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Lessons for Leftists Old and New

Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, and child advocate, is director of the Children and Family Justice Center, a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, and a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.
This article was a speech delivered at the memorial for Harry on May 7, 2006, at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City.

Pablo Neruda wrote in elegant verse what Harry Magdoff analyzed in prose:

But we have to see behind all them, there is something
behind the traitors and the gnawing rats,
an empire which sets the table
and serves up the nourishment and the bullets….

Harry saw behind them all, behind the traitors and the gnawing rats, and he identified, analyzed, and rejected the empire which sets the table. The table settings changed over decades, even the size and shape of the table were altered. The careful economic proof of U.S. empire in the sixties became the contemporary global imperialism in this post-9/11 millennium. Harry Magdoff named, tracked, and opposed the bloody dehumanizing course of U.S. imperialism over six decades.

Harry Magdoff exemplified intellectual depth and daring by scrutinizing and identifying the contradictions within what looks, superficially, to be invincible. His work contributed to the conditions for radical activism. Through the pages of Monthly Review in 1966–68 and especially with his 1969 book, The Age of Imperialism, Harry educated generations of new leftists. He taught by naming the system, he trained by doing a careful and concrete dissection of the specific conditions and dynamics within the U.S. political economy, and he inspired through his rich, long life by never compromising with capitalism, which held no allure for him. Let me give some examples.

Naming the System

In April 1965, at the first national march on Washington against the Vietnam War, organized by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), its then-president Paul Potter spoke:

What kind of system is it that justifies the United States…seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purposes? What kind of a system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and the promise of American society…? We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it!

Simply put, Harry Magdoff named the system. He responded to the emerging social movements by answering that question with his analysis of U.S. imperialism. At that time, SDS had several score chapters in colleges and universities. Already, Harry had this appetite for connecting with the questioning young, a quality which characterized Harry’s work and priorities. Eleanor Stein remembers Erasmus High School students in Brooklyn meeting at the Magdoff home to discuss politics with Harry and Beadie, struggling to make meaning of the world around them.

By early 1968, time seemed speeded up. As young people within U.S. borders, we lurched forward to attempt to assume a greater responsibility for what was being done in our name. A brief taste of events will evoke that sense of urgency (familiar in different ways today):

  • In January 1968, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam involved a coordinated Vietnamese attack on thirty-six provincial capitals and five major cities, including Saigon.
  • In February 1968, Dr. Benjamin Spock and four other activists were indicted for conspiracy to “counsel, aid and abet young men to violate the draft laws.”
  • By March, over 5,000 U.S. Marines were pinned down at Khe Sanh.
  • In April, when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, black rebellions erupted in 125 cities, 55,000 National Guard and federal troops occupied cities where 20,000 were arrested and 46 people died.
  • A week later in April, students seized and occupied five buildings at Columbia University demanding that the university end its war-related research and its callous occupation of Harlem. Columbia students occupying Low Library went through President Grayson Kirk’s files, discovering and publishing proof of Columbia’s participation in a secret (and oft-denied) university consortium of war-related research (“IDA,” the Institute for Defense Analysis) funded by the Defense Department.
  • In May, students and workers almost toppled the government of France.
  • In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.
  • In August, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress a popular democratic movement, and antiwar young people converged on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where a police riot unfolded on international TV.
  • In September, authorities in Mexico massacred 325 students in Tlatelolco.

As colleges and universities reopened in fall 1968, SDS was overflowing with new members; hundreds of chapters sprang up in state colleges, community colleges, and high schools, most unheard of at the SDS National Office, where I was one of three people newly elected to SDS national leadership. Seemingly overnight, SDS was transformed from a catalyst organization based in a few score universities to a huge cross-class phenomenon of more than 100,000 students. Militancy was expected and activism was growing. More members were first-generation college, from working-class families, and they too wanted to kick the ass of the ruling class.

We took delegations of youth to meet with the Vietnamese in Budapest, Montreal, and Havana. We met with New Left activists across Europe at an international new left conference in Ljubljana, stopping in Prague, Frankfurt, Stockholm, and Paris—seeking common ground and finding inspiration.

What we learned from European new leftists that summer of 1968 was that the activists from North America were woefully lacking in basic analytical skills. We were not only ill-mannered, boorish, and unprepared. We were without the basic Marxist tools to examine our conditions and to be coherent social critics—in a dynamic and rapidly transforming world of revolutionary national liberation movements, socialist efforts, and capitalist competition and struggles emerging in the first world nations. A further challenge came from thirty Vietnamese comrades—from both North and South—who spent a week with the SDS delegation in Budapest, teaching this passionate, partying, and opinionated gaggle of young North Americans about the 2,000-year Vietnamese history of struggle, about the American occupation, and about why the Vietnamese liberation forces would surely prevail against U.S. forces despite the enormous disparity in technology and resources: both politically and militarily. Avid, committed, and inadequate, we wanted to live up to the historic challenge.

