My Life as a Union Steward in a Government Union

by Sarah Harper, December 19, 2018

AFGE Dec 2018

This article discusses my union work as a public sector employee. When I started the job, I became a shop steward within my first year. My platform was fighting racism. I held a low level job as a technician, and was one of the few white techs in the library. I distinguished myself as a militant supporter of my coworkers against the bosses.

I started leafleting outside the building with InCAR (International Committee Against Racism) flyers. The topics dealt with across-the-board wage increases instead of percentages because percentages harmed the lower grades. The lower grades were held by predominantly Black workers. The leaflets also talked about larger social issues such as apartheid in South Africa. I put out flyers supporting the Metro workers when they went on strike. Flyers supporting the air traffic controllers (PATCO) workers and the Greyhound Bus workers when they were on strike were distributed.

Every time I ran for various union offices: President, executive board, shop steward. My campaign literature was devoted to fighting the racist, sexist practices by the bosses, I was known as a militant antiracist who stood toe to toe with the bosses. I did not back down.

One small struggle helped a Black woman get her job back. She and a quasi-supervisor tried to doctor their leave and earning statements to show higher salaries were necessary to get credit cards. The woman, a low level typist in a typing pool, decided not to do it, but left the evidence in the trash can. The quasi supervisor ratted on her to the boss! The bosses said the rest of her coworkers couldn’t trust her now. That was the reason they fired her. I knew the women in the typing pool. I struggled with them to sign a letter which said they trusted the woman and wanted her to have her job back. The woman was pregnant. I then passed out flyers in front of the building calling out the racist firing of the pregnant worker. Who should call me? The vice president of the union called to tell me that the bosses were upset and I should stop! I told the vice president that was not my concern. The firing was unnecessary and racist. I wanted the woman to get her job back. I went through the whole grievance procedure, as well. In the end, the union, under pressure, found the woman another job in another department.

Civil Rights Committee

It took 20 years to set up the Civil Rights Committee in our union. Why? The union misleaders did not want a group of angry workers fighting the bosses at work! When the Civil Rights Committee was established, it was little more than window dressing. The workers on it were weak and toed the line of the misleaders of the union. They did not make waves! I was able to get on the Committee when the union leadership changed. We started off with a forum on racial inequalities in the workplace. It was well attended. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of the forum. As a member, I tried to build coalitions between the diverse groups in the workplace: Blacks in Government (BIG), HACE, the Hispanic group, persons with disabilities and Native Americans. The public sector had special interest months. January was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; February Black history month; March Women; May Asian-Pacific; June LGBT; September 15 to October 15 Hispanic; October Disabilities; November Native American. We tailored programs to those months. We served lunch because free food was a big draw. The programs showed the union’s involvement and visibility.

During this time the bosses were harassing outspoken Black and Latin male union members. If they tried to speak to the Secretary of Labor about discrimination on the job, or fight back vigorously, security escorted them out of the building and told not to come back to work! They were put on administrative leave. When Civil Rights Committee members discussed their situations with our union misleaders, they passed the buck. We were told “Don’t worry, no reprimand or other disciplinary action has been taken yet!” What about the workers who were sitting at home worrying about their job?? Our Committee decided to write Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These FOIA demanded how many workers were on paid administrative leave, the race of the workers, the gender of the workers and the reason for the administrative leave. Management decided to ignore our request. We just kept firing back our FOIA requests and made it public that we were doing so. Several union members were given their jobs back in this way. One of them approached me on his return and thanked the Civil Rights Committee for pressuring management. He felt that was the reason he was brought back to work.

Our Committee was very diverse with Asian, Latin, Black, white, Native American workers, and those with disabilities. We showed movies. We also had speakers. We had people from the community come and speak about police brutality. Redmond Barnes came from the People’s Coalition for Police Accountability and spoke about the struggle against the police murder of Prince Jones. We had a Hyattsville City council member come and speak about the fight against the racism of the rental agreement bill that the City of Hyattsville was trying to pass. Residents along with CASA were fighting the bill.  CASA is a group that helps immigrants fight injustices and deportations. The bill targeted the immigrant workers who rented rooms in their houses. We played Dr. King’s speech against the war in Vietnam with a montage of pictures playing in the background that my son had produced. This presentation was always a standing room only crowd. We wanted people to know that Dr. King was more than just his “I have a Dream” speech and cared about economic justice for all.

For Women’s month we showed ”With Babes and Banners” a documentary about the Flint Sit down Strike at the GM Plant in Flint Michigan. It highlighted the Women’s Brigades who won the strike by fighting off the company goons and the tear gas of the Michigan National Guard! The women decided that babysitting and cooking the meals was not enough. Being on the front lines was necessary to keep the men in the factory until the strike was won. When the cops and National Guard lobbed tear gas at the factory windows, the women broke the windows so air could get in so the men could breathe. The women held off the police so reinforcements could come and help. The women’s brigades were vital to the strike.

We also had discussions about the myths of immigrants not paying taxes and taking away jobs from US citizens. We had a speaker from Pew Research come to speak. We wanted to make sure that our members to expand their consciousness. We knew that our members did not only care about their paychecks.

The Committee members enthusiastically planned the programs. We divided up responsibilities so no one member struggled with all of the work. The members appreciated how collective the Committee was run. In order to float new ideas, I would discuss them with members before the meeting. We worked as equals rather than top down leadership. We played to the strengths of the members. Local 12 members enjoyed our presentations. Many presentations were filled to capacity.

Lessons Learned

My template for organizing was InCAR, which allowed rank and file members to pick struggles in the local areas with little top down directives. We collectively decided in which antiracist struggles to join. We knew that including all workers helped. We believed in multiracial unity and militant struggle.

The larger purpose of going into the job with the idea of fighting racism at every turn motivated me on the job. It enabled me to know diverse groups of workers. The Washington, DC area is diverse but very segregated. Without the mindset of bridging the racial divide, I would have remained in a “white bubble” both at work and in my community.

Learning to be more patient and less judgmental was essential in being a shop steward and advocate for workers. I boasted and believed that 99% of the time I blamed management for the workers’ situations.

The union leadership tried to stop me by not supporting me when I fought battles with management. They tried to isolate me from the members and intimidate me. I threatened their power by organizing the union members to press for more militant fight back against management.

Unfortunately during the first years the members thought it was a personal battle between me and the union president. Separating the personal from political was hard because both of us exhibited strong leadership skills. The fact that the president was Black made it harder to convince Black union members he did not act in their best interests.

Organizing is a process. Talking to workers and listening to them are essential elements. Taking things one step at a time became clear to me. Being only twenty-two and fresh out of college, a steep learning curve loomed ahead of me. My approach consisted of being accessible. I became friends with my coworkers. I ate lunch with them. I invited them to my house for parties. I spoke up when the supervisors tried to intimidate workers. Filing grievances was one avenue but not the only option. Informing workers about major struggles both in the workplace and in the world helped build a base for action. Passing out flyers before work was the main tool. The flyers calling out racist supervisors and unfair firings helped put pressure on the bosses and the union to get restitution for the employee. It was a matter of knowing that following the contract with the grievances and deadlines were important, but organizing other workers to get involved in the struggles were most important. If other workers did not stand up to fight back, nothing would change. Doing these activities made the union leadership upset. They then would have to act militant to cover themselves for not doing anything! I also called out the mistakes the union leaders were making. I would struggle with coworkers to attend the union meetings and pass resolutions to make the union leadership do the right thing.

My outlook enriched my life and my husband and children’s lives. My children gravitated to whom they liked knowing it made no difference to us what the color of their skin was.



Lucy Parsons, Working Class Anarchist

by Karyn Pomerantz, Dec. 2, 2018.

The wealth of this country should be equally distributed … if one man through shrewdness should then amass more wealth than his neighbor, his surplus should be taken away from him. Every man should carry arms and have the right of self-defense. Shops and means of transit should be free. There would be no need of elections, police or standing army… Every man should bring his products to an immense clearinghouse in each city or town, and every family to receive an equal portion.” Lucy Parsons, 1891.
LucyParsons photoThe life of Lucy Parsons holds many lessons for the working class and students today, especially since we recently witnessed a polarizing election, increased xenophobia, and racist, anti-Semitic murders. Lucy gained fame as the widow of Albert Parsons, the labor leader and anarchist whom the city of Chicago executed for his role in the fight for the 8 hour day in 1887. Known as the Haymarket Massacre, cops threw a bomb into the crowd that killed 7 policemen and blamed the deaths on the anarchist and socialist leaders, including Albert. May Day, the international workers’ day, commemorates this event. Lucy spent her life celebrating her husband’s and her political ideas. Today she is honored as a revolutionary leader in her own right.

The Parsons lived through a tumultuous period of history marked by severe exploitation, racism, and strikes. Thousands of immigrants arrived to escape violence and poverty in Russia and Eastern Europe, and millions of black sharecroppers fled north during the Great Migration. There were no labor protections and little solidarity among white and black workers. Workers organized numerous political and labor organizations from the trade union Knights of Labor and various socialist and anarchist parties to the militant International Workers of the World (the IWW or Wobblies).

This blog piece will cover her current relevance, using several biographies and her own writings. It includes her positions on political organizing, electoral reforms, unions, racism, women, and family. She prefigures many current political trends and remains a controversial activist. Scholars and biographers disagree on her racial and ethnic heritage, her antiracist activities, and her later role in the Communist Party USA.

Brief Background
Lucy’s early history is obscured by many lies and a tangle of family relationships. Born in 1851, she was enslaved in Virginia until her owner marched his “property” to Texas in 1863 where she became free after the Civil War during Reconstruction. With her light complexion and education she passed herself off as the daughter of a Mexican father and Native American mother, never denying this fabricated heritage. During the more liberal Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War she married Albert, a white radical Republican politician from Texas. Eventually they fled to Chicago in 1873 and joined various left wing organizations and wrote for several radical publications. Albert worked as a printer and joined the printers union. Lucy earned an income as a seamstress and organized numerous women’s organizations, and joined various socialist and anarchist groups. She eventually became a member of the Communist Party.

