(This essay was written in 1990-1, at the time of the Gulf War, by a veteran of the Anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960, of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main campus-based anti-war organization, of the Worker-Student Alliance Caucus of SDS, which stood for urging students to ally with the American working class to oppose capitalist and imperialist exploitation both at home and abroad -- exploitation which they saw as the root cause of the war in Vietnam. It is also written from the perspective of the Progressive Labor Party, a Marxist-Leninist, Communist party, which broke from the old communist movement in the early 1960s, founded the anti-war movement, and did so much to reintroduce Marxism and communist ideas generally in the U.S. PLP is still very active. -- GF)
The Rise and Fall of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in the U.S.
There are moments when history seems to speed up. It seems as if change is everywhere and that things can never go back to the old ways. But it is not magic. Sudden changes come about as a result of economic, social, and political changes that have been building up. Those who use a scientific approach to studying society -- Marxism -- can see how these changes will develop before they actually happen because Marxists understand the underlying processes.
In January, 1990, the Soviet bosses were embracing capitalism, the Berlin Wall was gone, the long, bloody war between Iran and Iraq had ended, and pro-capitalist optimists were predicting a long lasting era of world peace. Twelve months later, as this is written, the U.S. and some token forces from other imperialist countries, are caught up in a war against Saddam Hussein that will kill tens of thousands of Arabs and Americans and forever change the balance of forces in the Middle East, and eventually the world. Whichever side wins or loses this much or that much is not the main point; the masses of workers in that region have been stirred and U.S. imperialism will be the biggest loser.
An aspect of this war is the rise of a large anti-war movement in the U.S. This has stimulated a lot of analysis and discussion of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war. An understanding of that period in U.S. history is useful for building a communist movement today.
The struggle of the Vietnamese workers, students, and peasants against the U.S. government and the U.S. military brought on changes that cannot be undone. The leaders of Vietnam today betray the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people against exploitation by making peace with the murderers and endorsing those same capitalist policies that led to the murder of so many Vietnamese from 1945 to 1975. But the struggle of the Vietnamese people was not in vain because it severely weakened U.S. imperialism, and it helped develop the political consciousness of millions of people around the world and in the U.S.
There are many myths about the U.S. movement against the Vietnam War. The biggest myth is that the anti-war movement was the most important factor in stopping the war. As communists we understand how important it is to see how things are interconnected; sometimes factors that are very far away can have a crucial role in determining how a process unfolds. But realistically speaking, it is the powerful forces within the process itself, or very close to it that will exert the most important impact. That is why we concentrate on basebuilding rather than appearing on television shows. And in stopping the Vietnam War, it was the forces right there which had the main effect.
The most important factor in forcing the U.S. military out of Vietnam was the people of Vietnam; hundreds of thousands fought in the National Liberation Front (NLF) in the south and in the North Vietnamese army, and millions more gave protection and support to the anti-U.S. imperialist forces. Another vitally important factor was the People's Republic of China. The U.S. government massively bombed Vietnam, but they were prevented from using nuclear weapons mainly because they feared that the Chinese would launch a massive attack against U.S. forces in Vietnam and elsewhere. Finally, there was the active and passive rebellion by U.S. troops. Hundreds of officers were killed by U.S. troops, stockades and jails were burned down, and thousands of soldiers refused to fight.
In an important sense, these soldiers were learning from the Vietnamese people. It was not the hardship, violence, and death that caused the U.S. troops to rebel. U.S. troops in World War II faced that as well, and there was little rebellion except after the war when the U.S. bosses tried unsuccessfully to get U.S. troops to oppose the communists in Italy and elsewhere. In Vietnam, it was the realization that the U.S. was at war against the working class and peasants, the overwhelming majority of the country. How could the U.S. be fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese people if it had to indiscriminately bomb, burn, and imprison them for fear that anyone could be an enemy? It was the strategy of People's War, which is fundamentally based on the consciousness and commitment of the masses, that helped sharpen the class consciousness of the U.S. troops who rebelled.
What about the movement in the U.S.? The urban rebellions in the black community were far more destabilizing to the U.S. government than the peace marches ever could be. Hundreds of cities experienced rebellion; more importantly, a whole generation of youth and young adults, especially urban black and Latino workers were learning that it was possible to fight back. One common aspect of all the groups mentioned so far -- the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the U.S. troops, and the urban rebels -- was that they all had guns.
The peace movement was often militant, and many on the campuses came to reject non-violence and fought heroically against the police. But in the end, the bosses destroyed that movement because it was not politically and militarily strong enough to stand up to the bosses' state power -- its guns. That should not be a surprise. In pre-Nazi Germany there was an anti-fascist movement much larger than the 1960's movement in the U.S. It brought millions of people into the streets, millions voted for Communist Party candidates, millions of others supported liberals who used the language of socialism. There were general strikes and rebellions. But in the end, the fascists won and had to be destroyed by the Soviet Red Army. Many other countries have had anti-capitalist movements much larger and more militant than the campus movement of the 1960's. Those mighty movements have not defeated imperialism in those countries, so it is no insult to say that the 1960's student movement in the U.S. was a less important factor in ending the Vietnam war. But there are aspects of that movement that have had a lasting and important impact, especially the growth of anti-imperialism, anti-racism, communism and the PLP. To understand the causes and consequences of that movement, it is useful to look at the context in which it developed.
Imperialism in the Post World War II Era
British, French, and German imperialism were severely weakened by World War II. The ability of those nations to make huge profits by exploiting the less expensive labor of the old colonies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America was damaged by several developments. The most obvious was that they were seriously economically and militarily weakened by that war. The U.S., on the other hand, came out of the war quite strong militarily and economically, and U.S. corporate interests were eagerly investing in those colonies and neocolonies and setting up puppet governments to serve the U.S. interests. Finally, and most important, in those colonies and neocolonies, the working class and its allies, especially the peasants, took advantage of the weaknesses of the European powers to launch wars to drive the imperialists and their brutal puppet governments out of their countries. Many of those workers and peasants followed the leadership of communist parties and had fought against Japanese and German fascism and now wanted to continue the struggle against all the other imperialist exploiters and their local partners in exploitation and oppression.
Communists in many countries adopted the strategy of wars of "national liberation" as the transition to socialism and eventually communism. These wars had two aspects. They were fighting against the imperialists, taking over capitalist property, and arming the masses; this all helps lay the basis for communism. But, they also were explicit in their alliance with some elements of the capitalist class, and their programs for national liberation included allowing certain capitalist enterprises and policies to operate after the imperialists were driven out. (More recently, this has evolved into inviting the once hated imperialists back into the countries which they had exploited and brutalized in the past.)
The national liberation strategy developed out of an aspect of Lenin's theory of imperialism. Lenin developed the important theory that capitalism would not simply fall in nation after nation as a result of national economic crises, because the capitalists of some countries would be able to increase their rates of profit by investing money and exploiting less expensive labor in other countries (the colonies and neocolonies.) Struggle in those colonies and neocolonies would weaken the international capitalist system and help bring on revolution in both the colonized area and the imperialist country. On the tactical level, certain imperialists were weakened by the wars of national liberation, and the living conditions of many workers and peasants improved in some cases as some of the imperialist wealth now was distributed to the workers and peasants.
China was the most powerful example of this; the destruction of the Japanese and then the capitalist government in China led to a socialist system where the living conditions of the Chinese people improved in a spectacular way. However, the record has now shown that those gains can be reversed as Communist Party leaders create a new elite that accumulates privilege and wealth and even goes looking for imperialist investors with whom they can jointly exploit the working class. But history is never simply reversed. Every change, positive and negative, has effects that go beyond the immediate situation and affect still other things. While national liberation wars lead back to capitalism, the struggles of the working class for a better life can help us learn how to defeat capitalism and build the communist party and communist revolution necessary for the final and complete destruction of capitalism.
Imperialism and Vietnam
In the late 1940's, a Vietnamese communist, Ho Chi Minh, organized the struggle to drive the French out of Vietnam. By 1954, the French were completely defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. As part of the arrangements for a peaceful retreat of the French, Ho Chi Minh's forces were to go to the northern part of the country while pro-French forces gathered in the south to leave the country. After elections, the country was to be unified. In 1956, the U.S. stepped in. There were no elections in the south; President Eisenhower later stated that his understanding was that the communist Ho Chi Minh probably would have won the election with 80% of the vote.
Ngo Ding Diem, a Vietnamese living in the United States as part of a CIA project, was flown over to Vietnam and put into power as the leader of South Vietnam. An imaginary line was drawn, and the U.S. said that Ho Chi Minh could hold the north, but that South Vietnam would be a separate nation allied with the U.S. The U.S. picked a loser in Diem. South Vietnam was over 80% Buddhist; Diem was a Catholic who persecuted many Buddhists. He also was personally corrupt and robbed millions from the treasury. Workers and students were suppressed, and the U.S. began sending hundreds of troops to Vietnam as advisors to help Diem.
