Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bill Ayers

Education Secretary’s Report: The Boston Strangler: A Paper Tiger

Published: New Left Notes, Vol. 4, No. 24, July 8, 1969. 
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In Boston, the only place in the country where Progressive Labor Party had successfully maintained a stranglehold on the movement, the second stage of the struggle against PL began in earnest last week at a New England Regional Assembly. What began at the Chicago convention was dealt with again locally, and the prospects for the future became clearer. Because Boston is PL’s headquarters, it is the only area where there is any illusion about PL’s strength nationally; because this illusion exists, we can see in sharp relief the kinds of problems people will face in less exaggerated forms elsewhere.

Last week’s Regional Assembly marked one of the first times in Boston history that PL was taken on politically in an aggressive and coherent way. And, although PL and WSA brought more numbers to the conference, those who supported their expulsion from SDS went away feeling the real possibility of building SDS off of the split with a positive, revolutionary program. People for the first time measured success not by how many bodies they got out, but by how they moved politically.

At the conference it was made clear in two early speeches that we live in a period when capitalism has developed into its highest stage–worldwide imperialism–and that because of this development the class struggle has become a worldwide struggle often manifesting itself in people’s wars. Because these wars, like the one in Vietnam, are leading the class struggle, a critical part of our revolutionary strategy must be active support for these liberation struggles. If we are to win people to a proletarian internationalist outlook, then we must fight to support these struggles at the same time that we challenge existing consciousness: national arrogance, male chauvinism, anti-communism, and racism.

Criticisms and attacks on PL at the conference centered on four main areas:

First, PL in practice reinforces national arrogance and racism. For instance, their position has been actively to oppose struggles for open admissions for blacks and browns on the grounds that it will give people the illusion of escaping from the working class. (“Us fancy Harvard kids don’t have any illusions.”) At the same time, they have demanded preferential hiring for blacks and browns as non-academic employees in their program to “fight racism.” In practice, this means that PL demands more blacks in the basement (where they already are, largely), but opposes more blacks in the classrooms (where they aren’t). This position reinforces, instead of smashes, racism.

Second, PL has accused the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam of being “revisionist.” This position is based historically on the fact that the NLF uses Soviet guns to kill imperialist soldiers. Instead of making a demand that the revisionist Soviet Union give more aid to the heroic Vietnamese freedom fighters, national arrogance leads PL to condemn the front line fighters for using “unclean” weapons. In the same statement that attacks the NLF, PL condemns North Korea for not stopping South Korean troops from helping the U. S. war effort. (How many U.S. troops has PL stopped?) This is another “principled” position which only a “Marxist-Leninist Party” that has its base at Harvard and Yale could have the arrogance to take.

Third, PL claims to support the people of Vietnam at the same time that it condemns the people’s leadership, the NLF. Not only is this an incredibly stupid position–given the reality of the strong and able leadership that the NLF has provided–but it feeds anti-communism by correlating exactly with the State Department position that the people have the right to self-determination but are being tricked and led astray by communist leadership.

And forth, people attacked PL’s position on women’s struggles. PL insists that male chauvinism is merely a bad idea that must be fought and will be defeated in the process of the revolution. There is no understanding of the real material oppression women face, and the fact that men have a privilege in relation to women. Because they fail to understand this, they fail to fully support women’s just struggles, and fail to confront men with the necessity of supporting women’s liberation and the abolition of male privilege.

PL’s response to a sharp political attack on these issues was to argue primarily about the need for a mass, directionless organization, the “unconstitutionality” of the expulsion, civil liberties, and how manipulative the national leadership is. They soft-pedalled their politics and attempted to win people to an unprincipled unity within the “student” movement. Miles Rappaport of Harvard-Radcliffe SDS replied to their cry for “unity”: “It is arrogant for PL to ask for unity now, after it has actively ripped apart our movement all year.” (At the height of the Harvard struggle last year, PL said that not only would Harvard’s racism be “smashed,” but non-WSA SDS people would be “smashed” as well.)

PL was defensive and running scared. While they blurred all differences in content, they attempted to sharpen the differences in form. PL speakers began by telling in great detail the kind of “N.O. manipulation” that had gone on in Chicago. They tried to claim that they were reasonable and principled, and it was the “manipulators” and “disrupters” who were out to wreck the organization. When PL failed to pull people into a debate on form, they resorted to heckling speakers, especially C. Van Lydegraf, who is an ex-PL national committee member, and Dave Gilbert of the NY Regional Staff. As one PL person said after the meeting, “We let them do the same thing they did at Harvard.” (i.e., talk politics).

The struggle at the Boston Regional Assembly further confirmed the important reasons for expelling PL:

(1) The expulsion was not based alone on PL’s political theory and practice; the act was itself political. We had reached a point in SDS where any more attempts to educate people to the differences with PL would have been irrelevant and redundant–unless we took action. Like many other situations, action was the education we all needed. And, what it did was to force people to examine the seriousness of the differences with PL, and to move on them.

(2) These differences are not merely “contradictions among the people,” or comradely differences among those in the movement. In fact, PL in theory and practice has taken a line that has objectively hurt the efforts of the most advanced anti-imperialist struggles. This line is not an occasional accident or wrong idea: it is a solidified, developed position that undercuts the people’s struggles. As such, it must be defeated. Any softening of that conclusion means that we can compromise with PL because they call themselves “communists,” when we would never compromise with Democrats whose position objectively did the same thing. When the existence or non-existence of the movement is at stake, drastic action is required.

(3) The national expulsion forced–and will continue to force–people to take PL on politically. In this case, it forced people to deal with PL or give up Boston. It was clear at the conference that the expulsion required a response; people were no longer able to maintain the same kind of defensive, conciliatory relationship that they had with PL before (although many began by wanting to). And, because of this, because people did take on and defeat PL, they started to see the possibility of building SDS without the burden of continual internal struggles which were supposed to be “educational.” People also saw that at times a little spine is as educational as a lot of brains.

The expulsion of PL from the ranks of SDS at last month’s National Convention was one of the first primitive steps toward building SDS into a revolutionary mass movement. It was only the first attempt to take the initiative in the fight against reactionary tendencies in the movement, and only one further way of giving concrete support to the leading forces in our fight against U.S. imperialism. This beginning must be consolidated and built upon. The struggle that began at the Convention must be fought out and carried through at a number of local areas over the next few months.

To win this struggle is of great significance to the movement. It is no longer a question of debates at NCs; it has become a question of whether we choose to be part of an international, anti-imperialist movement, or to become isolated in localized faction fights: whether we want SDS to become a coherent revolutionary youth movement, or a mushy, directionless debating society.

At the conclusion of the Boston Regional Assembly, people felt more together and began to plan local and national programs. They want Boston to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.