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San Francisco in the Sixties

Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967),
the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975)

 

 

San Francisco Bay Guardian

1972

Nixon’s China Trip
The Election
The Presidential Primaries
The McGovern Movement
McGovern’s Mistakes

 

 


 

Nixon’s China Trip


Nixon’s China trip, as all the smart people prophesied, has turned out to be primarily, possibly exclusively, a publicity stunt like everything else “positive” Nixon does, all thought up, organized and steered by J. Walter Thompson types from Mad Alley.

It was a TV spectacular designed to totally smother the Democrats and rebel Republicans in the opening of the primary campaign. Nixon hates and fears the printed word. The press entourage was almost all television people including the executives who came along for the chop suey and, except for one girl, they were brainless sharpies — most especially the barfly tidbit scavengers and bellboy and taxicab interviewers who the rest considered “old China hands.”

Have you any idea of the mind of a foreign correspondent, even the best of the press, much less the snoopers for the boob tube? It’s the kind of mind that considers the discovery that Willy Brandt is actually a drag queen “the greatest news story of all time.” Most conspicuous in the interminable coverage was the total lack of homework. The heaviest TV correspondents knew far less about China and its ordinary life and customs than did Nixon himself, who, if nothing else, is one of the best briefed presidents of all time, even if it is all nothing but input and output which slides through “like green shit through a gray goose,” as the cowboys say, and leaves nothing behind.

Is anything important likely to happen? Can Nixon shift the fulcrum or move just a little weight toward the lighter side to achieve a balance in the deadly Russian-Chinese teeter-totter? So doing, is it possible that a general pacification and division of the world could result?

It is theoretically possible, but the first major attempt in that direction shows an extraordinary lack of intelligence. The support of West Pakistan was simply the behavior of a fool. You can brief a super parrot with all the data you can gather and he can repeat it back — but behind the playback is nothing but a bird brain. The pettiest of motives seems to have determined Nixon’s pique, not least luncheon-club male chauvinism: “I’ll be damned if I let a woman talk to me like that.” Least of all a colored woman and a socialist.

It is hard to see how the U.S. can foster a three-cornered balance of power when it is motivated by a worship of a purely imaginary Free Enterprise. The final erosion of laissez-faire imperialism is a fact of economics, not a matter of policy. Furthermore, the U.S. is going bankrupt and is now paying its immediately due debts at 75¢ on the dollar or less.

The indications are, however, that the Chinese and the Russians do desire a general pacification and at least a termporary division of the world with the U.S. If this comes about it will be at their option, not Nixon’s or his successor’s. If it does, something very remarkable is going to happen in the U.S. In fact its likelihood is presaged by what is beginning to happen right now.

In the demoralization of national power centers and the general bankruptcy, outside the U.S., which followed the Second World War, revolutionary movements around the world reverted to the independence they had enjoyed before the Russian Revolution. For ten years there was a great revival of libertarian socialism and demands for workers’ control at the point of production. As the Cold War and its hot episodes in Korea and Vietnam, and briefly Cuba and the Congo, settled down, radical movements, protest, resistance, revolt, and even theory, began to reflect directly the conflict of foreign offices.

People aligned themselves as Maoists, “orthodox Bolsheviks,” Castroites, Cheists, until the latest thing amongst the Marxists in the youth revolt became “the North Korea-East German Axis.” It is for this reason — the overwhelming predominance of somebody else’s foreign policy — that the Movement in the U.S. has ignored in action any program of immediate demands.

Washington has been flooded again and again with demonstrators against the Vietnam War, but in the most serious economic crisis since 1929 (actually more fundamentally grave) there is no effective unemployed organization in the U.S. whatsoever, and all attempts to form one have been defeated by the quarreling spokesmen of the assorted foreign offices — and of course of the CIA-FBI. It has been estimated that more than $3 billion of tax money goes into these two organizations. If one one-hundredth of it is spent on agents-provocateurs that’s a large number of agents-provocateurs.

Recent months have witnessed a dying down of this quarreling, but with no increase whatever in organization. The spokesmen for Maoism in the U.S. have ceased to be the Progressive Labor Party and its comet tail of freaks and freakouts. They have been replaced by a new, massive recruitment — quiet, scrupulously polite young Chinese in well-pressed suits, neckties and straight haircuts. This is just a hint of what’s coming if Nixon can realize his ambition to become a one-man Congress of Vienna.

Does this mean that the Movement in America can return to a native basis and become relevant to the pressing immediate demands of American society? I doubt it. In the first place, all the various spokesmen of all the various foreign offices will attack all autochthonous libertarians and militants as “Trotskyite mad dogs, wreckers and diversionists.” As for the latter, there’s that $3 billion which can be tapped to keep them frantic mad dogs with judicious injections of hydrophobia.

