Drawing Inspiration and Lessons from US Activism of the 60’s and 70’s

July 8th 2011 | كتبها

July 7th, 2011

By Muhammad Abu Nasr

Questions occasionally come up about the content and importance – or lack of it – of the popular movements in the US during the 1960s and 1970s. While many of those who discuss the question were born long after those years, some of us actually are old enough to have lived through those times.

I lived and took part in those ‘old days’ of the Viet Nam era. In the draft ‘lottery’ my number came up relatively high, so I got lucky and never had to dash to Canada. But all males of that age were draft bait and the Viet Nam war went on for a long time.


But anyway I’d say that things were accomplished by the left in those days but they were quickly reversed because they weren’t deep changes.


The whole Reagan era was the ‘counterrevolution’ – a charismatic asshole actor was put up as the face of “America’s rebirth” and with money and human rights bullshit rhetoric and anti-sovietism, and Zionism, they launched a renewed, even more dangerous stage of US imperialist development.


At the pop-culture level, I saw the young people out in 2003 trying to live like it was 1970 or something but it struck me as silly and superficial, although I sympathized with their intentions. All tie-dyed shirts and store-bought peace symbols. (In 1970 I wasn’t even aware of tie-dyed clothes actually. I don’t know where that came from. But then in 1970 I was pretty hard left and the hard left didn’t care about ‘alternative life styles’ in those days.)

The Panthers and Weathermen only ‘rode the wave’ of mass rebellion that was really massive because in the Viet Nam War there was a draft and so everybody had to answer Maksim Gorky’s old question ‘whose side are you on?”


That stream of anti-war protest of course joined the “civil rights” stream that was also active at that time because the style of racism of the 1950s and before was very grotesque and obvious and, again, it forced everybody to take stands. Nobody could ignore it.


Previously in the US South, everything was separated according to race. Our doctor’s office sat on a corner and had two entrances (one in front and one on the side) one for Whites and one for Blacks, and two waiting rooms. The Blacks sat in the balcony of cinemas. Blacks couldn’t sit in public places with Whites, etc. They had to sit in the backs of busses and so on. When the US courts ordered integration in the early 1960s, many stores simply tore out their built-in chairs and refreshment areas rather than integrate them. Southern white racists lynched  a few people who tried on purpose to break those ‘color barriers’ and then the US federal government and court system forced an end to open segregation.


After all, the blatant oppression of Blacks was one of the best trump cards that Communist and Third World radicals had to play against US imperialism and its rhetoric about ‘human rights.’


Nixon ended the draft but it was too late for the Viet Nam era. Only now, today, with no draft and with huge deficit spending, the US ruling elite figure they can fight wars all over the world with nobody at home feeling anything or having to confront the cost of all this. And so far that is largely true. It was NOT true when there was a draft though, which is why there was massive protest.


What did the protests of the 1960s and 1970s do? Well, they did force Nixon to end the draft, which limited US military capabilities for some time – until the high-tech, high-cost, computerized, automated warfare of today really got going.


Even today, I’m quite sure that US imperialism would come crashing down within a few years if the US reinstituted the draft. This means that imperialism can’t draw on the 300 million US population to take part in its wars. Although modern warfare is high-tech and automated, we see the US military even today suffering from a shortage of manpower that forces them to keep sending their volunteer National Guards back to Afghanistan and Iraq for tour after tour after tour. In Viet Nam, one tour and you were done. Because they had the manpower.

So it does limit their options.


In that brief period of the 1970s before the right reasserted its total control beginning under Carter/Brzezinski and then full-bore under Reagan a lot of basic exposes of the dark side of US imperialism were published and undertaken. Some of those have been compartmentalized in the academic debate as ‘those Marxist studies’ but they did appear to be opening the door to some new approaches. The door was quickly shut, however.


One problem with the left then was that it was focused on the Viet Nam war and on Civil Rights. So when open racial segregation and explicit discrimination were ended and when the US largely pulled out of Viet Nam in 1973 and then the Vietnamese won in 1975 – when all that happened, the left pretty much just went home. As if the struggle was over. All they could think of doing was fighting for ecology as it was called then. And so the right reasserted itself.

In short, it was a time of acute social confrontation. Issues that people just couldn’t dodge because they impinged on your daily life.


One of the biggest, most successful tactics of the ruling elite has been to remove all such social-political questions from the public space, so that people can live their lives without ever having to face those issues.  This has been a deliberate strategy of the ruling class. It’s not some mass indifference of the common people, but rather the system has been deliberately redesigned to insulate the masses from the consequences and costs of “their own” US imperialism. So today, if people want to confront such things they have to go out of their way to do so. Which is why it’s anarchists and other hard leftists – all in relative social isolation – who think about such things.


This can’t last forever, but it probably will last until something comes along that will have to focus people’s attention on such matters once again.


And unfortunately next time the absence of the left means that most likely the politics that will emerge from some such confrontation will be largely reactionary. That’s my fear, anyway.


So even though some of the things rightists say from time to time (like Ron Pauls’ anti-governmentism) are useful in a limited way, I wouldn’t want to jump on that bandwagon because that will eventually, I think, reveal itself as highly elite-oriented.



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