Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 4, 2019

Review of Allen Young’s “Left, Gay, and Green: a Writer’s Life”

Filed under: Catskills,Ecology,farming,Gay,SDS — louisproyect @ 4:51 pm
The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture
Volume 11, 2018
A New Dawn for the New Left: Liberation News Service, Montague Farm, and the Long Sixties
By John McMillian,

For many years – when I was in college, graduate school, and even for some time after that – I used to envy those Baby Boomers who had immersed themselves in the American left during the 1960s and 1970s. They had been righteous in their support of civil rights, outraged about the Vietnam War, and they got to enjoy the era’s great music, as well as various exciting cultural events, like Woodstock and the Moon landing. I always figured it must have been exciting to come of age during such dramatic and compelling times. The Portuguese have a fine word for that kind of melancholy longing I’m describing: saudade.

In recent years, however, that feeling has largely dissipated. I’m no longer sure I’d have enjoyed the Sixties. Part of the reason may be that I’ve been studying that era for about twenty years (so maybe I’ve finally maxed out on the topic). Meanwhile, my thoughts about the desirability of almost any kind of “revolution” have changed. (I now think it’s usually best when social change unfolds gradually.) Furthermore, it turns out that we are currently living through an uncommonly tumultuous time, and I don’t find it too enjoyable. I’m apprehensive about the future, and the social justice left that prevails on American campuses nowadays frequently offends me.

It is in some ways surprising, then, that I have such a fond appreciation for Allen Young’s memoir, Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life. (The title alludes to the fact that Young was a red diaper baby, and then a journalist who was active in the New Left, gay rights, and environmental movements.)

Let me say upfront that I have known Young, from a distance, for many years. Back in the mid-2000s, when I was researching my book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, I visited the Allen Young Papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and I interviewed Young over the telephone. Since then, we have occasionally exchanged cordial emails. We have only met once, however, and that was just for a few moments, by pure chance, many years ago. (He was walking out of Columbia University’s Fayerweather Hall, and I was walking in.) Put another way, if it had turned out that I had significant criticisms of Left, Gay & Green, I would not have been particularly hesitant to say so.

But mostly I have compliments. Young calls his book an “autobiography,” rather than a “memoir,” because it encompasses his entire life, rather than just the years when he was most intensively engaged in leftwing activism. His amiable, conversational prose style makes for quick reading, but Left, Gay & Green resists easy summary. It is not a didactic autobiography, meant to impart a lesson, or develop a theme. And although it is a longish book (480 pages) each of its twenty-four chapters is subdivided into short, discrete sections. Frequently, Young will pause his narrative in order to share various musings, ponder conundrums, or poke gently at people’s foibles and eccentricities – sort of like a hip Andy Rooney. Some readers may find these digressions excessive, but I found them delightful. Young also occasionally includes excerpts from his writings long ago, which he analyzes from his perspective today.

Young grew up on a Jewish farm in the Catskill Mountains. For years, his main daily chore was to collect eggs from his family’s chickens, clean them, and pack them for shipping. His parents were secretly members of the American Communist Party, which of course put the family at risk during the Red Scare. Unlike some communists who resided in big cities, however, Young’s parents were not bohemians. They were hard-working, straight-laced, and stoic. That posed a problem for Young, because he knew from an early age that he was gay. He lived in “the closet” – and repeatedly tried dating women, while also having secret liaisons with men – from his adolescence until about age twenty-five.

Young was thrilled to matriculate at Columbia University in 1958, and at the time, he was certain he was leaving rural life behind for good. Academically and socially, he thrived, and eventually he became the Daily Spectator’s editor-in-chief. Meanwhile, he began demonstrating his enviable knack for meeting or befriending various successful, well-known, or otherwise interesting people. One of the lifelong friends he made at Columbia was the great historian Eric Foner; another is Michael Meeropol (who was orphaned after the United States government executed his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Other notable names appear in this book, too, and he includes some entertaining yarns about his friendship with Abbie Hoffman.

During his undergraduate years, Young grew appalled by the crimes of the Soviet Union, but he continued working on the same issues his parents had taught him to care about, mostly around racial justice, war, and peace. He did graduate study at Columbia’s School of Journalism, traveled extensively in South America, and at age twenty-six, took a job at the Washington Post. (Young was hired by Ben Bradlee, who would later become famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, and for overseeing the Post’s Watergate coverage. Young sketches a brief but memorable portrait of this gruff and no-nonsense newsman.)

Young did not last long at the Post, however. Instead, he became increasingly committed to building the antiwar movement, which was in turn supported by the fast-growing American underground press. In the fall of 1967, Young made what he says “was probably the biggest single decision” of his life and defected from the Post to Liberation News Service (LNS). Often described as a radical version of the Associated Press (AP), LNS produced hundreds of news packets full of reporting, commentaries, graphics, and illustrations, and this material regularly made its way into underground newspapers across the country.

