U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

[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.]


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.”[1]

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.

A couple dozen Madison people had come to Chicago for part or all of the convention.  Most of us were shocked.  Back in Madison, we called a special SDS meeting to consider the situation.  Adam Schesch, a sociology grad student who’d never been in SDS but had prestige as a Vietnam expert, offered a motion refusing to recognize either national SDS office.  At one point, for the benefit of those who hadn’t gone to Chicago, people began chanting different slogans from the convention.  It was a graphic way to convey the atmosphere.  About a hundred people were at the meeting, and they voted two-to-one in favor of the motion.  (I say “they” because I was chairing the meeting and didn’t vote; I would have voted “no” on the mistaken theory that the Chicago office might not be totally hopeless.)

I was away doing research for most of that summer.  But I have warm memories of the time I did spend in Madison.  In the off-campus area where I stayed, there was a lingering sense of community from the riots that had taken place on Mifflin Street in early May, when police broke up a block party.  People were proud to have stood up to the police, and proud that the head of the local firefighters union had given them a moral victory by hosting a party for them in his backyard.  Youth culture was alive and well.  The Mifflin Street Food Co-op functioned as an informal center of community life, and a new underground newspaper, Kaleidoscope, had emerged to replace the now-defunct Connections.  Student film societies were starting to show classic movies for fifty cents a throw; I went to see the Errol Flynn Robin Hood and wrote a whimsical review for Kaleidoscope attacking the “Robin Hood-Little John-Will Scarlet clique” for failing to build “an outlaw-serf alliance.”

My own activism in SDS ended when I began writing my dissertation at the start of the fall semester.  I chaired a two-day series of strategy meetings in September, then pulled out.  It wasn’t a matter of disagreeing politically with the local chapter, but of feeling older.  I was tired of trying to make history.  I wanted to concentrate on writing it.

Looking at History from Up Close

By the fall of 1969 I thought I had a carefully-arrived-at view of the New Left.  I could see that it had spread chiefly by example, fueled by political moralism and cultural alienation.  I could see that national organizations had never exerted control over it.

That perspective helped me in writing my dissertation on origins of the New Left, completed in 1971.  Rather than focusing on national groups like SDS, I constructed a synthesized chronology of what had happened on the most active campuses.  However long and boring, the dissertation was is a sensible account of the student movement of the early sixties that gave birth to the New Left.  But the other linchpin of my thinking on the New Left was less helpful:  I thought it was still in its infancy.  I thought I saw a generalized young people’s revolt that was spreading and would keep spreading.  In writing a history of the New Left’s origins from 1960 to 1965, I thought I was describing the birth of a social movement that had a long and tumultuous future ahead of it.

Both elements of my thinking seemed to be confirmed by events during the time I spent writing the dissertation.  The absence of national leadership didn’t seem to slow down the momentum of revolt.  In Madison, the spring of 1970 was the peak of disruption on campus:  first in a teaching assistants’ strike that effectively closed much of the liberal arts college for part of April, then a massive reaction to the invasion of Cambodia at the end of that month.  For almost a week, nightly marches of five or six thousand people expressed unbridled fury at the war.  The marchers seemed to me a cross-section of the campus, including fraternity and sorority members.  Despite efforts to start more genteel and more political chants, the only one that ever caught on was “One, two, three, four, We don’t want your fucking war.”  Many windows were broken on businesses in the campus area.  Late one night, someone set fire to the biggest supermarket near the campus and it burned to the ground.

Even the ebb and flow of militancy seemed not to change the overall picture.  After a bomb wrecked the campus building that housed the Army Math Research Center (and killed a physics researcher working very late hours in the building), the 1970-71 school year went much more quietly.  But memory and research seemed to tell me that ebbs and flows were part of the big picture — the long-term growth of the movement.

At the same time, activists were attempting to create alternative, cooperative institutions.  There were two food co-ops with storefronts, a bicycle co-op, a proliferation of film societies, and I don’t remember what else.  People were seeking to create new, more cooperative ways of getting society’s work done.  (The limitations of these new ways weren’t nearly as clear to me then as they were to become during eight years of working in a cooperative printshop in the 1970s.)  In a history of the New Left that I wrote in 1970 for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science I ended hopefully by talking about this kind of development and concluding:  “A revolution of the classical Marxist-Leninist model has never occurred in an advanced capitalist society, and it may well be that a Socialist revolution in this country will be simply an extension of the student movement that began in 1960.”

The fate of national SDS, in other words, seemed unimportant, either as a blow to the student movement or as a portent of the movement’s future.  As I saw it, we were in the midst of a social revolution that would survive its vanguards.

