This American Life

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He didn’t defy his draft board, nor carry a gun, nor peddle LSD. He was never a fugitive–was never in jail–nor did he visit Havana or Peking. Yet the FBI compiled more than 1,000 pages of information against him. Bob Pardun, a Coloradoan who lived in Austin during the Sixties, was a “subject” of the police because he was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, and as he makes clear in this memoir, Prairie Radical, that was nearly a crime.

Though he doesn’t spell it out as simply as this, during the Sixties, Pardun and SDS passed through three stages of internal life. His recollections are mostly about the second and third stages, and a fourth, post-SDS or decompression stage. His memoir is testimony to even a fifth and final stage of SDS, in which its members will either loudly come back–or quietly die.

In its first phase, 1960-63, SDS was a bookish social-democratic group, with Northeastern leaders, a tiny membership, and a timid program. In its second phase, 1964-67, SDS became an unruly and gigantic movement of activists, led–if SDS can be said to have been led–by anarchic, pot-smoking radicals from between the coasts, the prairie radicals of the book’s title. In its third phase, 1968-69, as students turned revolutionary, the prairie radicals lost influence–and SDS dissolved in factional strife.

Prairie Radical is the third book about SDS to be set mainly in Austin. The first of these, No Apologies (Eakin Press, 1989) is a collection by various participants at various stages, and suffers somewhat from the problem of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The Politics of Authenticity (Columbia University Press, 1998), is an evaluation made from the politics of the first phase. Prairie Radical speaks for the leaders who ascended during the second phase but lost sway during the third. Pardun’s work is probably the last Austin SDS book, because the insurgent leadership of the third phase was Communist, and its leaders–I was one of them–don’t see SDS as the key experience in their lives.

Pardun, born in 1941, came to UT in 1963 as a graduate student in math. Within weeks he joined picket lines at segregated locales, and along with the late Charlie Smith, found himself worrying about news from Vietnam. Though in their view the national organization was a bit stuffy, in late 1963 the two founded Austin SDS.

Picketing for integration was the group’s chief activity in its early days. During the summer of 1964, both Pardun and Smith went to Mississippi as volunteers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s nearly fruitless “White Folks Project.” Back in Texas that fall, Pardun dropped out of school to become a regional traveler for SDS, setting up chapters on far-flung campuses smaller than UT.

He was exploring new territory for a movement with no recent precedent in the southwest, and he had colorful work before him. At Lubbock’s Texas Tech, unable to locate his contacts, he sat beneath a posterboard sign labeled simply “SDS” until strangers befriended him. At North Texas State, he buttonholed long-hairs. His trips were chancy and uncertain affairs, punctuated by threats from people who taunted him as a “nigger lover” and sometimes tried to chase him back to Russia. It wasn’t like organizing on the East Coast.

Pardun was not a high-energy, I’ll-tell-you-what-to-do kind of guy, either. In meetings, he was often the last to speak, not because he had the final word, but because he wanted to hear what everyone else had to say. At a national level, he advocated organizational decentralism. At a local level, he was partisan to “participatory democracy” and consensus. With the face and physique of a Dust Bowl farmer, and the oratorical manner of a self-doubting saint, he was a model leader for an anti-authoritarian SDS.

In the book, he is perhaps at his best when quoting others whose forgotten remarks show what SDS wanted, and what it believed.

National SDS leader Paul Potter, for example, in a 1965 demonstration in Washington, D.C. called for a movement, “that makes possible the implementation of the values that would have prevented Vietnam.”

First-phase SDSers hadn’t talked much about values. But as anti-war activity heated up during the second phase, SDSers were looking for new worldviews, indulging in new tastes and lifestyles. Pardun, for whom LSD was practically religion, took the hippie lifestyle as a facet of the movement.

But neither critique nor lifestyle, without political gains, were enough by late 1967, when second-phase leaders began to worry about the realism of their project. Pardun puts its succinctly: “Protesting the war,” he writes, “assumed that it was a mistake and that if we could convince the war makers of that then the war would end.”

Escalations in ground forces and bombing–his book recounts them, brigade by brigade, ton by ton–told SDS that the war wasn’t simply a “mistake” and that hawks would not be persuaded–until and unless doves could take power away from them.

Several prairie leaders, notably Carl Oglesby, Greg Calvert, and Carl Davidson, began to concoct theories to deal with the task. Three elements were common to their formulations: the notion of a “New Working Class,” of “resistance,” and of youth as a powerful and independent force. The “New Working Class” was a highly technical, white-collar proletariat, whose members, proponents of the theory insisted, were going to replace the blue-collar industrial workforce. “Resistance” was a vaguer idea, which took practical form in a campaign to sabotage and derail the military draft. Youth were “revolutionary” because they weren’t sworn to doctrines about racial supremacy and My Country, Right or Wrong. They also smoked pot.

But the prairie leaders’ trinity didn’t satisfy everybody. The Progressive Labor Party, a Leninist group whose student wing was led by northeastern red-diaper babies, had a more traditional view of things. One of the themes of Prairie Radical is the PLP’s attempt to wrest control of SDS from the second phase’s leadership. The PLP’s entry into SDS opened its third phase, and, Pardun believes, led to the organization’s demise.

