Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Columbia SDS Memories Revisited: In Furnald Hall, 1966--Part 2

What was on Columbia Professor Kesselman’s reading list were works by Marx and Engels, works by Lenin, Bernstein’s book on democratic, evolutionary socialism and Sorel’s Reflections On Violence. For the course, I wrote a paper comparing Bernstein’s views on party organization with Lenin’s views. I concluded that, although Bernstein’s democratic socialist organizational principles might be appropriate in democratic capitalist societies, Lenin’s democratic centralist approach was probably necessary, realistic and justified for the Russia of his time, given the politically repressive nature of Czarist society. I also explained Lenin’s willingness to justify the use of revolutionary violence, in contrast to Bernstein’s socialism through peaceful elections line, by noting that Lenin’s brother had been executed by the Czarist government.

Lenin’s State and Revolution book influenced me. In the middle of Fall 1966, I began to think of myself as more of a socialist than an anarchist, and more democratic socialist than radical humanist. But after reading Lenin’s State and Revolution, I considered myself a revolutionary socialist Marxist who felt that Lenin’s interpretation of social reality was more accurate than C. Wright Mills’ interpretation had been. Yet I still did not consider myself a Leninist for two reasons: 1. I thought that non-violent methods alone, if engaged in by white anti-war people, could eventually bring socialism to the United States; and 2. I thought that Lenin’s notion that socialist revolution could not happen without a Bolshevik-like democratic centralist party was applicable only to less industrially-advanced countries than the United States.

After reading Lenin and Marx in much greater detail, I realized that they were both great men whose main motivation was to change the world so humanity would be liberated from wage slavery, class oppression and injustice. Although I considered Lenin’s tactical and strategic approach irrelevant to 1960s organizational problems, I now saw myself as being much closer to the intellectual tradition of Marx, Engels and Lenin. I agreed with Marx’s assertion in The German Ideology that only when the division of labor was abolished and an individual worker could be a poet in the morning, a factory worker in the afternoon and a lover in the evening—and not be trapped in one menial job slot for his or her whole life—would human beings around the world really be free.

One afternoon a week, I continued to spend at P.A.C.T. I was a group leader of 11 and 12-year-old boys this time. My co-leader was a guy named Harry.

Harry was a tall, bespectacled Columbia College freshman. He lived in the Carmen Hall dormitory, was the son of an Antioch College professor and hoped to become a writer. He was an earnest guy who seemed genuinely interested in Citizenship Council, in P.A.C.T. and in working with neighborhood children.

Together, we visited the parents of the boys in our group in their homes. Harry and I would also spend an hour or two each week together to plan our group’s activities. In his dorm suite in Carmen Hall, we listened to an early Donovan folk music album while we also discussed our group’s dynamics and activity interests. Harry expressed an intellectual interest in LSD around this time because he noted that “it releases your id.” Harry interpreted human behavior more psychologically than sociologically.

Carmen Hall was the most modern and expensive Columbia dorm in which to live. One of Harry’s suitemates was the son of a rich Venezuelan businessman and he was into photography. The suitemate had his private dormitory room plastered with many pictures of his photogenic woman friend.

As the Fall 1966 term progressed, Harry became involved with a Barnard woman named Peggy, who was friendly but not too politically radical. He also became more involved with Stein and Juan in the administrative side of P.A.C.T. In talking to me about one of the P.A.C.T. administrative meetings, Harry said the following:

“You know that Nancy? She really is too angry, too radical and too uncompromising. All she does is criticize P.A.C.T. for being too white paternalistic.”

Nancy had transferred to Barnard College after spending her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She had long blond hair and was as beautiful as Pat. I first heard her speak at a P.A.C.T. group discussion session of group leaders one Tuesday evening in the church basement. The radical, anti-racist commitment and intellectual awareness she expressed made an impression on me.

Prior to walking back up to Columbia’s campus within the group of fourteen Barnard and Columbia student volunteers, I attempted to engage Nancy in conversation. But she was cold towards me. Then a few other Columbia men surrounded her in order to flirt with her, so I retreated from what appeared to be shaping up as some kind of intra-P.A.C.T. competition to win Nancy’s love. Instead, I headed uptown towards Columbia’s campus while talking to some other Barnard student volunteers who didn’t seem to be as popular.

Nancy had grown up in the Philadelphia area. An uncle of Nancy was one of the jailed Hollywood Ten old left celebrities and he later directed the Salt of the Earth movie in the 1950s, following his release from prison. In the early 1960s, Nancy had apparently become friendly with a summer camp counselor named Julius Lester. Lester was an African-American SNCC activist from Tennessee, a folksinger in Sing Out! magazine circles and a columnist for the radical Guardian weekly U.S. newspaper in the 1960s. Apparently influenced intellectually by her contact with Lester, Nancy appeared to have a deeper understanding of the African-American Liberation Movement and white racism than other Barnard women when she entered the Columbia scene as a sophomore, after her unsatisfying freshman year in Madison.

Another sophomore transfer student lived in the dorm room next door to mine. Eliezer was a thin, frail-looking guy from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He had been educated in Brooklyn yeshiva schools and had spent his freshman year at some Orthodox Jewish college. In transferring to Columbia and moving into the dormitory, he was attempting to break away completely from his Orthodox Jewish background. Eliezer analyzed every little action in a super-intellectual way. He always looked for the hidden meanings and hidden psychological motivations behind people’s words and behaviors.

In Fall 1966, Eliezer was a philosophy major who considered himself a radical. Shortly after the school year began, he also realized that Columbia’s academic life was intellectually worthless. We became close friends for awhile.

It was Eliezer who first introduced me to Paul Krassner’s satirical Realist magazine and the now-defunct East Village Other (EVO) underground newspaper. Eliezer also was the first person who mentioned Tuli Kupferberg and the Fugs to me. It was also Eliezer who first persuaded me that the hippie-drug culture of the Lower East Side was as important and potentially subversive a subculture as the subculture of the radical political Movement or the folk music subculture. Talking for long hours with Eliezer in either his dorm room or my dorm room—or while walking around the campus—was intellectually more interesting than either doing assigned academic coursework or listening to Columbia professors lecture in class.

My Furnald Hall 5th floor dorm counselor was Bill. Bill was an efficient dorm counselor. Like Nancy, he was also from the Philadelphia area, and he had been active in the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] in the early 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania, before coming to Columbia. At Columbia, Bill was approaching 30 years of age and was working for a Ph.D. in the School of International Affairs. He was around 6 feet tall and usually wore glasses.

Bill exercised a dominant political influence in the Student Afro-American Society [SAS] at Columbia, which was more of a social club than a Movement action group during most of the 1960s. I had first met him in May of my freshman year in the Livingston Hall dormitory lobby when he sold me a journal produced by the Afro-American Society.

Intellectually, Bill was interesting to talk with when he chose to drop into my dorm room and participate in a political discussion with me, Tom and other students on the floor. Bill knew much more about politics, African history and African-American history than I did in Fall 1966. He influenced my political thinking. He had SNCC politics and he persuaded me that an armed struggle to win Black liberation in the 1960s was both politically practical and morally justified. My residual pacifist reservations about supporting an armed struggle political strategy for African-American liberation were continually challenged by Bill. Bill seemed to have a clear sense as to which direction a radical student movement in the United States would be compelled to go strategically and tactically in the late 1960s.