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Liberalism Radicalized: The Sexual Revolution, Multiculturalism, and the Rise of Identity Politics

The Fragmentation of America. To defeat this tyranny and create a truly free society of informed, rational participants, Mills called for a new political philosophy: In what he called the “Sociological Imagination,” social scientists would lay aside their neutrality and engage in public discourse, as well as criticism, over political issues.[44] Because society is maintained by authority—or the recognition of commonly held values—the new sociologist must create theories that question and weaken the power structure. He must illuminate and solve, not ignore, social problems. Instead of a value neutrality, he helps to create the conditions for a free society.

Mills became this advisor to the political movement that he named the New Left. He supplied the information to reinvigorate radical groups, which would come not from the Power Elite, but from the democratic process itself.

For the democratic process to work, he said, there must be a return to actual, not formal, democracy. Actual democracy requires the formation of new groups or “publics,” each invigorated by belief in its own value system and sustained by its own symbols of authority. Mills looked for new authoritative groups that could revolt against the Power Elite and renew the political process, as the existing groups were part of the corrupt system.

The Old Left, consumed with stale, Marxist philosophy, was demoralized and no longer radical; blue-collar workers had become the tools of government-sponsored unions. Even the word proletariat, seldom used by 1950s socialists, no longer meant solidarity. Liberal class consciousness, especially in relation to minority groups, had become a matter of charity.

Mills next turned to the growing class of white-collar workers for a revolutionary movement, but he found that they were unorganized, dependent upon large bureaucracies, and lacking in class consciousness. Mills needed a new proletariat:

[W]ho is it that is getting fed up? Who is it that is getting disgusted with what Marx called “all the old crap”? Who is it that is thinking and acting in radical ways? All over the world—in the bloc, outside the bloc, and in between—the answer is the same: It is the young intelligentsia.[45]

The young intelligentsia, to create new authoritative communities, must resurrect utopianism. Utopianism, or the creation of the ideal human community in theory, must provide a standard for criticism of the existing one. Hence the neo-progressives’ constant reference, even today, to “community.”

Mills argued that a return to community was necessary to revitalize democracy. The New Left would decentralize, or fragment, the American Establishment into competing values as opposed to interests. Participatory democracy would occur in new communities along two different lines: personal politics and cultural politics.

Personal politics meant a politics that appealed to meaningful personal traits in order to create a group loyalty that would rival loyalty to the old unifying symbols of Americanism. Feminists as a political group, for example, could command the loyalty of individual members by appealing to their individual concerns over reproduction, child care, and career opportunities in order to redefine the traditionally feminine roles of wife and mother. Cultural politics, or multiculturalism, would fragment the American public along ethnic lines. The ultimate goal, wrote Mills, was that these groups take over the technologies of state capitalism and wield them for human ends.

The resolution between these two views, one which argued that government remove itself from personal questions and one that wished to fragment American society into conflicting moral views, was the politics of civil liberties, particularly sexual expression, combined with the individual’s civil rights as a member of a protected “insular minority”: the politics of race, class, and gender.

The Politics of the New Left

Reich’s and Mills’s ideas, in various forms, dominated the cultural and political conversation for the next half-century and still dominate today. They took root politically in the New Left, a movement named by Mills. Todd Gitlin, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) from 1963 to 1964 and today a professor of sociology at Columbia, calls Mills “the most inspiring sociologist of the second half of the twentieth century” and “a guiding knight of radicalism.”[46]

Tom Hayden, Gitlin’s predecessor as SDS president, wrote his master’s thesis on Mills, romantically entitled Radical Nomad. Imitating Mills, Hayden wrote “A Letter to the New (Young) Left” with the goal of creating a radical movement among college students. Hayden’s 1962 Port Huron Statement called for a return to humanist values; the goal, Mills’s conception of freedom, could be achieved through Mills’s idea of a politicization of the personal and cultural. With a sense of urgency, Hayden called for a “reflective working out of a politics anew” and listed the “modern problems”: nuclear war, racism, meaningless work, nationalism, American affluence set against world hunger, overpopulation against limited world resources, and government manipulation against “participative” democracy.[47]

The Great Society’s expansion of government programs in the style of the New Deal was hardly a common ground between liberals and radicals. Rather, it was the focal point of a liberal–radical battle over ideals. It was precisely the methods—a redistributive scheme that entrenched “the Corporate State”—that the radicals attacked.[48] Despite President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pandering, the radicals rejected the Great Society as a duplicitous scheme concocted both to fill the meaningless void of the Affluent Society and to secure the reins of corporate power. The domestic policy programs, they claimed, were essentially a form of graft. Funding for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Housing Act, and the Job Corps seldom went to the poor, and when it did, it was not, as Johnson claimed, a “hand-up,” but a “hand-out.”[49]

Battling the liberals, radicals within the Great Society programs tried to divert their funding to rally and empower new dissident groups in society: to mobilize the poor and ethnic minorities for a new radical politics. Projects included the training of 20 activists by community organizer Saul Alinsky, who promised to go to the poor and “rub raw the sores of discontent,” and LeRoi Jones’s Black Arts Theater, which produced Marxist, black nationalist dramas on the streets of Harlem. Jones wrote, “The Black Artist’s role is to engage in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society…[that] white men [will] tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched in the filth of their evil.”[50] Revolution was the aim: In one of his plays, a parody of the radio-TV Jack Benny Program, Benny’s black valet, Rochester, robs and conquers his white oppressors.

