In my Occupy Wall Street’s Empty Anger on Monday, I wrote about the group for whom “movement” would be too binding a term and its lack of any end or purpose that would make their anger effective to the extent that anger isn’t part of an inner personal drama projected onto public life. Which I think, let me stress, a bad thing. Along the same lines, Rod Dreher calls them “decadent, in the sense of unserious, narcissistic, and sometimes flat-out ridiculous.” Which he thinks, let me stress, a bad thing.
Following a link from a friend dealing with an entirely unrelated matter, I came across An Exchange on the Left between the socialist writers Irving Howe and Philip Rahv, published in a late 1967 issue of The New York Review of Books . (And their remarks are similar to those of George Orwell, which I posted in Socialism’s Magnetic Force .)
It bears upon the matter at hand. Howe begins his response to an essay of Rahv’s:
Radicalism is again becoming chic in the intellectual world, a fate not even its worst enemies could suppose it to deserve. This is not, to be sure, the radicalism of desperate Negroes and disaffected youth which, for all its political failings, is at least grounded in urgent experience.
No; the radicalism now arising in the intellectual world is in quality and content as crude, fashion-driven, smugly moralistic, and supremely verbal as was the turn to conservatism in the Fifties. It is a radicalism of posture, gesture, and frisson . It is a radicalism of a vicarious and thereby corrupt apocalyptic fantasy: to make an omelette you need not only break eggs, you need a strong dash of black blood . It is a radicalism of the attic and the playground: old souvenirs dusted off, creaky limbs pressed to swing baby swing.
Harsh, but he speaking of his peers. The observation seems to apply, with just a few terms changed, today. In his response, Rahv, the founder of Partisan Review , argues
The fundamental task of a socialist strategy, writes Lelio Basso, a radical European theorist, is to link daily actions, the fight for specific demands, to the fight for anti-capitalist structural reform forming intermediate stages on the road to socialism. . . . I wrote [in the article to which Howe responded] that the American Left is at present composed of a conglomeration of random groups in ideological disarray, undivided only with regard to Vietnam, and lacking an organization or movement or party that has developed a unifying platform and distinct identity and discipline of its own . . . .
So long as the Left groupings cannot even agree among themselves, how can they possibly enter a coalition headed by professional politicians without compromising themselves and being finally engulfed? . . . [T]he Left in America, lacking a distinct program, identity, or discipline of its own, is in no position of organized political strength to exact concessions from the partners Howe proposes for it. Actually, what he is talking about is gratuitous support, not coalition politics in any true sense of the term.
They are arguing over the extent to which true socialists such as themselves can engage in electoral politics in cooperation with liberals in the Democratic Party. But their remarks on the left of that day certainly apply to the gestural politics of Occupy Wall Street.
Update: Frank Furedi offers his thoughts along the same lines in Why church officials worship these protesters .