Thursday, March 15, 2007

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

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

I can’t recall much of what was debated at this particular National Council meeting, although the ideology of New Working-Class theory and student syndicalism/student power still dominated the politics of the SDS national leadership around this time. Like at all National SDS meetings, white male Movement “heavies” tended to dominate the heavily intellectual debate of strategy and theory. Personally, I found the debate interesting for the first hour or so. But after a few hours, the debate turned into a repetitive parliamentary wrangle between Progressive Labor Party heavies and New Left heavies, and people started to leave the meeting room and talk outside in the halls with each other, until the agenda called for discussion of some new topic.

This was the usual pattern of most SDS regional and national meetings between Fall 1967 and June 1969: interesting debates usually deteriorating into dull Marxist verbal battles between the personally straight, puritanical, sexually repressed PL bureaucratic heavies and their more bohemian, hedonistic, pot-smoking, sexually liberated New Left counterparts.

At this particular National Council meeting, a University of Wisconsin SDS heavy named Evan Stark—who was neither PL nor New Left bohemian, but more just a graduate student, academic, independent, traditional Marxist-type—was somewhat influential. The next week he apparently would courageously lead the anti-Dow Chemical Company recruitment demo that was busted up by the Madison police, at which Harvey was brutalized. Another influential person at this meeting was Carl Davidson, who was a national officer of SDS at this time.

Davidson was in his mid-twenties, but he seemed older. He wore the kind of Huck Finn cap that Bob Dylan wore around the time of his first album. Davidson was a quiet guy with a big mustache who was usually accompanied by a future editor of the now-defunct Guardian radical U.S. newsweekly named Karen Gellen. Gellen seemed content to let Davidson do most of the talking at political gatherings, and she seemed content to remain in Davidson’s shadow at this time. She was very sweet and less elitist than Davidson and had a tender-sounding voice. She called herself Karen Davidson at this time.

Davidson was one of National SDS’s leading theoreticians. He had dropped out of grad school after attending Penn State and the University of Nebraska in order to do full-time Movement work. Influenced by IWW theory, the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook and events at Berkeley, he had written a paper on student syndicalism that, in turn, influenced local SDS chapter activists around the nation. Davidson was one of the first activists who characterized student governments at U.S. universities as “Mickey Mouse” forms of student politics.

Although Davidson wasn’t as loquacious as most Columbia SDS leaders, he struck me from the start as being a decent, committed and great guy. National SDS seemed lucky to have him as a Movement leader. I felt confident that Davidson could help lead the New Left to victory and create a radical democracy within the United States. Both Davidson and Gellen seemed to care nothing for material wealth. Both seemed to have developed an alternative post-college New Left lifestyle, outside the elite bourgeois university—that combined love, dropping out, activism and social commitment—which appealed to me.

Local campus organizing against the war and “institutional resistance”—not national mobilizations in Washington, D.C.—were being stressed by Davidson and the other National SDS heavies around this time. “The war in Viet Nam cannot be ended because it is a logical result of the existing social system. What we have to do is focus on building a movement that changes the System that produces this war. And maybe prevent a `seventh Viet Nam War’ in the future. And the only way to do this is to organize locally, not build another national march,” was the way National SDS leaders argued around this time.

Thus, National SDS leadership, like Columbia SDS leadership, was lukewarm in relation to the scheduled October 21, 1967 “March On The Pentagon” to “confront the warmakers,” which proved to be a successful means of stimulating a mood of increased militancy and resistance among anti-war youths. At this National Council meeting in Madison, PL pushed SDS to sponsor its own competing mass anti-war national mobilization to focus, not on the Pentagon, but on the White House. Much time was wasted at the meeting arguing about this PL proposal, until it was finally voted down.

I can’t recall much else of what was talked about at this National Council meeting, except for images of Crazy Ben standing in the back of the hall ridiculing the “white collar radical” and “bourgeois student” tone of the debate, funny horseplay and verbal exchange during the national office’s appeal for SDS chapters to pledge donations to fund National SDS staff activity, speakers from SDS’s Radical Education Project [REP] and its off-campus organizing projects and a meeting session in which the question of women’s liberation and male chauvinism was discussed.