Tuesday, June 3, 2008

When the Left Was Right

Bill Kauffman--author of Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists and the recently published Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism--has written a rather interesting article, "When the Left Was Right", published about a fortnight ago by The American Conservative, in which he retrospects on the unfulfilled promise of the New Left movement of the 1960s. It's definitely worth a read, especially for those presently toiling in the fields of the libertarian movement's leftward frontier.

Kauffmann reminds his readers that before the New Left was overtaken by a mix of what was basically a new loudmouth generation of New Deal-style neoliberal corporatists and crass, intolerant and outright violent Stalinists and Marxist-Leninists, there really was quite a bit of libertarian decentralism in that movement:
"Let us remember the other New Left—a humane, decentralist, thoroughly American New Left that regarded socialism as 'a way to bury social problems under a federal bureaucracy,' in the words of Carl Oglesby, president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1965-66 and a key figure in its Middle American wing, which extended from independent anti-imperialist liberals to trans-Mississippi 'Prairie Power' radicals. ('Texas anarchists,' sneered the elite East Coast-schooled red-diaper babies at the hell-raising directional state college Prairie Power kids.)"
Oglesby, however, though he was without a doubt one of the brightest intellectual stars in the New Left's firmament, was, alas, hounded out of that movement by the barbarians who snuck past the gates:

"Oglesby was drummed out of SDS in a 1969 star-chamber trial. A harridan named Arlene Eisen Bergman arraigned him for being 'trapped in our early, bourgeois stage' and for not progressing into 'a Marxist-Leninist perspective.' Oglesby’s sins, as enumerated by Bergman, included 'that bizarre last chapter in your book...where you actually propose an alliance with what you call, let’s see, "principled conservatives".'

“'SDS is not trying to reach the readers of Life magazine,' [Bernardine] Dohrn shouted at Oglesby. Carl was expelled; he went on to record two fine albums of folk-Beat Americana, and one supposes that his vision came closest to being realized in the music of Bob Dylan, the Minnesota-bred Goldwater-admiring scourge of the masters of war who wrote in the liner notes to his 1993 album 'World Gone Wrong,' 'give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one.'

"What Oglesby called the 'freewheeling participatory democracy' of SDS was dynamited by the likes of [William] Ayers and Dohrn, representatives of the very worst of the anti-American Left, who have settled into their sixties in comfortable prosperity while Carl Oglesby, lacking inherited wealth, battles illness as best he can. Life ain’t fair. The cheerleaders and the rich boys always win, don’t they?"

In its best moments, the New Left also produced such fine scholars as William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko, both of whom made invaluable contributions to left-libertarian scholarship in their chronicles of the rise of the American corporatist state, that vast, tangled web of big government and big business that now ensnares communities and individuals, reducing them to mere means to a parasitic managerial class' limitless power-lust.

Read the whole thing, if you haven't already. Kauffman's conclusion is, I think, particularly prescient.

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