U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jim O’Brien: The Student Movement and the New Left, 1960-1969 (Part III)

[Note to readers:  “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a five-part participant-observer account of the period written in 1996 by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press.  Part I of this essay can be found here, and Part II of this essay can be found here.]


The national SDS convention at the University of Michigan in June of 1967 was my first glimpse of the student New Left on a national scale.  I honestly can’t re-create my feelings toward it:  exasperation stands out in my mind, but there must have been other feelings I can’t retrieve.  My clearest memories have to do with the loose and irrelevant (for the most part) plenary sessions.  Old-time SDS’ers Steve Max and Mike Zweig, who alternated in chairing them, had a thankless job.  The “Kissinger quorum,” named after a witty former national secretary of SDS, Clark Kissinger, was talked about though never resorted to.  It defined a quorum as “one half of those present.”

Snapshot:  TV lights, by prior arrangement, have bathed the auditorium for an hour while delegates discuss the pros and cons of draft resistance in the most solemn terms, doing justice to both the moral and the strategic implications.  The hour elapses, and the kleig lights go off.  In a split second, the auditorium erupts in shouting, laughter, paper airplanes, water pistols, and the sheer joy of living irresponsibly.

Snapshot:  An evening plenary is about to start, perhaps an hour late, as the chair has finally outwaited the hijinks.  All is quiet.  From a door behind the rostrum, Paul Buhle (of whom more later) walks in with a large paper bag.  He announces dramatically, “Does anyone really need potato chips?  I’ve got ten bags.”  He walks slowly up one of the aisles throwing them right and left as knots of people stand up all over the auditorium laughing and shouting, “Me!” and “Over here!” and “Please!”  (Paul hates to have that story told, but it lives in my mind, both as a vignette of that SDS convention and of his genius for bringing out the absurdity of a scene.)

Snapshot:  It is late at night on the first floor of an off-campus living co-op, packed with SDS delegates.  I am with a woman friend from college, who has come up to visit for a day during the SDS convention.  We are with a cluster of men whom I’ve just met.  Each of them seems determined to impress upon her the importance of his work in SDS.  The most horrifying is a man from Colorado who says he and his wife have just had a baby and his organizing is so important that he doesn’t know if he can stick around to help out.  (It was never clear to me just what he was organizing.)

I’m sorry my college friend wasn’t around for the one substantive discussion that stands out in my mind.  A women’s caucus brought to the majority-male plenary a resolution which (they told us) could be discussed but not amended.  The resolution struck the varied themes of the emerging women’s liberation movement, from job discrimination to anti-abortion laws.  Beyond the details, it forcefully asserted women’s right to make policy for SDS.  A couple of diametrically opposite reactions from male delegates stick with me.  Toward the end of the debate, Thorne Dreyer from the University of Texas, a tall, imposing figure in jeans and a cowboy hat, went up to the rostrum and said with affected shyness that he didn’t usually speak at those meetings.  But:  “I just wanted to say that where I come from, the main way that women come into SDS is by sleeping with some cat.”  For his part, Steve Max, who chaired the session, ended it by gently underlining how hard it was for most men in SDS to grasp the resolution.  It went something like this:  “This session reminds me of the time my girl friend informed me she was moving to New Jersey and going to law school.  First I was angry, then I thought it was funny, then finally I realized she was going to do it.”

I saw no clear-cut factional lines at that convention.  The overriding tone, especially among the men, was a kind of romantic individualism.  Greg Calvert, a young psychologist who was retiring as SDS national secretary, expressed it in his official report to the members.  He said something along the lines of, “Whatever else the movement did, some people’s lives were changed.”  Self-expression seemed as important as any more narrowly political goals.  There was a kind of restlessness in the air — a fear of being hemmed in by discipline from whatever source.  In that respect, SDS felt like a barometer of the student movement, not a leader of it.

The one disciplined organization with much of a presence in SDS, the Progressive Labor Party, was biding its time.  PL was a small far-left party whose leaders had left the Communist Party USA in 1961, taking the side of China in the Sino-Soviet quarrel that split world communism.  China accused the Soviet leaders of “revisionism,” of abandoning the goal of world revolution.  Student-age PL members had joined SDS in 1966, after SDS repealed a clause in its constitution that barred “Communists” from membership.  They had won support on a few campuses, including Harvard, through their businesslike approach and through their cut-and-dried analysis of society.  The working class was central, in their view.  Radicalized students, while seeking to attract as much support on campus as possible (“base-building”), should reach out to blue-collar workers, who held the key to any real change in American society.

