Friday, March 23, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 13: Christmas Vacation With Mark Rudd, 1967

Chapter 13: Christmas Vacation With Mark Rudd, 1967 (iv)

In early January 1968, I also started to look for my own apartment again. I enjoyed living above Mark. But I desired an apartment where I could freely entertain friends and cook.

I answered a bulletin board card ad in mid-January and sublet a Tiemann Place apartment from two Columbia students. The apartment consisted of 2 ½ rooms and had windows which faced out onto Broadway, a few blocks south of W. 125th St. Whenever the IRT Broadway local train rode by, the apartment shook and it sounded like the train was going to rumble into the bedroom. I had to give up possession of the apartment, however, when the landlord vetoed the sublet because my proposed roommate, Eliezer, now had long hair and looked too much like a hippie. I was forced to move back to my parents’ apartment in Queens for a few weeks until dormitory space in Furnald Hall became available for me. As a result of my unsuccessful Tiemann Place sublet, I was beat for $150.

In Queens, I filled up my spare-time for a few weeks hanging out around Queens College. But compared to Columbia in early 1968, Queens College seemed politically, intellectually and morally dead. At Queens College, I picked up a copy of the Phoenix student newspaper and ended up writing a letter to the editor which the newspaper printed—and the FBI agent who monitored political activity at Queens College inserted in my (now-declassified) FBI file because the letter recommended that Queens College students read the radical press for more accurate information about the Viet Nam War.

The TET offensive of the NLF in Viet Nam began in early 1968. Like most other Columbia SDS activists, I felt that the New Left’s analysis of the situation in Viet Nam had been validated by this offensive. I followed the TET offensive by reading the New York Times again each day and I felt happy that the Vietnamese people, despite the U.S. military escalation of the previous three years, were still able to fight for their liberation so effectively. Because it now appeared to many Columbia students that the U.S. government could not win its war in Viet Nam, campus opposition to continued U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam deepened even further.

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 13: Christmas Vacation With Mark Rudd, 1967

Chapter 13: Christmas Vacation With Mark Rudd, 1967 (iii)

Although I was sad to hear of Che Guevara’s October 1967 death and angry about the CIA’s role in his execution, I had not really examined Che’s thoughts and writings while he was alive. But to complete my term paper on the “ideology of anti-communism” before returning to W. 110th St. to write the position paper with Mark, I read about Che and Castro and the Cuban Revolution, which had taken place only 9 years earlier. In the summer, I had identified with the young Trotsky, as described in Isaac Deutscher’s biographical writing. Now I began to identify more with the martyred Che and the New Left Fidelista tradition in the Western Hemisphere.

Mark, too, had been reading about the young Trotsky and about Che. We both felt that many of the Columbia SDS theoretical debates seemed like reflections of debates held by the Bolsheviks and the Fidelistas of previous generations.

One night in Mark’s apartment, he mentioned that he had had a dream. “I dreamt I was speaking on the sundial to a huge crowd,” Mark said.

Because Mark, Sue and I had started to write a position paper which argued for an alternative, more confrontational SDS chapter political strategy, I thought Mark’s dream was just a reflection of the intensity of our strategic discussions at this time. I can’t recall any major points of disagreements with Mark and Sue during the week we collectively hammered out our position paper. What I do remember is Mark saying things like “What’s a good phrase to use here?” And then, if I replied with a phrase like “institutional resistance,” Mark would smile and say: “That’s a good phrase. Ted and Schneider will like that phrase.”

What we were thus attempting to do was to write the position paper in such a way so that the rest of the steering committee would be persuaded to accept our strategic call for a Spring 1968 confrontation-strike. We included a section which argued that the only way the mass of apolitical anti-war hippies could be politicized and radicalized, along with the mass of anti-war liberal straights at Columbia and Barnard, was if SDS consciously pushed for a Spring 1968 non-violent disruption. After the position paper was finished, Mark suggested that we use a quotation from one of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album songs, “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” as a kind of poetic preface. The lyric Mark chose was: “Your debutante just knows what you need. But I know what you want.”

I laughed at Mark’s clever choice of an appropriate Dylan phrase because it really did express the main thrust of our position paper, which was essentially a call for Columbia SDS to stop verbalizing about what we ought to be doing and to start just doing what we really felt like doing, as soon as we could: shutting down Columbia until it cut its ties to the U.S. war machine. Mark titled our position paper “How to Get SDS Moving Again and Screw the University All in One Fell Swoop.”

On the Sunday night before classes were to begin after the Christmas-New Year’s break, Mark and I went over to Trude’s apartment on W. 108th St. to show Ted the position paper we had written. Ted read the position paper, but wasn’t too impressed.

“We can’t start working for a spring confrontation or strike now because it’s too early to know whether we will have enough student support.”

Mark attempted to explain to Ted that the whole point of the paper was to make sure we would gather enough student support for a spring disruption, by motivating chapter hard-core activists with the promise of a spring confrontation.

“We still have to just focus on developing mass radical consciousness and organizing future New Working-Class people. That’s more important than whether or not we have a spring strike or confrontation,” Ted maintained.

“As long as Columbia is disrupting the lives of the Vietnamese through its IDA sponsorship, we have a right and an obligation to disrupt its campus,” I argued.

“That’s just thinking morally, not strategically or politically, Bob,” Ted replied in a condescending tone. “It’s not a question of whether we have a moral right to disrupt the campus. It’s a question of being politically sophisticated enough to know when it’s more important to educate the campus, and not alienate people by a confrontation. Otherwise we end up being as isolated as PL or being as politically crazy as JJ is.”

Mark and I exchanged grimaces and a few minutes later left Trude’s apartment. By early 1968, as a result of Al and Peter Schneider’s right-opportunist influence, Ted tended to put down any chapter person who wanted to act, and not just talk, as being a person who was “unpolitical” and “lacking an analysis.” Mark and I circulated copies of our “How to Get SDS Moving Again and Screw the University All in One Fell Swoop” paper to other Columbia SDS hard-core people over the next week. But although Robby and some of the other sophomore activists felt the call for preparing for a spring confrontation-action was strategically correct, the Praxis-Axis of Ted-Peter Schneider-Teddy-Al pretty much blocked any serious consideration of the paper by the chapter as a whole.