Expressive individualism: 19th-century abolitionists and 20th-century New Leftists

In 2012, Michael Kazin analyzed Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement for its fiftieth anniversary. He made a connection between the radicals of the 1960s and 19th-century abolitionists:

The statement managed to fuse two types of ideological advocacy that are often viewed as antagonists: first, the romantic desire for achieving an authentic self through crusading for individual rights and, second, the yearning for a democratic socialist order that would favor the collective good over freedom of the self. This fusion was wrapped in language whose utopian tone resembled that articulated by other messianic movements in American history—from the abolitionists and Owenite socialists to the Wobblies and Debsian Socialists to such radical feminists as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Emma Goldman.

The similarity to the language of the abolitionists was particularly strong. Consider this bold assertion from the Values section of the statement: “The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with . . . popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic. . . .This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” Compare it to the late-life reflection by the anti-slavery crusader Theodore Weld: “The starting point and power of every great reform must be the reformer’s self,“ declared Weld. “He must first set himself apart its sacred devotee, baptized into its spirit, consecrated to its service, feeling its profound necessity, its constraining motives, impelling causes, and all [the] reasons why.” Devout Christians were a distinct minority at the conference; evangelical Protestants were entirely absent. But the SDSers were expressing the same ultra-romantic idea that a free society can be built only by individuals who define that freedom for themselves that had inspired fervently Protestant abolitionists more than a century before.

In this sense, Port Huron demonstrated how the new, young Left—in its rebellion against a managed society and its hunger for an authentic one—was beginning to turn back, if unintentionally, to similar impulses that had inspired Weld and such fellow crusaders as his wife, Angelina Grimke, as well as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Walker. Both groups insisted that one had to live one’s politics as well as preach them. Both took delight in smashing taboos about interracial sex, about the proper roles of men and women, and even about dress and diet. Both experimented with styles of communal living they believed would allow individuals to realize their “true” nature and to find happiness in doing so.

Whether pious or secular, radicals before the Civil War and their counterparts during the Cold War both struggled fiercely to free their minds and bodies from an evil society and to fill the world with individuals who aspired to perfection. The passion for self-improvement in the cause of social transformation could be found nearly everywhere on the young left in the 1960s and 1970s. “I had to find out who I am and what kind of man I should be, and what I could do to become the best of which I was capable,” confessed Eldridge Cleaver, in a neglected passage of Soul on Ice. In 1970, in his Politics of Authenticity, Marshall Berman observed, “the New Left’s complaint against democratic capitalism was not that it was too individualistic, but rather that it wasn’t individualistic enough.” In 1977, the black lesbians in the Combahee River Collective asserted, “Our politics . . . sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.” So the final American Left of the industrial age gestured back, in spirit, to the first.

In addition, Jeff Greenfield’s reflections on Tom Hayden’s death connected Hayden with the young Hillary Clinton:

“The goal of man and society,” Hayden wrote, “should be human independence: a concern not with . . . popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic. . . .This kind of independence does not mean egotistic individualism—the object is not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” (You can gauge the power of this idea by seeing its echo years later in Hillary Rodham’s famous commencement speech at Wellesley in 1969, when she said: “our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”).

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