Critique of the New Left Movement




The Movement in General
Antifascism and the Cybernetic Welfare State
Yippies and Weathermen
Communes and Collectives
Women’s Liberation



The Movement in General

. . . With all too few exceptions the “democracy” of the New Left was a myth. . . . As for a participatory democracy that would break down the separation between decision and execution, this was present only among a few small groups (for example, some of the earliest agitational experiments in the South) and, very briefly, in such massive actions as the spontaneous surrounding of the police car during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Usually whatever democracy there was lasted just long enough to elect a steering committee. . . .

Such democracy as did exist in the New Left organizations cannot be separated from its lack of subversive content. The early SDS maintained a democratized marketplace of ideas which were only the ideas of a democratized marketplace.

This plethora of fragmentary issues finds its echo in the desire for decentralization and leaderlessness (which is less the absence of leaders than the creation of the conditions for leaders to take over) within SDS chapters. . . . Many . . . militants have seen in the relative autonomy of SDS chapters not the early forms of another hierarchical organization — which it is — but a healthy rejection of hierarchies, cell bosses, party chairmen, secretaries. [Robert Chasse, The Power of Negative Thinking, or Robin Hood Rides Again.]

Chasse’s critique, published April 1968, could hardly have been more definitively confirmed than by the subsequent history of SDS. That the New Left organization devolved into the control of three factions disputing the precise combination of Stalinist bureaucrats to worship has been liberally bemoaned by those who had proclaimed its essentially libertarian character; but they have never been capable of seeing the origins of this “degeneration” in the incoherence of the New Left. They have either maintained a discreet silence on this subject or impotently and tautologically referred to a “bureaucratization” that unaccountably grew out of this “healthy rejection of hierarchies.” . . .

With an ideology of “serving the people” the movement organizer justifies his reformist programs; for him they take on revolutionary significance. What is wrong with reformism is not the desire to ameliorate the immediate conditions of a number of people, but rather that these reforms are sought in order to transform these people into a constituency. . . . When the organizer moves in, the totality is drowned in a sea of particulars; qualitative refusal is parcelized into particular defined needs. The organizers encourage the proliferation of a host of pseudoclasses: youth, blacks, women, gays, Chicanos. Separated according to their special interests, individuals are more easily manipulated.

Formerly the movement organizer (especially in the black and peace movements) relied heavily on guilt in order to motivate passive participation. Later he appealed to the “self-interest” of various groups — staying behind in order to coordinate their tactical alliance. As the movement decomposed, the old self-interest issues lost their recruiting power and new, more specific ones were improvised: gay vets for equal rights in the military, Asian women for separatist health care. Each hybrid made the frantic search for constituencies more absurd. . . .

Once the base had been “radicalized,” divided up by the movement bureaucrats, it was reunited in a pseudototality of solidarity. . . . “It’s all the same struggle.” . . .


Antifascism and the Cybernetic Welfare State

The Movement adopted for itself an appropriate opponent in fascism. This convenient straw man enabled the Left to avoid defining itself positively; it provided a cover for the fact that the Movement failed to embody a radical critique of the system itself — of commodity production, wage labor, hierarchy. The daily misery produced everywhere by capitalism was made to seem normal — if not progressive — in the light of the barbaric excesses paraded before our eyes. . . .

The actual movement of modern capitalism is not towards fascism, but towards a qualitatively new mode of social domination: the Cybernetic Welfare State. In marked contrast to fascism, this new form, at the same time that it strengthens and extends the capitalist system, is also that system’s natural development and rationalization. With the advance of the Cybernetic Welfare State, the various previous modes of domination become reduced to a consistent, smoothly running, all-pervading abstract control.

The Movement, since it does not make a radical critique of the existing system, is even more incapable of understanding the development of that system in the direction of greater subtlety. And so it happens that while it busies itself with things it can understand — super-exploitation, the cop’s club — it unknowingly enters into the service of the emerging cybernetic organization of life. Precisely because the Movement’s is only a surface critique, its struggles for “participatory democracy,” “quality of life,” and “the end of alienation” remain within the old world as agitation for its humanized modification. . . . Bureaucratic capitalism does not always see the reforms necessary for its survival. In their search for constituencies, for issues to suck on, the Movement bureaucrats sniff out the incipient crises and, in their concern to appear as practical servants of the people, come up with reformist schemes with revolutionary ideology tacked on. . . .


