Military history

Chapter 25

Black Power and White Anger

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;

More Substance in our enmities

Than in our love.

—William Butler Yeats, “The Stare’s Nest by My Window”

IN the absence of perceptible progress, the consequences of the reluctance to accept compromise and forge coalitions lay either in disillusionment and apathy or else anger and more extreme policies. This could be seen in the swift evolution of the SNCC during the course of the 1960s. SNCC’s founding statement affirmed “the philosophical ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presumption of our belief, and the manner of our action.” This affirmation became strained as the SNCC activists became impatient, uncertain about what they were achieving for their pains, frustrated at the limits of their open and inclusive political style and with the restraint required by a nonviolent philosophy. They were told to play safe to keep the support of white liberals, even as the Democrats refused to disown racist politicians. They became suspicious, not only of the segregationists and police, but also of the elitism of Martin Luther King.

In the North there was already a more radical aspect to black politics. For example, Malcolm X, who converted to the Nation of Islam while in jail and became its most prominent and charismatic figure, provided a striking contrast to King’s Christian message of love and peace. Malcolm X proclaimed black separatism, denounced whites as devils, and refused to reject violence. Self-defense, he insisted, was not really violence but “intelligence.” He spoke in ways that King could not to the disaffected and frustrated blacks of the inner cities. The civil rights leaders rebuked him for stirring up racial hatred and playing to white stereotypes of blacks. Eventually he did have a change of heart. He continued to push for a distinctively black consciousness but left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and moderated his rhetoric. He was murdered soon after, in February 1965.1

A more distant influence with a clearer message was Frantz Fanon. His views developed through his encounters with French colonialism and culminated in his time in Algeria, where he went as a psychiatrist before joining the National Liberation Front (FLN). His main testament, Wretched of the Earth, was written in 1961 as he was dying from leukemia. It was later argued that the English translation of this book, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction, sharpened the tone, more so than Fanon intended. His insights on colonial conditions were played down as a result of the stress on violence as the only strategic language that colonizers recognized.2 The psychiatrist in him offered an existentialist take on violence, providing the book’s intensity.

Fanon picked up on Sartre’s claim that it was not the Jewish character that provoked anti-Semitism but instead “the anti-Semite creates the Jew,” and so argued that “the settler” had “brought the native into existence and perpetuates his existence.”3 Violence was a means of escaping from this psychological as well as physical domination. “At the level of the individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees him from his inferiority complex and restores his self-respect . . . the colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence.” Sartre added: “The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through the force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and comes to know himself in that he himself creates himself.”4 The philosopher Hannah Arendt suspected that most of Fanon’s admirers had not gone beyond his first chapter—“Concerning Violence”—for later he showed awareness of how “unmixed and total brutality” would lead “to the defeat of the movement within a few weeks.” She was most appalled by Sartre’s claim to be a Marxist while espousing notions that owed more to Nechayev and Bakunin, and his excitement over what might be achieved by “mad fury” and “volcanic outbursts.”5

Fanon’s anger resonated with young black activists who were concluding that it was pointless trying to work with white power structures. Jacobs and Landau, who surveyed the New Left in 1965, observed how “the weary veterans of harassment, arrests, beatings, and the psychological torture of living in the South, have begun to re-examine their objectives at the very time they confront the full and often subtle power of the American economic and political system.”6 The idealism was being drained away from SNCC. The “generals,” influenced by Malcolm X and ready to contemplate their own form of guerrilla warfare, replaced the “poets.” The dire economic position of blacks in the urban ghettoes and the escalation of the Vietnam War, which disproportionately drafted blacks into the army, added to the grievances. “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” observed the boxer Cassius Clay, now Mohammed Ali. The alarmed reaction of white society to the prospect of black violence and the rioting in the inner cities brought a satisfaction in itself.

One of the pioneering SNCC activists and chairman of the organization in 1965, Stokely Carmichael, became an advocate of black power. Raised in Harlem, he spoke the language of the streets more naturally than that of the Church. He began to toy with ideas for a new SNCC slogan in 1966. Then after yet another arrest (his twenty-seventh), this time in Greenwood, Mississippi, he exclaimed to a crowd:

We want black power! That’s right. That’s what we want, black power.

We don’t have to be ashamed of it. We have stayed here. We have begged the president. We’ve begged the federal government—that’s all we’ve been doing, begging and begging. It’s time we stand up and take over.7

He claimed that any white person, even those in the movement, had “concepts in his mind about black people, if only subconsciously. He cannot escape them, because the whole society has geared his sub-conscious in that direction.” With racism so ingrained it was meaningless for blacks to talk about coalition—“there is no one to align ourselves with.” Only once it was shown that blacks could speak and act for themselves would it perhaps be possible to work with whites again, but then on equal terms. SNCC would henceforth be “black-staffed, black-controlled and black-financed.”8

A book coauthored with the academic Charles Hamilton argued for “pride rather than shame, in blackness, and an attitude of brotherly, communal responsibility among all black people for one another.” White Americans could afford to “speak softly, tread lightly, employ the soft-sell and put-off” because they “own the society.” It would be ludicrous for black people to “adopt their methods of relieving our oppression.” If they followed this path they would gain “crumbs of co-optation” in return for holding back on condemnation.

The problem was not with the underlying premise. There were many other examples in American politics of groups organizing politically on the basis of ethnicity, using a shared identity to create an effective bargaining position. “Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks.” Only when blacks spoke up, not asking for favors but seeking power, could they expect the system to respond. But Carmichael sought a shared “sense of people-hood” on the basis of an extremely radical posture. Blacks must not adopt the values of the middle class that had sanctioned and perpetuated black oppression, yet if the aim was economic advancement then this would lead naturally to a black bourgeoisie.

