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You are here: Platypus /“Nobody wanted to hear, ‘You’re reactionary in what you’re doing’”: An Interview with Earl Silbar

“Nobody wanted to hear, ‘You’re reactionary in what you’re doing’”: An Interview with Earl Silbar


Stephanie Gomez and Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 117 | June 2019

On April 23, 2019, Stephanie Gomez interviewed Earl Silbar, co-editor of the recently published You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance (2018). Spencer A. Leonard helped draft the questions. On April 25, an edited version of the original interview was aired in an episode of “Radical Minds,” a radio show on WHPK 88.5 FM in Chicago, hosted by Gomez. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview, including follow-up questions.

Stephanie Gomez: What was the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and what were its origins?

Earl Silbar: PLP still exists. It evolved from a split in the late 1950s from the Communist Party (CP). People who were activists and trained and developed in the CP sided with China over the China-Soviet split, basically over the Soviets’ promotion of peaceful coexistence with the West and the peaceful transition to socialism. These were people in the CP who completely disagreed and thought that only a revolution could do that, that in the U.S. only a workers’ revolution could do that. So, they left and formed the Progressive Labor Movement in January 1962. They upheld the need for a revolutionary party and for the dictatorship of the proletariat. That was the formative split from the CP.

This is the late 50s, when there was black working-class resistance to racism across the South. In Monroe, North Carolina, an NAACP group armed itself to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and, of course, you had bus boycotts, sit-ins, etc. There was a lot of activity, despite the tremendous repression with anti-communism, people losing their jobs, and everybody being afraid of being called a communist. The Cuban Revolution took place at the beginning of 1959. Meanwhile, the Chinese Revolution and anti-colonial struggles were ongoing. So, the formation of PL did not take place in a vacuum. Rather, the social struggles then taking place gave life to the idea that revolution is possible, that forces were emerging to accomplish that. The first thing that PL did was to get involved in the struggle of Kentucky coal miners.

SG: While PL split from the CP, did it ever really come to terms with the shortcomings of American communism? For example, at the time of the New Deal, the CP led workers into the Democratic Party. During World War II, they went along with a no-strike pledge in the unions, even though the U.S. was fighting an imperialist as much as an anti-fascist war. Arguably, the CP lost strength among American workers for reasons other than McCarthyism, and the latter could be viewed as the effect rather than the cause of the weakness of the workers’ movement for socialism.

ES: I really don’t agree that the failures of the CP led to McCarthyism. There were certainly failures of the CP, and you mentioned some of the most important ones, but I am not sure that I agree with the idea that the failures of the CP led to McCarthyism, I assume because the CP was weak and thus more vulnerable to it. I don’t think that McCarthyism was the effect of the weakness of the CP, rather than the cause of it.

However, you might say that the weakness of the Left invites attack from the ruling class. But did PL study that? No. One of the reasons that we failed in the 1960s and early 70s in the student movement and more generally was the result of the fact that we did not critically examine our own history.

PL was a continuation of a wing of the CP. It considered itself the left wing that opposed, for instance, collaboration in the Popular Front. Still, it stayed in the party and upheld the need for revolution, for a communist party, and for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even when Earl Browder was leading the dominant wing and saying, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism. We can work together with our Democratic Party capitalist friends to have a progressive America,” we did not critically examine that. There was a wing that always didn’t agree with that. There were numerous splits in the 50s. The difference was that PL was a split that said, we’re going to take these ideas up in the working class and the mass movements, the ideas that: capitalism has to be destroyed, we need to fight racism, the U.S. is an imperialist power, imperialism is against the interest of the working class, etc. This all came from the CP lineage, but represented what you might call the left wing of Stalinism.

So, in terms of anti-communism, in the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings that started in the late 40s and grew quite powerful by the late 50s, PL’s position was, instead of taking the Fifth Amendment, we’re going to counterattack; we’re going to employ the classic Marxist-Leninist tactic and accuse them in their own courtroom. So, when PL and others broke the law by organizing the first trip to Cuba in 1963, the goal was to stand up and say, “The U.S. government doesn’t have even the right to block Americans from traveling to Cuba. We’re going to challenge you by breaking your laws.” People were subpoenaed and spent time in prison as a result, but they stood up in the court, in the HUAC hearings, and counterattacked. This was the opposite of the CP’s main tactic, which was to always plead the Fifth.

SG: Is it true that, by that time, the CP was associated with an approach to labor organizing that was slow, methodical, and based on building stable relationships with progressive liberals?

ES: I can only talk about PL when I was active in the party, which ended in the early 1970s. If we go back to the late 60s and the Worker-Student Alliance, we did not support liberal union leaders. That was not our approach. We tried to build the communist influence in the working class at workplaces by selling our newspaper and by agitation. PL also wanted to recruit younger cadre. For instance, during the coal miners’ strike in the early 1960s, PL raised money to support workers who were defending their picket lines with arms. This attracted radicalizing young people in New York to come to rallies and meetings, to go to the South, and to send some people from New York into the South to organize and develop a base for the party and its ideas. The idea was to get involved in actual struggles, to raise class consciousness.

SG: How successful was PL in its efforts to recruit young people through Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)?

ES: Phenomenally successful. PL started a committee to organize demonstrations against the war in Vietnam in 1964.[1] That was also the year that Milt Rosen raised the issue at the Socialist Scholars Conference. Together with people from other leftist groups, PL organized the first anti-imperialist demonstrations to counter the idea that the war was just somehow a mistake, that it was a civil war. PL argued that the Vietnam War was an expression of American imperialism, that it should be understood as an imperialist war. That led to the formation of a group specifically supportive of PL, the May 2nd Movement, which was active in demonstrations that included a few hundred people in several states around the country and in the SDS march in April of 1965. That summer, PL’s leadership decided to break up the May 2nd Movement and to move its cadre into SDS. So, from literally a handful of people, five or six students, in three years, PL organized a caucus of nearly a thousand students. Those were not all members of PL, but they were in a caucus that explicitly followed PL’s leadership. I don’t know how many students we recruited into PL. Maybe a few hundred.

