Who Would Believe It? Annals of the New Left Era

You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance.
Edited by John F. Levin and Earl Silbar.
San Francisco: 1741 Press,  2019. 364pp, $18.95.

Of the various factions that sundered the Students for a Democratic Society at its most promising moment, 1969, when it had perhaps a hundred thousand student members and followers, the Progressive Labor Party is the one that has seemed to have fallen out of history. Apart from pretty uniformly unfriendly descriptions in various historical accounts, “PL” (as known to all, friend or foe) has had no talented memoirist, no extended documentary film treatment, and apparently no faithful members who could stick with it and make much of a claim for its value beyond the early 1970s.

Here, at last, is such a work. Although privately published, You Say You Want a Revolution has a chance in today’s fluid book market to reach thousands of old-timers and even young radicals with something far better than a “message.” The reminiscences in here are deeply personal, often deeply local, and offer just the kind of text that tells us how politics was lived, not written about by the intellectuals, or about the leaders who are remembered, while followers are forgotten. On those grounds alone, it’s a worthy book.

It also reveals some limits of the 1960s social movements at their sectarian corners, in the starkest terms. PL was astoundingly anti-intellectual, as several memoirists here comment. Getting activists to sell the jargon-heavy and visually unappealing Challenge newspaper and meanwhile join in assorted more useful activities on campus and off seemed to rule out serious study of Marx and assorted Marxist classics. Cerebral-minded activists outside of these circles, by contrast, found scholarly texts of every kind, as campus and off campus book shops stocked up. A handful of New Left magazines (including my own Radical America) meanwhile struggled to reach graduate students and undergrad with the need to engage intellectually even while militantly active.

PL also made itself unique within the wider New Left in some pretty strange ways, on the premise that to reach out to the working class, campus activists needed to divest themselves of any and all tell-tale social markers. It mandated its members and followers to use no drugs, at a time when  smoking marijuana was practically an anti-war ritual, and it urged “straight” clothes for men and women just as bras (temporarily) disappeared and wild colors appeared on bell bottom pants. PL leaders also discouraged active homosexuality—for the same reasons—and that may possibly be the one facet remembered in this volume with a collective cringe. Not that such nutty norms could really be enforced at the local level.

These cultural politics were also pragmatically wrong-headed, of course,  because rebellion was experienced in generational terms pretty much across class, gender and even racial lines, no doubt because casual fashions spread so quickly. Also, of course, because the budding women’s liberation and gay liberation impulses were teaching lessons badly needed to be learned, for all the best political reasons.

Never mind, or rather, put all that aside. Twenty-three little memoirs, twenty-three stories that differ widely from each other, offer much food for thought. Co-editor John Levin provides the background. It all began in the early 1960s, when a small cohort of Communist Party members who had rejected the 1956 turn of the Soviet Union toward “revisionism” (including a condemnation of many actions by Joseph Stalin) formed the Progressive Labor Movement. Its student members  found a path to reach new generations: enthusiasm for the Cuban Revolution.  After meeting with the Vietnamese NLF delegation in Havana, they returned home and called for what seems to have been the first national demonstration against the US intervention in Vietnam.

Out of this activity, the participants formed the May Second Movement (M2M). It was never much more than a youth section  of the Progressive Labor Movement, which now reconstituted itself as an avowed Marxist-Leninist party allied, at least in their collective imaginations, with the Communist Party of China.  Following the emergence of SDS as a leading anti-war force, PLP dissolved M2M and sent its cadre into SDS,  where they formed a worker student alliance caucus (WSA). This was, in their eyes an especially notable attempt to create a social movement of students who embraced working class struggles and could turn the New Left into a comprehensive Marxist movement.

I am describing the process too simply, for several reasons. PL  views of possible working class connections for student movements were scarcely unique. Quite a number of SDSers, especially but not only those with family backgrounds in the Old Left, had more or less the same idea, and jumped at the chance to translate their ideas into action. The first campus teaching assistants’ unions, to take one example, owed much to this sentiment, a sort of Marxist basic, with no needed encouragement from PL.

Second, the crucial step of “entering” SDS, just then burgeoning upward on dozens of campuses, carried a heavy weight with ultimately disastrous consequences. A few years earlier, SDS had decided upon “non-exclusion,” essentially not to bar outright followers of Lenin, from entering movement ranks. It was not too hard for fair-minded SDSers to oppose “exclusionism,” perhaps most of all because the furious supporters of US foreign policy in SDS’s parent League for Industrial Democracy had always insisted that Communists (actually, they meant no anti anti communists) be kept out.

Bear in mind that by the middle 1960s, antiwar demonstrators spontaneously  refused the pre-printed signs for demonstrations and…made up their own!  Resulting in a wide variety of slogans, many of them satirically directed at hawkish Democrats, it was a move bitterly opposed by liberal anticommunists. We, the vast majority of the new demonstrators, not only demanded that the US withdraw from Vietnam. Increasingly, we wanted the Vietnamese themselves to win, the most shocking thought of all.

