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Saturday, September 05, 2020

Activism Then and Now, Part I


For a long time now, I have been arguing that the student protests of my youth in the late 1960s set the tone of much of our politics for a long time to come.  This does not apply merely to leftist politics.  In one of my very first posts, George W. Bush: Man of the Sixties, sixteen years ago, I argued that our then-President embodied the moral certainty and unbounded self-confidence of the SDS, even though he was starting a new Vietnam, not trying to end one.  In recent years, however, I am been more struck by the similarities between contemporary left wing activism and its ancestors from that era.  To try to focus my thoughts, I decided to reread, for the first time in decades, the best book I ever read about student protest, Push Comes to Shove, by Steven Kelman.

I don't think I have seen Steve Kelman face to face since college, when I knew him slightly.  He was one year behind me at Harvard, and was politically active as a leader of the small Young People's Socialist League, or YPSL (Yipsil, as it was known.)  Beginning in his freshman year, he became embroiled .in endless arguments the more popular and active SDS, which gradually radicalized itself and the campus from 1966 through the spring of 1969, when one SDS faction occupied University Hall, provoking a police bust and a college wide strike.  That in turn led to two significant changes on campus: the elimination of ROTC programs and the creation of an Afro-American Studies program.  The Vietnam War was the proximate cause of radicalization and protest, but I don't think anyone really understands the deeper causes to this day.    Although Kelman did not work at the Harvard Crimson--whose role in the agitation and the strike he describes with utter contempt--he was a budding journalist who placed articles in several major publications while he was in college, and his book, which appeared in 1970 (but too late to include the new round of protests after Kent State and Cambodia) got a good deal of deserved attention at the time.  It remains a very revealing document today.

My discussion of this book and its contemporary relevance will extend over two or three posts.  Today I'm going to summarize some of its main lessons, pointing out some similarities between the SDS and today's "Social Justice" movements.  Next week, I'm going to talk about a remarkable new article that traces some of the history of the ideas and practices that now inform Black Lives Matter.  I'll decide then whether I need another post.  

The SDS, as Kelman points out repeatedly, had begun in 1962 as a student movement for more participatory democracy, a reaction to the political and social conservatism of the 1960s and the racial injustice that produced the civil rights movement.  It was neither large nor influential, and it was certainly a fringe group at Harvard when I arrived in 1965, and only slightly larger the next year, when Kelman followed.  Kelman traces its growth in 1967-8 and its radicalization mainly to one key development in the late summer of 1967:  the Johnson Administration's decision to do away with educational deferments for graduate students. Student deferments, which still applied to undergraduates, were justified on the basis that educated people were likely to contribute more to society--and took no notice of the equally important point that they were likely to secure greater rewards, as well.  Until this change in policy, it was quite possible for young men to keep their education going until they reached the age of 26, when they were no longer liable to be drafted in any case. By the fall of 1967, juniors and seniors in particular knew they would have to deal with Uncle Sam as soon as they graduated.  The first big step towards radicalization in the fall of 1967 was a mass sit-in that kept students away from a Dow Chemical recruiter, on the grounds that Dow made napalm, which the US military was using in huge quantities in Vietnam. The McCarthy campaign that winter and spring provided another outlet for relatively moderate protesters, but then in the spring of 1968 came the revolt at Columbia which briefly shut down the university and brought down its president.  By the fall of 1968 the radical presence was big enough to convince the Social Relations department--which combined sociology and psychology--to list a two-semester course on radical theory, taught almost entirely by radical undergraduates.

Who were the radicals? Kelman divided them sensibly into two types.  The first, "hereditary radicals," came from left wing families, whether or not they were actual Red Diaper babies, that is, children of Communists.  The second, which he calls "cultural radicals," had mainstream upper-middle class backgrounds, and a great many of them came from elite prep schools. Many of them had felt alienated from Harvard from the time of their arrival and had arrived at radicalism via extensive involvement with marijuana or hallucinogenics.  It's certainly true that a lot of us, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, had gotten sick of being good boys all our lives and were wondering why we were continuing down that path to some uncertain future.   These were also the years in which Harvard dropped its dress code (coats and ties in the dining hall) and gave up its restrictions on women in dormitory rooms, and men's hair got longer.  Radicalism (which I never embraced) provided a new community and, critically, a feeling of moral superiority.  Meanwhile, we were right on one point: our parents had made a dreadful mistake in Vietnam and refused to admit it or do anything about it.

