Workers Vanguard No. 990
11 November 2011
Black Struggle, the Vietnamese Revolution and the Working Class
From 1960s New Left to Trotskyism
Recollections of a Participant
We print below the first part of a presentation, slightly edited for publication, by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at an October 15 forum in Los Angeles.
I’ve noticed that there is quite a bit of interest in and nostalgia for the activism and struggle of the 1960s. Well, that’s understandable. In the last few years, the world has plunged into an economic crisis unrivaled since the days of the Great Depression. The con men on Wall Street whose financial swindles were central to this collapse were bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars by the Democratic Party administration of Barack Obama, following in the steps of George W. Bush. The working class, black people, Latinos and the growing mass of the poor have been made to foot the bill, losing their jobs, homes, pensions and virtually anything else that makes life remotely livable.
Every day you read of some new attack on the unions. Every day the fees go up for a college education. U.S. imperialism rampages around the world from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, leaving death and destruction in its wake. And particularly here in the U.S., there has been precious little class struggle, social struggle, even student struggle, in response—with the notable exception of the longshore union in Longview, Washington. We are now seeing a little action from these “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, who are basically frustrated young liberals. But the bottom line is: capitalism cannot be reformed. What is needed is a Marxist perspective of international socialist revolution.
What I am going to do today is talk about the 1960s—the last time there was serious social struggle in the U.S.—and why some of us concluded that struggle, even quite militant struggle, is not enough. You need a Marxist working-class perspective and a Leninist vanguard party that can lead the working class forward to seize state power and establish socialized, collectivized property systems around the whole world.
After that long introduction, I’m going to play you an early Phil Ochs song, “I’m Going to Say It Now.” This was probably written not long after the 1964 Free Speech Movement (FSM) at UC Berkeley. It has a lot of the themes of that period—alienation, opposition to “in loco parentis,” etc. It’s a very liberal protest song, but it foreshadows things to come:
“Oh you’ve given me a number and you’ve taken off my name,
To get around this campus why you almost need a plane,
And you’re supporting Chang Kai-Shek, while I’m supporting Mao.
So when I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now....
“I’ve read of other countries where the students take a stand,
Maybe even help to overthrow the leaders of the land
Now I wouldn’t go so far to say
we’re also learnin’ how,
But when I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”
From the 1960s up to the early ’70s, there developed a distinct generation of American leftists whose experiences were quite different from the preceding generation of leftists, whose main experiences were the Great Depression and the labor struggles of the 1930s. This generation called itself the New Left as opposed to the “old left,” which had been dominated by the pro-Moscow Stalinist Communist Party (CP). This New Left generation, of which I’m a part, makes up a lot of the cadre and leadership of not only the Spartacist League but also our left opponents: the Progressive Labor Party (PL), Revolutionary Communist Party, International Socialist Organization (ISO), Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Workers World Party (WWP).
Let me first say a word about the 1950s. What a nasty period—the intensely anti-Communist climate after the Korean War, blacklisting, reds driven out of the unions, the Smith Act trials of CP members, deadening conformity, women forced back into the home after World War II. My parents were in the CP, and I remember when I was seven years old the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists executed for supposedly betraying the “secret” of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. When I asked my parents why this was happening, they said it was because the Rosenbergs were “progressives” (a code word for CPers) and Jews. Even then I knew that this described my parents, too. Later, my mother told me that if they, my parents, were arrested, my grandparents would take care of my brother and me. Luckily, it never came to that, but this was my first encounter with the U.S. “justice system,” and I never forgot it.
The Left, Old and New
Under the immense pressure of Cold War anti-Communism, the old left—both the reformist CP and the then-revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—suffered major right-wing defections. The SWP lost 20 percent of its membership in the Cochran-Clarke faction fight and the CP lost three-quarters of its membership in 1956-57. These ex-CPers didn’t mostly become right-wingers. Rather they mostly became liberals—they had been voting Democrat for years, anyhow. The hardcore Stalinists later became Maoists and influenced the New Left in the late ’60s, but I’ll get to that later.
These losses were heavily concentrated among the parties’ active trade unionists. This purging and defection of reds from the labor movement in the ’50s was the single most important negative factor shaping the outlook of what would become the New Left. When young political activists, white and black, entered the political scene during the civil rights movement, they encountered a labor movement with no left wing sharing their views on racial oppression or U.S. militarism. The labor bureaucrats were militant anti-Communists who had gotten their posts by working hand in glove with the government in driving the reds out of the unions and were gung ho for all of U.S. imperialism’s dirty wars.
