Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2019

You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance

Filed under: Counterpunch,Kevin Coogan,Maoism,SDS — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm


On a number of different levels, John Levin and Earl Silbar’s “You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance” is a must-read book. To start with, it represents an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle known as SDS. For many, SDS meant either the New Left of the Port Huron Statement or the organization that imploded in 1970, leaving behind the wreckage strewn behind it, including the Weathermen and the various Maoist sects such as Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party that came out of RYM and RYM2. Missing until now from this puzzle was arguably SDS’s most disciplined and serious component, the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) that was well-represented in the landmark student strikes at San Francisco State and Harvard University.

In addition, it is a close look at the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a group that was the backbone of the WSA as well as the group that had the official blessing of Beijing in the 1960s until the party leadership broke with China over its “revisionism”.

While being essential for professional historians and those simply trying to understand what was happening on the left 50 years ago, it is also a breathtakingly dramatic story of how people from my generation burned their bridges in order to become revolutionaries. As someone who has read and written about a number of Trotskyist memoirs, none of them comes close to the story-telling power of the 23 people included in this 362-page collection that you will find impossible to put down.

Continue reading


  1. I hated PL. I saw them as a gang that blockupied the “Marxist-Leninist” left of SDS in such a way that the whole thing was bound to fall apart and the place where it was be sown with salt. You couldn’t talk to them–all communication was from them via bullhorn and questions were not permitted. A bunch of bullying assholes,

    Ironically, the ones you could talk to (although they still preserved clique boundaries with religious zeal) were more or less of the Port Huron stamp, though inclined to Marxism–and the particular group I knew best, surprisingly, all suddenly joined the RYM in a bloc.

    I remember having a work-study job in East Boston and meeting up with the friendliest member of the clique and hearing him tell me in all seriousness that the boys had been studying karate and planned to go to Revere Beach to pick fights with the local guys. This would win the workers over to the cause. Seriously.

    If it hadn’t been for SDS I would never have crossed the line from liberal/neoliberal to Marxist.

    But the SDS rocket went up thirty feet and came straight down and exploded.

    For the explosion of SDS–and therefore the eclipse of hope for effective socialism in our time–PL IMO bears much of the blame. And now we have the hip and sexy DSA–beaten before they even begin, while we prepare for a second term of Trump with no organization in place to protect working people or fight with them against the gathering storm of not-exactly-fascism.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 22, 2019 @ 3:57 pm

  2. I was a member of the Bard College chapter of SDS, and my experience with PL was very similar to Cde. Kalosar’s above. In their own bullying way, they were even worse than the Weather people. In 1969 Bard SDS invited reps from all three of the major factions (RYM1, RYM2, PL/WSA) to give presentations. By the end of the Winter Field Period ’70, most of us had moved on to other political organizations and concerns. I joined the YSA in December ’69…

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — March 22, 2019 @ 4:35 pm

  3. For historical accuracy, it was June 1969, that PLP stacked the SDS national convention in Chicago that ended SDS – not 1970. I was there so I know.

    Comment by John O'Brien — March 22, 2019 @ 5:23 pm

  4. “eclipse of … socialism in our time”

    Way overdrawn. Certainly applies to people like me and my family. Not sure what an accurate truly general statement of this would be.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 22, 2019 @ 6:35 pm

  5. Speaking of stacking: In A Threat of the First Magnitude, it’s shown from FBI records that the FBI ordered its informants to bloc with Weatherman and RYM II against PL. Art Eckstein in Bad Moon Rising on Weatherman says the same thing. The FBI saw PL, believe it or not, as the “main threat.” I think it was because the people in the FBI saw PL as the continuation of the CPUSA but with Chinese instead of Russian support. The FBI had totally penetrated the CPUSA at the highest levels but I think they had nothing yet on China and PL. Of course by 1969, PL had long broken with China and the Chinese were sponsoring RU.

    PL was a thug group. I know they tried to attack the Sparts in Boston (well, they were “Trots”) just as the RU types liked to beat up SWPers in the Bay Area.

