To be white and a radical in America this summer is to see horror and feel impotence. It is to watch the war grow and know no way to stop it, to understand the black rebellion and find no way to join it, to realize that the politics of a generation has failed and the institutions of reform are bankrupt, and yet to have neither ideology, programs, nor the power to reconstruct them. This should be a summer of despair, of flights to Italy or trips on Haight Street. But although there is some of that, it is a time of engagement, not withdrawal. The energy of movement has been not only conserved, but generated. Suburban housewives canvass for anti-war referenda, students counsel their fellows on avoiding the draft, peace candidates gather support, professors plot demonstrations of protest and non-cooperation. Organizers for a hundred causes roam across Appalachia, through urban hillbilly slums and into white suburbs.
On a continental scale, they are less than a minority, hardly a margin. Together, the active, organizing, risk-taking white radicals would fill a quarter of a big football stadium, and the cheer they could raise would barely be heard ten blocks away. For all its vigor and imagination, the Left, old and new, can produce little evidence of success, at least as the newspapers and networks expect it. There is no mass party, nor the hope of one; it is doubtful that the radicals could affect the balance of power in national politics even if they tried. At the local level—in universities, city halls, and county courthouses, anti-poverty agencies—radical forces have created nuisances but few new bases of real power. Some have been suppressed, many bought off, and most ignored.
Such statistical marginality should count for more than it does, if people weighed their lives against the usual standards of achievement. But there is an internal logic of movement which denies failure, or at least keeps it slightly below full comprehension. People stay working. Activity is better than acceptance, and for some reason it is better to do something than to do nothing. More than that, conditions quickly change, and relevancy is always just around the corner. The war makes shock-waves, here and abroad, that can be neither seen nor foreseen. The black revolt does not proceed step by step, but by explosions and eruptions, of unequal periods and unpredictable intensities. The disasters that make people radical also suggest things for them to do and create a movement to support them. So it is America that makes radicals fight, and if they do not succeed, that too is America’s fault.
THE PARADOX of energy and frustration suffused the National Conference for the New Politics “Convention ’68 and Beyond” which spread out through the Palmer House in Chicago during the Labor Day weekend. Its call was vague and its objectives undefined, but perhaps for that reason it attracted much of the curious Left in the country, or at least those representatives who could raise the fare. There were Bonwitted peace women, blue-jeaned students, and African-robed Negroes, all mixing uneasily in the halls and public rooms, but rarely breaking through one another’s costume and style. It was hard enough for most people just to get used to the hotel, and there was a rumor at least that the difficulty was mutual: the man who made the booking with NCNP was reportedly sacked by the Hilton chain. The management obviously tried to pop the convention into a memory hole. No mention was made of it on a publicity brochure listing the summer’s events. Guests on convention floors were cut off from room service by executive fiat. One can imagine the chagrin of the Max and Wasserman families whose children were marrying during one of the NCNP sessions in a (barely) screened-off section of the main hall. Tuxedoed guests later picked their way through the radicals. At one point, a bongo band with dancers and hangers-on traveled up and down in an elevator car, making music as it went, and stopping on occasional floors for roomier performances. Students and ghetto delegates camped out every night in the foyer by each floor’s elevator bank; the house dicks decided not to interfere.
The disruption was even more complete on the convention floor. Half the agenda items were lost to history. Committees disappeared and their members were said to have vanished without a trace. There was hardly more agreement in delegates’ perspectives than there was in their appearance. The lowest—and the only—common denominator of rhetoric seemed to be the paraphrase of Joe Hill’s dying imperative, red-lettered on a white banner over the grand ballroom: “DON’T MOURN FOR AMERICA—ORGANIZE!” The conventioneers were free to take it literally or symbolically, as they chose.
But if there is a radical movement in America it was there. Its limitations of size may have been depressing to some who entertain fantasies of masses surging down boulevards, and its unruliness certainly disappointed those who prefer discipline to anarchy. But to most, the scene in the Palmer House was exciting enough. Of the four or five thousand who came, an incredible number stayed until the end. For the Left, there had been nothing quite so big since the Progressive Party convention twenty years ago, although the consequences of that affair were enough to chill nostalgia. Still, there was a Third Party mood in the air, despite disclaimers by the convention leadership, and the obvious hostility of the younger delegates.
