Response to Radicals in America Review (by Christopher Phelps)
As one of the authors, along with Howard Brick, of Radicals in America: The US Left since the Second World War (Cambridge University Press), I wish to take a moment to correct the entirely inaccurate review published on H-1960s by Norman Markowitz.
First, let me say that scholars, teachers, and veterans of the sixties might take interest that our book has been praised by Tom Hayden, the primary author of The Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society, who says, "The true history of radicalism over the past fifty years is often lost and never found, or distorted, smeared, or colored by old sectarian feuds. Brick and Phelps have connected the past to the present in ways that are accessible, understandable, and without grudge or judgment. An excellent work."
Norman Markowitz, by contrast, finds no redeeming qualities in our book and instead is bent on reviving the very feuds Hayden mentions. He is, of course, entitled to his opinions. What he is not entitled to are mischaracterizations.
Markowitz claims that we “follow Cold War conventional wisdom by making the postwar Communist Party inconsequential and invisible, ignoring its ongoing activities.” This is wrong on both counts. First, we do not follow Cold War wisdom but provide a serious challenge to the logic of the Cold War and its repression of radical dissent. Second, we do not ignore the Communist Party. It occupies much of the analysis in the first two chapters.
To take but one example, we begin Chapter 2 with a portrait of Claudia Jones, secretary of the women’s commission of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) whose deportation from the United States at the height of the McCarthy era is presented as evidence of the severe repression radicals faced during the Cold War. (We pair her with C.L.R. James, also deported, whose dissenting part of the left faulted Stalin’s Soviet Union for its dictatorial practices.)
Markowitz claims that Harry Hay is “absent from the authors’ treatment of the rise of gay liberation.” This is false, as a simple consultation with the book’s index will show. Markowitz also claims that “the gay liberation movement tends to get lost” in our book, when we have actually embedded sexual radicalism within our narrative more consistently than any other general treatment of the American left, including coverage not only of the Mattachine Society that Hay created, but also the Gay Liberation Front, Harvey Milk, the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, ACT UP, Queer Nation, and other manifestations of LGBT and sex-positive radicalism.
Markowitz also claims that “anarchism, which many viewed as central to many ‘New Left’ groups and which was hardly new on the left, is absent from the analysis.” We begin the book with extensive analysis of anarcho-pacifism of the 1940s as a progenitor of new left sensibilities, we include mention in the 1960s of anarchist aspects such as Black Mask, the Diggers, and Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers (while also stressing that participatory democracy and revolutionary socialism were more prevalent New Left revolutionary sensibilities), and we give full consideration the anarchist revival of the 1990s. Anarchist thinkers such as Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky are given respectful expositions. Markowitz raises the question of what “was the ‘New Left’ in historical terms and in its relationship to the ‘old’ communist-led left that it rejected,” suggesting we ignore that issue, when that is a precise theme of the book across its many chapters, especially prominent in Chapter 3, “A New Left.”
Internationalism of the American left and the effects of various global events and states on American radicalism comprise major strands of our analysis, from African liberation movements’ effects on black militancy to the appeal of Maoism in the 1970s to the “end of socialism” after 1989. Bizarrely, Markowitz claims that we lack any international analysis, including of “the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, China’s new model of socialist construction and changed relationship with the United States, and the global hot and cold war against internationalism terrorism [sic]” which are “not analyzed in their relationship to mass movements.” All of these are in fact covered, including post-9/11 debates over foreign policy, security, and civil liberties.
Finally, Markowitz asks, “where, since the authors do bring their narrative up to the present with reference to Black Lives Matter, is the Obama administration in the conclusion?” This may be found in Chapter 7.
Markowitz claims that he “read and reread the work,” but it is unclear that he read it at all. Although it is not disclosed by him or H-Net, Markowitz has been a member of the Communist Party, USA, since the 1970s, when Gus Hall was its leader. To my knowledge, he remained loyal to it even after most others of that era, including Herbert Aptheker and Angela Davis, resigned in 1991-1992 and is a member to this day, active on the editorial board of its organ Political Affairs. Disclosure of this affiliation might have been optimal practice, because it is our critical appraisal of the CPUSA—though we believe it a measured one that gives credit to the CPUSA where credit is due—that almost certainly explains Markowitz’s negative reaction to our book.
For an accurate digest of what Radicals in America actually covers and how it is structured, H-1960s readers will be better served by the scholar Alan Wald’s long review of the book in Against the Current entitled “Reaching for Revolution.” The link is found here: https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/4527
It is unfortunate that H-1960s commissioned so tendentious and slipshod an account of Radicals in America, but if readers seek out the book and judge it on their own terms they will find it a book very different from that portrayed. Perhaps they may find it “fast-paced,” “magical,” and “inspiring” (as various reviewers have called it). Perhaps they will concur with Nelson Lichtenstein that Radicals in America is “the most comprehensive and synthetic history of the post-World War II American left we have or are likely to get at any time in the near future.”
Perhaps not, of course: surely there is much to argue about in a book of this scope and subject. Arguments have value, though, only if premised upon truth.