Last night I listened to an outstanding report from a participant of the 1960s-70s American student anti-war movement. The reporter really knew his stuff, and his analysis was superb.
At the end, though, I disagreed. It wasn’t that I don’t concede that the guy knows twice as much about the student movement as I do. It isn’t that I don’t agree that the student movement shook the world, refashioned people’s thinking, and contributed greatly to ending the Vietnam War. He’s absolutely right on that.
What I disagreed with was the emphasis. The progressive movement that we are experimenting with right now is the biggest, most important, and most potentially effective people’s movement since the American Civil War. Maybe even better than that. The student movement was nearly all college students, and mostly white draft-age males at that. Even the civil rights movement of 1954-1968 was limited to a relatively small sector of the population. The labor upsurge of 1935-1947 was great, but the union movement was split between the AFL and CIO then. The Industrial Workers of the World exceeds everything in pure romanticism, but I don’t think there were ever more than 100,000 actual members. The populist movement of the late 19th century was limited to farmers and, for the most part, didn’t even include landless farm workers. Outside Texas, the populists were infamous for their racism.
No, now is better.
Communists and Fascists Today
We had communists and fascists in the old days. We have them now. People understand them both better now than they did when they were just “hot button” emotional topics. It is true that fascism is inching forward in America, but it is also true that people know what to do about it. More importantly, the fascists can’t use anti-communism as effectively as they did before. Anti-communism is dying out among America’s youth.
Just Look At Us!
I looked around the room while my friend was talking about our student movement. The crowd was mostly young, but not all young. In gender and race, it was diverse. When my friend talked about making leaflets for anti-war demonstrations, I realized that the people at the meeting had, in their purses and pockets, more thinking and communicating power than we ever dreamed of as students. They could make leaflets in minutes if they wanted to, but they don’t even need leaflets. They are experts at communicating. This small group could have easily reached thousands of co-thinkers before they left the room!
Labor Is Getting Past Its Isolation
Speaking of the room, it was the auditorium of the local school employees’ union, American Federation of Teachers. The president of the local union walked through and said hello to a few of us. Could you imagine, in your wildest dreams, that the student anti-war movement could have met in an AFT union hall? Albert Shanker was President of that union in those days, and he was, next to the president of the American Federation of Labor, the most fanatical supporter of the war in Vietnam.
Labor isolated itself from the progressive movement in most instances between 1947 and 1995, then they made a gigantic change toward standing for all workers.
Today’s progressive movement is warmly accepted in union halls. The Dallas AFL-CIO welcomes radical Bernie-Sanders-socialists several times a month! The AFL-CIO banner regularly appears at anti-war, civil rights, gay rights, environmentalist, and immigrants’ rights rallies. If anything, the national and state leaderships of the labor federation are even more integrated into the general progressive movement than Dallas unions.
I like studying the history of other progressive movements. There are many good things to learn, and we learned some of them last night. But don’t get carried away with the past. Now is better.
All We Have Is Now
I welcome discourse when I publish. Disagreements are welcome. But bear in mind that today’s situation is the only one we have. Romanticizing earlier situations may be fun or interesting, but all our efforts can’t go into “then.” They have to go into now! On that, last night’s reporter, and everyone else, agrees!