I moved into Wentworth Hall in Harvard Yard in the fall of ’68, not long after those turbulent scenes in the boulevards of Paris. I had miraculously slithered through the admission process and felt as though I didn’t belong. And I didn’t. The guys across the hall all had 1600 on their SATs; one had topped New York State’s Regent Exam. I just smiled my best Mona Lisa smile when it was my turn to brag about my score.
As on every university campus, student societies flourished like weeds, watered by Harvard’s generous funding and an abundance of free time. I went to the introductory meeting of the Students for a Democratic Society, as democracy seemed like a good idea. One of the recruiters — was it Steve? — visited my room to recruit me for the revolution. He was a Trotskyite Marxist, and seemed rather intense. As a Groucho Marxist, I was reluctant to join a party that was willing to admit me as a member. So my involvement in the SDS ended before it began.
In any case I was preoccupied with studying. I had a simple plan. Every waking moment was to be devoted to study, apart from meals and late-night BS sessions with my room-mates about the relative merits of Ayn Rand and Jacques Maritain. Until midnight or 2am I studied and during my lectures I snoozed. It was a simple plan and it didn’t work too well. My first assignment was returned with a scrawled message from my tutor: “this must be the worst essay I have ever read. D-“.
One day of misery followed another until April 1969 arrived, breeding lilacs out of the dead land (T.S. Eliot was It in those days). Harvard was lovely that spring: the lawns a lush green, the ivy resplendent against colonial red brick, the maples inviting you to sprawl in their shade. But as the Good Book says, Spring is the time when kings march out to battle. And so the SDS declared war on Harvard’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, Jim Crow, poverty in the Third World, and the arrogance of university administrators. On April 9 Steve and his friends occupied University Hall, ejected the lickspittle lackeys of the military-industrial complex and chained the doors shut.
I had a window seat on this drama, as my room overlooked the main entrance to site of the beginning of the Revolution. The University President, Nathan Pusey, was perplexed, but he screwed up his courage and called in the police. They gathered in the darkness outside Harvard Yard. In they marched at dawn and out they hauled the revolutionaries in headlocks, including Steve. However the SDS was not caught napping. They had set off the fire alarms in all the dormitories; sleepy students spilled out and the police had to push their way through a mob of jeering, spitting, cursing students. It was a lot of fun.
There was nigh-universal revulsion amongst faculty and students at the high-handedness of President Pusey. According to the hallowed tradition of sanctuary, police were never to set foot on the campus. So we boycotted classes. Then there was a lengthy meeting at the football stadium which began with 12,000 people and ended with 6,000. We voted to strike. Three days later there was another, smaller meeting which lifted the strike. I seem to recall innumerable squadrons of paper airplanes gliding over the stadium and covering the grass like snow. The participants found the succession of impassioned revolutionaries even more boring than their lecturers. This was democracy in action, not the capitalist-roader fraud of the secret ballot.
And that just about wrapped up my first year at Harvard. It was hard to apply yourself to the books with revolutionary slogans buzzing in your ears — “Abolish ROTC”, “A strong people need no leader”, “End the war now / save the country”, “Free Bobby”, and Mao-st perplexing of all “Let the circle be unbroken / rally around the 8 demands!” I returned to classes, but the professors had lost interest. Officially there were exams, but my philosophy tutor told us to skip it if we didn’t feel like it. Phase One of my introduction to revolutionary political praxis drew to a close.
In my sophomore year I attended Phase Two, this time an introduction to revolutionary consciousness. The lessons took place, not on the campus, but in Eliot House, the dorm where I lived. I had three room mates there, one a counter-revolutionary bourgeois (like me, I suppose), the other two, M and B, fully committed to liberating themselves from cultural oppression. At the beginning of the year M was busy writing a pornographic science fiction novel while B read advanced physics texts in a corner as recreation while munching on chocolate bars and swigging Coke. This was all he ever ate or drank and he had very bad teeth. Their study plan evolved but by the Spring of 1970 it had become very simple. They slept for eight hours, played chess for eight hours and smoked dope for eight hours. Sometimes, for a break, they played pinball. In fact, they played so much pinball that M bought his own machine to save money. Sometimes it seemed half of Eliot House was there, playing for free. M made me pay.
When I returned from the library late in the evening, I had to wave my way through a fog of hashish smoke. Even though the patron saint of LSD, Timothy Leary, was a professor at Harvard, M didn’t care much for it. However, he was open to other experiments. He discovered, for instance, that several spoonfuls of nutmeg will make you high. One day there was a rumour that smoking dried banana peel fibres would, too. He rushed down to the Harvard Square supermarket, but the bananas had all sold out. He was not the only dedicated revolutionary on campus.
When the riots began in the Spring, with police cordoning off streets and lobbing tear gas cannisters down Massachusetts Avenue, M and B were exhilarated. I remember B leaping from from his physics book when he heard that a bomb had exploded in a university building. “The revolution has arrived!” he howled, and charged down the stairs to join the chanting crowd. I’m not sure what happened to B, as he failed to attend his exams and dropped out. I never heard from him again. M took No-Doze for a couple of weeks and scraped through his exams in 1970. Then he took a year off and went to Berkeley where he lived in the Student Union and babysat and shoplifted to support himself.
So that was the way the Revolution of ’68 played out for me. What was it all about? Paper planes and banana peels and pinball, as far as I can see. So much palaver. So much rage. So little sense. President Pusey apparently thought that our year (or perhaps the year before us) was the worst ever to pass through Harvard. So at least we contributed something. The Class of ’72: Harvard’s benchmark for under-achievement.
Still, I reckon President Pusey’s assessment was a bit unfair. Most students are gullible and easily led. But his faculty went on strike, too. Why was America’s Hollywood for Intellectuals unable to resist the virus of Dionysian insanity which swept across campuses in the early 70s? Why, for that matter, has it been powerless to resist subsequent waves of political correctness? Perhaps the Revolution of ’68 never really perished, just faded away until it became the very air they breathe at the world’s richest and most famous university.