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The Student Left | The Nation

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The Student Left

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The first one now will be the last, for the times they are a changin'.
--Bob Dylan

About the Author

Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

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A new generation of radicals has been spawned from the chrome womb of affluent America. Any lingering doubts about this evaporated last month when 20,000 of the new breed pilgrimaged to Washington, D. C., to demand a negotiated peace in Vietnam.

These were the boys and girls who freedom-rode to Jackson; who rioted against HUAC; who vigiled for Caryl Chessman, who picketed against the Bomb, who invaded Mississippi last summer; and who turned Berkeley into an academic Selma. They are a new generation of dissenters, nourished not by Marx, Trotsky, Stalin or Schachtman but by Camus, Paul Goodman, Bob Dylan and SNCC--the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Their revolt is not only against capitalism but against the values of middle-class America: hypocrisy called Brotherhood Week, assembly lines called colleges; conformity called status, bad taste called Camp, and quiet desperation called success.

At the climax of the Washington march, arms linked and singing We Shall Overcome, were the veterans of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, freshmen from small Catholic colleges, clean-shaven intellectuals from Ann Arbor and Cambridge, the fatigued shock troops of SNCC, Iowa farmers, impoverished urban Negroes organized by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), beautiful high school girls without make-up, and adults, many of them faculty members, who journeyed to Washington for a demonstration conceived and organized by students.

During the rally they heard the visionary voices of the new radicalism, Staughton Lynd, a young professor at Yale, who explained why he wasn't paying his income tax this year; Paul Potter, the brilliant president of SDS, who told them they must construct a social movement that will "change our condition"; Bob Parris, the poet-revolutionary of SNCC, who urged "Don't use the South as a moral lightning rod, use it as a looking glass to see what it tells you about the whole country." And there were Joan Baez and Judy Collins to sing the poems of Bob Dylan.

This is literally a New Left--in style, momentum, tactics and vision. As Potter said in Washington, "The reason there are 20,000 of us here today is that five years ago a social movement was begun by students in the South." The two other major student groups of the New Left--SDS and the Northern Student Movement (NSM) have no roots in the organizations and dogmas of the 1930s. The student groups affiliated with the old sects--Communist, Trotskyist and Socialist--remain small and isolated and are seen by the New Left as elitist, doctrinaire and manipulative. The enthusiasts of SNCC and SDS do not engage in sterile, neurotic debates over Kronstadt or the pinpoints of Marxist doctrine. They are thoroughly indigenous radicals, tough, democratic, independent, creative, activist, unsentimental.

Many of the new dissenters are philosophy students, like Bob Parris and Berkeley's Mario Savio, rather than economics and political science students. Their deepest concerns seem to be human freedom and expression. Their favorite song is Do When the Spirit Say Do, and their favorite slogan is, "One Man, One Vote." One phrase that they use a great deal is "participatory democracy," and they sing a chorus of Oh Freedom that says "no more leaders over me." At a SNCC-SDS organizers institute on the eve of the Washington march, the young revolutionaries wrote poetry on the walls.

During the 1950s, the only symptom of campus disquiet was the Beat orthodoxy of pot and passivity. The Beats sensed that something was wrong with the America of brinkmanship, payola and green stamps but lacked the energy and seriousness to do anything about it. So they withdrew into their own antisocial, nonverbal subculture to read the "spontaneous bop prosody" of Jack Kerouac. The magazines--middle-brow and slick--of the late 1950s were glutted with sociological hand-wringing about campus catatonia and excessive student concern with home, job and marriage. The label "The Silent Generation" was pinned and it stuck.

Nobody signed petitions. "It might hurt you later on," explained students weaned on McCarthyism. In 1959 Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, wrote with prophetic irony, "The employers will love this generation, they are not going to press many grievances. They are going to be easy to handle. There aren't going to be any riots."

Most of the new radicals date the birth of their movement from the first student lunch-counter sit-in at Greensboro, N. C., on February 1, 1960. In the days that followed, this pacifist tactic of nonviolent direct action, which was to become the hallmark of their rebellion, spread spontaneously throughout the middle South -- to Nashville, to Raleigh, to Atlanta. During the 1960 Easter vacation, 300 young Negroes, plus a few whites, assembled on the campus of Shaw University at Raleigh to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Roused by the first dramatic wave of sit-in demonstrations, students across the country turned to political action in the spring of 1960. Thousands marched on picket lines for the first time in their lives, in front of Northern branches of Woolworth and Kress department stores. Outside San Quentin, hundreds made vigil in a chill drizzle to protest the execution of Caryl Chessman. In San Francisco, thousands engaged in a riot against hearings conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In New York City, several thousand high school and college students refused to take shelter during a mock city-wide air-raid drill.