No surprise there, but it was not just the bureaucracy. When I got a union job in the late ’60s after the New Left finally became interested in the working class, there wasn’t anybody older than me in the unions who had ever been a leftist. So what developed among the New Left was a real petty-bourgeois, anti-working-class elitism. For them, “those workers” were all “bought off” with their high wages, good union jobs, fancy pensions. Today that seems like a joke, but that was the view at the time.
Two things really brought the McCarthy period to an end: the civil rights movement and the Cuban Revolution. Castro and Che were not seen as hardline Stalinists. Well, originally they weren’t—they were petty-bourgeois nationalists. And, indeed, young would-be leftists often identified with them against the U.S. on a democratic basis of “national liberation” rather than on the basis of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
On the home front, in the American South black people faced legal segregation and were deprived of basic rights—a fact well-publicized by the Soviet Union. The Southern Jim Crow system was based on police/Klan terror against atomized rural sharecroppers, and it had become increasingly outmoded as industrialization in the South around World War II drew blacks into the working class and the Southern cities. By the late 1950s, black anger at Jim Crow segregation had given birth to the civil rights movement, shattering the climate of Cold War McCarthyism and increasingly polarizing American society. It’s not as well known, but by the early ’60s there were huge demos in the North, too: boycotts of segregated schools, rent strikes against ghetto slumlords, protests against segregated housing and racist police brutality. These culminated in the late ’60s in a series of massive ghetto rebellions.
Civil Rights Militants
The first group I ever joined was the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1963-64 in San Francisco. I participated in various mass demos protesting job discrimination against black people—at the Sheraton Palace, at Lucky’s (now Albertsons) and on Auto Row. In retrospect, that last one seems kind of weird—for the right of blacks to be car salesmen? But these demos were huge, drawing thousands. The following summer, I decided to go down South for the second Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Summer. This was the year after civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney had been killed, but being 19 I wasn’t as fearful as I probably should have been.
When they tell the official story of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King was the undisputed leader whom everyone loved and followed. It’s not so! King’s vaunted nonviolence was really a way of trying to keep the movement liberal, respectable, reformist. His whole strategy was to appeal to the liberal Northern establishment to, please, help out black people. Pressuring the Democrats was to remain King’s consistent strategy throughout his life.
Seeking to refurbish its image, the bourgeoisie eventually acquiesced to the demand for legal equality in the South. At the same time, the federal government sought to restrain the most militant elements of the civil rights movement and usually did little to prevent the violent suppression of civil rights activists by Southern authorities, often collaborating in that suppression. This could not help but bring the question of the class nature of the capitalist state, as an organ of repression, to the fore. SNCC was formed under the auspices of MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After some hard experiences in the South with the cops, Klan and Democrats (who ran the South, after all), SNCC moved to the left, increasingly frustrated with and eventually hostile to the Northern liberal establishment—and King himself.
When I was there in the summer of 1965, the Los Angeles Watts upheaval broke out. Martin Luther King said that “as powerful a police force as possible” should be brought to L.A. to stop it. SNCC activists on my project cursed King for that. SNCC had broken with mainstream liberalism but had not yet definitely latched onto black nationalism. I could see that SNCC was having a total political identity crisis, but I sure didn’t have the answers. By this time, I hated the Democrats and was convinced that racial oppression was integral to the capitalist system and wasn’t going to go away just because black people could ride at the front of the bus. So I decided I should spend some time in Berkeley checking out the socialist groups.
The early years of the 1960s in the South were a key moment. If the SWP, which had been the Trotskyist party, had remained a revolutionary party and concentrated its forces in the Southern civil rights movement, it may well have won to Trotskyism a large fraction of those young black militants who eventually became black nationalists. That would have really changed the political scene. But by the early 1960s, the SWP had lost its revolutionary bearings and tailed non-proletarian class forces. Domestically, it abstained from the Southern civil rights movement. Internationally, the SWP was uncritically cheerleading for the petty-bourgeois radical-nationalist leadership of the Cuban Revolution.
Trotskyists should have been calling for the unconditional military defense of the Cuban deformed workers state and, at the same time, calling on the Cuban proletariat to establish a regime of workers democracy by sweeping away the Castroite bureaucracy through a political revolution. But the SWP refused to criticize Castro. These two questions—Cuba and the black question—which had decisively broken open the McCarthy period, were exactly the two questions the SWP couldn’t deal with. In the process, they abandoned the centrality of the working class and the necessity of building Trotskyist parties in every country.
