A Reluctant Memoir of the '50s and '60s
— Paul Le Blanc
[During the 40th anniversary of the turbulent year 1968 — some highlights of which we discussed in the editorial statement of our previous issue (ATC 133, March-April 2008) — we are looking back at how its events shaped the consciousness of a generation of activists.
[The ways in which 1968 reshaped the left, however, must also be seen in the light of the preceding period. What came to be called the “Old Left” in the United States, i.e. the 1950s political milieu in which the Communist Party was the largest center, went into crisis when the CP shattered in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion to crush the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. That year was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, with the Little Rock school desegregation crisis; and a year of significant international turmoil including the Israeli-British-French invasion of the Suez Canal. A rising current of peace and civil rights struggle came into being at the very moment of the left’s organizational near-disintegration, an intersection that created both problems and opportunities for political renewal and organizational creativity.
[The editors asked historian and activist Paul Le Blanc to discuss the transition from the “Old” to “New” U.S. left in the light of both his research and experiences in the movement. The result is what the author calls his “reluctant memoir,” but one which we’re far from reluctant to publish — in two installments. Paul Le Blanc is the author of Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience (Routledge 2006) and A Short History of the U.S. Working Class (Humanity Books 2000), and currently active in the Anti-War Committee of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh.]
I HAVE BEEN asked to write a memoir that would give a sense of the old left/new left realities of the 1950s and ‘60s. That seems quite odd to me (why would I be writing such a thing?), until I look in the mirror and see this old guy looking back at me. As I reflect, it does seem to me that I went through a lot of experience, met a lot of people, and perhaps learned from all that…So I will share some of my story.
This fragment can make sense, I think, only by placing it in a larger context. Aspects of that context I have attempted to sketch out myself in different writings, and others have done likewise (one of the best recent efforts is Van Gosse’s compact 2005 study Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative Essay). And there are the memoirs of others whose journeys through this era can open up a rich variety of “universes” that intersect with this one.
I grew up in a rural area outside of Clearfield, Pennsylvania (population 10,000). My parents moved there in 1950, when I was three years old because my father was the Director of District 2 of a small industrial union, the United Stone and Allied Products Workers of America, affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Clearfield was in the middle of District 2, with some very large plants of the Harbison-Walker Corporation (then a Fortune 500 outfit), which made firebrick for the kilns of the steel industry. Many of these plants were organized by the Stoneworkers (which began many years before as a union of quarry workers in granite-rich Vermont, under the leadership of an old-time Socialist, and Scottish immigrant, John Lawson — who remained Secretary-Treasurer for many years).
When John L. Lewis led those committed to industrial unionism in a break away from the de-radicalized and bureaucratized American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the CIO amidst the big strikes and organizing drives of the 1930s, the Stoneworkers followed Lewis. The main thing, in the CIO ethos, was to organize workers — all workers. Hence the quarry workers union diversified into “stone and allied products workers,” drawing in those who labored in many different occupational categories.
This also helps explain why among my earliest memories was being at meetings and on picketlines of workers of the Clearfield Cheese Company, who fought a militant battle for the right to organize. When asked why the Stoneworkers union was trying to organize cheese workers, my father quipped: “Well, they make brick cheese, don’t they?” (The workers were defeated — but some years later my father helped organizers of the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butcher Workmen to unionize that plant.)
The labor movement was like a religion to my parents. “Union” was a holy word: the workers coming together to help each other, to protect each other, and to make things better for themselves and their families (all of them) — in necessary and inevitable struggle with the powerful bosses who sought to enrich themselves by exploiting the workers.
This was not an abstraction for us. Often there were meetings that filled our small house with cigarette smoke (both my parents were smokers, as were most of the union members who met there), there were larger meetings in union halls, there were picnics and sometimes picket lines, there were intense discussions during and after negotiating sessions around union contracts. There were Labor Day events that my parents helped to organize in Clearfield County, there were trips the family took — often related to union work — in which we sometimes whiled away the boring stretches of road by playing “Twenty Questions” but also by singing union songs (my favorites being “Solidarity Forever” and, especially, “Union Maid”).
