Reflections on American Radicalism, Past & Future

Against the Current, No. 10, September/October 1987

Paul Buhle

I KNEW WE HAD entered a new period when a handful of Moonies marched around us at a Providence, R.I., Central America rally, chanting not “Go home to Russia!” or “Get a haircut!” but instead, “Down with Liberation Theology!” I had a feeling the era was getting familiar already when I had more meetings to go to-and felt that I should go to — than any other week in fifteen years. Since then, things have slowed down somewhat. But I recognize the quiet just before a shitstorm strikes.

It’s high time to address the new and the familiar in our situation. The Vietnamization of our southern neighbors has dramatically accelerated, with the U.S. internal repercussions already underway. South Africa prepares to explode with worldwide consequences. The domestic Right is making its boldest moves yet, positioning itself to benefit from unrest and a potentially sweeping repression of active dissent.

Even the career anticommunists of what used to be called the “State Department socialist” variety, few and ineffective in recent decades, have gained instant charisma in the mainstream press for prettifying the record of “the West” (read: white folks’ culture) and for “bravely” projecting the “democratic” rollback of revolutions with the assistance of those noted democrats, the U.S. military and CIA operatives.

The system that its apologists tout has already instigated a global ecological catastrophe of species­genocide at an accelerating rate. The “El Salvador solution” — show elections and U.S. militarization — guarantees the devastation of rain forests for “hamburger plantations” exporting beef to the U.S. market.

Unchecked, this murderous claimant to so-called democracy will have eradicated the precious remnants of natural wildlife and surviving indigenous peoples in a few decades. The ultimate “Free World” bastion will be a space station of a few hundred politicians and generals with their families and their mistresses peering down at a blasted planet.

This ominous prospect comes in the backwash of a staggering defeat to New Left, Black, Chicano, feminist, gay, peace and labor movements within the United States, a defeat now evidently as monumental as the degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals. Those earlier defeats actually cleared the way, albeit at enormous human cost, for the arrival of newer and very different sets of forces. We should expect a similar development to begin to take place, confounding the expectations of radical veterans as well as the premature postmortem on the Left by the neo-liberal and neo­conservative pundits.

Indeed, a subtle underlying shift has already taken place in the character of our dissent. For those of us who watched the later seventies pass in a dull wash, flavored with a few bright moments, and the eighties, except for the hopes unleashed by Solidarnosc, go stumbling from bad to worse, the world has rather suddenly become a more frightening but also more electric place.

Not that we ever stopped walking the picket lines, reaching out to educate and agitate with every opportunity that came to hand, but most of us did so without anticipating any short-term dramatic new developments. A lot of us, to be honest, acted almost out of habit, without much long-term optimism. We were in a holding pattern, waiting consciously or unconsciously for a new set of principles to reveal themselves. For better or worse, we now seem to be off and running again. But not on the same track.

Despite the absence of any single, unifying event such as the advance of European socialism, the Russian Revolution, or the Vietnam War; despite the absence of any single historical agent such as the industrial proletariat to guide our way, the outlines have started to appear.

I want to argue that the barely emerging formations represent a link between international events and American life as real as any in the last hundred years. More than that: They propose the definitive end to capitalist history, a closing of the circle upon the West and the potential emancipation of socialism from the burdens of that legacy.

Not that I think we’re on the home stretch. Too many key trends extend decades into a future ridden with human and natural catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. Socialism, like the owl of Minerva, is destined to fly only at the dusk of all possibility — the last alternative, as it has been for embattled people everywhere.

Even if we were closer, I would not claim to have all the answers. We, current activists and thinkers, have a long way to go in our thinking. And we will be partly joined, partly surpassed by those who follow us. My primary message can be stated simply. We, the Left broadly defined, the possessors of a vision of a cooperative, democratic world, have more allies out there, across the country and across the world, than we realize. They need us as much as we need them. The dialogue has started already, and it’s up to us to join.

But in order to join intelligently, respectfully, we have to grapple with experiences definitely outside our own sense of tradition. In grappling with those experiences, we should learn something new about ourselves as well as the unfolding world situation. This prospect could be approached in different ways. My way, here, is to begin to reassess our own American radical heritage with the ide logical fog dispersed and some of the long-disguised processes laid bare.

It is a truism that American radicalism has had two strains, native-born and immigrant. Their differences, and the grounds for common work between them, crisscross every sort of theoretical and political boundary. But at least until recent times, it could be said that the immigrants, especially of European origin, believed that they adhered to Marxist ideas in more-or-less classic form.

In actuality, the immigrants used Marxian notions to create a place for themselves in an America different from the one they found on disembarking. By contrast, their homegrown U.S. counterparts sought to expand and transform the republic and to reconcile mundane existence with some superorganic awareness.

Moments of fusion between immigrants and native born, from the 1870s to the 1930s, brought immigrant intellectuals to sections of the working class (and vice­ versa) but also made the radical leaders more viable in their own communities. In these moments some wholly unique movements and ideas took shape, influencing activists across the world.

