Revolutionary Youth & the New Working Class is an important collection of documents from a crucial period, 1967-1970, in the history of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. It is of both historical and present political interest. Carl Davidson, himself an old SDSer who has remained politically active on the left up to the present, is to be congratulated for his perspicacity in compiling it. As he notes in his Foreword, only one of the reprinted documents – the original manifesto of what went on to become Weatherman, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows” – is readily available; he collected the others in order, as he says, “to keep an important piece of the history of the 1960s New Left from going down the memory hole.” His instinct at preservation is unerring: the collection will become an essential reference. Although the analyses presented in these documents are of uneven quality, they all have some usefulness. That holds for even the least of them, Noel Ignatin’s “Without a Science of Navigation We Cannot Sail the Stormy Seas,” which is an able discussion despite its overall stilted and dogmatic 1930s Communist Party USA approach (Ignatin is a former CPUSAer who became a Maoist, so he is at least being “true to his heritage”).
It is important to remember that these documents were written 42-45 years ago, during a time of capitalist prosperity. So it is not surprising that some of the politics and analyses will seem remote from present-day concerns. On the whole, though, the analyses hold up much better than might be expected. Other changes since they were written include: the decline of US power and influence first brought about by the defeat in Vietnam, and continuing with the economic ascendancy of China and the openly left electoral victories in Latin America; the decline of the “affluent worker” in advanced capitalism as wages have stagnated or declined for the last 40 years, and unions have weakened; new militancy of workers joining that of other social strata beginning in the US in the 1970s and continuing today in the anti-austerity movements in Europe and worker protests in China; the at-least-formally-given death knell to Meany-Kirkland guns-and-butter trade unionism by the election of John Sweeney and later Richard Trumka to head the AFL-CIO, and by the active presence of left activists now in many unions; and the partial victories of the civil rights movement which, while not doing much to alleviate the poverty and desperation of the African American working class, have opened doors of opportunity previously nonexistent, and have created a larger black middle class and even, ironically, a layer of prominent black conservatives such as Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and others who oppose many of the civil rights movement’s gains. Many of these changes could not have been anticipated—which only enhances the political value and perspicacity of the analyses contained in this collection.
The centerpiece of the volume is clearly the long paper, “Toward a Theory of Social Change: The ‘Port Authority Statement’,” a rigorous attempt by SDS activist scholars David Gilbert, Robert Gottlieb and Gerry Tenney to present a New Left analysis of capitalism and US empire, and to posit a political direction for young activists of that time. This is an impressive work, no matter how much one might question its New Working Class thesis of a displaced traditional proletariat, its seeing the locus of power for social change in the underclass, or its view that capitalist “post-scarcity” could essentially go on forever. The Port Authority Statement is worthwhile reading even today, and should join with the much better known and available Port Huron Statement as powerful manifestos that articulate the New Left viewpoint.
Also of value, though less so, is the 1968 statement of early feminism written by Naomi Jaffe and Bernardine Dohrn, “The Look Is You: Rising Feminism vs. Mass Media.” This paper offers a strong critique of the exploitation of women through consumption, although its then-fashionable implication (associated with the philosopher Herbert Marcuse) of an all-pervasive social control and domination was given the lie precisely by the vibrant movements of the 1960s, including that of the feminists themselves. In this same vein of articulating strategies that subvert control and domination is the last article in this volume, Carl Davidson’s 1970 “Toward a Critical University: Counter-Hegemony in Education.” Furthermore, and very much to its credit, this collection presents the entirety of Noel Ignatin’s and Ted Allen’s long-unavailable collection of essays on white supremacy, “White Blindspot.” The white supremacy thesis was one of the most significant ideological developments within the New Left milieu, although my own experience leads me to question the idea that the racism of white workers reflects any actual privilege as distinct from (to use the older left expression) misguided white chauvinism.
Reviewed by George Fish
writer, poet, stand-up comic