SDS’s national strategy in 1968–69 was relatively coherent: (1) promote power-structure research into war-related institutional activity in colleges and universities (including ROTC), to focus and inform local campaigns against the Vietnam War; (2) encourage SDS chapters to engage with and act in solidarity with emerging black student unions on campuses, to support calls for black studies, to facilitate community and worker solidarity, and to demand open enrollment; and (3) escalate educational tactics of direct action, civil disobedience, and militancy. On the ground, on campuses, action merged with anger and anxiety about the draft and rebellious alienation from the established order. We were not afraid to offend. Increasingly, the talk was of revolution, spurred by the black freedom movement, in concert with third world national liberation forces and allies in Prague, Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo.

As soon as campuses opened that fall, two of us from the SDS National Office went to the offices of Monthly Review in New York City. We asked the older scholars and writers there for help. We offered an unruly mass of outraged students and begged for Monthly Review to participate in a massive political education project. Harry Magdoff and Eddie Boorsteen responded. They came to speak on campuses. They listened to students. “The essays presented here,” Harry wrote in the opening sentence of The Age of Imperialism, “were written in response to questions asked repeatedly during and after lectures given at various colleges.”

He listened as well as lectured, and he learned. “It was both the significance of the questions posed,” Magdoff noted, “and the scholarly vacuum which prompted the studies published here.” He embraced his students and recognized them as who they were, caring about them and urging the development of the brain as well as the heart.

Monthly Review and Harry Magdoff in particular provided the antiwar movement with the tools to become significantly anti-imperialist. By recognizing that imperialism was a system—economic, political, cultural, and military—it became clear that it was not merely a policy which could be modified. Reform was not an option. It was then necessary and inevitable to link the issues: the black freedom movement and the Vietnam War, the aggressions in Latin America, and feminism. Some form of revolutionary socialism was to be considered. How to bring it to life with vibrant participatory democracy?

From the vantage of today, we long to interrogate Harry even more: What became of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement? In what ways is there a legacy from the sixties to build upon, or are we beginning again? How do we grapple with the massive military and cultural expansion of the U.S. empire?

In his first editorial as coeditor of Monthly Review in May 1969, Harry together with Paul wrote a piece entitled: “The Old Left and the New.” He chided the remaining fragments of the old left as reformist and bankrupt. “At first,” he wrote of the new left,

their objectives tended to be articulated as demands for instant reforms or changes in policy (“Freedom Now!”, “End the War in Vietnam!”, etc.). But gradually they learned through practical experience that those on whom the system confers real power were not about to accede to these demands, preferring instead to crack open the heads of the demanders. It was in this way that the New Left, or at least the more advanced elements within it, developed rapidly into an outspokenly revolutionary movement: an evil system which cannot or will not reform itself must be overthrown and replaced by a better one.

Through this dynamic engagement with young activists, Harry Magdoff profoundly impacted a generation of anti-imperialists.

Careful Analysis

Magdoff’s years of work at the Bureau of Labor Statistics served him well, for each article he wrote reflects the value of the concrete. Harry combined detailed specifics with huge constructs. His writings deployed the small graph, the two-line table, and the pithy chart to great effect. Harry’s need to look for the evidence, to wrestle with reality, is the antithesis of what Comedy Central and the Daily Show call the fact free zone of the Bush administration.

Through his careful proof of the critical value of internationalism to capital, his examination of economic stagnation and unemployment, his consideration of the dynamic of increased conflict between the center and the periphery, and increased inter-capitalist rivalry, Magdoff taught. His tone, his methodology, and his radical goals were themselves pedagogic.

In the pages of Monthly Review, the editors spoke to frustrated graduate students eager to be useful to the radical cause; they published an essay on black women in revolt; they promoted the War Bulletin (documenting actions across the country in resistance to the Vietnam War); they published a cable from OSPAAL (the Organization of Solidarity with the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America) from Havana on the occasion of the police assassination of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago; and they met with the Africa Research Group and the Union of Radical Political Economists.

In short, Magdoff and Monthly Review were a vibrant revolutionary project in the critical years of New Left activism and struggle.

Further, He Inspired

Harry Magdoff was a true New Leftist. He lived his life without making a mockery of his values.

He wrote, again, in that first essay with Paul: “It is a long and difficult struggle we have entered into, and those who stay the course and rise to their responsibilities in the process will need understanding as well as passion and will power.”

He was talking of us, then young activists: high on passion and will power, short on understanding. “The New Left in the United States today is revolutionary, and that is all to the good. But despite all the revolutionary talk one hears among radical young people, many have no clear idea of what a revolution implies and no one knows how a revolution is going to be made in a country like ours.”

He exemplified cross-generational engagement in his long life, and he offers the New Left generation a striking model for today: Don’t sentimentalize earlier struggles. Indulge in no nostalgia about our own youthful activism. Do not romanticize or demonize ourselves or our era. Move on from fighting the same old fights. Stay tuned to the present and the emerging future. Be useful to today’s young radicals.

In this context, we take from Harry Magdoff’s ethical work and life the enduring gifts of motivation, encouragement, inspiration, and understanding. He arouses the mind and in so doing stirs the spirit. He moves us to be better. In helping us to wake up, to see behind the traitors and the gnawing rats to the empire, he laid down the challenge of making meaning: now you see. Now you must act on what you see.

This is how he humanizes, Harry’s radical act.

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