Where Did They All Go? : What Actually Happened to the 70s radicals

“The kids of today must defend themselves against the 70s/it is not reality, it is someone else´s sentimentality/it will not work for us.” – Eddie Veder

It is sad that I rarely ever see a discussion of “What actually happened to the radicals of the 1970s after Thatcher and Reagan?” Max Elbaum’s 2006 book Revolution in the Air is about the only book that goes into it from the Marxist perspective, although the books on what could be seen as the glorious (counter-)revolutions of 1979 do cover the ultimate lost of the era.   What I hinted at earlier is the same generation of 1968/69 was leading us to Reagan has been under-explored in any serious manner–if the Joan Didion´s defection to Goldwater and then her counter-defection to the Democrats after Bush is indicative of the zeitgeist of boomers, we still have to account for what happened not only to the hippies, but the various Marxist and Marxist Leninist groups which emerged in the US.

Max Elbaum´s interview with MR is helpful is a bit too pat on its explanation of why the left seemed to dissolve, particularly the ML left until 2007-8.   The Marxist left in the US during the late 60s and early 70s was easily 20 times the size it is even now after Occupy.  Ironically, it was not a Marxist who put me onto Elbaum´s book, but a paleo-conservative who asked me a simple question. The paraphrase goes something like, “where did they all go in the states?  It is not like Iran and the revolution that they just aided liquidated the communist, so tell me? What happened? Look at this book at Max Elbaum, it is a real narrative of decline.”

Today, the same friend sent me a message and a blog post from the American Conservative,

Militant black revolutionary groups like The Black Panthers may have been a source of hope to some, but it’s willfully ignorant to write longingly about the lost “strategy and tactics” of The Panthers and others. Remember those calls to kill white police officers and violence between rival revolutionary groups? Yeah, those were the good ole days.

Mann goes on to review Michael C. Dawson’s Blacks In and Out of the Left, which traces how the white left co-opted or suppressed Black revolutionary groups. This may be true, but I think it’s unfair to suggest that this was motivated by self-interest alone. Some on the left were genuinely concerned about the “tactics” of such movements and about the narrowness of their Marxist vision.

And what about that vision? Mann claims that the leftist concern regarding “unity” was a red herring. Revolutionary groups, if supported, could have created a far more unified and diverse and international leftist movement in the United States than we have now. All white male elites had to do was jettison their self-serving liberalism and sign on the Marxist line!

Now, I am not going to claim this is far because, while TAC is probably one of the few “conservative” publications worth reading that has any mainstream readership, it is still written from a particular point of view and is not interested in the same qusetion.  The question is still interesting, let look at Mann´s article:

Given the creativity, tactical brilliance, broad appeal, courage, and moral vision of the thousands of independent black cultural, women’s, and social service collectives, how can we explain the decline of black-led radical organizations? Having participated in such organizations for almost five decades and studied the history of revolutionary movements my whole life, I see three major reasons.

First, we should not take for granted how difficult it is to build and sustain any revolutionary organization. Contradictions among members and constituent groups make voluntary unity difficult to maintain. The larger an organization is, the greater the diversity in race, class, sexual orientation, and personality and the more internal contradictions.

Second, since the 1960s, the U.S. government has increasingly refused to concede even the smallest demands of working people and the poor. Social welfare programs are being shut down, unions are being broken, and civil rights, voting rights, and labor laws are being reversed. While in theory this can also generate a revolutionary response, and sometimes does, it can also discourage people as they begin to see revolution as a lost cause.

Third—and, in my view, the primary reason for the decline—is the brutal suppression of social movements by the state. The history is unequivocal: it is when black people garner mass support within their own communities and achieve a high level of unity with revolutionaries of all races that the heavy hammer of the white power structure comes down the hardest. Marcus Garvey, the brilliant leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was convicted in 1925 on a spurious charge of federal mail fraud, spent two years in prison, was deported to Jamaica, and was never able to rebuild his organization from exile. Claudia Jones, a great feminist and internationalist leader in the U.S. Communist Party during the 1930s, was deported to England where she played a major role in black politics but died in poverty. Paul Robeson said that black people would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union; as a result he was under constant police surveillance, denied his passport and therefore his livelihood as a globally renowned singer, and driven to a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. W.E.B. DuBois was also denied his passport and prosecuted as “an unregistered agent of a foreign power.” He eventually left the United States to live and die in Ghana. Martin Luther King, Jr. was under constant police wiretapping; J. Edgar Hoover’s explicit plan was to drive him, as well, to a nervous breakdown. These prominent leaders were among thousands of dedicated freedom fighters who were beaten, tortured, and imprisoned.

How brutal was the suppression of the movement?  It is hard to say since all states use passports and enemy agent tactics to maintain power, including liberal and leftist ones.  Still, it seems very clear that suppression movement was real, extra-legal, and beyond standard US jurisprudence.  But it idiotic to NOT expect the state to do that? The Tzarist state did much worse against the Bolsheviks for example.  The general monopoly on power and violence is part of the very definition of the nation state, and exceptions to that are definitely part of the function state power.  It would be naive in the extreme to blame the state for the death of a moment which should have been aware that the state was enemy number 1.  That was, at minimum, the case in period of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton.

