Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Long March from Bloomington – Lives of the New Left V

Most of us went to college, followed our youthful enthusiasms, and later moved on to grad school and career tracks, but not the New Left activists of Indiana University (IU) during the ‘60s. Many of them had arrived on campus politically aware, while the others were soon politicized and radicalized by the inescapable crisis of those years, the Vietnam War.

For the New Left, the war seemed emblematic of the ills of American society – thus, opposing the war while supporting the Civil Rights Movement and other ‘freedom’ movements and causes became the order of the day.
The New Leftists at IU were never numerous – essentially a small minority of students on a large campus – but they were a tightly knit band of brothers and sisters determined to stop a war and change society. I’d been aware of the IU New Left for some time in the course of researching a memoir on my brother Jeff Sharlet, IU ’67. He was part of the group, one of the few ex-Vietnam GIs on the campus left at that time. He became a campus leader of the SDS chapter, the Students for a Democratic Society.

Jeff’s activism didn’t end with graduation. Winner of a prestigious Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, he went on to the University of Chicago, but soon withdrew to continue the struggle against the Vietnam War. Until his early death in ’69, he was a founding leader of the emerging GI opposition to the war. †

During summer of 2013 I had the opportunity to get better acquainted with my brother’s old IU comrades. They had gathered for a grand reunion of the New Left back in Bloomington where it all began for them. One of the kick-off events was an informal assembly called a ‘Town Hall’ at which a couple of dozen rose to speak about their activist days as students and their lives beyond Indiana University.

Sure, they graduated, left town, and moved on, although the activists took away not only parchment diplomas, but the political commitment that had marked their university experience as well.  In effect, Bloomington for them was the point of departure for a ‘long march’ down through the years. And although the war in Vietnam is long over, new as well as extant old domestic issues still preoccupy most of the IU New Left who are carrying on the struggle to this day.

The profiles at hand are of two of those ‘long marchers’, Marilyn Vogt-Downey and Sandi Sherman. Their early experiences at Indiana with the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and other left groups have informed and shaped their life choices. For both, their initial political commitments have guided their respective paths from Bloomington through many years ‘on the road’, so to speak, as they continued the pursuit of social justice.

As committed Trotskyists and, for a long period of time, members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), their journeys have taken them far and wide, Sandi throughout the States while Marilyn has also traveled extensively abroad. Each is a paragon of the activist life on the left.

Marilyn Vogt-Downey arrived at Indiana University as a grad student. Since leaving Bloomington, she has had a notable career as a long-time revolutionary, a scholar, translator, union activist, and secondary school teacher. Her work has taken her to New York, Paris, Moscow, the former Leningrad, and Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

Along the way, she has made many valuable translations from Russian, contributed to a number of books, and, during the ‘90s, published two books of her own – The USSR 1987-1991: Marxist Perspectives (1993) of which a reviewer wrote that “serious historians of the Soviet Union would ignore at their peril;” and Notebooks for the Grandchildren: Recollections of a Trotskyist Who Survived the Stalin Terror (1995) with Mikhail Baitalsky.

Marilyn also made presentations at a number of conferences on Trotsky’s legacy,  both here and abroad, and has championed numerous causes, including the posthumous rehabilitation of victims of Stalin’s purge trials of the ‘30s, opposition to NATO’s Balkan bombing campaign, a statement against the war in Afghanistan, petitions on behalf of various individuals prosecuted by the US government, and most recently, support for the post-9/11 Muslim hunger strikers at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in the Caribbean.

 Marilyn Vogt-Downey at the ‘Town Hall’, Bloomington IN, 2013

With verve, she described her life and times at the New Left reunion of August ’13:

I am Marilyn Vogt, actually Marilyn Vogt-Downey, and I came here from Bloomington, Illinois [with a BA degree]. We had had a committee … and when I got here we set up the Committee to End the War in Vietnam [CEWV]. Was anybody here in that?

So, yeah, and then pretty soon the [national office of the] YSA figured out we were here, and Russell Block* and I, Randy Green and Dennis and one other woman reconstituted the [IU] YSA. How many of you knew Russell Block? I think almost everybody knew Russell Block. Yeah, so we reconstituted the YSA [chapter] that had been disbanded earlier on. Then we were involved in all the things everybody here has been talking about, all the antiwar work and everything that was going on here in the ‘60s.

Professor Russell Block, Munich, Germany

Then I left here, I was married, and we went to Albany [NY]. The women’s movement kind of really hit in the ‘70s, and I left my husband, went to New York City and joined the Socialist Workers Party [SWP]. They hired me to work at Pathfinder Press [SWP’s publication arm] so I got to work on translating Trotsky’s [books] for the writing series. That was exciting until they had no more money in ’75 and laid us off.

I worked [at Pathfinder] with George Saunders, rather George Shriver [his actual name], and we put out the samizdat stuff. We started translating all this stuff that was coming out of the Soviet Union, all the underground literature. We started translating it and getting it into ‘Intercontinental Press [a Trotskyist international weekly] and to the International Socialists and others.

SWP made the ‘turn to industry’, and I ended up becoming a pipe fitter. [However,] unfortunately I got caught with a sailor smoking pot and got expelled [from the party] (laughter). I didn’t actually smoke, but it was a time when the party was having trouble with COINTELPRO,** and they were going to trial. Suddenly it occurred to us that Larry the sailor might have been a cop, so we thought it was a good idea to get me out of there. So SWP expelled me, they were very hostile.

Then I went to Paris and worked with Gerry Foley *** [an IU alumnus] who was an international editor on ‘International Viewpoint’. I was a typesetter for that. When I came back, I remarried. I married a Welshman, a lovely Welshman named Nicholas Downey. Unfortunately, he died just about a year and three months ago.

Anyway [on return from Paris] I had decided to become a high school teacher. I taught Trotskyism. Yes! I taught socialism and the workers and the US rogue state. I taught that for about 12 years and then I retired.

I was in the UFT [United Federation of Teachers] and fought the horrible leadership, the so-called leadership – the Unity Caucus of UFT, horrible people … those bastards, those sell-out creeps. I had also been in other groups that worked on the [US] Labor Party.

In defense of Marxism, I got out a couple of books that you can’t afford to buy because they’re too expensive. Lastly, I want to say that lately I’ve been working on Lynne Stewart’s case and on behalf of Bradley Manning.**** I’m going to his court-martial in Washington [where] I’m going to support the Gitmo [Guantanamo] hunger strikers as well.

All these causes are very important, but I’m not in a party so I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to make things work. You can’t do it that way, it doesn’t work that way. Lynne Stewart should be released from prison, she’s dying from cancer. How many of you have heard about her case? All right, how many of you have done something about it? Okay, this is really serious, so if you want more details we’ll talk about it later.

For the other speaker, Sandi Sherman, opposition to the Vietnam War while at Indiana became seminal for a lifetime on the left. As a student it took her awhile to find her political direction, but soon she was active on the emerging issues of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s – abortion rights and women’s liberation. She received her BA degree in ’73, left Bloomington, and joined the Socialist Workers Party, spending nearly the next two decades as a party activist in various parts of the country.

During the past several years, Sandi has focused primarily on labor issues at the University of Minnesota (MN) where she is a ‘program/project specialist’ at the university’s cancer research center. As a member the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), she was a major activist, playing a significant role in two strikes against the university system over wage issues.
Most recently, in June 2013, Sandi testified on behalf of her union local before the Board of Regents, speaking in opposition to the university’s plan to shift more health insurance costs to the clerical staff, the lowest paid stratum of the MN community. Like the deeply committed person of the left she has long been, for Sandi the issue was not just a local matter. As she wrote, “Our fight is a fight for all working people.”

 Sandi Sherman testifying, University of Minnesota, 2013

From the IU Town Hall assembly, here’s Sandi Sherman telling of her long march in her own words:

I’m Sandi Sherman. I was here from ’69 to ’73. I grew up in Indianapolis and was born in Maryland. My parents were Democrats, my father a liberal Democrat. I came to college with a kind of – well, I wasn’t a Republican, but I was very naïve.

I remember going to the ’69 moratorium event [to hear a speaker] and I was completely turned off. I thought he was a jerk so I went right back to my dorm room and said, “This is not for me.”

