Don't Waste Any Time in Mourning: Organize!
Most are familiar with that justly famous exhortation of Joe Hill in 1915, made just before he was to be executed by a firing squad. If things look bleak to us today, thing of how much bleaker they must have looked to Joe Hill at that terrible moment. Think, too, of the many-faceted bleakness facing so many in the decades to follow who, despite and because of fierce opposition, "organized," no matter what. Had they not, and had they not won more than a little, today's terrible world would be that much worse.
For those who have spent years trying to move society toward decency, equality, sanity, and peace, these times could break the heart; and Joe's words ring more truly than ever. With all the reforms accomplished in the USA from the '30s on, the education, health care, and housing for a majority remained disgracefully inadequate in the 1970s; but not inadequate enough as those in power have seen things: as the '70s ended, the processes of undoing those reforms began — along with a reheated militarism, the cruel disgrace of Vietnam notwithstanding. Now, in a blitz that seems unstoppable, we and the world the U.S. dominates are coming face to face with multiple untold disasters.
Maybe it's unstoppable; maybe not. It is not merely dreaming to believe there is more than a glimmer of hope. There are several reasons for thinking so.
The first regards pessimistic predictions: We don't know enough about society — nor shall we ever — to support either optimistic or pessimistic predictions about the future.
The social process is an ever more kaleidoscopic mix of interacting and mutually transforming economic, cultural, military, political and scientific/technological variables. The resulting complexities make it difficult fully to understand even the past; to predict how all that will work out in the future is so indeterminate that to anticipate even month-to-month changes of any substance is hard enough; accurate forecasts for future years are virtually impossible — even by the most astute Marxists, let alone mainstream social "scientists."
Consider a variety of examples from the past: In 1910, nobody anticipated the Russian revolution of 1917, nor, in 1922, the birth of fascism in Italy or, even after it had taken hold there, its spread to much of Europe and to Japan. Closer to home, in the USA as late as 1932, anyone who had argued there would be instituted what became the post-1935 New Deal would have been thought a halfwit.
And, some will remember that the young in the 1950s were called the "silent generation." Silent they were, on the surface; but there was an underwater volcano simmering which, even before the '50s ended, had begun to froth near the surface. Not long after, it produced what became the civil rights movement in the South and the student movement on campuses. (For an insightful early look at that "simmering" see the 1958 book [and later eponymous movie] by Richard Farina, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.)
It wasn't long before both adults and "kids" became very noisy about matters never in the news a few years earlier — about racism and poverty, nukes and Vietnam and, more than a few, about South Africa: The young blacks who ordered coffee in the wrong place in the early '60s didn't spring from nowhere; nor did the anti-nuke and "peace candidates" in the 1960 elections in New York and Massachusetts — who had considerable student participation.
In short, the transformation of attitudes and behavior from the '50s to the '60s did not descend from the heavens; those flowering plants emerged from no longer dormant seeds.
The particulars of that past will not be repeated, but for the present and future there are good grounds for thinking we can do at least as well; and we'd better to more than that. One basis for thinking so is as forbidding as it is hopeful: the cherished lefty notion that worsening times energize people to change things for the better. It is forbidding because such times also step up right-wing energies.
Nor are the odds even as good as 50–50 as between movement to left or right politically, for those in power normally — naturally — assist those of the right, "lest a worse fate befall." Nevertheless, these worsening times do furnish some basis for hope — especially when we join them to the more cheering current reality that has to do with (perhaps surprisingly) the young of today. Of which, more in a moment.
First, a short walk on the precarious dialectical side. As today's USA becomes always more dangerous, obscene, and corrupt, it is entirely likely that (1) hitherto complacent people, as in the past, will be provoked by anger or fear to do more than just vote for Tweedledee/dum (if that); and (2) that those who have been politically active will become considerably more so.
