“On the side of the oppressed”: An interview with David Gilbert
Platypus Review 117 | June 2019
On April 20, 2019, Spencer A. Leonard wrote to David Gilbert by the post, sending him written interview questions. Gilbert replied with his responses in a letter dated May 12, 2019. A former member of the Weather Underground, Gilbert is currently imprisoned at the Wende Correctional Facility for his role in a 1981 armored car robbery that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a security guard. He has written two books: No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner (2004) and Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (2011).
Spencer A. Leonard: The Columbia University Library recently put up an exhibit on “1968: Columbia in Crisis.” The online version of that exhibit states the following about the history of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at the university:
Columbia students established a small chapter of SDS in 1965. At no time was Columbia’s chapter of SDS any bigger than fifty core members. At first, the organization was led by the “praxis axis,” a group of students focused on education, recruitment, and radical theory rather than large-scale action. When Mark Rudd was elected chairman of SDS in the spring of 1968, however, he proposed and pursued a much more dramatic “action faction” strategy.
Is this brief account essentially accurate? What can you add as a former member of that chapter and of SDS? How would you frame the story of leftist student politics at Columbia in the 1960s?
David Gilbert: The “praxis axis” versus “action faction” narrative is a ready handle but is an oversimplification that could be misleading for drawing lessons about strategic thinking. My personal experience is very divergent from that framing, although it was evidently very real within the SDS chapter.
After graduating from Columbia in 1966, I continued to relate to the chapter, but didn’t go to meetings or engage in the day-to-day debates. My main work was in the SDS chapter at the New School for Social Research, where some of us promoted the concept of praxis, but not at all in opposition to action. The term stands for the unity of theory of practice, to develop theory by reflecting on activism and then trying to apply the theory to develop that activism. We never meant it as pure theory. For example, we organized the landmark city-wide demonstration that blocked and disrupted the Foreign Police Association gathering on November 11, 1967. We had two goals. First, to bring to the East Coast the mobile affinity groups and “guerilla-like” tactics used to shut down the Oakland draft board. Second, to expose a ruling-class formation broader than just the immediate war machine to educate about the nature of imperialism. In March of 1968, we organized a one-day strike against the war at the New School, which was very much intended as an example to encourage other campuses. Then I went to the SDS National Council meeting to be on a panel advocating student strikes against the war.
Columbia University SDS was formed in 1965 to be both more multi-issue and more militant than the Vietnam Committee, and one important, controversial form of action was to disrupt job recruiters from the military-industrial complex who came on campus. But by the time Mark Rudd and others were advocating for a strike, the leadership was stodgier and less confrontational. They tended to draw on “praxis” as a rationale. There are always “armchair revolutionaries.” I remember walking through campus one day and seeing a graduate student I knew at the literature table who complained to me: “Do you know what those crazy kids are doing? They’re sitting in at an office connected to war research.” So, I immediately headed to that building and joined them. But there were valid discussions and debates on priorities — building a base of support or dramatic action to excite and mobilize people.
Anyway, it should never be theory versus action. You need both — and, of course, organizing is absolutely essential — you need all three. Certainly, the preceding years of organizing at Columbia were a giant factor in why the strike could happen and be successful. How organizing, action, and theory come together in any period or moment is an art, in the sense that there’s no blueprint. Theory can be helpful in identifying directions that aren’t obvious in day-to-day work, but it is also an area where you’re most vulnerable to going off on tangents that take you away from the struggle. Another big problem is that this arena traditionally has been extremely male-dominated, which is not only wrong in itself, but also undermines the quality of the theory produced.
Getting back to Columbia, Mark Rudd and the Action Faction provided great leadership, first in promoting the idea of a strike and then in having a sense that the moment was ripe, especially in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., for dramatic, catalyzing action. His move was to disrupt and then walk-out on the Columbia University official commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. The crocodile tears from that very racist administration were terrific.
SL: In Love and Struggle you describe the “praxis” moment in SDS in these terms:
Most people in SDS didn’t like. . . Marxist rhetoric and abstract theorizing, whether old-line [Progressive Labor (PL)] or our “neo-Marxist” approach. But many were looking for a way forward and especially to counter PL’s influence. . . For the first time, SDS’s organizational journal, New Left Notes, added a theoretical supplement, “Praxis”. . . [Robert] Gottlieb, [Gerry] Tenney, and I — jokingly labeled “the praxis axis” — were the editors.
I recently read a volume of the “lost writings of SDS” that includes the “Port Authority Statement,” a major “praxis axis” statement, some of which appeared in New Left Notes. In that work, you and your coauthors invoke and/or address the likes of C. Wright Mills, Andre Gorz, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, and, of course, Karl Marx. Looking back, how do you understand the turn to Marxian intellectualism in the last years of SDS? What, in broad terms, were you trying to accomplish in the “Port Authority Statement”?
DG: We had a mix of objectives in writing the “Port Authority Statement.” For me, a major purpose was to counter the rising influence of traditional (white, male) Marxism that said the working class was the only revolutionary force in a way that was dismissive of the student movement. We wanted to justify the student rebellion, for the very good reason that it was much more anti-racist and anti-war than labor at that time. We appreciated Marxism as providing the best tools for analyzing capitalism but didn't think we could simply repeat formulas from the 19th century. So that's why we called ourselves “neo-Marxists,” to emphasize looking at changes in the structure of production and society. Of the three of us, Bob Gottlieb was the one who had studied and brought in “new working class” theory from France. For me, the rising importance of technical and other skilled workers seemed to provide a Marxist rationale for why students were rebelling and increasingly strategic.
