Former Student Radicals Reclaim the Past
They came to relive the past. And to revise it.
Those apparently were two intentions of two generations of former student radicals--of the 1930s and the 1960s--who gathered on the campus of Cal State Long Beach over the weekend.
It was a reunion that mixed nostalgia, rhetoric and reassessment as about 300 former members of Students for a Democratic Society and the American Student Union looked back on college days marked by strikes, demonstrations, organizing drives and other challenges to the political establishment.
It was also a gathering that took heart from the coincidence of renewed student activism, particularly in California, against apartheid in South Africa.
On the surface, the event, sponsored by the university’s history and American studies departments, resembled any other college reunion. Men and women greeted one another with exclamations of delight after separations of years and decades. They posed for pictures, filled in the gaps of personal history and chuckled over youthful excesses.
But they also devoted most of Saturday to thinking and talking about what went wrong and what went right when they were young and full of political fire.
While they admitted to mistakes, many claimed that they have gotten a bum rap in recent years, that their causes and movements have been derided as incompetent and foolish in a country that has become more conservative politically.
Former SDS member Barbara Ehrenreich, now an author and vice chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, helped set the tone in a speech that attacked what she called “myths” about student activists of the 1960s. And, she added, that the conclave might be “a chance to reclaim our past.”
Ehrenreich lashed out at what she said was the widespread impression that the student radicals who spearheaded the protest against the Vietnam war were “simply going through a phase” and eventually would settle down to become “taxpayers and PTA members.” Many, including herself, have remained active and have deepened their commitment to social change, she said.
Furthermore, she said, there is a prevailing opinion that the “hawks of the ‘60s were uniformly blue collar, salt-of-the-earth, working-class people (while) we were the privileged running amok. . . . Some of us in the student left came from wealthy homes but probably many more came from lower-middle-class or working-class homes. . . . For the record, despite the stereotypes, I think our movement was about as broad and about as diverse, if you counted everybody, as America itself.”
A second myth, she said, “is that we were uniformly arrogant, impatient, moralistic, incapable of reaching out to other Americans in a populist way because we were so sure that only we were right. There is a grain of truth there, a little grain . . . but the truth in my experience was something that was never exciting enough or dramatic enough for prime time. If the media images were demonstrations and flag burnings and mass arrests--and those happened--the reality for most of us, most of the time, was the patient work of organizing, persuading, listening, learning.”
Ehrenreich cautioned that prevailing perceptions about her own student era can influence even those who see it differently.
“What worries me about the myths is that sometimes I think even we internalize them a little bit and feel slightly ashamed about our own heritage and our own past,” she said.
Student radicals of the 1960s challenged the “definition of affluence as the accumulation of objects while the human spirit went hungry,” Ehrenreich said. ". . . I believe more than ever that a radical politics will not succeed in this country in the ‘80s and ‘90s unless it not only challenges the material inequities of wealth and poverty but is also willing to challenge the sad emptiness of materialism itself.”
Attack From the Right
Concluding, she said that political movements are “sustained by a sense of vision--a vision that may seem absolutely absurd and foolish at times, perhaps never more so for some of us than in the context of Reagan’s America. And yet it is that vision, that very concrete hope too, that keeps us going and will keep us going. . . . Let’s not get too nostalgic here. We did what we could, all of us in our own ways. We could have done better but we’re not done doing it.”
Lewis Cole, a member of SDS who was active in student protests at Columbia University, echoed Ehrenreich. “The whole sweep since the early ‘70s has been to attack the movements of the ‘60s,” he said, noting that one attack has been that “socialism is an ideology for jerks.”
Propagandists for the right, he said, have created images such as “Fidel Castro is a cigar-smoking strongman, the Sandinistas (of Nicaragua) are just interested in personal power, the Black Panthers are pimps and drug addicts. Every hero, every step of the movement that was made in the ‘60s, has been subjected to this attack to convince people that any attempt to make history is doomed to failure.”
Both Ehrenreich and Molly Yard, an early member of ASU and now political director of the National Organization for Women, gave credit to radical movements for giving impetus to women’s liberation. And Yard vowed that her organization will renew the fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution partly with the help of a new generation of college students.
Yard said she was impressed with the fact that many students participated in last month’s women’s rights march in Washington organized by NOW.
“Don’t tell me students don’t care about what happens in this world,” she said. “They are just as concerned as students in the ‘30s.”
Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg, who was involved in several student causes in the 1960s, said that people of her generation should be careful not to discourage today’s students. “I think you don’t need a police state if you can convince young people to be cynical,” she said. “If we hadn’t been naive we wouldn’t have done half the things we did.” Student activists of yesteryear should support today’s rebels “even if we don’t approve because, after all, people didn’t approve of what we were doing.”
Learn From Their Elders
The conference was billed partly as an opportunity for the current generation of college students to learn from their elders. However, relatively few current students seemed to be present at any of the meeting’s sessions. Several well-known activists from the past also did not put in appearances. Former SDS member Tom Hayden, now a member of the California legislature, and civil rights activist Julian Bond, now a member of the Georgia legislature and a candidate for Congress, and Mark Rudd, who gained fame as an SDS leader during a protest at Columbia University, did not attend although organizers said they had promised to come.
While participants sought to find hope and meaning in both the past and present, there were those who blamed radicals themselves for their current niche in the American political scene.
Todd Gitlin, a former SDS president, accused student leaders of two decades ago of “arrogance” by disclaiming ties to their predecessors in the 1930s, the previous peak in radical student activity.
Gitlin was one of several speakers who said that the left in this country has failed because it does not build on its own past and because it too often disdains the electoral process as an avenue of social and political change.
Gitlin was also among those who said that Vietnam war protests probably created a “lingering aura” which restricts the U.S. ability to wage war. Specifically, Gitlin and several others declared that the United States might now be at war with Nicaragua if students had not taken to the streets 20 years ago.
Although they were generally willing to give themselves better grades for the past, the student activists from 20 and 50 years ago seemed somewhat baffled by where they fit on the political landscape today. While many noted that they are still involved in projects and are still hopeful that they are politically effective, they also conceded that they lack national visibility and clout.
‘Where Is the Left?’
Former SDS member Bob Bollner seemed to sum up this feeling when he asked, “Where is the left, where is the left?” And someone else asked, “Is it possible to be a revolutionary in this country today?”
And although much of the weekend was devoted to such discussions, there were moments of humor and low comedy.
Former SDS member Barry Spatz, who said he graduated from the Long Beach school in 1967 and stayed around as an “off-campus agitator for three years,” was approached by campus police because he was falsely reported to be carrying a concealed gun.
After his brief encounter with the police, Spatz said he had come to the meeting because he hoped to run into old friends. But he had met no one, he said, adding that he was disappointed by the fact that most of those attending were older than his generation.
“The only person who talked to me was a cop checking me for a shoulder holster,” Spatz said before he headed back to Orange County.