Jim Dann and Hari Dillon

The Five Retreats: A History of the Failure of the Progressive Labor Party


In a move that can only be described as just the right thing at the right time, Rosen and Scheer decided in the Spring of 1966 to dissolve the M2M and move all PL student cadre into SDS. M2M had built a name for itself as the most radical organization of the New Left. Its newspaper Free Student achieved national prominence and there were a core of PL-students-activists seriously committed to M2M and the Free Student as well as to the Free Universities that M2M’ers were establishing in Berkeley and New York. M2M with its solidly anti-imperialist line was alive and growing. Therefore it took some insight on Rosen’s part to see that M2M was an obstacle preventing PL’s participation in the broader student movement. Moreover it was by no means as clear in 1966 as it would be in 1968 that SDS meant the broad student movement. Yet Rosen saw this and met with the student leaders to explain this to them. There was some serious opposition on this question by most of the M2M leaders who thought M2M’s focus on anti-imperialism was more important to maintain. The PL leadership correctly explained that anti-imperialism would be better put forth by the Party within a broad mass movement than in isolation as M2M. But in addition these M2M leaders suspected that PL was intending to abandon an anti-imperialist outlook in the student movement altogether. Already in 1966 there were indications that PLP’s line on imperialism was less than solid. Although it took a few more years to develop the retreat from anti-imperialism in the student movement, the suspicion was well founded. However, maintaining M2M was not the answer, the struggle for an anti-imperialist outlook could have been fought through in a PLP that was working in SDS. Rosen did not hesitate to push matters to a split. This was unnecessarily heavy-handed; the M2M leaders could have been worked with on some other terms. At any rate some 20 PL members quit over the matter but those that remained, at least in New York and Boston, joined SDS chapters that existed or formed new ones where none existed. Jeff Gordon was appointed new PL student coordinator. (M2M was dissolved immediately on the West Coast too, but PL’ers were not fully into SDS there until the fall of 1967).[57]

The Clear Lake, Iowa SDS Convention in August, 1966 marked PL’s formal debut in SDS. Fresh from defeating HUAC the 30 or so PL members and their base were welcomed by the anti-imperialist faction (Carl Davidson, Greg Calvert, Jeff Shero) that was in the process of seizing control of SDS from the New York and Michigan based social democrats (Tom Hayden and Steve Max). Throughout 1966 and 1967 there were no serious conflicts between PLP and the new SDS National Office (NO) leaders. PL’s influence was growing through active leadership in the campus struggle. By the end of 1967 PL was largely in control of the important New England region as well as in control of key SDS chapters at UCLA, S.F. State, Brooklyn College, Roosevelt (Chicago). PL members were also influential at other key chapters in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and California.

The new leaders of SDS had no clearly defined politics at that time. They thought of themselves as “student syndicalists,” identified with Ho Chi Minh and/or other anarchist-New Left student activists in France, Germany and Japan. They were anti-imperialist and open to Marxism, although anti-communist enough to want to keep PL at arm’s length. It was a mixed group, some especially in New York were leery of PL from the M2M days or because of the heavy-handed way the NC dissolved the M2M. But in 1967 it would have been possible to work closely with these forces and perhaps win some of the best of them into PL, if PLP were not in the process of developing such an anti-Vietnamese line. At any rate PL developed no such plan and evidenced no desire to win over the SDS’ers and instead PL developed work on the chapter level and on the campus not so much in opposition to the NO but clearly apart from them. Under these circumstances it was inevitable that conflicts and jealousies would develop as PL’s influence grew.

Paradoxically the PL retreats from the anti-war movement and the BLM strengthened PL’s hand temporarily within SDS as energies diverted from the anti-war struggle off campus and from the BLM found an outlet on the campus. In 1967 PLP-led or influenced SDS chapters:

led the series of sharp mass struggles at San Francisco State, described above
led actions of 1,000 students against Dow Chemical at UCLA
led a sharp struggle at Columbia against class ranks for the draft
led other actions at Rochester U., U.C. Berkeley, City College of New York (CCNY), Queens College, Rutgers and half a dozen Boston area colleges.

The first conflicts with the SDS leadership took place after Milt Rosen’s articles attacking the “Stop the Draft Week” demonstrations. This caused friction between the SDS regional leaderships in San Francisco and New York, which had been instrumental in the actions, and the PL-led chapters at SF State and at Brooklyn College, Fordham, Rutgers, Queens College and CCNY respectively.[58] In addition both within the U.C. Berkeley and the Columbia chapters tactical and political debate mounted between the leadership, which generally followed the NO, and the PL and friends. In late 1967 John Levin wrote an article for PL (V. 6 No. 2) “Power in the University” which mildly and correctly criticized the slogan “student power” advanced in a position paper by Carl Davidson. The spirit was quite friendly and even to the PL student leadership hardly seemed to be what it was, the opening salvo in the sharpest intra-organizational political battle of the sixties: the fight for control of SDS.

Rosen, however, saw the battle looming and prepared his cadre to take over SDS. In January he and Jeff Gordon convened in New York a secret meeting of the PL top student leaders from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York. Rosen told them the battle was on for power in SDS; he outlined the political basis for this struggle – worker-student-alliance. Then the group designed the strategy and tactics to challenge the NO at every regional and national meeting hence.[59] The strength of PL at this time was its organizing ability at the campus level; thus sharp struggles would be developed on campus that would have the added effect of progressively weakening the NO forces, which had only the weak organizational apparatus to rely on. This would enable the PL forces to win over the independent SDS forces at campuses or in areas where there were no PL cadre. The concept of “worker-student-alliance” (WSA) would show SDS a concrete strategy for the ultimate victory of the movement and combat the general student feeling that most of the population was against them. At the same the WSA would expose the NO as anti-working class and isolated not only from the working people, but also from the majority of the campus. In 1968 WSA was given a broad interpretation which meant not only supporting strikes, summer work-ins and struggles of campus workers but also opposing university encroachment of the surrounding community, struggles in university-controlled housing, anti-racist actions of all types including support for Black rebellions, support for anti-war soldiers, attacking the class bias of education and even anti-draft actions, as long as special privilege for students was eschewed.

