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An Open Letter to Liberals at Harvard From An Unrestful Radical

By Timothy D. Gould

(When Marx told his contemporaries that they were reliving as farce what the eighteenth century had experienced as national tragedy, he also told them that the way beyond both tragedy and farce was to make a revolution. At Harvard we also seem to be caught between pointless farce and tragic hope. After McNamara, Dow, and Paine Hall, many radicals hope to make a revolution. The rest of the University does not agree; hence, the Harvard community is in a crisis.)

THIS IS AN open letter from an individual, a radical, to other individuals about the crisis we face together. It is not an appeal to the conscience of liberals as a class, for by that is usually meant a deal whereby you compromise your conscience, if I compromise mine, and we both secretly try to suppress each other. This was, I take it, the general structure of the old style politics of the United Fronts of the 1930's. We don't need it.

Nor is this intended as a threat, although the situation is threatening. It is more in the nature of a manifesto, in the sense that I should like to present some facts about the condition of the radical left in this liberal university. This attempt is immediately in danger of being presumptuous in that, first of all, I am only one radical, and rather minor in relation to a large and complex movement, which I am only beginning to understand. Secondly, on the basis of my meager knowledge, I am presuming to tell those of you who more or less support the liberal university (and we'll get to the problem of definitions in a moment) that you don't understand what a radical is.

I don't mean to say that you don't know any radicals, for I'm sure some of your best friends are radicals. Furthermore, anything you accuse a radical of saying has probably been said by someone calling himself a radical: "Drugs are revolutionary," or "Up against the wall, motherfucker," or "American capitalism is now essentially like European capitalism in the middle of the 19th century." And sometimes such views come to dominate a particular scene to the extent that they actually express, for the moment, the viewpoint of a significant group of radicals. And this may be a necessary stage. But to fasten on any such stage of growth, particularly when events are moving so fast that we have seen anywhere between three and eight "generations" of radicals since 1959 alone is to miss all possibility of comprehension. Eventually, you may want to draw the line against "disruptive" radicalism, but if you cherish any hope that the university, in Dean Ford's words, will "emerge from this time of troubles" with its values and structure in no way "twisted or permanently damaged" then you better ask yourself who you are walling out, before you shut yourself in.

ONE CONSEQUENCE of drawing caricatures of radicalism is that you will encourage--in me at least--the tendency to caricature liberalism. For instance, do you believe the American economy is in no way like the European economy of the 19th century? Or do you think that the war in Vietnam is a defense of the liberty of a small nation against an invasion by the aggressing agents of a world conspiracy? Or that SDS is run by a handful of students "including two or three sons of active Communists"? Or, do you believe, as one professor said to us that day in Paine Hall at about 12:30, that Harvard SDS probably takes orders from German SDS?

If enough of you are willing to stand by these statements as an expression of your liberalism, then there certainly are enough of us ready to try to stand you up against the wall, and we may as well start crying havoc and all the rest. But if you find that these statements caricature your position (and by the way, the facts) then perhaps we can begin to dig into the realities of radicalism (and of liberalism) and explore their sources and present embodiments. I undertake a few comments in that direction, not to pretend that you will join us when your see yourselves and us more clearly, but only in the perhaps pious belief that clarity is better than unclarity, and that on a sunny battlefild you are less likely to cut off your own leg.

Several assumptions about the nature of radicalism seem to me now current among some liberals in the university. These have been recently cogently expressed by Dean Ford in an article in Harvard Today (Autumn, 1968 -- all page reference to this issue), in which he calls for an appreciation of the complexity of the situation at Harvard and in the world. This article seems worth discussing at length, not merely for its cogency, but because Ford's power and moral authority as Dean of the Faculty make it worthwhile trying to understand his position carefully.

DESPITE Dean Ford's distaste for "glib generalization," he does generalize. When he talks of students in general he is frequently convincing, but when he discusses radicals he's apparently unaware of some relevant facts. I realize that in response to his generalizations I can only offer one version of the facts (my own), but I would hope that this version would suggest the possibility of re-evaluating these liberal assumptions about radicalism.

