In a slim and unassuming book published without fanfare, Wini Breines, a sociologist who was herself involved in the student movement of the 1960s, gives us one of the most important studies yet made of that remarkable decade.
The obliteration of people’s movements from history is one of the fine arts of American culture. In the case of the 1960s, where the movements gave birth to one another in tumultuous succession—black rebellion, anti-war demonstrations, women’s liberation, prison uprisings, Indian occupations of stolen land—the memory is too fresh, the consequences too much with us, for simple erasure. Rather, newspapers and television, with practices surgery, have removed from that decade its inspiring, magnificent core—its militant but non-violent protests, its communities of affection and struggle, its attempt to give American democracy the meaning that two centuries of governments have failed to do. They then present the ‘60s to us, with smiling condescension, as a wall scrawled with obscenities, behind which are nothing but drug-befuddled youngsters and violent Weatherpeople.
What Wini Breines does (gently) is to break through those walls, following the telltale beat of utopian hopes and democratic dreams still audible in our time, to find the concealed heart of that movement. She does this not simply to recapture its excitement, its glow (she has dug into the raw sources: underground newspapers, personal memoirs), but to examine soberly what we can learn about the creation of democratic movements for social change.
Her concentration is on S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society)—its birth in campus rebellions (Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement), its brief experiments off campus to organize poor people in Newark, Chicago and other cities, and its relationship to the mass anti-war movement that developed after 1965, when the United States began its large-scale invasion of Vietnam.
Early in her book, she examines the common criticisms of the New Left. The students who comprised it wanted a radical transformation of American society, but without the centralized structure, the rigid discipline, the ideological conformity of traditional revolutionary parties. The accusations made against them, by patronizing Left intellectuals as well as by pompous pundits of the conservative scholarly world, were that the New Left was utopian, romantic, impractical, anti-organizational, chaotic, unwilling to compromise or to abide by the other rules of the game of politics. It was “expressive” rather than “political.”
To Breines, these criticisms show a fundamental misunderstanding (or simply a rejection) of what the New Left people were about. True, they had utopian dreams, but they wanted to realize them through practical activity. They did not abjure organization, but wanted to create new forms of organization without hierarchy. They did not reject “politics,” but thought that the traditional politics of representative government and centralized power amounted to a disguised authoritarianism, and urged a new politics of direct democracy, with power decentralized in small groups making decision by consensus. They were not willing to be “practical” by using traditional forms of organization to gain power so that “some day” they would achieve a system of equality and personal freedom. They wanted to “prefigure” (Breines’s term) that democratic new society on a small scale, by acting it out immediately, in the communities of struggle that made up movement.
Wini Breines traces the New Left’s attempts to do this—on college campuses, in anti-war actions, in the attempts of ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project) to organize poor people in their communities. There were some successes, many failures, but enough moments of exaltation, glimpses of genuine community, to suggest possibilities for the future. There was often a feeling of epiphany in the street demonstrations, the symbolic blocking of murderous activities, the occupations of forbidden space, and the formation of alternative institutions—underground newspapers, free universities, housing communes.
She is dealing here (and the richness of her probing is hard to convey in a short review) with a profoundly important issue for both movements of change and the new societies these movements hope to establish: can we repeal Robert Michels’s frightening (and historically persistent) “iron law of oligarchy”? How can people organize to accomplish practical things (national and international as well as local), and yet do so in a truly democratic way, in which “participatory, non-hierarchical, and communal organizational forms” allow everyone to both feel and be part of the process?
What is so wonderfully refreshing about this book is that Wini Breines realizes the difficulties, and yet insists that the problem of joining organization with community, of love with struggle, present with future, is not an impossible one. It’s a matter of keeping on, working at it, until we find the right combination of historical circumstances and creative human energy. The Great Refusal is both intellectually provocative and emotionally rewarding—a wise and hopeful gift from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.