Former SDS president Carl Oglesby reflects on that oganization’s stormy history as the leading edge of the sixties New Left
By Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog (Austin, Texas) / July 24, 2008
When I joined [Univ. of Texas] Students for a Democratic Society in the spring of 1965, a bright-eyed freshman on the fast track to scholastic probation, SDS’s national president was one Carl Oglesby, whose name was on my membership card. That was the only SDS membership card I ever had, so short-lived was the organization, and so quick the onset of its disabilities, until I got a new one last year, signed by Austin Movement for a Democratic Society Treasurer Alice Embree. Alice was a seasoned leader of the 60s UT SDS chapter – just one year older than me – when I joined. Now, 43 years later, Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm (Scribner, New York, 2008) is a compelling personal memoir of the Sixties. While he draws no parallels between the frustrations of that era and those of the present day, peace activists will have no trouble seeing them; as in the later 1960s, anti-war protests feel increasingly fruitless as the Iraq war rockets on.
Oglesby recalls SDS in 1965 as a nonviolent, egalitarian-in-principle but elitist-in-composition group, primarily concerned with ending racism and poverty, and confronted, as he says, by Vietnam: “a terrible accident burning in the road, an event without logic but inescapably right there in front of us. We just had to… do what we could.” As the war escalated, the work of demonstrating, educating, and converting, all that peace activists could “reasonably” do, came to seem much too slow. Up against a wall of increasingly hostile administrations, the temptations of violent “direct action,” spiced with the rhetoric of the embattled Black liberation movement who we could find no way to concretely aid, became a siren song for some.
While Oglesby’s belief that the antiwar movement of the 60s, if it had not been destroyed from within and without, could have eventually forced an end to the war is an attractive idea to mature, peace-loving activists today, it is also entirely debatable, falling prey to the fact that “the Movement” was indeed destroyed. Carl identifies the extreme lack of organization, embraced by SDS at all levels, as a pre-existing deficiency allowing the group’s destruction to proceed with little effective opposition. (Bags of chapter mail are described, unopened, in a “filthy pigpen” of a National Office; I saw it even so. SDS never had any money, or accountable decision-making.) Still apparently considering himself a small-d democrat, however, he fails to acknowledge that scientific analysis might have been helpful, and seems to take the aberrant “theories” and worse behavior of the Weatherman faction as somehow representative of the “Old Left” and its outmoded anti-capitalist ideas. He knows better, but this may simply reflect an acute awareness of how far from revolutionary US society in the 1960s really was. Surely we at least learned that the Vietnam conflict was no accident, despite its burning horror, and that subsequent wars have not been accidents, either, but inevitable consequences of our economic system!
In contrast to other SDS memoirists, Oglesby never mentions the “prairie power” changes of 1966 and ’67, which set aside SDS’ founding, Ivy League-based, left-cognizant leadership for a “new guard” of state college-based, left-naïve, populist/anarchist anti-leaders. Indeed, what seemed a significant change at the time was but small change a year later, with the coming of Progressive Labor and, after them, the Revolutionary Youth Movement-slash-Weather nihilists. Still, it strikes a jarring note to see Greg Calvert’s new working class theory, which caused great upheaval and turbulence within SDS when introduced, casually co-opted into “old guard” SDS philosophy. (“[A]n increasingly high-tech economy was turning [the ‘middle class’] into a new proletariat and making its brainpower central to production. The original SDS had seen its natural constituency as this ‘new working class’…”) Another error is his naming the 1968 Columbia University strike as the birthplace of the free university movement, “a signature product of SDS”. UT SDS had spawned a Free University in Austin in 1966, led by philosophy grad student Dick Howard, and it wasn’t invented here!
Overall, this is a complex and astoundingly non-judgmental history of stormy times, when, Oglesby writes, SDS more closely resembled the raven than the traditional dove of peace, the history of which, he points out, cannot be known while government reports of penetration, spying, and dirty tricks against the movement remain secret. The many thousands of pages of documents released to persistent activists under Freedom of Information Act guidelines are so heavily redacted that, although “the Justice Department admitted to having mounted 2,370 specific separate actions against us…, we still don’t know what a single one of them was.” Oglesby takes advantage of government spy records where possible, as aides-de memoire.
Writing about his stunning “expulsion” from SDS, in Austin, TX, during a March, 1969 meeting of the National Council, in a closed meeting of SDS’ National Interim Committee, he uses transcripts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s high-quality recording of the event to provide verbatim excerpts from his unannounced “trial”, apparently on charges of not being a “committed Marxist-Leninist” in an avowedly democratic organization. The emergent Weather, personified by Bernardine Dohrn, comes off in these pages, despite Dohrn’s once apparently warm relationship with Oglesby, as a closed-minded, arrogant, delusional sect with no more grasp of Marxist analysis than a murder of crows. Without the FBI transcripts, Oglesby’s account, even if exactly the same, would no doubt seem outrageously exaggerated.
