Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Columbia SDS Memories Revisited: Into Columbia SDS, 1966--Part 4

I first met Josh and Linda at one of these Columbia SDS organizational meetings in Earl Hall. At the meeting, they both stated that they were Marxist-Leninists.

Josh had grown up in Queens. During his early years at Columbia, he had befriended a Columbia College classmate from Brooklyn named Harvey, who had been active in Brooklyn CORE before joining the Progressive Labor Party as a freshman. As underclassmen, both Harvey and Josh had apparently become acquainted with an Old Left ex-Communist Party member named Collins. Collins was a gay man who apparently influenced Josh and Harvey politically and intellectually more than any of their Columbia College professors. By the time Josh and Harvey were seniors, Harvey was no longer in PL and both Josh and Harvey were quite intellectually sophisticated Marxist-Leninists. Harvey, in particular, seemed to be the most widely-read and intellectually sophisticated guy in the whole school. He could concisely answer any intellectual question you might have about current and past social and political reality.

Linda had had a brief love affair with Teddy, and then fallen in love with Josh. Josh had been quite lonely before he and Linda found each other. Both Josh and Linda were much more intellectual and emotionally mature than most of the other students around Columbia and Barnard in Fall 1966. Josh was friendlier and more outgoing than Linda.

Linda seemed very devoted to Josh and lived with him. Josh and Linda walked around the Upper West Side as an inseparable couple most of the time. Linda rarely spoke politically at the male-dominated SDS chapter meetings and steering committee meetings. But when she did speak, she usually echoed Josh’s political views.

I also first met JJ in December 1966, when JJ was still in the Progressive Labor Party. JJ was from a wealthy Old Left family in Connecticut and had attended some exclusive private school before entering Columbia the same term I entered. Politically, JJ was a doctrinaire, dogmatic, left-sectarian Maoist, who was unable to convince left-liberal students of the correctness of his views through intellectual discussion and debate.

JJ’s voice was a monotonic caricature of a “proletarian” accent that lacked warmth when he spoke about radical politics. JJ also lacked warmth in relation to most men. He dressed like a hippie-bohemian, but in a Che Guevarist way, had longish hair and usually was bearded. He had a male macho personality, but Barnard women found JJ very attractive physically and sexually. Unlike most of his PL comrades, JJ was a sexually aggressive guy who enjoyed casual sex and sleeping around with many different women.

In the early 1960s, PL attracted many bohemian red diaper babies like JJ who found the Communist Party too politically conservative and socially straight and repressed. By 1966, however, grass, bohemianism and sexual promiscuity were no longer tolerated in PL. PL leaders claimed that grass, sexual promiscuity and a bohemian lifestyle alienated straight working-class people. By 1967, everyone in PL would be culturally and sexually straight, repressed and conventionally middle-class. In 1967, JJ would no longer be in PL.

Another reason for JJ’s exit from PL was that PL was too politically conservative for him. By 1967, JJ would be ready to begin the armed struggle in the U.S. immediately, in order to materially support the National Liberation Front [NLF] in Viet Nam by “bringing the war home” and opening a second front against U.S. imperialism within the United States. PL would still just favor sending student radicals into factories and into the U.S. military to just try to disrupt the System—without planting any bombs in the bathrooms of U.S. corporate office skyscrapers or at U.S. draft boards, military recruitment centers, ROTC campus buildings and U.S. military installations.

In December 1966, JJ spoke in a long-winded way at meetings and never listened to the arguments raised by people whose political positions were different than his. But he was unable to persuade anybody that his strategy of disrupting classes at Columbia University until the Viet Nam War ended was the best strategy for building a radical student movement.

When I first heard JJ go on and on with his version of PL’s current line in late 1966, I thought to myself: “Oh, God! If JJ is what radical change means, the new society is really going to be dictatorial and loveless, not democratic, liberating and loving.” But as I got to know JJ better over the next few years, I began to like him personally and become less paranoid about what his notion of revolution was all about.