In Part I, we saw how the terms “left” and “right” stem from the French Revolution, that during the early days of the revolt, French delegates met in the National Assembly chamber. Back then, the French delegates on the right-side of the chamber – hence the Right – wanted to keep the King and those on the left side – the Left – wanted him removed.
Ever since then, to be on the right means standing up for property rights, the status quo, and the powers that be. To be on the left means standing up for civil and social rights, for change, and for egalitarianism. Although, the terms are relative and are tied to their historical and societal context.
Now right here, I must disclose – if it’s not clear already – that I’m writing this from a left-wing point of view. I’m a leftist – and have been since college.
How would a right-winger have written this? They might say they’re for a smaller government, for less taxes, and for individual rights. This is the mantra of one sector of the Tea Party today - the more libertarian part of that movement. Another sector may say Obama is a socialist, is from Kenya, and that he likes czars. What the hay? It is confusing. That’s why it’s important to get all this stuff down. All this politics stuff.
The Sixties heralded great changes in this country and around the world, and we now credit that decade for our current modern terminology and political bench posts. Even though the world and our nation have experienced great political pendulum swings since that decade, we need to keep that part of our history bookmarked.
Coming out of the Fifties, a decade and time dominated by the Right - the McCarthy era, the “Black Lists”, the strident anti-communism, the association of every left idea with first the Soviet Union and then with China, this blunting of progressivism reflected the subversion of a once strong labor movement by American capitalism and our exploding post-war economy.
But all was not quiet on the Western front. First, it was that Republican leader, President Dwight D Eisenhower, who warned the nation in his farewell address of the dangers of the Military-Industrial Complex. The web of military spending and priorities were being captured by the designs of the corporate world. His warning, I believe, stemmed from his genuine love of America, and as he was not a typical politician, he did push his concerns for the future to the forefront.
And then there was the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr, the bus boycott, the sit-ins by young Black students, the Freedom Bus rides, the bloody confrontations between peaceful protesters and the cruel Southern sheriffs and politicians – all strove to awaken the country to the realities of Jim Crow racism that was permeating the South.
The Sixties actually began in the mid-Fifties when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. That sparked a whole wave of non-violent direct action. Thousands of Black citizens were galvanized to change the dismal conditions they lived in. Many white students and academics became involved also. People were shot, killed, bloodied, but progress was made through the years and into the next decade.
The Civil Rights movement was a left movement. It fought for an end to segregation and the unequal treatment of our citizens. In time, this push from the bottom of society by African-Americans energized other civil rights battles – that of Mexican-Americans/ Chicanos and Native Americans.
White students who had been involved with the harsh skirmishes of the South, brought their new found knowledge, courage and organizing skills back to their college campuses. And by the early Sixties, college students began pressing for their own rights – the right to have a say in their own education, the right to organize politically on campus, and the right to free speech. These were all left-wing movements and efforts.
And in time, these students were the leaders and foot-soldiers to a growing opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft. This movement against an imperial policy lasted into the Seventies. As the Civil Rights struggle turned into a Black Power movement and as the US poured more and more soldiers, weapons and resources into Southeast Asia, racism and Vietnam/the draft became rallying points for an entire generation of young people.
Young women also began demanding their rights, and the Feminist movement grew out of these organizing roots. This also was a leftist movement – for gender equality, equal pay, better education, the right of choice on abortions …
Then there was the Counter-Culture – the hippie movement questioned and challenged the mores and values of the Fifties America, forever trashing the “straight” reality of the nation.
The Sixties – in bringing sweeping changes – transformed American politics for good. Where one stood, how one was judged – all came down to their stance on racism, on the Vietnam War, on the rights of women. If you were vehemently against Jim Crow, the war, and for equal rights, you were on the Left. If you favored the war – to stop communism, if you weren’t upset with race relations, and if you wanted to keep women in “their place,” you were on the Right.
These left vs right guideposts would last fifty years – half a century – at least.
The New Left
We need to dig deeper in our understanding of left vs right. In our fast-forwarding history lesson, we skipped over quite a bit.
One of the strongest factors in helping to fashion the Sixties decade as a time of change was the development of the “New Left.” New Left students and activists identified with a brand of leftist politics that was a rejection of the “old Left.”
The Old Left
They saw that the old Left had become moribund, wrapped in nostalgia, but more – it was hamstrung by its ties to either the Soviet Union or People’s Republic of China, or it was constrained in its total opposition to those countries.
The old parties of the Left, built up from the Thirties, followed the dictates of the governments of Russia or China – nations that claimed the heritage of the earlier socialist movements of Europe. Their politics became a mangled jumble of policy and pronouncements, depending on which way the wind was blowing for the Soviet Union.
Not only were these old parties following Russia, they were not too concerned with democracy – either internally with their own organizations – or with the struggle for genuine democracy externally. It was apparent that the societies that were constructed in the name of “socialism” were anti-democratic in nature.
Young people in the Sixties could see that these old leftists didn’t have it together on other levels as well: they were backward culturally, they could not understand the changes that were sweeping America and Europe, and even though these old leftists could give verbal support for the rights of African-Americans and women, these old leftists would not or could not make them priorities (ethnic minorities and women’s rights were always subservient to the ‘class struggle’).
So, an entire generation of young American leftists grew up rejecting not only the imperial capitalism of their own country, but also the bureaucratic despotism of the Soviet Union, the so-called “socialist” countries of Eastern Europe, and the seething hypocrisy of China.
Instead, this new brand of American leftist saw inspiration – and hope – in the national liberation aspirations of Cuba, the Vietnamese, of South Africa, and other third world countries under the thumb of “western imperialism.”
This new leftism – by the late Sixties – also identified with the street battles of people in Paris, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico City. And the American young had their own battles – Chicago ’68 – comes quickly to mind.
Next time, class, we’ll discuss some more history – why, for instance, was there this fascination with Russia and China? And how can the Tea Partiers call Obama a “socialist” and “czarist” at the same time? Also, just what are the differences between “liberals” and other leftists and progressives?