Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

When the Left Was Right

The radicals of the ’60s had another side: decentralist, anti-interventionist, and almost Kirkian.

The ghosts of 1968 are haunting Barack Obama, which is tremendously unfair, I say as his coeval, given that our cohort spent the Chicago Democratic Convention sticking baseball cards in our bicycle spokes rather than pelting Mayor Daley’s finest with porcine epithets. But guilt by association is ironclad in these days when American political discourse is controlled by hall monitors and tattletales. Obama’s friendship—acquaintance?—with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn is about to get extended play as the Republicans contrast Obama’s Weatherfriends with their nominee’s stint in the Hanoi Hilton.

By his own account, John McCain lived in North Vietnamese captivity longer than anywhere else in his itinerant life. This deracination and the resultant military-brat pathologies on display in McCain will go unexploited by the Democrats, whose nominee-in-waiting and maid-of-dishonor are just as placeless as Carpetbag John. And besides, the entire political class of Washington has all the indigenous flavor of the Crystal City Metro station. It would never occur to an attack-ad maker that there was anything wrong with rootlessness.

If Obama bears the standard, the revolutionary posturing of Bill (“kill your parents”) Ayers and Bernardine (“bring the war home”) Dohrn will serve as the synecdoche of ’68 in Republican minds. Prepare for another aphasiac episode in what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia. But I say to hell with Ayers and Dohrn. Let us remember the other New Left—a humane, decentralist, thoroughly American New Left that regarded socialism as “a way to bury social problems under a federal bureaucracy,” in the words of Carl Oglesby, president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1965-66 and a key figure in its Middle American wing, which extended from independent anti-imperialist liberals to trans-Mississippi “Prairie Power” radicals. (“Texas anarchists,” sneered the elite East Coast-schooled red-diaper babies at the hell-raising directional state college Prairie Power kids.)

As Old Right historian Leonard Liggio wrote in 1970, “Since there was little official SDS ideology, and what there was was populist and libertarian, it was attractive to the large numbers of American students who were growing conscious of their opposition to the educational factory system, the bureaucracy, the draft and the war.” This libertarian Middle American tendency faded as humorless Marxists and violent fanatics à la Ayers and Dohrn blew SDS apart. But even as it decomposed, the New Left was an olio of old-fashioned American rebellion, a naïve idealization of Third World revolutionaries and the bomb-happy Marxism of groups such as Weatherman. The sager figures in the New Left, however, rejected television, IBM, nomadic corporate culture, and the Cold War—all profoundly anti-conservative forces—and I wonder just what is so “Left” about that?

The Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto of SDS, was drawn up in large part by the Michigan Catholic baseball fan Tom Hayden. The statement is a mixed bag: denunciations of racial bigotry, bureaucracy, and the militarization of American life bump into simultaneous calls for national healthcare and an expanded welfare state. Yet the Port Huron Statement, and SDS, emphasized the core principle of decentralization, of breaking overly large institutions and even cities down to a more human scale, “based on the vision of man as master of his machines and his society.”

“We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things,” declared the authors. The line might have been written by another Michigan lad, Russell Kirk of Mecosta. Kirk was no New Leftist, though he did later befriend—and in 1976 voted for—Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate of the 1968 Democratic primaries, the distributist-inclined Catholic intellectual who befuddled his conventional liberal supporters with talk of a salutary “depersonalizing” of the presidency, of reducing that office to its constitutional dimensions, shorn of the accreted cult of personality.

Left and Right mostly hurled anathemas at each other in 1968, but not always, and the rare friendly exchanges over the phantom barriers were rich with promise—a promise fulfilled, in a way, one year later, in the 1969 New York City mayoralty campaign of Norman Mailer, who campaigned as a “left conservative” on a platform of power to the neighborhoods.

But SDS president Carl Oglesby was the New Left figure who first saw the potential of a Left-Right linkage.

Oglesby was the son of rural working-class Southerners who had joined the diaspora North, where his father worked in an Akron rubber factory. Said dad to his radical son: “Damn it, you ought to get yourself a real job where you can settle down and take care of your family and quit all this unpatriotic horses–t.” Carl did not follow his father’s advice, but just hearing it mattered.

Oglesby was a playwright—he had written a well-received work on the Hatfield-McCoy feud—toiling within the military-industrial complex at Bendix Aerospace Systems when, fresh off the composition of an anti-Vietnam War position paper, he was elected president of SDS in June 1965. He was, at once, both more radical and more conservative than Hayden and the organization’s leftist activists. As he writes in his recent memoir, Ravens in the Storm, “I believed that America’s ‘small-r’ republicans would also have to get engaged if the antiwar cause were to have the least chance of succeeding.”

