Getting to Marxism in Wisconsin and Iowa

Being raised by conservative, Republican parents in an all-white conservative Republican suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, it took some time to get to Marxism. There were no red diapers let alone flags for miles and miles! But I was raised with a basic sense of fairness and my encounters with the events and activism of the 1960s were contradictory to my upbringing. Ultimately my activism touched off a search for meaning to resolve the contradictions I felt. Essentially practice/activism due to moral outrage opened me to theory/philosophy and Marxism.

On October 18, 1968, I was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, teaching my urban planning graduate students economics. Suddenly one of my students who was not in class at the time burst into the classroom and shouted at me. He was sweating and red in the face.

“If you think we don’t have fascism in this country, go down to the business college and see what is happening there!”

Class was about over so we all decided to go and have a look. I had been having an ongoing debate with this student about what fascism was and wasn’t. The area around the business college reeked of tear gas and I saw gas-masked police beating students with nightclubs. Later at an emergency faculty meeting we were shown films of the action during which students were attempting to prevent Dow Chemical from interviewing business college graduates. The police were shockingly vicious. But what was more shocking was that while half of us (there were about 2,000 faculty present) sat in stony-faced silence watching our students being beaten by the police, the other half of the faculty was applauding the police! At some point the students surrounded the auditorium and locked us in. We were forced to stay in the auditorium for several hours until the police could drive them away and open the doors. During that time there was much shouting and fistfights between faculty members. The student-led actions against Dow were later memorialized in David Maraniss’s book, They Marched into Sunlight.

By 1968, I was already an activist against the war in Viet Nam and for the aims of the various civil rights movements of the time. My antiwar work stemmed from personal outrage about the secrecy and lies concerning us military involvement in Southeast Asia with the resulting needless death and destruction. I had no position on the anti-communism that drove us government activities, but I didn’t believe the government’s ultimate explanation that allowing Viet Nam to fall to “the communists” would result in a communist takeover of the region and ultimately the world.

Reflecting on an encounter I had in Thailand in 1963 led me to the realization that the United States had been involved in covert operations in the region since at least the early 1960s and had consistently lied about that fact or hid the truth. When I was a graduate student at Syracuse University, I had a student internship in India for a year between 1962 and 1963. On my way home some of us traveled through Southeast Asia. We stopped, among other places, in Thailand. In the Bangkok airport I spotted several us fighter jets on the runway as we landed. In fact our plane almost collided with one of them. This set off some indistinct alarm bells in my mind but I shrugged it off. Then I made my way to northern Thailand with a guide. In a small village an old man said through an interpreter:

“Are you an American?”


“Then I want to shake your hand.”

“OK,” I said as we shook hands. “Why do you want to shake the hand of an American?”

“As thanks for killing our communists,” he replied.

I was stunned but it took a year or two to understand what this meant. I had originally planned to visit Viet Nam as we made our way home. But we decided not to stop there because Buddhist monks were burning themselves in the streets. In Calcutta (Kolcata) where I had been stationed, Indian students I knew said that these self-immolations were, in part, protesting the fact that the cia was waging a war against a leftist insurgency. I began to think more about these conversations after my experiences in Thailand. When I returned home, I saw Lyndon Johnson deliver a speech at Syracuse University announcing that one of our ships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. I told my friends about what the Indian students were saying about Viet Nam and what I saw in Thailand. I told them that the Gulf of Tonkin story was bullshit. That was the start of a long involvement of opposition to the war.

While living in Calcutta the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was exploding. I remember seeing the now-famous photos of dogs attacking black people in the United States in the left-wing Indian press. And as a result, I spent many hours with Indian and us students talking about race discrimination in the United States as well as caste, religious and ethnic discrimination in India. One of my fellow grad students back in Syracuse was the vice chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality and I later joined him in demonstrations for open housing in Syracuse and also picketed the office of Patrick Moynihan, who was a professor at Syracuse then, after the release of his victim-blaming pamphlet with Nathan Glazer, The Negro Family.

Fast forward to Madison in October 1968 and the Dow demonstration: I didn’t think it was the time to have an intellectual debate with my students over the nature of fascism. But it was time to try to understand what was going on around us. Both my students and I were clear on what we were against but clueless on what we were for. Marx was not in the equation. And I was only vaguely aware of the various political currents in Students for a Democratic Society (sds) to which a number of my students belonged. There were teach-ins on the Viet Nam war that offered important historical insights but little theoretical/philosophical context other than the anti-communism of the time. I was aware of the divide in the black civil rights movement between Dr. King and Malcolm X, and the rise of the Black Panthers and especially the Chicago leader Fred Hampton. But again there was little context.

