Todd Gitlin: The Left Declares Its Independence

Roundup: Media's Take

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and communications at Columbia and co-author of “The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.”

IF some aspects of the Occupy Wall Street protest feel predictable — the drum circles, the signs, including “Tax Wall Street Transactions” and “End the FED” — so does the right-wing response. Is it any surprise that Fox News and its allied bloggers consider the protesters “deluded” and “dirty smelly hippies”?...

And yet it remains true that the core of the movement, the (mostly young and white, skilled but jobless) people who started the “occupation” three weeks ago, consists of what right-wing critics call anarchists. Indeed, some occupiers take the point as a compliment — because that is precisely the quality that sets them apart from the Tea Party. Anarchism has been the reigning spirit of left-wing protest movements for nearly the past half century, as it is in Zuccotti Park.

IN this recent incarnation, anarchism, for the most part, is not so much a theory of the absence of government, but a theory of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government. The idea is that you do not need institutions because the people, properly assembled, properly deliberating, even in one square block of Lower Manhattan, can regulate themselves. Those with the time and patience can frolic and practice direct democracy at the same time — at least until the first frost.

The anarchist impulse is nothing new in America. There were strong anarchist streaks in the New Left of the 1960s — stronger than the socialist streak, in fact, despite all the work Marxists did to define proper class categories for the student movement. “Let the people decide,” one of the early rallying cries of Students for a Democratic Society (of which I was president from 1963 to 1964), meant, in practice, “Let’s have long meetings where everyone gets to talk.” De facto, this meant that politics was for people who, in a sense, talked for a living — in other words, college types....

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