U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

[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, Part II of this essay can be found here, and Part III of this essay can be found here.]


 Chicago, 1968

 Between the East Lansing convention and the start of the 1968-69 school year, something happened that hurled SDS at the future like a hand grenade.  That something was the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago at the end of August.

The Democratic Party in mid-1968 stood on the verge of being torn apart by the Vietnam war.  Lyndon Johnson had left the presidential race and Bobby Kennedy was dead — shot in a Los Angeles hotel the night he won the California primary in early June.  That left only one candidate who had faced the voters in the primaries:  the aloof, mistrusted maverick Eugene McCarthy.  Senator George McGovern of South Dakota put himself forward as a surrogate for the Kennedy delegates who shunned McCarthy.  But most delegates had been chosen by party leaders in their states, not by presidential primaries.  Their votes, for the most part, were locked up for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose loyalty to LBJ had never wavered.  The man who once called the Vietnam war “a glorious adventure” was about to win the Democratic nomination for president.  In the meantime, the former Democratic governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was running as an conservative independent with populist rhetoric.  With Wallace and Richard Nixon already in the field (the Republicans chose Nixon at their July convention), the likely choice in November was among three zealous supporters of the Vietnam war.

That the Democrats were meeting in Chicago was symbolic.  Chicago was the fiefdom of Mayor Richard Daley, the quintessential big-city white political boss and a stalwart of the regular party forces that were set to impose Hubert Humphrey’s nomination on the party.  His police force seemed to be spoiling for a fight — in April, Chicago police had violently broken up a Vietnam demonstration.  The Democratic convention promised to be a magnet for protest.

Three different groups announced demonstrations.  The McCarthy campaign hoped to rally its young volunteers for one last stand in Chicago.  But when city authorities refused a permit, the McCarthy leaders backed down and called off the demonstration.  Less easily deterred was an anti-war coalition sparked by Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, SDS leaders of the early sixties, who saw a chance to dramatize the depth of opposition to the Vietnam war.  Finally, the “Youth International Party” (“Yippies”) of media celebrities Abbie Hoffmann and Jerry Rubin called for a festival in Chicago.  Its leaders set forth a tongue-in-cheek list of promises that included putting LSD in the Chicago water supply.

That summer I was living in Madison in a house with five other people.  It was known informally as “the SDS house” because several of us were members and we kept the chapter’s supply of pamphlets and periodicals there.  It bespoke changing times that we rented from a fraternity, which didn’t have enough members to need it.  Occasionally the fraternity’s business agent would come to inspect, and for those occasions there was a well-practiced drill for getting women’s clothing out of sight.  (It was nominally rented only to men, but a mixed group always lived there.)  Summertime was special in Madison, and life was good at our house.  Two of the residents had especially good voices, and we all liked to sing, so we often sat around after dinner and sang together.

We had room for visitors, and we got a lot of them.  One was Tom Hayden, who came to proselytize for the Chicago protests and was brimming with aimless energy.  I’ll never forget his visit.  He’d just read that some hippies had been arrested in New York for using obscenity on the educational TV station to ridicule American culture.  That night, as it happened, Madison’s educational TV channel had scheduled a panel discussion on current issues.  Tom decided we ought to disrupt it in order to show solidarity with the people in New York.  He tried to recruit helpers.  None of us felt like doing it, but some high school students visiting at the same time jumped at the chance to go on TV.  They all went.  Tom did get in a couple of swear words that the station’s blip machine operator was too slow to catch, but then he joined the panel discussion.  Back at our house, he led an impromptu practice for Japanese-style snake dancing, which he said would be part of the Chicago protests.

The demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic convention caught national SDS off guard.  SDS needed time to catch its breath after the exhausting rhetoric of the East Lansing convention in June.  The national office in Chicago, fearing Mayor Daley’s police, at first counseled SDS members to stay home.  Finally, SDS leaders decided that some people should come for the purpose of talking with disillusioned young McCarthy supporters and trying to radicalize them.  The SDS office arranged for an SDS “movement center” in a church basement, where people could gather to discuss issues.

