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SDS-- Harvard's New Left--Feels 'Underprivileged' In Generation Which Prizes Making Own Decisions

By Daniel J. Singal

"I don't know any of them. They're not my friends," remarked one clean-cut Harvard student as a Vietnam protest march passed through the Square last October. But the academic year went on, many former antagonists became sympathizers, if not members, of the New Left. The October march to the Boston Common attracted only 750 people; by March, 2,000 made the pilgrimage.

The New Left at Harvard, best typified by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), represents one fact of a new generation of students which began to arrive at the College after 1960. For them, the election of president Kennedy, with his image youth and energy, served as a catalyst. Simultaneously, the damper which the McCarthy investigations had placed on radical politics in the university began to lift, and soon the New Left generation made its presence known at Harvard.

Kenneth Kenniston, a former Harvard Junior Fellow, has called them the "uncommitted fringe" of the professional generation;" others have labeled them the "service generation," but the young radicals themselves are still unsure of their common identity. They made headlines when they pressed for a revolution in sexual mores in 1963, substituting ethical standards based on individual situations for the old blanket moral standards. At the same time they began to call for nuclear disarmament, although the Geneva Test-Ban Treaty alone was sufficient disperse the movement.

Although these various protests were confined to a minority of the student population, the generation of the 60's has created a style of its own which permeates the entire college. Today's students insist on creating their own music. The conventional dance bands who once stood assured Harvard bookings on important weekends have disappeared entirely. The initial swing to folk music at turn of the decade has given way student twist groups such as "Oedipus and his Three Mothers" who pound out their pulsing rhythm almost every weekend.

In short, the student generation of 60's wants to decide things for themselves on issues which effect them, whether those issues concern dance music or politics. This need for involvement in the decision-making process underlies every program of the New Left, especially their protest against the Selective Service System. As Barry McGuire phrased it in his protest song, "The Eve of Destruction," "You're old enough to kill, but not for voting." Paul Booth, the national secretary of SDS, complained to a Harvard audience last October that "the decision to take up 45,000 people a month is not a decision that any of the draft-age people participated in."

These students view themselves as an underprivileged class, defined as any class of society which has its decisions legislated for them. The New Leftist can thus sympathize with other underprivileged groups, such as Negroes or unemployed workers, who, in the SDS view, have not taken full advantage of their political rights. The students see a common bond with such groups which the groups themselves often do not share. An SDS expedition to organize the meatpackers in Haymarket Square against the Vietnam war found themselves harassed and jeered by the workers. "So that's the proletariat," one student commented on his way back to Cambridge.

The Vietnam war has drawn many liberals into the New Left camp this year. As one tutor in Government sympathetic to SDS explains, "As soon as you start to talk about Vietnam, you begin to have doubts about your government." Michael S. Ansara, an executive of the national chapter of SDS at Harvard, however, attributed the growth of SDS to the new image of the Left at Harvard. "The view of the mindless radical has gone out. We think before we act," he says.

Harvard SDS began the year with less than one hundred members and has since doubled its membership, not including 200 other students who think of themselves as "close to SDS."

According to Ansara, the group does not actively solicit its membership, but instead concentrates on building a "solid base of educated members." As he explains, "students usually start out on one issue. They think the war is bad, or poverty is bad. But once in SDS, there occurs this broadening of their perceptions and their commitments." Consistent with their emphasis on decision-making, they begin to ask "who runs things," while at the same time developing a commitment to "direct action" to solve specific problems.

To provide their members with "a consciousness of what's wrong with society," Harvard SDS conducts seminars taught by both students and faculty members. The SDS seminar on "Theories of Social Change" attracted about thirty-five people this year, while several ten-man groups investigated the problems of labor and Vietnam. Next year, SDS plans to create a Free University in Boston, similar to the one in New York, where participants in this year's program can teach an even larger group.

An SDS education does not mean indoctrination in a party line. At best the group would claim a "somewhat coherent overview" of what must be done to change American society. This step-down from dogma again sets off the generation of the 60's. The radicals of the 50's, similar to their predecessors of the 30's, held an almost Stalinist conception of leadership whereby a few key leaders would give the group its doctrine. These earlier radicals view the lack of ideology as the main weakness of the New Left. To them, SDS is "hung up on problems of participatory democracy."

The structure of SDS at Harvard, although based upon theories of democratic decision-making, also indicates a reaction against the Stalinists of the 30's. The Harvard Chapter has no less than four co-chairmen. Separate committees study and act on Vietnam, Labor, Civil Rights, South Africa, and University Reform. The executive committee theoretically consists of only the chairmen of the various committees, but in practice, anyone may attend executive committee meetings.

Consensus Democracy

The SDS theory of participatory democracy has its roots in the American Constitutional Convention of 1789, as the founders of SDS observed during the Port Huron Conference of 1962. Madison, citing Montesquieu, wrote in The Federalist Papers that only small nations could remain truly democratic. In a large country, one big faction might blot out the rights of a slightly smaller faction by means of a simple majority. The New Leftists, accordingly, believe that the United States has grown too large to rely on the simple majority alone and that consensus politics must return if justice is to be maintained.

In theory, an SDS education supplies the common viewpoint which makes such a consensus possible, but the theory clearly breaks down in practice. At a two day regional meeting of SDS last December, the large assembly failed to take a position on a proposal to carry the war protest to groups off campus. The program did take place during the spring semester, but not in the organized fashion the leaders had envisioned.