Among my favorite relatives were those, in Massachusetts and New York, who seemed to embrace the same warm and glowing ideals of a better world for all the workers. There were Eve and Adrian, an aunt and uncle (my father’s brother) who had once been involved with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), for which my mother had also briefly worked before becoming pregnant with me.
On my mother’s side of the family there were George and Rose, an uncle and aunt of hers (he working in the printing trades, but also a veteran of something important called the Spanish Civil War, she a pioneer in the field of social work), and my great-grandpa Harry Brodsky, a retired garment worker who long ago had helped organize and lead an early local of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
There were some things in my house and my family that seemed not to be in the houses and families of my other friends in Clearfield. The art work, on the walls and in some books, was different — Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, various impressionists, more modern folks — especially Picasso and Mexican muralists such as Rivera and Siqueros and Orozco. The music included a few Broadway musicals, but also union songs from the Almanac Singers, the Weavers, as well as a lot of classical music, and some jazz. And of course there was the rich and wonderful voice of Paul Robeson.
One of the biggest differences was that there were so many books (including, I later learned, some that were kept relatively hidden, and even some that were quietly destroyed). Among my mother’s favorite novelists were Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but perhaps her favorite American writer was Howard Fast. His compellingly written and profoundly idealistic novels — Spartacus, Conceived in Liberty, Freedom Road, Citizen Tom Paine, The American — were precious items, which I was to devour during my teenage years.
There were many attitudes in my home that were different from some that I found outside. In school, I ran into a lot of anti-union sentiment, of course, and as time went on I found myself arguing with teachers and some students who expressed such sentiments. But there were other things. My parents were very clearly opposed to racism, for example — my mother wouldn’t let my older sister Patty participate in the regular high school Minstrel Show; she pulled me out of a third-grade puppet show, “Little Black Sambo.”
My father refused to join a number of working-class social clubs (the Loyal Order of Moose, the Sons of Italy, etc.) because they excluded Blacks. There weren’t many Black families in Clearfield, but my mom’s best friend in town, Esther, was African American and very beautiful, very clever and funny, and a very strong personality, with four kids who were very much a part of my growing-up years. Such friendships were not the norm in towns like Clearfield in the 1950s.
The term “feminism” was not commonly used in my home — but the reality of it permeated my early years. There wasn’t much feminist literature available then — though I remember books by Eve Merriam and Elizabeth Hawes, creative and strong-minded women who, I later learned, had been around the Communist Party. There was also reverence for Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (my younger sister Nora was named after the play’s heroine) and delight over the strong women in the plays of George Bernard Shaw.
My mother was obviously very intellectual, very much on a par with my father, though each brought different qualities to grappling with issues and realities that they faced. They talked and worked as equals, which was something that my father obviously valued. When at home (he was on the road a lot), he helped with the housework — as did my two sisters and me. The discussion and implementation of strategy and tactics to advance positive developments, in the local labor movement and within the Stoneworkers union nationally, was very often something jointly done by my parents.
A woman’s place was very definitely not in the home — and when my mother found herself, at times, predominantly in the “housewife” role, her profound depression was absolutely palpable. Her getting jobs outside the home — helping with odd tasks for one or another union, then working as a full-time secretary — was probably, as I look back, to help her keep her sanity as much as to bring in much-needed additional income. She finally “found herself,” by the early 1960s, in working as a caseworker in the Department of Public Assistance, and (with my father’s full support) ended up going back to graduate school for a master’s degree in social work.
Another big difference was around religion. My father was an angry ex-Catholic, my mother a secular Jew, and, as my mother put it, “We don’t believe in God — we believe in the Brotherhood of Man.” This obviously wouldn’t fly among my playmates and their parents, and initially I came up with an excellent solution. My dad being Catholic and my mom Jewish, that must make me a Protestant, like many of my friends!
