Ideal and Real History: L.A. Kauffman’s ‘Direct Action’

The following originally appeared at Cosmonaut

Jean Allen reviews L.A. Kauffman’s Direct Action, a history of the protest movements that filled the gap between the New Left and the modern left that are often ignored and forgotten. Allen argues that these movements cannot be understood strictly in terms of their theory, but by grasping the realities that they faced as organizers.

For those of us on the left, the last year has brought a series of strange emotions. We have felt fear at the surge of nationalism, anger at the further retrenching of austerity policies, at the possibility of a war, at the possibility of more deportations, less welfare, a destruction of the environment and of the people. But the last year has also brought an unexpected amount of hope: organizing efforts have begun to come together in an inspiring way, and despite the disappointments of the Sanders campaign, this year has seen what the media is constantly calling the “revival of socialism”.

This is not fully accurate, since we have not seen just the revival of a homogeneous single ‘socialism’. What we have instead seen is the revival of a massive number of competing ‘socialisms’. To quote Endnotes:

One becomes a communist or an anarchist on the basis of the particular thread out of which one weaves one’s banner (and today one often flies these flags, not on the basis of a heartfelt identity, but rather due to the contingencies of friendship). However, in raising whatever banner, revolutionaries fail to see the limits to which the groups they revere were actually responding — that is, precisely what made them a minority formation. Revolutionaries get lost in history, defining themselves by reference to a context of struggle that has no present-day correlate. They draw lines in sand which is no longer there.

That is, the revival of socialism has not just come in the form of a new project; because that project coexists with the rebirth of a dozen old socialisms. It is in this environment that the publishing of L.A. Kauffman’s Direct Action is of particular importance. Because of all the radical histories revived, all of the ‘red threads’ of history which are being picked up, the one radical history which is almost universally derided is the one we immediately came from. This is not accidental: the rise of idiosyncratic leftist sects has happened precisely because of these escapes to the past promise an easy fix to the boring and difficult work of organizing.

This illusion, that the issues of the left have entirely to do with the annoyances of consensus decision making, affinity groups, or spokes councils, and that we could fix them by merely accepting some superior organizational form—or even worse, some obscure historiography—is idealistic crankism at its worst. Yet that idealism has had real effects: the disdain to which the newest generation of leftists have towards many of the struggles from the generation before them, cherry-picking specific movements they like, presuming that the period between the Vietnam War protests and Occupy was a vacuum of radicalism in which very little of value occurred.

Direct Action is a massively ambitious text, aimed at showing the origins and development of strategies and tactics we’ve come to see as the norm and the ways these tactics connected movements we have previously seen as separate. As far as I am aware, it is one of the first texts to deal with this topic in such a systematic way and, for all its flaws, it needs to be lauded. Without texts which contextualize our tactics and strategies, we are left with a kind of idealized history of struggle where practices and movements emerge from the ether. Without knowing the ways that past movements interacted and connected, we are left relearning the past and projecting present biases onto our forebears. We need work like this to illuminate our real history.

The text begins with what is simultaneously an obscure event and one of the largest mobilizations in American history, the May Day protests of the early 1970s. Mobilized to stop the Vietnam War, the movement was mostly composed of counter-cultural hippies and former members of the student movement. While there was some participation from the ‘Old Left’, the protest was most notable as the gathering ground of the white elements of the (then) ‘New Left’. This mobilization was met with escalated violence, as President Nixon brought in the National Guard, the Marines, and even sent in tanks and armored vehicles to oppose a series of long-haired free lovers.

The 1971 May Day protests are a good point to start a text like this, as it comes at the end of a long period in leftist organizing and the beginning of another period—fragmented both in fact and in self-understanding. There was a push towards decentralization and against the idea of mass organization itself, which had been a major goal through the 60s. Shortly before the event, a Bay Area group wrote a text which would come to define the struggles of the 70s and 80s: Anti-Mass. In Anti-Mass, the fragmentation of the Left’s unitary goals was a positive rather than a negative, an aspect of the subversion of mass society and the building of something else.

