Reluctant Memoir, Part 2
— Paul LeBlanc
[The first of this two-part personal account appeared in our previous issue. Paul Le Blanc is the author of Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience (Routledge, 2006) and other books on left and U.S. labor history. He is currently active in the Anti-War Committee of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh. In this essay, the author traces the transition from the implosion of the Communist Party-dominated “Old Left” after 1956 to the birth and then crisis of the New Left of the 1960s. — The editors]
I THINK IT was in 1963 that I first became aware of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). My older sister Patty had married a very nice guy named Earl Brecher, with whom she went to Liberia as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, in a program, sending idealistic college graduates to “help” downtrodden areas in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, launched by the Kennedy administration.
Earl’s youngest brother, Jeremy, was a couple of years older than me and was involved in this new group, SDS. I read a mimeographed document called The Port Huron Statement and many other materials he sent me. During a visit to the wonderful home of Patty’s in-laws, in a woodsy Connecticut paradise called Yelping Hill, Jeremy and I talked about folk music, politics, and more.
Jeremy explained to me that, in his opinion, the Communists of the 1930s had been an incredibly impressive force, had accomplished great things, but had also engaged in irresponsible, stupid, self-destructive behavior and policies. It was now incapable of providing a pathway to the future, especially in the new times in which we were living. The rest of the traditional left was also caught in old ideological ruts and political dead-ends that would prevent it from doing the things that needed to be done.
There was a need for a fresh start, for something new — and something new was now coming into being, through movements for peace, for civil rights, etc. SDS was part of that. I should think about joining.
The truth in what Jeremy was suggesting is reflected in this summary (from my recent book Marx, Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience) of what happened in the 1960s spilling over into the 1970s:
"There was an explosion of mass action and creative smaller-group efforts, an inspiring, exhilarating commitment to transforming society — a massive upsurge of youthful idealism and action for civil rights of oppressed races and nationalities, against the threat of nuclear war, for civil liberties, against poverty, for campus reform and academic freedom, against the Vietnam war, for women’s liberation, against anti-gay prejudice, for cultural freedom and revitalization, against the destruction of the earth’s ecology, for the elementary and revolutionary democratic demand to “let the people decide.”
Increasing numbers of people decided to speak truth to power, question authority, move from protest to resistance, finally to be realistic by demanding the “impossible.” The radicalization process helped to show that through collective action people can more effectively deal with their common problems, that if enough people commit themselves to struggles that make sense, it is possible to transform the political climate, change minorities into majorities, and win meaningful victories. Some also learned that electoralism and reformist politics are traps, that ultra-leftism is a dead-end, and that society will not be fundamentally transformed unless the working class (society’s majority) becomes conscious of the need for this to be so. In 1968 many became especially aware of the power of workers, thanks to the May-June events in France. That year also illustrated that the struggle for liberation is global, with the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the resistance to bureaucratic rule and Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the worker-student upsurge throughout Western and Southern Europe, the brutally repressed student demonstrations in Mexico, the intensified battles for peace and justice in our own land.
In the 1964 presidential election, in the face of the right-wing Republican threat represented by Barry Goldwater, who seemed likely to do things like escalate the Vietnam conflict into a full-scale war, SDS adopted a policy of critical support for the re-election of liberal Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, advancing a slogan I liked — “Part of the Way With LBJ” (though I openly campaigned “all the way” for him in Clearfield). Of course, after Johnson won by a landslide, he himself began the escalation of the Vietnam war, and SDS organized the earliest mass march against the war in April 1965.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was identifying with SDS enough to decide to send a filled-out membership application form, a long letter explaining who I was and what I thought, and dues money. I received a heartening response from someone named Carolyn Craven welcoming me. But in addition to wolfing down large quantities of SDS literature, I was connecting with much more.
