Thirty years ago, Richard Flacks wrote Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. Flacks had been a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a 1960s leftist activist organization that had folded almost 15 years earlier. He had helped to write SDS’s 1962 Port Huron manifesto, a document widely credited with inaugurating the New Left. In my review of Making History for Commentary, I noted that Flacks had maintained his enthusiasm for participatory democracy, the Manifesto’s guiding principle. An unabashed optimist, he dismissed the revival of conservatism in the 1980s as a mere symptom of “false consciousness,” the process, according to Marxists, by which the working class is deluded into supporting the ruling class. Flacks called on radicals to resist authority, focus on the everyday lives of Americans, and demand more democracy in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Reflecting the dominance of the American two-party system, he laid out a strategy to capture the Democratic Party and turn it into a progressive stronghold. To those not on the left at the time, it seemed an exercise in futility.
Well, Flacks is back. And, with some justification, he’s even more optimistic than before. In Making History Making Blintzes, Flacks, a retired sociology professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, and his wife, Mickey, argue that the selfish, individualistic business ethic of capitalism is in retreat in America and around the Western world. The title is intended to describe how to change society through local organizing and quotidian life, warning that without a focus on how people live, the organizations they create can atrophy or become ends in themselves. Flacks’s new book, unlike his earlier one, is frankly autobiographical and hopes to point the way forward by adducing the Flackses’ life stories.
Making History Making Blintzes is divided into three parts. The first recounts the authors’ Communist backgrounds and their disillusionment with the Communist Party USA. The second deals with their involvement in the early years of the New Left in Ann Arbor and Chicago and their unease with the drift of SDS. The final section is a triumphalist narrative of their efforts to build “socialism in one city”—Santa Barbara, California, where Dick1 taught for more than 30 years. Each author writes separate sections, although his is the most prominent voice.
Both Mickey and Dick Flacks were born into Communist families. Mickey’s mother was a fervent Bolshevik in 1917, and, even after accompanying her family to America in 1922, she toyed with returning to the USSR. In fact, she lived in Moscow with her husband and oldest son for nearly two years in the 1930s before going back to America. Even though she admitted late in life that she might have faced “difficulties” if she had remained in the Soviet Union, she apparently never abandoned her Communist faith. And her life revolved around Communist fraternal and social institutions. Dick’s parents were New York school teachers and assimilated Jews who were deeply involved in the Communist-dominated teachers’ union.
Both Mickey and Dick joined Communist youth groups and attended Communist camps where the kids sang with Pete Seeger and idolized Paul Robeson. Growing up during the “Red Scare,” they felt alienated from an American society that was, as Mickey puts it, “capitalistic and corrupt, racist, anti-Semitic (or, if Jewish, self-hating), lowbrow, anti-intellectual, and generally and profoundly evil.” Dick’s parents lost their jobs after refusing to testify before committees investigating Communist influence among teachers (but both found employment in private schools).
As a student at Brooklyn College, Dick hid his Communist loyalties and joined the Young Democrats, eventually becoming its president. A fellow Communist served as president of Students for Democratic Action (the student affiliate of Americans for Democratic Action). To Dick, such deception was not infiltration, despite the rules excluding Communists from membership in both groups, but an effort “to revitalize these organizations.” Dick and Mickey began to harbor doubts about the CPUSA following Khrushchev’s famous secret 1956 speech condemning Stalin. Although they are vague on the timing, it appears that around 1960 or 1961 they publicly broke with the Communist movement. Despite their infiltrating and leaving, they couldn’t fathom why left-wing groups would be suspicious or intolerant of Communists. While now critical of the Communist Party as an organization, Dick remains proud of individual Communists like his parents for their “heroic defense of the best aspects of the American Constitution and the American political tradition.”
Attending graduate school in psychology at the University of Michigan, while Mickey worked as a lab technician, Dick became friendly with Tom Hayden, editor of the student paper. While not yet a member of SDS, Dick attended its famous Port Huron convention in 1962. The defining struggle at the meeting involved SDS’s attitude toward Communists. Michael Harrington, representing its parent group, the stalwart anti-Communist League for Industrial Democracy, argued against allowing Communists to join. Dick was primarily responsible for language in the statement that differentiated SDS from the Communist Old Left while rejecting anti-Communist “loyalty oaths.” It “seemed most unreasonable—and even immoral,” he writes, “that individuals, despite agreeing with an organization’s aims, could be purged or excluded from it simply because of some suspicion about their associates.” Mickey rejoiced at wording in the manifesto that would later enable a pluralistic anti-war movement, one that welcomed people who did not want to support the Vietcong but also allowed those who waved Vietcong flags to participate in demonstrations.
It turned out that welcoming Communists into SDS led to the capture of the organization by the Progressive Labor Party by 1968. Devoted to the principles of Mao-Tse-tung and scornful of the New Left’s professed commitment to participatory democracy, Progressive Labor’s disciplined cadres triumphed over two other factions, each professing loyalty to some form of Marxism-Leninism. The most infamous, the Weatherman group, soon embarked on a decade-long campaign of terrorist violence, bombing buildings, physically attacking enemies, engaging in group sex to smash monogamy, and rhetorically praising such murderers as Charles Manson.
