Remembering the 1960s - Part 3 of 3

[This is the third of a three-section remembrance of the youth radicalization of the 1960s. Read part one and part two.]

After the first national march against the war in Vietnam, SDS turned its attention to “community organizing.” 1966 was a relatively quiet year politically, but by 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson had greatly expanded the war in Vietnam. There were two massive demonstrations against the war in 1967, in April in New York City and in October at the Pentagon, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Beginning in late 1967, the pace of the radicalization accelerated quickly. 1968, 1969, and 1970 were the key years in the radicalization.

By 1968 the radicalization had become a truly massive, nation-wide radicalization. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. The 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago was marked by a brutal attack by Chicago cops upon anti-war activists demonstrating outside the convention.

SDS was rent asunder by a political struggle between members of the chapters of the organization dominated by the Progressive Labor Party and those opposed to PL, who attempted to counter PL by becoming more Maoist than PL. Eventually the anti-PL opposition splintered into the Weathermen and two major Maoist groups, one led by Bob Avakian (today the Revolutionary Communist Party, RCP) and the other, the October League, led by Bill Ayers’ current academic colleague, Mike Klonsky.

By this time, hundreds of thousands of students throughout the country had become radicalized. At the University of Wisconsin, for example, the radical Left on campus until 1968-69 had been largely led by students of “Red Diaper” origin from New York City; by 1969 its ranks had become swelled by students from small towns and cities throughout Wisconsin. Center stage in the struggles of African Americans for social, political, and economic justice and equality had been taken by the militant Black Panther Party, which had begun in Oakland, California, and which had very quickly developed chapters throughout the United States, including one in Chicago led by Fred Hampton and a current Congressman from Chicago, Bobby Rush. Militant Black student organizations emerged on many campuses.

The radicalization, which had begun with the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements, now encompassed militant struggles in a wide variety of other sectors, including the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement (sparked by the Stonewall rebellion in New York City), the Chicano Liberation movement (the Raza Unida Party in Colorado and the southwest), the Native American movement (the rebellion at Wounded Knee in South Dakota), and the environmental movement, which had its initial national mobilization at the first “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970. The radicalization had permeated high schools and even elementary schools, and had reached into the U.S. Armed Forces, with GIs Against the War organizations sprouting up on many military bases, including bases in Vietnam. The times had indeed become electric.

What had not happened, however, was an extension of the radicalization into the working class. This was because the post-war relative prosperity still prevailed among the working class and there was no material reason for most workers, especially white workers, to link up with the youth radicalization, comprised mainly of students.

The youth radicalization, however, by the late 1960s had become global. There were links between the radicalized students and the working class in many countries, particularly in May and June 1968 in France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, and Japan. In 1968 students and workers launched a massive rebellion against the Stalinist government in Czechoslovakia, a rebellion that was crushed by Soviet tanks.

The youth radicalization of the 1960s in the United States peaked in May 1970 following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio at an anti-war demonstration there. Students were also killed at a two black colleges, South Carolina State in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and Jackson State University in Mississippi. Massive demonstrations occurred on hundreds of campuses throughout the United States and a number of campuses were closed for the remainder of the academic year.

In the spring of 1971 another huge demonstration against the war in Vietnam was held in Washington, D.C. This was to be the last of the massive demonstrations against the Vietnam war. President Richard Nixon had decided to diminish U.S. participation in the ground war in Vietnam and to follow Henry Kissinger’s advice to bring the war to an end through the pulverizing bombing of North Vietnam rather than suffer more U.S. casualties in the ground war.

The movement against the Vietnam war had been the motor spring of the youth radicalization of the 1960s and as the war wound down so did the movement against it. The radicalization lost its momentum and began to fade. In the fall of 1971 an eerie silence prevailed on most campuses. Some movements which began during the radicalization of the 1960s, such as the women’s liberation movement and the environmental movement, continued during the remainder of the 1970s and some of the political groups that had emerged during the radicalization, including most of the many groups in the Maoist movement, as Max Elbaum has so well pointed out, continued throughout the 70s. But the radicalization was essentially over except in the memories of its participants, memories that are now appearing in print.