In the USA, that has happened more than once, and in a big way in the 1930s. Being political in those distant days meant taking unaccustomed, difficult, and often dangerous steps in the socio-economic realm: For workers, attempts to form an independent union — as distinct from the then common company version— was always an uphill and dangerous battle. But struggle up that steep hill they did, one battle after another. Most prominently there were struggles in autos, rubber, coal, and steel — featuring such innovations as sit-ins and, on the waterfront of San Francisco, the USA's first general strike.
It took courage and imagination to do all that in the midst of the worst depression in history, especially in a country whose president (Coolidge) only a few years earlier had unerringly announced that "The Business of America is business." Until 1938, the USA had
- no minimum wage or maximum hours
- no laws against child labor
- no unemployment compensation
- no paid vacations
- no pensions
- no employer-financed health care
Union work took courage. At this time, although unions were technically legal, strike were illegal ("invasions of property rights"). Even after successful unionization, throughout the entire '30s — even after protective laws — efforts at unionization continued to be met by firings, injuries, jailings, and killings. As late as 1933, and even after, nobody had expected anything like those displays of determination.
Also, and much to the shocked surprise of journalists and politicians, there was a noteworthy quantitative increase and qualitative shift in electoral efforts on local, state, and national levels after 1932, producing in 1934 a Congress that was very different from its predecessors. Soon after, FDR, though a conservative Democrat when elected, was persuaded that there had better be a "Second New Deal" before the 1936 election, or he would lose it! Thus, the Second New Deal began in 1935 with the enactment of Social Security, and went on from there. It went not as far as it could have or should have gone, but considerably farther than anyone had dreamed.
But! In addition to those and other positive developments of a "left of center" trend, were the developments of an opposite (though not equal) trend to the right. Its best-known groups were Father Coughlin's Silver Shirts in Detroit and Huey Long's "Share the Wealth" movement (which had begun as left populist but, with help of the major Louisiana oil companies, became right populist). However, in the USA in the 1930s — already the richest country in the world, by far — neither left nor right movements had either the import or the strength they had in Europe, severe depression notwithstanding. Thus, even though by 1933 the U.S. economy's production had fallen by 50 percent — matching Germany's, as the two the worst in the world — great though the misery of the unemployed and poor was, they remained relatively less badly off than their European counterparts.
Moreover, the U.S. union movement was still very weak; despite the hopes and efforts of the few small left groups, unions never went beyond seeking reforms, never constituted a labor movement — one, that is, seeking a different socioeconomic system.
In short, U.S. business had no need to fear anything like a socialist revolution; and, in that the emergence of fascism was a response to a socialist threat, no likelihood of fascism. By the same token, if it was extremely unlikely that the USA would go either way, it was a virtual certainty that countries like Italy, Germany, France, and Japan would go either fascist or socialist.
So, with support from their economic and political power structures, the doors to fascism opened: Italy, 1922, Germany, 1933, Japan, 1929. (France was more than "halfway" to fascism before the German occupation.)
Today? In the USA there exists no likelihood of a strong socialist movement soon; however, times have changed such that an "americanized" fascism has become a distinct possibility, even without a socialist threat. It had begun to seem so already as the 1970s ended. Then the USA began its evolving lurch toward what Bertram Gross called Friendly Fascism (in his 1980 book of that title) – "friendly" because, in the absence of a broad and deep left movement, and in contrast with the fascisms of the interwar period, the need for deep and violent repression is limited: Not Auschwitz, but some variations on the U.S. "relocation camps" for the Japanese and today's Guantanamo; not the mass executions of a Pinochet, but a "few" prominent leftists (likely to be called "terrorists") given show trials and then life or death; not book burnings, but the relegation of critical works to an underground; not mass firings in the universities, but a rebirth and intensification of earlier repressive programs.
