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When William F. Buckley, Jr. Debated the Marxists

Socialism, Then and Now

by MARK T. HARRIS

Not long ago I watched an online video segment from conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr.’s old TV public affairs program, Firing Line. The year was 1968 and Buckley’s guests were two socialists, Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle, who were then running as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) candidates for President and Vice President of the United States.

They were the minor-party candidates, while Buckley was the well-known founder of the conservative magazine, National Review. Son of a wealthy oil man, Buckley liked to cultivate an image as one of conservatism’s more erudite minds, the “civilized” intellectual who enjoyed sailing and Bach and clever raillery in pursuit of “the truth.” Of course, Buckley wasn’t all that civilized. His political track record included defending both white supremacy in the south and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt against communists in the 1950s. He was also a defender of that orgy of violence known as the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam.

His socialist guests were cut from a different cloth. In fact, Halstead, a garment cutter by trade, was a prominent figure in the American peace movement (He would later write an impressive history of the anti-Vietnam War movement.) Boutelle (now known as Kwame Somburu) was an articulate young civil rights activist who had been involved in the Freedom Now Party.

The show’s viewers may not have known this, but Buckley was certainly already familiar with the SWP. One of his colleagues at National Review was James Burnham, a philosophy professor, founding member of the SWP in 1938, and later author of a 1940s best seller, The Managerial Revolution. On the eve of World War II, Burnham had a change of heart about socialism, beginning a political turn that by the 1950s would lead to his transformation into a right-wing Cold Warrior and supporter of McCarthyism. 

Explaining Unfamiliar Ideas in a Clear Way

On the 1968 show Buckley’s first question to Halstead was whether his political doctrine instructs him when making public appearances “to act in any particular way toward the ‘bourgeois imperialists’ he finds himself confronting.” Politically inspired by the ideas of Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky, Halstead and Boutelle would have nothing to do with Buckley’s condescending attempt to bait them as exotic, infantile political characters. Instead, Halstead calmly replied that our object is simply to get our political ideas across to as many people as possible, and to do so in a clear way.

Of course, to express ideas in a clear way ought to be goal of every legitimate political movement guided by ideals of social justice. Yet how difficult that challenge has proven to be over the years. In a society where popular media and politics are overwhelmingly controlled by corporate power, with two established political parties dedicated in their essential outlook to maintaining the “free enterprise” status quo, those who advocate radical social change face an inherently uphill battle to get a fair hearing for their ideas.

Now, 45 years later, the task hasn’t gotten much easier. Mainstream politics remains effectively in the vice grip of the two established parties. But in other ways these are also different times. American capitalism is long past its expansionist, post-war heyday. The standard of living for working-class Americans has been in decline for decades. Indeed, five years past the economic crash of 2008, the economics of everyday life remains strained and bleak for many Americans. As even Forbes magazine acknowledges, the real (i.e., not official) unemployment rate hovers around 14 percent (and for minorities is much higher). Meanwhile, many millions of Americans are underemployed or working for low-wage service industries with dismal benefits.

As political scientist Sheldon Wolin describes in “Democracy Incorporated” (Princeton University Press, 2008), “democracy” in the United States is effectively not much more than a management concept favored by the elites who hold real political and economic power. The 1 percent will always rule, declares the prevailing assumption of mainstream political wisdom, while the rest of the populace are manipulated to keep their mouths quiet, stay depoliticized, and work without complaint for their wealthy employers. 

The Peace Movement

In 1968, one of the ideas espoused by Halstead and Boutelle was opposition to the Vietnam War. The American people had no interest in supporting the government’s war in Vietnam, they declared. The United States was at war not to promote “freedom” and “democracy,” but to destroy through genocidal war a national independence movement considered a threat to its economic interests. That’s not just hyperbole. In Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Macmillan Publishers, 2013), investigative journalist Nick Turse documents from records held in the National Archives how intentional killing of civilians was de facto policy of many U.S. military units in Vietnam.

The results of the American war were a stark and bloody legacy. By the time the war ended in 1975, approximately 58,000 U.S. military personnel had died in the war. For the Vietnamese, the death toll was much higher: 2 million Vietnamese civilians killed and another 5.3 million wounded. Some 11 million Vietnamese were made refugees. Another 4 million may have been exposed to toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange. I mention these facts in case anyone wants to maintain, as Buckley did, that it was the socialists who were “extremists.”

This might surprise today’s young activists, who, if they’ve even heard of the SWP, are likely to equate it with the sterile political grouping they occasionally see selling The Militant newspaper at public events. Led by Jack Barnes, the self-styled (Dear) leader of “proletarian communism” in the United States, the SWP has devolved into a dreary little cult of worker-sycophants, one whose long, steady decline in membership is matched only by its political irrelevance and authoritarian internal life.

In 1968, however, the SWP was a small, well-organized left-wing group that played a pivotal role in the era’s Vietnam War protests. Indeed, the group promoted united-front coalitions that helped transform the peace movement from a politically unpopular force in its early days into by decade’s end one of the largest grassroots political movements in U.S. history. It’s a story aptly told in Halstead’s nearly 900-page Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War, and more recently in the highly informative two-volume political memoir, The Party, by former SWP leader Barry Sheppard.

