“Through the lens of the national liberation struggle”: An Interview with Carl Davidson
Platypus Review 117 | June 2019
On February 20, 2019, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed veteran of the New Left and New Communist Movement Carl Davidson, who recently edited a collection of “lost writings of SDS” entitled Revolutionary Youth & the New Working Class (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.
Spencer A. Leonard: Tell me about your own early politicization and experience in the SDS. What does the phrase “Prairie Power,” with which your cohort was associated, mean?
Carl Davidson: I started off with a conflicted consciousness in high school. I was a working-class greaser type into rockabilly and jazz. I was into science and technology, as a result of which I won a prize in the industrial arts show in high school for a three-stage rocket I designed. That got me a small scholarship and entrance into Penn State University in 1961.
I was more of a cultural rebel than anything, part of the Beat Generation before the hippies. I had never read any political books, but I avidly read Kerouac and Ginsberg. And my family was not political. They were just working-class people. But I fell into the beatnik and peacenik crowds. I became the first kid at Penn State to refuse to take the compulsory ROTC. I was the first non-Quaker to successfully challenge it and get a conscientious objector status. That got me connected to the peace movement. I had my experiences crossing the color line, entering jazz clubs in high school. I worked in fast food with blacks as well as whites. I was inspired by the sit-ins in Greensboro [in 1960] and all that. I joined SDS when they had their first antiwar march on Washington [in 1965]. The following year, I went to University of Nebraska. In the spring [of 1966], James Meredith was shot in Mississippi, so I went there on the Freedom March. I walked 250 miles through Mississippi. This is when SNCC launched its “Black Power” slogan. I was in the thick of that. It revolutionized me. When I went back to Nebraska, I was inspired to take up the fight against racism in my own community. So, I went back to my own community as a student. Stokely [Carmichael] had launched “Black Power,” but I wanted to know, what does that mean for students? I wrote an essay called “Toward a Student Syndicalist Movement.” I was a member of SDS and started traveling around to other chapters in the Great Plains.
That year, the SDS held its national convention in Clear Lake, Iowa. I was distributing my essay and did not think too much of it. At one point, Jane Adams came up to me and said, “we want you to run for vice president.” And then I won! All of a sudden, my whole life had changed.
SL: So, your paper was published in New Left Notes after that convention?
CD: Yeah, it had a big impact. More because of the title than anything else. The core idea was right, that students are a constituency and they were going to become more and more important as a constituency.
I moved to [where SDS headquarters were], Chicago. A friend of mine from Nebraska gave me an old 1948 Cadillac. I loaded up with literature and spent two years on the road. At that time, I must have visited 150 SDS chapters. I just loaded up with literature and Vietcong films and buttons: If I didn’t have enough money to get somewhere, I would just sell buttons and screen films until I had enough.
SL: And “Prairie Power”? What was that?
CD: SDS had been dominated by social democrats from New York City for a long time. When Paul Booth was national secretary he put out a position on the draft that said that, instead of drafting us, we should have national service: “Build, Not Burn.” We were much more radical. We said the problem with Paul’s slogan was that he had the comma in the wrong place! We were anarcho-syndicalists. At least, that is how I saw myself. We formed an alliance with some Texas anarchists. Since I had visited all the chapters in the Great Plains, I was recognizable. Calling ourselves “Prairie Power,” we tried to get rid of the social democrats in charge of the organization. Basically, we represented a younger New Left, less dominated by the old factional battles of the Left in New York. None of us had any idea who Max Shachtman was or any of those people. We saw ourselves as more in the tradition of the IWW and we were radicalized mostly because of the war. So, we threw those guys out and took over the organization. One of the first things Greg Calvert and I did was to put out the slogan “From Protest to Resistance.” We had to go beyond just having protests and build a revolutionary resistance movement. Greg picked up on the word “resistance” because he had spent some time in Europe during the Algerian War. He spent some time in Tunis supporting the Algerian revolutionaries resisting the French. That was some of the core of what Prairie Power really meant. It had nothing to do with the return to old ideas of Prairie Power. We picked up on the spirit of that, but really it was a way to move SDS towards a more radical anti-imperialist position. Once we got into national offices, we had to reshape the politics, and that is what we did.