The events of convention week, August 25 to 29, are a blur in my mind.  I was in and out of town, retreating to Madison when I could see no reason for being in Chicago.  I first went to Chicago to work on a wallposter-format daily newspaper sponsored by Ramparts magazine.  A friend from Connections, the Madison underground paper, had gone a few weeks earlier to help set it up.  When the Ramparts editors themselves arrived, the project turned out to have a steep hierarchy; my friend’s immediate superiors turned on him just prior to being frozen out themselves.  I left when he did.  Later I returned for a day or two to help at the SDS movement center.  Then I left again.  On August 28, a beaming Hubert Humphrey won the presidential nomination.  Outside the convention, in front of the Chicago Hilton, Chicago police beat demonstrators, reporters, photographers, and bystanders.  That night I was in Madison watching it on TV.

My sharpest memory of the SDS movement center is of a mid-day strategy session.  It was no summit meeting but just a gathering of SDS members from different parts of the country who’d ended up in Chicago.  The talk of converting the “McCarthy kids” was gone.  Now the discussion focused on how SDS could give leadership during the nightly battles between police and demonstrators in the Lincoln Park area of the near north side.  It was an aimless discussion (I doubt that most people in that room did any of the fighting), but it portended the ultra-militant direction that SDS would soon take.

Events in Chicago — the “street fighting,” the police rampage at the convention, and the Democratic delegates’ refusal to disown the Vietnam war — sealed a consensus in national SDS.  They seemed to prove the bankruptcy of electoral politics as a way to bring real change.  Whether Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon won the presidency (George Wallace was hardly a threat to win) mattered little.  (That’s the way I felt about it.  My mother wrote me a cogent letter giving reasons why she felt Humphrey would be better, but they fell on deaf ears.  It would have turned my stomach to vote for Humphrey.)  That fall, the SDS National Council meeting urged ever more militant street actions.  The meeting was at the University of Colorado, and the proposal was entitled “Boulder and Boulder.”

SDS in its new posture tried to react creatively to the shock that Chicago’s police violence had produced among anti-war young people around the country.  SDS’s idea was that these people were looking for a channel for their alienation and despair, and were ready to join a movement that promised action.  But that was tricky.  Throughout the sixties, campus activism had tended to ebb during the autumn of election years.  The one real exception had been the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the fall of 1964.  Our experience in Madison during the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign seemed to show that the overall pattern hadn’t really changed.

At first, our SDS chapter swelled dramatically.  Activists from the off-campus Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union who’d stayed in Madison decided that the campus was the place to organize, and they brought new energy into the chapter.  They organized an introductory meeting, just after the Democratic convention, that drew some 800 people.[1]  The new leaders floated a two-part plan for election-night:  first a protest march to the state capitol and back, then the seizure of a campus building (on the Columbia model) to protest recruitment by the ubiquitous Dow Chemical Company.  It was a daring gamble with the campus mood.  Usually on Election Night people wait passively for the returns.  How many would decide to raise the ante of student protest on that very night was an open question.

Part of the strategy for the building seizure was to work up to it by a series of votes at progressively larger meetings, to be climaxed by a mass meeting on Election Night.  The proposal won support at the first two meetings — attended by about fifty and four hundred respectively — but the thousand or more who met in the Memorial Union on Election Night voted no overwhelmingly.  I felt relief.  I had chaired the first two meetings, so hadn’t had to take a stand; my wishy-washiness, in fact, was part of what made me an effective chair.  This time I voted yes out of loyalty to the earlier votes, but I was glad to go home.  There, I listened to the returns on the radio, regretting Nixon’s win but not feeling it would make a big difference.

The Election Night fizzle showed two things.  First, the student left was unable to shake the spectatorship that marks every presidential election.  In fact, despite the “Boulder and Boulder” SDS resolution, I don’t think that big student protests happened anywhere that fall.  Second, our organizations were fragile.  In the wake of the mass meetings, Madison SDS subsided into routine meetings with a shrinking attendance.  Before long, the only stable activity carried out in the name of SDS was a twice-weekly “literature table” in the basement of the student union building.  There we sold pamphlets (from national SDS, from our own chapter, and from the Radical Education Project in Ann Arbor) as well as periodicals like The Guardian and Monthly Review. They sold like hotcakes.  But we could never stir the kinds of loud arguments in front of our table that the Young Socialist Alliance and a Palestinian student group attracted in front of theirs.

