It was 1967 and I was a fifth-grader. Market Street in San Francisco was
the place. Thousands of people were protesting the Vietnam War, including
my mother and sister. We were there with friends to join others in a call
to end the war.
Then, many common people were dissenting against government policies at home
and abroad. The anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements had energized
large sections of the U.S. public. People were participators rather than
spectators in American democracy. They made up the U.S. Left, broadly
defined. It is a long way today from that high-water point.
In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party, based in Oakland, marched on the
state capitol in Sacramento. They were making a public statement on their
right to defend themselves and the black community generally. This freedom
struggle against American apartheid, in turn, had strengthened other
movements for social justice.
Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1968. He had promised to end the
Vietnam War. That was good enough for many voters. They had been
influenced in part by the anti-war movement.
Meanwhile, the sun was starting to set on the Golden Age of U.S. capitalism.
It had ruled the global market since the end of World War II. American
corporations responded partly by beginning to move factories to the Third
World, featuring lower labor costs and weaker environmental regulations.
Driven by competition for global markets, U.S. corporations needed fewer
unionized factory workers. Not that there was full employment then, but
wealth was more equally produced and distributed in America. That was
before German and Japanese corporations began to grab market share and
profits from their U.S. counterparts.
As American corporations decreased their demand for a relatively well-paid
and educated work force, skin-color profiling rose (never dormant) to better
dominate the "dangerous class" in the U.S. Their opposition to the system
had been perhaps the most radical to circles of power. Nixon, reelected in
1972, quickly caught on, crafting policies to neutralize this part of the
Take the phony Drug War. It helped to make criminals of darker and younger
people. Accordingly, America now leads the world in the number of citizens
it cages, some two million. Those with brown complexions are
disproportionately incarcerated. Where was the Left during the beginning of
the great American lockup?
The nation’s political police had paved the way for this policy of reaction.
I mean the FBI's COINTELPRO attacks against the Panthers and American
Indian Movement. These vital struggles for freedom were badly damaged in
big and small ways. The Left is still recovering.
On the ideological front, the weakening of the Left since the 1960s remains
one of the major untold stories of the nation’s history. Very few honest
accounts of the rise and demise of the Left have entered America’s public
mind through the education and communication systems, increasingly owned and
controlled by the nation’s corporations. They have no material interest in
advancing news and views that promote people’s liberation from oppression.
The Left was far more organized in the 1960s than it is today. Yet
organization is a partial explanation. Consider two current Left movements
around oppression at home and abroad. One movement opposes racial
profiling, and the other protests Iraq’s sanctioning. Both are a part
of—not apart from—the current crisis of the market system and thus share
common interests. But are these movements conscious of this?
During the 1960s, the Left was able to connect some of the dots between
domestic and foreign policies. Such advanced positions were due in no small
part to the independent news media that existed in America at that time.
Avenues for such public communication are essential to popularize critical
theory and action. Organized labor currently has the money to fund a
national working-class newspaper, radio and TV stations, but its
leadership’s fatal attraction to the Democratic Party prevents this.
America’s rulers now have greater political-economic power than they did
during the 1960s, which has weakened the Left. Then, the relative economic
security of the Left created favorable conditions for some of them as they
protested against the Vietnam War and for Civil Rights. Today, such
economic security is largely a memory. Consequently, large numbers of the
U.S. working-class have shaky food, health care and shelter security. In
fact, their material fate is a direct result of policies devised by
corporate Republicans and Democrats. These details, to be sure, are only
part of a contradictory social movement story, always unfolding.
Contradictions are the basis for change, as sure as night follows day. Such
has always been the way. The dissenting 1960s that followed the conforming
1950s in the U.S. prove that. When will the American Left, down but not
out, rise again? Much hangs in the balance for the nation and the world.
Seth Sandronsky is an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive newspaper.