Category Archives: social movements

97: Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire

In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Penny Von Eschen locates radical black American thought within the larger tradition of politics of the African diaspora, and she traces the rise and fall of the relationship between the two in the decades surrounding WWII.  The international politics of the African diaspora (or the Black Atlantic) combined local struggles against racism and colonialism with a broad critique of imperialism.  International black leaders found support in Pan-Africanism, the Popular Front, labor movements in the US and the colonies, and a very vocal independent black press in the US; they viewed WWII as a unique opportunity to pursue their anti-colonial activism because they felt the racism and imperialism of the Axis powers would force the Allies to recognize and join their mission.  This international context for radical black American thought provides context for the Civil Rights movement while detaching race from its American context and reconfiguring it as the internal contradiction in global capitalism.

Von Eschen traces the rise of this international movement in the decade before WWII as an internationally coordinated project that was at once dedicated to eradicating local racisms and to fighting global capitalism.  After WWII, however, the movement began to decline.  In the US, the 1947 decision by the NAACP and major African American periodicals to stop criticizing Cold War policy because of anti-Communist sentiment dramatically reshaped the movement.  Critiques of US imperialism were replaced by a narrative of American exceptionalism, where the US was the legitimate leader of the “free world” and racism was an aberration, not a constituent element of capitalism or imperialism.  Further, the Americans replaced their international diasporic solidarity with paternalism toward “primitive” Africans, effectively erasing international ties with Africa.  The Cold War thus impeded decolonization efforts, disrupted black radicalism, and hindered the Civil Rights movement, all with devastating effects on black politics worldwide.

While Von Eschen might have overstated the dominance of radicalism in black American political thought, her integration of domestic thinkers and activists with an international movement to end racism by ending imperial capitalism provides much-needed context for the Civil Rights movement and the development of black American thought more generally.


94: Doug Rossinow’s Politics of Authenticity

With The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America, Doug Rossinow writes a history of the New Left that emphasizes continuity across both time and the broader political field of the 1960s.  Unlike many scholars of the 1960s, Rossinow was not there; this is a much-needed history of the left from the outside.  Instead of drawing on personal connections and personal experience, Rossinow relies on newspapers, TV, radio, and other media sources, as well as interviews, to understand the Left and place it in context.  He argues that the New Left operated by applying an existentialist activism to the left; from this perspective, the New Left developed in response to the Cold War of the 1950s, and it ended partly because the seeds of identity politics within existentialism fragmented the Left after 1968.

Existentialism in Rossinow’s formulation directly linked to the demographics of the New Left.  Unlike the Old Left, which had been composed of working class activists in pursuit of a working class-based social democracy, the New Left began with the white, college-educated members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who directed their social criticisms not at economic exploitation but at the “alienation” and “anxiety” created by the “post-scarcity” society.  While these young folks initially thought that the poor or African Americans (not the working class) were the agents of social change due to their marginalization and consequent alienation from mainstream society, they soon adopted a theoretically-informed existentialist argument that “social and political arrangements caused inner alienation and that only radical social change would open the path to authenticity.”  Thus, affluent youth began to see themselves as the victims of postscarcity society, and they began to seek both authenticity and democratization.

Also unlike other scholars of the Left, Rossinow sees substantial connections between the student Christian movements of the 1950s and 1960s and the New Left.  The Student YMCA-YWCA used existentialism as a way of helping members connect individual alienation with larger social concerns, thereby overcoming the therapeutic culture of the 1950s.  Existentialist activists saw the individual as broken and alienated, and thus they sought solidarity and community.  Further, 1950s Christian liberalism was big into racial egalitarianism, and former Student Christians brought their views with them into the social movements of the 1960s.  This social existentialism stretched further back into the past as well, to Old Left emphases on a “humanist” Marxism based on the 1844 manuscripts, where the way to overcome alienation is to pursue wholeness and humanity in collectivism.

To examine existentialism and the New Left in detail, Rossinow operates at two different levels: at the national level, to see how the left functioned as a whole, and at the local level, with Austin, TX serving as a case study for the formation of the New Left and the explosion of SDS into prairie power.  While he finds that existentialism and the pursuit of authenticity operated at both scales, it was much more successful at “untying the knot of inner alienation and democracy than in pursuing large-scale social change.”  It was thus also much more successful in small, localized communes than in the large, national arena.  Further, the pursuit of authenticity as a means of overcoming individual alienation became detached from the larger collective enterprise, with the New Left fracturing into smaller culture-based groups: Black Power, Feminism, and so on.  The New Left thus headed into cultural liberalism, while the true radicals enmeshed themselves in small communities and passed from authenticity into marginality.