The book illustrated the mood of the times, which brings us back to the opposition between ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ histories: the period from the 70s to now is often viewed as merely a series of fragmented movements each aimed at supporting its own particular form of identity politics. These advocates for unity often call for some form of labor universalism, where a reborn union movement allows for a way out of the dismal situation we have now. This is another example of ‘ideal history’: it sees current affairs merely as a series of contemporaneous mistakes in theory, rather than as a situation that has evolved over a generation of organizing. In doing this, this workerist position understates both the difficulty of rebuilding a radical labor movement and the reasons that these identity movements had for working on their own.

Direct Action shows why women, people of color, and gay/lesbian people felt the need to work on their own through this period. For one, many of these movements had a patronizing view of people of color. The Anti-Nuclear Movement’s own guidebooks suggested that the reason for their movement’s blinding whiteness was due to the ignorance of black people of the importance of anti-militarism and the possibilities of nuclear warfare. These patronizing attitudes continued on despite the nominal anti-racism of 80s activism, with white organizations infamously requesting the assistance of black or Latino organizations with actions after they had already been planned.

The status of women within these movements was yet more circumspect. Even in the growing galaxy of black and Latino organizations, women were often treated as mere grunts, if not as sexual objects. In that context, the creation of groups such as the Combahee River Collective made perfect sense. For all the attacks on the ‘particularism’ of the period, what can be seen with a deeper look is not a shallow desire for fragmentation but real disagreements: between the ‘universal’ white man and the difference in his shadow, between the possibilities of industrial growth and the critique of its environmental costs. These differences were—and are—real, and the attempt to do away with them by pretending that they are the creations of mistaken theorists is utterly foolhardy.

Going beyond a discussion of what motivated the identitarian turn, Direct Action turns to discussing the strategies and tactics which came out of—and benefited from—this activist landscape. Affinity groups, once an insurrectionary form used to organize in a way which avoided police infiltration, turned into a way to utilize the diversity of radical spaces. Blockades, which were a major aspect of the early anti-nuclear movement as a nonviolent tactic, were refined through the Earth First! and anti-globalization years, becoming a major tactic of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Kauffman’s book shows one other major theme: the transition of the protest form from being a tactic used in certain situations to being a strategy in and of itself. The major battles of the New Left period occurred in marches and protests, and as early as 1980 there were questions of “who we were doing this for”. This question, asked during a feminist protest of the Pentagon, was answered in a way that would become common through the period into now: “We were doing it for ourselves”. With the slow surrender of the left’s goal of creating a counter-culture—and the slide of the left’s counter-cultural elements into subcultural ones)—this explanation increasingly represented a surrender, an acceptance that the Left was merely one subculture among many. As the 70s turned to the 80s, the Left’s knee-jerk willingness to protest often led it into costly clashes with the police, clashes which would strain the already rough relationship it had with non-white movements.

This focus on the general development of strategies and tactics allows Kauffman to avoid the usual problems of histories of this era, which often replicate the perceived fractured nature of the left by focusing on a single group or cause. This tends to lead to major gaps or abrupt stops when a group is dismantled or a cause takes a lower priority. However, there was far more continuity than fragmentation on the individual level, with the same people moving from cause to cause, developing their tactics with an aim towards building a movement which had a space not just for socialism but for feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT issues.

While they did not succeed, this is no reason to cast this whole generation of radicalism into darkness to not be looked upon or learned from. Despite and because of its failure, the New Left still has many lessons to teach us. These lessons cannot be imparted if we view the period as merely a series of failed experiments or through a series of limited intellectual perspectives. We need to expand our lens both within these groups by looking at them as something more than the struggles of a few individual leaders and intellectuals; and across these groups to understand that the New Left was not the fractured mess it is often depicted, but was rather a continuous period of a group of people who fought for a variety of causes.

Kauffman’s willingness to connect and analyze these ‘gaps’ in our knowledge has its flaws but is a crucial first step towards understanding the period. Direct Action’s flaws just show that we need to look deeper into this period, not just at the level of individual academics studying the thought of individual organizations or intellectuals, but analyzing the continuity between these groups across the whole spectrum of the period.

Any text which strives for greatness is inevitably going to be disappointing to some degree: disappointment comes from the ambition of a text more often than any specific failings. The ambition and realization at the center of Kaufman’s Direct Action—that there is a whole history of the left that has gone without systemic analysis—could never be achieved in any one book, let alone one that’s a lean 256 pages long. The thing that Direct Action left me wishing for in the end was a longer and more comprehensive text. In this, Kauffman achieves what she set out for: piquing interest in a period that remains understudied.