Later I tended to identify as half-Jewish, or plain old Jewish, but without any clear religious sense. In my mid-to-late teens (partly influenced by Tolstoy’s War and Peace), I worked out my own theology which I called “pantheist-humanist.” Since that made little sense to most people, I later switched to calling myself an atheist (though I’ve stopped doing that now, since I’ve never lost the sense of God roughly equivalent to my teenage reflections).
There’s something else that occurs to me — something that my family shared, to a large extent, with many, many others in the United States — and worth reflecting on. We saw ourselves as basically “middle class.” This is an incredibly fuzzy term but whatever it might mean, in the 1950s and early 1960s, we felt it defined us.
My father had been a worker, working for wages under one or another employer in the 1920s and 1930s (including as a WPA worker, where he was involved in the left-wing Workers’ Alliance) — but now he got a salary, working as a union staff member. My mother had come from an extended family that had been mostly working class — but her father, in fact, was a small businessman, her parents enjoyed an increasingly upscale standard of living, she herself (unlike my father) had gone to, and graduated from, college.
We owned a home, one and then two cars, a TV set, and enjoyed summer vacations. This was not seen as the traditional working-class lifestyle. It was assumed that my sisters and I would go to college and end up as some kind of “white collar” professionals. Throughout the 1950s our finances were tight, our debts sometimes high, our circumstances relatively impoverished. But my father’s rising salary and my mother’s finally secure employment, first as secretary and then as case worker, truly placed us at a “middle income” level by the ‘60s. Like growing numbers of others in the U.S. working class, we didn’t apply Karl Marx’s definition of working class to ourselves: those who make their living by selling their ability to work (labor-power) to an employer. No, although we identified fiercely with the labor movement and with the working class, in our consciousness we ourselves were “middle class.”
Discovering the Old Left
One of my parents’ finest qualities was that they did not force their own ideas on me. I could see the example of who and what they were, and they would certainly tell me (for the most part) what they believed and why, but they encouraged me to develop my own understanding of things and to find my own way. I certainly felt a need to do that, given how jarring the difference sometimes was between some of the ideas in my own home and the ideas in the larger community.
In many homes, and also in school, President Eisenhower was seen in a very positive light — but not in my home. Vice-President Richard Nixon and the fierce Cold War Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were even worse, though lower yet was Senator Joseph McCarthy who claimed to be leading a crusade against the insidious evils of Communism. I remember my parents being glued to the black and white TV in our home in 1954 watching what seemed to me never-ending “hearings” (in which, I later learned, McCarthy was finally being politically cut down).
On the other hand, some things that were clearly seen as bad elsewhere seemed to have the glow of goodness in my home. People like Alger Hiss, indicted for espionage, or the executed “atom spies” Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (the photos of their sons, little boys like me, were burned into my young mind), were presumed innocent by my parents. Those who refused to cooperate with Congressional investigating committees that sought to root out “un-American activities” were seen as heroes.
Nor were the Soviet Union and Red China seen as evil. In 1956, when there was an anti-Communist uprising in Hungary, my parents’ attitude also seemed inconsistent with the positive outpourings that were the norm all around us. They seemed subdued, distrustful, critical. Yet I remember watching newsreels, then and a bit later, of intense clusters of Hungarians, some seeming close to my own age, students and working-class kids — intense, determined, turning to look into the camera, right into my own eyes, holding guns that they were preparing to use on some unseen enemy associated with inhuman, armored tanks — and I felt a profound sense of identification with them.
I vaguely remember, in the same period, my parents’ intense engagement with some revelations from Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev published in the New York Times. (According to Khruschev, the highly revered leader of the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1953, Joseph Stalin, had actually been a murderous tyrant.) They also poured over an issue of a small cultural magazine I didn’t commonly see in our home — it was called Mainstream, and it contained an important article by our beloved Howard Fast explaining that he had changed his mind about something important and wouldn’t write for that magazine anymore. My parents were very disappointed and discussed this, and related matters, with friends who lived in another Pennsylvania town.
