Last updated July 29, 2008
When I joined UT Students for a Democratic Society in the spring of 1965, a bright-eyed freshman on the fast track to scholastic probation, SDS’ national president was one Carl Oglesby, whose name was on my membership card. That was the only SDS membership card I ever had, so short-lived was the organization, and so quick the onset of its disabilities, until I got a new one last year, signed by Austin Movement for a Democratic Society Treasurer Alice Embree. Alice was a seasoned leader of the 60s UT SDS chapter – just one year older than me – when I joined. Now, 43 years later, Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm (Scribner, New York, 2008) is a compelling personal memoir of the Sixties. While he draws no parallels between the frustrations of that era and those of the present day, peace activists will have no trouble seeing them; as in the later 1960s, anti-war protests feel increasingly fruitless as the Iraq war rockets on.
Oglesby recalls SDS in 1965 as a nonviolent, egalitarian-in-principle but elitist-in-composition group, primarily concerned with ending racism and poverty, and confronted, as he says, by Vietnam: “a terrible accident burning in the road, an event without logic but inescapably right there in front of us. We just had to… do what we could.” As the war escalated, the work of demonstrating, educating, and converting, all that peace activists could “reasonably” do, came to seem much too slow. Up against a wall of increasingly hostile administrations, the temptations of violent “direct action,” spiced with the rhetoric of the embattled Black liberation movement who we could find no way to concretely aid, became a siren song for some.
While Oglesby’s belief that the antiwar movement of the 60s, if it had not been destroyed from within and without, could have eventually forced an end to the war is an attractive idea to mature, peace-loving activists today, it is also entirely debatable, falling prey to the fact that “the Movement” was indeed destroyed. Carl identifies the extreme lack of organization, embraced by SDS at all levels, as a pre-existing deficiency allowing the group’s destruction to proceed with little effective opposition. (Bags of chapter mail are described, unopened, in a “filthy pigpen” of a National Office; I saw it even so. SDS never had any money, or accountable decision-making.) Still apparently considering himself a small-d democrat, however, he fails to acknowledge that scientific analysis might have been helpful, and seems to take the aberrant “theories” and worse behavior of the Weatherman faction as somehow representative of the “Old Left” and its outmoded anti-capitalist ideas. He knows better, but this may simply reflect an acute awareness of how far from revolutionary US society in the 1960s really was. Surely we at least learned that the Vietnam conflict was no accident, despite its burning horror, and that subsequent wars have not been accidents, either, but inevitable consequences of our economic system!
In contrast to other SDS memoirists, Oglesby never mentions the “prairie power” changes of 1966 and ’67, which set aside SDS’ founding, Ivy League-based, left-cognizant leadership for a “new guard” of state college-based, left-naïve, populist/anarchist anti-leaders. Indeed, what seemed a significant change at the time was but small change a year later, with the coming of Progressive Labor and, after them, the Revolutionary Youth Movement-slash-Weather nihilists. Still, it strikes a jarring note to see Greg Calvert’s new working class theory, which caused great upheaval and turbulence within SDS when introduced, casually co-opted into “old guard” SDS philosophy. (“[A]n increasingly high-tech economy was turning [the ‘middle class’] into a new proletariat and making its brainpower central to production. The original SDS had seen its natural constituency as this ‘new working class’…”) Another error is his naming the 1968 Columbia University strike as the birthplace of the free university movement, “a signature product of SDS”. UT SDS had spawned a Free University in Austin in 1966, led by philosophy grad student Dick Howard, and it wasn’t invented here!
Overall, this is a complex and astoundingly non-judgmental history of stormy times, when, Oglesby writes, SDS more closely resembled the raven than the traditional dove of peace, the history of which, he points out, cannot be known while government reports of penetration, spying, and dirty tricks against the movement remain secret. The many thousands of pages of documents released to persistent activists under Freedom of Information Act guidelines are so heavily redacted that, although “the Justice Department admitted to having mounted 2,370 specific separate actions against us…, we still don’t know what a single one of them was.” Oglesby takes advantage of government spy records where possible, as aides-de memoire.
