AN OPEN LETTER TO DWIGHT MACDONALD
Thank you for your letter asking me to contribute to the SDS. My instinctive sympathies tend to be on the side of protestors, demonstrators, and dissenters. They are the yeast of society. (For eight years I have been working for Amnesty International, and our group has secured the release of political prisoners in many parts of the world; this again would put me on the side of people, like the SDS students at Columbia, who are asking for amnesty.)
But I fear I can have little sympathy with the leaders of the recent demonstrations who, impatient with slower and more boring methods of (as you put it) “shoving society,” decided to resort to violence. I could go on ad nauseam explaining the events of the past months at Columbia that have led me to this conclusion. But I think it is all epitomized in a recent news story that you must have read: during one of the “liberations” of Hamilton Hall the results of a decade of historical research (on the French Revolution, as it happens) by Professor Orest Ranum were deliberately destroyed by demonstrators who regarded him as antagonistic to their cause.
Please try to imagine what you would feel if one of your masterpieces, on which you had spent ten years of work, were to be destroyed by people because they happened to disagree with your political or other views. And let me add that it could easily happen. If you justify violence of this kind, there is no guarantee that it will be practiced exclusively by people on your side of the fence. Intellectuals, especially those of the Left (Old and New), will be the natural underdogs in the United States if violence is ever allowed to take over. Surely they should be the last people to condone it now.
Dwight Macdonald replies:
I’m grateful to Ivan Morris for an opportunity to explain why I concluded, after visiting the campus to see for myself, that the Columbia student strike was a beneficial disturbance. My fund-raising letter for the New York chapter of SDS which stimulated his Open Letter to me was undertaken mostly because I admired the Columbia SDS for the spirit and the courage with which they gave the initial stimulus to the strike. (The amount needed has now been raised, I’m glad to report, and the new SDS headquarters are a reality.)
But first let me deal with Professor Morris’s specific accusations—or, more accurately, assumptions. He accuses “the leaders of the demonstrations” of a “resort to violence,” including arson, and me of justifying “violence of this kind.” But so far as I saw in my five visits over six weeks to the campus, or read in the not overly sympathetic (to the strikers) New York Times, there was remarkably little violence: scuffles between “jocks” and strike sympathizers around Low Memorial (black eyes, bloody noses total damages, and the jocks weren’t exactly pacifists), vulgar taunting of the police and some throwing of pop bottles at them when they invaded the campus those two frightening nights—I deplore the taunts and the missiles but much more so the invasion—and minimum resistance when the police cleared the occupied buildings, unless Professor Morris considers, as the cops do, that going limp and refusing to move when ordered by a policeman are categories of “violence.” No, that commodity was monopolized by New York’s Finest, as they used to be called, and they used it freely, sending a Dean and a University Chaplain to the hospital along with many students and some faculty members. Or perhaps by “violence,” he means the immobilization of Dean Coleman in his office? I don’t justify that—I’m even against restricting the freedom of movement of Dow recruiters, or, indeed, anybody, but it seems not a crucial charge: the Dean could have freed himself by a phone call to the campus cops; that he didn’t was a tactical decision; he and his three fellow immobilizers were not threatened, were well fed and treated by their own account, and they emerged from their ordeal unruffled, unstruck, and unindignant; anticlimax.
Or by “violence” does Professor Morris mean the occupation of the buildings (which I do justify)? If so, he confuses illegality with violence. I oppose the latter, on tactical as well as principled grounds, and I’ve criticized in my Esquire column the romantic exhortations of certain New Left and Black Power leaders for a scorched-earth violentist policy aimed at bringing on a “revolutionary” catastrophe. I can see a catastrophe resulting from such tactics, but it will be a counter-revolutionary one. In the last year, however, as a founder of Resist and a Vietnam tax refuser, I’ve lost some of my bourgeois inhibitions about illegality. In certain circumstances—as when an Administration, of a nation or a university, chronically ignores lawful protests against its destructive policies—it seems to me more moral to break a law with Dr. Spock than to obey it with President Johnson, or President Kirk. (This is also, by the way, a bourgeois reaction.)
AS FOR THE BURNING of Professor Ranum’s manuscripts, must I explain to my old friendly acquaintance Ivan Morris that I think it base and disgusting, and that far from “justifying” it, I should have had had nothing to do with a group that used or tolerated such acts. But how does he link that act with my letter, which was written a week before it happened, or, more important, with the demonstrators he assumes were responsible for it? Is he not aware that the fire broke out after all the demonstrators had been removed by the cops from Hamilton Hall and were safely on their way to jail? I don’t know who set it—hope he is arrested and given the maximum—or the four or five other small, so to speak symbolic, quickly extinguished fires that broke out in other buildings around the same time that night. Perhaps some nut fanatics among the students, perhaps ditto from outside the campus, perhaps police provocateurs. The Times reported at least one police spy—disguised as a hippy—who was up to no good on the campus. There is also testimony from eyewitnesses who saw the police, at the time of the first “bust,” breaking up furniture and otherwise vandalizing the occupied buildings during or after the removal of the demonstrators—destructive acts which are often blamed on the students.
