A Radical Vision for Victory

A Freedom Budget for All AmericansBy Paul LeBlanc and Michael D. Yates. New York: Monthly Review Press, 245pp, $19.95 paperback

This remarkable book brings back into view a radical vision for victory within the mainstream, armed with the kind of expectation glimpsed briefly in the 2008 election race but this time without the support of a grassroots movement long since vanished.pb3607-300x450

The Civil Rights movement, rightly called “the Freedom Movement” by participants themselves, had built up a head of steam by the 1963 March on Washington recently so much in the news again recently, for fiftieth anniversary events. But even this momentum would not likely itself have accounted for the expectation, during an extended political moment, that Democrats might boldly seek to end poverty. The impulse rested also in the surprising prestige of one very unique socialist intellectual, Michael Harrington, who with his supporters glimpsed the opportunity to apply their revolutionary visions of social transformation to the practical (or seemingly practical) prospects before them.

No political moment of the century, not even the 1930s, was quite so strange as this one. President John Kennedy, a determined Cold Warrior who created the Green Berets and promised an economic tide of profits to Wall Street dribbling down to Main Street, nevertheless proved to be a quick study in some domestic social issues. New Left leader Tom Hayden was invited to the White House (he left disappointed); the royal Kennedy couple attended a premier of Spartacus, the film purportedly breaking the Hollywood Blacklist in what we might take as a bow toward the persecuted Old Left’s cultural wing; and then there was JFK reading Harrington of The Other America, a muckraking classic about the persistence of poverty amidst plenty.

It was not all noblesse oblige. Liberal Democrats and even some Republicans were badly embarrassed at the breadth of American suffering as well as the persistence of segregation. Who knows if Jacqueline, the book reader of the family, may have been decisive here in pinpointing the author–unless it was the book’s prestige reviewer, Dwight Macdonald, at once a major recipient of intelligence agency benefits (in the global junkets of the Congress for Cultural Freedom) and simultaneously an avuncular figure urging Students for a Democratic Society, a new movement of youthful idealists, into existence.

Behind Harrington stood a remnant of the once-powerful Socialist Party, at the final moment of a sometimes glorious history.  It had by this time lost its local electoral machines surviving from earlier generations, most prominently in Milwaukee, and seemed reduced to a few oversize personalities along with a youth movement. Actually, however, the SP had operatives within the veritable heart of the civil rights organizations, likewise in the Student Peace Union, in the left-leaning reform wing of the Democratic party and above all in the AFL-CIO. For a few years more, it also had Norman Thomas, “Mr. Socialism” to a generation or so of Americans. If he had no real base remaining from the almost 900,000 who cast votes for him in 1932, Thomas was likely still to be quoted in the New York Times on a variety of issues. On the labor and reform movement banquet circuit, Harrington had already been declared Thomas’s successor.

No small part of the story carefully unfolded in A Freedom Budget rests on the world of the operatives. Political specialists who specialized in filling institutional voids, a large handful of youngish socialists mainly in New York offered both energy and contacts.  Stranger still, seen even from only a few years later, key figures of this circle became ferocious cold warriors on Vietnam, turning their considerable expertise into errands for George Meany and then “the Senator from Boeing,” Scoop Jackson, repudiating peaceniks, labor reformers, and anyone sympathetic to George McGovern.  But we would be wrong to get ahead of the story, even knowing as we do how it turned out.

The details of the emerging Freedom Budget, developed among socialists and formally put forward by Bayard Rustin in 1967, are rich and remain inviting. There’s the speech that John Lewis intended to deliver at the March On Washington, for instance. A collective product of speechmaking by the quietly socialistic intellectuals around Rustin, the circulated draft shocked the White House. Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle threatened to pull out of events rather than giving the invocation, as he had earlier promised to do. Rustin and august labor champion A. Philip Randolph softened and shortened the speech, although what remains is remarkably radical enough for the times—and became the object of strategic FBI plans (or plots). MLK’s own insistence that the Freedom struggle was for jobs as well as racial progress also comes through at the March, if barely. So does, if only by implication, King’s later observation that he had not grasped the rage felt by young, urban black people at their situation. Time was already running out.

