Left vs Right – Part Deux

by on March 31, 2010 · 10 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, History, Labor, Organizing, Peace Movement, War and Peace

sixties flower gun

Anti-Vietnam war action at the Pentagon, circa 1967.

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.

sixties movie logoThe Sixties

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.

Sixties arrest rosa_parks

Rosa Parks arrested, 1955.

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.

Sixties Greensboro sitin

Sit-in at a lunch counter, Greensboro, North Carolina.

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.

sixties war vietnamAnd 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.

sixties feminist-movementYoung 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.

Sixties - huge rally

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’).

Sixties chicago 68

Cops riot – Chicago, 1968.

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.”

sixties Paris battle

Paris street battles, 1968.

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?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy Gilberd March 31, 2010 at 3:39 pm

A couple of thoughts on your discussion of the old left and the development of the new left. I really don’t know of old left groups who looked to China for direction. There were individuals (a few older activists who ended up in the RCP, OL and elsewhere), but as I understand it, the main organizations were the CP with its idealization of the Soviet Union, somewhat smaller Trotskyist groups (I don’t know when the Socialist Workers Part began, or the name of its predecessor, but it represents a trend through much of the last century) and groups to the right of the CP that dabbled with democratic socialism.

My sense is that interest in China was part of the development of the new left, as it looked around for theory. Not only was the Soviet Union unimpressive, but as I said earlier today, the CP in this country was so thoroughly diminished by the 50’s that there was little theoretical leadership or discussion available to others who were interested. Yes, there were CP chapters at some colleges in the 60’s, and later Angela David became a more impressive symbol for the CP, but there was no strength of leadership there–even if they had not been tied to the Soviet Union, the organizations and movements they had developed were greatly diminished and disorganized.

In my corner of the world, another trend that developed towards a left-of-the-CP, more anti-imperialist Marxist thinking came from the Black Panther Party. Terry bought one of Mao’s “Little Red Book”s from Huey Newton at UC Berkeley. My knowledge of BPP politics is pretty minimal, but I gather that the party developed interest in national liberation movements, and in China, as it considered the anti-racist nature of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles in the Third World. We also saw this in some parts of the Black GI movement groups, where the parallels between the military’s internal racism, its racist objectification of the Vietnamese, and its role in expanding empire were most visible.

My sense is that some of the same new leftists who looked to Cuba also looked to China and to North Vietnam as examples of peoples movements that had broken from the domination of the Soviet Union and were exploring issues important to the new left–obviously anti-imperialism, but also women’s rights, anti-racist struggles, etc. (I don’t know that one can sort out the revisionist histories of international movements or of China then, to determine how deep these views ran: Whether much of China’s exploration of collectivism was innovative and anti-totalitarian, as many of us thought in parts of the new left, or whether it was the totalitarian beating down of individualism that most straight historians now claim.

I don’t mean to go off on tangents here, but new leftists in the 60’s who were coming to understand imperialism in the course of their anti-war work began to look to liberation movements and newly-independent countries as alternatives to the Soviet Union and the CP. A lot of new leftists found that the political leadership in those countries had a very different view of socialism or communism than that represented by the CP, a view that resonated with many new left ideas and caused many in the new left to look to begin to think about class issues as well as racial and gender issues. While many of those new leftists ended up in sectarian groups, I wonder if some of that could have been avoided had the 50’s not demolished the left as it existed then. I suspect that CPers would have broken both to the left and to the right in the 60’s, had there been a vital CP then, and that those moving away from the CP’s relatively conservative views would have brought a combination of traditional Marxist thinking with Third World anti-imperialist ideologies to the new left.

Whew. Just a thought or two.


Frank Gormlie March 31, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Whew! is right. Thanks so much for the very detailed thoughts. My series is moving slowly and I don’t want to throw too much in front of the class, and plan to cover more of the history of the pre-old left next time.


pb April 1, 2010 at 8:56 am

Left vs. Right is so one dimensional. Society is three dimensional, at least. You have to go back futher than the French revolution to say the Greeks and Romans, to read senates have been arranged in two dimensional semi-circles for ages. If you could actually even get by with a two dimmensional model you’d read from the federalist papers, or Cicero?, that left and right circles wrap around into each other.. at the back, in tyranny. Hence the ideas for “balance”. I propose there has to be an Up and a Down along with a Front and Back to draw a better model. You’d probably have to use a little calculus or study many, many more civilizations in history to get an acurate picture, but I envision an upside down cone or pyramid… balancing on anarchy at the bottom. At the bottom Left and right mean very little… everyone is fighting with nature and would have to be pretty self sufficient. Not too many societies survive down there too long. They develop some government… patriarchs, matriarchs, confederacies, republics, liberalism, etc.. as you go up. Get too high up and they get top heavy with totalitariansim and bigger extremes, Left to Right. (International Socialist vs.National Socialists?). You could use front and back to add all sorts of other social divisions, but these spin around in various societies and are too complicated for me to follow, other than being aware that they exist and get quite hypocritical at times. Some from the left and right have attempted to divide and conquer, allying with “anarchists” at the bottom to help topple such top heavy societies, hopefully to land the pyramid on their left or right totalitarian “side”.
With only one line you get only two camps and can more easily divide and confuse people. History isn’t this simple.


jettyboy April 1, 2010 at 9:12 am

I’m glad you are planning to explain the real origins of the old left. The leftist movement didn’t start in the 60’s. It’s important to understand the leftist movements have been an influence in the history of this country for a very long time.