The most positive thing about the WSA was the ideological essence of the program. PL fought for the Marxist line that the industrial working class is the vanguard of revolutionary movement at a time when the ideologues were pushing anti-working class theories of every conceivable variety. Not only did Mike Klonsky, Bernadine Dohrn and Mike Rudd, etc., tirelessly make fun of the very idea that workers were a revolutionary force, never mind the main revolutionary force, but also ideologues like Marcuse spun full-blown theories to the effect that the working class was reactionary and that all workers were Archie Bunkers. Then there were the “new technocracy” theorists. PL played a role in fighting this in SDS and in the anti-war movement before they quit it. During the first stages of the anti-war movement a majority of the anti-war movement viewed Gl’s as pigs. (In a demonstration in SF in 1967 some people demonstrating at the Presidio base in S.F. went as far as throwing rocks at Gl’s.)[60] PL’s general polemics especially within SDS played a big role in totally reversing this trend. By the time of the split in SDS, PL’s antagonists had dropped their “new working class” or anti-working class posture, and Marcuse was in equally bad repute in both sides of the hall. Though they never would admit it the Revolutionary Union, the October League and others owe much of their pro-worker stance of the seventies to PLP’s polemics against them in the sixties.

The WSA was a winning formula. The Spring of 1968 alliance between the student rebellion and the 10,000,000-strong general strike in France gave a strong boost to the PL strategy and for the first time popularized the ideas of WSA among a broad group of U.S. students. The strategy was not long in bearing fruit. The year 1968 was the highpoint of student rebellion in the USA (as well as in Germany, France, Italy, Mexico and even Yugoslavia) and the high point of PL’s influence on the campus. Through its politics and activity PL exerted a certain influence at campuses in which it had previously been unknown, such as U.C. San Diego, U.C. Davis, Princeton, Univ. of Hawaii, Univ. of Texas, Michigan State, U.C. Irvine, Bowdoin, and forces from these campuses became allies of PL in the struggle with the NO.

The late April, 1968 Columbia rebellion was the first opportunity to compare in action PL with the NO forces. And the NO forces, including media created “leader” Mark Rudd, definitely came out second best. Early in the sit-in at Low Library the rumors of a police bust sent Rudd and the NO forces scurrying out the windows, while PL members held fast and occupied the building for 5 more days. Later when Rudd regained heart and returned to the fray, PL’s leadership role could not be denied. PL’s influence at Columbia and nationally in SDS grew as a result. PLP and the ideas of WSA further gained when Epton and other PL community leaders organized the only significant working-class support for the Columbia rebels.

On the other hand PL and the NO of SDS were both isolated from the massive electoral campaign around Gene McCarthy. This left the leadership of the August demonstrations in Chicago in the hands of Social Democrats and Yippies. Both PL and the NO suffered from an extreme sectarianism with regard to the election of 1968. In that year of world-wide rebellion it was understandable, but stupid. The NO can be excused out of ignorance but a Marxist-Leninist Party should never have abstained from this campaign. While the rebellions and sit-ins involved tens of thousands, the McCarthy campaign involved at least 5 times that number on some level or other.

The NO only called for national anti-war demonstrations at the time of the November elections; these were a flop. Only 400 turned out in New York and 300 in Chicago under direct NO leadership. But in Boston where PL held sway 4,000 demonstrated – another red feather in PL’s cap. PL’s organizing superiority within SDS was becoming clearer as 1968 turned into 1969.

The S.F. State strike, detailed above, caused PL’s stock within SDS to skyrocket. Here PL was in the leadership of by far the biggest student action in U.S. history; the RYM forces (the new name for the NO faction) were only an ineffective minority, outside of the mainstream alongside of the Trotskyites.

During the Moses Hall sit-in at U.C. Berkeley, PL and WSA forces played a leading role.

In December the PL-led SDS chapter held another sit-in at Fordham; in January there were PL-led SDS sit-ins at Harvard and a Los Angeles High School. There were also strong SDS strike support actions in the Figure Flattery strike in New York and during the year-long Herald-Examiner strike at Los Angeles. The U.C. Berkeley strike (January-February) led by the TWLF was supported by PL but the new PL line on nationalism and preferential admissions put PL in a much more disadvantageous position than at S.F. State (because the Berkeley strike was beginning as the State strike was ending and PL’s racist line was much clearer), however, the NO forces did no better.[61]

The January 30 sit-in at the U. of Chicago was led by the NO forces. PL forces participated as a minority and were not effective in gaining a leadership role but PL’s influence even in this NO stronghold grew. Neither PL nor the NO was involved in the other major action that winter at Duke.

Early spring saw PL-led SDS action at Queens College, Yale, UCLA and elsewhere. The Queens College action developed into a strike that involved 3,000 sparked by a sit-in of 1,500. But the highlight of the Spring was the Harvard sit-in where 200 were arrested in the citadel of the ruling class. This bold action was led by PL forces against the fierce opposition of the NO minority at Boston. During the subsequent strike, however, PL sectarianism (i.e. refusal to accept alliances with liberals or Black groups) came through and helped isolate the SDS chapter.