The successful mediation of the relationships between black “moderates” (make that business-oriented conservatives) of the Urban League and the somewhat more militant NAACP with assorted civil rights leaders on one side, the Administration and its liberal following on the other, was viewed at the time as a stroke of genius. Indeed, the March was a great moment in American history, recognized as such across the world, then and now. Significant sections of the power elite, as the authors explain, had decided that segregation in particular had become a liability, especially if not only in competition with the Russians for the sympathy of the non-white populations of the awakening Third World. Political and economic men of power had determined to support greater racial equality in some form, naturally in ways unthreatening to themselves.

Stokely Carmichael, already uneasy at the conservative side of the apparent success, pointed to the hidden cost of the coalition that made the March successful: everything hereafter would need the approval of the President’s Men. This became the set piece of much that followed in the new few years, but if we view the de facto reality with automatic disdain, we miss an important moment of Left history as well as American history at large.

To put the strategy into a nutshell: the Democratic party would be transformed when the civil rights revolution kicked in, bringing African Americans together with the labor movement, making the party so uncomfortable for Dixiecrats that they would leave of their own volition (at least this part turned out accurate). This “realignment” of the Democrats could answer the emerging reality: that the sit-ins, Freedom Rides and assorted speech-making including the March had not really changed the daily lives of ordinary African Americans in the South or North, except to make them increasingly resentful at their situation and emboldened by the Movement.

The Freedom Budget was set forth in a 1966 conference called by the recently-created A. Philip Randolph Institute, a liberal/labor think tank that never quite jelled into something larger and more significant. The 84 page document, aimed at eliminating all US poverty by 1975, was in effect a wide ranging set of proposals to update the New Deal. Drafted by socialists and academics (economist Leon Keyserling was notable). It would provide full employment, wipe out slums, provide comprehensive medical care, promote equality in all spheres and even take on air and water pollution. The AFL-CIO celebrated the declaration, the socialists’ own bi-weekly tabloid proudly headlined it “Class Struggle,” and Lyndon Johnson, true to his Texas background more New Dealish than Kennedy, seemed to moving in the same direction, albeit on a track of his own. It was the next logical step from the Civil Rights Act.

But there was no mass movement around this proclamation, and the consequent limitations became almost immediately apparent. The Budget had hardly reached the press when headlines came to center on a single word: “Vietnam.” The Freedom Budget would evidently require expenditures proportional to those planned by FDR’s “Brains Trust” advisors in the New Deal era. The money, as everyone knew by 1966, was Going to War. Only two years earlier, LBJ had run on what could be described as an peace or at least antiwar campaign against Barry Goldwater, dramatized by the famous “Daisy” commercial but also by Johnson’s vows–recalling the deep unpopularity of the Korean conflict–not to send Americans on some fruitless battlefields in Asia.

Soon, very soon, things fell steadily further apart. The AFL-CIO leadership showed itself deeply conservative in many ways, emphatically resisting, for instance, any “forced” integration of its assorted bodies (George Meany’s building trades among the most resistant to change). At its top levels, it was ever more deeply engaged in a global partnership with the CIA against Communist influences from Europe to Asia, Africa to South America. Only a few years earlier, Meany had personally upbraided Randolph for even complaining aloud against discrimination in labor’s ranks and now he made it clear: victory in Vietnam was the priority.

Many in Congress desperately wanted the administration to do something, above all to move the War off the front pages. Today, with sky high military budgets and growing poverty at home, it is still worth asking the question posed in the middle 1960s: did the money for an expanded War on Poverty really not exist, thanks to the investment in the War? Or was the failure to tackle the crisis of the poor really a failure of political will more than of available resources?

Here, the vast research done by authors LeBlanc and Yates makes a very significant contribution to what we know. The sheer wealth of detail, back by real sympathy for the words and deeds of those soon to move far rightward, restores the vividness of the moment and the motivations of the actors. The personal but also political tragedy of Bayard Rustin, for instance, here becomes more vivid than in any of the previous biographical treatments. His famed 1965 essay, “From Protest to Politics,” asserted that the civil rights movement was on the verge of bringing a new liberal coalition into existence around LBJ. Written just before the escalation in Vietnam, it appeared to bury the war issue entirely, if not actually adopt the liberals’ hawkish support of escalating war. Rustin, the famed pacifist, may have been deceiving himself more than his own antiwar friends. Challenged on this point, he insisted that the proposed Freedom Budget had to contain money for the prosecution of the Vietnam War or else it would be unrealistic, “It wasn’t that we wanted them to do it, but we had to make a sensible estimate.” His old friends, including A.J. Muste, Staughton Lynd and David McReynolds, were not persuaded.

