Betraying ’68

Below is an excerpt of my essay on the strange anniversary of America’s 1968 uprising in the US media. The full text was published at Commune magazine last month. – Lorenzo Raymond

Even after his conversion, the true apostate is not primarily committed to the positive contents of his new belief and to the realization of its aims. He is motivated by the struggle against the old belief and lives only for its negation. – Max Scheler, Ressentiment

“While many Americans will oppose the students’ activities, they will also be reminded of their own opposition to the continuation of the war.” – Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon, White House memorandum, September 10, 1969

For those who despise nostalgia, the 50th anniversary of 1968 must have been a relief. The rebellions of the era were not smugly celebrated in the United States—far from it. Many of the most outspoken and committed radicals of the era like Abbie Hoffman and Daniel Berrigan are no longer alive to give fresh media commentary, so retrospectives were often dominated by moderates who believed that most of the lessons to be derived from the late 1960s were negative. 1968 and its aftermath were scrutinized through the lens of present day political struggle, their example found wanting.

The curiously stillborn and furiously co-opted #resistance against Donald Trump would only lose further ground if it were to manifest an insurrectionary and anti-capitalist character, we were told. Pacifist organizer Robert Levering wrote that most of the actions at the ’68 Democratic National Convention were completely counter-productive, going so far as to imply that militant protesters—including Students for a Democratic Society co-founder Tom Hayden—were responsible for prolonging the very war they were trying to stop. Ex-Weatherman spokesman Mark Rudd lamented that “what Antifa does and what we did in the Weather Underground are exactly what the cops want.” For the coup de grace, ex-SDS official and full-time apostate Todd Gitlin proclaimed that 1968 was actually the “year of counter-revolution.”

The most seemingly credible retrospective came from Rudd, the former SDS and Weather organizer. Once an icon of youth rebellion, Rudd helped to lead the famed 1968 Columbia University occupation. The most visible of his musings was a New York Times op-ed where he pointed out that “what made the [Columbia] protests so powerful” was “the leadership of black students.” But his most thorough statement of purpose was a feature interview with Chris Hedges where he excoriated the black power movement of the late 1960s, made similar condemnations of contemporary anti-fascists, and espoused “practical pacifism.”

In Hedges’ article, Rudd holds up Columbia ’68 as a strictly nonviolent protest and therefore “an example of the kind of strategy that the left has to adopt.” Rudd counter-poses his insurrectionary Weatherman days with the “mass movement” that had arisen at Columbia. Forceful protest doesn’t even qualify as strategy to Rudd, but is “pure self-expression”—catharsis which only causes backlash and disunity, and must be avoided at all costs.

It’s easy enough to denounce the excesses of Weatherman: their Leninist vanguardism, their fetishization of the North Vietnamese state, their early flirtation with terrorist bloodshed—the humanist heart intuitively shrinks from such tendencies. But to try and sever ultra-militancy as a whole from the accomplishments of the late sixties is flamboyantly deceptive. Exhibit A here is Rudd’s own New York Times piece on Columbia ‘68, where he mentions that “in a loose alliance with the Student Afro-American Society (SAAS)…we even held the dean of the college hostage in his office.” Or this recollection of the beginning of the protests recently given by SAAS leader Raymond Brown to Vanity Fair: “The students were trying to rip down the [12-foot-high] chain-link fence around the gym site, and some of the cops got in a wrestling match with the students, including a couple of good friends of mine.”

“The Columbia administration was terrified of what Harlem might do if the police were called,” Rudd wrote cryptically in the Times. “Administrators waited a week as the occupations and support demonstrations grew, and Columbia became worldwide news.” Again Raymond Brown is more forthcoming: In a strategy session with H. Rap Brown and other black power leaders, the SAAS agreed that “you’re in this position where you’re counting on the fear of the police and the city administration that Harlem will react violently if you’re mistreated.”