One of the most important influences on me, by this time, was the stimulating radical-pacifist magazine, Liberation, with a proliferation of thoughtful reports, opinion-pieces, discussions, and debates about civil rights and peace movements among such experienced activists and theorists as A. J. Muste, Dave Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, David McReynolds, Brad Lyttle, Staughton Lynd, Paul Goodman, and others. Also important for me was a weighty, and initially more academic Studies on the Left, in which a variety of left-wing scholars and intellectuals (William Appleman Williams, James Weinstein, Stanley Aronowitz, Eugene Genovese, and others) self-consciously sought to map out new pathways of radical thought.
All this seemed particularly vibrant because it was connected with a rising tide of youthful radical activism definitely not dominated by any of the old left tendencies. A valuable 1962 survey of how such activism had, since the late 1950s, become manifest at the University of California-Berkeley was offered in another inexpensive popular paperback that I was able to purchase in Clearfield, titled Student, by a young David Horowitz (two decades before he swerved so severely and destructively to the right).
In the pages of the liberal weekly New Republic, available in my high school library, I could read updated, hip, incredibly exciting reports by Andrew Kopkind on SNCC, Freedom Summer, the New Left, and the momentous Berkeley Free Speech Movement. I was able to supplement this with important articles and essays in New Politics — especially thanks to materials from Hal Draper.
Draper’s earlier essay “The Two Souls of Socialism” (counterposing revolutionary-democratic socialism “from the bottom-up” to the top-down elitism of Social-Democratic “moderate socialist” reformers and Stalinist authoritarians) was to influence me for years to come. But his on-the-spot coverage of the Berkeley struggles gave some issues of New Politics a “must-read” quality and culminated in his 1966 classic, yet another cheap paperback, Berkeley: The New Student Revolt.
Old Left/New Left Interplay
Of course the sharp and pugnacious Draper, like other New Politics editors, was very much a product of the “old left.” Nor were they the only ones reaching out to connect with, and to influence, those of us who were crystallizing into this vibrant new left. After all, the parent group of SDS was itself a preeminently old left formation going back to 1905, the “moderate socialist” League for Industrial Democracy (LID). More or less a front-group for the Socialist Party, the LID could boast of two leading personalities, both energetic thinkers and doers, Michael Harrington (in his late 30s) and Tom Kahn (in his late 20s).
Harrington, author of the best-selling (inexpensive paperback) classic on poverty in the United States, The Other America (1962), was the LID’s charismatic Chairman. Kahn, LID Executive Secretary, was a close associate of the brilliant civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin (himself an aide to famous Black trade-union Socialist A. Philip Randolph, and at times to Martin Luther King). Kahn had substantial civil rights experience and had authored an LID pamphlet that offered an incisive radical analysis of what it would take to end racial oppression, The Economics of Equality.
Much later I would learn that Harrington and Kahn were protégés of Max Shachtman, who started off in the Communist movement of the early 1920s, then along with James P. Cannon had led the U.S. Trotskyist movement. But there was a sharp break with Trotsky and Cannon in 1940, after which Shachtman led a revolutionary socialist group that by the mid-1950s was evolving in the direction of “moderate socialism” (in the process losing the allegiance of some comrades, like Hal Draper), merging into what was left of the old Socialist Party led by “the grand old man of Socialism,” Norman Thomas.
Harrington and Kahn seemed to have absorbed all of what Shachtman represented, and seemed incredibly coherent, capable, razor-sharp — intellectually, organizationally, polemically, factionally. Despite their relative youth, here was the Old Left par excellence!
When one heard Shachtman explain himself (as I did a couple of years later), one heard passionately revolutionary syllables forming stolidly reformist words. Uncompromising notions of class struggle became inseparable from a commitment to the far from radical officialdom of the AFL-CIO and to its place in the Democratic Party, and the defense of socialism from Stalinist betrayal added up to an alignment with the U.S. government in the cause of Cold War anti-Communism — all with a Marxist flourish.
On the other hand, as Kahn later reminisced, Shachtman had driven home, over and over again, this essential idea: “Democracy was not merely the icing on the socialist cake. It was the cake — or there was no socialism worth fighting for.”* Of course, this key insight, so alien to ideologies infected by Stalinism, was not unique to Shachtman but can be found, expressed with strikingly similar words, in Rosa Luxemburg and others, including Cannon, Trotsky, and Lenin.
There were other spinoffs from Trotskyism (but with no “moderate socialist” admixture) that sought to have an impact within the new left milieu — I saw one sign of this in the easy availability, through SDS literature lists, of such booklets by C. L. R. James and his co-thinkers as Facing Reality (of which I couldn’t make sense at the time). More accessible was a “Marxist-Humanist” pamphlet by Raya Dunayevskaya, of the small News and Letters group, which seemed incredibly innovative in connecting the civil rights struggle, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the growing movement against the Vietnam war with ideas of Karl Marx, especially his youthful 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
There was also the interminable factional fault-finding Spartacist League, and what struck me as the shrill super-leftist stridency of the Workers World Party and its affiliate Youth Against War and Fascism. Somewhat more interesting to me, but seemingly two or three steps removed from the new left milieu (and dismissed by many within that milieu), was the more “orthodox” Trotskyism offered by the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance.
“Old Left” influences were hardly confined to elements that had associated with defending or breaking away from the perspectives of Leon Trotsky! As already emphasized, the weight and influence of the Communist Party could by no means be discounted — there were still a few thousand Communist Party members (more than all the Trotskyist and ex-Trotskyist groups combined), many with significant political experience and skills developed in earlier decades in the labor, anti-racist and other struggles, drawing on still significant resources, and backed by the greatly tarnished and yet still considerable prestige of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In order to reach out to radicalizing youth, the CP established the W. E. B. DuBois Clubs, which had some appeal in certain areas. Its ideological influences continued to be felt in more independent publications such as the National Guardian and Monthly Review — although the “leftist” challenge of Maoism (as the Chinese Communist Party increasingly challenged the policies of the Soviet Communist Party in world affairs) soon found influential reflection in their pages. The primary organizational form that Maoism took at that time, however, was in a recent splitoff from the Communist Party — the vibrant and active Progressive Labor Movement, which soon renamed itself the Progressive Labor Party and not long after would intervene heavily into SDS itself.
All this helps us to see important aspects of the context within which the new left grew. But the new left of the early-to-mid-1960s does not come into focus until we shift our view to its actual organizations. The perception of that time was that SNCC and SDS together constituted the heart and soul of the vibrant new movement. SNCC had been playing a central role in the civil rights struggle, and SDS — rapidly growing from a couple hundred in 1962 to about 5000 in 1966 — had been playing a visible role in anti-apartheid protests, in pressing for “an interracial movement of the poor,” in organizing the first major march against the Vietnam war in the spring of 1965, and in articulating a radical vision of social change.
Heart and Soul
A full-scale history of the organization I joined can be found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s unsurpassed book SDS. For my own SDS experience, I would need to give attention to where I tried to help build it on a local level once I left Clearfield and went to the University of Pittsburgh. The complex history of SDS in Pittsburgh, inseparable from the richer history of more broadly-defined new left and protest currents, will have to be explored another time. But perhaps a few snapshots can give some sense of how its “heart and soul” were perceived by one young member in 1965 and ’66.
One of the snapshots is a button and a pamphlet that SDS produced, which many of us embraced as our own. The button proclaimed the simple slogan “let the people decide,” and The Port Huron Statement explained its meaning — the need for “participatory democracy.” The Statement charged that much vaunted U.S. commitments to freedom and peace “rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North” and were “contradicted by its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.”
Claims that the U.S. stood for social justice were thrown into doubt, since “while two-thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance.” U.S. politics “rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than being truly “of, by, and for the people.” It asserted:
"In a participatory democracy, the political life would be based in several root principles:
"that decision-making of basic social consequence be carried on by public groupings;
"that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;
"that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life;
"that the political order should serve to clarify problems in a way instrumental to their solution; it should provide outlets for the expression of personal grievance and aspiration; opposing views should be organized so as to illuminate choices and facilitate the attainment of goals; channels should be commonly available to relate men [i.e., people] to knowledge and to power so that private problems — from bad recreation facilities to personal alienation — are formulated as general issues.