SG: Was it these demonstrations against the Vietnam War that chiefly contributed to PL’s success in recruiting young people?

ES: No, I wouldn’t say that, though that’s a common understanding. PL had a different approach. We did not just say, “Come to the demonstration; bring your friends to the demonstration.” The outlook was: if you’re going to college, go to the dormitories and talk to people. Raise the issues at the cafeteria and in class. Demonstrations were only a part of our strategy. We wanted to find people, engage them with our ideas, and try to place them within the context that mattered to them, in order to build a base. At the San Francisco State student strike, we went around to classrooms and instead of just saying “come out for a strike,” “come out against the war,” or “come out against racism,” we would raise issues about the content of what was being taught in the classroom. We tried to relate that to a class analysis to win people over. Much of this was laid out in a 1968 pamphlet called “Build a Base in the Working Class,” which lays out the principles of a systematic organizing campaign rather than just holding demonstrations.[2] That sort of organizing laid the basis for the San Francisco State and Harvard strikes in 1969. Our success came from organizing in this fashion. So, for example, when I was at Roosevelt University, every week our organizing committee would get together to discuss the developments of the week. We’d ask: what are the issues that this raises? This pointed towards the strategic goal of organizing a center of power in the working class, organizing on that basis rather than on a mobilizing basis.

Going back to 1966, there was a big fight at the Clear Lake SDS convention as to whether communists could be members of SDS. This arose because SDS was founded by anti-communist right-wing social democrats, which is where I started in politics as well, incidentally.

When PL started in SDS, the idea was to engage radicalizing students with a revolutionary communist approach, to try and make that relevant and win people over to that. And so, the main thing that evolved was the war. At the time, there were a lot of antiracist struggles going on both in the North and the South. That, too, was also an integral part of the approach. We insisted on fighting racism. It’s in the material interest of the working class to fight racism — meaning white, black, Hispanic differently — but, nevertheless, in all workers’ material interest.

In terms of recruiting young people, it started with literally a handful of people at the Clear Lake Convention in 1966. By the split convention in Chicago in 1969, there were roughly a thousand people in caucuses, which had PLers but mostly the SDSers with varying degrees of loyalty to PL and to the idea of a communist revolution. But everybody in the Workers-Student Alliance (WSA) caucus agreed that not students but the working class could change society. Students should relate to the working class where they are in struggle and should support them, not blindly, but support them nonetheless. This was the main source of strength and mistakes in the 1960s. Our mistake was we didn’t examine our own roots. At the level of recruiting younger people, however, that did not hurt us at the time, because things were so tumultuous.

Only a few people wanted a more comprehensive history of the Left, wanted to ask, “What were the errors?” There were some people like that, but most people who got involved in the PL were interested only in, “How can we make this fight effective? What can we do to stop the war? What can we do to fight racism and create a revolutionary working-class movement?” I don’t think we lost many people at the time because of our lack of historical awareness. By 1969, the Spartacists recruited a small number of people from PL and from SDS more generally who were dissatisfied.

Up to the 1969 split, we lost some people when PL changed this line from supporting revolutionary nationalism to opposing all nationalism, because that meant that we were opposed to the Panthers who organized on a nationalist basis and against the Vietnamese who did the same thing, and those were the two most powerful movements we saw.

SG: You mentioned that it was a mistake not to examine more deeply the party’s roots in the CP. What are the sorts of things that in hindsight you wish you and your comrades in PL had understood better?

ES: The history of CP’s changes in political line. In no particular order of importance: The CP adopted the line that social democrats were the main enemy, as so-called “social fascists,” in 1929 and then reversed itself after the Nazis took power in Germany; In 1936, the CP supported the Soviet Union selling oil to fascist Italy when it invaded Ethiopia; it also supported the capitalist Republican government in Spain and opposed the social revolution in Catalonia; it went from calling FDR’s New Deal social fascist to supporting FDR in the 1936 elections; the CP presented communism as “twentieth-century Americanism,” reversing its struggle for a Soviet America; In 1939, when the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany to divide Europe, the CP dropped its popular anti-war work and anti-Nazi stance; In 1941, the party again reversed itself and supported the war when Germany invaded the Soviet Union; this in turn led to its opposing workers’ strikes against hard conditions and opposing the African-American struggle against racism as disruptive to the war effort and national unity.

Why is this important? Because years of following and defending such conflicting stands dulled, if not destroyed, any internal political life, any democratic debate over what is best for working-class revolution. It forced members to become dogmatic followers of politics imposed from above and on the basis of loyalty to the Soviet Union above all. This pretty much destroyed any dialectical and materialist analysis, as party members and leaders were forced to defend Soviet policy as if it were in the interest of the oppressed and exploited, which I believe it was not. It also undermined support for the party among black people generally, among militant and radical workers, among peace activists, and anti-fascists of all kinds. This practice over many years effectively destroyed any internal political life which could meaningfully impact policy. And without studying this heritage, we inherited all the negative and harmful aspects of CP practice, which the PL leaders brought with their subjective revolutionary aspirations.

SG: About the Vietnam War, just exactly what was PL’s position? After the repudiation of nationalism, how was opposition to the Vietnam War explained?

ES: That is a really good question. The PL leadership criticized the Vietnamese for taking aid from the Russians who we thought were social imperialists — socialist in name, but imperialist in action. They were the center of ideological revisionism — peaceful transition to socialism, peaceful competition with imperialism, and so on. Taking that aid from them opened the door for Russian influence on the revolution, undermining the war being pursued on the basis of class struggle. So it was a combination of Russian aid and the fight against what we called revisionism and the lack of an explicitly working-class basis for the Vietnamese prosecution of the war — which was instead on a national basis, included an alliance with the national bourgeoisie, and opposed the working class fight for communism in Vietnam. So, we were critical on that basis. Some people took that to mean that we wanted the Vietnamese to fight to the death and be killed. Obviously that was not our intent. Still, it’s understandable that somebody could say, “PL thinks the Vietnamese are not pure enough and that they should fight and be destroyed.” Because if you don’t take Soviet anti-aircraft, what are you going to fight with? Bamboo spears?