What began as an ethical revolt against the immorality of segregation, war and the death penalty, grew slowly during the next few years and began to take on political and economic flesh. Spurred by Michael Harrington's The Other America, the student movement began to leave the campus to confront the economic roots of racism and poverty. Some went to Hazard, Ky., to work with striking coal miners, others abandoned graduate school and promising careers to join SNCC or work with SDS and the NSM in organizing the black ghettos of the North.

Today, SNCC stands as the first monument built by the New Left. From its improvised beginnings in a single dreary room in Atlanta, SNCC has grown up to have 260 full-time field secretaries in the South, who work for subsistence wages. SNCC has become a magnet, pulling the entire civil rights movement to the left, pushing the NAACP out of the courtroom and into the streets, and fortifying Martin Luther King's redemptive love with social vision. SNCC's first sit-ins compelled the Supreme Court to revolutionize its definition of private property. SNCC's fertile imagination has generated the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). And SNCC's special quality of nobility tinged with madness first cracked the tradition-laden surface of Mississippi to make it a national disgrace.

SNCC has also been the crucible of much of the evolving humanist-anarchist philosophy of the new radicals: the idea that people don't need leaders; grass-roots organizing among the very poor, Quaker-like communitarian democracy.

SNCC's Bob Parris is so much an exile from leadership that he dropped his well-publicized last name of Moses last February and left Mississippi, where he was the first SNCC worker, to go to Birmingham to "talk to my neighbors." Says Parris: "The people on the bottom don't need leaders at all. What they need is the confidence in their own worth and identity to make decisions about their own lives."

Jimmy Garrett, writing in SNCC's April newsletter, expanded on the theory of egalitarian leadership:

We are taught that it takes qualifications like college education, or "proper English" or "proper dress" to lead people. These leaders can go before the press and project a "good image" to the nation and to the world. But after a while the leaders can only talk to the press and not with the people. They can only talk about problems as they see them--not as the people see them. And they can't see the problems any more because they are always in news conferences, "high level" meetings or negotiations. So leaders speak on issues many times which do not relate to the needs of the people.

Within SNCC, which has no membership, only staff, a Quaker style of consent has evolved, whereby decisions are delayed until the dissenting minority is won over. Occasionally this method causes observers from traditional liberal organizations to despair of SNCC's anarchy and confusion.

As for mounting insinuations of Communist influence within SNCC, Garrett says.

Man, the Communists, they're empty man, empty. They've got the same stale ideas, the same bureaucracy... When he gets mixed up with us, a Commie dies and a person develops. They're not subverting us, we're subverting them.

Like most of the New Left, SNCC is a-Communist rather than anti-Communist or pro-Communist.

Though less well known than SNCC, Students for a Democratic Society appears to be the most influential New Left group outside the South. On March 19, SDS organized a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank on Wall Street to protest the bank's loans to the Union of South Africa, and forty-nine people were arrested. The April 17th Vietnam march, sponsored by SDS, attracted students from approximately 100 different campuses. And this summer about 500 SDS members will live in eight Northern cities where SDS projects are attempting to organize poor Negroes and poor whites into a populist coalition of the dispossessed.

In 1962, when it was reconstituted after a long period of inactivity, SDS was dominated by graduate students, meetings were conducted in sociological jargon, and the membership included many ADA-oriented liberals. Today, SDS has about sixty formal chapters and fifty staff members and has evolved a way-out foreign policy that opposes the West in Vietnam, the Congo and much of Latin America. Since these positions have not been accompanied by equal criticism of the Eastern-bloc nations, SDS has come into increasing conflict with its parent organization, the League for Industrial Democracy, which is dominated by social democrats and dependent on trade-union financing. SDS has also shifted its emphasis from campus recruiting to ghetto organizing, and, in general, comes under SNCC's egalitarian and proletarian mystique. The group, however, has not lost its original intellectuality. President Paul Potter divides his time between graduate school and the ghetto project in Cleveland. Past President Tom Hayden, who did graduate work at the University of Michigan, is now an organizer in Newark. And one of the SDS organizers in Chicago is Richard Rothstein, a 21-year-old Harvard graduate and a former Fulbright scholar at the London School of Economics.