The big question was whether to continue with nonviolence, the stance which had sustained recent political advances. Carmichael and Stevenson answered that nonviolence had handicapped blacks by creating an image of passivity. “From our viewpoint,” they argued, “rampaging white mobs and white night-riders must be made to understand that their days of free headwhipping are over. Black people should and must fight back.” This was about self-defense: “Those of us who advocate Black Power are quite clear in our own minds that a ‘non-violent’ approach to civil rights is an approach black people cannot afford and a luxury white people do not deserve.”9

Martin Luther King was appalled by the turn of events. Not only did he object to the resort to violence, but he found it frustrating that violence became the issue rather than those his movement was trying to highlight. He insisted that power should be a means to an end—the “creation of a truly brotherly society”—rather than an end in itself.10 In a posthumously published book, he critiqued Black Power, pointing to its self-defeating character as blacks were a minority in the United States and defended alliances with whites. In the end, both races needed each other. They were “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”11

In 1967, whites were expelled from SNCC and the commitment to nonviolence was dropped. The new chairman, H. Rap Brown, described violence as “American as cherry pie.” Carmichael, who later acknowledged that black power killed SNCC, joined up with the Black Panthers, a group that had been set up in Oakland, California, in 1966, and employed a tough, violent rhetoric from the start. In his autobiographical account of the origins of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale described the early fixation with acquiring an arsenal, paid for by selling at a profit copies of the “Little Red Book” of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, compared with the casual way the party’s manifesto was put together.12 The striking imagery and rhetoric associated with the Panthers, and their militarist affectations, gave them an influence beyond their actual numbers, probably never more than five thousand.

Carmichael continued with his own advocacy of black separatism. “The major enemy,” he said in a speech in 1967, “is not your brother, flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood. The major enemy is the honky and his institutions of racism, that’s the major enemy, that is the major enemy. And whenever anyone prepares for revolutionary warfare, you concentrate on the major enemy. We’re not strong enough to fight each other and also fight him.”13 He fell out even with the Panthers, who were more willing to work with whites than he was. He decided the only way to get close to the African people was to move to Africa and adopt an African name, Kwame Ture.

The trend in black politics alarmed Bayard Rustin. He became disenchanted as his former friends in SNCC turned to violence and black separatism. “The minute you had black anger, rage,” he later observed, “you automatically had to have white fear, because we’re always enumerator to their denominator . . . These two things have to move with each other.” A focus on direct action added to the polarization, alienating whites and “breeding despair and impotence” among blacks.14 He agreed with Martin Luther King that poverty and unemployment were significant triggers of race riots, but that led him to explore how blacks and whites could be united in struggle under the aegis of the labor unions. His conviction that the big issues were economic, requiring federal programs, meant that it was vital to support a government prepared to fund a “war on poverty.” This led to another disagreement, which included most of his former colleagues, over whether protest against the Vietnam War should be a priority. The case for coalitions was made with particular force and provocation in a February 1965 article. Rustin observed the “strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement which would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.” Self-help was not enough. “We need allies” he insisted, and that meant compromises. In particular, he wanted to work with the labor unions and the Democratic Party. “The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not his purity but his lack of political sense.”15

The compromises involved at this time were just too much, especially in the light of the escalation in Vietnam. Where Rustin now led few followed, and he became increasingly distant from his former colleagues, no longer a pacifist and unconvinced that the tactics of nonviolent direct action he had pioneered were of much relevance. He became, as a biographer put it, “a strategist without a movement.” Rustin was accused of exaggerating the liberalism of the Johnson administration, and therefore its ability to solve fundamental problems, while encouraging blacks to abandon the direct action that could give them an independent voice.16 Carmichael and Hamilton charged Rustin with promoting three myths: the interests of black people were identical with the interests of liberals and labor; a “viable coalition could be effected between the politically and economically secure and the politically and economically insecure”; and “political coalitions are or can be sustained on a moral, friendly, sentimental basis; by appeals to conscience.” The proposed coalition was with groups with no interest in a “total revamping of society” but only peripheral reforms.17 In line with their general argument they insisted that they were not against coalitions, only those that were paternalistic. Until blacks could stand on their own they would be too weak to make a coalition work.18 The only acceptable coalition would be between poor blacks and poor whites.

Revolution in the Revolution

Vietnam was a nagging issue in 1965 but an overriding one two years later. This made it impossible for radicals to imagine having anything to do with an administration prosecuting such a terrible war. The troops sent to fight were inevitably young, largely draftees, and disproportionately black. Anger against the war, which reached a crescendo in 1968, changed the whole direction of the movement. The SDS activists, instead of settling down to the patient cultivation of poor communities, turned to antiwar agitation. From the micro preoccupation with the frustrations of ghetto life they moved to the macro issues of imperialism and war. Nonviolence, so natural and effective just a few years earlier, began to seem soft and unworldly. It was no longer good enough to campaign on particular issues. It was necessary to get to the source of the problem.

The SDS president in 1965 was Paul Potter, a thoughtful intellectual who had studied sociology and anthropology and had been developing the idea of the “system” rather than individuals working within it as the main problem. This was a radical idea, for if the “system” was at fault, then reform would achieve little. He saw Vietnam as one issue among many. A march on Washington, which had been organized for April 1965, and so took place at a time when the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was escalating, was far larger than anticipated and gave the occasion an edge. Potter used it to offer his radical critique of an American social order that could not help itself in its oppressiveness. “We must name that system,” demanded Potter. “We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed and brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the south tomorrow.”19

