Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 1, 2011

Reflections of a baby boomer

Filed under: beatniks,popular culture — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

Baby boomer Louis Proyect

Technically speaking, I am not a baby boomer but feel qualified to say a word or two about the article Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65 that appears in today’s NY Times. It was written by Dan Barry, a character I had a run-in with back in 2006 when he wrote a stupid attack on “squeegee men”, the intrusive beggars that persuaded so many Manhattan liberals like Barry to vote for Giuliani.

The article defines baby boomers as those who turn 65 in January. Born on January 26, 1945 I have my 66th birthday to look forward to. When I was born, my father was over in Belgium dodging Nazi bullets in the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned, I was 6 months old and something of a challenge to him. They say that when a father is not around for a child’s birth, he is likely to feel more remote. Not having more than 15 minutes conversation with dad in my entire life, I imagine that this was true in our case.

The article is focused on how my generation is hitting the brick wall of old age:

This means that the 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of this country’s population, will be redefining what it means to be older, and placing greater demands on the social safety net. They are living longer, working longer and, researchers say, nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.

So, then, to those who once never trusted anyone over 30: Raise that bowl of high-fiber granola, antioxidant-rich blueberries and skim milk and give yourself a Happy Birthday toast.

The article cites Steven Gillon, the author of “Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America” as some kind of expert. Barry sums up Gillon’s analysis as follows:

Previous generations were raised to speak only when spoken to, and to endure in self-denying silence. But baby boomers were raised on the more nurturing, child-as-individual teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and then placed under the spell of television, whose advertisers marketed their wares directly to children. Parents were cut out of the sale — except, of course, for the actual purchase of that coonskin cap or Barbie doll.

“It created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before,” Mr. Gillon said. “We became more concerned with our own emotional well-being, whereas to older generations that was considered soft and fluffy.”

The boomers may not have created rock ’n’ roll, but they certainly capitalized on its potential to revolt against parents. And they may not have led the civil rights movement, but they embraced it — at least, many of them did — and applied its principles to fighting for the rights of women and gay men and lesbians. They came to expect, even demand, freedom of choice; options in life.

Some of this makes sense but all in all I prefer an analysis that adheres much more closely to the ebb and flow of history. Furthermore, I would not even begin to try to do what Gillon did, namely summarize an entire generation that—after all—includes both George W. Bush and me. Instead I will put my own personal story into the context of what happened in America from my birth date until today in as few words as possible. I am after all writing a blog entry not a book.

When I was around 14 or so, I began to become aware of both class and physical differences between my classmates, most of whom were Jewish like me. Many had parents in the hotel business and could afford to go to Miami Beach in December. They returned with suntans that they wore proudly to school like Gucci bags. Now that I am in my old age, I too enjoy such a distinction! It also mattered a whole lot what kind of car you drove. My father, who owned a fruit and vegetable store, owned a Chevy Biscayne while the kids who went to Miami Beach had parents who drove around in a Cadillac or a Buick. Adding to my resentment was how many got cars as gifts for a sixteenth birthday. They would drive around in a Chevy Impala convertible while I burned in my pedestrian envy.

Even worse, I was cursed to be a shrimp. Too small and too uncoordinated to make the basketball or little league baseball team, I began to feel left out. Although I wanted nothing more than to be in with the in crowd, I began to think in terms of an alternative life-style even at the age of 14.

In 8th grade, we had a social studies class that was taught by Bob Rosenberg, a New Deal liberal whose sister Cissie was an open member of the CP. One day Bob was telling us about a new book called “The Status Seekers” by a guy named Vance Packard that described how America was a land where the pursuit of money and power led people to live empty lives in the suburbs. Indeed, this was the reality that the TV series “Madmen” hones in on. While listening to Bob, I had an epiphany. This was exactly the world that my classmates and their parents lived in and that excluded me, largely out of an accident of birth. Perhaps had I been 6 inches taller and owned a Chevy Impala in which to tool around, none of this would have entered my mind.

All across America, there were people just like Louis Proyect who were feeling like outsiders. Even some tall, wealthy, muscular white kids felt the same way. Not long after Bob had brought “The Status Seekers” to our attention, I came across an article about the Beat Generation in Time Magazine. It began:

In the smoke-filled cellar cafés and cold-water flats of San Francisco’s waterfront and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the word these days is “beat.” Patriarch and prophet of what he calls “the beat generation” is a 35-year-old writer named Jack Kerouac, whose recent novel On the Road (TIME, Sept. 16) chronicled the cross-country adventures in cars, bars and beds of a bunch of fancy-talking young bums. Last week, in newspaper interviews with TV’s Mike Wallace, Novelist Kerouac and equally beat Poet Philip Lamantia explained that beatness is really a religious movement.

