The Storms of Youth (Point Blank!)
Note: This is an old article by a US pro-situationist group Point Blank! about the US New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s I would agree some of its premises, but not others. My main criticism would be how it overlooks the dischord between the internal combustion of a section of the white, student-based US New Left from the late 1960s onwards and the huge upsurge in class-struggle in the US from the late 1960s onwards, characterised by all sorts of interesting and interrelated things like riots in 1967, a massive wave of riots in 1968 in at least 110 cities in the US following the assassination of Martin Luther King, widespread insubordination in workplaces, a strike wave, wildcat strikes, heaps of informal resistance in workplaces, widespread contempt for work and the boredom and alienation it produces, the formation of revolutionary workplace-based Afro-American groups and unions such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, Chicano-based working-class movements and uprisings, the flourishing of women’s liberation groups, a working-class youth revolt, a student strike in 1970 involving millions of students etc etc. See for example Paolo Carpignano, “U. S. Class Composition in the Sixties”, Zerowork, 1 (Dec. 1975).
So the question then becomes why did an important part of the US white, student-based New Left overlook this upsurge and implode? (Setting aside the fact there were numerous attempts to form a ‘worker-student’ alliance based on practical mutual support, as detailed in Peter Levy’s book The New Left and Labor). While Point Blank! do offer some reasons why, such as the third-worldism of much of the New Left, overall they seem to almost entirely overlook the broader class-struggle. They don’t see the youth revolt and the New Left themselves as a product and expression of class-struggle (to put it simplistically, for example the student New Left can for the most part be considered a revolt by those being trained at university to become the white-collar fraction of the working-class), but instead see them as a harmless product of the spectacle. A tiny little bit along these lines, see this critique by some of the author’s themselves.
But I reproduce the article here because some may find it a useful critique of what can happen when moralistic and sacrificial politics based on guilt are taken to their self-destructive extreme, and end up in the case of the Weather Underground (a.k.a. Weatherpeople and Weathermen) institutionalising an intense ‘Stalinism of everyday life.’ Anyone up for self-criticism sessions on acid, like the Weather Underground apparently did? Actually, from what I’ve read, Point Blank! and the pro-situ milieu in the US did not seemingly escape a version of denunciatory politics themselves (see Ken Knabb, Public Secrets), in that they succumbed to quite vicious splits and endless internal denunciations of themselves and other ‘situs’ for not having the right sort of politics or practice or proper understanding of the Situationist International – for example, Point Blank! were often condemned for having simplistic politics, and then some of them denounced themselves for having a ‘reader’s digest situationism.’ I guess this approach might ultimately stem from the absolutist politics of many situs. Namely that there needed to be immediate ‘total revolt’, ‘generalised self-management’ and destruction of the ‘spectacle-commodity society’, and thus everything else gets dismissed or denounced as being ‘fragmentary’, ‘reformist’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘recuperable’ (meaning something similar to co-optable) etc. etc. I know I’m presenting a bit of a parody here — it is much more complex than that — but if you idealistically hold up a perfect, timeless ideal (eg. generalised self-management and total revolution) and then judge yourself and others by it that’s what tends to happen…PS/I’ve not changed the sexist language of this piece for the sake of historical accuracy.
The storms of youth
Point-Blank! no. 1, October 1972.
Berkeley, California, USA.
Nothing has preoccupied American capitalism so much in the last ten years as its youth. Faced with the apparent refusal of a younger generation to participate in its structures, capitalism has expended much effort in analyzing the sources of this revolt; sociologists, psychologists, and other ideologues have been called into service to explain the reasons for youth discontent. Initially, their forecasts were optimistic; the alienation of youth was treated as another symptom of the eternal ‘rebellion of the generations’ which would supposedly end once youth acceded to the ‘responsibilities’ of adulthood. As the crisis developed, however, the ideologists proclaimed the ‘generation gap’ to be a permanent division, attributable either to a mysterious, socially manifested Oedipal conflict or as a result of ‘permissive upbringing’ – the operatives of American society feared that no solution was possible and that a real threat had been posed. But suddenly all these grim predictions have disappeared; the bourgeoisie and their analysts have breathed a sigh of relief – they now talk of the youth vote instead of the youth revolt. This new situation has not been the result of some social coup in which capitalism has only now retrieved its errant children – the ‘youth revolt’ has collapsed of its own dynamic.