So by June, 1969 PL was in effective leadership of much of the student movement. The largest number of the militant student strikes and demonstrations 1968-9 were led by PLP; the NO forces were in third place. (Second place would have to go to various independent non-SDS forces, principally Black student organizations.) The results were a huge growth of PLP among students, a big credit for the ideas of WSA and the WSA caucus, a movement among many of the independent SDS forces (San Diego, Irvine, Hawaii, Texas) toward PLP or at least away from the NO.

Concurrent with the rising sharpness of student action the internal struggle within SDS reached white heat. Within weeks after Rosen broached the strategy of seizing power within SDS in January, 1968 the New York PL student leaders pulled off a coup. At the February 10, 1968 New York regional SDS meeting the NO faction was displaced by PL-led forces and a decentralization plan was put into effect that effectively reduced the power of the SDS regional staff. Subsequently the displaced New York regional leaders became the most bitter antagonists of PLP within SDS, the ones who were to lead the “PL-out” demonstration at the 1968 convention in the summer. The New York coup was then promoted within PL as an example for all regions.[62] Although there were no further seizures of regional power, increasingly acrimonious and bitter arguments became the rule at the San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles regional meetings (where the NO held sway) and at the Boston meetings (where PL held the balance of power). In the Spring of 1968 the antagonisms developed more and more bitterly:

In the February 12 issue of New Left Notes (the SDS paper) three PL members and friends from Boston launched a general attack on the “undemocratic and anarchist” NO.

For the March 29-31 National Council Meeting at Lexington, Ky., PLP mobilized its main student forces for the first time. The NO was taken to task on the questions of chapter autonomy, the draft (PL favored an SDS position against student deferments) and the WSA. An article by S.F. State PL’ers opened a short exchange with the NO on racism. But the debate was still somewhat muted.[63]

Some 800 activists attended the June 9-15 SDS convention of 1968 at E. Lansing, Mich., and PLP mobilized all its student forces. The PL plan was to have SDS adopt its Student Labor Action Plan (SLAP), and perhaps to get a piece of the national leadership. Some 10% of the convention was in a PL-led caucus; the NO forces were divided but they controlled to varying degrees some 30% of the delegates. This was the last SDS national meeting where independent, mainly campus-based, forces were in the majority. The NO proposal, called “Cities,” was based on the politics of the so-called-new working class and called for a “city-planning” strategy on the one hand and paradoxically a tight-knit organizational structure for SDS on the other. The debate was bitter and prolonged, but PL was sharply vocal in its opposition to the NO proposal, which lost by the vote of 485-355. Some key anarchist NO forces would not go along with this proposal, but the NO defeat came mainly because the independent campus forces were suspicious of the NO purposes. The main author, Bell, blamed PLP, however, and launched into a bitter anti-PL speech immediately after his proposal was defeated. The NO followed this up with a well-orchestrated “PL-out” demonstration designed to intimidate PL out of SDS. Jeff Gordon rallied the PL forces to stand up to this extremely sharp situation and the majority of the convention refused to go along with the NO ploy. Elections to the new SDS National Interim Committee followed with Jared Israel running as a PL candidate. He probably won a seat, but a “long count” was secretly conducted by the NO and only solid NO candidates were declared winners. The SLAP plan never came up for a vote.[64]

The PL-led actions in the school year 1968-1969 put PL in an increasingly stronger position in the subsequent SDS meetings. In the meantime Gordon geared up the PL forces for the battles ahead. In the summer he wrote an internal report in which he characterized the convention as a “sharp class struggle.” The formula for PL victory he said was to include in the PL caucus “center people who have questions about various things we hold but will work with us.” He called for the immediate formation of regional WSA caucuses – MUCH BROADER THAN THE PL LINE. “These (caucuses) can be organized around support for SLAP and the work-in, but also may be broader than that. This is a sharp class struggle.”[65] Gordon then wrote an article for the October, 1968 PL analyzing the interesting convention, the politics of the NO factions and laying the ideological groundwork for the confrontations ahead.

While the student leadership of PL worked for a broader approach in dealing with the NO, Challenge was steadily narrowing down the PL line and thus the ability to unite with the honest anti-imperialist forces in SDS. Besides the vicious attacks on the BPP, preferential admissions and even the S.F. State strike, the Party line on Vietnam grew even more strident, sliding into pro-U.S. chauvinism. The November 1968 Challenge said “Ho & Co.” are “simply reduced to haggling over the terms of their surrender... Vietnam north and south will become available as missile sites for the U.S.-Soviet attack on China.” To the extent that the “center forces” with whom Gordon was trying to unite read these far-fetched predictions in Challenge it made them more than suspicious that PL was still a force at all in the anti-war movement. In an even more far-fetched editorial comment Challenge lectured SDS on its sectarianism vis--vis the elections. (Coming from PL this was laughable.)

The October 11-13 SDS National Council meeting in Boulder, Colorado was attended by 600. SLAP finally came up for a vote after a sharp debate, in which PL fought mightily on the politics, but lost 2-1. A debate on high school work gave Gordon the opportunity to make an important speech against the use of drugs in the revolutionary movement; it was well received. A bitter struggle emerged over the plan of the NO to unite anti-war actions with the National Mobilization. PL disguised its real desire to quit the anti-war movement altogether with a proposal for independent SDS-led demonstrations. PL was defeated in this as well.