The murder of Newton is particularly vivid, but most of the female leadership of the Panthers is still with us: where they somehow not as dangerous?  I heard Greg Proops´s make a joke that, “all the Panther men ended up dead or in prison, and all the Panther women ended up professors.”   Proops´s was making a point about the intelligence of women but did go into the whole detail.   It is true that even conservatives at TAC actually seem to admired how much the Panthers build infrastructure for their communities on their own, but few talk about how Newton was betrayed by informants who had criminal records and where those easily exploited and targeted by the police.   That is no excuse for the police murder of Newton, and to be certain it was a murder, but again for revolutionary groups this seems particularly problematic.

In this way, this analysis of the state seems to want to have the cake and eat it too: the revolution without causalities in creation.  Such liberal naivete is deadly to all sides involved, most particularly the revolutionaries. Still, I have a hard time believing that serious revolutionaries could bend so quick if they actually were serious. In this I am not talking the Panther´s leadership, who did put their action where their mouth was in setting up counter-institutions and other means of para-state social welfare that one generally sees in religious groups and political parties (think Hamas or the revolutionary guard of Iran).  I am talking about the people around such groups.

If the milieu was ever disciplined, why was the violence that it should have expected so shocking to it?  Since, particularly among white activists, there were no such pogroms and imprisonment and harassed did not even reach 1950s levels, why was the die-off so quick and seeming so permanent.

If the “Marxian” left were more serious about its talk of revolution, it would seem to me like it would vitally want to answer these questions without cliche and with real numbers and statistics.   Few groups seem to have done this as both 1979 and 1989 have made funding from foreign powers for such research pretty much nil.

Furthermore, this brings me to Mann´s first paragraph:

Since the March on Washington fifty years ago, the condition of black people has deteriorated; today they are subject to injustices ranging from mass unemployment to mass incarceration. Yet gone is the rhetoric of militant hope, black liberation, and economic equality generated by the Third World revolutions five decades ago. It is difficult even to draw on the lessons and legacies of these revolutions, for the state suppression of radical organizations in the 1960s has extended into the suppression of their history. As Mumia Abu Jamal explained, young black people are suffering from “menticide,” deprived of their tradition, its strategy and tactics, and the hope it provides.

The hope still exists. While there has been real rumbling lately outside of the black agenda report, about if Obama was good for America. A Real Clear Politics article from August 2013 is clear on this:

Buried in a New York Times story about the economy was this arresting statistic: Median family income for black Americans has declined a whopping 10.9 percent during the Obama administration. It has declined for other groups as well — 3.6 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 4.5 percent for Hispanics – but the figure for blacks is huge. This decline does not include losses suffered during the financial crisis and the recession that followed, but it instead measures declines since June 2009, when the recession officially ended.

That’s not the only bad news for African-Americans. The poverty rate for blacks is now 25.8 percent. The black labor force participation rate, which rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has declined for the past decade and quite sharply under Obama to 61.4 percent. The black unemployment rate, according to Pew Research, stands at 13.4 percent. Among black, male, high school dropouts, PBS’ Paul Salmon reports, the unemployment rate is a staggering 95 percent.

Ignoring the apologia for Reagan, it is interesting how much this articles echoes points made by the Black Agenda report (see these articles from 2013 alone) but with a far less radical edge.  Yet even the B.A.R. has been largely disheartened by the disconnect between the polls in the black community around Obama and that community’s material well-being.  An article by Glen Ford discussed how long it took for Obama to lose even slight numbers in the black community:

There could be no possible reason for such a disconnect from reality than the ascension of Barack Obama to the White House. We wrote extensively about the phenomena in Black Agenda Report, beginning with an article titled “Living a Black Fantasy: The Obama Delirium Effect,” in which we concluded that “ObamaL’aid is a mind altering substance, a hallucinogen…that makes Black people see progress when they are actually facing disaster.”

Four years later, the Pew poll shows that a portion of Black folks have snapped out of the delirium, and now see the world, and their actual position in it, more clearly. But, many more have not yet faced the fact that Obama is a servant of Wall Street who offers Blacks nothing but his own physical presence in the White House.

Of course, within the 26 percent who still think that Blacks are in a better situation, are a few folks who really have made personal progress in the worst of times. The rest, however, are still trippin’.

Obama’s approval rating among Blacks dropped dramatically this year, too, from 93 percent in April, to 88 percent in June, down to 78 percent in July – no doubt heavily influenced by the unfolding Trayvon Martin saga. The general trend should be slowly downward, punctuated by events, for the next three and a half years – as people are forced to confront the facts of the disaster that has befallen Black America. But some Black folks will never kick the ObamaL’aid, until the inevitable forced withdrawal. And then begins the Great Hangover – a mass Black psychological downer that will be as intense as the delirious highs of 2008 and 2009.

So hope springs eternal, just not militant hope one supposes.   Will we be asking where the liberals have gone in 20 years?  Will we be asking about Occupy?  And by that time will someone know what happened to all those 1970s radicals: how many of them voted for Reagan?  How many didn’t vote at all?  They had to go somewhere.  They were not all Huey P. Newton, or even Huey P. Long .

(originally posted here)


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