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New New Left Is Born

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  • Dan Clore
    New New Left is born Bob von Sternberg / Star Tribune In the 1930s, the Old Left was born. In the 60s, it was the New Left s turn in the spotlight. At the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 28, 2000
      New New Left is born

      Bob von Sternberg / Star Tribune

      In the 1930s, the Old Left was born. In the '60s, it
      was the New Left's turn in the spotlight. At the dawn
      of a new century, another grassroots protest movement
      has taken root in a bid to challenge the establishment.
      Call it the New New Left.

      Or call it anarchism, as many of its followers and
      detractors do, however imprecisely.

      "People are starting to understand that institutions
      don't represent us, so it means there can be no
      meaningful participation in the political system," said
      Bob Greenberg, a self-described anarchist who was one
      of the most visible and vocal organizers of the Hwy. 55
      protests. "There's always been a streak of youth culture
      that's anti-authoritarian, but I think the youth are
      starting to wake up."

      Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College,
      has noticed the stirrings of this movement, most notably
      its strengthening strange-bedfellow ties with the labor
      movement. "The media tends to label all of this as
      anarchism, but it's a genuinely new movement that's more
      amorphous and complicated than that," he said. "Some
      people do call themselves anarchists, but I don't think
      that describes the entire movement."

      Whatever it's called, this movement has been in the news
      a lot recently.

      It was the biggest story to emerge from the protests
      against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle
      last fall and nearly as big during the subsequent protests
      against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in
      Washington, D.C. Earlier this month, anarchists were center
      stage in Minneapolis' biggest May Day protest in years, as
      they were during the Hwy. 55 protests. Small anarchist
      cells in such longtime left-leaning cities as Eugene, Ore.,
      and Berkeley, Calif., have clashed with authorities in
      recent months. And there are plans in the works to stage
      protests at the Republican and Democratic national
      conventions this summer.

      Many poles

      At this point, several questions about this fledgling
      movement don't have answers: just how big it is, whether
      it can forge robust ties with potential mainstream allies
      like labor unions, whether it has staying power -- or is
      it nothing more than the newest political flavor of the

      "This dissent is centered around many poles, from
      multinationals to the WTO," said Rachleff, who coined the
      New New Left phrase. "So the biggest question is whether
      having a common enemy is enough to keep these groups going."

      The sheer breadth of the issues and organizations that the
      movement has taken on is reminiscent of a line from "The
      Wild One," a 1954 movie about a motorcycle gang. When
      Marlon Brando's character is asked what he's rebelling
      against, he memorably replies, "Whaddya got?"

      A partial list can be gleaned from the flyer promoting the
      Minneapolis May Day demonstration, which organizers called
      "a festival against corporate globalization. We want this
      festival to unite issues such as workers' rights,
      environmental protection, food safety, animal rights,
      cultural preservation and many more important issues."

      To that list can be added sweatshop labor, organic farming,
      old-growth forests, vegetarianism, Third World debt relief,
      China trade and the death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Or,
      as the May Day organizers put it, "we strongly encourage
      you to bring your own issues."

      Such eclecticism is matched by the breadth of like-minded
      anti-globalization organizations, including Earth First!,
      Global Trade Watch, Global Exchange, Rainforest Action
      Network, Anarchist News Service, the Black Bloc and the
      Black Army Faction. But "organization" is a slippery
      concept in this case because what unites many of the
      protesters is their abhorrence toward structure and

      Or, as Greenberg put it, "We do not have leaders or spokes
      people in this movement. What we are going after are those
      things that benefit the haves at the expense of the

      Even though more than 400 protesters poured into the streets
      of downtown Minneapolis on May 1, because of the lack of
      formal organization, it's impossible to come up with a hard
      number of local anarchists and their allies. They've had a
      shadowy presence in the Twin Cities for more than a decade.
      (Remember the window-smashing Revolutionary Anarchist
      Bowling League of the late 1980s?)

      An instructive experience

      If the movement manages to sprout a significant presence in
      the Twin Cities, the experience of Eugene, Ore., may be
      instructive. There, a city of 150,000 that's the home of both
      Nike and the University of Oregon, a small cell of anarchists
      gained a foothold nearly two years ago.

      They have fought authorities over the removal of trees in the
      city's downtown, attacked Nike outlets, banks and restaurants,
      and leafleted banks and lawyers' offices with such slogans as
      "actualize industrial collapse."

      "As governments and corporations continue to kill us, many --
      mainly leftist and liberal types -- still carry an article of
      faith in creating change through playing by the rules and
      being 'civil' to the system," according to one of their
      manifestos. "When a society is built on violence, violence is
      one of the only things that society can understand and take

      Most notoriously, about 200 of Eugene's anarchists hurled
      rocks and bricks during a downtown march last June. Eight
      police officers were injured and 20 marchers were arrested.

      There have been no recent clashes, said Eugene Mayor Jim
      Torrey. "We've got various groups of activists in this city
      who use the banner of anarchist when it's in their best
      interest," Torrey said. "A lot of them are mostly interested
      in environmental issues like old-growth, endangered species
      and wetlands. When it comes to pure anarchists, I don't think
      we've got more than 25 or 30. And the most radical of those
      are very young, under 25."

