, proposing viable and appealing long-term values and aims for economic institutions, as well as short term economic program—something that can actually give hope and energy to those who are rapidly turning rightward—we are all going to be in for a horrible time.
Which brings me to the massive outpouring of verbiage that has accompanied Robert McNamara’s “book” on the Vietnam War. It deserves detailed reply, and will get it next issue, but, I’ll tell you, I just can’t wait that long to put in my two cents.
I have read not only mainstream commentators, but people who were in the anti-war movement comment on this book and on McNamara’s “apology” as if it somehow legitimates a true take on the period. I have heard people on the left thank this man for “coming out,” and even praising his courage.
Suppose Himmler wrote a book in 1970, 25 years after his Glory Days, saying, “well, yes, I guess I have to say that we were wrong. We didn’t adequately understand the other side. And we shouldn’t have undertaken the war as we did. After all, we couldn’t win. So, I apologize to my country for the lives we lost.” And suppose Himmler didn’t bother to mention the corpses of Jews, gypsies, communists, and others they butchered. What would have been the reaction in Germany? Horror and outrage. Without any doubt, Germans would have been incredulous that anyone could be so inhumane, dense, and willfully vile, even if he did shed a tear or two.
But our own war criminal writes a book with essentially the same import, with maybe a sentence about the Vietnamese people, with almost no insight into the war’s true purpose, causes, and results, apologizing not for a willful act of violence in pursuit of power and wealth for a world-plundering U.S. economic and social system and its prime beneficiaries, but only for being mistaken—and the only anger is about whether he may have gone too far, while progressives give thanks.
So as far as McNamara’s Parade is concerned, yes, I recognize that he is a rather pathetic and perhaps honestly sorrowful though horribly self-deluded ex-power broker. But I can’t help myself. Call me angry and spiteful. Say I don’t have the Christian spirit of forgiveness. Tell me I am ignoring the reality that it was institutions and not thugs like McNamara that were at the heart of the Vietnam war, and that remain at the heart of domestic and international horror to this day. and I’ll agree to all of it. Nonetheless, my feelings toward McNamara are best expressed in a lyric Dylan wrote about folks like him:
Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul
And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.