Like other Leninist groups, Progressive Labor claimed the mantle of the Russian Revolution of 1917.  It took revolution in the United States as a goal, based on the model of what happened in 1917.  It evangelized on two levels.  To the already initiated, it offered a full revolutionary program; to the casual recruit, a common-sense program organized around immediate demands.  PL’s thoughtful politicking contrasted with SDS’s general aimlessness.  If PL members caucused after the Ann Arbor convention, I suspect they decided that the chaotic SDS milieu was ripe for their simple political formulas.  They would show up in force at the next SDS convention, and the one after that.

From Protest to Resistance

Storm clouds in the summer of 1967 portended a deepening crisis in American society.  A string of riots erupted in dozens of urban ghettoes, most spectacularly in Detroit and Newark.  Police and National Guardsmen killed scores of people in the riots, which seemed to show that liberal reforms had scarcely touched the underlying problems of American racism.  Not since the Civil War had Americans killed each other on that scale.  Alongside the exploding racial tensions, anger about the Vietnam war grew steadily.  The April 15 anti-war march in New York had been the biggest by far; another one was planned for October to the Pentagon.  Draft resistance grew apace.  Martin Luther King called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”  President Lyndon Johnson still pledged victory in Vietnam, but he had a fight at home too.

That was my first summer living in Madison.  I shared an apartment with a man and a woman who lived together, and I hoped she would never answer the phone when my parents called.  (It did happen once, and she was thoughtful enough to say they had the wrong number.)  We lived a few blocks from campus in one segment of an old wooden building that once served as railroad-worker housing; across the street was the switching yard, where trains came together with deafening booms that I somehow got used to.  The youthful Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union (an outgrowth of the “We Won’t Go” statement) shared the basement with a small printing press, bought by our SDS chapter using proceeds from MacBird.  (Later in the summer, Madison’s liberal evening newspaper ran a sympathetic article on the draft resisters, giving our address.  The landlord evicted them.)  The glass on our front door had stickers with slogans such as “Mississippi, Vietnam–Freedom is the Same All Over” and “Let the People Decide” along with (my own favorite) “These Premises Protected by Giant Frogs.”

Madison is too hot in the summer, but in Wisconsin too hot is better than too cold.  I spent the summer mostly studying for preliminary exams (the last step toward a PhD before writing a dissertation), often with the Beatles’ new Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band playing in the background.  My social life came mainly from a twice-weekly pickup softball game behind a nearby student dormitory.  The game included a mixture of political and cultural radicals (the jazz critic Ben Sidran played, as did Paul Soglin, who went on to serve multiple terms as mayor of Madison).  I’d look back at the games fondly, except that in mid-summer, when one of the women in the Draft Resistance Union started coming, we adopted a rule that women couldn’t play.  There was no controversy, and she didn’t make an issue of it.  But it’s a shameful memory in my mind.  Two years later, my friend Ann Gordon played in the game regularly, and was surprised when I told her that women had once been excluded.

Madison was a mellow place, but not an island.  The war was always in the background.  Nearly a half-million American troops were in Vietnam by mid-1967.  Every Thursday the radio news gave the toll of American soldiers killed during the week.  A bit at a time, the figures climbed toward the eventual total of 58,000.  (The toll on Vietnamese civilians was many times higher, but no one seemed to keep track.)  President Johnson could only speak of “the light at the end of the tunnel” so many times before the promise of an easy victory seemed to fade.  Opposition was starting to crop up in unexpected places.  On the Fourth of July, the retired US Army general who keynoted Madison’s annual celebration stunned the crowd by denouncing the war.

America was getting tired of Vietnam.  As for the radicals, we were tired, but we were also angry.  For us, the war wasn’t just a tragedy but the evil concoction of America’s evil rulers.  We saw Vietnam as part of a pattern of a bipartisan American foreign policy.  We saw no hope within either political party for ending the war.  It was a liberal Democratic president, in fact — Lyndon Johnson — who was acting as the Captain Ahab of the Vietnam war.  We felt a growing desperation to act against the war however we could.

The return of Dow Chemical recruiters in October defined the fall of 1967 on the Madison campus.  The mood among radicals had continued to shift.  This time the debate centered, not on whether to obstruct the recruiters, but whether to also have a picket line.  In the name of moving “from protest to resistance,” some activists opposed a picket line — they wanted to force everyone to choose between sitting-in and staying away.  But they were outvoted in an ad hoc mass meeting a few days before the demonstration.

