Saturday, March 22, 2008

Where's the Revolution? Wait Until November

We're having quite a bit of antiwar activity these days, but such action appears nowhere near the scale of 1960s radicalism.

For true revolutionaries, today's events signal the lost promise of radical left politics. Tariq Ali, a British public intellectual of Pakistani background, and a member the editorial board of the New Left Review, has
an essay at the Guardian lamenting the failure of revolutionary action in today's left wing movement:

A storm swept the world in 1968. It started in Vietnam, then blew across Asia, crossing the sea and the mountains to Europe and beyond. A brutal war waged by the US against a poor south-east Asian country was seen every night on television. The cumulative impact of watching the bombs drop, villages on fire and a country being doused with napalm and Agent Orange triggered a wave of global revolts not seen on such a scale before or since.

If the Vietnamese were defeating the world's most powerful state, surely we, too, could defeat our own rulers: that was the dominant mood among the more radical of the 60s generation....

History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away. In the autumn of 2004, when I was in the US on a lecture tour that coincided with Bush's re-election campaign, I noticed at a large antiwar meeting in Madison a very direct echo in a utopian bumper sticker: "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam." The sound engineer in the hall, a Mexican-American, whispered proudly in my ear that his son, a 25- year-old marine, had just returned from a tour of duty in the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah, the scene of horrific massacres by US soldiers, and may show up at the meeting. He didn't, but joined us later with a couple of civilian friends. He could see the room was packed with antiwar, anti-Bush activists.

The young, crewcut marine, G, recounted tales of duty and valour. I asked why he had joined the marine corps. "There was no choice for people like me. If I'd stayed here, I'd have been killed on the streets or ended up in the penitentiary serving life. The marine corps saved my life. They trained me, looked after me and changed me completely. If I died in Iraq, at least it would be the enemy that killed me. In Fallujah, all I could think of was how to make sure that the men under my command were kept safe. That's all. Most of the kids demonstrating for peace have no problems here. They go to college, they demonstrate and soon they forget it all as they move into well-paid jobs. It's not so easy for people like me. I think there should be a draft. Why should poor kids be the only ones out there? Out of all the marines I work with, perhaps four or five percent are gung-ho flag-wavers. The rest of us are doing a job, we do it well and hope we get out without being KIA [killed in action] or wounded."

Later, G sat on a sofa between two older men - both former combatants. On his left was Will Williams, 60, born in Mississipi, who had enlisted in the army aged 17. He was sure that, had he not left Mississippi, the Klu Klux Klan or some other racist gang would have killed him. He, too, told me that the military "saved my life"....

Following a difficult period readjusting, Williams read deeply in politics and history. Feeling that the country was being lied to again, he and Dot, his companion of over 43 years, joined the movement opposing the war in Iraq, bringing their Gospel choir voices to rallies and demonstrations.

On G's right was Clarence Kailin, 90 years old that summer and one of the few remaining survivors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war. He, too, has been active in the movement against the war in Iraq. "Our trip was made in considerable secrecy - even from our families. I was a truck driver, then an infantry man and for a short time a stretcher-bearer. I saw the brutality of war up close. Of the five Wisconsinites who came to Spain with me, two were killed... later, there was Vietnam and this time kids from here died on the wrong side. Now we have Iraq. It's really bad, but I still believe there is an innate goodness in people, which is why so many can break with unworthy pasts."

In 2006, after another tour of duty, G could no longer accept any justification for the war. He was admiring of Cindy Sheehan and the Military Families Against the War, the most consistently active and effective antiwar group in the US.

A decade before the French Revolution, Voltaire remarked that "History is the lies we agree on". Afterwards there was little agreement on anything. The debate on 1968 was recently revived by Nicolas Sarkozy, who boasted that his victory in last year's presidential elections was the final nail in the '68 coffin. The philosopher Alain Badiou's tart response was to compare the new president of the republic to the Bourbons of 1815 and Marshal P├ętain during the war. They, too, had talked about nails and coffins.

