Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Pilgrim’s Progress

Carl Oglesby's Ravens in the Storm is a very fine book. It is gracefully written, crafted by someone who loves words. It is narratively engaging, drawing the reader into Oglesby's personal and political experiences and depicting the development of a human person and the rise and decline of a movement in a way that never loses the reader's attention. It is reflective and self-critical, repeatedly underscoring Oglesby's awareness of his own limits and mistakes. And it is, in general, politically astute, offering insightful strategic, tactical, and normative assessments of political moves made by a wide variety of actors.

Oglesby served as president of Students for a Democratic Society during SDS's 1965-66 presidential term. As a leader of SDS, he occupied a front-row seat during a momentous period in US and world history. In Ravens in the Storm, he chronicles his evolution from relatively uncritical supporter of the status quo—he worked for several years as a secret-cleared employee of defense contractor Bendix—to vocal critic. He describes his interactions with a range of interesting and historically significant figures, and he offers a set of observations about war, politics, and protest.

For those aware of what is to come in Oglesby's own story, and, indeed, in more recent American history, the most interesting single relationship described in the book may be the one between Oglesby and Bernadine Dohrn (Oglesby remains somewhat coy about its precise contours). Evidently fond and respectful of each other, Oglesby and Dohrn joust throughout the book over a range of questions: Should SDS understand itself as a Marxist organization? What should be the place of armed struggle in the process of political change in the United States? Is there any value to dialogue between those seeking social change and those with power?

Oglesby does not seem to have had a close or warm relationship with Tom Hayden, but there is an obvious overlap in tone and emphasis between Ravens in the Storm and Hayden's 1988 memoir, Reunion. For both, the call to move toward a radically decentralized and participatory society is a call to recapture something that is essentially American. The goals of the New Left are, on this view, continuous (even if not necessarily identical) with the aspirations implicit in the American political project at its best. To take the kind of view expressed by Oglesby (and Hayden) is unavoidably to be, if not a thoroughgoing optimist, then at least not someone who has abandoned all hope in American society. It is therefore not to side with those, like the Dohrn of the late ’60s (as depicted, at least, by Oglesby) and the Weathermen, for whom desperate violence seems like the only way of undermining a corrupt system.

By contrast, Oglesby presents himself—now and during the heyday of SDS—as a representative of the “radical center,” as someone for whom identification with either wing of the American Establishment is unappealing, but who also clearly believes that people outside the mainstream on both the right and the left can find more common ground than they might imagine. For him, as for most of the early SDS leaders, orthodox Marxism sought just the kind of centralized, state control the New Left opposed. Oglesby could enthusiastically press for an SDS contribution to the harvesting of sugar cane in Cuba as an act of solidarity with the Cuban people and as a protest against the US boycott—but not as any kind of endorsement of the Castro regime or its ideology. Poverty, racism, imperialism, militarism, corporate dominance, and (latterly) sexism—these things Oglesby clearly opposed and opposes, but from a perspective allowing him to identify as a libertarian, and to be praised as one by Murray Rothbard. That Rothbard, who famously washed his hands of the New Left after his brief alliance with it against the Vietnam war and the corporate state, could affirm one of its earliest vocal members, one who had not changed his political views in any significant degree, as a libertarian speaks both to Oglesby’s ability to be an effective thinker and coalition-builder and to the capaciousness of libertarianism properly understood.

Similarly, Oglesby stresses the fact that doctrinaire pacifism played no role in shaping his opposition to the Vietnam war. That opposition was clearly principled: the initiation of the war was morally unjustified, the way in which it was conducted violated just war norms, and it gave every evidence of proving strategically ineffective and, indeed, counterproductive. But these were judgments made about a specific war in a specific time and place; Oglesby clearly reserved the right to judge each argument for war on its own merits (though it is hard to see how the recognition that wars are fought at the behest of the Establishment Oglesby opposed and serve its interests far more than those of ordinary people could leave much room for supporting many, or any, state-made wars).

Identifying proudly as an American, locating himself in the radical middle, Oglesby seeks to maintain ties with family members in the South for whom his anti-war stance seems anything but patriotic. Among the book's most poignant passages are his descriptions of encounters with his father, persistently skeptical of his son's activism, and the Baptist preacher who, though Carl's favorite uncle in childhood, now denounces his nephew as bound for hell.

American antiwar activism is still very much alive. Even the SDS has been reborn. But some things obviously differentiate today's antiwar movement from the one in which Oglesby played such a crucial role as a young man. The confluence among antiwar activism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, the burgeoning women’s movement, the movement for sexual liberation and the freedom of sexual minorities, the rise of rock ’n’ roll, the emergence of alternative spiritualities, and the beatnik-cum-hippie culture created a range of powerful synergies. It really seemed in the ’60s as if there were in some sense a (fractiously) unified movement for the liberatory transformation of American society, with each componenet at least sometimes drawing strength from the others. Today, American culture has absorbed some, if by no means all, of the lessons of the ’60s, and seems to be in no mood for the kind of potentially cataclysmic upheaval in which Oglesby participated. Antiwar activists, like other campaigners for social change, can’t draw as they could in the ’60s on the font of energy provided by a movement-for-change-in-general.

If the absence of a ’60s-style cross-issue movement and the demonization of the ’60s by some conservative pundits can plausibly be seen as cause for regret, the lack of enthusiasm for revolutionary violence among antiwar activists—the absence from the scene of “violent doves”—is one thing that surely makes today’s antiwar movement healthier than its predecessor. Also worth celebrating is the rise among antiwar activists of just the sort of coalition against unjust warfare Oglesby favored, a coalition embracing principled people from across the political spectrum—represented most obviously by AntiWar.Com. Oglesby’s own simultaneous embrace of the left’s ideals and of a libertarian opposition to centralized power and state socialism ought to be inspiring to many members of that coalition. But even those who are unenthusiastic about Oglesby’s own distinctive political synthesis (or who believe, like Ron Jacobs, that he overemphasizes the significance of personality and underestimates “the role of history” in understanding the events he describes—since I’m doubtful that history does anything, I tend to side with Oglesby) should find the story he tells compelling. Ravens in the Storm recreates an era marked by idealism, hope, and the potential for radical change while offering sobering observations about the limits of fanaticism and instructive insights into coalition-building. It focuses on the all-too-human (and still active) Oglesby rather than offering grand historical generalization; but it has a great deal to teach today’s activists. It is also—and surely this is what’s most important—a great read.

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