The December 27-31 SDS National Council Meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan was attended by over 1,000. Here PL was in a particularly strong position due to its concurrent leadership in the S.F. State battle. (The racist PL attacks on the strike had not come out yet.) Here PL went on the offensive and for the first time won a major vote on its own proposals. The S.F. State SDS group moved a proposal “Fight Racism” based on the experiences of the S.F. State strike. The NO tried mightily to block it, arguing that PL’s national political line of equating nationalism and racism was unacceptable.

The NO was defeated, not because the majority of SDS agreed with the PL line on nationalism, but because they heartily agreed with the practice of PL at S.F. State. The sharp dichotomy between the NSC-PL line and the practice and line of PL at S.F. State had not yet emerged. And though the NO was perspicacious enough to sniff out this dichotomy they could not win the vote. The PL victory on this vote was a big blow to the previous NO hegemony. The NO’s narrow victory on another proposal, Mike Klonsky’s “Youth Movement” proposal, could not mask their obviously weakening position. Out of this, however, Klonsky and company formed their Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) to oppose PL centralism with centralism of their own faction. (Klonsky, a former regional organizer in Los Angeles, became national Secretary after the 1968 convention.)

At the March National Council at Austin, Texas the shoe was on the other foot, and the RYM came prepared with and passed a raft of anti-PL proposals. These included support of the BPP, a repudiation of PL’s December “Fight Racism” proposal, a defense of Vietnam and the peace talks (anathema to PLP) and new RYM proposals. The PL WSA and anti-drug proposals were defeated. The meeting was the bitterest yet, a precursor of the split convention to follow. PL called the RYM “tools of the imperialists” and RYM said PL was “spreading lies” about the NLF and thus “working objectively in the interests of the U.S. ruling class.” The threatened violence of the 1968 convention now broke loose on the floor and fists flew briefly on more than one occasion. The stage was set for the split.>/p>

For the final Convention both sides pulled out all the stops. PL mobilized every student it could. (From the West Coast PL chartered a plane to bring 150 of its forces to Chicago.) The RYM did the same and in addition brought in the BPP to lead the attack on PLP. (This proved to be a tactical blunder, as the particularly sectarian and shamelessly sexist BPP spokesman at the Convention turned off more forces than he rallied to the RYM).

At last PL found a match in organizational sectarianism in the RYM forces. The WSA forces numbered no more than 1/3 of the 1,500 who attended the convention; the committed pro-NO forces (These included the dominant Weatherman group, led by Bernadine Dohrn; the RYM II forces around Klonsky; the Bay Area Revolutionary Union led by Bob Avakian; a Chicago Maoist group led by Ignatin; the smaller CP forces and some Trotskyites) outnumbered at least slightly the WSA-caucus, and less than 1/3 of the convention was uncommitted. The PL floor leaders showed by far a greater ability for united front tactics than the beleaguered NO. Given the narrowness and unpopularity of PL’s line and the popularity of the BPP and Ho Chi Minh, Gordon and Israel’s feat at the 1969 convention was even greater than just numbers would indicate. They were helped by RYM’s obvious internal infighting, and its inability to agree on a plan. At the crucial moments the RYM forces were clearly captive to Dohrn’s fits of irrationality. Her speeches tended to be apolitical anti-PL ravings and her organizational maneuvers were ill-timed and caught the other RYM leaders off guard.

The WSA caucus itself was a united front: united against the NO, in support of the general lines of PL’s practice, and in support of the SLAP proposal. But even in the WSA key forces, probably a majority did not agree with PL’s lines, either on Vietnam, preferential admissions nor on the BPP. Moreover, the PL forces at the convention united with most of the uncommitted delegates as well as some who had even less ideological affinity to the PL line; many of these were just plain liberals. So a very broad united front operated and even included some national SDS leaders, like Fred Gordon of the NO who had little use for PL’s general line. Here the PL leadership on the floor combined skillful united front work to unite with the majority while defending the Party line. It was no mean task.

PL fought for democracy within SDS and the right of PLP to stay in SDS and in this they were supported by the majority. When the BPP speakers made some crass disgusting anti-women remarks in the course of an anti-PL tirade on the third day of the convention the tide turned against the NO. Dohrn, apparently against the better judgment of Klonsky, announced a walk-out of the hard-core RYM people (250) at this low ebb in the NO’s fortunes. The next day the RYM returned to the floor to hear Dohrn announce the expulsion of PL. The RYM then walked off to have their own convention. Some 700 went with RYM; 800 stayed with PL. SDS was split, but PL was left in control of SDS. RYM itself split irreconcilably within 6 weeks into the Dohrn-Rudd Weathermen and RYM II. RYM II split by 1970 into Klonsky’s October League and Avakian’s RU, Ignatin’s Revolutionary Federation and Bruce Franklin’s Venceremous. The RYM II forces immediately gave up the name SDS to the Weathermen who in turn declared SDS totally dead after an abortive anarchist action in Chicago that October. But on the campuses there were still 50,000 SDS’ers; PL had an open field by October 1969.

Given the line of PLP and the sectarian method of PLP’s work the split was inevitable. In the end PL tried to avoid the split and preferred to keep SDS together; it was the RYM forces that were for rule or ruin. The RYM forces used their organizational hegemony to try to destroy SDS rather than turn it over to PLP; they understandably but mistakenly thought a PL takeover was in the cards in 1969. They felt (and rightly so) that a PL-run SDS would self-destruct anyway.

