Antiwar 3

It was a time when many institutions of higher learning were getting rid of teachers with known leftist sympathies. Eugene Genovese, who has written so eloquently on the history of slavery, was fired by Rutgers for stating that he wished for a Viet Cong victory. Another professor was dismissed from Brooklyn College, a branch of the State University of New York (SUNY) , for publicly rescinding the loyalty oath then demanded of all faculty in the extensive SUNY system.

The people that Allen Krebs engaged to set up the Free University of New York represented every shade of opinion across the New Left: poets and writers, disaffected scholars, union organizers, activists, free-lance journalists and publishers , creative individuals of every sort. Our goal from the beginning was to establish a forum in which every direction of contemporary political activism would be represented. Courses were to be taught by persons actually involved in bringing about the changes they were advocating.

The curriculum for the first two terms contained, in addition to those on leftist politics, courses ranging from hallucinatory drugs to sexual liberation to astrology. Important courses were offered that were not available, or even imaginable, at many main-stream universities : History of the American Left ( Staughton Lynd) ; History of the Labor Movement ( Stanley Aronowitz) ; Cuba Today; Training in non-violent tactics; History of the National Liberation Front. Paul Krassner, editor of the scathing and satiric political magazine, The Realist, gave a course entitled " Why the New York Times is funnier than Mad Magazine." I myself offered a course on modern European scientific ideologies: psycho-analysis, existentialism, phenomenology and positivism. ( Within a few years these evolved into a pair of courses which were presented in Philadelphia in 1967: Epistemology of modern physics; and History and Epistemology of modern psychiatry. The course notes for these have been worked up into books which are on this website)

The enthusiasm that prevailed in the first term of the Free University of New York, from November '65 to February '66, carried over into the spring. It was an inspiring time for all concerned.

By then however it had become crystal clear that the original promoters of the concept had never really wanted a free university. From the beginning all decision making was concentrated in the hands of a small number of persons of virtually identical ideological persuasion. These people had not been selected at random. Although Allan Krebs had succeeded in projecting an appearance of democratic procedure, he wasn't going to allow any opinions contrary to his own to determine the policies of the school.

The frankest expression of the real intentions of its directors was made by Roger Taus, a Krebs' aide-de-camp, at a faculty meeting towards the end of the first term. In explaining why a course about Fascism that had been proposed by a professor at Columbia University was not acceptable to them, he commented: " An objective account of Fascism must be Marxist-Leninist. Therefore the course on Fascism he is proposing can't be objective."

All through the summer of 1965 everyone involved in the school, both teachers and students, contributed several hours per day to rehabilitating the locale. Classrooms were created in lofts on the upper two floors above a wide store front on 14th Street, ( between 5th and 6th Avenues and a block away from Union Square). Keys to the building had been handed out to us while this work was in progress. Towards September, a few weeks before classes were due to begin, Allen Krebs brought in a locksmith and changed all the locks. Locks were also put on the telephones and the door to the main office. No-one had been consulted or told: it was a takeover bid, pure and simple.

After that three people alone decided who could enter the building and when: Allen Krebs, his wife Sharon, and Secretary-Treasurer James Mellon. A series of insurmountable physical barriers now separated the loyal inner circle of the school, both from the student body it was designed to serve, and a faculty which soon came to realize to what extent their reputations had been cynically exploited by its originators.

We discovered that there was no accountability for the finances of the school, firmly in the hands of Sharon Krebs and James Mellon. The fee for per course at the Free University had been fixed at $3.00 . This was more than reasonable, even by 1965 prices. On the positive side, the policies of the school were generous in admitting those who didn't have the means to pay. The word "free" in Free University meant, as in any other non-profit enterprise, "after expenses". This tuition went to cover the rental of the premises, utilities, transportation for the instructors, and working expenses. What was left over was supposed to go into a fund which might eventually be used to pay us a small salary.

But in practice no-one had any idea where the money went. James Mellon never allowed any of us to see the books. Broaching the subject to him at a faculty meetings could result in a temper tantrum. Along with charging us all with ingratitude, he might hurl accusations against specific individuals.

The following months brought a series of unpleasant incidents, effectively dispelling all remaining doubts that the Free University of New York was being run as anything other than a dictatorship, based on a political ideology emanating directly from the headquarters of the Progressive Labor Party. Both Mellon and the Krebses were officers in the New York chapter of this Maoist party. Some of us began to suspect that the money being paid into the school was being used as a direct source of financing for the PLP.

Examples of such incidents include the insulting treatment being handed out to right-wing or conservative participants in forums and open discussions at the school; the increasingly hostile treatment meted out to persons proposing courses at variance with the PLP line; the undemocratic ways by which certain people gained access to administrative positions ; the personal accusations and slanders, including trumped up charges, leveled against people the PLP affiliates didn't like; and other things of a similar nature.

To me the saddest element of this ruthless takeover of a potentially revolutionary institution by the adherents of a dogmatic ideology , was that no one seemed to really care very much. No doubt I am being too hasty in my judgment because months after quitting, I was still learning of faculty members organizing among themselves to wrest control away from the Maoists, though without avail. While I was still there as much time and energy as I could spare was devoted to rectifying the situation.

A personal crisis was reached mid-way through the second term when, at a faculty meeting, Allen Krebs accused me of stealing school property and James Mellon threatened to throw me down the stairs. These slanders did not affect my standing with the rest of the faculty; they rather contributed further to opening our eyes as to the true character of the people we were dealing with.

