How Is the Left of the ’60s Different From the Left of Today?


How do the radical movements of today—Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and others—compare with their counterparts of the 1960s, such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground?

What would the leftists of the ’60s say about the rioting that followed the death of George Floyd, the toppling of disfavored statues, and efforts today to “defund the police”?

Lee Edwards, the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, joins the podcast to discuss the similarities and differences of the left of then and now.

We also cover these stories:

  • New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut add four more states to their quarantine list. 
  • California shuts down most indoor businesses—again.
  • A federal prisoner is executed for the first time since 2003. 

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on the Daily Signal podcast by Dr. Lee Edwards. He’s a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundations B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies. Dr. Edwards, it’s great to have you on with us at The Daily Signal Podcast.

Lee Edwards: Love to be with you, Rachel. Thanks for asking me.

Del Guidice: Well, thank you so much for being with us and for taking the time. To start off our conversation, in what ways would you say the left has changed their strategy and the tenants of belief from the ’60s to today?

Edwards: Well, back in the 1960s, which I happen to know sort of fairly well, I lived through it, they were semi-organized through something called the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. They were the youth group of the socialists. And they wanted to bring about a new world, a new America, in which there would be no more capitalism and which there would be socialism. They were not pro-communist or pro-Soviet, but they definitely were socialists.

So … my point being, they did have a political structure in SDS, which wound up with tens of thousands of members. What they did was to work with two big issues in the 1960s. If you want to understand that decade, you have to understand that in the first half of that decade from 1960 to ’65, the big issue was civil rights. Of course, the hero and the leader was Martin Luther King.

And then in the second half, 1966 through 1970, it was the Vietnam War. And both of these issues did tend to divide America, but particularly the Vietnam War divided America into two different camps.

Those who were for it and those who were against it and SDS and other people on the left took advantage of the emotions, the public concern about those two issues and parlayed them into a fairly significant political movement, which however, resulted in the Weathermen who literally blew themselves up at the end of the decade.

Del Guidice: What would you say, Dr. Edwards, is driving the changes of the left today in what we see?

Edwards: I think a couple of things. Because of the Great Recession, which happened now, all those not so many years ago, young people, particularly college-educated and so forth, felt that capitalism had failed.

Capitalism had blown up and they began looking for alternatives and they found them in socialism—a word and a concept, which hasn’t had much traction here in America for some time, but because the Great Recession was so great, here was an opportunity.

Then of course, we had the political divisions in this country, red and blue, the coastal liberals and the middle American conservatives, and that also added, again, to a divided country and the left has taken advantage of that as well.

And more recently, of course, they have gone all out on racism, what they see as the inherit racism, what they call the systemic racism in America, through various organizations—the Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter, of course, becoming that as well.

So I would say that today, the big difference between this decade and the decade of the ’60s is that there were certain successful reforms which happened in the 1960s. Yes, there were riots, there were demonstrations, but there were certain things which happened, which address the problems, such as the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act 1965. That the fact that we began getting out of the Vietnam War, stop fighting it and let the Vietnamese handle it.

So here we are today and we don’t see where are the solutions? Where are we going to find them? Are going to find them with the socialists, the Democratic Socialists of America, AOC—and all that she stands for—or is it something else? So that to me is the big difference between this decade and the past decade.

Del Guidice: Dr. Edwards, you mentioned Black Lives Matter. What about that group, as well as the Antifa and others with the left of the ’60s-beyond board? Or would it not recognize what their party and movement, so to speak, has become?

Edwards: This has been a revelation to me. We started out with, actually, our [Heritage Foundation] president, Kay James, saying it, that Black Lives Matter had a strongly Marxist element to it and that its leaders are going around bragging about the fact that they were Marxist.

I wasn’t even aware of that at the beginning of it. I’ve since done some study myself, and Mike Gonzalez and Andy Olivastro had done it as well, and it’s true that they are not just moderates. They are not just looking to sort of politics as usual. If they’re talking about bringing about a Marxist tone, not a socialist, but a Marxist, a solution to problems, then I think then we’re in an entirely different world and an entirely different challenge here in America.

