>Karl Hess on the New Left’s vocabulary, the use of violence and spontaneous action, and category-defying Black Panther alliances

>I was bothered also by the New Left’s use of jargon – such as using praxis rather than practice, of replicate rather than duplicate, a special language invented seemingly to prove that when New Lefters spoke even of ordinary things of life they were speaking as intellectually superior people. I was also puzzled with special New Left pronunciations, like Neeka-rawa instead of Nicaragua – though, of course, never Coobah for Cuba. I was bothered too by the New Left’s conviction that there was a “working class” rather than a sprawling middle class that includes manual workers, production workers, professionals generally, and just about everybody except the actually rich and the politically powerful. I suppose that conviction was somehow linked to yet another: the New Left doctrine that poor people, simply by being poor, were virtuous and wise.

Violence was another trap into which some New Lefters tragically fell as the movement progressed from optimism to despair. I had no wish to go in that direction. I believed then, as I do now, that violence against people and property can never be a revolutionary act; at best it is criminal activity and at worst it kills people, alienates people, and destroys peoples’ jobs. It is simply sheer terrorism; I was and I remain steadfastly opposed to it. The only violence in that period that I took part in was Alan Ginsberg’s abortive attempt to levitate the Pentagon. I thought it was a great idea, one that would have put the New Left in tall clover if it had worked. Had Ginsberg succeeded, he (1) would have become the wealthiest person on earth and (2) would have had the resources to buy a thoroughly peaceful revolution. Other than that, my closest flirtation with violence was the occasional thought about how much fun it would have been to launch the Washington Monument like a rocket.

None of these aberrations, however, dim the fondness I feel toward those times and the great expectations I held in the early years of the New Left. SDS, for example, began as a student organizing effort to aid poor urban neighborhoods in the Northeast. There was less ideology in those days and more practical, local problem solving. I recall an SDS group in Newark, New Jersey, who tackled a traffic light problem with what seemed to me inspired, decentralist, even libertarian zeal.

The problem was an intersection which, people in the neighborhood thought, needed a traffic light to be safe. The city decided that the light wasn’t needed. But the neighborhood people continued to insist it was. The SDS solution would have made the Founding Fathers proud. Just put up your own light! And they did – a jury-rigged affair that blinked on and off, a tiny little beacon of freedom and local choice.

My attraction to the Black Panthers, like SDS, was again my liking of direct, nonfederal community action. Members of the Black Panthers, including Huey Newton, would show up at IPS [Institute for Policy Studies, New Left think tank] from time to time. In the late ’60s, IPS was a New Left salon. Frequent pilgrimages to its seminars and offices were simply part of doing radical business in Washington, D.C.

One of the more unusual yet regular visitors to IPS was a group of poor white southern Appalachians closely allied with the Black Panthers and led by a remarkable individual known as Preacherman. The alliance between the two seemed odd to me until I thought about subterranean Appalachian coal mines, the layers of coal dust on workers’ arms and faces, and just how irrelevant skin color must have been under those conditions. I liked Preacherman and his friends because they were southern and they didn’t feel guilty; they felt the Stars and Bars were their symbols, not just the propery of plantation owners and mine operators. I like their attitudes; they seemed to be decent people. And they introduced me to the world of the Black Panthers.

Mostly on the Edge, chapter 14: New Left (p. 194-195)


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