What is above termed "limited" would not seem so to those directly and indirectly afflicted. It can be limited because any likelihood of there being a well-organized and strong left movement in the U.S. after World War II was seriously crippled by the systematic and lingering effects of McCarthyism and the Cold War. That earlier repression and the rampant selfish individualism fed by consumerism, have had a devastating effect on not only the consciousness and character of the people of the USA but also on our politicians, unions, universities and, of course, the media.
The present administration and Supreme Court already have the power and the inclination to move toward and even beyond those "limited" forms of repression and, as well, to war(s) and increased socioeconomic injustice. Unless we develop more than intermittent demonstrations into an always stronger movement to reverse present trends, we must expect that the both the power and the inclination of their creators will increase.
Remember and be warned: In Germany, as things went from very bad in the early 30s through indescribable horrors by their end, its "free" population came to earn the ironic title of "The Good Germans" — those who had not been Nazi enthusiasts, and might have very much disliked some of its doings, but who kept their misgivings to themselves (and, who, after the war, told themselves and others that had they only known, they would have behaved differently).
We of USA we have long been habituated to being "Good Americans" — looking the other way as regards slavery, racism, the exploitation of workers (including that of children) and of nature, and, among much else, as concerns our many repugnant political and military interventions abroad. To go from that to becoming "Friendly Fascist Americans" would not be a great leap.
In sum, though richer and more powerful than ever, as concerns the matters just noted we are not as different from other countries as we were in the 1930s. That is, even though the dour hope contains some hopeful possibilities, by itself the hope that depends upon bad times leading to a better politics remains at best problematic for the USA. Fortunately, there is that still that sweeter side to consider. It is also problematic, but by no means as scary. I refer to the young people of today, those between about 15 and 30. In my experience and observation they are sharply different from their counterparts in the years since World War II.
First some personal background...I started teaching in 1949 in the San Francisco Bay Area, thence to New York for many years, then back to the Bay Area until now; meanwhile, beginning in the 1960s, I began also to teach in Italy. I still teach both in the Bay Area and in Italy, half the year in each country.
All along the way I have been much involved with students in the classroom, in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam struggles up into the 1970s and, more recently, in globalization and war/peace controversies.
Now I say this about today's young people: They are something else, very different from earlier generations and very probably for the better as regards the possibilities of a growing movement.
"What?" it will be said. "The young of the '60s — at least some of them — were wonderful: lively, irreverent, daring, courageous, funny, freaky: Chicago, storming the Pentagon, Woodstock, cool!" I agree; some of my best friends then — when I was old enough to be their father — are among my best friends still. But what universally marked that generation was disillusionment. And it marks them still, along with, now as parents, endless worries about "kids."
As anyone can see, today's young are freaky too, very often in a non-attractive way: Those goddamned rings in their noses, bellybuttons, and who knows where else; that blaring, banging music; those grungy clothes, those low-hanging jeans: "You can see the ring in the bellybuttons!"; their ways of speaking; other irritants. That's the surface.
Under the surface is something very hopeful and reassuring for a distinct minority, enigmatic for the rest. In that distinct minority, those I have observed up close are just as decent as earlier generations, at least as intelligent and informed as their elders, and more likely to join a demo. But they do so with a big and hopeful difference.
Being idealistic seems to go with the territory of being young; my "youth generation" in the '30s was, those in the '60s were, today's are. But, and very much unlike those of 1930s and 1960s, the young people I know now are totally without illusions: The corruption, the lies, the cruelty, the irrationality, the obscene twinned existences of extreme wealth and extreme poverty and of the poor health of our people and the wasting away of our environment: That's this system, man; normal.
But they don't like it; they are angry and very much so; at the same time, they are eager for something much better. That's what sends those of the attractive minority to all those demos in goodly amounts in the USA and elsewhere, where they always outnumber their elders. You can't help but notice how they predominate, whether in San Francisco or Washington, D.C., in Genoa or Florence, in London or Paris, wherever. Nor, behind that anger, can you fail to see how friendly, how decent, they seem; how internationalist, and "interracial" they and their banners and slogans are.