When I turned 13 my parents sat me down to tell me something important. They believed in socialism, and so did all of my favorite relatives. This made me very uneasy, because I had a sense that this was seen as something “bad” in the larger culture. They explained that instead of everyone competing to make a living, and instead of a few people privately owning the economy that all of us were dependent on (for jobs, food, clothing, shelter, all necessities and luxuries), the economy should be owned together by everyone, working together to provide the things they would all need and want.
This sounded very nice — similar to their conception of unions, but on a bigger scale and more thoroughgoing. It also sounded impossible to me, given the world that I knew around me. But when I asked critical questions, they had what seemed to me reasonable-sounding answers, so I concluded that this was something worth thinking about.
A more shocking revelation followed not long after. They sat me down again. Both of them had once been members of the Communist Party. Some of my favorite relatives had been members of the Communist Party. They were not sorry that they had been members — they still believed in the things that had caused them to be Communists. Those things had to do with the Brotherhood of Man, fighting for unions and the dignity of workers, opposing all forms of racism and oppression, and believing in the socialist vision.
Some bad developments had been occurring in the Communist Party that had caused them to leave quietly around the time we moved to Clearfield, and some bad developments had obviously taken place in the Soviet Union and in the larger Communist movement. But there was also a lot of good in these entities, they felt, and they did not reject any of them in their entirety.
The kicker was that I was absolutely prohibited from sharing any of this information with anyone at all, even my friends. In an atmosphere pervaded by intense Cold War anti-Communism, such exposure would be used by hostile people to destroy all of the good things my parents had been working for. They would very likely lose their jobs, many people (including friends) would turn against us or be afraid to associate with us, and we would have to leave Clearfield. This had happened to other people, other friends, even to Uncle Adrian.
The weight of this terrible burden of secrecy was a difficult and damaging thing. Especially given the larger culture’s seemingly unremitting assault on my own particular “family values,” on my roots, on each and everyone one of my favorite relatives, I think it made me at least a little crazy. Especially when my ninth-grade history teacher urged anyone in class who wanted to know about the dangers of Communism in the United States to get the true facts from Masters of Deceit by J. Edgar Hoover.
I immediately bought a brand new copy for only 50 cents, popular paperbacks being incredibly inexpensive back then. This vicious little book by the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation horrified me — and helped to propel me into an intensive, almost obsessive search for the real truth. More than ever, I became a voracious reader and, in some ways, a compulsive “searcher.”
My guiding principle, initially, was that “the truth is somewhere in-between.” That is, it was in-between the Communism of my parents and the right-wing anti-Communism, reflected in what J. Edgar Hoover had to say, that permeated so much of the world around me. And for me, this happy medium quickly came to be defined by what I read in the centrist-liberal New York Times and in a good left-liberal magazine (safely, though not viciously, anti-Communist) that came into our home each month, The Progressive.
Yet there were other influences as well. Also coming into our home were two important left-wing periodicals. One was the very readable “independent socialist” Monthly Review, edited by Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman (which, combined with a number of Monthly Review Press pamphlets and books, would play a key role in my education as a socialist). The other was the “progressive newsweekly,” the National Guardian — in which was blended a somewhat diluted Communist Party influence with various other, more independent, sometimes more critical-minded, radical elements.
Not long after, I also discovered I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and also stumbled across Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker, both of which further expanded my political horizons. My seeking “the truth somewhere in-between” caused me to read the well-written but hostile The American Communist Party, A Critical History by “moderate socialists” Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, on the one hand, and at least portions of the more turgid “official” account by Communist leader William Z. Foster, History of the Communist Party of the United States.
More alive than either were the “insider” essays of The God That Failed, a copy of which was among my parents’ books. I was especially impressed by the passionate essay of Ignazio Silone, whose story was sadder and murkier than he felt able to admit (the fascists had broken him, he had informed) — but whose novel of the 1930s, Bread and Wine, seeming to blend Marxism with Christianity, helped me decide, at the age of 16, that I was, indeed, a socialist.