Writing about his stunning “expulsion” from SDS, in Austin, TX, during a March, 1969 meeting of the National Council, in a closed meeting of SDS’ National Interim Committee, he uses transcripts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s high-quality recording of the event to provide verbatim excerpts from his unannounced “trial”, apparently on charges of not being a “committed Marxist-Leninist” in an avowedly democratic organization. The emergent Weather, personified by Bernardine Dohrn, comes off in these pages, despite Dohrn’s once apparently warm relationship with Oglesby, as a closed-minded, arrogant, delusional sect with no more grasp of Marxist analysis than a murder of crows. Without the FBI transcripts, Oglesby’s account, even if exactly the same, would no doubt seem outrageously exaggerated.
Austin chapter meetings by 1969 had become incredibly painful, unproductive, venomous confrontations between “regular” SDSers and minions of PL, spiked with anarchist sound and fury, and meetings had never been particularly effective decision-making opportunities. Influential “regulars” were leaving town, following the University’s dismissal of philosophy professor Larry Caroline, and in the face of the continuing escalation of a war – at home as well as abroad – they had spent the previous four or five years, like Oglesby, fighting body and soul. Reading of his dismissal by the group he had once led, I was nagged by a faint memory, confirmed in Robert Pardun’s recollection of the same events (Prairie Radical, 2001, Shire Press, Los Gatos, CA). Pardun, by 1969 a two-time former national SDS officer and leading “prairie power” organizer, highly respected for his cogent thinking and consistent principles, was living in Austin, working as a welder. Increasingly alienated from the warring SDS chapter, Bob briefly attended the first day of the Austin NC meeting and walked out, with most other Texas members, when attempts by Greg Calvert and Carol Neiman to calm the RYM/PL sloganeering match were rebuffed. Then, he says:
The second evening of the [NC] meeting, Bernardine Dohrn and several other RYM people came to my house to ask me to help in their fight for control of SDS. That meant supporting either RYM or PL – but… I didn’t agree with either side. After they left, I thought they considered me to be a “sell-out”. But that was part of the problem. The way they saw it, I was either for them or against them and I didn’t like the kind of politics that went with that mentality. After they left I decided to boycott the rest of the [NC] meeting with my Texas SDS friends.
Re-reading Bob’s account, I recognized my earlier nagging feeling as a twinge of guilt, since I was one of the Texas SDSers urging Bro. Pardun to blow off the meeting and come get high. On the third day of the NC, Oglesby’s secret trial took place, clearly part of the “fight for control” Dohrn and friends had proposed to Pardun the night before. What might have happened if those who agreed with Oglesby that “ordinary Americans,” with the help of our returning brothers from the meat grinder of Vietnam, could at last force an end to the war, had known that he was on trial by people widely seen as fools? Could they have rescued him from the Kafkaesque proceeding, and perhaps rescued SDS as well? Probably not; the rot was by then too far advanced. COINTELPRO’s unrelenting attacks were sapping the Movement’s local resources everywhere, diverting everything increasingly into legal defense work and reactions to unanticipated attacks. The Weathermen, in contrast, “really believed that the revolution was on its way… They produced a theater of the absurd and called it the revolution.”
It’s tempting, but unfair, to compare Oglesby’s mature work with former Chicago Seven defendant Tom Hayden’s 1988 Reunion: A Memoir (Random House, New York, aptly reviewed at the time by the Washington Monthly. Ravens is by far the better read, but then, twenty years’ added perspective can’t help but work wonders. Oglesby’s fleeting mentions of Hayden do not cast the author of the Port Huron Statement, SDS’ founding document, in a flattering light, but do acknowledge his influence, contrasting oddly with Hayden’s almost total neglect of fellow U. Michigan SDSer Oglesby in his work. Oglesby’s account of an almost hysterical Hayden’s response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970 is strikingly at odds with Hayden’s impersonal recollections. The moderate former leaders agree on many things, e.g., both saw anti-PL activist and SDS’ 1968-69 National Secretary Mike Klonsky as an arrogant and somewhat thick-headed thug. (Klonsky’s post-SDS response to the Cambodian civil war, another “terrible accident burning in the road”, was to proclaim support for Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge.)
If the personal memoir of a pacifistic individual can be said to be a page-turner, Carl Oglesby has written one. There is enough new here, and enough uniquely recalled, to surprise even those who lived through the same years, involved in some of the same groups and swept along by the same currents. But all the memoirs to date, and they are fast becoming legion, don’t change the fact that the rise and fall of the radical youth movement of the Sixties remains a cipher, locked in an acronym, wrapped in black ops.
[For a timely and provocative article based in part on Oglesby’s book, see Bill Kauffman’s “When the Left was Right”, in the May 19, 2008 American Conservative.]