The immediate onus for the split goes to the NO, not PL, but we should not let PL off the hook so easily. A different Party with a different line would have tried to win over the majority of the NO forces, not fought to destroy them. In 1967 the SDS leaders were open to PL and Marxism-Leninism. But PLP adopted a policy of ignoring or attacking the leadership and working with the base; thus as the NO forces developed their ideology they did so apart from PL and eventually in antagonism to PL. This sectarian style of PLP (ignore the leadership, try to win their base from them) repeated itself again and again. Eventually in 1977 it was put forth openly as a principle of PL Party work: “Approaching the leaders without making serious inroads within their base inevitably results in watering down our line in order to make the grouping seem more palatable to these leaders.” (April 5, 1977 Internal Bulletin.) This method prevented PL from working with those SDS leaders open and friendly to PL and made the split inevitable.

Of course, even with the best methods of work, PLP would have had scant success winning over the SDS leaders with its anti-Vietnamese line, its line of abstention from the off-campus anti-war Movement, its vicious attacks on the BPP and its racist line of opposition to preferential admissions. These positions of PLP were extremely unpopular in SDS and anathema to the leadership of SDS. PL won a majority at the split convention, DESPITE these lines or rather because the SDS rank and file were unfamiliar with these lines and the NO failed to effectively expose PL politically. PL won a majority because (1) of PL’s leadership in the active on campus struggle from S.F. State to Harvard; (2) the RYM and NO were unpopular and generally seen as do-nothing bureaucrats at best, or dangerous anarchists at worst; (3) the growing popularity of the WSA and “Fight Racism” proposals; (4) the skillfully broad united front approach taken at the convention. Nevertheless the more sophisticated minority in non-PL SDS would never turn over the organization to a Party which held to what they rightly regarded as such counter-revolutionary lines. And so the split was inevitable.

However one divides the blame for the split in SDS, or ascertains its inevitability, it was not inevitable that SDS subsequently die; that was all PL’s doing. If RYM can be blamed in large measure for splitting SDS, PL gets the full blame for killing SDS. Aside from the Seattle area and a few scattered chapters here and there, the Weathermen had no following at the chapter level. The RYM II forces were even more isolated from the campus; they controlled not a single major SDS chapter; although at UC Berkeley the Radical Student Union, controlled by the RU, was at least as big as SDS. Thus there was no serious subsequent contest on the campus level for control of SDS. The field was open to PL’s SDS to take organizational control of at least 80% of the chapters. Moreover, a correct united front strategy could have significantly broadened SDS because especially during the 1968-9 school year the sectarianism and anarchist posturing of the NO had turned off thousands of radical students and kept SDS much smaller than necessary. SDS could have been unified and greatly expanded around opposition to the war and leadership of the anti-racist struggles on the campus. This had been the plan that Gordon had outlined a year earlier, and it was this kind of strategic and tactical thinking that led to the PLP victory at the Split Convention. Now it was necessary to carry this broad program to the campuses. If PL was ready to lead SDS on the basis of all kinds of anti-war and anti-racist action the WSA caucus would grow too as part of a bigger and broader SDS. On July 3, 250 SDS’ers attended a regional meeting in New England and defeated motions by Bill Ayers and other RYM people by more than 5-1.[66] This meeting (admittedly in PL’s strongest region) indicated the broad basis of support available for PL as opposed to RYM leadership within SDS.

This was the initial thrust of PLP in SDS. The first issue of PL-run New Left Notes (June 30) clearly was leaning in the direction of a broad SDS. This issue contained an article on preferential admission which, while not mentioning PL by name, strongly refuted the PLP position. It also had an article entitled “Defend the Panthers.” The lead article emphasized fighting racism, promised that SDS was not closed and would be “politically diverse.” The SDS statement on the walkout “reaffirmed” SDS support of Vietnam, the BLM and the BPP, demanded immediate withdrawal from Vietnam; it gave prime place to these issues which could unify 50,000 SDS’ers and only secondary spot to the WSA.

Rosen moved fast to stop this. Almost immediately afterwards he met with Gordon and Israel and put forward his idea for the basis of the student movement, a campus-worker-student alliance (CWSA). He meant dropping all anti-racist and anti-war activity and putting SDS in the position of operating as a militant grievance committee for campus workers. Gordon and Israel opposed this line; they felt that the war and anti-racism were the issues that moved hundreds of thousands the previous year and could this year as well, that the CWSA, though nice, wouldn’t become a mass issue. Rosen then went into a typical tirade about how they, not having been workers themselves, did not understand about workers and the history of the working class and so on.[67] The two student leaders at length gave in and reluctantly helped Rosen convince or intimidate the rest of the PL campus leaders, who did the same with the national SDS and local PL cadre, and thus the CWSA became not only PL’s line but SDS’s line. The SDS line was in this way rapidly narrowed down, beyond even what had unified the WSA caucus. (CWSA was only a small part of the broad SLAP proposal.) The chance for a PL-led mass SDS was irretrievably lost and the PL retreat from the student movement was on. Just to make sure this stuck, Rosen had Gordon removed as national student organizer (He was kicked upstairs) and replaced by Bob Leonhardt, a loyal Rosen flunky, but with absolutely no background in mass struggle.(When Gordon and Israel objected to Leonhardt’s selection Rosen said “People underestimate Bob, they don’t think he is creative enough. They don’t understand the value of a guy who does exactly what he’s told.”[68]) John Levin was likewise at the same time removed as West Coast student organizer and “promoted”.

