Socialist Studies 101

Third grade in our elementary school was the stage at which our school was supposed to introduce us to history.  We’d mastered the reading and comprehension skills necessary to understand what we were being taught.  But when I received the book, I discovered the text was about something called “social studies,” not history.

As my mother dutifully put a paper bag book cover on the text, I complained about the subject matter.

“I thought I was going to learn history?” I squawked. “I want to learn about history, the way [my older brother] did!  It’s not fair!”

“Well, it’s become social studies and it’s very important for you to learn it.  Your brother had to learn social studies, too,” she said in that very dismissive, parental way.

My brother said, “Yeah, but that was only last year. Before that, it was called ‘History.’”

My father stood watching and listening silently, as usual. But his eyebrow was raised in dubious alarm. He agreed with me; that social studies was an indefinite subject category where anything could be taught. We learned a smattering of history but it was never very lengthy or informative.  In the earlier primary grades, we were taught a little about people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

My brothers and I were the true children of the Sixties, that is, we were schoolchildren throughout the 1960s.  We were taught transformational, Noam Chomsky grammar, New Math, and ecology.  My older brother was taught that Lindbergh did not cross the Atlantic in 1927, for which my mother had to engage in a draw-out battle with the sixth grade teacher who flunked my brother and told my mother he was retarded.  Even when my mother showed her proof of Lindberg’s Atlantic flight, she refused to recant.  Fortunately, administrators were listening and the teacher was disciplined forthwith.

Meanwhile, society was falling to pieces around us. First, there was the Cuban Missile crisis, then JFK’s assassination, followed by riots in the ghettos.  Every night on television, it seemed, we witnessed student protests, burnings of the American flag, civil unrest in Europe, bombings, sit-downs, building take-overs on campus, and of course, the Vietnam War, over which my parents were divided.  Living in northern N.J., the riots in Newark were particularly affecting and frightening. Social studies, indeed.

At the head of the socialist class was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formed in 1960.  SDS was one of the main representations of the country’s New Left. The organization developed and expanded rapidly in the mid-1960s before dissolving at its last convention in 1969.

In the academic year 1962–1963, there were nine chapters with, at most, about 1000 members. The national office (NO) in New York consisted of a few desks, some broken chairs, a couple of file cabinets and a few typewriters. As a student group with a strong belief in decentralization and a distrust for most organizations, the SDS did not have a strong central bureaucracy. The three stalwarts at the office, Don McKelvey, Steve Max, and the National Secretary, Jim Monsonis, worked long hours for little pay to service the local chapters, and to help establish new ones. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, little could be accomplished. Most activity was oriented toward civil rights issues and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) played a key role in inspiring SDS.

By the end of the academic year, there were over 200 delegates at the annual convention at Pine Hill, N.Y., from 32 different colleges and universities. It was then decided to give more power to the chapters, who would then send delegates to the National Council (NC), which would meet quarterly to handle the on-going activities. Also, in the spirit of participatory democracy, a consensus was reached to elect new officers each year. Lee Webb of Boston University was chosen as National Secretary, and Todd Gitlin of Harvard University was made president. Some continuity was preserved by retaining Paul Booth as Vice President. The search began for something to challenge the idealistic, budding activists.

It was at this time that the Black Power Movement was first gaining some momentum, although Stokely Carmichael would make the movement more mainstream in 1966.  He rose to prominence first as a leader of the SNCC and later as the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party. Initially an integrationist, Carmichael later became affiliated with black nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements. He popularized the term “Black Power”. The movement made it impolitic for white activists, such as those in SDS, to presume to lead protests for black civil rights. Instead, SDS would try to organize white unemployed youths through a newly established program they called the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). This “into the ghetto” move was a practical failure, but the fact that it existed at all drew many young idealists to SDS.

At the summer convention in 1964 there was a split between those who were campus-oriented, and the ERAP supporters. Most of the old guard were ERAP supporters, but the campus activists were growing. Paul Potter was elected president, and by the end of summer there were ten ERAP programs in place, with about 125 student volunteers. C, Clark Kissinger of Shimer College in Illinois was elected as National Secretary, and he put the NO on a much more business-like basis. He and his assistant, Helen Garvey (she later produced the documentary Rebels with a Cause), mailed out the literature list, the newsletters and the news of chapter’s activities to a growing membership list. Kissinger also worked to smooth the relationship with the LID.