After the summer of 1968, SDS spoke to only parts of what was becoming mass discontent on American campuses.  Nationally and locally, SDS offered actions that were purely political and that increasingly used militancy as the yardstick to measure effectiveness.  But the strains of discontent were much more varied.  There were two overriding themes to the campus radicalization of the late sixties.  One was a political moralism:  idealistic students moved to the left as they kept discovering fresh outrages about American society.  The other theme was something that can be broadly called cultural alienation — a growing distaste for what many considered the boring, conformist life prospects facing even middle-class young people.  A generation that had grown up amid prosperity took it for granted, saw no pleasure in working hard to get where their parents had already been.  The political moralism and the cultural alienation often fed each other:  if America seemed morally bankrupt because of war and racism, there was no point in trying to “succeed” in the normal terms of American society.  In any case, the malaise was broad enough that it could not easily be harnessed to anyone’s specific political program.

One person who realized that was Paul Buhle, and I have to single him out as a hero during this period.  He was putting out Radical America virtually alone, and he used the magazine to explore a host of possibilities opened up by the movement.  Among the themes treated extensively in RA at the end of the sixties were black history and culture (including writings by the great Afro-Caribbean intellectual C. L. R. James), youth culture (including a special underground-comic issue edited by Gilbert Shelton), working-class history, women’s liberation, French “new working class” theories, present-day poetry of rebellion, and I don’t remember what else.  Paul had dropped out of direct involvement in SDS by then, but RA carried the subtitle “An SDS Journal of American Radicalism.”

Despite this backdrop, my own RA articles on the history of the New Left were narrowly focused on political organizations.  I was mesmerized above all by the growing size of the movement, and I took demonstrations as a convenient measuring rod.  I thought I saw a trajectory by which “the system” was becoming more and more openly reactionary and “the movement” would continue to grow in opposition.  With embarrassment I remember a conversation I had in mid-winter of 1968-69 with Jeff Shero, a Texan who had once been vice president of national SDS and now was editor of an underground newspaper, The Rat, in New York.  We sat in his office and idly talked about the state of strategic thinking within the radical student movement.  I remember a fragment of the conversation:

Shero: To begin with, it seems to me that revolution in this country is going to be a slow process.

Me:    That’s for sure.

Shero: I’m talking about maybe twenty-five years.

Me:    That sounds about right.

In seeing this trajectory, I drew the wrong lessons from the 1968 elections, and in particular Nixon’s victory.  Mainstream American politics proved far more flexible than I could ever have imagined.  First, as the Democrats went into opposition, the party’s complexion changed to incorporate the anti-war impulses far more than it had when LBJ ran the White House.  Second, the reform impulses of the sixties proved to have a momentum of their own.  Despite Nixon’s “southern strategy” of appealing to white racism, civil rights actually advanced under his presidency through affirmative action, mandated by new laws, by court decisions, and by administrative rulings as well.  Both environmentalism and the new women’s liberation movement reached their most explosive growth in the early Nixon years, and he rolled with the punches — proclaiming the 1970s the “environmental decade” and endorsing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

The Escalation of Protest

I spent most of the winter and spring of 1968-69 on research trips, with only scattered intervals in Madison.  As I got more deeply into my research on the New Left’s origins, I became more and more beguiled by the most obvious difference between the early and late sixties:  the scale of discontent and the scale of protest.  The spring semester saw major confrontations at San Francisco State, Harvard, Cornell, Madison, Berkeley, and scores of other campuses as well.  I remember reading an issue of the New York Times that spring and suddenly thinking, “This issue has more news about the student movement than a whole year’s worth of issues in the early sixties.”  I saw two of the biggest protests first-hand.  Looking back, they show the volatility of the late-sixties American campus, but they also show the limited duration of most of the bursts of radical energy.