The suddenness with which this crisis has dissipated casts suspicion on its origin; curiously, the ‘enemy’ once singled out by capitalism, the New Left, now appears as harmless. The Yippies, who in their heyday scorned all political parties and the electoral process in general, have become campaign workers for McGovern; the Black Panthers, who once openly armed themselves against the police, field slates of anti-poverty workers and distribute bags of groceries at ‘survival conferences.’ All of these changes have not been merely tactical; the New Left is not simply regrouping its forces for a fresh assault -it is, in fact, in a state of decomposition, and a post-mortem is already underway among those ideologists who pretend to speak for what is left of the Movement. In their examinations, they have attempted ‘to locate an exact time at which the New Left began its decline. Some have chosen the SDS convention in 1969 as a convenient date, attributing the adoption of a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ platform there as a sign that the Movement had betrayed its initial vision; others have derided the New Left’s ‘sexism’ or the ‘terrorism’ of certain factions as being the cause of its downfall. But the real cause of the death of the New Left will always escape these morticians.
The decline of the Movement stands in direct relation to its development; the New Left was a product of the American spectacle and as such was defined as much by capitalism as by itself. The history of the New Left bears witness to the ability of modem capitalism to package rebellion as a commodity, as a socially necessary safety valve for the rejuvenation of the system. Purely spectacular revolt has taken its place in capitalism’s show; it is presented as an image to be consumed or contemplated so that people will forget how to rebel. Despite the radical impulses which generated its appearance, the New Left remained on this spectacular terrain throughout its existence.
The New Left began at a time when American capitalism seemed secure from any kind of serious challenge; through a combination of overt repression and ideological control, it had succeeded in unifying itself on a basis rarely attained in the past. But this unification was more apparent than real, and the sterile uniformity of life in bourgeois society was to engender the first stirrings of youth revolt, expressed in the bohemian ‘beat movement’ of the fifties. This revolt was initially confined to a cultural rejection of bourgeois values, but it eventually merged with the more profound social movement which had begun among those who were systematically excluded from participation in the system, notably the blacks. Although the early civil rights movement was generally reformist in that it only sought to correct certain defects within bourgeois society by demanding that blacks be treated as equals, it did open up serious contradictions in the American system. It tapped a source of radical discontent not only among the so-called ‘outcasts’ of society but among all those powerless over the use of their lives. Students joined the Southern blacks in attempting a total rejection of the roles allotted them in society; in their naive enthusiasm, the early Freedom Riders recognized the truth of many aspects of the American system, however much they may have seen themselves as a mere auxiliary of the black movement. When this nascent revolt spread to the universities, it was initially centered around the issue of civil rights, but its implications went far beyond any particular issue: the American university had long since ceased to be the training ground of the elite – it had become a mass institution, designed to fill the needs of an expanding modem economy which required millions of educated specialists and functionaries. The call for ‘free speech’ that issued from the revolt of Berkeley students in 1964 rapidly developed into a critique of the ‘multiversity’s’ role in maintaining society – unlike much of what followed, the FSM’s analysis of student life focussed on the immediate conditions of alienation confronted daily by everyone in bourgeois society.
But while these positive tendencies could have provided a basis for a radical critique of American capitalism as a whole, the Movement in 1964 contained the seeds of the destruction of its own radicalism. Any critique of the university became lost in the ideology of student power and academic reform: this movement chose its name well – they were little more than Students for a Democratic Society. The guilt impulses that motivated many of the activists in the civil rights movement gradually dominated and defined the later trends in the New Left. The sacrificial militantism and the spirit of renunciation present in the beginning were to form the basis of later Movement ideology. The New Left did not assume a definitive form until the mid-sixties, however. The end of the civil rights movement provoked an adolescent existential crisis within the Movement – with the rise of Black Power, the white movement was temporarily deprived of a Cause, and correspondingly, an effective base to organize. As the black movement began to develop its own recuperators, the white students, who had always regarded the struggle of the blacks as an external force, were increasingly relegated to a marginal position. When they were ousted from SNCC, the militants of the white New Left took refuge in proclaiming their support for the new black activist hierarchy. Having been leaders themselves, the white movement maintained that the blacks deserved the manipulators who sought to impose the ideologies of ‘black power’ and separatism upon them: Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown succeeded Martin Luther King and Bob Moses in their esteem. The New Left was at a complete loss to understand the spontaneous and radical violence of Watts, Newark, and Detroit – these revolts did not fit into the reformist schemes of Movement organizers.