Thereafter “the system” appeared as the enemy. But its designation was vague, its make-up nebulous, and its workings unclear. Potter’s academic background may well have led him to adopt a systemic approach, which considered societies as made up of interconnected parts, as a matter of course. In mainstream sociology this encouraged the view that political and social change would always find its own equilibrium. For radicals such as Potter, the system was not a neutral representation of how a complex social organization could be made to work for the general benefit but instead a distortion that had become ingrained and self-reinforcing. The United States had become systematically dysfunctional, turning people against themselves and their better nature. The result was a “cultural genocide,” a sort of mass lobotomy, so that people could not appreciate what was being done or imagine alternative possibilities. If they could, then they might regain control of this system, “make it bend itself to their wills rather than bending them to its.” Talk of the “system” could easily convey some grand but hidden conspiracy, the power elite pulling the economic, social, and political strings. Potter wanted to avoid the old labels of capitalism or imperialism, but in the end they were the easy labels to use. As essentially a radical pragmatist in the tradition of James and Dewey, Potter became concerned that the movement would become more violent and confrontational, and that the words he had used in his Washington speech would encourage it to be so. Potter’s successor as SDS president, Carl Oglesby, challenged the notion that naming or analyzing this system would be enough, as if “statements will bring change, if only the rights statements can be written.” Words were to be discarded in favor of action. Eloquent language could be disregarded; eloquent deeds would be harder to ignore.20

Hayden went to North Vietnam in December 1965, his first trip abroad, to witness the consequences of American bombardment. He moved from opposing America’s war to supporting the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam as it fought the Americans. Questions about the extent to which this was a true insurgency or a creation of the communist regime in North Vietnam, or exactly the nature of the ideology and freedoms promoted by the North, tended to get neglected or played down in the face of the awfulness of the government in the South and the American tactics. A belief that some Americans should keep open lines of communication to the communists was another argument against being too critical. Hayden was aware of the danger. In a book he wrote with Staughton Lynd, The Other Side, he insisted that they were not pretending that their hosts were admirable in all respects (“We do not believe we are Sartres who require a Camus to remind us of the existence of the slave labor camps”). Yet the overall impression given was that these young middle-class activists were in awe of the tough revolutionary cadres who suffered for their beliefs and who were committed selflessly to a protracted struggle. There were similar results when pilgrimages were made to Cuba. In the background, there were hints of a local politics that was crude and cruel, but this got lost in the excitement of association with true revolutionary spirits.

If the aim was to develop a broad coalition against the Vietnam War, these visits made little sense. Public opinion was turning against the war and did so increasingly during 1968, because it was both costly and futile. That was not the same as embracing the nation’s enemies, and many recoiled from the apparent lack of patriotism and naïveté of those who did so. Yet for the activists this did not matter. They were giving up on the United States, and its docile population, in the conviction that it was bound to be left behind as the tide of history worked through the anti-imperialist people of the third world. At best they could serve as the supporters and agents of these people, gaining their revolutionary credentials by acting from within against the imperialist behemoth.21 Once Cuba and Vietnam were accepted as sources of radical inspiration, Marxism-Leninism had to be taken seriously. The old ideologies of the Left were able to stage a comeback. One radical later ruefully recalled how the Maoist faction in SDS became an “external, disciplined ingredient in our ultra democratic anarchist soup.”22

The emerging analysis linked the American poor with the whole of the third world as victims of the same system of corporate power and liberal indifference. Instead of being a hopeless minority, American radicals started to see themselves as part of a global campaign. The term “third world” had been coined in France in the early 1950s to describe countries that were economically underdeveloped and politically unaligned, keeping their distance from the liberal capitalist first world and the state socialist second world. The long-forgotten inspirational model was the “third estate” of commoners, who eventually revolted in 1789 against the first and second estates of priests and nobles. The term therefore captured an idea of a coherent group, a coalition of the disadvantaged, which might one day overthrow the established order. It came to include many states who gained independence as a result of post—Second World War decolonization. The issue of imperialism moved beyond the baleful influence of the decadent old European powers to the pernicious domination of American neocolonialism, rationalized by a crude anti-communism and driven by corporate greed. Cuba was one example of this struggle; Vietnam was another. There were more confrontations to come, and at some point imperialism would be unable to cope. This was the point which the movement within the United States must work to bring about as soon as possible.

This line of thought was validated by Herbert Marcuse, who had taken over from C. Wright Mills as the vogue intellectual of the New Left in its uncompromising late 1960s form. He had been a member of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a base for Marxists who kept their distance from the Communist Party, which moved to New York in the 1930s. His reputation was largely as an Hegelian with an interest in Freud until the publication of his book One Dimensional Man in 1964. This explained why despite all the apparent qualities of Western countries—political pluralism, affluence, welfare states, access to art—it was natural to feel intensely dissatisfied. All good things turned out to be instruments of social control, preventing people from realizing their true nature and achieving genuine happiness. Even worse, notional forms of opposition had been co-opted, creating a new liberal totalitarianism through what he later described as “repressive tolerance,” which claimed to “reconcile the forces opposing the system and to defeat or refute all protest in the name of the historical prospects of freedom from toil and domination.” Because people were not free, they could not pass judgment on their own lack of freedom.

With his newfound fame among student radicals, Marcuse returned the compliment in An Essay on Liberation by celebrating them as agents of change, not only in the West but also on behalf of the whole world. The Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions might not survive the weight of Western repression. The “preconditions for the liberation and development of the Third World must emerge in the advanced industrial countries.” The system must be broken at its strongest link. This required resistance against both political and mental repression. This would be done without bureaucracy and organization, through small groups acting autonomously. The aim was explicitly utopian, the alternative to be developed through trial and error. “Understanding, tenderness towards each other, the instinctual consciousness of that which is evil, false, the heritage of oppression, would then testify to the authenticity of the rebellion.”23

The inspirational figure symbolizing the direct challenge to “Yankee Imperialism” was Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Che, as he was known, had been born to a middle-class Argentinean family, trained as a doctor, and then became a lieutenant of Fidel Castro in his campaign to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Although a minister in Castro’s government when barely 30 years old, he returned to the field, determined to open up new fronts against imperialism, putting into practice his theories of guerrilla warfare first in the Congo and then in Bolivia. Both campaigns were unsuccessful. The second led to his capture in 1967 and summary execution.

The poster image of him—handsome, hirsute, and determined, sporting his revolutionary beret—became, and remains, iconic.

In January 1966, he sent a message to the founding conference of the Tricontinental, or the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America taking place in Havana. He warned against allowing Vietnam to be isolated in its struggle. There should be “a constant and a firm attack in all fronts where the confrontation is taking place.” Imperialism was “a world system, the last stage of capitalism—and it must be defeated in a world confrontation.” It was therefore necessary to create the “Second and Third Vietnams of the world.” The Americans would gradually be drained by being forced to fight in diverse and unwelcoming regions. The road ahead would be hard, he warned, but the imperative was to carry out “armed propaganda” to galvanize the spirit, putting aside national differences so that all should be prepared to fight in any relevant arena of armed struggle.24

In subsequent years, his manual on guerrilla warfare and the diary of his doomed campaign in Bolivia were published (making clear his inability to win over peasants). The key concept was the “foco.” This small group of dedicated men would stimulate the insurrection by both forcing the state to reveal its inner brutality while demonstrating the availability of an alternative, more sympathetic government. In practice, Guevara’s ideas were more influential among “the generation of 1968” in Europe and the United States than in the third world. Outside Latin America, revolutionaries tended to look at the quite different, and generally more successful, Maoist model.

Che’s romantic model was based on a misreading of the Cuban revolution. Castro had presented himself as a liberal and leader of a wide anti- Batista coalition, not as a Marxist-Leninist—an affiliation that was only announced after the seizure of power. Castro claimed that the major influence on his concept of irregular war was Ernest Hemingway’s novel on the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls . He was careful to work hard to gain sympathy from Americans. Just as Mao had used Edgar Snow to burnish his image in the 1930s as a moderate, “Lincolnesque” and with a “lively sense of humor,” so Castro used New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews, who reported back on the idealism, probable anti-communism, and strength of Castro’s force. At the time it was probably about forty men, but by talking of “groups of ten to forty” and having an aide deliver a message about a non-existent second-column, Castro conveyed an illusion of numbers.25 This helped bring in external funding, notably from sympathetic Americans. Castro’s importance had grown because his rural base allowed him to survive while the key figures in the urban leadership were killed. At first the urban aspects of the struggle and the support of key elements of the middle class were acknowledged, but postrevolutionary politics and Castro’s own shift to the left led to the systematic distortion of the “lessons” of the revolution.26 Castro and Che rewrote the history of the revolution in order to stress their own role and play down the importance of the urban working class and its leadership.

In 1961 Che presented the three key elements of his theory:

Popular forces can win against the army.

It is not necessary to wait until all the conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them.

In underdeveloped America the countryside is the basic area of armed struggle.27

The question of preconditions went to the heart of revolutionary theory. To be a revolutionary at a nonrevolutionary time could be intensely frustrating, but the risks involved in acting as if the conditions were latent and could be brought to the surface by dramatic action had led to many futile campaigns in the past. If discontent was present but inchoate, then it was possible that it could be turned by some spark into mass anger, but the professional revolutionaries tended not to be the source of the spark. Rather, they came in after the event. Mao, for example, understood the importance of political education and action to create mass support and never claimed that guerrillas could take on an army by themselves. Che claimed that it was possible for a revolution to be Marxist in character without this being recognized by the participants. This meant playing down the political context, and thus failing to take it properly into account. When Che wrote a prologue to Giap’s People’s War, People’s Army, he reinterpreted the Vietnamese experience as fitting in with his theory, as if Giap had started in Vietnam with a “foco” and had paid no attention to the politics of the struggle.28

The foco substituted for the vanguard party, and the fighters generated support through their military courage and by provoking the regime into atrocities, turning opinion against it. Che at first acknowledged the importance of democratic institutions in giving legitimacy to a regime and so rendering it less vulnerable. By 1963, democracy was dismissed as representing the dictatorship of the ruling class. The doctrine was further transformed by its internationalization, exemplified by the Message to the Tri-Continental, according to which the revolutionary struggle could and should be conducted without regard to geographical boundaries. Che may have been an audacious and brave commander, but he lacked political nous and paid a high price for his simplified theory. He never forged effective political alliances and did not appreciate the need for a strong local leader to be the public face of a revolution. Rather, he believed in his own mystique, as if the presence of such a famous fighter would inspire courage and confidence.29

Nonetheless, Che had a significant influence on Western radicals. First, and not to be discounted, he looked the part. Second, he provided a theory for the defeat of U.S. imperialism that did not depend on the efforts of those living in its midst. Last, for impatient young radicals who could not face the hard grind of building a mass movement with such unpromising materials, here was a theory about the difference a small group of committed revolutionaries might make if only they could find a way of unleashing the revolutionary potential of the masses. Che’s ideas were most effectively spread by a young French intellectual-cum-journalist Regis Debray, whose book title Revolution in the Revolution captured the erroneous idea that the Cubans had hit upon a way of modernizing the very idea of a revolution.30 Debray’s book was actually sponsored more by Castro than Guevara. Che only saw it when Debray visited him in Bolivia, a journey that accelerated his defeat, especially after the Frenchman was picked up by the Bolivian authorities and confirmed that Che was in the country. Che was critical of Debray for simplifying his theory, focusing on a “micro-level” of the foco and, most importantly, failing to give due note to the Tricontinental aspect of his “macro-strategy.”31