In 1968 the National Guard had been mobilized to come to Madison a number of times to put down student-led rebellions. Many Wisconsin students had been involved in the battle with police during the Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Since the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive and the us government responded with further escalation of the war, there were anti-war uprisings not only in Madison and across the United States but around the world. King’s assassination in April had touched off a massive protest in Madison. And a year later, in December 1969, the police murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, which set off another major demonstration in Madison. Madison had become a war zone itself as students regularly battled police and National Guard soldiers in the streets.

In response the Wisconsin State Legislature held hearings about student unrest. Some elected officials were putting out the line that all the trouble was being caused by New York Jews and they subpoenaed a few of them. I went to one of the hearings and watched in amusement as one of these students waved a book in the red face of his accuser.

“Have you read this?”


“Then I have nothing to say to you. We’ll talk after you’ve read it.” He then walked out of the hearing.

The book was Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. I went to a bookstore and picked up a copy. It was my first look (except for an undergraduate reading of The Communist Manifesto) at any sort of Marxism and I began to look into the Frankfurt School with which Marcuse was identified. I realized then that I knew nothing of Marxism in general.

Because of my activism, my job at the University of Wisconsin was in jeopardy so my wife and I and our two-year-old son packed up and moved to Iowa City where I had secured another faculty position at the University of Iowa. Shortly after I left Madison, a local group bombed the Army Math Research Center on the campus. The building was destroyed and a graduate student was killed. The suspects were unknown to me. Many activists had been operating in so-called “affinity groups” to promote various forms of disruption. The “New Year’s Eve Gang,” as the bombers called themselves, was one of these. There was little evidence of any theoretical core behind the bombing or other forms of militant disruption, some of which I participated in. It was pure resistance by a lot of anonymous players.

The University of Iowa campus at this point was also highly active. While at the University Computer Center one day, soon after I arrived, I found some papers left in a copy room. They were copies of a budget for the Computer Center and I put them in my briefcase. I discovered that more than half the budget came from the Department of Defense for a project at the Rock Island Arsenal. They were helping sharpen calculations for artillery trajectories being used in Viet Nam. I published an article about it in the student newspaper. The students’ spontaneous response was to try to storm the Computer Center and it took almost the entire campus and city police force to keep them out. Fortunately I had come to the university with tenure! But this put me in touch with a wide range of campus radicals.

A number of these students and a few faculty members had been connected with sds. Maoism was a major theoretical thread and there were study groups reading the works of Mao. But at this point there was still no Marx. The Maoists were mainly affiliated with Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Union. They couldn’t seem to get beyond “power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” I flirted with Maoism for a short time. What brought that to a halt, as a recall, was a sober discussion in a study group one evening of a pamphlet called “How Mao Tse Tung Thought Fixed the Peanut Machine.” (Workers located the “primary contradiction” in the broken machine.) That did it for me! No more Maoism with these people.

I finally settled for a time with an organization of faculty and graduate students called New University Conference (nuc). It was founded at the University of Chicago in 1968. It considered itself “multi tendency.” One of the leaders on the Iowa campus was an anarchist sociology professor. It was my first experience with anarchism in practice. But I never really learned what anarchism was about. There was no study of anarchist theory. We were primarily an action group who wrote and distributed critiques of textbooks being used in a number of undergraduate survey courses. Our critique attacked the race, gender and class bias being promoted. We also started a food cooperative and a cooperative daycare center, and debated the possibility that alternative institutions could serve as a path toward a new society. We held community meetings to discuss city plans for an urban renewal project that would destroy affordable housing and at those meetings we showed films and had speakers about national liberation struggles in Africa.

One of the nuc members was a professor of intellectual history who considered himself a Marxist. He wanted us to read Marx and organized a study group to read the first volume of Capital. My education in economics stood in sharp contrast to Marx’s critique of capitalism. And Marx’s critique of political economy challenged much of what I was teaching at the time. This beginning of my studies of Marxism made me realize for the first time that what I was fighting against was ultimately capitalism. This was in 1972. With all of my activism of the past eight years, it was a reading of Capital and subsequent readings of Marx and other theorists that began to help me make sense of what was going on around me. It was practice that led me to theory that, in turn, informed my future practice.

Later that year, Sojourner Truth Organization (sto) organized a study group in Des Moines, Iowa, that I attended. It introduced me to dialectical philosophy and had us reading more of Marx. The following year I moved to Chicago and worked for a time in the National Office of the New American Movement (nam) another “multi tendency” socialist organization that had a strong orientation toward social democracy. I went on to join first sto and later News and Letters. Both had a strong orientation to theory and philosophy. My move to Chicago occurred a full decade after my year in Calcutta, India, and my travels in Southeast Asia. My political education was really just beginning.

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