Recently Todd Gitlin, one of the establishment media’s “experts” on the Sixties, was extensively quoted in an article by Michelle Goldberg in the online magazine Salon. The gist of Gitlin’s comments (and the article) was that the participants in the growing movement against Washington’s drive towards war on Iraq were, in essence, communist dupes. The article attacked some of the more leftist organizers of the Not In Our Name project (Refuse and Resist) and the bicoastal marches planned for October 26th (International Answer) as apologists for despotic regimes and extremist Latin American guerrilla organizations like Peru’s Shining Path. In doing so, the author (and Gitlin) ignore the broad base of the movement and the two umbrella organizations currently coordinating most national actions and campaigns.
Gitlin, who continues to move further to the right with each public utterance, states that with groups like Refuse and Resist and ANSWER behind the scenes, the antiwar movement will face the same fate as that against the Vietnam War which, according to Gitlin disintegrated mostly because, “As war became less popular, so did the antiwar movement,” he says. “People saw the antiwar movement as a scrod of would-be revolutionaries who wanted to tear up everything orderly and promising about America….” To say the least, his analysis ignores the very real fact that the antiwar movement was under attack by the establishment media, the LBJ and Nixon White House, and the FBI and numerous other police agencies-all of which probably had more to do with the movement’s apparent foundering than the angry rants of the revolutionary wing of the movement. It also ignores the massive mobilizations against the war that took place in May 1970 and for two weeks in late April-early May of 1971as veterans, then peaceniks, and finally direct action protestors took over the streets of Washington, DC. In addition, by making such a claim, Gitlin ignores the fact that the antiwar movement in the United States and around the world had a good deal to do with the war ending in 1975 with independence for the Vietnamese people-their original goal.
As an historian of the Sixties, Mr. Gitlin should remember that it was another leftist group, the May 2nd Movement (M2M)-a nationwide student movement against US intervention in Vietnam that was organized by the Maoist Progressive Labor Party in early 1965-that was the first national organization opposed to US intervention in Vietnam. After the movement developed its own momentum, M2M fell by the wayside and numerous groups and coalitions representing diverse politics, philosophies, classes and interests took part in every subsequent mobilization against the US misadventure in Southeast Asia. For Gitlin to make this acknowledgement however, would nullify his perception of the Sixties. This perception divides the social movements of that decade into two phases: the “good Sixties” and the “bad Sixties,” with the former being when Gitlin and his friends ran the primary radical student group-Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)-and the latter being after this group of leaders moved on. Of course, the lines are not as clear as Gitlin remembers them. Indeed, many of the very same folks who were in the early SDS did not leave the organization as it became more radical in nature, they grew more radical themselves.
This is not said to disparage the early SDS. Without the foresight and vision this group provided with its words and its organizing against racism and war, it is likely that the people and countryside of Vietnam would have been nuked and the struggle against systemic racism in all sections of the US would have been ignored. Ironically, in light of Gitlin’s “redbaiting” comments in this article and over the past few years, it is important to note that one of SDS’ founding principles was to allow any individuals who shared the organization’s left-leaning philosophy to participate fully in SDS activities and membership. Why ironic? Because in the late Fifties and early Sixties it was the trend among the liberal establishment to ban anybody associated with Communist organizations from taking part in their coalitions and groups. Now, Mr. Gitlin and his compatriots, who whether they like it or not, are today’s liberal establishment, are replicating the sins of their fathers in their rebuke of any group with a red tinge in the antiwar movement. By doing so, they are doing Messrs. Rumsfeld and Ashcroft’s work.
There are serious questions regarding the umbrella organizations currently coordinating the various national actions against Washington’s drive towards war. These are questions which should and are being debated by activists new and old throughout the country. If. Mr. Gitlin wishes to join these debates in a serious way, without waving his flag and his credentials in front of us, he is more than welcome. It is not up to him and those liberals who are offended by the more radical thoughts of those of us who have learned different lessons from history than they to decide what the antiwar movement will be. It is up to those who participate in it. If history is any indication, this means the new movement against US wars on the world will have as many ideological hues participating in it as the movement against the US war in Vietnam did. Indeed, it already does.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org