The escalation of the Vietnam War resolved the crisis of the early New Left and at the same time accentuated its tendencies towards sacrifice and hierarchy. In Vietnam, the Movement found another cause to serve: organizing anti-war demonstrations succeeded the registration of black voters, and the Freedom Riders became peace marchers. Vietnam provided the New Left with an issue (‘ending the war’) which could easily be endorsed by large numbers of people, and it became the central focus of action and discussion, in university ‘teach-ins’ as well as in petitions and marches. The anti-war movement was a new moral crusade in which the New Left could present itself as the ‘conscience of America;’ its reformism was made explicit in its call for a ‘redress of grievances.’ Henceforth, the direction that the Movement was to take had been determined – everything that it accomplished was to be carried out on the system’s terms.
The positive content of the New Left was rapidly lost in its subsequent development. Although it had arrived at a partial critique of some aspects of society, it was never able to extend these insights into a coherent explanation of bourgeois domination as a whole – the New Left’s opposition to capitalism was always fragmentary. Arising from a visceral response to the admitted ‘excesses’ of American society (Vietnam, racism, pollution), the Movement consumed the image of oppression presented by capitalism. The revolt of the New Left remained a spectacular revolt precisely because it was engendered by the stimuli of the spectacle. The Movement was an authentic product of a society where critical attention is everywhere diverted from looking at oneself – it was inherently reactionary. The traces of the subjective revolt against the conditions of bourgeois society became lost as the Movement developed according to the objective ‘demands’ presented by capitalism. The New Left admitted this dependence on capitalism for its survival; its leaders boasted that ‘the system is our best organizer.’ As a result, the New Left was only ‘revolutionary’ in a sense defined by bourgeois society; in identifying with capitalism’s ‘enemies’ (NLF, China, Cuba), it only sought to replace one form of domination with another. The naive ‘anti-imperialist’ ideology put forth by the Movement was restricted to support of the Stalinist bureaucracies of the Third World. While profoundly disillusioned with American society, the Left accepted the counter-revolutionary Leninist ‘vanguard party’ as an organizational paradigm.
Internally, the Movement developed its own hierarchy of cadre and ‘base,’ and a manipulative practice supposedly ‘serving the interests of the people.’ This process of Bolshevization was only one extension of earlier attempts at community organizing; in both cases, the Movement conceived of itself as the representative of various abstract constituencies on whose behalf the militants would carry out the struggle. Whenever the possibilities for organizing one set of constituents had been exhausted, the New Leftists would attempt to find another group to manipulate -whether it was voter registration, building the anti-war movement, or ‘going to the workers,’ the basic motive was the same. If any struggle arose which threatened to go beyond partial issues, the Movement leadership, in almost every instance, would attempt to divert it into the channels of conventional ‘protest.’ Radical acts like the seizure of land at People’s Park became lost in the issues of ‘police brutality;’ disruptions carried on by left-wing elements (Motherfuckers, Yippies) were subsumed in the Movement as a whole despite their pretensions to an authentic radicalism, these ‘leftists’ were nothing more than a quasi-anarchist sideshow to the New Left in general. The spontaneous violence that accompanied many street actions was easily recuperated by the Movement; riots were viewed as an acceptable complement to the New Left’s spectacle of protest. All marches became carefully orchestrated performances, produced as much for the TV cameras as for the participants. The Movement consciously evoked a theatrical atmosphere in its panoply of slogans and banners; its leaders were aware of their role as performers and played this part in the courtroom as well as on the podium.
