What Causes a Political Sea Change?
I learned what causes a sea change in people’s political behavior at Dartmouth College, in 1969, a year after I graduated. Here’s the story.
As a student at Dartmouth from 1964 until my graduation in 1968 I was very opposed to the War in Vietnam. With less than a dozen other like-minded students and a couple of anti-war faculty members, we tried to persuade other students to oppose the war too. But it was initially tough going. We distributed leaflets and engaged in informal dorm discussions and so forth, but saw little evidence that it was accomplishing much. We also stood in a “peace vigil” with a large sign that said simply “PEACE.” We did this every Wednesday at noon on the grassy “Common” in the center of the campus, for years.
During my last year before graduating we organized a “teach-in” against the war. We invited as speakers not only nationally known opponents of the war, like the editor of Ramparts magazine, but also one of the government’s chief defenders of the war, the Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asian Affairs, whose last name, if I recall correctly, was Dean.
The teach-in was one of the first such teach-ins in the nation. Hundreds of Dartmouth students came to it to hear the pro-war government representative confront the anti-war speakers. Many hoped to see the government demolish the anti-war side. What they saw, however, was very different. Faculty members who were experts on Southeast Asia exposed lie after lie uttered by the Assistant Secretary of State, to his face, and students in the audience saw that the man could not defend his lies credibly. It was a memorable experience for me. I saw conservative fraternity types who came to cheer the Assistant Secretary of State look in disbelief as it became clear the war was based on nothing but lies. I saw in the expressions on their faces that they were abandoning their support of the war. And each of them saw the same thing in the faces of the others.
The teach-in had two “roving microphones” so that people in the audience could participate with not only questions but comments of their own. The pro-war side was fully represented, and failed—in the sight of all— to stand up to scrutiny.
That was 1968.
The following year I stayed around as an SDS [Students for a Democratic Society—the big anti-war organization at the time, of which we anti-war students at Dartmouth had constituted ourselves a chapter] regional traveler (my first job after graduating.) We continued to hold our little “peace vigils” with eight or ten people every Wednesday at noon, not knowing what else we could do.
Then one day the Dartmouth Conservative Society put out an edition of their newspaper with a headline calling for “Splatter Warfare” in Vietnam. They advocated dropping nuclear bombs on North Vietnam. As bad as that was, they did something else that frightened us even more, because we knew it was really going to happen. They called for a pro-war demonstration in one month, on a Wednesday, at noon, on the “Common” exactly where they knew we would be.
We felt nothing but dread as the terrible day approached, knowing that in order to save face we had no choice but to continue our peace vigil no matter what. I remember wishing that somehow I could snip the space-time continuum to jump over the dreaded day without having to actually experience it.
When the awful day did nonetheless arrive, I approached the Common from a distance and what I first saw there was fifty students holding pro-war signs. I said to myself, “Oh shit!” But then I saw something else. It was something I’d never seen before or expected to see. It was a long “snake” of people that winded all over the entire grassy Common. It consisted of 1500 people. And they were holding anti-war signs! This on a campus at which the entire student body consisted of only 3,000 students.
This was the day everything changed.
The previous day we viewed ourselves as a tiny minority among a majority that disagreed with us. On this day we learned that we were the majority.
We held an SDS meeting to discuss what to do. We decided to do something that, previously, we would never have even dreamed of doing in a million years—forcibly occupy the administration building and demand the abolition of the military reserve officer training program on campus, ROTC, that produced 2nd lieutenants for the war.
I distinctly remember something that happened at the next SDS meeting, just before we occupied the administration building. One student at the meeting, who had never shown any initiative or much enthusiasm for anything before, was holding in his hands an electric drill and some lock hasp hardware. I asked him, “What’s that all about?” He replied, “Well, if we’re going to take over the building, we should remove their locks and install our own.” This was when I realized there had been a sea change. People were actually doing things—concrete acts of resistance and rebellion—that a couple of weeks ago nobody in their right mind would have even considered. A few days later hundreds of students took over the administration building. They ordered the deans to leave. When one dean refused to leave, they grabbed the chair he was sitting in and carried it, with the dean, down three flights of stairs and deposited him outside on the grass. And yes, we replaced the old locks with our own.
The College called the police and forcibly removed students from the building after a couple of days, arresting forty and placing them in jails scattered all over New Hampshire in order to make it hard to mount a protest because supporting friends and relatives would be dispersed to distant jail locations. The College even, at first, refused to provide the jailed students materials to study for final exams, knowing that failing grades would mean they’d lose their student deferment and be drafted into the military.
In response to the College’s crackdown, many more hundreds of students protested, and a student strike developed. The faculty passed a resolution calling for ROTC to be abolished. The Trustees of the College held an emergency meeting and concluded that the College could not resume normal operations with ROTC on campus. They abolished ROTC. And it stayed abolished for ten years.
The most important lesson of my life
I learned the most important lesson of my life at Dartmouth—a year after graduating. The lesson is this. It takes two things to cause the kind of political sea change that led students at Dartmouth to take the collective, militant action that, alone, could have abolished ROTC—action that, before the sea change, would have been considered out of the question. The two things are these: 1) People must know that their anti-establishment beliefs and aims are morally right. 2) People must know that in having their anti-establishment beliefs and aims they are not only morally right, but also a majority.
To make a revolution, people must 1) know they are morally right in wanting one, and they must also 2) know that, in wanting a revolution, they are in the majority.
The strategy for building a revolutionary movement is to use tactics designed to ensure that people know both of these things. Either one, by itself, is not enough. Both, in combination, however, cause a political sea change. When this happens, people on their own initiative will do amazing things, like the fellow who showed up with the drill and hasp.
When the sea change occurs, there will be a need for organization just as the building takeover at Dartmouth required organization. But before the sea change has occurred, the goal of our organizations is to do what it takes to create the sea change, which is not the same thing as carrying out the kinds of collective actions that can actually make a revolution.
As more and more Americans are realizing that we have only a fake democracy controlled by the rich, the first requirement for revolution—that people know it is morally right to want one—is getting easier and easier to meet. It is the second requirement— people knowing that, in wanting a revolution, they are the majority—that is our great challenge to meet. The ruling class’s mass media are not persuasive when they try to argue that the rule of the rich is morally right, but they have been quite successful in persuading the public that, contrary to the truth, only a fringe minority wants revolution. We need to figure out ways of letting people learn that it’s a majority, not a minority, that knows we have a fake democracy and wants a real one and knows it will take revolution to get it. When we do this, the sea change will change the world. Nothing will be the same.