Angry White Men on the Left

Jesse Lemisch

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series),
whole no. 22, Winter 1997]

JESSE LEMISCH teaches history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. In 1997 he will publish two books, Jack Tar vs. John Bull and The American Revolution from the Bottom Up.


THE FOURTEENTH ANNUAL SOCIALIST SCHOLARS CONFERENCE TOOK PLACE at Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York, April 12-14, 1996. This version of the SSC is quite different from the locus for left scholarly debate that some older readers may remember from the '60s and '70s, and it is valuable in different ways. Now it is more oriented toward contemporary analysis and activism. Sessions included:

"The Million Man March," "Immigrant and Labor Rights," "Is There Such a Thing as Post-Modernity?" "The Assault on Public Higher Education," "Direct Workers' Democracy," "Feminism, Post-Modernism and Global Capital," "Sartre's Flaubert," "The Left and the Job Agenda in the U.S.," "Gender and Politics," "The Politics of European Integration," "Clinton or a Left Vote?" "Ralph Nader for President," "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process," "World Bank Myths of Development," "Orientation to the 1996 New York Socialist International Meeting," "Marx's Method," "Pornography Under Siege," "From the Funeral Pyres of Stalinism and Social Democracy, Marxism Returns!"

The Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) is a project of the City University of New York (CUNY) branch of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the usual suspects appear on the program year after year: Bogdan Denitch (who is conference chair), Stanley Aronowitz, Ellen Willis, Barbara Ehrenreich, Cornel West, as well as many non-DSA-ers like Daniel Singer, European correspondent of The Nation. The SSC is quite open. There are many DSA-organized sessions but there are also sessions set up by such groups as Monthly Review, the Radical Philosophy Association, The Haiti Anti-Intervention Committee, Committee for the Study of Leon Trotsky's Legacy, NACLA, and Social Text.

A great gathering place for the left, the SSC is a place to talk with old friends (including a good number from outside the New York metropolitan area), at a time when there are fewer and fewer such events. There didn't seem to be as many sessions this year as in the past, but there was a good crowd -- Stanley Aronowitz claimed an advance registration of 1500 -- and the exhibit area appeared more crowded than it was last year. The SSC had been supported in the past by CUNY, particularly when Joseph Murphy was chancellor. Now CUNY is under assault by Governor Pataki, as well as by CUNY's downsizing chancellor, and its future is unclear.1

As always, there was considerable diversity within the SSC's left universe this year. But -- also as always -- there was nonetheless a clear center of gravity in plenaries and major sessions reflecting the politics of the DSA. The opening plenary and the conference as a whole focused on the theme, "Two Cheers for Utopia!" At registration, my alert friend Joanne Landy, Director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, refused to wear the conference button which bore that slogan. And, as it turned out, the passivity and retreat from radicalism evident in the title (Why are we holding back on the third cheer for utopia? asked Landy) was very much on display. As I experienced the SSC -- others who attended other sessions might have experienced it differently -- two especially problematic themes emerged: angry white men on the left; and "no exit."

Angry white men on the left. Todd Gitlin played a major role, participating in three sessions: "Is the Radical and Marxist Tradition Hostile to Politics?" "Divisions, Identity and the Left in the U.S.," and "Politics of Solidarity." Gitlin, who became President of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963, has had second thoughts about radicalism, expressed in his earlier book, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), and more recently in his new book, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995). In this book and in the SSC session on divisions, identity and the left, Gitlin attacked "identity politics:... groups overly concerned with protecting and purifying what they imagine to be their identities... a very bad turn, a venture into quicksand."


OF COURSE, MUCH OF THE LEFT RIGHTLY REJECTS the kind of "identity politics" that argues for exclusive concern with one's own group, denies universal values and contends that one's particular group can solve its problems in isolation. And, we can all see extremes of this kind of politics in the solipsistic and often conservative thought that idolatrizes monarchy and male hierarchy in an invented African past; or, among some feminists, in the analogous obsession with matriarchies and goddesses.

Gitlin's method of arguing -- reminiscent of an approach frequently taken by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (another anti-multiculturalist) -- is to find a fringe element of a broad group he disapproves of, and then, using a couple of qualifiers, to tar the entire group.2 For instance, we know that feminism and some of the other movements have been racked by internal disagreement about essentialism, "the belief in a uniquely feminine essence, existing above and beyond cultural conditioning."3 But Gitlin chooses to see the entire movement through the lens of essentialism and damns it all: from the '70s on, he says,

The emphasis in the new movements veers towards a conception that men and women, gay and straight, were fundamentally, irreducibly different -- a tendency so common as to be outfitted with the academic shorthand, "essentialism."

