Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jared Israel

We Knew We Were Right

First Published: The Harvard Crimson, April 27, 1974
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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To the Editors of The Crimson:

Peter Shapiro’s article, “Strikers from ’69,” (The Crimson, Fri. April 19) is a thoroughly dishonest attempt to increase student cynicism, and the part about me, called “We,” (?!) is icing on the cake. Having seen other, equally sincere-seeming reporters lie through their teeth in print, I was willing to talk to Shapiro only because he promised I could check the accuracy of quotes before press time. The fact that Shapiro broke his promise is understandable. If he’d removed all the out-of-context quotes (not to mention the even more numerous invented ones!) there would have been nothing left for The Crimson to print.

Shapiro and I went to a crumby joint (hardly the “best food in the world”) where we ate and argued. He made it quite clear he dislikes the communist Party for Workers Power (Workers Power, for short), which I’m a member of. He’s against the ”overly serious pro-worker approach through which people in and around the Worker-Student Alliance Caucus (WSA) helped build and lead SDS from ’67 to ’72. And he made it perfectly clear he opposed Workers Power members (many of whom were deeply involved in this earlier organizing) building this same type of movement against racists like Jencks, Kilson and Herrnstein at Harvard today.

Shapiro builds cynicism in four main ways. First, he creates the impression that the ’69 strike activists were simple-minded, immature and impetuous. Second, citing a few somewhat odd-sounding cases, he creates the impression that most strike activists have now mainly copped out of the struggle. Third, he poses as the alternative the philosophical-sounding, “wiser-than-when-I-was-young” approach of Mike Kazin. And fourth, he dismisses an organized, communist movement as a serious alternative to this otherwise depressing picture. That’s where “We” comes in. It was written to mock communism without having to take an open stand–the safest way. In doing this Shapiro displays truly creative journalism, some samples of which follow:

Sample Distortion No. 1: “Friends recall him [that is, me] speaking through a bullhorn from a second-story window of University Hall to the crowd of students gathered outside. ’The workers of Cambridge support us!’ he [me] said. The crowd was unreceptive.”

As well they might have been – except that I never made any such speech. Shapiro invented this “recollection” to make the worker-student alliance politics behind the anti-ROTC campaign in ’69 look unreal. The Workers Student Alliance Caucus (WSA) won many to transcend a narrowly student-centered approach, to take on broad problems (war and ROTC, racism and Harvard expansion) from a consciously pro-worker, anti-big-business vantage point. Instead of fighting ROTC because “militarism sullies an otherwise neutral university,” we said fight ROTC because it serves the giant financial interests which control Harvard (among other things) and use ROTC for officers to crush rebellions around the world. If most students were “unresponsive” to this pro-working class approach, how come over 100 of the most active joined WSA during the strike?

Sample Distortion No. 2: Early in “We” Shapiro quotes me claiming I was ahead of my time, that I originated student activism, and so on: that is he makes me sound like a real jerk. This is the “communists are megelomaniacs” bait. However a little later on, Shapiro does a complete flip-flop and, as if he’d never hinted I was so self-centered, says: “Jared strongly dislikes talking about himself.” Shapiro then goes on to attack me for this, saying I’ve dissolved my personality into the party, that I give “we” answers to “me” questions, and so on. This is the “reds are dehumanized machines with no individuality” bait. Now come on, Shapiro, give me a break, you can’t have it both ways. Don’t you think people can remember from one paragraph to the next and spot a glaring contradiction?

In any event, Shapiro is lying both times so why fuss over contradictions? I answered his questions like my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Wynertzky, taught me, politely, using “I” or “we” depending on when her the singular or plural seemed appropriate. For example, I said that “we” (in this instance, the May 2nd movement), rather than me personally (as Shapiro reports it) initiated the Harvard anti-war movement in ’64. Unlike Shapiro’s other case studies, me and others in the WSA didn’t drop off into a private world after ’69. Since “we” have done much political organizing and much discussing things together, and since our Party for Workers Power tries to lead class struggle scientifically, it would have been slightly odd for me to have discussed how “I’ve changed since ’69.” (By the way, contrary to Shapiro, I do think “we’ve” changed much since ’69. Check out our new paper, Spark.)

