Sectarian Rage in the New SDS

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Mr. Lemisch is Professor of History Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

This summer, I published an article in New Politics, "Weather Underground Rises from the Ashes: They're Baack!,” which called attention to many manifestations of a rehabilitation, in some parts of the left, of the Weather Underground (WU). In a short epilogue, I wrote, "As this is written, there is a promising attempt to found a new organization called Students for a Democratic Society, and I wish it well." (I was a member of the original SDS at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University 1964-69.) Despite the fact that Weather had played a central role in the collapse of SDS in 1969, I found in some of the new SDS's leadership a romanticization of WU and an uncritical adoration of one of its leaders, Bernardine Dohrn: “Her revolutionary passion [is] still intact after all these years of struggle” (see my article for specifics, drawn from SDS sources). Among the admirers was the major founder, a New Yorker named Thomas Good. Other major founders include the historian Paul Buhle and former Weatherperson Bruce Rubenstein. (Since my article was written, the Radical History Review (Spring 2006) has published an interview with former Weatherperson Mark Rudd, who offers much criticism of Weather’s “macho strategy,” and says, with regret, “We destroyed SDS…” The interview makes for comical reading as the RHR interviewer persists in trying – unsuccessfully -- to get Rudd to say positive things about Weather and about what the interviewer, apparently digging for a Weather rehabilitation, sees as “the vastly important role [it] has played in American History…”)

Despite the Weather flirtation by some in SDS, I said repeatedly that I hoped that the new organization would succeed, and I have been genuinely happy to see signs of dynamism in what might be a revived left. I joined the SDS list, "New Left Cafe." But my writing had preceded me, and there was fury in the air. I had found much evidence that the organization was hostile to debate and disagreement and that it had instead reviled those, like SDS co-founder Bob Ross, who dissented, especially about WU and about Good's invitation to Bernardine Dohrn to address an SDS conference at Brown University, where she was billed as a “founding member of the Weather Underground” and treated with great reverence. Paul Buhle praised Dohrn for “avoid[ing] the old controversies about Weather.” Good described Dohrn as a “class act [who] did not respond to Bob Ross’s comments.” More recently, Good presented Dohrn’s “Greetings to the SDS National Convention” in Chicago in August.

Nonetheless, I tried to inform myself and to engage supportively and critically. I found a minority on the list who shared some of my perspective, and some of these are still there despite overt assaults on them for physical disabilities and gender. (Good condemned one sympathetic person as "fostering discord.") But the list was degenerating into a male piloerecting place, with generous use of "fucking" as an adjective, openly expressed age-ism, sexism, and direct attacks on the physically disabled of a kind I haven't heard since my days in vaudeville in the 1920s.

Thomas Good standing in front of Bernardine Dohrn's mug shot and wearing a t-shirt that reads SDS  Fuck Jesse Lemisch An anarchist -- of which there are many in SDS -- was collecting data to support his boast that SDSers had disrupted many speeches. People began to talk about making a "Fuck Jesse Lemisch" t-shirt, as well as a "Fuck Shit Up" t-shirt. The presence of some who spoke up against this kind of thing gives me hope that a better SDS might emerge. But I was struck by the fact that some elders -- people who had been in the earlier SDS -- stood by and even applauded such stuff. The left has always had a vanguard of the moment, and it seemed that some of my cohort and a little younger had decided to select these youth as the vanguard and to defer to them with groveling submissiveness. (As I write this, this new and hardly existent organization has issued a “demand” to United for Peace and Justice that New York City SDS be selected quite literally as the vanguard (“lead contingent”) in the September 19 anti-Bush march. This reopens the terribly destructive kind of quarrel that did so much to bring down the Movement before: establishing a ranking of groups from those represented as the most to the least oppressed.)