Mariann is a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog. With fellow Austin activist Alice Embree, she contributed to Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (2008, Pekar H, ed. Buhle P., Hill & Wang, New York). She was a contributor to No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the ’60s (1992, ed. Janes D., Eakin Press, Austin), as was Bob Pardun. With Larry Waterhouse, she co-wrote Turning the Guns Around: Notes on the GI Movement (1971, Praeger, New York).
Find Ravens in the Storm at Amazon.com.
A response from Mike Klonsky:
This campaign to renew and refight the old SDS divisions, 40 years later (for some, it was their only moment in the sun), has been pretty well orchestrated as part of the anti-Obama, guilt-by-association tidal wave. It’s what Stanley Fish called, “the new McCarthyism.” It’s been mainly focused on Bill Ayers, as if anyone under 40 gives a hoot about Obama and Ayers.
I would think that Oglesby’s book would be one of the tools of choice in this campaign. It starts with the big lie that he was “drummed out of SDS” (as if…). His descriptions of SDS meetings and his caricature of me, Bernardine and other former SDS leaders, are delusional and would be laughable if not repeated by the professional anti-commies old and new.
As we all know, Oglesby, who early on played an important role in opposing the war in Vietnam, left the left to become the darling of the CATO institute and the libertarians. He did all that without ever changing his politics and world outlook. Shows what a big tent SDS was before the ’69 split. No one was ever expelled by the SDS leadership, nor could they be. As you know, there was no formal membership in SDS. If you said you were in–you were in. Certainly not Oglesby. Now he sounds like a doddering old fool with delusions of grandeur about his own role and pissed because no one would listen to him or follow his admittedly silly political directions.
His dialogue is obviously phony, stilted and manufactured. He writes over and over about my facial expressions in meetings held 40 years ago–as if he could really remember every furrowed brow and each grimace. Not only remember, but draw big political conclusions from each. This is the stuff of stereotypes and anti-left propaganda.
Half the time, I’m sure he is mixing me up with someone else.
Wizard’s and Kauffman’s stuff is typical of the old and new defenders of the “moderate” SDS, who are now trying to ingratiate themselves (“we weren’t really leftists, sir”) and clean up their own pasts to fit these more conservative times.
I don’t think that stuff has any more play now than it did in the are-you-now-or-have-you ever-been ’50s. But the least they (she) could do was get her facts straight when she tries to debase me and others.
Since we are somehow being connected in the right-wing blogs and media, to Obama (if only we had that kind of influence…) it puts us in a difficult position. Should we respond to each and every bit of slander and name calling and keep the issue alive in the campaign? (BTW, whose quote is that about Cambodia?)
Should we come out now and defend what should be defended from 40 years ago, revisit the roles of each faction, from PL to Weather, new working class, to the Prairie Dogs? Should I engage people like Wizard about my and her views back then (and now)? Actually I barely knew her and she doesn’t know this teacher she calls “thug” at all. Or should I (we) wait until after November to do any or all of that?
Wizard and Oglesby of course can print whatever the hell they want anywhere they can. That kind of stuff will always be well received in some quarters.
Our latest book offers a different kind of narrative, dealing as it does with the current struggle to save and defend democratic education today–as we tried to defend it against similar (segregationist) forces 40 years ago.
Now Kauffman tells us that George Wallace and his ilk weren’t such bad guys after all. He was only a “decentralizer” and just a poor anti-bureaucrat fighting big gov-a-mint.
Oglesby projects and projected similar views. Of course he had a snowball’s chance in hell of convincing SDSers in ’68 to join forces with corporate anti-communist, anti-regulation types. (Maybe he really meant laughed out, as opposed to drummed out of SDS.)
Well, Wallace is long gone, but his ideas are strongly embedded in today’s department of education and are now being being given new life in the McCain campaign. So I’ll focus my attention on them for the time being, rather than on the ex-radicals-now-moderates like Wizard and Oglesby.
Mike Klonsky / The Rag Blog / July 27, 2008
[Mike Klonsky was active in the Students for a Democratic Society in the sixties. An educator, author, school reform activist, and director of the Small Schools Workshop, he lives in Chicago. Along with Susan Klonsky, he is the author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society.]
I was unaware of Oglesby’s book until I read Wizard’s review, which in general I liked. Klonsky’s response, it seems to me, is in keeping with personality, if not with the politics for which he was known when he called himself, however wishfully, a Marxist.
