Writer on the Storm

Former New Left leader Carl Oglesby on the '60s, his old friend Hillary Clinton, and the dream of a left-libertarian alliance

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Oglesby: Not in any active sense. There were very few connections between SDS and right-wing organizations. I can’t say that ever panned out. On the other hand, SDS was never a socialist organization. That doesn’t deny the fact that most people in SDS, if they had to make a choice between socialism, liberalism, and capitalism, would have called themselves socialist.

Reason: But not you.

Oglesby: No. I was always suspicious of government-operated systems.

Reason: Were there particular libertarians who helped open your eyes to the Old Right/New Left congruence?

Oglesby: Murray Rothbard, with whom I had several very delightful conversations, was one of my favorites.

Reason: You proposed that SDS cooperate with the right-wing student group Young Americans for Freedom [YAF] on some projects. Did anything ever come of that?

Oglesby: I got denounced within SDS for that. In Southern California, some YAF guys did respond to the call and took part in our demonstrations against the war.

Reason: SDS finally collapsed, and out crawled the Weathermen. What was your experience with the Weathermen?

Oglesby: A good many of them were close friends. The ones who got killed in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion were especially close. Diana Oughten had been a babysitter of my kids. Terry Robbins had been the one guy in the world who listened to the lyrics of my songs and helped me figure out what I was trying to say. I remember talking about existentialism with Teddy Gold, spending a whole afternoon talking about Sartre and Heidegger and De Beauvoir.

I was close for a while to Bernardine Dohrn. I used to stay with her when I visited New York. Thought the world of her. Still like her, by the way. Jeff Jones was another Weatherman I was close to. I never thought they were right; I thought they were pushing the envelope in very destructive ways and were probably going to wind up hurting themselves and hurting SDS, which they now would acknowledge. Bernardine, early last year at a conference at Brown University, apologized for the role that she played. Very simply she stood up and said, “I’m sorry.” She didn’t have to explain what she was sorry for or why. She just said “I’m sorry” and sat down.

I had it pretty tough from the Weathermen for a while. I was seen as a despicable liberal. But I never felt impeded by the Weathermen. I was sorry that they destroyed SDS. Their view was that SDS had done what SDS could do and that now the struggle needed to be escalated. It was time to pick up the gun. And the Weatherkids thought they could get somewhere by doing that.

Reason: You quote Emma Goldman to great effect in the book.

Oglesby: “When you pick up the saber, you hand it to your enemies.”

Reason: The general view of the Weathermen today would be that they were nihilistic brats playing at violence. Is that unfair?

Oglesby: They weren’t nihilists. They were true believers. They had a passion for ridding the world, or the United States anyway, of a peculiarly odious form of cryptofascism, or militarism at least. They always were clear that they were fighting the militarizing of the United States and American foreign policy. They weren’t just into violence for violence’s sake. They were doing the best they could in their limited imagining of the situation to fight the people who were making things bad for Americans and Vietnamese and others around the world.

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  • ||

    Carl reinvents himself 40 years later! Two friends who attended the 1968 SDS convention returned to tell me that the Maoists had taken over the SDS. They said this in triumph, as they were quite sympathetic to that point of view. (I was disappointed. I had hoped the New Left might get beyond that.) They said Oglesby was the chief Maoist and had manipulated his own riseto power. Carl had no real organizer's skills, and he lost heart in the New Left with the death of his friends. The SDS did not fail due to the Weathermen, but because Carl seized power and then lost heart.

    I'm willing to believe that he is now a Libertarian, but there is no way he expressed that point of view then. The whole SDS Convention knew he was a Maoist, and he never denied it in 1968.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Two friends who attended the 1968 SDS convention returned to tell me that the Maoists had taken over the SDS. They said this in triumph, as they were quite sympathetic to that point of view. (I was disappointed. I had hoped the New Left might get beyond that.) They said Oglesby was the chief Maoist and had manipulated his own riseto power. Carl had no real organizer's skills, and he lost heart in the New Left with the death of his friends.

    Carl Oglesby was SDS chief from 1965 to 1966, not in 1968. And the Greenwich Village deaths didn't happen until 1970.

  • Episiarch||

    Now I don't know what to believe!

  • Jesse Walker||

    I think Blaupanzer is confusing Carl Oglesby with Carl Davidson, another SDS activist (and a bona fide Maoist).

  • Episiarch||

    Well, in all of their defense, they were probably pretty high at the time.

  • Paul||

    "humanistic individualism and voluntaristic associational action."



    So he wasn't exactly immune from the jargon-riddled patois of the 60's.

  • Paul||

    Whatever decision gets made, it should be democratic. It was on that basis that SDS cut through the whole argument about socialism vs. capitalism. We simply said that whatever economic formation we adopted should be adopted democratically and openly.



    Could this be the core of what ultimately turned out so wrong with the left? That they saw an opportunity to make economics itself democratically controlled, and thus we now have the world where the left believes that things like property rights should democratized?

  • ||

    Episiarch,

    Maoist movement high.

  • Episiarch||

    Maoist movement high.

    Is that the extreme altitude high you get when you invade Tibet?

  • Jesse Walker||

    I think it was a song by Bizarro-World John Denver.

