A Time for Learning

— Jane Slaughter

I DON’T RECALL being aware of the events in France in May–June 1968. I was in college, beginning to get radicalized on several fronts, notably the war. Something called the “Free University” was started in Washington, D.C., and I signed up for a class on communes. I remember well a presentation that spring, in which the speaker kept referring to “the Establishment.”

Somehow, that term opened up some understanding for me. My thought process was, Yes, there is an Establishment. Therefore, I have to do something about it. But what will I do?

Confronted with that challenge, I felt lost and unsure. I was involved in some campus protests over student issues and a few antiwar activities (our campus was called by one activist “a hotbed of apathy”). I was aware of how little I knew; my impulse was to try to be as radical as possible.

At one campus protest, 600 students had filled a hall, and a heated debate came up over whether to spend the night or leave. I found myself going back and forth, agreeing with the previous speaker. There was a small SDS chapter on our campus, but I didn’t dare join. The SDSers seemed to know so much; it was intimidating.

At the beginning of 1969, in my last semester of college, I moved into a communal house some of whose members were connected to the radical Catholic wing of the antiwar movement (Catonsville 9, pouring blood on draft records and the like). One of its members was the anti-Establishment speaker I’d heard at the Free University.

The first time I picked up feminist ideas was in the spring of 1969. I overheard two of my housemates, Billie Ann and Les, having an argument. Billie Ann was saying that women were oppressed — arguments about the need for liberation that were soon ABC to women activists — and Les was pooh-poohing the idea.

I was fascinated and wanted to know more. But Les and Billie Ann were giving no quarter; I knew that if I joined the conversation, I wouldn’t be able to counter Les’s arguments. So I hid behind the door, to eavesdrop!

In February 1971, I went to work at the national office of the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice, which was one of two national coalitions organizing a huge antiwar demonstration in Washington. Again, I was intimidated by my lack of knowledge and experience. I volunteered to be in charge of the mailing list; that was something I felt I could handle! I remember Sid Peck describing me as “task-oriented.”

Later that year, my boyfriend and I were recruited by Michael Lerner to organize for the founding convention of the New American Movement (NAM), a new socialist group. Lerner said, “We need young socialists like yourselves ...”

I had never thought of myself as a socialist before, but I decided I’d better become one fast. In a meeting, someone mentioned “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” a term I wasn’t familiar with.

I blurted, “We’re not for that!” Lerner took me aside afterwards and explained what it meant.

By attending many NAM meetings and study groups, and later a socialist study group, I finally gained some knowledge about socialist ideas. Some NAM members wanted to do workplace organizing, and I got a job with the express purpose of organizing a union, so that I could learn how it was done.

There, I learned on the job; when we finally lost the union election many months later, by one vote, I could finally take stock and see all the mistakes our organizing committee had made. For example, we kept the committee small! We got almost no direction from a union organizer, much less from any experienced socialist comrades. Either would have made a big difference.

The theme I see in these tales of my 1968 radicalization and thereafter is one of too much insecurity and ignorance. I should have made an effort to educate myself earlier — as I finally did when I joined NAM and became a workplace organizer — rather than holding back because of lack of knowledge. And it makes me think about how political organizations can and should be welcoming to new members. We need to make sure there’s no atmosphere of “private club for smart people.”

ATC 133, March–April 2008