      Torrey is bracing for a repeat of last year's violence this
      August, when hundreds of students are expected to gather in
      Eugene for a protest against Nike's Third World labor
      practices. "We have people in this community who feel very
      strongly about things like the WTO and unions, but I start
      to worry when the anarchists start getting involved," Torrey

      In the Twin Cities, Greenberg, who is 32 and works for a
      nonprofit environmental group, argues that "destruction of
      property is not violence -- windows are inanimate objects.
      We believe life, not property, is sacred and so we stand up
      for it. If you stop a bulldozer that's destroying part of
      the ecosystem, it's like taking a gun out of the hand of a

      David Foster is someone who has experience with both the
      West Coast and Twin Cities variants of the movement. As
      director of the United Steelworkers' district that stretches
      from Minnesota to Seattle, he took part in the Seattle
      protests. "Certainly, there were some well-organized
      ideological groups out there," Foster said. "But I think
      it's wrong to characterize them all as anarchists.
      Politically, people in this movement are all over the
      place, but most are extremely thoughtful practitioners of
      direct action and civil disobedience."

      Foster is one of a growing number of labor leaders who are
      reaching out to adherents of the movement by exploring areas
      of common ground. In recent months, the steelworkers and
      environmental activists have formed a once-unlikely bond by
      jointly taking on Kaiser Aluminum Corp., which has locked out
      3,000 steelworkers from its manufacturing plants. Its parent
      company also has come under fire for its management of a
      California old-growth forest.

      So several months ago, Foster found himself taking part in a
      "tree sit," perched high in the old-growth grove. "It was an
      indescribable experience," he said. "We need to find ways
      to link up with and support these groups every way we have."

      Given the fact that environmental activists and union members
      have often been at loggerheads, "there's been a level of
      discomfort in my own organization, but the level of suspicion
      has gotten much lower since Seattle," Foster said. "After
      sitting in the streets of Seattle, these people have gotten
      overwhelming respect from our members."

      Locally, steelworkers have been having discussions with
      members of the Sierra Club and are helping organize a chapter
      of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment,
      Foster said. "We need to be where the social conscience of
      America is," he said. "A lot of young people have a sense of
      outrage that's been missing in this country for 20 years.
      It's refreshing to find it again."

      Rachleff has detected the same thing among his students, one
      reason he thinks this movement has the potential to grow and
      endure. "There's this strong desire to make other people's
      lives better," he said. "These people aren't interested in
      just trying to raise hell. They have a real political
      aesthetic -- they're skeptical of authority, desire big
      changes in the system and have a real sense that the personal
      is political. I think we have a new student movement in this

      What is anarchism?

      Eric Black / Star Tribune

      Anarchism is a philosophical movement that advocates nearly
      total liberty for individuals and generally opposes all forms
      of authority, especially laws and governments, except small
      voluntary associations.

      The common perception that anarchism means a state of total
      chaos is wrong, said political scientist Terence Ball of
      Arizona State University, coauthor of a recent book on
      political ideologies. The Greek origin of the word "anarchy"
      actually means "no government" or "no rule."

      Anarchists believe that if all government were abolished,
      many of the problems for which people think they need a
      government would disappear, and those remaining problems
      that required collective action would be handled by small
      voluntary associations that would crop up as needed.

      Noam Chomsky, the linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of
      Technology and the best known of modern U.S. anarchists, has
      written that the key principle of anarchism is "that the
      burden of proof is always on those who argue that authority
      and domination are necessary" and that wherever they are found
      to be unnecessary, they should be dismantled.

      The roots of the modern anarchist movement are often traced
      to the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), who wrote
      that "governments are the scourge of God."

      Max Stirner (1806-1856), a German disciple of Proudhon,
      explained why, writing that "every State is a tyranny . . .
      [because] the State has always one purpose: to limit, control,
      subordinate the individual and subject him to its general
      purposes . . . Through its censorship, its supervision and its
      police, the State tries to obstruct all free activity and sees
      this repression as its duty."

      [Note: Calling Stirner a "disciple of Proudhon" is a major
      inaccuracy. Stirner did not recognize Proudhon as a fellow
      libertarian. His major work, _The Ego and Its Own_ in fact
      critiques Proudhon, though the critique relies upon a mis-
      interpretation and they did in fact share very similar
      views. -- DC]

      Proudhon had wanted to abolish government by means of a
      peaceful revolution, but Russian anarchist leader Mikhail
      Bakunin (1814-1876) added the element of revolution by force,
      with which anarchists have been associated in popular
      understanding ever since.

      Anarchists influenced by Bakunin were associated with random
      bombings and assassinations of political leaders. Leon Czolgosz,
      the young Cleveland factory worker who assassinated U.S.
      President William McKinley, was an anarchist. But not all
      anarchists endorse violence as a means to bring about change.

      Anarchists have historically concentrated on opposing state
      power, but as Chomsky's summary suggests, they are suspicious
      of any entity that obtains coercive power over individuals, and
      in recent decades that has led anarchists to pay more attention
      to the power of corporations.

      "The anarchists who protested at the [World Trade Organization]
      meeting in Seattle and at the [International Monetary Fund]
      meeting in Washington think that there's now been a devil's pact
      made between advanced capitalist nation states and international
      corporations," Ball said, "and that alliance puts people's
      liberties ever more at risk."
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