Things had however gone further by the spring of 1969.  A substantial minority of undergraduates had decided not simply that the war was wrong, but that it was an inevitable product of a corrupt system marked by capitalism, imperialism, and racism.  Most of SDS had now embraced some kind of Marxism-Leninism, and its most militant faction, the Progressive Labor Party, were avowed Maoists and supporters of both Stalin and the Cultural Revolution.  They also favored the creation of a "worker-student alliance" that would overthrow both capitalism and the American state.  In April 1969, the PL faction demanded a building occupation to force the University to abolish ROTC and stop expanding into Cambridge.  An SDS meeting voted the occupation down for the time being, but the next day, they occupied University Hall anyway.  The Administration, led by Dean Franklin Ford, decided to act swiftly, and at dawn the next day, police from several surrounding communities ended the occupation.  That in turn radicalized a much larger part of the student body, who decided that they hated the police more than they disliked SDS.  Hatred for the police as a symbol of oppression is another common bond between radicals today and fifty years ago, even though they focus on different aspects of police behavior.

Kelman, who for somewhat different reasons than I never abandoned his belief in democracy, was appalled that the radicals never cared that a vast majority of the American people--and especially the well-organized working class, which was a much more coherent political force then than it was now--did not share the radical viewpoint, and in fact, hated student radicals on both political and social grounds.  Like Lenin, however--who in What is to be Done? explained that a workers' movement needed to be led by educated revolutionaries--the SDS believed their superior wisdom and morality gave them the right to dictate the future to us all.  What they and their counterparts around the country actually did was to help split the Democratic Party and pave the way for a Republican resurgence, first in California in 1966 and then in the nation two years later.  

And here, we encounter the first big similarity between the SDS and today's student activists.  They too have a moral certainty that they know what needs to be done in the world and a complete intolerance for opposing views.  Kelman details numerous arguments he had with the SDS about free speech, which they dismissed as a tool of those in power.  Often they denied any right to defend the war in Vietnam.  The basis for that certainty, however, has changed somewhat.  In those days the SDS claimed it on the basis of Marxist-Leninist theory; today, activists tend to claim it based on their own race, gender, or sexual orientation, which they claim gives them particular insights into the injustices of our society that others do not have.  I will return to this point later in this series, but meanwhile I will note another difference on the issue of free speech.  The SDS regarded speech simply as a political weapon, and wanted to take it away from its political enemies. Today's activists often regard speech and other forms of representation as violence that will traumatize them and demand protection from it--an interesting change in the self-image of students.  Both sets of protesters, however, agree that they must be immune from punishment of any kind, since they are right.

Along with it goes a contempt for any kind of impartial procedure to resolve conflicts.  Again and again, at the height of the 1969 crisis, Kelman's younger brother--also a Harvard student--asked SDS members how they thought the ROTC issue should be resolved--that is, what procedure should make the decision.  They could not understand his question.  The same spirit informs feminist activists today who regard respect for the due process rights of men accused of sexual assault as a betrayal, and urban protesters demanding the immediate serverance of police officers present at shooting incidents.

The second stage of radicalization in 1968-9 shifted the focus of anger from the government and the broader society to the university itself.  Rather than an educational institution, it became in the eyes of the SDS a cog in the imperialist machine whose real function was to train managers of a corrupt system.  The ROTC programs--which enabled dozens of relatively poor students to attend--were the worst, since they actually fed young men into the war machine in Vietnam.  And during 1968-9, first the faculty--which in those days still had some power over how the university ran--and then the university administration caved in to that view. The faculty voted to deny academic credit to ROTC courses (which was probably enough to force the program off campus), and the administration gave up on maintaining it after the occupation of University Hal, the bust, and the strike.  SDS also campaigned against the administration for expanding into surrounding Cambridge, and accusing it of creating a housing crisis.  (This in retrospect is one of the most ironic aspects of that time.  Most of Cambridge in those days was a working class community, and very affordable for workers and students.  Now it is almost entirely gentrified and out of reach for most of the population.)  Racism was of course very much in the news in that era of urban riots, and SDS talked a lot about it as well, but there were no black students in the SDS leadership, and Kelman reports that black activists focused completely on their demand for an Afro-American Studies department and lost interest in the strike as soon as they got it.  Today's activists have also frequently made their institutions--or individual faculty or administrators within them--their target.  

These Boomer radicals also tended to glorify violence for its own sake--violence in speech, certainly, but also in action.  "Action is its own reason for existing," read one Crimson editorial. "Rebellion can only be understood by a rebel, who knows that the only 'reason' for rebellion is the pleasure (or whatever feeling) of rebellion itself.  Revolution for the hell of it, because there is no other reason big enough for rebellion."  This strikes me as the origin of "performative" politics, which is very popular today.  