A small faction of SDS that was interested in change through conventional electoral politics established a program called the Political Education Project (PEP). Its Director was Jim Williams of the University of Louisville, and Steve Max served as its Associate Director. This was never very large, and it was opposed by the mainstream SDSers, who were mostly opposed to such traditional, old-fashioned activity, and were looking for something new that “worked.” The Johnson landslide victory in November played its part, as well, and PEP soon withered away. A Peace Research and Education Project (PREP) headed by Paul Booth of Swarthmore, met a similar fate. Meanwhile, the local chapters got into all sorts of projects, from University reform, community-university relations, and now, in a small way, the issue of the draft and the Vietnam War.

Then, on October 1, 1964, the University of California, Berkely, exploded into the dramatic and prolonged agony that was the Free Speech Movement. Led by a charismatic Friends of SNCC student activist named Mario Savio, upwards of three thousand students surrounded a police car in which a student, arrested for setting up a card table in defiance of a ban by the University, was being taken away. The sit-down prevented the police car from moving for 32 hours. The demonstrations, meetings and strikes that resulted all but shut the university down. Hundreds of students were arrested.

In February 1965, Pres.  Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the war in Vietnam by bombing North Vietnam in Operation Flaming Dart and introducing ground troops directly involved in fighting the Viet Cong in the South. Campus chapters of SDS all over the country started to lead small, localized demonstrations against the war and the NO became the focal group that organized the march against the war in Washington on April 17. Endorsements came from nearly all of the other peace groups and leading personalities, there was significant increase in income and by the end of March there were 52 chapters. The media began to cover the organization and the New Left. However, the call for the march and the openness of the organization in allowing other groups, even communist front groups, or communists themselves, to join in caused great strains with the LID and some other old left organizations.

The first teach-in against the war was held at the University of Michigan. Soon hundreds more, all over the country, were held. The demonstration in Washington, D.C., attracted about 25,000 anti-war protesters and SDS became the leading student group against the war on most U.S. campuses.

Representing its move into the heartland, the 1965 summer convention was held at Kewadin, , a small camp in northern Michigan. Moreover, its National Office, which was previously located in Manhattan, was moved to Chicago at about the same time. The rapid growth of the membership rate during the preceding year brought with it a new breed with a new style:

“For the first time at an SDS meeting people smoked marijuana; Pancho Villa mustaches, those droopy Western‑movie addenda that eventually became a New Left cliché, made their first appearance in quantity; blue workshirts, denim jackets, and boots were worn by both men and women. These were people generally raised outside of the East, many from the Midwest and Southwest, and their ruralistic dress reflected a different tradition, one more aligned to the frontier, more violent, more individualistic, more bare‑knuckled and callus‑handed, than that of the early SDSers. They were non‑Jewish, nonintellectual, nonurban, from a nonprofessional class, and often without any family tradition of political involvement, much less radicalism. They tended to be not only ignorant of the history of the left and its current half‑life in New York City, but downright uninterested.” Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS

What Sale doesn’t mention is that denim was also the prison uniform of the Fifties.

The convention elected an Akron, Ohio student, Carl Oglesby, President and Jeff Shero, from the increasingly influential University of Texas chapter in Austin, as Vice President—in preference to “old guard” candidates. The convention voted to remove the anti-communist exclusion clauses from the SDS constitution, failed to provide for any national program, and increased the reliance on local initiatives at the chapters. As a result, the National Office’s leadership fell into ineffectual chaos. The League for Industrial Democracy, SDS’s nominal sponsoring organization, was disappointed with removal of the exclusion clause from the SDS constitution, as SDS was covered under LID’s non-profit status which excluded political activity. By mutual agreement, the relationship was severed Oct. 4, 1965.

On Nov. 27, 1965 there was a major anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C. at which Carl Ogelsby, the new SDS president, made a very successful speech, addressed to the liberal crowd, and in circuitous terms alleged that the U.S. government was “imperialist”in nature. The speech received a standing ovation, substantial press coverage, and resulted in greatly increased national prominence for SDS.

