Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

At the outset, I would argue it is paramount to emphasize the centrality of radical BIPOC organizers in this discussion. There undeniably are BIPOC-led local formations and organizations that have been fighting for racial justice for decades active in many cities, ones that cannot be given anything but high praise, support, and made into the center of this narrative. I currently do activism in solidarity with some of these organizations in Providence and cannot emphasize enough the centrality of their leadership in the Greater Providence struggle for racial justice.

But hyperbole and exaggeration would serve no purpose here either.

In a recent column [1], Louis Proyect formulates an analogy between the uprisings responding to police murder of African Americans with the protests against the Vietnam War 50+ years ago. There are certain elements within the comparison that have merit. Yes, this is a moment of popular protests involving people of all nationalities and socio-economic standing, yes, it is a cause attracting a plethora of liberals, and yes, the crowd sizes are comparable.

But there are also aspects that are demonstrably at odds with each other and which occasion serious interrogative contemplation.

I think it is obvious that the ruling class, despite gestures of accommodation, such as Congressional Kente cloth genuflections, is perturbed by these developments, hence the generation of a “good-bad” dichotomy around violence as opposed to nonviolence in the mainstream media. The ascent of authors such as Robin DiAngelo upon the summit of the New York Times Nonfiction Bestsellers List signals a certain attempt to placate aspirations for genuine justice with a liberal polemic of the most selfish, white-centered sort [2]. Contra those glorious dialecticians within the Sputnik Left, [3] I think there clearly is a manifestation of the classic base-superstructure power schematic [4] at play in this cultural discourse now manifested both in the streets and the popular media.

But despite this, comparison of the respective histories of these movements demonstrates divergence, important ones to be wary of.

By all popular accounts, the Vietnam War protests in America began with Noam Chomsky’s minuscule lectures in 1962, attracting less than ten people at first. Protests expanded after President Lyndon Johnson reversed his 1964 campaign promise to not send American troops into combat. Tariq Ali debated Henry Kissinger on British television in late December 1965. At the time, the American bipartisan electoral system was in a unique moment of recalibration unseen in perhaps a century. The 1964 campaign began a four year process whereby the segregationist Dixiecrats and various sections of the white supremacist voting public nationwide switched en masse from the Democratic to Republican Parties, catalyzed by Johnson’s presidential opponent Sen. Barry Goldwater and capitalized upon by his presidential successor Richard Nixon. Johnson was elected as a technical incumbent but, owing to the murder of his predecessor John Kennedy in the second half of the 1960-64 presidential term, he was afforded by the Constitution an entire eight year bloc of time in office, one which he infamously opted out of in 1968. As such, liberals and major social democratic leaders in America, such as Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, and even A. Phillip Randolph, defended the Vietnam War in the name of the imploding New Deal coalition, which was heavily dependent upon an AFL-CIO trade union movement, led by the reactionary George Meany. It was only in 1968, following a mass disillusionment with the war caused by the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, that significant sectors of American liberalism adopted a dove position. Simultaneously, J. Edgar Hoover ramped-up his COINTEL-PRO siege of the New Left.

My point is that the antiwar movement had built a significant infrastructure for several years prior to the adoption of the dove position within the mainstream. This infrastructure included within it a substantial discourse about the analysis of American capitalism and imperialism.

In 2020, several developments have fundamentally altered the political landscape.

Today, it is extremely easy for activists and organizers to set up shop under the auspices of the American 501-(c) nonprofit structure. This creates a certain set of opportunities but also hindrances. The nonprofit industrial complex is a minefield of deceptive and enticing grants and foundation sponsorships that inject funding into the coffers of these newly-constituted organizations but with significant limitations on speech and policy advocacy. Unless they have a dues-paying membership system, this financial design can create a top-down power structure lacking any conduit for democratic redress of grievances and accountability. And unlike a dues-based membership political party, they have further limitations on their ability to support aspiring political candidates. There currently does not exist a political formation with a nationwide cohesion, a mass base, and oppositional independence to the Democratic Party that would be able to sustain a campaign equivalent to that which fought for the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s.

