Lost Causes on the Left

Lost Causes on the Left
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“Everything meaningful that’s ever happened in the world, any change, any improvement comes about because of optimism. The pessimists don’t get anything done. They’re naysayers. You have to see the potential for change. And you’ve got to see it not in terms of the moment but in terms of the long view, the long haul.” — Mel Leventhal

Mel Leventhal was involved in the civil rights movement in the deep South in the mid-1960’s. He was part of Martin Luther King’s inner circle, but because he was white in 1965, he was being pushed out of that circle by increasingly vociferous black racists. In the second half of the 1960’s, black nationalists began to get publicity. They began to penetrate the inner circle of King’s nonviolent movement. Leventhal describes how at one meeting, blacks simply told him to shut up. King listened to him on technical issues, since Leventhal was a law student, but the blacks made it clear they didn’t want him in the meetings anymore. He left. He complains that historians now ignore the whites who were involved.

I read his testimony in a book edited by the Left-wing professional interviewer, Studs Terkel. This was his last interview book. He was 91 years old. He died at 96. He had a long and successful career. The Leftist media loved him. He wasn’t that unique as an author. He was a good interviewer. He asked good questions, and he let people talk. Then he edited their transcripts, and he made them sound coherent. There is always a market for a good interviewer who can do this. Terkel made a long career out of it.

The title of the book caught my attention: Hope Dies Last. It was published in 2003. I just happened to spot it at the library over the weekend. Terkel begins the book’s introduction with this statement. “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.” That is a profound observation.

With the exceptions of two retired generals — one of them dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima — one conservative congressmen, and Arlo Guthrie, everybody interviewed in the book was a Leftist. What I found interesting about the book is this: most of them had given up faith in the federal government. They were local activists. Terkel had been one of them long ago. He was a contemporary in Chicago of the legendary activist, Saul Alinsky. He was basically of the same mold. He believed in local activism, not grand world-changing projects. So did Alinsky. Alinsky really did not trust the federal government late in life. Given the careers of his two most famous disciples, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it’s pretty clear that he was right not to trust the federal government. His two most prominent disciples became part of the establishment. They got rich. They accomplished little in the way of systematically Leftist change.

Terkel was part of the 1930’s Left. He was a great promoter of trade unionism. Of all the Leftists’ lost causes, trade unionism has to be the shining example. Membership peaked at 25% of the American labor force as members, and that was in 1953. It was always based on government coercion by the National Labor Relations Board: forced negotiations. The workers who were kept out of the above-free market wage union jobs wound up in below-free market wage jobs. They were hired by those companies that had not been unionized, and who had the pick of the litter of the excluded workers who were not allowed into the unions. The unions discriminated against them. This was especially true of blacks.

The labor movement was never really about labor in general. It was about handpicking certain industries and certain unions. They got preferential treatment from the government. Trade union workers would never admit this, but that was always the economics of trade unionism. The broad mass of workers were discriminated against by the combined efforts of the National Labor Relations Board, the particular union, and the protected industries that had a working arrangement with the unions.

By 2003, the percentage of workers in the American labor force who were members of trade unions was down to about 10%. Most of these worked for the government. In private industry, trade unionism by 2003 was basically invisible.

So, in his last hurrah, Terkel went out to interview a lot of members of the union movement. They were still filled with hope. Yet it was clear by 2003 that trade unionism was an utterly hopeless cause.

Trade unionism had been gutted by the combined forces of Ted Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson by promoting the Immigration Act of 1965, which was signed into law in 1968. This made it possible for low-cost immigrants to compete against union members across the country. Nothing did more for the anti-union right-to-work movement than low tariffs and open borders. The Democrats promoted both policies. The Republicans did not have the votes in Congress. So, the trade union movement was sold out by the establishment Democrats at the national level. I always regarded this as fitting and proper. The feds giveth, and the feds taketh away. I saw what was happening at the time, but the leaders of the union movement, committed as they were to the Democratic Party, rarely talked about it in public. There was never any organized political opposition within the union movement to the Democrats in Congress who sold them out.


As I read these interviews, I thought to myself: “These people devoted their lives to a lost cause, yet they still sing the old songs. They still sound optimistic. They are having zero impact on the economy. They are marginal politically. But they voice great optimism.”

He interviewed Pete Seeger, the folksinger. Seeger always baffled me. He had been a Communist until the early 1950’s. He admitted this at the end of his career. He was famous for his banjo. He had this printed on his banjo: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.” You would be hard-pressed to find a more anti-Communist slogan. He got groups of mostly college-age students to sing at his concerts. He and fellow Leftist Guy Carawan were the only folksingers who ever successfully got people to sing along with them. Others tried and failed. I liked his music, beginning in 1950 with the Weavers. I bought a few of his albums. I knew he was harmless. Communism was a philosophy based on the mandatory nature of bloody revolution as the only way to bring salvation to the social order. It was violent to the core. It was a religion of revolution, as I showed in my 1968 book on Marxism. Seeger was a cheery peacenik.

In 2003, Marxism was dead and buried. There was no hope left inside Marxism. It was finished. So, what did Pete Seeger talk about? He talked about his work to clean up the Hudson River. He talked about his propaganda boat, Clearwater. As he said, the river was cleaner than when he built the boat and started the propaganda campaign. He had optimism. This was legitimate optimism. He wasn’t talking Communist revolution, and he never had. He was just trying to stop industrial polluters and cities that were dumping untreated waste into the river. I was certainly in favor stopping people from using the river as a dump. I used to live a few blocks from the Hudson River in 1973. Seeger never understood that this was a matter of property rights. The problem with the Hudson River is that nobody owns it. So, institutions use it as a free dump. He called on the two state state governments to intervene and stop it. But with two state governments involved, New York and New Jersey, coordination politically is difficult.

Seeger had shifted his allegiance. He went from Marxism, which he never really believed in, to anti-pollution, which he did believe in. There, he had some success. There were a lot of other people who believed that the river was polluted and ought to be cleaned up. These were not ideological Leftists. They were people who bought property on the river. They wanted the value of their property to go up, which it surely did after the river got cleaner. A clean river made the property values go up. He had a cause worth fighting for. He does mention that the rising property values had made it impossible for working-class people to live close to the river. They sold out to people with more money. Surprise, surprise.

He interviewed Jerry Brown. Now, there’s an establishment guy! He was governor of California from 1975 to 1983. He is governor today. If ever there was a non-working-class guy, it is Jerry Brown. His rhetoric is working-class, but his background and career were entirely political all of his life, beginning with his father, who was governor of California when I was in high school in California. He is a lawyer. I can surely understand why he had hope.

Most of the people interviewed in the book were still clinging to the dying remnants of the causes of their youth.

In the case of civil rights, there were lots of victories, 1956-1975. Blacks are allowed to vote now. Nobody burns crosses on their front lawns. But the tax-funded schools they are taught in are substandard. The black family has disintegrated. Crime rates are high in ghettos. Drug addiction is an epidemic. Politically, they are better off. Socially, they are worse off. They traded the birthright of a stable family for the mess of pottage of the right to vote. And most of the time, most of them don’t bother to vote, as Hillary Clinton discovered in 2016.

He interviewed a few young people in their early 20’s who had signed on to continue these lost causes. There was the white girl in her early 20’s who was going door-to-door for a union to organize black women who were running tiny day cares. There was no “oppressing business.” These were just women trying to get by in life by taking in a few dollars a day from other working-class women who needed somebody to babysit their kids. It made the white girl feel good about herself, but if she looked at what she was doing, and she had a nickel’s worth of economic understanding, she would have understood that she was not going to organize most of the tiny day care operations inner-city. These were one-women operations.

Hope dies last. To keep it alive, sometimes it must be refocused, as Pete Seeger learned.


It takes good judgment, meaning wisdom, to decide when to drop a lost cause. Optimism is crucial to every cause, but if optimism is retained beyond the reasonable plausibility of the success of the cause, then the optimist may wind up pouring his dreams down a rat hole.

Almost everything that the Left has promoted has either failed, or has been co-opted by the establishment, or has blown up in their faces. The working-class movement of the 1930’s went belly-up when the working class joined the middle class and disappeared. That transition was in full operation by 1953. That was when trade union membership began to decline.

I am a great believer in optimism. I’m also a great believer in being sensible. It is one of the great challenges of life to know when to drop a lost cause. I have stuck with mine: developing a systematic theory of Christian economics. But I have made a lot of money along the way, so it is something of an avocation with me. I never used it to put food on my table. It was my calling, not my job. I have been willing to quit jobs that I could see were not going to pan out.

I have adopted a general rule: fund a pet project for three years. If the project cannot get self-sustaining in three years, it is time to reconsider the project.

Profile photo of Gary North

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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