Paul Booth is a most unlikely-looking revolutionary. The press has described him as "clean-cut with a shock of curly, sandy hair and blue eyes," and to me he appeared the quintessence of innocence. In the six hours I spent with him during his Harvard visit, four different people walked into the room, looked him straight in the eye, and asked "Where is Booth?
But his boyishness soon dissolved. "I want to build a new Left in the United States," Booth affirmed, and as National Secretary of SDS he could do just that. "What is Left?" Booth asked himself. "A left is a group of people who understand that problems are communal and can be solved collectively," he responded with conviction. Mixing serious debate with a light touch, Booth can outline his goals in very sober, Swarthmorian terms and then sum it all up by saying, "I guess you might call it the art of Reading, Writing, and Left-Building."
Weaned in a politically-minded family, his parents both active in ADA and his father working in the Labor Department, Booth made his "first political mistake" in 1952 when he distributed leaflets for Harriman in the fight against Kefauver.
"I'm a very prosaic guy," Booth said, and in spite of his reputation as a radical there seemed a note of truth in his snicker. To prove his point, Booth reported that he attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D. C., then went to Swarthmore College where he majored in Political Science, worked in the student government, and wrote for The Phoenix, the college newspaper. But this was only a temporary phase, he assured me.
Al Haber, founder of SDS, discovered Booth in October 1961 and became his tutor. By June 1962, Booth had learned enough to be elected vice-president of SDS at the Port Huron conference. Booth's campus life wasn't all politics: he joined the Civil Rights movement, went to a variety of political meetings, and read the New York Times faithfully, but as he explains, "there was still enough time to run with the hippy crowd." The pressure of student politics left him little opportunity to study, and in his own words he graduated "Magna Cum Difficultatis."
If the formal academic world failed to inspire Booth, he synthesized his own philosophy by combining C. Wright Mills and Paul Goodman. Mills, he elaborated, depicts the distribution of political power in the U.S. and its irresponsible use, while Goodman emphasizes human potential and resourcefulness. A some what cynical outlook resulted, tempered by an ambition to actively challenge our political structure. Booth also admits that he consistantly read a British publication called the New Left Review.
Since 1961, Booth has made an important contribution in extending the SDS community. In one of his early efforts, he organized a Tenants' League in Oakland, Calif. More recently he helped co-ordinate the March on Washington and has piloted SDS Vietnam policy. Booth criticizes today's SDS members as insufficiently interested in politics. He considers himself an exception to this rule and fears he alienates some of the members by insisting on the political nature of SDS.
"My job is to promote the education of our SDS membership," Booth declared. He believes this political element essential to the creation of a viable organization which will be more than an outlet for personal frustrations and will have a tangible effect on society. He said explicitly that although the autonomy of the chapter organization is a fundamental brick in SDS's foundation, a certain measure of independence must be sacrificed to more important issues; namely, the war. In effect, Booth means that the National Committee must increase its control over its membership before a united front can have an appreciable impact on U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Booth also finds the general SDS character more prone to argument, debate, and the intellectual side of reform than to the dirty work of action and organization. The membership is so caught up in the spirit of the movement that it forgets its immediate objectives. To Paul Booth these questions are no longer academic; he plans to make SDS his vocation.
In response to the government's recent disapproval of SDS's phantom draft policy, Booth complains that he has spent more time with television cameramen than working with SDS. "I wish the whole draft question had never been taken out of context," protested Booth. "All we want to do is ask each eligible young man whether he wants to kill instead of build; whether, in conscience, he finds the war in Vietnam immoral."
Booth subscribes to the theory that people will only listen when their interests are directly involved. You tell steel workers about their inability to strike because of the war; you tell students about the draft. Booth admitted that SDS had been hard-hit by the recent draft increase because many students who dropped out of school to work for SDS have been drafted.
Booth describes SDS as multi-purposed, he does insist that a settlement in Vietnam must precede action in any other area. To further the war effort, President Johnson has made an alliance with Right-wing forces which has turned the national mood against welfare programs and other progressive actions. In addition, priorities on resources have been given to the military instead of advancing the War on Poverty. "President Johnson is in bed with the wrong people," he concluded.
As for the future of SDS, Booth predicted that it will either grow very quickly in the near future or else "be smashed by the government." "The Left in the United States," he explained, "expects to be on the defensive, and that is exactly what the government wants. They are keeping us busy defending our tactics so that our message of protest is never allowed to be heard as an alternative."
But contrary to recent press releases, he told me he did not think Johnson was a Fascist. The true Booth, however, didn't show through until I was driving him to a meeting late that night. He leaned over my shoulder to turn up the radio and catch the last words of, you guessed it, "Eve of Destruction."