That bunch is of course a minority of today's young. There is also the "skinhead" minority and a large and seemingly apathetic middle. Taken together, they are pretty frightening in appearance and, a few, in behavior. Virtually all the young people today strike me as feeling lost, adrift but, at the same time, trapped in a dull, senseless, dangerous, and stupid society; and angry at pretty much the same matters as the left-leaning minority. And some of the skinheads, it has been noted, are rebels waiting for a good cause, rather than a dirty fight.
In this — alas! — the latter may be seen as similar to a significant number of the German Nazis — those murdered on "the night of the long knives," taken in by what the acronym Nazi stood for: National Socialist German Workers' Party.
In all the foregoing respects (except "illusions") the young of today stand in significant resemblance to their '60s predecessors. And is it not entirely probable that their irritating ways of dressing and acting are their means for giving the finger to the complacency of both their parents and other "grown-ups" who, with few exceptions, rarely lift their fingers to reverse the USA from its descent into the slime?
Moreover, if we take visible opposition as a measure, the young today constitute a higher percentage than their counterpart elders at similar times of need. If and when the non-young activists increase in numbers, so too will the young; but, as was suggested above and will be further pursued below, the vital need is for the non-young very soon to involve themselves/ourselves considerably more, both numerically and creatively — if hope is not to be snuffed out by the building repression.
In support of that, it is important to remember that when the young of the 1960s came to be politically formidable, whether for civil rights or against poverty, the draft, and the Vietnam war, they were joining already existent movements whose roots had been planted and nourished for many years.
A seeming exception was the civil rights movement, which came to be symbolized by young blacks illegally ordering a cup of coffee. The young blacks did outnumber their elders from the 60s on, but they had been brought to that point by at least two prior sources: (1) a long, recognized and, among them, well-known pre- and post-Civil War history of struggle and sacrifice by their forebears up through the 1930s, (2) the added and vital impetus provided by black GIs back from a war that was publicized as meant to end oppression abroad — with never a reference to the oppression "at home." These forces now joined with the associated and simultaneously energized resentments of a whole people who refused to go to the back of the bus anymore or to put up with the murders of their leaders, let alone of little girls in church. And, as those young blacks were joined by (mostly) young whites, new and charismatic leaders emerged — along with always more victims.
Driven as much by shame as by decency — a century after the Civil War — the nation answered with modest reform legislation. But for the past 25 years or so we have been moving back to where we were before the 60s, and at an always accelerating rate.
Just as the civil rights movement did not just sprout out of the ground in the '60s, neither did the antiwar movement. Unbeknownst to most, during World War II, and in conjunction with cooperative war efforts with Ho Chi Minh against the Japanese in Vietnam, FDR agreed that the Vietnamese would become independent after the war. Soon after his death in April, 1945, that agreement was broken: Already in the late fall of 1945 (and I witnessed this) U.S. ships were transporting British and Dutch troops (newly-freed from Japanese prisons) from Manila to Hanoi to hold the fort until the French could arrive in 1946. (See Marilyn Blatt Young, The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990.)
The few who knew about that and similar developments began already in the early 1950s to protest, not in demos (for there was too little awareness), but through writing and teaching. By the early '60s that produced the Inter-University Committee for a Debate on Foreign Policy (the campus "teach-ins"): a prof vs. the U.S. interventions in Vietnam, arguing with a CIA or State or "Defense" Department person for.
When those teach-ins started, the students were either indifferent or supportive of the government. By the end of 1965 that was in dramatic reversal, because (1) government reps, by then being booed off the stage, became "no-shows," and (2) to be drafted to fight in what was becoming a well-publicized dirty war served as an educational force in its own right. So the organizers of the teach-ins, in coalition with civil rights, anti-nuke, and a sprinkling of left groups, concluded that it was time for what became numerous and always larger demos and created "the Mobe," (Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam). A substantial majority of Mobe marchers and participants from 1966 on were young people.