So it took me a little while to get active. But through Ike [Nahem]†† and David and Barbara Webster, I became active in the Abortion Rights Movement. I was also very active in the Gay Liberation Front. I had a lot of gay friends, so I was very active in that.

[Those issues] helped radicalize me and then of course, the war in Vietnam, I would say much more than Bloomington was the seminal influence on my life. It changed my life, it made me see that we live under imperialism, and I was opposed to that.

I wanted to fight to change the world and joined the Young Socialist Alliance. After graduation I left Bloomington with Barbara Webster in my little VW packed to the gills. We drove out to San Francisco and broke down in the Wasatch Mountains (laughter) ….

From there I joined the Socialist Workers Party and was very active for the next 19 years. I lived in San Francisco, San Jose, Kansas City, New York – where I met my husband Bill – Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and now we’re in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’m a clerical worker at the University of Minnesota and an activist in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. We were on strike twice in 2003 and 2007. I was an organizer – I was a picket – I organized all the picket squads in 2007.

Now if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,
It ain't quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train.
'Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay,
We'll all be a-waitin' 'til Judgment Day.†††

Right now, I have to go back tomorrow because on Monday we’re having a big rally at the President’s office in opposition to some really big take-backs in our healthcare coverage that they’re planning to blame on Obamacare. I’m still a supporter of SWP; I organized volunteers to get ‘The Militant [SWP’s newspaper] online weekly, but I’m not as active as I was.

I don’t have the energy, but still have the heart. I still believe in this fight.

So for Marilyn Vogt-Downey and Sandi Sherman, veterans of the left, the long march from Bloomington continues – the fight goes on.


† Jeff Sharlet created 'Vietnam GI' in 1968 as the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper addressed to Vietnam GIs, see

*Russell Block, a friend of Jeff Sharlet’s at IU, arrived at the university in 1965 where he earned an MA in Linguistics in ’67. He subsequently studied at the University of Washington, Heidelberg University, and the University of Hamburg where he took his PhD in English and German. He currently teaches at Hochschule München (Munich University of Applied Sciences). While at IU, Russell was affiliated with the New Left as a member of YSA and a leader of CEWV. He was nominated by the IU Revolutionary Student Party to run for student body president. At the University of Washington, he continued his involvement with YSA.

**COINTELPRO or ‘Counter Intelligence Program’ was created by the FBI during the ‘50s to sow disinformation,  carry out illegal break-ins, and perpetrate other ‘dirty tricks’ against dissidents of various persuasions, especially those on the left. The program’s secret existence was exposed in the early ‘70s when a group of anti-Vietnam War activists broke into a regional FBI office and hauled off thousands of classified documents which they sent to the media. For the story of the break-in, see Betty Medsger, The Burglary: The Discovery of J Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (2014).

***The late Gerry Foley, American socialist, prolific journalist, and master linguist – he reportedly read 60 languages and spoke 12 fluently – was a full-time revolutionary who supported the causes of oppressed and persecuted people at home and abroad. Gerry attended grad school at IU where he met George and Ellen Shriver, founders of the campus YSA, and became part of the group during his time at the university. After he left IU, Gerry participated in the national defense of the ‘Bloomington Three’ while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he was active in the campus YSA and Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

****Progressive defense attorney Lynne Stewart represented defendants in the terrorism case following the 1993 bombing of the New York World Trade Center. She in turn was charged with and convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism and other charges as a result of her work as defense counsel in the case. Disbarred and dying of cancer in prison, she applied for compassionate release under federal law which provides for sentence reduction under extraordinary circumstances, foremost of which being life-threatening illness. She was granted a release on December 31, 2013. Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning, was diagnosed with gender identity disorder while serving as a US Army intelligence analyst. In 2013 he was convicted of espionage, among other offenses, for leaking thousands of classified documents into the public domain. Dishonorably discharged and sentenced to 35 years in prison, there have been mixed reactions to his punishment. Many felt his actions were traitorous, but some saw the leaked material as a positive catalyst for the ‘Arab Spring’, while others simply believed the sentence was overly harsh.


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