Monday, October 24, 2016

*****On Passing Left-Wing Political “Wisdom” To The Next Generation-With The Lessons Of The 1960s In Mind

On Passing Left-Wing Political “Wisdom” To The Next Generation-With The Lessons Of The 1960s In Mind

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman 


One of the worst excesses, and there were many although made mostly from ignorance and immaturity and were moreover minuscule compared to the conscious policies of those in power who we were opposing, that we who came of political age in the 1960s were culpable of was our sense that we had to reinvent the wheel of left-wing political struggle. Mostly a very conscious denial and rejection of those thinkers, cadre and organization who had come before us and whom were disqualified from the discourse by having been worn out, old-timey, or just ideas and methods that we had not thought of and therefore irrelevant. The expression “throwing out the baby with the bath water” may seem a cliché but serves a purpose here. Most of the time back then until fairly late, maybe too late when the tide had begun to ebb toward the end of the 1960s and the then current and fashionable anticommunist theories proved to be ridiculously inadequate, we turned our noses up at Marxism, and at Marxist-Leninist ways of organizing the struggle against the American beast.

I can remember more than a few times when somebody identified him or herself as a Marxist that I and the others in the room would groan audibly. Occasionally, as well, taking part in some of the shouting down exercises when the political disputes became heated. Part of the problem was that those who organizationally claimed to be Marxists-the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party and to some extent the Progressive Labor Party were following political lines that were far to the right (right being relative here in the context of the left-wing movement in this country) of the politics of those who considered themselves radical and revolutionary youth. Those organizations far too eager to traffic with what we called respectable bourgeois forces who were part of the problem since they helped control the governmental apparatus. (I won’t even mention the moribund Socialist/Social Democratic organizations that only old laborites and “old ladies in tennis sneakers,” although that might be a slander against those nice do-gooder ladies, followed as the expression went at the time.) I know, and I know that many others at the time,  had no time for a look at the history books, had nothing but a conscious disregard for the lessons of history, good and bad, that we thought was irrelevant in seeking to build the “newer world.” (Strangely, later after all our empirical experiment proved futile and counter-productive, quoting, quoting loudly and vehemently  from this or that book, by this or that thinker, this or that revolutionary or radical became the rage. Ah, the excesses of youth.)               

Of course not everybody who came through the 1960s passed through any left-wing political school. Despite the nostalgia, despite the now puffed-up claims that we had this or that decisive effect on history, especially these days with the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the trotting out once again of the overblew claims that the American anti-war movement stopped the Vietnam War rather than the heroic struggles of the people of Vietnam, the number of the young who got catch up more than marginally was significantly smaller that the photographs, videos, and remembrances of the times would suggest. A case in point is my old friend Sam Lowell, from my growing in Carver times whose longtime political trajectory I want to highlight in this sketch.

Highlight to provide something, I am not sure what, perhaps a cautionary tale, to what appears to be the makings of the next “fresh breeze” coming through the land that another Carver corner boy, the late Peter Paul Markin, would harangue us with on lonely Friday nights was coming. The big turn in the environmental movement, the fight for better conditions for young workers (and old) epitomized by the “Fight for $15” movement and above all, the bedrock struggle of the “Black Lives Matter” movement portends some new awakening and we old-timers who have kept the political faith have something about all of that early experience which may push those struggles forward. Here’s Sam’s story and see what you think:   


Sam Lowell when he was young, when he was coming of age in the 1960s along with his hang around guys at Jimmy Jack’s Diner on Main Street in Carver, did not give a “tinker’s damn” (Sam’s term which he would endlessly utter especially when the late Peter Paul Markin would start talking about what was going on outside of the Jimmy Jack corner world) about politics, about the fate of the world, about the burning and pressing issues of that day nuclear disarmament, black civil rights down South (he if anything had the Northern white working class prejudices inherited from his parents and relatives using the “n” word to refer to blacks for a very long time), and the exploding war in Vietnam. Sam’s world, like many guys of that time, like now too as far as anybody can see, was about girls or sex or name the gender combinations, above all about the music of the times, about what is now called the classic age of rock and roll (the folk music minute of that period which Bart Webber tried to get him interested in was, is, a book sealed with seven seals and he still grinds his teeth when any of us who hang with him still mention that genre).

