The Political
Is Personal:
An Autopsy

Jon Gallant

Part I
Perhaps an inquiry into the troubles of the American Left should begin with a little history. In 1968, "the kids" (as we fondly called them at the time) provoked a police riot in Chicago.

They were apparently so ignorant of the real world that they didn't know it is dumb to provoke angry cops carrying truncheons. Moreover, this brilliant maneuver alienated ordinary, unpolitical Americans, so that the Chicago riot may be what gave Nixon his narrow victory in the election. Humphrey, despite his double-talk, would probably have withdrawn US forces from Indochina much earlier than Nixon finally did. Thanks, kids.

After this master-stroke, the same category of young people came to dominate the demonstrations from 1969 on, always wearing mock guerrilla fatigues and chanting "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh" at every opportunity. Eventually, some of them also took to trashing the occasional shop window as a sign of revolutionary ardor. The sole result of these tantrums was to sabotage the credibility of the sane wing of the peace movement in the minds of ordinary people.

I would argue that this not only assured Nixon's landslide re-election in 1972 (after the peace movement had prevailed in the Democratic Party), but also created the "Reagan Democrats" of the 1980s --- the consequences of which were the two Reagan administrations, then the elder Bush's administration, and therefore guess what twelve years later on. Thanks again, kids.

The behaviour of the Ho Ho Ho crowd was so obviously counter-productive that I could not at first imagine what they thought they were doing. Were they all FBI plants? I asked myself at the time. But eventually, I understood. The SDS kids confused politics with personal adornment, hence the mock guerrilla fatigues.

Rather than trying to persuade, or trying to use the political system to effect specific, real changes in government action, they were making a personal statement: it was just like wearing green hair.

This dress-up view of politics also explained their obsessive search for extra-territorial idols, as a sort of badge of identity: Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, or Mao, or Fidel, or Che. As the 1970s wore on, this quest moved into ever more exotic realms, reaching Kim Il Song, Enver Hoxha, and finally, by the 1980s, the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in wherever-it-was.

One is tempted to identify this blithe disregard of consequences with the baby boomer generation. But the American Left has created similar traps for itself in the past. Thinking back to my parents' generation of Lefties, I realized that the principle of dress-up as politics also explained an earlier mystery. Why on earth (I had long wondered) had the Progressive Party types chosen to break with the Democrats in 1948? They differed only microscopically from Harry Truman on domestic issues, and, with the Dixiecrats running Strom Thurmond on the right, the Progressive Party campaign risked handing the presidency to the Republicans.

But the Progressives' one big issue, overriding all else for them, was that Truman and the Democrats were not sufficiently indulgent toward the peace-loving and progressive Soviet Union, under that well-known humanitarian Josef Stalin. Here again, the issue they chose to make was utterly counter-productive for domestic Left politics: by serving as Stalin's lobby in the USA, they handed the Right, on a silver platter, a perfect device for maligning Liberal or social-democratic proposals ever after. Thanks, kids.

The Stalinophilia served no conceivable political purpose, at least for American politics. Soviet sympathizers could have simply kept quiet about their fetish, as they were in fact driven to do a little later by the Cold War atmosphere of the 50s. But, if my reconstruction of 1948 is correct, the Progressives positively flaunted their fetish: they made it the BIG issue. I now understand that politics didn't enter into it. Sentimental identification with the "Soviet experiment" served as the personal statement of identity for that generation, just as wearing green hair, or guerrilla fatigues, was to do 20 years later. And invoking the magic name of its philosopher-king Uncle Joe Stalin (who was also known as Paul Robeson) served the same talismanic function that chanting "Ho Ho Ho" did 20 years later.

Then we have the familiar style of manipulation and attempting to take over everything. Ideologues of both Left and Right do it, but it seems more characteristic of the Left for a simple reason: I think Lefties are just clumsier about it. This certainly was my experience at an alternative, non-commercial FM radio station in the 60s and 70s.

One impression of the 1930s and 40s I have gained at second hand is that the pro-Soviet Left of the time was equally maladroit; the CP's incessant, clumsy attempts to manipulate anything it touched into a Stalinoid front simply antagonized many people. In the Labor movement, old-timers recount that the anti-communism of the 50s was partly personal as much as political: it was payback for the plain obnoxiousness of many of the Communist activists during the preceding two decades.

Go on to Part II

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