Dean Ford speaks of a group of "wreckers" who, not being able to make the grade as students, set out to prove that they have been "the victims of a worthless system," by destroying it. They are the ones who "think it is enough just to wreck, not to rebuild." Despite the fact that Dean Ford here speaks "not without sympathy," the vagueness and inaccuracy of this statement verge on the incompetent. It is inaccurate, because many of us in SDS do rather well in school, even in Dean Ford's terms. We make the Dean's List, win fellowships, go on to graduate school, and even write books. But it is really not crucial to try to do sociological studies (though people like Kenneth Keniston are doing them) to show that radical students, in fact, are as smart as other students.

But it is absolutely crucial to point out that there are many people in America who "could not make the grade as students," in Dean Ford's terms, and only some of them call themselves revolutionaries: some of them are in the Green Berets, some are in the ghettoes, some are corporation presidents, some have positions in university administrations, some are drug addicts and murderers, and some are probably high up in the Nixon administration. I think the most favorable thing that could be said about that remark of Dean Ford's is that it is brutally snobbish.

AS FOR the general category of "wreckers," if it exists at all it is so minute as to be insignificant. In my five years of experience in various radical movements I have never met anyone who thought it was enough "just to wreck, not to rebuild."

The other half of the "wreckers" circle is said to be those who "call themselves Maoists." It is hard to know exactly who Dean Ford means by this phrase, but the most likely candidates are the members of Progressive Labor. Dean Ford's phrase, however, is worse than vague. For the term suggests a false analogy to Stalinist or Trotskyite (which Ford tries to disavow, though not explicitly). "Maoist" suggests someone under the domination of a rigid, foreign (un-American?) ideology. To call members of Progressive Labor Maoists, in ignorance of the content of their programs, is meaningless: worse, it is dangerously close to red-baiting.

Finally, the members of Progressive Labor are not, as Dean Ford implies, the only "politically doctrinaire revolutionaries" at Harvard. In fact, they are perhaps the least likely group within SDS to think it enough to destroy without rebuilding. For their position on this point (and so far as I understand it I agree with it) is precisely that you cannot destroy something unless you already have the potential to build in its place. (This, I take it, is something akin to what Marx means when he talks of the maturation of socialist forces of production within the womb of capitalism.)

When one of our leaders in SDS said (during the Dow demonstration) that "we are going to bring this university to an end, as you know it," liberals frequently ignored the qualifying phrase "as you know it." Our position will seem purely destructive, only if you feel that what Dean Ford calls the present "fundamental distribution of roles and responsibilities in the University" is sacrosanct. For it is true that if we had our way that distribution of roles and responsibilities (not to mention power) would be destroyed. We do desire (at least) a "fundamental alteration" -- as Ford puts it -- of the present situation; if he wishes to call that destruction, that is his right.

THERE is a great deal of evidence in his article that Dean Ford does regard the present arrangements of power and authority as more or less inviolable. When he talks of "responding to sensible proposals for change," I am very much afraid he means to exclude not only any of our suggestions--that much I would have expected -- but also most proposals from those he calls "doctrinaire advocates of 'student power.'" Since very few people in SDS are interested in student power any more as a question of doctrine, I presume Dean Ford is referring to those liberals, particularly in student government, who are frustrated by their inability to implement their reforms, and outraged by the secret dealings of faculty and administration committees. The committees on the Tenth House, and Mrs. Bunting's plans for Fortress Radcliffe are cases in point; so was the behavior of the Committee on Educational Policy during the ROTC crisis.

If Dean Ford really intends to draw the line against such liberals, my task as a radical will be clearer; the radical analysis of the university in terms of power and interest groups will then be fully true. Dean Ford's loyalty to the existing procedures of the Harvard community would, in that case, be a loyalty not to the university community as such, but merely a private loyalty to his own privileged conception of the university, supported not by reason but by power. His condition for allowing us to remain in the university would then be that radicals and dissident liberals give up all possibility of effecting our values. In that context, his demand for non-disruption is politically repressive, not because it is impossible in principle to have a peaceful revolution in the university--though that may turn out to be true--but because Dean Ford and others have already decided that no fundamental change -- peaceful or otherwise -- is acceptable.

Whether or not Dean Ford holds these views without reservation, most radicals think he does. It is therefore hardly surprising that we on the left should begin to view all parliamentary procedures and all respect for the civil rights of Dow recruiters and under-graduate drill teams as hypocritical to begin with, and in the end reactionary. For in fact you have told me precious little if you tell me you are for the right to recruit and the right to "prepare for the military" and also against the Vietnamese war.