Of the millions of young people who participated in the radicalization of the 1960s only a small minority jointed revolutionary socialist or radical organizations, such as the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panther Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, the Progressive Labor Party, the various Maoist groups, or the International Socialists. Most of the participants in the youth radicalization had attended anti-war demonstrations and marched against the war. Most engaged in smoking dope and “liberated” sex, and attended rock concerts. Some lived in communes and were involved in other counter-cultural pursuits. But the youth radicalization, being epidermal, did not carry over to succeeding generations and its echoes became fainter with each passing decade.

The participants in the radicalization of the 1960s simply got on with their lives, graduated from college, got jobs, got married, had children. The decades passed. Few, very few, participants remained active radicals or revolutionary socialists over the ensuing four decades. Most remained progressive and liberal in their political outlook, and most, no doubt, rejoiced when Barack Obama replaced George Bush in the White House in January 2009. Only a very few of those who participated in the radicalization of the 1960s are still active today as revolutionary socialists or radicals.

One may well ask, and certainly not in hindsight, why so many radicalized youth in the 1960s held as heroes such historical scum as Joseph Stalin (or Mao Zedong) or whether they ever considered that the cache that Mao enjoyed was due not to the alleged wisdom of his little “Red Book,” but rather to the geographical proximity of China to the Vietnamese revolution against the United States and the French, a revolution which Mao and China did precious little to support. One wonders, too, aside from wishful and romanticized thinking, why so many thought that they could lead a revolution in the United States without the active participation and leading role of the working class.

Perhaps memoirs yet to be published will address these questions.

The radicalization of the 1960s was unique, a product of the conjuncture of a number, as noted above, of very specific circumstances. The next radicalization – and there will be a next radicalization – will be led by young people, as all radicalizations are, but it hopefully will, unlike the radicalization of the 1960s, be rooted in the working class as it struggles against the oppression visited upon it by the rich and powerful. It will be the task of the participants in the next radicalization to realize that there is a better, more humane alternative societal system than capitalism and to devise the appropriate means of replacing capitalism with such a better system. This is, alas, a possibility that all those who participated in the radicalization of the 1960s never had.

Patrick M. Quinn was a member of SDS at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1960s. He participated in the Civil Rights movement in the South, became a founding member and eventually one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Madison, Wisconsin, and was an active member of the Madison trade union movement and the leader of the Young Socialist Alliance in Madison.

Remembering the 1960s - Part 2 of 3

[This is the second of a three-section remembrance of the youth radicalization of the 1960s. Read part one here.]

The Civil Rights movement got a major initial impetus when the U.S. Armed Forces were integrated in 1947. This was followed seven years later by the Brown v. the (Topeka, Kansas) Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in U.S. public schools. The motor force of the Civil Rights movement was the effort of African Americans to bring into synchronization the de facto economic gains that African Americans had made during the post-war prosperity with their de jure legal and political rights, which in the South remained those of second-class citizens.

Although Martin Luther King, Jr., and other southern African-American ministers provided the leadership for the Civil Rights movement, the “ground troops” of the movement were in the main African-American college students, the first generation of African Americans to attend college in significant numbers. But the Civil Rights movement also included a sizable number of white students from the north who went south to participate in the movement. These white students had been taught in grade school and high school the sacred American values of freedom, equality and democracy, and when they saw that none of these values prevailed in the segregated, racist South, they decided to do something about this travesty.

Young people entering college in the 1960s had grown up in the 1950s in the midst of the Cold War and a pervasive fear of the atomic bomb that the political climate of the Cold War had created. Few would forget the constant “duck and cover” drills of their grade school days when they were forced to dive under their school desks seeking protection from a Russian atomic bomb that could at any moment be dropped on them. It was therefore quite natural for a number of them to become involved in the “Ban the Bomb” movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Many of those involved in the “Ban the Bomb” movement moved quite easily from abstract opposition to a hypothetical nuclear war to specific opposition to a real war as the movement against the war in Vietnam began in February 1965. Ironically, the pacifist-dominated “Ban the Bomb” movement initially refused to allow banners and placards protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam to be carried in the “Ban the Bomb” marches.