BUT — if the Vietnam War and similar overt conflicts are ended — it should be possible once again to at least begin a few rational actions toward radical solutions in American society. It might even be possible to try to provide what the Movement in this country has always lacked, a general theory of this final phase of imperialism in which we are living, which bears little resemblance to the prognostications of Hobson and Lenin, of Bukharin or Rosa Luxemburg. At the present moment the number of people who know what is happening to us is very few and far between.

[March 28, 1972]

 


 

The Election


The war. The election. Inflation. Bankruptcy of the American Treasury. Creeping world economic crisis. Unemployment in the metropoles. Economic collapse and war in the “former” colonies. Moral collapse in the metropoles.

The old-time Communists use to be great ones for what they called “linking up” immediate issues, world issues and the Socialist Revolution. “The Scottsboro Boys will never be truly free until the unemployed get unemployed insurance, the migratory workers have a strong union with high wages and the Negroes of American have a soviet republic in the Black Belt, like the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Birobidzhan in the Soviet Union!”

There is no question but that the grave issues confronting mankind at this moment are all linked up, but first to take them severally: the remarkable thing about this election is that there is only one man running who has any principles at all — Wallace. His principles are evil, but principles they are. McGovern? He is telling his followers what he thinks they want to hear in hopes that he can mobilize a bloc of sufficient weight to exert leverage in the convention.

McCarthy tried that. The Democratic Party is run by its local machines. Its machines are its respectable face. The boys on the other side of the coin are called gangsters. Daley’s Chicago is faster in the grip of The Organization than it was in the days of Al Capone. Chicago’s gangster police, acting on the orders of Daley, Humphrey, and Johnson, joyfully beat to death McCarthy’s opposition.

If he tries to use it, McGovern’s leverage will have to be exerted from hospital beds. It is absurd and horrifying, like a play by Ghelderode, that the hero of Chippitakeaduck and Miss Logorrhea, the Closet Queen, should be the principal contenders in fact. Americans, like Russians, are so locked in their own country that they are completely unaware of the nausea and fear with which all other people view their politics.

Tricky Dick said, “The Vietnam War will not be an issue in the 1972 election.” It isn’t. No Democrat is going to stop it. The U.S. cannot get out of the war on its terms. If the North Vietnamese accepted American terms and the Vietcong entered a coalitation government, the Communists would control all of the Indochinese peninsula within a year. The experience of the People’s Democracies has proven that.

But they won’t. Why? As long as the Americans do not dare drop their atoms on Hanoi, the U.S. is kept militarily impotent and prevented from acting effectively in any other theater, and is being destroyed economically, socially and morally. The bulldog has the giant by his Achilles’ heel. Maybe somebody has figured out that the destruction of the entire Indochinese peninsula would be a small price to pay for the destruction of the heart and brain of capitalism.

Never forget, if it had not been for American interference in Europe, 1918-1922 and 1945-1950, most of us would have been born in a Socialist world. Herbert Hoover summed up 50 years of coming history in Budapest after the First War: “It’s a neck-and-neck race between communism and American aid.” Had the U.S. not entered the First War, there would have been a negotiated peace, and a negotiated peace would have led directly to a Socialist Europe. Small wonder millions of people are so simple-minded as to believe that what’s wrong with the world is the U.S.

But peace is no solution either. Even the present slight let-up in the war economy has thrown the country into a depression. In purely war-economy communities like Seattle, that depression is already as bad as 1931. Moves that once meant peace now mean preparation for war.

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all agreed that a “united capitalist Europe is a Europe united against the Soviet Union,” and Joseph Alsop unwittingly, but approvingly, quotes them directly in a recent column. The pressures generated by collapse are so great that the worst reactionaries Marxize unawares. Maybe somebody should sell Wallace the soviet republic in the Black Belt. It’s certainly a solution for busing and LeRoi Jones and Elijah Muhammed would support him.

The truth of the matter is that the general crisis of mankind has deepened to the point that there are no permanent solutions to any problems. It is quite possible that by rejecting the total reform of society in the years from the economic crisis of 1912 to the final suppression of revolution in 1927 mankind lost its last chance.

Two generations have been spent trying to revive a dying man and then to reanimate a corpse with massive electric shock. The corpse is beginning to stop responding. In that corpse we live.

[May 11, 1972]

 


 

The Presidential Primaries


[NOTE: My copy of this article is missing a few lines at the bottom of each column.]

