Angry White Men; Hopeless Left

Campaign for Peace and Democracy (
Tue, 2 Jul 1996 15:56:24 -0400

Here is my "Angry White Men On the Left; and No Exit: The Death of Utopia at
the 1996 Socialist Scholars Conference," as published in Radical Historians
Newsletter, number 74, June 1996 (PO Box 632, N. Cambridge, MA 0210). I think
it's relevant to Sixties-L for its discussion of continuing debate about two
themes emerging from the 'sixties: "identity politics," and agency from below.
I welcome comments on Sixties-L or directly to me.
Jesse Lemisch
----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Angry White Men On the Left; and No Exit:
The Death of Utopia
at The 1996 Socialist Scholars Conference

by Jesse Lemisch
Department of History,
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

The fourteenth annual Socialist Scholars Conference took
place at Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City
University of New York, April 12-14, 1996. This version of the
SSC, under different sponsorship, is quite different from the
locus for left scholarly debate that some older readers may
remember from the sixties and seventies, and it is valuable in
different ways. Now it is more oriented toward contemporary
analysis and activism. Sessions included: "The Million Man March,"
"The Assault on Public Higher Education," "Direct Workers'
Democracy," "Feminism, Post-Modernism and Global Capital," "From
the Funeral Pyres of Stalinism and Social Democracy, Marxism
Returns!" and a wide range of others.

The SSC is a project of the City University of New York
branch of Democratic Socialists of America, and the usual suspects
appear on the program year after year: Bogdan Denitch (who is
conference chair), Stanley Aronowitz, Ellen Willis, Barbara
Ehrenreich, Cornel West, as well as many non-DSA-ers like Daniel
Singer, European correspondent of The Nation. The SSC seems quite
open, with many DSA-organized sessions mixed in with sessions set
up by such groups as Monthly Review, Radical Philosophy
Assocation, The Haiti Anti-Intervention Committee, Committee for
the Study of Leon Trotsky's Legacy, NACLA, Social Text.

The SSC is a great gathering place for the left, a place to
talk with old friends (including a good number from outside the
New York metropolitan area), at a time when there are fewer and
fewer such events. There was a good crowd -- Stanley Aronowitz
claimed an advance registration of 1500 -- and the exhibit area
seemed more crowded than it was last year.

The SSC has been supported in the past by CUNY, particularly
when Joe Murphy was chancellor. Now CUNY is under assault by
Governor Pataki, as well as by CUNY's downsizing chancellor, and
the future is unclear. (Contributions should be made out to
"Socialist Scholars Conference" and sent to DSA, Dept. of
Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center, 33 West 42nd St., New York, NY

As always, there was a great deal of pluralism and diversity
within the SSC's left universe this year. But -- also as always -
- there was nonetheless a clear center of gravity in plenaries and
major sessions. Obviously, the SSC reflects DSA politics. The
opening plenary and the conference as a whole focused on the
theme, "Two Cheers for Utopia!" At registration, my alert friend
Joanne Landy, President of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy,
refused to wear the conference button which bore this slogan. And,
as it turned out, the passivity and retreat from radicalism
evident in the title -- why are we holding back on the third cheer
for utopia? asked Landy -- was very much on display. As I
experienced the SSC -- others who attended other sessions might
have experienced it differently -- two especially problematic
themes emerged: angry white men on the left; and "no exit."


Todd Gitlin played a major role in the SSC, participating in
three sessions: "Is the Radical and Marxist Tradition Hostile to
Politics?" "Divisions, Identity and the Left in the US," and
"Politics of Solidarity." In his recent book, The Twilight of
Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995) and
in the SSC session on divisions, identity and the left, Gitlin
attacked "identity politics:... groups overly concerned with
protecting and purifying what they imagine to be their
identities... a very bad turn, a venture into quicksand."

Of course, much of the left rightly rejects the kind of
"identity politics" that argues for exclusive concern with one's
own group, denies universal values, and contends that one's
particular group can solve its problems in isolation. And we can
all see extremes of this kind of politics in the solipsistic and
often conservative thought that idolatrizes monarchy and male
hierarchy in an invented African past; or, among some feminists,
the analogous obsession with matriarchies and goddesses.

Gitlin's way of arguing -- which reminds me of an approach
frequently taken by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (another anti-
multiculturalist) -- is to find a fringe element of a broad group
he disapproves of, and then, while using a couple of qualifiers,
nonetheless to tar the whole thing. For instance, we know that
feminism and some of the other movements have been racked by
internal disagreement about essentialism, "the belief in a
uniquely feminine essence, existing above and beyond cultural
conditioning." But Gitlin chooses to see the entire movement
through the lens of essentialism and damns it all: from the
seventies on, he says, "The emphasis in the new movements veers
towards a conception that men and women, gay and straight, were
fundamentally, irreducibly different -- a tendency so common as to
be outfitted with the academic shorthand, 'essentialism.'"

Of course the truth is that many radical feminists were
arguing an anti-essentialist position, saying that the allegedly
"irreducible" differences might very well vanish if power were
equalized. It is hardly justified to leap from a few dead-end
examples to a condemnation of just about all independent
organization around such issues as homosexuality, feminism, or
race as inherently divisive and subversive of universals. And it
is finally such movements that Gitlin and others at the SSC
These movements have been the health of the left, the result
of hard-earned lessons emerging from past movements which have
repeatedly submerged the interests of various groups in other
people's priorities, and a way for all of us to keep thinking
about what a thorough-going equality and real utopia would be.

