Treating History as Experiment

DEC. 20, 1988


I made this speech on a panel called "The Failure of the Left" at the
Tikkun conference in New York, 1988.

Proceeding without a map

            We cannot discuss failure without first discussing goals. What failure are we addressing? Our failure to help the Democrats get Dukakis elected? Our failure to build a more benign form of capital ism, where people can count on at least having a roof over their heads and some medical care? Our failure to stop our government from tyrannizing over much of the world and trying to overthrow any government to the left of itself? Our failure to create a society where people can lead meaningful lives t hat contribute to the common good?
            A specter is haunting this conference--it is the specter of ourselves in 1968. Let us summon up this specter from the mist, and consider our goals at that time.
            Our first goal was to create a society where exploitation did not exist and work and wealth would flow freely, in Marx's phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
            Our second goal can also be summed up in a phrase from Marx: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the freedevelopment of each is the condition for the free development of all."
            Our third goal was to make these conditions prevail worldwide, for all classes and races of people, and for both men and women.
            I became a leftist because I wanted to build that kind of society. So did most of the people who have become leftists since 1789. Remember that there has really only been an organized left since t he French Revolution. In the last two hundred years, the left has developed three main ways of trying to reach these goals:
            1) We have built communes, utopian communities and subcultures, trying, in the Wobblies' phrase, to “build a new society within the shell of the old.” And we found that, though we could establish more equalitarian and humane communities than the larger society, they had little impact on the society as a whole. Our experiments got marginalized, like the Shakers; disintegrated or were coopted, like the communes of the Sixties; or were wiped out, like the Wobblies and the Spanish anarchists.
            2) We have tried to bring about democratic socialism by protracted educational campaigns leading to the election of a socialist party. On the local level, as in Milwaukee, where I grew up, socialists built a well-run city with an exemplary system of public parks, but did not address problems like racism and exploitation. On the national level, as in Sweden, the election of democratic socialists led to a form of welfare capitalism much more benign than our own. But Thatcherism teaches us that such progress can be reversed. And in Latin America, where even democracy takes a revolution, the only democratically-elected socialist government, in Chile , was overthrown by the army and the old ruling classes with help from the CIA, and wound up in a bloodbath.
            3) We have tried armed revolutions and civil wars leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and have found that, while this method could lead to a change of state power, it did not lead to socialism, or a reasonably satisfying lifefor people in the countries affected. No one is at this point quicker to point out the flaws in this method than the leaders of the USSR and China. Like the ad says, ask the man who owns one.
            If you are trying to get from New York to San Francisco, and your map only leads to Buffalo, what do you do? Do you say it is impossible to get to San Francisco? Do you go to Buffalo and call it San Francisco? Do you decide to just stay home?
            That is the situation of the left. Does that mean we have failed? Yes and no. If we conclude that, since we did not reach our goals, it is impossible to reach them, and abandon politics, then we have failed. If we grow angry with the left for deceiving us, call ourselves dupes and join the right, then we have failed. If we say, forget about goals, and work only for limited reforms, piling one grain of sand upon another, we will not have failed entirely but we will only get to Buffalo when we could have gone to San Francisco. But if we conclude that the map needs more work, we will not have failed. We will merely have begun the second lap of our journey.
The sound of one hand clapping
            In any generation on the left before my own, I would not have been speaking on a panel like this. It would never have occurred to anyone that women were qualified by experience , intelligence and education, to speak on this level. There might have been a token woman on a panel or two, or women moderators. There might even have been a panel on the special concerns of mothers or women workers. But there never would have been such a large number of women speakers on various topics and no woman since Rosa Luxumburg would been asked to speak on the failures of the left at a conference of this importance.
            This is partly because my generation is the first in which a large number of leftwing women have been equal in experience to men and thus able to challenge their authority. Receiving equal education, we learned to speak with an elegance and authority unavailable to most women in preceding generations. Working outside the home, we earned money, still the only reliable quantifier of value in capitalist society. And we not only worked in the leftas leaders and organizers, but built a movement which rivaled itin influence, achievement and staying power.
