May Day 1971: A Lesson in Organized Action & Petty-Bourgeois Radicalism

Erich Arbor on 2021-04-28

Fifty years ago today, the largest known instance of direct action in the United States that you never heard of was carried out.

On January 6th of this year, thousands of Donald Trump supporters swarmed the United States capitol, holding the entire nation in captive awe as monuments to the American Empire were taken over by masses of people fed up with established powers, and what they would likely call “deep-state” operatives who, in their view, were stealing the election from then-President Donald J. Trump. While no capitalist politician was physically harmed, nor was the typical workings of the capitalist state disrupted, the media visuals of chaos and anger among typical Americans in these hallowed spaces were enough for American culture of all forms to overwhelmingly condemn these figures.

There was and remains an ongoing conversation about the class character of these protestors. Some take umbrage at calling them protestors and prefer the term insurrectionaries, or more irresponsibly, terrorists. This piece is not concerned with rehashing this debate. For a well-formulated discussion on this matter, the Communist Party of Great Britain (ML) has written an analysis on January 6th, titled “Who are the Capitol rioters?”. What this piece does concern, however, is more adjacent to the conversation regarding many on the Left that proposed the hypothetical: How would the state have reacted had the protesters been Left-wing? In the case of May Day 1971, it was no conjecture.

Anti-War Protestors amass on the steps of the US Capitol, May 3, 1971.

Organized by New Left coalitions named the “May Day Tribe”, the movement consisted of the Yippies, Students for a Democratic Society, War Resisters League, and others determined to end the Vietnam War through the implementation of direct action. Through years of no progress on this front, even in the face of growing public opposition to the war, organizing against imperialism was found to be largely ineffective in stopping the US war machine that was only increasing its engagement in Vietnam.

Thus, the May Day Tribe felt the only way forward was to increasingly escalate the situation using the same tactics of the organization they had been practicing for years. In short, the aim of New Left organizers was to make disaffected middle-class youth a revolutionary class. While there are a few exceptions to this general trend, it would likely go uncontested that a major weakness of the New Left was its failure to engage the masses of working Americans. Directly because of this, when a planned disruption of Washington, D.C. was enacted on May 3rd, 1971, many roadblocks presented themselves in the way of installing meaningful and progressive change with regards to the US imperialist war on socialist Indochina.

40,000 gathered in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. on May 1, 1971. Flickr

It is necessary to summarize the events of May ’71. A concert was planned on Sunday, May 2nd, at West Potomac Park, where over 40,000 protestors camped out in a mini-Woodstock that took place along the cherry blossom-lined tidal basin. The government allowed their presence for a day, only to quietly cancel the permit and order the vacation of the park on May 3rd. Operation GARDEN PLOT, a US Armed Forces plan to curb civil unrest, and which had been formulated after the Long Hot Summer of 1967, was enacted earlier in the week to curb the effects of civil disobedience. Through this operation, the entire D.C. area was packed with near 10,000 federal soldiers, national guard, and metropolitan police. As protestors got high, listened to rock and roll, and discussed their plans en plein air, the government stationed police and military at every corner of Washington.

On the day of action, organizers mobilized their plan to disrupt the District in response to the Nixon Administration canceling their permit. This led to further poor planning and further disjointed action on behalf of the protestors. While chaos did ensue, there was meaningfully no effect cast by the protestors on the operations of the US imperialist war. The most significant effect of the actions was an increase in traffic, whereas many federal workers were stuck in their cars while commuting. Several workers commuted by canoe over the Potomac to avoid the jams occurring within the Beltway. Amid this poor organization, the day ended with dozens of incohesive protests causing automobile congestion and disgruntled commuters. Otherwise, over 7,000 Americans were arrested in a day, leading to the largest detainment of protestors in America. The Vietnam War ceased to be ceased.

A dumpster burns near Farragut Square in Washington, D.C. May 3, 1971. Flickr

As was the case of January 6th, nothing was gained by the acts of the protests. Many rightfully can categorize these political acts as adventurism, being acts that risk material conditions for reckless posturing, at the cost of others. In many ways, the New Left has manufactured what political action looks like in the United States. In many ways, supporters of Trump are of the age that grew up watching the chaos of the Weathermen and SDS, identifying their actions as the model image of civil disobedience. It is not improbable to suggest that many who were young during the Vietnam era and disaffected with American society saw a possibility for change in the relatively-renegade campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. For the lesser-known history of May ’71 to mirror the more recent January 6 is not merely a coincidence.

This failure to engage the masses in the American activist cage is a product of historic events such as those mentioned above. The manner in which organizations of people radicalize niche sectors of the working class of the country, be it college-educated youth, small-business owners, or image-conscious liberals, consistently spells disaster at the onset for those attempting at creating mass movements.