The unexpected influx of substantial numbers of new members and chapters combined with the ousting of the previous leadership, the “old guard,” resulted in a crisis which dogged SDS until its final breakup; despite repeated attempts to do so, consensus was never reached on what form the organization should take or what role it should play. A final attempt by the old guard at a “rethinking conference” to establish a coherent new direction for the organization failed. The conference, held on the University of Illinois campus at Champaign-Urbana over Christmas vacation, 1965, was attended by about 360 people from 66 chapters, many of whom were new to SDS. Despite a great deal of discussion, no substantial decisions were made.

Nationally, the SDS continued to use the draft as an important issue for students, and over the rest of the academic year began to attack university complicity, as the universities had begun to supply student’s class rankings, used to determine who was to be drafted. The University of Chicago’s administration building was taken over in a three day sit-in in May. Rank protests and sit-ins spread to many other universities.

The summer convention of 1966 was moved even farther west, this time to Clear Lake, Iowa. The “Prairie People” continued to increase their influence. Nick Egleson was chosen as President, and Carl Davidson was elected Vice President. Greg Calvert, recently a history instructor at Iowa State University, was chosen as National Secretary. It was at this convention that members of the Progressive Labor Party (PL) first participated. PL was a Maoist group that had turned to SDS as fertile ground for recruiting new members sympathetic to its long-term strategy of organizing the industrial working class. SDSers were wary of being drawn into actions that smacked of red-baiting, which they viewed as mostly irrelevant and old hat. PL soon began to organize a Worker-Student Alliance. By 1969 they would profoundly affect SDS, particularly at national gatherings of the membership, forming a well-groomed, disciplined faction which followed the Progressive Labor Party line.

The 1966 convention also marked an even greater turn towards organization around campus issues by local chapters, with the NO cast in a strictly supporting role. Campus issues ranged from bad food, powerless student “governments,” on-campus recruiting for the military and, again, ranking for the draft. Campuses around the country were in a state of unprecedented ferment and activism. Despite the absence of a politically effective campus SDS chapter, Berkeley again became a center of particularly dramatic radical upheaval over what SDS considered the university’s “repressive” anti-free-speech actions, and an effective student strike with very wide support occurred. Even Harvard endured an upheaval engendered by a visit there from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

At this time many in SDS turned to a more anarchist-influenced politics and organized activities aimed at the country’s burgeoning countercultural community. These efforts were especially successful at the large and active University of Texas chapter in Austin where The Rag, an underground newspaper founded by SDS leaders Thorne Dreyer and Carol Neiman was touted as the first underground paper in the country to incorporate the“participatory democracy, community organizing and synthesis of politics and culture that the New Left of the mid-Sixties was trying to develop,” according to historian Abe Peck.  And SDS’ “Gentle Thursday” events, which included such activities as graffiti drawing (particularly the Peace sign – parents, don’t put the Peace Sign on your children), on the UT campus helped to galvanize the Austin cultural community and turn it into a potent political force. Austin’s Gentle Thursday inspired similar activities at a number of other universities including Penn State and Iowa State. Austin, also a center of civil-rights and anti-war activities, was in 1967 the scene of an SDS-generated free speech movement (the University Freedom Movement) that mobilized thousands of students in massive demonstrations and other activities.

The Winter and Spring of 1967 saw an escalation of the militancy of the protests at many campuses. SDSers and self-styled radicals were even elected into the student government at a few places. Demonstrations against Dow Chemical and other campus recruiters were widespread, and ranking and the draft issues grew in scale. The FBI (mainly through its secret COINTELPRO) and other law enforcement agencies were often exposed as having spies and informers in the chapters. Harassment by the authorities was also on the rise. The National Office became distinctly more effective in this period, and the three officers actually visited most of the chapters. New Left Notes, as well, became a potent vehicle for promoting some coherence and solidarity among the chapters. The Anti-War movement began to take hold among university students.