Their contemporaries included the anti-lynching journalist Ida Wells-Barnett, labor organizer Mother Jones, IWW founder Big Bill Haywood, socialist Eugene Debs, anarchist and free love advocate Emma Goldman, union leader Samuel Gompers, and anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
LucyParsonsRR StrikeThey supported some of the most important struggles of the 19th Century, including the 8 hour day fight, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 that developed into a general strike, and other union campaigns in major US industries. The Parsons frequently gave public speeches, eventually traveling throughout the United States. After Albert’s hanging in 1887, Lucy maintained a leadership role until she died in a house fire in 1942 at the age of 92.

Political PrinciplesAnarchism
As anarchists, Lucy and Albert advocated for a revolution to topple capitalism. Anarchists promoted individual freedom versus collective or centralized governmental control. They repudiated the concept of a state and operated as independent activists rather than long-term members of political organizations or parties. Lucy was highly critical of other revolutionary groups and extremely caustic in her dealings with colleagues. As one of a few African American women leaders, she demanded that others take her seriously. She was very popular with workers and feared by the police and industry.

While the Parsons organized within major labor unions, their primary focus was revolution, not reform. They used personal appearances, meetings, writings, parades and picnics to whip up hatred of capitalism, reaching thousands of laborers in the Midwest and beyond. They exhorted their followers to use violence to eradicate the ruling class and warned striking workers against compromising with the bosses.

LucyParsons quote on the systemOne of Lucy’s famous speeches, An Open Letter to Tramps (1884) portrayed the plight of 35,000 impoverished, unemployed men and their wives and children in Chicago, and urged them to take up weapons to fight the larcenous industrial bosses:

“…Have you not worked hard all your life, since you were old enough for your labor to be of use in the production of wealth? … Then can you not see that the “good boss” or the “bad boss” cuts no figure whatsoever? That you are the common prey of both, and that their mission is simply robbery? Can you not see that it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM and not the boss that must be changed?…each of you hungry tramps who read these lines, avail yourselves of these little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land. Learn the use of explosives!”

Lucy helped organize the International Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, along with many anarchists, Marxists, and socialists. Their militancy, commitment to class struggle, and inclusion of anarchists attracted her. The IWW recruited unskilled laborers from major industries, including women, black and immigrant workers who were excluded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Led by Bill Haywood, the Wobblies led militant strikes in the mines, lumber fields, and textile factories where they won a 5% wage increase and an 8 hour day in Lowell, Massachusetts. They often used mass violence to win their strikes, until they were framed and many leaders executed.

“An injury to one is an injury to all… For one dollar a (boss) didn’t earn is one dollar a worker didn’t get.” (Big Bill Haywood, IWW)

Lucy Parsons Voting“Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.”

The Parsons opposed electoral politics, arguing that elections maintained capitalism. They refused to participate in any political campaigns or endorse any candidates, even those who identified as socialists. They consistently argued that capitalism was the problem, not political parties or politicians.

“…so-called laws” were not “worth the paper they are written on because capitalists had the power to do as they wanted even if “the producers of all wealth had willed it otherwise.”

Lucy’s inaction on racism diminishes her role as a labor activist. It is the most serious weakness of her and others’ political work. Many other union members and supporters held racist ideas and denied union membership to black people. This opened the door for the bosses to use black workers as strikebreakers, further inflaming white racism. A woman social reformer actually endorsed lynchings as a way to maintain social control over black people!

There is no evidence that Lucy (or most anarchists and socialists) organized black and white workers together. There was little multiracial unity. Although most industrial workers in Chicago were white, this was also the period of the Great Migration when 6 million southern black people fled the south to live in northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. White workers and their unions viewed black workers as strikebreakers and cheap labor who threatened their jobs; women workers were also viewed as cheap labor threatening men’s pay. US born workers feared immigrant workers from Europe as purveyors of communism and threats to their jobs.
This was an opportunity to include black workers in unions to strengthen the labor movement and unite immigrant and US born people. The Parsons made no effort to counter anti-black racism. They settled in white immigrant neighborhoods largely populated by German families. Many Eastern European immigrants were socialists and active labor organizers who strengthened US labor struggles and introduced new political ideologies, but did not advocate for black workers either.
Black workers led significant struggles outside of the northern labor movement. Ida Wells-Barnett risked her life organizing against lynchings. Socialists and communists organized the Southern Workers Tenant Union that united black and white sharecroppers in the south. When black soldiers returned from WWI in 1919, they battled white racists who attacked them, destroying lives, homes, and businesses in Tulsa, Detroit, and Rosewood. During the 1930s, black and white communists in the Communist party USA (CP) fought the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys who were falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lucy participated in the Scottsboro movement but considered antiracist issues a distraction from class struggle. She didn’t appreciate the power of racism to divide and weaken the working class. (Williams in The Mythologizing and Re-Appropriation of a Radical Hero disputes this. Michael Goldstein in The Color of Politics writes that Lucy did endorse multi-culturalism and united workers across racial barriers although he only devotes 1 page to this assertion without any evidence).

Lucy helped to organize and joined the IWW but did not maintain her membership preferring to work more independently. She never held jobs that offered union membership. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 affected her deeply, confirming her ideas regarding direct action and rebellions as a strategy for challenging the state. She supported many strikes but primarily worked as a small business woman, as a seamstress, employing other women in her businesses. She never worked in a factory where she could have formed political and social relationships with other women. She focused on gravitational revolutionary work, writing and speaking about the need to eliminate capitalism. She viewed unions as models of cooperative working class organizations under a society built on anarchy although most aimed to reform capitalism rather than abolish it.

Lucy and other anarchists urged workers to arm themselves with dynamite to destroy factories and fight the police. They correctly believed that revolution required violence, not the ballot. However, they never utilized dynamite themselves or joined unions that could carry out strikes and rebellions. Their call for violence predates the 1960s Weather Underground who used violence such as bombs and provocative actions (like running through a high school topless) in ludicrous attempts to instigate revolution. They used inflammatory rhetoric urging violence but did not practice it themselves. Nonetheless, the police and government portrayed them as terrorists and criminals.

“(The working class) should rise and overthrow aristocracy by means of dynamite…” Lucy Parsons.

Lucy fought for recognition as a leader in labor and radical circles at the time in which male activists relegated women to the home. Even the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) did not welcome women, believing that they jeopardized men’s pay and their own health if they worked. The SLP also opposed women’s suffrage and ignored black workers. In their view (as for many today), racism distracted from class struggle. Lucy developed several organizations of women who primarily worked as seamstresses and servants. The Working Women’s Union (WWU) held weekly discussion meetings as Lucy tried to involve them in anarchist politics. It dissolved in 1880 due to decreasing attendance.

Meanwhile, Albert organized an American chapter of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), an anarchist group founded in Europe. It agitated for anarchism and published the Alarm to voice their political ideology and strategies, such as violence against the state and the rejection of voting.

After Albert’s death, Lucy spent the rest of her life promoting Albert’s politics and martyrdom. She had several affairs, offending her comrades for betraying her husband and defying the moral customs of the period. At the same time, she rejected the free love practices of Emma Goldman and recoiled from gay or bisexual sex.

Lucy’s experiences with her children were sad. Her daughter, Lulu Eda, died from lymphedema when she was 8 years old. Lucy committed her son to a psychiatric hospital when he joined the Army during WWI, a war Lucy and the left opposed. He never left the hospital in the more than 20 years until his death.

Lessons Learned

Organizing labor: Lucy and her comrades encouraged strikes and disruption by workers to thwart the capitalists at the workplace and in the cities. They organized social events in the form of picnics and parades to attract thousands of workers to hear their messages.

Rejection of politicians: They rejected voting as the means to change the fundamental goals of capitalism – to make profit from the work of others. They did not support any candidate or bourgeois party.

Endorsement of direct action and violence: The anarchists understood that only violence would eliminate the bosses’ power and urged workers to arm themselves.

Lifelong commitment to revolution: Lucy committed herself to revolutionary principles and practice for 70 years without stopping her outreach, publishing and family responsibilities. She opposed US imperialism and wars, including WWI and the invasions in the Caribbean and Far East.

When one organization failed to accomplish its mission, she would form another. She also committed herself to keeping Albert’s memory alive through her speeches and writings about his life.

Powerful communication: She was an expressive, forceful speaker and writer who called directly for action against the wealthy and their politicians. She contributed to many newsletters, newspapers, and books to promulgate anarchism.


Racism: Lucy mirrored the racist ideas of the left and ordinary people of the time, ideas that are once again in fashion. The socialists and related parties viewed black workers as a category of workers, oppressed only from poverty, not from super-exploitation due to “racial” categories. In true “blame the victim” mentality, she wrote “…to the Negro himself we would say your deliverance lies mainly in your own hands.” (!)
“These were the men and women (communists, socialists, anarchists of this time) who claimed for themselves the mantle of radical change, but whose own prejudices served to replicate the unequal society against which they professed to be fighting.” (Jones J., The Goddess of Anarchism)

Sectarianism: Lucy denounced other anarchists and socialists who did not accept her outlook. She did not develop alliances with other labor radicals or with any antiracist activists. Her responses to them were caustic deal breakers. She had two close friends during her life but outlived them as well.

As Jacqueline Jones, the author of The Goddess of Anarchy from which much of this blog is based, concludes that:
“…Lucy Parsons lived a singularly eventful life… full of remarkable achievements… her story in all its complexity remains a powerful one for its useful legacies no less than its cautionary lessons.”

Her life holds many lessons for us today: fight for an inclusive, multiracial/ethnic strategy; use mass violence as necessary in strikes and rebellions; reject politicians; and build leadership among people who have been powerless. Build a movement of workers to take state power to replace capitalism instead of relying on reform organizations and workers’ spontaneity.

Asbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons: an American Revolutionary, 1976.
Greer, TS. A Lifelong Anarchist: Selected Works and Writings of Lucy Parsons. Ignacio Hills Press, 19??
lucyParsons GoddessJones, Jacqueline. The Goddess of Anarchism. NY: Basic Books, 2017.

