A New Mood


MARX SAID that great historical events happen twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. As usual, he was overly optimistic. One really great tragedy (the October Revolution, say) is good for at least half a century of attempts to reproduce it--which turn out to be farces. And since people make their own history, they're occasionally even willing to act farcically on their own. Last fall, for instance, when the president of a new Harvard socialist group inaugurated its career with a vitriolic attack on SDS, the New American Movement, and a couple of leftist Crimson editors, bemused observers could have been forgiven for regarding it as one more in a seemingly endless series of reductions to absurdity of Harvard politics.

University politics haven't exactly reached historic proportions since then, but it seems possible, at least, that they're showing more life than the last couple of years have suggested. When NAM hurriedly organized a demonstration against a Honeywell Corporation recruiter this spring, 120 people turned out for it--the largest antiwar demonstration here since the spring of 1972. Only about 500 protesters showed up for Gerald Ford's stop at the Harvard Club the next month, but that was more demonstrators than he'd seen anywhere else this year, and a substantial majority of them were Harvard students. Almost 150 students picketed Holyoke Center last Friday to support the Printing Office's lithographers' and bookbinders' strike. The university's long-awaited report on the DuBois Institute provoked a flurry of discussion and protest.

Instead of mutual denunciations or at least mutual indifference, coalitions among Harvard political organizations have been multiplying faster than Popular Front sliderules. The pro-printer coalition includes NAM, the Party for Workers Power, the Third World Coalition, and the Democratic Socialists. For all these groups even to talk with one another would have been almost unthinkable as recently as last fall, when the Democratic Socialist president mounted his attack. Perhaps even more importantly, no one seems especially interested--after a long time during which factional infighting consumed much of what political activity Harvard saw (and it surely saw much less as a result).

So it seems at least possible that the university is in for a period something like the early '60s--one of growing radical activity, often around liberal issues, by a small but substantial minority of students whose political concerns don't isolate them from a sympathetically uncommitted majority. Such concerns would probably find expressions ranging from demonstrations like the last month's to activity on the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility.

What might help differentiate such political activity from that of the early '60s is the existence, now, of a still remembered decade of student protest. This might make possible a sense of historical roots, of a tradition of student militance, which may be important despite whatever new sense of relaxation activism here has been showing. The American government has toned down the flagrancy with which it prosecutes the Indochina war, for instance. And there's been a decline in the claustrophobic feeling of personal guilt that made '60s radicals feel that insufficient militance today would mean the deaths of hundreds of Vietnamese tomorrow. But the Honeywell demonstration--which considerably surpassed its organizers expectations--suggests the influence memory of the war still exerts on students. Some dead generations continue to weigh on the minds of the living, even if there is a new mood to Harvard politics--but less like a nightmare, maybe, than like a history lesson.