Against Radical Mythology

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Peter Drucker

I WAS GLAD to see Paul Buhle and Loren Goldner in Against the Current 10 trying to dig down to the roots of U.S. radicalism. With socialists in this country feeling so isolated and so alienated from the forces dominating its culture, we desperately need a “usable past” that can reconnect us to indigenous traditions. I’m glad ATC is trying to meet this need.

But a real usable past has to be a past that actually existed. Consoling ourselves with an imaginary past can only make us misunderstand the present. Y m afraid the past Buhle and Goldner conjure up for us is imaginary. More strictly speaking, they have taken a mix of radical currents from different cultures and times and tried to weld them together into a coherent, native radical tradition.

For example, when Buhle stakes a claim in two successive paragraphs to both Walt Whitman, who glorified a preindustrial democracy of farmers, sailors and mechanics and based his vision of equality on loving friendship among both women and men, and Edward Bellamy, who designed a gruesomely technological utopia maintained by separate and unequal male and female industrial armies, my mind begins to boggle.

In spite of generous motives, Buhle’s and Goldner’s mythmaking leads them to make three big mistakes. By basing their mythic radicalism on an ideal, imaginary religious tradition stretching from Jakob Boehme to liberation theology, they hinder a complete understanding of the dual nature of religious radicalism (specifically Christian radicalism) in the United States.

By postulating an already forged (though almost forgotten) unity between radical traditions of Native Americans, “native” whites (Anglos), immigrants, Blacks and Latinos/Chicanos, they minimize the difficult fusion between these different traditions that still has to be accomplished.

Finally, by a simplistic caricature of the revolutionary Marxist tradition they obscure the vital role that a subtle and creative Marxism has to play in bringing about this fusion and creating a new, rooted, vibrant U.S. radicalism.

Religion. The roots of Christianity in the United States are not as radical as Buhle and Goldner suggest. Neither are the radical strands within it as unified or positive as they suggest. When Goldner says that “for the two centuries prior to 1840, the North American continent was peopled more or less solely [“more or less solely”?] by left-Reformation (largely British and German) settlers, Indians and Blacks,” he is just wrong.

Besides the fact that Quebec and Mexico, Louisiana and Florida are all part of “the North American continent,” Goldner forgets that Maryland was settled initially by Catholics, the British colonies to its south were settled initially by Anglicans (“right-Reformation” settlers), and even in New England in the decades before 1776 colonial elites converted in large numbers from Quakerism and Congregationalism to establishment Anglicanism.

The bulk of New England’s “left-Reformation” settlers were Congregationalists–the same people Goldner turns around and denounces as “Puritans” a few paragraphs later. As for “Anabaptists”–the visionaries who tried to set up a communist society during the sixteenth-century German Peasant Revolt–they are more familiar to most people in the United States as Baptists, and they began early their transformation here into mostly conservative fundamentalists.

The specific religious radicals that Buhle and Goldner identify-Mennonites, Pietists, Shakers–were not “Anabaptists.” They were always tiny minorities, not only of the population but also of radical movements. They were usually working out their salvation in their own self-contained communities and sometimes were not active radicals in the larger world.

The key word mysteriously missing from Buhle’s and Goldner’s discussion of these religious radicals is “Christian.” The tradition they all came from was Christian. Their radicalism was bound up with beliefs that are basic to Christianity, which few ATC readers are likely to share. Christians, radical or not, agree on basing certain truths on divine revelation, while Marxists base truth on an interaction between abstract thought, experience and action.

Christian doctrines argue that ultimately human transformation is possible only through divine grace, while Marxists think people can transform themselves through revolutionary practice. Failing to mention the troublesome aspects of Christian radicalism is failing to take it seriously.

Buhle’s and Goldner’s interest in religious radicalism probably reflects intuitive recognition of an overall poverty (despite past exceptions) in spiritual or moral thinking among Marxists.

U.S. and European Marxism today seems ill-equipped to help us deal with the reality of evil in the century of the Holocaust and Hiroshima or the role of feeling and ritual in sustaining radical commitment. The underdevelopment of Marxism’s ethical and communal dimensions in imperialist countries contrasts with the strength of these dimensions in Chinese and Vietnamese communism. Despite terribly immoral actions arising from bureaucratic features of the leading parties, this Asian communism has put down deep roots into Confucian cultures. For those of us in the United States and Europe I think feminism’s contribution can be crucial to revitalizing Marxism in a humane and libertarian way.

But this miming dimension in U.S. Marxism cannot be supplied by simply borrowing from Christian radicalism.

Fusions. Goldner talks a lot about the “fusion” of the different cultural traditions he identifies: “left-Reformation,” Native American and Black. When I look at his evidence it adds up to nothing like fusion.

He cites the opening of white Protestant congregations to Blacks in the Great Awakening; radical Protestants’ “sympathy for the condition of Indians”; Christian opposition to slavery; the spread of the ring-shout, the Black spiritual, the cakewalk, ragtime, jazz and rock. These are shaky building blocks with which to construct a coherent “native” radical tradition.