Three-quarters of the assemblage was white, of a politics ranging from angry-liberal to revolution-now. The center of gravity was somewhat closer to the former. The press billed it all as the New Left, but that was true only in the sense that it was current and Left. Just a fraction of the people there were the community organizers, the student strikers, and the formulators of “participatory democracy” which define the New Left political mentality. There were large blocs of Old Left Communists (both under and over thirty), Trotskyites, Maoists, and the usual complement of socialist sects. Probably the majority had no particular doctrinal affiliation. They were united only by what they did not like—the war and Lyndon Johnson—rather than what they liked.
NCNP was white from the beginning. It was formed nearly two years ago in a Washington loft belonging to a legislative assistant to a liberal congressman. Its shape was defined by Arthur Waskow, a hard-working, imaginative Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. On occasion, Waskow describes himself, perhaps too narrowly, as “the last liberal.” NCNP was a bit that way too. Waskow and a few companions invited a number of “last liberals” and new radicals to a discussion during the weekend of a SANE anti-war rally in Washington in late November, 1965. The NCNP board came out of that gathering, and two presentable and (at that time) exciting political figures were rounded up to serve as co-chairmen: Julian Bond, the young ex-SNCC Georgia assemblyman, and Simon Casady, the recently fired chairman of the California Democratic Party. Both were suffering for their anti-war stands; Bond had been denied his seat and Casady got the axe from Pat Brown. Both were in the Democratic Party, both were putting almost all their energies into electoral politics, and both were busy dissociating themselves from the extremes of their respective scenes.
Given the new location of the political center, NCNP then was not much more than a jazzy model of an ADA. During the election primaries of the spring of 1966, NCNP began operating in a number of localities. Money was raised from wealthy liberals wisely placed on the board of directors, and funds were parceled out on the basis of only the sketchiest priorities. Thousands were given to Howard Morgan in Oregon, a “dove” Democrat who ran a disastrously dull race against Robert Duncan in the Senate primary. Morgan was a hopeless candidate from the start. But only small amounts went to Robert Scheer for his much more promising, and more radical, Democratic primary campaign in California’s seventh congressional district against liberal Jeffery Cohelan. It was one thing to spend against a “hawk,” and another to spend against a liberal.
After a while, NCNP realized that it was going to waste a great deal of money promoting boring peace candidates who were building no lasting Left constituencies. They were running as living referenda on the war, which might have been all right if they had won, which they did not. Waskow and the more radical directors (the most radical were uninterested in election work) pushed money toward the tougher political organizers. Scheer’s Community for the New Politics, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Lowndes County “Black Panther” independent party, Robert Cook’s (Connecticut) American Independent Movement, and various committees for independent political action were the favored models. Scheer had done well in the California primary, but he was the only one. Last autumn, in the general elections, NCNP candidates hardly made a dent at all.
All the time, the directors were planning for the 1968 drive, and the obvious strategy was national. They were hoping for the big “hoo-ha” (in the NCNP idiom): a mass in-gathering of the Left, to give new politics a higher order of visibility, and perhaps even do something about Lyndon Johnson. It was still unclear exactly what new politics was—something about openness, independence, and participation—and the criteria for newness as against oldness were liable to varying interpretations. As the idea of a national convention began to intrigue NCNP directors last spring, lists of left-wing organizing groups were compiled on a scatter-shot basis. Since “non-exclusionism” was one of the few firm principles of the new politics theory—and perhaps the controlling one—there was no problem in drawing lines against one or another Left faction. If the CP and the “Trots” could stand it in the same hall, so much the better.
At some point in the planning of it, the convention changed from a manageable conference of political activists to a monster rally of the whole Left. The staff was unprepared for its direction, and the fund-raisers were hard put to finance it. The staff director, an affable, somewhat distracted college professor named William Pepper, was never the tough political boss necessary for such an operation. He wore dirty white bucks and cared about the war in Vietnam. As the advancing mood of crisis in the country touched more and more people, the guest list swelled. Categories were invented: delegates (from invited organizations), single representatives, and observers. At the end, anyone who wanted to could wander in and find a seat up front.