Rossinow emphasizes throughout that this is a story of a dialectical process between politics and culture, structure and dissent, and that political movements might rebel against structures of power, but their rebellions are always pre-conditioned by those same structures.  Hence the shift from radical politics to cultural liberalism and identity politics was prefigured by the capitalist system.

93: Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open

Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America is a conscious attempt to excavate and describe the legacy of the women’s movement – primarily second wave feminism – for generations of women (and men) who didn’t live through it, so that a kind of living, breathing social history can keep the struggle for gender equality alive.  In particular, Rosen charts the change in women’s consciousness from the 1950s to the 1990s through a vast compendium of the many issues, events, people, ideas, books, successes, and failures of the women’s movement in the United States, with some connections to women’s movements outside the US.

This book is written for a popular audience in response to her discovery that her undergraduate students in the 1980s had no idea what the women’s movement had redefined.  Accordingly, it hits all the highlights: Betty Freidan, SNCC and other civil rights groups, the coming together of the Old and New Left in what she calls the “female generation gap,” Kennedy’s commission on women and the tension between liberal and radical feminism, NOW, Gloria Steinem, the Vietnam War, abortion, the naming of hidden injuries, sexuality, the body, intersections between feminism and race and class, protests and happenings, consciousness-raising groups, sex, pornography,  ideological factionalism, trashing, paranoia, the FBI, commodification, the superwoman, and Ronald Reagan and the spread of global feminism.  Throughout, she attempts to characterize the depth and breadth of the women’s movement as much as she can while also showing just how interconnected this historical period was.  She also tries to account for the successes and failures of the women’s movement and the legacy of the movement as a whole.

Rosen’s faith in the power of narrative to continue the perpetual gender revolution is clear, and I think her point that we will lose the gains we have made if we are not vigilant is a good one – just look at the attacks on affirmative action.  However, I would very much like to read a history of this iteration of the women’s movement written by someone who was not there, to get a sense of the larger social and political context and a more thoroughgoing critique (instead of a celebration) of the movement itself.

92: Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left

In Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Julia Mickenberg argues that “by maintaining the democratic spirit of the 1930s through the Cold War, children’s literature became a kind of bridge between the Old Left and the New Left generations” and contributed to the youth rebellions of the 1960s.  Working from a vast array of primary sources, including 33 author interviews, several hundred fiction and non-fiction books for children, and other archival materials, Mickenberg builds her argument by contextualizing close readings of children’s books in their historical time and place.  While she is not the first to discuss dissent in a Cold War context, Mickenberg shows that this dissent was right out in the open in children’s books; its very accessibility points to pervasive “counterhegemonic impulses” and the survival of the Popular Front in the midst of McCarthyism.

According to Mickenberg, it was possible for children’s literature to become the medium of transmission for 1930s radicalism partly because it was a largely feminine domain of the book world.  Publications rarely bothered to review children’s books, and the entire writing, production, distribution, and institutional dissemination system  for children’s books was inhabited almost entirely by women (most kids’ books were and still are bought by school libraries; also, children’s books were more expensive during the Cold War.)  Cleverly, many of these women were interested in introducing students to a “progressive” worldview and helping them be antifascist, antiracist, and more than a little idealist.  This interest was partly a legacy of Old Left parents and partly a reaction to 1950s repression, and these women hoped their kids would be able to change that.

Children’s literature was also largely ignored because its target audience was children, who presumably wouldn’t understand any particular ideological slant.  Thus children’s book authors foregrounded the contributions of African Americans, the working class, and other minorities in a critique of the whitewashed “American Way;” invented progressive dialogue for historical figures so that even Davey Crockett could be “an anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist friend of the Indians,” and emphasized the importance of sharing scientific discoveries for the benefit of all people.  Conveniently, many of these messages also served Cold War needs, particularly where they intersected with federal policies on racial equality and scientific progress, while also delivering subversive, Old Left messages.

While some of Mickenberg’s close readings seem a bit too intent on locating radicalism in texts where politics are a bit of a stretch, her interdisciplinary methodology shows clear links between Old Left and New Left radicalism in and around Cold War children’s literature.

91: Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors

In Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr traces the development of the Conservative movement in Orange County from 1945 to Reagan’s presidential election in 1980; she argues that the Right used religion and consumerism to create a movement that combined an emphasis on individual experience with the collectivism required to create social change.  Using archival sources and oral histories with activists and ordinary people who helped build the conservative movement in Orange County in the 1960s, McGirr builds the history of the Conservative movement from the ground up.