SL: A few years ago, you edited and published Revolutionary Youth & the New Working Class: The Praxis Papers, the Port Authority Statement, the Port Huron Statement and Other Lost Writings of SDS, which republishes some lesser-known writings from the period of 1967–70. How would you characterize the significance of that period and the intervention that those writings were trying to make? Why they were subsequently neglected?
CD: If you ask people today what SDS was about, the first thing that comes to mind is the Weathermen blowing things up, going out in a blaze of glory. Maybe they will remember the first March on Washington. Some scholars will remember our community organizing, but about the serious theoretical work we did to go beyond the “Port Huron Statement,” the only factional document mentioned is “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows” from 1969. But that is only one of many from that time. I had probably the sole surviving copies of the most important of them, the document we wrote to replace the “Port Huron Statement.”
So, I had to resurrect these to correct the record, and I tell a story in the introduction. A TV anchor asked me to discuss the Days of Rage. I said, “I’ll do it if you do one thing: Go back and find the full television coverage of what happened that day.” I told him about how there was a counter action to the five hundred Weathermen breaking windows on Michigan Avenue. At the same time, same place, there were 10,000 of us — SDS, Black Panther Party, and others — marching through the working-class areas of Chicago. The TV guy had never heard of such a thing, but he went, dug around, and found the original footage. So, we had a great conversation and told a more all-sided story. But that was not the only inspiration for me to resurrect these documents. They are actually pretty good and hold up fairly well.
SL: Let’s talk about the “Port Authority Statement.” You describe it as a seminal document collectively written by a grouping within SDS referred to as the “Praxis Axis.” It represented a turn toward revolutionary Marxism and a further break with the social democratic past. More unmistakably, you were trying to focus on the new developments within capitalism.
CD: We were trying to be Marxists, not just recalling quotes from old books. We were trying to take the method of Marx and apply it to the U.S. of 1967. We were trying to do Marxism, to undertake a new class analysis of the United States. That was where we started. I was assigned to take the analysis in “Port Authority Statement” and apply it to the university, which resulted in “The New Radicals in the Multiversity.” There were lots of other works too, all of which attest to our changing ideas of consciousness. In them you find preliminary uses of thinkers like Gramsci, the Praxis Group, and French Marxists like André Gorz and Serge Mallet who were also studying the impact of science and technology. Taking some of those ideas and the method of Marxism, these documents — “The Port Authority Statement,” “The New Radicals in the Multiversity,” and others in the book — were products of that effort. “The Port Authority Statement” was very controversial at the time, but the U.S. working class was being transformed. The blue-collar sector was going to shrink. There was going to be a vast expansion of the service sector. There was going to be a sector pushed out of production altogether; we gave it the name the “underclass.” There would be a new sector related to science and technology, which we called “the new working class.” All that happened. We projected based on what we saw, understanding that these changes would transform American capitalism.
SL: How was your turn to Marxism in 1967 different from the Marxist-Leninist turn that took hold from 1969 onward.
CD: I will tell you how that happened to me. I was studying Marx, applying all that stuff, and coming up with all these great ideas. Then the factional struggle took off. In 1968, there were some 180 urban revolts, mass black revolts, all around the country. The national liberation movement was center stage. We had a faction in SDS called Progressive Labor that took the position that all nationalism was reactionary. They attacked the Vietnamese, Mao Zedong, and the black nationalist student movement, all the while claiming the mantle of Communism. To which we said, “No, you guys aren’t the communists. We’re the real communists.” So, we started studying Lenin, but through the lens of the national liberation struggle. We studied Lenin and Stalin to try to understand the national-liberation movement. While Progressive Labor was trying to break black student strikes, we were on the other side of the picket line, saying that they would have to get through us first. It was very practical, not just about ideas. Or, rather, the ideas manifested themselves in real life.