Austin chapter meetings by 1969 had become incredibly painful, unproductive, venomous confrontations between “regular” SDSers and minions of PL, spiked with anarchist sound and fury, and meetings had never been particularly effective decision-making opportunities. Influential “regulars” were leaving town, following the University’s dismissal of philosophy professor Larry Caroline, and in the face of the continuing escalation of a war – at home as well as abroad – they had spent the previous four or five years, like Oglesby, fighting body and soul. Reading of his dismissal by the group he had once led, I was nagged by a faint memory, confirmed in Robert Pardun’s recollection of the same events (Prairie Radical, 2001, Shire Press, Los Gatos, CA). Pardun, by 1969 a two-time former national SDS officer and leading “prairie power” organizer, highly respected for his cogent thinking and consistent principles, was living in Austin, working as a welder. Increasingly alienated from the warring SDS chapter, Bob briefly attended the first day of the Austin NC meeting and walked out, with most other Texas members, when attempts by Greg Calvert and Carol Neiman to calm the RYM/PL sloganeering match were rebuffed. Then, he says:
The second evening of the [NC] meeting, Bernardine Dohrn and several other RYM people came to my house to ask me to help in their fight for control of SDS. That meant supporting either RYM or PL – but… I didn’t agree with either side. After they left, I thought they considered me to be a “sell-out”. But that was part of the problem. The way they saw it, I was either for them or against them and I didn’t like the kind of politics that went with that mentality. After they left I decided to boycott the rest of the [NC] meeting with my Texas SDS friends.
Re-reading Bob’s account, I recognized my earlier nagging feeling as a twinge of guilt, since I was one of the Texas SDSers urging Bro. Pardun to blow off the meeting and come get high. On the third day of the NC, Oglesby’s secret trial took place, clearly part of the “fight for control” Dohrn and friends had proposed to Pardun the night before. What might have happened if those who agreed with Oglesby that “ordinary Americans,” with the help of our returning brothers from the meat grinder of Vietnam, could at last force an end to the war, had known that he was on trial by people widely seen as fools? Could they have rescued him from the Kafkaesque proceeding, and perhaps rescued SDS as well? Probably not; the rot was by then too far advanced. COINTELPRO’s unrelenting attacks were sapping the Movement’s local resources everywhere, diverting everything increasingly into legal defense work and reactions to unanticipated attacks. The Weathermen, in contrast, “really believed that the revolution was on its way… They produced a theater of the absurd and called it the revolution.”
It’s tempting, but unfair, to compare Oglesby’s mature work with former Chicago Seven defendant Tom Hayden’s 1988 Reunion: A Memoir (Random House, New York, aptly reviewed at the time by the Washington Monthly. Ravens is by far the better read, but then, twenty years’ added perspective can’t help but work wonders. Oglesby’s fleeting mentions of Hayden do not cast the author of the Port Huron Statement, SDS’ founding document, in a flattering light, but do acknowledge his influence, contrasting oddly with Hayden’s almost total neglect of fellow U. Michigan SDSer Oglesby in his work. Oglesby’s account of an almost hysterical Hayden’s response to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970 is strikingly at odds with Hayden’s impersonal recollections. The moderate former leaders agree on many things, e.g., both saw anti-PL activist and SDS’ 1968-69 National Secretary Mike Klonsky as an arrogant and somewhat thick-headed thug. (Klonsky’s post-SDS response to the Cambodian civil war, another “terrible accident burning in the road”, was to proclaim support for Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge.)
If the personal memoir of a pacifistic individual can be said to be a page-turner, Carl Oglesby has written one. There is enough new here, and enough uniquely recalled, to surprise even those who lived through the same years, involved in some of the same groups and swept along by the same currents. But all the memoirs to date, and they are fast becoming legion, don’t change the fact that the rise and fall of the radical youth movement of the Sixties remains a cipher, locked in an acronym, wrapped in black ops.
Mariann is a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog. With fellow Austin activist Alice Embree, she contributed to Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History (2008, Pekar H, ed. Buhle P., Hill & Wang, New York). She was a contributor to No Apologies: Texas Radicals Celebrate the ’60s (1992, ed. Janes D., Eakin Press, Austin), as was Bob Pardun. With Larry Waterhouse, she co-wrote Turning the Guns Around: Notes on the GI Movement (1971, Praeger, New York).
Find Ravens in the Storm at Amazon.com.