Although most of its sharpest leaders and all of its financial benefactors were white, NCNP had at least made an effort to secure black representation. Stokely Carmichael, in his pre-black-power incarnation, was at the November 1965, meeting, and although he seemed at the time not to think much of the idea, he joined the NCNP Board. A sprinkling of moderately radical Negroes was also thought to be attractive at NCNP gatherings. Few took a continuing interest, and in fact the power—in money and constituencies—lay firmly with white power on the Board. Most of the white members, of course, were keen for the civil rights movement; Waskow was a theoretician of non-violent action, and most of the others had been excited, and in many cases politicized, by the early sit-ins and marches. The birth of black power may have given some Board members pause, but NCNP came through bravely and supported the new temperament.
By convention time, however, black representation was still thin. In late August, convention staff workers took it upon themselves to petition board members for funds to bring blacks and poor whites to Chicago. In a spikey telegram, convention director Michael Wood (exposer of the CIA’s manipulation of the National Student Association) accused the NCNP angels of keeping the composition of the affair white and middle class, either by design or insensitivity. Wood demanded money for subsidies to poor delegates, and although some thousands were raised a few days before the convention opened, the delegate list was still heavily white.
To most of the white delegates, the convention appeared a paradigm of democracy. It was arranged like the major parties’ quadrennial convention or a student council, which was probably the extent of most people’s experience with democracy on a mass scale. If there were any ex-student leaders in the crowd, they could tell that it was a lot like NSA congresses, too—signs for each state delegation, vote tabulators, a real parliamentarian, and people shouting “point of order” all the time. But NCNP tried to go further and build participation into all decision-making; even the convention rules were made in plenary. Although the organization was not strictly comprised of individual memberships, voting was weighted according to the size of “active” members of invited groups. It was supposed to give an illusion of bottom-up, grass-roots structure.
No one ever decided what the objective of the whole thing would be; presumably that would have been undemocratic. Instead, “perspectives” were set out. The convention could choose to form a complete third party, or simply an independent presidential slate, or a project for a year of local radical organizing under NCNP. In the mean time, delegates were expected to debate political goals and strategies and think about what it meant to be on the Left.
Somehow, the blacks could not quite see the convention’s perfect democracy. To many, or most, it looked like another manipulated vehicle to win white political power with a little help from the black movements. The sophistication of white political organizations, the minority position of blacks in the country, the availability of white money, and the cleverness of white political operators did not appear to the blacks to be inevitable attributes of democracy. They saw all that as a dodge, however much unintended, to keep the direction of the new politics in the hands of whites. Why couldn’t it have been the other way around? If the blacks were the “vanguard” of the new radicalism, as almost everyone acknowledges, they ought to be calling the political tune, too. In an extraordinarily blunt and effective speech, SNCC’s former executive secretary, James Forman, put it to the convention: “We’re going to liberate you whether you want to be liberated or not.”
The blacks who gathered were, like the whites, a mixed lot of organizers and rhetoricians. A group of separatists pulled out entirely early in the convention; those who stayed said the dropouts had no power base to begin with. Other “militants” (as the militants who remained called them) flaked off as the weekend progressed, and the final group probably represented as real a representation of black power as is likely to be assembled this year—more so by far, it seemed, than the Newark Conference produced last month.