"The economic sphere would have as its basis the principles:
"that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; selfdirect, not manipulated, encouraging independence; a respect for others, a sense of dignity and a willingness to accept social responsibility, since it is this experience that has crucial influence on habits, perceptions and individual ethics;
"that the economic experience is so personally decisive that the individual must share in its full determination;
"that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation."
For some of us in SDS, this added up to a genuine socialism. Not all were willing to embrace that tainted word, but we all felt fine with the word “radical,” which literally meant going to the root of things and implied that need for fundamental social change.
Another snapshot involves the November 27, 1965 March against the Vietnam War organized by SANE in Washington, DC. A bearded Carl Oglesby, the eloquent president of SDS, takes the podium and explains the pattern of U.S. foreign policy — numerous foreign interventions led by a government committed to the profits of U.S. businesses overseas. He claimed that he no longer considered himself a liberal, but was a radical instead.
Oglesby noted that the liberalism then prevailing in U.S. politics had two very different components — a corporate liberalism that dominated the economy and the government, and a humanist liberalism which shared many of the same values with the radicals of the new left but was entangled with a Democratic Party that was deeply committed to the “bi-partisan” foreign policy that he had been describing and that had led us into Vietnam. He concluded:
"We are dealing now with a colossus that does not want to be changed. It will not change itself. It will not cooperate with those who want to change it. Those allies of ours in the Government — are they really our allies? If they are, then they don’t need advice, they need constituencies; they don’t need study groups, they need a movement. And it they are not, then all the more reason for building that movement with the most relentless conviction.
"There are people in this country today who are trying to build that movement, who aim at nothing less than a humanist reformation. And the humanist liberals must understand that it is this movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune. We radicals know the same history that you liberals know, and we can understand your occasional cynicism, exasperation, and even distrust. But we ask you to put these aside and help us risk a leap. Help us find enough time for the enormous work that needs doing here. Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope."
Yet at a national antiwar conference held in Washington that same weekend, as a factional war erupted (the “Trots” of the SWP and YSA had called for a demand of “bring the troops home now,” which was denounced as too radical and divisive by many others there), SDS as a national organization held itself aloof. An SDS position paper by Paul Booth and Lee Webb was circulated explaining that it would not be possible to build an antiwar movement in the U.S. that could actually stop an ongoing war — history showed that such a thing could not be done. Instead, we must patiently and persistently build grassroots movements that could bring about fundamental social change — to prevent “the seventh war from now.”
Another snapshot from two months later. I am at a national SDS conference in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Jeremy takes me under his wing at one point. He has explained to me that there are very different political currents in SDS. The “right-wing” had closer ties to aspects of the “old left,” especially the LID. Led by Steve Max (whose father had been part of the Gates faction that left the Communist Party in the 1950s), it favored forging a broad coalition of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the churches, the peace movement, and the new left building for broad reforms and working in the Democratic Party.
The “left-wing,” dominated by Tom Hayden, was inclined to reject all that, and to insist that the only serious path was to do community organizing, to build a powerful network of “community unions” that would create genuine participatory democracy at the local level, forging an “interracial movement of the poor” that would actually be able to challenge the corporate elite and put power in then hands of the people. In-between was a more diverse grouping, whose leading personalities included Paul Booth, Clark Kissinger and Lee Webb, that wanted SDS to encompass both of the other currents, but also to engage in a broader range of work — campus reform efforts, antiwar activity and more.
Another issue was that the formal tie between SDS and the LID was moving toward termination, but the question remained as to what the relationship would be.
Jeremy and a friend of his, Doug Ireland, who were somewhat inclined toward the coalitionist wing and felt that relations with the LID were important, invited me to an informal “bull session” taking place in a room shared by Tom Kahn and Paul Feldman, editor of the Socialist Party paper New America. Also present was a young member of the party’s Young People’s Socialist League but more importantly a seasoned activist from SNCC, Ivanhoe Donaldson. I simply sat, watched, listened. In fact, Kahn and Donaldson did most of the talking, with Feldman chiming in occasionally to agree with one or another thing Kahn said.