Williams, Casey. Whose Lucy Parsons: THE MYTHOLOGIZING AND RE-APPROPRIATION OF A RADICAL HERO.…/casey-wiliams-whose-lucy-parsons
Viewed 11-28-18

How We Can Support the Caravan and Fight Racist Terror

5ed6324758d64391b97eabe8dee21718_18by Karyn Pomerantz, Nov. 1, 2018

appearing on Counterpunch, November 8, 2018

As we write, thousands of men, women and children are traveling to the southern U.S. border with Mexico. The largest group of the migrants who make up the “caravan” are from Honduras. They are fleeing poverty, corruption and violence that is largely the result of over 100 years of US domination, beginning with massive banana plantations. This American business took over most of the best land, and later the US came to dominate mining, coffee and banking as well. To keep its interests safe and also play a role in fighting the Sandanista rebels in neighboring Nicaragua in the 1970s, the US developed and dominated the military. Although a liberal reformer, Zelaya was elected in 2006, the military, with US support, overthrew him in 2009. Since then, poverty, crime, drug trafficking and police violence have driven ever more people to flee.

These conditions are not unlike those in other Latin American countries, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, from which migrants also come. Similar conditions also account for the over 200 million migrants currently seeking a survivable place to settle around the world. While each country has its own specific causes for migration, from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria to hopeless poverty in Pakistan, India, and Somalia, these migrations reflect the drive for cheap labor, resources, and markets by the major capitalist countries, topped by the US. For decades, the US has off-loaded its manufacturing industries to countries with un-living wages, impoverishing workers in the US and other countries, especially exploiting black, Latin, and Asian people. (See Migration: a reflection of capitalism in this blog at

Rulers around the globe, from Trump to Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Orban in Hungary, use racism and nationalism to attack migrants and blame them for society’s ills. These ideas are not different from those of white supremacists who have murdered blacks, Jews and anti-racists from Charlottesville to Kentucky to Pittsburgh, encouraged by the White House. For most African Americans, racist terror began under slavery never stopped. Klan and Nazi organizations have flourished throughout US history, blaming black and Jewish people for the economic and social problems created by capitalism.

We have also seen powerful movements to fight racism and inequality around the world, from revolutions in Russia and China, reforms in Cuba, anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the civil rights movement in the US. With the murders of black and Jewish people this past week and the growing Administration threats against the caravan, many are asking what we can do to oppose these trends. The following proposes some ideas. You can use the Comments section to add your own suggestions.


  Mass at the border to greet and protect the caravan. Stop the police and military from arresting and shooting the marchers with massive action.

  Speak up against racist and nationalist ideas. There are no such entities as “illegal” people or “invaders.” There are no distinct human races with different capabilities. Jewish people do not control US policy; they are rich and poor, conservative and radical.

  If you are in the armed forces, refuse to follow orders to detain or attack people trying to cross the border.

  Refuse to work in a detention center which imprisons migrants.

  Join the sanctuary movement and find placements for immigrants and oppose deportations.

  Organize demonstrations and vigils against deportations and racist violence.

  Confront white supremacists wherever they rally.

  Forge friendships and political alliances with people from different backgrounds. Fight for each other’s issues, such as open borders and against police violence, to grow the anti-racist movements and build trust.

  Build a stronger, inclusive labor movement to organize for better working conditions and to unite US born workers with immigrants. During the early 20th Century, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) opposed immigration fearing that Eastern European and Mexican workers would take “American” jobs and spread communist ideas. The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organized immigrant workers during the 1930s; immigrant women working in the garment industry created the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the most militant unions in that period. Mexican workers organized the United Farmworkers Union in California led by Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta and struck big agriculture for better wages and safer working conditions. Thousands supported the grape boycott to pressure growers to recognize the union (California has the strongest labor movement in the US with 22 percent of the workforce unionized while the national average is 11 percent).

   Support immigrants on the job. Unions can oppose “reverification” actions where ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can demand to see the immigration status of employees. Many unions have represented workers caught by this policy and lobbied against it in California.

   Defend Immigrants with sanctuary places, legal aid, and amassing people at sites where raids occur and at the border. The meatpackers union exemplified fighting racism off the job when they defended black residents who moved into segregated Chicago neighborhoods during the Great Migration. They also guaranteed that black union members serve on the executive boards and other leadership positions.

  Reject anti-communism when it is used to attack mass struggle. Communists built the CIO and led many labor struggles in the shipping, garment, and meatpacking industries among others. The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired people around the world to challenge capitalism and build a more equitable society. Important anti-racist communists in the US, such as Paul Robeson, William Patterson, and Claudia Jones, led campaigns to free the Scottsboro boys, falsely accused of raping a white woman, abolish racist ideas, publish progressive newspapers, support international anticolonial struggles, and build antiracist organizations.


  Do not remain silent in the face of racist speech or acts.

  Do not defend or excuse racist speech as “free speech”. Fascists use free speech principles to recruit members and build deadly movements.

  Do not adopt nationalism and separatism as a response to racism and anti- Semitism. For example, Zionists in Israel use the history of the Nazi holocaust, which murdered six million Jews, to justify oppression of Palestinians.  Farrakhan, a black nationalist, voices hate against Jewish people.

  Do not allow violent racist attacks to be portrayed as “not the American way.” Violence and white supremacy instigated by a small financial elite have always dominated American domestic and foreign policy, from the war against Britain, enslavement, colonizing South America and Asia to conducting the current wars in the Middle East and exploiting globalized labor.

  Do not think that voting out Trump and the Republicans will end deportations. Obama deported more immigrants (3.5 million people by 2012) than all previous administrations. The police have murdered black and Latin citizens with impunity under liberal and conservative administrations.

Capitalists and the politicians who represent them need cheap labor to maintain profits, and the super-exploitation of immigrants, as well as women and non-white workers, helps maximize profits. Immigrants are also scapegoated and blamed for many problems, like unemployment.

We must not allow white supremacists to build their movement attacking workers of color, native born or immigrant. We need to unite students, employed and unemployed, immigrant and US born from all backgrounds to oppose racist ideas and practices. As Ibram Kendi writes in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Epilogue): 
“Racial reformers have customarily requested or demanded that … White Americans sacrifice their own privilege for the betterment of Black people… based on a myth that racism materially benefits the majority of White people, that White people would not gain in… an anti-racist America…. It is also true that a society of equal opportunity would actually benefit the vast majority of White people much more than racism does. 
…eradicating racism must involve Americans committed to antiracist policies seizing and maintaining power … over the world.”

We have an opportunity to realize this potential to create a more equal world. But we must fight racism every day.

Kavanaugh – The Tip of the Iceberg

By Karyn Pomerantz, October 16, 2018

Kava nopeThe Kavanaugh hearings and his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice have opened a floodgate of women’s stories of rape and sexual harassment, building on the many recent accounts from the #MeToo movement.  Kavanaugh’s arrogant behavior represents the entitled status of ruling class men who wield their power without consideration for anyone except corporate and right wing politicians.  His danger extends beyond his individual actions to the realm of policy:

  • support for the Patriot Act and torture,
  • opposition to abortion,
  • threats to end the pre-existing condition protection in the Affordable Care Act,
  • support for the public charge policy that would deny immigrants’ use of federal benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, whether they were here legally or not
  • support for the detention of immigrants years after they were charged with a crime no matter how minor,
  • support for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 US Census.

His nomination represents the ruling class’ assault on the social safety net with Trump leading the way.

The hearings revealed how the power elite tries to shame and intimidate women into silence.  According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sixty-three percent (63%) of the people who are raped do not report the crime while only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported. One in five women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, yet over 90% of students do not report the assault. Sexual violence also occurs in same sex relationships.  Over 46 percent of lesbians, 75 percent of bisexual women, 40 percent of gay men, and 47 percent of bisexual men reported forms of sexual violence (NSVRC, Statistics About Sexual Violence, Viewed 10-9-2018).


Racism has always been used to depict black men as hyper-sexual violent rapists (of white women) yet black men have a lower rate of rape than white men. (RAINN, Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics, Viewed 10-13-18).  Among women raped, 17.7 percent were white and 18.8 percent are black. Native Americans have the highest rate of rape, twice the rate of any other groups (RAINN, Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, Viewed 10-13-18).

While rape is one of the severest forms of violence, there are many other assaults on women’s health and well-being, that disproportionately affect black and Latinx women:

  • High maternal and infant mortality rates
  • Immigration policies of detention, deportation, public charge policies, and migration caused by severe poverty and violence
  • Poor access to health care, abortion and contraception in many areas
  • Economic exploitation by employers; women make 80 percent of white men’s earnings while black and Latinx women earn even less
  • Economic exploitation in the home providing unpaid domestic labor
  • No access to education and expensive school fees that push girls to engage in sex for money in many countries
  • High rates of HIV

kav fight for 15While the media highlights white middle class women in #MeToo, poor women working in fast food, hotels, and factories have joined efforts to prevent sexual harassment.  USA Today reports that workers at McDonald’s filed a suit, and some city councils are passing policies against sexual violence ( September 2018. Viewed 10-13-18).

Legislative and electoral strategies cannot eradicate sexism; it is too profitable due to women’s lower wages and free household labor.

Women have long fought their oppression, demanding equal pay, education, health care, reproductive rights, and political participation.  During the 19th Century in the US, women rebelled against slavery and organized for voting rights.  Women in the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills led the first strike to demand better conditions and wages.  They played significant roles in the civil rights movement during the early and mid 20th Century, holding leadership positions in SNCC and CORE, two mass anti-racist organizations.  Black women, such as Lucy Parsons, Louise Thompson, and Claudia Jones, advocated for socialism and communism and defended the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely convicted of raping a white woman in the South in the 1930s.  Many immigrant women led the union organizing drives in the garment, farmworkers and textile industries in the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century.

kav chinese womenIn the newly launched Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollantai and other communists established communal kitchens and housekeeping to alleviate the burdens of domestic labor.  Women also joined and led the revolutionary liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, and South Africa.

Hundreds of women teachers went out on strike in West Virginia in 2018 to demand funding for education and a living wage, and women are joining unions and struggles to raise the minimum wage in the Fight for $15 campaign. Recently, women initiated Black Lives Matter and MeToo!. More women have entered political races for local office since the Trump election.  Hundreds of women protested Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court risking arrest to do so.

Racism Weakens the Women’s Movement

While the civil rights struggle inspired women’s activism during the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of the women’s movement marginalized and ignored the specific needs of working class and black, Latinx, Asian, and Native women.  Racism weakened the movement for women’s liberation by separating women based on their racial classification and economic status, and choosing a more narrow set of demands and issues that appealed to middle class educated white women.  This was not new.