We entered what I call “the quest for orthodoxy.” To prove that we were the real communists, we started studying and quoting Lenin and Stalin. The polemics we made against Progressive Labor were correct. But, in a way, they had us retreating from doing New Marxism to doing the Marxism of the Comintern. The PL was a deviation of the Marxism of the Comintern, but so was the Soviet Union for that matter. At any event, we ended up in the camp of Third World Marxism: Cuba, especially, and China. We were caught up in a huge battle internationally for orthodoxy. PL was trying to say that the Communist Party of China was the true representatives of Marxism and that we were all revisionists. All the work that we had been doing, the Praxis Axis, the New Working Class, all that, got put on a shelf and forgotten about. Not until after the collapse of the Soviet Union did a bunch of us in Chicago decide to put an end to the quest for orthodoxy and study of everything again from the beginning. Marxism is a science, so we studied theoretical physics. We studied everything and came out on the other end.
SL: So, in retrospect, you came to look back at that period 1967–68 as a sort of lost opportunity?
CD: It was understandable. Things were going up all over the place. It is hard to be arguing for the role of technology in the working class when you have 180 armed rebellions around the country, or when you have a tank and soldiers right outside the SDS office. It focuses your mind in a different way. When SDS split up into different factions, I was with the RYM, the RYM II, then the October League, and later the League of Revolutionary Struggle. Only after the last of those groups broke up with the crisis in socialism that took place in the 1980s did it become apparent that the quest for orthodoxy had put us on a long detour.
SL: So, the polemic with Progressive Labor drew you into Marxism. But, at the same time, there is the growing pressure of events in 1968, so that, by the time of the Columbia Revolt, actionism is increasingly triumphant.
CD: The other group was called the Action Faction. We were the Praxis Axis. The Action Faction was headed by Mark Rudd and eventually became the Weathermen.
SL: Is it fair to say that there is a conflict between a deepening reflectiveness, on the one hand, and the impulse to respond to the immediacy of events, on the other?
CD: Columbia was a microcosm on the Left. We were trying to be new-fashioned, New Left Marxists. At the same time, people were getting caught up in the quest for orthodoxy and the quest of having to do something. When you look at someone who signed the Port Authority Statement like Dave Gilbert, he ended up in the Weather Underground and is still in prison today. He took the leap from the Praxis Axis, to the Action Faction, and on into Weatherman. By contrast, I took the leap into the RYM II, mainly because of the influence of Ted Allen and Harry Haywood. They became my teachers on the question of white supremacy and racialized capitalism. I consider them powerful influences to this day. From them, I learned about American history, the centrality of white supremacy, and the need for national liberation. That is why I never went into the Weather Underground.
SL: When did their influence start to be felt on your thinking?
CD: At the very end, one of the things written, I put into the collection about “The White Blindspot.” That was coauthored by Ted Allen and Noel Ignatin. I knew him from Chicago. He was a radical worker who worked for International Harvester. When he gave us this paper, we thought it was really good. Ted had coined the term “white skinned privilege,” but in a way that showed that it was against the interest of any worker, white or black, that it needed to be met head-on by the revolutionary unity of the working class. That, for us, was the answer to Progressive Labor. After 1968, I moved to New York and started working at the Guardian. We set up a study circle called the Harpers Ferry Organization. Ted was part of that, and we met every week for over a year. He tried out different chapters and sections of his book on us. He was really good at teaching us how to think. He would say, “We’re at a meeting of a Carpenters Union in 1863 in New York City, and President Lincoln has just issued a call for the draft. We are all workers here, so let’s debate the issue: for or against Lincoln’s call to the draft?” He would have one side of the room take one position, the other side the other position, then have us argue it out.
SL: He was a member of the Communist Party and of a generation older than you?
CD: Yeah, but he was sort of kicked out. He was with a group called the Provisional Organizing Committee, for a while. But, at this time, he was not a member of anything, just working on his book. Like I said, he made us study. You know, he really made us study American history and he was original. I mean, he just did not read Lenin and Stalin. He went down and spent years digging through the archives of the colonial Virginia legislatures. It took him years to find the first references to being “white.” Because there were no “white people” in Jamestown. That concept did not come into being until about 50 years after the colony’s founding.
SL: The struggle in SDS with the PL gets underplayed in a certain way, in the sense that the question of ideology is rarely mentioned. But what about the struggle within the Revolutionary Youth Movement? How, looking back on it, do you gauge the significance of those two struggles?