The New Left’s histrionics, however, were only part of a larger show staged by capitalism. The Movement, which emerged as a revolt against a spectacular image of oppression, was in turn presented as an image of revolt by capitalism. For a time neither could do without the other and both were conscious of this symbiotic relationship – their ideologies were mutually contingent. The New Left sewed as a convenient ‘threat’ to bourgeois society, which attempted to use the specter of a ‘generation of freaks’ as a means of unifying the ‘silent majority.’ But while denouncing a revolt which it had itself packaged, capitalism incorporated many of the Movement’s demands into its own structure, reforming itself with the Movement’s unwitting assistance. This reform was in no way a result of some mysterious ‘co-optation’ of the New Left – although it proclaimed itself to be a ‘revolutionary’ alternative, the Movement’s practice demonstrated that the transition from the reform of the early sixties to a ‘revolutionary’ posture was purely a change in semantics. The ‘contradictions’ within the system which the New Left saw as definitive could easily be resolved by capitalism; blacks and other minorities could be allowed to participate in society, the war could be phased out, the problems of the environment could be alleviated – all without altering the basic structures of modern capitalism. Once the Movement had revealed the ‘faults’ of the system, it was rendered irrelevant – the spectacle proved far better able to implement reform than the New Left, which began to fade as soon as it was deprived of an effective basis for its activity.
Since it drew its initiative from capitalism’s actions, the New Left could only sustain itself as long as the system appeared openly repressive – its zenith was reached during the spring of 1970, with the invasion of Cambodia, raids on Black Panthers, the shootings at Kent State, ‘etc. But by this time, the decline of the Movement had already set in; a once physically unified New Left had degenerated into sectarian disputes between different bureaucratic factions, and with the advent of terrorism it was to leave the scene in a display of ideological and tactical pyrotechnics. The rise of groups such as Weatherman, however, cannot be considered as an aberrancy attributable to the ‘excesses’ of a decomposing New Left – rather, the truth of the Movement was revealed in these tendencies. These organizations represent the ultimate consequence of the weaknesses inherent in the early New Left; the Weathermen and their ilk took their New Leftism seriously.
The Weathermen were Movement veterans who had been through the civil rights and student movements. The initial motivations of guilt and sacrifice that brought them into the New Left was taken to their logical conclusion in Weatherman, whose history demonstrates not only the futility of terrorism but that of the New Left in general. Rather than simply acting on behalf of the blacks, the Vietnamese, etc. the Weathermen actually attempted to become part of the Third World themselves – they desired to join themselves physically to the ‘anti-imperialist’ forces of the world. The new ‘Americong’ terrorists intended to act as a ‘fifth column’ for the exterior ‘.proletariat’ in the underdeveloped countries, and as such they attempted to translate the latent guerrilla fantasies of the New Left in general into reality. The triumph of guilt in weatherman was accompanied by a triumph of ritual. Its actions had a dual aspect – while ostensibly ‘fighting imperialism,’ Weatherman was more importantly negating the ‘bourgeois’ attributes of its background, as shown in a Weatherman statement, ‘We began to feel the Vietnamese in ourselves.’ With its avowed goal of ‘smashing’ its ‘honky’ origins. Weatherman could present itself as the most moral group of militants. For Weatherman, every aspect of the struggle became a quasi-spiritual test, an act of faith in which the militant purified himself and his ideology. This ritual cleansing could only be accomplished in the cathartic act of violence, where the individual ‘put his body on the line’ for the cause. The violence of Weatherman, exhibited in such acts as the ‘Days of Rage’ in Chicago, was designed not only to ‘bring the war home’ but to establish a line of demarcation for the Movement as a whole. Those who did not come to Chicago would be ‘punking out’; if Weatherman was prepared to die for the Vietnamese, anything less would be ‘counter-revolutionary.’