The next issue of New Left Notes (July 30, 1969) illustrated the 180 change in PL’s approach to SDS. The lead article, taking up all of the front page, was “Ally with Campus Workers.” There were two other articles on CWSA, taking up 30% of the paper in toto. The majority of the rest of that issue was devoted to a long attack on the BPP. This three-page article was more nicely written but basically the same in essence as the super-sectarian PL attack on the Panthers’ “United Front Against Fascism Conference,” mentioned above. The BPP was accused by SDS of backing “liberal imperialism,” being controlled by the CP, etc. The editor of this edition saw fit not to even mention in passing the war in Vietnam. (There were still 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1969, and around 10,000 of these plus 100,000 Vietnamese died in combat that year, negotiations or no negotiations.) The succeeding issues in August and September also were dominated by the CWSA or other WSA actions, never mentioned the war or the BLM and talked about racism only in the context of the exploitation of campus workers.

When an integral part of a broad struggle against the war and racism, student alliance with campus workers could be militant and have far-reaching implications. The CWSA as it developed during the S.F. State strike and the Harvard strike in early 1969 added to the breadth of these struggles, helped bring campus workers into the main stream of anti-war, anti-racist activity and increased their receptivity to revolutionary politics. The CWSA, as Rosen outlined it in July, 1969 and as Leonhardt loyally put it forward in PL (V. 7 No. 4), was narrowly reformist, economist and mainly a forum for student missionaryism. In place of militant demonstrations and sit-ins the CWSA as originally outlined in New Left Notes (July 30, 1969) had the following three-point program:

1. People who are working-in should try to get campus jobs starting now. Going into the school year already knowing the situation is a great advantage. If this is impossible, people should apply anyway for part-time jobs immediately. Some are better than others, but we shouldn’t be super-choosy. All areas of school employ full and part-time workers – students and non-students. We belong everywhere!
2. Form committees to plan campus worker-student alliance activities, research on-the-job conditions (a good way is by talking to the workers!) as well as the history of ’labor-management relations’ at the school.
3. We should live in dorms, which not only will help overcome our sectarian attitudes in a very practical way, but help develop ties with dorm workers.

Here was a program for total retreat from militant struggle. This is what PL promised as a program for the most militant student movement in U.S. history, “(1) Get a job, (2) Form research committees, (3) Live in dorms.” For campus administrators, who lived through a school year of unprecedented violence, the PL program for SDS must have seemed like the answers to their prayers.

Leonhardt’s article, which became the “theoretical” base for CWSA, discusses a serious atrocity at Columbia, where a Black worker was decapitated by an elevator; (This episode was written about in at least 10 PL and Challenge articles on the CWSA in 1969-70. By its bald appeal to the students’ guilt feelings, the missionaryism inherent in Rosen’s concept of the CWSA was made manifest.) following that are streams of minor organizing incidents, a worker scalded from a leaky coffee machine, a worker forced to clean up extra gym lockers. A Yale worker threw juice at her supervisor. (This was “the sharpest CWSA confrontation yet.”) All this was put together with endless repetition of the “verity” that student’s anti-worker attitudes were the big obstacle in getting the reluctant PL and SDS cadre out and uniting with campus workers over petty, reformist and narrow trade-union demands. Finally this super-sectarian self-isolating position was put forth, believe it or not, as the answer to sectarianism. “The basis for this united front will be agreement on the specific grievances of campus workers.”

As part of the CWSA, PLP proposed SDS fight for preferential hiring of Black and Latin non-academic campus employees. When combined with PL’s famous opposition to preferential admission of Blacks and Latinos to college the gross racism involved was incredible. PL’s opponents correctly characterized it as the “out of the classroom, into the kitchen” proposal. The essence of PL’s position amounted to calling for more black maids and janitors to clean up after white students, while opposing the admission to college of children of these workers. It was incredibly racist to call for preferential hiring in job categories where Black and Latins were already “preferred,” while in effect opposing their access to mainly white occupations, which require a college degree.

Rosen and Leonhardt had complained that the S.F. State strike was too militant; there were too many arrests. No danger of that with the CWSA.(There were a few arrests at UCLA, as an exception, but they led to no movement of either students or campus workers.) After seeing the PL tiger rampaging through the campuses during 1968-9 school year, everyone was amazed at the PL pussy cat tamely talking to campus workers about filing a grievance or something on that order the following year. Moreover, this narrow reformist work did a great disservice to the campus workers who had seen their horizons broadened during the previous year by the massive revolutionary student movement and in a few places campus workers had joined the struggle for educational or anti-imperialist demands that challenged the system. This year the PLP was determined to keep the campus worker in his place, struggling for the most narrow economic reform.

While almost all the PL leadership and most of the membership in the end swallowed Rosen and Leonhardt’s bitter pill of retreat from student struggle, SDS did not. A few SDS’ers made the hopeless fight against the CWSA strategy within SDS but the vast majority of SDS members voted with their feet, a thundering NO!! to the CWSA, that PL was trying to cram down their throats. Masses of students left the organization that no longer fulfilled their anti-racist and anti-imperialist aspirations. The SDS chapters rapidly withered and died. PL’s insistence on the CWSA and nothing but the CWSA killed SDS; the members, the militancy, the democratic debate, the revolutionary fervor so much a part of SDS was gone within 6 months. Where PL forces controlled the chapters in the major PL cities shrunken SDS chapters could be maintained, but as not much more than PL front groups. In a few areas (San Diego, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City) the SDS leadership was won close to or into PLP and these chapters were given some leeway on the CWSA question and thus kept alive, but SDS generally shrunk in those areas as well. In other places the SDS leaders and all members who would go were simply pulled out and brought to major PL cities to take part in the general work of the party; once thriving SDS chapters at Hawaii, Texas, Iowa, Irvine, were left leaderless to die and finally, in areas where PL had little or no influence, Kentucky, Washington, etc., the SDS chapters changed their name and dropped all connection with PL-SDS.[69] At any rate in place of 304 SDS chapters in June 1969 there were no more than 40 SDS chapters left by the spring of 1970 and almost all of these were greatly shrunken in membership. One indication of the shrinking SDS base as early as October 4th was when Boston SDS called a demonstration against negotiations in Vietnam and only 600 showed up compared with 4,000 the year previous.