Just to point out a few chinks in the structure: Native American radicalism at its most militant has been inspired by rejection of Christianity, not identification with it. Native American traditions of respect for the land had little echo in any white tradition until the rise of ecology in the twentieth century. The Black church and white church, through abolitionism and the civil rights movement and up to the present, have remained structurally and theologically divided (Eugene Genovese has pointed out that the crucial doctrine of original sin was never fully incorporated into Black Christianity). The overwhelming majority of those who have liked jazz and rock have not been radicals; many have been racists.

Buhle makes a similar, though more cautious, attempt to link together early Anglo radicalism with later immigrant socialism.

He cites the Knights of Labor and Industrial Workers of the World as “the bridge between the indigenous radicals and their immigrant successors to the radical mantle.” He argues that Anglos and immigrants together achieved a (“never officially acknowledged”) view of dynamic cultural pluralism far in advance of Marxist theory anywhere. But Buhle, like Goldner, provides little evidence for his chauvinistic statement.

Was the U.S. left’s inchoate model of cultural pluralism really in advance of all the multicultural visions debated in Europe by Bundists, Austro-Marxists and followers of Luxemburg and Lenin? If this U.S. model was so successful, why did it crumble so quickly with the Communist Party’s “Bolshevization,” reformism’s triumph in the CIO, and assimilation?

What one can find among Anglo radicals in U.S. history is not a genuine fusion with other cultural traditions, not even (before the twentieth century) revolutionary solidarity, but protests, rooted in the democratic traditions of 1776, against injustice toward non-Anglos.

Paine’s opposition to slavery and Emerson’s and Thoreau’s opposition to U.S. aggression against Mexico (despite Buhle’s mysterious dismissal of them as ‘”Orientalist exoticists” and “literati”) are important for the left to reclaim today, and the democratic traditions of the War for Independence and Civil War contain ammunition against the top-down models of social democracy and Stalinism.

But neither democratic radicalism nor Christian radicalism nor pre-World War I socialism ever entered into a real dialogue, still less a real synthesis, with other, non-Anglo radicalisms. That task remains for U.S. revolutionaries, who have to re-root ourselves in our different communities and traditions today.

Marxism. The irony of Buhle’s and Goldner’s position is that they end up trivializing the one tradition that has contributed most to understanding and solidarity between Anglo, immigrant and nonwhite U.S. radicals: the revolutionary Marxist tradition, particularly as developed by Russian and other European revolutionaries in this century.

Lenin’s and other communists’ writings about imperialism, and these writings’ translation into strategies for the international communist movement, made white radicals see for the first time that national struggles by Latin Americans, Blacks and other oppressed peoples could play a crucial role in bringing about a revolution in the United States.

Only the Bolsheviks’ pressure on the Communist Party in the 1920s and Trotsky’s pressure on the Socialist Workers Party in the 1930s started U.S. radicals toward developing an anti-racist politics and multicultural perspective. From this pressure we can trace the first equal dialogues between white and nonwhite revolutionaries, from the CP’s relationship with the African Blood Brotherhood to the SWP’s with Malcolm X.

Goldner has a different attitude toward the Marxist tradition, shaped by a fanciful argument. He says that even the best traditions of European Marxism are “hopelessly entwined with the discredited statist –tradition” because Marxism has flourished only in the “fight against the social relations of pre-capitalist agriculture.”

The argument depends on Goldner’s limitation of capitalism to “societies like Great Britain, Holland, Scotland [not part of Great Britain?], Switzerland or the U.S.” But the limitation is groundless. France at the time of the Paris Commune, Germany at the height of Communist influence in the early 1930s, Europe at the high tide of Marxist radicalism in 1968 and even pre-1959 Cuba and pre-1979 Nicaragua were all capitalist societies.

Goldner’s error is to identify as capitalist only those societies where bourgeois ideology took root earliest and capitalist economies are most solidly established. His argument boils down to pointing out that Marxism has been weakest where capitalism has been strongest. This was not news to, say, Lenin.

Although Buhle does not make any argument as reductive as Goldner’s, he does misconstrue Marxism in a similar way. He says that the profound democratic vision of early twentieth-century U.S. radicalism “did not resemble the Marxist politics existing anywhere else in the world,” and anyway some time after the 1940s the “old-style proletarian drama… came to an end.” The attack on European Marxism is simply unfair to all the Marxists, from William Morris to Anton Pannakoek to Rosa Luxemburg, who did keep a profoundly democratic vision alive inside the Second International.

Despite their exalted claims for the U.S. radical tradition, Buhle and Goldner, by the very word “American” they use to refer to it, share the almost universal insensitivity of white U.S. leftists to Latin Americans’ and others’ objections to this usage. A well-developed U.S. radicalism would have to overcome these problems of vocabulary as well as much bigger problems. Creating this radicalism will require somewhat less high-flying mysticism, somewhat more practical materialism, and long struggles.

The dismissal of the “old-style proletarian drama” seems, paradoxically, more dated today than the old socialist traditions it writes off. Today, in the midst of an international ruling-class offensive and a long series of recessions, it is “post-Marxism,” “post-scarcity” radicalism and “farewell-to-the-working-class” politics (which I know Buhle rejects) that look more and more old-fashioned.

Of course 1930s radicalism cannot be resurrected in its old forms; of course the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s as well as older non-Marxist traditions have their own indispensable legacy for us. But there is more in the old “proletarian drama” that needs remembering than needs forgetting.

May-June 1988, ATC 14

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