Marx in 1968: Report on a Journey

In many ways, I was very lucky from the point of view of studying Marx before 1968. I was an activist in sds from 1964–68, and sds’s turn to make sense of the escalation of the Vietnam War after February 1965 in terms of imperialism, led me and others to the deeper study of capitalism. As I started to organize sds chapters in Michigan, including the mobilization of students to attend the march on Washington in April 1965, I came under the influence of a janitor (!!) at Michigan State, where I was an undergraduate. Roy Barr was ten years older than me and, in retrospect, he was clearly trying to groom me as a Marxist activist. Because of him, I read Capital, volume 1, twelve hours a day for several weeks in 1966, long before I read Marx’s early writings. This was one of the greatest intellectual experiences of my life.

I was also lucky, even before I met Roy Barr, to have had a professor who had written a biography of Vito Marcantonio, the American legislator and leftist activist, and who taught the history of the American left in the twentieth century, which led me to read many things, including the volumes of Theodore Draper on the Communist Party. So I was increasingly focused on Marxism and the left by 1966.

At the same time, Roy Barr had me reading Lenin in order to understand the need for a particular kind of political organization. I did not read Trotsky or Stalin until later, but I did read Mao, because China was obviously looking for influence in the West, and, unprompted, they sent me the four volumes of Mao’s selected works in 1965 or 1966. Although the effect of all of these political events and of this reading was to make me a revolutionary, it was my turn to Leninism in 1965, and even a very brief turn to Maoism in 1968, that I now believe was a mistake. Unfortunately, the sds organizations I played a role in came under the influence of pl, which gave a bad name to everything they claimed to stand for.

Stimulated by the proposal from IN to think about Marx in 1968, it has only occurred to me now that I never thought to figure out what Roy’s political affiliation was or whether he belonged to a political organization himself. He was a scathing critic of the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party. I don’t think he ever mentioned Trotsky. He seemed unaffiliated, but I now wonder whether that was true. By the time I got to Berkeley in 1967, I was a committed Marxist-Leninist, though I was a student in classics and comparative literature. Though I regretted not being at Berkeley in 1964 for the Free Speech Movement, I became an sds activist again and went through many demonstrations, including the struggles over racism embodied in the Black Panther Party and the campaign to free Huey Newton. I changed my field to political science, where it was the influence of the political theorists, especially John Schaar and Sheldon Wolin, that led me to read the Bottomore selections from the early Marx, and then to teach these same works as a teaching assistant for another theorist, Hanna Pitkin. For a while in 1968, I planned to drop out of grad school to work full time as an organizer in a working-class setting. I was dissuaded from doing this at the time by the dean of the graduate division, but I continued to struggle to figure out what kind of activism I should undertake. Then, for a few months, I had the illusion that the Cultural Revolution was actually about building “socialist man,” a vision I found true to Marx. My only excuse for this foolishness was that I must have wanted to believe the propaganda and only later found out the reality.

Then my luck shifted again. I went to France as a student in September 1968, where under the influence of the tremendous anti-Leninist fervor of the student movement there, I gave up my Leninism forever, though had nothing to replace it. I suppose I became a “critical critic” for a while, only in 1969 to watch sds self-destruct in Chicago, which caused me to become quite depressed, which it took me more than a year to overcome.

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