On the SDS list, I voiced criticism of a Code Pink action supported by SDS that had blocked access to the pumps at Kansas City gas stations at 5 PM on a summer Friday. The organizers had presented this as an anti-war action against "strategic targets related to the war machine." Remember: they’re talking about gas stations. "People who drive cars," said one supporter of the action, "are complicit in their government's policies," and he also urged that we "bring the war home" with an SDS fall offensive, what I called a kind of a delayed “gas summer” in which people on bicycles would shut down gas stations across the country. Surely," I wrote, "this will end the war." One SDSer said "I'm all for fucking shit up and pissing off people." And indeed, fighting had broken out at one of the blocked gas stations. I commented:

"This reminds me of the glory days of the movement in the sixties, when some of us developed such extraordinary skills in pissing off so many people, rather than influencing them to support our goals...If you were hurrying home to your little family, dog, etc. in your PT Cruiser, saying, 'thank god I made it through to another Friday in these last days of capitalism,' you'd be pissed off... But who cares about gas station owners, attendants, and -- least of all, drivers -- a tiny privileged minority in this country, mainly white and brimming over with false consciousness."

There was debate about whether the intention of the action had been to infuriate drivers, or whether their resultant fury was merely an unpredictable and incidental result (collateral damage?). Although, as we have seen, some SDSers were "all for" infuriating people, others (sometimes the same person) argued that this had not been the intent. "They had no idea," I wrote, "that shutting down gas stations at 5pm on a Friday would piss people off." Another SDSer applauded the action and asked for more: "[This] will increase our numbers and support greatly." (The large number of members that Good reports include many who simply signed up on the internet.) And as far as increasing support by fucking shit up is concerned, militant action that disrupts people’s lives , such as last year’s New York City transit strike, can serve to build public support for a cause – but only when it dramatizes the systemic misconduct of the powers that be, not when it makes ordinary people feel that they are the intended moral targets. The Transport Workers Union never accused subway riders of complicity with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Engaging with my analysis in his own ways, Good started sending me hostile and abusive notes off-list, concluding "Consider this a formal instruction to stop all communication NOW." I thought I had done right by trying to engage, but at around the time that a Hartford anarchist made a "Fuck Jesse Lemisch" t-shirt, which was warmly received by Good, I stopped posting.

Now Good has followed this up with his posting on the SDS website of a piece called "Saying Nay: Thomas Good Responds to Isserman, Lemisch and other Philistines," (Sept. 10, 2006) illustrated with a picture of himself wearing the aforesaid "Fuck Jesse Lemisch" t-shirt and standing in front of his – you should excuse the expression -- blow-up of Bernardine Dohrn's mug shot from back then. The two historians attacked in the title are balanced by Good's praise of historians Paul Buhle, John McMillian and Jeremy Varon. Otherwise, Good writes, "Our strident, shrill critics seem concentrated in the halls of History" (“Hysterians,” he calls them.) I haven't been the target of so enraged, dishonest and sectarian an assault since 1969 when the then Marxist Eugene Genovese attacked me for planning a Radical Caucus at the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association: "it will be to the knife," he wrote me. (Two months later, he urged the members of the AHA to "put them down, put them down hard, put them down once and for all.")

Good offers a parade of the injuries that he feels have been done to him, presented in over-the-top sectarian language that cries out for exclamation marks: "The Fake Left is the syphilis of the Movement and must be discredited and discarded." (This is reminiscent of Genovese's remark at Sir George Williams University about the necessity from time to time to clean the grit out of the machine of the left.) Good arrogantly attacks critics as “someone none of us have ever heard of,” or another “with whom none of us have had contact.” Good continues pro-Weather, denouncing criticism or even discussion of this catastrophic chapter in the history of SDS. He makes the extraordinary statement that we must not judge WU "by today's standards," ignoring the critiques offered at the time from the rest of the left. And he quotes without refuting a posting of mine on the SDS list as things got worse and worse there:

“In a very short time, the new SDS has gone through all the stages of the original organization, and is now at June 1969, with people gagging, jumping off the list, revoking their membership.” (Good’s denial is countered by Pace University SDS leader Brian Kelly’s remark that the New Left Café list was “making SDS lose members.”)

So why am I publicizing this instant classic of left sectarianism, a revival of the worst of the tail-end of the sixties? If you make it to the end of Good's piece on the SDS website, you will see the notation, "Comments are closed" (which was already there when I first saw it two days after Good posted it). I am taking what might seem the odd step of publicizing this attack on me and others in the perhaps naive faith that readers will see the tragic ludicrousness of it (and perhaps be entertained by the language). This might lead to positive debate which might in turn help to save this new organization. It's worth trying to save. We desperately need a new left, radical, utopian, passionate and rational, which accords dignity to those who it seeks to persuade.