Many rank and file workers and peasants wanted to rebel against Diem, but the policies of Ho Chi Minh and his Soviet backers was to discourage that at first. Eventually, rebellion in the south developed. Furthermore, many soldiers from the south had gone north only temporarily and found themselves separated from their families for years. By 1958, many of the them were moving back south as well, often with their weapons. The puppet Diem government and the U.S. called this "infiltration from another country", and President Kennedy had about 20,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam by 1963. By this time, the communist-led National Liberation Front (NLF) controlled over 80% of the countryside with over two-thirds of the people. The CIA then assassinated Diem because he was so incompetent, and the U.S. installed a series of other rulers.
In the summer of 1964, the U.S. government reported that a U.S. ship in international waters was fired on by a North Vietnamese boat. The U.S. fired back and the crew reported a night long battle. Shortly after that, in a second report, the U.S. sighted a North Vietnamese boat and attacked it; the Vietnamese fired back and the U.S. sunk one of the Vietnamese boats. President Lyndon Johnson declared that it was an outrageous violation of international law for the North Vietnamese to have attacked a U.S. ship in international waters when the U.S. had been supplying the South Vietnamese government but had done nothing to North Vietnam. Actually, this later turned out to be a lie; it was later revealed that U.S. military commandos had illegally landed in North Vietnam repeatedly and committed bombings and sabotage before that incident. The ship incident came to be called the "Gulf of Tonkin" incident, and President Johnson asked the Congress for permission to bomb a navy port in North Vietnam to punish them. However, the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" was worded very vaguely, giving Johnson congressional permission to take whatever military steps he wanted to in North or South Vietnam. Only two senators, and no congressmen, opposed it; Johnson was given a blank check. With this in hand, Johnson and Nixon put in a force of over half million soldiers (over 3 million actually served at one time or another.) The U.S. dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all the countries of the world used on each other in World War I and World War II combined -- and doubled! The U.S. tried very hard to win that war.
By 1968, those forces allied with the Soviets seemed to consolidate power within the movement in Vietnam. Their strategy focused heavily on tactical military damage to U.S. forces, rather than on continuing the strategy of People's War and building communist consciousness. The Tet Offensive in early 1968 killed thousands of U.S. troops and intensified anti-war sentiment in the U.S. It also killed many thousands of the bravest fighters in the NLF and set the tone for more conventional battles between Soviet equipped North Vietnamese troops and the U.S. forces. Later that year, Ho Chi Minh repaid the Soviets by endorsing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; the "independence" aspect of the national liberation struggle was now the main aspect of their strategy, rather than the move towards socialism or communism.
The pro-U.S. forces in Vietnam had virtually no support anymore from the Vietnamese people. The U.S. strategy of mass bombing intensified, including bombing the city of Hanoi in North Vietnam in an attempt to help the South Vietnamese puppets work out a better compromise with the north. But eventually, after a million Vietnamese and 60,000 U.S. personnel were killed, along with a destroyed economic and political fabric in Indochina that led to famine, war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands more in Cambodia, the U.S. left and the NLF and North Vietnamese Army triumphed. After the war was over, after Johnson had died and Nixon resigned, the U.S. government released documents admitting that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a fake. The initial attack on the U.S. ship by the North Vietnamese never took place, which was just as the North Vietnamese had claimed at the time. The people of the United States were tricked into supporting the war in the beginning by an event that never happened.
The Rise of the Anti-War Movement in the U.S.
The "Sixties" was much more than the white student anti-war movement on college campuses in the U.S. All over the world struggles against imperialism were raging. The Algerians forced France to grant independence, and Castro's forces had just taken power in Cuba and forced out the gangster-puppet regime of U.S. imperialism right on the U.S. doorstep. Various nationalists from Ghana to the Congo to Indonesia were thumbing their noses at U.S. imperialism, guerrilla movements emerged in Latin America, and the Chinese Communist Party made a sharp split away from the U.S.S.R., claiming that the U.S.S.R. was abandoning the world-wide struggle against imperialism and acting like a capitalist-imperialist power at home and abroad. The Cultural Revolution in China mobilized millions of workers and students in a militant attempt to stop China from creating elitist institutions that were leading back to capitalism.
In Europe and Japan millions of students battled police again and again in opposition to imperialism and other forms of capitalist oppression. In France, college students sparked a rebellion that engulfed the working class and led to a general strike that completely shut down France. In a move reminiscent of the suppression of the Paris Commune one hundred years earlier, the government of France made arrangements with Germany, its main adversary, to provide troops to put down the French workers and students. Lucky for the French bosses, the phony "Communist" Party of France worked night and day to sabotage that struggle, selling it out for a few francs and saving French capitalism, and the German Army was not needed. The "Sixties" was more than a U.S. event.
It was also more than a campus event in the U.S. By 1960, it seemed to many that the left movement in the U.S. was finished. In the late 1940's, the communists were driven out of the unions they had built; by 1953, there was no threat of a revolution in the U.S. But the U.S. ruling class intensified its anti-communist drive because they needed to rally the people against the Soviet Union and China and to support U.S. imperialism. While some intellectuals debated the economic merits of Marxism versus a market economy, the real assault against communism presented to most people in the U.S. in the 1950's, was that supposedly it was alien, Russian or Chinese, it did not play fair, it used spies to steal the atom bomb, and it wanted to put into power a group of foreign bosses. The response of the Communist Party was to retreat from the struggle to spread communist consciousness and communist organization and instead just build liberal organizations.
Also, U.S. imperialism was so profitable for that short time following the war -- two decades or so -- that when workers demanded higher wages, more health care, education, housing, and social services, the demands were sometimes granted. The standard of living improved significantly, and that fed the illusion that capitalism worked and could be made more pro-working class by working for change within the system. The election of Kennedy, a youthful optimist who combined militant anti-Soviet patriotism with humanist slogans seemed to combine all the elements of a successful empire. But there were a few cracks.
The liberal optimism of the Kennedy years was already tarnished while he was still President. Many Americans were against the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the CIA. Both the invasion and the fact that it failed made Kennedy look less like a hero and more like just another politician. Kennedy also took the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets over the question of Soviet missiles in Cuba. While some praised Kennedy's toughness, the nation was split. Millions of American people were upset that the nation came so close to nuclear war over Cuba. There was also the capture of a U.S. spy plane and pilot over the Soviet Union. Adlai Stevenson, the greatest hero of the liberals, had worked to maintain a phony image of honesty and integrity; millions of Americans watched him on television lie to the UN and the American people by denying that there was any spy plane, until the Soviets produced the pilot. And while the assassination of John Kennedy produced considerable shock, it was the murder of suspected assassin Oswald, and the whole botched cover-up that intensified disillusionment with U.S. liberal democracy. These events all helped weaken respect for the U.S. government, but it was actual involvement in trying to change the system that taught the working class its strongest lessons.
First was the anti-racist movement expressed through the Civil Rights movement. In the early 1960's, hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest racism against black Americans. The severe political repression of the 1950's was still fresh, yet large numbers of people were willing to publicly stand up and criticize the government. The sleepy, repressed 1950's became the hot 1960's very quickly. The second trend was the increased militancy of the working class. There were many strikes, especially in heavy industry, and there were major union organizing campaigns among farmworkers, hospital workers, and white collar workers. There also was a movement of discontent among many college students, intellectuals, and youth; it was based on sensing the contradiction between the promises of capitalism in the richest country in the world, and the reality of the stupidity, wastefulness, emptiness, and hypocrisy of even "secure middle class" life in the U.S., where success was measured by clothes and cars. It would be a mistake to overestimate this aspect of discontent; after all, it was mainly the militant, mass struggles of workers in Vietnam and the U.S. that provided the focus and impetus for the Sixties. But there was a common thread in all these struggles.
If the U.S. was so great, so rich, such a strong believer in freedom and prosperity, how come black people were denied basic human rights, how come workers were not sharing enough in this prosperity, how come culture was so shallow and decadent and human relations were still fundamentally based on suppressing human freedom, potential, and energy by channeling our minds towards the task of acquiring material status symbols? And finally, how come the U.S. supported vicious dictators in other countries, supported them to the extreme of killing thousands of workers and peasants and even drafting U.S. youth against their will to protect those corrupt, fascist regimes?
So it was not simply deprivation and oppression that gave rise to rebellion; it was hope, the belief that what existed did not have to exist and that change was possible. That hope originally was quite naive, often even patriotic -- -"How could the wonderful U.S. government do such nasty things?" But soon the bombs of the U.S. Air Force and the clubs of the police shattered much of that naive hope.
The most famous campus protest of the early 1960's was the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at University of California, Berkeley. Black students in the South had organized protests before and actually were the impetus for the civil rights movement, and the boycotts, voter registration drives, and demonstrations in the South became a training ground for hundreds of students from Northern colleges. The FSM actually came out of a struggle for the right to collect money on campus for civil rights workers in Mississippi. The university took the position that since some of the civil rights workers were getting arrested, they were engaged in illegal activity, and it was against university rules to allow the collection of money for illegal activities. This shocked and enraged students on campus who were furious that their liberal university would so strongly side with the racists in the South -- opposing voter registration drives and protecting the killers of children. The students took over a campus building, and the police were called in to arrest the hundreds and hundreds of students inside. Newspaper photos and television film clips showed tens of millions of Americans the extreme brutality of the police, smashing heads with clubs, throwing people down concrete stairs, pulling women by their hair -- all because of a sit in to support civil rights, something the U.S.A. was supposed to stand for.
In the summer of 1963, the first serious protest against U.S. involvement in Vietnam took place in New York City. It was sponsored by the Progressive Labor Movement, the organization which formed the Progressive Labor Party in 1965. The demonstration was small compared to the hundreds of thousands who would march later, and while there was some support for the anti-U.S. imperialism view, there was also significant hostility as well. But this was the first militant anti-imperialist demonstration of that era, in sharp contrast to the pacifists who mainly were terrified of the imperialists and their nuclear weapons.
In February, 1965, President Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to order systematic bombing of North Vietnam. The day after, anti-war committees began to form on dozens of university campuses. Aiding a fascist dictator in South Vietnam was bad enough; systematic bombing raids against North Vietnam and a massive troop build-up shocked hundreds of thousands of Americans and gave credibility to those radicals and anti-capitalists who had been so critical of the U.S. government in the past. Demonstrations against the war were held on many campuses. A small, campus-based organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called for a march against the Vietnam War for April 17, 1965.
SDS came out of the old, liberal trade union movement. It was originally called the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a youth offshoot of the League for Industrial Democracy. It mainly took college students to low income neighborhoods to work on community organizing projects -- issues such as housing, stop signs near schools, etc. SDS also had a clause in its constitution that barred communists from becoming members. In 1964, many members of SDS expressed their ambivalent support for the Democratic Party with a campaign button "Part of the Way with LBJ". Work in the civil rights movement in the South increased the militancy of many in the organization, who became impatient with the respectable liberals. The break became much sharper when SDS called for the April 17 demonstration; the liberal establishment at that point was strongly anti-communist and strongly in support of President Johnson's escalation of the war.
The April 17 march was branded as "radical". The newspapers urged people to stay away; this would not be a respectable demonstration, like those of Martin Luther King -- -this was anti-American. SDS organizers expected a few thousand people to show up. Over 25,000 marchers showed up, and suddenly SDS was propelled into the leadership of the campus anti-war movement. Many campuses set up organizations with names like "Committee to End the War in Vietnam" which included liberals, radicals, socialists, pacifists, and revisionists (liberals who pretend to be Marxists). In addition to these broader anti-war committees, there were often other groups on campus -- -SDS chapters, Draft Resistance Unions, Marxist study groups, and civil rights groups. Nationally, a coalition of liberals, pacifists, and revisionists formed the National Mobilization Committee (MOBE).
The MOBE was not a grassroots organization that organized struggles to hurt the war effort; it was a top down coalition that mainly called for occasional demonstrations especially in Washington, D.C. MOBE rallies were characterized by speeches from liberal politicians and union leaders. Many rank and file people in the movement were against giving the politicians and union leaders a platform to speak, especially since many of those leaders who spoke were involved in pro-imperialist activities abroad and racist, anti-working class policies at home. Leadership of the MOBE consisted of faction fights, mainly between the revisionist "Socialist Workers Party", pacifists, and the revisionist "Communist Party". The capitalist news media often appeared to criticize the MOBE, but in fact, it much preferred the MOBE to SDS and especially to PLP. The revisionists hid behind the pacifists, who were no threat to U.S. imperialism, while the clowns such as Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin made pro-drug, anti-working class comments that turned many workers and students away from the anti-war movement. The most important newspapers, including the New York Times gave millions of dollars of free publicity to the MOBE, announcing its marches weeks in advance to build and legitimize MOBE leadership of the movement. As a result, the MOBE was important as a focal point for the big demonstrations and newspaper publicity. But actually, they had little support among the rank and file; it was the local anti-war committees, and SDS, which directly and consistently brought anti-imperialist ideas to hundreds of thousands of college students.
Contrary to a romantic reading of history, there was considerable support for President Johnson's policies and considerable hostility to anti-war demonstrators, especially in the beginning. At University of Wisconsin, for example, about 250 people participated in the 1965 SDS March on Washington. That same weekend, the leadership of the University of Wisconsin Young Democrats drove to Washington with petitions signed by six thousand students in support of President Johnson. Thousands of buttons demanding: "Bomb Hanoi" were distributed, and a stupid song in praise of the Green Berets became the top selling record in 1966. The seeming support for President Bush in the early days of the Persian Gulf war might seem strong, but much of it is superficial, just as initial support for President Johnson's war eventually turned to opposition.
In the black community, opposition to the war was stronger. Muhammed Ali was stripped of his championship title for opposing U.S. policy. There was a developing consciousness that imperialism in general and the war in particular were racist. Opposition in the white community deepened during the course of the war as it became clearer that the U.S. was at war against the majority of people in Vietnam, as more U.S. soldiers were killed, as people witnessed the brutality of the U.S. government at home suppressing anti-war protests, and as some elements of the anti-war movement reached out and spread anti-imperialist consciousness on campuses and in the communities. But in the early days of the war, protesters in the U.S. were at risk of beatings and arrest by right wingers as well as police.
By 1966, SDS shifted its focus more towards becoming an anti-war organization. However, it still maintained its multi-issue approach. This was in contrast to some of the revisionist and liberal groups who said that a single issue anti-war organization that made coalitions with anyone against the war was the way to go. About that time, SDS dropped its anti-communist clause. SDS at this point was still influenced by patriotism and anti-communism, however. Much of the rhetoric spoke in terms of fulfilling the true values of the United States through democracy, and SDS had to allow free speech, even if it meant having to allow communists to join.
Also in 1966, the Progressive Labor Party formed an anti-imperialist organization, the May Second Movement, or M2M. M2M never became a mass organization, but it served a very valuable purpose. It offered a solid anti-imperialist analysis of the war in Vietnam and called for international solidarity with the Vietnamese and militant action; this was in contrast to most of the anti-war movement, which was trying to blame the whole war on President Johnson. M2M printed up and distributed tens of thousands of newspapers with the anti-imperialist analysis, and they were distributed in many places where people had never even heard of the PLP. Interest and respect for the PLP began to grow as a result of the uncompromising, serious work of party members. PL had been involved in the anti-racist Harlem uprising of 1964 and had proudly defended the right of the black community to fight back. While the old "Communist Party" was cringing, PLP openly defied the U.S. State Department ban on travel to Cuba and organized trips there. PLP members refused to take the "2S" student deferment, the Selective Service classification that made college students exempt from the military draft. PLP rightly saw that as class privilege and argued that revolutionaries should be immersed in the working class. PLP members took the position that instead of refusing to go into the military, young people should go in and organize rebellion inside the military, and PLP members practiced that policy. At Brooklyn College, a PLP organizer was protected by a crowd of thousands of students who resisted the police trying to arrest him. But it was when PLP made a decision to join and build SDS that the party and SDS that the student movement began to transform.
The years 1966 and 1967 saw the growth of draft resistance organizations and continued demonstrations against the war. Students were enraged to find that colleges would suspend student activists and then report to the military draft boards the names of those students in order to have them immediately drafted. The myth of the neutrality of the university was being cracked, and students held sit-ins against military recruiters and Dow Chemical Company, the company that manufactured napalm. The U.S. State Department sent a team of speakers around to college campuses; they were often met by hundreds of jeering students and sometimes were driven off the stage by hostile chanting and booing. In August of 1967, a massive demonstration, perhaps a half million, marched in New York City. The fall saw many more demonstrations, including hundreds being beaten and gassed in Madison, Wisconsin. SDS was still not the leader of the campus movement, but SDS chapters were forming on many campuses. The summer of 1967 also saw urban rebellions against racist police terror in one hundred U.S. cities. The Detroit rebels held major parts of the city for a week, and thousands of troops had to be diverted from going to Vietnam in order to put down the rebellion. Clearly, militant actions such as these could damage the war effort much more than peace marches ever could.
