By David Roddy
So lead, my children, lead the way
Reach back and take my hand
We'll march again, confound them all
Don't quibble at my age
I'll shield you with my brittle bones
I'll nourish you with rage
“Grandma’s Battle Cry,” Sung by Faith Petric, Fast Folk Musical Magazine (Vol. 2, No. 9) Women in Song
In 2011, hundreds of thousands of youth captivated the world by rising against neoliberalism. During this burst of left-wing revitalization, the weakness of the institutional far-left became apparent. Receiving little support from the remnants of 20th century leftist formations, young activists--at least at UC Davis--repeated the maxim “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30,” a phrase ironically coined over forty years prior.
In 1965, the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley galvanized the country. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter, implying in his questioning of student leader Jack Weinberg that the protests were being orchestrated by Communists, was rebuffed with “We have a saying in the movement that we don’t trust anybody over 30.” Weinberg’s intention was to dismiss an obnoxious journalist, not to create a slogan for a generation of youth activists.
“Don’t trust anyone under 30” summed up much of the ideological imperative of the New Left. Inspired by C. Wright Mills’ 1960 “Letter to a New Left,” which rejected the “Old Left’s” insistence on the revolutionary agency of the working class, instead placing “the cultural apparatus, the intellectuals — as a possible, immediate, radical agency of change.” Two years later, the Port Huron Statement, outlining the revolutionary agenda of Students for a Democratic Society, reflected this idea by stating that “the university is located in a permanent position of social influence. Its educational function makes it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes.” In 1964, Herbert Marcuse’s seminal book One-Dimensional Man argued that the integration of the working class into capitalist society left radical students and marginalized communities the agents of social change.
The skepticism towards the working class and Old Left Marxism shifted in the late 1960s with the formation of the Marxist inspired Black Panther Party in 1966, and worker and student led uprisings in France in 1968. However, these young activists often repeated the mistakes of their elders. At the same time, New Left formations splintered into a plethora of sects, most of which took the question of class seriously. However, Max Elbaum notes that “the Marxist tendencies that grew out of the late 1960s left behind important New Left strengths as well as nagging weaknesses: flexibility, creativity and a genuinely democratic spirit were all too often replaced by dogmatism, sectarianism and top-down structures which stifled grassroots initiative.” These issues have historically plagued the left, and perhaps deeper dialogue with the Old Left would have given New Left activists the perspective needed to embrace both the struggles of the working class and the dynamism Free Speech Movement.
In 1984, Audre Lorde repudiated the celebration of the generation gap in the feminist formations following the New Left in “Age, Race, Class and Sex”: “By ignoring the past, we are encouraged to repeat its mistakes. The "Generation gap" is an important social tool for any repressive society. If the younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memories of the community, nor ask the all important question, ‘Why?”
The Occupy generation lives alongside activists from both the Old and New Lefts, and the lessons they learned are tools that young activists can apply to the struggles of today. For example, activists who dealt with COINTELPRO, the FBI program in the 1960’s and 70’s to dismantle left wing organizations, held knowledge that Occupy protestors could have used more extensively when faced with the threat of police infiltration and surveillance in 2011.
The Occupy generation should be self-conscious of tendencies for in-fighting and factionalism that defined the Old and New Lefts, and should seek to build dialogue and collaboration with the elders of a splintered 20th century left. At the same time, we should avoid internalizing the sectarian battles of the past. This is a process that will take longer than the remaining lifespans of our eldest comrades, and should therefore be an organizing priority of young leftists.