It is during this period that the Spartacist League originated as the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) opposition within the SWP, fighting on these two questions. In an August 1963 document, “The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership,” the RT wrote: “We must consider non-intervention in the crisis of leadership a crime of the worst sort.” After being expelled from the SWP, the small Spartacist forces intervened in the civil rights movement in both the South and North. Look at Spartacist Bound Volume No. 1—the SL, founded in 1966, was intervening on the black question all the time and calling on militants to break with the Democratic Party, no less than the Republicans a capitalist party. The call for a Freedom Labor Party was an axis to link the exploding black struggle to the power of labor, North and South. In the mid ’60s, Spartacists were arguing the right line but lacked the numbers and, more importantly, the acquired political authority to decisively influence the internal factional struggles in SNCC. So the crucial moment was lost.
The Rise of Students for a Democratic Society
I could say a lot more about the civil rights movement, but I want to talk about how this massive ferment influenced the student movement. The most organized expression of the New Left was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Of course, that sentence is sort of a contradiction in terms given how deliberately disorganized SDS was: participatory democracy, every chapter going its own way, etc. Restarted in 2006, the new SDS is a liberal campus group that combines parochial campus activism with Democratic Party lesser-evilism. We have an excellent article about SDS headlined “From Tepid Liberalism to Radicalism and Back Again” (WV No. 927, 2 January 2009). The original SDS went from liberalism to radicalism; the new group is running the film in reverse.
In well-publicized interviews, leaders of the new SDS push the myth that Communism destroyed the first SDS and call for such leftists to stay out of SDS. WWP and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) work in SDS anyway, but this says less about SDS’s “non-sectarianism” and more about these reformists’ toothless politics and their own lesser-evilism. Here in L.A., during the 2008 election we saw FRSO as part of SDS busily holding a “no to McCain” campaign rally at UCLA, which in plain English meant “yes to Obama.” The new SDS’s “democratic” and “anti-authoritarian” rhetoric recapitulates the Cold War anti-Communism that the first SDS broke from.
The original SDS began as the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the student affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). Moribund by 1960, the LID had served as a handmaiden of the U.S. government in the left and labor movement. Populated by “State Department socialists,” such as Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, the LID also counted among its members Victor and Walter Reuther—the labor traitors who rode to power in the United Auto Workers by purging Communists from the union in the 1940s—and Sidney Hook. Once close to the CP, Hook turned repentant and became a staunch supporter of American “democracy.” Hook was a leading light in the Congress for Cultural Freedom—a CIA-funded operation devoted to counteracting the appeal of Communism and the Soviet Union. These types are the ones for whom the term “CIA socialist” or “State Department socialist” was invented.
But the youth were getting a little restive. In 1960, the Student League for Industrial Democracy changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society and began to grow. In 1962, in response to Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba—a failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban Revolution—SDSers posed the question: “Whether our foreign policy had really changed from its old imperialist ways?” Obviously not! The SDS 1962 Port Huron Statement took tiny steps away from anti-Communism, opining that “the American Military response has been more effective in deterring the growth of democracy than communism.”
Even these small steps away from McCarthyism were too much for the LID elders, who hauled the SDS leadership into a trial for not being anti-Communist enough, then cut all funds to SDS and changed the locks on the SDS office. I recommend Kirkpatrick Sale’s book SDS (1973) if you want to know all the details. After much organizational wrangling, SDS and the LID patched things up. Although moving away from the dried-up LID social democrats, SDS had not fundamentally broken from lesser-evil Democratic Party pressure politics, drawing disaffected youth back into the two-party shell game and perpetuating illusions in bourgeois democracy. In the 1964 elections, a wing of SDS campaigned to go “part of the way with LBJ” (a reference to Lyndon Johnson) instead of the official Democratic Party slogan: “All the way with LBJ.”
But the times they were a-changin’, as the song by Bob Dylan said. In 1964 at UC Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement broke out in response to the administration’s attempts to censor political life on campus by barring reds and other civil rights activists (“outside agitators”) and restricting the activities of student organizations. What happened was that a young activist from CORE, Jack Weinberg, had set up an unauthorized literature table in Sproul Plaza. For this terrible crime, he was arrested. I will just comment here that considering all the trouble and hassle the SL has these days in setting up literature tables on campuses for our sub drive, one has to conclude that not too much has changed!
In this case, 3,000 students converged on Sproul Plaza and blocked in the police car. For the next 32 hours, the police car served as an impromptu podium for those defending the right of students to “free speech.” Facing reprisals from both the liberal campus administration and Democratic governor Pat Brown—the father of the current governor—FSM activists defended their right to “hear any person speak in any open area of the campus at any time on any subject” (see “The Student Revolt at Berkeley,” Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965). The FSM’s victory fueled further student radicalization across the country and undermined illusions in the good offices of campus administrations and the Democratic Party.
