[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, Part III of this essay can be found here, and Part IV of this essay can be found here.]
TWO VIEWS OF THE NEW LEFT: THEN AND NOW
By Jim O’Brien
For SDS as an organization, the denouement of its 1969 convention is quickly told. The delegates who’d stayed in the main hall elected a slate of national officers loyal to the PL program and prepared to set up their own national office in Boston, the PL stronghold within the student movement. The breakaway convention carried over an extra day and elected a slate of candidates from the “Weathermen” faction. The other major New Left faction, under the name Revolutionary Youth Movement-II, prepared to go into opposition within what most people assumed would be a framework of business as usual (minus Progressive Labor) in SDS. All three groups offered leadership to the burgeoning protest movement on American campuses, an offer that was never to be accepted.
The “Weathermen” took their election as a catapult into the unknown. Ignoring the traditional coordinating role of the national office, they forged themselves into a cult of a few hundred seeking to catalyze a revolution by sheer boldness of example. They tried to show their toughness by provoking fights in working-class neighborhoods, whether running through high-school corridors yelling “Jailbreak” or parading National Liberation Front flags on beaches. After a few months they abandoned the SDS national office altogether and became the “Weather Underground.”
The opposition Revolutionary Youth Movement-II faction held together for only a few months before splitting apart into small sub-factions that sought to form classical Leninist parties. The main groups were the Revolutionary Union, later the Revolutionary Communist Party, then and now led by Bob Avakian; and the October League, which became the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) and then dissolved.
The Progressive Labor version of SDS kept the trappings of a national student organization, with officers and conventions, but had nothing relevant to say to the student movement. Their program was to take the “Worker-Student Alliance” one step further and seek an alliance between students and campus workers. It was an arranged marriage sought by neither partner. My own experience with it came one day in Madison when I was given a leaflet by a friend who belonged to the tiny local Worker-Student Alliance Caucus. It announced a rally to support parking benefits for campus workers. According to the leaflet, the rally should have started a half-hour earlier on the very site where we were standing by ourselves talking.