    Comment by HH — March 23, 2019 @ 2:19 am

  6. I’d like to clarify HH’s comment (#5) — at least, I think it’s a clarification rather than a disagreement. FBI documents indeed demonstrate that informants were instructed to support the SDS National Office against Progressive Labor. I don’t think it’s that the feds saw PL “as the continuation of the CPUSA”, except in the sense that they felt that PL knew what is was doing, and that it might be able to connect with broader layers of the population, whereas the National Office people were unlikely to gain much support in the United Sttaes.

    Comment by Alan Ginsberg — March 23, 2019 @ 12:40 pm

  7. At our first chapter meeting in late August or early September of ’69, Bard SDSers discussed our political activism over the summer. This included a report-back from our chapter’s delegates who had attended the June National Convention in Chicago. (At the time I was a wee-bit suspect in the eyes of some of my comrades because I had participated in the second summer “Work-In” promoted by the Worker Student Alliance. More accurately, I had made necessity fit political organizing.)

    In retrospect, I think Cde. John is quite correct that SDS received a mortal wound at the June National Convention. However, at the time it was not clear to most of us that SDS could not be maintained as an effective, broad-based, national, radical youth organization. As I recall, that became apparent only gradually as the depth of the crisis of the organization became more obvious.

    The June explosion was propelling the various parts of the organization in numerous directions. Bard SDS was one of those chapters which joined together to attempt to arrest the organizational disintegration. This, as I recall, was called by some the “Princeton Alignment” or “Princeton Axis” after the New Jersey SDS chapter which initiated the attempt. By December of 1969 it was obvious to most of us that SDS was history. The WSA maintained a rump SDS (which did have some non-PL independent chapters and individuals) until about 1974 or so.

    If folks are interested, many SDS documents of the period can be found here: http://www.sds-1960s.org/documents.htm

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — March 23, 2019 @ 2:59 pm

  8. As AG states, I also believe the FBI did erroneously think PL had the best chance of reaching “the masses” as PL did have a commitment to the working class and the FBI was operating out of a template shaped by its war with the CPUSA. PL came out of the CPUSA with Milt Rosen. For the FBI, PL was the heir to the most militant wing of the 1930s-40s CPUSA.

    However, I believe the FBI was all too aware that PL had “foreign ties” namely to Communist China and that made PL even more dangerous. The FBI was wrong about this as well. Although the Chinese and PL were close at one point, Milt Rosen refused to back the Cultural Revolution. As Milt Rosen once said,(or so a former high level PL cadre told me) something like “Show me a single word that is wrong in Liu Shao Chi’s ‘How to Be a Good Communist.'” He didn’t buy the Mao/Red Guard attack.

    For all I know, Rosen may have seen the Red Guards as the Chinese version of the anti-Rosen wing of M2M that set up the American Liberation League (ALL) and some of whose members later became quite important to the creation of RYM I .

    The FBI knew, correctly, that backing the RYM I crazies was the best way to destroy SDS. PL did not destroy SDS or PL didn’t destroy SDS alone. If one reads Mark Rudd’s memoir, he’s very clear that RYM I/National Office really destroyed SDS, in part, I think, because what became Weatherman saw SDS itself as not revolutionary enough and more a problem than a solution. To someone like Rudd at the time, SDS was largely composed of political “softs” white college student types that so disgusted him when dealing with the “Praxis” types in Columbia SDS, and whose reign he helped overthrow after being elected the new head of Columbia SDS. Rudd also followed JJ, a former ALL member who quite Columbia in disgust and hated Praxis as cowards.

    For its part, the FBI saw SDS not as too little but too much revolutionary. For weirdly opposite reasons, RYM I and the FBI were oddly in agreement that SDS had to go. PL didn’t help matters along but PL did not on its own “destroy” SDS. There were multiple active shooters on that political grassy knoll.