Taking up his predecessor Paul Potter’s challenge to “name the system,” Oglesby made his own name with a November 1965 speech in Washington in which he fingered “corporate liberalism” as the “system that creates and sustains the war in Vietnam.” He named names: not Goldwater or Kirk but Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, and Goldberg.

Through Professor Richard Schaull of Princeton Theological Seminary, Oglesby was introduced to the writings of Murray Rothbard, the antimilitarist libertarian economist whose long and winding yet somehow consistent road had taken him from anti-New Deal isolationist Robert Taft supporter into friendship with the quasi-pacifist Nebraska Republican Congressman Howard Buffett (father of a much less interesting man) then over to the League of (Adlai) Stevensonian Democrats and, by 1968, into tentative comradeship with the anarchist factions of the New Left. While other young radicals read Marcuse or Fanon, Carl Oglesby dug Murray Rothbard.

In his essay “Vietnamese Crucible,” published in the 1967 volume Containment and Change, Oglesby rejected the “socialist radical, the corporatist conservative, and the welfare-state liberal” and challenged the New Left to embrace “American democratic populism” and “the American libertarian right.”

Invoking Senator Taft, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Congressman Buffett, and Saturday Evening Post writer Garet Garrett, among other stalwarts of the Old Right, he asked, “Why have the traditional opponents of big, militarized, central authoritarian government now joined forces with such a government’s boldest advocates?” What in the name of Thomas Jefferson were conservatives doing holding the bag for Robert Strange McNamara?

After explicating the Old Right to a readership that must have been, at the least, nonplussed, Oglesby connected the dots:

This style of political thought, rootedly American, is carried forward today by the Negro freedom movement and the student movement against Great Society-Free World imperialism. That these movements are called leftist means nothing. They are of the grain of American humanist individualism and voluntaristic associational action; and it is only through them that the libertarian tradition is activated and kept alive. In a strong sense, the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate.

Oglesby did not predict an alliance; he merely pointed out the kinship of dissenters. Whether the twain would ever meet was another matter. (They might have met, come to think of it, via Mark Twain, in the character of anti-imperialist Tom Sawyer.)

“The New Left,” warned Oglesby, “can lose itself in the imported left-wing debates of the thirties, wondering what it ought to say about technocracy and Stalin.” (It did lose itself, though Uncle Joe was not the cause—more like Leninism and an unmooring from those American roots.) “The libertarian right,” Oglesby continued, “can remain hypnotically charmed by the authoritarian imperialists whose only ultimate love is Power, the subhuman brownshirted power of the jingo state militant, the state rampant, the iron state possessed of its own clanking glory.” Well, yes, that and the need to kiss the rings of foundation presidents who doled out the money on which the organized Right became just as dependent as any puling mendicant from the National Welfare Rights Organization. (Among those captivated by this essay was a former Goldwater Girl named Hillary Rodham, who became friendly, for a while, with Oglesby. Alas, she entered her own crucible and came out mistress of the iron-maiden state.)

The Marxists and conventional leftists within SDS had no idea what to make of this stirring call for a prison break from the Left-Right Bastille. Consider Bernardine Dohrn, the bloodlusting ex-cheerleader and pinup girl of Weatherman. Dohrn, a self-declared “revolutionary communist,” was perplexed by Oglesby’s fondness for right-wing isolationists.

“I’m not sure I know where you’re coming from,” Dorhn said to Oglesby, as he recounts in Ravens in the Storm.

Oglesby’s reply was simple, brilliant, and no doubt baffling to Dohrn: “Ann Arbor, Kent, Akron, Kalamazoo.”

For Oglesby understood, as that landmark druggy paean to youth culture and the pioneer virtues “Easy Rider” had it, that for all their surface differences and rote hostility, the hippies and rednecks, the small farmers and shaggy communards, were on the same side: that of liberty, of locally based community, of independence from the war machine. Billy Joe Smythe, LeRoy Washington, and Luis Chavez were as one to McGeorge Bundy: interchangeable body-bag fillers. Hello, Big Muddy; Hello, Fodder…

Oglesby was in ’68, and remains today, an admirer of Bobby Kennedy as the only pol who might have gathered the dispossessed in a hopeful democratic movement. Scoff if you will—he’s used to it. After all, Oglesby once tried to convince Dohrn that an SDS-organized volunteer band of sugarcane cutters defying the travel ban to Cuba should include such “good, old-fashioned regular Americans” as PTA members and “Rotarians and Elks.”

“Carl, you’re getting a bit wild-eyed,” replied the woman who responded to news of the Manson family’s murder of the LaBiancas by ejaculating, “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room as them. Then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!” The only good Elk, it seems, is a dead Elk.

Oglesby was drummed out of SDS in a 1969 star-chamber trial. A harridan named Arlene Eisen Bergman arraigned him for being “trapped in our early, bourgeois stage” and for not progressing into “a Marxist-Leninist perspective.” Oglesby’s sins, as enumerated by Bergman, included “that bizarre last chapter in your book … where you actually propose an alliance with what you call, let’s see, ‘principled conservatives.’”

“SDS is not trying to reach the readers of Life magazine,” Dohrn shouted at Oglesby. Carl was expelled; he went on to record two fine albums of folk-Beat Americana, and one supposes that his vision came closest to being realized in the music of Bob Dylan, the Minnesota-bred Goldwater-admiring scourge of the masters of war who wrote in the liner notes to his 1993 album “World Gone Wrong,” “give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one.”

What Oglesby called the “freewheeling participatory democracy” of SDS was dynamited by the likes of Ayers and Dohrn, representatives of the very worst of the anti-American Left, who have settled into their sixties in comfortable prosperity while Carl Oglesby, lacking inherited wealth, battles illness as best he can. Life ain’t fair. The cheerleaders and the rich boys always win, don’t they?

Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver asked Oglesby to run as his vice-presidential candidate on the 1968 Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Carl, in a hiccup of realpolitik, said no. But there had been common concerns. Cleaver had sharply assayed the demise of federalism:

There aren’t any more state governments. We have these honorary pigs like Mayor Alioto … presiding over the distribution of a lot of federal funds. He’s plugged into one gigantic system, one octopus spanning the continent from one end to the other, reaching its tentacles all around the world, in everybody’s pocket and around everybody’s neck. We have just one octopus. A beast with his head wherever LBJ might be tonight.

Yes, the Panthers were thugs, the least imaginative of them had been infected with the Marxist-Leninist virus, and Cleaver committed some horrendous crimes. But the Panthers, unlike John McCain, came from neighborhoods, and the best of them were groping toward a Marcus Garvey-Malcolm X philosophy of community self-reliance. You’ve also got to admit that they were solid on Second Amendment issues. (Lynn Scarlett and I interviewed Cleaver for Reason in 1985. His place was easy to find: it was the only front porch in his Berkeley neighborhood flying an American flag.)

Okay, so maybe Eldridge isn’t your cup of hallucinatory nutmeg tea. What about the only other 1968 general election presidential candidate worth a look: Gov. George Wallace of the right-wing American Independent Party?

If you can get beyond Wallace’s reprehensible race-baiting, which soon gave way to active courtship of black voters, certain of his policies overlapped with the humane Left. He proposed decentralizing industries because “I don’t think God meant people to be all jammed up in cities. No courtesy, no time, no room—that’s all you get in cities.” He called for removing the tax exemption from foundations and emitted a class-war cry—“the rednecks are coming”—that frightened the hell out of New York Times readers and William F. Buckley Jr., who called him a “country and western Marxist.” Read Wallace and tell me if this isn’t also the spirit of the New Left:

The biggest domestic issue for 1968? I’ll tell you. It’s people—our fine American people, living their own lives, buying their own homes, educating their children, running their own farms, working the way they like to work, and not having the bureaucrats and intellectual morons trying to manage everything for them. It’s a matter of trusting the people to make their own decisions.

One of the few journalists who heard Wallace in ’68 was Pete Hamill, who wrote in the New Left monthly Ramparts that “Wallace and the black and radical militants … share some common ground: local control of schools and institutions, a desire to radically change America, a violent distrust of the power structure and the establishment. In this year’s election, the only one of the three major candidates who is a true radical is Wallace.”

George Wallace and the New Left despised each other: “fascist” and “dirty beatniks” were about as sophisticated as the badinage got. Only a hopeless romantic—and what other kind is there?—would ponder the cross-pollinating possibilities: Creedence Clearwater Revival playing “Fortunate Son” at Wallace rallies or the Guvnah’s supporters—Chill Wills, Walter Brennan, George “Goober” Lindsay—joining Phil Ochs in the chorus of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” at a rally outside the Opelika draft board.

Sigh. Maybe the closest we got to this sort of hybrid was the flat-out racist Asa Carter, who penned Wallace’s disgraceful 1962 “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” inaugural address and later wrote, under the name Forrest Carter, the novel Gone To Texas, which became the Clint Eastwood masterpiece “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”

Compared to Humphrey and Nixon, George Wallace was the peacenik in the ’68 race. (Apologies to the aborted Cleaver-Oglesby ticket.) If the Vietnam War was not winnable within 90 days of his taking office, Wallace pledged an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. As his aides told Pete Hamill about Vietnam, “The hell with it.”

Wallace also called foreign-aid money “poured down a rat hole” and demanded that European and Asian allies pay more for their defense. The relative prudence of the Alabama governor’s foreign policy was obscured by his disastrous selection of Gen. Curtis “bomb them back into the Stone Age” LeMay as his running mate. LeMay thought himself a “moderate Republican,” which may have been true: the most hawkish figure in American politics in 1968, after all, was that moderate Republican and Picasso-collecting warmongering New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller. (Oh, what might have been: before LeMay, Wallace reportedly had asked Colonel Sanders, Mr. Kentucky Fried Chicken, to join the ticket. Extra crispy chicken or extra crispy Vietnamese children: therein lies the Sanders-LeMay difference.)

Maybe “the Devil’s got a Wallace sticker on the back of his car,” as the Drive-By Truckers sing, but ol’ George sure had trust-fund Weatherboy Billy Ayers’s number: “It’s the damn rich who turn Communist. You ever see a poor Communist?”

Wallace traditionally ran strong primary campaigns in Wisconsin, stronghold of Upper Midwest populism, but as he was running in ’68, the state was losing one of its great patriots, William Appleman Williams, the favorite historian of the Middle American New Left. Williams was from Atlantic, Iowa—legend has it, says Paul Buhle, coauthor of an excellent biography of Williams, that the highway sign welcoming visitors to Atlantic bore “the Jeffersonian motto ‘The Government Which Governs Least, Governs Best.’” Bill Williams, who left Atlantic for the U.S. Naval Academy (and remained proud of the fact) and later rehabilitated those defenderless conservative presidents John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover, fit perfectly within the American populist tradition of the University of Wisconsin. But in 1968, Williams left Madison for Oregon State to, in Buhle’s words, “teach undergraduates, live by the ocean, and live in a diversified community of ‘ordinary’ Americans.”

As he moved off-center, taking his stand in the hinterlands, Williams called for a return to the Articles of Confederation and a radical decentralization of political and economic power—a decentralist socialism that probably looked better in co-operative theory than it would have in barbed-regulation practice. He decried the American Empire as unworthy of us; he, too, was of the Left yet speaking to the Right, trying to find that little egalitarian village where the shopkeeper and the jazz musician and the carpenter might live in liberty and fraternity.

I recently asked Williams’s biographer Buhle, a Madison SDSer, publisher of the New Left journal Radical America, and editor of the recent Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, about the prospects for cashing in on the missed chances of 1968. “The spirit at large in the U.S. now reminds me more of the later 1960s New Left/Old Right dialogue or encounter than anything since then,” he says. “Consequently, I find myself more in dialogue with old-fashioned conservatives than I have been, and I suspect that this is widely true.”

The Bush wars have brought together anti-imperialists of Left and Right, but their coalescence is being forged not so much overseas as in our backyards. A “wonderful example,” says Buhle, “is conservation, small-town life, and the bird population. All kinds of conservatives and small-town Republicans find themselves fending off new demands for exploitation of public resources (threats to water supplies and such).” Farmers markets are another meeting ground, he notes, as the organic and Eat Local and community-supported agriculture movements introduce folks who look homeward rather than into Baghdad suns. Left? Right? What difference does it make? The model organic farm in my neck of the woods, a truly inspiring extended-family venture, was begun by a former college hockey player and active member of the New York State Conservative Party. I know greens, right-to-lifers, NRA members, and just plain apolitical farmers who are relocalizing life, brightening their little corner of the world in their daily acts.

The imperialists, the depersonalizers, the warmakers—a Biblical 40 years have passed since 1968, and they are with us still. But look around and you’ll see that the seeds planted by the New Left have not all fallen on hard ground. I think maybe they’re ready to flower.

Bill Kauffman’s Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism has just been published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan.



The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here