[sixties-l] Re: student organizing . . .

From: Michael Rossman (mrossman@igc.org)
Date: 10/11/00

  • Next message: Michael Rossman: "[sixties-l] Re: student organizing . . ."

    John  McMillian writes:  "It seems that that hardly anyone was able to predict
    the explosion of student activism that took hold in the 1960's."
    Bill Mandel responds:  " I did not predict it, but I believe I recognized its
    signifiance earlier than anyone else, as far as I can determine."
    Bill may have forgotten our discussion of this very question a few years ago,
    when I reminded him of a passage in the book I had been so proud to present to
    him, as a respected elder, so long before, when The Wedding Within the War  --
    my own account of the Sixties -- was published by Doubleday in 1971.
    John too may be interested in the passage, quoted below -- not as the isolated
    counter-example it may seem, but in light of the following comments and argument:
    Though I have been tempted to pat myself on the back for being prophetic, on
    this single occasion, I think the deeper truth is that I was merely unusually
    articulate and fortunate in being able to voice perceptions forming widely
    among my peers. That "hardly anyone was able to predict [our] explosion" is an
    artifact of historical record, signifying only that no one of recognized
    authority managed to construe the complex of presages -- " the beats, Mad 
    magazine, existentialism, critical sociology, protests against in loco
    parentis and HUAC, demographic shifts in the university, and so on," as John
    says -- that historians have recognized in  retrospect. Yet insofar as such
    presages were consequential rather than nominal , they functioned in the very
    fiber of our consciousness -- so to speak, as if we were organic computers
    integrating their diverse inputs, as indeed we were. The traces of novel and
    transgressive influence can be described piecemeal  from outside.  We
    experienced them within ourselves as we matured,  indescribably complexed with
    normative influences and who we were; and experienced as well a dawning sense
    of our own identity  as social actors, projecting into the future not in
    organizational terms but in our shared ways of construing social reality and
    in the characteristic signatures of our actions together. It was this sense,
    too rich and integral and diverse for anyone to  describe, that enabled me to
    project the rise and course of the New Left for awhile (roughly speaking, to
    where its course blurred in the reactions it provoked, without and within) --
    but as I say, by its very nature this sense was widely shared, and led many in
    the Bay Area and beyond to look towards the future rather as I did in light of
    the remarkable events of May 1960. That few letters like mine have survived to
    find print should not be mistaken as evidence for only isolated cleverness in
    a dumb crowd. Rather, these should be understood as barometers of shared
    perception beginning to find public expression. I was far less unusual in the
    logic and confidence of my projections, than in the happenstance of my being
    the sort of writer I am, apt to put so much of idle fancy down on paper.
    Here follows the conclusion of a long letter written on May 20, 1960 to a
    friend in New York,  reproduced in WWW.  I was twenty at the time, and
    understandably excited. After describing the previous week's demonstrations at
    length, I summed up:
    	"I have told you the events. Now let me tell you their meaning. It is hard to
    know where to begin; I think I will plunge right in. These three days as a
    whole were almost certainly the most significant political event in this
    country in the past fifteen years, and possibly for the whole previous quarter-century.
    	"These days show that HUAC and its kindred spirits have reached and passed
    the point at which they begin to evoke more anger than fear by their actions .
    . . [Discussion omitted here.]
    	"And I see something of more significance even than the coming death of
    [HUAC] and the reawakening of students. I see the rise of a new Left in this
    country, a Left of a nature that has not been seen within this century. It
    will be a Left unconnected with the past. The Communists as a group are dead,
    though the Committee will go on flushing phantom dragons for quite a while
    before it expires. The Socialist movement is split into many small groups, and
    the movement so headstrong among its younger elements several years ago for a
    United Front has come to very little. I think the new Left will rise, is
    rising, almost without influence from the splintered old Left. The remnants of
    the old Left are looked upon almost as curiosities, with no one wanting very
    much either to emulate them in their verbal violence or to hate them.
    	"Instead a new Left is coming, a Left of "independent radical activity":
    non-partisan, indiscriminate in its condemnation of reactionaries and
    old-style radicals, not inclined to organization (which will make it difficult
    to trace its rise), and uncapturable by either the splintered old Left or by
    progressive elements in present major parties. The Democrats had their chance
    with Stevenson after '52. They muffed it badly, and I do not believe they will
    regain it. A strong position as a peace party might have captured this new
    movement had it been taken in preparation for the '56 election or even,
    possibly, for the coming one this Fall. But I think matters are beyond capture now.
    	"It is hard to predict what the course of events will be for this New Left,
    if indeed my surmise as to its existence and development is correct. I think
    there will be little or no permanent organizational tendencies, few or no
    alignments with established forces, much confusion as to its real nature,
    futile attempts made both to capture it and to stamp it out, much seemingly
    grass roots activity on the pressing matters of the day --disarmament, bombs,
    peace, witch-hunting, capital punishment, integration. I think all the
    elements are here and clear for those able to read them, and I regret that I
    am not myself more skilled in doing so.
    	"But I know -- and I am not alone in my feeling -- that this decade will make
    a great deal of history. And I believe also that this new Left is an
    historical/social inevitability. Rather than delay its birth, the events since
    the war have been most necessary and have gone a long way toward shaping what
    will come. So much silence will have an out, and a peculiar and potent one indeed.
    	"It is one thing to say that we are living in the middle of history; everyone
    is aware of this. It is quite another thing to** know** that this is so, to
    participate in actions that one knows are in the growing-bud of the historical
    tree. Pardon me if my surmises as to the significance and implications of what
    is happening seem to overreach themselves. I have given them much thought. You
    might show this letter to some of those embittered, defeated people you write
    me about. California air does not bring political action on such a basis,
    despite its other salutary effects. Have heart: the Revolution is coming
    faster than we knew, though it vill be a very different sort of revolution
    indeed from any that have preceded it.
    						"Love & Heart, Michael"
    The bolt of energy was plumb disorienting. What wonder I punted my physics
    finals, in that final term of my senior year, and dropped out of school? A
    month or two later, I wrote the essay "New Faces on the Picket Line" that
    appeared that fall in Occident, the campus literary magazine. I rather regret
    now that I confined it to naive examination of the origins and character of
    the emergent New Left, and did not speculate there about its future. But I was
    trying to ape academic manners, and was hard-put to sound sensible in even as
    much as I ventured there, without venturing grandiose fantasies of the
    future.. By the time the essay was printed, I was slaving in Old Left style as
    recording secretary of the Bay Area Committee for Abolition of HUAC; but
    that's another story.
                            Michael Rossman <mrossman@igc.org>

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