    Comment by HH — March 23, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

  9. I believe HH is very much mistaken concerning PL’s attitude to the Cultural Revolution. People interest in this can check out the following documents from the Marxists Internet Archive:

    from Road to Revolution II (December 1966)
    see Section “Success for China’s Cultural Revolution Is a Defeat for Imperialism”

    see also Road to Revolution III (1970)
    Section “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”
    beginning p. 9 of PDF at https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/1960-1970/rr3.pdf

    And lots of stuff if you
    scroll down to “China and the Cultural Revolution” at https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/1960-1970/index.htm#plp

    Comment by Alan Ginsberg — March 23, 2019 @ 7:23 pm

  10. Much mistaken?

    Hmmm. . . .

    Here’s the one history of PL from two ex-members named Jim Dann and Hari Dillon that I cite in How It All Began at

    At the heart of the clash between RYM II and PL was not Stalin – both factions thought he was just peachy. The key issue was the Cultural Revolution.33 A little-known turning point in the history of American Maoism came in 1966-67 once PL decided that it could no longer uncritically support the Cultural Revolution. The differences between the Chinese and PL’s leaders than began to intensify. Since this story is still so little known, I will quote at some length from ex-PL members Jim Dann and Hari Dillon’s book The Five Retreats:


    PL’s relations with China were always one step short of fraternal. The Chinese subscribed to 2,000 copies of Challenge and invited leading PL figures to travel to China. In addition there were meetings with Chinese and Albanian representatives. But the CCP never reprinted any PL documents as they had done with their more closely fraternal parties, such as the ones in Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Brazil, India. PL, however, was more or less the official Maoist organization in the U.S. during the period 1964-1969. As such, PLP gained the great prestige that came from being associated so closely with the CCP and Mao-Tse-Tung. And PLP circulated the red-book of Mao’s thoughts and PL’s literature often abounded in quotations from Mao or stories reprinted from the Chinese press.

    But there were irritations as early as 1967 when the PL leadership became privately upset that the CCP did not follow PL’s anti-Vietnam line.34 At a 1967 NC discussion of the Cultural Revolution Rosen was critical of the Red Guard for breaking with democratic-centralism and suspicious of the leadership in China for not asserting greater authority in the Party. The CCP’s repudiation of Liu-Shao-Chi’s book, How to be a Good Communist was likewise received poorly since PLP had used the book extensively in internal study groups. The “Cult of Mao” was also criticized at this NC meeting, even though the PL V. 6, No. 4 was replete with ostentatious Mao quotations and the cult of Milt Rosen was flourishing in at least some quarters of PLP. The NC discussion missed the historical essence of the mighty class battles then being fought in China and amounted to unself-critical carping over the weaknesses. Yet the PL leadership was prepared to begin more serious criticism of China in 1968-1969, when they became more aware that the battle in China was for state power. Almost alone among U.S. left groups (save some “Leftist” Trotskyite sects), PLP was coming to the conclusion that the Chinese Left had lost, that Mao was fronting for the Right or at least the Right of Center and without really knowing anything about what was going on in China the PL leadership openly sympathized with the “anarchists” and the “ultra-left” that had, according to press reports, been put down militarily in certain Chinese provinces.

    To make this kind of break for PLP would have required considerable courage had not the Chinese on their part displayed increasing coolness to PL in the 1968-1969 period. The CCP had never appreciated PLP’s “making more profound” their line of drawing a clear line of demarcation with revisionism. When PL attacked the Vietnamese for negotiating and for accepting Soviet aid the CCP was not of a mind to follow suit. The CCP was intent on avoiding a break with Vietnam and found PL’s escalating verbal abuse of the front-line fighters in Vietnam distasteful and helpful neither to China’s relations with Vietnam nor to China’s image as the bulwark of support for the national liberation movement. Nor did the Chinese ever see the point in PLP’s abandonment of the anti-war movement and much to Rosen’s irritation, they continued to hail the mass anti-war demonstrations even though they were led by PL’s enemies. The CCP took much the same tack with regard to PL’s withdrawal from the BLM [black liberation movement – HH]. This was symbolized by the presence of PL’s enemy, Robert Williams, in China even though PL had warned the CCP many times that he was probably an agent. Apparently the CCP was aware of PL’s sectarian habits and didn’t trust this cry of “wolf,” even though true in this case.