Those who commit this repeating mistake in organizing and are, admittedly, earnestly seeking genuine material change for society, are stuck in a rut. This rut is what former Communist Party USA General Secretary Gus Hall describes as “Petty-Bourgeosie Radicalism”. The term can be described in part from this excerpt of Hall’s 1970 essay, titled “Crisis of Petty-Bourgeois Liberalism”:

All variations of petty-bourgeois radicalism come into conflict with the class approach to struggle. They reject the class struggle as the vehicle for social progress. They reflect the individualism, the lack of class identification of petty-bourgeois elements generally. They reject policies and tactics that are based on mobilizing the working class–the one class history has designated as a basic contingent in the struggle for social progress. In fact, petty-bourgeois radicalism rejects the role of the one revolutionary class in society.

Gus Hall writes on further:

The concepts, the ideas, motivating petty-bourgeois radicalism are not necessarily wrong in the abstract. Those who follow wrong concepts, in most cases, are dedicated and sincere individuals. The concepts are wrong when they do not reflect the specific reality of the moment. Therefore, the more determined such individuals are, the more damaging they can be. Good intentions and even good ideas are not enough. One of the key ingredients in a revolutionary struggle is people in mass. People do not respond to commands or to exhortations. They do not respond to ideas–even good ideas–if they do not see their self-interests involved in these ideas.

As Hall notes, even good ideas will be ignored if people do not see self-interests in ideals that organizers fight for. This is clear in those that were engaged by the anti-war movement: college-educated youth. TwinkRev writer River Page, in his piece “The Prodigal Sons of Capital”, touches on this phenomenon, remarking that:

This class correctly understood that the troop surge meant that it was only a matter of time before college enrollment would no longer ensure an automatic deferment. Sure enough, automatic deferments for college students were ended just a year later in 1965. The truth that left-wing intellectuals refuse to acknowledge — but which working-class Americans have always understood and have never forgotten — is that these people did not oppose the war until the possibility arose that they might have to participate in it.

This is a feature, not a bug, of political organization. People are not merely engaged through empathy or goodwill. They are engaged when it is made clear that their actions are necessitated by their conditions. Therefore, it is in this major ideological flaw that the anti-war movement of the New Left era found its greatest failure. When seeking to organize, SDS and other groups only organized what they knew best, being college-educated liberals with radical aesthetics. This in fairness formed a significant demographic, perhaps in the tens of thousands, of mainly young Americans that were opposed to the Vietnam War. Yet this was the only demographic that the organization felt necessary to appeal to, sending a message to other segments of the working class that they either join or die. Hall writes of this, saying:

The SDS, even in its best days, rejected these concepts and tended to organize their own actions, asking others to “join them” or “support them.” When they could not have their way they very often boycotted many important mas actions against the U.S. aggression in Vietnam.

FBI Wanted Poster in Washington, D.C. 2021.

This concern for mass actions and a working-class character of politics is not simply a scourge against an abstract idea that is petty-bourgeois radicalism. The act of neglecting the threat of this form of radicalism also presents a material threat. The lack of “people in mass” in both May Day ’71 and January 6 not only allowed for the inevitable failure of such movements, but also for the state’s capitalist media to promote these events as insular to the culture war they seek to promote. By organizing within chasms of academia and disaffected and alienated youth, the anti-war movement can be easily portrayed as a group of fringe actors, who at best are causing useless trouble in Washington, and at worst should be seen as anti-American terrorist traitors that seek to cause chaos in every normal person’s life. Similarly, we are now seeing a largely unquestioned collaboration between the masses of Americans and the FBI, whereas people are openly reporting their family, friends, and acquaintances to authorities simply for attending the Capitol riot. Regardless of how you feel about the acts of these individuals, no one should collaborate with the capitalist state and normalize the traitorous practice of acting as an informant. Further, it is in no one’s interest to normalize and form justifications for a further-encroaching police state.

In this scenario, the choice of how anti-war organizers are to be portrayed ceases to be their own, for, without consent of the masses of American working people, they can be written off however the US government prefers. In order to prevent this fringe categorization, the answer is simple but the task is arduous; communists must build a unified front. A front that engages all segments of the working class, in all ways that the working class stands opposed to capitalism and imperialism. In the United States, that can take the form of alliances with religious groups dedicated to pacifism and social justice. It could take the form of highlighting why the government writes blank checks for bombers and pinches pennies on schools, housing, and healthcare. It could take the form of working with organized labor and highlighting how workers in the imperial core do not benefit from the stolen wealth of imperialism, thus encouraging solidarity with workers struggling against our imperial bourgeoisie and their national bourgeoisie.

What the communist movement needs to learn is unity. The last few decades have been marred by factionalization, and times of revolutionary moments stained with individualist and bourgeois radicalism. Let’s honor the Chicago Martyrs who gave us this day to celebrate worker power, and construct a genuine mass movement that spans all facets of the working class. This May Day, let us consider how we can build a United Front to end capitalism and imperialism within our lifetime.