Keeping the Faith

My own trajectory during much of the 1970s reflected this belief in the continued vitality of “the movement.”  My vantage point for the whole decade was my work in a cooperative workplace called the New England Free Press, in Boston.  The Free Press was a printshop and also published over 200 pamphlets that were distributed across the country.  Its apex, I have to admit, was at about the time I arrived.  In our varied catalog, a number of the women’s liberation pamphlets sold in the tens of thousands of copies.  The biggest seller was Our Bodies, Ourselves, published first by the Free Press and later by Simon & Schuster.  Our prices were astonishingly low — usually 10 cents for a sixteen-page pamphlet.  In our last printing of Our Bodies, Ourselves, before the authors turned it over to a commercial publisher in 1973, we priced the book at 30 cents.

Aside from the women’s pamphlets, we had sections on Vietnam and on American imperialism, on education, on the working class, on China, on the economy, on “movement history and perspectives,” and so on.  We prided ourselves on a nonsectarian policy of offering a variety of left-wing and/or feminist points of view.  For the most part, our pamphlets excelled at saying what was wrong with the status quo — “consciousness raising,” as the women’s movement called it.  But as the decade wore on, consciousness-raising became less important than figuring out what to do — something for which “the movement” had a multiplicity of answers, none of them entirely convincing.  Even though we gradually sharpened our printing and design skills, and produced better-looking pamphlets, the Free Press became less relevant politically.  We sold fewer pamphlets, and more of them went to college classes (required reading) rather than to curious individuals or to political groups that could use the pamphlets for outreach.

The structure of the Free Press also became an anachronism over the decade.  Our ultra-democratic philosophy played down the importance of expertise.  We bent over backwards to avoid a too-rigid division of labor.  We rotated among such disparate jobs as running a press, photography, running the folding machine, filling pamphlet orders, and scheduling.  In the name of making printing skills available to more people, we also declined to put a premium on past experience in hiring people.  The inevitable result was inefficiency, which (together with our low prices) meant low pay and high turnover of staff.[2]  The one respect in which we successfully applied our politics to the running of the enterprise was our policy that at least half the staff members had to be women.  That didn’t hurt our printing skills in the slightest and it made us better-attuned to the range of political issues in the present-day United States.

I wrote articles for Radical America on the recent history of the Left, and I also did some writing on American history, a blend of dabbling and an earnest quest for the big picture.  My most engrossing project was a comic-book history of the US with Nick Thorkelson, a gifted cartoonist whom I’d met while writing for an underground newspaper in Madison.  Starting in the spring of 1972, we worked on our “Underhanded History of the USA” for two years.  In 1973, it appeared in black-and-white as a special issue of Radical America.  The next year, the New England Free Press published it in color.  About 21,000 copies were distributed altogether, which makes it the closest I’ve come to writing for a wide audience.  In the comic, a stuffy conservative lecturer mouths various cliches about American history which other characters then rebut.  The comic ends on a note of populist chaos, with a mob (meant to look like a cross-section of everyone who is oppressed) chasing the professor.  At the end of the decade, when we went to revise the book for a new printing, it was the last section that gave us the most trouble.  It could no longer climax in the 1960s, but we didn’t have a new climax.  We abandoned the project.

The recession of 1974-75, and the relative passivity of American workers in the face of it, helped undercut the idea that many of us had started the decade with — that the radical impulses of the student movement would spread gradually through the society.  Instead, the forces of capital turned out to be far stronger than those of labor, and the economic contraction made the disparity even worse.  It was a sobering time.  In the arena of national politics, the early 1970s had seen great advances in environmental protection, in women’s equality, in affirmative action against race discrimination, and in restrictions on presidential authority to make war.  But the late ‘70s were a time of political stalemate, broken with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.

I left the New England Free Press in 1980, returning briefly to help close it down a year later.  I still wrote for Radical America for a few years, but left in 1984.  Starting in 1983 I became active in a large, locally based group working against the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America, especially the contra war in Nicaragua.  It took up great amounts of my time over several years, but the feel was very different from the late ‘60s.  I was happy to be focused on one fairly simple issue rather than trying to change the society as a whole.

Looking Back at the New Left

As I try to make sense of the New Left from a perspective of later years, it looks different to me.  I don’t mean that I necessarily make different moral judgments about it.  The things that seemed pompous or excessive or funny to me at the time still seem that way.  The desperation from which they sprang still seems valid given the conditions of the time; in fact, if I have one regret about my own participation in the movement it’s that I wasn’t angry enough, especially at the Vietnam war.  Still, the movement looks different to me now.  That’s likely to happen with anything in the past.  As it recedes, it seems to shrink in size and you can see more of its surroundings.