Furthermore, while there have been important expressions of solidarity from the Global South with the uprisings, there simply does not exist at this moment an international equivalent to the Comintern or the Tricontinental, which was able to mobilize and coordinate radical forces and formations on a global campaign scale.

This vacuum catalyzed a landscape wherein the leadership of the #BlackLivesMatter organization and independent political actors with dubious motives sought from the outset of their efforts to engage with the Democratic Party and its various auxiliaries in the nonprofit industrial complex. #BlackLivesMatter quickly found sponsorship from the Ford Foundation and Google [5]. DeRay McKesson, a proponent of school privatization and the union-busting Teach for America, utilized these developments to further his career and profile within the halls of neoliberal power brokers [6]. Visa launched a debit card with Black-owned One United Bank so to develop a new customer base by reviving what Dr. Jared Ball of Morgan State University calls The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power [8]. As Black radical journalist Jon Jeter wrote two years ago for Mint Press News, “Almost since its inception…the BLM leadership has come under fire for its lack of a class analysis. This lack…[is] inconsistent with a radical black polity that has been integral, historically, to the maturation of the modern state, from public education to the New Deal to open admissions at the City University of New York.”

Four years ago, Vijay Prashad described the symptoms that underwrite this phenomenon in an interview [9]:

Over the last two or so decades, there’s been an increase in thinking among the Left, liberals, intellectuals in the direction of so-called spontaneity. In other words that uprisings happen spontaneously, people are frustrated, angry, then they spontaneously rise up. And what they don’t require is preparation, or what we used to call leadership. Leadership is another word for preparation. In other words, in times when the tempo for struggle is not very high, you prepare populations by conducting acts of courage-building, confidence-building, respect for each other. That’s what the preparation is about and it requires leadership.

So this aspect of political struggle, leadership or preparation, has been largely denigrated. I consider this a kind of neoliberalism of the Left, this rise and promotion of spontaneity above preparation. And of course I understand politically that uprisings take place as a combination of spontaneity and preparation, not that preparation is more important than spontaneity. But in this period of the neoliberalism of the Left, spontaneity has, in a sense, overshadowed preparation. So if you don’t consider preparation to be important, why should you put it into the historical record?

So in other words there are several studies done of peasant uprisings where the first chapter might be ‘conditions in that area’ and so the conditions are bad, and then the second chapter is a kind of conjectural event, somebody’s shot and then there’s an uprising. But there’s no consideration, no chapter on preparation. And interestingly, if you write preparation out of history, leadership and preparation, the building of confidence among people who are exploited, you’ve actually methodologically written out the Communists because, when an uprising takes place, you don’t necessarily see red flags everywhere. You see all kinds of anarchic forms of rebellion, but the moment of preparation is when the Communists and other kinds of political forces play a roll. So this denigration of preparation actually closes the door on writing the history of Communism and so when we want to bring this history back, we’re also contesting this political method which suggests there’s no room for preparation, you simply merely wait for people to rise up… Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or Occupy, in the American political discussion, there’s a tendency to assume that people sort of arrive politically, that there are these gatherings and there’s no agenda, there’s no leadership, this always an assumption of the media, then they browbeat, saying ‘where are the leaders, why don’t they have an agenda?’ Well, actually underneath each of these…there are networks, there…is this infrastructure of confidence-building. There are organizers who are involved, many of them have been organizers for decades and have great experience in knowing how to build a movement.

And so there is again in the media a writing out of this very crucial work that gets done to produce a movement. If you look at the leadership of Black Lives Matter, they didn’t come from nowhere. They came from queer movements, they came from feminist movements, they came from socialist traditions, they come from a wide variety of confidence-building dynamics and so I think that this argument we are making, admittedly, initially it was merely about Indian historiography, I think it is a bigger critique of the ‘neoliberalism of the Left’.