Kelman was something of a political organizer himself (he, like me, went into academia, and remains today a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government), and he repeatedly makes another important point about young radicals, then and now.  They were, and are, too lazy, and too focused on immediate gratification, to do the hard, lengthy, and often boring work of organizing a political movement.  They also tend to be too self-centered to accept the discipline and leadership that any effective moment requires--a point to which I will return in later posts.

Some of the radicals of the late 1960s became lifelong activists, and some dropped out of society.  For far more of them, however, this was just a youthful detour from a successful Establishment career.  My own 25th reunion in 1994 featured a panel on politics moderated by my one-time roommate, Chris Wallace, and including Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia and former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams.  Another members was James Glassman, then a Washington Post  financial reporter who sheepishly described his own conservatism.  I had totally forgotten that he had been a Crimson editor, the author of many editorials praising direct action against the university, in those days, including the one that I quoted above on action for action's sake..  And some other radicals, such as Kelman's friend Michael Kazin, became academics.  I shall return to them later too. 

In later posts I shall trace the influence of these and other aspects of the radicalism of my youth upon the radicalism of today.  Meanwhile, it is only fair to note some big changes in the context of activism.  Fifty years later, the SDS portrait of American society as capitalism run amok, crushing the working class, seems like a pathetic caricature.  Unfortunately, it is much more accurate now than it ever was then. I shall return to that as well.



Energyflow said...

I laud your recounting of youthful experiences in comparison with today Who could have expected a 60s redux. I fear the election will be a mess, leading to turmoil or much worse. 9/11, corona allowed quick change. Imagine a deep stsate suspension of democracy in the case of contestd elections and martial law. If Dulles was unhappy with Kennedy's independent tone, then the security state is even more entrenched and privileged nowadays and unwilling to change anything. IOW your leftwing has gone crazy but others have progressed beyond democracy as well. The USA is a plaything of whoever controls it Perhaps loyal military would help to crush a planned coup from within the CIA and by similar private individuals. The revolution has now graduated from sandbox level at Harvard to DNC and nevertrumpers. Trump would accept a legitimate loss surely. Hillary and others want a continued war state and globalism at any cost. If such plans of a coup against the constitution were to be effected by competing boomer elites as their last gift to the nation then it would end the republic. An involved, grass roots democracy is a thing of the past so most have no influence anyway. This would just be a shock followed by quiet submission as at many other historical junctures. The reality of who pulls the strings would be brought more into the open as a more permanent security state takes control.

Bozon said...

Wonderful, detailed, and colorful retrospective.

It sort of takes me back.

Looking forward to subsequent installments!

Back then, I was sort of a country club liberal, I say that with the maximum of derision, whose friends were all Marxists.
Some of them were activists, social workers and such.

I was not ever an activist for anything here or anywhere, but rather strictly what one might call an intellectual; had read all of Ayn Rand more or less accidentally in hospital, found it entertaining but hardly compelling, and then a fair amount of philosophy, Russell, Nietzsche, etc, even before coming to Marx, social sciences, and the Freudian Left.

I was later again surrounded by radicals, friends, in London, where I was living among them.

But once again, studying philosophy there rather than the Left, except as an old joke on myself.

All the best

erik f storlie said...

Fascinating and disturbing parallels. Thank you , David. I just looked at my transcript to discover that it was in the Spring of 1970 at the University of Minnesota that I and another Ph.D. student went to our American Constitutional Law class and announced to Professor Harold W. Chase that our class was joining the campus-wide and nation-wide student strike. Seven years earlier I’d been part of the crowd in front of Sproul Hall in Berkeley, listening to Mario Savio’s famous call for action.
Professor Chase was a Marine Corps Reserve brigadier general who had been wounded twice in Iwo Jima and had seen combat in Korea and service in Vietnam. He supported the Vietnam War. (Can we imagine a professor surviving today who opposed any of the current de rigueur left-wing issues?) He was also a dedicated supporter of civil liberties and a superb teacher. One of the best I ever had.
He surveyed us thoughtfully, nodded, and before we left said words to this effect: “A university is the very last institution that should ever close down. It is here that ideas can be explored. It is here that freedom and democracy can be nourished. Just remember—if you can close it down, then those you disagree with can someday in the future close it to you!”
The two of us listened politely as our classmates began exiting the room, then we followed them out the door.
His words have haunted me for the last fifty years.
Erik Storlie