If the last Dow demonstration had suggested a comedy of errors, this one suggested no comedy at all — even with the visiting San Francisco Mime Troupe leading the march up Bascom Hill.  There was no question about the site (the Commerce Building, behind Bascom Hall) and none about what to do.  As picketers chanted outside, hundreds of us filtered into the hallway where the interviews were scheduled, blocking all access.  The bumbly campus police chief, Ralph Hanson, spoke through a megaphone, seeming to endorse a vague compromise.  The university administrators chose force.  A contingent of riot-equipped city police showed up with orders to clear the building and clear it fast.  They used the club-and-grab method, which got the job done.  I can be philosophical about it because I happened to be carrying a thick notebook which I placed over my head just before the club came down.  Still, it stung a lot.[1]

From the policemen’s point of view, the problem was that they had deposited their newly made enemies (only some of whom had to leave for medical attention) outside the building in front of hundreds of horrified bystanders.  Hundreds swelled to thousands.  The police used tear gas repeatedly during an hours-long cat and mouse game as angry students taunted them and tried to get back into the building.  (The next day somebody climbed the Abraham Lincoln statue that commanded Bascom Hill and put a gas mask on Lincoln’s face.)

The Dow protest was big news in Wisconsin.  Statewide, the issue was law and order; the police were seen as heroes staving off anarchy.  On campus, the issue was violence by the police.  A mass rally in front of the library that evening drew thousands of students.  A faculty member got emotional applause when he announced that some two hundred outraged faculty were present and would stand between the students and police (a safe enough offer since the police were nowhere in sight).  A protest strike swept the liberal arts college.  Over two thousand students signed a petition claiming “responsibility” for the Dow protest, to avert the scapegoating of a few students.  The ripples of activism had clearly gone far beyond the initial splash.[2]

Connections, the underground newspaper edited by Bob Gabriner, a history grad student, published its best issue in the aftermath of the Dow affair.  It eloquently assailed the university’s unleashing of the police, and it reprinted a bitter tract by Jerry Farber called “The Student as Nigger.”  The back cover (later a nationally distributed poster) featured a quote from Lyndon Johnson — more or less “Let our foreign policy be guided by a desire to do in the rest of the world that which we do at home” — superimposed on a photograph of a Madison policemen swinging a club at a fallen student.

The sad truth was, however, that at that juncture indignation was all New Left radicals had to offer.  We had a negative critique of the university, and of the society which it served, but we had nothing to offer by way of a positive program.  Our SDS chapter floundered.  Dave Goldman, an undergraduate who was nominally SDS president, made a cool and defiant witness before an investigating commission headed by the Republican lieutenant governor, but he rarely came to chapter meetings.  After a month-long flurry of well-attended meetings, SDS settled into being little more than a symbol.  We had “the franchise” as the local embodiment of national SDS, but we did little.  Connections, the underground paper, became the main activity for several of us, while others helped to expand the off-campus Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union.  The WDRU had a core of full-time organizers, mostly dropouts from the university, who lived on a pittance.  They worked mainly with high school students to build a base for draft resistance.  They also mustered support when any anti-war activist was summoned to Milwaukee for his Selective Service exams.  Connections’s second-best issue, published in the winter (and edited by another history grad student, Ann Gordon) featured a barrage of articles on all aspects of draft resistance.

Given our belief that liberalism was bankrupt, it galled the student radicals no end that Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for president became the political highlight of early 1968 in Madison.  McCarthy announced his challenge to Lyndon Johnson’s renomination in the autumn, saying he hoped to bring alienated young people back to mainstream politics.  Wisconsin had an early, important Democratic primary (the first one after New Hampshire) and Wisconsin liberals flocked to McCarthy.  To no avail, we radicals on campus labeled him an ineffectual loser who didn’t even pledge to stop the war.  Around Madison, his campaign took on the atmosphere of a crusade, fueled by countless student volunteers.  Statewide, the anti-LBJ spirit fed on the Tet Offensive in February.  The Vietnamese rebels not only had survived a three-year American onslaught but suddenly were seizing towns and military outposts all over South Vietnam.  It belied the administration’s repeated assurances of American victory.  Two days before the Wisconsin primary, facing his first defeat and an overwhelming one at that, Johnson announced he would not run for re-election.

