Berkeley in the years that I came of age was heady with the scent of night jasmine and tear gas. It whipsawed, sometimes violently, between clichés, from the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Apocalypse and back. I well recall the evening in February 1969 when hundreds of us, exhausted from a day of battling cops seeking to break the Third World Liberation Strike at the University of California’s campus, trooped down to the Berkeley Community Theatre, where we hoped to find relief in the much-ballyhooed provocations of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre.
Much to our surprise, the production of Paradise Now was a bust. What was an outrage to bourgeois sensibilities elsewhere—nearly nude members of the troupe intoning mantras of prohibition against smoking pot and sexing it up in public—was greeted by the solemn radicals and spirited anarchists of Berkeley as feeble and largely empty gestures. “Super Joel,” one of the town’s more colorful and ubiquitous characters, stood up and loudly denounced Beck and Malina for their faux-radicalism, then lit a joint and began to disrobe. Others quickly followed. Hundreds surrounded the couple, angrily demanding that their tickets be refunded. Dozens of debates erupted all around—over the nature of drama and the character of revolution. The show did not go on. The audience stormed the stage. Finally, at midnight, the fire marshals arrived and kicked us out. Beck and Malina had inadvertently achieved what had previously eluded them: goading the audience into taking collective action, seizing the moment, arguing over whether to remain passive spectators or become actors in a drama of their own making. It was unforgettable. I also remember the denouement: no sooner had the Living Theatre departed than, the next day, a furious Governor Reagan arrived and threatened to deploy the National Guard, in addition to the hundreds of police from throughout Northern California that filled the streets.
Bedazzled as we were by the spectacle of our own high ideals and the intoxications of making history, we perhaps might be forgiven for mistaking the theater in the streets as the main event, while failing to tumble to another high drama taking place, as it were, offstage. We were deaf, alas, to the malign fugue that was being played within the inner circles of the old order. It is the welcome and signal contribution of Seth Rosenfeld’s important, if flawed, tome Subversives to provide a necessary threnody to an era whose many tumults and contradictions still lie buried beneath a carapace of cliché. Rosenfeld, a former longtime, prize-winning investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, aspires to tell how, in one small American hamlet whose recalcitrant students had won for it an outsize international reputation as a magnetic pole of rebellion, the state waged a two-front struggle—one open and without apology, and the other often invisible and illegal—to stamp out opponents, real and imagined, to its rule.
Berkeley called itself the “Athens of the West,” a moniker meant to summon its origins and promise as the mid-nineteenth-century site of the fabled first campus of the University of California. The conceit suggested the agora of ancient Greece, where citizens would freely debate the issues of the day and Socratic dialogues would occur about the meaning and purpose of life. Educating citizens to build and manage the expanding American imperium was at the center of this great project, born of the lofty ambitions of California progressivism. This publicly funded university and its eight (now nine) other campuses throughout the state, which any qualified high school student could attend for a paltry annual cost, were the pride of California. The University of California had, by almost any measure, quickly joined the ranks of the private Ivy League institutions that had dominated the higher tiers of elite American education. Its students counted themselves among America’s best and brightest. They were also renowned for their political activism. Robert McNamara would remember, with not a little nostalgia, the protests he participated in as an undergraduate during the 1930s—protests he would have occasion to recall decades later when, as a principal architect of the Vietnam War, he would be condemned as a war criminal by students at his alma mater (and not only there).