Re: '60s Marxism vs. M. today

Ron Silliman (
Mon, 22 Jan 1996 10:54:08 -0500

Dear Ted (& others),

I guess I don't share Chomsky's optimism. I certainly don't look back
at the '60s for any predictive value it might have for the '90s (other
than in Santayana's sense that those who do not remember history are
doomed to repeat it), but it is sobering to think that we are as far
removed from the '60s as that decade was from the great ferment of the

While I agree that the US is in for a long downward spiral (or, rather,
that 99 percent of its people are, with that other one percent doing
obscenely well, thank you), for anything to come from other than the
protofascist impulses we see in such movements as the anti-immigrant,
English only, anti-welfare, anti-feminist movements, it would seem to
me that there needs to be BOTH a vibrant movement (if not a "party"
exactly) AND a rejuvenated analysis (I think it may be time to stop
calling it Marxism as such) that can account for what "class" (i.e.
economic position, stance and interest) means in an economy that has
only in the past 20 years become even moderately global and has long
since moved beyond even the stages that pose information workers as a
"between class fraction" or whatever.

Watching Bosnia or Chechnya offers a glimpse at what we will see much
more of if, in fact, such a movement and analysis don't come together.

In your note, Ted, you lump together SWP and PL as characteristic
Marxist organizations of the 1960s. But beyond their vast theoretical
differences, one offering soft-Trotskyism, the other a neo-Maoist
approach, they used their roles very differently, at least in the
SF/Bay Area. One could work with the SWP without having to wade
waist-deep into the cult-like elements of its organization. They did a
lot of the grunt work in numerous anti-war demonstrations that were
massively attended and quite diverse in the perspectives put forward.
PL, by comparison, was much closer to a group like the Sparticist
League in that everything it did was aimed at turning attention back to
it and its analysis. So people were willing to work in coalition with a
group like the SWP and much more suspicious of doing so with PL,
because to do the latter more or less meant compromising whatever goals
you might have about sending out a clear anti-war message.

During the 60s, I felt (and I don't think for a moment that I was
alone) that you could judge the health of a given activity by its
freedom from the rhetoric of Marxism. So much of the anti-war work
seemed to depend on reaching out to people who were thoroughly
non-politicized, living in Republican suburbs, but as subject to the
draft as any inner-city kids. And I think that the counterculture scene
that Elizabeth Gips thinks back to so fondly was at least as effective
in reaching out to those kids as any analysis. And the ability to
generalize opposition to the war, so that it reached places like Iowa
City and Cedar Rapids, was in many respects the crowning achievement of
that decade. The US was never able to prosecute the war fully because
the nation as a whole very quickly developed a guilty conscience about
what we were doing there. And when the first waves of returning GIs
began to tell their horror stories, it became widely evident that the
worst scenarios posed by anti-war activists were understated.

A decade later, working in the prison movement, my needs as an activist
were very different. The cameraderie of the campus environment was a
far cry from the different groups in that movement, many of which were
formed by very ugly splits (for example, the Prison Law Collective,
founded by Eve Pell, Patti Roberts and, to some degree, Mark Dowie,
split off from Fay Stender's Prison Law Project over a sense of anger
at the professionalism (in all senses of that word) of the PLP, the
idea that lawyers made the decisions and everyone else was a clerk of
some sort -- the United Prisoners Union was founded by Popeye Jackson
after his expulsion from the Prisoners Union over what were probably
purely racial antagonisms, blurred by a layer of Maoist rhetoric). ((To
say that the prison movement never dealt with the racial and sexual
issues that impacted its work every day is a vast understatement.)) I
was at far too many meetings at which the question (unspoken) was who
in the room might be armed, and, in reality, the lethalness of that
scene should not be underestimated. Popeye Jackson was executed (along
with an innocent bystander) on orders from Earl Satcher, both people I
used to work with on a daily basis. When friends are murdering friends,
you don't need enemies.

The evident failure of the movement in the '60s to actually lead to a
revolutionary period or party by the '70s really demanded a far deeper
understanding of what political work meant, and it was in that context
that a serious reading of Marx and the later western Marxists proved
vital for me.

The '90s seem to be a very different animal. My sense is that the need
for analysis is even deeper than it was in the 1970s, but that the
analysts themselves have been thoroughly compromised by the
professionalism of the academy over the past 20 years. I don't have any
need to trash identarian movements a la Gitlin or Fox-Genovese
(Gitlin's work needs to be seen for what it is, the Neocon with a human
face), but I think we need a sense of the larger picture to understand
the forces that are at work in the world today. To say (which is
probably the best I could do) that we are on the verge of a new Social
Strucutre of Accumulation that is recasting the productive/consumptive
relationships on a global basis, and that the information "revolution"
finds itself at the heart of this new SSA, seems to me to fall far
short of a sense of what we need. Attempting to shore up political
forms of the past (such as non-international, trade-specific labor
unions) just seems like a way to avoid addressing the needs of the
present and future.

We need more.

All best,
Ron Silliman