As Marcie Smith further demonstrates in her important recent critical study of the CIA-endorsed nonviolence guru Gene Sharp [10], the over-estimation of spontaneity combined with a set of tactical and strategic processes evangelized by Sharp and his protegee George Lakey has created a foundational weakness within the praxis of the wider nationwide activist Left. Succinctly stated, neoliberalism as a method and system of power and controlling the actions of a population has developed a sustained, well-tested, and successful way to maintain hegemony via cooption and neutralization of protest movements using soft-power tactics. Ideologically, protest activism that is divorced from institutions such as organized labor (itself, like any similar mass-membership organization capable of catalyzing radical politics, an undeniable mountain of contradictions) absconds any serious engagement with creation of oppositional bases of power, institutionalizing that power in ways that would be truly oppositional and independent of capital, and aspiring to one day use that institution in order to attempt the constitution of dual power, the kernel of any viable radical emancipatory revolution over the past century.

Instead, in the name of a quasi-anarchist ideology lacking a substantive revolutionary end-game, activists defer in all matters of electoral politics and power construction to the Democratic Party. And because of the dynamics within that polity’s leadership and how power is doled out to its constituent members, this quite often ends up deferring not just to any Democrat but its leadership, namely Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. It bears notice, in these contexts, that anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, as popularly understood in the Global North, did in fact carry a certain vision of dual power strategy, as demonstrated both by commemorations of revolutionary moments in Makhno’s Ukraine, also known as Voline’s Unknown Revolution, or Spanish Catalonia, as well as the acknowledgement granted by Lenin in his State and Revolution.

By contrast, Sharpe and his (oftentimes unconscious) acolytes harbor a tremendous antagonism not only to state socialism, manifest by Sharpe’s training of the forces that imploded the Socialist camp, but any form of social democratic intervention in the market to serve the public sector and vivification the welfare state. Sharp and his praxis are at their core more indebted to Milton Friedman and the Washington consensus than Thoreau, Gandhi, or King. It renders American activists into unwitting gendarmes for neoliberalism’s worst excesses.

In other words, without a viable infrastructure that is able to maintain sustained antagonism to the Democratic Party, protest movements are easily absorbed and neutralized by capital, something Marx and Engels grappled with repeatedly throughout their careers. In their Manifesto, they explained how the bourgeoisie had eradicated the vestiges of feudal society and channeled the revolutionary impulses opposed to that system into the constitution of modern industrial capitalism and the immiseration of the working class. During the American Civil War, Marx notably failed to comprehend the totality of the Lincoln administration, rejoicing at the abolition of slavery but failing to develop a critique of settler colonialism and its continuing genocide against the Indigenous that was simultaneous with African liberation from the chattel bond system. In the 1880’s, after Otto von Bismarck outlawed the German Social Democratic Party, the pair critiqued from the left how the imperial Reichstag had co-opted SPD measures in passing several social legislation measures intended to constitute a rudimentary welfare state, which simultaneously pacified the working class while stealing several significant planks from the SPD platform.

Returning to America, this has been a recurring theme throughout radical history. The election of Lincoln and ascendancy of the Republican Party, while seen as a cause of alarm for the secessionists, in fact led to a certain neutralization of the radical abolitionists. After the Civil War, when capital had regrouped postbellum, Reconstruction was demolished and the die was cast for the constitution of the Jim Crow reign of terror. Progressivism, the bipartisan political current advocated by both Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, was originally formulated by capital as a direct counter to Populism, coopting their demands while adding to them a distinctly Gilded Age dimension of imperialist and racialist logic, case and point the Progressive embrace of eugenics. As the Populists saw diminishing returns, its Southern Euro-American members found it easy to be absorbed into the Democratic Party, mutating into fire-breathing white nationalists like Tom Watson [11]. Several decades later, a slightly less-militant racist with affinities (not to mention familial connections) to the Progressive project, Franklin Roosevelt, effectively stole the Socialist Party welfare state platform, leading perennial presidential candidate Norman Thomas to ruefully quip that the New Deal was carrying out the Socialist program “on a stretcher!”

In the realm of racism, corporate America has been adapted to rudimentary Affirmative Action measures for decades. A Human Resources officer in any major corporate organization carries within their portfolio the designation to accommodate and mediate complaints of racialized bias and bigotry within the workplace. Simultaneously, disparities of health, wealth, and outcomes pertinent to all elements of the welfare state (education, policing, childcare, etc.) have increased. Organized labor’s density within the labor market and public sector job offerings have shrunk exponentially, a tremendous ongoing defeat when we recall that the largest membership constituency of the AFL-CIO is now African American women and the largest employer of African Americans is the public sector. Which of course merits mention that another section of the Human Resources officer’s portfolio is to prevent the commencement of any unionization drives within the workplace. Though neoliberalism coopts successfully the “anti-racism” discourse, this does not negate that neoliberalism is itself a racialized formulation of capitalism.