Weatherman’s extremism lies only in that it played the role demanded of it by capitalism to an extreme. Weatherman took its mythic status literally, to the point of consuming the image of itself presented by the bourgeois media. It revelled in its own notoriety, progressively enhancing its mystique of violence and bravado as if to suit the public’s taste for titillation. Weatherman was the most spectacular faction of the New Left in that myth became its only rationale; politics became secondary – from violent Maoists, they became satanic harbingers of apocalypse. By the time Weatherman convened the Flint ‘War Council, its ‘solidarity’ embraced Ho Chi Minh and Charlie Manson – its actions became black rites of exorcism in which the Weatherman would expiate the sins of their ‘privileged’ past. This masochism led inevitably to self-destruction; while the Black Panthers only talked of revolutionary suicide, Weatherman was prepared to put it into practice.
The decline of Weatherman was a prelude to the decline of the Movement as a whole; ideologically, Weatherman had been the heir to all the New Left’s mystifications. It accepted the false divisions promoted by the spectacle between young and old, ‘hip’ and ‘straight,’ and proclaimed youth as the only revolutionary force in American society. The later Weatherman carried these divisions one step further; the Third World became the true agent of revolution – all those who reaped the ‘privileges’ of the ‘mother country’ were by definition ‘honkies,’ and ‘white-skin privilege’ became the sole criterion for Weatherman’s conception of the ‘bourgeoisie.’ This ideology was to be Weatherman’s undoing: once it had been deprived of its ephemeral base, Weatherman turned in on itself, exerting an internal terror against its own members, who were accused of ‘bourgeois’ or ‘racist’ traits. A Stalinism of everyday life was practiced in Weatherman collectives – these communes, which were supposed to produce the ‘new men and women of the revolution,’ only succeeded in creating a pitiful breed of obedient android. The truth of militantism was revealed in the burnt-out shells of these activists: the ‘revolution’ of the New Left disappeared as rapidly as it had developed.
The revolt of youth cannot be discussed solely in terms of the New Left, however – it was not a purely ‘political’ phenomenon. The personal transformation which was attempted on a political level by groups like Weatherman was mirrored culturally by the proliferation of Bohemian life-styles among the young. In a sense, this ‘counter-culture’ was more radical than the New Left ever was, because from the beginning it attempted to define itself in opposition to politics and sought to create an alternative to a society based on power. The appeal to the counterculture lay in its apparent rejection of the attributes of bourgeois society; those who dropped out did so with the intention of creating something out of their lives. Yet, like the New Left, the counter-culture did not pose an authentic opposition to capitalism – far from signalling a radical transformation of all values, it remained subservient to the existing values, being merely a hip parody of the dominant spectacle. In its rituals and its ‘alternate’ institutions, the counter-culture reproduced the hierarchy and the commodity relations of bourgeois society. Its festivals and rock concerts were nothing more than mass displays of passivity; its businesses were only modern rivals to conventional firms. In the end, the counter-culture was easily absorbed as another cultural fragment within the spectacle. The Youth Culture only challenged the form of modem society; the trappings which it developed to distinguish itself from the rest of society were largely superficial differences in music, clothing, chemicals, etc. The experiments in new social relations that were attempted in the communes resulted in most cases in a simple reproduction of the family unit. The ‘isolation’ of the counter-culture from the rest of society was always a myth – since it conceived of revolt in cultural instead of social terms, its ‘rejection’ of bourgeois society was easily recuperated. The counter-culture soon became another market for capitalism, which developed new commodities to pander to the tastes of youth. The successful integration of the new culture within the ruling order has disproved all the hopes of the bourgeois ideologists (Marcuse, etc.) who entertained various illusions about a ‘radical’ life-style. The decomposition of the counter-culture – reflected in the growth of mysticism and religion, the sordid misery of the ‘drug scene,’ and the ‘riots’ at rock concerts – revealed it to be simply one alienation among many in spectacular society.
