The Old New Left: Student Radicalism in the 1930s

Ho Chi Minh! Ho Chi Minh!

There has long prevailed a certain exceptionalism about the 1960s. It all went so well with the decade prior, with Father Knows Best on the air… and then, the Yippies are nominating a pig for President, “free love” reigns freely indeed, and the Jews sell America out in 1965. Except really big this time around.

It wasn’t that exceptional, not even the youthful vitality. For there was a student radical movement contemporaneous (sometimes collaborating with) the New Deal some 30 years before. It has been swept under the dust and much of it thrown into the memory hole, but it’s a fascinating little episode. It’s the link between Old and New Left, as these terms tend to be used. Grounded on class analysis, but with very strong concerns for racial equality and fighting fascism.

Common wisdom is that America could never swallow the social-democratic pill like Europe. Yet in an interview with former American Student Union (ASU) leader Joseph P. Lash, he confided that FDR was “accomplishing social reforms beyond the dreams of most of the Socialists of Europe.”

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Rough edges of the New Deal revolution

You know, the post office in every community ought to be the people’s contact with the government. We ought to make more of it. The post office is a natural for co-operation between the people and the Federal Government.

— FDR as quoted by Frances Perkins in The Roosevelt I Knew (1947) [source]

Selig Perlman was one of the great labor historians in the institutionalist tradition of Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons. Unlike theorists focusing on class struggle, he viewed unionism as creating a “job and wage consciousness” instead, which intersected with a so-called “scarcity consciousness” on part of the psychology of the wage worker, in which his perception of limited economic opportunity precludes him both from entrepreneurialism and any grand scheme of socializing production, instead focusing on immediate pragmatic goals of raising wages, reducing hours, reducing workplace hazard, etc. Impressive, given that Perlman was a Russian-born Jew drunk on the Marxist theory of Plekhanov, until he got deconverted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison… deconverted into something no less peculiar.

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The Myth of the Socially Conservative Old Left

[A little detour I got the urge to do following internal debates at Thermidor Mag and various recent bouts of Third Positionist communist apologetics.]

Pareto said that history is the graveyard of aristocracies. It is also the graveyard of right-wing political hopes.

Postcolonialisms, critical theories of race, of sex; reader-response theories; one-dimensional men, 888-dimensional men; dialectics of enlightenment, enlightenments of dialectic; queer deconstructionists and undeconstructed queers (we have too many of those) — what is a helpless observer to do, but yell “Damn you to hell, Christ-killing Jew”?

The vagaries of the biological process, though thankfully not condemning us to an infinitely malleable tabula rasa, alas do not imprint us with historical consciousness. The predestined losers of yesterday die, and to take their place, the predestined losers of today are birthed.

These poor sods (I among them), having to undergo the pain of being under the boot of New Lefts, New New Lefts, Lefts of Ever Ascending Novelty, have developed a few heuristics to make sense of where the current New^n (for values of n) has left off from, and what trajectory it is following for the New^n+1 Left to pick up from.

So, a voice rises up:

“The Old Left didn’t raise a ruckus over no damned queers!”

Indeed, the Old Left didn’t raise a ruckus over no damned queers, by and large. Alas, it did for many other things no less destructive, and I don’t mean just economics.

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Bonald and the socialists: some unsettled debts

[Consider this a continuation of “The yearning for lord and manor.”]

Louis de Bonald remains one of the begrudgingly and infrequently acknowledged founders of sociology. It is illustrative to consider the way Bonald, who was a firmly modern thinker, being steeped in Malebranche’s occasionalist solution to the dilemma of Cartesian dualism, ended up setting the foundations for modern sociological thinking while using it to further anti-modern ends. Bonald was also a representative of an aristocratic and patriarchal school of anti-capitalistic thought which in some places echoes and in most other places is radically incongruous with modern socialist ideas.

First, we assert that the category of being is the one primary to all things, indifferent to finitude, and it must be univocal rather than analogous, applying equally to God, man and all other phenomena. This is the Scotist univocity of being. Formal notions like goodness, wisdom and being all retain a simple univocal component regardless of which entity they’re attributed to or to what degree of perfection.

Secondly, we assert that the only efficient causal agent is God (occasionalism). “Do [our senses] show us the force which carries heavy things downwards, light things upwards, and how one body has the power to make another body move?,” asked La Forge. Moreover, since matter is conceived as an inert rea extensa, it cannot be the source of forces and powers that create motion. In Cartesian fashion, Malebranche could assert: “We have only two sorts of ideas, ideas of minds and ideas of bodies; and as we should speak only of what we conceive, we should only reason according to these two kinds of ideas. Thus, since the idea we have of all bodies makes us aware that they cannot move themselves, it must be concluded that it is minds which move them.” That mind is God’s.

Thirdly, we combine univocity of being and occasionalism to posit that our finite ideas have a univocal relation to the infinite and divine ideas emerging from the mind of the Godhead.

We thus develop, through the method of correspondence, a universal calculus for uncovering facts about a social whole existing ontologically prior to any individual. In Bonald’s case, the divine trinity had a secular manifestation in pouvoir, ministre et sujet, as the foundation of authority, for instance husband, wife, child, respectively.

We then proceed to drop the univocal likeness between God and society and simply proclaim more parsimoniously that society itself is God, and that the social organism is by itself an efficient cause of its members’ actions. Sociology is born.

But this immanentization of society comes at a cost. The tensions between aristocratic/conservative anti-capitalism and popular anti-capitalism (modern socialism), particularly w.r.t. freedom, self-determination and the organization of production, is one such cost that is of significance to us here.

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