Sample Distortion No. 3: Shapiro claims I said: “We expected to get our asses kicked through a tree, and we did. It was one of the most moving [?!] experiences of my life. We expected to get killed. It was like watching the dogs go after the foxes.” This really wins the prize. I never said this insane garbage, if I had I’d deserve the Masochist of the Year award. What did inspire me was the tremendous spirit of people during the bust. Unlike foxes being chased by hounds, it was a tremendous, collective sort of heroism, with everyone much more concerned about each other and about the issues than about ourselves. Locked inside University Hall, ready for the cops on the morning of the bust, we knew we were right. We’d been organizing against ROTC for months. We’d studied Harvard’s expansion plans, talked to the people who were to be evicted. We’d hashed out the issues in University Hall for one hell of a long day. Based on this political understanding, despite fear (and we were scared) we held firm. Even when the cops broke through the glass doors, itching to get at us, we kept on chanting our demands against ROTC and expansion, shouting these demands with one voice so loud the walls shook. I find Shapiro’s crude slander of this moment, which he falsely attributes to me, the most disgusting thing about his already fairly well-endowed article.

Shapiro paints a different picture of our opponents at the time, the “new left” caucus, one of whose leaders, Mike Kazin, is treated especially kindly – especially now that he’s coming on even less radical than he did back in ’69. (Kazin always talked about how he’d been radical when younger but now knew better, so maybe he hasn’t changed). Shapiro presents Kazin as a leader of the “small group” which planned the University Hall takeover. In fact the plan was first worked out in the WSA caucus. We then presented it to a mammoth SDS meeting which almost filled Lowell Lec. Despite maneuvers by Kazin (who chaired) and his friends, we won a vote mandating whoever could to seize University Hall around the demands in the indeterminate future. The WSA caucus met later that night to plan the seizure, informed the outraged “new left” caucus of our plans the next morning, then went into University Hall, ejected all deans and opened it up to a couple hundred occupiers. Kazin and friends opposed the takeover till after it got took. But it’s not surprising that Shapiro rewrites history. After all, he even rewrites the quotes in a recent interview to support his anti-communist politics.

Shapiro goes so far with his rewrite-job he ends up enlisting Lenin (corrected by Peter Shapiro), quoting this poor, much-abused bolshevik to the effect that “the main virtues of a revolutionary are patience and irony.” Proceeding from this quote, Shapiro criticizes the ’69 activists for their lack of these traits. In defence of Lenin and the ’69ers, I’d like to point out that:

1) Lenin is talking about revolutionaries who are building a united working class movement of all races, men and women, allied with other forces to smash the bourgeois state and set up workers rule. Therefore he did not pose patience and irony as substitutes for anger at oppression and building a revolutionary movement, as a political program to replace revolutionary work. Since Shapiro quotes Lenin so favorably, does this mean he endorses the overthrow of the U.S. government? Does he want to join with the Workers Power in the gargantuan task of building for socialist revolution?

2) Aside from painting a smear of communist politics in “We,” Shapiro attacks the ’69 activists for having been too impatient, which is to say too anxious to destroy rotten institutions, or to put it more simply, too communistic. Thus Shapiro uses Lenin to attack “Lenin.”

3) In any case the ’69 strike was built for very patiently. WSA caucus members and others prepared for several years. We did it then the same way Workers Power members and others are building the anti-racist movement on campuses today, by discussing every question with everyone we can, organizing struggles (the successful fight to keep Shockley out of Yale a week ago is an example) exposing every administration lie, organizing a mass-based political defense when the administration tries (as they’re now trying at Yale) to silence us with punishments, using these very attacks to help people understand the system better, organizing support for workers actions (like the printers strike we’re helping support at Harvard) and educating students to see through myths about workers so that the movement we build is consciously pro-worker, and so on. We are very “patient” because we’ve seen many people come through despite great obstacles. Unlike Shapiro’s intentionally depressing article–his “student movement is dead forever” line comes through loud and clear–we have a lot of confidence in people based on a lot of good experience seeing people change for the better. This is what inspired me about ’69, seeing people change so thoroughly based on political experience and practice, this is what we in Workers Power stand for today, this is what I naively hoped to get across to Shapiro, and this is most definitely what he did not want to hear.

Jared Israel