In Little Red: Three Passionate Lives through the Sixties and Beyond, Dina Hampton does something unique in writing about the history, meaning and legacy of the 1960s in the United States. She gives us intimate portraits of three very different people whose lives were forged in the red hot political cauldron of that era: the Communist Party champion of Black Power, Angela Davis; the New Left firebrand, Tom Hurwitz; and the neo-conservative advocate of unbridled American power, Elliott Abrams. Her three subjects, fascinatingly, all attended at the same time the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, collectively known as Little Red. The name is telling: the school was founded in Greenwich Village in the 1920s as a proudly left-wing progressive private school and nothing, not even McCarthyism, got in the way of that leftist vision of social justice pedagogy. At Little Red, Davis, Hurwitz and Abrams learned even as children that challenging the political status quo was the right and proper duty of every American. As Hampton shows us, that duty took quite divergent forms in their hyper-political lives.
Little Red is not a polemic or a didactic tale. Hampton is less interested in making a case for any particular political cause or movement than she is in exploring what drives people to passionate, ideological commitment. What I found remarkable was Hampton’s ability to create empathic portraits of each of her protagonists, none of whom are without serious flaws both as people and as political actors. She can make a reader understand why Angela Davis in the 1960s decides to become a member of the Communist Party and celebrate the Soviet Union and East Germany as exemplars of human freedom and models for the American racial justice struggle. She can make us see how and why Tom Hurwitz turned to violent confrontation with political authorities in the face of America’s deadly policy in Vietnam and then embraced for several years Maoism and China’s Cultural Revolution. And perhaps most unexpectedly, especially for readers here, she can evoke how New Left tactics in the Sixties hardened the heart of Elliott Abrams and placed him on a path toward a no holds barred anti-communism that would lead him to champion the murderous right-wing regime in El Salvador in the 1980s, as well as the brutal thuggery of the Contras in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration.
I’m a university-based historian accustomed to reading, lecturing, and writing about the Sixties from the perspective of structure, event, and context—and I know that some of the academic writing about the Sixties has turned spectacular human drama into dry-as-dust stuff. Hampton makes the Sixties a story of emotion, passion, and character; of people who make hard choices in real time spurred on by lovers, friends, and the desire to act in a world turned inside out. All of us who are political people understand that far more than dispassionate analysis goes into our political decision-making. In a messy, very personal, very intimate way we develop a core set of values and a hierarchy of beliefs, almost always in conversation with friends and loved ones. Hampton helps us to understand that process in her powerfully written account of three lives in the balance in the Sixties era. How and why we become political is at the heart of Hampton’s story.
Hampton does not stop her account in the 1960s. The last third of her book follows Davis, Hurwitz, and Abrams through the changing times of last decades of the twentieth century and right up to the present. Hampton’s account of how these three brilliant, sometimes infuriating, often kinetic people figure out how to keep their Sixties-era political passions intact in the face of massive changes in American and international affairs makes for fascinating and moving reading—even when one disagrees wholeheartedly with one or another of the choices being made.
Little Red gives us another way to encounter the radical politics of the Sixties and to ponder the choices individuals made in the face of endemic racism and sexism, the catastrophic war in Vietnam, and the obduracy of the American political establishment during those turbulent times. It raises a multitude of questions about the meaning of leftist politics in the Sixties, about how social and political change can and should be made in a nation that professes democratic values, and about what an individual can and should do when confronted by public policies and social practices he or she finds immoral, destructive, and even deadly. By making these questions about human choice and not broad social structures or political economy, Dina Hampton has given us a history with which we have to wrestle at a very personal level.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]