Monday, March 12, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 11: Ted Gold and Dave Gilbert: Roommates, 1967

Chapter 11: Ted Gold and Dave Gilbert: Roommates, 1967 (viii)

Columbia SDS continued to spend its weekly general assembly meetings in long discussions of political strategy. Mark started to participate more actively in these debates with great enthusiasm. But most of his strategic ideas seemed impractical and somewhat confused to me. At one meeting, Mark enthusiastically suggested that we build a wire fence around Low Library, to symbolize Columbia’s sponsorship of the IDA project which proposed the building of an electronic barrier between North and South Viet Nam to help crush the Vietnamese insurgency, by “preventing `infiltration’” from the north of Viet Nam. At another SDS general assembly meeting, Mark argued in favor of working to build a student strike at Columbia, around university complicity with the Pentagon issues, six months later—in April 1968. And he circulated mimeographed copies of a position paper which argued in favor of Columbia SDS adopting this strategy.

What was good about Mark’s October 1967 position paper was that (unlike the dominant figures in the Praxis-Axis) Mark recognized that unless Columbia SDS was seen by the mass of student radicals as concretely working for some kind of spring strike (and not just simply working to educate students without mobilizing them to act concretely), campus radicals would drift away from active participation in “local organizing” work, as the academic year progressed. What was bad about Mark’s October 1967 position paper was that it failed to show how locking Columbia SDS into a plan to call for a student strike six months later would lead to the mass politicization and radicalization of Columbia and Barnard students any faster than the intensified dorm canvassing, more dorm meetings, more educational activities, more petition-circulating approach being carried out under the Praxis-Axis leadership. Mark’s October 1967 plan appeared to overestimate the degree to which Columbia and Barnard students had already been radicalized and were ready to express their new radicalism in militant non-violent action.

Influenced by Ted, Teddy, Peter Schneider and Al, the mass of Columbia SDS members voted down most of Mark’s October proposals because they seemed overambitious and unrealistic. The “heavy” Columbia SDS theoreticians were still much glibber when it came to discussing political strategy with SDS members than was Mark. Ted, Peter Schneider, Al, Evansohn and the other praxis-axis Marxist intellectuals—like a philosophy graduate student named Andrew—smugly dismissed Mark as being, at best, a “vulgar Marxist” and, at worst, “an anarchist hippie” with “no politics.” Any Columbia SDS person who dared question the chapter’s emphasis on non-alienating, pedantic leftism and consciousness-raising—instead of moralistic, militant non-violent direct actionism—as a means of developing a mass campus base was accused by Columbia SDS’s theoreticians of having “no politics.”

My own strategic position was that Columbia SDS should continue to do dorm canvassing and other kinds of radical education work, in the context of continuing to demand an end to Columbia’s membership in IDA; and not alienate the mass of anti-war left-liberal students by small, premature left-sectarian actions which demanded an end to the Columbia-IDA connection. But when we had won enough people to have a sit-in of 500 in Low Library through this kind of educational work, I felt it would then be most practical to non-violently disrupt business as usual at Columbia, until Columbia’s IDA ties were severed.

Although—like the other Praxis-Axis people on Columbia SDS’s steering committee—I felt that tactics like having a “dirtiest man on campus” contest (in which students voted at the Columbia SDS table on Low Plaza for the Columbia trustee or professor who they felt had the “dirtiest” corporate or personal connections) were clever, I also realized that they weren’t enough. It wasn’t enough, I felt, for Columbia SDS to just be a cute guerrilla theater, radical education, draft counseling, petition-signature-gathering, purely agitational organization. But the intellectualism and intellectual certitude of others within the Praxis-Axis leadership made me assume that they knew what they were doing. If I wasn’t content with Columbia SDS just being a “local organizing” group, that avoided what Teddy called “infantile, masturbatory, left-sectarian action,” in favor of patient campus organizing and patient radical consciousness-raising among future members of “The New Working-Class,” then, perhaps I was being “politically immature.”

I realized that militant confrontational and disruptive non-violent action which exposed and provoked right-wing or Columbia Administration violence was a quicker way to develop mass radical consciousness than just holding teach-ins and forums, and just handing out verbose, pedantic leaflets. But I still felt that not enough students were yet ready to non-violently disrupt campus business as usual. So, unlike Mark, I didn’t think it was that important to agree in October 1967 to call a strike for April 1968—as long as anti-IDA sentiment was going to spread enough on campus by our educational and agitational work to make a mass sit-in or mass non-violent disruption of Columbia in the spring of 1968 possible.