Can Radicals Be Liberals, Too?

G. William Domhoff

Can young radicals—fired by great zeal, but often short on patience—be convinced to channel their prodigious organizing energies into activities that might build larger constituencies and have a greater long-term impact? Can young activists ever learn from the experience of aging radicals with fabled pasts?

Such are the questions that ‘60s activist turned sociologist and media commentator Todd Gitlin implicitly tries to answer in the affirmative. Letters to a Young Activist is an effort to draw on his own experience and subsequent reflections to help the current generation of young activists do better than his generation did. His stated purpose is to address “big questions about the activist spirit,” not to provide a “precise political outlook” or present a list of “positions,” except when he “can’t resist.”

His rhetorical strategy is first to affirm the essential need for “agitators,” who have “good character” and “the nerve to face reality,” and then to express emotional solidarity with them, primarily by reminding readers of his activists credentials, like his anti-nuke sit-ins in Boston in 1960 and his arrest for anti-apartheid picketing outside Chase Manhattan Bank in 1965 (“we didn’t get much media and we didn’t care”). He recounts the complex feelings (a mixture of exhilaration, rage and fear) he experienced during his participation in the violent Stop the Draft disruptions in Oakland in 1967, when his wing of the anti-war movement “seceded from our own people” by blocking streets, trashing stores, and fighting with cops, coming to be “despised” by most local citizens in the process. He says he still feels a sense of “urgency.” He praises the anti-sweatshop movement, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and ACT-UP.

After embracing activism and his own past, he next tries to influence the current generation of radicals by expressing deep regrets about some of the things he and his peers did, and for not saying things he knew he should have said at the time. He accepted the blurring of the distinction between the private and public spheres in the ‘60s, but now thinks that was a “dangerous idea.” He regrets that he did not take voting and the two-party system more seriously, and ignored the fact that Richard Nixon would be a real disaster (“we had no idea how bad things could get”). He wishes he had spoken out against the direction taken by the Weathermen and the Black Panthers, and he now thinks it was a mistake to be uncritical of China, Cuba and North Vietnam.

In a searing comparison of the left and right, in which he excoriates the right—and in the process reminds activists once again that he hasn’t sold out—he laments the fact that the left is so ambivalent about power, and so fragmented and disputatious, that it cannot bring itself to try to win power. He says his generation was “anarchistic” in temperament. He notes he was elected president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963, despite his lack of experience, because four people with more experience would not run for the office.

Warning against such anti-leadership tendencies, Gitlin calls on young activists to resist any temptation to think they can create an “earthly paradise,” and to avoid “apocalyptic thinking.” Act on the basis of duty, love and adventure. Recognize that a movement needs both outsiders and insiders, and that the insiders are usually older (and often former activists). Learn to accept “imperfect allies,” and don’t be purists. Cultivate an attitude of irony, and don’t let justifiable anger turn into rage, which leads to a self-righteous attitude, becomes a substitute for analysis, and then a reason for violence that goes against core leftist values. Don’t let frustration lead to a fundamentalism of the left, which isn’t any different from other kinds of fundamentalism. Don’t tolerate any anti-Semitism, and don’t succumb to knee-jerk anti-Americanism. In short, be a leftist who is also a liberal in the best sense of the term.


Most of this works extremely well. Perhaps it might have worked even better if Gitlin had refrained from delivering various ex cathedra opinions—like Marx was a “brilliant but monomaniacal prophet,” Lenin was “intellectually dishonest,” Chomsky is a “simple-minded” anti-American, and the property-destroying anarchists are “parasites” who have “contempt” for other activists. These kinds of undeveloped arguments, which seem to create categories for “good” and “bad” leftists, do not serve to overcome the divisions he is trying to transcend. Nor will his passé critique of identity politics, bristling with phrases such as “self-encapsulation,” “anti-intellectual mood,” and “mocks universalist hopes,” gain a hearing for his general argument.

Nor is it enough to cast aside hopes for some form of economic planning through committees and government agencies (i.e., socialism) by saying that “The remedy for market fundamentalism is not antimarket fundamentalism,” which is characterized as a “grim road” that we’ve been down before. There are indeed strong historical, sociological, and economic arguments against non-market solutions for economic injustices. There are also hopeful ways to use “planning through the market” to work towards a far less exploitative economic system. However, these issues need to be carefully discussed before those who still believe in some form of planning through committees and agencies, whether decentralized or centralized, are going to abandon this longstanding left strategy for creating greater economic equality and social cooperation.

Although it makes great sense to reaffirm the importance of the activist spirit, it may be that today’s young activists would feel more respected if key strategic issues were discussed and analyzed in a serious fashion. Regretting that you may have played a role in electing Nixon in 1968, and noting that third parties are impossible in a single-member district electoral system, is hardly enough to convince Greens that they should form Green Democrat Clubs and take over the Democratic Party through challenges in primaries. A discussion of cross-national studies of electoral rules, and of the great successes of leftists in Democratic Party primaries, along with some description of the great passion and dedication of past third-party activists who were unsuccessful in their efforts, might have been more persuasive.

Gitlin expresses retrospective amazement that SDS “abolished its presidency and vice-presidency” in the mid-’60s, but he does not discuss this decision in the context of the strong preference for “participatory democracy” within the organization and the New Left in general. Participatory democracy is a laudable goal, but in actual practice it may lead to invisible power structures based on charisma if it is not balanced by “representative democracy” as well. Evidence suggests that this is exactly what happened in SDS from 1963 to 1965, as summarized by Richard J. Ellis in The Dark Side of the Left (University of Kansas Press, 1998). But Gitlin is generally silent on the coercive informal power structures that develop even among those of seemingly anarchistic temperament, a problem that popped up again recently in the global justice movement, according to some of the articles in the collection The Battle of Seattle (Soft Skull Press, 2001).


Gitlin says that the “anger” of his generation was most productive when they had good arguments, stayed nonviolent, won a hearing from reasonable insiders, and mobilized outside forces to jam the officials and functionaries. In that context, they could “offend a lot of well-meaning bystanders and still get results by making intelligent nuisances of ourselves.” This strikes me as a good analysis of why they were effective, but it does not contain a much-needed electoral strategy or a majoritarian orientation. In effect, it is a statement that the left is a small activist elite, mostly young and well educated, which does battle with liberal, centrist, and conservative elites, who are usually older, settled into their routines, and wealthier.

Since this formula is the implicit strategy of most activist organizations even today, maybe that is the best the left can do. But it clashes with egalitarian and participatory values. So perhaps the real need is for a strategy that links social movements to the electoral arena in a way that success in one leads to more success in the other. That’s where a network of Green (or Wellstone or Egalitarian) Democratic Clubs would come into the picture, along with a total commitment to strategic nonviolence in the spirit of the early civil rights movement.

The egalitarian activist spirit that Gitlin celebrates is a dynamic and liberating force, but it can turn into the unproductive rage and despair that characterized the end of his own generation’s effort if it is not guided by good strategies based on an accurate analysis of the current social system. These days, it is not the spirit that is lacking. As in the ‘60s, the strategy is the problem.

G. William Domhoff is the author of Who Rules America? and The Power Elite and the State. He lives in Santa Cruz, where he is a sociology professor at the University of California.
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