The Magazine

Left Behind

Sometimes indoctrination works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By ABIGAIL THERNSTROM
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Hampton’s own description of Hurwitz suggests he was basically a far-left playboy. In the summer of 1964, students risked their lives trying to register black voters in Mississippi, but Hurwitz never did anything remotely equivalent. Why put your life on the line when you could belong to what amounted to a college fraternity that gave nonstop political parties? Hurwitz was a perpetual adolescent, self--centered and self-righteous. 

In fact, Tom Hurwitz and his friends were on a mission to nowhere. SDS hoped to force the United States to withdraw troops from Vietnam—and American troops did come home in 1975, but no thanks to student protests. In October 1969, the Weathermen organized a demonstration in Chicago that became known as the “days of rage.” Homes and shops were vandalized, police officers assaulted. Similar violent demonstrations were staged across the country over the next few years. Yet the result was simply to deepen working-class disdain of privileged college kids who didn’t have to go to Vietnam. 

This band—of which Hurwitz was a member—enraged ordinary Americans, but intimidated Columbia and other institutions of higher learning, including Harvard, where similar protests occurred. In the face of appalling student behavior, the schools were paralyzed. Well, not quite: Columbia did eventually take bold action, appointing a study group to consider student discipline. All this might seem funny in retrospect, but it was not at the time. Universities never recovered; they caved to the student demands of the era, and kept caving and caving. The protests accelerated a process of cultural change for the worse, and from which there was no going back.

Tom Hurwitz was not a serious person, but Angela Davis was; and while he quickly faded from public sight, she has not been altogether forgotten. Some American universities continue to give her a platform. Pitzer College, for instance, invited her to be the 2012 commencement speaker, and the school’s president, Laura Skandera Trombley, introduced Davis as a “beautiful African-American woman .  .  . unafraid to practice her convictions.” In 1969, Trombley explained, Davis had been fired from her teaching post at UCLA for “publicly voicing her opposition to the Vietnam war, racism, sexism, the prison industrial complex, and her support for gay rights and other social justice movements.” Of course, if opposition to racism and support for gay rights were firing offenses, almost no one would be left teaching. And President Trombley somehow left out Davis’s long membership in the CPUSA, her close ties to the Black Panthers, her devotion to the murderer/prison radical George Jackson, and other such biographical details.

Angela Davis joined the CPUSA in 1968, an “exciting year to be in the party,” Hampton writes. If Davis was looking for excitement, she soon found it: Two years after she signed up, she was involved in a courtroom shootout for which she had purchased the guns, and she was charged with responsibility for the deaths of four people, including a judge. She fled, ending up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and was eventually captured. The Communist party supplied her with an attorney who argued that Davis and her colleagues in the courtroom shootout were, in fact, political prisoners—as all black inmates were said to be. Julian Bond, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and other celebrities rallied to her defense. She was acquitted. 

Throughout Little Red, Hampton is in a swoon over Angela Davis. She provides a detailed and starry-eyed account of Davis’s long service to the moribund CPUSA, which reads like a press release: Angela joins the party; Angela is on the central committee; Angela is running for vice president of the United States on the Communist ticket! Nowhere is there any recognition that the CPUSA was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Soviet Union, which secretly provided most of its funding. Hampton suggests that the Communists were idealistic—all things “idealistic” being good by definition—but by the time Davis had joined, its membership was microscopic and its influence nil. Indeed, Hampton doesn’t seem to understand that there had to be something seriously wrong with anyone who could remain a Communist after the Moscow show trials of 1936-38, Stalin’s purges, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact.