A Short History of Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and Its Activities in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

19 December 2023 559 hits

A Short History of Progressive Labor Party (PLP) and Its Activities in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

- Twelve articles from Challenge-Desafio (PLP biweekly newspaper) in 2007

(These articles were written as a series in Challenge-Desafio during the first half of 2007. Links to the original articles are included.)

PL’ers Launched Anti-Vietnam War Movement

While you won’t find it in the bosses’ media, it was the Progressive Labor Movement (PLM) — forerunner of the PLP — that initiated the anti-Vietnam War movement as a mass phenomenon. At a conference at Yale University in the spring of 1964, which discussed ways of opposing the war, the PLM’s chairperson called for mass anti-war marches on May 2 of that year. The Conference approved the resolution and on that date, thousands marched against the war in New York City, while smaller gatherings were held in San Francisco, Seattle, Madison, Miami, San Juan, Puerto Rico and other cities.

The outdoor protest rally at 110th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan that kicked off the day was the largest single demonstration against the U.S. invasion held in the U.S. up to that point. Five hundred then marched five miles down to Times Square and over to the UN. Soon May 2nd Committees were springing up on many campuses throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the Student League for Industrial Democracy — the youth section of a right-wing social democratic group, the League for Industrial Democracy — had drawn up a manifesto in Michigan putting forward ideas on "democratizing" capitalism while denouncing the Soviet Union. From this, the SDS (Students for A Democratic Society) was born. Soon it called for a mass march on Washington opposing the Vietnam War. To everyone’s surprise, on April 17, 1965, 25,000 protesters descended on the nation’s capital. It was the beginning of a series of mass protests that eventually were to reach a million students and workers rallying in Washington.

As PLM and later PLP saw this growing response, it called on its members to leave the May 2nd Movement and join and build SDS, despite the fact that the organization’s leadership was, in effect, pro-capitalist. Some of the leaders of M2M opposed that idea, saying that SDS was not as "pure" as M2M. But PL felt there were thousands of students that could be influenced in a leftward direction over the issue of the war. PL helped organize chapters on scores of campuses across the country and became part of the leadership in many. As the movement grew, hundreds of students joined PL to fight for revolution, not just against this particular war.

While much of the movement advocated slogans like, "Stop the War in Vietnam" and "Bring the Troops Home" — and later, "Stop the Bombing" — PL’ers fought for an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, pro-working class program, calling for "U.S. Imperialism to Get Out of Vietnam Now!" Gradually PL’ers began to win over a majority of the SDS membership to a Worker-Student Alliance outlook, based on fighting racism and imperialism. PL’s anti-racist platform enabled it to play a role in many of the black rebellions that occurred in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

It was out of these activities that PL grew and eventually began recruiting workers as well as students. Very little of this would have occurred had PL’ers stayed within the narrow confines of the May 2nd Movement. (Future articles will discuss PL’s activities in SDS, including organizing a Worker-Student Alliance and opposing student draft deferments in order to work within the military.)

* * * * *

PL History: How PLP Fought for Pro-Worker Anti-Racism in SDS

(Last issue chronicled PLP's decision to work within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the escalation of U.S. imperialism's Vietnam genocide in order to move the mushrooming anti-war movement leftward and to build the Party.)

By the fall of 1967, SDS chapters had sprung up on hundreds of U.S. college campuses. Vigorous debate ensued on the tactics of anti-war activity. PLP members advocated the principle that tactics flowed from politics, and that class allegiance held the key to politics.

From the very beginning, PLP stood alone in fighting for a "Worker-Student Alliance." This position had several practical consequences:

* U.S. bosses got their cannon fodder for the Vietnam War through a military draft. However, college students could enjoy a "2-S" student deferment. PLP argued that a principled anti-war position required refusing this class privilege. PLP'ers rejected it individually and as a mass position. As a result, numbers of PLP members were drafted. The military brass deemed some unfit for military service for "political reasons." Others entered the military and organized against the war on the inside. PLP's principled position against the 2-S deferment won widespread respect throughout the movement, including the grudging admiration of the Party's rightwing opponents within SDS.

* From the start, PLP also vigorously opposed the position of the "official" leadership of the anti-war movement, that "Stop the bombing and negotiate" was the only mass line that could mobilize large numbers of people within the U.S. PLP argued that as an imperialist invader, the U.S. ruling class had no right to negotiate a blade of grass in Vietnam; that the only viable demand was "U.S. out NOW!" This struggle around this principle -- correct as far as it went -- was to have significant consequences several years later, when the Vietnamese "communist" leadership began negotiations with the Nixon administration.

* During the late 1960's, spontaneous working-class militancy was mushrooming, with industrial strikes, inner-city uprisings, and rebellion within the imperialist military. PLP took the lead in arguing that students should support these struggles, particularly with concrete action.

* PLP organized summer "Work-in" projects in 1967, '68 and '69, with two main goals: first to educate anti-war students about the true nature of the working class and the need to unite with workers; second, to bring anti-war, anti-imperialist politics to the working class. In a limited way, the "Work-ins" were quite successful. The student participants shed many reactionary illusions about workers, not the least of which was the boss-promoted slander that workers were racist, reactionary "oafs" incapable of understanding their class interests. Workers who met Work-in participants saw the potential for uniting with anti-war students and communists. The bosses went nuts, releasing several official documents revealing their panic at the prospect of workers and students uniting massively to oppose the war. PLP argued that this panic alone indicated we were on the right track.