From the beginning, PL was trying to radicalize the anti-war movement. We fought for the idea that this was an imperialist war, not a civil war, that the government in the south was a puppet government installed by the U.S., that it was about American imperialism trying to quash the revolutionary movement in Vietnam. That was our initial starting point, and we gained a lot of traction with that. Anti-imperialism became a very common outlook in the anti-war movement by 1969. You can read PL pamphlets on revolutionary nationalism. The anti-nationalist critique of Vietnam did not come until 1968. This is where the failure of the party theoretically to examine its own history critically led to a very one-sided or Stalinist approach. Revolutionary nationalism is a good thing, because it led to black people to stand up in the U.S., to the Cubans fighting imperialism and fighting their own dictatorship, to the Vietnamese fighting against American imperialism. So, the PL’s initial anti-imperialist line was very successful.

From being pro-nationalist, because it brought people into struggle with imperialism, we came and said, “Actually, it’s all reactionary.” I would say both things are true. Nationalism has a component that brings people into struggle, and it has a component that buries the class distinction in the struggle and therefore favors the bourgeois resolution of the struggle, prepares a basis for a new form of capitalist production relations and everything that goes with them. This is where all the failures of PL come into the clearest focus and began to have a very damaging effect on our work. People had to deny the reality of our political line to continue the struggles we were organizing for. After Fred Hampton was murdered by the cops and the FBI in Chicago, we couldn’t even participate in a march against his assassination. They would have beaten us up and thrown us out of the march.

SG: In the American union movement, white people were dominant. Eventually that gets criticized by the white skin privilege position where they ask white workers to renounce their union positions and argue for the value of black caucuses. At the same time, some black people adopted anti-union sentiments. I was wondering how PL responded to the legacy of racism specifically as a labor problem.

ES: In a way, that was at the root of everything. For instance, when PL took part in worker organizing, they argued that promotion had to be on the basis of seniority. They wouldn’t have used the phrase “white skin privilege.” Going back to the CP, we felt that we must oppose racism by insisting upon the class line. We thought, we will only be successful if we have the solidarity of all workers. Radicals who were involved in labor organizing had to physically come into conflict with the Klan. Hardcore racists beat them up with baseball bats and iron pipes, white workers fighting other white workers. We fought against having exclusively white workers in the skilled trades, which we argued had to be opened up to everybody on the basis of skill and seniority, especially seniority. This took place both in the North and the South. And, of course, there was always this nativist thing against immigrants and others entering into the labor force. People who were born and raised here opposed Irish workers when they came on the scene — “No Irish need apply” — and stuff like that. So, there’s this conservative tendency in the legacy of the labor movement, but there’s also a radical tendency that’s more inclusive, which expresses itself in many forms from the Knights of Labor, going all the way back. It says, “We have to stand together as workers, which means opposing the oppression of specific groups.” PL tried to build on that radical tradition.

The change in PL’s position on black nationalism was stated in our magazine, PL. I don’t remember the month. I think it had to be, maybe, the fall of 1968. I was in the national student leadership at the time. We were called to New York and were informed that PL’s position was that all nationalism is reactionary. There was no previous discussion, no argument or debate within the party. The national leadership decided it and gave it to us. It was classic sectarianism. That is exactly the wrong way to develop a revolutionary movement, and it was extremely destructive. It hit us like a thunderbolt out of the clear blue sky. For myself, I think both were wrong. To support revolutionary nationalism without pointing to the need for black workers and working-class interests to be in league is a mistake. So, both the pro- and anti-nationalist positions held a non-dialectical view of the matter. We failed to see that nationalism is both things at once and that they’re in conflict with each other.

SG: How did PL relate to Trotskyism?

ES: We never saw them, didn’t acknowledge them or read their materials. They didn’t exist as a historical force for us. About people who walk around with a sign saying, “All Indochina Must Go Communist!” I have to ask, “Who the fuck are you talking to? You are telling Americans that Indochina must go Communist? What does that have to do with their lives?” There was no connection visible. So, the Spartacist League just struck me as insane. I was involved with the Socialist Workers Party, not as an organizer or anything like that, but my wife was on the YSA’s national committee and a member of the SWP. They organized anti-war committees. Well, the Maoists with whom I got associated in Friends of SNCC in Chicago — when SNCC took a nationalist turn and there was no longer room for white people in it, a lot of us, black and white — turned to organizing the first committee against the war in Chicago. I was one of the organizers of it and I was the chairman, because I could devote full time to it. So, I went to a meeting of the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam that the SWP held — because a lot of these groups were their front groups — in 1965. Their line was that antiwar should be a single issue, and since we were Maoists and thought of ourselves as revolutionaries, we thought, “No, Vietnam should be part of the critique of American society as an imperialist country.” That’s how you can connect with people, because you can show that imperialism is really the ruling class in this country expanding internationally, and the ruling class in this country causes our problems. So, there was a link. These are, in effect, our brothers and sisters fighting overseas. It’s not just that the war is a bad thing.

SG: So, ideologically for PL, it always came back to opposition to American imperialism?

ES: Well, opposition to Russian imperialism, too. But, yes, it would always come back to that. Of course, we are talking about a time before I knew PL existed. This was my experience with the SWP. They threw us out of the Committee to End the War, even though we were the leaders and founders of the Chicago contingent, because we disagreed with their political line of single-issue mobilization. So, what I learned from these experiences was that Trotskyists come in two varieties, crazies and liberals. I recall, for instance, that we confronted the SWP and had a fight with them because they were selling their paper at a U.S. Steel plant in Chicago and we were too, and our attitude was, “We’re the revolutionary working-class party. Get the fuck out of here!” I am not proud that we fought with them, but it is true.

SG: And Trotsky himself?

ES: Remember, our leadership came out of the CP. The CP had since the late ‘20s been anti-Trotskyist. These people never broke from that. They still held the view that Trotsky was an imperialist agent.

SG: Why was the race question so divisive in the mid- to late 60s, and how did it condition the PL and RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement) split in 1969?