But the episodes moved by so swiftly, leaving so little behind, that the actors themselves could hardly absorb the lessons. Like old New Leftists endlessly pondering the year 1970, our predecessors held themselves together until the next shock-wave of change separated the accumulated dogma from the surviving insights, and a new ethnic-industrial working class succeeded the old.

Then, one day, the old-style proletarian drama centered on the ethnic community and factory floor came to an end. With apparent suddenness, a new world arrived bringing the transformation of working-class life in the 1940s. Both sides of the equation seemed strangely archaic. We have spent the last twenty-or forty-years trying to catch up with the reality of the comprehensive consumer-technology society and striving to understand the corresponding changes in a Third World battling first for independence, then survival and dignity in some kind of adjusted world order.

For even an oversimplified view of radicalism’s history, we have to go backward centuries in time. The experience of the Americas I from one angle, is a continuation of the Reformation and its bitter internal conflicts. Millenarian dissidents of many kinds across Europe sought to shake off the entire legacy of class society in favor of a communitarian solution. Turned back by bloody military defeat, their redirected energy became an integral part of the vast colonization enterprise.

So did the still more fiercely repressed energy of the Counter-reformation, centered in the Iberian peninsula. The commercial classes and tottering crowns found their bonanza in the ravaging of peoples and continents. But a minority amid the expansion sought out something wholly different: a chance, the final chance many believed, to redeem the botched human experiment through love and cooperation.(1)

Our native-born radicalism began with the Radical Reformation’s loyal descendants and owed much to their finest philosopher, Jakob Boehme, to whom Hegel attributed the reinvention of the dialectic from the ancients and the consequent launching of German philosophy. But, Hegel said, he could hardly understand a single sentence that Boehme wrote!

Hegel was looking in the wrong place or with the wrong eyes. Boehme preached the revolt against history, which was nothing but a history of cruelties, and the return to the pre-Adamic state where gender differences disappeared into androgyny and where the animals regained their power of speech because humankind had ceased to make slaves of them.

Fifty years ago, even twenty years ago, this vision would have sounded like nonsense to the Left, even to the scholars of Marxist philosophy. These scholars, like the ordinary Marxist, missed the roots of the dialectic and also the simple insight of the shoemaker, Boehme, who insisted that the merchant had introduced false wares into paradise, had sold the fruit from the tree of life and had engendered a corruption that only the overthrow of the patriarchal gods could set right.

Now we should be able to admire the metaphors. The French Revolution made history, for the young Hegel, irreversible; one could not go back any more. The development of capitalism made a materialist critique for the young Marx, necessary. Yet, without Boehme, we would have no Hegel, no German Romanticism, no Marx.

Grassroots radicalism proceeded for more than a century along Boehmesque lines. It protested against the Calvinist corruption of the Radical Reformation dream into particularism, racism and commercialism. Perfectionists of many colonies did not regard Native Americans or Black slaves as mere semi-humans to be used up and destroyed. Neither did they consider European entry into the New World had earned for them the right to debauch a virgin continent.

Significantly, many of the spokespersons of this radicalism were women who saw the devastation already at hand as a down payment on things to come and who regarded themselves as the natural allies of the oppressed.(2)

Pietists, Shakers, abolitionists and others developed in the middle of the nineteenth century an ideology that I call the American socialism and which we may now, after a century of misunderstanding, be able to appreciate for its own worth. They called it Spiritualism, or rather Philosophical Spiritualism, to distinguish it from phenomenal spiritualism, which focused upon contact between the living and the recently deceased via “mediums.”

Philosophical Spiritualists saw the oneness of all beings in the universe as the counteracting, life-giving metaphor — an idea that has recurred ever since in and around American dissenting movements. “Everyone might be just one big soul,” Woody Guthrie has Tom Joad say to his Ma.

Competition is viewed as a false reality but predestined to be overcome by a return to a communitarian life inside Nature. Likewise, sexual domination and racial domination were seen as shadows to be banished with the approaching sunlight.(3)

Were they cranks, these Spiritualists? Male or female, they were heir to the earliest movements for labor reform, especially for working women and children, and were at the heart of the movements that carried through the bourgeois revolution to the verge of modern socialism.

They were not, it is important to point out, “orientalist” exoticists like the literati around Ralph Waldo Emerson; they linked their socialism to age-old collective labor and to confrontation with the existing social crises. Before and shortly after the Civil War, they were immensely influential on the lecture circuit and within reform circles for women’s rights, abolitionism and fair treatment of Native Americans.

Their perspectives informed the women’s dissent literature that provided America’s social best-sellers. Lincoln himself said that without this literature, that is, without “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” there would have been no Civil War. The moderate Harriet Beecher Stowe was1 in reality, only one of so many writers that the “women’s novel” was considered ipso facto treasonous in the antebellum South.