Having read both posts I am left with questions about the one from Klonsky. He indicates that we shouldn’t discuss what we think for fear of its possible (if improbable) consequences on the presidential campaign. I am left wondering: 1. Has the October League become the November League? 2. Has Chairman Klonsky become an acolyte of the figure he apparently regards as Chairman Obama? 3. Has the redder-than-thou figure we knew now become more-reformist-than-thou?
Dick J. Reavis / July 27, 2008
Interesting that Klonsky ignores Tom Hayden in his response — since my only comment about Klonsky, in my review of Oglesby’s book, was to point out that both Hayden and Oglesby, despite many differences, appeared (at least when their memoirs were published; Hayden’s in 1988) to agree on Klonsky’s role. As for dialogue being manufactured, in the critical scene of Oglesby’s trial, expulsion, or whatever-you-callit; “shunning”?; from SDS, Oglesby says it comes straight from transcribed FBI tapes. If Klonsky has a gripe with that, he can take it up with Oglesby.
On the other hand, while I was reminded by Carl’s book of Klonsky’s later support for Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime, the comment is my own (that’s why it’s not in quotation marks, du’h) — is the allegation incorrect?
The fact that Klonsky attacks the reviewer of a book with which he apparently disagrees — and I assure you, our lack of acquaintance is mutual! — illustrates Bob Pardun’s comment, quoted in my review, that the proto-Weather faction demanded that everyone be “either for them or against them”. There’s never been any individual or organization with whom I agreed on every detail of every situation; not even during 10 years in the CPUSA (there, Mike, proof of my revisionism!). Overall, sometimes I’m right, and sometimes I’m not — just like everybody else. I’ve been a somewhat effective community activist ONLY because I’ve been willing and able to work with all kinds of people on common issues, through building consensus, and using basic principles like honesty, openness, equal opportunity for all to speak and be heard, fact-based accountability, attention to teeny-tiny details, consistency, and moderation (e.g., helping people who think they hold totally opposite views discover their commonalities) — few of which were ever practiced by any factions of the original SDS! Demanding that folks agree with me in all details of some cockamamie, self-aggrandizing, “revolutionary” posture never worked out all that well for me in practice! This doesn’t prevent me, btw, from holding a class analysis; moderation provides a fine base for seeing class interests. (Or maybe it’s just that Zen thing.)
Really, it is not my desire, and I really have no interest, in re-opening the wounds of 40 years past. But then, I’m not taking a leadership role in a new national organization, as are Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and, I suppose, Mike Klonsky, although I haven’t heard much about his involvement in the new SDS and/or Movement for a Democratic Society. If I were trying to do so, and if I had been a leader in a disastrous, adventuristic, self-immolating episode of the New Left, I would certainly expect to have all of that stuff exhumed. That Mike seems surprised that this is happening now to him and his friends (and I give a rat’s ass about the Obama connection, if any) shouldn’t surprise anyone; he’s one of the guys whose analysis told him the revolution was coming in 1969, instead of a stiff wind of repression. Mistakes were made by all.
The only reason I’ve been reading all these old SDS guys’ memoirs recently, btw — and I want to read Kathy Wilkerson’s; somehow I’m expecting more from her — is because I see some current efforts retracing old footprints that led to a bad place in the sand. Thankfully, so far, these are not the desperate prints of Weather; that would be even worse; they are the footprints of Hayden and Oglesby, and even dear Pardun, whose influence I proudly acknowledge; but I don’t want to go there again. I want to go to the place where we win.
Mariann G. Wizard / July 27, 2008
Right on Mike.
I thought about running this on NLN but…
The sectarianism that has characterized and crippled the new MDS in particular doesn’t need me fanning the flames, I’ve done that previously and lived to regret it. I take responsibility for it and won’t be doing it again.
I winced when I saw the huge cc list on this post (I trimmed it substantially) – as it is highly unlikely any good can come of this – as you, Mike, allude to in your missive. It’s a classic double bind – if you don’t respond, the smear stands. If you do respond, it’s a fucking trap. I think you managed to do a good job of responding without fueling the fire but for the reasons mentioned above I am going to have your back – but in spirit only.
Anywho, great response Mike. It’s always good to hear your “voice”!