ES: Because it meant we were criticizing the Black Panthers, who were under attack and who were organizing a mass base around their ten-point program — breakfast for kids and stuff like this. So, they’re building a base and there was an element of the Panthers, of whom Fred Hampton was the most eloquent, who said, “The problem is capitalism and the answer is socialism,” and, “We don’t fight racism with nationalism, but with solidarity,” and stuff like that. PL’s line was very controversial, not least because it extended to the “Third World revolutions,” which were all nationalist. So, a lot of people were attracted to the anti-colonial revolutions taking place in the world. There was the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnamese were fighting, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution looked like an answer to Russian revisionism. It was very inspiring, and now PL comes out and shows that all these things, which we previously supported, mind you, are reactionary. They were inspiring when you are faced with a ruling class which has engaged in anti-communism, which has crushed thousands of the best activists in your lifetime, is as reactionary as it can be, and now people are struggling against it and breaking their chains. It’s so different from today. Things are just the opposite today. We have reactionary nationalists, neo-Nazis, and dictators rising up seemingly everywhere. On the face of it, it looks like what you would call “the death of the Left,” even though, beneath the surface, in places like South Africa, it’s not true. So, it was immensely detrimental and harmful to our politics.

SG: Wasn’t PL accused of being racist because of adopting that line? Do you think that was justified in retrospect?

ES: Was it meant as racist? No, but I think it led to racist conclusions. For example, PL said black youth should go to the factories for an education and not to the university. I would say, objectively, that’s racist. But it was explained as a necessity: if you’re going to fight revisionism, if you’re going to fight against returning to capitalist social relations under socialist names, you have to fight the ideas that give rise to it. PL’s line was that nationalism gives rise to capitalist relations, because it obscures the class differences in the revolutionary movement. Black nationalism was a leading form of it here in the U.S. In factories, there were black caucuses forming. We in Chicago were directly involved in supporting one such wildcat strike led by black workers at a company called REA.

To address RYM-II and their successors, those people supported the Third World struggles as the leading edge of revolution, which was seen as nationalist. Most of them saw white workers as benefiting from imperialist exploitation and racist oppression. So, that’s where the division was.

 SG: So, PL’s line on the black question was divisive.

ES: It was divisive because the black movement and the Third World revolutions, especially the Vietnamese, were the most powerful motivating factors, along with the war itself. The war was central to the movement at that point. And the fight against racism was hot and heavy. Cities were burning, black leaders were being assassinated. There was rebellion in the factories. For instance, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and black caucuses were autonomously forming. Finally, there was the black struggle in the military. In the military, black soldiers and sailors took a leading role. Racism was rampant, shitty. That jobs' most dangerous positions were deadly. I have met former sailors who were involved in machine gun fights on U.S. Navy ships with white officers and their supporters. They had to send Henry Kissinger out to one of these ships to broker a truce, it was so intense. So, it wasn’t an abstract question. Political bombs were going off all the time.

So, the line on nationalism led to the split in 1969. Like I said, before 1968, PL had emphasized the need to fight racism. But when PL came out with its anti-nationalism line — that nationalism was reactionary — it made things almost impossible. Effectively, it meant that we retreated from support for, or getting involved in, anti-racist struggles. Nobody wanted to hear, “You’re reactionary in what you’re doing,” to say the least. I was giving a talk for SDS, where I was a chairman, at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) about organizing a strike, when two Panthers physically picked me up and removed me from the place where I was speaking. That’s how deep the anger and the hatred was. So, in the fall of 1968 and in the lead-up to the convention, all the other political tendencies that were evolving opposed PL. That had been true even before the change in line on nationalism, because PL was gaining strength. We were persuading lots of student activists that the working class was the center of the fight against the war, let alone for socialism. We were winning students to see that you, as students, can actively ally with and impact workers and build a connection with them, because working class struggles are taking place all over the country in different forms. We were saying, build the struggles against racism with the idea that white people have an interest in it. It’s not about giving up privileges. Workers are exploited as workers, and that means whites too. We had a one-sided view of that. We did not really acknowledge the fact that there was privilege. It was all about whites are exploited this much, blacks are exploited that much. I would call it one-sided. So, the fight against racism was incredibly important. It was a defining thing. SDS initially grew around fighting racism. So, it was never a question of whether to, but a question of how to. All the other political tendencies that eventually became the Revolutionary Youth Movement, before 1969 all of them came together around a single point of agreement: fight PL. Whether it was Bernadine Dohrn, who called herself “the working-class Marcuse,” or others who became Stalinists, they all agreed to fight PL before 1969.

SG: What about the charge that PL was narrowly workerist and anti-intellectual?

ES: I think you’re right. The older members of PL didn’t grasp the importance of real theoretical work. The focus was always on the line, not the theory behind the line. I think that contributed to the decay. Many students had more educational and even intellectual aspirations than their parents did. Then you have PL discouraging the intellectualism as well as more high-brow, white-collar aspirations, even rejecting theory to a certain extent and just trying to get people into the factory.

Remember that the economy was very different then. Up until 1973, I could go and get a job in a factory with no skills and no background and make a living wage. I could pay rent on a small apartment with one week’s pay. You could get a job with the post office, driving the bus, as a machine operator. There were maybe a few hundred factories in the Chicago area. I got maybe three different factory jobs within three or four years. I would just walk in, fill out an application, get the job, and somebody would teach me how to run the machines. I would have a one-bedroom apartment at, say, $60–70 a month. Even at $2.25 per hour after taxes, I would make that much in a week. It wasn’t until the recession of 1973 and the mass layoffs that work became an issue. So, in my time in PL, it was not an issue. You could get a living wage factory job.

For black people, it was more difficult. I worked in an office at Western Chain Company. We would take people’s applications, and my boss would typically throw any black person’s application in the wastebasket as soon as they left. The same for white guys with long hair. They were seen as trouble.