AS THE CONVENTION BEGAN, the blacks began to make demands for equality. At first, they were mostly silly or exaggerated. The white NCNP leadership, still proclaiming democracy, took them at face value and professed outrage, or contempt, or—most charitably—disbelief. One board member declared in a style perhaps unbecoming of the new politics, that “this time the Negroes have gone too far.” A delegate asked, “What do you people want?” What was happening was that the black spokesmen were trying to cope with the rhetoric of democracy while confronted with the reality of white domination. They were baffled by the contradictions, even as the whites were, and at first they could hardly articulate the demands for power which they felt. The early attempts were off the mark. But slowly the blacks began to understand the game. A Black Caucus was formed to coordinate and unify the demands. On the second day of the convention, the caucus sent in a list of thirteen points to the plenary—now all white, but uneasy about the fact—as the price of black participation. Some were meant merely to taunt (change the slogan “peace and freedom” to “freedom and peace”) and some to do that and also state policy (condemn Israel and support “wars of liberation”). In both cases, the rhetoric was ragged. (At 3 A.M. on the convention’s last day, Martin Luther King’s aide, Hosea Williams, flew in to try to retrieve Jewish support by softening the Israel resolution to condemn “the great powers” and recognize the right of Israel to survival. The new resolution was passed by the operative committee but never got to the floor; presumably it will be approved by the new NCNP Board, if anyone cares.)
But the crucial points had to do with the power of blacks in the NCNP itself. Debate on acceptance of the points focused either on the inviolability of the convention’s democracy, or the necessity of getting the blacks into the political Left. Those inclined to explain politics in psychoanalytic terms declared that whites who voted for the points were unconsciously masochistic; there was a lot of talk about castration. But for such reasons or others, the delegates voted overwhelmingly for acceptance. The next morning, the Negroes came trooping back into the ballroom, happy and expectant, and seated themselves in a separate black section in the front of the hall.
They were not there for long. Although the caucus’s point had specified equal representation for black and white in NCNP leadership, it had left the problem of voting in the plenary unsettled. The caucus leader, a Panamanian named Carlos Russell who works in a Brooklyn anti-poverty program, announced that the black interpretation of the points demanded equal voting power on the floor as well as in the committees. White delegates groaned; the blacks marched out again.
The second debate was somewhat more orderly than the first—the whites had a better idea of what was coming—but delegates were no less incensed. Waskow made an impassioned speech against acceptance of the fifty-fifty representation; he would agree to a mutual black-white veto, but not to effective black domination. Each race had to be free to organize itself, without hindrance. The black position was that first the members of the Caucus had to be treated as equals. Several delegates walked out; one woman burned her delegate’s card. Rich board members spoke against the demand. There was more talk about castration, but again the group voted for the blacks, and now they came in cheering.
On the surface, it was a relatively simple affair, but the maneuvers on the floor were taking place against an immensely complicated backdrop of sectarian in-fighting and manipulation. Perhaps only the FBI, which alone visited every caucus (probably), listened to every back-room conversation, and monitored every plenary, knows the whole story. The speculation was that the Communists, who fielded a rather well-organized bloc of delegates and farmed them out among various groups, were working for “unity” at all costs. At first, they opposed the thirteen points, for fear the whites would leave if the list were accepted; then they supported the black power vote when it appeared the blacks would leave if it were rejected. Beyond that, at least some of the Communists (could there have been a split along generational lines?) were pushing hard, among whites and within the Black Caucus, for an independent presidential slate—first with the Drs. Martin Luther King and Spock, and then with any candidates able to draw a liberal vote. But it was clear to the delegates that King had lost whatever appeal he once had for heading a third ticket. He discouraged the plan himself, and his position against the black uprisings dismayed many delegates. Finally, his speech at a rally on the first night of the convention bored everyone cold. Dick Gregory (who is already running for president without NCNP support) was much more enthusiastically received.
Slowly a caucus began to form from among the young white radicals who had come to the Convention from community organizing projects. Many had been working for Vietnam Summer, a broad and somewhat amorphous collection of anti-war (and to a lesser extent anti-poverty) projects in hundreds of cities. Others were working on draft resistance programs, leafleting recruits at induction centers or going around talking to draft-age high-school students. Still other organizers worked in old Students for a Democratic Society slum projects, or among poor whites in the South and the mountains, or in any number of campaigns that use local electoral politics as a way of getting people together in multi-issue organizations. In one form or another, they were following Stokely’s Order, on the occasion of the whites’ departure from SNCC: “Organize whites.”
