My dad recently commented to me about the different aesthetics found between some contemporary protests and those protests from the, say, 1880s through 1950s in which protesters dressed and looked like regular working stiffs. This caused him to recollect this story:
Years ago I heard Marshall McLuhan speak at a teach-in in Cleveland. Like all my SDS friends, I was there proudly wearing my ponytail, full beard and bellbottom jeans and blue workshirt, the standard non-conformist uniform of the day. We, of course, expected to hear McLuhan lay into the right wing war mongers. Instead, he chastised the hippy left. He told us Americans would never win the war in Vietnam because we could never win the hearts of the Vietnamese people. He told us how whenever our troops "liberated" a village, we sent in an American educated Vietnamese man wearing a white suit and panama hat to be the mayor of that village. We would build him a nice home and office and pay him a salary many times higher than what the people who lived in the village subsisted on. McLuhan then told us that when the Vietcong took a village, they installed a mayor who wore the same black pajamas that the villagers wore. He lived in a home just like the villagers and he was expected to work in the rice paddies alongside the villagers. Then McLuhan asked, "Which side do you think the villagers believed were working for their best interests?"
McLuhan then told us that while American could never win the war in Vietnam, hippy college students could never win the hearts of the American people. He said if you want to change the minds of people who vote in America, you have to look and act like people who vote in America. He told us we did not have to change one thing about our anti-war message, just the way we delivered it.
Within an hour after hearing his speech I went home, shaved off my beard, and went to the barbershop. I had been conflicted for some time about the direction SDS was going, but it was that day I threw my lot in with the old left and really embraced Marxist-Leninism. One of my friends, who a short time later joined with the Weathermen, told me the CP was a "living anachronism." My thought at the time was that SDS had already become irrelevant.
I was reminded of that story when today reading the line "anachronistic old left", in a sympathetic manner, at LBO News. I'm not inclined to think that there is a relevant faction of the American old left extant today, CPUSA has decidedly moved in new leftist directions (again), and there is no authentically Marxist-Leninist organization in the U.S. that has enough size to evoke a sense of its own distinct culture, at least not in any sustainable manner. But the stories dad tells of the cultures of the old leftist enclaves he knew back in the day intrigue me and continue to offer inspiration. Listening to the interview with Noel Ignatiev I posted recently reminded me something of that ethos. Dad sometimes reminisces about the differences between old and new left with regard to the sorts of jobs they typically had (well, when new leftists actually had jobs), clothes worn, music listened to, family life, schools attended (the new leftists tended to have elite educations, the old leftists tended to send their kids to the cheapest local state schools, in the event the kids went to college and didn't just go straight to the factory), and so on and so forth. The social rootedness, the approachability, and the integratedness(?) of the old left in its heyday are things sorely lacking in the new left today.
I remember a post Arturo wrote some time back talking about a trip he took through bits of the American South and how he could, on a gut level, understand the mindset of the gun loving Southerner who didn't want no damn gov't man taking his guns away. When I read that I chuckled as it captured some of the political inclinations of the guys I work with pefectly - among the whites in my shop there are some who, when they vote, will vote Republican for one reason alone - guns. These guys agree with the "liberal" line on policy issue after policy issue - but the idea that we could return to Clinton-era restrictions on extended magazines and flash suppressors and the like horrifies them like nothing else. Seriously, some of these guys would be more comfortable missing a meal a day because they couldn't afford food than they would having to give up their 30 round mags on their flash supressed AK-47s or SKSs, or their 15+1 .40s. The black guys still vote Democrat when they vote, but they all agree with the white guys that the gun question is a question of legitimate concern, and they too are greatly bothered at the thought of increased restrictions on firearms. Gun culture in the South is thoroughly ingrained. That is not going to change.
The new left has become so fervently attached to front and center identity politics, and so caught up in the bourgeois game of "issue politics" (guns, animal rights, environment, etc.) and has so many damn litmus tests that it offers no viable means of creating a connection between folks in shops like mine and new leftist politics. To get these men even thinking about politics, you have to address the gun issue, and if you are not someone who is a gun person and sympathetic toward the concerns of gun people, forget about it. I realize that there are basic non-negotiables for each of us, and I think that there are some broad non-negotiables demanded in order to meaningfully be considered a part of a given intellectual or social tradition. You can't be a leftist of any sort and accept that racism is simply an ingrained part of Southern culture and nothing can be done about it. I guess what I appreciate about the old left is its anthropocentric posture - it's keeping issues like class and race always central and at the forefront. In some places, in order to really talk about class and race, you have to somebody who knows that the Mossberg 590A1 with M9 Bayonet & Scabbard is bad ass.