Some of the most edifying and analytical passages in Left, Gay & Green concern the topic (applied anachronistically) of “political correctness.” Young acknowledges that, like others in his cohort, he could be aggressively hostile to opposing viewpoints. By the late ’60s, New Leftists had grown dismissive of voting and non-violent civil disobedience. Most white radicals tended to zealously support the Black Panthers (despite that group’s obvious flaws), and they were prone to dogmatically making snap judgements about who had “good politics” (and who did not). New Leftists frequently dehumanized their political opponents with words and images that, especially from today’s vantage, seem scurrilous and grotesque. Young went along with some of this, but not always comfortably, and only to a degree. After the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society turned to political violence, for instance, Young strongly criticized the group, even as he maintained friendships with some of its members.

Exemplifying the maxim “the personal is political,” in 1970, Young became an early member of the Gay Liberation Front. He participated in the world’s first gay pride march, and he promoted gay equality in numerous periodicals. Meanwhile, Young started collecting personal essays and manifestos from other radical homosexual writers that he admired. In 1972, he published (with Karla Jay), Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, a classic compilation.

In 1973 – defying the expectations he formed when he started at Columbia in 1958 – Young moved to Butterworth Farm, an intentional community in Royalston, Massachusetts. Young calls Butterworth Farm “the love child of two unique and consequential movements … back-to-the-land, and gay liberation” (303). Perhaps surprisingly, given the frenetic pace of the first half of his life, Young has continued to reside there ever since. He has been an avid gardener, a valuable participant in local institutions, and in 1980 he got busted for growing marijuana. (The chapter describing the marijuana bust is amusingly titled “Reefer Madness, or, The Sacred Herb and Me.” Fortunately, Young largely escaped punishment for what he now refers to as his “so-called crime.”) In the 1980s and 1990s, Young worked at the Athol Daily News and did public relations for a local hospital. After living frugally this whole time, he was able to retire in 1999, at age fifty-eight. Today, Young lives in an octagonal house that he helped build many years ago

Even when Young is not writing directly about movement issues, Left, Gay & Green offers salutary lessons about how to engage politics wisely. He thoughtfully ponders arguments and counterarguments; he does not assume bad faith or bad character from those with whom he disagrees; and he easily admits when he was wrong. I’ve no idea whether Allen Young is familiar with Walt Whitman’s famous directive (“be radical – be radical – be not too damned radical!”) but that quote came to mind numerous times while reading Left, Gay & Green. Young spent a big part of his life deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, but one gathers, while reading this charming autobiography, that the cut and thrust of his personality has changed substantially since the vertiginous Sixties. “Nuance,” Young says at one point, “has now become one of my favorite words”.

1 Comment »

  1. My memory isn’t always reliable, but I remember being enormously grateful for LNS. In hindsight it seems amazing–would we had something like it now, when the news is bought and sold like so much cotton candy. This is a book to read for sure … .

    On the other hand, the stuff about not being too damned radical, not “dehumanizing” opponents, etc. strikes me as highly suspect–this language often connotes bourgeois ideology at its smarmiest–and deadliest.

    The word “dehumanize” can be code for shut up or else, and always contains the implied threat of some draconian reprisal against the “dehumanizer.” That’s what it’s for IMO–not that everyone who says it is aware of the implication–it’s meant to seduce and does.

    I knew a tenured, self-anointed “moderate” spokesman for gayness at UVA who used to say “dehumanize” all the time. In the same breath he’d go on about how right Arthur Jensen was and how his own superior IQ gave him carte blanche to dispense judgment on anyone who dared to contradict him. He had clientes like some old Roman optimate–apparently that has been his life–“provide, provide” … .

    He said he had substantial funds from his late mother–a few millions if I had to guess–per him nothing went to the father, curiously enough (though who knows what that meant– he and his brother evidently used to brag about turning the old man out without a penny)—but there’s your “humanity” in a nutshell at all events–don’t “dehumanize” that or else.

    This, dare I say it, arrogant arch-reactionary and social parasite (though a competent writer with a few readable second-rate books to his credit)–old enough to have died some time ago, but evidently burning to the socket–continues to prat about offering himself as a spokesman for gay causes–probably thinks Pete Buttigieg is the second coming … .

    if you say “dehumanize” IMO, you are bad company no matter who you are or how wonderful in other respects. There’s a knife beneath that cloak.

    In my opinion, philosophically speaking, nobody at present is fully human–that is one of the evils of the class system–in order for humanity to exist and for there to be full “human nature,” the class system has to go. We are all “dehumanized” pending revolution. The defeat of the ruling class is necessary to ending that–they will not be the ones who determine what it is to be “human” if and when that ever becomes possible … .

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 7, 2019 @ 4:12 pm


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