Martin Luther King had been assassinated that same April, leading to the Holy Week Uprising. As historian Peter Levy notes, “looting, arson or sniper fire occurred in 196 cities…Not until over 58,000 National Guardsmen and regular Army troops joined local state and police forces did the uprising cease.” Columbia administrators could still see fires smoking from their office windows. “You cannot understand the Columbia student revolt without understanding that it happened three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed,” Juan Gonzalez pointed out. “At that point, it wasn’t a question of what career you were going to choose, it was a question of whether the country would survive a civil war.” Thus perversely, while Rudd scolds us all for erasing black resistance at Columbia, he himself whitewashes the national black revolt—cited by historians as “the largest domestic disorder since the Civil War”—which made it possible. That is a far greater historical crime.

Even more outrageous, Rudd attempts to smear the black power movement as a whole. “Black power was no more embraced by the black masses than the violence and rhetoric of the Weather Underground were embraced by the white masses,” he declaims to Hedges. “The black power movement…was not strategic. We fell for this bullshit.” This is white arrogance of a very high degree.

If bullshit is the issue, we—again—needn’t look further than Rudd’s own writing to see he’s the one shoveling cow pie. The Columbia occupation began on the premise of preserving Harlem park land from development by the white university to build the college gymnasium. “Local political leaders, black activists, revolutionaries, and elders bearing hot food all trekked in to support,” Rudd recalled in the Times. But what sort of action were these masses coming to endorse? One which was represented in person by insurrectionists Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who in turn were invited by the SAAS. When Rap Brown spoke to the occupation, he said of the proposed gymnasium:

If they build the first story, blow it up. If they sneak back at night and build three stories, burn it down. And if they get nine stories built, it’s yours. Take it over, and maybe we’ll let them in on the weekends.

If Mark Rudd is an increasingly popular figure in corporate and pacifist media circles, it’s because he affirms the narrative of the 1960s that these parties would like us to believe: In the beginning, a nonviolent civil rights movement won great advancements for African-Americans and inspired a War on Poverty, and by mid-decade, was on its way to speedily ending the Vietnam War—then those spoiled baby boomers started indulging LSD-Red Guard-Oedipal fantasies of killing their parents, and derailed the movement into counterproductive violence. This is what historian John D’Emilio calls “the myth of two sixties—one good, one bad.”

Activists will never design good strategy on the basis of bad history.  The reality is that the Good Sixties civil rights movement was most successful when it operated with a de facto diversity of tactics.  Francis Fox Piven has noted that African-American progress only really occurred when “self-defense against white incursions escalated into black aggression against the symbols and agents of white domination – notably the white police, merchants, and landlords…

In 1961 and 1962, “freedom riders” and other activists were the targets of violence by whites in one place after another…By 1963 however, white aggression began to precipitate a black response, usually taking the form of mass rioting, as in Birmingham, Savannah, and Charleston. 

Most of Rudd’s denunciations of the Bad Sixties have been heard before from moderate SDS-er Todd Gitlin. A major reason why Gitlin considers 1968 to have been a setback for the left is that was the year in which nonviolence ceased to be predominant in SDS. Yet there is substantial reason to believe that ‘68 was also first year that the organization became truly revolutionary. By Gitlin’s own acknowledgement, in the first half of the sixties SDS was essentially a liberal think tank that “was not known for doing anything on its own, either as a national group or (with few exceptions) in its chapters…this bullshit talk organization that put out a lot of smart working papers and talked a lot, but didn’t do anything.” Finally, in mid-1964, the students launched the Economic Research and Action Programs (ERAP), and began anti-poverty organizing in American ghettos. But SDS quickly came to realize that where empowerment of the poor did emerge, it had little to do with nonviolence or professional organizing; ERAP’s Tom Hayden experienced the Newark rebellion of 1967 up close and wrote an admiring cover story – illustrated with a sketch of a Molotov cocktail – for The New York Review of Books. In his memoir, Gitlin recalled Hayden’s keynote address to an SDS conference in Michigan that year, where he proposed that “rifle practice was the next step; we might need to know how to break off friendships and become urban guerrillas.” Even still, it wasn’t until 1968, with the rise of Weatherman, that J. Edgar Hoover took the trouble of bugging SDS’ national office.

