Force and History at Harvard: Is Tolerance Possible?

A Radical's Open Letter- -Part II

(Both parts of this letter have been copyrighted by the author, January, 1969.)

The state. . . is a plurality which should be united and made into a community by education; and it is strange that the author of a system of education which he thinks will make the state virtuous, should expect to improve his citizens by regulations of this sort, and not by philosophy or by customs and laws . . . --ARISTOTLE, Politics, II, 5

HISTORY is happening to us now, and so we assume that someone is making it happen. But the shape of events--at Harvard and often in the world as well--suggest that if some people are making our history, they don't know what they are doing. And right now knowing what you are doing, and knowing what you--and others--have done, must no longer be the special problems of epistemologists and academic historians. For without the achievement of that kind of knowledge, the decision about what is to be done will be made in blindness and terror, with chaos as the almost certain outcome.

First of all, what did the demonstrations do, and why? We demonstrated at Paine Hall to demand an open discussion of what we regarded to be the enormous political issues raised by the presence of ROTC. It may be true that among ourselves we had already decided that we wanted ROTC abolished, but it is simply false that we wanted to override the will of the majority at Harvard. Most of us felt the issue just hadn't been raised, and the majority had not in fact even been heard. It is also true that given the intensity of our conviction we might at some future date take a stand against a decision of the majority which we regard as evil.

I am aware of the difficulty of making what some people call "value judgments." I am also aware of the dangerous consequences of acting on such judgments, and if we ever reach such a juncture I would fully expect to be repressed by the majority I was fighting against. Nevertheless, granting the existence of evil in the world (though its exact location may be a subject of dispute) and granting that most of us haven't learned the lesson "resist not evil," I do not see how such judgments, such actions, and such consequences can be avoided. Sitting quietly in a room has itself become a political act of almost unimaginable import.


SOME PERHAPS will argue that there is no evil great enough to justify disobeying a dean and causing a disturbance. But those of us who still remember some of the history of this century, feel obliged to weigh the evil we are fighting in the same balance with the rules we may be breaking: you have to consider the issues, and live with what Franklin Ford calls "complexity." Most of us had done that, individually, and in an exhausting round of meetings. Most of us also wanted the Harvard community to think about those issues and those complexities, and not confine discussion of ways to elevate the intellectual content of ROTC courses. It is worth noting that the H-RPC report had implicitly called for a discussion of the moral and political issues to follow the abolition of credit and removal of department status. (In a letter to the CRIMSON, seven of the fifteen student members had explicitly condemned the militarism and class bias of ROTC, and called for a further discussion of the issues "as raised, for example, by SDS.")

Instead of such discussion, we were treated to the spectacle of the CEP's attempt to take what was for the H-RPC (and for many on the SFAC and HUC) the moral question of the academic inappropriateness of ROTC to a university, and convert it into the amoral question of the academic insufficiency of ROTC courses. (Sec, for instance, the relatively indignant press release of the chairmen of the three committees after their press conference with Ford, just before the Paine Hall demonstration.)

Furthermore, the secrecy of the CEP strongly suggests that they wanted to avoid political and moral discussion of their resolution, either in public or at the Faculty meeting. And that seems to me to be a serious violation of the spirit of reasoned discussion.

THERE WILL be those who will object that even though no will of the majority had been expressed for the demonstrators to violate, that, nonetheless, we intended to violate it. So it turns out that, at least according to men like Gill, we deserved to be punished for violating the spirit of the University, as much as for our violation of a regulation.

Aside from the arrogance of men who claim to know what is and is not a part of the spirit of a university, and also seem convinced that they know in advance what I will do in a future which may never arrive, I am disturbed by the seriously distorted view of radical politics which seems to me to form the basis of such claims and innuendoes. The view in question is by no means a new one, and in fact it has its origins not among liberals, but among such establishment radicals as Irving Howe (for instance, in Howe's "New Styles in Leftism," which first appeared in a 1965 issue of Dissent). What is new is the somewhat hysterical appropriation of this analysis--albeit in a generally less sophisticated form--by establishment liberals. On any given Sunday, the odds are good this sort of analysis of the "mood" or "scenario" of radicalism can be found leaking from page to page of the Times magazine section. Other days you can find it among the literary baggage of Commentary, or the New York Review. More seriously, such analyses seem to form the basis of the public statements and acts of politicians, police chiefs, university administrators, and many professors; specifically, this might account for the behavior of the Harvard administration and the 190 or so faculty members who more or less supported the administration.

A CENTRAL dogma of this view is that the rebirth of the Left in this country is essentially a product of cultural decay with no real relation to political or social reality. Certainly, disaffection with the cultural debris of our society is one important source of radicalism--the significance of that fact has been a matter of intensive debate, within the Left, and particularly within SDS, for some time now. But in the hands of Irving Howe--and the hundreds of magazine writers who came after him--such a fact is used to prove that a young radical has no concern aside from his personal alienation, and is therefore politically and socially irresponsible and potentially a menace.

