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Which Side is the Left On? An answer to Michael Kazin By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 11, 2001


WRITING in the Oct.7 "Week in Review" section of Sunday’s New York Times, historian Michael Kazinonce leader of the Harvard Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter and for a short time, a member himself of the Weatherman faction has written a news analysis for the paper of record on the topic of what has happened to the American Left since September 11. Kazin’s piece might have been appropriate as an Op-Edbut appearing in the paper’s news review section, it has the imprimatur of an approved news report by the Times’ editors. Readers of the paper are told that Kazin is a historian at Georgetown University, as well as co-author with Maurice Isserman of a book on the 60s New Left. But it does not point out that today Kazin still is himself a committed activist and member of the Left, a man who shares its hopes and who is deeply concerned with its future in America.

Kazin’s article is in fact both a eulogy to the Left and an elegy, given that his conclusion is that "the chance to build a new left may already have passed." In his retrospective look at the Left in the past decade, Kazin begins by taking note of what differentiated the student Left today from its counterpart in the 1960s. Then, with George Meany heading the AFL-CIO, the New Left saw the labor movement as what it termed a reactionary institution, in which workers supported the very forces that oppressed them, leaving the forces of change emanating only from the black underclass the "lumpenproletariat" in Marxist jargonand students who were their natural allies. But today’s Left went back in inspiration to the 1930s, and like the Communists and Socialists of that era, once again sought to forge a new partnership between student radicals and the labor movement. Their hopes broadened once Lane Kirkland’s post-Meany leadership dissolved, and the AFL-CIO went into the hands of John Sweeney and his associates, who staffed the upper echelons of the new staff positions with graduates of the 60s Left. The result was most visible in the participation of the AFL-CIO in the student led "anti-globalization" riots in Seattle and Washington, DC; as well as in the new foreign policy arm of the AFL-CIO, that disbanded the anti-Communist activities of labor’s foreign policy arm and began to concentrate instead on issues like opposition to NAFTA and boycotting of sweatshops in Third World countries.

Kazin neglects to comment on what always was a rather precarious alliance. Many union workers, desiring jobs and security, were banding together with radical environmentalists who opposed measures desired by union memberssuch as drilling in isolated portions of Alaska and easing up on restrictive environmental proposals that meant in reality more disappearance of jobs. The last national election revealed, for example, that traditionally Democratic union coal miners in West Virginia voted for George W. Bush instead of Al Gore, since they feared that Gore’s position on the environment would mean the closing of more coal mines.

Yet, Kazin notes the hope of labor and the student left that a new labor-liberal coalition could take back both the Congress in 2002 and even the White House in 2004. Now, he acknowledges, "these hopes, and the prospect of a unified left, disappeared along with so much else in the wake of the Sept.11 attack." Turning to the analysis of the new situation created by the terrorist attack on America, Kazin accurately notes the different response of both left-wing union leaders and the student led anti-globalization Left. Labor leaders, whose unions lost scores of members who worked in the World Trade Centerand whose membership faces severe job loss in New York City alone as a result of the attackstood firm behind the administration in advocating a tough military response to Sept.11. And Kazin is correct when he writes that "radical foes of global capital on college campuses… talk of peace and try to grasp why many in the Islamic world seem to hate the United States." But he is not clear enough and does not seem to recognize that in fact the anti-globalization movement, as Peter Beinart has explained in The New Republic, (9/24/01) is in reality a revolutionary socialist-anarchist movement whose activists, as Beinart writes, "loathe America so much that they embrace its enemies even when those enemies violate supposedlycore movement valueslike justice for the world’s poor."

Say one thing for union workersmost of them are patriotic Americans, and their identification is with the United States and not its enemies. One cannot say that about the movement today, or about the New Left of the 1960s. The cadre of the New Left openly hoped for a Vietcong victory, and they cheered in 1975 when Saigon fell and Ho Chi Minh’s forces took over South Vietnam. Union workers want higher wages, job security and union contracts; they do not, as does today’s would-be New Left, see capitalism itself as their enemy and its opponents as their comrades. If the nascent New Left-labor alliance has fallen apart at its seams, it is because the terrorist attack united all Americans in defense of our country and its democratic system, and because so many of the anti-globalization protesters revealed their true face as they quickly turned their movement into an old-style "anti-war" and anti-American orgy. As one of their cadre wrote in an anti-globalization Web site, "we can still smash the state in a way that’s respectful to the lives lost."

Kazin himself acknowledges that the peace activists use the stale arguments of his own comrades from 30 years ago. But after noting the similarity in arguments, he continues and uses the telling phrase: "Accused of being anti-American, peace demonstrators respond that they are upholding the most humane of secular and spiritual ideals." Accused of being anti-American? Pardon me, but when leaders of the new "peace" movement make tired arguments such as those made by Professor Barbara Foley of Rutgers University, that the "ultimate cause" of the Sept.11th attack "is the fascism of u.s. [sic] foreign policy over the past many decades," and that it will "supply the ruling elite with a pretext of massive repression," it is more than clear that anti-Americanism is alive and well. And writing in The New Yorker, theatre critic John Lahr sees the attack as an example of the "bankruptcy and moral exhaustion of our leaders," since they lead a nationthe United Statesthat "has always proved mean-spirited and violent." Like the Arab nation’s propagandists, Mr. Lahr evidently sees the attack as a "wag the dog" event staged by the Bush administration (and perhaps the Mossad, others have said) to call our attention away from America’s obvious sins.

Our country has been attacked, and the Left’s response, now as in the past, is to turn the events around and blame our country and its leaders for the horror. It is true, as Kazin notes, that some on the Left have taken a different stance. Todd Gitlin, once Kazin’s comrade in SDS, now proudly flies an American flag from his balcony, and supports an appropriate military response. And as Kazin writes, even Barbar Boxer compares the Taliban to the Nazis, and sees the need to stop them with tough measures.

But when Kazin gets to historical comparisons, his arguments fall apart. In World War I, he writes, pacifists and socialists challenged Woodrow Wilson, who argued for intervention in the World War in order to make the world "safe for democracy." Wilson’s opposition, he argues, said the troops were only protecting munitions makers and British imperialists. Actually, their arguments were of a wider scope than that of old Progressives whose Congressional hearings painted the arms industry as the bad guys. Socialists saw the US as standing on the wrong side of a worldwide social revolution, one in which the new Bolshevik revolution revealed the future. And Kazin ignores the large group of loyal and patriotic pro-war socialists, who deserted the Debs movement in droves to support, encourage and work for the administration and a Western victory. As a result of the war effort, union shops gained government contracts and their ranks expanded, and labor got representation on government war boards. From journalists like Walter Lippman to Socialist leaders like William English Walling, the main group of intellectual leaders of American socialism realized that their future was with their own President and the American political system, and they quickly left the ranks of revolutionary socialism.

Kazin goes on to say that in 1940, "leftists and isolationists made a similar indictment of Franklin D. Roosevelt" when he sought to propose a military draft and Lend-Lease aid. He does not pause to note that the main group in the American Left, the Communist Party USA, was anti-war, "pacifist" and "isolationist" only when the Soviet Union was in alliance with Nazi Germany and was condemning Britain as the power seeking to force the world into an imperialist war. When Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union, the Communists became pro-war overnight, leaving the small ranks of traditional old-line Socialists isolated and weak. And in 1965, Kazin writes that "most progressive Democrats" backed LBJ’s decision to defend South Vietnam’s freedom, while only the radicals opposed the President for "using American power to crush a war of independence against foreign rule."

Kazin’s very choice of words gives away his own bias. In fact, the antiwar opposition gained a headstart when some old Cold War liberals joined the antiwar middle-class Democrats and student radicals in opposing US intervention. And the military campaign of Ho Chi Minh was far from being a "war of independence against foreign rule;" rather, it was an attempt of the Vietnamese Communists, backed by the Soviet Union, to smash an independent Vietnam and make it part of the Communist bloc. Within a short time, at any rate, the very group of "young radicals" Kazin sympathizes with, and of whom he was a part, moved from opposition to American policy to support of our nation’s enemies abroad. They sought not a compromise solution and an end to the war, but victory to the National Liberation Front, which they continued to argue was the only just and desirable outcome of the war. Later, as saner elements like Kazin broke with the more extreme members of his own group, their dispute was only one of tactics and not ends; both sides favored defeat of the United States.

What dismays Kazin is that he sees George W. Bush as using what he calls "words saturated with historic left ideals." The implication is that the President is co-opting dissent in order to produce consensus around his military response to the attack on America. But what produces that consensus is in fact the attack, and the realization of a majority of our countrymen that our new enemies have attacked us all men and women of all faiths, beliefs and colors. And even if they do not realize it, even those deluded members of the anti-American Left are the Islamic radical’s enemiesour opponents do not distinguish between a Barbara Boxer who now supports military action, and her California colleague Barbara Lee, who opposes it.

Moreover, Kazin is in error when he writes that because President Bush has condemned the Taliban for their oppressive culture, degradation of women and lack of religious freedom, he is somehow disingenuously using left-wing phrases. By making his position clear, and by stressing that Americans also condemn acts of prejudice against Arab-Americans, the President is reaffirming classic American ideals, which because they are just, Kazin somehow assumes they are left-wing ideals. In fact, the Left which Kazin admires has consistently opposed the very "reformist internationalism" that Kazin says has "guided the foreign policy of Democratic presidents from Wilson to Bill Clinton." In fact, the Left always arguedas they did when Harry Truman was President, when LBJ was President, and when Woodrow Wilson was President, that liberal internationalism was but a guise for American imperialism in its hegemonic drive to conquer the world. That is why the nation’s enemies have always been the Left’s friends.

Like Michael Kazin, I too praise "the communal spirit that has animated" Americans since Sept.11. But that spirit is one binding Americans together in defense of our Constitution and our country. It has little, if anything, to do with the causes of the Left which Michael Kazin supports. That is why, actually, his conclusion that the chance to build a new left "may already have passed" is correct.


Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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