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Wednesday, May 2, 2012


The recent vigorous discussion on this blog about political action and its many modes has provoked in me some autobiographical reflections about the trajectory of my own engagement with the public world.  I offer these reminiscences and musings for such interest as they may hold, especially for my younger readers, who have not yet had the experience of spending fifty years being disappointed.
I date my awareness of politics from 1948, in which year Harry Truman, Tom Dewey, Strom Thurmond [for the Dixiecrats], and Henry A. Wallace [for the Progressive Party] contested for the presidency.  In those days, so shortly after the Second World War, and in the aftermath of the seemingly endless presidency of FDR, I listened to the folk music of Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, and Pete Seegar, read PM [the leftie New York newspaper that eschewed all advertising], and sang the songs of the Lincoln Brigade [Los Quatros Generales comes to mind.]

This was a time when Jim Crow still ruled, when women were expected to return to the home after staffing the war factories left vacant by absent soldiers, when homosexuality could not even be mentioned, save with a snigger, when there were Jewish quotas at elite colleges, and when even the Federal Housing Authority stated openly in its literature that it would not underwrite mortgages for Black families seeking to buy in White areas.  In short, it was not an idyllic Golden Age, by any stretch of the imagination.

My first active engagement with the public world came some years later, in the late '50's, when I became deeply involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  I gave public speeches, appeared on television, debated Herman Kahn before an audience of a thousand in Boston, wrote for the New Republic and The Nation, sat on the board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and even managed to get a letter published in the NY TIMES [which triggered a vicious attack from right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler and, oddly enough, a matching attack in Literaturnya Gazyetta for being a petty-bourgeois running dog of imperialism, as I recall  -  this for agreeing with Nikita Khrushchev!]  Like many of my comrades, I was terrified of the danger of an accidental nuclear war, a fear that was almost realized during the Cuban Missile crisis a few years later.

The principal turning point in my political evolution came not from reading a book, but from the shock of the abortive invasion of Castro's Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  Having grown up with FDR, I more or less automatically supported the Democratic Party, but the Bay of Pigs made me and my friends at Harvard begin to think of ourselves in a new way -- as "radicals," whatever that meant.
At the University of Chicago, I joined others in protesting the university's overt policy of discriminating against Black renters, even its own Black students, in the name of preserving "racial balance" in Hyde Park. 

By the middle sixties I had moved to Columbia, where I took an active role supporting the '68 student uprising and building seizures.  It was during my Columbia years that I wrote In Defense of Anarchism, which offered a theoretical justification for the refusal of young men to obey orders of induction into an army fighting a war they [and I] believed to be both immoral and completely unjust.  These were discouraging times, with the deaths of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. , and Bobby Kennedy.  A propos the theory of making things worse so that they will become better, I actually went into the voting booth in '68 intending to vote for Richard Nixon, but my arm would not obey my command, and I ended up pulling the Democratic lever after all.
I left Columbia shortly thereafter, fed up with the self-congratulatory privilege of the Ivy League, and went to the University of Massachusetts.  My writing continued to express my ever more carefully worked out commitment to the ideas of Marx, but increasingly I turned inward, devoting much of my time to raising my two sons and fighting to create a doctoral program in Social and Political Philosophy and Recent Continental Philosophy.  At the same time, I launched Social Thought and Political Economy, a left-wing interdisciplinary undergraduate major that flourished and exists to this day.

By '85, I had become involved in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, and that effort, first as the unpaid Executive Director of Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid and then as the founder of University Scholarships for South African Students, consumed and continues to consume much of my energy.
For a time in the late sixties and early and middle seventies, it was possible to think that America was embarked domestically on a steady move to the left, despite the continuation and enlargement of an imperial foreign policy that put the country on a permanent war footing.  Paradoxically, the eighties and nineties were a good time for the Black, Women's, and Gay Liberation Movements, and changes took place that, despite the best efforts of reactionaries, will never be undone.

But as I have grown older and older and older, it has became harder and harder and harder to believe that some day the socialist transformation to which I have so long been committed will ever occur.  Indeed, with the rise of a resurgent religiosity and the loss of any connection with America's small socialist movement, the public discourse today is worse than it has been for most of my life.
It has been a difficult sixty years, to put it mildly.  For a while in the seventies it was possible to hope that I was being carried along by a progressive tide, but in retrospect it is clear that that has been reversed by a powerful reactionary undertow.

Because I am by nature optimistic, I continue to work for whatever seems to me to be the best available alternative.  I have already explained why I think I have an obligation to do so.  But the brave hopes and committed convictions of my grandfather and all the others who believed a revolutionary transformation was coming have proven unfounded.  I am now afraid that in the short time I have left, whether it be a few years or more than a decade,  I will not see a marked turn to the left in America.  What my grandchildren, Samuel and Athena, will see I cannot say.


the pied cow blog said...

My feeling that participating in the political system is analogous to performing CPR on the dead.

There well may have been a time when participation carried some influence. But events over the past generation or so have proven - at least to me - that participation is a waste of time for any number of reasons.

The elite is more consolidated. So too is the economy. The population has grown, watering down the proportional impact of each citizen. Government bureaucracies have become truly byzantine, ensuring that substantial change is nearly impossible.

Even when I grant the truth of everything you've said I cannot draw your conclusions.

When all is said and done these aspiring politicians differ only at the margins. And those margins are too slim to entice me to play along.

Adam said...

Do you have any of those old articles from the Nation, etc. which you might post on your blog?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have them, but not at this point in a postable format [i.e., I have hard copies, if anyone can even remember what those are.] Let me see what I can do.