Remembering the 1960s – Part 3 of 3

Posted December 19, 2009

[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.


One response to “Remembering the 1960s – Part 3 of 3”

  1. Maeve66 Avatar

    Nonsense, Bernard. The only “ists” I believe any of us would — hells to the yes — have hoped workers and students would become are SOCIALISTS. You know, moving from the consciousness of an individual in the class to a revolutionary consciousness. You cannot possibly pin the historic American problem of a stillborn working class consciousness on socialists who fucking managed to remain activists and engaged and NON SECTARIAN their entire lives.

    As for the “correct line” in the Anti-War movement — since the 1970s, we’ve learned to question the utility of toy soldier leninism, but at the time, some would argue, yeah, Fred Halsted and others in the Socialist Workers Party had a clearer grasp of how to broaden and deepen the antiwar movement, without alienating ordinary working people in the United States. That’s a discussion worth having, particularly given the hope that we may be entering a new political period at last.

    It’s unclear to me what your point is, apart from personal attack. Do you think that socialist organization should not be a goal for revolutionaries?