No less important were the writings of the acidly anti-Stalinist but staunchly socialist George Orwell, whose satirical jab at Stalinist Russia, Animal Farm, and devastating vision of totalitarianism in 1984 were topics of intense conversation among my closest high school friends and me. A high school classmate introduced me to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, about an Old Bolshevik revolutionary destroyed by (but perhaps partly responsible for) Stalin’s purges in 1930s Russia, which was incredibly disturbing.
More to my liking was Albert Camus’ The Plague, an allegory in which — it seemed to me — ex-Communists remain true to the struggle for humanity’s future.
I was also fortunate to stumble upon two gems in unlikely places. In the upper-middle-class home of my mother’s parents in Brooklyn, New York, I found a rare copy of Victor Serge’s 1937 classic, Russia Twenty Years After, purchased by the eager teenager that my mother was when she got it, only to be quickly abandoned after a Stalinist lecture by her beloved Uncle George (who explained that Serge was a phony, a “Trotskyite,” an enemy of the Soviet Union).
Permeated by the spirit of revolutionary socialism, this neglected book eloquently explained many things — clearly distinguishing the heroic Communism of Lenin, Trotsky, and the early Bolsheviks from the bureaucratic and murderous realities associated with the Stalin regime — that have stayed with me ever since. (Many years later, I was pleased to facilitate the republication of this book in the Revolutionary Studies series I edited for Humanities Press.)
The other gem, for some reason, had been acquired by my high school library — the short, readable, amazingly affirmative Story of an American Communist by John Gates, a Spanish Civil War veteran like my Uncle George, former editor of the Daily Worker, who seemed proud of much that he and the U.S. Communist Party had stood for and done, but was sharply critical of its failure to break with old Stalinist norms and its defense of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary.
The John Gates of 1958 (not yet a bitter anti-communist) and the Victor Serge of 1937 offered accounts that inspired hope for the future. I would later discover similar qualities in the revolutionary pacifist memoir by A. J. Muste, an amazing leader of labor, anti-racist and antiwar struggles for many decades, in The Writings of A. J. Muste, and also the fascinating reminiscences of another old-timer, Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon, in The First Ten Years of American Communism.) It seemed to me, as I read the books by Serge and Gates (and, later, by Muste and Cannon), that one could learn from the positive as well as the negative lessons from the past, in a way that would not try to duplicate what had gone before. Rather, one could build on that experience toward something better.
In 1962, another important book appeared, The Marxists, by C. Wright Mills, which included a clearly-written and critical yet relatively sympathetic presentation of Marxism (including selections from the writings of Marx and others) by this wonderful, independent-minded sociologist who had just died. It was available in Clearfield as a cheap popular paperback — only 25 cents more than Masters of Deceit, and worth every penny! I learned from it, and through it discovered Isaac Deutscher, whose informative writings on the history of revolutionary Russia and the bureaucratized Soviet Union I also began to read.
From an ad in The Progressive, I learned about a magazine (I can’t recall the name) briefly published by the Young People’s Socialist League, which led me to some Socialist Party publications, but also to the magazine New Politics, to which I became an early subscriber. There I became more acquainted with left-wing polemics often associated, later, with the “Old Left” — with a flourishing anti-Stalinism that came in a variety of flavors, reformist Social-Democrats jostling with still-revolutionary “third camp” socialists, and other elements that fit into neither category.
I forget when I first became aware of Eugene V. Debs, the wonderful and inspiring working-class socialist leader of the 20th century’s first two decades, when the Socialist Party which he led had a mass base throughout much of the labor movement, throughout our cultural life, and in communities throughout the United States. Its membership was in the hundreds of thousands, it inspired millions, it had powerful impact. But when I went looking for the writings of Debs in the early 1960s, I discovered that none were in print.
