The Origins of New Left Notesby James W. Russell
[ EDITOR'S NOTE: James "Jim" Russell was the founding editor of New Left Notes, the official newsletter of Students for a Democratic Society. In the Spring of 2006 Russell attended an SDS convention at Brown University. During a break he told the story of how NLN got its name to Bernardine Dohrn and Thomas Altfather Good. Early in 2011, Good, editor of Next Left Notes 2004-2015, asked Russell to write up the story, so that it could be added to the Next Left Notes SDS/NLN archives. Russell expanded his anecdote into a document that adds some fascinating background to the history of the New Left's signature newspaper. ]
In the summer of 1965, Jeff Shero, the newly elected Vice President of SDS, joined the national office staff in Chicago. He had a special project in mind: to build up the sporadically published SDS Bulletin into a regular monthly source of news for members. That summer, membership was climbing rapidly, in large part because of the SDS-organized April 17 March on Washington, the first national march against the War in Vietnam.
He put together several editions in the fall but then ran into problems because of the very labor intensive production process that overwhelmed the capacity of the office staff. In offset printing, the first step was to write the copy with an electric typewriter, manually correcting all typos and other errors. The copy and photos were pasted up and then sent out to be burned onto offset plates. The plates were put on a printing press in the office that produced the pages individually, often breaking down along the way. Then the pages had to be manually collated and stapled.
The final step involved running the Bulletins through a bothersome machine called an Addressograph. It had its own multistep production process, the first step being typing addresses onto 2 X 3 mimeograph cardboard plates that looked like photo slides. In theory once all the plates were stacked in the Addressograph, the addresses would be rapidly printed; in practice, it was an exceptionally delicate machine that kept jamming and took a long time to get working again.
We grew to dread the production of each Bulletin. Nearly all other work had to stop and long extra hours had to be put in. Finally, Jeff realized that expanding the Bulletin into a good publication for members was a hopeless cause. Defeated by the antiquated technology, he returned to Texas. He would later use a much better technology to produce The Rat, the very successful underground newspaper in New York.
Several months went by without any direct communication between the overworked office staff and members. Membership was now growing even more rapidly in the aftermath of the October 15, 1965 March on Washington. The media thought that the national office was the epicenter of what was happening and showered coverage on it, which in turn led to the formation of new chapters and more members.
I had two jobs at the time in the office: chapter correspondent and bookkeeper. I had become a member in 1963 at the University of Oklahoma and joined the national office staff in June 1965. Each morning I collected the mail, separating that which had money and bills from that which was from members seeking information. I entered the money in a ledger, deposited it in the bank, and then answered the letters along with one or two others. On a typical day we would answer about thirty letters.
Members wanted to know what was going on. There needed to be a national publication. But how? The problem hovered over the office for months.
D. Gorton, the staff photographer, one morning brought in several union and small organization newsprint newspapers. Maybe we could change the technology. Instead of producing the Bulletin in the office via offset, we could paste up copy and send it out to be printed as a newspaper. But how much would it cost? How would we get the copy justified so that the columns would be straight?
I was given the task of finding out how much it would cost. It turned out to be less than what we were spending on the Bulletin and, more importantly, by sending it out to be printed, its production would not paralyze the office's other work.
Jeff Segal, the National Secretary during the summer of 1965, had been student body president at Roosevelt University in Chicago and managing editor of its student newspaper, the Torch. He set up an under the table deal where the student newspaper staff would use their justifying machine to prepare the copy for paste up.
I now had a new job as editor of the paper. My experience? Not much beyond having been a sports writer for my high school newspaper and having edited an agitational SDS chapter newsletter.
What would we call it? Everyone agreed that we didn't want to call it the Bulletin, but no one could agree on a new name. Clark Kissinger, a former National Secretary then in charge of fundraising, had a book of names of American socialist newspapers. But we couldn't find anything there that appealed. In a pre-hippie moment, someone suggested The Red Balloon after a 1956 French avant-garde film that was popular at the time. The indecision went on for a long time until everyone gave up on arriving at a collective agreement. I was told to come up with a name on my own with the promise that no one would complain about what I chose.
I thought that SDS more than any other organization had a right to the mantle of New Left. But new left what? Review was already taken. I was reading Dostoevsky at the time, so it became New Left Notes, after Notes from the Underground. The unassuming title Notes resonated with a type of new left ideology at the time, especially espoused by SNCC's Bob Moses, about the need for organizers to have humility. That was the reason why many people called it sds rather than SDS. We were small d democrats. And we fancied ourselves as being at least intellectually and a bit romantically aligned with the notion of underground organizations.
Thus started the weekly New Left Notes, with the first issue coming out on January 21, 1966. The word Surprise! was in a box at the top because it had been months since members had received anything from the national office. It contained SDS President Carl Oglesby's "Liberalism and the Corporate State." Unknown to me was that he had written it as a speech to be delivered during a coming campus tour. He was miffed because I had released it to members before he had had a chance to deliver it. Now he had to face audiences, some of whom had already read what he was about to say or write an entirely new speech.
My routine was to gather and type copy, give it to Jeff Segal, who had it justified at Roosevelt. Then I would deliver it via the El to the print shop over an hour away at the furthest northern stop. I would pick up the copies, again by El, a couple of days later. Then we would mail them out from the office.
One day the office received a leaflet in Spanish from California, titled La Gran Huelga de las Uvas. Paul Booth, the National Secretary, said that it was important and someone needed to translate it. I was given the job since I had taken one semester of Spanish, which was one semester more than anyone else in the office. The word huelga for some reason had not been on any of the vocabulary lists that I had learned in class nor was uvas. I found a Spanish-English dictionary somewhere and translated it literally as the great strike of the grapes. It didn't make sense. How could grapes go on strike? Eventually I figured it out, more or less. That was my first introduction to César Chávez's National Farm Workers Union and the grape boycott. The second issue of NLN ran a letter from Chávez calling for support to which a lot of SDS chapters responded.
After six issues, the authorities at Roosevelt caught wind of the surreptitious use of their equipment by a radical organization and put a stop to it. This was a crisis since I was committed to a weekly schedule. There was only one thing to do: type out all the copy in columns to be pasted up. Later we made an arrangement to use the equipment of The Woodlawn Organization, which Saul Alinsky had organized.
In all, I edited the first twelve copies of New Left Notes. It was time consuming, taking up 70 hours a week, with me having to write a lot of the stories and, at the least, type all of them. It didn't help that during that time we lost our staff apartment after a robbery in which a gun was held to my head with the trigger pulled back and I was pistol whipped. The apartment, it turned out, was next door to a prostitution business. I then spent a couple of weeks sleeping in the office as I put out the paper.
At the time I considered New Left Notes to be a temporary solution to an office problem. I had no idea that it would continue as the organization's newspaper with a number of different editors over the years, much less be reincarnated as Next Left Notes three and a half decades later.
There was also a counterfeit version of the paper opportunistically published by the Progressive Labor Party for a couple of years after the 1970 collapse of SDS. I was approached randomly by a PL member to buy a copy in 1972 at San Francisco State University. Instead of a sale, she got a flood of angry words about their destructive sectarianism and opportunism. She had approached the wrong person.
New Left Notes is now a valuable resource for historians of the 1960s new left. It was rough and fragmentary, being put together by activists rather than professional journalists, but always close to what was happening.
Thanks to Jeff Segal for comments. James W. Russell is the author of six books, including Double Standard: Social Policy in Europe and the United States and Class and Race Formation in North America. He is currently an activist in retirement reform working to expose the 401(k) swindle and defend Social Security and public employee pensions. He writes about critical retirement policy at www.perfectswindle.com.