Without the force of the Women’s National Loyal League, the wartime manifestation of the women’s rights movement, its support for radicals in Congress and its vast petition drives for the abolition of slavery, Lincoln might have hesitated fatally to set forth the Emancipation Proclamation. These radicals found themselves betrayed in postwar capitalism, and they formed the first important alliance of reformers with the little bands of self­described Marxists. It was a mismatch for many reasons. But the more radical spiritualists never abandoned the hope for a merger of forces.

The Spiritualist tradition led directly to Edward Bellamy’s utopian classic, “Looking Backward,” which went far to create a great socialistic sentiment among elder reformers, younger self-educated workers and women activists. American socialism in its peculiar combination of individualism and collectivism continued likewise in the populist movement’s great efforts to establish cooperative marketing as an alternative to emerging capitalism and especially in the weird novels of populist champion, Ignatius Donnelly.

It can be seen in Eugene Debs’ somewhat mystical image, the modern Jesus who suffered for the working people and depicted himself as almost androgynous in his love for the weak and helpless. It continued in the often psychic works of Jack London (whose mother was a practicing spiritualist medium), in the socialist legacy of Walt Whitman guarded by his literary heir and socialist editor, Horace Traubel, and in the marvelous expectations hay­seed socialists held for the twentieth century.

None of this was entirely worldly; not even the most practical economics existed entirely apart from strange forebodings and expectations. None of it was, in the European style, scientific socialism.(4)

Its devotees played the key role in the Socialist Party prior to American entry into World War I. Many of them belonged to unions and took roles in strikes or even, in Oklahoma, in the “Green Corn Rebellion” against the First World War. But they did not look upon economics as such as the prime source of evil or of redemption.

They hoped to broaden the republic into a universal entity with no barriers. They believed that education, love and personal example could accomplish their socialist purpose. They represented, in short, the best ideals of a fragmenting old middle class, the artisans and farmers for whom socialism was the only alternative to oblivion for their collective identities.

Industrial unionism — “socialism with its working clothes on,” William D. Haywood called it — or industrial socialism provided the bridge between the indigenous radicals and their immigrant successors to the radical mantle. If the republic could not be expanded by the full realization of individual citizenship to the entire world, if the republic had fallen under the power of industry, then industry-not “economics” but the machines and plant locations-might become the center for reorganizing the republic.

The Knights of Labor, which brought together Irish­ and English-born craft unionists with American-born workers and reformers including Blacks and women, posed the solution to capitalism as an alliance of a producers’ class (workers, small businessmen) against rising monopoly. It embraced a premature but vital industrial unionism. For a brief time in 1885-1886, before being badly divided and repressed, it reached many times the size of the craft-oriented American Federation of Labor. The Knights had glimpsed, in abstract form, the transcendent republic and in a few places had actually installed workers’ authority in factories and towns. They could not have appreciated the immense difficulty of the struggle ahead without undercutting the necessary faith of their leaders and followers in a ready democratic solution.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a quarter­century later, updated the concept to that of the industrial republic where the state of any kind had become obsolete. They glorified the unskilled, traveling frontier worker who had lost every right an American citizen traditionally (or mythically) enjoyed. They counterposed this image to that of the respectable members of the capitalist class and its loyal labor opposition who claimed self-righteously to be the happy outcome of national progress.

Like the Knights (but no other American social movement before the CIO and the civil rights movement), the IWW created an elan with reverberations across the earth. It could not overcome the difficulty of unifying workers, the limitations of its own resources and the solid wall of opposition raised against it by both organized labor and organized capital.

But it had, with its immigrant components, sketched out a distinct American radicalism in which economic organization was not a political task of socialism, but rather the framework upon which ordinary workers reconstructed their own democratic industrial society- from-within. If this was Marxism, it was the image of the Paris Commune that Marx identified with his own aims; it did not resemble the Marxist politics existing anywhere else in the world.(5)

The immigrant radicals, backbone of Marxist movements, were certainly different from the homespun radicals, but not in the ways usually depicted. Behind the iconography of the painting or bust of Ferdinand Lasalle found in every German-American socialist clubhouse of the nineteenth century, behind the millenarian quality of the choral music that provided a unifying cultural expression to public events, hangs the shadow of the religious revolt using the new symbols created by industrialism.

August Bebel’s Frau und der Sozialismus (Women And Socialism), most popular full-length Marxist work of the late nineteenth century, provided a vision of class society as an interregnum between the original Golden Age of cooperation and the golden age of socialism up ahead. That kind of thinking made Karl Marx nervous, but when infused into the various socialist rituals created to compete with the church, it gave the working class a way to see the inevitability of socialism and to find hope in the symbols it grasped along the way.

In the immigrant community of the United States, the priest or rabbi and the socialist intellectual constituted the two polar forces, each armed with knowledge, a driving moral purpose and an institutional strategy. Where there were powerful historical reasons for the population to make a radical choice — as in the case of the Finns or Czechs who had rejected their oppressive churches for national reasons — immigrant radicalism was off to a running start. Where the Church was connected decisively to national identity — as with the Poles or Irish — the radicals had a much harder row to hoe.(6)

Alongside and beyond the original religious split, alongside the transfer of millenarianism to socialism, every immigrant group had-and has-two material forces pulling upon it: the particular conditions of the immigrants and the fate of the homeland. These two pull, sometimes in the same direction, sometimes at cross purposes, within the community.