A visit to the small national office of the Socialist Party/ Social-Democratic Federation in New York City brought me face-to-face with a young secretary who told me that Debs’ writings were old and out-of-date, and she sent me to the Tamiment Library, where a kindly librarian gave me a pleasant, rather innocuous little pamphlet about Debs by an old Social-Democrat named August Classens.
Going through boxes of files, pamphlets, magazines, and other materials that were rotting away near our house in an abandoned chicken coop, where my parents had “stored” all of that stuff, I first became aware of the immense and pervasive influence of the Communist Party and its periphery in the 1930s and ‘40s (whose last gasp seemed to be the hopeful crusade and disastrous defeat of the Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign of 1948) — it was all there. During the Depression Decade of the mid-to-late ‘30s, the CP had been a mass movement, with a dubious Popular Front ethos (tied so closely into the pro-capitalist Democratic Party) that, nonetheless, had a powerful residual radicalism and that, again, had inspired and influenced millions, briefly given a special push in the 1940s by the World War II alliance of the United States and the Soviet Union against Hitler.
Hoping to find something of that earlier magic by going to the biggest bookstore of the Communist Party in the United States — the Jefferson Bookstore in (again) New York City — I found myself face to face with portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, lots of old books and magazines, some shiny new things from the Soviet Union, and some less shiny new things published in and for our own country, but seeming flat, inward-looking, and unimpressive compared to what had existed in those earlier decades.
In my final years of high school, I longed for something akin to Divine Intervention that might somehow bring back those Glory Days of mass radicalism — challenging the status quo of seemingly “affluent,” culturally conformist, politically repressed Cold War America, and opening up pathways for creating, in fact, the kind of world that my parents and favorite relatives, and so many other good people, had dreamed about.
Stirrings Beyond the Printed Page
But at this time there were, in fact, radical stirrings impacting on the lives and consciousness of millions. First and foremost were musical influences. I am afraid that the often subversive and liberating elements that many found, at the time, in a variety of important genres (whether jazz, rhythm-and-blues, rock-n-roll, soul, country-and-western), were at that time beyond me. Others can give firsthand accounts of their importance.
What did grab me was the so-called “folk music revival,” which professional anti-Communist Herbert Romerstein warned against as a pernicious Communist-inspired plot, in a small book Communism and Your Child (1962), also available in my high school library. There were old union songs and even older work songs, spirituals, the left-wing songs of Woody Guthrie, songs of the Spanish Civil War, amazing and haunting old ballads going back for many generations, clever new protest tunes, humorous and often a-political folk tunes, and more — from the Weavers, Harry Belafonte (and the Belafonte Folk Singers), the Kingston Trio, Theodore Bikel, Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Joan Baez, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, and many others.
For a small youthful clutch of us in Clearfield (as in so many other places in the early 1960s), especially important were the wonderful compositions, records, and even the persona, of the early Bob Dylan. More than such musical stirrings were the underlying realities that were helping to generate a response to such music among many who seemed to have no left-wing connections in their family backgrounds.
This went far beyond the stultifying superficiality and creeping boredom associated with the cultural conformism of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, against which there was the cultural rebellion of the so-called “beatniks” (Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Dianne Di Prima, etc.) — but also an amazing proliferation of stand-up comics that we could watch on our black and white TVs, such as Jonathan Winters, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Godfrey Cambridge (and even Lenny Bruce, fleetingly) — not to mention the slyly subversive cartoons of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show.
For that matter, there was an accumulation of movies that seemed to challenge the status quo. (Off the top of my head, I remember: “On the Beach,” “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” “The Defiant Ones,” “Spartacus,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Raisin in the Sun,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”)
This status quo seemed dominated by realities that disturbed more and more of us, and a growing number of struggles against these things increasingly attracted our attention and inspired more and more of us. We were all keenly aware of “the Bomb,” the nuclear weapons systems being built up by both sides in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, that could destroy all life on our planet several times over (there was even a word for this — “overkill”), and nuclear tests that were polluting our atmosphere with radioactive particles and something called strontium 90.