But while PL and PL-SDS fell into a coma, the student movement in the school year 1969-1970 was still quite healthy, given the fact that almost all the leaders of the past year were missing. PL-SDS had tried to ignore the anti-war movement, but the 1969-70 year was the year of the most widespread anti-war protests; millions participated. PL-SDS tried at first to see if it could divert the protests against U.S. aggression in Vietnam into a protest against the Vietnamese for negotiating; thus in September-October PL-SDS organized demonstrations against the negotiations in Boston, New York, Chicago and a few other places, but they were very poorly attended. Therefore a plan for a PL-SDS counter-demonstration at the Nov. 15 mass march was dropped. PL-SDS participated and formed a break-away march to the Labor Department to support the General Electric Strike. But outside of this, PL-SDS put its blinders on and ignored the war. Therefore PL was in general fairly isolated when the Cambodia-Kent State-Jackson State demonstrations left the campuses in flames. There were three illuminating exceptions.

At the U. of Maryland an SDS chapter there that had somehow managed to avoid much of PL’s sectarianism was able to lead a violent struggle there of 5,000 students against the police and national guard in protest of Cambodia and Kent State. (Maryland was fortunate in having only 1 PL member, who was criticized as being “weak” in pushing PL’s line.)[70]

At S.F. State the PL club had stubbornly gone its own way and tried to remain in the leadership of the mass movement. In the spring of 1970 they led a series of sharp mass confrontations which brought the club once more into conflict with the Hayakawa administration and the NSC of PLP. In March, Hayakawa announced that the war recruiters would return to the campus for the first time in 2 years. PL-SDS entered a united front with other anti-war forces and convened a mass meeting of 250 students, which in turn led to a mass demonstration of 1,500 students against the recruiters and the police who had been called in. Shortly afterwards PL-SDS and the TWLF led a sharp mass struggle to preserve the Black Studies department from Hayakawa’s attacks. As a result, Hayakawa announced at a press conference that Hari Dillon was to be banned from the S.F. State campus.

But Hayakawa was not the only one upset. Dillon received a phone call from Leonhardt in which Leonhardt criticized Dillon for “not building the CWSA” and reiterated that “the Party’s line is that the war is not the issue we should be fighting around.” Dillon was told by telephone from New York, “Black Studies is not the issue at S.F. State anymore.” Finally, after Dillon and other PL’ers were arrested during the Cambodia upsurge, the local Party Chief, F. Jerome, told Dillon that Rosen and Leonhardt had decided Dillon should no longer be West Coast Student Organizer but should move on to do “more important” Party work. Jerome, himself, assumed direct leadership of the student work shortly afterwards to see to it that the PL student club at S.F. State disband for all intents and purposes and that all mass activity by PLP on campus cease.[71]

A second exception also in the Bay Area was U.C. Berkeley. There in early 1969 a well-reasoned anti-ROTC pamphlet was passed out by SDS. Soon afterwards an SDS-sponsored speech by a leader of the Liga Socialista Puertoriquena on the recent anti-ROTC action in Puerto Rico inspired a march to the ROTC building that ended in a battle with police. PL-SDS initiated a broader mass movement; evening mass meetings usually numbered about 1,500; demonstrations had up to 6,000. The invasion of Cambodia came a few weeks after the mass movement had begun, and added thousands more to the ranks of the fighters. By now the campus was being shut down every afternoon by the demonstrators (and the tear gas). At this point the administration moved in to try to co-opt the movement. They shut clown all classes for 3 days and held a convocation in the Greek Theatre. There they called for a strike of the University against the U.S. government. It was at this point that PLP lost leadership of the movement because the club refused to participate, in the liberal administration organized activities, instead put out leaflets which said “This Is A Strike?” and PL became more and more isolated. Nevertheless SDS and PLP did gain a great deal of respect from the struggle.

But similar mass actions against Cambodia-Kent State that took place over all the country, found PL and SDS forces on the outside looking in, still trying to unite with campus workers. At the U. of Illinois, Wayne State and Columbia PL joined the mass movement, which was under the leadership of other forces, but elsewhere PL-SDS did not even do that much.

Columbia provided the final irony. For nearly a year the faithful few PL’ers on campus tried everything to build the CWSA; they protested on all sorts of local economic grievances. No incident was too petty or reformist for the PL student missionaries to be right in there with the good old CWSA. PL worked hard and long, put out reams of leaflets, organized dozens of tiny CWSA picket lines. Still no CWSA, no discernable movement toward PL on the part of the campus workers. No grievance or issue was too economist (Economists were antagonists of Lenin in the middle period of Bolshevik organizing. They believed the workers’ movement should be restricted to economic demands and stay out of broader political struggles.) for PL to use in hopes of moving the “backward, trade-union oriented” campus workers. But the CWSA was a total flop, a big zero by spring. Come Cambodia the students (not PL) stormed through the campus protesting the invasion and, lo and behold, hundreds of campus workers joined them. Some 200 campus workers took over Low Library to demand time off during the student strike; when the university said no, the workers themselves declared a strike. A real CWSA, not led by PL or SDS, but led by the anti-war movement, which had been abandoned by PL.[72]

The Cambodia-Kent State actions and nationwide student strike had to be sobering, at least to the PL student leadership, if not to the NSC. PL’s isolation from the student movement was painfully evident. On June 20-28 a national student collective meeting after some struggle forced a self-criticism to be issued:

“Unless we can reverse this approach, SDS will die.