It is quite simple to show your loyalty to the liberal version of civil rights: all you have do is to declare your opposition to SDS--or its tactics. But how do you propose to demonstrate you are against the war? Did you sign a petition? March for a SANE nuclear policy? Support McCarthy? I don't pretend to have complete answers for these dilemmas, nor do I claim that it is impossible to care simultaneously for the rights of Dow Chemical and the rights of burned babies. I do claim it is damned difficult.

Furthermore, if you don't believe it is difficult--indeed if you don't care enough to show that it is difficult for you--there will be a price to pay. For nothing nourishes nihilism on the left more than the faithlessness of liberals to their own values. If those worn inflexible responses are all you have to back up your values, if that is your liberal university, then we may as well tear the place down. For in that case your language is the valueless language of S.I. Hayakawa (lately active at San Francisco State), and your future is a barrenness masquerading as "the intellectual approach" to "any" topic, which Dean Ford called "the business of colleges and universities."

At one point in his article, Dean Ford seems to cut himself off not merely from student radicalism -- which, after all, was not the whole scope of his article--but from the problems of growing up in America, in what he calls "the particular malaise of the 1960's." For he seems to feel that there is no legitimate connection between "growing pains" and revolution. But in fact, it is no accident that the young are now distrustful and rebellious, and that some of us would like a revolution. For this society provides very few decent ways of growing up, and that is a very good sign that this is not a decent society. And as students on the left get older in America, I doubt very much if most of us will accept Dean Ford's definitions of maturity, especially if he bases it on something like "making the grade." Perhaps Dean Ford will then choose to call us immature. I for one am willing to take that risk.

It is not clear, however, that our supposed childishness is anything more than our response to a debased liberalism. Dean Ford finds the source of our "destructiveness" in the tradition of Voltaire's "ecrasez l'infame." I think he would be more accurate to recognize our debt to Rousseau's refusal to accept the false culture Voltaire proposed--through D'Alembert--to introduce into Geneva. For I detect in Dean Ford's article an unwillingness to consider seriously the possibility that much of bourgeois culture and much of the culture of the university is fraudulent. I find such a stance as blind and unacceptable as he finds our refusal to bend our values to the prevailing university winds. If he takes such a stand he is cut off not merely from radicalism, but from the best thinkers and artists of the last two hundred years (including Rousseau and Voltaire).

I have been trying to suggest that there are important historical and ideological sources of the rigidity that Jay Cantor pointed to in the CRIMSON as both parent and offspring of the politics of confrontation. But there are still possibilities open to all of us, in which we need not give up an ounce of conviction, and might possibly be able to live together, however, temporarily, however uneasily. For one thing, liberals have not explored their marvelously traditional device for dealing with radicalism, the method now known as co-optation. For instance, the New Deal (including its latest incarnation, however degraded, as the Great Society) dealt with Norman Thomas by taking some of the content of his proposals, most of the moral rhetoric, and leaving behind only the impulse to socialism, which is what he shared with those further left. This move is still open to liberals.

In fact, Galbraith has recently called for the "constitutional reform" of Harvard on at least partly the ground that the university will then be better able to deal with student radicals. (One wonders what Gailbraith thinks of Dean Ford's idea that "we need not surrender the very concept of differentiation of roles as among governing boards, faculty members, and students" for that is precisely what Galbraith wants to surrender, although as a radical I'm a bit suspicious of people who want to "deal" with me.

The proposed conference to restructure Harvard--called by the Harvard Policy Committee--is also open to just such co-optation. The reasons I'm not too afraid of the success of that maneuver are complex. But for openers, I'm convinced of the correctness of our analysis and our ability to demonstrate this correctness to the non-aligned. And like the Protestant revolutionaries, we work harder than our adversaries, and care more passionately about the outcome of our faith. Perhaps it is our childishness.

I have addressed myself at length to Dean Ford's article. I fervently hope that my analysis of his position is wrong, and that if I am right, his position is not widely shared by the Liberals in the university. If such feelings and misconceptions are widespread, then all sense of what Dean Ford calls "shared responsibility" (that is, to preserve the university) becomes pointless. The kind of university that would develop out of such an ideology is not "worth more than any riot"--to me, it is worth nothing. If Harvard develops further in that direction, I would soon be ready to say, "All right, we are two universities.

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