By late 1967, the ruling class was also trying to pick the leaders of the anti-war movement. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Senator Bobby Kennedy, brother of the assassinated President, were competing for the leadership of the Democratic Party on slogans that called for negotiations with the Vietnamese rebels and the North Vietnamese. It was becoming clear that a significant section of the U.S. ruling class did not want to see a major land war drag on if they could ensure a moderate Vietnam, on the Yugoslavia model, which might call itself Marxist, but which would not be a threat to U.S. interests. Thousands of students were being diverted into those electoral campaigns. It was also during those years that marijuana and LSD, flooded the college campuses. There is no question that the widespread use of these drugs hurt the anti-imperialist movement, despite the fact that many leaders in the movement advocated drug use.
By 1967, SDS was still relatively small. In December, at the National Council meeting in Bloomington, Indiana, there were a few hundred in attendance. PLP members were especially active in SDS in Boston, in New York, especially Columbia University, in San Francisco, and to a lesser extent, Los Angeles and Chicago. PLP members fought for the line of a worker-student alliance. A student movement could do just so much on the campus; once it reaches its limits, it much either transform or become twisted, distorted, and die. Students should reach out to rank and file workers, especially industrial workers, and build strong personal and political ties as a way to truly strengthen the anti-imperialist movement. The National Office leadership of SDS scoffed at this strategy, instead insisting that the true vanguard was going to be the new middle class of technocrats, computer programmers, etc. Many of them asserted that the industrial working class was either hopelessly reactionary or was becoming insignificant. They attacked PLP from an anti-working class and anti-communist position, asserting that PLP was totalitarian, against drugs and therefore "fun", and wanted to suppress their middle class creativity in a sea of dull, unintelligent, insensitive workers. But they were looking over their shoulders in fear, because they saw that PLP was winning over a significant base of support in key campus SDS chapters.
The year 1968 saw intensification of class conflict and class consciousness that brought about, within the limits of the movement at that time, some qualitative changes in the movement. The Tet Offensive drove home the point that the U.S. could not win this war as quickly as hoped. A broader lesson from that was that the bosses don't always get their way. Thousands of dead U.S. soldiers within a few weeks and scenes of mass destruction made many in the U.S., including some in the ruling class, question whether the war was worth it, or whether some kind of deal could be made. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. While King mainly diverted masses of black workers away from rebellion and into harmless non-violence, there were those in the ruling class who feared any leader who might be able to consolidate and focus the twenty million black Americans. Malcolm X had been assassinated a few years earlier, and many saw these attacks as attacks against any kind of serious anti-racist organizing. In the days after King was killed, one hundred more cities went up in rebellion. Contrary to Dr. King's message, many in the black working class had learned that non-violence does not work.
In Chicago, a twelve year old was shot and killed while running from police after Mayor Richard J. Daly ordered the police to "Shoot to Kill" looters. Criminal street gangs worked with the police to put down the rebellion. Then Bobby Kennedy, brother of assassinated President John Kennedy was himself assassinated the day he won the California Democratic Primary, which had almost certainly assured that he would win the Presidency. Those who looked to liberalism to save them from militarism saw how capitalism's brutality is widely used against even loyal opposition, and there was a wave of doubt throughout the movement as to whether the system could be reformed by liberal means.
It was during that same few months that the worker-student strike shut down France and gave inspiration to young people all over the world that rebellion was right. It was also during this time that news of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China was being eagerly studied by thousands of radical youth in the U.S. and Europe. Here was a hopeful sign that the masses could rebel to try to prevent what had happened in the Soviet Union -- -the defeat of socialism. In the midst of the same few months, the SDS chapter at Columbia University organized a sit in and strike and shut the university down.
Columbia University is a prize university for the U.S. ruling class. The SDS chapter there was torn between several factions including a group that promoted the anti-working class views of many in the National Office of SDS, and another caucus led by PLP. The PLP group played a major role in this action, both in doing the day to day basebuilding to involve large numbers of students, and in planning the seizure of the buildings. The PLP group fought hard for the campaign to have a strong, obvious pro-working class thrust. One of the main demands was to stop the construction of a gymnasium that would destroy the housing of hundreds of working class people, along with demands against Columbia's involvement in the war. Again, millions of television viewers witnessed the beatings and bloody faces of students who were being arrested for minor charges. And again, the lesson was learned: you can fight back! PLP issued tens of thousands of copies of a special flyer that analyzed the Columbia rebellion in terms of successful revolutionary strategy: "Build a Base; Struggle Sharply; Strike Hard; Fight to Win."
During and after the Columbia strike, interest in SDS intensified all over the country. Students were contacting the National Office, members of local anti-war groups were setting up SDS chapters, and established chapters saw increasing numbers of students join. It was in this context that SDS held its 1968 National Convention during that summer.
The 1968 convention was much larger than the one just a year before; SDS had become essentially a different organization in just one year. PLP leaders had warned that there would be an attempt to force PLP out of SDS. Others in SDS thought that PLP was exaggerating. The party's analysis was based on an understanding that liberals will resort to fascism when they are threatened. Sure enough, a prearranged outburst by a small, police-infested collection of anarchists prompted the National Office leadership to encourage anti-PL speeches, ending in an attempt to instigate mass chanting of "PL Out" to drive PLP out of the room and out of the organization. It failed. Many learned an important lesson. The anti-Communists had no unifying political principles except fear that they might no longer be in charge. When the anarchists got up and denounced PLP for being "Stalinists" who oppose freedom, the SDS National Office gang cheered and applauded. Then when the National Office gang attacked PLP for supposedly betraying Stalin because they found some quotes from Stalin that appeared to be at odds with PLP's line, you could see the anarchists applauding. Interestingly, on the stage encouraging the chanting was Carl Oglesby, who just a couple of years before wrote an impassioned defense of the right of communists to be in SDS.
Part of the attack was because PLP had begun to criticize the North Vietnamese leadership, who were calling for negotiations with the U.S. The only just solution for the Vietnamese people was a total withdrawal of U.S. imperialism, and the abolition of capitalism -- power to the workers. Any negotiations that would leave the Vietnamese people with less than that would be a sell-out. But even as PLP criticized the Vietnamese leadership, we continued to fight harder against U.S. imperialism than anyone else in the U.S. We organized strikes, boycotts, protests; we brought anti-imperialist ideas to hundreds of thousands of people; we led the way in spreading anti-imperialist sentiment to workers; we fought the police and drew some of the heaviest jail terms in the campus movement. The National Office gang could not convince many serious people that PLP was hurting the struggle.
PLP held its own because PLP members proved through action that we were working to build SDS harder than anyone. Quantitatively, PLP brought hundreds to SDS; qualitatively, the strategy of worker-student alliance gained considerable respect as a result of the France worker-student general strike. But nearly all the national offices stayed under the control of the anti-communist faction, who would soon play down their discredited line about middle class revolution and instead pretend to be Leninists, attacking PLP because we did not mechanically follow every word Lenin, Stalin, and Marx had written.
About a month later, the Democratic Party held its nominating convention in Chicago. Thousands showed up to protest. Mayor Daly announced that nobody would be permitted to remain in the parks after closing. The police moved in to clear out downtown Grant Park after closing. Thousands of demonstrators were surrounded by the police, who charged in on motorcycles, cars, and horses, beating everyone in sight. The cops attacked protestors, newspaper reporters, tourists, anyone near the area. Hundreds of people were tear gassed. Again, millions of people witnessed an intense, bloody police attack on people who were committing the relatively insignificant crime of staying in a park after it closed. This was the last straw for hundreds of thousands of people. The first eight months of 1968 taught many people that capitalism's brutality could not be stopped by working within the system.
The Empire Strikes Back
When colleges opened in the fall of 1968, there was an explosion of support for SDS. The first SDS meetings of the school year saw huge turnouts on many campuses: over 400 students attend at Harvard, about 500 at the University of Texas, 800 at the University of Wisconsin, for example. These were not demonstrations; these were SDS meetings! On campus after campus, students realized the importance of a national organization that rejected the politicians and organized grassroots militant struggle. The U.S. ruling class could not tolerate an organization like SDS unifying the hundreds of thousands of protesting students from all over the U.S., especially an organization that was increasingly accepting ideas from the Marxist-Leninist PLP. A multi-pronged strategy was developed to undermine the movement.
Senator Eugene McCarthy insisted that he would remain in the race for President and not endorse Humphrey; this served to channel thousands of youth out of protests and into electoral work. Universities and police tolerated the widespread use of marijuana and LSD on campuses. On many campuses, students could publicly use illegal drugs with no consequences, unless they were considered a political threat. Then they were sometimes arrested and faced long prison terms. The liberal news media made superstars out of the biggest fools in the movement in order to make the whole movement look like fools. Liberal anti-Communists outside the movement gave lots of money to the anti-PLP factions within SDS. And the government sent secret police agents, from city, county, and state police, FBI, CIA, and who knows what other agencies, into the movement for generally three purposes: informing, acting like fools or provocateurs, and trying to create splits within the movement. One Trotskyite group in Tennessee had more police agents in the group than regular members, which is no surprise because serious activists had no respect for them anyhow.
Anti-war demonstrations were happening all over. PLP members worked systematically to recruit people to SDS, to fight for the worker-student alliance strategy, and to start new SDS chapters. A serious effort by the SDS National Office leadership could have brought hundreds of new chapters and tens of thousands of new members into SDS. But the NO gang not only had rotten politics. They were incompetent. They were obsessed with PLP, suppressing articles from PLP members in SDS publications, frustrated that PLP was gaining support for the worker-student alliance strategy and recruiting students to the party. On at least one occasion, an SDS national leadership meeting degenerated into people standing on tables, throwing dishes, and screaming out drunken speeches about which ones of them hated PLP more than the others. The SDS National Office leadership hated PLP more than they hated the ruling class, and they focused their efforts on protecting their positions, rather than on fighting against imperialism. SDS literature was late in getting out, requests for new memberships were delayed or lost, and the opportunity to start hundreds of SDS chapters was also squandered away. The NO leadership did some organizing. It usually consisted of one of the leaders showing up on a campus, making a speech to hundreds of interested students, insulting them for not quitting school, or for being white, or for not being revolutionary enough, and then leaving the local organization disheartened and in a shambles. The other strategy they developed was to make unprincipled alliances with other leftist groups who were hostile towards PLP.
The 1968-1969 school year saw a big increase in the number of anti-racist struggles. Black students on many campuses held demonstrations and sit-ins against racism. Often the struggle was diverted into demands that black studies departments be set up, or that black cultural centers be established, or that admissions of black students be increased. Police attacks against these students were sometimes very brutal, especially on the all black campuses.
During this year, the ruling class tried to force the movement onto the defensive by bringing to trial the "Chicago Eight", eight people who were charged with conspiracy because of the violence during the Democratic Party convention in Chicago that past summer. They carefully picked the defendants. The focus was Abbie Hoffman, the drug pushing clown whose anti-working class speeches were emphasized in the news media. Also indicted were Bobby Seale, a leader of the Black Panther Party, a couple of pacifists, and one or two liberals who were relatively unknown. The trial dragged on for months. Most of the defendants did not even know each other before the demonstration, and the charge of conspiracy was a frame up. The judge met secretly and illegally with prosecutors during the trial, and he gave so many contempt of court citations to the defendants that some of them faced longer prison terms from the contempt citations than they did for the alleged conspiracy. Bobby Seale had a gag tied over his mouth and his body was tied to a chair in the courtroom because he repeatedly challenged the judge. The sight of him tied up and gagged enraged tens of thousands of black and white workers and students. The trial was mainly a farce; after many appeals, the defendants got off. But the trial served to intimidate many people, divert others from taking the offensive against imperialism, and convince many workers and students that the anti-war movement was run by anti-working class, phony clowns like Abbie Hoffmann.
During that year the police attacks against the Black Panther Party also intensified. The Panthers started out as a grassroots organization that patrolled black neighborhoods and reported on police brutality. Eventually, many of them came to realize that the violence of racism had to be met with violence from the masses. They were a nationalist organization, but they were not an anti-white organization, and much of their rhetoric was influenced by Marx, Lenin, and Mao. The attacks on them were especially murderous. Police set up ambushes, gunned down a number of activists, and jailed many more. Dozens died. Eventually, some in the leadership of the Panthers shifted the focus to legal defense and began to work closely with the "Communist Party" (CPUSA) who exerted influence on them to tone down their militancy.
By November, Eugene McCarthy urged his supporters to vote for the Democrat Hubert Humphrey, but Nixon won anyhow. Many felt even more alienated from the Democratic Party, and campus activity continued to surge. In New England and the mid-west members and friends of PLP worked day and night to build SDS to bring new chapters into the organization, and to fight for the line of worker-student alliance (WSA). Anticipating attack from the NO leadership of SDS, a WSA caucus was established to fight for that line within SDS. By now, the NO gang were all talking about workers, too. Events in France as well as the growing support for WSA and PLP within SDS forced them to start imitating the rhetoric of PLP s working class line and Leninist analysis. These same characters who just months before were denouncing workers as reactionary and impotent and making anti-communist attacks against PLP for supposedly being "Peking-oriented" and rigidly Leninist and undemocratic suddenly realized the power of a working class, Leninist analysis. But their essentially vacillating, middle class, self-centered view of the world prevented them from immersing themselves in the working class and fighting for revolution. SDS National Council meetings continued to grow. The December, 1968 meeting had about a thousand participants. Tensions were very high; there were organized chanting confrontations and PLP had to organize a defense squad to defend its rights to speak at microphones.
Winter, 1968-1969 also saw the most sustained, militant campus protest so far. Students at San Francisco State College organized a boycott of the school around a number of demands, including more admissions for black students. The struggle was led by the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), which had two PLP members playing leading roles. SDS was active in the coalition, and PLP played a leading role in SDS as well. Hundreds and hundreds of students were arrested as they attempted to shut the school down. The administration would vow to keep it open, only to have hundreds of students surround buildings and shut it down, month after month. Students from SFSC made speaking tours to rally support and inspire students around the country.
PLP Develops Its Line
During that school year, PLP concentrated on basebuilding. Despite intense attacks from the NO gang, PLP continued to build its base and increase its membership and support within SDS. Early 1969 also saw an important development in the political line of PLP. As the North Vietnamese leadership moved closer and closer to the traitorous leaders of the U.S.S.R. and entered deeper into negotiations with the U.S., our criticisms of Ho Chi Minh's leadership sharpened. Only People's War could win communism; allying with the U.S.S.R. would eventually sell out the Vietnamese people. Furthermore, it was in early 1969 that PLP made a sharp, direct attack on all forms of nationalism.
Marxists have generally opposed the nationalism of imperialist countries, (although the CPUSA did glorify U.S. patriotism and other CP's in France, Italy, and elsewhere have similarly pushed patriotism.) But Lenin and Stalin were ambivalent on whether nationalism of the oppressed people from the exploited countries was good. On the one hand, Marx, Lenin, and Stalin all emphasized at various points that nationalism was a form of bourgeois, capitalist ideology. It went against internationalism and was a form of selfish ideology -- my people, my country, etc. On the other hand, Lenin and Stalin were sensitive to unevenness and weaknesses in the capitalist-imperialist camp, and at points they did believe that struggles to drive imperialists out of exploited countries could be useful in weakening the imperialist centers. That is true, but if those struggles are led by forces committed to some kind of capitalism, then it will mean continued oppression for the working class. Lenin and Stalin hoped that pro-Communist forces would lead the "national liberation" struggle and would be able to defeat the pro-capitalist forces. By 1970, PLP concluded that those struggles lead to the preservation of capitalism and especially, making alliances with capitalists misleads the working class and encourages pro-capitalist consciousness, which is the worst mistake that communists can ever make.
PLP did not reach this conclusion from rereading some sacred texts. This came from practical experience, especially in the 1960's. In Algeria, the national liberation struggle supported by communists all over the world had defeated the French, only to have anti-Communists come to power to continue to oppress the working class. In Indonesia, over a half million communists and their supporters were slaughtered in a few weeks' time; they had made an alliance with Sukarno, a nationalistic capitalist who threatened to cut into imperialist profits, instead of organizing an independent movement for communist revolution. Fidel Castro was tying Cuba closer and closer to the rotten bosses of the U.S.S.R. Maybe "oppressed group nationalism" could help militarily defeat a particular imperialist in the short run, but it leads back to capitalism, which means all the destruction and death of the war was wasted and would have to be repeated in a genuine revolution.
Within the U.S., as well, PLP concluded that oppressed group nationalism, which was mainly black nationalism and various forms of Hispanic nationalism, was also a dead end. Unity with bosses from the black and Latino communities would not lead to self-determination; those bosses are inevitably tied to one or another ruling class financial circle, and some of those bosses are vicious exploiters in their own right. Black and Latino cops kill black and Latino youth, black mayors fire black sanitation workers on strike, and black businessmen exploit and super-exploit black workers. The only self-determination is communism. Any other kind of "self-determination" strategy means self-determination for some capitalists and oppression for the working class. Studying about the ancient slave owning kings of Africa or getting Afro-American Studies Departments and cultural centers would not help confront and defeat racism, and encouraging black students to leave the working class to attend college to become middle level bosses in service to the racist system would not help the masses of black workers. Twenty years later, the correctness of our position has been proven again and again.