“Why does this emergency exist? Over the past year we have put into practice a left-sectarian line around CWSA. CWSA is key, particularly in fighting racism, but we had the approach of putting all our eggs in one basket and holding back struggles against the war. Though we said anti-war struggles were good, we made no consistent plans to guarantee them. After Cambodia, it became apparent, even to us in our isolation, that the war is the primary issue around which masses of students are fighting back. But given our sectarian approach around the war all year, we did not have the outlook or a base of students won to our ideas on the war to take consistent leadership in the strike.

“Since we didn’t see fighting against the war as primary, we also developed CWSA in a mechanical way. If we had united with other students around the war, however, a much larger number could probably have been won to see that uniting with campus workers, especially in struggles against racism, builds a much deeper and stronger movement to fight against the war.[73]

But even this mild self-criticism was not allowed by the NSC to stand. As far as Rosen was concerned the only error was that CWSA had not been worked at hard enough. As for SDS, “I could see it was finished when it did nothing to support the postal strike,” Rosen subsequently remarked.[74] Thus in the next student internal we read:

“The last student collective letter indicated that the principal error we had been making in the SDS work was our inadequate development of mass anti-war struggle. The reasoning behind this evaluation was that since the Cambodia invasion was the largest student uprising of the year, since SDS did not grow qualitatively during the period of the invasion, and since the invasion proved that the war was the greatest mass issue among U.S. students, then it stood to reason that our principal error was in not pushing SDS far enough in an anti-war direction.

“The student collective reconsidered this evaluation and judged it to be incorrect. First of all, although the war played a major role in the May uprisings, it was not the only issue on the minds of thousands of militant students. The Kent State killings were equally as significant, if not more so, in provoking mass outrage. Secondly, although inadequate leadership in the anti-war struggle constitutes a real and serious weakness, this has not been the main weakness. In terms of class significance, the postal strike was far more important than the Cambodia... and SDS did less around the strike than around Cambodia. It didn’t mobilize thousands of students to support the postal workers in each city – although support was objectively possible.

“In fact, broadly speaking, this was the key weakness: vacillation on the question of worker-student alliance.”[75]

Incidentally, this line of Milt Rosen’s, that an economic strike of U.S. workers is more significant than an armed liberation struggle abroad was repeated in a number of internals and private conversations in the seventies until it was believed to be true by most members. 76 This is an economist deviation from Marxism and in fact history shows that support of liberation struggles inspires the greatest Revolutionary activity among workers. The June, 1848 Revolution of French workers was inspired by the Polish national liberation struggle; the Paris Commune by the Resistance to Prussian aggression; the Bolshevik Revolution drew great strength from the liberation struggles of the Poles, Finns, Georgians, Ukrainians and others; the Chinese Revolution was a result of the national liberation war against Japan, just as the Albanian Revolution was a result of the national liberation war against Italy, and the U.S. Black rebellions of the sixties were inspired by the national liberation struggles in Vietnam and Africa. The most intense practical activity of Marx’s career as a revolutionary was his struggle to line up the English workers in support of the war against slavery being fought in the U.S. Lenin fought mightily to get the Russian trade-union movement to transfer its vision from economic struggles to political struggles, in particular to support the national liberation struggles. No, Mr. Rosen, in terms of “class significance” the support of the war of liberation in Cambodia was more important than the Postal Strike. Thus the Rosen-inspired student internal combined gross sectarianism with significant right-wing revisionism.

The retreat from the student movement became a rout. The school year 1970-71 found PL more isolated on campus than at any time in its history. And if that bothered some, the leadership had the answer: the students didn’t work hard enough developing the CWSA. As for SDS, it died in all but name during the next school year. On-campus chapters ceased to exist except as PL and friends groupings and even this was restricted to no more than 10 colleges. SDS went from 304 chapters to 10 in 18 months of PL stewardship. But the NSC by December, 1970 even dropped the CWSA or WSA or any pretense at all of student work. PL student members spent long hours selling Challenge at plant gates or unemployment offices or organizing among unemployed or welfare recipients for the 1971 unemployment marches. The PL involvement in the student movement was ended by the close of 1970. Leonhardt and other student leaders of the CWSA period were shifted to other work in that winter and only the most inexperienced, less-thought-of cadre were left in student work.[76]


Abbreviations Used in Endnotes

EA: Eyewitness Account: Some 30 former members of PLP contributed to these accounts, including seven former NC members, at least one of whom was present at all NC meetings between April, 1965 and March, 1977. Whenever this citation is used the account has been carefully crosschecked with other witnesses.

CD: Challenge-Desafio, PL’s national newspaper.

PL: PL magazine, PL’s national theoretical magazine.

IB: PL internal bulletin.

CW: Collected works.

[57] EA

[58] EA

[59] EA

[60] EA

[61] CD, V. 5, No. 9, December, 1968, p. 16.

[62] EA

[63] EA

[64] EA

[65] “Student Collective Report on SDS Convention.”

[66] New Left Notes, V. 5, No. 2, July 30, 1969, p. 7.

[67] EA

[68] EA

[69] EA

[70] C-D, V. 7, No. 3, June, 1970, p. 16.

[71] EA

[72] C-D, V. 7, No. 4, July, 1970, p. 18.

[73] Report to Party from National Student Collective Meeting, June 28, 1970

[74] EA

[75] Report to Party from National Student Collective Meeting, Sep. 13, 1970.

[76] EA