There was also the obvious fact that the United States, in its Cold War crusade that was presumably for “freedom,” willingly supported a large number of vicious and unpopular dictatorships, just so long as they were anti-Communist. It also became evident that various popular struggles against such right-wing dictatorships were being fought against by the government of the United States in the name of “anti-Communism.”
There were growing criticisms and protests — not in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, but we got word of mass protests in Britain led by the aged philosopher Bertrand Russell and other prominent intellectuals, and also the U.S. formation of other groups that organized smaller but no less important protests — Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, Women Strike for Peace, the Student Peace Union.
Even earlier, and in many ways going far deeper, there was the amazing emergence of the civil rights movement. My earliest recollections of the proliferating images of this movement blur together: the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that declared racial segregation in public schools to be un-Constitutional; the howling white mobs, replete with Confederate flags, in the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, being subdued by Federal troops there to protect young black students; a jailed Rosa Parks in Montgomery Alabama, sparking a bus boycott led by a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr.; Southern white policemen with snarling dogs, fire hoses being turned on peaceful marches, the politely worded bigotry of the White Citizens Councils and the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan; the howling mobs again, with Black and white Freedom Riders who challenged segregation on Greyhound buses going South, being beaten and the buses burned; many hundreds, then thousands, of dignified African Americans, along with a growing number of white allies, picketing and rallying and sometimes going to jail for committing non-violent civil disobedience against racist segregation laws; and in 1963 hundreds of thousands converging on Washington, DC in an interracial protest for “Jobs and Freedom,” a gathering once again bathed in the eloquence of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Growing numbers of us, in high schools throughout much of the country, individually and in small handfuls were powerfully inspired by what was happening. We vowed to ourselves that as soon as we could, we would join in. I deeply regretted that I had been born a couple of years too late to be able to go South in 1964, in response to the call of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and others to join in the Freedom Summer campaign.
For me, the next best thing was what I actually did in the summers of 1964 and 1965 — got a summer job as a counselor at Camp Henry, an interracial camp run by the Henry Street Settlement of New York City, bringing out into the countryside of upper-state New York waves of young boys (ages 6 to 16) from impoverished neighborhoods of New York City’s Lower East Side. It was an experience from which I learned much — including much that I had not expected.
The kids were largely African American and Puerto Rican, and for the most part they had a great time. The counselors were largely white, but with significant numbers of Blacks, and a couple of Puerto Ricans. The top administrators were white. Those of us working there were almost all very, very liberal — with one or two open-minded conservatives, and a few who were much more left-wing than liberal (although there was a vague kind of socialist or left-wing sensibility and background that seemed to permeate the liberalism even at the top administrative levels).
It seemed to me that working with these kids was truly important work (I still think so), and that it was truly a manifestation of the wonderful and inspiring changes that, I thought, would be transforming the United States more and more through the Black-led but interracial “freedom struggle,” personified by Martin Luther King. But I discovered that life was more complicated than that.
In the summer of 1964, I think there were powerful elements at Camp Henry that reflected the spirit of the interracial “beloved community” that seemed to characterize the civil rights movement at that particular historical moment. Yet beneath the surface — and by 1965 very much coming to the surface — I was able to see growing racial tensions. Aspects of these involved cultural differences that were poorly understood on the part of some of the whites, and also some resentments among some African Americans around white/Black status and power differentials.
Even more obvious to me by 1965 was an unconscious paternalism and elitism among the top white administrators — a belief that a primary responsibility of Camp Henry was to introduce these kids to superior forms of culture, as reflected in the tastes and sensibilities of these white, urban, liberal-Democrat, largely Jewish public school teachers from New York City, proud members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). When the disastrous confrontation erupted, during the 1968 strike of the UFT, led by its “moderate socialist” President Albert Shanker against local control of the schools by the Black and Puerto Rican communities, I vividly recalled the escalating tensions that had rattled my naïve notions while working at Camp Henry three years before.