It was a fascinating verbal dance. Donaldson and Kahn obviously knew each other well, comparing notes and sharing thoughts, as old friends, on recent and current specifics of the civil rights movement in the South. But the pattern of discussion shifted, with Kahn questioning, then needling, then pulling into a positive mode to explain what he meant. After some positive give-and-take, his considerable humor and sharp criticism would merge into a harder jab, from which he then backed off with a friendly word only to create a balance for a yet harder push to drive his point home. Much of the time, it began to seem, he listened to Donaldson only for the purpose of advancing his own agenda.
Kahn was challenging what did seem like a nebulous idealism of what he termed “mystical militants” whom he saw as all too prevalent in SNCC and SDS. (“We need to deal with the real world, real world!” he would admonish.) Against a naively emotional militancy, he emphasized the necessity of analysis, program, strategy, tactics. One must, he emphasized (employing what was clearly a Marxist perspective, well argued), understand the necessary interplay between the struggles for racial and economic justice, and the fact that it is the working class (with all of its diversity and contradictions) that is central to this combined struggle. This made essential the development of closer and broader ties between the civil rights movement and the labor movement. This, in turn, meant that SNCC and others working for civil rights in the South must be connecting seriously with AFL-CIO unions there. (This sounded right to me.)
Yeah, Donaldson responded, but those unions are all-white and racist, if they’re there at all. Where are these representatives of “progressive” unionism you’re talking about? Kahn ticked off the names of AFL-CIO officials in one or another Southern city. Donaldson pointed out the limitations of each — but Kahn would not concede the point.
The discussion then took a more disturbing turn — Kahn’s angry, sneering attack on “Stalinist influence” and “Stalinoid” operatives in the civil rights movement. (Inwardly I bristled — it reminded me of J. Edgar Hoover’s hateful book that had attacked my own roots.) “What are you talking about?” Donaldson challenged. Kahn named names — this and that “movement lawyer,” this and that advisor and financial donor, this and that staff member, and when he refused to consider the SNCC activist’s responses and kept on the attack, Donaldson finally walked out.
Then Kahn turned his attention to my SDS comrades. “Was I too hard?” he mused — but this turned out to be the prelude to a repetition of a similar dance, with substantially the same themes adapted to SDS specifics, and ultimately building up to the same end-result.
When we three SDSers were once more by ourselves, Doug furiously employed curses I had never heard before, Jeremy voiced a despairing commentary over how rigid and destructive Kahn could be, and I passionately concluded that I much preferred the openness of the new left to the smug and dogmatic certainties of the old.
Summer of ‘66
The summer of 1966 was the twilight year of the “old SDS” to which I had been recruited — a little moment in history in which it seemed to me the coherence of the new left began to unravel, almost as if in fulfillment of Tom Kahn’s unpleasant prophecies.
I have had the honor of making a very brief appearance in Kirkpatrick Sale’s substantial history and also in Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, produced by Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle and Gary Dumm, portrayed as a hardworking young bookkeeper vainly trying to help make sense of the organization’s finances.
It is true that for about $30 a week (worth more then than it is now — but still not much), in the summer of 1966, I worked in the SDS national office. I helped go through the mail, helped fill literature requests, and — with substantial tutoring from Clark Kissinger — I kept the organization’s books and made bank deposits.
While there were certainly financial problems, it seemed to me that the primary problem of SDS involved the organization not having a sufficient infrastructure to draw together the SDS chapters proliferating throughout the country into a cohesive whole. There was no means, organizationally, to carry out a serious political discussion of “what was to be done,” to make serious, democratic decisions on that matter, and to carry out those decisions in a meaningful way throughout the United States. Our structure and infrastructure may have been okay for a group of about 1000 — but not for one of 5000 and rising.
