The name Todd Gitlin didn’t mean anything to me in 1969 when I lived in Harvard Square and considered myself a member of the anti-war movement.
Gitlin lived in Harvard Square in the early Sixties and graduated from the university when I was still in high school. After Harvard, he went on to become the second president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) after the resignation of Tom Hayden.
The heavy radical atmosphere in and around Harvard Square was still very much in evidence in the Cambridge area in 1969.
Opposition to the Vietnam War was only one manifestation of that radicalism although that would become the mainstream view of the country some years later.
Harvard Square in 1969 was a melting pot of many leftist causes, such as the Socialist Workers Party, the Youth International Party (Yippies), the Black Panthers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the cults of Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael.
The elitist, arrogant attitude among Harvard student activists at that time (including many non-student “intellectuals” who moved to Cambridge from other cities) influenced every aspect of life there.
One could not attend a film—movies in Harvard Square were always called ‘films’ because a ‘movie’ was something you saw in the provinces (suburbs)—without hearing someone in the audience hissing at a line of dialogue they found objectionable. Perhaps one of the onscreen actors had uttered an anti-feminist or pro-war line; or perhaps the offense was just an old school conservative attitude that irked the audience member.
In retrospect, I think all that censorious hissing might have been the very beginning of cancel culture. (It should be noted that activist hissing occurred not only during contemporary films but during classic Hollywood oldies starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. )
These were also the days when one could walk across the Harvard campus and be approached by an AWOL soldier. The AWOL soldiers that one ran into were almost always convinced they were being followed by the FBI. There was tremendous paranoia about the FBI in 1969. If you were an activist of any sort, you could count on being told by more experienced activists that, “For sure, the FBI has a file on you.”
The AWOL soldiers who came to Harvard Square knew that they could seek out an underground network of activists who would harbor them for a night or two, then shuffle them off to another person or group, gradually moving them north through greater New England until they were safely over the border near Montreal.
In the early morning hours of April 8, 1969, I happened to be walking from my rooming house by the Fogg Museum to Harvard Yard, my usual path to the MBTA to go to my hospital job when I encountered the SDS occupation of University Hall, a protest of the school’s Reserve Officer’s Training Corps or ROTC program.
The pandemonium was significant: police vans, flashing lights, sirens, tear gas, screams. The police were raiding the building and beginning to drag the occupying students outside. I scuttled behind some bushes and made my way to work, reliving the experience when I came home and watched the whole thing on the evening news.
Harvard SDS members in 1969 seemed to be cultivating a culture of violence that went against the ‘peace making” aspect of ‘The Movement’. Just because you were against the Vietnam War, didn’t mean that you approved of SDS.
Involvement in ‘The Movement’ in those days was tantamount to a career choice, since many believed that ‘The Movement’ was really the Second American Revolution. As a result, they began to live their lives accordingly. All other life matters like education and career planning were shoved aside because, as I so often heard, “It won’t matter after the Revolution.”
Todd Gitlin writes that he thought the Movement was going to be his life.
The son of immigrant Jewish parents, Gitlin says he was converted to socialism by reading George Bernard Shaw. He went on to write a number of books with sociopolitical themes, including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. (1987)
Talking about the book with NPR, Gitlin said that there were some clichés about the 1960s that he wanted to clear up.
“One is that everything that happened was wonderful. Another is that everything that happened was catastrophic and ruined America.
A third is that everyone was larger than life and strode through in an incendiary way, burning everything down. I call it the Big Bang Theory of history—the notion that everything happened at once. You know, hey, it’s John Lennon and Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam and Martin Luther King, brought to you by Ed Sullivan or something like that. The ‘60s took 10 years to happen.”
But Gitlin’s love affair with the Left would have a rude awakening in the 1970s.
This was the time of the Yom Kippur War, and the 1975 resolution stating that Zionism is a form of racism.
“As the Vietnam War was ending, my view of the world was enlarging,” Gitlin wrote.
The anti-Semitism that Gitlin witnessed among the Black Panthers was distressing enough, but now he found himself asking: How did the State of Israel get to be the Great Satan among his fellow radicals? He wrote,
“It continues to bother me that hatred of the state of Israel has become a touchstone of Left Wing identity. It’s almost like what is required in Left Wing circles is a hatred of Israel.”
Gitlin died at age 79 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 2022 of a heart condition, but before his death he had already crossed swords with the Left on political issues unrelated to Israel.
Gitlin’s February 5, 2022 New York Times obituary states that his book, “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” details “the rise and fall of the Left during that decade of upheaval,” and that “the leftists who held sway, were never prepared to govern.”
“I’m glad we’re in no position to take power: If we did, the only honorable sequel would be abdication,” Gitlin wrote.
The leftists in Boston-Cambridge certainly had no plans for what would come after the Revolution. The great fantasy among some radicals I was acquainted with was the renaming of large government buildings in Washington D.C.
The Pentagon would be renamed The Great Hall of the People; the White House would become, The People’s House while the Supreme Court become People’s Justice Hall.
Everything seemed to be modeled on the philosophy in the little red book that was making the rounds in Cambridge bookstores, ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.’
In Gitlin’s 1995 book, ‘The Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars,” the former president of SDS wrote that the Left had become distracted by identity politics, multiculturalism and political correctness when it should have concentrated on issues like economic justice.
“While the right has been busy taking the White House, the Left has been marching on the English Department,” he wrote.
Leftist critics stood in line to gang up on him.
Kirkus Reviews stated that the book made for “provocative and convincing reading that will doubtless earn Gitlin demerits from the P.C. orthodox.”
“Gitlin sees himself as an independent thinker and heretic who dares to dissent from common left wisdom,” The Times quoted Douglas Kellner, a media literacy professor at the University of California, as saying.
“But the positions Gitlin himself ends up affirming are ever more frequently simply those of conservatives, such as his trashing of theory, cultural studies, postmodernism, the academic left and university-based activism.”
Other leftist critics maintained that his “politics had turned to mush, that he offered no new ideas and that his writing had turned into score-settling.”
In a 2016 ‘New Statesman’ review of Daniel Oppenheimer’s book, “Exit Right: the People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century,” we read that,
“[David Horowitz’s] search for an agent of radical change in America had brought him into what Oppenheimer describes as ‘a close but fraught partnership’ with the Black Panther leader Huey Newton.
“By the mid-1970s the Panthers had passed their peak. Many of their leaders were dead or in jail; Newton had fled to Cuba after being accused of killing a teenage prostitute. In November 1974, a young Panther was shot dead at a Panther-run school, meant to be a sanctuary for troubled children, which Horowitz had raised money to build. When he attended the memorial service he found Panther guards standing around the open casket, black berets aslant and shotguns held high. Faced with the jarring conjunction of children and guns, he began to realise that he was done with the revolutionary left…”
One wonders if Gitlin lived, if he would eventually also have had such an epiphany.