A More Radical Edge
In a sense, the truth I sought was not somewhere “in-between” the Communist left and the reactionary right, and certainly not in the left-liberal zone in which I sought intellectual-political comfort. It could be far more complex and unsettling than I had imagined.
One of the most unexpected influences on me, in this period, was the sharp, absolutely uncompromising Black nationalism associated with Malcolm X. He was portrayed in the media as a powerful Black racist who advocated a hatred of whites among increasingly receptive numbers of African Americans, in stark contrast to the interracial harmony represented by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. This horrified me, and yet I saw how aspects of Malcolm X’s ideology resonated among some of the people I knew at Camp Henry — which disturbed me, but which also now made a certain kind of sense.
More than this, when I actually read some of what Malcolm X had to say, in interviews that found their way into one or another “mainstream” outlet, I was powerfully impressed by the quality of his thinking. In the same period I discovered James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, which beautifully revealed many of the sharp edges and complex dimensions of racial and sexual politics of which I had not been fully aware.
I also read positive discussions of Black nationalism in the pages of Monthly Review, and not long after his death read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Malcolm X Speaks. This opened new realms of thought and understanding. It seemed to me, more and more, that powerful historical and contemporary realities pointed to the necessity of the core principle in Malcolm X’s outlook: Black self-determination, that is, Black control of the Black struggle, and Black control of the Black community.
I was, in these years, becoming increasingly disenchanted with the profound limitations of the mainstream liberalism with which so much of the organized “Old Left” (particularly those in and around the Socialist Party and those in and around the Communist Party) had come to identify. Liberalism’s incompatibility with powerful insights represented by Malcolm X was only one reason why. Another had to do with foreign policy.
The pillars of Democratic Party liberalism, it had seemed to me, were Eleanor Roosevelt and her own favorite candidate (since the 1945 death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt), the two-time loser of 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson. Of course, in 1960 Stevenson was shunted aside by the youthful John F. Kennedy — whose shining liberal luster had beguiled me into becoming one of his most ardent 13-year old campaigners. And in rapid succession, President Kennedy — defended by his administration’s representative to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson (with Mrs. Roosevelt sitting right there as part of the U.S. delegation!) — proved himself to represent something very different from what I believed in, around policies regarding Cuba and Vietnam.
The young revolutionaries who swept into Havana in 1959, amid the jubilation of huge crowds throughout Cuba, initially had an aura of heroes even in Clearfield. Although the mass media quickly turned hostile as the Cuban Revolution radicalized, I had more information that prevented such an easy turn-around in my own consciousness. There were the glowing accounts, of course, in the National Guardian and Monthly Review, and debates revealing complexities in New Politics.
I.F. Stone’s Weekly and The Progressive also provided important information that challenged the common notion that the island had fallen into the grip of a Communist tyranny. And C. Wright Mill’s essay entitled “Listen, Yankee!” had a powerful impact on me — appearing in Harper’s Magazine, and soon to come out in expanded form as a cheap, popular paperback. I could not see Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as villains, and it seemed obvious to me that the Cuban people themselves should be allowed to determine the direction of their Revolution and the fate of their country.
The Kennedy administration’s 1961 decision to invade Cuba, foiled at the Bay of Pigs, seemed to reveal a fatal flaw in the liberalism that had once seemed so attractive to me. And then there was the decision by Kennedy and so many other shining liberals to help keep Vietnam divided in violation of the 1956 Geneva Peace Accords, and to support a vicious and unpopular anti-Communist dictatorship in South Vietnam.
Thanks to reading material available in my home, I knew all about this in the early 1960s, well before the big escalation of 1965, and it seemed clear to me that there remained a crying need to go beyond mainstream liberalism — and beyond the failure of most of the “old left” to do just that.
[To be completed in our next issue.]
ATC 134, May-June 2008