Movement, March 1969
Before and during the Columbia rebellion, the SDS chapter faced situations very similar to those encountered by other chapters around the country. Questions of militancy vs. isolating yourself from the base, questions of relating to a black students’ movement, questions of student power vs. a radical position on the university, questions of how to work as a radical within mass political situations, all came to the forefront in our experience at Columbia They also became the key questions at places like Brooklyn College, Kent State in Ohio, San Francisco State, Brandeis and literally hundreds of other campuses where the movement is at various stages of building itself.
From April, 1967 to March, 1968, the SDS chapter had been led by a group of people who tended to stress “organizing” and “base-building” above action and “confrontation.” Though possessing a “Marxist” analysis, they believed that the way support is gained is by going out to people and talking to them about our analysis. Various pieties about the necessity to build the base before you take action and the dangers of isolating yourself from the base were incessantly pronounced in the name of the “Marxist analysis.” The word “politics” was used as a bludgeon with which to beat unruly upstarts into place and to maintain control over the chapter. One example will illustrate this point.
In early March, at a meeting of the SDS Draft Committee, the question of what to do when the head of the Selective Service System for New York City came to speak at Columbia came up. Someone suggested that SDS greet the Colonel by attacking him physically – which would clearly define the fact that we consider him to be an enemy. The idea was defeated by a vote of 30-1 after the old leadership of the chapter argued that an attack on the Colonel would be “terrorist, apolitical and silly,” and especially would not communicate anything to anyone (since the action had “no political content”). It was decided that the draft committee would be present at the speech to “ask probing questions.”
Several SDS members and non-members then organized clandestinely the attack on the Colonel. In the middle of his speech a mini-demonstration appeared in the back of the room with a fife and drum, flags, machine guns, and noise-makers. As attention went to the back, a person in the front row stood up and placed a lemon-meringue pie in the Colonel’s face. [This was none other than Rudd himself. Eds.] Everyone split.
Only two groups on campus did not dig what became known as the “pie incident.” First was the administration of Columbia University. Second was the old leadership of Columbia SDS, which disapproved because the action was terroristic and apolitical and would jeopardize our base on campus.
Meanwhile almost everyone on campus thought this was the best thing SDS had ever done (though we disavowed any part in and said it was the NY Knickerboppers who had done the job). People understood the symbolism in the attack and identified with it because of their own desires, often latent, to strike back at the draft and the government. This was in symbolic miniature form, the same dynamic of militant action by a vanguard and then mass identification which worked so well during the rebellion a month later.
In a criticism session held after the pie incident, members of the chapter began to learn the difference between the verbal “base-building,” non-struggle approach of the old leadership (now called the “Praxis Axis” after the supplement to New Left Notes edited by Bob Gottlieb and Dave Gilbert, of whom many of the old leadership were self-styled followers) and the aggressive approach of those who saw the primacy of developing a movement based on struggle. This latter group, centered around myself and John Jacobs, as well as others in and out of SDS, came to be known as the “Action Faction” due to the never-ending search for symmetry.
Subsequent to the ascendancy of the ideas of the Action Faction the chapter began engaging in more and more militant confrontations – an illegal demonstration on March 27 against IDA, disruption of a memorial service for Martin Luther King in order to expose the fact that while Kirk and Truman were eulogizing King, their university was completely racist toward the community and toward its employees.
This prominence of militancy and the aggressive approach should not be interpreted as a victory for the action side of the action vs. base-building dichotomy. In fact, action and education (verbal and otherwise) are completely united, two aspects of the same thing (call it “base-building,” “organizing,” “building the movement,” whatever you like). A leaflet or dorm-canvassing is no less radical activity than seizing a building – in fact both are necessary.
At Columbia we had a four-year history of agitation and education involving forms of activity from seminars and open forums on IDA to confrontations over NROTC and military recruiting. All went into developing the mass consciousness that was responsible for the Columbia rebellion. The point is that we had to develop the willingness to take action, vanguard action, before the tremendous potential of the “base” could be released. In addition, the vanguard action also acted as education for so many people not yet convinced. The radical analysis never got such a hearing, and a sympathetic one, as during the rebellion.
There are no sure ways to know when the base is ready to move. Many militant actions which expose the participants will result only in an educational point entering the consciousness of the people, without developing mass support. An example of this is the sit-in against the CIA which took place at Columbia in February, 1967, involving only 18 people. This seemingly isolated action (even the SDS chapter did not participate) helped ready people for the direct action to come one year later by making a first penetration into students’ minds that direct action is both possible and desirable. . . .
