In response to:
Where Do We Go From Here? from the October 10, 1968 issue
To the Editors:
Christopher Lasch knows how to write interestingly, forcefully, and persuasively. His piece on “Where Do We Go From Here?” (New York Review, October 10) is a case in point. More’s the pity that almost in passing, in a few words, he joins the “in” game of SDS baiting.
Are there enough grounds in fact to say, as Lasch does, that “if SDS provides a foretaste of the future—a terrifying thought—we seem to be headed toward an implacable tyranny of inexperience and ignorance”? Just how valid is the charge of “obscurantist anti-intellectualism that is increasingly prevalent among student radicals…”? Or the term, “nihilist Left”?
The Students for a Democratic Society did start out, in the early 1960s, with a strong distaste both for the realm of theorizing and for the views of their elders on the Left. By now, much of this distaste has been cast off, in creed as well as deed. Today, one finds little in its literature to bear out what Lasch says of SDS. This can be seen in the SDS organs, New Left Notes and Radical America, and in the ample writings of “ideologists” like Booth, Davidson, Hayden, Flacks, Lynd, and Oglesby. By and large, one finds, on the contrary, able and varied thought on just the trends and risks that Lasch takes up in his own piece.
If in their intellectual search SDS people show less than full knowledge or wisdom, who among their elders can cast a stone in good grace? After all, it was Lasch himself who in his well-known book on American radicalism helped to make clear how little we in the middle generation have done to cut down “the tyranny of inexperience and ignorance” on the Left. If you keep in mind this feeble intellectual heritage, and the time of troubles we now face, SDS has done well, quite well, in its short life. It has changed a great deal all along, and we can assume it will no doubt continue to change.
To be sure, some SDS people show all the signs of the “infantile disease of leftism.” In the rough and tumble of “confrontation” politics, not all SDS actions fit its old ideal of participatory democracy, or its sound faith in tying all tactics to theory as well as strategy. Here at Columbia, in the sit-ins in April and the general strike in May, some SDS leaders were quite elitist and manipulative. Paul Goodman was right to take them to task for that in the New York Times Magazine this summer. So was Michael Neumann, close to these leaders last year, in a sharp if oblique criticism just now in the Columbia Daily Spectator. Still, the puzzle of how to fuse long-run organizational commitments (especially to internal democracy) with a lot of short-run action is one that all of us have yet to solve. I am not sure SDS has done worse than the rest of us.
Let us hope that the New York Review can persuade Christopher Lasch to write a full-scale critique of SDS, as he did so well of some black radicals (New York Review, Feb. 29, 1968). That would make good sense, and might fill a real need. Hit-and-run SDS baiting does not.
Happily, the Lasch piece stops short of the worst part of SDS baiting in this crisis year of 1968: the idea that SDS would be to blame in some big way if this country should move to the Far Right soon. From now on, all comments on SDS must come to grips with this new scapegoat theory. And when they do the older radicals and liberals will turn out to be just as culpable as SDS, if not more. A sharp turn to the Right will cast at least as much doubt on the long-held faith of many of us in moderation, gradualism, pluralism, old-line politics, anti-Communism, and the like (ADA, NAACP, LID-Dissent, the Kennedys, King, McCarthy) as it might on all the young militancy of SDS and the New Left.
To blame SDS, as the Left loses ground in this time of troubles, might make some of us feel less bad. For the rest, it won’t help a bit.
Bureau of Applied Social Research
December 5, 1968