Putting aside, for the time being, discussion of the kind of politics which Howe considers "responsible," I would never deny that a desparate preoccupation with personal style, a self-pitying concern with one's own alienation, a fascination with violence and confrontation, and an "unreflective belief in the decline of the West" (and of America), are very bad things, and should be combatted in SDS, as well as in the world. Howe wants to leap from those pedestrian warnings to a view of the Left which see those tendencies as almost inevitably coming to dominate the direction of radicalism in America. The leap to that conclusion was made, it seems, without looking.

The simple fact is that if most of us have begun with our own despair at American society and its automated plastic culture, we have been led to seek out sources of political power in this country which might be organized into a struggle against that society. Obviously we haven't given very far, as yet. But to view our concern for the interests of workers, or black people, or students, or the third world, as merely our attempt to project our personal failure to "make it" on to those other groups, is to fail totally to understand the motivations of SDS. Worse, I think, it cuts one off from one of the fundamental hopes for a decent politics in America, and the world, namely, that the disaffected and the oppressed, whatever their differences, can unite to struggle against the common causes of their oppression. Perhaps that is utopian, but far less so I think than the fantasy that Gene McCarthy somehow changed the structure of American politics. (If you don't believe that that is a fantasy, you might ask Gene McCarthy or contemplate his recent behavior in the Senate.)

The relevance of this view of politics (and history) to our situation at Harvard, can be seen implicitly in the decision of the Faculty meeting of January 14, and more explicitly in Ford's article in Harvard Today. In the first part of this letter (CRIMSON, Jan. 9) I examined that article at length, and now I only want to suggest the connection between the views I attributed to Ford (again, I hope I was wrong) and the more general view of the Left that I have been sketching, and then point out some consequences of these positions which we are going to have to face.

If you examine Ford's four circles or unrest, you will not that there are very prominent gaps in the program of the so-called "wreckers." Apparently we want to destroy for the sake of desruction, or else we want some ill-defined revolution. Since it is true that revolution is not one interest or value among others, then those of us whom he would place in the fourth circle appear to outsiders to have no definite program of interests. In this light, our concern for the interests of others is merely a ruse for the furtherance of our own revolutionary ends. Ford, one suspects, views revolution pretty much as pure destruction, and therefore something to be resisted. I don't know what a revolution would look like in America, and I don't see one around the corner. When I say I work for a revolution, I am in part registering my conviction that the freedom of black people, workers, students, and the peoples of the third world will not be achieved separately. And if they are achieved through a common struggle against common enemies, than that, for me, would be a fairly good working definition of a revolution. Let me add, that I have no doctrinaire view of history which guarantees my success or anyone else's, and neither did Marx, nor Lenin, or Mao. If we fail, we fail, and who is to say that our tragedy will be more debasing than the force of most modern liberal politics and culture.

The political consequences of regarding radicals as fundamentally parasitic on the oppression of others are disastrous. For in that case your strategy will be to placate those who have what you regard is real complaints, and get rid of the "tiny minority" (as Ford calls us) who are simply "agitators." And that is essentially what the Ad Board tried to do, and was stopped, perhaps with its own collusion, by some combination of votes, the precise components of which will never be known.

They have the right, of course, to try any strategy they think will work on us. But I hope it is clear by now why most radicals find the repetition of the litany, "next time, you're really going to get it," a bit boring. Next time perhaps we really will catch holy heck, and maybe the Administration's version of educational vision will send us off to face our draft boards, the labor market, our parents, or a Mrs. Robinson a year and a half before our time. I worry about that every once in a while, but, honestly, I have other things and people to lose sleep over.

Aside from boredom, however, I have growing sense of the political nature (as opposed to moral or educational) of the Administration and many of the Faculty. I do not mean to suggest that many Faculty members are out to get us. Some perhaps are, and many administrators may feel that their jobs would be a lot easier without us. For one thing, they seem to feel that if we weren't around, it would be a lot easier to deal with dissidents in student government, black students, Radcliffe girls, graduate students, junior faculty, and even some senior faculty who are tired of being used as a rubber stamp for the CEP. Agitators are always stirring things up. If they'd only let things alone, everybody's legitimate complaints could be handled separately and amicably. It never seems to occur to these people that the situation itself might produce what they call "agitators," and merely to get rid of a few, for instance, by expelling them, is unlikely to make any significant change in the situation, even if coupled with a program of pacification on campus.

Their attitudes and actions are political in the way that the white middle class is political every time it turns on a TV set to watch a Chicago or a Detroit, and says to itself, "I wouldn't react so harshly myself, but, after all, they were provoked." It is precisely the secret delight in the violence of others, combined with the moral vision of a sophisticated lynch mob, which makes a sham of liberal tolerance in America. The fact that by the day of the Faculty meeting, SDS had gathered something like 1400 signatures on its petition, suggests that for some. Faculty members cowardice went hand in hand with fraudulent generosity. If they want to practice the politics of fear, they will first have to master their own fearfulness.

I have pressed on you my view of our recent history not to claim that