CD: That developed as soon as we got PL out. In fact, it broke out the next day. It had always been there as a tension between us and what became the Weather Underground, which put a lot of emphasis upon Regis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution and on the foco theory, the idea that you did not need a political party, but just needed to start a focus of armed struggle. So, there was tension within the Revolutionary Youth Movement. We knew the people who would form Weather Underground, and they were heavy into the kind of mindless militancy that came out in 1969 in the Days of Rage. Originally, there was supposed to be just be one united action. But in trying to plan for it, RYM split with Bill Ayers and them claiming they were going to organize huge busloads of angry white youth and were going to create a white riot. And our side, we argued we needed a united front against imperialism, made up of SDS, the Black Panther Party, and the Young Lords. Fred Hampton was still alive then. He had meetings around in Chicago in which he denounced the Weather Underground as “Custer-istic,” after General George Custer. He coined the term Rainbow Coalition, to capture what we were arguing for as the alternative. The Weather Underground people put up “Create Two, Three, Many John Browns” as a slogan, to which we responded with “Create Two, Three, Many Million John Browns.” So, we were trying to emphasize the importance of finding the road to the working class through its more rebellious youth elements. The Revolutionary Union Movement, the black sector of it, was on fire in Detroit. So, we felt that, by emphasizing the broad youth movement and trying to find ways to merge ourselves with this sector of the working class which was rebellious in the factories, that we could find the road to building a revolutionary party. The Weather Underground were not interested in that sort of work. They wanted to start their armed resistance now. But there was no basis of viability for that, apart from their romanticism and their desperation because of the continuing slaughter of the war.
A lot of Weather people came from wealthier families. I used to say their problem was that, while they hated imperialism, they hated the working class at the same time. As a result, they went berserk. They went off into a kind of nihilism. That happened because they had no connection with the working class or confidence in it. We were wide open to organizing in all sectors of the working class, they were not. They only wanted outlaws. I remember Bill Ayers once arguing “Fight the People” was a good slogan because the people, the American people themselves, are counterrevolutionary. You know his father was the chairman of ComEd. So, I told him, “It’s interesting, Billy, that you have the same view of people that your father does!” It was a cheap shot maybe, but it was poignant. So, the basis of the split between RYM-II and the Weather Underground was your attitude towards the American working class.
SL: Do you think that the breakup of SDS was late? That the actual collapse in 1969 of the national organization was just registering an accomplished fact? Or, do you think there was a real cost to that collapse, that there was more that a specifically student-organized, campus-based organization could and should have done?
CD: I argued at the time that what happened at the convention was just the icing on the cake. The real split had taken place chapter by chapter, across the country, the year before. I remember being at Brooklyn College when the black students there went on strike. The chapter was dominated by PL, maybe even the majority of it. The others were not with PL, but with the national office. PL said it was going to break the strike because it was nationalist and thus reactionary. We told them, “Unh-uh.” We got clubs and said, “You’re not going to go through this picket line. You’ll have to go through us first.” That sort of thing was replicated in chapters across the country in the year before the convention in Chicago. So that last convention was just a culmination 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.
SL: What about the way in which the women’s movement was also beginning to take separate organizational form in that period?
CD: That played a role, but it was not as big as the debate around white supremacy. I remember the first time it came up, it was the SDS National Council meeting in Champaign-Urbana in 1965. Some women had written a paper on women’s liberation that caused a great deal of discussion. It is kind of amusing to me, looking back on it. Basically, what happened is there were all these discussions going on, between men and women and women and women and men and men, all sitting out on the Long Bar into the night, discussing this resolution. Basically, the men fell into three camps. There was one camp that said, “Who the hell is going to make the coffee and run the mimeograph machines?” They were just prisoners of old ideas. Then there was a group of people in the middle who were just anguished and did not know what do. They were concerned about whether they were treating their girlfriends right. Then there was my anarchist wing I was into. We said, “Women’s power? Fine. Down with the patriarchy! Overthrow the fathers! Great!” We all thought of our own father. That is why we supported it. We didn’t know a damned thing about feminism, but just supported it because it sounded rebellious. It is easy to say “down with the patriarchy and overthrow the fathers” when you’re 22 years old. But when I was 28, I had two little girls. It is a lot different as a father. Plus, I had a great deal responsibility for my parents, so who was I going to overthrow? That had a way of changing one’s perspective.