We had no way of knowing whether the base was ready at Columbia; in fact, neither SDS nor the masses of students actually were ready; we were spurred on by a tremendous push from history, if you will, embodied in the militant black students at Columbia.
Before April 23, the Students’ Afro-American Society and Columbia SDS had never joined together in a joint action or even held much cross-group communication. SAS had been mostly a cultural or social organization, in part reflecting the class background of its members (SDS’s position on campus likewise reflected its members’ middle-class background – the tendency toward over-verbalization instead of action, the reliance on militant, pure, revolutionary rhetoric instead of linking up with people).
It was only with the death of Martin Luther King that SDS began to make political demands – though still mostly about the situation of black students at Columbia. Another important factor in the growing militancy of SDS was the struggle of the Harlem community against Columbia’s gym in the form of demonstrations, rallies, and a statement by H. Rap Brown that the gym should be burned down if it somehow was built.
The pivotal event of the strike, however, was the black students’ decision to barricade Hamilton Hall the night after the joint occupation began. In this decision, the blacks defined themselves politically as members of the Harlem community and the black nation who would fight Columbia’s racism to the end. It was also this action that gave the whites a model for militancy and, on a broader scale, forced the whites to wake up to the real world outside themselves.
At the time that the black students in Hamilton Hall announced they were going to barricade the building, SDS’s goal was the same as it has always been – to radicalize and politicize the mass of white students at Columbia and to create a radical political force of students. This self-definition, however, led to the conclusion that we did not want to risk alienating the mass of other white students by confronting them, say, from behind a barricade. Part of our decision not to barricade must also be seen as a remnant of the earlier timid and non-struggle attitudes so common in the chapter.
The blacks, for their part, had decided that they would make a stand alone, as a self-conscious black group. This decision was also prompted undoubtedly by the lack of militancy on the part of the whites in Hamilton and especially our lack of discipline and organization.
After leaving Hamilton, a change came over the mass of white students, in and out of SDS. People stayed in Low Library “because we can’t abandon the blacks.” Not only did people see the model for militancy in the black occupation of Hamilton, but they also began to perceive reality – a world outside themselves and the necessity to fight, to struggle for liberation, because of the situation in that world.
It was the action of the black students at Columbia – a group outside the individual fragmented “middle class” students at Columbia – that woke up these students to the fact that there is a world of suffering, brutalized, exploited people, and that these people are a force willing to fight for freedom. Especially important to this realization was the power of Harlem, both manifest and dormant. Now the liberal universe – the isolated self – was shattered, and the mass occupation started by a handful of whites, the 23 who stayed in Low, grew to be the natural response of well over 1,000 people who wanted to fight back against the oppression of blacks, Vietnamese and themselves.
From another point of view, the militancy of the SDS whites forced others to reconsider their position and eventually to join the occupation. But the SDS occupation itself hinged on that of the blacks, and the overwhelming presence of the black students and Harlem itself forced us to keep the image of the real world dear and bright in our minds. Because of the blacks, we recognized the immediacy and necessity of the struggle: Vietnam is far away, unfortunately, for most people, and our own pain has become diffuse and dull.
This point about the example and vanguard role of whites vis-a-vis other whites must also be stressed. When neutral or liberal or even right-wing students see other students, very much like themselves, risking careers, imprisonment, and physical safety, they begin to question the political reasons for which the vanguard is acting and, concomitantly, their own position. Here, education and propaganda are essential to get out to people the issues, and also the rationale for action. At no time is “organizing” or “talk” more important as before, during and after miltant action.
This is not to deny the importance of black militancy, but only to emphasize the complex and dialectical relationships existing between blacks, white militants, and “the base.” In struggle after struggle on campuses and in shops, the blacks have been taking the initial and even vanguard role. San Francisco State, where the direction and militancy of the struggle has been given by the Black Students’ Union and the Third World Liberation Front, is the best example of the most oppressed taking the vanguard.
Kent State in Ohio, Brandeis, the high school students’ strike in New York City, and numerous other cases, similarly show the importance of black vanguards. This is not an empirical fact peculiar only to schools, but in shops and in the army, too, blacks have been taking the lead and whites following – e.g., the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which gave rise to a white insurgent caucus in the UAW and the Fort Hood 43.