The 1967 convention took an egalitarian turn by eliminating the Presidential and Vice-Presidential offices and replacing them with a National Secretary (20 year old Mike Spiegel), an Education Secretary (Texan Bob Pardun of the Austin chapter), and an Inter‑organizational Secretary (former VP Carl Davidson). A clear direction for a national program was not set but they did manage to pass strong resolutions on the draft, resistance within the Army itself, and they made a call for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. A women’s liberation resolution on the issue of “male chauvinism” was passed by conference attendees, for the first time.

That fall saw a great escalation of the anti-war actions of the New Left. The school year started with a large demonstration against university complicity in the war in allowing Dow recruiters on campus at the University of Wisconsin in Madison on Oct. 17. Peaceful at first, the demonstrations turned to a sit-in that was dispersed by the Madison police and riot squad, resulting in many injuries and arrests. A mass rally and a student strike then closed the university for several days. A coordinated series of demonstrations against the draft led by members of the Resistance, the War Resisters League, , and SDS added fuel to the fire of resistance. After conventional civil rights tactics of peaceful pickets seemed to have failed, the Oakland, California Stop the Draft Week ended in mass hit and run skirmishes with the police. The huge (100,000 people) October 21 March on the Pentagon saw hundreds arrested and injured. Night-time raids on draft offices began to spread.

In the spring of 1968, National SDS activists led an effort on the campuses called “Ten Days of Resistance” and local chapters cooperated with the Student Mobilization Committee in rallies, marches, sit-ins and teach-ins, which culminated in a one-day strike on April 26. About a million students stayed away from classes that day, the largest student strike in the history of the United States. It was largely ignored by the New York City-based national media, which focused on the student shutdown of Columbia University in New York, led by an inter-racial alliance of Columbia SDS chapter activists and Student Afro Society activists. As a result of the mass media publicity given to Columbia SDS activists such as Columbia SDS chairperson Mark Rudd, SDS put on the map politically and became a notorious household name. Membership in SDS chapters around the United States increased dramatically during the 1968-69 academic year.

Led by the Worker-Student Alliance and rival Joe Hill caucuses, SDS in San Francisco played a major role in the Third World Student Strike at San Francisco State College. This strike, the longest student strike in U. S. history, led to the creation of Black and other ethnic studies programs on campuses across the country.

SDS members from Austin, Tex., participated in a mass demonstration in San Antonio, Tex. in April 1969 at the “Kings River Parade.” San Antonio SNCC members called the demonstration to protest the killing of the killing of a black man by San Antonio Police Officers.

In the summer of 1969, the ninth SDS national convention was held at the Chicago Coliseum with some 2000 people attending. Many factions of the movement were present, and set up their literature tables all around the edges of the cavernous hall. The Young Socialist Alliance, Wobblies, Spartacists, Marsixsts, and Maoists of various sorts, all together with various law-enforcement spies and informers contributed to the air of impending expectations.

Each delegate was given the convention issue of the newspaper New Left Notes, which contained a manifesto, “You don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” a line taken from Bob Dylan’s Sibterranean Homesick Blues. This manifesto had been first presented at the Spring, 1969, SDS National Council Meeting in Austin, Tex. The document had been written by an 11-member committee that included Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, and John Jacobs, representing the position of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) wing of SDS, most of which later turned into the Weather Underground Organization. The New Left Notesissue was full of the language of the Old Left of the 1930s, and was thus impenetrable and irrelevant to the majority of SDSers.

Once it became clear that the Worker Student Alliance (WSA) faction was the largest contingent with a majority of the delegates, the convention quickly fell into disarray, as the RYM and allied groups moved to expel Progressive Labor (PL) members and the WSA faction of SDS. The Black Panther representatives also attacked PL.

The RYM and the National Office faction, headed by Bernardine Dohrn, led a breakaway meeting from which PL and WSA members were barred. This group then voted by about 500 to 100 to expel PL from SDS, and then walked out of the conference hall with that 500. By the next day, there were two SDS organizations, which RYM termed “SDS-RYM”and “SDS-WSA.”

In the fall of 1969, many of the SDS-RYM chapters also split up or disintegrated. The Weatherman faction evolved into a small underground organization that first took to street confrontations and then to a bombing campaign. The Weathermen held one final national convention in Flint, Mich., from Dec. 27–31, 1969. It was at this convention, more popularly known as the “Flint War Council” that the decision was made to disband what remained of SDS-RYM. SDS-RYM was fully defunct by 1970, while SDS-WSA continued its activity.