Of course, these days popular media when it even bothers to reflect on the peace movement of the 1960s tends to highlight a few dramatic moments to tell the story. The focus is on the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the theatrical personalities of the Yippies, or that temper tantrum of infantile politics known as the Weather Underground. In fact, it was the steady, day-to-day efforts by many thousands of peace activists to turn broad public opinion against the war that constitutes the larger story of the antiwar movement. It’s a story told in the history of the many peaceful marches, teach-ins, student strikes, draft resistance campaigns and other organizing efforts. 

Mainstream Media—Then and Now

As I watched the Firing Line show with Halstead and Boutelle, I was thinking first how unusual such a media debate would be today. Buckley was a pretentious boor, but he was a wise old sage on the mountain compared to the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and other bloviators of today’s right-wing media. Buckley allowed left-wing guests and radicals on his show (Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky, Ed Sanders, and others were guests), and, if the guests could rise above the host’s posturing and condescension, a real debate might take place.

Today, serious debate in the mainstream media with ideological opponents of capitalism is rare. If it does happen, it’s usually reduced to a few minutes of sound-bite jabs, loudly delivered and in which egotistical hosts feel free to interrupt or shout down their guests. Certainly it’s far past time for socialist ideas to be taken seriously in American politics. Ironically, it’s only been the relegation of genuine socialist views to a locked drawer marked taboo that’s enabled the Republican right to ludicrously label the moderate, corporatist politics of Barack Obama as “socialist,” or the Affordable Care Act as “socialized medicine.”

It’s a positive sign at least of the potential for political change that a left-wing socialist, Kshama Sawant, was recently elected to Seattle’s city council. Remarkably, Sawant is the first socialist elected to city office in Seattle since Anna Louise Strong won election to the school board in 1916. The Socialist Alternative leader defeated a liberal (i.e. corporate-friendly) city council veteran, winning over 90,000 votes on a platform of support for raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, unionizing low-paid service workers, implementing a “Millionaire’s Tax” to fund and expand education and social services, and rent control.

Obviously, organized socialist groups and left politics generally remains a relatively small political force in the United States. Nor is fighting spirit exactly the phrase associated with most U.S. labor leaders, for whom standing up to corporate greed mostly involves giving occasional speeches on economic injustice at annual conventions held at upscale hotels.

Whatever the obstacles, signs of change are in the air. The widening economic divide between rich and poor represents a tinderbox of explosive political potential. In New York City, there are now as many as 55,000 fast food workers living, for the most part, on less than $9 per hour, and often for a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, as a recent New York Times report documented. Notably, the number of such jobs in the city has increased by more than 50 percent since 2000.

For the McDonald’s worker earning $8.25 an hour in 2013, he or she would have to work more than 100 years to earn the $8.75 million the company’s CEO earned in 2011. More generally, it’s reported that nearly half of all New Yorkers were considered poor or almost-poor in 2011. Is all this a sign of a healthy, just economy? Yet where are the elected politicians who stand in uncompromising opposition to the grotesque, expanding reality of poverty under capitalism? Who among Democrats and Republicans even talks any more about a “war on poverty”?

From 1968 to 2013 and Beyond

This is not our war; the people of Vietnam are not our enemy, declared the socialist message of 1968. Likewise, the message of the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 rejected the competitiveness, greed, and inequality of modern capitalism, asserting a vision of a society based on human solidarity, equality, and an end to violence and war. And, the Occupy voices dared to declare, we believe this vision is realistic and possible.

In retrospect, the Occupy movement represented almost a kind of utopian moment in the American political story, a precious few months when many thousands of Americans, mostly young, came together in the streets and in the parks to decry the injustice and absurdities of life under capitalism, to assert their humanity and vision for a better future. Life should be so much more than just a grubby, competitive rat race, they declared, one in which privileged elites feed at the trough of their own unending sense of entitlement, while so many more struggle just to get by.

In this sense, Buckley’s political and social vision, the air of upper class polish notwithstanding, remained essentially a grubby one, at least for anyone whose social status as a rule wasn’t based on inherited wealth. For “free market” capitalism even at its best has only structural inequality, permanent war, and economic instability to offer the majority of the people.

How much better the words and vision of Albert Einstein, who in the inaugural issue of Monthly Review in 1949 declared: “I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate (the) grave evils (of capitalism), namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion.”

When Buckley in his 1968 show remarked that he represents a country that went to war a hundred years ago to liberate Black people, Boutelle responded that there were a lot of Black people in Mississippi and Alabama who would be very curious to hear him say that. He suggested Buckley take a trip down south to tell them directly. Buckley responded, “Let me put it this way, Mr. Boutelle. I’m sure if I ran for office in Mississippi, I’d have more Negroes voting for me than for you.”

Boutelle’s retort was well-aimed. “I’m sure of one thing,” he replied. “If you went down to Mississippi and told Black people they were ‘free,’ you would be running, but it wouldn’t be for office.”

As clever as William F. Buckley, Jr. was supposed to be, the flimsy façade of argument and opinion upon which he built his endless apologies for the status quo were often surprisingly easy to disassemble. For strip away the oil stocks and the erudite pose and what we were left with was just another grubby salesman with a bad product. In this case what was being sold was the bankrupt ideology of “free enterprise,” a system that then as well as now offers no future to humanity; at least not a peaceful, just future.

Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Email: Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com.