White women suffragists threw black women under the bus in 1869.  Trying to win support for voting rights from Southern Democrats, they excluded black women and their issues in their movement, prioritizing women’s issues over racial justice.  The Fifteenth Amendment allowed voting for black men but denied this to women. Suffrage leaders Stanton and Anthony lashed out at black men, accusing them of illiteracy and the inability to understand political issues.  (Men often accused women of the same problems).  When Frederick Douglass offered a compromise that would allow voting for any excluded group, Stanton and Anthony rejected it.

kav black and white unity signThe dissension broke the suffrage movement at this time, which was only renewed decades later.  In 1913 suffragists led by Alice Paul and others organized a parade of 5,000 women down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC to promote voting rights. Yet they relegated black suffragists to the end of the march!  Using arguments popular through US history, they did not want to alienate Southern participants but they themselves held the same attitudes (Kendi I. Stamped from the Beginning. NY: Nation Press, 2016).

In 1963, Betty Frieden’s immensely popular book, The Feminine Mystique, addressed middle class white women’s oppression as free household labor and advocated for equal rights for professional women in the workplace.  There was no acknowledgement of white and non-white working class women’s needs.  She and other women established the National Organization of Women (NOW), and developed and promoted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with demands for non-discriminatory employment opportunities, maternity leave, child care, abortion, and contraceptives. NOW, led by Friedan, proposed an electoral, legislative approach to winning the ERA that led to opportunistic compromises.   ERA proponents eliminated many provisions in the ERA to gain wider support among state legislators.  As it became clear that NOW did not fight for black women, many left the organization (Smith S. Women and Socialism. Chicago: Haymarket, 2016).

Don’t Trust the Liberals-Build a Mass Militant Movement

NOW’s reliance on electoral politics rather than building a mass movement doomed it to failure.  It supported Bill Clinton who demolished welfare for poor women, advocated sexual abstinence, and opposed gay marriage.  Obama extended the Hyde Act banning federal funds, such as Medicaid, to pay for abortions to the Affordable Care Act.  Yet NOW and moderate women’s groups clung to the Democratic Party.

kav women's lib marchMore radical women renounced this incremental strategy.  They staged demonstrations against labor practices and cultural norms, such as beauty pageants, bridal showers and prevailing standards of beauty.  The Boston Women’s Health Collective wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves to teach women about their health, sexuality, and birth control, criticizing the medical establishment for medicalizing women’s conditions.  The book addressed women in other countries and the racism experienced by US women.  Thousands read the book; it is still in print today

Marxists condemned capitalism as the source of sexism in the United States and opposed US imperialist wars while the conservative leaders of the Feminist Majority led by Eleanor Smeal supported the war in Afghanistan as an opportunity to liberate women there.


During the 1960s and 1970s, separatism of men and women became popular.  Feminists accused all men as the source of sexism, blaming the “patriarchy” or male supremacy as the cause of women’s oppression. Many men adopted the ideology of male supremacy and the so-called ideal of masculinity, such as hyper-sexuality, aggression, and heterosexual orientation, traits used to justify sexual violence. Black men were seen as especially threatening to women.

Black women feminists opposed separatism, arguing that feminists needed to combat racism as well as women’s oppression.  They developed the concept of intersectionality in the 1970s put forward by Kimberle Crenshaw (See blog post on Intersectionality, October 2018, ), acknowledging that women (and men) experience multiple forms of exploitation, especially racism.  While sexist practices, such as rape or fewer job promotions, affect all groups of women, black, Asian, Latinx, and Native women suffer much more.  They could not ignore the effects of racism on men and women.

The Cohambee River Collective of black feminists led by Barbara and Betty Smith published the Cohambee statement that pledged their solidarity with black men:

kav cohambee statement“… we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand… we struggle together with black men against racism while we also struggle with black men about sexism.

These lessons can guide the current generations of young men and women to build an inclusive movement based on class: solidarity among workers and opposition to capitalism.  Reject the Democrats and voting as the way out; they will only use us to preserve this system.”


See more about sexism at:

Intersectionality: A Marxist Critique

by Barbara Foley, September 26, 2018

This is a slightly revised version of an article with this title that appeared in Science & Society 82, 2 (April 2018): 269-75.

intersectionality graphic2  Intersectionality, a way of thinking about the nature and causes of social inequality, proposes that the effects of multiple forms of oppression are cumulative and, as the term suggests, interwoven.  Not only do  racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism, religious bigotry, and so-called “classism” wreak pain and harm in the lives of many people, but any two or more of these types of oppression can be experienced simultaneously in the lives of given individuals or demographic sectors.  According to the intersectional model, it is only by taking into account the complex experiences of many people who are pressed to the margins of mainstream society that matters of social justice can be effectively addressed.  In order to assess the usefulness of intersectionality as an analytical model and practical program, however—and, indeed, to decide whether or not it can actually be said to be a “theory,” as a number of its proponents insist—we need to ask not only what kinds of questions it encourages and remedies, but also what kinds of questions it discourages and what kinds of remedies it forecloses.

It is standard procedure in discussions of intersectionality to cite important forebears—from Sojourner Truth to Anna Julia Cooper, from Alexandra Kollontai to Claudia Jones to the Combahee River Collective—but then to zero in on the work of the legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who first coined and explicated the term in the late 1980s.  Concerned with overcoming the discriminatory situation faced by African American women workers at General Motors, Crenshaw demonstrated the inadequacy of existing categories denoting gender and race as grounds for legal action, since these could not be mobilized simultaneously in the case of a given individual: you had to be either a woman or nonwhite, but not both at the same time.   Crenshaw famously developed the metaphor of a crossroads of two avenues, one denoting race, the other gender, to make the point that accidents occurring at the intersection could not be attributed to solely one cause; it took motion along two crossing roads to make an accident happen (Crenshaw, 1989).

While Crenshaw’s model ably describes the workings of what the African American feminist writer Patricia Hill Collins has termed a “matrix of oppressions,” the model’s spatial two-dimensionality points to its inadequacy as an explanation of why this “matrix” exists in the first place (Collins, 1990).  Who created these avenues?  Why would certain people be traveling down them?  Where were they constructed, and when?  The spatial model discourages questions like these. The fact that the black women in question are workers who earn at best modest wages, but make the bosses of General Motors (GM) very rich, is simply taken as a given.  That is, to return to the metaphor of intersecting roads, the ground on which the roads have been built is a given, not even called into question.  While Crenshaw succeeded in demonstrating that the GM workers had been subjected to double discrimination—no doubt a legal outcome of considerable value to the women she represented—her model for analysis and compensation was confined to the limits of the law. As the Marxist-feminist theorist Delia Aguilar has ironically noted, class was not even an “actionable” category for the workers in question (Aguilar, 2015, 209).

Although intersectionality can usefully describe the effects of multiple oppressions, I propose, it does not offer an adequate explanatory framework for addressing the root causes of social inequality in the capitalist socioeconomic system. In fact, intersectionality can pose a barrier when one begins to ask other kinds of questions about the reasons for inequality—that is, when one moves past the discourse of “rights” and institutional policy, which presuppose the existence of social relations based upon the private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of labor.

Gender, race and class:—the “contemporary holy trinity,” as Terry Eagleton once called them (Eagleton, 1986, 82), or the “trilogy,” in Martha Gimenez’s phrase (Gimenez, 2001)—how do these categories correlate with one another? If gender, race and class are analytical categories, are they commensurable (that is, similar in kind), or distinct?  Can their causal roles be situated in some kind of hierarchy, or are they, by virtue of their “interlocked” and simultaneous operations, of necessity basically equivalent to one another as causal “factors”?

When I ask these questions, I am not asserting that a black female auto worker is black on Monday and Wednesday, female on Tuesday and Thursday, a proletarian on Friday, and—for good measure—a Muslim on Saturday.  (We’ll leave Sunday for another selfhood of her choosing.)  (For a version of this rather clever formulation I am indebted to Kathryn Russell [Russell, 2007].)  But I am proposing that some kinds of causes take priority over others—and, moreover, that, while gender, race and class can be viewed as comparable identities, they in fact require quite different analytical approaches.  Here is where the Marxist claim for the explanatory superiority of a class analysis comes into the mix, and the distinction between oppression and exploitation becomes crucially important.  Oppression, as Gregory Meyerson puts it, is indeed multiple and intersecting, producing experiences of various kinds; but its causes are not multiple but singular (Meyerson, 2000).  That is, “race” does not cause racism; gender does not cause sexism.  But the ways in which “race” and gender—as modes of oppression–have historically been shaped by the division of labor can and should be understood within the explanatory framework supplied by class analysis, which foregrounds the issue of exploitation, that is, of the profits gained from the extraction of what Marx called “surplus value” from the labor of those who produce the things that society needs.  (In considering the historical division of labor along lines of gender, we need to go back to the origins of monogamous marriage, as Friedrich Engels argued in On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.  The historical division of labor along lines of “race” is largely traceable to the age of colonialism, imperialism, and modern chattel slavery [Fields and Fields; Baptist].)  If class analysis is ignored, as Eve Mitchell points out, categories for defining types of identity that are themselves the product of exploited labor end up being taken for granted and, in the process, legitimated (Mitchell, 2013).

exploitation       An effective critique of the limitations of intersectionality hinges upon the formulation of a more robust and materialist understanding of social class than is usually allowed: not class as an identity or an experiential category, but class analysis as a mode of structural explanation.  In the writings of Karl Marx, “class” figures in several ways.  At times, as in the chapter on “The Working Day” in Volume I of Capital, it is an empirical category, one inhabited by children who inhale factory dust, men who lose fingers in power-looms, women who drag barges, and slaves who pick cotton in the blazing sun (Marx, 1990, 340-416).   All these people are oppressed as well as exploited.  But most of the time, for Marx, class is a relationship, a social relation of production; that is why, in the opening chapter of Capital, he can talk about the commodity, with its odd identity as a conjunction of use value and exchange value, as an embodiment of irreconcilable class antagonisms.  To assert the priority of a class analysis is not to claim that a worker is more important than a homemaker, or even that the worker primarily thinks of herself as a worker; indeed, based on her personal experience with spousal abuse or police brutality, she may well think of herself more as a woman, or a black person.  It is to propose, however, that the ways in which productive human activity is organized—and, in class-based society, compels the mass of the population to be divided up into various categories in order to insure that the many will be divided from one another and will labor for the benefit of the few—this class-based organization constitutes the principal issue requiring investigation if we wish to understand the roots of social inequality.  To say this is not to “reduce” gender or “race” to class as modes of oppression. It is, rather, to insist that the distinction between exploitation and oppression makes possible an understanding of the material (that is, socially grounded) roots of oppressions of various kinds.  It is also to posit that “classism,” a frequently heard term, is a deeply flawed concept.  For this term often views class to a set of prejudiced attitudes, equivalent to ideologies of racism and sexism.  As a Marxist, I say that we need more, not less, class-based antipathy.

