Requiem for a Liberal Giant

There’s an indelible scene in Todd Gitlin’s 1987 book “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” in which he and other leaders of Students for a Democratic Society — the leading organization of what was called the New Left — meet with old guard democratic socialists from the journal Dissent. The encounter is worthy of a play; it’s pregnant with both unfulfilled longing for connection and exasperated contempt. “We were scarred, they untouched,” wrote Dissent’s founding editor, Irving Howe. “We bore marks of ‘corrosion and distrust,’ they looked forward to clusterings of fraternity.”

It was the early 1960s (1963, according to Gitlin, 1962, according to Howe). The young activists, with their romantic enthusiasm for revolutions in the developing world, strike the older socialists as feckless and naïve. The socialists seem, to young men who feel themselves on the brink of a radical breakthrough, resigned to their own irrelevance. Gitlin and his comrades even feel a slight disdain for Joseph Buttinger, a Dissent patron and editor who had been a leader of the Austrian Socialist Party and part of the underground anti-Nazi resistance. Through “no fault of his own, history had condemned him to be a loser,” wrote Gitlin. “Not for us elegies to the twilight; for us the celebration of sunrises!”

But there would be no revolution in the U.S., unless you count the right-wing one that would sweep much of the New Deal away. By the end of the 1960s S.D.S. would implode; the giddily nihilistic Weathermen spun off and became terrorists, albeit mostly ineffectual ones. As a 42-year-old — the same age Howe was in 1963 — Gitlin wrote, “I know what it is like, now, to be attacked from my left — how galling when the attacker is 20 years younger, how hard to forge the link between innocence and experience.”

A remarkable thing about Gitlin, who died this weekend at 79, was that he never stopped trying to forge that link. The president of S.D.S. in 1963 and 1964, Gitlin eventually became a renowned professor of sociology. He was also a critic, a novelist and a poet — and, to the end, an activist.

I spoke to him many times about the failings of various parts of the left, which became one of his great subjects, but I don’t recall him ever seeming embittered. Some people, disenchanted by the left, make a whole politics out of that disenchantment. But Gitlin’s broad ideals remained consistent, even if his onetime radicalism was chastened by experience. He threw himself into the fight to get universities to divest from fossil fuel corporations. He was excited by Occupy Wall Street and by the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

Something I learned from Gitlin and never forgot was that in 1968, when a majority of Americans had turned against the war in Vietnam, “the antiwar movement was detested still more — the most hated political group in America, disliked even by most of the people who supported immediate withdrawal.” Now, activists are often unpopular. Martin Luther King Jr. was also viewed unfavorably during much of his lifetime. But there was a cost to needlessly alienating potential allies and fueling right-wing backlash. Gitlin argued for left-wing pragmatism because he wanted the left to succeed, even if some people on the left heard it as patronizing centrism. As he once wrote of Occupy Wall Street, “I worry with this movement, not just about it.”

I wish I’d asked Gitlin how it felt to adopt the Howe role in some of his arguments with young leftists, knowing how scornful they can be — how scornful he had been — of tut-tutting elders. To me it seems thankless, but perhaps it was the price of staying engaged.

In a forthcoming tribute to Gitlin in The Nation, his friend Eric Alterman writes that being at once an activist and an intellectual is harder than it looks: “To be an honest intellectual, as I once heard Susan Sontag — another friend and fan of Todd’s — say, is to make distinctions. To be a successful activist, however, requires the elision of such distinctions in the name of movement unity.” Gitlin had once disparaged those who chose reflection over action; because the Dissent crowd were intellectuals, he and his friends saw them as “inactivists.” But he would learn to combine activism and intellectual rigor, even if that sometimes meant saying things other activists didn’t want to hear. (He’d also join the editorial board of Dissent.)

Gitlin wrote plenty of things I disagree with, sometimes in substance and sometimes just in tone. I don’t like trigger warnings but also don’t like hectoring people who support them to not to give in to fragility, as he did in a not-uncharacteristic 2015 essay, “Please Be Disturbed: Triggering Can Be Good for You, Kids.” But Gitlin could push back against what was once called political correctness without ever dipping so much as a toe in Intellectual Dark Web-style reaction. He knew what was important and spent the end of his life working feverishly to rally people on behalf of liberal democracy.

“The Sixties” ends with a quote from Rabbi Tarfon, who lived around the first century A.D.: “It was not granted you to complete the task, and yet you may not give it up.” Gitlin never did.

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