So, at the time, I was fine with working in a factory. It was actually challenging in many respects. But there were people who I would call serious intellectuals who did have a problem going and working with their hands. They really wanted to do intellectual work, but the party did not see the importance of that. As I say, there was no encouragement at that stage for members to become teachers, professors, research scientists, or any of those kinds of things. There was no understanding that this makes a useful contribution to the movement. Of course, we had people who could do and did intellectual work. So, it wasn’t one hundred percent. We had a magazine that examined other views — student power, i.e. should students be involved in running the universities, and many other issues — and we had a pamphlet on imperialism that was very well researched and so on and so forth. But was there a continuing anti-intellectualism and crude workerism? The answer is yes.

SG: I want to return to the 1969 SDS split. Writing in the Madison Kaleidoscope just after the 1969 SDS convention in Chicago, Paul Buhle of the Revolutionary Youth Movement gave this account of what went on after Bernadine Dohrn concluded her speech on why the rest of SDS could no longer be in the same organization with the members of the Workers-Student Alliance:

. . .we filed down the center aisle toward the door with the surrounding PL/WSAers waving their fists closer and closer shouting “you, you, you” to indicate who the splitters were. Three years ago, when PLP was a super-revolutionary group which scorned SDS, its members frequently wore red buttons with a black star and “Fight for Socialism — PLP” on them. The buttons disappeared rather suddenly, but now reappeared just as suddenly, and in great numbers (perhaps to differentiate PLers from the anti-PLers who wore Mao buttons).[3]

Is this report accurate? What is the history of the previous three years that Buhle is referring to? How might that have looked to him at the time? How did it look to you? How about now?

ES: In terms of this convention itself, when they left the convention hall after two days, we were chanting, “Stay and Struggle!” That was the main chant. We did not anticipate a split. We never had any plans for taking over SDS and becoming the dominant leadership of SDS. We did not plan for this. It was a spontaneous cry, “Stay and Struggle!” Their walkout was a surprise. What’s important is that when they left, they destroyed the membership lists, the mailing lists of New Left Notes. That meant there was no possibility of communicating with the chapters all across the country. Mark Rudd made a statement many years later that he and the other RYM people did the work of the FBI without realizing it.

SG: Is it true that PL outnumbered the rest of SDS at the split convention?

ES: Before the convention, we knew that we would have hundreds and hundreds of WSA members, and we were all one group. We knew roughly what the balance was between WSA and non-WSA in the different chapters. My job at the convention as one of the national student leaders was, when people came to register from their different chapters, to keep track of WSA supporters as they registered. We had between eight and nine hundred there. That is, we had at least two to three times as many as all the RYM people combined. Now, there was also a block of independents who weren’t associated with RYM or PL or WSA or anything. So, there were three forces: WSA — by far the largest group — several hundred independents, and several hundred RYM people.

SG: So, you guys were essentially kicked out by a minority?

ES: They left. We were never kicked out.

About the three years leading up to 1969, the first thing to say is that a sharpening, a conflict over perspectives, took place. SDS had changed under the impact of the war, even from what it had been in 1965–66. The war became the main thing, mainly because hundreds of thousands of people were being drafted. So, now, except for people in the upper middle class and above, anybody, any male, could be drafted. Consequently, almost every family could see that it was a life-and-death question. So, for instance, I had a friend who in 1964 supported Barry Goldwater yet by 1965 or 1966 was an anti-war activist and part of our organizing committee. So, it started out anti-racist, then became anti-war, but soon it was very big, with every kind of searching young person, without really having defined perspectives. At the same time, there’s the impact of PL coming in with a clear-cut perspective about the war, imperialism, racism, and the need for revolution that both wins acceptance and forces people to come up with alternatives. So, we see a period of three years, say from 1966 to 1969, of a rapid development of different and competing points of view.

SG: In the Platypus Review interview with Carl Davidson, he says, “that last convention was just a culmination of what was already happening on the ground. The question turned on, one, white supremacy, and two, ultra-leftism on all sides. We had a certain immaturity. I don’t know that we could have done any better, given the circumstances. I don’t think anything could have been done about it.”

ES: Carl is right. In a certain sense it was inevitable. In the chapters where there were Worker-Student Alliance people, there were conflicts, and these became either-or conflicts on the questions of fighting racism, imperialism, and Third World revolutions and nationalism. These were being fought out. For example, at UIC, there was a contingent of people who oriented towards white skin privilege and Third World revolutions, and we would come into ideological conflict at our SDS meetings. So, there were clear divisions at the local level, and the 1969 split did not come out of the blue. Still, as I said, we in the WSA were not expecting a division like that. We thought it would be a continuation. At all the national council meetings, people would raise proposals, there would be discussion and debate, and there would be votes on them, which conventions do. There had been a time when they tried to kick PL out and they didn’t really get much support for it. But in 1969, they had prepared. They were on the ideological offensive. In the year leading up to the convention, they had been attacking PL as racist, because we criticized the Panthers. So, they came out on the attack. They brought out the Black Panther speakers when Bernadine Dohrn spoke.

SG: I have another Buhle excerpt on that. He says: “On the convention floor in ‘69, discussion had been impossible. The divisions between PL/WSAers and the others were too deep to allow respectful listening to others’ arguments. Maybe bringing the Panthers in to speak was planned.”

ES: Not maybe, definitely. But go ahead.

SG: “. . . [at any event] the Panthers could only say what they did. . .they had to judge by the company [SDS] kept. Compared to this, other issues were bullshit.”