No radicalization, including the youth radicalization of the 1960s, simply springs spontaneously from a void. The Left in the U.S. had been severely battered by McCarthyism and the Cold War in the 1950s and further weakened by the post-war prosperity. But it had survived. The Communist Party had survived, although greatly reduced in size. The Socialist Workers Party, which adhered to the views and political legacy of Leon Trotsky, the co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, and its youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance, had also survived, although with only about 300 members. A split-off from the Communist Party, the Progressive Labor Party, which adhered to the teachings of Mao Zedong, the leader of China, also existed.

In the mid-1960s another small group of Trotskyists, some of whom had once been members of the Socialist Workers Party, formed the International Socialist Club in Berkeley. The Socialist Party had split into a number of small groups, one of which included Bayard Ruskin, who had a major influence on the young African-American student leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Another small socialist group, the League for Industrial Democracy, had transformed its youth group, the Student League for Industrial Democracy, into the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962.

And on northern college campuses there were many thousands of what were called “Red Diaper babies.” These were the children of parents who had been members of or supporters of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. The Communist Party had a membership of approximately 100,000 members in 1940 and historians have speculated that perhaps as many as one million people had at one time or another been members or supporters of the Communist Party between 1936 and 1946. These people of course produced a lot of children who came of college age in the 1960s. Having grown up in progressive families, attended progressive summer camps and having been imbued with progressive values, it was quite natural that many of these youth, once they entered college, would become active in the Civil Rights, “Ban the Bomb,” and anti-Vietnam war movements. Some, despite the fact that their parents had been supporters of Joseph Stalin, joined Trotskyist groups, including the Young Socialist Alliance and the International Socialists, instead of the Communist Party’s youth group.

During the early 1960s the state of New York did not yet have a state university system. New York state instead provided its college students with “Regents” scholarships, which paid for their education at colleges and universities outside the state of New York as well as at private college and universities in New York state. This allowed thousands of “Red Diaper babies” to attend such universities as Wisconsin, Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, Cornell University and Columbia University. It was not surprising, consequently, that these universities were among the early “hot beds” of the youth radicalization of the 1960s.

If one were to date the beginning of the radicalization of the 1960s, one would have to identify February 1965 as pivotal. Following the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam in February 1965 (a war which had been going on for over five years), the organized anti-war movement began. Three political currents played a key role in getting the anti-war movement off the ground—the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and a loose grouping of radical pacifists led by A .J. Muste, who had once been a member of an earlier incarnation of the Socialist Workers Party. Held in Washington, D.C. in 1965, the first national march against the war in Vietnam was called by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but most of the work in building the march was done by members of the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party.

By 1965 the Civil Rights movement had begun to lose much of its steam. In part this was due to the fact that many of the movement’s original objectives had been at least nominally met when the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The radical African-American militant leader Malcolm X had been assassinated in 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr. was about to turn his attention to confronting racist housing segregation in Chicago. While African Americans had achieved a measure of legal rights and political democracy, they had not been able to attain economic democracy. Many of the whites active in the Civil Rights movement had shifted their activism to the embryonic anti-war movement.

To be continued…

Patrick M. Quinn was a member of SDS at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1960s. He participated in the Civil Rights movement in the South, became a founding member and eventually one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Madison, Wisconsin, and was an active member of the Madison trade union movement and the leader of the Young Socialist Alliance in Madison.

Remembering the 1960s - Part 1 of 3

Four decades after the zenith of the youth radicalization of the 1960s, 1969, a veritable cornucopia of books penned by the now-aging veterans of that radicalization is pouring forth in full flood.

The appearance of this torrent of memoirs and historical analyses of the 1960s is not surprising. Most members of the generation of youth who participated in one manner or another in the radicalization of the 1960s, commonly referred to vacuously in the media as “baby boomers,” are now between the ages of 57 and 63, and sufficiently advanced in their careers to no longer have to worry about how published recollections of their youthful radical pasts might adversely affect their jobs. Moreover, this stage in most people’s lives summons a nostalgic fondness for the bright and exciting times of their youth, particularly if those times were especially bright and exciting.

Without a doubt, the time of the youth radicalization of the 1960s was indeed among the most bright and exciting times of the 20th century. Unlike the 1920s, the decade of the “Lost Generation,” celebrated by Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway that followed World War I, the 1960s were not only bright and exciting, but were also filled with hope for and expectation of a better world, rather than merely being a decade-long escape from the horrors of World War I, whether the venue of escape in the 1920s was Paris or New York’s Greenwich Village.

