In 1968 I headed down a path that began with low-rent existentialism and took me all the way to Communism
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Since I'm one of the older WORLD staff members, and since in 1968 I lived in Boston and New Haven, two centers of the sprouting cultural revolution, I'm the one obliged to write about that revolution not as seen from afar or read about, but lived through.
What was the cultural mood like in those precincts? Exhibit A: my high-school yearbook. I was the editor and turned it weirdly from a standard happy memory book to a study in sophomoric angst. Other students grooved on it. Pages 24-25: photos of students looking bored, with the headline, "What can I do? Where can I go?" Page 26: photos of students stepping in puddles or sitting in trash containers. Page 27: photo of a "Please Keep Off the Grass" sign on an area covered with snow, under a headline, "The absurdity of it all."
It gets more embarrassing. Other pages had photos of barred windows, trash on the grass, the school buildings in a blizzard, football players covered in mud, more students looking bored, more photos of school buildings shot through chain-link fences to give them a prison feel, with headlines like "What's it all about?" and "Nothing really changes."
Two full-page images jump out at me. Page 38: a girl reading a big book with big letters on the cover, "Holy Bible," and looking startled. Page 295, a full-page ad from a high-tech company with the headline, "History is being made in your backyard. And you can be a part of it." In my own copy a friend crossed out the first two words and scrawled in a substitute: "Napalm is . . ."
Sure, the yearbook had the obligatory headshots of graduates, but the discretionary parts added up to low-rent existentialism with an overlay of hostility to Scripture and a soupçon of anti-war politics. The spirit of '68 involved lots of sophomoric sneering like that, but when "nothing tastes"-as Marie Antoinette reputedly said-many choose potentially dangerous diversions: sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, or political extremism.
I headed down a bad path that took me all the way to Communism.
If it were only my story it would be unimportant, but many of my cohorts headed left during that period and became tenured radicals. Many are still propagandizing in the classroom, overtly or subtly. The only difference between me and they is that I doubly damaged my career prospects by going further, all the way to card-carrying Communism, and eventually through God's grace coming to Bible-carrying Christianity.
Why did 1968 send me scurrying so far to the left? I'd like to say merely that my head was messed up, but the truth is that my heart was covetous. I entered Yale on scholarship in the fall, packing my two polyester sweaters, and met one roommate who brought his own dresser just to hold all his luxurious woolens. The other roommate, son of a Virginia banker, brought a great stereo system but sat for hours in the corner of the living room next to a high intensity lamp that he focused away from himself, so he was invisible and everyone else had to squint.
I should have been thankful to have access to expensive sound, but we didn't get along and I became bitter. Here's what made 1968 and a few years after a particularly perilous time: Wise counselors and professors should have told me to grow up, get over it, count my blessings and stop my coveting. But the teaching I received was as screwy as anything offered by Screwtape: I learned in history classes that America (aka Amerikkka) had a deeply embedded class system within which those without expensive sweaters or stereos should hone their wrath.
My politically hip professors also explained how Amerikkka's industrial machine manufactured death, particularly in napalmed Vietnam. The success of the machine threatened to turn all of us into machines. I devoured required readings about individual alienation and became more alienated. I had a hole in my soul. I needed a good pastor, but Yale provided William Sloan Coffin preaching in Battell Chapel about the Vietnam war, and gay Malcolm Boyd hanging out with young men and writing Are You Running With Me, Jesus? I didn't need a friend who could run: I needed God.
Yale was not without a remnant: Had I sought, I would have found, but I wallowed and God at that time let me alone as I sought gods human and ideological. I took a course offered by Charlie Reich, who soon had a No. 1 bestseller in The Greening of America, a book that extolled my generation as the one that would solve the nation's problems; Reich took notes for the book while listening to student dining hall conversations. In his course I received an Honors (Yale didn't have letter grades) for cutting out pictures from old Red Sox yearbooks and interspersing them with commentary about baseball racism.
Creativity R Us: To a required art class in the art museum I carried a roommate's black cat and let the cat out of the bag onto the museum floor, explaining that I had just created a work of art that showed how the Black Panthers were freeing themselves from the container in which American society placed members of their race. I received an Honors for that effort, even though the cat ran away and hid among some expensive canvases, prompting a frenzied search.
During my freshmen and sophomore years I read Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, and so on. I did door-to-door campaigning for peace candidates and went to anti-war rallies in Washington and elsewhere. But I was pushing for something more, for someone who had a handle on regenerating mankind: If mankind was not to destroy itself, humanity in some way had to change. Or so I told myself, putting my personal unhappiness into grandiose terms.
Some discussed regeneration through genetic engineering. Yale professor Jose Delgado had faith in ESB (electrical stimulation of the brain) and was putting tiny sensors into the brains of monkeys to control their behavior. Est, dianetics, and primal screaming were all competing to become the way, the truth, and the opportunity for us to become the liberated, slithery beings we were meant to be. Music and drugs also offered hope for change.
