Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Journey into the Past – Return of the New Left

I was the outlier at the party. Back in the tumultuous ‘60s I was not ‘on the left’, nor was I an activist on the hot button issues of the day. Instead, I was just a plain vanilla liberal, a young academic, or, in the parlance of the Soviet Cultural Revolution of the ‘30s, what they called a ‘bourgeois professor’.

That’s not to say that I didn’t know a lot about Marxism – on the contrary, as a specialist on Russia and the USSR I in fact did.  I also knew a great deal about an icon of the left in the ‘60s – Trotsky, the Old Bolshevik – especially his role in the internal Soviet power struggles of the ‘20s. But I was neither a Marxist, nor did I take much interest in Trotsky after his political exile. Likewise the Trotskyist movement that emerged in the West and subsequently came to full flower after his brutal assassination at the hands of a Moscow agent was not really on my radar screen.

Until Khrushchev and his successors came along in the postwar ‘50s, the name of the game for professional students of the harsh Soviet system was Stalin, its ruthless autocrat. After Stalin’s death, what the American left was up to was of only peripheral interest to those studying and teaching Soviet politics. Change was afoot in the USSR – the other side in the Cold War dominating the planet – and as Soviet specialists we had our hands full tracking it.

Fast forward: It’s the summer of ’13, the Cold War has long been over, the mighty USSR is history, and I found myself on a journey into the past – literally back to Indiana University (IU) and the milieu of the New Left inhabited by my younger brother Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969). No stranger to the campus – I had taken a PhD there – I had left in ’62 before Jeff, an ex-Vietnam GI, had returned to IU to resume his academic education and along the way acquire a political education among the campus New Left.

Though Jeff and I sat in common classrooms and frequented popular hangouts like the Gables, Nick’s bar, and the Von Lee theater, town and gown ‘landmarks’ were quite different for each of us. For Jeff the New Left activist, IU’s Dunn Meadow and Showalter Fountain were familiar venues, as was Bloomington’s City Hall – all sites of many anti-Vietnam War protests; so was the official presidential residence where he’d led a demonstration in ’67; and Kirkwood Avenue, lined with small shops and eateries with which I was of course familiar, but where Jeff had been arrested leading a peaceful protest.

The IU New Left, a small group of students in the ‘60s and early ‘70s at a large conservative university, was holding a grand reunion back on campus. Some of them had gathered there a quarter of a century earlier, but that occasion had been more about the music and personal connections. This time, thanks to the Internet, it would be a larger and more diverse turnout with the express purpose of taking a full look back some 50 years at what had occurred, what was achieved, what fell short. Now entering what may be called the ‘age of nostalgia’ in their late 60s and early 70s, the veterans of that heady time in their lives were returning to IU.

They arrived in town from all corners of the country and Canada – from the East and West coasts; down from Alberta, Chicago, Indianapolis; up from Texas and all over the Midwest – and there were some who had stayed put, made their careers locally, or retired back to their old college town – Bloomington, the locale of Indiana University.

As Jeff’s older brother writing a memoir about his short but interesting life – despite being an outlier – I had been invited and warmly welcomed by his old friends, nearly 60 or more who made the journey. Many I knew by name – I had read the history of dissent at IU* – exchanged emails with quite a few, and had even spoken with some by phone. But there I was, walking amongst my brother’s fellow activists of long ago, listening avidly as they strolled down memory lane of their younger years at IU – a period that many said had been seminal in their lives.

They held a group conclave and retrospective panel discussions, but most reconnections among activist friends – the conversation writ large – were informal and took place in social settings and smaller groups. There was Robin Hunter, Marxist mentor to the campus New Left; Nell Levin, aka Bernella Satterfield back then, co-founder in ‘65 of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at IU; and Dan Kaplan, Jeff’s successor as SDS president in ‘67.

Robin Hunter at the Indiana New Left Reunion, Summer 2013

From further back there were Ralph Levitt, Tom Morgan, and the former Paulann Groninger (now Sheets) – brave souls who, along with a small band of brothers and sisters, marched across campus and through town at risk of life and limb in support of revolutionary Cuba during the Missile Crisis of ’62. Tom and Paulann had both known Jeff.