I have said until I’m sick of it that everybody outside of this country, educated and uneducated, poor and rich, Right, Left and Center, considers it a nation of madmen. If you have any brains or sensibility, and you leave the U.S. for a year, the culture shock when you come back is devastating.

I haven’t been out in five years and I simply cannot become socially acclimated. When I go out on the streets I cannot believe what’s going on around me. When I read the newspapers I’m sure their contents have been made up by surrealist paranoiacs. I cannot bear to listen to the radio. The voices sound like cries out of the lowest pit of Hell.

If Dante had heard an American newscaster, or even somebody pitching some soothing ointment, he would have turned in his tracks and scampered out of his Inferno, back to the banks of the Arno. As for television, I have not watched two hours total of American television since the thing was invented, and never an entire program, although when out of the country I commonly watch television every evening, although I must say I prefer it in Finland or some other place where I can’t understand what they’re talking about.

American educational television . . . [a few lines missing] . . . mealy-mouthed. I’ve been on television enough times, here and abroad — always for pay. It once made a fair contribution to my income. Once I went from BBC, where I did a series on American literature since the Second War, to Canadian Broadcasting, where I took part in Nate Cohen’s best of all yak shows, down to New York, where I appeared on what was then the top U.S. yak show, all in one week, coming back from Europe to San Francisco. It was a descent into a moral cesspool. Setting it up at lunch in the Blue Ribbon, I asked, “Don’t you think this will be over so-and-so’s head?” The producer answered, “When you count to eleven you’ll be over so-and-so’s head. Just leave it to the idiot board.” I said, “Man, you’ve got a kind of dirty job.” He said, “Buster, you don’t know how dirty.”

These remarks are provoked by the shooting of George Wallace. Of course everybody in Europe thinks that the chain of assassinations in recent America are part of a plot. Adlai Stevenson, Jack and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and now George Wallace — a deeply hidden cabal of American billionaires and politicians with tightly organized factions in the CIA, FBI and the Secret Service, and of course in the Pentagon, are out to see that their policies are never effectively challenged . . . [a few lines missing] . . . theory. Not only do the people have little in common, but except for Malcolm X, none of them represents a challenge to even the most far right of American capitalism, much less to the people who really run the U.S. Of course I know my European journalist friends are going to say, “It was becoming increasingly apparent that a McGovern-Wallace or Wallace-McGovern ticket would roll over Humphrey’s machine politicians and emerge from the convention to certainly win. Nixon’s secret supporters knew that he didn’t have a chance, so they struck.” Maybe they are right, but I doubt it. The legend that Stevenson was poisoned is without substantiation. The other killings reflect the generalized psychosis that pervades all American life. They are simply the boils and carbuncles that surface from a poisoned bloodstream, every corpuscle of which is sick.

What is wrong with this country? Its bloodthirsty past, its frontier of violence, the rapacity of its business methods, the brutality and ignorance of its masculine culture where civilization — like crocheting — is the business of well-to-do women, the enforced savagery of its successive ghettos, from the Irish before the Civil War to the Blacks today, the glorification of violence in the entertainment media, the instability of the . . . [a few lines missing] . . . a mom-ist society, sociologists love to mull over all of these “causes.” The real cause is simple and single. America is the last bastion of capitalism. Had it not been for this country, capitalism would not have survive the First War. It has survived solely by the massive application of force.

The U.S. is a society of organized repression of every instinct of man which drives toward a sane and wholesome order of human relationships. Harvard sociologists were dumbfounded to discover that even refugees from the Vlasov Army, the Ukrainians who had fought for Hitler, considered the Americans amongst whom they had been thrown — mostly suburbanites — simply wicked, and longed to be back, even in Stalin’s Russia at the height of the Zhdanovchina.

It is highly amusing to see the way McGovern and Wallace scare the pants off the eastern literary establishment and the urbanites for whom they speak. All this spring the press has been full of discussions of “populism,” which seems to be the dirtiest eight-letter word they have ever heard of. During the First War, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a savage sonnet, “I’d like to see a tank come down your aisles.” I’d like to see Eugene Victor Debs and Carl Sandburg walk into the offices of Playboy and the New Yorker. That would be a confrontation devoutly to be wished.

Populism is really a term for the social philosophy of the radical intellectuals who founded the U.S. as it was transformed by their yeoman supporters when the latters’ betters began to get the better of them. But populism is all the Americanism America has got. It’s not just something that sprouts between rows of corn or cotton in the Deep South or the Plains States.

There is an urban populism. It even has a candidate, Shirley Chisholm. A vote for her is probably the most moral one could cast in the primaries. Thrown away? All moral acts are thrown away, . . . [a few lines missing].