* Within SDS, increasingly sharp debate began to emerge around this issue. PLP argued for unity with workers in industry, transportation and communications, and to concretize this unity by supporting strikes in auto, other heavy industries, telephone (the computer was still two decades away as a mass item), hospitals, etc. SDS's "right wing" (as we called it) opposed this position, arguing that the "traditional" working class had become obsolete, that it was hopelessly reactionary, and that "the real hope for revolution" lay in the "new working class" of alienated intellectuals and professionals. The main spokesperson for this nonsense was Herbert Marcuse, a former German social-democrat who had emigrated to the U.S. and become a professor in California. The bosses happily anointed him the ideologue of the "New Left." They promoted his ideas and his book "One-Dimensional Man," even featuring him on the cover of Time Magazine. PLP continued to fight for the Worker-Student Alliance and to organize militant action that reflected this class position.

(Next: the 1968 Columbia University strike.)

* * * * *

PLP, SDS and the 1968 Columbia U. Strike

(Part I reviewed PLP’s early participation in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], its advocacy of a Worker-Student Alliance; how this led it to refuse student deferments, to enter and organize against the Vietnam War inside the army and to support industrial strikes and inner-city rebellions; and organize militant action that reflected this pro-working-class position.)

A key example of this activity was the 1968 Columbia University strike. PLP had argued consistently throughout 1967 and the fall of 1968 for fighting Columbia’s racist plan to build a gymnasium in Harlem while ignoring the community’s needs, particularly since Columbia owned hundreds of apartments that it preferred to leave vacant rather than rent to Harlem residents. A second key element of PLP’s Columbia organizing was the campaign against the university’s collaboration with the Institute for Defense Analyses, a partnership that flagrantly exposed the university’s concrete contribution to U.S. imperialist genocide in Vietnam.

On both fronts, PLP faced an uphill battle. The right-wing leadership of the Columbia SDS chapter found repeated excuses to oppose this militant activity. PLP continued to fight, frequently organizing small, sharp demonstrations, believing the moment for mass upsurge would eventually arrive. This estimate proved correct. In April 1968, several hundred Columbia students launched a sit-in. The administration summoned New York cops, who cracked scores of heads and made hundreds of arrests. The bosses’ brutality engendered mass outrage. Thousands of Columbia students and faculty went on strike. The university ground to a halt.

A crucial political debate ensued. The advocates of the "New Working Class" took a strike-breaking "shut-it-down-to-open-it-up" position, arguing that the strike was an opportunity to hold "liberation classes" and reinvent Columbia as a progressive institution. PLP stuck to its class position, arguing that under capitalism, universities could serve only the rulers, who, after all, owned them and controlled state power.

Instead of the dead-end "liberation" illusion proposed by the SDS leadership and others, PLP called for maintaining picket lines at Columbia, stopping scabs and spreading the strike. We didn’t win tactically but our principled position and insistence on militant struggle won many students at Columbia and elsewhere to join the PLP-led Worker-Student Alliance Caucus of SDS and, eventually, the PLP.

The ideological battle between PLP’s communist view of the working class versus the reactionary politics of Marcuse’s groupies — that industrial workers were "obsolete" — came to a head in June 1968 at the SDS national convention in East Lansing, Michigan. Three international developments set the tone for the looming internal struggle.

First, the Vietnam War — and the rebelliousness of U.S. GIs and sailors — had reached fever pitch. Second, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was raging in China and forcing the question of "revisionism" (capitalist ideas and politics within the communist movement) to the forefront of every honest communist’s agenda. Third, in May 1968, the vicious suppression of a protest by university students outside Paris quickly led to uprisings and strikes throughout France. Within days, a general strike had shut down the country.

Students had set the spark, but the real fire bore the unmistakable signature of the working class. In one bold stroke, France’s working class had demonstrated the bankruptcy of Marcuse and his ilk. But his disciples within SDS were far from convinced, and at the 1968 convention, they mounted a challenge to PLP’s continued existence within the organization.

(Next: The struggle sharpens within SDS while the old international communist movement enters its death throes.)

* * * * *


PLP Defied Bosses' Nationalism in `68 SF Student Strike

(Part III on PLP's activities within SDS)

The ideological struggle within SDS sharpened after PLP and the Worker-Student Alliance Caucus had defeated the right-wing's attempt to expel PL at the June 1968 national convention.

The debate over the identity and role of the working class became an argument over the issue of nationalism. The right-wing followed the old communist movement's line that nationalism could be progressive or reactionary, depending on the identity of the nationalist. This view says the nationalism of the oppressor (U.S. imperialism, French colonialism, etc.) was obviously reactionary; however, the nationalism of the oppressed (the Vietnamese people, or victims of racism in the U.S.) could serve the cause of revolution.

Until the mid-Sixties, PLP had endorsed this position. However, an analysis of international class struggle and a self-critical examination of our own practice (including the 1966 NYC transit strike and other union struggles) led us to conclude that even the most militant anti-imperialist nationalism was a thin disguise for all-class unity behind a boss, and that revolutionaries must therefore reject it.

The struggle was far from purely theoretical. In November 1968, students at San Francisco State University (SFSU) launched a strike that was to last five months, the longest in the history of the U.S. student movement. Thousands participated. In purely tactical terms, it involved some of the most violent struggle of the period, often pitting the strikers in pitched battles against the fascistic San Francisco Police Department. PLP members were among the courageous strikers and strike leaders during these confrontations.

However, the political content of the strike was fatally flawed. Rather than organize around a program of anti-racist, anti-imperialist demands, which could have clarified the class content of the university and moved the strike leftward, the SFSU Third World Liberation Front and Black Students Union called for an "Ethnic Studies Department."

In a different form, this was the same anti-working class content that the right-wing had pushed in demanding "liberation classes" at Columbia in the spring of 1968. SFSU was and remains a capitalist institution; with or without an ethnic studies department, it would continue to serve the bosses. In fact, such a department could only hurt the movement by promoting illusions about the system's ability to reform itself.

At first, the PLP club at SFSU endorsed the strike's bad demands. The Party's new line on nationalism hadn't yet been fully discussed and understood, and in the heat of battle, the comrades on the front lines thought that they were acting correctly in merely giving bold tactical leadership.

PLP's chairperson in New York, recovering from major surgery, heard about the SFSU struggle and talked to the PLP student organizer, telling him: "This Party's not going to capitulate to nationalism. Go to San Francisco and try to win the club and leadership to a better line." The student organizer did so, and, in the heat of the strike, carried out a successful political struggle within the club.

The SFSU PLP club demonstrated great determination and courage in the face of attempted intimidation, threats and physical violence, some of it from cops and some from ruling-class agents within the strike. The bosses recognized that even the most militant struggle could be tamed and brought under control if it was led by nationalist politics. The only real danger was PLP's line. When the Party began opposing both the ethnic studies demand and nationalism in general, the right-wingers and ruling class forces within the movement intensified the anti-PL red-baiting and intimidation.

Nonetheless, the Party stuck to its guns. We didn't win on the issue; the strike ended in March 1969, after the SFSU administration had agreed to create an Ethnic Studies Department, which exists to this day. Two of PLP's main leaders received prison sentences of several months for their strike activity.

But the Worker-Student Alliance and the Party grew both numerically and qualitatively in the wake of this struggle. Student strikers joined PLP. Most importantly, the Party had moved to the left on the crucial question of nationalism and learned to advance under attack. The ideological struggle within SDS was about to sharpen still further, and this political baptism of fire had toughened the Party and would serve it well in the year ahead.

(Future articles: PLP publicly criticizes revisionism in Vietnam; the 1969 Harvard strike; the Chicago "split" convention; the Campus Worker-Student Alliance; and key lessons of the SDS period.

* * * * *


1969 PL-Led Strike Paralyzed Harvard

(Students for A Democratic Society, Part IV)

The ideological struggle within SDS over nationalism peaked during the San Francisco State strike. It sharpened further over the negotiations U.S. imperialism was conducting with North Vietnamese government representatives.

From the start PL had opposed U.S. imperialism's "right" to negotiate anything in Vietnam, upholding this position once the negotiations began in 1968. It was a difficult, unpopular principle to defend, because the mass heroism of the Vietnamese struggle had justly captured the admiration of hundreds of millions of anti-imperialist workers and students, and because SDS's right-wing leadership pandered to nationalism. But despite threats and intimidation, PLP continued to maintain that negotiating with U.S. bosses would inevitably lead to betraying everything Vietnamese workers and peasants were fighting and dying to win - most notably, a life free from imperialist oppression. Events were to prove the Party correct.

As at SF State, PLP and the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) caucus of SDS organized militant action as well as principled debate. The action followed the logic of PLP's anti-nationalist, pro-working class line. The April 1969 Harvard strike soon provided a stunning affirmation of this marriage between theory and practice.

By 1969, liberal U.S. university presidents were falling over each other to mislead the anti-war movement. They sponsored pacifist teach-ins, day-long "moratoriums" and other diversions from militancy. Many had backed the 1968 presidential candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, a Wisconsin Democratic senator, who had entered the campaign with the explicit purpose of channeling student dissent into a pro-boss electoral dead-end.

PLP argued that capitalist universities were an inseparable part of U.S. imperialism's Vietnam butchery and that the student movement should take clear action against this relationship rather than promote illusions about it. Harvard provided a leading example. For several years, PLP'ers within the Harvard SDS chapter had led militant struggle against Harvard's collaboration with the war. In 1967, Harvard students confronted Defense Secretary McNamara. Later that year, a militant sit-in temporarily blocked recruiters for Dow Chemical - which produced the horrific weapon napalm - demonstrating inside the chemistry building when the Harvard professor who had invented napalm was in his office there. PLP and its base within SDS consistently exposed Harvard fascists like Samuel Huntington, who had helped develop the infamous "strategic hamlet" plan to turn Vietnamese villages into concentration camps.

Throughout 1968-69, PLP and the Worker-Student Alliance Caucus had campaigned against the presence of ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) on the Harvard campus. Other demands included ending Harvard's plans for expansion in a Cambridge working-class neighborhood. The pro-nationalist right-wing within SDS opposed ROTC with lip-service but always found ways to resist taking militant action against it.

After losing a close vote to seize University Hall, a key administration building in Harvard Yard, nonetheless PLP and the WSA estimated that enough students were prepared to take this bold action and that it should proceed regardless of the vote. This decision was crucial in exposing the limitation of "parliamentary democracy" as an obstacle to revolutionary anti-imperialist action.

On April 9, scores of PLP-led SDS'ers seized University Hall, ejecting the administrators in the building. Crowds gathered outside to support or debate the sit-in. By nightfall, 500 protesters were occupying University Hall. The next day at 3 AM, Harvard President Pusey called in 400 state and city cops, who maced and beat the protestors, arresting more than 100.

The cops' brutality boomeranged. Thousands protested by boycotting classes. More than 10,000 attended a four-hour meeting in Harvard Stadium to discuss the demands and tactics of an action that had become a strike. The country's most prestigious university, a crucial resource for imperialism and the war effort, was essentially paralyzed for the remainder of the academic year.

PLP had compellingly demonstrated that far from watering down class struggle against imperialist genocide, an anti-nationalist line sharpens it. On the other hand, the all-class unity of nationalism inevitably leads to collaboration with the enemy and turns even the most militant struggle into its opposite.

As the annual convention of SDS approached, the '69 Harvard Strike swelled the ranks of the Worker-Student Alliance caucus and brought many new recruits into PLP.

(Next: The 1969 Convention: the right-wing minority "expels" the majority.)


PL Worker-Student Alliance Trumps SDS Right-wingers

The 1969 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Convention (June 18-22) in the Chicago Coliseum brought to a head the internal battle between left- and right-wings that had been seething within the organization for several years.

The left was represented by PLP and the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) Caucus. Invigorated by the practical experience gained in leading sharp on-campus struggles against racism and the bosses' Vietnam genocide, the PLP-WSA contingent arrived at the Convention with a proposal entitled "Less Talk-More Action-Fight Racism!"

The right-wing (which shortly spawned the terrorist Weathermen) was led by outgoing SDS National Secretary Mike Klonsky and Inter-organizational Secretary Bernadine Dohrn. It included Mark Rudd, a former Columbia SDS chapter chair, whom the rulers had turned into a media star after the 1968 Columbia strike. Throughout the period leading up to the strike, Rudd had consistently opposed the campaign over its main issues: Columbia's ties to the Institute for Defense Analyses and the university's racist expansion into Harlem.

The national SDS right-wing had named itself the "Revolutionary Youth Movement" (RYM). During the pre-Convention period, RYM leaders had focused on two goals: in-fighting for political control within SDS and uniting to "get" PL by smashing the growing Worker-Student Alliance Caucus. Expelling PLP from SDS had replaced the struggle against racism and imperialist war as RYM's priority.

The bait was two-pronged: first, the time-worn anti-communist cliché about PLP as "external cadre" bent on manipulating the SDS rank and file, and second, pseudo-revolutionary nationalism, backed by RYM's unprincipled alliance with the Black Panther Party. (See next issue for an analysis of this alliance.)

Two thousand people attended the Convention, by far the largest turnout in SDS history. The first major fight concerned workshops. PLP and the WSA supported them as the best vehicle for discussing the tactics and politics of struggle and the important ideological differences within the organization. Klonsky & Co. opposed such discussion, offering the lame excuse that there was "no room in the vast Coliseum." When that was exposed as a hoax, Klonsky offered the absurd argument that workshops were PLP's "hunting ground for young people." Another RYM leader called supporting workshops "anti-communist" because it showed the SDS rank and file didn't trust a few leaders to settle matters on the floor.

The membership voted down this nonsense in favor of the workshops, but the RYM "national collective" offered speakers and panels to replace slots of workshop time. This tactic was cleverer, the "national collective" using it to block the workshops.

Most people had come to the Convention expecting to discuss different political approaches to the practical task of building an anti-imperialist, anti-racist movement. PLP's anti-nationalist position, which by now had been published in PL Magazine ("Revolutionaries Must Fight Nationalism"), could be understood only in this context. But the opportunist RYM crowd avoided all discussion of practice, smearing PL as "racist" and "opposed to struggle."

The RYM leadership never showed how the WSA's supposedly "reactionary" ideas undermined its practice during militant campus fights from San Francisco State to Harvard, in which the PLP and WSA had played key roles. When the RYM leaders' own practice was criticized, as at Columbia and Berkeley, they had no response except more red-baiting.

The racism panel exposed the total bankruptcy of the "national collective." (Next: The minority "expels" the majority.)

MARK RUDD: FBI's Little Helper

(Excerpts from a Feb. 17 2007 speech to the "Movement for A Democratic Society" by Mark Rudd, former leader of the SDS's right-wing, on "The Death of SDS," exposing the anti-communist lie that "PLP wrecked SDS." Actually PL'ers fought for a mass Worker-Student Alliance-based SDS while facing physical and ideological attacks from the terrorist Weathermen and other right-wingers.)

I [was] of the principal authors, almost forty years ago, of a totally failed strategy.... My little faction seized control of the SDS national office and several of the regional offices. We then made the tragic decision -- in 1969, at the height of the [Vietnam] war -- to kill off SDS because it wasn't revolutionary enough for us....

I remember a certain meeting with no more than ten people present -- out of a national membership of 12,000 and perhaps ten times that many chapter members -- at which we in the Weatherman clique running the NO [National Office -- Ed.] decided to scuttle SDS. I remember driving a VW van with Teddy Gold from the NY Regional Office...[in NYC -- Ed.] to the Sanitation Dept. pier at the end of W. 14th Street...and dumping the addressograph mailing stencils and other records from the Regional Office onto a barge. These...decisions...I and my comrades made unilaterally....

We could have... fought to keep SDS in unite as many people as possible against the war (which is what the Vietnamese had asked us to do) while at the same time educating around imperialism. I often wonder, had we done so, where we would have been a few months later, in May, 1970, when the biggest student protests in American history jumped off?....

The Weatherman faction, by killing off SDS, did the work of the FBI for them. Assuming we weren't in the pay of the FBI, we should have been.

* * * * *

SDS — Part V

PL’ers Helped Defeat Nationalist Splitters in SDS

The PLP and WSA (Worker-Student Alliance) contingent had come to the Convention proposing a multi-pronged fight against racism. Entitled "Less Talk-More Action-Fight Racism!" it called for intensifying the fight against university complicity with the Vietnam War and broadening it to include campaigns against racist courses and racist university expansion into working class-communities. The proposal also called for allying with campus workers.

Key to its practical program was the political analysis that racism is a class question. PLP vigorously argued that workers of all backgrounds and nationalities have common interests and enemies, and that therefore the all-class unity promoted by nationalism undermines anti-racist struggle. These were the principles PLP and the Worker-Student Alliance hoped to debate during workshop time at the 1969 SDS Convention.

As noted previously, the SDS "national collective" had managed to block workshops. The debate about the fight against racism would now move to a plenary session. Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) speakers offered no program, defended no practice, proposed no self-criticism. Their main approach, represented by Mike Klonsky, was to bait PLP for "not believing in the self-determination of oppressed peoples." PLP countered with examples of PLP-WSA practice and struggle in anti-racist campaigns on many campuses and by offering points from the "Less Talk-More Action" proposal as suggestions for moving forward.

Many had come to the Convention with no particular ideological commitment, either to RYM or the WSA. They wanted leadership that would advance the fight against the war and racism. By the end of the racism panel, it had become clear that the "national collective" at best provided no leadership at all or, worse yet, acted against workers’ interests, as it had at Columbia, by blocking the anti-expansion fight in favor of reactionary "student power" demands.

By the Convention’s second day, the "national collective" was getting wobbly; its leaders began squabbling among themselves.

In an ultimate act of racist opportunism, they used the Black Panther Party (BPP) to bail them out. The BPP was a complex phenomenon. PLP supported its militancy and courage. PLP also unequivocally opposed the racist attacks, including murder, which the bosses, the cops and the FBI had launched against Panthers. But the BPP made two deadly errors, which had to be criticized. They supported nationalism, which had proved deadly to working-class movements. They also engaged in suicidal adventurism, rejecting a base-building approach to mass organizing. PLP made its position clear on these questions, adding that the best way to oppose racist attacks on the Panthers was to organize growing, militant struggles against racism, outlined in its "Less Talk-More Action" proposal.

RYM leaders wanted no frank, honest debate. Instead, they called on Panther officials, who then addressed the Convention again, with an "urgent message." It lasted nearly an hour and attacked PLP, including threats. It also included a disgusting pro-capitalist reference to women, that "their position in the movement is prone," which appalled the Convention. Essentially, Klonsky, Dohrn, & Co. were using the BPP as a shield for their own opportunism and political bankruptcy.

Backed by a well-prepared — and necessary — security squad, the PLP student organizer took the mike to explain PL’s position on issues, including "community control" of police, nationalism, imperialism and, most importantly, the way forward for struggle against the rulers. He attacked RYM leaders’ gross opportunism, asserting that their politics had been defeated.

Someone suggested resuming the discussion about how to fight racism. Bernadine Dohrn took the podium. Refusing to answer PLP’s arguments or discuss the fight against racism, she declared: "It’s clear we can’t work in the same group as an organization that hates the Black Panthers and opposes self-determination." Amidst a thunderous chant of "NO SPLIT, NO SPLIT" from most of the room, Dohrn, Klonsky, & Co. led about one-third of the plenary into an adjoining room.

While RYM met in closed session, whipping up support for the idea of ousting PLP, the Convention continued, finally holding workshops and discussing "Less Talk-More Action," as well as the war and the fight against male chauvinism.

Finally, RYM returned. Dohrn launched into a lengthy, incoherent diatribe culminating with the announcement that PLP and its supporters were "expelled" from SDS. The absurdity of this performance turned initial intimidation into its opposite. People began laughing at her. No more than one-third of the room walked out with her. RYM’s ploy had fallen flat.

The next day, the Convention continued in the Coliseum, passing resolutions about fighting racism and male chauvinism, as well as a statement on the walkout and a pledge to continue sharpening on-campus struggle. RYM, meeting in a church under tightly-controlled security, passed no on-campus programs at all. Its first major post-walkout achievement was a faction fight that quickly turned the SDS split into yet another split, this time between one group that allied with the Chinese "Communist" Party that was then hopping into bed with racist murderer Nixon, and another, that would soon become the petty terrorist "Weathermen."

Objectively, the splitting of SDS sabotaged the movement against imperialist war and racism. Consciously or otherwise, the RYM factionalists were helping the U.S. ruling class. But the struggle against the war and racism had to continue. The fall term of the 1969-70 school year would challenge PLP, the WSA and the remainder of SDS to advance under increasing political hardship.

(Next: The November 1969 anti-war demonstration in Washington and the Campus Worker-Student Alliance.)

* * * * *

SDS: Part VI

PLP History: PL'ers in SDS Forged Campus Worker-Student Alliance

(Part V of PLP's history in the 1960s and 1970s in building the Students For A Democratic Society -- SDS -- was published in our April 25 issue. This series has covered PLP's forging of a Worker-Student Alliance -- WSA -- and our battle against right-wing nationalist forces until the latter was defeated in its attempt to win a majority to an anti-WSA position at the 1969 convention.)

The right-wingers who split from SDS after the June 1969 convention had only anti-communist opposition to PLP as a basis of unity. Their unholy alliance quickly degenerated into faction fighting.

One gang joined the "Weather Underground," preaching a bizarre ideological gospel that blended liberal politics, drugs, petty terrorism and infantile individualism. A few eventually managed to blow themselves up by playing with explosives in a Greenwich Village, NY, town house. Their major action was a ludicrous rampage in the fall of 1969 through a wealthy Chicago neighborhood. They broke windows in stores and parked cars, giving the FBI a good excuse to put a few of the "Weather" leaders on the "most wanted" list and to discredit the millions of young people still sincerely searching for effective militant leadership against U.S. imperialism's ongoing Vietnam slaughter.

The other crowd organized sects based on the idolatry of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and their own chairmen, respectively Mike Klonsky and Bob Avakian. The Klonsky crowd distinguished itself through gross personal corruption and the opportunistic justification of every right-wing move made by the Chinese leadership. The Avakian faction was built around a similar recipe of leader worship and opportunism. They disguised it in a simple-minded pre-hiphop aping of the slang Avakian's followers condescendingly attributed to urban youth.

PLP and its pro-working class base within SDS set out to build a worker-student alliance in fact as well as in name. The campus movement had many militant actions to its credit, including battles with police, mass anti-war mobilizations, and campus strikes. But as history and the 1968 general strike in France had proved many times, students may serve as an important catalyst, but they cannot change history or seize power without leadership from the working class.

