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The Leftwing Seventies?

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The collective memories of the American 1960s-70s, especially for youthful lefties if not only for them, break down into mini-generations.  To be twenty-five in 1970 meant living through a good chunk of the ‘fifties, experience Rhythm ‘n Blues (and gospel) on the radio, see political daylight with the civil rights movement and plunge into the most intensive experience imaginable, with a heavy aftermath. To be fifteen in 1970 was a very different thing, with more fresh radical experience and less gloomy a sense of aftermath in the era that followed. I am, of course, talking here about (a)myself and (b) Ron Jacobs, author of this remarkable little book, Daydream Sunset: the Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies.

Now that I’m looking back with different eyes, it’s easier to see, for instance, the hopes raised by local victories of the Left and allies, militantly antiwar and environmental-minded city officials elected in a couple dozen places, the larger emergence of the women’s movement, gay and lesbian movements, assorted high points for murals, comix, the American Indian movement and arguably the Asian-American Left, among so many other developments. Jacobs finds the widespread presence of a culture of resistance, if not necessarily a counter-culture, and his most convincing subject is—no surprise—Bruce Springsteen. No freak culture refugee, Springsteen sang the ballads of the screwed, those who had great hopes for their own American lives, and felt the sense of disappointment with pained surprise. Things didn’t get any better for them. Punk, for Jacobs, pointed in a different direction, but of course with a rather different expression of disillusionment. Likewise Dylan, but in another set of keys.

By the time I get to the Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA),  my memory slips from smoking dope with friends while playing records to an editorial pal years later who had actually published a pro-SLA legal defense newsletter…was I ever glad not to have known him at the time. The whole thing, as Jacobs writes, can be seen as a media event. To think that
Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 4.08.22 PMmy later pal had been publishing his defense bulletin in mimeo form gives us a sense of the extreme marginality of the avowed revolutionary, “direct action” Left. But it did not seem quite so marginal at the time, at least for a share of the tens of thousands of youngsters who also hoped or even counted on for the near-time collapse of capitalism.

And there is the secret of the puzzle for future generations. The Vietnam protests continued but the Vietnam War went on, at somewhat lower levels, until the US pulled the plug in 1975, and in the meantime there had been Watergate, the Spiro Agnew resignation, the Nixon resignation, and a general sense of society in tumult. Even better, a sense that American society was suffering for its sins. Abbie Hoffman was still on the run! And if the collapse of the Shah’s regime was a few years away, African liberation struggles continued apace, and even some small islands in the Caribbean stumbled toward disaffiliation or at least de-colonialism from their centuries-old British masters. Jimmy Cliff sang of spiritual revolution and “Seize the Time” (with its memorable phrase, “Let’s make the system/pay for its crimes”). It seemed the System might be made to pay for its crimes. At least it seemed so for a little while longer, i.e.,until Reagan took possession with the help of an indulgent voting public.

I thoroughly enjoy Jacobs’ recollections of traveling around, by 1977, going to Grateful Dead concerts in New Jersey and elsewhere, enjoying the psychedelics, enjoying rock scenes that still had the feeling that they might presage another phase of mass protest movements,  or at least the discovery of some promised land (like Vermont) where life would be different. Living in the countryside, finished with electoral politics for the moment, Bernie Sanders might have been feeling a little of the same–sans drugs and music.

This often delightful, sometimes overly condensed, volume ends more or less with Three Mile Island, the San Francisco riot following the innocent verdict for Harvey Milk’s assassin, the Nicaraguan overthrow of Samoza and….the proclamation of the Carter Doctrine, by the most liberal president the country would see after FDR, at least up to now. Life can feel like one big redux, sometimes. But Ron Jacobs gives it a kick in the pants. These are the things he has seen and felt, this is the person who he was, and we are glad to have experienced it all again, even if we sometimes wince.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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