But anyway, SDS tried to grapple with the women’s question seriously, and it led to a lot of anguish. A number of women left SDS and went into all-women’s organizations, into the consciousness-raising movement. We debated it in the successor group that I was in with Ted Allen. His wife was a very much an advocate of women’s liberation and she raised a question of male privilege. Her daughter Marta, who was in the group, was a member of a group called the Red Stockings, which wrote a manifesto, “Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less; Men, Their Rights and Nothing More.” So, we debated that and the question of male privilege inside our study group, and we came down on the right side of it, understanding that the woman question was revolutionary in its own right. We gained a much deeper understanding of the woman question and how structures of male supremacy and patriarchy reinforced themselves with white supremacy as well. Bigger battles broke out later, when the Equal Rights Amendment came up. The trends that I was in supported the ERA, but there were other trends, both the Communist Party and Avakian’s group, the Revolutionary Union, that opposed the ERA.
SL: What about forming a socialist party? At the time, the two-party system was obviously reshaped by Civil Rights and the crisis within the Democratic Party. How did you guys think about the initiatives associated with Max Shachtman and Bayard Rustin, people who had some notion of forming a socialist party in the 1960s? Of course, you yourself were involved in trying to reestablish the Communist Party in the United States in the 70s. As it happened, neither one of those took hold and we are still left with this duopoly. When you look back on over a long term, thinking into the long-term, over the course of decades, what happened to the project of building a socialist political alternative and overcoming the Cold War divide between social democracy and communism?
CD: I think there was a big difference between those who had gone South and those who did not. Those of us who went South in the 1960s understood that the main battle was getting people registered to vote. Yet, directly from that followed the question, “if you did get the ballot, who would you vote for?” We had the leadership of Fannie Lou Hamer. She had walked away from the Democratic Party in 1964. She went back to Mississippi when they would not seat them instead of the white supremacist delegation. She went back and formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. When I was in there 1966, it was still alive and well. And it was not all white or all black either! There were only a handful of white members of it, but it was open. Then there was the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the original Black Panthers. They were the ones who took a black panther as their symbol and ran for sheriff in Lowndes County, Alabama. So, these were expressions of electoral politics that we were very much in favor of. We could see their importance and learned something from them. So, later, when we saw black people running for mayor in Cleveland, or Shirley Chisholm throwing her hat in the ring for president, those of us who had gone South supported them.
But we did not have an idea of a real electoral alternative. There was a thing that cropped up in 1967 called the National Conference for New Politics. I went to their convention in Chicago. They were trying to form some third option, though it too fell apart over the national question. The African-Americans wanted equal representation with the whites on the central body. I got up and gave a speech in favor of it. Others said no, it had to be numerical. I said, you are missing the point: this is a political question, not a question of numbers. It is a matter of whether you see the centrality of the fight against white supremacy. So, that fell apart because most of the whites could not get their heads straight.
In my years in the October League, there would be different black candidates that might pop up now and then down in the South. We would support them, though others, such as the Revolutionary Communist Party, would attack us as reformists. But we knew better, because we had this experience of Civil Rights under our belts. We could see things in a way that they could not. We were sensitive to things that many other people on the Left were not. The Communist Party understood it, because of its experience. But they always wanted to hijack it and take it further to the right. And so, we did not have much truck with them.
The first real political campaign I got involved in was in 1980, when I was still in the CPML. We went to work in Barry Commoner’s campaign, the Citizen’s Party. We really made an effort. He was arguably the first ecological candidate and his people had formed an alliance with an outfit from Philadelphia, an all-black party called the Consumer’s Party. The same problem came up when they came to the national meeting up in Cleveland. They could not properly see how to correctly handle the National Question, so they split up, and Barry Commoner’s campaign went downhill from there. I worked on it to the very end, but it lost much of its insurgency. After that, there were Jesse Jackson’s runs. I was in the League of Revolutionary Struggle by that point. We supported Jesse Jackson in a big way and also Harold Washington in Chicago. This is coming into elections through the door of the national movements. That is the way we started coming to see electoral politics, looking at it from the point of view of the black masses and the Puerto Rican masses. So that that was instructive to us, rather than Max Shachtman or and Bayard Rustin, whom we just saw as a bunch of pro-war sellouts. We did not bother with them. They were social imperialists.