We do understand the importance of fighting racism within college courses, and ignoring the achievements of non-European cultures is one form of racism. But letting standard history courses teach "white, male, ruling class history" which most students take, while setting up a few "black history" courses that a few anti-racists students take is actually avoiding the struggle against racism. Increasing the numbers of black students on campus has become a more complex issue. It is true that denying black youth the opportunity for education to become teachers, nurses, and engineers is a form of racism. On the other hand, the main purpose of a college education from the ruling class point of view, is not to train people for jobs. Job training could be done cheaper and more efficiently in other ways. The main purpose is to build loyalty to capitalism and the ideas that support capitalism among many of young people who really need to be allying with blue collar and white collar workers and fighting against capitalism alongside them.
As communists we are proud of the working class and believe that working class youth should fight for communism rather than try to solve their problems individualistically, by trying to become part of a so-called middle class. There are now thousands of black cops, politicians, administrators, lawyers, bosses, and managers who help protect the racist profits of capitalism, and many of those traitors got their positions because of the anti-racist struggles of the working class. While we oppose racist policies on campus that exclude or push out black, Latino, and other working class students, it was especially important, in the context of the rise of "middle class" black nationalism, to take a strong stand against the line that the way to defeat racism was for individuals to rise higher in the capitalist system.
Communist parties develop campaigns and lines of struggle based on what will help build communist consciousness and commitment within the context of the class struggle at the time; every set of demands, except "Communism!" is imperfect and incomplete in so far as they might exclude some progressive aspect of the class struggle. We oppose whatever the bosses want by taking it to a higher level. When the bosses shut it down, we say to the working class "Take It Over and Open It Up"; when they try to keep it open with exploitative business as usual, we say "Shut It Down." As it turned out, in the 1970's many schools developed almost completely open admissions policies without mass struggle; the ruling class was not opposed to exposing many more black youth to a couple of years of college. However, as the economy slides down in the 1990's, we can expect to see increased efforts to force black, Latino, and other working class students out of the universities.
Within SDS, the NO gang tried to use PLP's critique of nationalism to say that PL was objectively allied with the imperialists and racists. PL's critique was not some abstract polemic; internationally, we sharpened out critique of Ho Chi Minh and within the U.S., we offered a very sharp, but essentially supportive, critique of the Black Panther Party's conservative move towards legal defense and fundraising. For the anti-working class, anti-communist NO gang, this was an opportunity to pretend that they were the "real" Marxist-Leninists. But PLP continued to build a base for anti-imperialist worker-student alliance and revolution.
In three hundred years, Harvard University, the most prestigious university in the U.S., had never been shut down. It weathered world wars and national economic collapse. The PLP-led WSA caucus led the majority of the SDS chapter at Harvard. Carefully applying revolutionary basebuilding to even Harvard University, the party had been involved in systematic, door-to-door organizing in the university dormitories. There were demonstrations, forums, study groups, and a thousand debates and discussions with rank-and-file students about Harvard's role in supporting imperialism. A major assault against Harvard would be important for the whole campus movement. After considerable planning, a group of about 200 students took over the main university building demanding an end to ROTC officer training and an end to the university's destruction of working class housing. City police were brought in, and again, many students were beaten bloody while being arrested. SDS called for a strike, and thousands of students responded in support. Harvard was shut down! The campus remained shut down for weeks while student activists flocked to Boston to learn about the strike. Militant actions continued on dozens of other universities, and interest in SDS continued to swell.
As SDS prepared for its July, 1969 National Convention in Chicago, it was obvious that there would be a major confrontation between the old National Office leadership of SDS and the forces led by PLP. Fifteen hundred people showed up for the convention, in an atmosphere of extreme intimidation. The NO gang searched people entering the hall and consistently harassed pro-PLP forces. PLP had its own defense squad to guarantee its right to speak and the safety of our members and supporters. The atmosphere in the meeting room was very tense as the NO gang tried to evaluate how much strength they had. They paraded a group of speakers to the front to attack PLP. Members of the Black Panther Party who felt that they were above criticism were brought in to attack PLP. They said that they were the vanguard and nobody was allowed to criticize them, and that PLP was the enemy, and that if SDS did not kick PLP out of SDS, then the Panthers would "deal with" SDS as well. This produced the expected reaction of racist fear in many of the middle class white students who were supporting the NO gang; all their stupid racist fears of being violently attacked by black men with guns was suddenly right before them! The Panthers couldn't quite pull it off smoothly however; their speeches were punctuated with especially vicious anti-women comments that drew choruses of boos from the crowd and exposed the NO gang for being opportunist, racist, and sexist.
Then a leader of the NO gang said that in light of the Panthers' comments, all the anti-PLP forces would caucus in the next room to discuss what to do. Less than half went into the other room, including some center forces who were curious about what was going to happen there. It was obvious that there would be a split, and there were a number of students there who were uneasy about accepting leadership from PLP, but who also detested the corrupt leadership of the NO gang. The charge that PLP was betraying the anti-imperialist struggle because PLP dared to criticize Ho Chi Minh fell flat, because it was obvious that PLP was actively fighting against imperialism and racism harder than any of the NO gang; we did the dorm organizing, leafleted the factories, confronted the police, and sent people into the military while the NO gang held press conferences and made speeches.
After a day or so, the NO gang returned with their supporters. Members and leaders of PLP were on extreme alert. We made the estimate that there would be an attempt to start a full scale riot among the fifteen hundred people inside the hall so that the police could attack the hall, beat and arrest hundreds, and attempt to destroy SDS. No matter how viciously the NO gang spoke, we were to remain silent in order not to provoke a riot. If attacked, we would, of course, fight back. Bernadine Dohrn approached the microphone trying hard to look militant and made a statement that concluded with the words that PLP was now expelled from SDS. At that point, the hall fell dead silent, and as they say, the air really was so still, so charged with tension that you really could feel electricity in the air. Then, suddenly, the voice of one woman from the audience crackled through the hall. She was laughing. The absurdity of a small minority expelling the majority of people from the hall was too much to bear. Then hundreds and hundreds of people joined in the laughter and then started chanting as about five hundred walked out of the hall.
The nine hundred or so who remained elected officers and pledged to continue to build SDS. But the old NO gang had control of the office and most importantly, of the membership lists. They were able to put out mailings to the SDS membership full of lies about how the majority kicked a small minority of PLP supporters out of SDS. The majority group did not have access to any of the mailing lists and had to try to reconstruct the organization based on personal contacts. The capitalist news media ran story after story about how SDS had collapsed and no longer existed. The liberal and revisionist media took the side of the NO gang, sometimes criticizing them, but blaming the collapse on PLP. One story that they spread was that PLP had packed the convention with hundreds of PLP members who weren't even students in order to win votes; in reality, there were fewer than sixty PLP members out of the fifteen hundred there. But consistent with the bourgeois line, the liberals could not believe that the masses could accept leadership from communists; so they had to say that it was a trick! The media did a job spreading cynicism through the movement, and the NO gang finished the job. As soon as they distanced themselves from PLP, they rapidly degenerated into a collection of squabbling middle class cults, each led by its own self-proclaimed genius.
Their version of the SDS newspaper became more and more bizarre, full of self-congratulatory rhetoric and language that attempted to imitate a combination of badly translated Lenin and the worst stereotype of how racists believed that black people spoke. Then they split, and split again, and split again. Every loudmouth from the NO gang had to be the leader, so they each formed their own little group. The "Weathermen" later "Weather Underground" gained the most publicity. They were very heavily infiltrated by the police, and they made a name for themselves by pretending to be terrorists. Actually, they did nothing to hurt the ruling class. A few of them blew themselves up playing with bombs in an expensive New York apartment, but mostly they did stupid, impotent things, like running through a Pittsburgh high school undressed, in order to shock the students. The capitalist news media loved them.
They were the perfect stereotypes -- it was a virtually all-white group. One was a lawyer, one was the son of the millionaire head of Commonwealth Edison, the electric company that cheats the Chicago working class, and many of the remainder were from upper class and upper middle income families. If a person's daddy has a lot of money, it does not automatically mean that the person is reactionary. But when a group consists of a bunch of pretty well off kids, whose whole purpose is to express their personal rage, then that is just another form of liberalism -- liberalism with noise, maybe a bomb or two, but mostly thunder without lightning or rain. Threatening: "If you don't stop the war, I'm going to hold my breath until I turn blue" and saying: "If you don't stop the war, I'm going to bomb a statue in the park" is in essence the same thing -- -feeble liberal rage. A few in the Weather Underground split and got involved in some robberies, but in the main, they served the bosses well by maintaining the lie that revolutionaries were spoiled, nutty, white rich kids.