PS, I am glad I didn’t waste my money on Carl’s book. 😉 / July 28, 2008
Next Left Notes
From an historical standpoint, I found the Wizard-Klonsky exchange interesting. For one thing, I’ve read Oglesby’s book and have my own thoughts about it. My input is that when we’re rehashing the past, we ought to be very explicit in limiting it to that sort of academic exercise. Otherwise, why refight the battles of 40 years ago unless there are clear and obvious lessons that can be applied to current activism? And, if and when applying those lessons, personal attacks are best left to those like Sean Hannity (or as David Graeber suggested, those pretending to be Sean Hannity).
We’ve got more than enough to do in the here-and-now. No matter if we’re for Obama, or a progressive 3rd party candidate, or a nonvoting anarchist position, this country is at a crossroads. We need to work on having the maximum effective impact on promoting a progressive agenda, and there is some very good work pointing us in that direction, with Tom’s Nextleftnotes, Thorne and company’s Rag Blog, and MDS chapter organizing. If the past can help us, that’s terrific, but regardless, we need to continue pulling it together, generate some excitement and develop some momentum. What Bob Dylan said about the hour being late is a whole lot more true now than when he first sang that song.
J. Jurie / July 28, 2008
I read Ravens in the Storm and feel it was the best piece of fiction that I’ve read about the movement. I feel awful saying that. I would not write this except that I think it’s important to support Mike. I understand his outrage even while I wish it wasn’t necessary.
I love and respect Carl Oglesby. I am one of the many who sat riveted each time he spoke whether it was in front of thousands or while playing pitcher and catcher in Ann Arbor; I don’t remember what year that was. He still writes beautifully and I was once again riveted. Unfortunately I know that a least some of what I read is untrue. Among other things I recognized that the years he recorded for some events couldn’t be true. For instance in 1967 I was both a student and working for New York Regional SDS. Bernadine was employed by the National Lawyers Guild. I used to house sit hers and Hamish Sinclair’s apartment and do his janitorial work when they traveled. That year Bernadine was an “adult” advisor to some of us as PL was just beginning its effort to take over the New York region. In his chapter 1966 – 1967 Carl quotes a dialogue with a very revolutionary and dogmatic Bernadine. This is certainly not the Bernadine that I knew during that time.
I don’t think, as Michael writes, that the dialogue is obviously phony, stilted and manufactured.” I last saw Carl in the late 90’s. It was obvious even then that dementia was beginning to grab hold. Maybe what seems memories are dreams, fantasies. That sad part is that someone published this book without authenticating the work.
I don’t know if it’s fair to write about the personal deterioration of a friend. I write this because I sense that this book causes anguish to Michael. It’s not fair to be anguished because some treat this book as history and are not privy to the sad truth about this author. Maybe we think it’s like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence; maybe when legend supersedes truth it’s time to print the legend. I don’t think so.
For some of us the memory of this great man needs to survive this book.
Paul Millman / July 29, 2009
My impulse control has slipped badly, I can’t resist the temptation to respond. But as I admonished yesterday I’ll add the caveat that what I say here is strictly historical.
First, I read and was disappointed by Oglesby’s “Ravens in the Storm.” I won’t go into great detail with why, suffice it to say I didn’t find it anywhere close to his best writing. A vivid memory I have from the 60’s is sitting in a library reading Oglesby’s essay “The Vietnam Crucible.” At that age (I believe I was 17 when it appeared) I was already aware of Manifest Destiny, even of imperialism, and very much opposed to the war in Vietnam. Still, it was a revelation and it stirred me deeply. His portrayal of the relentless pursuit of greed and expansion was of a snake swallowing its own tail.
From that point on I looked for and eagerly read everything Oglesby wrote. His call for corporate allies to help end the war made a great deal of sense to me then, still does. I had no illusions they’d help make the revolution, still don’t. Didn’t get the drift he did either. I consider his “Notes on a Decade Ready for the Dustbin” one of the two best short assessments of the end of the 60’s (Eleanor Langer wrote the other).
Where it seems Oglesby began to lose analytic acuity was with the Yankee and Cowboy War. Following his earlier analysis of corporate liberalism, it was a logical=2 0next step to attempt a description of different factions within the ruling class, but he took it too far in speculative directions.
I’ve never met or seen Oglesby in person. When I first encountered his writings I was young and very naive. Probably still am (naive, that is).
Regardless, his earlier work made a lasting impression on me. For better or worse, I wouldn’t be who I am today if not for his persuasive words those many years ago. “Containment and Change” and the “New Left Reader” will retain their prized places in my library.
Jay D. Jurie