No Right Turns
Power on the Left-American Radical Movements Since 1946 By Lawrence Lader W.W. Norton & Co. $14.95
THIS BOOK might be more aptly titled More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Left and Were Afraid to Ask. Because it's all here, everything from Truman's campaign against the Left and labour in 1946 through freedom riders of the fifties, the Black Power movement and the New Left of the sixties, the abortion issue and women's movement of the seventies. All you could want and more, if you can take it--the struggles and reactions and hatreds and dirty deals to on and on. "Did we really do such terrible things to the Left?" Richard Heilbroner implores in his promotion blurb on the back of the book jacket. Yes, Richard, we really did, according to Lader, who has blended public records with personal interviews, oral histories, diaries, letters and unpublished reporters' notes to come up with what is probably the most exhaustive and exhausting chronicle of the Left in the United States since Senator Joe McCarthy first curdled the airwaves with his own personal version of the radical movement.
Unlike McCarthy, Lader is a qualified source, though he admits that his involvement disqualifies him as a purely objective source. From 1946 to 1950, he was district leader and public relations adviser to Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York's East Harlem-Yorkville district. Marcontonio was perhaps the most effective and controversial radical ever to sit in the U.S. House of Representatives--one of the only politicians ever to include the Communist Party in his coalition of supporters and still win elections. Lader also ran successfully on Marcantonio's American Labour Party ticket in 1948 and later organized a Reform Democratic movement in his old district in an attempt to carry on Marcantonio's work after the Congressman's defeat in 1950. Lader's multitudinous works include a biography of Margaret Sanger that made him an early spokesman for population control, and his 1966 book Abortion, opened the national debate on one of the most controversial subjects of the century and helped fuel the fledging women's liberation movement.
In a style alternately journalistic and academic, Lader traces well known and not-so-well-known radical episodes in this country's history since World War II. His attention to detail is remarkable: he lovingly reports not only the actions and goals of his subjects but their personal habits and histories and even what they were wearing. For instance, did you know that Henry Wallace always referred to President Truman as "that little fellow" or "the salesman" and that Truman usually appeared in a dark blue summer suit, a white shirt, and a tight jaw? Would you believe that Walter Reuther's salary in 1945 was just $7,000 while that of the president of General Motors was $459,000? Did you know that Stokely Carmichael not only spoke Yiddish but liked to taunt Southern Sheriffs with "Kish mir tuchas, baby," and that Ted Gold, one of the Weathermen responsible for firebombing Justice John Murtagh's home in 1970, was actually "shy, almost professorial" by nature? And the historical data is just as painstakingly chronicled: dates, times, and characters are placed just so in the elaborate panoramic view of the Left Lader sets up to enlighten his readers. Enlighten he does--the total effect is to bring to life those times and trials you've heard so much about and much you have't heard about, in a fascinating, dramatic style, but with enough hard fact exposed to satisfy your Gov. tutor.
THE BOOK is not merely episodic, however. One theme unites the whole: how much or how little did Marxist doctrine influence radical thought and action in the United States? Not very much, according to Lader. In 1948, the Communist party, with bases in organized labor and allies in the American Labor Party and a few other organizations, represented the Left. But from 1960 on, Lader says, the lines were not as clearly drawn as either Marxists or conservatives would have them. From that point on. Marxists are quick to point out. American radicalism no longer qualified as "leftism," and instead has been a series of small attempts to deal with single problems, problems that cannot be solved until the whole system is overthrown.
Lader disagrees. The American Left, he says, originates from diverse ideologies rather than being dominated by the Soviet brand of Marxist Leninism. The Radical movement has been essentially pragmatic, nurtured by American needs and not by a closed system imposed from abroad. Though the Left since 1960 may appear disturbingly complex and even incoherent, it developed its own character by emphasizing immediate results and direct action, usually individual action. But what Marxists may label mere civil liberties or reformist movements, Lader cities as significant in that they "sowed the seeds of rebellion" that often led to far more radical organizing.
...the black students who sat down at white counters and invaded white restaurants of bus terminals throughout the South between 1960 and 1962 had no ideological system or structure. They were simply struggling for rights long denied them. Their acts were hardly radical in themselves. But the massive resistance the students triggered eventually produced a new concept called "Black Power" and a decisive confrontation with the Southern oligarchy and 300 years of economic and racial exploitation that revolutionized the South.
Moreover, Lader insists, the Left's pragmatism and spontaneity and its very lack of structure made it particularly effective in challenging American neoimperialism in Vietnam.
And so one movement leads to another in Lader's account of the Left in the U.S. The unifying framework of the Left as he sees it is constant experimentation and struggle for new tactics and methods of organizing. The Left consistently attempts to break down old forms of society and to replace them with new ones, he says, though no hardline Marxist doctrine is followed. (Lader refers to this again and again throughout the book--the list of those leaders with little or no exposure to Marxist teachings extends from the labor leaders of the 40s to the radical feminists of the 70s.) This well documented and liberal success follows failure follows success with an unusual degree of continuity in Lader's liberal world. One begins to believe in the existence of a loosely organized Left in the U.S.
HOWEVER, Lader goes too far when he contends that the Left will continue to build on some of the ideas of Marx--the "humanist ideals of Marx," he calls them. The New Left is not downgrading Marxism, he says, but instead reinvigorating it in new forms, a confusing idea in light of his early insistence that the New Left developed solely on its own pragmatic base and owed little or nothing to Marx. To the non-Marxist unfamiliar with the "humanist" ideas of Marxism, this "reinvigoration" of Marxist ideals does not make sense. To the Marxist, it may even appear to be an insult. Watered-down Marxism does not go over big in any strata of society; this apparent attempt by Lader to reconcile the far-flung members of the various Leftist organizations by uniting them under one big almost-Marx ideological myth dilutes an otherwise coherent and informatuve treatise.
Lader's detractors charge that his own personal involvement in the Left may have "dimmed" his objectivity. But why should a confessed liberal writing about Leftist movements by any more suspect than a CIA-sponsored professor writing about foreign policy or a member of the privileged class setting down his version of the history of the American people? Indeed, it would be ridiculous to insist that this book be purely objective. Like Walter Cronkite reading the casualty reports during the Vietnam War, the author's feelings do occasionally overcome his carefully documented (some 40 pages of notes and sources) facts. But the subject does not lend itself to objectivity. And who is to say which is the more subjective source: the recollected actions and passions of black students in Mississippi or the so-called objective records in the government files?