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Monthly Review - Paul Buhle Article

Excerpt from The Cultures of Socialism, Introduction to the July-August 2002 issue of Monthly Review

by Paul Buhle

.....There are other, more familiar, but just as hopeful signs. To take a very particular case in point: the rebirth of an antiwar political milieu around the Bay Area-based tabloid War Times surely qualifies as one of these, and directly or indirectly involves several of the contributors to this issue. Peace veteran David McReynolds, sending an Internet dispatch from the April demonstration in Washington, noted its appearance as a sign of renewed radical coherence about global issues, and of hope.

Not that War Times or anyone else has "the answer." Today's free-swinging demonstrations, whatever the organizational sponsors and the inclination of the official speakers, remain appropriately eclectic in the extreme. The politics of the youngest cohorts might better be described as "anarchist" than anything else-as clumsy and inexact as any label will be. Yet especially from the "Left Coast" (an old term for Washington, Oregon, and above all California), the political roots of a multicultural left can be traced to the "Third World Marxism" (as Max Elbaum has called it in his important volume, Revolution In the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che) of individuals and groupings descended, with many changes, from the Marxist-Leninist impulse of the 1970s.

The path from a narrow, leadership-heavy and sectarian past has been a tortuous one, leaving many of the specifics (fervent attachment to Chinese leadership and the idea of building a new communist party "vanguard" in the United States, etc.) well behind in the political wreckage. Doubtless a newer New Left would have arrived anyway, carrying forward the feminist, gay and lesbian rights, ecological, and other messages that the Marxist-Leninist movements downgraded and sometimes scorned. But the vision of a U.S. Marxism reshaped around the global movements of empire's victims, and consequently also around the newest immigrants to the United States, was a genuine contribution and in the end a saving grace.

A newspaper (in this case, a monthly tabloid intent on becoming bi-weekly) is not a movement. But a new kind of New Left has been gestating in the Bay Area for several years, based mainly among older and younger folks rooted in racial justice, immigrant rights, anti-prison-industrial-complex work. They provide the base for War Times as a nationwide voice of the antiwar movement, giving it a multicultural face and in turn strengthening the milieu that gave rise to it. A dynamic process of political interaction and dialogue involving hundreds of activists of all generations offers a glimpse at something beyond demonstrations. What will happen next, one cannot say. But when, in April, 2002, San Francisco saw its largest demonstration in decades, with police estimates of 20,000 (neatly cutting in half the real crowd size), the stirrings had found their constituency-and in small measure, also helped to create it.

So many of the phenomena we need to observe are likely to elude the printed word and take flight in forms that may or may not find political realization. Whether they do depends upon economic and political conditions, of course, but also the shape of the U.S. left ahead. The decisive positive lesson of the Popular Front that remains all these decades later is the need to work within the cultural possibilities at every available level, to find or invent transitional watchwords, to evoke a multiradicalism and multiculturalism at once realistic and visionary.

We will not see the reappearance of the European ethnic-style socialist or communist local clubhouses, sickness-and-death benefit societies or perhaps even the single, unifying international event (like the Russian Revolution) that seems to make sense of an epoch. But we have already experienced the birth of a new working class with global roots and aspirations that place its members in the most active sectors of the reviving labor movement (such as restaurant and service workers). If the AFL-CIO can make a comeback after so many decades (until at least 1995) of incompetent and/or CIA-linked leadership, it will find the human sources and the future leadership here-or nowhere.

Global developments, most especially the direction of U.S. leadership, certainly offer dire prospects. But hope is not lost, nor the story of the cultures of American socialism burdened with an unhappy ending. Not at all.

Paul Buhle teaches history at Brown University and is guest editor of this issue. His most recent titles published by Monthly Review Press are Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz, co-authored with Mike Alewitz, and Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.