Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance
by Barry Rubin.
Broadside Books, 2014.
Hardcover, 330 pages, $26.

When a friend of mine, who follows politics very carefully, but usually by reading journals and magazines, came across a brief discussion of Silent Revolution by Barry Rubin, he immediately went online to purchase it. The reason, he said, was “to figure out how the hell this happened!” It was a wise choice.

In the first chapter, Rubin, who passed away earlier this year, writes, “Having spent my career studying Middle Eastern and Third World radicalism, especially how such doctrines both continued and sharply revised Marxist ideology, I could see clearly how such analysis now applies to what is happening in America.” He continues: “This movement, which I will call the Third Left, grew from the failure of the two previous lefts—the Communist Party of the 1920s–1950s and the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s.”

The inflection point, according to Rubin, occurred in June 1969, when the Left-wing political group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) split into different factions after a raucous meeting in Chicago. One faction continued to follow a traditional Marxist-Leninist path, but the others struck out in a new direction. The major event at that meeting, according to Rubin, was the publication by the National Office faction led by Bernadine Dohrn of a new manifesto: “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows.”

Historians can quibble as to whether this was the key document that determined the future trajectory of the Left, but it serves for Rubin as a handy way to discuss the changes he wants to emphasize. A key change, he argues, “was the Third Left’s abandonment of materialism … for philosophical idealism,” which he defines as “deriving conclusions about the world from the mind rather than material evidence. If one simply asserts that certain ideas are “fair” and “just,” these must take precedence. Therefore the fact that the Left’s program had failed so miserably and that liberal programs weren’t working becomes irrelevant.… That’s why the phrase is political correctness not factual correctness.”

This period was also the time when the Left began to shift its focus from economic classes to “protected classes.” Here Rubin notes that combining women and designated groups creates a voting bloc that is greater than 75 percent. Additionally, over time, he says, this coalition has given the Left a powerful rhetorical advantage. Thus, “the fear or accusation of being called racist, sexist, homophobic, or Islamophobic suspended logical discussion or actual evidence.” This shift also helped resolve the awkward problem that many of the purported beneficiaries of economic policies championed by the Left had consistently rejected those policies at the ballot box.

A key point that Rubin makes is that the Third Left also gained control over influential institutions and professions. Especially important, perhaps, was their ability to gain control over schools and universities. He notes that two of the three key figures at the 1969 SDS meeting, Bill Ayers and Mike Klonsky, went on to obtain PhDs in education.

In one of those ever-amusing anecdotes that are so easy to tell these days, he remarks on a visit to a school in Potomac, Maryland where his son had been taking a summer school class. On the wall, he says, were numerous quotations from such Left-wing academics as Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Howard Zinn, as well as a poem from Allen Ginsberg and posters of Malcolm X and Che Guevara. A note to the teacher read, “Thank you Mr. _____ for teaching us to think independently.”

Rubin argues that this kind of education has consequences. Thus, he cites polling data that shows much greater support for socialism among the young than among the old. “Asked in 2009 whether they preferred socialism or capitalism,” he writes, 53 percent of adults said capitalism, 20 percent socialism, and 20 percent said they didn’t know. But among young people between 18 and 30, respondents were evenly divided.”

Perhaps the shrewdest achievement of the Third Left, according to Rubin, was figuring out a way to finance and subsidize this new form of political activity. “New Left militants were scruffy impecunious students; Third Left militants on campus were the professors.” What applies to education, he says, also applies to other institutions. “The Communist or New Left militants worked for tiny radical newspapers handed out on street corners. Third Left militants dominated the main newspapers and television networks in the country.”

The other two institutions he cites are foundations and public sector unions. In the case of the former, he writes, “The conquest of the foundations supplied the Third Left with virtually unlimited cash.” And later, “As a result, the Third Left was far better funded than their conservative rivals, despite all stereotypes to the contrary, and, ironically, used conservative-origin foundations’ funds.” In the case of public sector unions, he cites data that shows that SEIU more than doubled its spending on politics from 2005 to 2009. They were hardly unique.

An interesting and insightful part of Rubin’s analysis involves the rise of the regulatory state. Once again, he sees this as a break from traditional Marxist thinking. “Marx was familiar with governments that were too restrictive, trying to regulate everything and control social behavior. He would have been astonished to hear that the twenty-first-century Left had reversed this point by being both statist and anti-development.”

As an example, he cites the ability of local governments to block Walmart, even as those governments “have been complaining about the lack of low-priced stores for poor people.” He writes elsewhere: “By piling on more and more rules, selective enforcement is inevitable, and in this complex regulatory environment the government can thus treat every firm differently, depending on whether its management is politically palatable (crony capitalism) or whether the administration wants to pick its enterprise or product as a winner or loser.”

A further distinction between the old Left and the Third Left, and what Rubin sees as a major adaptive advantage, is decentralization. Controlled by Moscow, the old Left was bound to antagonize Americans, most obviously perhaps after the Nazi-Soviet pact. The Third Left, however, operates in a more independent, and thus more effective manner.

He writes, “With no party, hierarchical leadership, or even coordinating organization, the movement could become invisible.” He continues, “This invisibility and camouflage equally ensured there could be no organized opposition, no systematic critique of its ideas, and no resistance to its takeover of mass media, universities, grade schools, and popular culture.”

Having admirably dissected the basic anatomy of the Third Left, however, Rubin does not pursue his arguments as far as he might have; health issues may have intervened. Specifically, he does not really provide statistical data that would have strengthened his case. If all of these political and cultural changes had brought about measurable improvements in the lives of Americans, across the ethnic and social divide, then quite deservedly they would be hailed. But have they?

On several occasions, he refers to improvements in the well-being of black Americans. And yet based on median household income, the gap between blacks and whites today is actually greater than in 1970. It is impossible not to see this failure as a function of the changes Rubin describes. More broadly, the United States is now missing approximately 20 percent of its GDP since 2000 compared with previous trend lines. At least some of this must also stem from the changes that Rubin describes.

There are other small shortcomings, notably editing issues that the publisher could easily have corrected, such as quotes that appear twice. But overall, Rubin’s book is an extremely perspicacious explanation of how America changed in the last half century, who helped produce those changes, and why they have been so hard to diagnose. It stands as a worthy lifetime achievement that will prove extremely useful to others who wish to chart a different path and rectify the errors that, sadly, have become so embedded in our politics and way of life. 

Eamon Moynihan, a financial consultant, lives in New York City.