We stood on the sidelines.  I guess what it came down to was that we and the liberals made two different assessments of the times we were living through.  We thought in apocalyptic terms.  Vietnam and the urban riots bespoke a spiraling crisis that called for a decisive break with the status quo.  The only alternative seemed to be the untrammeled triumph of the most violent, reactionary aspects of American society, represented by the war.  Paul Buhle frequently quoted the Afro-Caribbean Marxist C.L.R. James as saying the world had to choose “socialism or barbarism.”  Liberals, for their part, had far more limited expectations of what kinds of departures from the status quo might be possible or desirable.

For all the futility of our SDS chapter, in the spring of 1968 we still felt we were part of history.  That was a time of upheaval.  For a time, the Tet Offensive led many of us to expect the war to end in a glorious rout (i.e., that what happened in 1975 would happen in 1968).  LBJ’s abdication also showed us a new volatility in mainstream American politics.  Martin Luther King’s assassination in early April 1968 sharpened our sense of social fragility.  Riots tore up numerous big-city ghetto areas after King’s murder.  On the Madison campus, black students (a small but now growing minority) drew close to half the student body to Bascom Hill to hear black speakers vent their anger at American society.  It was the first appearance by blacks as a political force on the Madison campus.  Later that spring, black members of the football team boycotted the team’s annual banquet charging unequal treatment by the white coaches.  Nationally as well, black anger was finding outlets — not only in the riots but in the rise to national prominence of the armed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, started by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland.  The Panthers quickly came to symbolize the militant edge of black discontent.  All in all, the American political framework seemed less stable than ever before in our lifetimes.

Other events made students themselves appear to have the power to affect history — more than we had ever dreamed of.  In West Germany the shooting and wounding of a radical student leader, “Red Rudi” Dutschke, sparked mass student protests.  A student uprising in Paris ignited a general strike that briefly paralyzed all of France.  “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” ran a French student slogan (which our Madison SDS chapter later made into a political button).  In this country the counterpart of these events was the revolt at Columbia University, where black students seized a building and white radicals led by the SDS chapter occupied several others.  Following a bloody police raid and mass arrests, a student strike crippled the Columbia campus for the rest of the spring semester.  Columbia seemed all the more portentous because it involved both black and white students and because they acted partly in behalf of the nearby Harlem community.  The Columbia revolt raised the stakes of radical student politics.  Unique though it may have been, we all shone in its reflected glory.[3]

Another SDS Convention

My second SDS convention — this one was at Michigan State University in June 1968 — showed me how much more serious-minded the movement had become.  The convention was bigger, first of all, or at least the plenaries were bigger.  The water pistols and the paper airplanes were gone.  Student members of the Progressive Labor Party came in force, along with plentiful allies in a “Worker-Student Alliance Caucus.”  Their clean-cut appearance and short haircuts were like a badge — the other delegates, though hardly hippies, looked much more raggedy than the PL partisans.

The Progressive Labor line was simple:  that America needed a communist revolution and that only the working class could achieve it.  “Youth” as a category meant nothing in the PL analysis, and students were important chiefly as potential carriers of the gospel to blue-collar workers.[4]  PL’s continuing growth spread panic in the rest of SDS.  Many felt a chilling fear of what a disciplined cadre could do in a loosely structured organization.  Most felt that PL was devaluing the student movement — denying it the historic importance most of us thought it had — and that PL’s prescriptions would stifle the movement’s natural growth.  It was a tricky situation.  PL had every right to be in SDS:  the 1966 convention in Clear Lake, Iowa, had done away with an anti-communist clause in the SDS constitution.  Yet the New Left leaders of the organization felt growing tension as they looked into the future.  It was horrifying to think that PL might someday control the flagship organization of the student left.

At the opposite pole from PL, providing a certain comic relief, was a small knot of flamboyant ex-student rebels from New York’s Lower East Side who called themselves Up Against the Wall Motherfucker.  They mimeographed and distributed cryptic poetry.  Underneath their carefully cultivated tough-but-clever image, they were a mystery.  They nominated a wastebasket for national secretary of SDS during the election for officers.  Only one human candidate ran, and the wastebasket did pretty well.  The Motherfuckers (as they were called) seemed to represent an angry version of cultural revolution, minus the soft edge of hippie-dom.  They glorified the act of dropping out.  Later that summer I asked one of them, an ex-Amherst or Williams College student with a cowboy hat, what relation dropouts had to the means of production; he answered, “A very important relation — none.”  Still later, leafing through a magazine, I found a photograph of Marlon Brando’s stylized motorcycle gang in his 1950s movie The Wild Ones.  I clipped it out because it reminded me of the Motherfuckers.  This same magazine (Life, I think) had a picture that reminded me just as strongly of Progressive Labor.  It was a photo of the ultra-clean choral group Up With People.