As one might expect, the memoirs and other books relating to the radicalization of the 1960s are uneven both in quality and what they add to the historical record. But they are appearing at an especially propitious time, in the midst of the current economic depression, a depression comparable in some respects to those of 1929 and 1873 – a depression that also marks the end of 38 years of right-wing neo-liberal dominance in American society and a opens new period. While still tentative, this rekindles the hopes of those who participated in the the 1960s that a new radicalization might lie just over the horizon – hopes that had been, for the most part, extinguished over the past four decades.

The recently published books relating to the radicalization of the 1960s are intended, of course, to be read by the present generation of youth in the hope that they might learn something from them and might benefit, if they are to be participants in a new radicalization, from the accounts of the experiences of a previous generation of radicals. To be sure, the historical link between the radicalization of the 1960s and the current period is gossamer thin, given the past four decades of reactionary domination and diminished expectations, but there is such a link, however thin, which the recent published memoirs and studies should augment.

What was the radicalization of the 1960s all about? Depicted insipidly by the media as merely a cultural period peopled by apolitical dope-smoking “flower children” in tie-dyed T-shirts mesmerized by the rock music of Woodstock or simply “hanging out” in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the generation of the 1960s has been caricatured far beyond any modicum of reality. Hopefully, however, what was “real” about the youth of the 1960s will at least be partially recovered with the aid of this recent wave of “60s” memoirs. Such a recovery of reality will not be uncontested as evidenced by the right-wing demonization of Barack Obama’s “friends,’ Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who were among the leaders of perhaps the most notorious of the radical groups of the 1960s radicalization, the “Weathermen.”

The youth radicalization of the 1960s was the third major radicalization in the history of modern U.S. capitalism. The first radicalization engaged large sectors of the U.S. working class from 1877 until the entry of the U.S. into World War I in 1917. This radicalization was an organic component of the struggles that occurred as a relationship of forces was being established between the newly minted ruling class that prevailed over the rise of modern finance and industrial capitalism in the United States and the newly forged American industrial working class. The second radicalization came during the great Depression of 1929-1941, the greatest crisis of modern U.S. capitalism, and was highlighted by the working class’s fightback, beginning in 1934, against a weakened, but still powerful, ruling class and by the organization of the working class into industrial unions. Much like the first radicalization, the second came to an end with the United States’ entry into another world war.

The youth radicalization of the 1960s has to be seen in the context of the emergence of the U.S. from World War II as the preeminent global economic power and the resultant quarter century of relative economic prosperity that the U.S.’s global economic dominance engendered. The vibrant U.S. postwar economy created the need for a vast expansion of the college-level public educational system in order to provide a much better-educated work force. Former teachers colleges were transformed into large universities virtually overnight during the late 1950s and 1960s as the former farm fields that surrounded them began to grow high-rise dormitories rather than corn.

The post-war G.I. Bill had rewarded discharged World War II veterans with a free college education, which enabled a large portion of the working class to attend college for the first time in U.S. history. This unprecedented opportunity in turn created great expectations for the educational, social, and economic future of the workers’ children when they came of college age. The post-war economic prosperity financially allowed millions of members of the working class, mainly white but also including a small, but none the less significant layer of African Americans, to send their children to college in the 1960s. The post-war prosperity, the need of the expanding economy for a college-educated work force, the expectations generated by the G.I. Bill, and a vastly expanded college public education system combined to create a wholly new situation in the United States in the 1960s resulting in millions of youth attending college.

This was the objective context of the radicalization of the 1960s. The subjective basis was the transparent contradiction between the way things actually were in the United States and the way that they were supposed to be according to the values that the young students had been taught growing up. The prelude of the youth radicalization of the 1960s was two-fold: the Civil Rights movement and the “Ban the Bomb” movement. The yeast which initially fermented the youth radicalization was comprised of what were called “Red Diaper babies,” more about them later. The “trigger” that launched the radicalization was the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam in February 1965.

To be continued…

Patrick M. Quinn was a member of SDS at the University of Wisconsin in the mid-1960s. He participated in the Civil Rights movement in the South, became a founding member and eventually one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Madison, Wisconsin, and was an active member of the Madison trade union movement and the leader of the Young Socialist Alliance in Madison.