His newer intimates, the protégés and followers of old time Trotskyist/socialist strategist and faction-fighter Max Shachtman, were meanwhile throwing their lot in with George Meany. Although the authors do not say so, the fast-rising supporters of Meany’s war views within labor, the AFT’s Albert Shanker in particular, would provide more than a few in this circle with lifetime career positions, just as their radical days ended. LeBlanc and Yates barely touch upon another source of the looming controversies: Israel, a central issue for those who viewed support for Jewish State’s actions to demand also support also for the Vietnam War, and never mind the unpopularity of the Vietnam conflict among the majority of Jewish Americans. Rustin, the once-fiercely anti-war warrior, was soon to spend the rest of his own career at Freedom House–a neoconservative operation whose intelligence agency connections were widely rumored–while sending annual contributions to the War Resisters League. A man divided badly against himself, Rustin was sinking into an undeserved obscurity, save for late-life support of Gay Liberation.

The authors turn from these political details to the analytical basis of Budget itself, and here they have a conceptual map rather different to explore and explain. The Budget keenly noted that poverty arises, above all, from a paucity of jobs. Written a decade before the shut down of American factories commenced full scale, it assumed the ongoing presence of good paying, unionized jobs, with other employment brought under a higher minimum wage legislation. Still other Americans, outside the job market, would be provided assistance—amounting, in effect, to a guaranteed income, although without the term used. New housing, built by those needing jobs, new initiatives in health, education and training, not to mention more progressive fiscal and monetary policies. These plans or visions had many of the strengths of the New Deal, and also some of the weaknesses, notably an indirect reference at best to race proper, because an outright assault on racism would presumably doom any coalition.

The authors of Freedom Budget end, following chapters dealing with the collapse of the effort and the aftermath for a sodden Left or former Left, offer a cogent critique of the problems of any such Budget for today. After the 1960s, arguably the end of the Golden Age of postwar capitalism, corporations pushed back hard, planting their ideological flag with the rightwing think tanks, finessed by ex-socialist Irving Kristol among others, but also gathered resources and allies for a generalized assault against reform movements at large. Income inequality quickly raced upward, and the new immigrant populations (coming with the changes of law in 1965) lacked even a memory of more egalitarian times. Full employment has long since become unimaginable, and with that fact, much else in the grand vision simply fell away.

Could there be a new Freedom Budget? The question is very much worth asking. Where is there a bloc of influential politicians to support such bold measures, themselves seeking to connect with and help build the constituency to make it possible?  Perhaps the two recent presidential election victories of Democrats were the moments quickly lost, or just as likely, the uprising known as Occupation, never liked very much by Democrats. (Speaking for Wisconsin, Obama “called in” his support of the 2011 Uprising against the Republican offensive.) Notwithstanding Obamacare (presuming it works) and a hoped-for rise in the minimum wage, real prospects appear to be centered in the cities like New York and Boston. At the national level, reformers who privately view the Obama years as a disappointment in presidential leadership have scarce taste for a Hilary Clinton presidency near certain to see a return to the abysmal 1990s, not only in austerity but also in assorted military adventures. Guns defeated butter fifty years ago, and would surely do so again, with bipartisan support, even as spy scandals bring disgrace to the Security State at large.  Of course, an economic and social collapse as great as that of 1929 may yet take place, and with it new, great schemes for a different society that might be realized–unless something much worse takes place.

Historians of American social movements will find this book hugely useful, starting with the absence of the Freedom Budget from their (I should say, our) own accounts of the 1960s heretofore. The Budget didn’t happen—to say the least—and even the idea may have been a phantom, a wisp of near-left socialistic imagination. But learning about it gives us something serious to ponder as the structures of the society near and far seem to teeter toward collapse and as dangerous figures, liberal and conservative alike, continue to look toward more and better wars so as to keep things together.

Paul Buhle is a retired Senior Lecturer at Brown University. Buhle currently edits comic art books. His latest is titled RADICAL JESUS (Herald Press).

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