The baseline of Marxism in America was composed of the German-American immigrants who entered in great numbers from the 1850s to the 1880s. These were highly skilled craftsmen, especially woodworkers, in an environment where their craft was being steadily broken down by changes in production, and yet where they held onto a place of dignity and a strategic location in production. They were naturally the founders of unions that tended to express both the necessity of revolution and the desire for limited labor competition under capitalism.

Marxism “made sense” of their exploitation and their declining conditions. It also provided a proletarian ideology for their proud German-American identity, and it gave them a basis for total misunderstanding of their apparently un-class-conscious, feminist, prohibitionist, wacky American counterparts. What made the German­Americans strong, as founders of Marxist socialism in the United States, also made them insular. It was an experience that was to be repeated often in different ways. Most of the “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe seemed to the craft unionists to be unorganizable, largely unskilled and inclined to take their action from the factory into the community, alternating between mass revolt and mass apathy. They tended, especially in the early years of immigration, to regard the union as a means to an end, and the end was not the factory socialism the German-Americans had in mind but something more vague and celebrative, like the “festival of the oppressed” that Lenin once described.

Poles, South Slavs, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians and other groups shared the same sense of socialism as both an ideology of labor and an expression of their fight for national identity. How greatly socialism appealed to specific groups depended as much upon their homeland’s fate in the first World War and the appeal of the Russian Revolution on nationalistic lines as upon the particular class conditions of the respective immigrant workers. Socialism seemed to them the only hope of survival for their respective cultures on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is important to be clear about the implications. Socialist ideology, which was widespread in these cornmunities by 1920, was not the same as class consciousness, nor was it necessarily superior to less cohate ideologies of self-improvement in any given situation. This is a point amply demonstrated by the virtual absence of socialist ideology in the presence of vital struggles in the Black community. Indeed, there were probably more organized socialists among Armenian-American shopkeepers than in Black communities.

But organized socialist institutions did allow for a rough continuity of radical politics, mediated through the newspaper, the fraternal hall and the sick-and-death benefit societies. When struggle returned, socialists or their successors would lead it.

For decades, into the early twentieth century, the example of German socialism and the role of German-American workers nevertheless remained the dominant one, at least in accepted theory. Like Marx and Engels, who understood the Irish question but seemed not to have seen all the implications, the socialists of Europe and the immigrant socialists of America assumed that ethnic groups would eventually, and probably very soon, merge into the culturally dominant entity. That would — they thought — solve the problem of ethnic rivalries within the socialist and labor movements once and for all. We know now how poorly this “abstract internationalism” prepared socialists to deal with the simultaneous upsurge of class conflict and nationalistic sentiments during the First World War. Some of the groups — the Russian immigrants led by Trotsky are the most extreme example — really did have their eyes totally riveted upon Europe. They had the reputation of being an intellectual stratum that expected to contribute to a revolution in the United States-a reputation largely unknown to the real Russian-American workers whom Trotsky’s group knew hardly at all.

The Russian group (reputedly made up mostly of former Mensheviks) grew very large at the time of the revolution, sought to dictate terms to American revolutionaries. It virtually disappeared, however, amid repression, remigration and disappointment, in the years afterward. Unlike other groups that survived and thrived, it had never sunk roots. It had no perspective on immigrant life as a fusion of European background and American experience.(7)

For decades, Jews could be taken as the group that created an alternative. But so long as capitalism endured, all alternatives would carry their own price. Jewish social democratic institutions, above all the Jewish Daily Forward and the various needle trades, practically held hegemony in some Jewish working-class districts.

But the power of institutional influence could be corrupting to those who had it and maddening to those who did not. Trapped within their own milieu, socialists in a country that often seemed antisocialist, Jewish radicals had a way of making peace with the system that would not change-or of ripping each other to shreds, as if to satisfy an unrequited urge.

The Forward, founded in rebellion against the sectarian Socialist Labor Party, soon became an extension of Abraham Cahan’s personality. It proved pathetically eager for Jewish assimilation into American propriety, savagely opposed to the IWW and even to Sidney Hillman’s Amalgamated Clothing Workers as potential competitors to ghetto power. Cahan’s own idea of socialism very early became wedded to the survival of the existing trade-union bureaucracy.

Even the Jewish anarchists swam with this tide: carrying for themselves the role of loyal opposition. Revolt against this center, when it came, confusedly combined all the grievances into one heap: nationalism, trade-union militancy, enthusiasm for Russia and enthusiasm for a prospective Zion. Above all the options stood the strange duality: upward advancement for masses of Jews in America and bad prospects for the survival of their relatives in Europe.

Leaders chose Communism, Labor Zionism, reform socialism or non-ideological trade unionism. The generations of ordinary Jewish workers moved back and forth between these currents, awaiting the latest developments and frequently exchanging one enthusiasm for another.