Another Latin American, Carlos Marighela, picked up for a short time where Che had left off. He was a veteran communist politician in Brazil, into his fifties when Che was killed. He attended the Tricontinental in Havana in 1966. In 1968, he broke with the Communist Party, which he considered ossified, and announced his support for urban guerrilla warfare. The urban element was his main divergence from Che. Largely as a result of the Bolivian failure, Marighela believed the guerrilla should operate in familiar terrain. He was most familiar with the city. Until he was shot dead by police in late 1969, Marighela’s group carried on a number of actions, including kidnappings and seizure of railway stations. Most notably he was famous for the Mini-manual of the Urban Guerrilla, circulated in Havana after his death.32 Although Marighela looked forward to a popular army after a campaign designed “to distract, to wear out, to demoralize the militarists,” his methods for getting the revolution underway were essentially terrorist. They relied on a version of “propaganda of the deed” to attract the mass media. Terrorism’s “most conspicuous effect,” he supposed, was to provoke a “violent counterattack that may be so offensive as to drive the populace into the arms of the insurgents.” As was often the case, the effect was the opposite.

Mirages of Violence

In December 1967, the issue of the legitimacy of violence was addressed at a forum in New York. The panel on the topic included Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky. Arendt argued against the “mirages of violence,” warning that this was a weapon of impotence and not power, a means that could overwhelm the ends it was supposed to serve. It was not hard for fellow panelists to provide examples where violence was justified and effective, but the most striking intervention came from the floor. Tom Hayden (“a thin, pale young man whose untied tie flapped loosely as he spoke,” according to the New York Times) observed how in Cuba violence had been “amazingly successful” when used by a small group to create the “political foundations.” He argued that people in the ghettoes “getting mattresses and clothes and a supply of liquor for the winter is a constructive and revealing form of violence” and then decried the failure of democratic procedures:

It seems to me that until you can begin to show—not in language and not in theory, but in action—that you can put an end to the war in Vietnam, and an end to American racism, you can’t condemn the violence of others who can’t wait for you.

Arendt objected: “To oppose the government in the United States with violence is absolutely wrong.”33 Over the next year, she developed her arguments on violence further, insisting that it could destroy but not create power.34

Attempts by the American radicals to emulate Latin American guerrillas were disastrous. The Black Panthers went so far as to establish a training center in Cuba and had a plan to set up focos in the more mountainous areas of the United States. The plan, as Eldridge Cleaver (a Black Panther leader of the time) recalled, was “to have small mobile units that could shift easily in and out of rural areas, living off the land, and tying up thousands of troops in fruitless pursuit.” He added that in retrospect it seemed “pretty ridiculous.”35 The most serious emulation came from the Weathermen, a faction of SDS.

This group can be traced to the April 1968 occupation of New York’s Columbia University by students who complained about the university’s encroachments into black neighborhoods and professors doing weapons research. This was not a unique event. Around the world there were upheavals on campuses and demonstrations against Vietnam. In May, the Fifth French Republic was almost brought down by rioting on the streets of Paris. Most depressingly for liberals, Martin Luther King was murdered that April as was Robert Kennedy in June, just when his presidential bid was gathering pace. These murders eliminated in turn the leaders of nonviolent direct action and those seeking change through electoral politics. After this, Hayden—who knew Kennedy36—saw no hope in democratic politics. He wrote an article headed “Two, Three, Many Columbias,” picking up on a slogan written on a university wall, which in turn picked up on Che’s call to the Tricontinental. He still clung to his own original vision:

The student protest is not just an offshoot of the black protest—it is based on authentic opposition to the middle-class world of manipulation, channeling and careerism. The students are in opposition to the fundamental institutions of society.

But his analysis was now harsher. Universities were linked to imperialism. Hayden spoke of barricades, threats to destroy buildings in face of police attacks, and raids on offices of professors doing weapons research. “A crisis is foreseeable that would be too massive for police to handle.”37

Even sharper was Mark Rudd, one of the leaders of the Columbia revolt. Unlike Hayden, whose radicalism had developed slowly and thoughtfully during the late 1950s, Rudd had radicalized abruptly. His political analysis was correspondingly less subtle and his politics more outraged. He later provided a candid description of himself as “a member of the cult of Che Guevara” who had “evolved a belief in the necessity for violence in order to end the war and to make revolution.” He recalled a regular line in his speeches—“The ruling class will never give over power peacefully”—and Mao Zedong’s famous aphorism: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” With the Panthers already fighting a revolutionary war within the United States, a “heroic fantasy” developed by which “eventually the military would disintegrate internally, and the revolutionary army—led by us, of course—would be built from its defectors.”38

Faced by Maoists who brought to the campus a developed revolutionary theory, Rudd’s group believed that they had to counter with one of their own, based on a combination of Cuba and Columbia University. They would be urban guerrillas, “rejecting the go-slow approach of the rest of the Left, just as Che and Fidel had begun to reject the Cuban Communist Party’s conservatism by beginning guerrilla warfare in Cuba. Our bible was Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution.” It was out of this faction that the Weather Underground was formed with the aim of moving out of the universities to organize young people for a coming armed struggle. The name came from one of Bob Dylan’s lyrics (“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows”). In place of the sense of experimentation and openness of the early SDS, there was now an old-fashioned Marxist factional fight. The attempts at being urban guerrillas involved farce and tragedy, with their numbers never more than three hundred and with key figures soon killed by their own explosive devices, on the run, or imprisoned. The fate of the Black Panthers was similar, and even more violent. Rudd later lamented how with his friends he had chosen to “scuttle America’s largest radical organization— with chapters in hundreds of campuses, a powerful national identity, and enormous growth potential—for a fantasy of revolutionary urban-guerrilla warfare.”39 Sociologist Daniel Bell, a professor at Columbia, saw it coming. He remarked that “desperado tactics are never the mark of a coherent social movement, but the guttering last gasps of a romanticism soured by rancor and impotence.” The SDS, he predicted, would “be destroyed by its style. It lives on turbulence, but is incapable of transforming its chaotic impulses into a systematic, responsible behavior that is necessary to effect broad societal change.”40