In closing, I suggest that intersectionality is less valuable as an explanatory framework than as an ideological reflection of the times in which it has moved into prominence (see Wallis, 2015).  These times—extending back several decades now—have been marked by several interrelated developments.  One is the world-historical (if in the long run temporary) defeat of movements to set up and consolidate worker-run egalitarian societies, primarily in China and the USSR.  Another—hardly independent of the first—is the neoliberal assault upon the standard of living of the world’s workers, as well as upon those unions that have historically supplied a ground for a class-based and class-conscious resistance to capital.  The growing regime of what has been called “flexible accumulation” (Harvey, 1990, 141-72), which fragments the workforce into gig and precarious economies of various kinds, has accompanied and consolidated this capitalist assault on the working class, not just in the US but around the world.  For some decades now, a political manifestation of these altered economic circumstances has been the emergence of “New Social Movements” positing the need for pluralist coalitions around a range of non-class-based reform movements rather than resistance to capitalism.  Central to all these developments has been the “retreat from class,” a phrase originated by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Wood, 1986); in academic circles, this has been displayed in attacks on Marxism as a class-reductionist “master narrative” in need of supplementation by a range of alternative methodologies (Laclau and Mouffe).

fish unitedThese and related phenomena have for some time now constituted the ideological air that we breathe; intersectionality is in many ways a reflection of, and reaction to, these economic and political developments. Those of us who look to intersectionality for a comprehension of the causes of the social inequalities that grow more intense every day, here in the US and around the world, would do much better to seek analysis and remedy in an antiracist, antisexist, and internationalist revolutionary Marxism: a Marxism that envisions the communist transformation of society in the not too distant future.

Works Cited

Aguilar, Delia. 2015. “Intersectionality.” In Mojab, 203-220.


Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  New York: Basic Books. 2014.


Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.  New York: Routledge.


Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Practice.”  University of Chicago Legal Forum 89:139-67.


Eagleton, Terry.  1986. Against the Grain: Selected Essays 1975-1985.  London: Verso.


Engels, Friedrich. On the Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.  New York: International Publishers. 1972.


Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields.  Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. London: Verso. 2014.


Gimenez, Martha.  2001. “Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy.” Race, Gender & Class 8, 2: 22-33.


Harvey, David.  1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the origins of Cultural Change.  Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.


Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe.  Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. 2nd ed. London: Verso. 2001.


Marx, Karl.  1990. Capital. Vol. 1.  Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.


Meyerson, Gregory.  2000. “Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and Others.”  Cultural Logic 3(2). Accessed 18 May 2016.


Mitchell, Eve. 2013. “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory.” marxist-feminist-critique-of-intersectionality-theory/.


Mojab, Shahrzad. 2015. Marxism and Feminism.  London: ZED Books.


Russell, Kathryn.  2007. “Feminist Dialectics and Marxist Theory.” Radical Philosophy Review 10, 1: 33-54.


Smith, Sharon.  n.d. “Black Feminism and Intersectionality.” International Socialist Review #91.


Wallis, Victor.  2015. “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class.” New Political Science 37, 4: 604-619.


Wood, Ellen Meiksins.  1986. The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism.  London: Verso.



By Alan J. Spector, edited by Karyn Pomerantz, September 23, 2018

This abridged article describes the life of an SDS organizer during the 1960s student anti-war and anti-racist movements.  For the complete article, see Cultural Logic: Marxist Theory & Practice 2013, pp. 240-277.

This essay is about building a movement against exploitation and oppression, the need for anti-elitist, pro-working class strategy and tactics, and leadership from those most exposed to imperialism in the poorer countries and racial/ethnic minorities in the rich countries. The importance of female leadership is interwoven into the overall struggle to overcome all forms of capitalist/exploitative thought within the movement.

SDS buttonThe rise of a massive oppositional movement among college students to U.S. imperialism and its subsequent decline came out of the internal contradictions inherent in modern imperialist society. This essay is informed by my participation and observation in U.S. society, in the campus anti-war and anti-racist movements at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, as a full-time travelling organizer and active participant in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and by participation and analysis of the campus movement as both an activist and a sociology professor over the past few decades.

This short article, however, can, in no way, be considered any sort of comprehensive history of the 1960s, or SDS, nor even as a memoir.

What Was Going On During the 1960s?

On the economic level, capitalism’s cycle of growth, overproduction, falling rate of profit, imperialism, international stagnation, inter-imperialist competition and war was unfolding as it has done periodically. The standard of living of the US working class in general, including of the black working class, improved through the mid-1960s, and the economic contradiction would only begin to significantly sharpen in the early 1970s.  On the cultural level, a contradiction emerges when a class society becomes preoccupied with consumption of consumer goods in a way that leads many, including youth, to feel that the opiate of consumption actually increases alienation even as it pretends to assuage it.

The most glaring contradiction in U.S. society in the early 1960s was the persistence of legalized racial segregation and discrimination. The dominant ideology of that time, consistent with a kind of “anti-working class, racist optimism” was that capitalism was not the problem, but that certain groups were “culturally deprived” for whatever reasons and that with proper education and “uplifting” their lives could be improved and they could contribute more to society. But it was the explicit, legalized discrimination against black people that was the first major crack, the first loose thread which when pulled, exposed the flaws of the whole fabric of society. This was AMERICA – the USA – and people could not eat in restaurants, use washrooms in public buildings, nor even attend public colleges for which they paid taxes? Nor even vote? And dogs were attacking protesters; children were killed in a church?

sds harlem rebellionIn the fall of 1964, at University of California, Berkeley, hundreds of students were arrested for trying to raise money for civil rights organizations and peacefully sitting in, in defense of that right, and the reality and possibility of widespread student protests became an option for thousands of previously complacent students. There had been other smaller protests – a nearby one against the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in San Francisco where mainly youth were attacked with fire hoses. In New York City, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) held a small demonstration against the as-yet small Vietnam War and also played an important role in the Harlem Rebellion, which was the first such rebellion in decades. Other small socialist groups were organizing on different campuses and there were left-liberals critical of aspects of U.S. capitalism that were teaching at major universities. But when thousands of students surrounded that police car in Berkeley and eight hundred were arrested at the sit-in that was a turning point for the movement. The connection between the black-led civil rights movement in the South and the protests at Berkeley was crucial. Many of the organizers at Berkeley had been trained (“learning by doing and experience”) in the struggles in the South.  This “learning by doing” combined with a profound sense of betrayal at the “contradiction” between the myth of American democracy and the denial of free speech, especially on behalf of oppressed black people, confused and enraged tens of thousands all over the United States. Not only was the university defending the racists, but the intense physical brutality of the police – beating students, breaking arms, all for a minor “trespass” charge – was like ice water in the face of many youth. The sense of betrayal was all the more intense because so many were saying: “This is America. With its flaws, it is still the richest, most free country. We trust America. How could America do this to us?” And that raised questions about what else “America” might be doing.

In the midst of the civil rights protests and the awareness of the reluctance of the federal government to protect basic human rights, the military concocted a lie in the summer of 1964 that a U.S. ship was attacked in international waters by a ship from North Vietnam. Vaguely worded resolutions in Congress and the Senate giving the President open-ended authority to pursue a major war in South Vietnam and North Vietnam were passed overwhelmingly, with little protest from the American people, and the North Vietnamese base from which the nonexistent “attack ship” came was bombed. That seemed to be the end of it. Then in February 1965, President Johnson announced a major escalation of the war, including bombing the supposedly “sovereign” North Vietnam and committing tens of thousands of troops to the war.

Demonstrations appeared in dozens of cities, towns, and on many college campuses. Along with demonstrations came Teach-Ins, which played important roles in exposing the contradictions (lies). At one debate held on the University of Wisconsin campus, a history graduate student argued against a pro-war speaker by presenting what appeared to be a very one sided anti-imperialist, almost Marxist, argument, citing reason after reason that had all to do with profits and nothing to do with human rights, as the basis for U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Liberal, reformist-minded young people were questioning more and more the very roots of US policy.

SDS Steps to the Front

Students for a Democratic Society came out of an older youth organization based in the social democratic “liberal” wing of the labor movement –the “Student League for Industrial Democracy” or SLID. SDS was founded in June, 1962. Its founding statement, “The Port Huron Statement,” was a manifesto for social justice in the United States. Its emphasis was on opposing racial discrimination in particular and poverty in general, as well as nuclear war, but there was also a strong tone of recognition of the general alienation, even degradation, of life in the affluent U.S.A. For the first three years or so, SDS remained relatively small. Its community organizing project in Newark, New Jersey was perhaps its most notable project, although some SDS members also had gone to the South for civil rights organizing, mainly voter registration.  With the major escalation/bombing in Vietnam in early 1965, SDS called for a national demonstration in Washington, D.C. for April 17. With a Democrat in the White House, and Democratic Party politicians and major union leaders nearly unanimous in support of the war, SDS sharply alienated some of its former allies. The expectation was that a few thousand might show up. Instead, perhaps fifteen to twenty five thousand, mainly college students turned out to protest.

SDS button-changeWith that, SDS chapters began to spring up on many campuses, although in most places they remained relatively small until early 1968. The appeal of SDS was that it was “multi-issue” and therefore “radical” in the sense that by critiquing U.S. society on a number of issues, it opened the door to a criticism of U.S. capitalism in general, rather than just single issues, such as “peace,” which could be discussed as if it was a separate struggle from the core of U.S. society.  The period of the anti-war movement, leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was one of many local protests by mainly independent campus anti-war groups. There were occasional massive rallies, in particular a huge one in New York City in the summer of 1967. These larger rallies were punctuated with controversy as some in the anti-war movement objected to the presence of otherwise pro-imperialist union leaders and politicians as honored speakers. Locally, there were many types of activities, some just informational, some more militant. There were disruptive, non-obstructive protests, and outright obstructive protests against military recruiters, against ROTC, against war profiteers, especially Dow Chemical Corporation, and against government officials who came to campus. Many of the peaceful obstructive demonstrations (sit-ins, etc.) were met with severe physical violence on the part of the police.