Militancy came to the University of Wisconsin campus in February 1968, in a student strike called by a small number of black and white activists on behalf of the growing black minority on campus.  Of the fourteen demands, the central one called for the creation of a full-scale Black Studies program.  The strike took the campus by surprise[2] but quickly snowballed.  The organizers first leafleted on a Friday morning.  By Tuesday (with support from the student government as well as every left-of-center group) it seemed to have pulled a majority of liberal arts students out of their classes.  The governor added to the drama by calling out the National Guard.  The strike remained strong for days.

The Black Studies strike (that’s how I remember it, though the demands were more varied) had the best tactical leadership I’ve ever seen.  Entrances to buildings were obstructed, but never all the entrances.  Black activists led groups of demonstrators, not just in chants, but in songs, including “America the Beautiful.”  At times we blocked traffic on the major drive going through the campus.  (That felt good — one of the nicest feelings I ever had in the sixties student movement was of walking in the middle of that road and realizing that I didn’t have to watch out for traffic.)  On Thursday night we marched to the state capitol; the Madison papers said there were ten thousand of us and that sounded right to me.  It was exhilarating.  Tom Hayden was in town that night.  I remember him telling me that the National Guard was the “last trump card” of the ruling class.

Perhaps everything that goes up must come down.  The morning after the big march, I drove past campus and was thunderstruck to see how many students were walking along on their way to classes.  The strike ended early the following week, and the denouement was discouraging.  Organizers tried to raise money to pay legal costs for the forty-odd students arrested during the strike.  A dollar from everyone who’d taken part in the big Thursday night march was all they needed, but almost nothing came in.  Finally, Pete Seeger saved the day by donating his talents for a special fundraising concert.  Still, the strike proved a good investment of time in the long run — black students won new respect on the Madison campus and some of their demands were granted in watered-down form.

I also saw the “People’s Park” struggle in Berkeley.  I spent the month of May doing research in the Bay Area, staying with friends in San Francisco.  One of the first things I heard about in Berkeley was a vacant lot which the University of California owned and wanted to develop.  But off-campus activists, claiming it in the name of “the people,” had now turned it into an unsupervised outdoor community center.  When I visited the park, a block off Telegraph Avenue, it was filled with young people inoffensively having a good time.  It reminded me of New York’s Central Park on a Sunday, without the mixture of ages.  The University administration stewed while student organizations (including traditionally conservative ones) rallied to the defense of the park.  It became an issue of generational solidarity.

One Wednesday in mid-May I spent all day at the University library reading through back issues of the student Daily Californian.  As it happened, my research that day covered the last great eruption on the Berkeley campus, the Free Speech Movement of 1964.  At the end of the day I wandered through People’s Park and thought about the past and present.  A dozen or so people were holding a desultory meeting, pondering what could be done if the University took action to reclaim the park.  Nobody seemed to know.  The next day I drove in late from San Francisco and I found sheer chaos.  Police cars were careening up and down Telegraph Avenue spewing tear gas while long-haired teenagers (I think) threw rocks at them and at store windows.  Early that morning, I learned, the University had fenced the park.  Thousands of students rallied in protest and marched to the site, only to be driven back by police.  Police and highway patrolmen had fired guns, wounding one bystander, James Rector, so seriously that he died a week later.  That night, Governor Ronald Reagan would send in the National Guard and vow to restore order to Berkeley at any cost.

At the edge of the campus itself, spectators watched the Telegraph Avenue scene from a distance.  Now and again a rain of tear gas drove the crowds farther back into the campus.  Here I ran into a friend from Madison SDS, Bill Sokol, now a first-year graduate student in history at Berkeley.  He was shaken, not so much by the police as by the other members of his graduate seminar.  He said they seemed to have no human feelings but were reacting like detached cultural critics.  Sure enough, we ran into one of them, who shook his head and said something like “This is confusing.  There should be more of a separation between life and art.”  But not everyone on campus felt so distant.  In the aftermath, thousands of students joined repeated protest marches into downtown Berkeley, one of which resulted in over four hundred arrests.  The death of James Rector kept indignation at a high level.  So did the itchy fingers the police kept on their tear gas canisters.