Instead of draft resistance, the PLP proposed that SDSers build a “Worker-Student Alliance.” The idea was to replace the Left that the unions had barred and expelled during the active phase of McCarthyism. The PLP’s slogan, “Build a Base in the Working Class,” offered radical students a plan, not only for our student years, but for the rest of our lives.

Most SDSers did not envision hanging around campus until we were in our late 20s or early 30s, as Pardun and the prairie leaders did. The draft was a transient issue in our personal lives, and organizing the New Working Class didn’t appear to make sense: In those heady days, most radical students regarded schoolteachers and accountants as fascists, anyway.

But several industries were experiencing a wave of “wildcat” or spontaneous strikes, and on most shop floors, foremen didn’t care what workers thought as long as they didn’t show up stoned. There was a freedom in labor-short factories that wasn’t available elsewhere.

The PLP told us to get jobs in manufacturing shops, and to remain there, agitating, until the Revolution came. Given the tumult of the sixties, most of us believed that if we could “Build a Base,” our sojourn wouldn’t last more than 20 years, and maybe not as long as that.

Pardun did not oppose the Worker-Student Alliance. But he denounced the tactics that the PLP brought into SDS. PLP minions argued and voted as a bloc, ill-disposed to the give-and-take that “participatory democracy” required. In a 1967 speech to a national meeting of SDS, Pardun warned that if factionalism wasn’t defused, the group would self-destruct in a couple of years. Indeed, in 1969, the factions came to a stand-off, and most of the prairie leaders walked out of SDS. It became a shell organization almost overnight.

The protest movement did not die with SDS, however; the biggest anti-war rallies came in 1970, after the bombing of Cambodia. But the post-SDS movement produced fewer multi-issue malcontents, in part because universal conscription had been replaced by a lottery draft, and in part, I believe, because the Pope of American discontent, Dr. King, was dead and nearly enshrined.

In Prairie Radical, Pardun makes an effort to account for the Austin chapter’s key moments. He describes pickets at the LBJ ranch, the founding of the Rag, the spread of Gentle Thursdays (days of unorganized hanging out and singing on the West Mall’s former greens), the death of George Vizard (founder of the Rag and a member of the Communist Party shot to death in 1966 by a right-wing fanatic), and the Free Speech protests of 1967. But he does not mention the Weedon demonstrations of 1969–probably because of his anti-PLP bias. The Weedon action, an anti-racist sit-in on the driveway of a service station in which some 30 demonstrators were arrested–an Austin record for the decade–was led by the Black Student Alliance and PLP types.

Pardun had not attended the 1969 summer SDS convention because, disgusted by both sides in the factional dispute, he had already dropped out. After a couple of years as a jewelry craftsman and wanderer, along with others who had belonged to Austin SDS, he fled to a commune in the Ozarks. There he lived in a yurt, staying in the hills until 1977, when he adopted a “normal” life as a high-order metalworker and welder. By then a parent, he even joined a fundamentalist church. His memoir indicates that he began to make sense of his former activism–to defend it and rethink it–when his church turned toward the Christian Right.

While Pardun winnowed in the Ozarks, some of his former comrades tried new gambits to keep their radicalism alive. His third-phase lover, Marilyn Buck of Austin, was sent to prison–where she remains–for her role in a group called The Black Liberation Army. Several of Pardun’s SDS prairie-leader friends, he learned from wanted posters in Ozarks post offices, were building bombs as the Weathermen.

PLPers were meanwhile at work in the shops, hawking newspapers at unemployment offices and factory gates, attending meetings of union and Party groups. Those of us who had no dependents gave every second paycheck to the cause.

Nothing characterized our lives so much as the bookshelves that we built in our closets, not so that nobody would see that we were Communists–that was no scandal at the time–but so that nobody would dismiss us as eggheads. If anything broke our spirit, it was that between our agitation schedules and our work lives, we didn’t have time to read books and speculate–and the PLP took a dim view of both pursuits, to boot. As for the workers, those who were literate were going to college, bound for the New Working Class–and they weren’t looking back. By the time that Pardun came down from the hills, most of us had joined them, abandoning the PLP as we went.

I have for several years proposed that SDS veterans put aside old differences to organize a new group–Seniors for a Democratic Society. But, Pardun tells me, most of the second-phase leaders are still licking their wounds, living in the intellectual Ozarks, and most former PLPers, I’ve learned, haven’t awakened from the nightmare that, history and our own experience now agree, Stalinism spun from the dynamics of the class struggle.

In 1993, Pardun discloses in his memoir, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Several SDS figures have already died of natural causes, and though a few of us will live a long time, our generation is now facing the fact that it, too, must pass. Pardun’s memoir, and my own, about the civil rights movement in Alabama, are the by-products of that sense of mortality. For us, all that remains to be seen is whether these books are a goodbye, or the announcement of an encore.

Dick Reavis is the author of If White Kids Die: Memories of a Civil Rights Volunteer (University of North Texas Press).