    But it was PL’s insistence on the necessity to attack Vietnam for negotiating that the break with China came. In early 1969 two PL NSC [National Steering Committee] members went to China and had an 8-hour meeting with a top Politburo member who at this meeting professed himself and the CCP in agreement with PL on all points except that of the negotiations in Vietnam. The meeting was friendly but the PLers gamely pressed their point. Six months later in Paris PL representatives were told by Chinese diplomats in no uncertain terms: change the PL anti-Vietnam line, or else.
    In early 1970 a short shooting war broke out between China and the USSR. In a lengthy editorial Challenge lectured the CCP against negotiating with the USSR on this issue. The Chinese expressed no appreciation for PL’s advice and were soon warning fraternal contacts to stay away from PLP. The once warm CCP-PLP relations became now totally hostile, although the CCP never bothered to publicly attack PLP; PLP was free to pursue its own road to international isolation.35


    The collapse of PL’s relationship with Beijing now opened up the political playing field to a new flock of “anti-revisionists” eager to win Mao’s blessings. One of most exotic of them all was Leibel Bergman. A former member of the CPUSA and PL, Bergman moved to China in the mid-1960s and lived in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. After returning to the West Coast of the United States in the late 1960s, Bergman created the Bay Area Revolutionary Union (BARU) with Bob Avakian as a Maoist alternative to PL. The U.S.-China Friendship Association now became devoid of PL enthusiasts as well.

    Comment by HH — March 23, 2019 @ 7:42 pm

  11. The mode of organization adopted by the various interlocking groups of the Vietnam-era completely flummoxed the FBI–they expected clandestine organizations under rigid central (read foreign) control, and when they didn’t get that, proved completely incapable of understanding what was really going on.

    Per them, PL should have been the hot and throbbing center of it all, with Beijing (or Moscow) pulling the strings, and it wasn’t. But PL–acting in effect if not deliberately as a nest of provocateurs and saboteurs–was more than strong enough IMO to exercise a decisively negative influence on the nascent socialist orientation of SDS, which could have spread beyond the so-called “student movement”–or, more accurately have resonated with tendencies and initiatives already on foot–for example, the turn toward the worker being executed by Martin Luther King at the time of his assassination. Not to make the basically white student organization, SDS, the center of socialist hope and possibility, but it could have played a significant role if it hadn’t self-destructed.

    It has to be said, moreover, that the readiness of the FBI and police to find and infiltrate centrally organized clandestine groups may have forced the Vietnam-era left to seek less powerful modes of organization, with corresponding weaknesses of program and planning. The transparency of the more “open” (or “anarchist”?) strategy of the Vietnam protest coalitions, student committees, etc., may have helped to create a weaker left in the long run–one, for example, open to the influence of so-called “libertarianism” in a way that would have been impossible for the Old Left.

    In that sense, the FBI may have gotten what they wanted–with the left paying the price to this day. Occupy Wall Street was able to parlay straight-up anarchist principles into a significant movement that raised the spectre of social inequality–and therefore of class struggle–on the national level in a way that previously seemed impossible. But when the encampments vanished, so did Occupy, leaving nothing behind but a network of cliques that instantly became as opaque as the encampments had been transparent. And where are they now? What we have is a bunch of Democrats cruising cocktail parties in Brooklyn in hopes of easy sex. Jesus.

    It’s obvious that the DSA–even if the fad lasts as long as the Hula Hoop–can’t possibly provide the depth and discipline of organization necessary to survive the virtual certainty of Trump’s second term and the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-fascism that is sure to follow.

    Absent a controlling Moscow or Peking, how can this be–or how is this being–addressed before it’s too late–if it isn’t too late already?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 23, 2019 @ 11:00 pm

  12. “If you’re a good cook in the army, you can do no wrong because the next meal is all anybody has to look forward to.”

    A quote that deserves a place with the immortals.

    Comment by siptuactivist — March 24, 2019 @ 7:51 pm

  13. The relevant immortal quote attributed to Napoleon is “An army marches on its stomach.”

    Comment by HH — March 25, 2019 @ 1:03 am

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