Odd Man Out

by James Kirchick | August 27, 2007

Last Friday marked the twentieth anniversary of Bayard Rustin's death. An erstwhile pacifist who had spent two years in prison for resisting the draft during World War II, he was one of the most vital, albeit behind-the-scenes, figures in the civil rights movement. In 1942 he co-founded the Congress for Racial Equality, and in 1947 he led the "Freedom Rides to test the Supreme Court ruling banning segregation in interstate travel. He conceived the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., which emerged in 1957 from the Montgomery bus boycott, of which he was a chief organizer. And in 1963 he helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The non-violent tactics of the civil rights movement can largely be attributed to Rustin, who had traveled to India a decade before to learn from Mahatma Gandhi.

Despite these contributions, Rustin is little remembered by liberals today. But Rustin's story is instructive as it illuminates the alienating affects of the Democratic Party's disastrous leftward trajectory from the 1960s into the 1980s, a shift it stands to reprise once again.

 

Once the civil rights movement achieved success with the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Rustin became exasperated with the excesses of the American left, from radical student activists to black separatists. He referred to the Students for a Democratic Society as "just dangerous people." He debated Stokely Carmichael on the merits of working within the political system, which he favored. When New Left intellectuals criticized Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his 1965 report on the deterioration of the black family, Rustin leapt to his defense. Moynihan, he said, is a ''very honest man trying to do his best. He is not a racist, and he is not giving aid and comfort to racists.''

Rustin had once dallied with communism but later became a stanch opponent of Soviet totalitarianism, and he worked throughout the 1960s and 1970s to ensure that the civil rights movement and the liberal coalition itself were not associated with communist fellow traveling, opposition to Israel, and unilateral disarmament. He was a key figure in the anti-communist Social Democrats USA (a faction of Eugene Debs's old Socialist Party), from which Michael Harrington's Democratic Socialists split in 1973 over the Vietnam war. In March of 1967, Rustin explained that while he was not a supporter of increasing American military involvement in Vietnam, "Nor can I go along with those who favor immediate U.S. withdrawal, or who absolve Hanoi and the Vietcong from all guilt. A military takeover by those forces would impose a totalitarian regime on South Vietnam and there is no doubt in my mind that the regime would wipe out independent democratic elements in the country."

Rustin's anti-totalitarianism--nonpartisan and consistent--and the moral equivocation and downright anti-Americanism of segments of the left, led to his disillusionment with the Democratic Party. He had endorsed Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968 but declined to make an endorsement in 1972 when the Democrats fatefully nominated Senator George McGovern. In 1976, he endorsed Scoop Jackson. In the 1980s, Rustin supported U.S. aid to the mujahadeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, termed the American invasion of Grenada a "rescue mission," and while not openly supportive of the Nicaraguan Contras, was a prominent critic of the Sandinistas. Of course, he was hardly the only progressive intellectual to lament the party's fecklessness, but he and his allies were very much in a minority on the left.

Rustin's political odyssey is best witnessed through his organizational affiliations. In 1965, he resigned from the editorial board of the pacifist journal Liberation, the Committee for Non-Violent Action, and the War Resister's League. By his death some 20 years later, he was affiliated with the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (founded by anti-communist liberals like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker, and the lawyer Max Kampelman to steer the party back from the McGovernite left), the Committee on the Present Danger, and Freedom House.

Much as these organizations were the intellectual stomping grounds for neoconservatives, Rustin could not be labeled as such, despite what his detractors, then and now, have said. Unlike the neoconservatives, who renounced the New Deal, Rustin never faltered in his social democratic convictions, supporting all aspects of the welfare state from national health insurance to massive increases in federal spending for education, housing and job creation. While his anti-totalitarian convictions led him to abandon the Democratic Party, Rustin was never a supporter of Ronald Reagan, nor did he ever affiliate with the GOP. Biographer Daniel Levine writes that, as early as 1972, Rustin was "distressed by the capture of the [Democratic] party by people he considered politically suicidal." Not for nothing did he title his chapter on Rustin in the 1970s, "No Place Left to Stand."

 

The anniversary of Rustin's death would merit no more than a brief mention were it not for the current trend in the Democratic Party's foreign policy thinking. Anti-totalitarianism--once a foundational cause of liberalism and one that animated whole swathes of the Democratic Party from the labor movement to intellectuals and activists like Rustin himself--has receded amongst the Democrats. If there exist segments of the Democratic Party animated by foreign policy today, it is those calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and a scaling back of American commitments abroad.

On August 14, the New York Observer reported on the "rise of the liberal realists" within the party policy establishment. The piece profiled former Clinton administration Defense official Michèle Flournoy, president of a new think tank called the Center for a New American Security, which hopes to staff the next Democratic presidential administration. According to the article, she and "her colleagues think the war in Iraq and the country's plummeting reputation abroad changes the equation, and that the next president may have to reign in his or her ambitions when it comes to the projection of American power."

Invigorated by the unpopularity and ostensible failure of the Iraq war, Democratic presidential candidates, congressional leaders, and policy wonks may find it tempting to embrace realism. But before they do, they should reflect upon the legacy of one of the twentieth century's greatest liberal heroes.

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