The couple has little to say about the New Left’s descent into revolutionary madness and violence. While they were active in anti-war activity in Ann Arbor, Dick was focused on finishing his dissertation. In 1964, he was hired by the sociology department at the University of Chicago. Somewhat older than many of their SDS compatriots, as a married couple they were also more responsible and “grown-up.” They refused to let politics consume their lives and would leave meetings to go to football games, earning them the scorn of some friends. But Dick wanted an academic job, not one focused on the movement. And their professed attitudes seem to support this. They claim to have believed that angry attacks on America as racist and genocidal were counterproductive. Mickey disdained feminists who hated and denounced men. They were both uncomfortable with talk of revolution and glorification of Third World revolutionaries. During the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, they stayed at arm’s length from the violence.
But despite these eminently sensible views, they are quite reticent about how SDS was transformed, blaming a few younger leaders but professing little concern. After all, as an academic, Richard no longer was part of the organization. He has little to say about Hayden’s forays into armed struggle and offers only one—positive—mention of “former SDS leader and Weatherperson” Bernardine Dohrn. He notes how pleased he was that she helped arrange publicity for his first book in Chicago. Dohrn, like her husband Bill Ayers, remains unapologetic about the bombings they helped carry out in the 1970s.
There are other odd omissions and admissions that reveal the authors’ attitudes toward Communists and Communist regimes. There is relatively little about foreign affairs; Dick insists that radicals should take stands only “on issues where we could actively make a difference.” He proudly recounts his opposition to the Vietnam War and travelling to Bratislava to meet with North Vietnamese and Vietcong leaders. But he never mentions the boat people or reeducation camps or genocide that followed America’s defeat or the vitriol unleashed on radicals who denounced Communist repression. He disdains the social-democratic governments of Scandinavia and rejects authoritarian Communism, although he offhandedly remarks that in China, Cuba, and Vietnam, the Communists took power legitimately. He denounces China and Vietnam for beginning to promote capitalism. The couple named their second son for Vito Marcantonio, a Communist-aligned congressman from New York, because he cast one of the two votes against America’s defending South Korea. Scornful of the “conventional wisdom” that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent, he says that the USSR was not an enemy while Hiss spied, and he wishes that “a new generation of historians would look with fresh eyes on the whole matter of U.S. Communist Party involvement in Soviet espionage.” And today, Mickey refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Life at the University of Chicago was a series of conflicts. Although the “conservative” sociology department at Chicago had hired him despite his radical past, Dick was a perpetual troublemaker. His colleagues and the administration grudgingly tolerated his nonstop agitation and support for demonstrations against the university and the department for alleged sins, ranging from cooperating with the Selective Service System to denying a mediocre political activist tenure. Dick denounces one of his academic critics as “a street mobster” and another as “a sort of raving fascist.” While in Chicago, Mickey was robbed and they suffered a home invasion.
In May 1969, Dick was attacked in his office by an ax-wielding assailant and severely injured. Although the crime was never solved, he speculates, based on government files he later obtained, that a member of a right-wing group, the Legion of Justice, was probably responsible. So, spurning an offer of tenure at Chicago by his “fascist colleagues,” he moved to the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he spent the next three decades.
The last third of the book is a panegyric to the institutions and organizations that the couple helped create in their new home. They steadily built an alliance among university faculty, students, and community activists. This work was in part financed by millionaires and trust-funders living in the area, including Hayden’s then-wife, Jane Fonda. Although their major focus was environmentalism, they branched out into zoning regulations to restrict developers, limit population growth, and otherwise implement social control of the economy. While touting their success, neither Dick nor Mickey considers why California, with the strictest environmental and development requirements in the country, has become the most inegalitarian state and is losing both businesses and middle-class residents to states like Texas.
Dick became a figure of some influence at UCSB. His effort to transform the university reflected his belief that in changing society, culture matters and higher education would play a crucial role in transforming American politics. As he pushed in various ways to institutionalize participatory democracy, he demonstrated that it could easily coexist with the ideological conformity that he once decried. He indignantly denies that there is any discrimination against Republicans or conservative faculty in higher education, even though they are now a rarity in the social sciences. And in any event, he notes, there is a wide range of opinions among people identifying as Democrats. Because he is open about his political beliefs in the classroom, he says, he was not secretly indoctrinating students. And he insists that he always made it “possible for conservative students to voice their thoughts and their perspectives” in his classes. Yet when he became chair of the sociology department in 1975, he undertook recruitment of new faculty focused on “commitment to social change.” And he has nothing to say about the phenomenon of students shutting down talks by conservative figures or seeking to marginalize dissenting viewpoints.
Since Communism and social democracy have both failed, the couple calls for a new New Left based on the idea that “all social relations—both macro and micro—should enable everyone to participate in making the decisions that affect them.” The key, they say, is to capture the Democratic Party and expel its corporate supporters and financiers. The mistake that Henry Wallace made in 1948 was to make a quixotic run as a third-party candidate. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, they believe, is evidence that socialists can transform America by focusing on concrete policies and avoiding inflammatory and divisive debates about ideology. They are also encouraged by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s new Labour Party in England. Never mind that Corbyn is an anti-Semite.
That Communists and other enemies of democracy have insinuated themselves into organizations that once shunned them (the newest example is the emergence of a Communist caucus in the Democratic Socialists of America) is in part a consequence of the notion purveyed by Mickey and Dick Flacks that there are no enemies on the left. That troubling idea is in evidence throughout this book. But to the honest reader, it is not justified either by the experience of Dick and Mickey or the state of the left as it exists today.
1 The casual shortening is Flacks’s. In Making History, his first name appeared as Richard. In Making History Making Blintzes, it’s Dick.