Back to Chicago

The 1960s had begun with innovative forms of protests that dramatized the gap between the American dream and the harsh reality of southern segregation. Its participants embodied American idealism—dignified, restrained, and articulate. During the course of the 1960s, the context for protest changed dramatically. Political advances in the South came up against the economic despair of the urban ghettoes and the fear of being sent to fight in a vicious war that was widely seen to be both pointless and illegitimate. As the hard political core of the movement began to turn into an approximation of a Leninist vanguard or a Guevarist foco, around the edges a much more individualistic, libertarian, permissive culture was taking root, posing a provocative and enduring challenge to the American way of life. Though they swam in the same demographic tides, there was no logical reason why the counterculture and radical politics had to move hand in hand, other than Vietnam. This pulled them together.

During 1967, gentle, hedonistic “hippies”—often high on drugs—made their appearance offering “love and peace” as a form of “flower power.” They had nothing so formal as a leader, but as a prophet there was the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Although his parents were communists, this had, if anything, turned Ginsberg against political activism. His primary focus, as his reputation grew during the 1950s, was not “rebellion or social protest” but the “exploration of modes of consciousness.”41 A visit to Saigon in 1963, however, had led him to be more political and he became a strong opponent of the Vietnam War.42 There was playfulness about Ginsberg, as if he knew at times his claims were absurd, yet his belief in the ability of poetry and Buddhist chants to affect consciousness was sincere. His ideas, which were not always intelligible in conception or execution, depended on the power of language.

In 1966, after a poetry reading, he had screamed “I declare the end of the war” to the National Student Association convention. He later explained that the aim was to “make my language identical with the historical event,” so when he declared “the end of the war” this would “set up a force field of language which is so solid and absolute as a statement and a realization of an assertion by my will, conscious will power, that it will contradict—counteract and ultimately overwhelm the force field of language pronounced out of the State Department and out of Johnson’s mouth.” In almost postmodern terms he offered his language in a trial of strength with the “black mantras” of the war-makers. It was a political critique which traded “argument for incantation.”43 The theme was picked up by the folk singer Phil Ochs and led to a November 1967 demonstration in New York with three thousand young people running through the streets, proclaiming loudly “I declare the war is over.” Out of this came the idea for the “Yippies” as the political wing of the hippies.

The founders of the Yippies were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Both had been involved in radical protests since the start of the decade. Rubin had been involved in the Berkeley free speech movement and had become a fulltime activist, organizing “teach-ins” against the war. He had a reputation as an imaginative tactician but had also moved well to the left. Both had concluded that standard forms of protest were losing their bite and that new types of spectacle were needed to gain media attention and get the message across. Rubin had urged in 1966 that activists become “specialists in propaganda and communication” and saw in the counterculture a way to challenge the system he opposed on every possible front, from comic books to street theater. This is why Ginsberg’s mantra had appealed to them. As they thought ahead to the protests planned for the August 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, they wanted something more than a conventional demonstration. They hit upon the idea of a counterculture event, a “Festival of Life” that would help turn the convention into a circus, blending surreal humor and anarchism. When the Yippie manifesto was launched in January, it looked forward to the festival: “We are making love in the parks. We are reading, singing, laughing, printing newspapers, groping and making a mock convention and celebrating the birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.”44

With the war going so badly, Lyndon Johnson had decided not to stand for reelection. His vice president and anointed successor, Hubert Humphrey, got the nomination after Robert Kennedy’s assassination and antiwar senator Eugene McCarthy’s effective withdrawal from campaigning. Johnson’s withdrawal was no reason to abandon the protest. All the different factions of the movement converged on Chicago “like moths to the flame.” There were the new hard men of the SDS, radical pacifists still committed to nonviolent direct action, and the Yippies taunting the authorities with talk of LSD in the water supply, smoke bombs in delegates’ halls, and sexual shows of varying degrees of provocation. The gathering mood spoke more of violence than peace. The city’s long-time mayor, Michael Daley, who ran one of the most formidable machines in American politics, had form when it came to turning the police onto demonstrators. He was determined to make life as difficult as possible for all those who opposed the careful orchestration of the convention. The police were under orders to show no restraint. Some were operating undercover. Both sides had their provocateurs and both had an interest in confrontation.

Tom Hayden was at the center of the preparations for Chicago, including seeking permits for demonstrations. His rhetoric when talking with other activists was becoming wilder. This was his existential moment. He could show he was not like the “good Germans” who were in denial about the Holocaust. In making his stand against a terrible war, he was prepared—as an existentialist—to pay his own personal price. This was reinforced by the persistent notion that underdogs benefited by appearing as innocent victims of police brutality. Heightened confrontation would push up the internal costs of the war. The establishment, he had concluded, would only abandon South Vietnam on the basis of a cost-benefit calculation, even if this involved arousing “the sleeping dogs on the right.”45 Rubin also bought into the theory that the movement required repression to grow. Repression, he enthused, would turn “demonstration protest into wars. Actors into heroes. Masses of individuals into a community.” It would eliminate “the bystander, the neutral observer, the theorist. It forces everyone to pick a side.”46

Such talk made Ginsberg wary. He had never, he explained later, been a poet of “revolt.” That would have meant trying to “become wiser by becoming dumber, you want to become more peaceful by getting angry.” His aim was to alter consciousness.47 In Chicago, instead of the “academies of selfawareness” and “classes in spirituality” he favored, he saw “bloody visions of the apocalypse.”48 He flew there writing a poem (“Remember the Helpless order the/ Police armed to protect/the Helpless Freedom the Revolutionary/ Conspired to honor”). He later explained his presence at Chicago as a “religious experimenter,” not only on behalf of the Yippies but “also in the context of our whole political life, too.” In the face of police determination to close down the music festival, he urged caution. Presenting himself as a calming influence, he encouraged demonstrators to chant “Om” in the face of violence or hysteria. “Ten people humming Om can calm down one hundred. One hundred people humming Om can regulate the metabolism of a thousand. A thousand bodies vibrating Om can immobilize an entire downtown Chicago street full of scared humans, uniformed or naked.” At one point during the demonstrations he led chanting for seven hours. The aim of this, and his other antiwar performances, was not to transmit a thought or assert a principle but to “bring about a state of being.”