One of the major problems now confronting SDS is the role of those students who revivified it in 1962 and who are now 24 to 26 years old. While they are eager for the newer recruits to become leaders, they themselves have no adult organization into which they can graduate. Lately, the SDS internal bulletin has been filled with soul-searching essays on whether one can be a radical within his chosen profession, or whether a true radical must devote his whole life to revolutionary organizing. The long-range impact of the New Left may ultimately hang on whether or not the new crusaders can fashion in the next few years a new radical, national organization into which students can be funneled.

The Northern Student Movement started in 1962 as a band of students involved in the dual programs of fund raising on campuses for the movement in the South and of running tutorial programs for Negro school children in the North. Gradually, NSM realized that the tutorial approach "treats symptoms without affecting causes," and today its field projects in Harlem, Boston, Hartford, Detroit and Philadelphia are engaged in rent strikes, block-by-block organizing and attacks on middle-class control of the war on poverty.

NSM executive director William Strickland, who wrote his Master's thesis on Malcolm X, insists, "We're not a New Left because we're not interested in a guy's memorizing Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution or some Stalinist with a line.We're interested in creating new forms and new institutions, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We're interested in liberating energy, in people affecting the decisions that control their lives. Call us the New Democrats, or the New Realists."

Like most movements, the new radicalism has generated its own extremist fringe -- a Pot Left, or perhaps more precisely, a Pop Left.This extremist tail of the New Left is seen in its most advanced form in the new bohemia of the East Village, in New York, although Berkeley's Dirty Speech Movement appears to have the flavor.

It is in the East Village that several thousand dropouts from society have coalesced to cheer LeRoi Jones's scorn for Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, to join the Peking splinter, the Progressive Labor Movement; to confuse drugs and homosexuality with political actions, to buy "Support the National Liberation Front" buttons for a quarter.

So far the Pop Left seems far more interested in style, shock and exhibitionism than in any serious program, Maoist or otherwise. Their gurus, playwright LeRoi Jones and writer Marc Schleifer, put SNCC down as nonviolent and middle class. Schleifer claims he is "left of anything that exists in the world today," and that "Khrushchev is the symbol of white liberalism." They'll picket to legalize marijuana, but not for much else.

Determined to write their own philosophy and their own history, the new insurgents have become isolated from all previous generations of American dissenters. Already many of the 1930s revisionist liberals, once burned by Stalinism, have issued polemics of scorn and skepticism against the New Left. John Roche, former chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, accused the student zealots as early as 1962 of "naiveté about the intentions of the Soviet Union," and of "escapism and otherworldliness." Other Polonius-styled essays have followed from Daniel Bell, Max Lerner, Lewis Coser,Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe -- and, of course, Sidney Hook, who recently issued a stern rebuke to the Berkeley insurrectionists. Many of the same writers and critics who recently eulogized the dead wobblies excoriate the much less violent SNCC workers.

Unfortunately, these unfounded attacks, plus a fierce identity of generation, have maneuvered the students into estrangement from the handful of radicals who fought so bravely through the 1950s, so that there might be a New Left today. Immediate predecessors like Socialists Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington are repudiated on the absurd ground that they have "sold out to the Establishment" -- Rustin because he supported the 1964 moratorium on street demonstrations and the compromise offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and Harrington because he is a consultant to Sargent Shriver and Walter Reuther. The new radicals also reject the Rustin-Harrington theory that social change is achieved by an institutionalized coalition of church, labor, Negro and liberal groups reforming the Democratic Party. The New Left sees institutions like the NAACP and the UAW as essentially impotent and believes that social progress can be won only by insurgent forces disrupting society.

The few older figures whom the new generation seems to respect come out of the radical pacifist tradition -- men like Paul Goodman and the 80-year-old A.J. Muste. The once strong influence of C. Wright Mills appears to have diminished since his death in 1962. And although they have a great hidden admiration for Martin Luther King, the young anti-heroes do recoil from the "cult of personality" that has sprung up around the Nobel laureate.

Five years ago, academics and liberals hunted frantically for heirs to the flickering torch of American radicalism. Now that a new generation has finally materialized, the liberals suddenly wish it were more domesticated, more anti-Communist, more middle class and less anti-liberal.

The strategists of the emerging radicalism dream of an anti-Establishment alliance of Southern Negroes, students, poor whites, ghetto Negroes, indigenous protest movements and SNCC -- all constituting an independent power base of millions. Most likely they will fail in this utopian vision; certainly they will blunder as they grope for it. Perhaps the final impact of their rebellion will be small. But the impulse that drives them into the lower depths of America is the same one that motivated the Abolitionists and the wobblies. Like the anarchist strikers at Lawrence, Mass., in 1912, the new radicals want "bread and roses too."

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