The starting point for my assessment of the New Left today is that it was part of the ferment of the 1960s, a ferment which helped bring healthy reforms to a society which we thought was beyond reform.  The anti-war movement, which we were a part of, helped erect a barrier to future adventures like the Vietnam war.  Ronald Reagan, in fact, for all his cruelty in Central America and all the money he spent on military hardware, treaded very softly when it came to sending American troops overseas.  The draft is gone.  Likewise, for all the persistence of American racism, the position of black people in the US is far different than it was in the early sixties; idealistic white young people were important auxiliaries to the blacks who fought for their rights in that era.

The position of women in society is different now than it was two decades ago.[3]  It is worse in some ways — chiefly because declining real wages have sent millions of married women into the marketplace without drastically reducing their “duties” at home.  But the rise of two-income families is something that would have happened anyway; we can only speculate what society would be like if it had happened without (a) the opening of many better-paying traditionally male jobs to women, (b) the legal right of women to control their reproduction, and (c) at least the expectation that men would take a share of childraising and housework.  American society today pays lip service to the idea that women are full human beings, in a way that it did not twenty years ago.  On the whole, I consider America a much better, much more inclusive society than the one I grew up in.

Still, the movement looks different to me now.  That’s likely to happen with anything in the past.  As it recedes, it seems to shrink in size and you can see more of its surroundings.  I now see the New Left as an episode in the growth of a much larger and longer-term social phenomenon, something which I call bureaucratic individualism.  Obviously that label doesn’t mean anything by itself, but I’d like to try to make sense of it by relating it to some of the things I saw and experienced during the sixties.

I think back, first of all, to an argument I had with Casey Jarchow, the dean of men at Carleton College, when I was a dormitory proctor (and a student activist) my senior year.  The proctors were senior men who enforced rules on their dormitory floors and who, as a body, had the power to suspend students from school on the dean’s recommendation.  At our first meeting of the year, Dean Jarchow told us that a student had written a bad check to a Northfield store.  He said we had to impose at least a mild punishment:  local merchants expected the college to guard the collective reputation of its students.  I argued that the college itself had no rule against writing bad checks in town — that if the Northfield authorities wanted to act, that was their business, not ours.  I said we could only step in when somebody violated specific rules of the college.

As it happened, nobody agreed with me, and I don’t think I agree with me, looking back.  But my argument was part of the changing times at our small liberal arts college.  The Latin term for this controversy was in loco parentis, “in place of the parent.”  This was a term I heard a lot at the National Student Association convention I went to in 1962.  NSA denied that colleges and universities had the right to act in loco parentis.  Students were to be treated as citizens capable of making their own decisions and regulating their own lives.  Nobody at that time was thinking of radical measures such as co-ed dormitories, but the principle would soon lead there.  NSA thought that a college should have only limited powers to regulate students’ lives outside the classroom — should not be able to act for the students’ “own good” or to reassure anxious parents.

During the late sixties, when most campus protests were directed against symbols of the Vietnam war and American racism, the most far-reaching change that actually occurred on campus was the wholesale abandonment of in loco parentis.  Even academic requirements were loosened at many schools, giving students a wider choice of courses from the start.  The universities narrowed their role:  they provided a range of courses but took no overall responsibility for the upbringing of the post-adolescents who came to their doors.

Given the expansion of higher education in the sixties, it may have been an inevitable trend.  But it was immeasurably hastened by the student revolt.  Students were just “too hard to handle” in the context of the sixties.  Moreover, these kinds of demands were the easiest to grant.  In the spring of 1968 I went to a trustees’ meeting at the University of Wisconsin.  Two student-government requests were on the table:  one to liberalize the rules that prevented some undergraduates from living in off-campus apartments; the other to divest University stock from companies doing business in South Africa.  The trustees readily granted the first and just as readily denied the second.

The student movement and the New Left reflected a larger trend in society, encapsulated by a catch phrase that was common around 1967, “Do your own thing.”  The ideal was of a society in which autonomous individuals do what they wish, without interference from others.  It was an attitude that went well beyond the ranks of the movement and the counterculture.  It powerfully reinforced the reluctance of middle-class young men to go into the armed forces, and swelled the ranks of those who evaded the draft by whatever means was available to them.  (Draft resistance was a far more political and risky option, and only a small number of people really took it.)  In the new atmosphere, a whole range of restrictions on individual behavior suddenly became suspect.

Many aspects of the “youth culture” of the sixties — including long hair and what was previously considered strange dress — had to do with trying to assert individualism.  (I said trying to assert:  if you see a dozen people together, all looking “different” in more or less the same way, that’s … well, you fill in the rest.)  At first, shaggy hair and beards were a badge of rebellion; fairly rapidly, they became just another style.  Even so, they represented a breakdown of what might be called “intermediate authority”:  the power of communities (or of families) to dictate how individuals would present themselves to the society around them.  The college campus offered one of the primary battlegrounds in this struggle, and it was one where the conditions were most favorable to the forces of change.