To launch the alliance in flesh and blood, PLP proposed a program of unity with campus workers. The Party fully understood that workers in heavy industry (particularly war-related industry), transportation and communications occupied a strategically more crucial position than campus workers. However, campus workers were the ones with whom anti-war students came into daily contact -- in the dormitories, on the grounds, in the lecture halls, laboratories and libraries, and in the cafeterias and dining halls. Without them, the universities couldn't function. Furthermore, campus workers were -- and remain -- brutally exploited by university bosses. A large number were black and Latin, and many of the worst-paid were women. The campus was therefore an obvious place for SDS chapters to make the "Less Talk-More Action-Fight Racism" proposal a concrete reality.

In the fall of 1969, the remaining pro-PLP SDS chapters set about launching the Campus-Worker-Student Alliance (CWSA) on several dozen campuses. The climate appeared favorable in some respects. Although the campuses were quieter in October 1969 than they had been a year earlier, the fighting in Vietnam and mass outrage about it continued, along with the militancy of U.S. industrial workers emerging in a significant strike wave. Building unity between the strikers and the anti-war movement became an urgent task. The massive "peace" demonstration scheduled for November 15 in Washington, D.C., quickly symbolized this challenge.

(Next: The half-million anti-war demonstration, the GE strike and the worker-student alliance.)

* * * * *

SDS — Part VII

PLP History: PL-led Action Linked Vietnam War to Strike-breaker GE

(Part VI described the factional fighting of the various right-wingers who split from SDS after the June 1969 Convention, including the "Weather Underground," and then PLP’s leadership in SDS in building a "flesh and blood" campus worker-student alliance which became the basis for forging ties between industrial workers and the anti-war movement.)

By 1968, every faction within the U.S. ruling class knew they had to find a way to leave Vietnam. The student anti-war protests were troublesome, but the real problem was the refusal of working-class GIs and sailors to fight this bosses’ war. This took many forms: desertion, defection, anti-war organizing — including publishing 144 underground papers — inside the military and outright mutiny, for which a special term, "fragging" (enlisted men killing their own officers), was coined.

But U.S. rulers had two important political trumps. First, the North Vietnamese leadership had agreed to sit down at the bargaining table with Kissinger, Nixon, & Co. even though it was winning the war. So anti-imperialism and revolutionary struggle had been reduced to a bloody caricature: all the fighting and the heroism of Vietnamese workers were being cynically manipulated as negotiating ploys. Second, the betrayal of communism by North Vietnamese nationalists gave a shot in the arm to U.S. liberal imperialists and their allies within the pacifist movement.

This was the context for the November 15, 1969, anti-war mobilization in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, 147,000 General Electric workers had just gone on strike. GE was and remains one of the rulers’ largest military contractors. The PLP leadership saw the strike as an opportunity to take a principled class position in the face of liberal imperialist politicians’ pacifism and North Vietnamese leaders’ criminal opportunism. The idea was to encourage the anti-war demonstrators to rally at the Department of Labor on November 15, to back the GE strikers.

To do so legally meant getting approval from the D.C. cops. The latter said their approval depended on getting a green light from the Student Mobilization Committee, the main march’s official organizer. The Committee was a sordid alliance of the anti-war movement’s worst elements: the U.S. "Communist" Party, the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, the liberal politicians and media stars (Jane Fonda, et al.) for whom the "C"P and the Trots fronted. PLP had frequently exposed the rotten politics of this "troika," and the troika had no intention of authorizing a pro-working class action with revolutionary implications.

So PLP and its allies decided to organize the Labor Department rally as an illegal breakaway. The anti-war demonstration was the largest in U.S. history, probably involving 500,000 participants. Under PLP’s leadership, several hundred students and others circulated among the crowd to distribute leaflets and make bullhorn speeches calling for the Labor Department rally. The March leadership worked feverishly to prevent the rally, attempting to intimidate potential demonstrators with threats that the cops would attack it and otherwise baiting it.

But their tactics didn’t work. By mid-afternoon, 7,000 people had massed before the Labor Department. The rally took place as planned. The chant: "Warmaker, Strikebreaker, Smash GE!" thundered throughout parts of downtown Washington. Speeches called for unity with GE strikers, the deepening of the Campus Worker-Student alliance and, most importantly, for continuing to build on-campus struggles against the war with this perspective.

As the PLP leadership was ending the rally, a tall, bearded man in the crowd, obviously a police provocateur, threw a rock through a window in the Labor Department building. Hundreds of heavily armed and armored D.C. cops swarmed out, trying to push the demonstrators away. Simultaneously, a stream of Yippies, druggies and anarchists came running down Constitution Avenue, giving the cops an excuse to tear-gas the entire downtown area.

But the pro-working class demonstrators didn’t panic. Their politics gave them a sense of clarity and purpose, enabling them to make an orderly retreat, find their busses and return home to fight another day.

The March Committee’s political attack and the cops’ physical provocation had failed abysmally. PLP and its allies had managed to flout the U.S. ruling class, its liberal agents and its police by organizing a significant, illegal pro-working class action with minimal casualties. This spirit of defiance is more relevant than ever today, in the face of the rulers’ growing police state.

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PLP History: Lessons for Today: SDS Failed to Support 1970 Postal Strike

(Part VII described the massive anti-war march on Washington and the PLP-led illegal breakaway demonstration on November 15, 1969, at the U.S. Labor Department backing 147,000 striking General Electric workers. PLP now directed its strategic focus toward building a campus worker-student alliance as a step toward unity between students and the industrial working class.)