Frank Gormlie April 1, 2010 at 10:09 am

Definitely, dude. Trying to take this one step at a time.


PSD April 2, 2010 at 11:38 am

Another good article, Frank…and thanks to the rest of the commenters for the additional insight as well!


david April 3, 2010 at 1:09 am

what a great little town we have here in ocean beach. three years ago i was driving a cab in san francisco ( did that for twenty good fun filled years ) and whenever i got passengers from san diego, i chided them for living in what to me was the bastion of west coast conservatism. i was sure that san diego was 99,9 % republican and felt pretty damn smug about my citizenship in bagdad by the bay.

but things change ( oops! i guess now you know i am a marxist ) two and a half years ago me and my mate stumbled into a worm hole in our norcal universe and tumbled out the other end to land a few hundred yards from the ob pier. Wow! ( now you can guess i was formed in the sixties ) ocean beach has continually amazed me on so many levels.
and now i find my neighbors through the medium of a local paper are carrying on a discussion on issues that have been on my mind for forty something years.

i understand the motivation for wanting to clarify notions about left and right politics and the way americans use these terms. brief bio: in 1966 i was turning on and dropping out. in 1967 i was a freshman at merritt collage in oakland going to school at the home of the black panther party and getting ” clean for gene ” at the beginning of 68 i was doing things with the Youth International Party , yippieeeee!!!!, late 68, after chicago,
i was reading Das Kapitol, selling red books from the Little Red Bookstore, and i had a gun. in 1970 i moved to richmond ca. went to work at a factory and took part in a union strike with mostly third world workers.
back to the subject at hand, understanding motivations. for years i have been listening in amazement as bill and hillary and the democratic party got described by mainstream media as being lefties, and barabra boxer as being far left. as an unrepentant revolutionary it pissed me off to have these pro capitalist capitulaters given such honorariums without any merit. not to mention the increased difficulty in trying to explain to the young and curious how badly we old lefties from the new left were being misrepresented.and now they are calling laws that mandate that workers have to buy corporate products or be punished a socialist plan and a president who is carrying on two imperialist wars a marxist!!!!!! well, roll over george orwell, animal farm is looking rather banal.
so, thank you Frank for taking on a task that i think a lot of us have been contemplating. it may not seem too germaine at the moment but the way things are going it may not be long before the differences between left and right and what real socialism versus real fascism will be along side discussions about what defines anti capitalist and pro capitalist.

finally, Kathy, the role of old cper’s was very important. the party it self was stagnant for the reasons you cited, but there were many key individuals, a few whom i knew and admired deeply, who connected those of us whose introduction to communism was through tv shows like ” i led three lives” and just growing up in the red hysteria of the fifties, to the real past. i believe the reason that progressives are in such a weak position at a time when global capital is coming apart at the seams is because of the success of the relentless war led by the U.S against revolutionaries everywhere, from the destruction of the black panther party, el salvador, nicaragua, iran, embargo of cuba, indonesia, counter revolution in china. when revolution was breaking out everywhere people saw revolution as a possibilty. when people saw thousands and millions in the street stopping a war and changing world views they did not feel so alone. the existence of a global socialist movement in the sixties and the presence in our own ranks of veterans of the spanish civil war, old commies who had been in labor wars meant those of us who grew up surfing and racing hot rods did not have to reinvent the wheel when faced with the need to figure out why are high school buddies were dying 10,000 miles from home. and Kathy, another little old left new left connection that gets overlooked, Petina Appetheker was Country Joe McDonald’s girlfriend. she was not so sweet martha lorraine.
let end telling you i dreamed i saw Joe Hill last, alive as you and me


Frank Gormlie April 3, 2010 at 9:06 am

David – thanks for sharing so much of your personal/ political history. We used to say ‘the personal is political.’ Please join us for many more comments (and if you decide you’d like to write more than just comments, let us know). OB is a diverse place, where marxists and bikers and drug addicts and professionals and retired folks and sailors and college students and democrats and a few republicans and lots of independents live side by side.


Sarah April 4, 2010 at 10:11 am

Heh… I know that worm-hole!


JMW April 11, 2010 at 10:28 pm

“Roll over George Orwell.” That’s a good line. Just one question: Can anyone give me directions to the Ministry of Truth? I know it’s around here somewhere.


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