Reviews | Requiem for a Liberal Giant

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There is an indelible scene in Todd Gitlin’s 1987 book “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage”, in which he and other leaders of Students for a Democratic Society – the leading organization of what we called the new left – meet the old guard social democrats of the magazine Dissent. The meeting is worthy of a play; it is laced with both an unfulfilled desire for connection and an exasperated contempt. “We were scarred, they weren’t hit,” wrote Dissent founding editor Irving Howe. “We wore the marks of ‘corrosion and distrust’, they looked forward to gatherings of brotherhood.”

This was in the early 1960s (1963, according to Gitlin, 1962, according to Howe). Young militants, with their romantic enthusiasm for revolutions in the developing world, strike older socialists as irresponsible and naïve. Socialists seem, to young men who feel on the verge of a radical breakthrough, resigned to their own insignificance. Gitlin and his comrades even feel a slight disdain for Joseph Buttinger, a patron and dissenting editor who had been a leader of the Austrian Socialist Party and part of the underground anti-Nazi resistance. Without “fault on his part, history had condemned him to be a loser,” writes Gitlin. “Not for us elegies at dusk; for us the sunrise party!

But there would be no revolution in the United States, unless you count the right-wing one that would sweep away much of the New Deal. By the late 1960s, the SDS was about to implode; the dizzying nihilistic Weathermen split off and became terrorists, albeit mostly ineffectual. At 42 – the same age Howe was in 1963 – Gitlin wrote: “I know what it is like now to be attacked from my left – how infuriating when the striker is 20 years younger , how difficult it is to forge the link between innocence and experience.

One remarkable thing about Gitlin, who passed away this weekend at 79, is that he never stopped trying to forge that bond. Chairman of the SDS in 1963 and 1964, Gitlin eventually became a renowned professor of sociology. He was also a critic, novelist and poet — and, to the end, an activist.

I repeatedly spoke to him about the failings of various parts of the left, which became one of his big topics, but I don’t recall him ever sounding embittered. Some, disenchanted with the left, make a whole policy out of this disenchantment. But Gitlin’s high ideals have remained consistent, even as its former radicalism has been chastised by experience. He got into the fight to get universities to divest from fossil fuel companies. He was enthusiastic about Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

Something I learned from Gitlin and have never forgotten was that in 1968, when a majority of Americans had turned against the war in Vietnam, “the anti-war movement was even more hated – America’s most hated political group, hated even by most people who supported immediate withdrawal Now activists are often unpopular Martin Luther King Jr. was also viewed unfavorably for much of his life. But there was a cost to unnecessarily alienating potential allies and stoking right-wing backlash. Gitlin advocated for leftist pragmatism because he wanted the left to succeed, even though some on the left perceived it as condescending centrism. As he once wrote of Occupy Wall Street, “I worry about this movement, not just this.”

I wish I had asked Gitlin how it felt to adopt Howe’s role in some of his arguments with young leftists, knowing how dismissive they can be – how dismissive he had been – towards older people. To me, that seems thankless, but maybe that was the price you had to pay to stay engaged.

In an upcoming tribute to Gitlin in The Nation, his friend Eric Alterman writes that being both an activist and an intellectual is harder than it looks: — let’s say, it’s making distinctions. However, being a successful activist requires the elision of such distinctions in the name of movement unity. Gitlin had once denigrated those who preferred thinking to doing; because the dissident crowd was made up of intellectuals, he and his friends considered them “inactivists”. But he will learn to combine activism and intellectual rigor, even if it means sometimes saying things that other activists don’t want to hear. (He would also join the editorial board of Dissent.)

Gitlin has written a lot of things that I disagree with, sometimes in substance and sometimes just in tone. I don’t like trigger warnings, but I also don’t like harassing the people who support them so they don’t give in to frailty, like he did in a not unusual setting test 2015, “Please Be Bothered: Triggering May Be Good For You Kids.” But Gitlin could push back against what used to be called political correctness without ever dipping a toe into Intellectual Dark Web-style backlash. He knew what was important and spent the end of his life work feverishly to rally people in the name of liberal democracy.

“The Sixties” ends with a quote from Rabbi Tarfon, who lived around the first century CE: “You have not been granted the task, and yet you cannot forsake it. ” Gitlin never did.

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