The baby-with-the-bath-water tossing out of such independent
organizing severs us from issues of race and gender which any
movement that aims to build a democratic left majority in the US
must face. The strategy that is both principled and has the most
realistic chance of success involves weaving together support for
the struggle for universal human rights and dignity with support
for the self-defense of particular oppressed groups.

Gitlin has recently moved from Berkeley to become Professor
of Culture, Journalism and Sociology at New York University. His
arrival in New York City seems to have given heightened strength
and legitimacy to a pre-existing condition: a straight male
backlash among Big Apple left intellectuals. This was especially
clear in the presentation by Bogdan Denitch, the conference
organizer, who spoke along with Gitlin in the session on identity

In his introduction to the conference program, Denitch had
written, "We must learn to effectively confront the splintering
politics of identity..." Speaking alongside Gitlin, it seemed that
Denitch (who had gotten there on his own) had nonetheless been
freed from a great burden, now that prestigious validation had
been given to the attack on most kinds of feminism, gay liberation
and black self-organization.

In a truculent and martyred spirit, Denitch dragged out the
old Lasch-ian vocabulary with its condemnation of "self-
indulgence" (as if those who organize themselves on any basis
other than class are frivolous, irresponsible and destructive). To
a sprinkling of applause from other angries in the audience,
Denitch announced, "we don't care if you are gay; we want to know
whether you are a left gay!" And he was positively ferocious about
some unspecified excesses by feminists which seemed to have been
performed directly on his person. Whatever it was, I felt sorry
for him and the obvious resultant trauma. As it hears more of this
kind of belligerence within its ranks, DSA is going to have to
figure out where it stands.


Again and again throughout the conference, speakers used this
phrase: in the sessions I attended, no fewer than four different
speakers mentioned the term to convey the contemporary left's
sense of helplessness, givenness and inevitability in the face of
rampant capitalism, globalization, etc. To his credit, in the
early part of his talk, Denitch had addressed and tried to oppose
this theme, although his effectiveness was undercut by his
conservative conclusion, condemning unseemly particularism. I was
struck by the amount of resignation to defeat that I felt in the
air in other sessions. (On the other hand, Daniel Singer, I am
told, spoke well about resistance in France in a session on "New
Directions for the European Left," and others also countered this
theme, as we will see.)

In a session on "Big Government, the Political and the Left,"
Carol O'Cleiracain, formerly with ASCME and then New York City
Commissioner of Finance, exemplifed how conservative defeatism has
led to a disastrous narrowing of the radical agenda: "good
management," she said, should be at the core of the left's agenda.
This is the kind of sterile vision that two cheers for utopia
leads to.

An air of defeat hung particularly heavily over a session
chaired by Harry Magdoff and sponsored by Monthly Review on
"Dominant Ideology: Power and Vulnerability." (Monthly Review has
always been overwhelmed by the Great Forces; I recall their pre-
occupation with tungsten as the source of the war in Vietnam.)
Richard Cloward of the Columbia University School of Social Work
gave a somewhat moving but utterly defeated talk, repeatedly
saying that he never imagined that he would live to see the day of
such capitalist triumph, the repeal of the social contract which
had begun to be forged in the thirties, the collapse of organized
labor, the growth of inequality, the reappearance of deliberate
policies seeking to create a reserve army of the unemployed, the
capacity of capital to pick itself up and go to lower-wage areas.
He offered many chilling figures in support of this analysis,
including growing disparities between CEOs' and workers' wages. Ed
Herman of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
told a similar story, although less dramatically. For both, there
seemed no way out, no suggestion of the possibility of resistance.

I grew increasingly uncomfortable during these presentations.
I have often been critical of a hortatory left culture that shows
up in such places as left film, song and history, and I think it's
the job of left intellectuals to tell the truth, even when the
truth is uninspiring. But what kind of analysis ignores agency and
resistance, and how can analysis pretend to validity without them?
How accurate is a social science which takes what is as what must
be and abandons the quest for sources of tension within and
against the system?

The last speaker at this session was Elaine Bernard, a long-
time leader of Canada's New Democratic Party who heads the Harvard
Trade Union Project. She is well kown for her militant
perspective and sharp analysis of health care reform. Her
presentation at this session offered a stunning antidote to the
two that had preceded hers. She began by asking, why had not
Herman concluded that we must oppose and break the system that
oppresses so many?

Bernard's acute analysis pointed out the vulnerability of
such new capitalist modes as "lean production": in a system run
with smaller inventories, 3,000 brake workers had closed down GM's
entire North American operations. Mobile as capital may be, she
said -- to cheers from an awakened audience -- it must set its
foot down someplace, it cannot leave the planet, she said (perhaps
a little optimistically) -- and our job is to grab that foot and
break it!

Speaking against the grain of the 1996 SSC, Bernard reminds
us of the relevance of utopia. Things do look pretty grim right
now. But if you listen hard, you can find scattered resistance
from below, antidotes to the sense of givenness and inevitability:
changes in the American labor movement, increasing consciousness
about layoffs, sweatshops, and wage disparities, the Living Wage
movement, the collapse of Gingrich, hostility to HMO's, resistance
to throwing new mothers out of hospitals, discontent with NAFTA,
GATT, and European Union, resistance to the austere imperatives of
Maastricht by French, Belgian and German workers.

In the US, these things might well go noplace: Clintonism and
the sterile and vacuous two-party system indeed seem to gobble
things up and to offer no exit. But our job is to find the
system's points of vulerability, to renew our sense of
independence and agency from below, to imagine and invent
resistance, to insist on the practicality and achievability of
visionary alternatives, not to bury ourselves by declaring the
death of utopia.

The author wishes to thank Joanne Landy and Naomi Weisstein.