Thus, we in the New Left were part of a social trend that was much bigger than we were.  But that’s not how we saw it.  We saw ourselves as being in the vanguard of a social transformation that we saw primarily in political terms.  We saw ourselves, along with black militants and third-world revolutionaries, as part of a challenge to the top-down control which American corporations and the American government exercised over the lives of people around the world.  Along with that challenge, we saw ourselves as offering more democratic forms of social organization.  Even in the late sixties there were echoes of the idealistic promises made in SDS’s Port Huron Statement of 1962, about building genuine community among people.  But I think it’s clear that we failed.  The organization I was closest to, SDS, drew people for a time but could never keep more than a few.  For one thing, only at times of crisis were meetings interesting — people had other things to occupy their time.  In general, the life-span of cooperative institutions around Madison was short:  either they became dependent on the heroic work of a few people, or they evolved into something akin to normal small businesses with paid labor, or they disintegrated.  This was true nationally, and it wasn’t limited to “politicos.”  Many cooperatives have survived, and even thrived, but they have had to adjust to capitalism even as they have sought to challenge it.

So traditional forms of social control were being eroded at the same time that efforts to form new types of community were failing.  The ironic result, I think, was twofold:  to strengthen immeasurably the forces of individualism in society, and to strengthen the power of large impersonal bureaucracies.  The epitome of social relations in the present era may be, in fact, the lawsuit.  It is the assertion of individual rights within a maze of formal legal rules.  The judicial system constitutes an agreed-upon bureaucratic means for resolving the dispute.  At times it may be stunningly effective in making companies accountable, but it also symbolizes a loss of faith in more collective ways of resolving social issues.  It symbolizes what I mean by bureaucratic individualism.

In the sixties, all sorts of things seemed possible — not just to a radical fringe, but to people at the top of society as well.  Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs and his “war on poverty” held out a goal of equality and social justice that today seems awesome in its ambition.  The sending of troops to Vietnam (a half-million at the peak) likewise bespoke a supreme confidence in the ability of the United States to shape history.  In reaching far beyond our grasp, the student radicals were not alone.

A final note:  I used the term “bureaucratic individualism,” but have said much more about individualism than about bureaucracy.  In fact, I don’t so much mean “bureaucracy” in the sense of the cold, gray, unresponsive institution that Republicans love in the private sector while hating in the public.  I mean it as a way of characterizing a society in which individuals occupy impersonal niches that are detached from membership in genuine communities.  (I think of something my alderman said before voting to abolish rent control in Somerville, Massachusetts, where I live.  To the argument that higher rents would drive a lot of low- and moderate-income tenants out of the city he said, “Well, it’s a good location.  Somebody’s going to live here.”  Now he’s the mayor.)  Outside of the family at least, our rights and responsibilities are codified and computerized — which is not necessarily a bad thing but it is only an incidental part of what the New Left thought it was trying to do.  Karl Marx once said something like this:  that people make history, but they do it under circumstances that are not of their choosing.

[1].  One of the more sensible “Weatherpeople” tipped off the State Historical Society of Wisconsin that the office was being abandoned.  I was part of an emergency expedition from the Society that arrived there before the Chicago police and rescued the archives for future researchers.

[2].  None of these problems were inherent in our being a “radical” printshop.  Red Sun Press, another Boston-area printing cooperative which started out in the mid-seventies, much smaller than the Free Press at the time, gradually built itself up by stressing expertise and experience and is still flourishing today without sacrificing its identity as part of “the movement.”  Priscilla Long, a poet and amateur historian, played a very influential role in shaping Red Sun’s careful blend of radical politics and common-sense organization.  In contrast, I was usually on the side of ultra-democracy in the Free Press’s internal discussions.

[3].  It’s tricky to talk about the New Left in relation to the women’s liberation movement.  The youthful wing of the women’s movement grew in part from a revolt against women’s treatment within the civil rights movement and the New Left.  But another way of looking at it is that the civil rights movement and New Left raised issues of equality and respect which enabled feminists within them to rebel.

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  1. Just want to express, once again, many thanks to Jim O’Brien for not only allowing us to publish this personal account, but also for making available to S-USIH the entire print run of the Radical Historians Newsletter. It is no small thing to be trusted. I’m grateful for Jim’s confidence in us, and I know we’re all looking forward to making available the rich resources he has placed at our disposal. Many thanks to Jim and to MARHO for paving the way.

    • Yes, I’m still in the process of reading these entries, off and on among other necessary reading. But thank you, Jim O’Brien, for trusting us with your narrative. – TL

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