            Some leftwing women in earlier periods had these qualities as individuals, but t here weren't very many of them, so they were easily isolated, marginalized , and made into token women leaders. Large numbers of women were active on the rank and file levelin both the Socialist and Communist parties, but they did not become leaders, worked mainly with women, and nobody listened to them most of the time. I will not dwell on this point, which I make at length in an article in the current issue of Dissent, and illustrate in my new novel, Union Square, which devotes considerable attention to organizing done by Communist women. Suffice itto say that the left has been as crippled by sexism as the larger society. Its theory does not accurately describe the world and its practice does not prefigure any society most of us would want to belong to. How could a theory and practice based, at best, on the experience of only half the human race possibly be adequate?
How do you make socialist men and women in a capitalist society?
            There is continual tension between a leftwing movement's need to sustain itself (by building organizations, communities, a way of life) and its need to be born anew in each generation. For if itis not born anew, itcannot reach new people, and is doomed to become merely a marginal subculture that passes from parents to children. But how do people who, as Mike Lerner said in his opening address, carry the scars of the past and can only go so far in any given generation, become different enough from their parents—actual and political—to be able to get the next generation a step or two farther along?
            Due to the persecutions of the government, its own failures, and the deadening effect of Stalinism, the Old Left was by the late Fifties becoming no more than this kind of subculture, with its own songs, summer camps , and code words like “progressive.” But a sufficient number of people from that generation—often no longer members of any party—were still able to recognize and respond to the new thing that was born in the Civil Rights movement, and so pass on what they knew of a Marxist tradition. It should be noted that these Old Leftists, many of them immigrant Jews, had always identified with the black struggle inthis country, and were peculiarly open to an appeal for justice that came from the children of black sharecroppers. They were not similarly open to appeals that came from their own children inthe student and women’s movements, which they saw as breeding grounds for petty bourgeois deviations.
            We inthe New Left wanted to build a movement that would not suffer from the bureaucratic deformations of our elders, their dogmatism, their slavishness to Russian leaders and examples, and the way they sacrificed personal and family lifeto political duty. We wanted to merge the personal and political, not subordinate one to the other. Particularly in the civil rights movement and the women's movement, we experienced moments of transcendent unity. We wanted to keep these moments alive in our everyday life and did not know how. But we knew that large topdown organizations were not the way. Our vehicle of social change was not the party but the movement, which we imagined as a vast network linking affinity groups; while intimate and supportive, these groups could act together because they were moved by the same passionate dreams. Our vision is summed up in the phrase from the civil rights movement, "the beloved community."
            We could build it every now and then for about ten minutes—ten minutes so wonderful that we could imagine spending the rest of our lives working to make them come again. But our vision of the movement was such a dream of the young, so out of synch with the realities of making a living and raising kids, that age alone eroded it—our own age. And even before that, the movement turned into its opposite: our women's networks split apart in the most bitter, confused, devastating ways; our democratic young men turned into strutting little demagogues, military leaders without armies; our sympathy for the Vietnamese and horror at what our government was doing turned into the most slavish Third Worldism; and our fight against racism turned into impotent guilt on the one hand and the cult of the heroic black convict on the other.
            To a jaundiced eye, it might seem we were acting out the psychological truism that, first children overthrow their parents , then they become them. And indeed, many children of the New Left went all the way, becoming Marxist-Leninists of the most dogmatic sort, at least for a time. And then came the Age of Reagan, when we all saw the limitations of the Sixties' effect on national consciousness and the community we relied on was disoriented, demobilized, swept away.
            But this painful history is more than a list of mistakes. We changed the face of this country. What we must do now is look at our work honestly and see what we can learn from it, and hold onto our goals. I think the chief contribution of the generation of ‘68, around the world, was to articulate the idea of socialism with a human face. In this country, that meant a socialism that is part of everyday life but is capable of transcending it.
            When the women 's movement seceded in the late 60s and early 70s, we took a lot of the humanity in that face with us. We had to leave. It was the only way we could find our own voices and begin to work out our own politics. We are now strong enough to outtalk, outbuild, and outlast the avatars of the male left who strove to become political machines. But none of us are organized. And there are so many questions we can't answer: how to build unity despite differences, how to use leaders and help them be responsible without making them into gods, how to share work so we don't burn out, how to pass on what we know to the next generation.
            But finding the right questions is half the battle. The three forms of political struggle I talked about at the beginning—building alternative subcultures, democratic socialism, and communism—each focus around one of the central questions: 1) personal change for me, now-—rebirth; 2) democracy—giving everyone a voice; and 3) power: getting enough of it to really change things so they will stay changed. Each generation asks these questions differently, but I am confident that if we keep asking them, keep re-examining our history, and evaluating our work, sooner or later we will find out what we need to know.