But most of the other nationalities that counted in the American Left had a very different history from Germans or Jews. They were more homogeneously proletarian, with less upward mobility. Their homelands had been repeatedly traded between empires in Europe. But they were ready, in large numbers, to return if they could, and up to fifty percent of them did.

Lithuanians, Hungarians, Finns, South Slavs, Greeks, Ukrainians, even small groups such as Spanish-Cuban and Portuguese had an intense learning experience with America. They immediately saw the value of industrial unionism and the political value of socialism, since no other forces would meet their needs. They believed quite rightly that they had a hand to play in the fate of their relatives back home. The splits and the political fine points that divided and occupied the discussions of the early communist movement did not make much sense to most of them. But they knew their own sources of support. The failure of immediate revolution in the United States did not leave them broken.(8)

For emotional as well as national reasons, these groups (including the vast majority of the older Jewish comrades) did pin their faith upon the survival of the Russian experiment, even in the form of “socialism in one country.” By the later 1920s, they had overcome the premature proclamations of imminent revolution, lived through the destructive factional fights of the Communist Party and survived as best they could the party “Bolshevization” process, which drove out of the movement working people who liked the social aspects of radicalism more than its total demand for discipline, especially in slack political times.

Viewed in the context of these traumas, Stalinization was only one more setback. They had never been treated in a particularly democratic way by the various leaders anyway.

They set about providing institutions for immigrants, from educational to recreational outlets. Soon, when the next phase of extreme sectarianism passed away into the Popular Front, they could agitate freely on the cultural and union questions that concerned their communities most. In the united front of wartime, they moved yet further toward the center of their own neighborhood politics.

The Cold War and the disillusionment with the Soviet Union left them an aging group of faithful men and women, ill-prepared for worse to come. It gave their children, moderately mobile and drawn into the mass culture, every reason to leave the Left behind.(9)

But they had succeeded, in spite of Stalinism and their own limitations, in accomplishing something real. They lived out — and their leaders articulated through the veil of dogma — a view of dynamic cultural pluralism far in advance of Marxist theory anywhere. Like the visions of the Spiritualists, but far more like the Wobbly perspectives, their concept of a transformed society extended democracy from quantity to quality, from the right of the citizen to vote to the right of the ordinary person to engage in simultaneous dialogues in different languages or cultures, holding each at equal value.

The famous melting pot, a left Yiddish pedagogue wrote as news of the Holocaust began to arrive, had a scorched bottom. Anything less than multi-culture and multi-lingualism in America was not democracy at all. This tremendous insight-never officially acknowledged as such within the Left but adopted with great vigor by activists-tended to legitimize support of the CIO, of anti-fascism and even of Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party.

So did, in an odd way, the very mobility of the radical immigrants’ own children and the respectability that labor radicalism (when not too radical) had gained. They had gone as far as the Left could go within these immigrant, working-class milieus and they had brought real benefits to their sections of the radicalized working class.(10)

To push further, beyond these institutions and ideas, demanded a credulous expectation of rapid revolutionary change and a vision of a different social base of support. Remnants of the old American radicalism, grown skeptical about the rise of the state and about the military­bureaucratic consequences of a U.S. war effort, had no source for optimism.

Trotskyists returned essentially to the IWW notion applied to the CIO and the rest of the working class. This idea had real promise-for a moment.

From the last years of war to the first years of peace, the alternative seemed to be manifested in street celebrations of city-wide general strikes, bebop music, and early tracings of the Beat Generation. Industrial restlessness became part of a pulsating cultural development, a near­revolution in the ways working people and Blacks began to see their own lives. They wanted more than a share, and something different from what communism had ever offered. They sought free expression in the way they worked, in what fashions they bought and in what music they liked.

Was the possibility for dramatic change real? We only know that virtually the entire Left still operated under the old rules, practicing economism and visualizing itself far from the anti-institutional, cultural forms of mass restlessness. With the emerging Cold War and the standardization of the consumer economy, the old Left lost its last chance to intervene seriously. All bets were off.(11)

Raging debates within a collapsing Left served to hide the depth of the problem. The leviathan warfare-welfare state, which the old American radicals had the best mental tools to understand but which Trotskyists could appreciate through their own ideological evolution, had absorbed most of the Marxist constituency and was fully capable of repressing the rest.

Practically no American base existed, in the short run, for opposition to that system running rampant across the globe, absorbing the old empires and imposing its new regime through imperial economics. State socialism (or “Stalinism”), in response to its own inner contradictions, ambivalently supported the currents of resistance.

Racist philosopher Oswald Spengler had written in 1920 that for the purposes of the twentieth century, “the Russians” had become “non-white,” and that when non­whites acquired machines, it would be curtains for the West.

The little intellectual kernel of anti-state radicals, centered intellectually in the old bastion of progressive antiwar opposition, Madison, Wisconsin, offered a critique of the same phenomena from an indigenous viewpoint. The United States had initiated the Cold War because of a perceived need to open all world markets to American products and had justified itself by expanding the repressive power of the state.