Del Guidice: Just in general, the ’60s were a time of great unrest. How is the current moment like as well as unlike the ’60s?

Edwards: As I tried to point out, back in the ’60s, there were generally speaking to sort of one major issue. As I say, in the first half of the decade, it was civil rights, and the second half of the decade, it was the Vietnam war. That was enough to divide the country and that was enough to produce when Dr. King was murdered in 1968. And then Robert Kennedy was murdered as well, just a couple of months later.

Strong and very meaningful divisions. But what is different about the current is that we have a trica of crises. We have the pandemic, we have the economic—I won’t say collapsed, but certainly economic crisis—and then we have, of course, the charge of racism in America following the death of George Floyd.

So having all three of those at the same time, I think, has put increased pressure on all of our structures and all of the ways that we usually resolve problems.

I think that’s something that makes this a much more dangerous decade, if you will. We’re not quite sure how is it going to turn out.

So many questions about the pandemic now that they’re talking about … does the stock market truly reflect a recovering economy or is the fact that there’s still so many people at 20-some percent unemployed?

So all of these questions are putting tremendous strain and stress on Americans. I think they’re looking around for answers. They’re difficult to find when you have so many problems confronting you.

Del Guidice: Dr. Edwards, you just mentioned the death of George Floyd. What would the left of the ’60s have to say about the continued riots and unrest we’ve seen following his death, as well as the increase in police brutality, the toppling of statues. I mean, the list just goes on.

Edwards: Right. Well, of course, what I say, I’ve lived through the ’60s and I was in Washington, D.C., in the summer of the spring of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated.

I was here when Washington went up in flames. So having flames and smoke circling our nation’s Capitol is not anything new. It took that section of Washington, D.C., where there was widespread rioting and demonstrations and destruction decades to come back. But it did. It did.

I think that we don’t know what is going to be the outcome of where we are right now. I think that the toppling of monuments and memorials here in D.C. and in capitals and cities and towns across the country, that is something new. I think that is something which is troubling and worrisome to me because one guy can see where you can make an argument for toppling somebody who led the Confederacy, which, after all, was talking and led the drive to not only succeed, but to support and to maintain slavery. I can see that.

What I can see is that people now going around and destroying monuments of [Abraham] Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant and others who were not part of the Confederacy, these are attempts to which strike at the very foundation of our republic.

If you’re going to start doing away with George Washington, … what does that do to the Constitution? What does that do to the Declaration of Independence? What does that do to the war that we fought to achieve independence in which was led by George Washington, not withstanding the fact that he did have and own slave?

So the difficulty, it seems to me, is that today’s activities are going on. It is really more like the French Revolution that what Marxists and socialists are talking about is not just a political transformation, but a cultural transformation as well. And that comes out of the French Revolution, not the American Revolution.

Del Guidice: As we’ve discussed briefly, already race has been a constant issue in American history. And how do you think the current moment fits into our larger historical pattern?

Edwards: Well, we’ve had this problem from the beginning and it comes out of the compromise, which was made in bringing about the Constitution in which there was a deliberately no mention made of slavery. It is a major sin of continuing sin of our history.

But at the same time, I look at the, finally, there was reform made back in the ’60s at that decade—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then the ability of reformers to force Southern governors like George Wallace and others to open up schools.

So to me, that shows that that reform is possible. What concerns me about the current debate [is] this question of systemic racism. Now, if you accept that as a premise, then it seems to me, you’re going to say, then the reform must be everything. It must touch our culture, it must touch our politics, it must touch every aspect of our society. That way can lead to anarchy. It can lead to an entirely different kind of country. That concerns me deeply. I think it concerns many others as well.

Del Guidice: Well, looking back on what you have experienced, … and even what you’ve studied as well, is there a time period in American history, excluding the ’60s, that our current time period reminds you of?

Edwards: There have been what we called transformational decades. So if we look back at our history—and let’s put aside the time of the founding, which was a very special one.

Although I think certainly the 1770s were a transformational decade, if you consider that this was the decade in which we challenged and said, “We’re going to declare our independence.” Which, we authored the Declaration of Independence. Which, we undertook a war with the most powerful nation in the world. Which, you had something called the Constitution, which also was accomplished in the following decade.