[June 22, 1972]

 


 

The McGovern Movement


I waited with this column until after the Convention. I needn’t have bothered. Things turned out just as I expected, except for Eagleton. At least for now the Democratic Party has become what it has tried to become ever since Roosevelt — a party of the Left and the Left liberals. It is fitting that it should be led by a Senator from South Dakota, the last stand of the Farmer-Labor Party. The name survived into this generation in Minnesota, but it had ceased to be very fitting there.

There is only one trouble with McGovern’s organization. And it is the difference between the McGovern movement, the Roosevelt regime, the second Truman administration and the Farmer-Labor Movement of the ’20s: It is not a bona fide coalition of organized forces which are an accepted part of the social structure.

Organized labor, the organized unemployed, middle-class and poor farmers, blacks, youth, former Socialists and Communists, defectors who brought their talents for organization with them — all these people united behind Roosevelt, most especially for the second election. Organized labor, voting for once as an almost solid block, made all the difference in Truman’s election.

But there is a vast difference between Sydney Hillman’s Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Gay Liberation. Most of the organizations that have formed a coalition behind McGovern are ungovernable, amorphous and, at least as yet, unassimilated by the social structure. Nothing shows this better than the shouting match with Marti Rieffe over McGovern’s quite normal equivocal statement, “I will keep planes in Thailand and ships off the coast until North Vietnam releases the prisoners.” Since McGovern had already stated flatly that the prisoners would be released when South Vietnam was evacuated, the SDS was raising hell purely for publicity purposes. McGovern’s staff was badly frightened and he appeared personally to answer them. Now it’s been years since SDS has represented student militants. It is the remnant of a once significant organization, but remnant or no, still impotent with factionalism. These are not the “Youth for McGovern” who are going to go out and ring doorbells. He doesn’t need them; yet he was frightened enough to come down and answer them.

I have nothing against the present SDS (radical splinter groups from a bygone time provide ginger), but the point is they are not real organizations and they are not controllable. The same is true of the slanging match between Bella and Shirley. Who could be so silly as to shout obscenities, demanding an “abortion plank” over a microphone to a political audience of whom probably 25% are Roman Catholic?

Perhaps this is all to the good. The huge, amorphous, turbulent body behind McGovern may not be an organization, but it is beginning to take on the characteristics of an organism; and, like an organism, it is labile, unstable and irritable. Anything is liable to upset it. It is that organism the young Carl Sandburg used to write about — “The People.”

Can “The People” function as a political entity? Rosa Luxemburg believed so. It is the definition of an anarchist to believe so. But even more, it is the definition of the very word politician to believe they can’t.

It is probably impossible to be more of a politician than a Russian or a Chinese functionary. They have pushed the profession about as far as it can go. There is one thing that no Bolshevik ever trusts under any circumstances and that is a genuinely popular democratic socialist or labor movement.

Stalin feared the German Socialists far more than he did Hitler, and things haven’t changed a bit in 40 years. “We can trust Nixon. We know what he is up to.” Peking and Moscow lost no time in leaking this information to the world press.

If the Russians and Chinese can force Hanoi to make peace with Nixon or if Hanoi itself “trusts” Nixon and doesn’t trust McGovern, who in the ’30s they would have called a “Social-Fascist,” Nixon stands a very good chance, for obviously the principal lever is “he promised us peace and betrayed his promise.”

The war has been fought primarily to make money out of the war itself, in other words, to solve the basic contradiction of capitalism — the falling rate of profit — as economic imperialism tried to solve it in its heyday. But the ruling sectors of American capitalism want peace now because this war has literally bankrupted the country and has destroyed the political, if not the economic, power of American capitalism over great sections of the earth. Nixon has his orders.

Even if peace doesn’t break out before the end of summer, I think the McGovern strategy should shift from main emphasis on the war to main emphasis on the profound demoralization of the country socially, and the always hovering threat of total economic collapse and another world economic crisis like 1929 only far worse.

There is only one trouble. Unquestionably, to win McGovern must gain broad support from the ordinary, mildly liberal, square citizen and his wife to whom legal marijuana, legal abortions, Gay Lib, Women’s Lib, Marti Rieffe, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm are all symptoms of the World Ill.

The kept press, even the so-called liberal press, started making a fuss about this right away, talking about how the old-line Democrats were going home brokenhearted and outraged and weren’t going to vote or were going to vote for Nixon, “who was turning out to be not so bad after all.”