A funny addendum here: Jack Weinberg, the guy in the police car, was the one who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” I don’t know if right then, but certainly within a few years, he was in the International Socialists (the predecessor to the thoroughly reformist ISO). And by 1984 on the 20th anniversary of the FSM, the SF Chronicle reported that Weinberg and Mario Savio, the best-known leader of the FSM, were both registered Democrats. So they sure weren’t trustworthy when they got older.
The Impact of the Vietnam War on the Left
Meanwhile, the escalation of the imperialist war in Vietnam meant more youth were being drafted, adding a direct material interest to the moral outrage felt by student activists opposing American imperialist aims. In 1965, SDS initiated the first nationwide protest against the Vietnam War. To many LID liberals, protesting a war against Communism was as bad as supporting the Communists outright. Furthermore, SDS’s call for the march included no anti-Communist exclusion clause. With a rush of new members and continued radicalization, SDS would abolish its anti-Communist exclusion clause at its 1965 summer convention, and soon afterward it split from LID entirely.
Now, I didn’t go to Berkeley from ’64 to ’68. Maybe I should have, but when I had to make my choice in ’62, Berkeley was politically dead as a doornail. I viewed Berkeley as huge and soulless, so I went to a small liberal arts school in New Mexico instead. But this did give me a sense of how quickly things can change, especially among the petty bourgeoisie. One minute Berkeley was all bouffant hairdos and “frat rats.” The next time I went there on summer vacation, it was a hotbed of student activism and everybody looked like a hippie. And the people were all the same, I could see that.
That first SDS-organized national antiwar march took place in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1965. It got 20-25,000 people, which totally amazed SDS. At the invitation of the SDS leaders, the rally was addressed by two liberal U.S. Senators. One of them denounced the “expansionist” policies of Communist China and called for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam. A few years later, it would be inconceivable for SDS to invite Democratic Senators to their antiwar protests, and anyone who spoke of Chinese expansionism would have been booed off the stage.
Let me comment first that many leftists and liberals claim that the Vietnam antiwar movement ended the war in Vietnam. No way! The Vietnamese won on the battlefield—that’s what ended the war. But this kind of liberal-pacifist antiwar movement has nevertheless become the model for all of the reformist left’s subsequent antiwar demos. If you don’t believe me, go to any PSL/ANSWER demo, where you will find exactly these same reformist politics.
We stand for the military defense of the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan against the brutal U.S. imperialist occupiers. As revolutionary Marxists, we side with oppressed countries against the predatory imperialist powers. But unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there was another element at work during the Vietnam War: there was a socially progressive character to those who fought against the imperialist butchers. The heroic Vietnamese had carried out a social revolution, albeit bureaucratically deformed, overturning capitalism in the North, and they were fighting to extend it to the South. We demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces and called for the military defense of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and North Vietnamese forces, raising revolutionary slogans such as “Victory for the Vietnamese Revolution! No negotiations!” and “All Indochina must go Communist!”
The Split in the Antiwar Movement
As opposition to the war grew, more and more young activists stopped chanting for “peace” and began calling for “Victory to the NLF!” After all, the liberal establishment, including the Democratic president Johnson, backed the imperialist adventure in Vietnam. This drove the radical student movement to the left and opened it to revolutionary politics. Soon those who had been calling for “part of the way with LBJ” were chanting: “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
Here is a description of SDS circa 1967 from the novel Vida by Marge Piercy, who had been in SDS and is a bourgeois feminist. She refers to the group SAW, but I believe what she is describing is SDS:
“Every person in SAW had their own politics—anarchist, liberal, communist, democratic-socialist, syndicalist, Catholic-worker, Maoist, Schactmanite [sic], Spartacist—but what mattered was the politics of the act.… Everyone was accommodated in the vast lumbering movement. Vida was content to be of the New Left, without a fancier label. All that hairsplitting—that was what the poor Old Lefties had sat around doing in dreary meetings in the fifties nobody else attended while the resident FBI agent took notes. Now they knew that everything must be done and they must speak to everyone, through the poetry of the act, through the theatre of the streets,… SAW was a fiercely, totally democratic organization, open to anyone with or without the low dues, with an elected leadership usually galloping in one direction while the members marched in another. Chapters did as they pleased and projects happened because enough people did them. Program was hotly debated and then often coldly ignored, unless it really was up from the grass roots. SAW was uncontrollable and lush as a vacant-lot jungle.”
