Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Seth M. Kupferberg

Introduction: The Strike as History

First Published: Harvard Crimson, April 15, 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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It may be difficult for [future undergraduates] to understand the sense of loss which I feel at this passing [of the last Harvard Strike class] unless they realize that for me–and for many of those who participated–the strike was the most important experience of our lives... And so I would like to make some assessment of the strike as a historical phenomenon. Garrett Epps ’72

Five years after the most divisive, most important strike in Harvard’s history–two years after Garrett Epps, stepping down as Crimson president, tried to make sense of his years at Harvard–we, too, would like to make some assessments of the Strike as part of our heritage.

But our perspective is necessarily different from Garrett’s. Because we came to Harvard later than he, the Strike for us has never been anything except a historical phenomenon.

Our vantage point of five years allows us to see certain things with clarity.

We can see that the Strike wasn’t the herald of revolution some people thought it at the time. Derek Bok’s administration differs from its discredited predecessor because Bok is willing to make procedural compromises to keep controversy under wraps, not because its commitment to democracy or its independence of purpose is much greater.

And we can see that the concessions made by the Faculty were just that– concessions, not expressions of conviction.

Even back in 1969, when Vietnam and domestic violence made the issues more immediate than ever, the Faculty was less concerned with confronting the issues the strikers raised than with pacifying what they felt was a bunch of disruptive malcontents. Both the proof and the shame of this is that the Faculty began to whittle away at the reforms the strikers won as soon as it sensed a decline in student militancy.

For our vantage-point also lets us see what happened to the Strike’s victories when the euphoric echoes of its threats and shouts died away. Instead of extending a voice to students in other departments, the Faculty which in 1969 gave students an effective voice in running the new Afro Department stripped Afro concentrators of their votes on the department’s exectutive board. Derek Bok, chosen president of Harvard in part because the Corporation thought his handling of mild protests at the Law School promised a new responsiveness to students and a new understanding of the issues they raised, announced last year that he’d like to see ROTC back at Harvard. And 1969’s far-reaching discussions of university governance died quietly, their promise of a democratic Harvard independent of large corporations and their war machine broken and half-forgotten.

Although our historical position lets us see some things more clearly, it keeps us from understanding the emotions and convictions, the anger and fears of 1969, the intensity that made the Strike the most important experience of some people’s lives, its texture and flavor and impingement on everyday living. Inasmuch as this supplement is an historical assessment, it required of its writers a sympathy with and understanding for every side in 1969’s disputes–a sympathy and understanding we can’t feel fully for any side, separated from them by five years.

We can’t tell, five years later, what importance the strikers placed on the specific demands of the Strike, so it’s possible that we’ve placed unwarranted stress on them. The demands dealing with university expansion, for example, came almost exclusively from the Progressive Labor faction of SDS–one indication of the deep divisions within even the minority of students who could properly be labeled militant. Our emphasis on specific issues may obscure more important sources of conflict; the strikers’ opposition to the administration may have had much more general roots than any appearing in their demands. But even if this was true, the demands were the symbols the strikers chose for their opposition, and so they’re the most obviously relevant symbols we have to go on.

We can’t guess, five years later, how we’d have felt in 1969 about the occupation of University Hall despite the opposition of a majority even of SDS, and we can’t even tell for sure how we feel about it now. We don’t share the administration’s reverence for its property rights in what we believe is our university. By provoking the Bust, the occupation succeeded in creating a student unity we’ve never known around demands which we believe were valid. But broken heads is a heavy price for unity; and subsequent events showed that Progressive Labor’s belief that action by an isolated minority would educate everyone else was usually mistaken and compromised the Left’s credibility as a democratic force.

So though we hope this supplement raises important questions in an illuminating way, we have no illusions about the likelihood of our ever being able to answer them. Quick interpretations of 1969 lacked perspective and detachment; interpretations offered now would lack some of the sense of burning immediacy and commitment that gave 1969, like any other time, its weight and its importance.

But because we’re students at a school shaken to its foundations by 1969’s events, events so important to some of our immediate predecessors that they felt a profound sense of loss at their passing, it seems worthwhile to try to understand the Strike anyway.

For Garrett Epps and some of his classmates, the Strike served as an educational force, a central metaphor for understanding the society around them. Nothing in our educations fills that place. We have to rely on history.