By 1967, SDS had made anti-war activities its main focus on many campuses. It was still relatively small on many campuses, overshadowed by the various independent anti-war groups. What SDS had that was different was a multi-issue approach. Some in the anti-war movement opposed bringing other issues into the anti-war movement, but most in SDS saw anti-poverty, civil rights, student rights and anti-war activities as all interconnected and reinforcing. There were numerous tensions within SDS – some based on antagonism among various socialist groups and some based on emphasis. Those whose interest was “student power” sometimes diluted the distinctly pro-working class origins of SDS.

Worker-Student Alliance

In 1966, the Progressive Labor Party decided to encourage some of its campus members to join local SDS chapters. While their numbers were small (and their size was often overestimated by their opponents), they became among the strongest advocates for building a “worker-student alliance.”  This concept was often misunderstood in a narrow, mechanical way. It did not simply mean “strike support,” although that was important. It meant taking a pro-working class approach to all issues – for example, anti-war activities should emphasize how workers and peasants in Vietnam and working class youth in the U.S. were harmed by the war, rather than emphasizing “peace” in an abstract way or individualist tactics to dodge the draft for personal protection. Bringing anti-war ideas to blue collar workers was at least as important as having students support strikes. Campus struggles should focus on anti-racist actions and pro community actions rather than narrow student rights or demands for more privileges for students.

Urban Rebellions

sds anti racismIn the summer of 1967, major rebellions, often sparked by police brutality, broke out in dozens of U.S. cities. Detroit was the most significant – police were helpless and planes carrying soldiers en route to Vietnam were turned around and sent to Detroit. It took a week for the U.S. government to subdue the hundreds of armed rebels in Detroit. While black workers led that rebellion, many false stereotypes about the rebels continue to be promoted. Thousands of white working class people mingled with the black rebels during the rebellion and there was little, if any, generalized “anti-white” violence although the racist myths about that rebellion have been promoted by the media and this myth has become “common” (though untrue) knowledge; the same is true of the rebellion in Los Angeles following the “Rodney King verdict” – the majority of those arrested were not black during those events.

The attempt to portray the vast majority of black people, then and now, as somehow “outside the working class” actually plays into the racist, missionary attitude that sees black people as victimized but weak. The vast majority of black people are working class; the lives and actions and labor of black people have not been outside the capitalist system—it is what the capitalists in the USA needed and need to sustain their system, the exploitation of slaves, of agricultural workers, of textile, and food, and steel, and auto, and health care and other service workers manifests the potential power of the black working class as a leading force in the whole working class. And as Marx, and some feminists, have pointed out, raising children is work; it is labor that may not be directly compensated by the capitalist class, unless they are hiring nannies/ au pairs to care for their children, but raising the next generation of people, of workers, is an essential part of the labor that keeps a society functioning. Categorizing most black people as “outside” the working class, and picturing the “working class” as virtually all white also plays into the politicians’ often expressed racist line of always talking about the needs of the so-called “middle class” as a way to appeal to working class whites and maintain the lie that black people contribute nothing to society but are merely “charity cases.” Being pro-working class necessitates taking a strong position against racist oppression; being anti-racist necessitates taking a strong pro-working class position.

Turning Point- My Life As An Organizer

In the spring of 1967, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, having been deeply involved in the Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union. I believed it was wrong to accept the 2-S college draft deferment while working class men were forced into the military and wanted to work full time for the anti-war movement in some capacity rather than go to graduate school. I had saved up $1700 from working for a road construction company that summer and estimated that I could support myself on that for a year. My expectation was that I would be drafted, would refuse, and probably spend a few years in jail. If enough young men went to jail, perhaps that could help end the war.  Along with perhaps 250 other UW students I had attended the 1965 SDS demonstration against the war in Washington, D.C., but did not get involved in the local SDS chapter. In the spring of 1967, I did send in the six dollars and officially joined national SDS but continued to focus on draft resistance instead of SDS.

That summer, I saw an advertisement in the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes, for a “Regional Traveler” for SDS for the New England region. Wanting to be away from the New York – New Jersey area, but not too far away, Boston seemed to be a good choice. I had a few friends from high school there as well. Under a tree on the campus of Harvard University (from which I had been rejected four years earlier…), I interviewed with the other two regional travelers; one was a member of PLP, the other was an SDS activist in graduate school at Harvard. They “hired” me with the understanding that there was no salary and that I would have to provide my own car and raise money as I traveled for gas and whatever food I couldn’t get from the campus cafeterias. They found me a place to stay. I shared a six-bedroom apartment in Porter Square, Cambridge with two or three others. The total rent was $85/month. The place was something of a dump and was eventually knocked down. I didn’t spend much time there, maybe two or three days every two weeks. My route was Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and occasionally Western and Central Massachusetts, mainly Worcester. T.’s route was Connecticut and Rhode Island while D.’s was the Boston area, which actually had more schools than all of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined. The responsibilities were to meet with local anti-war activists, assist them in organizing, and encourage them to affiliate their anti-war groups with national SDS, or at least, try to set up an SDS chapter in addition to whatever broader anti-war coalition existed.

sds recruiting

There were perhaps twenty campuses on those two routes: Boston through Durham to the University of Maine-Orono and back; Boston through Hanover (Dartmouth) to Burlington down through Middlebury, Bennington, and back, hitting various places along the way.  My parents loaned me a car for a while; later I scraped together enough money for a small car. Generally, someone would find me an empty bed in a dorm, or a couch in someone’s apartment, or a spot on the floor for my sleeping bag; occasionally I had to sleep in the car. Local activists generally fed me (compliments of the university cafeterias), and they’d pass a hat for gasoline money to get me to the next place. Two dollars could take me a hundred miles or more. There were many hours driving alone, often through the beautiful New England landscape and, later, the less beautiful Route 20 and various state highways in the Midwest, and there was lots of time to think. Contrary to romantic legends, some of us steered very clear of certain types of personal relationships.

The old saying about sailors “A girl in every port” might have been the practice of some traveling organizers, but for many of us, irresponsible relationships could seriously jeopardize building a movement as could marijuana possession and use, which could land someone in jail for ten or twenty years. Having fun with others is an essential part of building good relationships and a strong social movement, but some kinds of fun, in certain contexts, can destroy months of work and even people’s lives. Police agencies look for any kind of crack in the movement or even in someone’s personal behavior to use against that person or to create discord within organizations.  I would generally arrive on a campus in the early afternoon. In the beginning, I was either blindly looking for activists or trying to locate a local contact/friend/relative of an activist from Boston.

Later, as I developed consistent contacts, I’d first meet with a small group that I had closest ties with. That evening there would often be a bigger meeting and then in the morning a wrap up meeting with the smaller group of more experienced/committed activists. Sometimes we would plan demonstrations; sometimes my visit would coincide with a demonstration.  The small meetings would discuss tactics, but mostly politics. We had been taught typical racist, sexist, elitist, anti-working class (and non-working class) history and social science and we were trying to understand the rebellion that was sweeping the world. With some exceptions, today’s students in the public schools are not taught much of anything and therefore do not have much of a sense of history at all, living more for the moment (typical in times of crisis) and having little sense that learning history and social science is important. But U.S. capitalism was not as decayed as it is now, so the dominant culture did often emphasize that learning was important and many college students and youth were reading on their own.   We read Marx, and Lenin, and Mao, although we did not necessarily understand it all! We read Malcolm X and Monthly Review and reprints from the Radical Education Project.

Escalation of the War

sds viet war attack

The war was killing thousands every month. This was a stinging reality that we could not forget and that drove us to seek out answers. We wanted to understand what kind of a system could do that and how these policies could be stopped. There were all kinds of study groups. Sometimes they would be led by a moderately leftist professor or graduate student whom we might later critique for not being militant enough, but we learned how to learn even from people and sources with which we had disagreements. We wanted to understand the economic system that created these policies rather than just focusing on personalities.

In my case, my special focus was on building SDS. It made sense that a multi-issue organization that focused on the war but also tied together struggles around many issues was a type of organization that could grow on, and eventually off, the campus and be an important force for positive social change. I carried SDS membership cards everywhere, along with suitcases full of books, pamphlets, leaflets used at other campuses, and copies of various underground newspapers. Even at some of these relatively small campuses, anti-war demonstrations of fifty or more were not uncommon. Rather than turn this short article into a memoir of those experiences, this information is only included to provide some context to this particular article. Suffice it to say that there were many, many very sincere activists, many from working class backgrounds or semi-professional backgrounds (parents were blue collar or perhaps school teachers) as well as upper-middle income youth at schools such as Bowdoin or Williams; however, another myth about the 1960s’ anti-war movement is that all the participants were from wealthy backgrounds.

By late 1967, increasing numbers of Americans were becoming impatient with the way the war was dragging on. In early 1968, the Vietnamese NLF launched the Tet Offensive, a massive assault on U.S. troops that resulted in about 550 US soldiers killed and 2,500 wounded in one week. In March, the U.S. government announced the conscription of another 48,000 men. That same month, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis and there was another wave of militant anti-police rebellions in dozens of U.S. cities. In March 1968, a campus struggle in France spread into a general strike of millions of workers against the French government. The impact of that strike cannot be overstated. The possibility, the reality, that students and workers could unite in such a powerful way lent great credence to the idea of worker-student unity in the U.S.A.

Columbia University Strike

sds columbia u strikeIn the midst of hundreds of local protests around the United States, the SDS chapter at Columbia University occupied several key university buildings. The demands were focused on anti-war issues but also included more obviously pro-working class/anti-racist demands opposing the construction of a gymnasium that required the destruction of part of the neighborhood. The extreme brutality of the police in arresting the protesters, the film clips on television news of women being dragged down concrete stairs by their hair for the crime of “trespass,” the broken arms and bloodied faces at one of America’s elite Ivy League universities further polarized the American people and further “disproved by contradiction” the myth that there was merely an imperfect democracy in the U.S.A. that could be made to serve the people and “proved by the realities of active learning” that the breadth and intensity of violent repression was far greater and ran far deeper into the core of U.S. society than many had thought.