During the 1969-70 academic year, the war in Vietnam raged on. Massive student protest, much of it militant, continued at campuses across the U.S. Desertion and outright defection rose to unprecedented heights within the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, beneath this surface of mounting class struggle, the betrayal of people's war in Vietnam was already under way. As early as 1968, Vietnamese leaders had begun negotiating a deal that would allow U.S. imperialism to re-gain at the bargaining table much of its battlefield losses. However, the deadly fruit of this class collaboration had yet to ripen.

After the split at the June 1969 convention, SDS chapters began building the campus worker-student alliance (CWSA) under PLP's leadership. Despite many political weaknesses, it launched important, useful political struggles over the next few years. In November 1969, when the Harvard administration was still reeling from the previous spring's student strike, SDS members there organized a sit-in protesting the university's racist hiring and pay policies.

The Columbia SDS chapter organized a significant struggle to demand funeral benefits for the family of a campus worker decapitated during a preventable elevator-shaft accident. After initially attempting to avoid all responsibility and after a disciplinary hearing intended to punish student protestors -- which the protestors turned into a trial of the university's racism -- the Columbia administration eventually caved in. Important struggles uniting students and campus workers erupted at Yale, UCLA and many other campuses.

Under PLP's leadership, SDS held a successful convention at Yale and, in the fall of 1970, organized more than 1,000 workers and students to march through Detroit and picket the General Motors headquarters to support striking GM workers. The Party continued to grow and to improve its political line, further distancing itself from revisionism -- the old communist movement's betrayal of Marxism-Leninism, allowing rulers' ideology within the ranks of the working class -- with the publication in 1971 of Road to Revolution III.

However, amid these generally positive developments, events exposed a glaring political weakness within the CWSA and the PLP student leadership. On March 17, 1970, a wildcat strike began in Branch 36 of the New York Post Office. Within days, it had become a national strike, involving more than 200,000 workers at nearly 700 locations.

The strike was essentially "illegal," but because other government workers threatened to join it if President Nixon prosecuted the strikers, he limited his attack to impotent efforts at scabbing, including use of the National Guards and Reserves of all the major military services. This proved completely ineffective. Many of the Guardsmen and Reservists were workers themselves, who carried out acts of sabotage in sympathy with the strikers. The U.S. mail system was absolutely crippled. Wall Street and the normal functioning of business were severely affected. (E-mail and the internet did not exist then.)

The postal strike provided the newly pro-working class SDS with an unmatched opportunity to organize solidarity demonstrations and actions, particularly on campuses where it had chapters. Yet, except for a few small, perfunctory actions of this type and a small demonstration in downtown Manhattan, we did little to support this historic strike.

With 37 years of hindsight, we can make a sober, balanced self-criticism of our inability to rise to this occasion. Part of the problem was objective. SDS was primarily a single-issue organization, whose dramatic rise was tied to protesting the Vietnam War. Vietnamese workers and peasants were being sold out, and the anti-war movement was dying at the time of the postal strike, although it had not yet become conscious of its demise. Leading massive solidarity actions commensurate with the postal strike's importance may therefore not have been in the cards.

But attributing our dismal performance to "objective conditions" would be foolish and irresponsible. The truth is that the PLP student leadership failed to grasp the postal strike's profound significance, took a business-as-usual approach to a situation that called for extraordinary aggressiveness, and in so doing, revealed its own significant weakness on the crucial question of class consciousness.

The Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong once said that a minimum of ten years' practice, struggle and criticism-self-criticism were necessary to turn an intellectual into a good communist. At the very least, our feeble response to the postal strike proved him right on this score. The main lesson here, as in so many other cases, is that we could have done more -- a lot more. However, reiterating this self-criticism after so many years can enable our young comrades and friends to absorb this lesson and to act accordingly when future opportunities of this type arise, as they inevitably will.

(Next: Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, the Kent State massacre and the May 9, 1970, March on Washington.)

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PL History: Protest of Kent State Massacre Anti-war Movement’s Last Gasp

In the spring of 1970, the anti-war movement seemed to be gaining in vigor, numbers and militancy. Campus demonstrations continued, many of them sharp. Less publicized but even more significant, rebellion within the military, including desertion, "fragging" (GI killings of officers) and outright defection to the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, gave the bosses and brass fits.

However, this appearance of strength belied a fundamental political weakness, which was to prove decisive in the movement’s unraveling. The class consciousness that would have supplied the only antidote to the treacherous negotiations between U.S. imperialism and North Vietnamese nationalists never gained the force necessary to turn the movement in a revolutionary direction. This was due to the strength and influence of revisionism (the presence of ruler’s ideology within the ranks fof the working class) in the former Soviet Union, China and Vietnam, and also to our Party’s numerical and political weakness. This weakness manifested itself in a number of ways, none sharper than our failure to mobilize significant support for the national strike of U.S. postal workers in March (see CHALLENGE, 7/4).

By the 1968 U.S. presidential election, every candidate, even the openly racist George Wallace, had promised to stop the war. Nixon won narrowly against the Democrat Humphrey, promising that he had a "secret plan" to do so. To press for tactical advantage at the negotiating table, he announced on April 30 that the U.S. had invaded Cambodia, thereby widening a conflict he had sworn to end. Mass outrage was swift and widespread. Millions demonstrated on campuses throughout the U.S, many violently.

Kent State University was one. By May 3, 1,000 National Guardsmen occupied the campus. On May 4, the Guardsmen attempted to break up a large anti-war demonstration. The protesters refused to leave. The Guardsmen opened fire, killing four students — two participants and two bystanders — and wounding nine others.