Predictably, however, when the PL newcomers actually joined SDS and urged the Worker-Student Alliance, they created their own hard-bitten faction. This action might rightly be seen as a parallel to another political maneuver within the Left. A  small band of Trotskyists had earlier entered the flagging Socialist Party, itself a mere remnant of its own glorious past, with the same contest-and-conquer impulses. PL and the socialistic anticommunists insisted alike—despite all their other differences—that they were only being helpful, as they mobilized for convention resolutions, local chapter fights, and so on. In fact, along with the dramatic tempo of events, the “entrists” actually set the stage for all-out, take-no-prisoner factional brawls. Some observers suspected, in both cases, that intelligence agencies had been involved, but if so, perhaps these only added to the political chaos. A sliver of the Socialist Party survived the takeover attempt, in the long run, as the Democratic Socialists of America. SDS did not survive.

The local PLer or sympathizer did not, of course, see it this way, in the book’s accounts ranging in location from  Boston, the Bay Area and New York to Austin, Texas, and many places in between. These were youngsters who urgently wanted to take their radical politics beyond the campus in every way possible. Often, as it turned out, they succeeded best in bringing the idea of working class politics but also anti-racist politics to the college communities—but not much beyond. As painfully recollected in the book, their work largely fell apart with the collapse of SDS, and they found themselves in an organization whose frustrated leaders became crazier than ever—pretty much what happened in other avowed Leninist organizations, notably the Socialist Workers Party. At the local level, the activists had nevertheless tried, tried really hard to connect and make themselves useful.

Again: never mind,  because the individual stories herein have their own logic and momentum. Take Becky Brenner, formerly runner-up for the San Antonio Miss Youth for Christ of 1963. She immersed herself in civil rights and went on to study at Austin, but mainly to organize. She moved on to Manhattan and back and from one Marxist-Leninist group to another, never quite giving up what she had accepted of Mao’s philosophy, passing through several marriages, raising several children. She also never quite left that Christian commitment of her youth.

Or Eric Gordon, an activist at Tulane, in New Orleans, who worked in a variety of SDS chapters, a highly talented and enduring organizer (he recently retired from the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles) who “came

out” in 1971, having left the Worker Student Alliance behind. He did fine work under difficult conditions, like the presence of the KKK in New Orleans, and like others whose politics have evolved, holds no grudges.

Or Steve Hiatt, who came to the New Left early and spent fruitful years on the Iowa City campus, active in every cause but intended to find ways to interact with union activities in the region. He learned to his sorrow, as did many other local activists in this book, that the aim of PL’s national leaders was actually to build PL, if necessary at the expense of anything else. Selling the weekly tabloid Challenge became the chore that many faithful most hated, in part because they ended paying for the copies that they gave away or quietly dumped.

Or Joan Kramer, a graduate of Hollywood High, who found herself at Berkeley. The struggle for Black Studies was actually the high point for San Francisco State’s PL campus leadership, but the  good vibes crossed the Bay Bridge, and so did the bad vibes, when PL’s national leaders denounced the Black Panthers for “nationalism.” Kramer traveled on to Tanzania to be part of a global struggle, then back to Los Angeles where her new group, the tiny Communist Workers Party, also proved a disappointment. She ends, “When my active party affiliation attempts ended, so did my feeling of purpose. It was a kind of death from which  I have not recovered.” Indeed: Kramer succumbed to cancer before the collective project could be published, and the book is dedicated to her memory.

Most found a way to go on.  Ernie Brill grew up socialistic in Brooklyn, went to Antioch College, and became active at SF State. He took part in many Bay Area community and labor struggles for a decade. He stayed in PL long enough to become editor of the Challenge “culture” page, then freed himself to become a small-magazine writer and editor, one of the most hard-working of the radicals who sought to connect the old time literary reds, like Meridel Le Sueur, with the new generations.

There is no single narrative here, beyond the enthusiasms of the 1960s and the despair at the Undemocratic Centrism of PL. Other than hostility toward Trotsky—the mirror opposite of the views of their Socialist Party Workers and Young Socialist Alliance opponents—the similarities outweigh the differences. The same could be said, pretty much, of at least half dozen smaller formations that narrowed after 1970 and fed into another organizational dead end: the New Communist Movement that largely faded by 1980. Each, to be generous, had its share of youthful enthusiasts.

Most of us, the vast majority of us,  never joined these groups or anything beyond SDS, so most of our memories are not theirs. But this book needs readers and will find them, perhaps especially among the children of these erstwhile activists, children now middle aged themselves. What didn’t dad or mom tell me about? They may find it here.##

Paul Buhle’s Radical America was part of an anti-factional faction within SDS.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.