"May 1968 imposed intellectual and moral relaivism on us all," Sarkozy declared. "The heirs of May '68 imposed the idea that there was no longer any difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness. The heritage of May 1968 introduced cynicism into society and politics."

He even blamed the legacy of May '68 for greedy and seedy business practices. The May '68 attack on ethical standards helped to "weaken the morality of capitalism, to prepare the ground for the unscrupulous capitalism of golden parachutes for rogue bosses". So the 60s generation is held responsible for Enron, Conrad Black, the subprime mortgage crisis, Northern Rock, corrupt politicians, deregulation, the dictatorship of the "free market", a culture strangled by brazen opportunism.

The struggle against the Vietnam war lasted 10 years. In 2003 people came out again in Europe and America, in even larger numbers, to try to stop the Iraq war. The pre-emptive strike failed. The movement lacked the stamina and the resonance of its predecessors. Within 48 hours it had virtually disappeared, highlighting the changed times.

Were the dreams and hopes of 1968 all idle fantasies? Or did cruel history abort something new that was about to be born? Revolutionaries - utopian anarchists, Fidelistas, Trotskyist allsorts, Maoists of every stripe - wanted the whole forest. Liberals and social democrats were fixated on individual trees. The forest, they warned us, was a distraction, far too vast and impossible to define, whereas a tree was a piece of wood that could be identified, improved and crafted into a chair or a table. Now the tree, too, has gone.
I concede that perhaps Sarkosy went a little far in assigning blame for the collapse of contemporary morality.

But what strikes me about Ali's essay is that which he laments: The failure to completely and decisively follow-up the burst of radical agitation in 1968 with a full-blown world social revolution toppling the capitalist classes in the industrialized West.

Perhaps Ali's just a wistful intellectual, ensconsed cozily in the editorial offices of his prominent left-wing journal of literature and politics.

But for the people on the streets today, the call to revolution is their siren. Code Pink not only breaches ethical protocols with events like the bloodspattering of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but the group's also allied with America's enemies with
its financial support for terrorist organizations in the Mideast.

Another contemporary radical organization, the
ANSWER Coalition, is composed of neo-Stalinists committed to the revolutionary destruction of the United States. Adam Kokesh, an ANSWER activist, once called for the deployment of American troops against the U.S. government: "It's too bad [the military is] stretched too thin to strike America."

As Ali's essay suggests, today's radical activism hasn't reached the same levels of generational outrage of the 1960s. As of yet, for example, the antiwar movement has failed to bring an end to war in Iraq.

But that's not reason to think these people are without influence.

The antiwar netroots have had a significant effect on electoral politics, and their hope is to elect a radical to the White House in November. Their candidate: Barack Obama. It's no wonder too. The Illinois Senator's refused to renounce his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons blamed the United States for September 11. Indeed, Obama has
a long tradition of residing on the fringes of anti-establishment politics.

Gerard Baker, last month at the Times of London, unequivocally called Barack Obama a "
dangerous left-winger."

Perhaps the unconventional street protests for which Ali longs - direct action geared to revolution - have gone that way of the Edsel, to be replaced fortuitously by the growth in success of far left-wing poltics via the electoral process. Such a development has equally revolutionary implications.

As I noted earlier, the Democratic Party's Hollywood base has already moved on from the Wright scandal, working to again position Obama as the political superstar of the American left.

The radical blogosphere loves Obama, of course, and has never flinched in their support - indeed, they cheer Obama's regular expressions of anti-patriotism. The hard left sees in Obama the chance to establish a collectivist U.S. government, complete with all the anti-democratic accoutrements.

Beyond this year's regular election issues like the economy, health care, and the war, it's this larger ideological battle with the forces of nihilist radicalism against which American conservatives must contend.


repsac3 said...

Long lost HaloScan Comments for this post.