Most delegates stood outside of PL’s Worker-Student Alliance Caucus, and the Motherfuckers weren’t seeking to recruit.  Most of us came simply because we wanted to feel part of a national movement and wanted to share experiences.  But that wasn’t good enough for the loosely defined national leadership of SDS.  They felt a need to point the radical student movement forward, and to do it in a way that would deflect the challenge from Progressive Labor.  The problem was that they didn’t know what the way forward should be, or how best to deflect the challenge.

Two directions offered themselves.  One was a version of the “new working class” theory that had floated around SDS for the past year and a half.  Its promoters claimed that capitalist production was coming to depend more on college-educated technical workers and less on the traditional blue-collar work force.  The theory sought to “translate” the campus revolt into some semblance of the Marxist belief that workers are central to social change.  But nothing indicated that the “new working class” was ready even to unionize, much less to embrace socialist ideology.  A version of the new working class theory came up in a complex document offered to the convention, but delegates had various reasons to vote against it, and it lost badly.

The other direction was to adopt hyper-radical rhetoric.  Progressive Labor was as far to the left as anyone could reasonably hope to be, but nobody wanted to admit that.  It was as if there were a premium on being the furthest left — on being the most resolutely opposed to the status quo.  I remember someone saying, “We’re the real communists, not PL.”  That idea was certainly in the air.  Two of the three national officers elected in East Lansing, Mike Klonsky and Bernadine Dohrn, called themselves “revolutionary communists.”  However satisfying that rhetoric may have been, in practical terms it was a way of buying time in order to figure out what to do.[5]

The intensity of the East Lansing convention had the effect of pushing women’s concerns to the margins.  A women’s caucus did meet, but this time it had no presence at the plenaries.  That was part of the new atmosphere.  Throughout the sixties student movement, “serious” always meant something other than women’s issues.  Once in my dissertation research I found a newspaper article on a civil rights demonstration of Harvard students in 1960; the article quoted an organizer as saying that in order to discourage any appearance of “frivolity,” women would not be invited to take part.  Women were welcome at the SDS conventions I went to, but never on their own terms.  Women’s liberation, a term that some women were already starting to use, was considered a distraction.  It wasn’t what male radicals meant when we talked about transforming society.  At that time, we didn’t think of gender relations as part of what defined society.[6]

It’s easier to describe the SDS convention than to convey a sense of how the convention represented the radical student movement in mid-1968.  We heard little nuts-and-bolts talk about how the local SDS chapters (other than Columbia’s) were actually organized and what they were doing.  Many chapters, I’m sure, had memberships that rose and fell precipitously just as ours did in Madison.  Of the half-dozen Madison people I remember being at East Lansing, three of us were active in the Madison SDS chapter and the others weren’t.  The chapters with the PL-dominated Worker-Student Alliance caucuses were probably the best-defined in terms of who was a member and who wasn’t.  As for PL’s opponents, they were for the most part a collection of assertive individuals from around the country — people who knew each other from national meetings but who didn’t necessarily speak for large SDS chapters.  This was an ironic return to the leadership style of SDS in the early 1960s, when the organization had almost no chapters at all.  Given SDS’s size and prominence in 1968, it was a formula for instability.

As for the new catchword “revolution,” in retrospect it reflected two things besides refusing to be outflanked on the left by PL.  First, it dramatized our revulsion at the status quo.  Liberalism, as we saw it, had gotten the US ever deeper into Vietnam under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and was utterly incapable of solving the crisis of the black ghettoes.  Reforming the system didn’t seem to work.  Second, by calling ourselves “revolutionaries” we flattered ourselves by placing ourselves at the center of history.  We believed that all of society could change — that work relations could be egalitarian instead of top-down, that human needs could replace profit as the basis for decisionmaking, that races and nations could be equal.  An apocalyptic vision of almost-sudden change was taking on a greater and greater appeal within the radical student movement.  And we saw ourselves, in one way or another, as the catalysts for this change.

The Leninist variant of revolution — which called for a disciplined “vanguard” party, as in the Russian and Chinese revolutions — made the role of revolutionaries even more central.  The Leninist world-view which PL brought into SDS posited that a few people, by gauging their opportunities and by marshalling the sheer force of their united energies, could alter the course of world history.  Leninism wasn’t common in SDS in mid-1968, but in the factional maneuverings of the following year, the New Left leadership would resort to it more and more.

