Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 14, 2018

My 1968

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

The current issues of Jacobin and Bookforum are devoted to 1968. You can buy the Jacobin issue  for $12.98, a fair price considering the generally worthwhile content. I recommend in particular Paul Heideman’s “Half the Way With Mao Zedong” that deals with the implosion of SDS and Jonah Birch’s “How Beautiful It Was” about the May-June 1968 revolt in France. I was closer to their age when these things were going on and offer my reflections below. You can buy Bookforum at better bookstores and magazine shops. I have been subscribing to this magazine for about a decade now and consider it among the best available. Their approach is somewhat different than Jacobin’s and adopts much more of cultural critique angle. Go to Bookforum.com and have a look at the table of contents. You can also read a couple of articles that are not behind a paywall, including a brilliant take-down of John Updike who was a major literary figure 50 years ago, even appearing on the cover of Time Magazine. Author Christine Smallwood lets him have it with both barrels:

Updike was on the cover of Time magazine shortly after Couples came out. A little banner advertised the story: “The Adulterous Society.” Updike later said the decision to put him on the cover had been made before anyone at the magazine had read Couples, and after they read it, they regretted it. Like several of the contemporary reviews, the article willingly picks up the religious motifs of the novel, going on about the “black mass of community sex” and the absence of the old “Puritan gods.” Such overwrought symbolism is everywhere in Couples, and is just as unconvincing. In the end, the church that Piet has occasionally attended is burned down, struck in a storm by God’s own lightning bolt. But this leaves no impression on the reader, because no one in the book has felt anything resembling guilt, and the book has no vocabulary for dread, despair, or liberation. This is both its literary failure and a historical symptom. As Tony Tanner wrote in Adultery in the Novel,“A novel like John Updike’s Couples is as little about passion as it is about marriage; the adulteries are merely formal and technical.”

Now for my 1968 that starts in 1967.

In July, 1967 I made the most important decision in my life, next to getting married. I joined the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party, with the intention of joining the SWP after a few months. I am not sure whether the SWP had a candidate program in 1967 but I was under the impression that they scrutinized each applicant very carefully.

Sometime in late 1967, the SWP branch was voting on my membership application, which was the first point on the agenda. Headquarters were on 873 Broadway near Union Square and I sat in what amounted to a projectionist’s booth just above the main hall. Sitting there, I felt as vulnerable as someone in an orals exam for a PhD. After about 10 minutes, someone came up to usher me down to the meeting. As I walked toward a chair, everybody started applauding. I was a new member.

That meeting stuck out for two reasons. The next point on the agenda after the vote on my membership was a motion to expel Arne Swabeck, who had been in the Trotskyist movement since the early 30s and was prominent enough to earn a few minutes as a talking head in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”. For a number of years he had been evolving in a Maoist direction and the party had become fed up with him. I was hardly the person to fit into his shoes but among my liabilities, Maoism was not one. Indeed, what I saw didn’t exactly turn me on. An old friend from Bard College had been drawing closer to the Progressive Labor Party, a leading Maoist group that Swabeck would join after being expelled. He talked me into going to a contact class given by PLP leader Jake Rosen at his apartment in Washington Heights. I liked all his verbiage about the dictatorship of the proletariat but looked askance at PLP’s sectarian attitude toward the mass demonstrations. The other thing I remember about Jake’s talk was his playing with his toes as he spoke. If I had been to his class four years later, I would have repeated Gene Hackman’s immortal line in the 1971 film “The French Connection”: “Are you still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?”

The other reason I remember the SWP meeting was a warning sign that I might have been perceived as a “petty-bourgeois” element early on. Not long after I joined the YSA, the comrades learned that my father was a shopkeeper and that I was a Jew. Could they have considered me to be the kind of person that backed Max Shachtman in the late 30s? It turns out that my fears were unfounded but I regret that they did not vote no, looking back on the 11 years I wasted in the sect. I had worn my new trousers to the meeting, a pair of gold, wide-wale, bell-bottom corduroys that I bought on St. Mark’s Place. Sitting next to Susan Lamont, I was startled when she grabbed a fold of my trousers and said “petty bourgeois” to me.