The same may be said for today's demos. The information and spirit behind the "no global" and antiwar demos have been underway for many years, organized by Global Exchange, Food First, "peace and justice" and other such groups dating back to the late '50s and early '60s.
Until recently, all such efforts were moving slowly uphill. It's still uphill, but now with considerably more momentum. However, if today's patterns and procedures do not go beyond those of the '60s, whether as regards domestic or overseas concerns, our and the world's future will continue to plunge to the bottom. Why?
The reasons are several and can only be barely touched upon here. First, in all cases in the past, the efforts made were adequate to gain certain domestic reforms or to help stop a war, but were both qualitatively and quantitatively inadequate to bring about sufficient or lasting changes.
The fault did not lie with any age group, old or young, but in the past and present limitations of "lib/left" politics in the USA (and, by now, not only in the USA). This is not the place to propose "plans for a new movement." But a suggestion can be made: We need broad-based, deep, and continuous discussions among all participant groups of a potential movement if our weaknesses are to be overcome.
A good beginning would be see to it that an integral part of all planning meetings for demos will be serious discussions and plans integrating short-term and long-term strategy and tactics: What will we be doing "the day after"? It is unquestionable that demos serve vital educational and energizing purposes; they are essential for the long-term as well as for immediate purposes. But they are something like exercise and health: a demo now and then with nothing in between is like a bike ride every Sunday, with a foolish diet and no exercise for the rest of the week.
Our "exercise and diet" must consist of steady self-education and reaching out to others — at work, with friends, family and neighbors, in our various civic or other organizations, etc. There is so much that we and they must learn and unlearn, so much that is wrong but that we have been socialized to see as OK or better; so much apathy, so much baseless fear, so much learned ignorance — and so little time.
Is all this a backdoor way of saying that we need is a third party? The answer is "Yes, but." Having been a third party candidate and having managed campaigns on both the local and the national level in the past, what follows is based on harsh experience: Of course a third party is essential. But since at least World War II, its history has been something like demos: lots of activity building up to elections, and damn little in between.
A third party can only be meaningful insofar as it is part of a an always building movement; and where still weak, seeing elections as mainly educational opportunities, until never-ending political work has made it into a movement with breadth, depth, and muscle.
That does not exclude the real possibility of third party victories on the local and even the state levels; the need, however, is to create a national movement: What profiteth a movement if it wins on the local level while the rest of the nation violates civil liberties, allows millions to be deathly ill, goes to war...?
We cannot displace the existing fortress of political, economic, and cultural power with appeals for decency, equality, peace, and sanity. Quite apart from any other consideration, those who rule from that fortress are either scornful of such appeals or define those words in ways that allow them to see themselves as their benefactors. For example, Does Ashcroft portray himself as against civil liberties? Does G. W. Bush present himself as against equality, or adequate medical care, or for war? Do the media paint themselves as corrupted and corrupting? Do the economists touting "free markets" tout themselves as capitalist ideologues?
We can't change them, but we can change ourselves. Indeed, we must change ourselves if we are to change the many inactive others we need to have join us — not just in our and their political behavior, but in how we think and feel. For we, too, have been captivated in some degree by our country's standards; we too have been less concerned than we need be about past and continuing inequalities, violations of human rights and of nature. And all the rest.
Enough already. Born in 1919, I have lived through many scary periods; this one is the scariest, and gets more so each day. Those of us who see that must reach out to one another and to others we don't yet know, and get to work. In doing so, we will almost inevitability undergo some very unpleasant moments and find ourselves working with people not entirely endearing to us; nor we to all of them. That has to be taken as given!
What is also true, but not so obvious, is that working hard for a better society, whatever its bumps and scratches, is a fulfilling process — not in some foolish ecstasy, but in the realization of one's humanity, and that of others. Those who have done so, know that; those who haven't will find it so.
Time is running out. In the ancient saying, "If not me, who? If not now, when?"