On Memorial Day, a rally drew tens of thousands of students from around the state.  I had returned to Madison by then, so I missed it.  At a smaller rally a few days earlier, I heard Art Goldberg, once a leader of the Free Speech Movement, warn against letting the protest subside after the big rally.  “Don’t sit around saying, `Wasn’t Friday groovy.’“  Afterward the movement did subside, just as the Black Studies strike in Madison had after the massive Thursday night march.

The Breakup of SDS

One lesson my New Left seemed to show was that self-appointed leaders had never been able to predict or control the impulses of radicalization in the sixties.  And what I had seen at my two SDS conventions made me look at SDS fondly but with great skepticism.  Still, I was a member, and my travels put me in contact with some of the actors in national SDS, who were heading for a collision with one another.

First two, then three factions struggled for control of national SDS.  At first the fight was between PL and its New Left opponents, who won momentary advantage over PL by passing a call for a “Revolutionary Youth Movement” at the mid-winter SDS national council meeting in Ann Arbor.  Mike Klonsky called it “the road to the working class.”  But as it came time for specifics, the road reached a fork.  One faction, including Klonsky, wanted SDS to call for reforms in the schools — although usually in such extreme form that they could never be granted.  Somebody put forward the slogan of “Open ‘em up [that is, support open admissions to universities for minority and working-class students] and shut ‘em down [that is, close the same universities as tools of imperialism].”

Other SDS leaders, including Bernardine Dohrn, eschewed reforms of any sort and sought the pure solidarity of whites with third-world revolutionaries.  For the summer SDS convention they prepared a proposal called the “Weatherman document,” after a Bob Dylan lyric:  “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.”  They argued that blacks could make a revolution by themselves if need be, and that white radicals were worthless unless they got on the bandwagon of solidarity with the blacks.

For both of the New Left factions, though, the main enemy wasn’t each other but Progressive Labor.  PL’s leaders responded to the new campus militancy by raising an ideological drawbridge.  They decreed a sharp struggle against “nationalism” among blacks or other minorities, on the grounds that only a united working class could overthrow capitalism.  This change in policy isolated PL from the struggles that so many black students were waging for a recognition of their special history and culture.  PL leaders’ Marxist-Leninist purity also led them to scorn the Vietnamese Communists for negotiating with the US government, as they had been doing since 1968.  “We struggle, struggle, struggle and then those guys let us down,” a PL leader was quoted as saying when negotiations began.

Still, PL was winning.  There was no contest between the makeshift revolutionism of the New Left factions and Progressive Labor’s sober discipline.  By the time of the spring 1969 National Council meeting at the University of Kentucky, PL’s Worker-Student Alliance Caucus was on its way to a voting majority in SDS.  A PL resolution against drugs, aimed at distancing SDS from youth culture, passed handily.  The showdown would come at the national convention, to be held in June in Chicago.

Everywhere I went — Berkeley, San Francisco, Stanford, Rochester, Boston, New York, Ann Arbor, Chicago, and of course Madison — I found clusters of people who shivered at the goings-on in national SDS, many of them offering less frenetic alternatives.  But none of the clusters had the same ideas.  In a normal situation this would have been healthy.  It showed the kind of experimentation that could take place in a creative, democratic, loosely organized social movement.  Yet the leadership somehow assumed that the campus base was waiting for a clear national strategy — a “line” — which it would then duly implement.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

It was a chilling experience to enter the Chicago convention in June 1969.  We met in the ancient, dark Chicago Coliseum in a rundown area south of downtown.  On the sidewalk outside (and from windows across the street) policemen snapped photographs.  Inside, we were patted by SDS “security” people in a pretentious search for weapons.  The cavernous meeting room just fitted the vast number of delegates and other members, who reportedly added up to about fifteen hundred people.  Rumors floated as to whether PL had a majority of actual voting delegates.  Nobody I talked to seemed to know.