Mostly this is a lot of bull. What are going to count are the issues — concrete issues of the most serious character — if they are met forthrightly. The personality of an honest country lawyer vs. that face that looks like it has just been caught cheating at penny ante. And finally, Money.

Can McGovern play a successful King Canute and stem the vast tide of gold, the tsunami of politicking and propaganda, that Nixon will have at his command? Maybe you can’t fight J. Walter Thompson, maybe you can.

[August 3, 1972]

 


 

McGovern’s Mistakes


Why is the resistance to the least liked president since Calvin Coolidge so apparently disorganized? Why does a man who inspires in a large, significant, active sector of the electorate a positively rabid hatred not seem to have inspired a passionate, tirelessly organized opposition?

Partly the answer is to be found in the Hamletic personality of McGovern. He started out with what seemed to be a well thought out program. As the campaign has gone on this program has been trimmed and compromised in a mistaken attempt to win over the “silent majority.” In another man this would be put down to campaign oratory; but integrity should have been the very keystone, not just the main plank, of McGovern’s campaign.

He is running against a man whose supporters even admit has no integrity whatsoever. The issue is Nixon. Even the “silent majority” can recognize a profound, inerradicable immorality, both social and personal. Bill Buckley was perfectly right. Nixon made a lie and a dirty joke of all his past career when he embraced Chou En-lai and Brezhnev. McGovern’s answer should not have been an attempt to embrace the brain trust boys of Wall Street.

McGovern’s social and economic proposals should have been clarified and their language sharpened. Instead his program grew more and more muddled and confused. Finally, as the working press have always known, McGovern is not an easy man to like, nor is he reliable in his commitments even in ordinary day-to-day matters. He is not crooked or an easy man to hate, but he doesn’t inspire passionate trust.

More important than any of these factors is the role of the Old Left. The source of the Cold War was not Churchill’s speech at Lawrence, Kansas, nor was it Truman’s aid to the Fascists in Greece and Turkey. It was the vote for Henry Wallace. When Stalin discovered that the recent Vice President of the United States could not poll a significant vote on a program far milder than the British Labor Party, and proportionately less than that polled by Eugene V. Debs during a war and while he was a prisoner in an Atlanta penitentiary, Stalin wrote off the whole theory, both economic and political, as well as the practice, of “peaceful coexistence.”

Traditionally, from the days of the German revolution after the First War, the Russians and their followers have preferred an alliance with the right and center rather than with the authentic left. Perhaps they have been justified. Ernie Bevan, the Labor Foreign Minister of Britain, and Harry Truman, elected by organized labor (led by socialists like Hillman and Dubinsky), were passionately anti-Russian, the architects of the Cold War on our side. When the people in the Kremlin saw TV coverage of the Democratic convention they must have instantly decided that McGovern, from the kulak state of South Dakota, was leading a coalition of dangerous leftists of the sort Lenin had attacked in Leftism: An Infantile Disorder. Simultaneously Nixon was offering them the benefit of American capitalist production and immense quantities of cheap wheat raised by those kulaks and, equally important, by placing himself in the middle in an attempt to play one side against the other, was offering himself as a bridge to the Chinese.

Immediately the Party Line went forth and the Old Left, including many of McGovern’s most important millionaires, deserted him.

Maybe these people are a tiny minority, but they are tightly organized and far more efficient than the assorted freaks of the New Left, and they never leave: they are always there. If ordered, they are far more tireless doorbell pushers than Jehovah’s Witnesses. They provide their allies in a political campaign with shock brigaders and commandos who are not adventurers but efficient, disciplined operators.

It is precisely a cadre of this kind which McGovern has lacked after the convention. Before the convention he had them and they put him at the top against the opposition of everything resembling organization in the Democratic Party. A month after the convention they were all gone and their bankrolling angels with them.

There’s nothing surprising about this. Stalin supported Chiang Kai-shek until Mao took Peking and Chiang fled to Taiwan, and the history of fifty years of the struggle for even a moderate social democracy all over the world is full of such unholy alliances, sometimes secret, sometimes open and shameless.

I am by no means a professional “anti-Stalinist.” I think even in China and Germany and in France in ’68 there was much to be said for the Party Line. It is at least arguable. But it should be recognized for what it is. Maybe from the point of view of Chou and Brezhnev, Nixon will be better for the world than McGovern; but a landsliding Nixon will be an unqualified disaster.

[November 15, 1972]

 

This was the last article Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I now plan to post all the monthly columns he wrote for San Francisco Magazine. These columns, which range over a wider variety of social and cultural topics, began in late 1967 and ended in 1975, thus overlapping the more specifically political Bay Guardian articles.

 

 


“San Francisco in the Sixties” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.


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