Five days later, between 100,000 and 150,000 demonstrators marched on Washington to protest Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State murders, a fraction of the half million who had marched on the U.S. capital less than a half-year earlier. PLP and the Worker-Student Alliance remnants of SDS organized another "Warmaker-Strikebreaker" demonstration at the Department of Labor, to break away from liberal politicians and attempt to turn the movement toward the working class. Fifteen thousand people participated in this illegal action, twice as many as those who attended the break-away action in support of General Electric strikers at the same site the previous November.

A nationwide student strike ensued, involving over four million students at more than 900 U.S. colleges and universities.

But this was the anti-war movement’s last great gasp. The negotiations and revisionism had disarmed the movement politically. Outrage and anger at the bosses’ limitless talent for atrocity, while necessary, were not sufficient to maintain the offensive. Only PLP stood in the way of a fatal marriage between the movement and the liberal wing of the ruling class, and PLP was not strong enough to reverse the process. By 1968, for all intents and purposes, this marriage had already been consummated. The war and the movement would continue until 1974, but, thanks to the class treachery of the Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese leadership, the U.S. ruling class had managed to maneuver its way out of the most colossal military defeat in its history. J

(Next and final installment: Lessons of PLP’s experience in the movement against the war in Vietnam.)

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PLP History:

Anti-Vietnam War Era Big Leap Forward for PL


(Part IX described the last gasps of the movement against the war in Vietnam: the mass upsurge over Nixon's 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the National Guard's murder of four demonstrators at Kent State University, and the ensuing demonstration in Washington D.C. It also highlighted the 1968 racist murders of African-American student protestors at South Carolina State University and then Jackson State -- two weeks after Kent State. The need to intensify the struggle against racism thus emerged as one of the key lessons PLP learned from its participation in the anti-war movement.)

SDS was essentially a single-issue reform organization. It rose to prominence over the war in Vietnam and declined as revisionism (abandonment of communist principles) transformed People's War into armed struggle for tactical advantage through U.S.-North Vietnam negotiations.

Throughout the war, the Progressive Labor Party, which had launched the first mass demonstration against the war in 1964, played a crucial ideological, political and practical role within SDS and the anti-war movement in general. PLP gained experience, advanced its political line and recruited large numbers of students and others to its ranks. Many remain Party members and leaders nearly four decades later. Most importantly, the primary lessons emerging from this historic period of struggle are as valid today as in the 1960's and 1970's, despite many changed circumstances:

  • Wars waged by the profit system, whether in Vietnam or Iraq, are neither "mistakes" nor "aberrations" but rather the inevitable products of imperialism at a certain stage of its development. They will rage as long as we allow the profit system to survive.

  • The main danger to working-class interests is political and comes from within. Revisionism and nationalism killed People's War in Vietnam, as they destroyed the once-mighty working-class rule in the Soviet Union and China. The only antidote to revisionism is a revolutionary communist perspective, on both long-range goals and issues of the moment. PLP did not fully understand this point during the Vietnam period (we retained an erroneous belief in fighting for socialism instead of directly for communism until the early 1980's). But the experience gained from political and practical struggle during the Vietnam years enabled us to break with nationalism and many important aspects of revisionism and to set the stage for further political advances, notably the document "Road to Revolution IV" a decade later.

  • Students can start a movement and can play a vital role within it. However, only the working class has the potential power and the need to transform and lead society. Winning students to ally with workers is thus paramount at every stage of the process.

  • A revolutionary communist, pro-working-class perspective requires the constant application of Marxist-Leninist analysis and dialectics, as well as the courageous determination to take initially unpopular positions. Communists are trail-blazers, not camp-followers.

  • PLP had to fight very hard for aspects of its line during the Vietnam period. Events later proved these ideas to be correct on every major question: opposing the war in the first place, calling for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam rather than to "end the bombing" and "negotiate," identifying Ho Chi Minh and his cronies as revisionists, attacking nationalism, condemning the Paris "peace" negotiations as a betrayal of People's War, etc. This lesson is as important as ever today, symbolized by the current presence of Nike, Ford & Co., invited into Vietnam to profit from the exploitation of Vietnamese workers.

  • Class struggle and militancy are inseparable from the battle over correct ideas and politics. As this series has shown, PLP's ideological credibility and strength varied directly with the tactical leadership it provided in scores of battles on campuses from Harvard to San Francisco State. Our success in fighting for our line accompanied our determination to fight the ruling class.

  • Liberal politicians and ideologues were then, and remain today, the primary external threat to workers, pro-working class students, and revolutionary communists. The liberal JFK started the Vietnam War. The liberal LBJ prolonged it. Like Bush today, the Republican Nixon justifiably emerged as the politician everyone loved to hate, but the liberal Democrat, "Clean Gene" McCarthy, administered the main body blow to the anti-war movement by successfully channeling student militancy into a dead-end electoral trap. Democratic Party politicians and the bosses for whom they front are setting a similar trap for millions opposed to today's oil war in Iraq. One of PLP's major tasks will be to win large numbers of the war's opponents to break away from Clinton, Obama, Edwards, et al. No capitalist politician is for peace: scratch a liberal and you'll uncover an imperialist butcher.

  • Fighting hard over ideas also requires the skill to work with people with whom we have serious disagreements. Everyone, including us, has reformist ideas to a greater or lesser extent. People with bad ideas aren't necessarily enemies. We didn't adequately grasp this concept during the Vietnam period. Fighting the corrupt, right-wing leadership of the SDS National Office was necessary, but in the process, we managed to alienate a significant number of people we could have neutralized if not won over. This may seem like ancient history, but it really isn't. Work in mass organizations is more difficult and complex today than ever, in a period when success is measured by recruits in the single digits. Revolutionary work demands that we perfect the art of struggling over principle while at the same time giving as many people as possible the opportunity to embrace communist ideas and PLP.

  • Less talk, more action: FIGHT RACISM!