There is no doubt that 1968 was to be a turning point, and it was only half over. Although Lyndon Johnson had won the 1964 election with the then-largest landslide in U.S. history, he announced his decision to not seek reelection in the spring of 1968. This gave optimism to liberals and some radicals who believed that the capitalist politicians were backing down on the war and Robert Kennedy then emerged as a supposed “anti-war candidate” and had the lock on the Democratic nomination for President. Like his murdered brother, he had the aura of youth, idealism, and a progressive, humanistic image. Many in the anti-war movement were swept into his campaign and had renewed hope that the system could respond in a way that reassured them that the U.S. really was a democracy. Then he was murdered. Irrespective of whether he actually did represent a break from the “Establishment” (he did not…), the impact of his murder further demoralized and alienated many thousands. It was in the context, then, of all these events, from summer 1967 to summer 1968, that SDS held its annual convention in Lansing, Michigan in June, 1968.

The Battle within SDS

If the first period of SDS was characterized by community organizing and civil rights work  the second period, roughly 1965-early 1968, was characterized mainly by anti-war activity and a growing tension between the main SDS leadership that promoted the “New Working Class” notion of social change (that intellectuals would lead the struggle for major social transformation) and various forces that supported reaching out to the blue collar community as a way of building a larger, more powerful movement.

Labor militancy was on the upsurge alongside black militancy and anti-war student militancy. The communist Progressive Labor Party was something of an enigma to many students. On the one side, they appeared to be “Old Left,” referencing Lenin and Marx, opposing drug use, supporting the idea of discipline rather than “do your own thing,” and generally appearing to be dogmatic to many college youth with middle class ideology. On the other hand, they were as militant as any anarchists were in the front lines in battles with the police, eschewed the Old Left pattern of compromise with “the system,” and actively immersed themselves in the daily struggles of everyday people, consistent with the “Maoist/People’s War” principle. This humility stood in stark contrast to the boldness of PLP’s rhetoric, which appeared to many to be very self-assured to the point of arrogance. But one thing was clear: the pro-working class line was gaining adherents and PLP was growing, though, as mentioned above, its numbers were always smaller than perceived. Some members of PLP also predicted that their opponents within SDS would attempt to force them out. The summer 1968 SDS convention in Lansing intensified the conflict within SDS.

SDS Supports the GE STRIKE

It was 1969. General Electric was on strike. Tens of thousands of workers. Despite the arrogant nonsense of some leftists that the whole working class was racist and fascist, these workers went on strike even as the President of the United States adamantly insisted that the strike would hurt the Vietnam War effort. Still, they went on strike. What the SDS students from Michigan State University, from Central Michigan University, from Alma College and from Western Michigan University did was, in a small way, the very best example of working to build a movement to stop the Vietnam War. Students went out to support the strikers, not just in Edmore, Michigan, but in many places, offering support and also discussing, as best as we could, the connections between their immediate struggle and the struggle against US imperialist war in Vietnam. The common slogan was: “Warmaker-Strikebreaker: Smash GE”. Many workers were receptive and open to discussing the issues; the sincerity of the relationships formed was inspiring. Some workers, of course, resented the students, but overall it was a model for how the anti-war, and hopefully, anti-capitalist movement could thrive and grow.

sds dem conventionLater that summer, thousands of mainly young protesters were attacked in extraordinarily brutal ways during the Democratic Convention. For most of them, the crime was staying in a park after it closed. Police on horses and on foot clubbed hundreds. The police attacked random pedestrians on the street and television cameras captured it all. Mayor Daley’s attempts to blame it on the protesters included holding a press conference showing a golf ball with nails and asserting that this was the kind of “weapon” that protesters were throwing at the police; later investigation revealed that those “weapons” were made by the police for the press conference. Autumn semester, 1968, marked the beginning of the most militant period on campuses. Opposition to the war was at an all-time high among youth, and interest in SDS in particular had grown remarkably. As others pointed out, hundreds of people attended SDS meetings – not conferences or demonstrations, but meetings – at schools like Harvard, but also at working class schools like the University of Wisconsin and University of Texas. Demonstrations, big and small, militant and peaceful, were taking place at upper middle-income private colleges in Maine and at inner city schools like CUNY.

PLP, for its part, continued its “base building” strategy of working on local campaigns against the war, supporting urban rebellions, knocking on doors, being militant when they believed it was necessary and trying to build up SDS chapters as SDS chapters. PLP members sometimes set up “Labor Committees” as subcommittees of SDS chapters which mainly did strike support, and PLP also consolidated its base by organizing Summer Work-Ins,” where students took summer jobs, mainly in factories, for the purpose of understanding the conditions and world views of those workers, to bring up anti-war ideas to the workers, and to try to build lasting, real relationships with some of the workers. As a result, despite PLP’s radical rhetoric and adherence to some strict political guidelines, many rank-and-file members respected PLP’s commitment to doing the work. Even as they criticized the Vietnamese leadership, for example, they continued to work hard against the war, often getting arrested, and were one of few groups that actually sent members into the service to organize against the war from within the military.

Richard Nixon won the Presidency. In November of 1968, students at San Franciscosds sf strike State College (now University) struck the school. Their demands focused on more minority admissions and more courses that taught about history and culture of “racial-ethnic” minorities in the USA and people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was, arguably, the most militant, sustained struggle on any U.S. campus. Day after day, week after week, hundreds of students would get arrested, often beaten brutally, and they would be back on the picket lines the next day. The Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and the Black Student Union led the strike itself but the local SDS chapter participated fully.

Harvard students occupied the University.  PLP and WSA Caucus members canvassed the dorms, knocked on doors, and passed out tens of thousands of flyers explaining the students’ demands against the use of the university to support the war effort.

sds dem conventionOther demands included opposition to the tearing down of working class housing for Harvard’s expansion and a Black Studies program.  Harvard was shut down, completely, for the first time since it was founded in 1636. More importantly, this struggle became a magnet for youth from hundreds of miles around and an inspiration worldwide. While the action was not as large, militant, nor sustained as the actions at many of the working class schools – San Francisco State, University of Wisconsin, and many others – the symbolism of shutting down the pinnacle of capitalist ruling class educational power added to the momentum of the campus anti-war movement and SDS.  As approximately 1500 young people prepared to converge on Chicago for the 1969 SDS Convention, the consciousness on U.S. campuses had reached a new level of quantitative and qualitative opposition to the war. Framing this within the context of Marxist pedagogy is particularly appropriate. The “disproof by contradiction” was manifested again and again as the politicians lied about the war, as the mouthpieces of bourgeois democracy defended racist oppression, and as the myth of democracy was contradicted again and again by the extreme overreaction of police. The “learning by doing” was manifested again and again as students witnessed and experienced physical abuse for non-violent activities.

SDS played an important role at Dartmouth and some other campuses, including a demonstration involving thousands in Berkeley, but 1969-1970 started out a quieter year than 1968-1969. The media blitz about SDS being “dead and gone, except for some crazies” had a powerful effect as did the wave of drugs that swept over campuses often with the passive consent of various government agencies. A few massive demonstrations, strike support for General Electric workers, and later General Motors and the Post Office had major strikes.

Black students were taking more of the lead in campus struggles. Then came the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State.  The Cambodia invasion and rebellions surrounding them as well as the killings at Kent State and Jackson State and shootings on other campuses caused the massive eruption that shut many campuses for the remainder of the year. Boston-based SDS continued to be active in the anti-war movement but moved towards becoming focused on a campaign called the “Campus Worker-Student Alliance.”  The CWSA was seen as a way to actually make the language of “Worker-Student Alliance” become a reality if students actually had ties with actual workers on a consistent basis; it was a reasonable extension of the WSA, but it was probably done in an imbalanced way. (Chicago 1969: SDS Splits. There are many fuller accounts of the 1969 SDS Convention in Chicago.  See the full article for details and Alan Adelson’s “SDS: A Profile).

The Demise of SDS

There was a combination of factors that prevented SDS in 1969-1973 from taking root and thriving. Foremost were the limits of the situation: the split at the 1969 SDS convention, the lack of membership records, and the intensive media campaign pushing scare campaigns about the Weathermen, anti-communism about PLP, and general demoralization had a powerful impact.

A group of members led by Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and others created the Weathermen, and attacked the worker-student alliance concept and Progressive Labor Party members at the 1969 SDS convention, splitting he organization into factions.  The Weathermen believed revolution was imminent and enacted confrontational acts hoping to incite workers into revolution.  They had few ties to workers and built anti-communism by their arrogant actions.

The welcome Nixon got in China, which confused many socialists and other leftists, also demoralized SDS members since Nixon could not get a welcome in any U.S. city! The Vietnam War appeared to be winding down, although there was a significant, short-lived outburst of protest when Nixon Kissinger authorized the bombing of Hanoi-Haiphong.  The Democratic Party nomination of George McGovern gave hope to many and siphoned off much of the anger; the combination of “carrot (McGovern) and stick (repression)” as well as the rise in unemployment all took their toll. Furthermore, many in the government concluded that they would rather tolerate the “cultural rebellion” of the Woodstock generation, (psychoactive drugs, opposition to dress codes, less repression of sexuality). Finally, it could be argued that because PLP had become the dominant force within what was left of SDS after the split and the lack of membership records that could have allowed the organization to broaden out, the perception was very strong that joining SDS now meant basically being in an organization that would follow PLP’s line.

Some of PLP’s predictions did come true: the blood of millions of Vietnamese and others has been squandered as the once-communist Vietnamese government embraces U.S. capitalism and Cuba moves that way, China embraces capitalism and carries out imperialist policies in Africa, and most national liberation struggles, whether in South Africa, the U.S.A., or elsewhere, became vehicles for small groups of ex-rebels to become the new capitalist exploiters and partners of today. There is a lot at stake in having a more accurate analysis; the collapse of the heroic struggles in the USSR, China, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere demonstrate how the lives of millions of heroic rebels can be wasted. Critiquing the line and consolidated leadership of various movements is essential. The struggle over “line” is not just some abstract theoretical issue for intellectuals. But when struggling among the grassroots, the debates are more fruitful when carried out in the context of actual struggle, rather than simply making verbal declarations and asking someone to “take it or leave it.” There were several interrelated errors that severely weakened the campus anti-war movement from within.

The inability of SDS to broaden out its line to the community and the weaknesses/erroneous perceptions, analysis, and strategy in the struggle against racist oppression. Call it “worker-student alliance” or “community outreach” or anything similar, the inability of the campus anti-war movement to sufficiently engage the off-campus community not only weakened the anti-war movement at any given time, it also left the students unprepared for how to function when they would leave the campus.  As others have written, after thousands of protests, some involving hundreds of thousands of people in one place—after shutting down hundreds of campuses, driving the military off campus, facing armed police and soldiers, the movement had to transform. It could either intensify its militancy without broadening its base or it could broaden its base. Broadening the base does not have to mean diluting the politics; it should mean taking the politics to others that might not agree. People have contradictory ideas tugging at them, contradictory perceptions, contradictory impulses, and contradictory philosophies.

Lessons Learned

Fully integrating our lives with the lives of others with whom we might have disagreements on some points and learning from others while struggling with others is the only way to integrate the activist movement into the broader population. “Struggling with others” should not mean “shouting at others” or insisting that they immediately agree with the “logic” and the “evidence” that are offered in words. People believe what they believe not simply based on the “logic” of the theory but on the ways that they believe various ideas relate to their lives.  Participating with others in everyday struggles–for a stop sign, against unfair school policies, supporting strikes, opposing police brutality, demanding services from the government, and even helping others deal with problems that appear to be merely “personal,” such as family problems–all these can become what Lenin called “schools” which can more powerfully illuminate what capitalism is “made of” and what the anti-capitalist movement is “made of,” building solidarity and trust. The “worker-student alliance” made some small steps in that regard, but it was inadequate and sometimes artificially done. Nevertheless, there were those who tried to implement the outreach.  Of course, to some, “outreach” meant diluting one’s politics and becoming a Democratic Party activist, but there were many thousands of others who did not abandon their philosophies, becoming social workers, teachers, labor activists, community activists, medical workers, hoping to implement their humanistic philosophies despite the decline of the movement. But the movement itself, as an organized force, continued to decline. Some big protests against Reagan’s assault on the labor movement, some solidarity demonstrations in opposition to U.S. government support for fascist regimes in Central America in the 1980s kept the flame of organized opposition flickering, but it was not until the major attack on Iraq in 2003 that the movement erupted again in such large numbers. If the organized campus movement had been able to maintain its organization throughout those decades and extend the grassroots militancy in an organized way to the broader population, the movement would be much more powerful today. The pressures on young people when they leave college can be intense; one has to learn how to be an effective organizer with only a few available minutes on many jobs, as opposed to the hours that students often had while on campus. Adjustments to jobs, to families, to economic stresses can all intensify the “take care of the moment” mentality. It is not inevitable.

Overcoming Racial Divisions

The students were not adequately mentally-politically prepared to integrate their political philosophies into the lives of “everyday” (working class and semi-professional) people. Understanding this politically as students and having “flesh-and-blood” genuine relationships with off-campus people while still students, are crucial. Related to this is the extreme racial segregation within the movement that was the result both of the pre-existing racial segregation in U.S. society and the inability of the white students to build genuine, honest relationships with black students and workers, the latter which was masked by leftist theories about “self-determination.” There were many small exceptions on many campuses, and many major struggles did build grassroots alliances (two especially significant ones were the San Francisco State and the City University of New York struggles). Often, though, either issues of racist oppression were ignored, or they were seen as some kind of separate struggle. Within the movement, the concept of “self-determination,” still strong today, resulted in “coalitions at the top” where leaders of different groups discussed “coordinating” activities rather than having the grassroots members develop the deep, genuine unity and solidarity on a personal basis that is essential to having unbreakable unity.

SDS before and after the 1969 Split was basically a “white student” organization. It often lent support to the increasing numbers of struggles led by black students, and later Latino students, starting especially in 1969, but it was often of the “support coalition” type, rather than genuine solidarity based on personal ties. Virtually all the groups, including the Marxist groups, believed that “self-determination” meant that “black people should determine their own destiny,” which in practice meant that “white people had no right to criticize what any black leader said or did.” The problem with this was several-fold. First, it created fiefdoms within the movement, where various leaders had their own positions of power to protect. Second, it was contradictory, because there were black people who criticized other black people–how could a white person agree with both of them? This non-class analysis of racist oppression created huge contradictions within the minds of white students, but it also conveniently allowed many of them to give in to the racist impulses towards separatism that were a part of their upbringing within the traditional racism of U.S. society. Saying: “It’s not my place to criticize or even comment” becomes a way to avoid the discomfort of struggle. Struggle, even criticism, after all, is not an insult or inconvenience. It can be the highest form of compliment, while deferring can actually be a kind of insult by implying that members of “other racial-ethnic groups” cannot be treated as equals but rather have to be treated as if they were hyper-sensitive weaklings.

Relying on the people, the working class and its allies among semiprofessionals, and even some professionals, means not relying on the capitalists. Another error related to this was relying too much on the capitalist media to promote the activities of the movement. By 1968, a major section of the capitalist class was beginning to move towards a position of winding down the Vietnam War, and their media seemed to report every protest of five or more people from New York to Pocatello, Idaho. Relying on them to build our movement creates a dependency; the news blackouts of protests often involving hundreds in the 1980s and even today are evidence of that.  Even today, many progressive activists lament the conservative media and pine for the day when the left can have more influence on television and radio. That would be better, of course, but it is not the main problem. The conservative movement in the post-1980s U.S.A. did not grow mainly because of the media. It grew through the churches, block clubs, PTAs, community organizations, where conservative activists did face-to-face work with hundreds of thousands of people, everything from conservative religious classes to sports leagues and marriage counseling. It is the approach used by Hamas to further their nationalistic aims, and anti-capitalist forces in Vietnam and in China, most notably, also effectively used it. In order for the movement to grow by more than “ones and twos” it must first grow by ones and twos, and the lack of trust generated by capitalist ideology and the ways that capitalist society structures our lives and therefore our thoughts can only be overcome by developing relationships and activities that structure all our lives and thoughts in cooperative, humanistic ways so that our militant actions will be carried out by the grassroots and not by a few self-appointed egotists such as the Weathermen.  (The Weather Underground advocated bombings and conducted crazy actions where women ran through high schools half naked to provoke an anti-sexism response.  They received much publicity that slandered the work of other anti-war and anti-racist activists, ed.)


Opposing elitism does not necessarily mean opposing organization or even leaders, but leaders should be held to a higher standard, not given higher privilege, and all forms of cultism have to be rejected. The struggle to develop more female leadership includes both the struggle against sexist oppression in society and against sexist ideas and practices within the movement. These ideas are very deeply rooted in history and will not just disappear with some preaching or sincerely proclamations of one’s presumed sins. And perhaps a major Achilles’ heel of the progressive movement is the failure to address and oppose all forms of racist discrimination and ideology. All forms of oppression are not identical, although all are deadly. There is, however, a particular commonality involving discrimination based on perceived (invented) “physical races,” ethnic/cultural/language groups, caste, and often, religion. Any passivity in the face of this only leads to a severely weakened movement, deprived of the leadership of people whose experiences have tempered them into insightful, committed leaders.  In the U.S., this has obviously meant opposing the oppression of African-American descendants of slaves. Increasingly, this has also meant opposing discrimination against Latinos, most especially undocumented immigrants. Native Americans continue to experience crushing oppression, and discrimination against working class Asians exists in the workplace as anti-Muslim discrimination (with collateral damage to Hindus and Sikhs) has intensified as U.S. and Euro capitalism feel threatened by the growing nationalism in some parts of the world.

Opposing this racism and building these ties is key also to building our “globalization from below” movement to counter the capitalists “globalization from above.” These ties, and not simply calling conferences where delegates from various leftist groups discuss issues, will form the core of a global movement for social justice and equality. The campus anti-war movement of the 1960s, including SDS, did try to address issues of racist oppression, but the failure to fight through on this one hundred percent and the failure to build solid, genuine, deeply developed personal ties was a fatal problem then and remains a problem today.

If the young progressive, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, pro-working class activists of today hope to build a movement that transcends the campus anti-war movement of the 1960s, including SDS, which did “rock the house” with hundreds of thousands of supporters, it will have to confront and reject the pro-capitalist ideas of egotism, romanticism, elitism and separatism–learning from the successes but unflinchingly rejecting what was corrosive to the movement. Learning through the struggle over contradictory ideas and learning through experience are how a movement is built.

Students and workers today have a tremendous opportunity to build a multiracial and multiethnic movement.   Trump’s anti-immigrant and pro-fascist practices have mobilized thousands to confront racists, strike public schools, and demand environmental justice.  Students have an important role to play in developing ties to workers on and off campus, overcoming the errors of earlier movements (ed).

sds dem convention


Racism is a key glue that sustains capitalist oppression.  We must put the struggle against racist exploitation and oppression, which includes imperialism,  at the front of the broader class struggle.

Further Reading

The most detailed account of the development and decline of SDS can be found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s encyclopedic work: SDS (Vintage Books, 1974). It is currently out of print; used copies are available and the entire text is available on the internet at:

An interesting, if impressionistic, account of the practice of SDS after the split can be found in SDS: A Profile, by Alan Adelson (Charles Scribner’s Sons; First Edition 1972).

Post-split SDS, based in Boston, had a useful pamphlet: “Who are the Bombers: Often the Rulers,” available at this website: This copy is not in perfect form; other versions may be available in university archives.

One can find PLP’s perspective on that period in various articles that have appeared on their website: and in an anonymous article “The Rise and Fall of the Anti-War Movement” that can be found at this web address:

Some other Marxist groups have written about that period; the International Socialists have a somewhat superficial account in one of their publications. There are dozens of books written about that period.

 Mark Rudd’s (Weatherman an Columbia U strike leader) website ( and his account, Underground (William Morrow, 2009)

repeats some of the superficial analysis of the struggle within SDS but at least it has some genuine self-criticism

I particularly recommend Katha Pollitt’s insightful piece not merely on the Weathermen, but on how they and others are rewriting history: Katha Pollitt, “Bill Ayers Whitewashes History, Again”, The Nation, December 8, 2008, available on line at:

Jesse Lemisch wrote a thoughtful piece, also as much about the distorted rewriting of history as it is about the Weathermen: Jesse Lemisch, “Weather Underground Rises from the Ashes: They’re Baack!”, in New Politics (Summer 2006), available on line at: and here: the Weathermen.html