Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolution

Lerner, Jonathan
Publisher:  OR Books
Date Written:  01/06/2017
Year Published:  2017  
Pages:  220pp   Price:  $18.00   ISBN:  978-1-682190-98-2
Resource Type:  Book
Cx Number:  CX20612

Against the vividly evoked chaos and conflicts of the Vietnam Era, Jonathan Lerner probes the impulses that led a small group of educated, privileged young Americans to turn to violence as a means of political change.

Abstract: 
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Publisher's Description:

After the strikes at Columbia and Paris; after the assassination of King and the ensuing eruptions of black rage; after the stunning viciousness of the cops in Chicago; after the Democrats torpedoed the peace candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had won a plurality of primary votes, in favor of the war apologist Hubert Humphrey; after the Republicans nominated Richard Nixon who ran on a platform of "law and order," which we correctly understood to mean repression of antiwar, leftist, student, black, and Latino activists, et cetera; after this cascade of barbarities, when the school year began in September, SDS chapter meetings were standing-room only. Students in great numbers craved to connect and react and to hear our message. And we didn't hide our politics. That wasn't necessary, because the revolutionary vision coming from SDS was utopian and vague enough for anyone to feel included in it. It could attract anybody who had a sense of indignation or a renegade urge.

In truth, there was a spectrum of visions. There were organizers whose promised future drew directly from the Marxist-Leninist tradition: an industrial economy rationalized by centralized planning; a society in which classes would disappear as everyone was equalized, in which all would participate and by which all be taken care of. If the communist mother ship, the Soviet Union, seemed too chillingly bleak a model, there was the genuinely moving example of Cuba. Cuba was easily embraced because its history and impoverishment as a U.S. quasi-colony was obvious and shameful, and also because it was nearby, colorful, musical, warm, and seductive. And in revolutionary Cuba, inspiringly, the riches of an oligarchy had been nationalized so the former peasantry could receive literacy lessons, health care, and enough to eat. At the time we didn’t notice the police state aspect of the Cuban revolution.

The appeal wasn't all revolutionary economics, though. We were the New Left precisely to distinguish ourselves from fusty communist tradition. The economically unthreatened student population we were organizing among was actually more responsive to a critique about fairness and the failures of America’s democratic ideals and laws. To demonstrate that, one need point no further than examples of institutional racism, which were plentiful and everywhere, or to Vietnam, where famously and repeatedly it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it. Carl Oglesby had been SDS' national president a couple of years earlier (before the more egalitarian-sounding system of three national secretaries was adopted). (Carl had then been Antioch's "activist-scholar in residence," during my second year in college.) He had famously proclaimed to those who would call us anti-American, "Don’t blame me for that. Blame those who mouthed my liberal values, and broke my American heart."

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