Becoming involved in a mass movement and writing about it is one the great pleasures of any leftwing intellectual, too rarely enjoyed in the US, at least by this writer. The Wisconsin Uprising of Winter/Spring 2011 brought me back to my days as a stringer for the old National Guardian, covering demonstrations in the (same) Madison, Wisconsin, during the later 1960s. But also back to my first (civil rights) picket line in my Illinois hometown in 1960, and to the huge Washington, DC, marches of 1982-83, among countless other local and national moments when, it seemed, we really had something going.
I would say, as a historian of the Left, that there has been something very special the mass expressions of outrage and support in the last three mobilizations: Occupy, Support for bombed Palestinians, and now the response to the police assaults. We could count the ways, but they might include clergy participation (the new, liberal Bishop of Chicago urged churchgoers the other day to hold up their hands in the “Don’t Shoot” pose, and express solidarity with the poor and oppressed) on a scale not seen since the civil rights and antiwar movements. They also include, if we treat the anti-austerity demonstrations as part of Occupy, a vast internationalism of common sentiments,
But for me, and looking back on a longer past as well as my own political life, I’d say they are “spontaneous” to a degree rarely seen before or after the 1960s. Nothing is EVER truly spontaneous, of course. And in the aftermath of sudden, early demonstrations, frantic organizing and meetings ensue, often extending long into the night. Contrast that to the long planning for demonstrations in Washington, with buses, volunteers, and phonecalls or the more frenzied planning for local events where a hidden resistance or resentment is out there but must be reached by every means possible, and brought out for the events. (Interviewing old Yiddish and decidedly leftwing speakers in Miami Beach, in 1981, I heard my host say to someone on the phone, “We must mobilize!” A musical concert was coming up and arthritis threatened to keep most of the audience at home.) Contrast today and the recent past also with the long history of socialist and communist parties, ethnic labor halls, and other institutions that for practical purposes have ceased to exist.
What does that tell us, at least suggest to us, about today and tomorrow? (I mention only in passing that the New Left is now the group with arthritis.) Nothing decisive, except perhaps that the argument about voting or not voting is overly familiar and about as useful as groupish conversations about building a vanguard party with 100% correct views on all international issues. We can discuss and argue various contentious points with our friends (including those barely invisible FB Friends), while documenting ongoing abuses of power. But it would be more useful to begin a conversation of how we might build a movement of a new kind, open to these sudden ruptures of Law And Order but determined to knit potential allies together. And a new movement that seems to embrace large numbers of young people, multi-racial and multi-cultural in content. These movements will never be perfect, but they are certain to be better than hostile critics’ attacks, and they are our greatest hope for reaching beyond the stasis we have faced since, at least, our disappointed hopes in the election of Barack Obama.##
Paul Buhle has spent many of his happiest days marching and at the “lit table,” meeting new friends. He co-edited the Encyclopedia of the American Left.