Susan was a Barnard student. A few months later, Columbia University was the site of massive protests led by SDS. Susan and three other Barnard students were the only presence Trotskyists had at this politically key campus. They were Pat Grogan, who was the daughter of a powerful trade union bureaucrat and former mayor of Hoboken, Cindy Jaquith and Paula Reimers. I really liked Pat because she was smart, funny and outspoken. Susan, Cindy and Paula were rather colorless figures but totally devoted to building the Student Mobilization Committee against the War in Vietnam at Barnard and Columbia. The SMC was the main recruiting tool of the YSA but could not begin to compete with SDS politically. The SWP insisted that the SMC remain a single-issue group but most college students were interested in a multi-issue organization but not necessarily the YSA since its old left Trotskyist politics were a turn-off for most students.

Since I had been out of college for a couple of years, SDS didn’t really speak to my needs. Furthermore, I was so totally radicalized by the summer of 1967 that the amorphous, participatory politics of SDS struck me as weak tea. I felt at the time like Bruce Willis in that scene in “Pulp Fiction” when he walking around the ground level of the army and navy store to find a suitable weapon to attack the two men in the basement who were about to sexually assault his nemesis played by Ving Rhames. He finally settles for a sword that seemed equal to the task. For me, the SWP was that kind of weapon. If the goal was to overthrow the most powerful capitalist country in history, you better find a lethal weapon.

Looking back at this period, I would say that the SWP made a serious mistake by counterpoising the SMC to SDS. It would have made much more sense to work as the antiwar caucus in SDS. With our generally sensible approach, this would have won many young people fed up with both the arrogance of the Mark Rudd/Mike Klonsky/Bob Avakian leadership as well as the PLP-led Worker Student Alliance that tried to win students to a workerist strategy that made no sense in 1968. Ironically, the SWP would dust off the PLP orientation 10 years later and force petty bourgeois elements like me to say goodbye.

As much as I believed in Trotskyist politics, I was a fish out of water in the YSA and SWP. If you weren’t on a campus, there wasn’t much of a contribution you could make. What kept me going was the individual reading program that Les Evans enrolled me in. He understood that I was seriously interested in Marxist theory and keep feeding me titles.

Trotsky’s writings had a spellbinding effect on me. Although my reading had been mostly in novels, poetry and religious literature (my senior project at Bard was on St. Augustine’s “City of God”), I found his ability to get to the heart of the matter using incandescent prose a heady potion. Just around the time that SDS was leading the occupation of Low Library that would make us feel puny by comparison, I began reading Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution”. Sentences like these was like taking a powerful drug straight into the vein:

By the end of 1916 prices are rising by leaps and bounds. To the inflation and the breakdown of transport, there is added an actual lack of goods. The demands of the population have been cut down by this time to one-half. The curve of the workers’ movement rises sharply. In October the struggle enters its decisive phase, uniting all forms of discontent in one. Petrograd draws back for the February leap. A wave of meetings runs through the factories. The topics: food supplies, high cost of living, war, government. Bolshevik leaflets are distributed; political strikes begin; improvised demonstrations occur at factory gates; cases of fraternisation between certain factories and the soldiers are observed; a stormy protest-strike flares up over the trial of the revolutionary sailors of the Baltic Fleet. The French ambassador calls Premier Stürmer’s attention to the fact, become known to him, that some soldiers have shot at the police. Stürmer quiets the ambassador: “The repressions will be ruthless.” In November a good-sized group of workers on military duty are removed from the Petrograd factories and sent to the front. The year ends in storm and thunder.

I very well might have been reading this paragraph when the French student uprising began on May 2, 1968. Whatever the limits of the movement, there could be nothing more exhilarating than the giant steps students and then workers were taking to change society. For someone like myself, it vindicated my belief in the correctness of the SWP’s “old left”, working class orientation. In November 1968, George Novack wrote an article for the International Socialist Review titled “Can American Workers Make a Socialist Revolution?” that made us feel vindicated. If French workers living in relative prosperity could confront the state, wouldn’t our time be coming soon? George wrote:

The year 1967, for example, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution, when the workers did conquer power for the first time in history, opening a breach in the structure of world capitalism which has been widened and deepened by a series of subsequent socialist revolutions. Will this process never be extended to the United States when it has already come within ninety miles of its shores?

The general strike of ten million French workers in May-June 1968 disclosed an unsuspected readiness for anti-capitalist action in the advanced industrial West. Cannot the American workers become imbued at some point with a similar militancy?

This was the beginning of the end of the New Left and of SDS. The May-June events in France turned all these people into Marxist-Leninists. Well, not maybe all. Mark Rudd became the leader of the Weathermen that adopted Narodnik type terrorism wedded to a crude Third Worldist anti-imperialism that, like the traditional SDS, discounted the working-class. It was up to Mike Klonsky and Bob Avakian to make the Marxist turn, even if it was couched in the Maoist ideology of the PLP that would before long denounce the Communist Party in China.

