by Alexander Cockburn
the end of April, we'll have arrived at the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, when the last fugitives clambered into helicopters at the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon. Gays are planning a big march on Washington for April 30, but not, at least officially, to celebrate that setback for U.S. imperialism. Nonetheless, I hope some speaker in Washington that day will note that the Stonewall riot and gay liberation drew inspiration and fury from the antiwar movement, as did women's liberation. Environmentalism, too.
For years, the antiwar left was told to be embarrassed about the sixties, put through re-education rites designed to elicit the confession that "excesses" were committed, mistakes made. Of course, mistakes were made, starting with the failure to stop the war eight years earlier, in 1967. We misread the larger calendar. After Tet, after the May/June events in Paris, we thought revolution was around the corner. The Tet Offensive of 1968 remains one of the great moments of the 20th century, even though one can see in retrospect that Gen. Giap's desperate throw signaled the fact that the Americans had indeed been successful in exterminating -- the appropriate word, no? -- the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. We make mistakes all the time, again and again, however much we try to "draw the correct lessons." Big deal. History isn't like a bus, conveniently carrying a destination sign above the windshield. Every time I go to a political gathering on the left, it's filled with people, myself included, who have made mistakes about the way history was headed, about the vulnerability of capitalism, but who were on the right track all the same. The most mistaken people of all are those so frightened of making mistakes that they end up missing the right bus when it finally comes round the corner.
A phrase I hate is that tag from the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci leftists love to quote, "Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect." What's so wrong with optimism of the intellect, as well as of will, to get one out of bed in the morning? OK, qualified optimism. There's no sense in getting totally carried away. The British leftist Perry Anderson has just written an editorial in New Left Review marking that journal's "re-launch" as it enters its fifth decade. "The only starting point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat," Anderson writes with gloomy relish. "For the first time since the Reformation there are no longer any significant oppositions -- that is, systematic rival outlooks -- within the thought-world of the West; and scarcely any on a world scale, either."
Anderson notes that amid this historical defeat leftists can opt for "accommodation," "consolation" (search for silver linings, favored occupation of present writer) or "uncompromising realism" (NLR's official position). But he does add in a footnote that there is another possible reaction, "namely, resignation -- in other words, a lucid recognition of the nature and triumph of the system, without either adaptation or self-deception, but also without any belief in the chance of an alternative to it."
As I read these dour lines by my old friend ( I am on NLR's editorial committee), there came news over the radio of a tree-sit in a section of the Headwaters redwood forest, in Humboldt County, Northern California. A young woman named Firebird, fresh up from San Francisco, was at the time of this writing, tree-sitting 40 feet up in the air. She'd fixed up a rope with a noose round her neck, with the other end tied to a gate on the ground. If the loggers or their allies launched an attack, Firebird was in imminent danger of being hanged. No accommodation, consolation, resignation or uncompromising realism here.
Firebird has optimism of the will, and optimism of the intellect. I don't think many of us, back in the sixties, would have taken optimism that far. Hurrah for the Vietnamese war of liberation, hurrah for the antiwar movement, hurrah for Firebird. Hurrah for others like Firebird who battled the WTO to a standstill in Seattle last fall, and for a reprise in Washington this month, where the Ruckus Society, Direct Action Network, and other insurgents have planned demonstrations and civil disobedience to shut down the IMF and World Bank meeting. Hurrah for optimism!
April 17, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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