C.L.R. James supplied the Marxist version. State capitalism (and its supporters in the Western nations) had abandoned the original propositions of Marxism for an identification with the form of state property. They did not act — as anticommunists would obsessively argue — out of some psychological perversity or “Fifth Column” loyalty to Russia, but because a stratified capitalism in West or East had become the only way for the systems to manage themselves. “Stalinism” was an historic stage, if not presumably for the world working classes, then at least for considerable portions of them.

Decades later, mostly Italian disciples of James and his intellectual counterparts, added an amendment: as the CIO had been necessary to organize the working class for modern production, so the high-level consumption that unionization had made possible had been necessary for post-war capitalism to survive and prosper. Things turn into their opposites. At this juncture, representative forms no longer signified a further advance beyond that stage. Only unmediated democracy, group autonomy and individual self-assertion, and not some new version of the vanguard party, lay on the other side of the contradiction.(12)

All of these arguments had their validity in the renascent opposition of the 1950s and 1960s. Successful challenge from outside the system — China, Cuba, Vietnam — linked itself with nation and race, and with existing state capital. America proved repeatedly the active promoter of Cold War tensions, which, like the China card, could be turned into their opposite in rarely used opportunities of “great-power” collaboration in eradicating alternatives. The repressive apparatus grew and took new, sophisticated forms, technological and political.

But in both Cold War camps could be found the potentiality of unmediated forms-Hungarian workers’ councils, Black power, New Left, women’s movement, gay movement, Solidarnosc. In every case, as in the 1940s in America, the importance of cultural expression, not only for “the Artist” but for everyone as artists of their own lives, has become an acknowledged and even central element.

The boom of the youth commodity market and the complex interrelation of politics and mass media disguised the significance of underlying developments in the all-important American New Left. Already signs of the next phase, the social movements at the end of the century, had begun to show themselves. Octavio Paz wisely observed that young Americans taking drugs sought to get outside history, not to escape but to remove the burden of the West from their urge to live in a universal, protean way.(13)

The movement lurched forward with goals greater than ending the war in Vietnam or bringing equal opportunities for all Americans. However naively put, it spoke of healing a wounded planet and a wounded human spirit. The Spiritualists, and even the early Marxists with their “scientific” icons, might have been able to understand. The New Left lacked in theory and in practice the race, class and gender mediations to weave social transformation from the web of capitalist entanglements. But it had expressed presentiments unmistakable in retrospect.

When the smoke had cleared and the “Me” decade began, the shapeless desires regressed into their commodity forms. The rise of religious radicalism on campus, almost as if in exact response to the collapse of secular counterparts (but actually in response to the grape boycott) told a new tale, intimately related to the rise of religious-based support groups for international revolution and the Sanctuary movement of the liberal religious mainstream.

American capitalism could certainly recover from the non-lethal blows of a Vietnam and offer new generations of whites, and at least a select number of non-whites as well as a proportion of women, upgraded versions of the commodities that the white working class had earlier taken for symbols of freedom. It could export the added misery upon the rest, at home and abroad.

It could not offer moral surcease from a world suffering and starving, nor could it offer the sense of social and physical security upon which new generations psychologically depend. Beyond rhetoric, it offered no future at all.

Subtly, without any particular recognition on any side, the framing of issues intact since the Radical Reformation and even through the New Left, increasingly give way. We had all, at the apparent end of history, re-entered a world apparently lost.

In Latin America, in the Caribbean Basin, in South Africa, the Philippines and even sections of mainland Asia, the Counter-reformation began to take its revenge. Stubborn anti-secularism, holding out against the ravages of materialism in the peripheries where misery reigned, became the seedbed of the newer revolutionary forms, parent (along with a vastly transformed version of Marx ism) to the new revolutionary content.

The repeated collapse of communist movements, political or guerrilla, and the failure of the establishment alter­ natives to meet problems of economics and culture, brought a concerted response within that seemingly most unlikely of places-the Catholic Church. Vatican II merely ratified and legitimated the changing moods of self-assertion and of a religion that already assumed the role and some of the ideological positions Marxists had left in the wake.

The clearest voices, like that of Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, -poet-priest of Brazil’s mato grosso, speak of social transformation in a tone at once new and also familiar: the salvation of the world through the last-minute rescue of besieged peoples and environments; full recognition of the horrors created in the name of mechanical­commercial progress and socialist humility toward the lessons ageless ecosystems have to give us. Such sweeping conclusions-politicized and clarified, if also diluted, in the writings of Nicaragua’s Ernesto Cardenal, return socialism to its origins, the chiliastic faith of the Empire’s victims.(14)

Meanwhile, immigration patterns to the United States have altered drastically from the very geographical direction of the new revolutionary faith, just as they did from the European hotbeds of socialism in the early years of the twentieth century. At the present rate, in less than a century, more than half of the U.S. population will be of Caribbean Basin origin. Unlike the European immigrants, their radicalism is based not in the secular Left but in the Church.