Spartacists sporadically intervened into SDS in the mid ’60s, and all I can say is I don’t envy the comrade trying to do an intervention into that “lush jungle.”
Now, there was a left-right split in the antiwar movement just as there had been in the civil rights movement, where MLK had been the right wing. SDS was the left here, and the right wing was the CP and the once-Trotskyist SWP. While the CP continued to preach its class-collaborationist program of electoral support to lesser-evil Democrats, the SWP became the main organizer of peace crawls designed to cater to liberal bourgeois spokesmen—that is, popular-frontist, class-collaborationist formations based on a liberal bourgeois program. One thing that the SWP was adamant on was that these rallies and demos absolutely could not call for the Vietnamese’s military victory. Oh no, that would upset the Democrats—so the slogans had to be kept to “Out now” or “Bring our boys home!”
As the war dragged on, there were some Democrats who thought the U.S. was spending too much on napalm and Agent Orange for Vietnam when it should be building its nuclear arsenal to fight the real danger, the Soviet Union. So Democrats became a regular feature of these antiwar rallies. Often these now-antiwar Democrats (bourgeois defeatists) were viciously anti-labor. You can easily imagine how violently anti-Spartacist the SWP would get when the SL called for “Bourgeoisie out of the antiwar movement” and “Labor strikes against the war!”
This came to a head at a 1971 conference in New York City. SL comrades attempted to put forward a motion to exclude ruling-class politicians from the conference. They said, this is an antiwar conference—how can you have representatives of the ruling class that’s prosecuting the war? When the SWP would not entertain the motion, our comrades together with supporters of PL and SDS heckled Democratic Senator Vance Hartke during his speech. Comrades chanted, “Labor strikes against the war” when Victor Reuther began his speech. The SL didn’t attempt to drive them off the stage or anything like that. In response, the SWP went ballistic and sent their goon squad on a vicious assault against the protesters, some of whom were beaten, with one PL member reportedly thrown through a glass door. Assisting the SWP thugs were the minions of Tim Wohlforth’s Workers League, now the Socialist Equality Party.
But it wasn’t just the SL versus the SWP. Literally thousands of radicalized students were repelled by the SWP’s reformism and pacifism. I came back to the Bay Area in late 1968, and for one of those Spring Mobilizations (in ’69 or ’70) I heard that New Leftists in Berkeley were setting up an “anti-imperialist coalition” to march in the SWP-initiated peace demo. This sounded great to me. Like many others, I hated the “give peace a chance,” liberal, pro-American quality of these demos. I had decided that “our boys” were the ones fighting on the other side, and I was rooting for them. When this anti-imperialist contingent marched up, it looked like the SWP marshals were going to physically exclude us. But I guess that they decided that the contingent was too large and doing so would create too much of a scene.
The SWP sure gave Trotskyism a bad name. I identified Trotskyism with the worst kind of liberal reformism. They were always chanting to keep it “peaceful, legal.” My friends and I were chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win!” This was a two-edged development, though, because let’s be clear that we were calling not only for military but also political support to the Stalinist bureaucracy in Vietnam.
By 1968, SDS had hundreds of campus chapters around the country. There was massive ferment on the campuses, particularly after the student strike, building occupation and massive arrests at Columbia University protesting racism and the Vietnam War in the spring of 1968. In his book, Sale gives a quote from the bourgeois press of this time on SDS:
“These youngsters, organized in the Students for a Democratic Society, (S.D.S.), are acting out a revolution—not a protest, and not a rebellion, but an honest-to-God revolution. They see themselves as the Che Guevaras of our society, and their intention is to seize control of the university, destroy its present structure, and establish the ‘liberated’ university as the redoubt from which to storm and overthrow ‘bourgeois’ America. This is what they say they are doing—they are the least conspiratorial and most candid of revolutionists—and this is what in fact they are doing.”
Noting that this gave SDS a whole lot of credit, Sale goes on to say: “The most ardently resistant SDSer couldn’t have put it better—and even he wouldn’t have been so convinced.”
Then there was the Democratic National Convention in fall 1968. Most of the protesters opposed the Democratic Party as a capitalist party presiding over social injustice. As Sale describes, SDS activists rejected “as usual the idea of mass marches but [were] doubly scornful of any project mired in electoral politics.” SDS members propagandized and organized actions against the Democratic Party and raised general hell in the city. For that, they were arrested, savagely beaten and one young man was shot to death, all under the aegis of the Democratic Party city administration of the infamous Daley machine. It had a huge impact nationally.
[TO BE CONTINUED]