Of course the truth is that many radical feminists have argued an anti-essentialist position, saying that the allegedly "irreducible" differences might very well vanish if power were equalized. As feminist psychologist Naomi Weisstein wrote in 1968,

I don't know what immutable differences exist between men and women apart from differences in their genitals; perhaps there are some other unchangeable differences; probably there are a number of irrelevant differences.4

It is hardly justified to leap from a few dead-end examples to a condemnation of just about all independent organization around such issues as homosexuality, feminism, or race as inherently divisive and subversive of universals. And it is finally such movements that Gitlin and others at the SSC oppose. These movements have been the health of the left, the result of hard-earned lessons learned from past movements which repeatedly submerged the interests of various groups in other people's priorities, and a way for all of us to keep thinking about what thorough-going equality and real utopia would be. The wholesale rejection of such independent organizing severs us from issues of race and gender which any movement that aims to build a democratic left majority in the U.S. must face. The strategy that is both principled and has the most realistic chance of success involves weaving together support for the struggle for universal human rights and dignity with support for particular oppressed groups.


GITLIN HAS RECENTLY MOVED FROM THE SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT at Berkeley to become Professor of Culture, Journalism and Sociology at New York University. His arrival in New York City seems to have given added strength and legitimacy to a pre-existing condition: a straight male backlash among New York left intellectuals. This was especially clear in the presentation by Bogdan Denitch, the conference organizer, who spoke along with Gitlin in the session on identity politics.

In his introduction to the conference program, Denitch had written, "We must learn to effectively confront the splintering politics of identity..." Speaking alongside Gitlin, it seemed that Denitch (who had arrived at the same conclusions on his own) had nonetheless been freed from a great burden, now that prestigious validation had been given to the attack on most kinds of feminism, gay liberation and black self-organization. In a truculent and martyred spirit, he dragged out the old Lasch-ian vocabulary with its condemnation of "self-indulgence" (as if those who organize themselves on any basis other than class are frivolous, irresponsible and destructive). To a sprinkling of applause from other angries in the audience, Denitch announced, "we don't care if you are gay; we want to know whether you are a left gay!" And he was positively ferocious about some unspecified excesses by feminists which seemed to have been performed directly on his person. Whatever it was, I felt sorry for him and the obvious resultant trauma. As more of this kind of belligerence appears within its ranks, DSA is going to have to figure out where it stands.

"No Exit." Again and again throughout the conference, speakers used this phrase: in the sessions I attended, no fewer than four speakers mentioned the term to convey the contemporary left's sense of helplessness and inevitability in the face of rampant capitalism, globalization, etc. To his credit, in the early part of his talk, Denitch addressed and tried to oppose this theme, although his effectiveness was undercut by his conservative conclusion, condemning unseemly particularism. I was struck by the degree of resignation to defeat in the air in other sessions. (On the other hand, Daniel Singer welcomed the popular demonstrations in France against cuts in social welfare in a session on "New Directions for the European Left," and others also countered the mood of resignation, as we will see.)

In a session on "Big Government, the Political and the Left," Carol O'Cleiracain, formerly with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers (AFSCME) and then New York City Commissioner of Finance, exemplified how conservative defeatism has led to a disastrous narrowing of the radical agenda: "good management," she said, should be at the core of the left's agenda, suggesting that management styles rather than struggles against murderous budget cuts should be at the heart of a socialist approach. This is the kind of sterile vision produced by "two cheers for utopia." The failure of utopian vision fits well with the amnesia about agency and resistance.

An air of defeat hung particularly heavily over a session chaired by Harry Magdoff and sponsored by Monthly Review on "Dominant Ideology: Power and Vulnerability." (Monthly Review has always been overwhelmed by the Great Forces; remember their preoccupation with tungsten as the source of the war in Vietnam.) Richard Cloward of the Columbia University School of Social Work gave a somewhat moving but utterly defeated talk, repeatedly saying that he never imagined that he would live to see the day of such capitalist triumph, the repeal of the social contract which had begun to be forged in the thirties, the collapse of organized labor, the growth of inequality, the reappearance of policies deliberately seeking to create a reserve army of the unemployed, the capacity of capital to pick itself up and go to lower-wage areas. He offered many chilling figures in support of this analysis, including growing disparities between CEOs' and workers' wages. Ed Herman of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania told a similar story, although less dramatically. For both, there seemed no way out, no suggestion of resistance.

I grew increasingly uncomfortable during these presentations. I have often been critical of a hortatory left culture that shows up in such places as left film, song and history,5 and think it's the job of left intellectuals to tell the truth, even when the truth is uninspiring. Our goal is not uplift, but rather solid social science and a better understanding of how capitalism works and might be opposed. But what kind of analysis ignores agency and resistance, and how can analysis pretend to validity without them? Putting aside the notion of social science as inspiration, how accurate is a social science which accepts what is as what must be and abandons the quest for sources of tension within and against the system? Such an approach is superficial and more likely to lead to surprise than to valid prediction. Our analysis has to address questions to the established order on the assumption that there might indeed be effective resistance if the points of vulnerability can be found.