We are witnessing now a reconfiguration and retrenchment of this dimension of capital that comprehends how to utilize Human Resource officer discourse in hopes to stave off economic justice and prevent a fundamental shift in the power dynamics by which workers come into contradiction with capital [12]. This demands a further perspicacity of activists and organizers who aspire for radical emancipatory national liberation politics as opposed to neoliberal integration.

Further compounding these heightened contradictions are the various ideological and political orientations written into the coordinates of this moment and its most prominent activists. Buzz phrases like “stay in your lane” and “intersectional centering” are easily coopted and render utility to neoliberal actors looking to nullify radical demands by claiming someone with a certain dearth of melanin has no right to advocate police/prison abolitionist politics. But as Max Rameau and Nefta Freeman made clear in their June 10 column for Black Agenda Report [13], unless the demand to defund the police is intentionally conjoined with a concrete call for sustained community control, it would be easy for private property to give up on public sector police departments and replace them with full-time privatized security, as is the case with South Africa, a veritable moment of jubilee for both Libertarians and neoliberals. Already we have seen neoliberal-aligned forces bring out prominent Black personalities in defense of private property [14], sowing confusion in those who are not savvy to the deep nuances within the African American polity.

Which of course bespeaks a truly scandalous political manifestation within the wider activist polity and so-called white liberal-progressive politics. While it is undeniable that BIPOC folx share a set of oppressors that find genesis in the same nexus of power and capital, this does not by default imply that their responses to this oppression, political or otherwise, are fundamentally and undeniably uniform, synoptic, and attenuated to the same impulses. Or, to borrow a point from Adolph Reed, Jr. that I absolutely agree with in totality, “We never reckon with the truly disturbing presumption that any Black person who can gain access to the public microphone and performs familiar rituals of ‘Blackness’ should be recognized as expressing significant racial truths and deserves our attention. This presumption rests on the unexamined premise that Blacks share a common, singular mind that is at once radically unknowable to non-Blacks and readily downloaded by any random individual setting up shop as a racial voice. And despite what all of our age’s many heroic narratives of individualist race-first triumph may suggest to the casual viewer, that premise is the essence of racism.” [15]

In this sense, the analogue with the opposition to the Vietnam War not just collapses but in fact might provide a shield from important interrogative. In the past 30 years, neoliberals from Bill Clinton onwards have invoked their purported participation in the antiwar movement to deflect serious critique of their political agendas. As D.D. Guttenplan explains in Richard Seymour’s Unhitched: The Trials of Christopher Hitchens, “Clinton did have this capacity to seduce journalists who had until then seemed like outsiders and happy with it… There was a way in which Clinton seemed, I think mistakenly, to be ‘one of us’ … I remember people thinking that because this guy worked for McGovern, he demonstrated against the war, so when he gets to be president, he’ll be great. I remember thinking, ‘This guy comes from Arkansas and he’s not a racist, that’s such a big thing and it’s worth voting for.’”

Perish the thought I desire to impute Proyect as a veiled neoliberal acting with similar motivations, quite the opposite.

But the repetition of Marx’s Brumaire merits herein. “Just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” Historical analogy laced with reverent nostalgia is fatal to revolutionary developments because it hinders an important skeptical critique of the past in order to derive vital lessons. A critique of the 20th century Left is desperately needed precisely because it would afford activists and organizers important insights requisite to overcome prior failures. The anti-Communist critiques inherited from social democracy and Trotskyism, along with the grotesque “anti-revisionist” apologias for Stalin, all miss the mark and cannot be relied upon for easy answers. The activist Left needs to overcome its prior shortcomings with racial justice matters and learn how to subsume its whims to that of the radical aspirations within the BIPOC working class while simultaneously guarding against habits of tokenism. That task, required to overcome the color line within the political movement, is a tremendous struggle that only a few sections of the antiwar movement truly comprehended.

What is to be done?
















Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.