Abstractly, at least, this massive human movement pokes gaping holes in the barrier between the Third World and the West. It also brings together the two halves, Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor, of the stubbornly unsecular and now-aged New World once seen as the refuge from the old.

But another and seemingly contradictory tendency grows simultaneously. Amid one of the ugliest American eras of renascent racism and nationalism, mass society has nevertheless created vital tools for its own collective self-comprehension. There are important Black and feminist and gay intellectual and cultural advances even as (and partly because) the movements themselves have become endangered.

And consider the video cassette recorder. The utopian desire for real expression through commodities — apparent in the later 1940s and again in the 1960s-has taken a perverse turn in recent years. Perhaps that particular utopia is (or should be) doomed in the reallocation of world resources ahead.

But then again, as the examination of race has produced a world-systems understanding that Marx would admire, as the examination of gender has made possible the intimate history of humanity hitherto unimaginable, so the VCR has made accessible-not only in the United States, but across the world-a self-taught examination of the most prevalent popular cultural forms since the first stories were told in the first villages.

Do the stories tell lies? Like everything shaped by race and gender relations, they have always done so. But the great power of the modern masses has been to see the truth within the lies, as they take their pleasures in what an alienated marketplace has to offer. The technology that threatens to murder us has also restructured the working classes and minorities, mass culture and minority cultures, beyond the wildest schemes of scheming enterprisers.(15)

Are the twin aims of fullest individual self-expression and of cooperation with the now-strained biosphere for survival of its varied species, mutually exclusive? In that case, socialism has no future at all.(16)

But let us imagine another scenario more consistent with the historical view of Marx and the hidden religious­philosophical assumptions behind it. Scholars have slowly and painfully come to the conclusion that economic “backwardness” in one part of the world is the result of economic “progress” in another. Socialism, the intended supersession of capitalism, inevitably took on the qualities of working-class reform among the “advanced” and the accumulation of capital under state planning among the “backward.” After every upsurge, every breakthrough into state power, the deeper logic of the world-wide system reinstated itself at last.

But if Stalinism is no more aberration than the imperial Church of St. Peter, if Western freedoms have been bought at the price of debauching the world population and Third World revolutions at the price of absorbing overwhelming internal contradictions — then the crises, too, are system-wide. Struggles for emancipation have an internal connective logic, a commonality, that we have only begun to understand.

Let us return, one last time, to the dichotomies of the earlier U.S. radicalism, immigrant and native­born, producer-republican and free spirit. They predict for us the many-sidedness of the emancipatory search now raised to the point of common survival. They reach backward to the oldest chiliastic enthusiasms, to the ancient handicraft traditions, to the bourgeois revolutions, the true eclectic generality of First, Second and Third International socialism, anarchism and communism.

But they also reach forward beyond the prevailing sense of dread. They provide the political cartographer a view of our collective selves and our future. They show that there is a socialist vision to come out of today’s everyday life and common mythology as the older social­ ist vision arose from yesterday’s experiences and myths. Surely now, we are more prepared than we ever have been to grasp it.


    Thanks to my extended family of friends, around Radical America and Cultural Correspondence over the years, for their kind indulgence of my speculations.