SDS-Worker-Student Alliance (SDS-WSA) continued to function nationwide, with a focus on (a) fighting racism; and (b) supporting workers’ struggles and strikes, including the 1969 General Electric strike and during the 1970 Postal Workers’ strikes, the WSA organized a support demonstration for the post office strikers,

Now calling itself simply SDS, SDS-WSA continued to publish the newspaper New Left Notes. It held a convention in Boston in 1971, at which a striking General Motors worker was a featured speaker.

In 1972, SDS-WSA demonstrated at the Democratic National Convention in Miami against Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s retreating from his original stronger campaign positions against the Vietnam War. Several hundred SDS members staged a sit-in at the Doral Hotel as McGovern and his staff met upstairs with protesting members of Grassroots McGovern Volunteers and sympathizers angry over the same issues.

In Newark, N.J., SDS-WSA demonstrated against Anthony Imperiale and his North Ward Citizens’Council, which opposed construction of Kawaida Towers, a housing project sponsored by a community organization led by Black nationalist and poet Amiri Baraka – the same poet who would write an anti-American poem about 9/11.

In 1974, National SDS(-WSA) voted to dissolve as a separate organization and reform as chapters of InCAR. However, individual chapters of SDS continued to exist for some time. A chapter at Purdue University was active as late as 1976.

Unlike SDS-RYM and the Weathermen, SDS-WSA strongly opposed bombing and terrorism. In 1971, SDS-WSA published a pamphlet titled Who Are The Bombers? Still, the group was paranoid:  it warned readers against police agents sent into the anti-Vietnam War movement to foment violence to justify police attacks. It also sharply criticized the Weathermen, which had begun its campaign of bombings.

On June 26, 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a unanimous opinion, in the case Healy v. James, stating that members of the SDS had been unconstitutionally deprived of their First Amendment right to freedom of assembly when a group was denied permission to form on the campus of Central Connecticut State College in New Britain, Conn.

These are the same people today who, as adults, claim that the U.S. government secretly planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the 1960s, there wasn’t much in the way of objective media.  You listened and watched the Mainstream Media, or you got no news at all.  Today’s American citizens are better informed and more skeptical than they were in the Sixties.  Now when they drink the Kool-Aid, at least they drink it with a grain of salt.

We still have much work ahead of us to undo 50 years’ worth of political and cultural damage.  The Progressives play a game of Denial Dodgeball.  Obama insists he had no ties to William Ayers, the small c communist, yet he served with Ayers on foundations in Chicago.  In his own, premature biography, he admits to associating with anyone who had a radical point of view.

By the mid-1970s, the American public was growing weary of “long-hot summers” (the burning of cities) and radical street theater, watching as the protestors burned American flags and threw bags of feces at soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War.  Pres. Nixon (for all his faults) deemed Middle America “The Silent Majority.”  Conservative Americans took up this appellation with pride and still use it today.

Sooner or later, the “students” had to go to work, and they found “shovel-ready” jobs in academia, prepared for them by the radical professors who had trained them (who themselves had been trained by radical professors in the Thirties).  Others found work in the Media, and others still, in government.

The teachers, even before SDS, had worked their way down to the high school and elementary school levels.  Most students gulped their instructions down like Kool-Aid. Only a few of us rebelled against their doctrine.  For us, getting a failing grade in Communist history was an honor.  We invite you to join the fight, and preserve our country’s unique, freedom-loving, free market-loving heritage.  The only advice we would urge you is to not use the enemy’s jargon.

An Occupy protest is scheduled for the Cleveland, Ohio. This is actually a Tea Party movement, but its name is bound to confuse people:  Occupy the Truth.  Just as the name “Tea Party” has become branded, so has “Occupy” Whatever.  Tea Partiers, recognizing the name may stay away, and Occupiers, whose movement (unlike the Tea Party movement) has exhausted its momentum and increased its unpopularity, may just wind up showing up.

However, going to this rally, thinking it’s something that it’s not, maybe Occupiers will hear the truth and see the light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Published in: on August 15, 2012 at 12:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

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