But setting that aside, seems to me, there have been two other decades, that of the 1860s, which was the time of the Civil War, of the time when Abraham Lincoln, a political genius, and God-given to us, who was able to unite the Union and to end slavery.

And then in the 1930s, with the Great Depression we had the leadership or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now, he was a liberal Democrat, with policies in mind, like the New Deal, which were questionable and which certainly did not end the recession. But he did provide an inspirational kind of leadership and a sense of optimism and a sense that the American spirit could overcome, even something like the Great Depression.

So I take encouragement, Rachel, from the 1930s, from the 1860s and from the 1770s, that I don’t care what kind of a challenge you’re talking about, something which strikes fundamentally at the very core of our country and our history. And yet we were able to overcome it. We were able to seize the day and to come up with the necessary victories and to move on, to continue to develop this marvelous thing we call the home of the brave and the land of the free.

So that’s why, even as daunting as today is, I have confidence in that American spirit, that we can overcome it.

Del Guidice: Thank you for sharing that. You recently wrote a piece about our modern revolution, and you said that all of us must take measured steps to protect our most precious possession, ordered liberty. How would you encourage people, Dr. Edwards, to go about doing that?

Edwards: I think what we have to do is to realize, when I talk about ordered liberty, I’m saying that, on the one hand, we have this great gift of individual freedom, which we’ve been given by the declaration, by the Constitution, and by our history. But at the same time, we have a communitarian responsibility. So we can’t just think about ourselves.

We must think about … not only about our family, but about the community. That community can be the town, the city in which we live, and the state, but also the country in which we live, and what can we do? What can we do? Well, … the things we can do is to be politically active, to make sure that we do vote.

These are all, perhaps somebody might call them bromides, but our country lives on the participation of an informed citizenry. And part of that means getting out there and voting for good people to take over and to run the government.

At the same time, there is a responsibility that we have to take care of and to be responsive to [what] you might call the individualism of America, that wonderful spirit that we have, whereas live free or die, don’t tread on me, all those wonderful phrases from the founding.

So the idea that we can find the right balance to be individually free, to live the best possible life that we can. And at the same time to accept that we have a communitarian responsibility, not just to ourselves and even to our family, but in a greater sense to the community in which we live.

Del Guidice: Well, Dr. Edwards, you’re a historian. And as a historian, when others who study history look back at the first half of 2020, do you have any predictions as to what they’ll focus on?

Edwards: Well, I guess historians should be very careful not to get into the predicting business. I would say that the economic system that we have, the idea that supply and demand, capitalism, if you will, market capitalism is so strong that it’s going to carry us through. We will see in a couple of years that the economy will be humming once again. So I have confidence in that based upon history.

I think that with regard to the pandemic, although we don’t like what we’re living through right now, I certainly don’t like to be here isolated in my apartment, as comfortable as it is, [I’d] rather be with my fellow workers at The Heritage Foundation, particularly enjoying the stimulation of young minds and brains and in spirits.

I think that that vaccine is going to be discovered sooner rather than later. And then there’ll be plenty of doses to go around.

I am concerned about this question of racism in America, which has been a besetting sin of ours all of these many, many years, and we need to face it. I think that that can happen through, for example—and I think Heritage and President James has already began talking about some of these things—the idea of bringing together white and blacks to talk and to debate. How can we meet this problem of racism? How can we do it without bringing about greater government controls? We don’t want government dictating to us what we can say, what we can’t say.

I’m concerned that this might spill over into our universities and colleges with politically correct codes, all the rest of that.

So in grappling with racism, which is a problem, no question about it, we must not overreact and bring about a greater role for government dictating to us how to solve that problem.

Del Guidice: Dr. Edwards, thank you so much for joining us today on The Daily Signal Podcast. It’s been great to have you with us.

Edwards: Thank you, Rachel. My pleasure. Hope I’ve been able to maybe throw out a few ideas that might encourage some thinking and maybe even some prudent action.

Del Guidice: Definitely. It’s been great having you.

Edwards: Thank you, Rachel. All the best.





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