Sam, declared by his local draft board exempt from military service as the sole support of his mother and four younger sisters after he father had passed away suddenly of a massive heart attack in 1965, had pretty much kept his head in the sand about the war, probably supported the war against demon communism as much as anybody in town who was not directly involved in the escalation of the war. That is until one of his hang around guys, Freddie Callahan, Jack’s younger brother, had lain down his head in some rotted jungle in some unpronounceable hamlet in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in late 1967 and who would later have his name placed on that black granite down in Washington, D.C. which would bring a tear to Sam eye every time he visited it despite his complete change of heart about the war.

The war, the hellish flare-up and destructiveness of the war had not been Freddie’s fault, it had not been Freddie’s war as Sam was at pains to explain when he did get active in the anti-war movement and people around town thought that he was being disrespectful of Freddie’s memory and of the flag, actually probably more the flag until very late, maybe about 1972 when even the American Legion types in town saw the writing on the wall, some of them anyway.

Bart Webber was the first to take his slightly held anti-war feelings to the holding up the wall in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner night but he was facing the draft himself in 1966 so Sam had not taken his plight to heart. It really had been Freddie’s death that got him thinking, Freddie whom he had known since fifth grade when his own family had moved to Carver from North Adamsville when the shipbuilding trade there bottomed out and his father sought work in the new electronics plant just built up the road from Carver. Got him thinking about lots of things that did not add up in the world, the world of people just trying to get by without being shot at, or shot up by friend or foe.

One day, maybe in early spring 1968 in any case sometime before summer of that year, Sam had gone to Boston about thirty miles up the road from Carver on some business when he was walking near the Park Street subway station and a young guy about his age in regulation long hair (Sam’s was short although long for Carver young adults just then and commented on at Jimmy Jack’s by the older crowd going in for the old-timers’ blue plate specials and gung-ho guys who had no truck with “fairies” and “hippies”), unkempt beard, blue jeans and sandals, a picture of heaven’s own high priest hippie who handed him a leaflet for an anti-war rally sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society that was going to take place on the Common later that afternoon. (That was the notorious SDS that every right-thinking American believed, including Sam a little before Freddie’s death, as they could not understand kids who seemed to have everything going for them including draft exemptions were so rebellious unless some unknown source was prodding them, as the agents, paid or unpaid, of Moscow or China or someplace antagonistic to the interests of the United States. Every time an SDS rally was broken up by the cops, or mass arrests occurred, those believers breathed a short sigh of relief).     

The guy in hippie garb pressed the issue, something Sam thought was odd since in his experience these hippie types were too laid back doing dope and sex and listening to acid rock to bother about politics usually saying that to get involved only “encouraged” those politicians who had depended on free-wheeling unpaid volunteer youth to campaign for them. That drug, sex and rock and roll were okay with him although he had not been into the dope scene then but rather the traditional Carver Friday and Saturday night down by the cranberry bogs drinking cheap whiskey scene, a scene that Carver guys had been doing since time immemorial at the bogs from what he had heard.

This dippy hippie started yelling at him that it that it was his “duty” to attend the rally and help “stop the fucking war.”  Something in that common language “speech” made Sam take notice and he asked the hippie where he was from. He answered from Lynn, a very working class town on the North Shore of Boston, and told Sam, who blushed a little at the information, that he had already been in the Army, had served in Vietnam and had had enough of seeing his buddies killed or otherwise “fucked up.” Sam then out of the blue mentioned the death of Freddie Callahan, something he had never talked about except with the guys at Jimmy Jack’s, and the hippie told him that he had better get his ass to the rally before half their generation went up in smoke.

