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Revolution Wasn’t

The Revolution That Wasn’t

For the American left of the 1960s and early 1970s, the past refuses to stay past. Two of the most popular films nominated for Best Picture this year—Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7—daubed the radicals of that era in seductively heroic hues. Reports of last…

For the American left of the 1960s and early 1970s, the past refuses to stay past. Two of the most popular films nominated for Best Picture this year—Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7—daubed the radicals of that era in seductively heroic hues. Reports of last summer’s massive protests against police killings of African Americans often evoked the civil rights and Black Power movements led by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis. Unknowingly or not, contemporary critics and defenders of wokeness are recapitulating the old arguments about political correctness that first erupted during the Nixon presidency. And the recent meteoric growth of Democratic Socialists of America—now approaching 100,000 members—was last matched on the left by Students for a Democratic Society, the mostly white group of similar size that boomed with the escalation of the Vietnam War and then imploded into warring sects before the decade ended.

By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution

by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot

Harper, 400 pp., $28.99

Yet, persistent memories are not evidence of enduring success. The fundamental question to ask about the New Left, in whole or in fragments, is the same one that should be posed about any social movement: So what? Did the actions of radicals transform the nation in any fundamental way? Or did they blaze too quickly across the landscape, drawing more than their share of media attention while provoking the anger of “Middle Americans” who responded by electing the likes of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to run the country? How should we balance the accomplishments of the New Left with its failure to build a sturdy rival to the cautious liberals and confident neoliberals who have dominated the past half-century of U.S. politics and governance?

David Talbot and Margaret Talbot, siblings and veteran journalists, have crafted a book of personal narratives rich with the kinds of details that might help answer such queries. Beginning with the activist-celebrity couple Tom Hayden (an SDS founder) and Jane Fonda, the Talbots move briskly to chronicle the lives, loves, and occasional second thoughts of leading figures in the Black Panther Party, the women’s liberation movement, the California farmworkers’ union, the gay rights movement, and the American Indian Movement. John Lennon and Yoko Ono get their own chapter, too, illuminating how, after the Beatles’ breakup, the duo promoted left-wing causes with their words, music—and oodles of cash.

The book brims with vivid descriptions of how all these characters looked, dressed, got along with one another (or didn’t), and how they came across in public. The Talbots sprinkle in factual nuggets that might surprise even former activists from those years or the historians who write about them (this reviewer belongs to both clusters). I did not know Aretha Franklin and Lennon and Ono performed at the same 1971 concert in Harlem to benefit the families of prisoners murdered during the iconic uprising at Attica prison. Nor had I heard that Craig Rodwell got the idea of opening the first openly gay bookstore in Greenwich Village from the Christian Science reading rooms he had frequented in his childhood—or that he refused to sell porn magazines in his shop because he believed their publishers exploited the people photographed in their pages.

Nothing in these portraits, however, backs up the notion of a “second American revolution” in the book’s subtitle. Talk of “revolution” was as common in the 1960s left as raised fists, civil disobedience, and roach clips. But few of the radicals who yearned for it had a clear idea of how they might overthrow the political system or the circumstances that would make that possible. As a social democrat, I am not in the habit of quoting Lenin. But the old Bolshevik was on the mark when he wrote, in 1915, that revolutionary situations emerge only when the people refuse to live in the old way and the ruling elite is unable to rule in the old way. In the United States some 50 years ago, neither condition came remotely close to occurring. In fact, it was the right, not the left, that emerged from the long 1960s far stronger than when the era began.

The burning dreams of the Talbots’ title, on the other hand, are what the young radicals did leave behind. While their revolutionary dreams turned to ashes, their egalitarian ambitions inspired some to launch more practical endeavors, whose consequences, as the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote back in 1998, helped “decrease the amount of sadism in our society.” The stories the Talbots tell reveal that some prominent leftists learned from their mistakes, if not their tragedies, while others kept believing, to their peril, in a revolution that was never going to happen.

One can draw both these lessons from the short, floodlit history of the group christened the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966. Its creators, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, first recruited members by arming themselves to confront Oakland police who sought to arrest local residents, often brutally, for no good reason. Subsequent battles with police, there and elsewhere, turned survivors, the charismatic Newton most famously, into potent symbols of resistance to a brutal carceral state. The “Black Messiah” of the acclaimed recent film was Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago chapter, whom Chicago police gunned down in his bed early one December morning in 1969. He was just 21 years old.

As the Talbots write, “firearms assume their own inevitable logic in political life.” Leftists of every race lauded the Panthers’ eagerness to “pick up the gun” as a daring break with the nonviolent movement’s long slog to pass legal reforms that seemed to leave Black people scarcely better off than before. They were not the only radicals at the time who thought violent acts could advance their mission. A bombing campaign by the Weather Underground kept the FBI busy through the 1970s but never resembled the “white fighting force” the former SDS activists vowed would back up wars by rebels of color both in the United States and abroad. More successful were the activists in the American Indian Movement, who engaged in a 1973 battle with federal agents on a South Dakota reservation over the ousting of a corrupt tribal leader. Their monthslong occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, and the taking of 11 hostages, got their cause a national hearing and a rush of sympathy for the plight of the continent’s first inhabitants. The Talbots report that an opinion poll took the side of the Native warriors.

The BPP’s militancy helped spur emulators like the Young Lords Party among Puerto Ricans in Eastern cities and the Brown Berets among Mexican Americans in Southern California. In nations from India to Britain to Israel, activists from ethnic minorities adopted the Panther name as a kind of shorthand for militant opposition to the discrimination they suffered. Alas, Newton’s 1973 book Revolutionary Suicide provided an apt, if unintentional, description of how the BPP expired back home. The free breakfast and health programs that the Panthers sponsored in Black communities did not survive the group’s bitter internal divisions or Newton’s own descent into megalomania and cocaine addiction, before he was murdered by a drug dealer in 1989.

The renown of young African Americans willing to risk their lives to free their people also helped catalyze worthy initiatives by supporters who had no taste for martyrdom. In colleges around the nation, departments of and courses in Black and ethnic studies sprouted, giving intellectual depth to the brand of radical nationalism the Panthers championed. Although Bobby Seale lost his race for mayor of Oakland in 1973, his candidacy pioneered the way for other leftists to get elected to office in districts, towns, and cities with Black majorities. Since the early 1990s, Bobby Rush, who co-founded the Illinois chapter of the BPP, has represented the South Side of Chicago in Congress as a reliable progressive, if one who avoids discord with Democratic leaders. The political gains and limits of Black Power a

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