Most SDS members did not attend the Chicago convention. The only news they got about SDS was from the capitalist news media, which said SDS no longer existed, and from the rapidly disintegrating NO gang (who had the mailing lists), whose pathetic ranting disgusted anyone serious about fighting the system. Many SDS chapters disbanded. The NO gang tried to maintain the name SDS and the SDS newspaper for some months, but it got stranger and stranger. There were hysterical ramblings bordering on fascist ideology about riding the rhythm of rock and roll music and grooving with the violence and so forth. Their high point consisted of a feeble action in Chicago's wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood; several hundred ran through the streets breaking windows in stores and parked cars. Numbers of them were arrested, and several leaders fled. The FBI then put some of the leaders on the "most wanted" list because fleeing state lines was a federal crime. They went into hiding and the news media was now able to say that these rich, white kids were terrorists in hiding on the most wanted list. It is important to note that the charges that most of the leaders were fleeing from were insignificant misdemeanors, such as mob action, disorderly conduct, etc. And when some of the main leaders finally turned themselves after fifteen or so years in hiding, most of them received very light penalties; most got no jail sentences, in contrast to hundreds of activists, including many in PLP, whom the bosses jailed for months during that period. The "Weather Underground" served the cops well; as in other countries, police agents can damage a movement by using provocateurs such as these.
Those NO gang leaders who did not join the Weather Underground set up a couple of sects based on Mao worship and worship of their own "chairmen." The group led by Klonsky went through twists and turns trying to justify every rightwing turn the Chinese leadership took. His group was riddled with disgusting personal corruption and eventually collapsed. The group led by Avakian hung on as a tiny sect that alternates between opportunistic politics hidden by a kind of poorly done imitation of militant, angry urban youth language while pathetically trying to elevate "Chairman Avakian" to superstar status.
On the heels of the SDS split, capitalism had yet another weapon to use against the developing anti-imperialist youth movement. A massive concert, lasting several days and involving hundreds of thousands of youth was held at Woodstock. The counter-cultural movement, which had been somewhat linked to the leftist political movement in their common objection to certain aspects of capitalism, was now following its inevitable path towards being another form of capitalist diversion. While some said that rock music fostered political rebellion, in the main, it lived off of that rebellion and diverted that rebellion into safe channels the ruling class could accept, including drug abuse and other forms of selfish personal gratification.
The 1969 -1970 school year started out calmer on campus than the previous year. The SDS chapters that PLP led were still thriving, growing, and PLP advanced a new strategy for the campus movement. The Worker-Student Alliance could not simply be a strategy; it had to be a reality. When any movement reaches its limits, it must either transform based on the processes that have developed within it, or it must become twisted, perverted, distorted and eventually die out. The campus movement had militantly battled police, shut down universities, and mobilized hundreds of thousands of students. If that movement did not broaden its approach and focus its intense energy outward towards the working class, it would self-destruct. It was approaching its limits as a campus only movement. PLP proposed the Campus Worker Student Alliance (CWSA) to focus students' efforts on building real, flesh and blood ties between students and workers. PLP had organized "work-ins" where dozens of students took factory jobs for the summer in order to build ties with workers and build anti-imperialism within the industrial working class. The CWSA was based on the idea that the obvious place that students could reach out to workers on a consistent basis was the campus. SDS chapters effectively supported and participated in many rank and file campus workers' struggles. There was some confusion as some members mistakenly thought that we were abandoning the anti-imperialist struggle in order to concentrate on winning economic demands for campus workers. That was wrong. The goal was to build an anti-imperialist base of support among workers and develop lasting relationships that would build a solid alliance.
Fall, 1969 saw another massive demonstration in Washington. The party proposed that SDS lead a break-away from the main march over to the Department of Labor building in support of General Electric workers that were striking. The chant: "Warmaker, Strikebreaker, Smash GE" rang out as over seven thousand people joined our action. For the next few months, the campuses actually toned down a bit. There were some struggles organized by black students, but the belief that SDS had collapsed hurt the campus anti-war movement. In December, 1969, several leaders of the Black Panther Party were murdered by Chicago police. There were some militant protests, but some of the optimism of the anti-imperialist campus movement was fading, as Nixon, drugs, the SDS split, and political repression took their toll. In March, 1970, there were a few rumblings again. SDS and PLP led a crowd of four thousand students at Berkeley against ROTC. They were attacked by the police and they drove the police off campus. There were a few other skirmishes on campuses. Then, President Nixon ordered the U.S. military to invade Cambodia.
There were explosions on dozens of campuses. Tens of thousands of students took to the streets, often with no organizational leadership. The war was broadening out; it was time to take action. President Nixon got on television and called the protestors "bums." Governors ordered the National Guard onto many campuses. On a number of campuses, students were shot. At Kent State University, four of the students died. The news media carried pictures of the shootings, including of Guardsmen firing into a crowd, using illegal pistols, and shooting at people who were running away. Then, campuses exploded all over the United States. Actually, over a dozen black students were killed by police over the previous few years, but racism caused many students to take the Kent State shootings more seriously. Maybe it was the realization that capitalism was coming to get them too that shocked them. In any case, over five hundred campuses were shut down by angry students who blocked doorways, occupied buildings, and fought pitched battles using bottles, stones, and sticks against the police. ROTC buildings were burned down on a number of campuses, and many campuses stayed shut down for the rest of the school year.
In the context of that struggle, SDS tried to focus the campus strikes against the university administrations and government. Students were demanding an end to military recruiting, ROTC, and Defense Department research. On many campuses, liberal students and faculty made deals with university presidents to hurt the anti-war struggle by pretending to support it. College presidents officially closed their campuses for a few days to shed some phony tears, take control of the anti-war movement, and then reopen the colleges with imperialist business as usual. Revisionist groups aided this sell out in ways that were especially treacherous. In Detroit, at Wayne State University, for example, the Trotskyite "Socialist Workers Party" argued that forcing ROTC off campus was not a revolutionary enough demand; they said it would be better to take control over the whole university and turn it into an anti-war university, a center from which anti-war students could organize the whole city. It sounded very revolutionary, but see how it worked out. The university bosses agreed to give the SWP gang office space, use of printing facilities, and paper. The SWP then said that the university was now "theirs" and there was no need to keep the strike going. Members of SDS and PLP said that as long as ROTC continued on that campus, students should keep the strike going, and keep the picket lines up. SWP_supporters opposed the strike and some even joined with pro-fascist students in breaking the picket lines to reopen the school. Eventually the school reopened, and ROTC remained on campus to help the U.S. government carry out the war. The SWP got bought real cheap -- a little bit of paper and some ink. There is a lesson here for organizers about learning how to see beneath revolutionary rhetoric to grasp the essence of a political line.
The massive strikes following Kent State was the high point, and the beginning of the end of the campus anti-war movement. The liberals organized another big march on Washington, the last really massive march. SDS and PLP called for another breakaway at the Labor Department and this time, about 15,000 joined us. The police-infested "Weathermen" organized an attack against our office there, and we successfully beat them up as we had done time after time. But on the campuses, the mood was changing. Many students said: "I didn't believe you revolutionaries when you said that capitalism was ruthless. I was wrong. You were right. I'm scared. I'm going to drop out of things for a while." If SDS had still had the mass following it had just twelve months before, it could have tied those hundreds of campus shut downs together into one unified movement, it could have further helped to consolidate anti-imperialism as the leading ideology of that movement, and it could have helped sustain the optimism and confidence that the rulers were working to erode. The U.S. bosses anticipated that; their worst campus nightmare was for Marxist-Leninist PLP to lead a worker-student alliance oriented SDS which in turn was leading hundreds of thousands of students -- the powerful combination that would lead to masses joining and helping lead the revolutionary communist movement.
The following two years (1970-71, and 1971-72) were marked by a major let down on campus. The news media began to report protests less and less. In a sense, that points out a major weakness of the Sixties anti-war movement. They were dependent on the capitalist news media for publicizing their actions, and when the news media cut back, much of that movement became isolated, because they did not build a base with the working class. There were occasional bright spots during that time, such as the shouting and clapping down by 1200 students at Harvard of government mouthpieces who were defending U.S. policy. But in general, the movement was fragmented, and the "Weather Underground" proved very helpful to the bosses in harming the movement. Other secret police agents were involved in various phony terrorist plots to discredit the movement, and by now, drug use was so common on college campuses that one could see marijuana clouds floating out the windows of conservative fraternity houses. The movement was further confused by developments in Vietnam and China. The North Vietnamese leadership was now seriously talking with the U.S. Students wondered: Would the war end soon? Should we continue to risk education, jobs, life, and limb if there is going to be a settlement any day now? Then Mao Zedong, the most important revolutionary in the world, began discussions to improve relations with Nixon. Nixon couldn't go to any city in the U.S. without facing angry protests, but he could go to China and be welcomed with smiles and hugs. This further undermined the anti-imperialist movement all over the world, including in the U.S. Was the most prestigious Marxist-Leninist in the world saying that Nixon and U.S. capitalism was not so bad? Some leftists tried to defend that policy with some bizarre logic about how Mao the government official had a different capacity from Mao the communist. But the effect was to confuse and demoralize sections of the anti-imperialist movement in the U.S.