Sam pleaded business but that afternoon and early evening as the sun went down in Boston Sam was no longer “not political.” And Lance Jones, the hippie who had “recruited” him was there that afternoon and many times later to make sure that he did not backslide, and to give him the “skinny” on what was really going on in Vietnam and whose interests that commitment was serving. Sam and Lance (and others) would do many things together, sit-in at draft boards (Sam uneasy about that given his own status as exempt but Lance said everybody counted in the struggle), rallies, blocking highways and every other kind of civil protest against the damn war.

The defining moment, the moment Sam saw that the movement was ebbing, was becoming ineffective as a way to stop the “fucking war” as even he was prone to express his outrage at the constant bombings and constant lies about the situation, was down in Washington D.C. on May Day 1971 where there was a separation in the movement between those who wanted to endlessly built, presumably, larger mass rallies to show the people’s war weariness and those who decided it was time for more militant in-your-face tactics when the proposal was to “stop the government, if the government did not stop the war.” Sam had gone with the militants, a decision he has since never regretted although not for the outcome of the event itself which was an unmitigated failure but because of the enormity of that failure he had to think through things a bit more carefully, think more strategically.

He had been manhandled and arrested by the cops the first day out as the governmental forces far outnumbered and were more effective in containing the mass than that mass of people had been in evading the waiting cops and troops. Sam had spent a week in detention in RFK Stadium, a goddam football field as he would always tell everybody afterward, for his troubles (although he tempered his remarks about the stadium after the coup in Chile in 1973 where those militants were not merely harassed and detained but jailed for long periods or shot death out of hand in many cases). 

Sam, Lance, Jack Callahan, Frankie Riley, me, maybe a couple of other guys did other things too, things like taking those continent-wide hitchhikes to the West Coast, the rock concerts, all of the stuff that those who had broken from the old expected cookie-cutter, if in Sam’s case only partially and slowly since he was not sure that the whole thing had not been a dream, and he had those family responsibilities although they lessened as his sisters came of age and left the house and his mother re-married to a good guy who ran a tool and die shop in town and had government contracts for high precision machine work. But it was funny thing about Sam, a thing that was not apparent when he hung around Carver in high school but once he was convinced that he needed to do something he stuck with it (he would later tell anybody who would listen that “sticking with it” included his two drawn out failed marriages beyond repair).

Sam, after that debacle in Washington, had settled in for the long haul, had listened to what Lance had to say about needing to organize better, get more substantial allies. Gave a glance at Marx and some other thinkers who knew what they were talking about if you wanted to  effect real change and not just play at the thing for kicks, or for something to do while you are in school or on the loose, had read some and while for a long time he had his misgivings about taking his political cues from around the edges of rational politics, politics that he and his family, his neighbors, his corner boys had dismissed or worse stigmatized as “commie” talk which still hovered over his thinking. But Sam had been the first in the group to sense in the mid-1970s, particularly after the fall of Saigon and the close of the Vietnam era which had almost split the country in two, that the Garden of Eden was going to be postponed for a long time, that the tide had ebbed just as Bart Webber had sensed the rising tide in the mid-1960s.

But Sam stayed with the commitment to serious political change, to right some wrongs, to be a stand-up guy when some egregious governmental decision reared its ugly head. Stayed with it far longer that Lance who wound up going to school and becoming a CPA, longer than Bart who decided writing law briefs was easier than sitting around with about twelve people dedicated to changing the world and projecting when the next great mass upsurge would occur. Stayed with longer than Frankie Riley who also was drawn to writing legal briefs although he made a comeback in the lead-up to the first Iraq war in 1991. Longer than even the late Peter Paul Markin who had totally lost his moorings, let that “wanting habits” hunger that all the Jimmy Jack’s hang out guys had near the surface of their lives get the best of him and got caught up in the down side of the dope trade and wound up in a back alley face down under mysterious conditions in Sonora down in Mexico after a dope deal went bad. Yeah, those were not good years

