Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

’Challenge’: Counter-Institutions

First Published: Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume CXIII, Number 41, 25 November 1968.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Occasional practitioners of revolution and armchair enthusiasts may wish to consider laying out ten cents for this month’s issue of Challenge, the PL newspaper. PL stands for Progressive Labor, a group of tough, exceptionally dedicated leftists who usually follow the line of Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese Revolution. Their political analysis is not always interesting, but the November Challenge exposes what may be a highly significant divergence of revolutionary strategy in America. This is the substitution of counter-institutions for building a direct nation wide struggle against the ruling class and the State.

America, with its pluralistic traditions and high degree of local sovereignty, seems ideal territory for the proliferation of counter-institutions. The development and spread of “free zones” in the next ten or twenty years is perfectly conceivable: universities controlled by students, self-policed black ghettos impregnable to the reach of the civil and military police, autonomous “Lower East Sides” where drugs and other forms of private pursuits may be indulged in under the protection of the local laws and only money is forbidden– perhaps entire states like Vermont (present population – 400,000) under the crest of huge, premeditated waves of liberated youth.

One seeming advantage of building counter-institutions, aside from the opportunities for creativity and self-indulgence, is political. One can depart from the ceaseless drumming up of anger, moral outrage, and paranoia, which however justified and are necessary for the development of nation and necessary for the development of nationwide class struggle can also prove enervating and in the final analysis– dull.

Challenge, however, treats the rise of counter-institutions with all the avidity that the Daily News treats crime news. “Thankful Rulers Pay for Hippie Havens” reads the headline over an account of a visit to an anarchist farm, allegedly owned by an heir to the Kalamazoo Paper Company. “Disease was rampant,” the article states. “The Free Love brought a high rate of venereal disease. The water supply became polluted and when an attempt was made to clean it, the hippies screamed no!”

Among other things, a resident pot-head auto mechanic “had fixed seven engines in three months and none of them ran!!” In an article on the sanctuary given by hundreds of Boston University students to an AWOL serviceman, the paper condemns the moral and communal tones of the proceedings. “The basic point was that the group in the chapel was not a fighting organization, it was a ’community’.”

Elsewhere, Tony Papert, former leader of the PL section at Columbia, is pilloried for advocating a counter-Piers Area renewal project, namely a huge low-income complex organized and controlled by the community. “They proposed,” the article says of Papert and the SDS Labor Committee, “counter-institutions under imperialism as a substitute for class struggle.” In similar fashion, school decentralization is described as a fraud, a “cover-up to deflect the anger of the parents and teachers.”

PL is perhaps correct in castigating the Utopian mentality often associated with builders of counter-institutions. Yet PL may have missed a key point, for I believe that there is something fundamentally subversive about a counter-institution. From my hazy knowledge of nuclear physics it appears that matter, when it encounters anti-matter, explodes. The situation is perhaps analogous to politics. Authority in any given organization is a very fragile thing, largely dependent on ingrained concepts of “right” and “wrong” and a certain narrow view of life. I do not believe America can exist half-re-pressed and half-liberated. Thus the building of counter-institutions may in fact be the ultimate revolutionary strategy, the quickest road to a nationwide explosion and the opportunity for total subjection of the ruling class and its machine, the State.

Possibly at a certain stage in the development of counter-institutions, the repressive forces of society, throwing to the wind their liberal facade, will launch an all-out attack. This will be the test of the revolutionary ardour of counter-institutionalists – phony and transitory or deep-rooted and permanent– and PL’s analysis. Several years from now, as the war in Vietnam drags on, (as it surely will) and Nixon launches a wave of repression in response to ever more glaring civil strife and frustration, it will be instructive to see who survives and flourishes, and who falls by the way.