In 1983 I saw the documentary “Seeing Red” that mixed interviews of former members of the Communist Party talking about their experiences with exciting film footage and photographs of the class battles they took part in. Among the highlights was Bill Bailey reminiscing about the day in 1935 when he tore the Nazi flag off the Bremen, a luxury liner docked in New York.
Bill was 25 when he carried out this protest and 72 when he was interviewed for “Seeing Red”. Over the past few years, I have toyed with the idea of making a film like “Seeing Red” but based on the experiences of veterans of the Socialist Workers Party, many of whom are about the same age today as Bill Bailey was in 1983—including me.
For us, there was nothing quite like the experience of fighting in the Spanish Civil War as Bill Bailey did, or being part of militant trade union struggles like Dorothy Healy, but we were part of the most important radicalization in American history following the 1930s. And like the CP’ers, we had come to learn that the party could betray our best hopes. In their case, it was allowing themselves to be manipulated by Joseph Stalin—in our case being manipulated by a cult leader whose actions have reduced the party by 90 percent since I left in 1978.
While SDS never aspired to be a vanguard party, except toward its tumultuous final days when it was being torn apart by Maoist factions, it was arguably to the 1960s what the CPUSA was to the 1930s, the most authoritative voice of young rebels, especially those on campus.
With that in mind, I can recommend Bert Schultz’s “Fordham SDS” as coming close to the insights and the sheer pleasure of being a radical that were revealed in “Seeing Red”. Bert was a student at Fordham in the 1960s when an SDS chapter was formed and that soon aligned with the Worker Student Alliance faction of SDS. His interviewees are former members, some of whom became members of the Progressive Labor Party, the Maoist group that led the Worker Student Alliance. At least one of them sounds like she could still be a member, or at least a strong sympathizer.
The film, which lasts 37 minutes, is crowned by footage of a sit-in to protest the war in Vietnam that Bert took with a 16mm camera. Like the far better known Columbia occupation that took place a year earlier and that inspired the Fordham struggle, this was the strategy adopted by SDS nationally and arguably had as much of an impact on weakening the war drive as the mass demonstrations my party focused on.
Some other things make the film particularly interesting. Unlike Columbia, Fordham was a Catholic school with rigid social norms. Wearing a turtle-neck shirt was frowned on since it smacked of rebelliousness. Fordham was also a largely blue-collar commuter school that reflected the deepening proletarian orientation of the antiwar movement. When I was up in Boston in 1970, I saw the same dynamic at work when students at U. Mass Boston became activists. Many of them were like my girlfriend at the time, the daughter of an Irish Catholic trolley car engineer, who had attended a community college to become trained as a nurse.
Our hopes, as it was of the Progressive Labor Party and the Worker Student Alliance, was that the 1960s radicalization would penetrate the heart of the working class and that we would have a revolution in the USA, by 1985 at least. Little did Bert or I anticipate that by 2017 things would have come to what they are today.
Like Bert, I have high hopes for the future since Donald Trump is putting more people into motion than any leftist leaflet could have possibly done. Watching his documentary will give a good idea of how the left functioned nearly a half-century ago, warts and all. You are left with the feeling that SDS could have done things better just as I would have done if I made a film about the SWP. In any case, I strongly urge you to watch his film for $1.49 that would be a bargain at ten times the price, especially if you are in your twenties and about to become involved in what I anticipate to be major class battles that will be third act of resistance to American capitalism.