My secret life as a revolutionary

I moved into
Wentworth Hall in Harvard Yard in the fall of '68, not long after
those turbulent scenes in the boulevards of Paris. Harvard College
was intimidating in its niceness. I had miraculously slithered
through the admission process and felt as though I didn't belong. And
I didn't. The guys across the hall all had 1600 on their SATs; one
had topped New York State's Regent Exam. I just smiled my best Mona
Lisa smile when it was my turn to boast about my score.

As on every
university campus, student societies flourished like weeds, watered
by Harvard's generous funding and an abundance of free time. I went
to the introductory meeting of the Students for a Democratic Society,
as democracy seemed like a good idea. One of the recruiters -- was it
Steve? -- visited my room to recruit me for the revolution. He was a
Trotskyite Marxist, and seemed rather intense. As a Groucho Marxist,
I was reluctant to join a party that was willing to admit me as a
member. So my involvement in the SDS ended before it began.

In any case I was
pre-occupied with studying. I had a simple plan. Every waking moment
was to be devoted to study, apart from meals and late-night BS
sessions with my room-mates about the relative merits of Ayn Rand and
Jacques Maritain. Until midnight or 2am I studied and during my
lectures I snoozed. It was a simple plan and it didn't work too well.
My first assignment was returned with a scrawled message from my
tutor: "this must be the worst essay I have ever read. D-".

And so one day of
misery followed another until April 1969 arrived, breeding lilacs out
of the dead land (T.S. Eliot was It in those days). Harvard was
lovely that spring, the lawns a lush green, the ivy resplendent
against colonial red brick, the maples inviting you to sprawl in
their shade. But as the Good Book says, Spring is the time when kings
march out to battle. And the SDS declared war on Harvard's Reserve
Officers' Training Corps, the military-industrial complex, Jim Crow,
poverty in the Third World, and the insolence of university
administrators. On April 9 Steve and his friends occupied University
Hall, ejected the administrators and chained the doors shut.

I had a window seat
on this drama, as my room overlooked the main entrance to the
beginning of the Revolution. The University President, Nathan Pusey,
was perplexed, but he screwed up his courage and called in the
police. They gathered in the darkness outside Harvard Yard and
marched in at dawn, broke in and hauled out the revolutionaries,
including Steve. However the SDS was not caught napping. They had set
off the fire alarms in all the dormitories, sleepy students spilled
out, and the police had to push their way through a mob of jeering,
spitting, cursing students. It was a lot of fun.

There was
nigh-universal revulsion amongst faculty and students at the
high-handedness of President Pusey. According to the holy tradition
of sanctuary, police were never to set foot on the campus. So first
we boycotted classes and then we went on strike. There was an
interminable meeting at the football stadium which began with 12,000
people and ended with 6,000. We voted to strike. There was another,
smaller meeting which lifted the strike three days later. I seem to
recall innumerable squadrons of paper airplanes gliding over the
stadium and covering the grass like snow. The participants found the
succession of impassioned revolutionaries even more boring than their
lecturers. This was democracy in action, not the capitalist-roader
fraud of the secret ballot.

And that just about
wrapped up my first year at Harvard. It was hard to apply yourself to
the books with revolutionary slogans buzzing in your ears -- "Abolish
ROTC", "A strong people need no leader", "End the
war now / save the country", "Free Bobby", and Mao-st
perplexing of all "Let the circle be unbroken / rally around the
8 demands!" I returned to classes, but the professors had lost
interest. Officially there were exams, but my philosophy tutor told
us to skip it if we didn't feel like it. Phase One of my introduction
to revolutionary political praxis drew to a close.

In my sophomore year
I attended Phase Two, this time in elementary revolutionary
consciousness. The lessons took place, not on the campus, but in
Eliot House, the dorm where I lived. I had three room mates there,
one a counter-revolutionary bourgeois, the other two, M and B, fully
committed to liberating themselves from cultural oppression. At the
beginning of the year M was busy writing a pornographic science
fiction novel while B read advanced physics texts in a corner. Their
study plan evolved but by the Spring of 1970 it had become very
simple. They slept for eight hours, played chess for eight hours and
smoked dope for eight hours. Sometimes, for a break, they played
pinball. In fact, they played so much pinball that M bought his own
machine to save money. Sometimes half of Eliot House was there,
playing for free. M made me pay.

When I returned from
the library late in the evening, I had to wave my way through a fog
of hashish smoke. Even though the patron saint of LSD, Timothy Leary,
was a professor at Harvard, M didn't care much for it. However, he
was open to other experiments. He discovered, for instance, that
several spoonfuls of nutmeg will make you high. One day there was a
rumour that smoking dried banana peel fibres would, too. He rushed
down to the Harvard Square supermarket, but the bananas had all sold
out. He was not the only dedicated revolutionary on campus.

When the riots began
in the Spring, with police cordoning off streets and lobbing tear gas
cannisters down Massachusetts Avenue, M and B felt exhilarated. I
remember B leaping from from his physics book when he heard that a
bomb had exploded in a university building. "The revolution has
arrived!" he howled, and charged down the stairs to join the
chanting crowd. I'm not sure what happened to B, as he failed to
attend his exams and dropped out. I never heard from him again. M
took No-Doze for a couple of weeks and scraped through his exams in
1970. Then he took a year off and went to Berkeley where he lived in
the Student Union and babysat and shoplifted to support himself.

So that was the way
the Revolution of '68 played out for me. What was it all about? Paper
planes and banana peels and pinball, as far as I could see. So much
palaver. So much rage. So little sense. President Pusey apparently
thought that our year (or perhaps the year before us) was the worst
ever to pass through Harvard. So at least we contributed something.
The Class of '72: Harvard's benchmark for under-achievement.

Still, I reckon
President Pusey's assessment was a bit unfair. Most students are
gullible and easily led. But his faculty went on strike, too. Why was
America's Hollywood for Intellectuals unable to resist the virus of
Dionysian insanity which swept across campuses in the early 70s? Why,
for that matter, has it been powerless to resist subsequent waves of
political correctness? Perhaps the Revolution of '68 never really
perished, just faded away until it became the very air they breathe
at Harvard.

Michael Cook is
editor of MercatorNet.


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