Commentary Magazine


Making History: The American Left and the American Mind, by Richard Flacks

Reviving the 60’s

Making History: The American Left and the American Mind.
by Richard Flacks.
Columbia University Press. 376 pp. $35.00.

So far, the 1980’s have not been the best of times for radicals. All around the world, collectivist ideologies have been discredited, and left-wing governments and parties are in retreat. Even Communist regimes have begun experimenting with free markets. As Ronald Reagan’s presidency draws to a close, however, some radical hearts in America have begun to beat faster. Convinced that the past eight years have been an aberration, perhaps the result of a collective brainwashing of the American public by an insidious power elite, the American Left is unpacking its old clichés in anticipation of new opportunities.

Richard Flacks, an early leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), now a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, remains committed to the language and concepts of the early 1960’s. Still entranced by the vision of participatory democracy that SDS eschewed as it marched determinedly down the path of Marxism-Leninism. Flacks hardly notices the 1980’s. True to his New Left vision, he asserts that “there can be little doubt that ‘alienating work’ is a fundamental feature of the lives of vast numbers of Americans.” Although the Reagan administration did orchestrate a “mild economic recovery” to coincide with the 1984 election, otherwise it has only reduced living standards for most Americans while providing such special benefits to better-off citizens as “reduced inflation, lower taxes, public deregulation.” The abundance of the American economic system has been a useful tool for American elites, offering them “the wherewithal to concede very substantial benefits for some, so that the exclusion and repression of others would be tolerated by the class as a whole.”

Still, although he remains emotionally committed to radical fantasies, Flacks understands that making them the centerpiece of a Left agenda invites continued political irrelevance. By any objective criterion the radical Left in the United States has failed. Left-wing parties and movements have never been able to convince a significant segment of the American people that their work is alienating or that their economic and political systems are tools of oppression. Most Americans, moreover, evince far greater concern with their daily lives than they do with public affairs. To Flacks, therefore, the task for radicals is to overcome the separation between those daily lives and “making history,” by which he means those activities “that have the effect of changing one or more features of the patterned everyday ways of life characteristic of a community.”

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Although the ultimate goal is socialism, democracy prepares the way. People, writes Flacks, have to be given the ability to control their own lives, to participate fully in decisions that affect them. In doing so they can avail themselves of the time-honored American tradition of civic participation (honored, according to Flacks, more in the breach than in the observance), which provides theoretical support for this agenda. Flacks makes it clear, however, that self-centered behavior will not be acceptable, and that in their civic lives individuals will have to “learn to take account of social welfare and the social future. . . .”

Through a review of the history of American radicalism, Flacks discovers that, in fact, regardless of what national organizations like the Communist and Socialist parties may have thought they were doing or saying, local activists and organizers have all along been empowering people, helping them to fend off assaults on their lives from corporations or the state, providing visions of a new life to which to aspire.

The “tradition of the Left” that Flacks identifies with democracy is extraordinarily inclusive. In its ranks are radical democracy, populism, socialism, Communism, syndicalism, anarcho-Communism, and pacifism. The “tradition of the Left” does not, however, include the dominant ideological framework of the United States, “which has often called itself democratic” but is not.

To some it might appear that many of the tendencies Flacks cites have not been known for their devotion to democracy, let alone to participatory democracy, but Flacks maintains otherwise: all leftists, no matter how identified they may be with support for planning, centralized control of the economy, or totalitarian regimes hostile to individual freedom, have been committed to a vision of full democracy. As for conservatives, who after all have frequently led the opposition to centralization, planning, and technocratic goals, Flacks has only scorn for them and their ideas. While leftists are driven by ideals, conservatives are crassly self-interested:

To a great extent, right-wing ideologies are modes of thought designed not to spur action or to enhance collective responsibility, but to provide a moral justification for egocentricity. . . . Insofar as political commitment requires qualities of self-sacrifice or a capacity to find personal fulfillment through social participation, such personal qualities do not resonate well with right-wing ideological perspectives.

By such simple and dishonest rhetorical devices, Flacks can dismiss opponents without addressing their arguments.

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Flacks is not too dismayed by the absence today of a single mass left-wing party. His new Left is developing in other ways—through grass-roots local organizations working in the areas of peace, the environment, feminism, labor, alternative media, cooperatives, culture, consumer rights, tenant rights, minority rights, gay rights, the ACLU, and the reform Democratic movement. It is extended in regional groups like ACORN and Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups. It communicates via the Nation, In These Times, Mother Jones, and Dissent, and relies on such think-tanks as the Institute for Policy Studies. As these organizations spread, the Left is overcoming its isolation from mainstream America; its advance is similarly aided by the Left’s deepening entrenchment in academia, where its influence is felt on the “dominant outlooks of the social sciences and humanities.”

For Flacks, a major advantage of such forms of localized and single-issue radicalism is that “one can more easily be a Marxist in the morning, a pacifist in the evening, while going to church on Sunday and voting Democratic on election day.” This theoretical eclecticism—or incoherence—is allegedly both inevitable and desirable. Flacks does not want radicals to “assert leadership over people or compete for their allegiance, or [try] to convert them to an alternative belief system”; such behavior would be a symptom of elitism. Instead, he advocates informal and continued resistance to authority, disseminating information (perhaps on videocassettes) on the “arts of everyday resistance,” demanding a say in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. He perceives every individual act of resistance to conventional role expectations as political, marking a small victory for the Left. Thus, he applauds for their “historical meaning” such acts of “nonconformity” as recycling paper, refusing to buy chemically adulterated food, conserving energy, and reducing the use of a car.

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In sum, the years since the collapse of the New Left have taught Flacks little, either about American society or about the Left. He retains the same scorn for the achievements of American society and democracy that first characterized SDS. He still sees no enemies on the Left. He remains unconcerned about the theoretical and practical links between free-market economies and democratic societies. He is silent on the question of whether some areas of social life might be inappropriate arenas for democratic decision-making.

And, finally, neither the errors nor the barbarities of the Left have taught Flacks any humility. With the same smug self-assurance that characterized the generation of the 1960’s, he grandly proclaims that “the Left is the conscience of the constituted political culture.” Here we go again.

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About the Author

Harvey Klehr is Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.




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