The implication of the primacy of the black movement is not that whites should sit back and wait for blacks to make the revolution. It is, rather, that we should study and understand the roots, necessity of, and strategy of the black liberation movement in order to understand how our movement should go.
At Columbia our understanding of the dynamics at work was at best intuitive: we knew that whites and blacks had to organize their own, but we didn’t know how this worked in practice – separate tactics, separate organization. At some schools, such as Kent and San Francisco State, the white militants did as well or better than we to the extent that they were conscious of their own role in relation to black militants.
This question “in relation to” has at least two clearly different pitfalls. First, because of the intensive and all-pervading racism in the United States, white radicals are sometimes unwilling to follow black leadership. This was the situation during the recent UFT boycott of the New York City schools over the issue of community control. Both Progressive Labor Party and their arch enemy, the Labor Committee, manifested their racism by refusing to support community control on the grounds that it was a cooptive plan designed by the ruling class to split the working class (both racist teachers and black parents are “workers” primarily according to PLP). Neither grouplet saw the class nature of a united black community fighting for better schools against the racist ruling-class school board and racist teachers’ union.
The implication of this blindspot on the part of PLP is that blacks are too stupid to figure out when community control turns into cooptation, and therefore, they should follow the dogmatic unreal line of PLP: black parents and white teachers unite to fight for better education (a position which ignores both the racism of the white teachers and the fact that blacks already are fighting for better schools). SDS, because of its internal factional warfare, lost numerous opportunities to support the black struggle and also to begin educating the white community about its own racism, both of which are absolutely necessary.
The second pitfall “in relation to” the black movement is a passivity based on the opposite side of the traditional white leadership syndrome. Blacks are often unwilling to take the leadership or vanguard position in a struggle, having had white leadership thrust on them for so long, or else feeling isolated (as they, in fact, are at many white schools), or else having assimilated traditional middle-class values of success. (This latter point is both the most common and the most complex. For a fuller discussion of this phenomenon, see James Forman’s new book, Sammy Younge, Jr.) White radicals at many places feel that blacks must initiate anti-racism struggles, and that they will follow in support. The origin of this feeling is both the desire to see blacks taking leadership positions, a good thing, and also the attitude that racism is a “black problem” and cannot be raised legitimately by whites as a “white issue”.
Racism must become a conscious “white problem,” and must be fought at every point. This was our belief at Columbia, when Columbia SDS took independent action against the Administration for its racism by disrupting the Martin Luther King Memorial service. The black students did not take part in this disruption, but the disruption did help shock SAS into action, along with other factors, especially the demonstrations of the Harlem Community against Columbia.
Similarly, at Kent State in Ohio, the demonstrations against the Oakland Pig Department recruiters, as anti-racist demonstrations, were initiated by the white SDS chapter and picked up by the black students. At both Kent and Columbia the black students then went on to take dominant and even decisive roles.
At school after school, white radicals are waiting for black students to take the lead. Since racism must be combatted they are in error in not taking the initiative, giving both black students and the mass of whites the impetus to carry the struggle forward and must also, however, know when to follow the lead of blacks, and when to work parallel. At Columbia, inadvertently, sometimes we did all three.
One of the things we learned at Columbia is the old SDS dictum, “People have to be organized around the issues that affect their lives” is really true. Not in the way it has always been meant, i.e., student interest type demands like dorm rules, bookstores, decisions over tenure, etc., but in the broadest, most political sense. That is to say, that racism and imperialism really are issues that affect people’s lives. And it was these things that people moved on, not dorm rules, or democratizing university governance or any of that bullshit.
The general public, and the movement in more subtle ways, has been subjected to a barrage of propaganda trying to show conclusively that the rebellion at Columbia (as well as other rebellions) was due to campus unrest over archaic administrative procedures, lack of democracy in decision-making, and, above all, an immense failure of communication among students, faculty and administration. It is unnecessary to document this beyond referring the reader to any article about Columbia in Time magazine.
In general, the Left itself has understood the primacy of revolutionary anti-imperialist politics present in the core of the rebellion, but few have had access to our arguments concerning student power and “restructuring” of the university, and thus many have believed either 1) We admitted the necessity for reform and at least partially worked toward it; or 2) The failure of the movement this fall was due to the failure of Columbia SDS to respond to the mass movement for restructure and reform. In other words, we were coopted by the new liberal administration and Students for a Restructured University. Neither is the case.