Despite the decay of the ‘radical’ political and cultural movements of the past decade, many of their characteristics and illusions linger on. The collapse of the New Left has engendered various partial critiques of its practice, all designed to save the Movement from itself. Women’s liberation criticized the hierarchy and manipulation prevalent in New Left sects and attempted to analyze the inter-personal relationships of the Movement, but in the process evolved into merely another separatist movement with a fundamentally reformist ideology. The male New Left redeemed itself through ‘men’s groups,’ where the participants would flagellate themselves for their ‘male chauvinism.’ Other groups have attempted to overcome the New Left by fusing both political and cultural tendencies; their criticisms of the Movement (especially Anti-Mass) deride its forms of protest (mass movements, etc.) and pose the ideal of the collective or ‘affinity group’ as constituting the nucleus of the future revolutionary society, which will somehow emerge with the proliferation of these collectives. But far from presenting a radical alternative, this idealization of the collective erects a banality – a particular living arrangement – as the major focus of the revolutionary process; in place of the New Left, groups like Anti-Mass can only offer communalized misery. Further to the left are the assorted anarchist denunciations of the Movement; while occasionally perceptive, the anarchists have also been unable to see any way beyond the New Left other than to resurrect the faded anarcho-syndicalist ideology of the IWW or to embrace the modernist confusionism of Bookchin. None of these reformist critiques have ever aimed at the supersession of the Movement – all of the New Left’s saviors are incapable of seeing that it is already dead.
In the wake of the New Left’s demise, it has become fashionable to discuss the general mood of ‘apoliticism’ among youth – the sociologists have attributed this to a sudden upsurge of ‘introspection,’ while the last remnants of the Movement decry it as ‘apathetic.’ The fact that many have become disillusioned with the manipulative practice of the Left, however, does not mean that American capitalism has achieved any kind of final victory. While the relics of the New Left are reduced to applauding prison rebellions from the sidelines, the real discontent which resulted in the revolt of American youth remains. The New Left was a false start in the process of genuine revolution; if the rise and fall of the Movement has shown that a true opposition to capitalism cannot be partial or limited in scope, the commodity spectacle, which invades the whole life, can only be answered by total revolt.
A desire to change everything in this world is what separates us from the feeble reformers of the Left. It is the subjective experience of alienation, and not any external force or issue, which forms the basis of a truly revolutionary opposition to capitalism. The refusal of the constraints imposed by the spectacle does not stem from a need to right any particular wrong, but from a recognition of the absolute impoverishment of life in bourgeois society. Any practical rejection of sacrifice and hierarchy must necessarily be made over the ruins of the New Left. Our critique of the New Left is a critique of all spectacular revolt and constitutes the premise for the formation of an authentic revolutionary movement in the United States. While the death of the Movement has revealed the true nature of false opposition, it is still necessary to show how its errors can be avoided, since any movement which proclaims itself to be ‘radical’ but speaks in the language of Power only stands in the way of the development of a true radicalism.
In our theory and practice, we present ourselves as a group which has opposed the reactionary New Left. An identical opposition has been implicit in the general contempt for the Movement which exists among its former constituents. The alternative to the New Left, however, does not lie in aimless nihilism or in a simple rejection of revolt in favor of passivity. While rejecting quantitative change, we do not mean to ‘wait’ for radical activity to occur: the development of a revolutionary situation in the US requires a practice equal to our theoretical critique. The society that the New Left set out to change is still in power, but capitalism has not succeeded in destroying all opposition to it – the spectacle continues to produce the forces of its possible negation, and from now on, no one can have any illusions as to the meaning of real change – revolution begins when people speak for themselves and seize control over everything affecting their lives. If anything, the ‘youth revolt’ has shown that no one is really young in this society; there are only varying degrees of age. The destruction of the old world and the reaffirmation of youth begins when people challenge everything openly; instead of allowing itself to be defined by capitalism’s rules, the revolutionary movement must define itself as the complete negation of existing society through the positive construction of a qualitatively new social order.
The individual, lost in the alienation of society and the counter-alienation of the New Left, must form the starting point for real socialism. Throughout its brief existence, the Movement offered nothing more than a vision of sacrifice on behalf of an external cause – its fate proved once again that revolution is not a duty – it is pleasurable or it is nothing. Revolt always begins with the individual, whenever he refuses to submit to the mindless routine to which he is subjected daily, and he must take himself and his desires seriously if this revolt is to be extended. Individual subjectivity is the means and the end towards the development of collective revolutionary activity. The ‘individualism’ that capitalism prides itself on having achieved is merely the alienated subjection of the individual; self-management implies the creation of a collectivity where individuals find the possibility for their self-realization in the freedom of others, where they affirm themselves as subjects in a world which they have made their own.