So Sam faced the next few decades doing his best to keep up the good fight, working mainly with ad hoc committees that would rise and fall over specific issues like the effects of the “Reagan revolution” in this country, the struggles in Central America throughout the 1980s, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, that first Iraq war in 1991, and a laundry list of other causes great and small which filled his political life in hard times. But always kept his eyes open and ears to the ground to see if some new version of that 1960s experience would get some wind in its sails as new generations got caught up in the whirlwind of trying to right the world’s wrongs. He knew that the 1960s experience could never be exactly replicated, that each new generation would come to understandings in its own ways and forms, did not believe that a lot of 1960s stuff should be replicated but he did believe that another wave would come, believed in that vision for a long time. But when, damn it.

One of Sam’s worries as he got older and got more concerned about the future, especially in the post 9/11 world of the early 2000s, got much more concerned about the possibilities of a socialist future if not for him then for later generations as the American body politic took one of its prolonged turning in and against itself was that there would be no one to pass on whatever accumulated political wisdom he and his dwindling band of aging 1960s sisters and brothers had been through. No one to make sense of the political battles won and lost, no one to pick up the skills necessary to organize any effective opposition to the fierce predatory appetites of the American imperium, or maybe better said, any opposition at all as the post-2003 anti-war landscape demonstrated. Most importantly no one to learn how to avoid the mistakes of the past, mistakes made, unlike the American government, mostly out of willful ignorance, foolhardiness and hubris but certainly avoidable. Avoidable since a great if fairly obvious lesson from his own experiences had been that uprisings against the government, against the social norms of the day are short and precious opportunities not to be squandered by willful ignorance, foolhardiness and hubris.       

Sam’s youthfully derived certitudes had taken a hammering in the process of the reactionary counter-offensive that erupting in the mid-1970s as the spirit of the 1960s rapidly dissipated, and took a decisive turn right under the auspices of the Reagan Revolution. The self-serving, self-promoting, social Darwinist view of society systematically laid out in that period has held a full head of steam since then as everyone almost daily has his or her nose rubbed in the hard fact that most people are not getting ahead while the bourgeoisie, the economic royalists, what did one wag call them, oh yeah, “the one-percent” with all the guns, prosper with no sweat.  That ethos had never really abated despite a couple of promising uprising blips around opposition to the second Iraq war in 2003 which evaporated after the hellish bombs began to fall in earnest in Baghdad and after the world financial meltdown in 2008 and the subsequent short-lived and anarchistic Occupy movement of late 2011.

So Sam had more recently begun to feel that feeling in the extreme,   the fear that there would be nobody to pass the torch to, nobody in the American body politic to learn a couple of things about past left-wing struggles and organizational efforts to attempt to “tame the monster.” Began to wonder if what he believed had not been an idle thought or some kind of self-induced paranoia.

Over the previous several years he had given the immediate reasons some thought as he began to realize that the generation after his which was the logical place to have passed that information onto never in the aggregate cared much about his kind of politics, had turn tail and gotten caught up in the “Reagan revolution” or after witnessing what happened to the ‘60s crowd ducked their heads, seriously ducked their heads when the deal went down. He had also become pretty sanguine about prospects for the generation after that, the grandkids, who seemed preoccupied with “Me” and with looking down toward the ground with their technological gadgetry and their ethereal “social networking” tweeter. But of late he was not so sure he should have been ready to throw in the towel but a new gathering storm, or what old Bart Webber, who he had run into recently in town for the funeral of a brother, had called “the fresh breeze” was still in its embryonic stage.