Interrogator Wallace asked San Francisco Poet Lamantia to explain two of his lines: Come Holy Ghost, for we can rise/ Out of this Jazz . . .

Said Lamantia: “You have to be pure. You gotta get through this life without getting hung up. That’s the whole question—not to get hung up …”

W. What is getting “hung up”?

L. Freezing. Freezing from others, from yourself, from the Holy Spirit. If you’re hung up, you can’t love, or care for others.

W. Why are so many members of the Beat Generation bums and tramps?

L. Oh, you see, Christ says go out and find the bums . . .Find the blind and the cripples . . . Christ invites everyone, including the outcasts. So there’s no contradiction at all between Christ and a bebopper and a hipster . . .

It was only when I was in my fifties that I learned that Bob Rosenberg’s sister was a CP’er and that he probably had been some kind of fellow traveler until turning into a liberal and a cynic. As for Lamantia, he was a member in good standing of the Surrealist movement that received much of its impetus from artists with Trotskyist politics, including André Breton. The late Franklin Rosemont, a premature boomer like me who tried to revivify the movement just around the time I was being radicalized by the war in Vietnam drew upon Lamantia’s expertise, as I recounted in a 2002 article:

A few months ago I posted an article about “Surrealism, Freud and Trotsky” that relied heavily on Franklin Rosemont’s collection of Andre Breton’s writings titled “What is Surrealism.”

This Pathfinder book belongs on the shelf of anybody who is interested in the intersection between revolutionary politics and avant-garde art and literature. Now thanks to Autonomedia Press (and especially editor Jim Fleming–a Marxmail subscriber who sent me a review copy), we have a volume that belongs on the same shelf. I refer to “Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings and Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States.” Edited and introduced by Ron Sakolsky, this volume contains articles that originally appeared in the journal of Rosemont’s Chicago Surrealist Group titled “Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion,” and kindred publications.

In my first article, I mentioned that surrealism had taken root in the USA in the 1940s largely through the auspices of a magazine titled VVV. Among the editors was Martinique poet and playwright Aimé Césaire who articulated a surrealist version of Black Nationalism that influenced many black intellectuals, including esteemed contemporary African-American historian Robin D.G. Kelley whose articles can be found in “Surrealist Subversions.”

Another editorial board member at VVV was Philip Lamantia, who was to become best known as a leading figure of the new poetry of the 1940s and 50s that included the beats and the San Francisco Renaissance writers. It would not be much of a stretch to argue that Lamantia represents a link in the chain between the counter-culture of the 1930s and that of the 1960s. He eventually hooked up with Arsenal, along with fellow beat poet and African-American Ted Joans.

It is also not too far of a stretch to see Rosemont’s journal as constituting a link between an important sector of the contemporary radicalization that began in the 1960s with earlier strands going back to the 1930s and earlier, with the left wing of the beat generation constituting an important bridge between the two epochs.

This is a point that can’t be stressed often enough. The values that Gillon described as characteristic of the baby boomers–freedom of choice; options in lifehave nothing to do with being born in 1946. Instead they are the values of the permanent underground in the USA that goes back to the post-Civil War era and that arose as a left-bohemian opposition to the dominant mammon-worshipping culture.

Immediately after WWII there was a rapid expansion of the economy and a fierce repression of left-wing intellectuals that led to a retreat of the left cultural opposition. But it managed to remain intact despite McCarthyism and looked for “fresh blood”. It found support in the folk music revival as well as the post-beat generation movement that had spread across America. By 1961 it was ready to listen to anti-capitalist views about the malaise that affected so many of us, even though it would take the Vietnam War to finally open my eyes.

In my own life, politics has taken priority over personal options. I never considered going to live in a commune in Vermont or seeking enlightenment through one or another religious discipline. However, I do accept that if I had not been radicalized by the war in Vietnam and by working in Harlem for the welfare department, I easily could have gone that route.

I am somewhat at a loss to understand how young people feel nowadays. While there are obvious attempts to defy convention through personal appearances from tattoos to piercing, I wonder how many teenagers feel as alienated from the mainstream culture as I did in 1958.

Perhaps the one advantage we had was coming of age when the country’s economy was running on all eight cylinders. If you graduated college in 1965, you never had to worry about finding a job. The NY Times had 10 pages of classified ads geared to college grads—no experience necessary. Mostly, we didn’t bother looking there because it was so easy to pick up a job as a clerk in a bookstore or a record shop that paid well enough to cover your rent in an East Village tenement. Nowadays, college students must fret over whether a business degree will get them an interview at some disgusting financial institution.