The radical organizers seemed to recognize one another even without knowing the name or face; they were all doing similar things from the same point of view. Hank Werner was running a Vietnam Summer cadre of poor and middle-class organizers in Milwaukee; Marilyn Salzman was trying to devise programs for teachers who wanted to oppose the Vietnam War in classrooms on the East Coast; John Grove was getting poor whites to fight for power in Appalachia.
They were almost all under thirty; many were way under. They had dropped out of the normal career pattern before it had caught them, and if that might limit their experience (and their ability to understand its implications for the people they were organizing), the act of dropping out also gave them freedom and space. They could not work without it. By the end of the convention, a primitive sense of community had been built within the group. First they had called themselves the Vietnam Summer caucus, then the SDS caucus, then the organizers’ caucus, and finally, simply, “the radical caucus.” The members seemed to sense that they were now at the heart of the New Left, and that in effect they were the only “new politics.”
THE ORGANIZERS are “the movement.” They impart its style, and what elements of an embryonic ideology as have so far developed. They are not at all sure about conventional models of socialism, and they are so dogmatically against elaborate institutional structures that they cannot conceive of a national party on the Left. Besides, it is hard for them to believe that a power base exists now, or will shortly, to make even a national third party effective. For the organizers, local radical election campaigns may be good organizing vehicles, but only insofar as the community, not the candidate, remains the focus of attention. One mere reform victory may help get reform, but not radical change. Those who cling to hopes of running ambitious national tickets are considered by the organizers as deluded liberals, fellow-travelers, or Henry Wallace hangovers. The organizers opposed a national presidential ticket because it would be an utter waste. It would drain money and energy from long-term projects in exchange for an illusion of strength. The reality is powerlessness. If they are right, and the ticket would have no decisive impact, the disillusionment after the election would make organizing even more difficult.
The organizers wanted NCNP to change its shape into a kind of white SNCC, a national umbrella for local projects, a dispenser of money, recruits, training, materials, communications, and—some day—ideological guidelines if they ever develop. But at this point there is no coherent strategy for community organizing, especially among the middle class. Vietnam Summer presents impressive logistical successes: 26,000 volunteers, 700 local projects, 500 paid staffers, $400,000 raised. But it is unclear what will remain come fall. At most it will probably be a collection of new organizers, and a body of people slightly more political than it was in June. That is important for movement-building, and perhaps a “peace candidate” or two will be elected somewhere next year. But it is obviously not much for changing America.
In one way, the strength of the movement of organizers lies in their modesty. If the NCNP means anything in the long run for the Left, it will signify the death of the mystique of a third party, and a recognition that the organizers, not the suburban peace-marchers and reform Democrats, have to lead the movement. At the end, the organizers got their way. Five minutes before the Black Caucus was going to vote for a third ticket, the organizers made contact with its leaders and asked for a chance to lobby for their point of view. The white radicals, no less than the white moderates, had been intimidated by the very sight of the Black Caucus. It was only after the blacks had gotten the power they sought, and the two caucuses were on an equal footing, that contact suddenly seemed not so strange at all, but imperative. One white organizer admitted he had failed to differentiate, in the early part of the convention, among the blacks; they were the “faceless black caucus.” Now he discovered what he knew all the time, that the hostility he felt from the blacks was in great measure projected by himself.
The Black Caucus heard the organizers’ plans, and agreed to support them. The convention voted for a national system of local organizing projects with an option for “local” presidential tickets on individual state ballots in states where organizers feel they could be an important tool for organizing. A new NCNP Board was set up with equal black and white representation, and divided into electoral and organizing branches. But although some may try to revive the third party idea (most likely the Communists in the electoral branch), it seems hardly realistic with the strongest part of the black and white movements off in another direction. For a long time, the dominant mode of radical activity will be alternating features of disruption and organization. Both are primitive tactics; together they make a little more sense for carving out a new Left. The NCNP organizing year will probably evolve into other forms, and large demonstrations like the Mobilization planned for October 21 in Washington will be only ambiguously successful. It will not, of course, end the war, although it could encourage and strengthen the radical movement. And then the organizers have to follow up. That at last is a new politics, and blacks can do it as well as whites. After Chicago, they both are ready to begin.
September 28, 1967