So did a wide variety of religions and cults. In The Religious Situation: 1968, Huston Smith wrote that the intellectually best students were checking out "meditation, then Yoga, then Zen . . . tantra, the kundalini, the chakras, the I Ching . . . astrology, astral bodies, auras, UFOs, Tarot cards, parapsychology, witchcraft, and magic. . . . And underlying everything of course, the psychedelic drugs."
Why did I deviate from Charlie Reich's softcore patter about green change? Why, instead of embracing drugs and Eastern religions, did I begin to fall in step with hardcore Marxism's red tide? I could say I was searching for meaning-true enough-but ugly envy and hatred played a large part. I could try to cast blame on others, and shepherds promoting evil did play a part, but the prime truth lies in G.K. Chesterton's terse response when asked to write about "What's Wrong with the World?" He wrote, "I am."
After all, lots of students at that time began wearing T-shirts picturing Che Guevara-Castro's sidekick had died in 1967 at age 39-but I read and at one point even memorized part of a speech he had given to a meeting of Cuban Communist youth. Guevara said the Communist "does not keep his honor secret or reduce it to formulas, but expresses it at all times." He shows "an independent spirit whenever something arises that is not right, no matter what anyone says about it. . . . He feels anguish when a man is assassinated in any corner of the world, and he feels elation when in some corner of the world a new banner of liberty is raised."
Guevara concluded, "After making many sacrifices, yes, after perhaps having found ourselves often at the edge of destruction . . . some fine day, almost without realizing it, we shall have created, together with the other peoples of the world, the communist society, our ideal." I latched onto that: Communism, not Charlie Reich's sensing of student brains or Jose Delgado's insertion of sensors in monkey brains, was the road to regenerate mankind. I saw what I called sin (but not my own) and considered it as caused by "alienation derived from the division of labor and the existence of a private-property-owning class."
Those were words I began to mouth. I thought I believed them. I also thought that I was realistic about the costs. Of course the revolution would meet with opposition from the bourgeoisie. Of course a terrible struggle would inevitably result. Of course the progressive forces, to be triumphant, would have to be united. Of course the most efficient way to unite those forces would be to centralize all authority in the hands of those who most clearly understood the revolutionary imperative: the leadership of the Communist Party.
This would not be a dictatorship for personal gain, though, for the dictatorship is only the transitional stage required to eliminate capitalists and capitalism from the body politic. During the transitional period terrible things would be done, but shrinking from them would simply create more misery by prolonging the birth pains of the new era. Thus, more killing means less killing; more dictatorship means less dictatorship; war is peace and totalitarianism is freedom-all in the long run. Yes, communism led to much inhumanity or "sin," but it was sin going somewhere, sin that would wipe out sin.
Did I really believe this? I look back from four decades later and wonder-but that's what I started to argue at the time.
I can see now that my movement toward Communism grew out of my warped psychology, which created soil for the poisonous plants growing out of the atheism I had clutched at age 14. Marx himself had worried that the concept of creation by God was "an idea very difficult to dislodge from the popular consciousness." He tried hard by declaring that we had "irrefutable proof of [man's] self-creation": Man suddenly emerges as man once he attains the consciousness of man by working as man. What man was before he picked up the first tool, and how he got there, Marx skipped-and so did I.
Why didn't I ask obvious questions about the origins of the universe and of man? Because I didn't want to. The responsibility is mine, particularly because my first attempts to become a Marxist were so stumbling-yet I persevered. Example: Another student and I saw a notice in the Yale Daily News about a meeting on socialism to be held that evening in one of the university classrooms. We showed up on time to find ourselves the only ones in the room except for a solemn man precisely arranging on a front table piles of publications from the Socialist Workers Party, also known as the Trotskyists.
Nearly four decades later I can still picture the comrade: Saying not a word to us, he focused on squaring each stack and having the distance between each stack exactly the same. The other student and I took one look at each other and bolted the room, heading down the stairs as the comrade, jolted from his reverie, hurried after us yelling, "Wait, wait." We didn't wait and that student later sought gay liberation, but I began to think that Trotskyists were soft: The hard-core Communists might have a way to transform all of society by bringing to power those who could eliminate war and poverty from the world.
Adults should have told me I was nuts, but instead they tended to applaud. I started to build a "worker-student alliance" by making one of the college janitors an honorary Yale fellow: Life magazine ran an affectionate article about the bemused proletarian and me. An urban studies professor gave me course credit for propagandistic columns about New Haven's inner city and ethnic areas that I wrote for the Yale Daily News.
I learned the fine art of saving time by mimicking leftist views. After spending an hour in an elementary school I wrote that it was promoting frightened obedience. After spending an hour in a state prison I wrote about innocent inmates condemned through racism. After spending an hour interviewing bocci players in the Italian area of town I wrote about white racism.
I was ready to go hard-core. But that's another story that takes us into the early '70s.
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