I hold out hopes that a new radicalization will serve as a battering ram against the very forces that Vance Packard wrote about in 1958. As member of a generation now entering wintertime and beyond, my fondest hope is to serve as Lamantia did for my own generation 50 years ago. And, in my fondest hopes there is the possibility that some day we will be in the majority and allow the worshipers of Mammon to fall into the minority where they belonged all along.

9 Comments »

  1. Thanks for that vignette, Louis. I followed a similar path, only seven years earlier. Beat poets and jazz were influential for me, too, but the Vietnam war was the decisive turning point. Once you see the state as indifferent to your basic values, not to mention hostile to them, there’s no going back.

    I just finished Sartre’s “Qu’est-ce que la Litterature?”, where he talks at length about the surrealists’ alliance with the PC (or vice versa) and argues it was a wrong move for the PC, since the surrealist project was mainly negative. I’m conversing with some anarchists recently, and they raise the same issue for me. The permanent revolution seems to be more and more dispersed, prolonged, ghostly.

    Comment by senecal — January 1, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

  2. As a youngish person, I feel like every potential career path is rotten and corrupt. You thought you might like to go into something noble? better not unless you don’t want to eat. Furthermore, my education debts are obscene. I didn’t get a stable job with a bachelor’s degree so I got a master’s. Now, people tell me to get an associate’s to add practical skills to my resume since I haven’t found a job in a year. Really, three degrees to get one job??

    Also, every “alternative” is capitalized on and commercialized at dizzying speed. Everyone’s angling for some shitty TV show of their own. Not only does everyone want to sell out, they have no other conception of success or happiness. It’s probably a good thing the heroes of the Beatniks and Boomers didn’t have modern content-delivery capitalism around to tempt them with contracts. Maybe they were stronger than I imagine.

    One thing that always strikes me when I read about Louis’ and others’ stories of their youth is that things, anything really, was “hotly debated”. Undergraduates in the US don’t know shit today and they certainly can’t write. How can there be a debate about world affairs when half of the room has never heard of NATO? I hated my time at a university (both of them). It was like living at a Starbucks for four years. I have an irrational hatred of universities now. I’m sorry but I almost laugh when I read about meetings of the SDS or whatever. “Wait a minute”, I think to myself, “these are just a bunch of kids!” I’m apologize for belittling their experience but I’m only thinking of myself and my own peers in college. I guess the major generational difference is that today young people are unconscious of the possibility of change even if they’re suffering economically more than the previous generation. Clearly, today’s education, even college education, is not interested in creating functional citizens.

    Comment by Brian — January 2, 2011 @ 1:21 am

  3. A teenager I know says, “I live in the small western Pennsylvanian town of ——, a very boring drama filled town where unemployment is a naturally occuring disease and all the hookups a user could ever need just a text away.” There is plenty here to build on, plus all the people in prison, young and alienated workers around the world, etc. All we baby boomers can do is try to educate and encourage the young. The trouble is that too many of us are unwilling to step from center stage. I mean, why does an entity like Left Forum keep inviting the same ancient and boring speakers to address its annual conference? Blah, blah, blah is all they have to say. Cherish the young. Tell the truth. Look in the mirror, and when you see that you have nothing to say, keep quiet.

    Comment by michael yates — January 2, 2011 @ 3:41 am

  4. Perhaps the one advantage we had was coming of age when the country’s economy was running on all eight cylinders. I

    One can’t over emphasize the importance of this. The typical college graduate today is a debt slave and it completely changes one’s perspective in life. Even one who avoids debt, like myself, has to deal with the issue of health care at a certain age.

    That being said, the only option the U.S. ruling class has to greater and greater inequality is more and more repression. They have to keep the bottle tightly screwed, but it very well may explode anyhow.

    Comment by purple — January 2, 2011 @ 6:35 am

  5. “I am somewhat at a loss to understand how young people feel nowadays.” As a young person (aged 23) I’d like to offer my feelings on how young people feel nowadays. Well we don’t have that much time for feelings, and when we do we don’t recognize them. Where has the time gone? Time is gone, the internet is here, anything happening in the world can happen to us real time. Anything thats happened in the past can happen for us again over and over, that is after the queue and after the advertisements. Its similar to how trends operate in the fashion industry. When once we saw trends come and go lets say in a 10 year cycle, now all of the trends are happening all of the time. We the young are aware of what is happening in the world or at least according to which blogs we’ve bookmarked. We become paralyzed by the information flood not because we are unsure what to do, but because we are addicted to the stimulation.

