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The '60s, again.

KEVIN MATTSON HAS written a provocative article about the 1960s and '70s ["Goodbye to All That," April] that suggests that the real legacy of the period belongs not to the liberal left but to conservatives and their organizing and infrastructure building. Particularly important is his emphasis that little was accomplished by the "expressive politics" of the time or by the protest mentality, which was "too fleeting and spasmodic." But while we think his emphasis on organizing and infrastructure building is tonic for the present and future, he arrives at that emphasis via a comic-book caricature of the '60s.

First, the '60s was, more than most eras, full of a wide variety of currents and crosscurrents, tendencies and countertendencies that shifted nearly year by year, and none was representative of a leftist mainstream for more than a year or so.

Second, Mattson has a narrow concept of history and of what was and might have been accomplished by the civil-rights, women's, and other movements of the time. There is both more contingency and more inevitability, in history than Mattson's sense of "all that" allows.

Finally, Mattson is wrong that there wasn't much organizing and institution building during the period. He needs to look no further than the labor movement, where there was a dramatic growth of union/political organizing in the public sector.

Among the mistakes the liberal left made then was to speak down to the working class and its struggles and institutions. Left politics became more expressive and less strategic as the opportunities for real change diminished in the '70s, and much of that expressiveness demeaned and stereotyped white workers and southerners. There are class and cultural reasons that made this almost inevitable then, but there was also real racism and sexism that did not often respond to subtlety.

Mattson has productively built upon an emerging discussion of how the negative legacy of the '60s limits our future, but there's more to that legacy than is dreamed of in his philosophy.


Center for Working-Class Studies

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Author:Russo, John; Metzgar, Jack
Publication:The American Prospect
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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