It was a summer of intense experiences and discussions with many others in and around the SDS national office. I remember outgoing national secretary Paul Booth, whose apartment I moved into, who was writing a long position paper that attempted to map out a coherent and multi-faceted strategic and organizational perspective for SDS (“I showed it to Heather [his future wife], and she thought it was very good,” he said proudly), and I especially liked its effort to show that we were part of a mass radical tradition in line with the Populist movement of the 1890s and the early 1900s Socialist Party of Debs — but all this was pretty much ignored by a rapidly growing and radicalizing membership when it was published in New Left Notes.
Booth and I stayed up late one night talking about the relationship of the old left and the new — agreeing that it was complex. He understood when I explained how people coming from the Communist Party experience had been so important to what I was (and to what we as new leftists were, even as we rejected the dogmas and horrors reaching down from the time of Stalin). He added with conviction that the same was the case with some of the “social-dems,” who had not “sold out” en masse to the U.S. State Department. But such things were not seen or accepted, we felt, by many of our SDS comrades.
Well-known Berkeley radical Jerry Rubin came through town for a few days, staying at Booth’s and my apartment, to check out SDS and engage in searching discussions — though not long after he would join with Abbie Hoffman to create the Yippies. During his visit, he certainly seemed to have nothing to do with the “turn on, tune in, drop out” ethos of the growing hippie-influenced alternative culture into which he would soon infuse radical politics with outrageous and often hilarious antics.
But drugs were not completely foreign to our own slightly more staid political scene. I remember the outgoing SDS Vice-President, a young Texan named Jeff Shero, who asked me if it would be okay to store his marijuana in the huge, heavy safe in the SDS national office. (Shocked, I told him no.) “Grass” was proliferating through the youth culture by that time, but it was by no means a staple of the average SDSer, at least in 1966, when it was common for the police to “bust” activists for possession of this illegal substance.
Thus, when Judy Kissinger and I drove the famous protest singer/ songwriter Phil Ochs through Chicago one night after he did a big fund-raising concert for SDS, and from the back seat of the car he offered each of us a joint (in my case, the first time anyone ever did that), both Judy and I (again) “just said no.”
There were many remarkable people I recall from that summer. I vividly remember a wild yet down-to-earth Bob Speck (another Texan), bushy-haired and bespectacled, who worked very hard in the national office, was highly opinionated and often disagreed with what I thought (though he liked Howard Fast novels), who believed in socialism but was inclined to call himself an anarchist because he felt that it would always be necessary to fight against those in authority, no matter what. I remember Art Goldberg, a strange, very tall and thin, simple, warm-hearted, very capable printer, who had been saved as a child from the Holocaust, growing up in a sectarian Christian-communist community, which he left in order to apply the teachings of Jesus in the real world (which he judged with a harsh fundamentalist moralism).
I remember working with a number of young staffers and volunteers who were helping to prepare a mailing of New Left Notes, and listening with fascination to an extended and passionate debate between the warm, earnest and eloquent radical-pacifist Paul Lauter and the no-less warm, though funnier and almost cuddly left-wing socialist Tom Condit, about the importance and possibilities, for revolutionaries, of such things as “trust” — with Lauter insisting on its necessity among revolutionaries, and Condit insisting that this is too fragile a reed on which to build serious politics.
I remember the nascent feminism (though we were not using that word) of dark-haired Arlen Weissman, speaking quietly with thoughtful blue eyes peering from behind wire- rimmed spectacles, and especially of the diligent organizer, a sandy-haired, sturdy young mom, Judy Kissinger, who organized my favorite fundraiser — showings of the wonderful “old left” black-and-white film that had been blacklisted in the 1950s, “Salt of the Earth,” which beautifully interwove issues of class, race, and gender into the story of a heroic strike in New Mexico. She thought it was about time that women started becoming national officers of SDS, and she was thinking about running for one of those positions.
I drank plenty of beer while talking with other SDS friends working in the national office about the nature of U.S. society, the realities of U.S. radicalism, the possibilities of the future, and the problems of SDS. Eric Chester and I agreed that there was no coherence in SDS — organizationally, politically or otherwise — and that no actual or potential leaders seemed geared toward confronting this problem.