McGirr’s interest in telling the rise of the Right from its own perspective creates a nuanced picture of right-wing activism in Orange County.  She shows that upwardly mobile, white, educated, suburban moms and dads were attracted to Conservatism because it resonated with their own experiences as successful individuals and as Westerners who were suspicious of “liberal Washington intellectuals'” intervention in their lives.  Orange County Conservatives also included many competing worldviews, including long-held libertarianism, a religious interest in fighting godlessness and immorality, a distrust of “collectivism,” and an interest in a return to American foundational values.  Anti-Communism held these libertarians and social conservatives together (along with extremist groups like the John Birch Society) in the 1950s and early 1960s.  However, after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 the Orange County Right broke with extremist groups and forged a more mainstream, populist conservative movement under Ronald Reagan that attacked general liberal permissiveness, big government, welfare, and criminality.  The parallel rise of 1960s counterculture and evangelical Christianity in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought a host of new social concerns, state welfare programs, and religious zeal for a return to morality; this stoked a fire that spread nationally and ended up getting Reagan elected president.

While McGirr’s method is not innovative from a history perspective, her choice of subject is unusual for a study of social movements, as most social movement theorists include a progressive or left agenda and an association with an oppressed group in their definitions of social movements.  However, her grassroots analysis of the Right’s rise to power and her interest in reading members of the Right from their own perspectives provides a depth of analysis that does justice to an incredibly powerful movement.

89: Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s Sweatshop Warriors

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory is both energetic activist scholarship and history from the bottom up.  Louie, a lifelong activist, builds on interviews with Chinese, Korean, and Mexicana immigrant sweatshop workers from five independent community-based workers’ centers in New York, El Paso, Oakland, San Antonio and LA (from 1997-2000) to argue that “grassroots immigrant women [are] agents of change… the very heartbeat of the labor and anti-sweatshop movements.”  By combining the experiences of these women with a structural analysis of the global sweatshop industry, Louie turns the story of their progress form workers to warriors into a handbook for other activists for social change.

Plenty of theorists and historians have explored the development of global capitalism.  Where Louie’s account is unique is in her focus on (and identification with) immigrant sweatshop workers in the United States.  Working from this perspective, Louie shows that, first, the global sweatshop pyramid of exploitation takes advantage of the “exceptional” and the “different” in order to “relegate certain strata of the population into super-exploited positions and other to more privileged buffer positions;” the “exceptions” being gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, and so on.  She thus exposes the exploitation of social difference as the heart of the global capitalist enterprise.  Second, she shows that immigrant sweatshop labor in the US is itself a product of US expansion abroad: many of the women argue that “we are here because you were there.”  And third, this perspective also allows her to show concretely and in detail how global capitalism can and is being resisted by the people at the very bottom of the pyramid, who use both their differences in language and in origin AND their common experiences to fight for basic rights like a minimum wage, safe working conditions, a cap on hours, greater corporate accountability… as well as food, education, rights to housing, and so on.

Louie brings the voices and experiences of women who have turned their differences into an asset and begun working together for social change.  And, conscious of her readers’ probable ignorance of these women’s lives, she asks that we not be voyeurs or consumers of their work and their lives, but that we join to help them in their struggles.

88: Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels

In Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Robin Kelley argues that extra-institutional forms of resistance, not formal SMOs, are foundational to black workers’ larger struggle for racial and economic justice.  Building on James Scott’s “infrapolitics,” or everyday small acts of resistance, evasion, and defiance, Kelley shifts the political history of the black working class to the “margins of struggle,” the unorganized, often spontaneous battles with authority, and the social movements that are somehow thought to be “inauthentic” representations of a community’s interests.  He thus locates black political resistance in the complexity of the lived experience of ordinary people whose lives are raced and classed.

Kelley investigates black infrapolitics in a variety of 20th century settings and constructs: the double-edged sword of the “mask of grins and lies”in the pre-WWII South; African American Communists in the South and African American volunteers in the Spanish-American War; the zoot suits, bebop, and hipster ethic in the black male working-class culture of Malcolm X’s youth and the gangsta rap of 1990s LA; bus protests long before Rosa Parks’ formal resistance.  In each situation, he locates resistance at a wide variety of scales, from enlisting to fight in a war or working to build the Communist party to walking, smiling, dressing, sitting, or singing in a certain way and in a certain time and place.

By focusing on infrapolitics, Kelley is able to situate now-famous protests like the Woolworth’s sit-ins in a long tradition of extra-institutional, everyday resistance; as George Lipsitz points out, he is also able pinpoint the beginnings of social movements in everyday forms of resistance that overcome oppression even as they are structured by its particular spatial, economic, and cultural forms.