Every militant in the buildings knew that he was there because of his opposition to racism and imperialism and the capitalist system that needs to exploit and oppress human beings from Vietnam to Harlem to Columbia. It was no accident that we hung up pictures of Karl Marx and Malcolm X and Che Guevara and flew red flags from the tops of two buildings. But there was some confusion over our position toward the university itself.
We were engaged in a struggle that had implications far beyond the boundaries of the campus on Morningside Heights – and, in fact our interest was there, outside the university. We did want to stop the university’s exploitative, racist and pro-imperialist policies, but what more? This unsurety over program toward the university reflected a political confusion that only became solved as radicals discussed more among themselves and were faced with a greater number of self-appointed liberal reformers who wanted to “save the university.”
Given that the capitalist university serves the function of production of technology, ideology, and personnel for business, government, and military (we had hit at these functions in our exposure of IDA and expansion), the question of “saving” the university implies capitulation to the liberal mythology about free and open inquiry at a university and its value-neutrality.
Whatever “good” function the university serves is what the radical students can cull from its bones – especially the creation and expansion of a revolutionary movement. The university should be used as a place from which to launch radical struggles – anything now constitutes a passive capitulation to reformism, whatever the intention of the radicals involved.
This position on the university leads to a clear position on “restructuring.” It is irrelevant. Tremendous pressure on the coalition strike committee was brought by liberals who proclaimed the creation of a “new, just, democratic Columbia University” as their goal. Professing revolution as another one of their goals, they saw reform of the university as one of the many “steps” toward a revolution. Behind this conception, of course, was the traditional liberal view of reform of institutions, one by one, which would through evolution lead to enough humanistic reform, somehow called revolution. Also present was a healthy fear of both the personal and social effects of struggle.
Demands about democratizing the university are procedural, from which of necessity would be empty and easily coopted by an extraordinarily powerful ruling class and its representatives, the Board of Trustees and Administration. What we are after is substantive change – such as was embodied in the six demands, and especially the demands on IDA and the gym. This is where our fight for power is located. How can any reforms in procedure mean power to change the university’s exploitative function if we can’t even win our direct demands on that function now? For radicals who were somewhat confused, we added, one of our main goals is the building of a radical movement that can engage in fights, that can struggle against capitalism and expose it and its institutions to more and more people and also gain support. Will our fighting over some petty little tri- or bipartite committees do this? Or will we just be coopted into some silly little liberal game, deflecting the focus of our movement and depoliticizing it?
Eric Mann in his Our Generation/Movement article, criticizes the strike position on student power by saying, “leaving the issue of student power to the liberals is a bad mistake.” According to Eric, there is a “radical position on student power,” though it never gets explained beyond some vague phrasing of “structural changes within the context of the (radical) critique (of the university).” What are these radical structural demands? What will they accomplish?
According to Eric, there are two valid categories of issues: 1) Off-campus type issues, such as embodied in the IDA and gym demands. 2) On-campus reform issues, which Columbia SDS left to the liberals. “Building alliances with off- campus groups is an important task for the radical student movement,” but this second type is also important. Much work was done by ad hoc liberal-radical groups on departmental reform, but ultimately, the political content of this work was null in terms of building a revolutionary movement.
The validity of campus reform issues implies an understanding of the tasks of a student movement which is different from ours at Columbia and also that of the most advanced elements of nationwide SDS. We see the goal of the student movement not as the creation of an eventual power base, involving all students around all their concerns, radical and otherwise, which is a very old conception of what we’re up to, but rather, building a radical force which raises issues for other constituencies – young people, workers, others – which will eventually be picked up on to create a broader, solider revolutionary movement.
Since the working class will be the agency of change, it is these people who must be addressed by any action initiated by students. This is very different from “creating alliances.” It means the entire content of our movement must be radical – i.e., anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist – not concerned with the parochial, privileged needs of students. This use of the student movement as a critical force is exactly what began to happen at Columbia – no power base was carved out; rather, good, solid radical issues were raised for the community, the city, and, in fact, the entire nation. To the extent that our issues lacked a focus and a target outside students, they were not consciously “revolutionary.”
The reason we went so far with “restructuring” demands (after the Trustees had already called for a student committee on restructuring) was both because of a certain amount of confusion along the lines of Eric’s thinking described above, and because we misread the extent of the liberal base on campus for “student power.” very much as Eric Mann does. Self-proclaimed liberal “leaders” kept coming to the strike committee saying that their constituencies wanted restructuring and the strike committee was going to lose their support if it wasn’t granted. Throughout the summer we considered the arch-liberal Students for a Restructured University to be the main competition to the radical movement on campus. But we were totally mistaken.
