In the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell recorded in his book, Homage to Catalonia, the seemingly endless squabbles between the factions, sects, and tendencies among his comrades in the anti-fascist resistance. The conflicts ranged from the ideologically profound to the parochially mundane: Communists vs. Socialists, Trotskyists vs. Stalinists, Anarchists vs. Communists, Leninists vs. Syndicalists, regional loyalties over national aspirations, etc.
At the same time Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his Nazi allies were unified behind a single purpose: smash the Republic and impose a fascist dictatorship. The fascists won, the Leftist lost and the whole sordid tale that Orwell masterfully describes is one of amazing valor and idealism mixed with breathtaking naivety. Part of what makes Homage to Catalonia such an important work is Orwell's real time analysis of a war that contained within it all of the ideological strains that would come to define the 20th Century.
The Old Left of that era in the United States never shook the sectarianism Orwell encountered in Spain. The ideological twists and turns it took to keep up with the Stalinist line -- one minute hating the Nazis, the next minute defending them, and then going back to hating them again after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 (in addition to the beefs between the "Socialism-in-One-Country" crowd vs. the Internationalists), it seemed that the Old Left in America had about as many different ideologies as it had members.
After World War Two when the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) purged itself of Communists and Socialists and Senator Joseph McCarthy bounded onto the scene to mop up the rest of the old guard lefties in the government, the schools, and the television and film studios, it didn't take long to shred the Socialist movement in America into a million a pieces.
Yet shortly thereafter the Left rebounded with the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and it once again began to capture the imagination of America's young people. The work of C. Wright Mills took off on college campuses and leftist students founded new periodicals, such as Studies on the Left; the growing militancy of the civil rights movement in the South and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement all miraculously came together to revive leftist politics in the early 1960s after its long dark winter during the 1950s.
Soon thereafter the Vietnam War created the conditions for the New Left to piggyback on the civil rights organizations and catapulted it into a force so powerful that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started COINTELPRO to infiltrate it and break it apart. The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the Mobe), the Berrigan brothers' nonviolent anti-war protests that spread like wild fire, and the mass demonstrations at the Pentagon and in cities across America gave the distinct impression that the New Left would play a formidable role in our nation's politics.
But like the Old Left another round of internecine battles occurred among the factions of the New Left. This time around it was libertarian and individualistic counterculture types vs. the more stolid communists and socialists; the blacks vs. the whites; the women vs. men; the gays and lesbians vs. the straight people; ethnic groups vs. other ethnic groups, and finally the succumbing to a kind of atomized "identity politics" that opponents could easily neutralize through clever tokenism. By the early 1980s, like McCarthyism and the Old Left, the Reagan Revolution mopped up what remained of the New Left.
(Certainly, leftist political action carried on but in different forms despite its dissipation - in the 1950s there were huge civil rights and anti-nuclear protests, and in the 1980s there was the nuclear freeze, HIV-AIDS, and anti-apartheid movements -- but by and large, in the realm of electoral politics the Right was victorious in setting the nation's "bipartisan" agenda and the Left retreated to the sidelines to lick its wounds.)
Then on September 17, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement broke out spontaneously and created the conditions on the ground right in front of the headquarters of the world's biggest financial institutions that caught the nation's ideological gatekeepers by surprise. First the establishment press and those representing the power structure ignored the Occupy Wall Streeters, then they ridiculed them, and then slowly, as the days went by, they started to air some of their critiques. Corporate power had caused so much pain and suffering and had reached a point where ordinary citizens had no choice but to express their sense of economic injustice through collective action.
Occupy Wall Street caught the imagination of people across the country who picked up on the Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, like in Tunisia and Egypt the previous spring, to construct their own occupations of town squares and parks. For a moment the action in Zuccotti Park succeeded in opening up a space for a substantive national conversation about income and wealth inequality, the power of corporations over our society, and the crying need for basic fairness for "the 99 percent." The corporate media and politicians from both major parties displayed their utter cluelessness about what was going on in Manhattan and across the country. Finally, the encampments were removed and the protesters disbanded but not before they had reinserted inequality back into the nation's political dialogue.
A year later there is no shortage of pundits and commentators who cannot contain their glee in pronouncing Occupy Wall Street dead. The OWSers couldn't get their act together, we've been told. They had no leaders and no agenda; and the OWS people failed to engage in electoral politics as an organized Left pressing the Democratic Party to move in its direction as the Tea Partiers have done with the GOP. Others have offered harsher criticisms than these. At first glance they seem to be right: It looks like OWS succumbed to the same kind of sectarianism and factionalism that tore apart the Old and New Left, but only in fast motion.
But it's far too early to tell what the overall impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement will be on American politics. One year later, we know that the action in Zuccotti Park changed the conversation by putting economic injustice back on the nation's radar. Looking at the travails of the labor, women's rights, and civil rights movements we can see that progressive change comes only after many years (in some cases decades) of organizing and mobilizing an active citizenry. One wouldn't judge the success or failure of any of those movements by their accomplishments after their first 365 days of existence, and we shouldn't do so for Occupy Wall Street.
OWS might turn out to be a flash in the pan like the November 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle. Or it might turn out to be something more lasting and meaningful that galvanizes working people to fight for a better future where big banks and other corporations don't have a license to exploit us at will, in which case we might look back to September 17, 2011 as the start of a new beginning.
Unlike both the Old Left and the New, where it took years before the factions and sects and tendencies began to tear each other apart, it might be a good thing Occupy Wall Street got this chapter out of the way early with its leaderless anti-structure and its all-encompassing demands.
The thoughtful stand against rigid hierarchy and ideological purity might have inoculated OWS against the maladies that afflicted the earlier Left movements, which is a good thing.
However, there are two huge differences between OWS and the earlier Left movements that could be hardly imagined at the time George Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia. On the bright side, OWS activists have access to computers in their pockets with social networking capabilities that could be the greatest organizing tools ever devised; while on the not-so-bright side, they inhabit a planet rapidly careening in an ecological death spiral.