Even if the organization grew far more dramatically than it was growing at the time (and in fact that is precisely what happened), under the present circumstances these problems — far from being solved — would just become worse. And the organizational mess that SDS was becoming would not be in a position to win a majority of the American people to the perspectives of “participatory democracy” or to pose a serious challenge to the oppressive power of the corporate capitalist system.
At Clear Lake, Iowa that summer, there were more SDSers gathered at a national convention than ever before. I listened with rapt attention to the eloquent, outgoing president Carl Oglesby, in a keynote talk discussing the fact that there was, indeed, a sense of growing crisis in SDS, despite the fact, and in some sense because of that fact, that it was on the verge of runaway growth. I was relieved that this insightful spokesman understood the vital importance of coming up with a solution to the crisis but wondered what he meant when he prefaced his explanation of what the solution would be with a stress on the need for us to “return to basics.”
There were two fundamental elements of new-left wisdom that must guide us in the days ahead. (Good, I thought. We need new left wisdom — but what could it be?) What must guide us as we move forward into the future, Oglesby explained, are these principles: “experience teaches,” and “let the people decide.”
That was it? “We’re screwed!” I thought to myself.
The discussions at the convention were all over the lot. Some people were putting forward some ideas that made sense to me, but these were mixed in and on an equal par with (and therefore cancelled out by) all kinds of other notions that were going in a variety of different directions. In the elections for new officers, all of the more experienced members of SDS were shunted aside. Swept into the leadership was a new and less experienced layer — expressing “openness” and a heightened but ill-defined radicalism.
Jane Adams, whom I knew as a sincere, hard-working organizer, but with no clear perspectives of which I was aware, became president (our first female national officer), with the vice-president a tall, mustachioed Carl Davidson who appealed to the old traditions of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) but said that instead of workers, we should focus on students as the agent for social change — with what he called “student syndicalism.” The new national secretary was Greg Calvert, a slight, clean-shaven, curly-headed radical teacher influenced by the theories of someone named Herbert Marcuse, whose soon-to-be influential book One Dimensional Man had recently appeared.
In discussions back in the national office in Chicago, I was astonished when Calvert explained (in line with Marcuse), that the working class could no longer be a revolutionary force. We new leftists must recognize ourselves as the primary force that must challenge the U.S. power structure. We must move “from protest to resistance,” directly and with increasing militancy challenging our death-dealing social system with our own lives and bodies — even if we were destroyed in the process.
I was beside myself with anger. All the union people who I had grown up with in Clearfield were being dismissed. These good people had joined together to fight the good fight for a more decent life. Even though most of them weren’t socialists, it seemed to me that socialism or “participatory democracy” or any worthwhile radical change could not be possible unless it made sense to such people as these and unless they became part of the struggle to bring it about.
I was further enraged by what struck me as a blasé “radical” elitism in regard to a majority of the people in our country. It seemed to me, as I thought about how I saw things and how Calvert and other new SDS leaders saw things, that there were two ways of viewing radical politics. One involved a politics of communication, clearly communicating radical ideas to more and more people, and on the basis of those ideas winning them to the struggles against war, against racism, against poverty, for social justice, for “participatory democracy.” That is what I identified with. It drew from the best that was in the radical traditions which had inspired me, and it pointed the way to the creation of a positive future.
The other way to go — and it appeared to be the trajectory into which much of SDS was now being drawn — involved a politics of self-expression. There seemed to be little respect for the struggles and radical traditions of the past, and certainly no respect for most people in the present who were seen as merely corrupted by the affluence of consumer-capitalism and going along with the present-day power structures. To me, this added up to no practical hope for the future. Instead there was the “now” of one’s own radical beliefs — resulting in an activism seen simply as an expression of one’s own rejection of the status quo. If what you did seemed bizarre or threatening or destructive to the working class, the majority of the people, that was not a problem. The whole point was simply to express yourself as someone who rejected the status quo — even if this was done in a manner that was suicidal.