After people have been exposed even peripherally to a movement that fights for meaningful goals –an end to racism, an end to exploitation – the creation of a better world, how can they go back to their old liberal ideas about reform of institutions? We had underestimated the relevance of the radical movement at Columbia, and how deeply it undercut all the liberal sops.
This fall, the fifteen student, faculty, administration and trustee committees on restructuring held hearings on plans to reform Columbia. Out of a university of 17,000, 40 people showed up. Columbia College, the undergraduate liberal arts division, held elections for candidates to various restructuring committees. Out of a student body of 2,600, 240 voted. Don’t blame the turnout on apathy – 15% of the College was busted in the demonstration last spring. The answer is clear – “restructuring” is not only irrelevant to radicals, it’s irrelevant to everyone.
Analysts of the New Left, both in and out of the movement, are fond of saying that Columbia SDS failed to revive the strike because of Administration cooptation. Randy Furst, in a celebrated mis-article in the Guardian wrote, “Strike fizzles as liberals take over.” James P. O’Brien, writing an all-inclusive history of the New Left, makes this authoritative remark: “The SDS chapter has been baffled by a liberal new president and by a proliferation of student proposals for structural changes in the University that have little relevance to the questions (still raised by SDS) of the University’s relationship to society.” And Eric Mann, in his article, warns of the SRU/liberal/cooptation threat.
Don’t our comrades realize that this position that the movement was coopted is exactly the position of the New York Times in what it hopes is the obituary for the New Left? It is a liberal position which denies the integrity of our original struggle, saying that the radicals who were interested in real issues were only a tiny minority in the strike, and the other thousands were just protesting the lack of communication and democracy in a great, but archaic university. Of all possible reasons for the failure of the strike to revive, this one of liberal cooptation is the least important.
There are many reasons why the movement waned this fall, an analysis of which should be done separately when enough people have discussed the subject. Included in this discussion should be the effects of the baseless Liberation School, the repression playing on fear of further arrest and being thrown out of school. The escalation in rhetoric by SDS, the rise of an elite leadership in SDS, the insane sectarian faction fighting forced on the chapter, first by the Labor Committee sectarians, and then by Progressive Labor Party members who moved into Columbia (there was one member over the summer), and most of all, the failure of many students to see where the whole movement is going, how a revolution will be made, and what are the life-alternatives for people within the movement. These are questions which the movement itself is only now in the process of answering.
FAILURE OF MASS POLITICS
After the police bust which cleared over 1,000 people from five buildings, the rebellion faced a critical turning point. The mass of students, faculty, community people and others demanded spontaneously a strike against classes, shutting down the university. But the political basis for this strike – its demands, tactics and organization were still unclear. Radicals wanted the strike to maintain the original six demands, as a means of keeping the political focus on racism and imperialism, while liberals pushed for as broad a strike as possible – “You’ve got a good thing here, don’t blow it, everyone’s with you, but don’t force your politics onto people” was a typical liberal remark.
The real danger, despite the chorus of liberal warnings, was in watering down the politics and the tactics of the strike. This the radical strike committee knew (this was the same strike committee that had been established during the liberation of the buildings, with two representatives from each building), and yet the result of the expansion of the strike committee, even with the politics of the six demands, was the eventual weakening and loss of mass base which occurred in the weeks after the bust.
In brief, the story of the expansion of the strike committee is as follows. The original committee called for a mass meeting for Wednesday night, the day following the bust. This meeting was attended by over 1,300 people, all vigorously anti-administration, and most of whom were ready to follow radical leadership. At that meeting, the strike committee proposed a two-part resolution:
1) Expand the strike committee to include representatives of any new constituency groups to form on the basis of 1 representative to 70 members. Groups could join if they supported the original six demands.
2) Restart the university under our own auspices by running liberated courses, and eventually establishing a provisional administration.
Debate centered around the question of requirements for joining the strike committee: the radicals thought it was absolutely necessary in order to maintain some political coherence, while the liberals, centered around the graduate-faculties student council grouping, wanted, as usual, the broadest base possible and no requirements… Through a misunderstanding, I capitulated the strike committee position to the liberal one, establishing an apolitical strike committee.