The problem is that consensus arises only when the issue is personal and emotional. The injustice of the Southern racial system or napalm bombs falling on South Vietnamese villages invokes immediate indignation, while the many important questions of urban renewal, for instance, call for more cautious politics. The consensus theory thus imposes a limit on the number of concerns upon which a New Left group can focus. The young Democrats (YD's), by contrast, were able to discuss such issues as foreign aid and birth control as well as the standard SDS topics of Civil Rights and Vietnam during the current year.

The New Leftists, in a number of ways, are probably more conservative than the YD's. Their program of developing the political consciousness of local groups through community projects seems closer to Goldwater than to Johnson. Although SDS has tried to conduct its protest of the war through the education of local groups, the protest over foreign policy represents an aberration from the normal scope of SDS community politics. And above all, SDS has failed to face the real issue--the contradiction between the instability of participatory politics and the need to maintain a consistant foreign policy in the nuclear era.

The question which liberals most often ask is, what will become of SDS members after they leave the University. Will they flock to the suburbs like their parents, as Kenneth Kenniston predicts, or will they become full-fledged radicals? Ansara suspects that many New Leftists will enter political life. The others will be "politically and socially active in addition to their professions." Ansara foresees a class of lawyers and doctors motivated by social concern rather than economic values who will help organize community projects wherever they may be living. These people, others maintain, will opt for the city instead of the suburb, for their entire philosophy rests on a heightened degree of contact among social groups which only the city can provide.

Berkeley vs. Harvard

Another question often raised involves the differences between the New Left at Harvard and other protest groups throughout the country. Why, in short, has there been no Free Speech Movement at Harvard as there was at Berkeley, or no sit-in over university draft policy like the one at Chicago last month? Ansara sees Harvard SDS as "more a political group and less concerned with personal struggles to define a way of life." In addition, the New Leftists at Harvard are beginning to view themselves as "organizers, not protesters." In February, for example, a war pro- test scheduled for the Square was cancelled at the last minute due to questions about its "effectiveness."

The contrast between New Left politics at Harvard and Berkeley is probably best explained by an article by Reginald E. Zelnick in the May-June issue of Dissent. Zelnick finds Berkeley a university without status compared to Eastern Ivy schools. Students freshly-arrived at Berkeley find little difference between the college and that high-school. The Berkeley student feels immediately equal to his university; entering Harvard students are almost certain to be awed. The traditions of Harvard, in effect, secure its tranquility.

This very point came into perspective at a recent Leverett House Junior-Senior dinner during a speech by Archibald MacLeish, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, Emeritus. MacLeish pointed to the other senior faculty members at the head table, such as Mark DeWolfe Howe and Howard Manford Jones, and called for a return to the traditional Harvard values. He derided the concept of the University as a vocational school and insisted upon education for its own sake. Many present observed that MacLeish was making the same demands as Mario Savio and the other leaders of the Free Speech Movement. Ironically, senior faculty members must lecture their students against "professionalism" at Harvard, while just the opposite is true at Berkeley.


SDS has had squabbles with the Harvard Administration, although they have always remained on a distinctly political level. When, for example, the Administration announced it would supply class rankings in accord with a Selective Service request, SDS quickly circulated a petition calling for a referendum on proposal to substitute "letters of good standing" for class ranksings in accord with a Selective Service request, SDS The of the referendum, a strictly political device, added respectability and force to the SDS demand, but the Administration has shelved the matter until next fall.

Harvard SDS, like its sister chapters elsewhere, wants a student voice in many other Administration decisions besides draft policy. SDS objects to what they call "sophisticated paternalism" whereby John U. Monro, as the Dean of Harvard College, acts as a mediator between different pressure groups within the University and makes the final decisions himself. Instead, the New Leftists would have Monro become "an initiator of discussion" who would administer whatever decisions the entire University community reached. In the SDS plan, faculty members would also play a larger role in University decision-making.

Some changes in this direction have taken place this year at Harvard. The Harvard Policy Committee, an undergraduate group which Monro helped form, has begun a plan to review every department, as well us to criticize the grading system and the faculty tenure system. Also a group of 25 students at the Medical School achieved their demand for an independent study program this Spring, while a similar number at the School of Education gained representation for students on two Faculty committees. These groups have started to acquire the "direct voice" in University policy which SDS insists on, which suggests that Harvard is more receptive to the New Left than many SDS members tend to think.

Still, SDS has added a needed dimension to Harvard politics. Although SDS may not display the breadth of concern which the Young Democrats or the Young Republicans do, it does consider its adopted issues with a depth the other groups lack. Also, in an age of increasing power for the Federal government, SDS does help redress the balance nicely with its emphasis on local activities.

Perhaps because SDS radicals and liberal groups operate on different assumptions, perhaps because of the nature of the topics they discuss, or possibly due to sheer personal dislike, no dialogue has yet evolved between SDS and the other political groups. Hopefully, as SDS becomes even more political next year and as they begin to find their place within the political spectrum at Harvard, such a dialogue may begin. If that happens, SDS may soon bring its position more in line with conventional views, while other, more traditional people may come to appreciate both the existence and the relevance of the New Left

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