Little wonder, then, that when James Farmer, who launched the 1961 Freedom Rides, proposed an adult literacy program, President Johnson personally axed it and demanded an end to “kooks and sociologists” in the Office of Economic Opportunity[51]

Radicals rejected the Great Society because they rejected its conception of greatness. In his denunciation of the Great Society, Marcuse claimed it was a question of conflicting utopias: the Great Society’s capitalist utopia of ever-increasing expansion in production and technology or the Socialist Society of individuals, freed from a lifestyle of consumption, who choose their own form of labor. The Socialist Society adopts a “new consciousness,” while citizens of the Great Society mistakenly believe that they are free.[52] The policies of the Great Society and the freedom that Americans fought to spread around the globe were, in reality, slavery.

The student radicals saw in the Vietnam War proof that the fight against liberalism was a matter of principle, not policy. The war, writes Gitlin, “was symptomatic of a rotten system or even an irredeemably monstrous civilization.”[53] The American system was poisoned from the roots. Vietnam was a “racist war” waged by “a technologically superior, white-led juggernaut against a largely peasant Asian society.” And it was not just a foreign war; America’s tyranny abroad mirrored its tyranny at home. It was, in Gitlin’s words, a “seamless economic and cultural system characterized by white supremacy, murderous technology, and irresponsible central power devoid of justice.” Heroic revolutionaries were needed to oppose this juggernaut, and the formation of Mills’s revolutionary publics fit well into a Marxist framework.

The concept of a proletariat—an exploited or repressed group—proved malleable. The revolution would be waged by a new proletariat, one with different grievances. According to Marcuse, “This revolution would find its impetus and origins not so much in economic misery, but in revolt against imposed needs and pleasures, revolt against the misery and the insanity of the affluent society.” In a different kind of cultural revolution, the New Left would mobilize “marginal groups” that had not been politicized before.[54]

By 1965, one year into the Great Society, a Freudo-Marxist framework was firmly established. Multiculturalism, feminism, and the student rights movements all placed themselves within the context of a broader crusade for liberation from Western capitalism’s oppression and repression.

The vanguard against capitalist expansion was Third World peoples, as yet uncorrupted by liberalism. Mills and Marcuse looked to Cuba for radical leadership to provide a third way toward freedom. Student radicals flew to Havana, where they met with Communist leaders who confirmed their heady ideas that they were the rebel leaders in an American civil war. SDS required its leadership to read Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist turned Algerian revolutionary, whose book The Wretched of the Earth was popular among student radicals. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a preface to the 1964 English edition, in which he denounced Western oppression and proclaimed Third World superiority. Fanon’s book, similar to Sartre’s own existential psychoanalysis, posits a psychology of colonialism in which the oppressed internalize the symbols of their oppressors. He prescribes revolting against Europe and the West and implementing a new third way of achieving the humanist ideals that Europeans had failed to achieve. Europeans, in turn, must look to the Third World for their own salvation.

In America, Fanon’s colonial theory complimented Malcolm X’s black nationalism, which viewed blacks as a people colonized by imperialist Americans. Angered by the influence of whites within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), black power advocates expelled them in 1965–1966. A 1967 Chicago SNCC leaflet stated, “We have to all learn to become leaders for ourselves and remove all white values from our minds…. We must fill ourselves with hate for all white things.”[55]

The Black Panthers turned to “revolutionary nationalism” to reinvigorate this sense of community. Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton argued that blacks must reject their American identity and “reassert their own definitions, to reclaim their history, their culture; to create their own sense of community and togetherness.”[56] Following protests by student radicals, San Francisco State opened up the first Black Studies Department in 1968.

White students who traveled south to work in the civil rights movement both condemned their own culture and in their crusade identified with the oppressed. They admired the heroism and envied the sense of purpose that they encountered.

Mario Savio, who had worked in SNCC’s Freedom Summer weeks before, started the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964 when campus police attempted to arrest an activist for setting up a display table. The state-funded universities, Savio concluded, were part of the same oppressive system that controlled the South. The universities of the liberal state were part of a manipulative machine, devoid of higher purpose and focused on power. Savio lashed out in his Sproul Hall address: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that…you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”[57 ]

When SDS president Paul Potter, in a 1965 speech to 25,000 onlookers, exhorted his listeners to “name the system,” students knew it to be a thinly veiled reference to capitalism.[58] The next SDS president, Carl Oglesby, called it “corporate liberalism.” Tom Hayden urged the powerless students in the North to take inspiration from the powerless blacks who fought segregation in the South. The concern of the university, he wrote, should not be “passing along the morality of the middle class, nor the morality of the white man, nor even the morality of this potpourri we call ‘Western society.’”[59]

Students claimed that they were an oppressed and repressed minority, one that had a key role to play in the revolution. One SDS member’s speech, “Toward a Student Syndicalist Movement,” links in common victimization college students with the bombed villages in Vietnam; another member gave a speech calling on white-collar workers, who were in reality repressed slaves, part of “the new working class,” to reject their white chauvinism and join Third World revolutionaries against Western capitalist oppression.[60]