ES: They had two Panthers there to speak. They didn’t just walk in by themselves. It had to be planned. They were brought in after Bernadine denounced us, and we were on the defensive. So, they brought in a Panthers speaker who says that PL is racist, etc. It was a strong attack. But he then goes on to talk about the position of women in the movement being “prone,” and the whole room changed. The reactionary character of this overshadowed the attacks on PL, and not just for the WSA but for all the independents. So, something like eighty percent of the convention between the independents and ourselves were chanting, “Fight Male Chauvinism!” They brought on a second Panthers speaker who basically said the same thing. They brought up the position of women in the movement on their own, which was a huge mistake from the RYM people’s point of view. But that was the Panthers being the Panthers. That was their outlook, and they were explaining themselves. I’m sure Bernadine and the rest of them must have been horrified, because they lost the initiative. After that, they didn’t stay to debate anything but just retreated to another room. That’s my recollection. Both Panthers reiterated it. They were defending who they were and what they believed. Women were there to sexually serve the men. That’s their job. The Panthers, like all of us, were really a very mixed bag. “We’re for liberation as long as women are at the bottom doing what we want them to do.” It was a popular line in the Panthers. That’s all I can tell you. I don’t think they all necessarily subscribed to it. But Panther women have written that it was a tough fight for them to be recognized as fellow revolutionaries. At any rate, the question of women’s role or position in SDS was not a separate agenda item. The Panthers were not about to have somebody tell them what to say. They were brought in to attack PL. Then the move would have been, “PL out.” They hoped that, between their forces, the independents, and maybe some of the people in WSA, they could get a majority and vote us out of the organization. That was the political logic of it. But we didn’t anticipate it, or at least not at the level that I was involved. Maybe two or three of the student leaders did, but I didn’t. I was part of the national student leadership and we didn’t have such discussions. I remember being appalled that the Panthers were there on the platform to attack us. I will say that PL people tried to get around the PL perspective, tried to pretend that we didn’t really mean nationalism was reactionary, that this just meant that we offered critical support. For instance, WSA people in Iowa maintained friendly relations with and defended the Panthers.

SG: Looking back, the Revolutionary Youth Movement seems by far to have been the more successful side of the SDS split, in the sense that so many of its issues — black studies programs and colleges and universities, solidarity with separately organized black struggles, feminism, counterculturalism — now seem to make up the common sense of the Left in general. How do you assess the influence of the 1969 moment on the present? And how are we shaped today by those debates of half a century ago?

ES: Unfortunately, that’s probably true overall. I say unfortunately because, while identity politics speaks to the reality of immediate experience, ultimately they oppose the centrality of the working classes as a revolutionary force. It demotes class to being one among many forms of oppression, if it’s even recognized, which often it is not.

But I would also say in response, “Yes, but.” The “but” would be, for example, PL was always the leading force in San Francisco State, which fought for and won a black studies program. However, at the time that strike was going on, in the fall of 1968 and spring of 1969, PL’s official position was to oppose it. PL was leading it and continued to lead it, despite opposing it on paper. We downplayed the official line because we were committed to the struggle. And, as I have said, PL introduced the idea of American imperialism to the broader Left, which still uses that terminology or responds to it. But, again, in general you are right. When the ruling class is on the offensive, which they have been for forty-five years, trying to break down all restrictions to capital regardless of the human, social, and environmental costs, the ideas that don’t challenge that system are more easily spread, whereas the others are repressed. The issue of class still continues to come up, not because of PL but because people still recognize class.

SG: You have mentioned that you were expelled from PL in the early 1970s. What was the reason for that? What was your political trajectory after that, through the 1970s and 80s? What, positive and negative, did you take away from your experience in PL? How, in your estimation, did the New Left condition the subsequent history?

ES: There was nothing in writing, so it came as a complete surprise one day at a club meeting. I recall the charges as ranging from individualism to male chauvinism. Probably my strong continuing and vocal opposition to the party’s student work focusing on campus workers had something — or a lot — to do with it. I continued to attend party rallies and meetings of the front group, the Workers’ Action Movement. I also continued for a while to sell the Challenge newspaper at work. I got disgusted when PL continued to focus on the slogan “30 for 40” — thirty hours’ work for forty hours’ pay — rather than participate in local struggles and take up other issues.

"30 for 40"

For several years in the mid-1970s, I was very depressed politically and retreated into personal and family life. Later, by the late 70s, I joined a study group and began to gain my own bearings. I was active in an anti-fascist group, the Black and White Defense Committee, led by the Revolutionary Socialist League, a small Trotskyist group. We developed anti-fascist literature and had a fighting group as part of our work. We went to Nazi rallies and marches along with other groups, where possible. Sometimes we got into fights. Once we helped organize a large demonstration that broke up a national Nazi convention in St. Louis.

In the early 1980s, I was part of a small independent socialist group called the Anti-Imperialist Group. We did solidarity work around gay rights and with a radical workers’ caucus among meatpacking workers. We also built solidarity with South African black socialist workers in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, brought up a striking Pittston picket leader to speak with Chicago workers, and worked with local high school students to express solidarity with the Nicaraguan Revolution and against US Contra forces. Later, we built a united front to focus Central American solidarity work on a class-conscious, anti-imperialist basis. This lasted into the mid-80s. By the late 80s, I was deeply immersed in organizing a union, AFSCME 3506, among 1,500 adult educators in the city colleges of Chicago. There, I held many elected positions over the following eighteen years, until I retired.

PL won me to see the need for a revolutionary party, that racism serves the capitalist class, that working-class power is necessary to secure any communist revolution, and that “white” American workers could embrace these ideas as their own. It also showed me that accepting political decisions which I didn’t understand or agree with led me to pursue status and to betray my beliefs. I learned there that any successful political development must be rooted in a critical evaluation of a group’s political origin. When the party leadership imposed the line against all nationalism, PL showed me that democracy is not just a good idea, but that it is a necessity, that there is no substitute for a concrete and materialist analysis, that understanding the dialectical nature of social reality is not some empty phrase — in this case, that nationalism had both revolutionary and reactionary aspects.

So, the impact of the New Left on me was very contradictory — strong and weak, victories and defeats. Overall, we showed that American workers could accept open communist participation and ideas, but we failed to develop a revolutionary organization with deep roots. For example, mainly students organizing against the Vietnam War took mass actions against the government imperialism. Facing determined and well-organized mass resistance in Vietnam, this sparked U.S. military personnel to actively undermine and oppose that war. I believe this was unprecedented in American history. The New Left also helped generate the women’s movement, which challenged and changed many aspects of male dominated society and helped lay the basis for today’s growing struggles of women in the U.S. | P


[1] See: https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/1960-1970/plhistorynotes.htm

[2] Available at http://www.plp.org/key-documents/2010/2/24/build-a-base-in-the-working-class-1968.html.