SDS and PLP continued to build a base. Although the mass anti-war movement was in a state of decline, our party continued to sharpen our line and recruit more and more students to the party. We reevaluated our work and made a sharp self-criticism that we had not fought nationalism hard enough in the past, and as a result had not won enough black students and workers into membership and leadership of the party. SDS focused more sharply on campus racism, as well, organizing campaigns against academic racists such as Jensen, Herrnstein, Shockley, and Banfield. The bosses were now funding campus Afro-American Cultural Centers as a way to undercut the anti-racist movement, and Senator George McGovern was brought out to be a "peace" candidate for President in order to further divert the energies of youth. And the negotiations with North Vietnam dragged on. And the Chinese leadership got cozier and cozier with the U.S.
In November, 1972, Nixon defeated McGovern by the then largest margin in U.S. history. In the spring of 1973, it was clear that the U.S. was losing the war. Nixon hoped that massive bombing of Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, might force the North Vietnamese to negotiate a settlement that would allow the U.S. at least some part of Vietnam. Thousands of civilians were killed by the U.S. bombs. There were militant protests on a number of U.S. campuses and cities, but they were not sustained for long.
During that two year period when campus activity had fallen off, there was increasing militancy from the working class. There were strikes in major industries, and militant caucuses were leading wildcat strikes against their union leaderships as well. The important anti-war action was taking place inside the military. Thousands of U.S. soldiers were refusing to follow orders. Several hundred U.S. officers were killed by U.S. troops, and the U.S. military stockade at Long Binh was burned down by U.S. troops. The bosses had to allow, even encourage drug use as a way to try to prevent rebellions. The U.S was still losing the war in Vietnam, and more people in the U.S. were questioning how the U.S. could have the support of the Vietnamese people if the war was so hard to win. When the massive, murderous bombing of Hanoi failed to bring the North Vietnamese to their knees U.S. policy began to emphasize "Vietnamization." This policy was supposed to replace U.S. troops with anti-communist troops from the South Vietnamese government. But if there were enough South Vietnamese troops to defeat the rebels to begin with, it would not have been necessary for the U.S. to intervene so massively in the first place. Basically, as the U.S. gradually pulled out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese military lost battle after battle. In 1975, the NLF and North Vietnamese army directly attacked Saigon and captured the city, while newspapers all over the world showed desperate, frightened U.S. personnel climbing onto helicopters to flee.
The U.S. war against Vietnam was over, although the destruction continued. Large parts of Cambodia were devastated, populations were dislocated, and famine and war brought on by the U.S. war against Vietnam led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands there, and the Vietnamese had to cope with thousands of injured, with destroyed industrial facilities, and with burned and poisoned land. But the war was over, and the anti-war movement was over.
After burning down buildings and shutting down schools, the campus movement had reached its limit. It was faced with the choice of transforming to worker-student alliance or become twisted, and distorted and eventually defeated. That movement was not totally defeated. Out of it came the International Committee Against Racism (InCAR). By late 1974, SDS as an organization had also reached its limit. What was needed was an organization that was the worker-student alliance, rather than an organization of students that would ally with workers. SDS was dissolved and most of the activists joined the International Committee Against Racism (InCAR), which PL had helped organize to build a mass movement against campus racism. InCAR soon developed a base off the campus as well, and established a firm base in a number of cities, with branches at schools, hospitals, factories, and neighborhoods. As we enter another period of inter-imperialist wars, InCAR and PLP are in a much stronger position to lead masses of workers and students than we were in the 1960's.
What Came Out Of It?
There is a tendency to view the campus anti-war movement in one-sided ways. Some people mistakenly say that that movement was the main force that ended the war. Others say that that movement was irrelevant to anything. The campus movement was not a main force in ending that war, but it was an important force in helping to build anti-imperialist consciousness in general and the communist movement, PLP, in particular.
The campus movement did help spread the idea that the U.S. government was wrong, and that it was good to use militant action to stop the war. To some extent, some members of the working class were influenced by these ideas, and it is probably true that anti-war activities in the U.S. helped develop the anti-Vietnam War consciousness of some of the troops. This was good, but it should not be overestimated. The urban rebellions did far more to promote militancy than did the campus protests.
The anti-war movement probably helped create a climate in the U.S. that prevented the U.S. ruling class from militarily intervening in Angola in 1975. President Ford wanted such an intervention, but Congress would not appropriate the money. But again, the anti-war sentiment within the military was a much more potent force in preventing a U.S. military adventure in Angola. Besides, the U.S. continued to fund a fascist-terrorist group there to keep the leftist government there from consolidating power for some years, while at the same time, major imperialist oil companies made deals with the leftist Angola government guaranteeing their profits. It was not crucial for the U.S. to invade Angola.
Furthermore, the remnants of the anti-war movement were not strong enough to prevent U.S. military action in Panama, Libya, Grenada, Lebanon, and now, the deployment of a half million troops for a major war in the Persian Gulf. Without communist revolution, all reforms eventually get taken away.
Finally, the anti-war movement helped create a general anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist climate that still exists in the U.S. People are more skeptical of big corporations, of imperialism, and of capitalism. Tens of thousands of people were affected by that movement and chose jobs in areas such as teaching, where they wanted to continue to spread anti-imperialist, anti-racist ideas. But again, this should not be overestimated. Much of that anti-imperialist sentiment has been tangled up with pacifism, which only disarms the anti-imperialist movement. On the other hand, as discussed above, the development of InCAR has helped sustain anti-imperialist, pro-Communist consciousness and activity in many places.
In the end, what matters is the growth of communist consciousness, the development of a communist movement, and the building of a revolutionary communist party. In the U.S., this has been the PLP, which has now become an international communist party. Some readers might think that this conclusion is narrow and self-centered. But if we examine the general development of capitalism, we see that it leads to imperialism, to economic collapse, to fascism, and to war. There have been massive movements which opposed war, economic oppression, and fascism, that were much more powerful than the Sixties movement in the U.S. The anti-fascist movements in Germany and Indonesia and Chile and Argentina and Iran and dozens of other countries are examples of that. But in country after country, no matter what types of gains the working class won -- housing, medical care, jobs, breaking up of some large imperialist corporations and farms -- in the end, the fascists, in alliance with the liberals, will sweep all those gains away if those gains pose a threat to the maintenance of capitalism. And along the way, they will kill and kill and kill millions who oppose them, not just communists, but anyone, whether anti-capitalist or pro-capitalist, who might be a threat to them. Only revolution can permanently end that threat, and revolution can only happen with a revolutionary communist party to develop and lead that struggle.
In fact, even in countries where socialist revolution took place, first state capitalism and now major aspects of corporate capitalism are being restored, along with all the racist, sexist, exploitative, and pro-imperialist policies that capitalism inevitably develops. Socialist revolution is not an adequate solution; the revolution must guarantee communist economic relations and reject all forms of special privilege, of nationalism, of capitalism. If socialist revolution was not a guarantee, how can anyone believe that anything less than revolution can sustain any victories?
The campus anti-war movement did help develop the PLP. As a result of leading struggles against the imperialist war, our party recruited hundreds of members who in turn have helped recruit many more. But equally important as the quantitative growth of the party has been the qualitative development of the party's line and membership. In the early days, party leaders would say that PLP had the revolutionary line, but it could not call itself the vanguard party until it was firmly rooted in the working class. The struggle over the past twenty five years has been in that direction, and PLP is truly a revolutionary working class party. Many students from the anti-war movement were won to joining the party and helping to help recruit many of the workers who today help lead the party.
Finally, that struggle helped the party to sharpen our understanding about what communism is and how to get it. Our line moved further to the left as a result of actual experience. The more we criticized black nationalism, the more successful we became at winning black workers and students to membership and leadership of the party. The more we attacked the international revisionists, the more our international work has grown. Our experience with the liberals taught us that they were not simply cowards and sell-outs, unwilling to go all the way; on the contrary, the are willing to fight very hard against us and the rest of the working class.
Our initial criticism of the Vietnamese communists was not quite accurate; we said that alliance with the U.S.S.R. and negotiations with the U.S. would prevent the complete removal of U.S. imperialism from Vietnam. Actually, the revisionists did totally defeat the U.S. But now they are inviting them back. And as we watched the heroic struggle of millions of Vietnamese people lead to invitations for the imperialists to return to Vietnam to exploit the working class, as we watch the once socialist U.S.S.R. become a major imperialist force in the world, and a participant in imperialist wars for profit, the truth should be clearer than ever. The working class can settle for nothing less than a complete destruction of racism, of sexism, of nationalism, of all forms of capitalism, of all forms of exploitation. Anything less than world communism led by an international party will lead again and again back into the cycle of capitalist exploitation, fascism, and world war.