There were two moments of unity at the East Lansing convention.  One came at the start of a plenary when journalists were asked to identify themselves.  A man sitting next to me gave his name and said he was from the Detroit News.  Somebody in the back yelled, “Wait a minute!  Isn’t the Detroit News on strike?” and other people yelled, “Yeah!”  The chant of “Out, out” started and almost instantly, the PL student leader, Jared Israel, and the most prominent Motherfucker, Ben Morea, materialized in front of the man asking him to leave.  He did.  The instinctive pro-labor sympathies were nice to see, but I never knew how the man would have explained his presence if he’d been allowed to.

The other moment of unity I remember with unmixed warmth.  To vote for national officers we filed singly past the front desk, where we marked our ballots.  It took forever.  I don’t know who started it, but clusters of delegates started to gather around the microphones dotted about the hall and, in turn, shared songs that they knew.  The highlight came when Tim McCarthy, the chair, and Neil Buckley of Penn State stood at two different microphones and joined in a hauntingly beautiful version of the Irish revolutionary song “Kelly the Boy from Killarn.”  There was an unabashed innocence about all the music.  Looking back, it was like being in the peaceful eye of a storm.  The next year’s events were to tear SDS apart and, for all practical purposes, destroy it.


[1].  Fairness demands that I mention an argument later in the week with an engineering student who claimed that he had lost a chance to interview with the Dow recruiters.  We went back and forth on the issues for a while, then he finally asked, “Did you get hit on the head?”  When I said yes he replied, “Well, it didn’t seem to do you much good.”

[2].  Milt Mankoff, a sociology grad student at the time, surveyed the people who signed the “complicity statement.”  He divided the respondents into those who were new to activism and the “veterans” who had been involved for a while.  The newcomers were more likely to be from Wisconsin rather than out of state, came from families with lower incomes, and in general were closer to being typical University of Wisconsin students.

[3].  I remember getting either a phone message or a telegram during the Columbia building occupation, addressed to our SDS chapter.  It was from one of the occupied buildings, and whoever sent it said students everywhere should emulate the Columbia actions.  “Two, three, many Columbias!” it said, alluding to Che Guevara’s bold slogan “Two, three, many Vietnams!”  I did nothing with the message except report it to friends as a curiosity.

[4].  During several summers, PL recruited student radicals for “work-ins.”  That meant getting blue-collar jobs, making a good impression on the workers, and raising political issues.  In the summer of 1969 I saw a bulletin distributed by a statewide employers’ group in Wisconsin which warned against this kind of infiltration.  The profile of the infiltrator as described by the bulletin was a little puzzling:  employers were warned to be suspicious of young employees who were well-groomed, prompt, and scrupulous in their work habits.

[5].  “What to do.”  J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI made this particular SDS convention famous by pointing out that it included a workshop on “Sabotage and Explosives.”  Mike Klonsky, the SDS national secretary, replied that the workshop was scheduled in order to draw police infiltrators away from the regular meetings.  I believe him.  I happened to be on a committee responsible for scheduling workshops, and I remember that when this title came up a woman on the committee said, “I know why it’s there.  We have to schedule it.”  I typed that day’s schedule for posting and, out of whimsy, put “Ka-boom” in parentheses after the name of that workshop.

[6].  Again, I can’t excuse myself.  I didn’t take the convention very seriously but that included the women’s caucus.  It really wasn’t till the 1970s, when I worked in a cooperative printshop that was mainly composed of women, that I came to feel really angry about society’s discrimination against women.  I think I’m probably typical of a lot of men in the New Left in this delayed reaction to the women’s movement.  It’s one thing to accept something intellectually, and another thing entirely to feel it.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I am glad to read these illuminating reflections, they are necessary not only for deconstructing the past of the US left but also to think about its contemporary direction. I am left wondering (no pun intended) about the “Student as Nigger” tract. What was its impact? How common were such analogies made? And what was the critical response from Black activists and intellectuals? It reminded me of one of the art objects exhibited in a wonderful retrospective of the Bay Area-based feminist artist Lynn Herschman. Through her installations, videos, and performances, Herschman explored the social positions of women as a series of maskings reproduced by and through patriarchal structures. In one of her early interventions, she created a sculpture of her head, adding a dark brown tone to her skin as a form of solidarity with Black people (according to the display label). Although well-meaning, such racialized gestures would be a non-starter today. Again, I can’t help but wonder to what extent they were conventional or normal among white leftists during the Civil Rights era.

    • FYI: the Lynn Herschman show is being exhibited at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Anybody interested in the history of art and feminism from the Civil Rights era to the present should check it out.

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