A familiar question in the Age of Reagan—when would the us Left revive once more?—had become by the last years of his regime the source of deep defeatism or, at least, nagging doubt. So much time had passed since the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement, itself the last, if an especially brilliant, note of 1960s inspiration. The various dreams of extending radicalism into the factories and blue-collar communities had beached on the shoals of layoffs, international market restructuring, and resilient racism. Meanwhile, ‘Black Power’ and ‘Chicano Power’ had been, with few exceptions, domesticated into electoral politics. Perhaps Gay Liberation, in both its strengths and weaknesses, spoke to a post-modern sensibility in which no true centre of power or potential dual power could easily be discerned. As with environmentalism, even the best hopes were shrouded with the fear that somehow time was running out. In these circumstances, aids looked like the perfect metaphor for the poisonous centre to the witless cheeriness of Morning in America. That Ronald Reagan presided happily over various forms of
We’ve been there before, of course. Nothing could surpass the self-satisfaction America exuded in the prosperous 1920s. An anonymous communist, giving way to pessimism in the distant northern industrial village of Duluth, Minnesota, wrote already in 1920 that he found himself
Homesick for the home that
I have never seen
For the land where I shall look
into the eyes of my fellows
Where the obligations of love are
sought for as prized and where
they vary with the moon.
That land is my true country
I am here by some sad cosmic mistake—
And I am homesick.
He (or less likely, she) was no great poet, but nonetheless captured the feeling of cataclysmic descent from the radical working-class and bohemian expectations of the 1910s. Widespread hopes for an honest order with liberated self-expression had given way to an America of unrestrained cupidity and a consumer culture epitomized by the advertising triumph of Listerine Mouthwash. In those days, the avantgarde notoriously fled to Europe. Communists effectively crippled their young movement with internal warfare, while oldtime Socialists and Wobblies faded away. The American Federation of Labour, constitutionally incapable of encompassing the industrial worker, satisfied itself with expunging dissident tendencies. Former socialist intellectuals, including some of the brightest and once most left-wing, pronounced this afl to be the true expression of American working people and its defects the lamentable result of Bolshevism (which, after a hesitation, they had opposed) and of the world war (which they had enthusiastically supported).
A decade later, quite despite the enormous handicap of Stalinism, the Left managed a mighty revival. How was it possible? The simplistic answer would be that capitalism failed. But that fails to account for the human element in the industrial union movement, in theatre, music, film and a dozen other realms. The great change could only have happened because, within the defeats and demoralization of the earlier era, hidden strengths had begun to show themselves to those who looked carefully enough. As indeed they should have. Consider