U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Naming the System, Then and Now

On April 17, 1965, the first major anti-Vietnam War march was held in Washington, DC. Among the speakers that day was Students for a Democratic Society President Paul Potter.  Potter argued that the Vietnam War, far from being an isolated event, was the product of a system that encompassed not simply the foreign policies of the United States, but its domestic conditions as well:

What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values-and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, make it bend itself to their wills rather than bending them to its?

We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over–all the time.

 Potter’s “Naming the System” Speech (as it has since come to be known) marked an important way station in SDS’s journey from an organization focused largely on domestic issues to one focused largely on the war in Vietnam and in SDS’s ongoing radicalization.  One of the most striking things about the speech, beyond Potter’s attempt to connect the conduct of the war to a host of ills at home and the sweeping radicalism of his vision of a “massive social movement” dedicated to “overcoming” that system, was his reluctance to give it a name himself.  The two terms that his speech seems to be pointing to – imperialism and capitalism – went unspoken by Potter that day.  “This generation of activists,” writes Doug Rossinow of the mid-60s New Left, “was culturally close enough to the political mainstream as to be acutely aware of the risks of merely using terms like capitalism or imperialism.”[1]

As the nation faces yet another debate about entering into a war of choice, I find it interesting to reflect on how these circumstances have and haven’t changed.

Polls suggest that Americans today are far more skeptical of military involvement in Syria than they were of military involvement in Vietnam in 1965.   Much of this skepticism seems driven by war weariness in the face of the long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the essential dishonesty of the drive for war in the case of the latter conflict.

The word “imperialism” is sometimes mentioned in connection with the prospect of U.S. involvement in Syria. But it is a word of the political fringes.  On the left, it appears in Common Dreams’ coverage of the Syria debate (“In Syria, Obama’s Calculations Reveal Stupidity of US Imperialism”), but is largely absent from The Nation‘s.[2]  On the right, Ron Paul (quoting Joseph Schumpeter) writes of “America’s ‘Sociology of Imperialism.'” Partly this relegation of “imperialism” to the political margins reflects the extent to which “imperialism” has become more an epithet than a careful tool of analysis in American political talk. For both a certain sort of radical and a certain sort of paleocon, “imperialism” can be useful as a shibboleth and a slogan to identify and rally fellow believers.  But, to a certain extent, the more the word is used in these ways, the less likely it is to be heard as a good-faith attempt to understand the origins of US behavior in the world, especially by those outside the fold, even when it is in fact part of such a good-faith attempt.

None of which is to insist that “imperialism” ought to be the term we would best use to characterize the general operation of America’s national security state (though it might be). Syria is not Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone Vietnam.  “Connecting the dots” among these (and other) overseas conflicts that the U.S. has initiated or joined, let alone connecting them among such conflicts and the various social injustices at home, will take real analytic heavy lifting, not simply sloganeering.  But despite the differences, there are also striking similarities between the Syria debate and those surrounding earlier public discussions about war, for example the stubborn persistence of credibility arguments to motivate and justify U.S. military action.

In his refusal to utter the “i” word, Paul Potter in 1965 certainly reflected a kind of political prudence and even reticence.  But in calling for the movement to name the system rather than simply naming it himself, Potter also in effect suggested that it is the task of any social movement worth its salt not simply to act, but to understand, and that the most powerful (and democratic) such understandings are often not potted analyses that one finds at hand at the start of a movement, but rather conceptions that emerge organically out of the experiences and operations of that movement.  Of course, within a few short years of Potter’s speech, SDS would splinter, in part because of the fierceness of some major analytic disagreements within the movement.  So it’s important not to romanticize the process of a movement’s naming the system.  Nevertheless, I share Potter’s view that this process is absolutely necessary to effect real change. And with the exception of the brief flourishing of the Occupy movement in 2011, attempts to name, describe, and analyze the system have had relatively little impact on mainstream U.S. political discourse in recent years.

The public debate about U.S. intervention in Syria will instead, I suspect, focus on more practical and local issues, which are, of course, also important.  In the case of the proposed intervention in Syria, they are, in my estimation, more than enough to oppose intervention on the merits.  And they may even be enough to generate a “no” vote in at least one house of Congress.   But if we ever grow truly tired of having these debates, something more will be necessary.

[1] Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticy: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 226.  This reluctance to use such terms would fall away over the course of the next several years.

[2] Imperialism does, however, show up in a recent Nation piece by Michelle Alexander, author and activist on issues connected to mass incarceration, on her own activism as seen through her appreciation of the real legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “I am still committed to building a movement to end mass incarceration, but I will not do it with blinders on. If all we do is end mass incarceration, this movement will not have gone nearly far enough. A new system of racial and social control will simply be erected in its place, all because we did not do what Dr. King demanded we should: connect the dots between poverty, racism, militarism and materialism. I’m getting out of my lane. I hope you’re already out of yours.”

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Despite the understandable focus on domestic issues by the SDS, the 1962 Port Huron Statement did speak to the Cold War and “an unreasoning anti-communism,” as well as such varied and related topics as trade relations with the European Economic Community, and issues germane to the relations between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. In fact, foreign policy generally in the 1950s and early 1960s is discussed, including our support of despotic or authoritarian governments in Asia and “Latin America,” with “billions of military aid” “propping up right-wing regimes.” At least six strong paragraphs address nuclear weapons and “deterrence policy” and several more outline the urgent need for “universal controlled disarmament.” In addition, mention is made of the necessity for “simultaneous creation of international rule-making and enforcement machinery beginning under the United Nations.” Finally, and not surprisingly, the document speaks of the “needy” throughout the world, including the imperative to eliminate the “disparity between have and have-not nations,” which is described as “as important as any issue facing America.”