Naturally, I now see a lot of the problems with that theory. In our paper, we had a lot on imperialism, but the two segments, changing production in the U.S. and imperialism, were simply juxtaposed, not related to each other. We failed to grapple with the negative political impact of privilege, and what it means to be more elite workers within an imperial power. And, similarly, we didn’t adequately take on white supremacy and male supremacy within the U.S. and how that affected different strata of the working class. I think in those respects, even given the changing nature of production, the “new working class” was a misdirection.
The push for SDS to take theory more seriously was needed especially because Progressive Labor was using the power and prestige of Marxist terminology to move SDS away from solidarity with national liberation struggles abroad and the black and other liberation struggles within the U.S. People like myself and Naomi Jaffe, the rare folks who had studied (and loved) Marxism, were increasingly called upon to lead studies to counteract PL’s corrupted version. But the specific concept of the new working class was not helpful.
SL: How did you, as a significant participant and young intellectual within the Praxis Axis, come over to the position of your antagonists in the Columbia SDS chapter, the so-called Action Faction led by Mark Rudd? How, from there, did you come to join the Weatherman group in 1969?
DG: As I have already said, I don’t agree that the Action Faction were my antagonists. When Mark Rudd first told me of his strike proposal, maybe at the end of 1967, I felt that he had to put much more thought into the politics and demands, that it shouldn’t be reduced to a matter of a tactics, but I was in favor of student strikes against the war and racism. That spring, they certainly had a much better sense of the energy and potential at Columbia and how to catalyze it than I did. When the strike actually erupted, I was really excited. In a way it was a high point in what I worked on for four years. What an incredible advance to shut down an elite institution from within in solidarity with Harlem and Vietnam!
SL: What was the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) before it split? What were its origins, aims, aspirations? What about the wider crack-up within SDS over Progressive Labor? Why did it split the way that it did in 1969? Were the political debates in SDS at that time adequate to the circumstances? Was SDS overdue for dissolution in 1969?
DG: The RYM was a strategic breakthrough that accomplished what we tried and failed to do with the “new working class” theory. RYM affirmed the youth rebellion but saw it as a bridge to involving more whites on an anti-war and anti-racist basis. Youth were rebelling because they were the least integrated into the structures of imperialism. The student rebellion had many cultural, and emerging political, links to working class sectors. Our job was to organize there — GIs, draft resisters, community college students, drop-out communities — on an anti-war and anti-racist basis. Unfortunately, there was little or no recognition of the need to ally with the emerging women’s liberation movement.
In my view, the split with PL was necessary because they tried to lead us away from what was fundamental: solidarity with the struggles of the most oppressed, specifically Vietnam and revolutionary black nationalism. The subsequent split with RYM-II is different. Yes, SDS still had potential vitality. We very much needed a national militant mass anti-imperialist organization. Why and how that split happened is more complicated than I can take on here, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. I will say that we were young and inexperienced revolutionaries who suddenly found ourselves up against the most powerful and ruthless ruling class in history. It was challenging and scary, and after doing a lot that was right we also made costly mistakes.
SL: Why the seeming self-segregation of the New Left along racial lines? Why was the position that blacks and whites should be in separate organizations — a position that began with SNCC, seemingly temporary and pragmatic — ultimately raised to a principle?
DG: There are many accounts, better than I can do, of why black nationalism emerged and people worked in separate organizations. But I’ll note that it went beyond the dynamics of how blacks and whites interacted in SNCC and elsewhere. Black Power was a breakthrough that led us from “we’ll shake the moral conscience of America” to understanding that what was needed was a fundamental change in the power structure. That was combined with the move toward more militant forms of struggle and the challenge to white activists to organize in the white communities. Fifty years later, a lot has been done to establish self-determination and leadership in and of people-of-color struggles. I think there is still a role for separate, allied organization but also more possibilities for multiracial formations.
SL: The anti-imperialism of the New Left seems largely to have been dispensed with today. One would never hear in a demonstration today a slogan analogous to “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!” or, if one did hear, say, an Islamist slogan, those raising it would be viewed as being decidedly (if benignly?) to one side. To what extent, looking back on it, did the New Left mistake Third World solidarity for revolutionary struggles?
DG: The dearth in internationalism today is deplorable, as the U.S. is carrying out bombings in at least seven countries, killing even many more people with economic sanctions, and has been on serial regime-change offensives that have turned numerous countries into hells on earth. And, incidentally, the Pentagon and all its wars are by far the biggest polluters and sources of greenhouse gases in the world.
A big difference is how inspiring we found the national liberation struggles in the 1960s and 70s. Their vision and initial programs did go way beyond decolonization in that they were based in the peasants and workers, advocated an economic that would break from imperial domination, and put forward many measures for the emancipation of women. But, mainly, they have not achieved those goals. There are many reasons. One is the continued power of imperialism, both to attack and sabotage any alternatives, but also because small Third World countries have found it so daunting to try to buck the world market. The other is internal, how the struggles haven’t gone far enough in building the active participation of the oppressed.
I don’t know if the prospects can improve. I do know that internationalism is absolutely essential. It is not just a moral issue that the vast majority of the oppressed are in the Third World, and that we have an obligation to try to get imperialism off their backs. Strategically, that is where the most people are fighting the hardest, in a wide array of popular struggles that don’t get much media attention here. We don’t have a chance against this monster system unless we support and learn from those struggles. Our main source of strength against this mega-powerful ruling class is that we’re part of a massive world majority with a fundamental interest in revolutionary change.
SL: What legacy of SDS do you think most precious? What most in need of criticism?
DG: The legacy I would stress is always to be on the side of the oppressed and to never to lose our basic sense of humanity. | P