Soon afterwards Paul Krassner got disgusted and left. A month later a biting satirical takeoff on the Free University of New York appeared in The Realist. After learning of this misconduct the writer and social philosopher Paul Goodman, author of several works on alternative institutions of education and one of the co-founders of Black Mountain College, withdrew his offer to give a course. I held up longer than most but eventually followed suit.

For most of the members of the glamorous leftist faculty the Free University had solicited one semester was enough. Implicit in their sudden departure was the notion that the institution held nothing worth preserving: the Maoists had set the tone and nothing could be done about it. Tuli Kupferberg, poet and founder of the provocative anarchist Rock Band The Fugs , ( "Kill For Peace" ) tried to set up a chapter of SDS at the Free University. It was banned less than a month later. A well-attended debate between and Allan Krebs and Hermann Kahn, ("Thinking The Unthinkable") of the RAND corporation , brought a group of Young Republicans to the building. They explained that they were there to hear Kahn defend their beliefs. The whole contingent was rudely pushed out the front door by security monitors under orders from James Mellon.

From 1967 until its demise a few years later, the "Free School of New York" ( The name "Free University" had to be dropped because New York State law requires that a 'university' have at least $100,000 in the bank.) was a Progressive Labor Party institute for the teaching of Maoism. A handful of neutral courses continued to supply a veneer of freedom of thought, but one only had to read the ads that appeared in the Village Voice and New York Times to know its true agenda. We must consider ourselves fortunate that its influence never grew to the point of touching off a Cultural Revolution in the United States.

Along with the brief and exciting flowering of Underground newspapers, the Free University movement was an important development in the evolution of the New Left of the 60's . Victim to the contradictions inherent in the makeup of the New York Left, the Free University of New York could do no more than hint at the possibilities of what might have been accomplished.

Through the presentation of a series of representative developments we have tried to evoke the context in which the antiwar movements of the 60's in New York City operated. The issues at stake were not specific, of course, to New York City alone, or even to the United States. They were typical of what one can expect to happen whenever intellectuals try to organize themselves around concerted action against unjust governments engaged in crimes against humanity . Factionalism, quarrels over means and ends, the difficulties involved in well-defined objectives, takeovers of collective enterprises by narrowly conceived ideologies, are endemic to leftist politics everywhere. Few human beings are really free in their own minds. Power plays, clashes of ego, grand-standing, even despotism are bound to arise in organizations, however idealistic, set up for achieving political goals.

The ways in which the New Left of the 60's in New York City interacted, with itself and the surrounding society, provide one with crucial insights into the overall structure of American political reality.

The first thing to note is that direct access to conventional power politics, that is to the electoral process now in the hands of the Democratic and Republican parties is virtually impossible for anyone with a left agenda. There are some exceptions, but the overall picture is unchanged by them. As it is, political activity in New York City is particularly intense. In comparison much of the rest of the United States appears to be sleeping.

Yet even in New York City, as much today as it was in the 60's , one will find no representative of any alternative party in any elected position in the municipal government. The Democratic Party presents itself as the liberal alternative, and encourages all independent radical causes to ally themselves with it. Someone with a more discerning perspective would rather be inclined to conclude that the Democratic and the Republican parties are merely the carrot and stick of a consistent program of behavior modification. Very often, appealing to the two established political parties serves merely to give a veneer of credibility to career politicians who do not merit it.

The overall effect of this ostracism from the official political process is that any initiative taken by the Left is always partly paralyzed from the beginning by its sense of futility. The inevitable factionalism dissipates what little force remains. In the long run, one is obliged to treat left-wing politics as a pastime, like playing golf. Those who refuse to acknowledge that a passionate commitment to social change should be treated as a mere hobby, condemn themselves to a sub-standard existence, working for organizations with an ephemeral life-span.

Without access to the press, without a voice, pushed out to the fringes of a monolithic capitalist society, unable in good conscience to accept employment across a wide spectrum of professions, a sincere believer in the politics of opposition who wants to live and work in New York City, must also struggle against a economic environment that is particularly harsh and desperate, a struggle which, in fact, he must eventually lose. One way or another, the kind of life one is forced to live is best exemplified in the word "hustling" .

One also has to deal with the relentless manipulation of public opinion by Madison Avenue, the media and other propaganda vehicles. Much has been written on this subject. Yet I had the impression at times that there was an excessive need for the New York Left to justify its existence through the credibility acquired through recognition by the press. Although no thinking person would acknowledge the principle that states that truth must lie with the majority, so much of American life is built around this notion that it is almost impossible to resist it in practice. At the same time if one allows oneself to be seduced by this doctrine one risks seeing one's hopes for lasting change suffocated under the forces of reaction, fashion, and public opinion. It becomes impossible to construct an image of one's public save in terms of the means by which it can be reached. And these means are always in the hands of the enemy. It has become adept at persuading the mass that it believes what this small group of people wants it to believe: that's public opinion. In practical terms one cannot present the facts of any issue of political substance to the news media and expect that they will be communicated to the public in some recognizable form.

It is my hope that this all too brief report conveys something of the experience of involvement in leftist activities against the Vietnamese War, in New York during the crucial period of its escalation into a major conflict.

Return to Cities