Words, gestures, postures and actions that struck me as dramatic stupidities, however, made good theater. They certainly attracted the entrepreneurial empires associated with the news media and popular culture, which projected such stuff throughout the nation in ways that helped to influence swelling numbers of radicalizing youth, many of whom came to identify precisely with such words, gestures, postures, and actions. For many, the styles and fashions of “new leftism” became far more important than the political substance — which fatally undercut our hopes for creating a society permeated by “participatory democracy.”
While Greg Calvert was absolutely sincere in his passionate call for us to escalate our actions “from protest to resistance,” it was to prove a resistance that was not able to dislodge “the system.” In a sense, however, I was wrong and Calvert was right. This particular trajectory did not isolate the “new left.” Instead it captured imaginations, making an aging leftist philosopher like Marcuse, for example, into a cultural icon, and therefore into a highly valued commodity.
More than this, the new “new left” postures and rhetoric blended far more easily with the burgeoning counter-culture associated with bohemian “hippies” and more the political, if often outrageous, “Yippies” led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. In some ways this opened up marvelous opportunities for capitalist enterprise. Indeed, there was a lucrative proliferation of cultural commodities made available to the exploding market of radicalizing young people (even as many others — including the bulk of the working-class majority — turned away with incomprehension, disgust, or hostility). New high-powered careers and huge profits were made.
On the more radical side of the ledger, there were also immense and liberatory shifts in perceptions, attitudes, values and life-styles that have permeated U.S. culture, setting the stage for the later “culture wars,” but also expanding a potential base on which future radicals can build. And yet “the system” has adapted and, so far, remains very much in place.
In the course of the summer of ’66, “my number came up” within the Selective Service System. I was about to be drafted — but not into the military that was being thrown into the horror of Vietnam. I had earlier filed for status as a Conscientious Objector, and this had been granted by my draft board back in Clearfield. I now arranged for my alternative service to be carried out through employment with the American Friends Service Committee, which opened up a new phase of my life and drew me out of Chicago.
Working in the SDS national office, I had been in a position to see, up close and personal, the utter inadequacy of SDS’s national organizational structure — fragmented and all-too-amateur — and its lack of political cohesion. Taken together, these would result, given the tidal-wave of new members, in a small but promising organization turning into an utterly chaotic national disorganization incapable of doing much more than spinning out of control while being swept along by turbulent events.
SDS ballooned into perhaps 100,000 people claiming to be members, with a succession of national leaderships incapable of maintaining much meaningful connection with all of that. It finally exploded into a mess of warring factions, most of them infected by a more or less superficial Maoism, and it fell apart after a disastrous 1969 national convention. The Progressive Labor Party vainly attempted to maintain its own SDS for a short while, and most of the other fragments formed, respectively, the Weather Underground, the October League and the Revolutionary Communist Party. Many of us didn’t identify with any of that.
I continued to identify with the new left for three years after that (ending up briefly in an entity called the New American Movement), before shifting in a decidedly “old left” direction — but all of that adds up to stories that take us beyond this one. I have never regretted these experiences nor my engagement with the many people of that time whose lives impacted mine. I learned so much, and there remains much to be learned — positive lessons as well as negative — from the things that happened so many decades back.
Historian Van Gosse correctly insists that the new left must be seen as something more than SDS and the white student radicals, that it includes the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King and SNCC and others, the movements of other racially and nationally oppressed groups, and the anti-war struggle, the women’s liberation movement, struggles for gay and lesbian rights, etc.
“Taken together, these movements represent the essence of those years we call, somewhat inaccurately, ‘the 1960s,’” Gosse comments. “And collectively, they built a new democratic order, based on the legally enforceable civil equality of all people, which has survived and extended itself since the sixties — even as the New Right born during those same years mounted its own massive ‘movement of movements’ that surged to power in the 1980s and 1990s.” (Gosse, 4)
It seems to me that Gosse overstates one aspect of his argument. The “movement of movements” that was the new left certainly helped to push the U.S., in many positive ways, into being a more democratic order — but the persisting elitism, authoritarianism and oppression inherent in corporate capitalism remain, as does the task of replacing this with a truly “new democratic order.”
ATC 135, July-August 2008