Whoever the arsonists, to assume, as Professor Morris does—also some others who have troubled to write me, usually molto vivace if not agitando, explaining just why they wouldn’t be caught dead giving a nickel to SDS, really unusual to hear from people who won’t contribute—as I was saying, whoever the arsonists, it seems to me absurd, logically, to assume they were encouraged by the strike leaders, SDS, or others (for there were others, one shouldn’t forget). To believe this one must also believe they lacked all tactical sense, indeed all common sense. For one would not have to be a genius of maneuver to foresee that arson—and arson escalated to such vindictive meanness as burning the papers of a faculty member who had prominently opposed the strike, thus adding an instant solution to one detective problem: motive—that this was admirably calculated to alienate all the sympathizers so hardly won and patiently wooed. Fortunately, not many of us jumped to the soggy conclusion Ivan Morris has bogged down in. In my case, leaving aside the fact that no evidence has yet been produced as to who did it, I cannot believe that the student leaders who for six weeks out-maneuvered President Kirk—perhaps no great feat—and, more impressive, accumulated increasing support on the campus until the original “tiny minority” had won the sympathy of the majority of Columbia undergraduates for its six demands, I cannot believe that such leaders could have calculated that burning Professor Ranum’s papers would help their cause. And if it is argued that the atmosphere of “violence” and illegality, no quotes, created by the strike leaders may have stimulated some of their less stable followers to set the fires, I would have to agree, adding that such are the risks of any rebellious effort to shatter an undesirable status quo, and the question is are the probable gains greater than the probable risks? (Note that I have refrained, with some difficulty, from saying you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs. To think I should come to this in my sunset years!)
I’ve written so much that I haven’t space for much detail on my own reasons for backing the strike. When I first read about it in the press, I was against it on general principles: I don’t approve of “direct action” that interferes with the freedom of others, nor could I see the justification for a minority occupying college buildings and closing down a great university—or even a small, mediocre university. That was in general. But, as has often happened in my life, the general yielded to the pressure of the particular. On Friday I went up to Columbia to see for myself. I was egged on by my wife, who was sympathetic to the strike, on her general principles, and stimulated by Fred Dupee who, when I phoned him to ask what in the world was going on, said: “You must come up right away, Dwight. It’s a revolution! You may never get another chance to see one.” I came up and he was right. I’ve never been in or even near a revolution before; I guess I like them. There was an atmosphere of exhilaration, excitement—pleasant, friendly, almost joyous excitement. Neither then nor on any of my four later trips to the campus did I have any sense of that violence that Ivan Morris sees as a leading characteristic of the six weeks. Everybody was talking to everybody those days, one sign of a revolution; Hyde Parks suddenly materialized and as abruptly dispersed, all over the place; even the jocks were arguing. It was as if a Victorian heavy father had been removed from his family’s bosom (or neck)—later I got a load of President Kirk on TV and I realized my simile was accurate—and the children were exulting in their freedom to figure out things for themselves. A fervid rationality was the note, a spirit of daring and experiment, the kind of expansive mood of liberation from an oppressive and, worse, boring tyranny that Stendhal describes in the Milanese populace after Napoleon’s revolutionary army had driven out the Austrians. The SDS putsch became a revolution overnight: like the Milanese, the Columbians had realized with a start how dull and mediocre their existence had been under the Kirk Administration.
But what really changed my mind about the sit-ins was my own observation of two of the “communes” as the occupied buildings were ringingly called: Mathematics Hall, which I was let into—after a vote, everything was put to a vote in the communes—on Friday and Fayerweather Hall, into which I was allowed to climb—all access was by window—on the Monday afternoon before the Tuesday morning police raid. Mathematics was the Smolny Institute of the revolution, the ultra-Left SDS stronghold (said to have been liberated by a task force led by Tom Hayden in person) while Fayerweather was the Menshevik center—the “Fayerweather Formula” was an attempt on Monday to reach a compromise with the Administration, but Dr. Kirk was as firmly opposed to it, doubtless on principle, as was Mark Rudd of the SDS. The two communes, nevertheless, seemed to me very much alike in their temper and their domestic arrangements. Rather to my surprise (as a reader of The New York Times), the atmosphere in both was calm, resolute, serious, and orderly; I saw no signs of vandalism, many efforts to keep the place clean and the communal life disciplined. I sat in on a meeting at Mathematics—the communes were forever having meetings, must have become as deadly as a non-stop political caucus, but at least it was, or seemed to be, participatory democracy—which discussed the tactics to be used if the jocks tried to put them out as against those suitable for resisting the police. Everybody had his say as far as I could tell—had same impression at the Hamilton Hall sit-in before the second police raid—and the conclusion arrived at was sensible: resist the jocks because their armament was muscular only, hence the fighting would be on equal terms; don’t resist the police because they had superior force—clubs, guns, tear gas—and also were trained in violence (this proved a true prophecy). One communard added that fighting was not the only possible strategy with the jocks; they could also be talked to, perhaps even persuaded because, unlike the cops, “they’re like us”; I thought this a shrewd point. In general, what struck me about the two communes I visited was the resourcefulness and energy with which the students were meeting problems they had never had to think about before, such as getting in and distributing food supplies, arranging for medical first aid, drawing up rules for living together in an isolated society (for, as it turned out, six days) with some decorum and harmony, electing leaders, working out a line in democratic discussion that had to keep changing to meet the latest development in the complicated interaction between the white communards, the blacks in Hamilton Hall, the sympathizers and the opponents of the strike on the campus, the Administration, the Trustees, and the various faculty groups, plus the “community” in Harlem and in the immediate neighborhood. My impression is that the communards met these problems rather well, showing that intellectuals can be practical when they have to be. Also that they got a lot of education, not paid for by their parents, out of those six days, and that so did the thousands of students who milled around on the campus arguing tirelessly the questions raised in the first place by the SDS zealots. I’m told that one of the jocks admitted, under pressure of debate, that while he still didn’t think a Tiny Minority had any Right etc., he had learned more in those six weeks than in four years of classes.
An Exchange on Columbia II August 22, 1968