    One book I think might help us “name” central (and thus not all) aspects of “the system” is The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American [‘informal’] Empire (Verso, 2012), by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.

    • Thanks for that, Patrick. Yes, the Port Huron Statement was very comprehensive, as you say, but SDS’s early actions (quite understandably, as you say) focused on domestic issues, especially ones involving race and poverty. Thanks, too, for the Panitch and Gindin recommendation. I bought the e-book back in July, but haven’t had a chance to really get into it.

  2. Excellent post as always! It is interesting to consider the ways in which the current debate about Syria is (or isn’t) affected by previous debates on war amongst Americans.

    I think the moment we’re in is illustrative of a post-post-9/11 world. I may have used that phrase on here before, but what I mean is that American citizens are far less willing to commit American forces to any conflicts that don’t have a perceived national security impact. But it may be part of a larger trend, perhaps stretching from the end of the Cold War until the present. After all, George W. Bush ran on a platform, in 2000, that was very much anti-interventionist. One wonders what our foreign policy would have looked like without 9/11 occurring, and with a president who was elected on a promise to steer from nation building.

    I’ve seen some comparisons between this and Kosovo in 1999, but I think the major difference is America’s exhausted psychology. I can’t think, at present, of a better word for it. But since 2001 the United States has experienced a devastating terrorist attack, two wars in far off nations, three highly contentious presidential elections (and at least two of those involved incumbents who were highly despised by the other side), and a broken economy.

    I just wonder how much this will last. And, since typing this, another question rises in my mind: is American Civil Religion suffering a crisis too? I feel, more than anything else, that when historians write about this era and use the framework of civil religion, it will reflect a new transformation, something that is more cynical, hard-edged, and waiting for a new transformational figure to recreate it into a new, fresh, patriotic religion.

    Sorry if I sound like I’m rambling, but I had to respond to this post. The words we use to talk about foreign and domestic problems always matter, as Michelle Alexander indicated in the blurb that was quoted above.

    • Well said, Robert. I think I’m on board with the notion of a post-post-9/11 world. We’re not just reacting to 9/11 anymore. We’re reacting to the events that were responses to 9/11. – TL

  3. I really enjoyed this post, and have been thinking along quite similar lines the past few days, but not as eloquently.

    I think you are absolutely right to zero in on Potter’s choice not to name the system in this speech, but I wonder if “reluctance,” or Rossinow’s attribution of that choice to political canniness, is the only force at work here.

    It seems to me that Potter is struggling throughout the speech not so much with finding a name for US foreign policy, but with finding the precise terms for and parameters of the kind of complicity “ordinary people” or “ordinary men” have in the execution of that foreign policy. Potter seems to me to be teetering between a strong accusation of complicity–that of actively reproducing the system through the love of material gain and the fear of communism–and a weaker one–that of acquiescence or evasion. The key phrase seems to me to be “our revulsion at that insight, our refusal to accept it as inevitable or necessary”–“revulsion” is more involuntary, but “refusal” can be read almost either as mostly synonymous with “revulsion” or much more strongly and voluntaristically. (I cannot help but thinking of the Al Chet which will be said on Yom Kippur with its repeated admissions of stubbornness or “hard-heartedness”–do we make our hearts hard self-consciously, or have they just come to be that way?)

    So I might read Potter’s speech less as itself reluctant or canny and more as genuinely confused. Does the system include “ordinary people” or is it the system that McNamara et al. have forced on a docile nation? I think Potter doesn’t know.

    • Thanks for this, Andrew! It’s really illuminating. I think you capture some really important aspects of Potter’s speech. What to do with the sort of revulsion at the behavior of one’s own country that Potter notes remains one of the greatest political challenges. Certainly marching isn’t enough (which is one of the points of Potter’s speech). Nor does merely denouncing injustice solve all potential problems of complicity. I value Potter’s seeing such revulsion as a possible start of political analysis change, rather than of a turn to cynicism and surrender (or even settling for Cassandra-like pronouncements that offer no real hope of change). Genuine confusion is far superior to confident despair.

  4. Never studied the period, but I experienced it (drafted in summer 1965). The problem for moderate liberals at that time was on the one hand you had LBJ fulfilling many of JFK’s promises, passing the Voting Rights Act and working on the Great Society. Liberalism seemed at last to be victorious. On the other hand you had LBJ edging his way into Vietnam. The intellectual dissonance was immense, or at least that’s the way I remember it.

    • Nicely put. The challenge for historians when teaching about (or working on) LBJ is to capture this complexity. In hindsight, the Great Society was the high-water mark of the mid-20C American liberalism. Though some small, positive changes continued to happen during the Nixon years (e.g. the creation of the EPA, federal affirmative action measures, Native American self-determination), these largely came about because of sheer political momentum, a Democratic Congress, and Nixon’s willingness to use domestic policies for various divide-and-conquer reasons. Whatever social democratic impetus there had been in mainstream American politics began rapidly slowing after 1968. And this was clear long before Reagan’s election in 1980. All of which makes it far too easy to see LBJ in a very positive light, especially given the extraordinary forgetfulness about Vietnam that has set in over the last two decades.

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