[3] Paul Buhle, “SDS Split in Chicago: ‘I Hate Enver Hoxha’” Madison Kaleidoscope (July, 1969), 4.

4 comments

  • Posted 2 months ago

    I was the leader of PL in New England from 1965 to 1974, and, nationally, the co-leader of PL’s work in SDS until after the 1969 SDS convention. I found Earl Silbar’s remarks thought provoking, but he does not explain why PL’s student work failed so disastrously after having shown such promise.

    The actual cause of the destruction of the PL student work was the drastic decision in summer 1969 to drop the issue of the war and concentrate all PL’s student work on organizing campaigns to support campus workers.

    This decision was made by the leadership of the PL Steering Committee, made up of several members of the national committee (Milt Rosen, Fred Jerome, mainly).

    The decision was presented to me and Jeff Gordon (we led the work in SDS) in the form of an order from PL chairman Milt Rosen at his apartment in mid-summer 1969.

    Rosen said that students were basically reactionary and could only develop as a progressive force insofar as they were organically involved with workers.

    Up until that time the rather sophisticated line we had put forward in the student work was, in the course of struggles against the Vietnam war as linked to the campuses, and racism (ditto), to win students to a pro-working-class view of the world. For example, many in SDS argued that ROTC (that is, campus officer training) programs should be driven off campus because they polluted universities, which otherwise existed to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake. We said the universities as presently constituted existed to foster anti-working class ideas (i.e., they were not some ivory tower creations) and that the reason ROTC should be driven off campus was that it was used to train officers to crush working people, at home and abroad.

    Aside from claiming students could not be won to a pro-working class view absent actual organic links to workers, Rosen argued that the war in Vietnam was no longer an issue and so we should drop our campaigns opposing the ways the universities aided the war and concentrate exclusively on building a campus worker student alliance.

    I passionately and desperately (and Jeff, somewhat less passionately and desperately) argued with Rosen for several hours.

    I said that if we instituted this policy, dropped the war and took the people close to us and pushed them exclusively into the limited sphere of organizing campaigns to support campus workers, we would completely isolate ourselves and destroy our work. I might as well have argued with a brick wall.

    We left the meeting, and as we stood waiting for the subway, Jeff said, “I don’t know what you are going to do, but I am going to go along with this.”

    I was faced with a torturous decision. I knew that what Milt was ordering us to do would destroy our work. At the 1969 SDS convention, Harvard SDS had 125 voting delegates — one for every 5 dues-paying members of SDS at Harvard. Every one of those 125 was a member of the worker student alliance caucus. I knew that Rosen and Jerome’s line would drive away part of this group, and distort the thinking of the rest — because those who were not driven away would be following what they knew to be the wrong policy out of loyalty, a terribly mentally distorting situation. On the other hand, I also knew that if I refused to go along, whereas I would certainly win some in SDS to opposing Rosen’s position as wrong, many in PL would go with Rosen out of unwillingness to break party discipline, and there would be a real war, in which all probability most of PL and many in the worker student alliance would be against us ‘rebels’. On top of this, I was affected by my tremendous respect and personal affection for and loyalty to Milt Rosen. Probably my affection and loyalty affected me more than I would like to admit.

    It shakes me to the core to say that I decided to go along. When it became clear to me in Rosen’s apartment that I could not convince him, I wept. Now, 50 years later, the memory of my decision brings tears of rage — really, of frustration, since the past is irreversible — to my eyes. It was so terribly unfair to — well, really, to the world. We had built a huge base among students who understood the need for a class perspective instead of identity politics (identity politics being precisely what our opponents in SDS advocated) and now we were going to betray them, betray all we had done, make a mockery of our previous stance. And quite frankly, with me supposed to sell this garbage.

    I was not a good salesman. To test my loyalty, I was appointed PL national student organizer and sent on a national tour to visit friends and members around the country. I had never been at a loss for words before, but now I truly did not know what to say to these kids. I had zero enthusiasm for this horrendous line. Apparently I failed the test, because shortly thereafter, following a typically impish attack on me by Fred Jerome, I was (mercifully) removed as national student organizer and ordered to go to work in a factory and have nothing to do with the student work, which, of course, given our idiotic line, became quite sectarian. ( I was replaced by the infinitely obedient Bob Leonhardt. We had refused to recruit Leonhardt in Boston, considering him a self-important fop, so he had gone to New York, was recruited instantly and, doing everything he was told, was put in charge of the PL work at Columbia U, which he proceeded to destroy. But Milt Rosen liked him ‘cause he followed orders. Goodie goodie gumdrops.)

    The effect of the campus worker student alliance, as Rosen’s line was called, was indeed disastrous. At Harvard in the fall of 1969, 1250 students attended the first SDS organizational meeting. One thousand two hundred and fifty. Not a ‘left wing’ count – a real count. At Yale, 750 students. Real count. Elsewhere in the country, fewer — but very large numbers. The mass desire to oppose the war was intense. ALL these people wanted to organize and organize NOW. And instead, we put forward the idiotic line that the only way for students to play a progressive role was only to link up directly with workers by supporting our various campaigns in favor of campus workers, against racism against campus workers, or whatever. The students didn’t go away angry — they just went away. Then, gilding the lily of our self-immolation, the Steering Committee of PL told us to send our best people into the army to organize God knows what.

    The point – the Steering Committee’s point – was to get them away from the schools. Just as sending me to work at the Westinghouse Plant in Hyde Park was to get me away from the student work. Jeff Gordon was made into a Danon Yogurt delivery man. With me, the oiler at Westinghouse, and Jeff handling yogurt, and some of our superb organizers at Harvard fixing army trucks, the rulers trembled.

    When I had argued fiercely with Rosen in his apartment in mid-summer he had had NO intelligent answers to my arguments. Why? For the simple reason that there WERE no intelligent answers. My point — that dropping the war and going all-out for the campus worker student alliance would destroy our student work — did not deter him because THAT WAS THE REASON FOR DEMANDING WE DROP THE WAR and deal only with the campus worker campaigns.

    For Rosen and Fred Jerome the real problem was that our approach in SDS had been to ‘criticize everything’. We were a threat. We didn’t know it, but they did.