Yippies and Weathermen

The rejection at its base of the Movement’s degeneration into fragmentary opposition necessitated alternatives to Left politics which would recapture the feeling of unity embodied in the early New Left’s “total commitment.” The most profound attempt was the Yippies, whose emergence expressed the widespread recognition that the Movement’s neglect of the cultural revolt among its constituency was dangerous as well as artificial. The Yippies took their ideas on fun from bohemia, their communalism from the Diggers, and their moralism from the more romantic Third World bureaucrats. This fusion begat monsters: making a revolution for fun became doing it for the joy of surviving in the face of a capitalism made hostile by taunts. Reacting in images to the image of rightist reaction, Hoffman and Rubin tried to ride the wave of false consciousness in an effort to devalue it. Entering the spectacle as clowns to make it ridiculous, they created diversions which, far from promoting the refusal of the spectacle, merely made passivity more interesting by offering a spectacle of refusal. Actions such as the invasion of the Stock Exchange or the presidential candidacy of a pig were meant to advertise the decomposition of bourgeois values, while promoting (through, e.g., the “Festival of Life”) their replacement with the less obviously recuperative aspects of the counterculture. The Yippies’ practice was centered around creating chaos through good-natured terrorism, and creating myths to fill the void thus opened up. This myth-making made them conscious partners of the spectacle: foregoing the Movement’s ambivalence toward the media, the Yippies’ practical significance was seen by themselves as equal to the spectacle they could create through these media. . . .

Coming out of the student movement rather than the hip underground, Weatherman attacked the Yippies as not serious (sacrificial) enough, and appropriated only the signs but not the psychology of the hippies. Whereas the Yippies were an expression of what was nebulously there, the SDS bureaucrats who built the WeatherMachine forged a place for themselves at the vanguard of an increasingly passive and dwindling Left. Relating alternately to the images of the peasant guerrilla, the party bureaucrat, and the urban terrorist (in proportions varying with each militant’s standing within the Weather hierarchy), Weatherman attempted to create a myth of powerful bravado which would force the hand of the entire “class” of white youth, the only group it deemed capable of assisting its project of flying kamikaze for the world war on America. Their strategy was based on the shock value of exemplary (suicidal) militancy. They succeeded in inheriting the mantle of the fading Panthers, who had held the Left spellbound for two years with the mere rhetoric of Acts. With Weatherman, this myth of concreteness was escalated to the concreteness of myth as Weatherman acted out the Panther slogans (“Take the initiative,” “Off the pig,” etc.). One of their songs says, “We used to talk but now we do it.” The very concreteness of actually blowing a hole in the wall of a bank or courthouse placed Weatherman at the pinnacle of the spectacle of opposition. It was this “really doing something” — no matter how inane — that made them the focal point of all leftist discussions for over a year, against which each leftist measured his own inactivity. Particularly susceptible to such pressure were the students and intellectuals, dimly aware of their own impotence. In this religious division of labor, the leftist hero emerges from an ordeal of action to win the adherence of those who in their passivity are mystified by it. But interest in this kind of Passion Play, however intense, is always fleeting; by the time the cops closed down the show most of the audience had left. Weatherman first chose to return this spite by refusing to include anyone in their definition of the revolutionary motor. When even that failed to disturb America’s conscience, they decided to include everyone, and dissolved into the hip underground.

The desire for total opposition was expressed in the attempts of both the Yippies and Weatherman for a revolution in daily life, attempts mediated and frustrated by ideology. While the Yippies created an illusory radical subjectivity based on romantic individualism and the thrill of watching themselves piss in public, Weatherman sought to smash all subjectivity in order to build a WeatherMachine in which all resistance to bureaucratic authority was deemed bourgeois. Thus the former built a politics based on its lifestyle and the latter tried to build a militarized lifestyle based on its politics. The recognition that the revolution must be made in living was dissimulated through the ritualization of living the revolution.


Communes and Collectives

The early urban communes . . . were to some degree (though not nearly so much as imagined) a free space in which the qualitative questions that bourgeois daily life represses were at least posed. But they were never answered — as the communes’ rejection of the old world failed to take up the project of its supersession, the communes began to fall apart. While utopian communalists dreamed of a mass movement of changing heads, the communes failed even to survive, as their tolerance and passivity left them open to underworld and police harassment, internal manipulation, endless crashers, disease, mental breakdowns and rip-offs. . . .

Seeking to attract the counterculture as a constituency in order to revitalize the faltering Left, Movement bureaucrats endorsed the form of the commune as they rejected its content. The result of this enlargement of the scope of reformist activity was a widespread mechanistic synthesis of daily life and politics institutionalized in a commune form usually referred to as “collectives.”