The last speaker at this session was Elaine Bernard, a long-time leader of Canada's New Democratic Party who heads the Harvard Trade Union Program. She is well known for her militant perspective and sharp analysis of health care reform. Her presentation at this session offered a stunning antidote to the two that preceded hers. She began by asking, why had not Herman concluded that we must oppose and break the system that oppresses so many? Her acute analysis pointed out the vulnerability of such new capitalist modes as "lean production": in a system run with smaller inventories, 3,000 brake workers had shut down GM's entire North American operations. Mobile as capital may be, she said -- to cheers from an awakened audience -- it must set its foot down someplace, it cannot leave the planet, she said (perhaps a little optimistically) -- and our job is to grab that foot and break it!

Speaking against the grain of the 1996 SSC, Bernard reminds us of the relevance of utopia. Things do look pretty grim right now. But if you look, you can find scattered resistance from below, antidotes to the sense of givenness and inevitability: changes in the American labor movement, increasing consciousness about layoffs, sweatshops and wage disparities, the Living Wage movement, the collapse of Gingrich, hostility to HMOs, resistance to throwing new mothers out of hospitals, discontent with NAFTA, GATT and European Union, resistance to the austere imperatives of Maastricht by French, Belgian and German workers. In the U.S., these things might well go nowhere: Clintonism and the sterile and vacuous two-party system indeed seem to gobble things up and to offer no exit. But our job is to find the system's points of vulnerability, to renew our sense of independence and agency from below, to imagine and invent resistance, to insist on the practicality and achievability of visionary alternatives, not to bury ourselves by declaring the death of utopia.

After the Columbia "Teach-In With the Labor Movement"

THE BACKLASH AMONG ANGRY WHITE MEN (AND A FEW WOMEN) on the left has escalated into a full-fledged attack on "identity politics" and radicalism, producing a deluge of works and opinions similar to Todd Gitlin's, jeopardizing the future of the left. The debate about identity politics among such figures as Gitlin, Betty Friedan, Robin Kelley, Cornel West, Manning Marable and others shook the massively attended New York City "Teach-In With the Labor Movement," last October. Just recently, there have been the following attacks on identity politics, all supporting different aspects of the Gitlin position. (As we will see, there is also an emerging response by Barbara Ehrenreich, Martin Duberman, and Robin Kelley, among others.)


THERE HAVE BEEN RELATED CRITIQUES FROM OTHERS, including Ralph Nader, who deserves much praise for opening up an alternative by running for president, but who has unfortunately attacked "gonadal politics" and made the archaic contention that criticism of homophobia and feminism would dull the focus of his anti-corporate politics. At the Labor Teach-In, Gitlin was pleased with Betty Friedan's attacks on identity politics; essentially, she argued that we must transcend feminist issues and move on to wages. What can the organizers of the teach-in have been thinking when they invited this known quantity, the Michael Lerner of feminism, to be a speaker at the opening plenary? For years, she has been deeply into family values and hostile to a basic feminist program. Months before the teach-in, she had argued against identity politics and, in effect, for abandonment of a feminist agenda and its replacement by a family-oriented paradigm:

... the time is ripe to go beyond the "gender issues" that have lately been the movement's prime concerns -- abortion, date rape, sexual harassment, pornography, and the like -- to such larger matters as economic distress and social disintegration ... the most urgent concerns of women today are not gender issues but jobs and families.6

Again, non-economic issues are merely side dishes.

Gitlin's position should be seen in the context of this general trend. Here, in a mixture of quote and paraphrase, is what Gitlin has been saying, at the Socialist Scholars Conference, the Labor Teach-In and other forums, and in columns in The New York Observer, LA Weekly, and Twilight of Common Dreams:

You people -- gays, lesbians, feminists, African-American activists -- have had 25 years (holy shit: 25 years!) and you haven't yet succeeded! The left is still marginal, and you (not Reagan, not Bush, not Clinton, not capitalism, not patriarchy, not lesser-evil Clintonism) are responsible. You're getting in the way. ("It's a dead end! We've done it!" shouted Gitlin angrily at Kelley at the Labor Teach-In.) So, it's time to end this frivolous recreation -- "get real!" he cries --, suppress these unpopular (in particular, cultural) appeals, and go back to the heavy (especially economic) stuff, which he sees as the real politics. We must ingratiate ourselves with more mainstream constituencies. "Temper your demands," he tells blacks, women and gays and lesbians.

Which demands? An end to sexual harassment and gay-bashing? Opposition to date-rape and to racism? Gitlin won't name just what it is he opposes, for fear we'll see that his attack on identity politics is just a mask for his anti-feminism and hostility to black and gay liberation. As Joanne Landy pointed out at the Labor Teach-In, he offers instead only innuendo.