    We had built a big WSA caucus — Silbar says a thousand; well, it was well over 300 in Boston alone – and these people in the caucus, in turn, were involved with many many thousands of students. The top PL leaders were career professionals. Leading PL was their cushy profession, and they saw our great success as a potential threat to their sinecures, and so, they gave us an order which, once carried out, would allow them to cash in the chips — that is, turn the wonderful work we had done into a controllable group – a group whose controllability was proven precisely by their willingness to adopt this idiotic line — providing bodies and money, with no threat of a mass movement getting out of hand due to the ‘bourgeois nature of students’ cause we were no longer connected to the mass movement. That this killed the potential for an exponential growth of a uniquely honest left in the US was, for them, not a negative; it was a positive. That the act of going along with this macabre line had to, of necessity, screw up the minds of those who went along was of zero concern to them. They did not like what we had done in SDS. Not at all. After all, as Milt Rosen said to me some years later, pointing to a white wall, “When I say that wall is blue I want you to say “Blue!” and jump.”

    This is not the first time this scenario has been played out in various ways in communist organizations. It leads me to say that communism, certainly since the death of Lenin, has been the main obstacle to progressive change. Case in point, the disastrous role of the Comintern in the civil war in Spain. Enough said, for the moment.

    — Jared Israel

    by Jared Israel on June 7, 2019 1:11 am
  • Posted 2 months ago

    I share Jared’s sentiments that the campus worker-student alliance drove most students out of SDS. It guaranteed our isolation during the tumultuous years of ’69 through ’73.

    Not surprisingly, Jared ignores the painful fact that he was the main whip
    Enforcing this politics into the pl-led remnants of SDS- according to several
    former PLers in a position to know.

    by Earl Silbar on June 8, 2019 7:25 pm
  • Posted 2 months ago

    I am surprised by Earl’s comment, that I ‘understandably’ ignore my role in pushing the campus worker student alliance, since much of my text is devoted to my role — and my strong feelings about that role — in selling the devastating campus worker student alliance line which, as I point out, did much more than just drive many people away from SDS and isolate PL (as Earl states) but which, as I pointed out, also transformed the thinking process of all who stayed in PL and the WSA caucus. It “broke” us, from the wild horses we had been, to tame farm animals. And that was the purpose. We had to be processed, so to speak, to be transformed into proper organizational material. (It also transformed – for the worse – the thinking of the people who left, permanently embittering them. What a marvelous line!)

    I won’t re-post what I wrote. If Earl cares to read the relevant text, he can do a word search for the words “I was faced with a torturous decision.”

    Milt Rosen called me to his apartment to tell me the new line because my position, as the person perceived as the leader of PL’s work in SDS, meant I was a potential menace.

    Jeff Gordon was there too, but Jeff was, unlike me, a Steering Committee member (I was just a member of the national committee, which the steering committee controlled).

    Milt would NEVER have met with me and Jeff without first making sure that Jeff was fully briefed and on board.

    I believe Jeff was assigned to pretend to moderately oppose Milt, and then, afterwards, when he and I were alone, to tell me that despite hesitations he was going to go along with Milt (which is what he did indeed tell me afterwards) in order to provoke me into telling the truth about what I planned to do — whether I would go along or secretly planned to fight.

    Milt of course knew I could not respond with silence. Given my influence in the WSA caucus nationally, and given that PL was a democratic centralist party — run in fact as a dictatorship — I had either to back the line or split the party. So Jeff was assigned to find out so that Milt and Fred Jerome (and Jeff, I regret to say) could be prepared, if necessary, for a ruthless battle. (“Ruthless battle” is not hyperbole. We had built a mass movement, especially in the Boston area, where people were encouraged to challenge everything. Milt and Fred Jerome were perfectly clear that inevitably, that meant challenging THEM. So there was a lot at stake, and Milt and Fred Jerome and friends were NOT some idealistic college students.)

    I make it abundantly clear in my text, above, that I decided to back the line and was then made PL national student organizer, and told to go around the country selling the line. It is a standard practice of communist organizations to make rebellious elements sell the line they have opposed. Whatever Earl’s anonymous friends told him, I did NOT do this with enthusiasm. (If I had been enthusiastic, then, of course, Earl, who was student leader in Chicago, would have known, and would not now need to rely on some anonymous ‘people in the know.’)

    As I state in my text above, I more than regret my decision to support the wars-not-an-issue-organize-campus-worker-student-alliance line – indeed I hated the decision when I made it — , although I do not know, if I had taken the alternative course — leading certainly to an all-out war in PL and perhaps, as the best of several possible outcomes, THREE national SDS’s — whether things would have turned out better. The problem was inherent in the situation: as has happened so many times with Communist parties, we had created a healthy, vibrant movement under the temporarily tolerant control of a profoundly unhealthy and ruthlessly dictatorial leadership, which was letting us run free for a time so that we could gather supporters, but which would ultimately destroy our work if and when it became an existential threat to them, harvesting what they could from the ruins.

    Earl says in the interview that PL won him to democratic centralism. Perhaps he forgets that it was I, in a many-hours-long car trip, who argued with him until he was won over. His counter argument in that car was, ‘What if the leadership is rotten, and enforces a destructive line?’ It is ironic that this was precisely the situation I faced in 1969, and handled in a way that torments me to this day.

    by Jared Israel on June 10, 2019 3:25 am
  • Posted 2 months ago

    PL organized the AFSCME local at the University of Minnesota hospital during the early 1970s. But it also still had weight in the student movement in 1972 strikes at the U. SDS meetings were attended by 50-75 people, which is and is not that many. It played a role in running army recruiters out of Dinkytown and assaulting the ROTC building, along with barricades on Washington Avenue. As well as building occupations. Some people had indeed been lost to the Attica Brigade, a temporary grouping. SDS still existed perhaps because Minneapolis was not so ‘wired in’ to New York. It was still one of 3 components to the left on campus – the SWP and New American Movement (NAM) being the other two.

    by CG GIbbs on June 13, 2019 7:11 am

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