Sam had had to laugh at one point after a small demonstration of few hundred in Boston’s Park Street on the Common, the historic spot for such activities, against the escalation of the war in Afghanistan in the early days of the Obama administration  (one of the “surges” that was supposed to secure “victory” and which in the final analysis led to more doors in more villages being kicked in and the United States’ action acting, once again,  as a “recruiting sergeant” for ISIS-type organizations). That demonstration drew a cohort young people, people who had not previously been out in the public square but who were bewildered by a “peace” American President, a Nobel Peace Prize winner to boot, sending more boots on the ground after he had told the nation that the best American course was to withdraw from that benighted country. Of course the usual dwindling crew of AARP-worthy older types, the ones that his old friend Pete Markin had called when they were young the “little old ladies in tennis sneakers, Quakers up-tights, and assorted harmless do-gooders” back in the Carver days when he didn’t give a damn about politics and now here he was a “little old man in tennis sneakers” carrying on their seemingly utopian struggle.

An unusual combination indeed. The sly laugh part though was his realization that if there was any new action, any seeking of the “newer world” as that same Markin liked to called it comparable to the 1960s, that it would be the grandpas and grandmas and the grandkids linked up against the world. He was okay with that if that ever happened but after that initial burst of young energy faded he got increasingly more morose about that prospect, and the handing of that goddam torch.

Like with a lot of things in the world of politics, particularly left-wing politics where due to the smallness and isolation of those forces there is tendency to have to react to events not of your own making, the reaction by governments, particularly the United States, following 9/11 with its attempt to institutionalize the national security state and to seek vengeance at any target foreign or domestic that it considered dangerous. No question the scariest time of his political life, the only time he felt the full heat of physical threat from the average citizen whom he assumed usually view people demonstrating about anything as mere cranks and weirdoes was in the aftermath of the frenzied American bombing campaign and troop occupation in Afghanistan in 2001 right after 9/11 when he had with very few others had organized a small, a very small demonstration in opposition to the bombing campaign at Park Street and took more menacing guff from passers-by than he had ever encountered before. Those were dark days when some locally well-known committed peaceniks dependable in fair weather favored folding up the tent rather than face the hostile streets, and no question they were hostile, were suddenly not available to rally.

Like Sam said he hoped the later Occupy movement which arose phoenix-like out of the ashes of the world financial crisis but that fizzled fairly quickly and that sent Sam into another bout with what the hell, no who the hell was going to lead the struggle, who among the young who of necessity with their energy and sense of wonder drive all the great movements, was going to step forward. He felt at that time that he would have no problem taking a back sit in the struggle if the new blood came along.   

Here is a funny thing, a quirk of politics. Everybody Sam talked to, young and old, understood that the social tinder underlying American society only needed a little push to go wild. Knew that as a result of the vast increase in income inequality, knew the weight of the endless wars on the budget and human resources   was at a breaking point, knew that people, a lot of people, did not feel they were getting ahead in life always something that will steadily enflame people. So Sam, and they, the ones he talked to and talked to him knew something had to flare up. But didn’t, for a long time didn’t. Then in a rather quick succession the environment, the fight for a living wage and the fight against police brutality and the fight against the hard racism against black people were taken up by the young, or rather sections of the young from say late 2013 to now.

Not everything that has been proposed, not every action has made political sense but there is some motion toward upping the struggle, getting back into the street politics that Sam had been pushing for some time in various committee meetings since the portals of government seemed to be tone-deaf to what was going on down at the base of society. Here is the kicker though. The kicker for now as things are still in flux, still have a way to go before they are sifted out. Things may be in flux and need sifting out but Sam is starting to get and uneasy feeling already. Sam went to a meeting of those who wanted to respond to the various egregious police shootings of the past years around the country and tried to make some points, give some perspectives. He was rather unceremoniously dismissed by the young leaders there, both the young black and white leaders, as an old-timey too talkative guy.

The young, like in his generation, appear ready to seek to reinvent the wheel. Appear too as well to be as naïve about the enemies they are facing as they were in his generation. But what bothered Sam most of late has been that the young in their identity political way are “ageist” if such a term makes sense, are disrespectful of his right to have his say since when the deal goes down he will be on the barricades right beside them. Sam thought that even with the slights he could still say-“Ah, to young was very heaven” though as old Wordsworth had said in his sunnier days.    

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