The commune movement’s preoccupation with “lifestyle,” though mystified and quite rigid, was at least a rudimentary critique of the capitalist daily life of augmented survival. In the collectives, on the other hand, there was a decided shift in emphasis from spontaneous social experimentation toward a total absorption in the politics of marginal survival. The collective, like the nuclear family it replaces, organizes the individual’s personal subsistence in return for his allegiance to the collectivity. The communalization of economic poverty is accompanied by a communalization of intellectual poverty. Most collectives have a few informal hierarchs who get their power by synthesizing from amongst the garbage heap of leftist ideologies the particular form of eclecticism of that particular collective. Thus there are anarcho-nihilist collectives, Stalino-surrealist groups, Third World suicide terrorist cells, and social service units. The leaders establish their positions by mastering the mysteries of this melange and consolidate it through the management of political tactics (alliances, “actions,” etc.) and of the reified experiments in daily life promoted by collectivist ideology. The struggle sessions against informal hierarchy are endless since there are neither rigorous criteria for membership in the collective nor exclusion of those who attempt to dominate or fail to participate autonomously. . . .


Women’s Liberation

Women’s Liberation, originating in opposition to the “male movement,” never really escaped the latter’s mystifications but only reproduced them in new forms. For the straw man of fascism it substituted male chauvinism. In attempting to overcome the overt hierarchy of the movement it created informal hierarchies. Criticizing the movement for defining itself only in terms of the oppression of others, it merely replaced the penitent militant purging himself before the image of Third World Revolution with the sister surrendering herself to abstract womanhood.

Within the movement the position of women has often been compared to that of blacks and other “super-oppressed” groups. But the “woman question” was essentially different in that it could never be considered as a question of “survival.” The factors that constitute the particular alienation of women tend to be central, advanced: the family, sexual roles, the banality and boredom of housework, consumer ideology.

In the early discussion groups there was the beginning of a critique of daily life and especially of roles. But this critique underwent a closure and rigidified around the problems of women; it only considered women qua women. The individual found herself in a therapy session or encounter group where she was to “become sensitive to her oppression as a woman” — and wallow in it, going over each detail until her “sensitivity” became resentment and her critique a moral one. A politics of resentment toward the oppressor, men, and abstract solidarity with all women replaced any critical sense she may have had at the beginning of her “consciousness raising.” Now the sister demanded not something so complex as a system to transform, but rather a living adversary to attack. Her rage to overcome her condition excited her aggression against men and her resentment materialized in the production of spectacles to haunt their guilty consciences. . . .

Sharing this melodrama was that lesser known antihero of female liberation — the sister’s boyfriend. His dragged-out and slightly terrified look attested to his weary struggle to free himself from his oppression of his girlfriend. If he was at first hostile to her jeremiads, he soon recognized that his own alienation was insignificant compared to that of women. For this St. Anthony, besieged by the ghosts of his crimes against women, Women’s Liberation came just in time to replace his impotent activity in the collapsing movement.

Women’s Liberation rejected the hierarchy of the “male movement” but was never able to overcome hierarchy within its own groups. Since their organizational practice was based on an abstract democracy in which all women were admitted, the groups were forced to increasingly confine their internal practice to combating informal hierarchy and specialization, using quantitative means: the small group, lots, automatic rotation of tasks, quantitative criteria for exclusion. But all these methods only concealed the maintenance of separations and inequalities absorbed initially. The contradiction between the antihierarchical position of the women’s movement and its abstract solidarity with all women set the stage for the split of the antisexists and anti-imperialists at the Vancouver Conference (April 1971), where the antisexists of the Fourth World Manifesto exposed the anti-imperialists’ manipulative appeal to sisterhood in order to preserve a Stalinist united front while in the same breath embracing a group of “sisters” sent to the conference as a public-relations corps by the North Vietnamese state.

The role of Women’s Liberation has been to incite the dominant society to realize the abstract equality of total proletarianization. With demands for more jobs and a transference of housework into the public sector, the women’s movement has worked, in effect, for the integration of women into a more rationalized system of alienation. The varieties of women’s liberationists all have in common a reformist program, although some try to dissimulate this by claiming that women per se are a revolutionary class. They see not men and women in servitude to the commodity, but the commodity in the service of male chauvinism, which they facilely identify with power. . . .

(excerpts from unpublished drafts, April 1972)


The above excerpts, reprinted from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb, comprise about half the complete version of our drafts that we put together when the project was abandoned. Some comments on them are included in Remarks on Contradiction.

No copyright.

[French translation of these excerpts]
[Spanish translation of “Women’s Liberation” section]