The content of the political debate is profoundly blurred in my mind.  What I remember is frenzied chanting:  the New Left factions’ “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF [National Liberation Front] is gonna win!” countered by PL’s “Power to the workers!” and “Mao, Mao, Mao Tse Tung!”  Both sides claimed Mao, and on both sides people waved copies of his “little red book” of quotations.  A speaker from the Black Panther Party, brought in by the New Left leaders to bolster their cause, said at one point, “You want to know who’s the vanguard in this country?  Just pick up your telephone and call Chairman Mao Tse Tung and ask him who’s the vanguard in this country.  He’ll tell you it’s the Black Panther Party.”  The other chant commonly heard at the convention, one that needs no special political explanation, was “Bullshit!”

Unhappily, the Panthers provided the closest thing to a moment of unity.  Two of their lesser Chicago operatives were hissed off the stage for crudely sexist remarks.  (The one I remember was, “What I’m saying is, if any of you ladies, your boyfriend isn’t giving you satisfaction, I’m the guy to see”).  A higher-up Panther smoothed over the situation, but it seemed to be a moment when honest outrage overcame factional calculations.  The very fact that those men had been given the stage showed how frantically the SDS leaders were improvising.  In effect, in trying to save the organization, they were destroying it.

For the most part, women’s issues surfaced at the convention simply as weapons in the factional intrigue.  At a panel discussion, the New Left representatives spoke earnestly of combating “male supremacy” and the PL speaker talked of combating “male chauvinism.”   But it didn’t matter.  An independent feminist movement was already being created outside of SDS.  Most women at the convention seemed to belong to one or another faction defined along lines other than women’s issues.  Because the most committed feminists had already voted with their feet, they were not part of the final fracturing of SDS.

I missed the climactic moment of the split in the convention.  I came back from eating dinner with my college friend John McAuliff, who had returned from the Peace Corps and had helped organize the Committee of Returned Volunteers, an assiduous and important part of the anti-war movement.  We came back to a half-empty hall.  We learned that the Panthers and two small Hispanic groups, the Brown Berets and the Young Lords, had been given the stage to demand that SDS expel Progressive Labor.  Bernadine Dohrn had then proclaimed that “The people of the third world have spoken” (or something like that) and announced that the SDS convention would be reconvened in a large empty room off to the side, minus the PL delegates.  She then led hundreds of delegates out of the hall.  My own loyalties were fairly clear:  in however skewed a fashion, the New Left tendencies in SDS seemed to be heirs to the creative instincts of the New Left itself.  I went off to the side room.

Two speeches come back to me from the rump meeting.  One was by Jackie DiSalvo, a grad student from Madison whose politics mingled anarchism with Leninism.  She was the best speaker I ever knew in the student movement.  Now she was angry that the New Left factions seemed to be writing off the traditional working class, which was her background.  She spoke eloquently about her father and his lifetime of low-wage jobs.  She paused and said in a rising voice, “I’m saying that if he sold out, he sold out damn cheap.”  It was a touch of reality that drew a burst of emotional applause.  Unfortunately, it was irrelevant to the dominant mood there.  Of the other speech, I only remember a fragment.  Jeff Jones, a New York SDS organizer who’d gone to Antioch College, said, “This is the most important meeting in this country in the last [I remember “thirty” but some people remember him saying “two hundred”] years.”  That says it all.  It was the quintessential, grotesquely exaggerated statement of the New Left belief that we were making history.



[1].  As usual, rapid attrition quickly solved the too-many-people problem.  The second meeting was almost as big as the first.  We tried to deal with the numbers by electing a “Take Care of Business Committee” (“TCBC”) to make small decisions and refer bigger ones to the whole group.  But there were so many nominees, and we were running so late, that we finally decided to declare all nominees elected.  With membership in the committee thus devalued, the practice quickly evolved of giving everyone who came to its meetings (usually a few dozen) a vote.  In effect, these meetings became the SDS meetings.

[2].  On Thursday evening I presided over an SDS chapter meeting of maybe thirty or forty people.  Nobody said a word about black demands or the possibility of a strike.  I first heard about it the next morning when I was given a leaflet by somebody who’d been at the meeting the night before.