On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be seeking a second term. This led to intense jockeying by Democratic Party “peace candidates” to get the nomination. Eugene McCarthy became the odds on favorite to get the nomination because his speeches were filled with bold, antiwar rhetoric even though buried beneath the rhetoric was support for negotiations rather than immediate withdrawal as the SWP favored (almost exclusively on the left.)

In his declaration for his candidacy on November 30, 1967 prior to LBJ’s resignation, McCarthy spoke for that section of the ruling class that worried about the costs of the war in terms of its transformation of a beatnik religion major into a hard-core revolutionary:

I am hopeful that a challenge may alleviate the sense of political helplessness and restore to many people a belief in the processes of American politics and of American government. On college campuses especially, but also among other thoughtful adult Americans, it may counter the growing sense of alienation from politics which is currently reflected in a tendency to withdraw in either frustration or cynicism, to talk of nonparticipation and to make threats of support for a third party or fourth party or other irregular political movements.

Threats of support for a third or fourth party or other irregular political movements? No, we can’t have that.

Students who became volunteers for the McCarthy campaign were said to be “getting clean for Gene”. The SWP published a pamphlet called the McCarthy Truth Kit that debunked his claims about ending the war as well as other flaws in his liberal program. Later on Robert Kennedy started his own primary campaign that was nipped in the bud by his assassination on June 6, 1968.

Just two months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. These two killings led to the general sense that American society was unraveling. Nothing is happening today that begins to approach the depth of the polarization in the USA that existed 50 years ago. For all of Trump’s hatefulness, the brunt of his attacks is on immigrants. In 1968, every male college student in the USA felt like he had a target on his back. What if the draft called and you ended up in Vietnam being forced to kill or dying yourself in a senseless imperialist war?

In the fifty years that separates us from that period, the biggest thing that separates them is the restabilization of bourgeois society through a ruling class strategy to put a damper on risk-taking. The neoliberalism that kicked in under Carter makes job security a thing of the past. In 1968, you could pick up the Sunday NY Times and turn to the business section that had classified ads in the back pages.

You would see an entire page and often two filled with jobs for college graduates, no experience necessary. I answered one placed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. with no expectations other than getting a flunky position as a claims approver or something. When I was interviewed in personnel, they gave me an aptitude test of the kind where you have to deduce from 3 figures what the fourth should be, something that comes easy to me. After looking at my score, the interview asked if I would be interested in becoming a programmer trainee. The rest is history.

Today, students are much more security conscious. The idea of a radical student strike like the kind that took place at Columbia has to be weighed heavily. Is there anything happening today that would make a lost school year worth it? The truth is that nothing since the war in Vietnam has had the same radicalizing impact. If you want to understand the phenomenal growth of the DSA, this is a partial explanation. There are bad things happening in the USA that must be opposed but going so far as to join a revolutionary organization that puts demands on your time and that might even lead to jeopardizing job prospects, there will naturally be a tendency to choose a weapon not as lethal as the one that Bruce Willis chose.

 

3 Comments »

  1. No comments yet? You have to be kidding me. Plus, your piece was published on Bastille Day ! Thought you might get a kick out of this:

    Love your blog.

    Comment by maggie — July 16, 2018 @ 9:25 am

  2. For me in 1968, SDS despite its many absurdities (they wouldn’t let me join, but I was a fellow traveller) was a lifeline. What a shame that its “Marxist” turn took the form of a war between the execrable PL faction and the sinister but ridiculous Weathermen. How an organization of college students could ever have formed the nucleus of a functioning political party remains a good question, but the implosion always seemed to me as unnecessary as the consequences were far-reaching.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — July 16, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

  3. As a member of the IS at the time you entered the YSA, I partook of a separate world line. The IS began its program of “workerisation” when it organized itself in 1967. I “entered the working class” then, and have remained their ever since. The IS avoided the various insanities of SDS and while we were engaged in the antiwar movement, we didn’t focus on it.

    Our focus was the working class, which was in motion and which would remain so until the late 70s and into the 80s. The split in the IS in ’77, which resulted in the present-day ISO and Solidarity, was basically a result of the ebbing of this working class activity.

    Comment by David Berger — July 20, 2018 @ 7:51 pm


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