Once again we see the idea that getting the state to reveal its true nastiness would set people against it, without considering the circumstances in which ordinary people might support the state. The radicals, disappointed with their own numbers, sought to use police brutality as a means of expanding their constituency. Watching it all were the world’s media, who were treated to a spectacle of baton charges and bloodied demonstrators.49 Tactically, the hard-liners had won and the movement lost. The progressive radicalization of the decade had reflected the limits of a politics based on gaining attention through sacrifice, appeals to conscience, and assertions of shared values. The early concepts of dignified nonviolence, which “implied erect bearing, silent passage, and respectable dress,” had given way to “shouting and threats, hissing, hoaxes, foul language, heckling, garbage-dumping, a sense of great anger vented, and a growing tendency to violence.”50

One type of Marxist analysis of the clashes at Chicago would have observed that they were largely between working-class police and middle-class demonstrators. Working-class anger was directed at those who had enjoyed privileged lives and now turned on the system that had pampered them, mocking those who upheld traditional values, turning away from responsibilities and challenging the patriotic symbols (notably the flag) of which they should be proud. Fears of disorder and decadence began to influence working-class political attitudes. Alinsky feared that the rise of the right would be the inevitable response to violence and extremism on the left. He wrote Rules for Radicals to remind the new revolutionaries of the “central concepts of action in human politics that operate regardless of the scene or the time.” He argued the need for a “pragmatic attack on the system.” He warned, correctly, of the dangers of insulting and ignoring ordinary working people. “If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right.” In urging an ethic of responsibility on a new generation of radicals, Alinsky and Rustin were aware that they must appear like old men jealous of the energy of youth and with evidence of their failures all around them in persistent poverty, inequality, and violence. At the same time they recognized that the people for whom they struggled were underdogs precisely because they lacked the capacity to become the majority, and that organizing them was a hard slog that would require compromises and certainly coalitions. They understood the futility of expecting people absorbed in a daily struggle for survival to sign up for an even larger and more dangerous struggle defined only by vague slogans.

The United States did not withdraw from Vietnam until 1973. But the American role became less toxic politically with the end of conscription. The young activists of the New Left moved on, some becoming milder versions of their former selves, others abandoning their commitments. What lasted was the critique of everyday life, reflected in music and fashion, and to a degree in the use of recreational drugs, but also in a distrust of elitism and hierarchy and a wariness of bureaucracy.51 The focus on the worth of individuals led to the anticolonial language of self-determination and liberation coming to be applied to groups, such as gays and women, who had felt stigmatized and oppressed.

Women’s Liberation

Feminism was not a new cause and important books were written prior to the growth of the student movement, but “women’s liberation” flowed naturally out of a movement dedicated to the idea of humans controlling their own destinies and asserting their worth. The original groups from the suffragette era had disappeared. Demands for equal rights tended to be promoted through the labor movement, if at all. Women had been given a boost in 1961 when President Kennedy established a Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. It produced a report in 1963 detailing the restrictions on women’s rights and opportunities. “Sex” was added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, suggested at first by a segregationist congressman as something of a joke and then pushed through in a curious coalition with feminists. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission treated it as a joke and did nothing. In 1966, the National Organization of Women (NOW) was founded in response to this rebuff. Its president was Betty Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique gave voice to a generation of women who felt marginalized by both workplace practices and the expectations of home-making.52 Women were steadily becoming a vital part of the American workforce (40 percent by the start of the 1970s) and were increasingly disinclined to accept second-rate pay and conditions. Friedan was an effective publicist and used her role as the head of what was a relatively small organization to gain media attention for her views and those of her colleagues. From the start, the movement had an articulate leadership.

Quite apart from NOW, another strand of the movement was developing among numerous young women who had experienced their own rebuffs as they worked as New Left activists. They could not help but notice the contrast between the denunciations of oppression coming from a largely male leadership, coupled with expectations of women occupying subordinate roles and offering sexual favors. The “only position for women in SNCC,” observed Stokely Carmichael in 1964, “is prone.” In a landmark essay, Mary King and Casey Hayden (Tom Hayden’s first wife) reported that women in the movement were not “happy and contented” with their status, and that their talent and experience was being wasted. In what now appears as a rather tentative document they judged that “objectively, the chances seem nil that we could start a movement based on anything as distant to general American thought as a sex-caste system.” For that reason they expected to continue to work on the problems of war, poverty, and race. They nonetheless insisted that “the very fact that the country [couldn’t] face, much less deal with” the questions they were raising meant that the “the problems of women functioning in society as equal human beings are among the most basic that people face.”53

Soon, however, the dismissive attitude of male activists became too annoying to ignore. The more women were treated with condescension by their male colleagues, the greater their anger. In 1967, groups began to push a more distinctively feminist agenda and by 1968 they had their own national conference. Unlike NOW, this group of women had considerable experience of protest and grass-roots organization.54 In 1969, Carol Hanisch wrote a paper reflecting on the position of women in the movement and complained that when they got together for mutual support it was a form of “therapy,” as if they were seeking a cure for some sickness. The key was to understand that the personal was political. These were issues that could only be solved through collective action.55 The reason this worked as an existential strategy was that it did not depend on leadership and organization, other than when seeking legislative changes, but on the routine assertion of core principles of equality and worth, often without agreement on where the movement should or could lead, and accommodating a range of lifestyle choices. The core feminist complaints, once they were out in the open, were easy to understand and hard to ignore. Some might recoil at more radical denunciations of patriarchy and the coercive quality of marriage and motherhood but they were free to ignore this and concentrate on issues that mattered to them, whether abortion, indifference to sexual assault or rights to equal pay.56