This error in itself did not have to be fatal; nor was it, since the radicals did go out and organize like hell the next day, both in the constituent groups which were being formed and in the new strike committee itself. The new committee passed almost unanimously the six demands, plus a seventh on being able to participate in restructuring, so it looked to us (the radicals) that we had “reinjected” politics back into the committee. One good aspect of the error, which should not be underestimated, was that the liberals were prevented from organizing themselves into an opposition for two whole weeks. They had had plans to walk out of the original meeting described above and form a rump strike committee, but those plans were blocked by my “cooptation.”
The failure to deepen and expand the radical base which had formed during the occupation of the buildings, however, lay at the root of our problems. Instead of maintaining the communes as the bodies with effective power, they became only the left wing which sent delegates to a coalition strike committee organized much like a student council. Not only political sharpness, but also the militancy which defined our strike by struggle was lost.
The people in the buildings had fought. Many were new to the radical movement, many were just learning – this was a time of openness, of new experiences and life-situations. If ever the phrase “practice outran theory” was true, this was such a time. People seizing buildings, yelling “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker,” fighting cops, committing their lives and careers to a movement for liberation – this was all new and unexplained in political terms. During the liberation of the buildings, too, the frantic pace had kept discussion on too much of a tactical level (should we barricade? should we negotiate with the cops?), often focused away from the broader questions that would tell people why, where this is all going, how it fits into a broader, world-wide struggle.
After the bust, there was more time, yet two important factors relating to the formation of the coalition strike committee intervened: 1) The communes were kept together, but their function became more and more a combination veterans’ organization and discussion group rather than power source. In the buildings the knowledge that political decisions had to be made, and no one else would do it, held the discussions together. Now, through a system of representative democracy, and also the sharing of power with liberal groups, people in communes, feeling powerless, said, “so what?”. The communes should have been given effective power. 2) The radical leadership was kept occupied in the nightly torture session called “Strike Coordinating Committee Meetings.” This was totally wasted time since the Strike Committee, instead of being a source of strength for the strike, was really the weakest element. Vis-a-vis the needs of the radical constituency, the strike committee kept the leadership tied up instead of free to talk with and “organize” the real base, working with the people, the real power.
This denial of power to the militants and reliance on the coalition strike committee resulted in the lack of militancy which sealed the fate of the strike and kept it from becoming a struggle as intense and drawn out as San Francisco State.
There were many of our number who saw the mistake, but their counsel, “escalate at all points,” certainly the wisest strategy in a struggle where radical politics have the upper hand and the initiative, went ignored.
How does a mass radical movement involve greater and greater numbers in decision-making? How does it maintain its radical politics when faced with demands for coalition? These problems are still unanswered, though the experiences of Columbia and San Francisco State do help provide some ideas.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE COLUMBIA UPRISING
In these notes I’ve tended to emphasize the errors we made in order to communicate some of the lessons learned during what was for all of us the most intense political experience of our lives.
The failure to establish mass, militant, long-term radical politics has at least in part been answered by the experience of San Francisco State and other schools, Martin Nicolaus writing in the Movement has also pointed out that the TWLF/BSU movement at State has allowed no leader/symbol/star figures to emerge through the mass media.
The confusion over the radical position on the university, and the function of a student movement in building a revolutionary movement, has begun to be cleared up by the Revolutionary Youth Movement proposal passed at the SDS National Council meeting held at Ann Arbor, Christmas 1968. The ideas in this resolution have not been completely clarified in SDS, but the departure from both student-movement-in-itself and also worker-student alliance politics is clear to most. This proposal is, in a sense, the ideological successor to Columbia.
The victories of the Columbia struggle, however, were great. It was the most sustained and most intense radical campus struggle up to that time, around the clearest politics.
Nationwide, Columbia and Chicago provided the models for militancy and energy which attracted masses of students after the total failure of conventional politics this summer and fall. The content of that politics, too, the compromise and reformism McCarthyism, were juxtaposed to the thoroughgoing analysis of the left on imperialism, racism, poverty, the class nature of the society. All this was highlighted by Columbia.
At Columbia, our two principal demands, the ending of construction on the gym in Morningside Park, and the formal severing of ties with the Institute for Defense Analyses, were, in fact, met. This laid the basis for broadening the demands this fall to ending all defense and government research and stopping all university expansion into the community.
Perhaps the most important result of the rebellion, in terms of long-term strategy for the movement, was the creation of new alliances with student, non-student, community and working class groups throughout the city. A chapter that had been mostly inward-looking and campus-oriented suddenly opened up and began to realize the tremendous importance of the various types of hook-ups – support, tactical alliance, coalition – which would broaden the radical movement beyond its white “middle class” student base.