Gitlin has repeatedly argued that protest violence leads to long-term isolation and counter-revolution and that the collapse of SDS is a prime example of this. The problem with his theory is that the antiwar movement actually thrived in the aftermath of the organization’s demise in 1969. In the early 1970s, “the growth and radicalization of the movement continued at a rapid pace not seen since the populist and radical labor movements,” wrote Tom Hayden in his 2017 book-length analysis of the movement, Hell No. “The greatest student strike in US history shut down campuses for weeks” in May 1970, in spite of the fact that President Nixon had withdrawn 100,000 troops in the previous year. “536 schools were shut down completely for some period of time, 51 of them for the entire year.” Revolutionaries committed over a hundred arsons of government offices and dozens of bombings during the strike. By the end of it, the Senate had made its first moves to defund the war, as well as repeal its original authorization, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In June, the president told J. Edgar Hoover that black and student “revolutionary terror” represented the single greatest threat to American society, and hurriedly aborted his invasion of Cambodia. Historians now agree that the president’s fear of unrest led him directly down the road of recklessly counter-productive repression, and his downfall with Watergate.

“Organizing is important in the long buildup of prior movements and past experiences of victory and defeat,” continued Tom Hayden, “but there always seems to be an unpredicted moment when a new chapter of social movement history begins.” Echoing historical theorist George Katisaficas’ earlier insights in The Imagination of the New Left, Hayden posited that moment as the aftermath of 1968, specifically 1970—when nearly 1,000 American GIs attempted to kill their officers (over 200 succeeded)—and 1971, when the largest civil disobedience action in American history occurred at an antiwar march in Washington. By that point, reports Rick Perlstein, one could find “construction workers and farmers among the obscenity shouting ranks of the antiwar forces.” These were also the years in which a Constitutional Amendment was passed to lower the voting age in order to foster less violent forms of dissent among students, and the Democratic Party turned decisively against the war.  The movement’s overwhelming, unifying passion for ending imperial slaughter compensated for its informal coordination and divergent tactics, rendering a permanent organization like SDS redundant. Even Gitlin admits as much: “The antiwar movement was far more than the alphabet soup of organizations that tried to lead or at least influence it,” he wrote for the PBS documentary The Vietnam War. “It did not have a headquarters or officers.” The movement was simply too “contentious, irregular, raucous, and immense” to have a single policy—particularly on violence and nonviolence.

Tom Hayden didn’t live to see the fiftieth anniversary of 1968, but some of his most trenchant assessments of the period came several years ago in a review of Mark Rudd’s memoirs. Hayden firmly rejected Rudd’s efforts to “reduce this collective rebellion to Freudian categories reserved for individual diagnoses.” To the contrary, he wrote,

There is a logical sequence from protest to resistance in the late 1960s…resistance escalated as the authorities chose to escalate.

The massacre at My Lai, the rejection of peace terms, the assassination of Fred Hampton, the invasion of Cambodia, all “made a moral mockery of appeals for gradual change.” The turn to revolutionary violence “took place as necessary reforms were rejected by the authorities,” and “in less than a decade, there were more than 100 violent rebellions in American cities.” This massive black power-inspired phenomenon was a social movement unto itself; Peter Levy now calls it “the Great Uprising.”

It’s typical of the white liberal to celebrate social change without recognizing how the sausage got made, but Mark Rudd is now joining Gitlin in making a career of active obfuscation. Rudd decries the sophisticated rationalizations that he used to justify terrorist proposals in Weatherman, observing that sixties militants could “talk ourselves into anything.” Today, he’s wiser and more objective, telling Chris Hedges, “I have a bumper sticker on the back of my car that says don’t believe everything that you think.” But Rudd is as much of a narrow zealot as he ever was—it’s just that now nonviolence is his unquestionable dogma.

“Elements of the 1968 Columbia rebellion are inspiring and instructional for today’s students, protesters and community residents,” historian Stefan M. Bradley concludes in his case study Harlem vs. Columbia University. The statement holds for New Left ultra-militancy as a whole. It bears consideration, of course, that the sixties insurrectionists lived in truly apocalyptic times: the Vietnam War killed hundreds or more every single week, and the threat of nuclear war was very real. Yet it is today’s millennials and their children who face the crises of climate change, mass extinction, and an accompanying rise of fascism. With these existential threats before the current generation, the real lessons of 1968 still have a great deal to teach us.