Magazine article Dissent

Don't Forget Solidarity

Magazine article Dissent

Don't Forget Solidarity

Article excerpt

A decade before Abram Hewitt defeated Henry George's bid for mayor of New York in 1886, he delivered a more lasting blow to the American Left. A prominent northern congressman and chair of the Democratic National Committee, Hewitt played a central role in negotiating the notorious Compromise of 1877, which conceded victory in a contested presidential election to the Republican Party in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops that had occupied the former Confederacy since the Civil War. That arrangement freed Southern Democrats to use fraud, intimidation, and outright terrorism to deprive most African Americans and many poor whites of the right to vote; it also gave wealthy landowners and industrialists unchallenged hegemony in the South and tremendous influence in the nation as a whole. When leftists won elections in New York and other northern states, whether as Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, or Progressives, their influence was constrained severely by the disenfranchisement of working-class voters and the weakness of organized labor in the "Solid South." Not until a coalition of civil rights organizations, interracial unions, women's clubs, and left-wing groups set out to "re-align" the Democratic Party during the Second World War did the Left begin to transcend the legacy of 1877.

I recount this history not to dispute Michael Kazin's assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Occupy movement but to complicate the distinction between the "anticorporate Left" and the "passions of discrete groups" that, Kazin contends, have limited the appeal of the Left since the 1960s. A. Philip Randolph, a socialist who led the postwar civil rights movement, insisted that its objective was not simply to win voting rights and equal protection for African Americans in the South but to end the unfair advantage that white supremacy lent to conservatives across the United States. "Our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know that we have no interest in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty," Randolph told the quarter-million people who joined his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. "Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, or Federal aid to education," he continued, "and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress."

To the degree that Randolph and his allies were emblematic of the American Left, as I believe they were, they adopted a strategy that essentially reversed the approach that Kazin attributes to Occupy Wall Street. Whether calling for the abolition of slavery, equality for women, or the unionization of workers, leftists succeeded not by appealing to "anyone with a grievance of any kind against the . . . corporate hands" but by convincing large numbers of Americans that their own hopes and dreams coincided with "the passions of discrete groups." Such causes have often been dismissed as "special interests" - none more so than organized labor - but they have also inspired the most transformative social movements in American history.

It is true that Henry George's 1886 campaign anticipated the open-ended appeal of the Occupy movement - he claimed to represent "the ninety-nine per cent... [who] must pay the other one per cent" just to live and work in New York City; but he also pledged to prohibit housing discrimination against black New Yorkers and condemned rumors of voter fraud and anti-white violence that he called "the manufactured excuse for murdering black men" in the South. …

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