SL: I am thinking about, not so much an electoral orientation as building a national political force, primarily through social and civil action. Electoralism is potentially a distraction.
CD: In later years, in the 80s, we took part in Jesse Jackson’s and Harold Washington’s campaigns. When that Rainbow Coalition fell apart, some on the Left blamed Jesse Jackson, but my argument was, “Jesse was always very clear. He said, ‘my job is to shake cherries from the tree. Your job is to gather the harvest.’” And most of us did not do that. In other words, harvesting, building permanent organizations, progressive organizations, arms of the branches of the Rainbow Coalition as an actual organization in communities — we did not do that. We were instead “building a movement,” not building an organization. That notion of building a movement, I thought, was a deviation that caused no end of grief. It is why we never built organizations with a mass base. To me, that was the biggest weakness of our early electoral organization. We were movement builders, not organization builders. It was not until much later that I got involved in Progressive Democrats of America and actually built a real organization. Then we are able to exercise the power of that organization within Democratic primaries. Finally, on the strength of that organization we convinced Bernie Sanders to run.
SL: Let me ask you about the legacy of the New Left. When you hear young people today rehearse arguments you once made, when you hear young people discuss white skin privilege, what kind of mirror do you find that to be? Whether for the rising generation or the millennial generation? Do you think of them rediscovering lost truths, or as caught within stale debates?
CD: First of all, their initial understanding is much more advanced than ours was. Their entry-level understanding of American capitalism is much more advanced than ours was when we were first starting. They have a much more sophisticated view of all kinds of things than we did. I went to a DSA meeting in Pittsburgh a couple months ago. They were up to 500-600 members by then, now they are over 800. I walk into one of their monthly general meetings and see a table of old gray-hairs. And I knew all those people, so I went over and one of them said, “Carl! How do you like this? Isn’t this like the old SDS?” I laughed and replied, “In some ways it is, but there are two main differences: One, they have more black people here; two, they have a better line on elections.” They are in a better position than we were. They were, obviously, majority white. But in the SDS, you know, you could count the black members on your fingers and toes. The DSA does much, much better than that. And, yes, the question of privilege has hegemony in this new DSA. They understand that there is such a thing. Where they differ is that they do not have the same proletarian understanding that we did. They are still battling over whether the privilege is in their interest or not. Our view was always that privilege was a form of social control, that it was not in the interest of any worker. In fact, white skin privilege is mainly aimed at the white worker, to keep them down. So, they have a lot to learn about that. And there is a tendency to turn inward, to call-out culture. That has only a limited value. It is a way of forming circular firing squads, which are very harmful. Still, they are very smart in lots of ways. Their conditions are radically different, young people today. When I went to college, it cost me $1500 a year. I had a National Defense loan that took care of $1000 of that. I had a job on campus, a couple of them, from which I earned $500 a month to pay my rent and stuff. Then my dad would go to the racetrack and bring home $500 per semester to help me with any shortfalls. So, if we dropped out of school to run around the country and organize against the war, nobody’s mortgage was a stake! When I finished school, I was $2,000 in debt, which I did away within one year! So, when these kids come out of college burdened with $30,000, $40,000, $100,000 in debt, it is a weight upon them that holds them down and limits what they can do. On the other hand, it radicalizes them to no end, looking at the capitalist system from the point of view of somebody oppressed by debt. It gives them a much deeper look into how the system works. When we got out of college, it took us a week to find a job. It wasn’t any big deal. | P
by Ciat Conlin, Duyminh Tran, and Erin Hagood
 Revolutionary Youth & the New Working Class: The Praxis Papers, the Port Authority Statement, the RYM Documents and Other Lost Writings of SDS, ed. Carl Davidson (Pennsylvania: Changemaker Publications, 2011).
 Carl Davidson, “Toward a student syndicalist movement,” libcom.org, last modified October 28, 2012, <https://libcom.org/library/toward-student-syndicalist-movement>.