    Comment by John Rosat — January 2, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

  6. I too am glad that you brought up the economic differences between the generations.
    I am 23, unemployed, and with absolutely crippling student debt (for an education I didn’t even finish). I am living with my parents for the time being, but my conservative dad is on my ass about finding a job (show me where the jobs are and we’ll talk) and my mother may be losing hers in the near future. Meanwhile, in between his increasingly disturbing drinking binges and tv-watching marathons, my father mutters some bullshit about Chevrolets being “commie cars” because somehow, in all his 54 years on this planet, he hasn’t figured out that this state of things is just business as usual amidst advanced capitalism. (By the way I love my dad. He’s just a hard-working man who’s life apparently didn’t end up like he thought it would, and at times that’s not a very pleasant kind of person to live with).
    I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this except to offer another perspective on how young people feel these days. I feel trapped and bogged down in shit. I wonder if this alienation is more pronounced among rural youth, like myself, stuck in politically backward swamps where I have no other flesh and blood socialists to interact with.

    Comment by Rob — January 2, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  7. At 29, I’m starting to feel more optimistic than ever before after spending a decade in anarchist and then socialist groups organizing in workplaces and on campuses. I see my generation of activists being fairly good on anti-oppression and anti-imperialist politics. We didn’t “get” class until the economic crisis hit. Then I saw people all around me throwing themselves into union organizing, strike solidarity and a series of other initiatives that are creatively and effectively spanning the student and labour spheres.

    Being in Ontario, I’ve also had the good fortune to witness the development of the Toronto and Ottawa workers assemblies and am now helping launch such an assembly in Kingston (Ontario). These projects are extremely promising as they’re finally bringing together the various left, socialist, Marxist and anarchist groups with trade unionists, students, community, immigration and anti-poverty activists, and even left social democrats. They’re widely understood by most involved as being about a process, of reinventing the left, of being more than the sum of the left’s parts, and of moving beyond the usual demoralizing defensive struggles to launching campaigns – like the Toronto Free Transit campaign – which can finally get the left as a whole off the back foot and potentially connect with thousands.

    Part of these projects are shedding the navel-gazing individualism which permeated so much of the left, leaving those who continued to fight collectively into a siege-mentality which disconnected the left from connecting with wider layers of people.

    I also see more and more young activists shedding defeatism while simultaneously believing that the world is fucked for them and everyone if revolutionary change of some sort doesn’t come about soon. We saw this in England recently. It’s all about desperation fusing with audacity, fearlessness and righteousness. All the better considering the various black bloc and other actions in Canada over 2010 (the Vancouver Olympics riot, the Ottawa bank bombing, the Toronto G20 black bloc actions) have forced the many young people sympathetic to property destruction begin to seriously rethink its tactical usefulness in favour of more “pragmatic” collective direct action like what lunch counter sit-ins used to be.

    Comment by Doug — January 3, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  8. I unfortunately do not share Doug’s optimism but I have been told that I am a pessimist but Louis’ point about his generation having the cushion of a booming economy hits home too largely on my end where it seems futile to get a pack of non-ideological thinkers into mobilising against more than one issue that will not hurt their own paycheque. It is definitely a hard sell trying to convince many that revolution involves them but it takes many sacrifices to get there. When it means missing meals and losing money, it’s a trade plenty are not going to gamble with especially when jobs go South, East and out.

    Secondly, there has been many doubts cast upon those “black bloc” thugs and there are plenty of accusations of Agent Provocatuers directed against the Ontario Provicial Police (and why not? They were caught in Quebec doing that subversion.). There were slim sympathies to those sorts of strategy to begin with (the G8 summit protests were given NO press coverage at all despite the fact that had NO violence) and I doubt anyone seriously involved with the protests actually believed that any group discussed destruction of property as a legitimate tactic to use during the summit.

    Comment by Joshua — January 4, 2011 @ 3:17 am

  9. Maybe it´s because I was born too early, or traveled too much, to be included in the category, that I feel “Baby Boomer is too narrow and smacks of an alibi. I can´t see the 1960s as the dsawn of “prosperity”. The real watershed was the beginning of WWII. For anyone who wasn`t killed or maimed overseas, this was the golden age. School kids could get all the part-time work they wanted. Their fathers who had been on “relief” in the 1930s were doing overtime. Too old for the draft, they were the darlings of the “war widows” suffering from the manpower shortage. New York, “the Great Port” hit its peak as a world city in 1945. In the arts, the European refugees were engendering “Abstract Expressionism”, and much else, (in the dance, for instance). The literary inclined had grown up on Joyce, Faulkner, Celine and Eliot. So when Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg came along, they could be impressed without being overwhelmed. I won´t go on, but suggest the Boomers drop their diapers along with their label. And buck up: A new war will save us young and old.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 5, 2011 @ 11:06 am


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