Gitlin has long been obtuse about and hostile to the central and positive role played within the left by those he rejects as practicing "identity politics." His The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage has come under intense criticism as history from others writing the history of women, blacks, gays and lesbians. He blames blacks for SDS's descent into violence, subordinates the protests and organizing of feminists to quarrels with men in SDS, and is trivializing or silent on gay oppression and liberation. (For the latter, see Martin Duberman, Stonewall, 1993.)

In fact, the movements that Gitlin ridicules have wrought a far greater change in American consciousness than the plodding economism which he endorses. Let's face it, Todd, Joe Sixpack's brother is in an interracial marriage, and one of his sons is gay -- the one who watches Oprah, along with everyone else in America: the consciousness here -- with all of its problems (I'm no Oprah fan) -- is more advanced than yours. Joe may not be the stereotypical racist homophobe to whom you want us to cater. If you don't think feminism, African-American activism and gay liberation have had a major and positive impact in our culture, you're not living in the real world. Get real.

These movements have succeeded because they were radical, and have been willing to speak to the majority from what was at first a minority position. Think about the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Think about abortion. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her critique of Tomasky,

a genuine left... represent[s] a politics driven by principle, not by polls... we were pro-choice before the majority was... And if public opinion should revert to the antiwomanism of the Christian right, [should we] abandon our pro-choice position?

Gitlin, Tomasky and the others want us to devote more attention to more mainstream issues that won't marginalize us: as they see it, day care is real, sexual issues are not. Although we have in fact supported such important mainstream issues as health care, many of our greatest successes have occurred when we have taken principled and unpopular stands and persuaded a majority. And the American left has contributed a good deal to the international left precisely because of its distinctive diversity. (In addition, the areas Gitlin ridicules have been enormously fruitful for the development of left theory.)

The left's historical attitude toward working-class politics is an excellent touchstone for evaluating the emerging critique of identity politics. No one would deny the importance of the working class and its potential for playing an important role in bringing about fundamental change. But the working-class politics that leftists admire have often been identity politics, self-centered and frequently exclusive. We have admired working-class consciousness and culture in part because it has been particularist. We have called this focused particularism universalism because of our immersion in a Marxist tradition which has declared, by fiat, that the interests of the working class are automatically the interests of all. Sometimes that has been true, and it is certainly to be hoped that it will be true again. But workers' goals and culture have often been exclusive and have, quite rightly, focused on themselves, very much like the identity politics that Gitlin abhors.

So before we attack identity politics, let's think about whether our admiration for working-class politics would withstand a similar test. If we deem identity politics to be acceptable for the working class, why do we condemn such politics among women, blacks and gays?

The attack on "identity politics" largely ignores profound social, economic and political reasons for the failure to build a viable left in the United States. That failure has little or nothing to do with the existence of the social movements which Gitlin and the others so vigorously attack. (Indeed, it should be noted that many people have come to left commitment after first contact with dissent via participation in these movements.) If we seek to build a new radicalism, the backlash thinking we are encountering these days is the surest way to minimize the left's influence in these dynamic movements.


  1. Contributions should be made out to "Socialist Scholars Conference" and sent to DSA, Dept. of Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center, 33 West 42nd St., New York, NY 10036 return

  2. Note for instance the structure of Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams. He defines "The Problem" by leading off with "A Dubious Battle in Oakland," which discusses a textbook controversy in Oakland, California. Near the end of the chapter, he writes: "The cautionary tale with which I have begun is a severe case [emphasis added] of a larger wrongheadedness..." His technique is to take what he interprets as severe individual cases and then to leap to unjustifiable general condemnation. return

  3. Lisa Tuttle, Encyclopedia of Feminism (London 1986). return

  4. Naomi Weisstein, "Psychology Constructs the Female; or, The Fantasy Life of the Male Psychologist" (1968), reprinted in a twenty-fifth anniversary symposium, "'Psychology Constructs the Female': A Reappraisal," Feminism and Psychology, III, no. 2 (1993). Weisstein concluded: "But it is clear that until social expectations for men and women are equal, until we provide equal respect for both men and women, our answers to this question will simply reflect our prejudices." return

  5. See, for instance, Lemisch, "Pop Front Culture: I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night," The Nation, October 18, 1996; and Lemisch, "The Politics of Left Culture," The Nation, December 20, 1986. return

  6. Friedan, "Children's Crusade: A Gathering Heralds a Shift Toward a New Paradigm," New Yorker, June 3, 1996, 5-6. return

The author wishes to thank Joanne Landy, Jim O Brien, and Naomi Weisstein. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Radical Historians Newsletter, June 1996.

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