The Anti-Empire Report
An excerpt from William Blum’s memoir of the 1960s-1970s: West-Bloc Dissident
What our natural enemies didn’t do to us, we naturally did to ourselves, as did many of the other underground newspapers and movement groups in the ’60s: disagreements developed, factions formed, and, eventually, a split that rent the organization hopelessly in two — the left’s traditional circular firing squad.
Putting it in the broadest terms, there were two species of activists in these large dysfunctional families who kept bumping heads, here, there, and everywhere. We can call them the “politicos” and the “yippies” (subspecies: hippies, anarchists).
The politicos placed their faith in organization and in the intellect — a mass movement, “vanguard” political parties, hierarchies and leaders, heavy on meetings, ideology, and tracts, at times doctrinaire sounding, using words and ideas to convince the great middle class, if not the great unwashed. There were theories to justify these tactics, theories based on class analysis, presented with historical annotation to certify their viability; theories that Norman Mailer disparagingly referred to as “the sound-as-brickwork-logic-of-the-next-step in some hard new Left program.”
The yippies looked upon all this with unconcealed impatience, scorn, and unbelief. Said a yippie to a politico back then: your protest is so narrow, your rhetoric so boring, your ideological power plays so old fashioned….
Let’s listen to Jerry Rubin, certainly the yippies’ most articulate spokesperson:
The long-haired beast, smoking pot, evading the draft, and stopping traffic during demonstrations is a hell of a more a threat to the system than the so-called “politicos” with their leaflets of support for the Vietcong and the coming working class revolution. Politics is how you live your life, not whom you vote for or whom you support.
The most important political conflict in the United States for Rubin was not of classes, but “the generational conflict”. “The respectable middle-class debates LBJ while we try to pull down his pants.”
Is [American society] interested in reform, or is it just interested in eliminating nuisance? What’s needed is a new generation of nuisances. A new generation of people who are freaky, crazy, irrational, sexy, angry, irreligious, childish, and mad … people who burn draft cards, people who burn dollar bills, people who burn MA and doctoral degrees, people who say: “To hell with your goals”, people who proudly carry Vietcong flags, people who re-define reality, who re-define the norm, people who see property as theft, people who say “fuck” on television, people who break with the status-role-title-consumer game, people who have nothing material to lose but their bodies … What the socialists like the SWP and the Communist Party, with their conversions of Marxism into a natural science, fail to understand is that language does not radicalize people — what changes people is the emotional involvement of action.
Hardly anyone, of course, fit precisely and solely into either of these classifications, including Jerry Rubin. Much of the yippie “party line” was to be taken metaphorically, unless one’s alienation had reached the level of an alien, while most politicos were independent of any political party.
Ray Mungo, one of the founders of Liberation News Service, later wrote of LNS:
It is impossible for me to describe our “ideology,” for we simply didn’t have one; we never subscribed to a code of conduct or a clearly conceptualized Ideal Society … And it was the introduction of formal ideology into the group which eventually destroyed it, or more properly split it into bitterly warring camps.
When Mungo speaks of “formal ideology”, he’s referring to the “politicos” who joined LNS after its inception. These people, whom he refers to as “the Vulgar Marxists”, as opposed to his own “anarchist” camp …
believed fervently in “the revolution”, and were working toward it — a revolution based on Marx and Lenin and Cuba and SDS and “the struggle”; and people were supported only on the basis of what they were worth to the revolution; and most of the things in life which were purely enjoyable were bourgeois comforts irrelevant to the news service, although not absolutely barred. … Their method of running the news service was the Meeting and the Vote, ours was Magic. We lived on Magic, and still do, and I have to say it beats anything systematic.”
Mungo would have one believe that ideology is a “thing” introduced from the “outside”, like tuberculosis, that is best to avoid. I would argue, however, that “ideology” is nothing less than a system of ideas in one’s head, whether consciously organized or not, that attempts to answer the questions: Why is the world the way it is? Why is society the way it is? Why are people the way they are? And what can be done to change any of this? To say you have no ideology comes dangerously close to saying that you have no opinions on — and perhaps no interest in — such questions. Ray Mungo, I believe, was overreacting to people whom he saw as too systematic and who didn’t appreciate his “Magic”.
Just as I knew instinctively that I wasn’t a Quaker or a pacifist, I knew I wasn’t a yippie, hippie or anarchist, which didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy and even take part in some of their antics. Jerry Rubin was mistaken in my case, as in many others — language, spoken and print, had played a major role in my radicalization; equally indispensable had been the sad state of the world, but it was language which had illuminated and brought home to me the sad state of the world and proffered explanations for why it was the way it was.
During the American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the first few months of 1776, used language suffused with both reason and emotion to argue powerfully the case for independence, to strike convincingly at one of the greatest obstacles to separation: American veneration of royalty; and to point out that beyond the politics and legalities of the conflict, the colonies were sources of profit the crown would never voluntarily relinquish. This message clarified the revolution for thousands of confused rebels who had been debating points of law with London. Imagine if Paine had been a yippie instead of a politico — his primary message might have been to pull down the king’s pants.
It was the movement’s politicos who stayed the course, continuing to be activists well past the ’60s, while Rubin’s long-haired beast and Mungo’s Magic people — lacking the convictions of their courage — could more likely be found in the ’70s sitting cross-legged at the feet of the newest-flavor guru, probing interpersonal relations instead of international relations, or seeking fulfillment through vegetarianism, “the land”, or Rolfing. By the ’80s they had evolved into yuppies.
1. New York Times, August 10, 2003
2. Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised (1980), pp.129, 139
3. Foreign Policy, “State Department Innovator Goes to Google“, September 7 2010; Washington Post, June 24, 2011
4. Washington Post, June 19, 2011
5. Washington Post, October 23, 1999
6. Washington Post, April 14, 2004
7. United Press International, July 26, 2007