  1. C. Osborne Ward’s classic two volumes, The Ancient Lowly (Chicago, 1907 edition), offered the vital interpretation of Christianity as a rebellious slave and craftsmen’s religion turned conservative in power; the parallel to Bolshevism is, for me at least, unmistakable. For speculation on the Radical Reformation and Counter-reformation diaspora, see Paul Buhle and Thomas Fiehrer, “Liberation Theology in Latin America: Dispensations Old and New,” in Mike Davis, et al., eds., The Year Left, an American Socialist Yearbook, 1985 (London, 1985).
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  2. The real work on Boehme remains to be done. The most accessible of the Boehme translations, Nicolas Berdayev, ed., Six Theosophic Points (Ann Arbor, 1958) is an eye-opener. Howard H. Brinton, The Mystic Wil (New York, 1930) is also useful.
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  3. Joseph Jablonski, “Millennial Soundings: Chiliasts, Cathari, & Mystical Feminism in the American Grain,” in Paul Buhle, et al., eds., Free Spirits: Annals of the Insurgent Imagination (San Francisco, 1982).
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  4. Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (Urbana, 1981), Ch. II-Ill; Paul Buhle, Marxism in the U.S., Remapping the American Left (London, 1987), Ch. II-III. It is worth emphasizing here that these old immigrant radicals, frequently accused by later critics of racist and xenophobic weaknesses, in fact had a better record on racial matters in practice than their immigrant counterparts. These socialists had to take on the Ku Klux Klan and frequently did, as in Oklahoma. The more radical of them, in Texas, lent a helping hand to the Mexican revolution. Probably the most racially egalitarian radical paper of the day was — not surprisingly — The Christian Socialist. See James R. Green, Grass Roots Socialism (Baton Rouge, 1978), for part of the story.
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  5. The definitive treatment of the Knights remains to be written. Leon Fink’s Workingman’s Democracy (Urbana, 1983) analyzes the Knights in selected locations, overemphasizing, in my view, the parliamentary maneuvering and the significance of local reform victories for the overall significance of the Knights’ effort. They failed, but they sought to revolutionize the society. The best recent treatment of the IWW is the Introduction to Dan Georgakas, et al., eds., Solidarity Forever (Chicago, 1985).
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  6. Joseph Stipanovich, “Immigrant Workers and Immigrant Intellectuals in Progressive America: A History of the Yugoslav Socialist Federation,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, Preface; and see the forthcoming anthology on immigrant radicals, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, eds., Immigrant Radicalism in the U.S. (Albany, 1987) for a selection of essays on Jews, Finns, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians and others.
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  7. See my treatment Of the “national question” and U.S. radicalism in the World War I period in Marxism in the U.S., Ch. III-IV. The best sources on German-American socialism are Hartmut Keil and John Jentz, eds., German Workers in Industrial America, 1850-1910 (DeKalb, 1983); and Dick Hoerder, ed., “Struggle a Hard Battle:” Essays on Working Class Im migrants (DeKalb, 1986). On the Russians and Trotsky, see Maria Woroby, “Russian-American Immigrants and American Socialism,” in Buhle and Georgakas, forthcoming.
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  8. The historical material on Jewish radicalism in the United States is vast and deceptive; with all the tracing out of lines and leading personalities, too little real study of the rank and file has been attempted. See my oral history investigation, “Jews and American Communism: the Cultural Question,” Radical History Review, No. 23 (1980). Of the other groups mentioned here, the only thoroughgoing work has been done on the Finns. See, for example, Michael Karni and Michael Ollila, eds., For the Common Good (Superior, Wis., 1977). Considerable research on immigrant radicals, oral and written, has been accumulated through the Oral History of the American Left, Tamiment Library, New York University.
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  9. The Finns, who never regained strength from the “Bolshevization” leadership dictat and from the departure of the Minnesota cadre to Soviet Karelia in the early 1930s, are somewhat exceptional. But in another sense, every group — from the South Slavs who remained socialists but militantly pro-Tito to the Greeks who hit their radical peak in the ’40s to the Cape Verdeans radicalized in the 1960s — is an “exception” in its own way. The Buhle and Georgakas volume delineates a number of alternative paths.
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  10. Perhaps Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana, 1983), has best captured this contribution to democracy at full length, and with some of its internal contradictions laid bare. Much work remains to be done. Apart from the essays in Buhle and Georgakas, the interviews in the Oral History of the American Left, Tamiment Library, offer abundant personal evidence of working-class radical life almost totally detached from the rhetorical styles of Left ideologues.
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  11. George Lipsitz, Class and Culture in Cold War America: “A Rainbow at Midnight” (S. Hadley, 1982), remains the incisive treatment of this neglected period. Much essential material regarding in particular the recruitment of Blacks to the Left remains almost purely anecdotal. Up to 5,000 joined the International Workers Order, the Communist fraternal movement, just, as it faced overwhelming government repression. Trotskyist branches, former members report, had a steady influx of Black sympathizers, but lacked the apparatus or the perspective for making the most of the opportunity. See, for example, Steve Zeluck interview, Oral History of the American Left.
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  12. See Paul Buhle, “Introduction,” to C.L.R. James, et al., State Capitalism and World Revolution (Chicago, 1986 edition), for highlights of the theoretical dialogue.
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  13. Octavio Paz, Alternating Current, tr. Helen R. Lane (New York, 1973).
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  14. Ernesto Cardenal, “Prefatory Poem: Letter to Bishop Casaldaliga,” in Teofila Cabestrero, Mystic of Liberation: A Portrait of Pedro Casaldaliga, tr. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, 1981). See also Pablo Richard, et al., The Idols of Death and the God of Life: an Anthology, tr. Barbara E. Campbell and Bonnie Shepard (Maryknoll, 1983), for the deepest theological treatment of Liberation Theology themes-indeed, virtually a reprise of Jakob Boehme.
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  15. This argument returns to the ground taken by C.L.R. James against the proponents of “Historical Retrogression” during the debates of the 1940s: either the productive forces of capitalism, however uncontrolled and destructive, continue the socialization of labor and prepare the working class and all oppressed groups to take over society — or they do not and no prospects remain for socialism. J.R. Johnson, “Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution,” The New International (January 1944). For supportive evidence that popular culture extends the intelligence of the masses, see Paul Buhle, ed., Good Times at Our House (Minneapolis, 1987), an anthology from the pages of the old “Cultural Correspondence.”
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  16. If not, what is the socialist view of absolute catastrophe? “Socialism or Barbarism” is a fine slogan, but hardly the seemingly steady movement of human society toward oblivion. I personally,  join the Church of the Sub-Genius on the high ground of Gnosticism: Jehovah is a minor god on an ego trip, and we must be waiting for higher authorities (DOCTOR WHO, CAN YOU HEAR US?) to put this galaxy into receivership. Seriously, dear reader, what is your alternative?
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September-October 1987, ATC 10

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