I just turned seventy which is hard for me to fathom, probably because people constantly told my generation, grow up and leave your values behind. Maybe rebelliousness prevented our following that advice. Maybe it was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. In any case, we became forever young. Each new year we identified less with people our age and more with people much younger. I am forty years older than Chomsky was when I first became friends with him, and I remember then thinking he was an old guy. So by my own reckoning, I am old plus 40. Nonetheless, I don’t see the aged as peers.
Another reason my generation resists that we are seventy and that those we worked with are seventy, and that many of us are even dead, is that we haven’t achieved what we sought and we don’t want to face that. The further left we are, the more I think this factor operates.
When I was becoming revolutionary, fifty years ago, my agenda was to help create a new world. For me, back then, and ever since, winning a new world didn’t mean winning a little better this and a little better that, though winning a bit of this and that along the way would certainly be part of a larger process. My agenda was winning no more racial, geographic, cultural, gender, sexual, property, or job related demarcation of people into some who ride, and others who are ridden.
My generation often chanted “We want the world and we want it now.” We did not get what we wanted. We did not win what we sought. Taking stock starts with admitting that.
In judging myself, and I suppose by extension my allies in our pursuit of winning a better world, it wouldn’t be fair for me to complain that in 1969 or 1970 we didn’t fully topple injustice and replace society’s horrific institutions with liberating ones. No one could have achieved that in 1969 or 1970. No different choice on our part could have achieved that much, that soon. To not do what we couldn’t have done was not failing.
But for people like me it has been fifty years. Some might argue that nothing we or anyone could have done differently even over the full fifty years could have left us with a new world now. That may or may not be true, though I admit that unlike many of my peers, I think that when a new world is won, the duration of going from the project’s initial stages to revolutionary movements being fully in command of developing new relations will take considerably less than fifty years.
But even stepping back from that, I think there is simply no way to justifiably claim there was nothing that people with views like mine could have done differently to give people today a much better, albeit perhaps not yet fully revolutionized world. There is no way to claim, for example, that we could not have generated insights and activities and spread each widely enough to ensure that the current population of the U.S. would now be overwhelmingly progressive, informed, and for a great many even active, and at least not subject to such confusion or downright vulgarity about so many matters as to be able to be deceived into, or herded into, or running rapidly toward climate catastrophe, racial reversion, sexual surrender, economic dissolution, and war, war, war.
For example, after fifty years of my generation’s efforts to contribute to change, why did so many white working men and women who we were supposedly trying to relate to all that time, vote for Trump? Why did so many Blacks, for that matter, support Clinton not just against Trump – rightly – but against Sanders? I am not asking for a proximate explanation emphasizing media manipulation, vapid democratic party policy, and so on. I am asking how could people like me have known what we knew about society’s structure, about social possibilities, and even about activism, for fifty years, and not have conveyed it more effectively?
Answering that question may be painful for many people. It is for me. But it doesn’t mean pointing fingers of blame. It doesn’t mean rejecting everything past generations did based on the logic that if we dump everything we will have dumped whatever in the mix wasn’t effective, because we will have also dumped everything that was effective. It doesn’t mean now adding new content to our approach just because it is new. If stuff we did for the past fifty years didn’t succeed, certainly something new is needed, but adding something new that is again flawed won’t help.
To take stock means asking what we have done these past fifty years, that has caused our views to have so much less impact than needed.
It wasn’t our understanding of what was wrong with society at fault. That much is virtually certain. But if over the years we had gotten 50% of the population, much less more than that, to have the same understanding we had fifty years ago, and the same willingness to fight that we had back then, we would now have a vastly different society.
So the question becomes, what was it about what we chose to talk about, how we spoke, our actions to reach out, and what we didn’t address or didn’t do but should have done, that was either wrong or deficient?
If we can answer, we will know how to alter our past approaches to activism to do better now. But if we don’t even ask the question, if we don’t take stock, it would be pure luck to do better and we will more likely repeat the same dismal pattern of courageously and wisely struggling but not winning.
From where I sit, people seem to feel that to have strong opinions about anything is fine, but to voice strong opinions is not fine. It may upset someone. Someone may feel insulted. But I wonder why do people feel insulted?
If someone says to me your agenda is unmet, you failed, you made poor choices, we need to find what they were – then no matter how forcefully, they say it, I am not insulted. I agree. In fact, it better be true, because if my generation did the best that could have been done, well, then there would be little hope and very little motivation for a sensible person to become active now, I suspect. We need to find correctable flaws so we can see real reasons why we did not succeed, and confidently make needed corrections.
I have my own ideas about our flaws. Lack of answers when asked what we want in place of current society. Lack of belief in our own capacities. Lack of organization that could sustain unity and mutual aid, while planting seeds of the future. Lack of attention to the non property factors generating class division and their interpersonal and social effects. You probably have your different list. Openly addressing what has been wrong, writ large, and posing corrections, would be taking stock – and taking stock is exactly what we need to do.