First of all was the tactical alliance with the black students in Hamilton Hall, sometimes close, sometimes more distant, but always working parallel toward the same goal. This was described at the beginning of this article, but it’s worthwhile reiterating the tremendous importance of the experience as a model for the different types of relationships possible with militant black students.
Backing up the black students as a source of power, and to some extent behind the whites as well, was the Harlem community, sometimes mobilized, sometimes lying in wait. This force proved not only the greatest single deterrent to a police bust, but also provided all demonstrating students with support in the form of mass rallies and demonstrations, manpower, money, food donations and morale boosting. Black high school students sparked the militants in Fayerweather Hall, then returned to their own schools and within two weeks had created the most militant high school anti-racist strikes New York City has seen in recent times. A Strike Committee member spoke at a rally at 7th Avenue and 125th Street in Central Harlem, the first white person to do so in anyone’s memory. After the rebellion, the relationship between N.Y. SDS and N.Y. Black Panther Party has grown increasingly close.
As a result of the liberation of the buildings, anti-Columbia organizing activity in the mostly white Morningside Heights neighborhood revived to an all-time high. The Community Action Committee, organized completely by community residents, provided support to the students in the form of demonstrations and even a rent-strike of tenants in Columbia’s tenements. On May 14, the CAC liberated an apartment in a tenement on 114th Street in an effort to dramatize the decimation of the community by Columbia’s racist expansionist policies. The CAC led numerous actions over the summer, all working closely with students at the Liberation School.
As a direct result of the strike, cafeteria workers, mostly Spanish-speaking, ended their 30-year battle with Columbia, one of the most repressive employers in the city, with the formation of a local of Local 1199 of the Drug and Hospital Workers’ Union, one of the few anti-war unions in New York City. Student organizers, all SDS members, did most of the work for Local 1199, and red-baiting by the bosses was effectively turned against Columbia since the workers knew the students would be on their side if the union was denied.
More general off-campus results of the uprising, though important, are hard to estimate. Despite the distortions of the press. many people began to see that students are willing to fight militantly for good goals – ending racism, ending the war. Though no mass of general strike erupted in the nation around our demands, we feel the Columbia rebellion helped break down the antagonism of working people toward students fighting only for their own privilege (at least where the truth got through).
Internal changes in the chapter took the form of the wealth of experience absorbed by hundreds of individuals. It is almost a truism at this point to cite the incredible changes in consciousness that took place through the action (“Revolution is the best education for honorable men” – Che). The rebellion trained new leaders, some of whom have left Columbia to provide other local movements with leadership. From my travels around the country, I’ve seen that the level of political discussion at Columbia is as high or higher than anywhere in the country, including the radical “center” in the Bay Area. Though the number of militants active in the chapter is only slightly greater than last year, a terrible failing attributable to reasons cited above, a chapter member with many years’ experience recently commented that the entire undergraduate school and most of the graduate students look to SDS for political leadership, and, most important, see SDS as acting in their interest. This is perhaps the only campus in the country where the SDS chapter can call the whole school its “base.”
Our strength was greatest at the time of our greatest militancy It was also the time that we resolved to fight – to disregard all the liberal Cassandras warning us of the horrors of the police bust and the right-wing reaction. In a sense it was a time when we overcame our own middle-class timidity and fear of violence. We of course, were following the lead of the blacks, but we were also forging new paths where elite white students had never been before. At that time nothing could defeat us, not the police, not the jocks, not the liberal faculty, so treacherous and yet so important, only our own (we found out later) weakness and bad political judgment. The liberal world was paralyzed; radicals had a vision of what victory seems like.
Of course we made mistakes, dozens of them. At the lowest points, feeling that the movement itself had erred in irreconcilable ways (such as leaving Hamilton Hall, which we at that time did not understand as inevitable and even a source of strength), we found the strength to go on in the knowledge that somehow history was carrying us forward. Also important was the observation that after making 43 mistakes, 44 wouldn’t make any difference, so we threw ourselves into the next crisis.
Above all, we learned almost accidentally the great truth stated by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, “Dare to struggle, dare to win.”
This article is a slightly different version of Rudd’s ‘Columbia: Notes on the Spring Rebellion’ that appears in Carl Ogleby’s collection The New Left Reader.