(L to R) The author, Paulann Sheets, Dan Kaplan, Bloomington IN, 2013**

Standing before me was Guy Loftman, with whom Jeff had worked closely in Guy’s successful election campaign as the first New Left President of the IU Student Government. Arriving a little later came Dwight Worker, veteran of the Dow Chemical sit-in of ’67, subsequently a legend in book and film, now a gentleman farmer who fondly remembered Jeff’s influence on him as a young activist.

Dwight Worker at his farm outside Bloomington, 2013

Whiling away a mid-summer evening listening to the great sounds of IU’s greying hippie folk/country musicians led by Roger Salloom, award-winning poet-singer-songwriter, I caught up with Cathy Rountree, a key reunion organizer and long-time nurse practitioner back from the Arizona desert where she had driven miles and miles along dusty, unpaved roads helping Navajo in need. Jim Retherford, who’d known Jeff well, joined me at the ‘jam’ – he had been the inaugural editor of The Spectator, the New Left’s alternative paper founded at IU in ’66.

Roger Salloom (center back), Richard Blaustein in the hat, Nell Levin, Michael August, Steve Coll, Bloomington, August 2013**

Most of the New Left alums had been SDS, but quite a number were former YSA or the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth affiliate of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). There’d been differences in strategy and ideology (or lack thereof in SDS’s case), and even in lifestyles between the two main campus New Left groups, but with their common  battlefield where they’d protested as one against the war in Vietnam long silent, old differences had faded, edges softened.

However, the one thing that struck me most about the group’s fascinating collective journey back to the past, was that nearly all of them at the reunion had retained a strong commitment to social justice in one form or another in the many years since the ‘60s. Whatever their individual takes on the historical scorecard of their earlier dreams of change, for most, their post-university life choices and trajectories continued to reflect core beliefs held in the days of youthful idealism.

Whether ‘red diaper’ babies, IU ‘faculty brats’, or originally from Indiana small town backgrounds, most of those who gathered back at the IU campus in the summer of ’13 had devoted and, in many instances, were still devoting their lives to the so-called ‘good-guy’ causes of society – anti-Apartheid, abortion rights, gay liberation.

Some had gravitated to college and high school teaching, serving as advocates for adding Black Studies and Women’s Studies to curricula. A woman reported teaching a course on Trotskyism at the high school level, while an academic teaches his college courses on politics from a Marxian perspective. Quite a number of the New Left alums became labor activists, labor organizers, and union officials in education, services, and transportation.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
alive as you and me
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died," said he
"I never died," said he.† 

Others gave years of their lives to professional activism on the left –
working on behalf of Cuba, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, and in the press arm of SWP, translating and publishing Soviet dissident samizdat – writings critical of the regime’s repressive ways barred by state censors. Most of these individuals were also veterans of civil rights struggles and industrial labor battles.

More recently, several activists mentioned their commitments to on-going issues – pushing implementation of Obamacare for those without coverage, assisting needy homeowners to avoid foreclosure, demonstrating for the hunger strikers held at Guantanamo, and reviving a popular ‘60s underground publication as a contemporary blog – in effect, pouring new wine in old bottles.

While many of the dreams of systemic change of the ‘60s – not just ending a war, but changing the ‘system’ – fell short, melancholy and despair were not in evidence at the New Left’s reunion at Indiana University. On the contrary, all had kept faith in the possibility of taking action and changing things in myriad ways for the better. Onward said they – an unforgettable occasion.

This is the first of several posts on the New Left Reunion at Indiana University which will appear in coming weeks and months.

Link to music video

*M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002).

**Thanks to Carol Richert Hart, a participant in the IU reunion, for the use of her photo(s).

1 comment:

  1. I am proud to have been a child of parents (and as one of few children in this scene) that were on the right side of justice.

    If I can speak as a child of the 6os who was old enough to remember a lot, many of us carried on the good fight, entering careers in social work, public health,etc. We worked and are still working to actualize and live those ideals.

    My dad instilled in me a deep compassion for the oppressed. My mom taught me that if I didn't like the world I'm living in, to get off the couch and get out and do something about it! I've tried to lead by example this ethic to my children.

    My father would have liked to be at this reunion I am sure. I'm sure he was "there in spirit" arguing with his old pals.

    -Cordelia Satterfield (Cordelia Hanna-Cheruiyot)
    Daughter to David and Bernella Satterfield, co-founders of SDS IU.


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