There are points where the gaps are particularly painful, though. For a text that seeks to show that even in the ‘gap years’ between movements there was still organizing being done by a series of people aiming at a fuller emancipatory project, it is painfully telling that the ten years between the anti-Iraq War protests and Occupy pass by in almost as many pages. Even if we accept that nothing was really going on, that ‘nothing’ is still massively significant.

As someone who came into activism at the end of the Bush years, you could feel the effects of that ‘nothing’ everywhere you went. I distinctly remember an utterly normal meeting where my college group was discussing absolutely abstract questions where, nonetheless, fully half of the older members felt the need to take their SIM cards out of their phones for fear of people listening in. Yes, this came partially out of the sense of self-importance activists usually have—but it also came from a paranoia kindled by the very real repression activists suffered during the Bush years. Groups did multiple things to try to ‘get around’ this, from the sense of paranoia I encountered in my time on the student left to attempts to moderate—either in fact or in a false way—through the use of front groups. Or they embraced this creeping sense of nihilism; the 90s and 00s were the heydays of the post-left. Regardless of the individual choices of groups, the repression of the Bush-era worked: both at the level of the base—in that we’re starting from essentially zero with contemporary attempts to organize—and at the level of the superstructure—where leftists are working from an utterly fragmented place. Even in the case of this ‘nothing’ that was the decade between September 11th, 2001 and September 17th, 2011, there are still things we can learn.

Although the text is titled Direct Action and is specifically about the tactics developed around direct actions, the book also opens up a massive space. Just as the direct action movements of the 70s-00s are under-analyzed, the mutual aid and cooperative movements of the same period receive no mention virtually anywhere—only rare sideways glances at them in texts not devoted to the topic. In David Graeber’s book of the same name, Graeber talks about the long and dramatic history of radical spaces and venues in New York City and their attempts to stay open in a rapidly gentrifying city. This history has had real effects but has been virtually destroyed through activist turnover and lack of interest. Nearly every city in the Northeastern United States has some form of a community center which is usually known by locals as a punk venue, and nearly every one of these community centers has either a radical history or is currently staffed by radicals. Yet if you asked those radicals about the history of the center, you can rarely get a straightforward answer. The same can be said for community gardens, a major focus for environmentally-focused groups in the 80s that could lead to conflicts with the nominal landowners or with developers. Those gardens that survived being transformed into luxury apartments are still with us today, and yet the radical history of these spaces we walk by day after day barely receives thought—let alone books.

The text also brings up another fault, this time not so much with the book itself as with the entirety of our studies of the New Left. The amount of nitty-gritty archival work done of these organizations is severely lacking, which is a large part of why the studies of these groups tend to come across as being relatively shallow. Compared to the movements of the last century, which have been sifted through and worked over, the small details of the decision-making processes of these groups are rarely explored—outside of hyper-specific texts like Graeber’s work of the same name. This kind of work is of relatively massive import: I would argue that archiving and secondary analysis of that archiving is one of the most important things that we can do on the left today. These little details are more than just trivia—they’re the foundation of actually building a plausible sense of what we can learn from these movements—how we can replicate the things that worked and avoid the things that didn’t. It’s literally impossible to ask this of the text without it transforming into a 5000-page compendium, but it brings up this frustration never the less.

This complete lack of history cannot be disconnected from—on the one hand—the short lifespans of your average activist organization, and—on the other—the consistent repression that these groups have faced. This lack of history still haunts us. When I said that the Left was starting from zero, that was only halfway right: we are now starting now from less than zero from the Bush years. While I believe the era of activism Direct Action covers has come to a close, we are still working with the tactics inherited from the period. Unlike the period from the 90s to the 00s, we are recycling these tactics without knowing their history.

Precisely because of this, Direct Action is an excellent start at surfacing a deeply under-analyzed history. It succeeds precisely in what it meant to do, with even the frustrations further cementing its importance. At its core, it asks us to direct our attention away from the imagined histories which can so easily be used to bracket the past and to look towards a real history with many lessons yet to give. For that, it deserves none but the highest praise.