As women moved increasingly into the space opened up by the civil rights movement, so did gays. After blacks, they pointed out, they constituted the largest minority group in America. Many just craved respectability, so that they were not stigmatized for their sexual preferences. This was the time when homosexuality was considered aberrant, a psychiatric disorder that might benefit from treatment. During the 1960s there was a push to end this pariah status, insisting that whatever consenting adults did together in private was no business of government or employers. Under the influence of the counterculture, concerns about mainstream respectability came to be pushed to one side by demands for “gay liberation” and full sexual freedom. In July 1969, a police raid at the Stonewell Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, produced an outraged response that led to a riot. The more conservative homophile groups were anxious, but the event encouraged radical activists to embrace gay rights as a vital cause.57

In some respects, the activism against the Vietnam War was similar. The more dramatic acts of protest—burning draft cards, let alone the American flag—might not have been to everybody’s taste, but the increasingly large demonstrations against the war demanded attention. The fact that SDSers had been to the fore of the original opposition did not endow it with a right to continue to set its terms. As opposition became broad-based, backed by opinion polls and mainstream commentators, it carried a political weight that the government could not ignore. These movements had a Tolstoyan quality in that out of the individual decisions of many people emerged new lifestyles, cultural forms, and political expressions.

The methods that could be used to dramatize issues that mattered to many individuals, helping the personal to become political, could not forge a broader political consciousness. The initial preoccupation with power, as a precious resource unequally distributed, led to wariness about anybody getting an unfair share. Power should not be sought; indeed, the appearance of an interest in power created suspicion. The preferred organizational forms were designed to hold back putative leaders and avoid a stifling bureaucracy. Such organizations could work, to a point, when populated by educated, articulate, committed, and energetic young people communicating in a common cause, but they soon faltered when energy levels dropped; the causes became routine; difficult choices had to be faced; the emerging strategies had to be implemented over extended periods; and when the feelings reflected boredom, fatigue, and confusion.

Alternatively, when the feelings were intense anger and deep frustration, actions could be impulsive, involving lashing out and grandiose gestures. The fate of SDS and SNCC could be taken as a warning of the consequences of a lack of deliberation and distrust of leadership. Even here, however, there was a legacy: the inclination to think about power from the bottom up and not solely from the top down, for making organizations and their decisions more transparent, had a lasting effect on governmental and corporate bureaucracies, reflected in demands for flatter hierarchies and more open structures. The futile terrorism of Far Left groups made more headlines in the 1970s and 1980s than nonviolent direct action. Yet events in Eastern Europe in 1989 and—at least initially—in the “Arab Spring” of early 2011 provided echoes of the techniques used by the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. The link between the two was provided by Gene Sharp, a long-standing pacifist who had worked with Muste and participated in some of the early sit-ins. He became the leading contemporary theorist of nonviolence, even gaining the patronage of Tom Schelling, who supplied the introduction to Sharp’s major three-volume treatise, The Politics of Nonviolent Action .58 This emphasized Gandhi’s innovative role and employed Gregg’s concept of jiu-jitsu, but was mainly notable for a view of power by which governments were assumed to be dependent upon the “people’s good will, decisions and support” rather than the other way around. When this was the case, obedience was voluntary and consent could be withdrawn. He listed many ways by which this could be achieved, from demonstrations and petitions to boycotts, strikes, and even mutinies.59Authoritarian regimes in the 2000s, from Iran to Venezuela, identified Sharp as a dangerous agitator, and his ideas reached the Arab streets.60 The experience underlined both the potential and limits of nonviolence. A regime so intolerant of disobedience that it was prepared to use uncompromising violence was likely to push its opponents to violence as well.

The inspirational and imaginative aspects of the movement during the 1960s provided its initial momentum. Those who thought about short-term consequences would probably have been deterred if they placed their hopes on what might be achieved in the early boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations. The weight of experience was against them. It was the cause which animated the movement and the sense of worth that came from doing what was right, even against the odds. Once mobilized, a movement that was about political rather than social change would be under pressure to become more organized and calculating, thinking about consequences. Todd Gitlin, one of Tom Hayden’s early comrades in SDS, became an academic sociologist and also memoirist of the movement. He was aware of the impact of the counterproductive talk of violence, and how that had played into the Right’s agenda, allowing the New Left to be portrayed as mindlessly disruptive rather than idealistic. This was a common theme of rueful SDS memoirs. At an age approaching Saul Alinsky’s when he wrote Rules for Radicals,

Gitlin wrote Letters to a Young Activist in which he advised how to avoid the mistakes of his generation. He opened with Max Weber and later returned to him, acknowledging that he had found “Politics as a Vocation” irritating and “anti-inspirational” in his youth. Against Weber’s assertion of an ethic of responsibility, Gitlin noted that then he would have responded with the claim that “radical action might just transform the circumstances, make the impossible somewhat more possible.” Now he accepted: “Consequences: there’s no getting away from them. How disconcerting that ideals and passions are compatible with gross miscalculations!” For activists considering a campaign of civil disobedience to address contemporary ills, he urged that it be “farsighted, strategic.” Such a campaign should “not hope to reinvent the world at will” or “simply express itself.” It must argue and “take place within history, not beat on its doors from outside,” seizing opportunities and calling on “popular (even if latent) convictions and sentiments.”61

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