  • ||

    And it's Jesse for the win. Though Episiarch's answer adds a nice nuance to the whole tune.

    Maoist mountain high.
    Damned Dalai Lama. Maoist mountain high.

  • ||

    "I think Blaupanzer is confusing Carl Oglesby with Carl Davidson, another SDS activist (and a bona fide Maoist)."

    Jesse may be right. After 40 years, maybe all the Carls blend together in my head. I still do not recall any SDSers who were in agreement with Goldwater (i.e., libertarians) in Oglesby's period of time.

  • Episiarch||

    Bizarro-World John Denver am me favorite singer-songwriter.

  • ||

    Is that the same Carl who blew up Bushwood under questionable circumstances? I didn't know that was politically motivated.

  • Jesse Walker||

    After 40 years, maybe all the Carls blend together in my head. I still do not recall any SDSers who were in agreement with Goldwater (i.e., libertarians) in Oglesby's period of time.

    I've read enough of Oglesby's '60s stuff to know that he wasn't a 100% pure libertarian on every issue. His basic values were solid, though, and he didn't have any totalitarian tendencies; I would be very surprised to learn it if he was carrying a torch for Chairman Mao.

    He also got more libertarian as he got older. Indeed, the one time I actually met him, in 1991, was at a Libertarian Party convention. We sat at the same table during a Ron Paul speech that blew Oglesby away.

  • ||

    If I remember rightly Karl Hess joined the SDS.

    And he wrote speeches for Goldwater.

  • ||

    Mind you, I'm also pretty sure that Karl was pretty much an outlier in the organization.

  • Kolohe||

    Ah, 'Students for a Democratic Society.' Worse misnomer since the Holy Roman Empire.

  • ||

    Whenever I imagine what it would had been like to be a part of the group of twentysomething radicals in The Weathermen, I just imagine what it would be like if all of my idiot twentysomething friends, people who can't even keep a rock band together, where to gang together and try to overthrow the government.

  • ||

    "Ah, 'Students for a Democratic Society.' Worst misnomer since the Holy Roman Empire."

    It wasn't a ridiculous misnomer until the Maoists took over. For a brief moment, the Left almost got reinvented as a democratic movement -- "overcome the republic by becoming even more democratic." This direction did not serve either the Socialists (read: those of the New Right by the later era under Bushes I and II) or the government (read: all organizations in that 60's era were viewed as either for the current system or as representing "evil Communists" (an unnecessary redundency)). One way or the other the ideals fell to be replaced by the intelligence guys' nightmare.

  • ||

    From what I understand, it was Oglesby who brought the communist factions into SDS by removing the organization's anti-communism stance.

  • ||

    You've got to remember that SDS was a very new organization, and the fact that I had just come in the door was not unique; a lot of people were in the same position. There had been a movement to get rid of the national officers on the grounds that to have a president, a vice president, a national secretary, was inherently elitist. I spoke against that, saying that SDS was going to be a part of the world and needed to have spokespeople it could hold to account. That position won out, somebody nominated me for president, and the winner turned out to be me.

    That's interesting; the current SDS has no national leadership and operate on a commune/co-op kind of structure, even when it comes to local chapters. I'd say that the former would be better for the reasons he said.

  • Gene Berkman||

    Carl Oglesby was a featured speaker in 1970 @ the "Left Right Festival of Liberation" sponsored by the California Libertarian Alliance. His speech was well delivered, although I am not sure what the substantive points were.

    Carl hung out both days of the convention, and on Monday hung out with Karl Hess (our other featured speaker) and some of the organizers. He was still developing his thoughts, but clearly in a libertarian direction. And he was not in any way a Maoist.

    I met Karl Hess originally at the 1969 YAF National Convention, and he showed me his SDS membership card. Then following the 1970 CLA conference, he joined the IWW at a party with a group of anarchists.

  • economist||

    I have none of Oglesby's faith in democracy.

  • ||

    Also, a while ago I asked some old SDS members whatever their was a libertarian presence within SDS and one of them said "fuck no."
    All three of them were Marxists, so I'd guess by the end of SDS came, the libertarians where completely ousted.

  • Matt||

    "The decision to take up weapons, to become violent-that was not a democratically reached decision."

    So according to theses liberals, the violence was fine if there had been a vote.

    The Founders understood democracy was bad because it would not protected the rights of the individual. Liberals are ALWAYS trying to confuse these principles. References in this article: Democracy - 13, Freedom - 0, Liberty - 0.

  • ||

    Hey I was in the Akron and Cleveland summer collectives with the KSU sds and then onto the Days of Rage- agree it was the JK,MLK, RFK shootings that mobilized us and I was in it for civil rights as my Akron Peace corps buddy JoeV

  • ||

    Carl Oglesby, Karl Hess and Tom Hayden spoke at the Left/Right Conference I attended @ USC in 1970. It was both leftist SDS and YAF / libertarian; and they agreed. They asked us to stay in school and get our degrees and teach - the goal was to initiate a long-term plan to "Change" America --- take over America via teaching the young people marxist ways .... which is exactly what's happened.
    I ended up dropping out but it was eye-opening as I came to start my own business and saw just how the world works .....

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