Carl Oglesby, RIP


Carl Oglesby, president of the New Left group Students for a Democratic Society from 1965 to 1966, has died at age 76. As the mid-'60s melted into the fiercer, harsher end of the decade, another SDS leader tried to sum up the mix that made up the organization: "We have within our ranks Communists of both varieties, socialists of all sorts, 3 or 4 different kinds of anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, syndicalists, social democrats, humanist liberals, a growing number of ex-YAF libertarian laissez-faire capitalists, and, of course, the articulate vanguard of the psychedelic liberation front." On that spectrum, Oglesby stood somewhere between the libertarians and the liberal humanists. He wasn't really a laissez-faire man—he was capable of criticizing Eugene McCarthy for opposing a minimum-wage bill—but he fell in with the libertarians anyway, famously writing in his 1967 book Containment and Change that "the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate."

In Ravens in the Storm, a memoir published near the end of his life, Oglesby explained the origins of the argument:

[Richard] Shaull [Oglesby's Containment and Change co-author] had recently discovered two historians who rang my bells…One was the liberal William Appleman Williams, and the other was the conservative Murray Rothbard. They were both libertarians, and that is what I had begun calling myself.

I still do. Libertarianism is a stance that allows one to speak to the right as well as to the left, which is what I was always trying to do.

The center-left establishment, he felt, was much more dangerous than the free-market right. This was a natural extension of arguments that Oglesby had already been making. Even before his collaboration with Shaull, he had delivered an influential speech denouncing corporate liberalism:

We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.

The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war—those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.

But so, I'm sure, are many of us who are here today in protest. To understand the war, then, it seems necessary to take a closer look at this American liberalism. Maybe we are in for some surprises. Maybe we have here two quite different liberalisms: one authentically humanist; the other not so human at all.

The decade wore on. The Stalinists took over SDS, and their faction fights ripped the group apart. Cast adrift, Oglesby turned to music, recording a couple of pretty good albums—folk-rock with touches of blues, country, and psychedelia. And then he started chasing conspiracies, writing several books about the JFK assassination and the like. The best-known of those, The Yankee and Cowboy War (1977), argued that the American ruling class was divided against itself, with northeastern corporate liberals squaring off against the rising Sunbelt right. As sociology, it was a persuasive thesis, though it wasn't always so persuasive when it laid out the covert crimes that those Yankee and Cowboy warriors had allegedly committed against each other.

I met Oglesby at a Libertarian Party convention in 1991. We had been seated at the same table during Ron Paul's dinner speech, an anti-imperialist stemwinder that left the old New Leftist dazed and awed. (At one point he turned to no one in particular and let out an impressed "Who is this guy?") There were three or so other people at the table, among them Jeff Tucker, who was covering the convention for the conservative paper Human Events. In one unexpected moment, Tucker had some kind words for Noam Chomsky and Oglesby replied that Chomsky was too left-wing for his taste. Any residual attachment I had to the left/right spectrum should have evaporated right then: I had to pause a moment to remind myself which was the Human Events reporter and which was the former president of SDS.

Oglesby and I spoke occasionally after that but fell out of touch in the mid-'90s; the last I remember talking to him was when I solicited a short piece for Liberty about the death of his friend Karl Hess, a Goldwater speechwriter who had joined SDS. "I think the two of us were bookends," Oglesby wrote. "He came from the Right and recognized the importance of the critique from the Left of contemporary Western society. And I came from the Left, and through a variety of intellectual circumstances came very early in my period of being a public spokesperson against the Vietnam War to understand myself as operating in a tradition of libertarianism. My complaint about the war was a libertarian complaint. My complaint against the government that waged the war was couched in libertarian terms….We felt a real solidarity with one another in trying to work out, in practical terms, what that union of the libertarian Left and the social-conscience Right might be able to offer the country." It still might offer something, even if Oglesby unfortunately won't be around to be a part of it.

Bonus link: Bill Kauffman interviews Oglesby for Reason.

Bonus song: