Continued from Hell No I Won’t Go)
My first impression of Vancouver was of a beautiful vacation land. I had found temporary lodging in a tiny furnished apartment in the city with a window facing north onto the harbor, and on the first clear morning, the panorama of snowy peaks across the water, almost within arm’s reach, took my breath away. It brought back childhood memories of Switzerland. I had visions of hikes and picnics and leisurely outings in the park, good living, loving, productive studying and writing, getting a PhD, and humming along in harmony with the universe, for a change.
Some of that happened — the outings and the living and loving — but as to the rest, I was dreaming. Shortly after my arrival, I became part of a political struggle that an official historian forty years later described as “the most notorious conflict on a Canadian campus then or since.” 
Simon Fraser University (SFU), my new academic home, was then all of two years old. The conservative (Social Credit) government of the province of British Columbia, intent on developing “human capital,” had commandeered a forested, fog-shrouded mountain east of the city, in the suburb of Burnaby, and planted a university on the top of it.
The architecture was all in grey concrete with long horizontal lines, sharp vertical pillars, and never a curve. On the exceptional sunny day, most of it resembled a Silicon Valley industrial park; on the average foggy day, an aircraft carrier; and on days when the fog was thick, which was often, working there was like being in a submarine. By the time I got there, the core classroom and office buildings were finished, but construction on the perimeter went on around the clock.
Despite the architecture, the place was lively; it buzzed. SFU had opened the doors of higher education to thousands of students for whom there was no room in the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus west of downtown. Almost forty per cent of the SFU student body identified the principal wage earner in their family as a blue collar worker. A sizeable portion of the students had had years of experience working in the real world and were more mature than the average student. Nearly half the students were women.
I feel almost nostalgic describing this period of time, when governments — even conservative governments — spent money to open the doors of educational opportunity to wider sections of the population. It is such a contrast to the time and place where I am writing.
To staff the new school, the administration recruited heavily from abroad. There was no choice. Canadian universities produced few PhDs, and other new universities in Canada competed for the available talent. Tom Bottomore, chair of the combined social sciences department (Politics, Sociology & Anthropology or PSA) came from the London School of Economics. Kathleen Gough, the eminent anthropologist, was also a Brit but most recently had taught at Brandeis and Oregon. John Leggett had taught sociology at UC Berkeley. One of the few Canadians on the PSA faculty was Mordecai (Mort) Briemberg. Among the junior faculty in all departments were many like myself who did not yet have their PhD.
The newness of the place and the diversity of the faculty made for a mixture of expectations. Brits like Bottomore expected to rule their departments like dukes of the realm, with little interference from above or below. American faculty expected to operate in a web of collegiality with the chair acting as negotiator or referee. The university administration, by contrast to both these models, operated on a top-down military or corporate model. The university’s founder, Gordon Shrum, had been both a military officer and head of a major corporation (B.C. Hydro), and was notorious as an aggressive ramrod who respected no laws and brooked no opposition. The province’s premier, a self-made man with an eighth-grade education, gave Shrum a free hand.
One of the first people I met on campus was Martin Loney. He was a cheerful, athletically built teaching assistant from the UK who had got himself arrested, twice, for supporting a local high school student’s publication of a satirical poem. The administration decreed that Loney and four other TA’s who had organized support for the high school student should be fired. This move raised two issues. (1) Was the punishment commensurate with the act? And more importantly, (2) who had jurisdiction to decide the matter? The faculty felt that the fate of individual teaching assistants was for them to decide, not for the administration to micromanage. A large portion of the student body, and many faculty, were outraged at the punishment. Big demonstrations and rallies followed in support of the TAs, and they were eventually reinstated. Throughout these battles, Martin conducted himself nobly and became a much esteemed young man on the campus and to an extent nationally — he was once on TV with Canadian premier Pierre Trudeau. In recent years he appears to have become rather a reactionary, outraged beyond measure that a few exceptional women and minorities achieved successes that remained out of his own reach.
One of the big leaders of the student movement was Sharon Yandle. Sharon was one of the older students; she had worked and traveled and had two young children. The children were privileged to have as mother an accomplished and tireless organizer. She served as one of the student senators and was an eloquent writer and speaker. She was devilishly effective in exposing administration hypocrisy, a fact that made her the target of personal invective from conservatives. She was a core member of the growing feminist caucus on campus. It wasn’t long before I joined the queue of young men who were in love with her, but in her wisdom she chose a brilliant and dedicated economics prof, the economic historian and now Latin American specialist, Mike Lebowitz.
Kathleen Gough was an inspiring colleague. Her years of anthropological field work among the poorest farmers of India had endowed her with a dim view of colonialist and imperialist authority and a firm grip on the nexus between thinking and doing. She hosted splendid dinners for friends at her seaside house in West Vancouver. An emblematic moment that sticks in my mind came as we were enjoying snacks on her deck on a warm afternoon. Someone announced the news that Cesar Chavez had initiated a boycott of California table grapes. Our eyes gravitated toward a bowl of grapes on the coffee table. In a swift, decisive gesture, Kathleen pounced on the bowl and launched its contents in a high arc over the railing into the waters below.
Holding the status of lecturer, I was at the very bottom of the faculty totem pole, but I had a salary and an office, and sat in on faculty meetings. It took some time for the other faculty to accept me, a 26-year old kid, as a peer, and even longer for me to adjust to being in the front of the classroom facing the rear, instead of the other way around. But I did my job. I lectured on sociological theory to a class that approached 300 students. I led a graduate seminar in industrial sociology, about which I knew next to nothing, but I stayed a chapter ahead of the students.
The most fun I had was in a course on social change. I started the students out by reading the Communist Manifesto, certainly one of the most influential texts in the history of social change. We analyzed the main elements that made up the text, such as a sketch of history, a statement of the problem or obstacles to be overcome, an identification of the agency of change, and the outlines of a program.
I then dramatically tore a copy of the Manifesto to shreds before the class, to gasps from some of the devout Marxists in the group. Now that you understand the basic building blocks of an effective manifesto, I told the class, go forth and write your own! I gave them a free choice of topics, but added one process condition: they must team up with at least one other student, and not more than four others, and produce the work jointly. Each member of the group would receive the same grade.
The students were shocked at first. Nobody had ever asked them to write out a systematic statement of their own dreams and plans, or had even acknowledged that students could have the fire for a manifesto inside of them. Soon they caught the spirit, searched their souls for their hidden passions, and went to work energetically researching and writing up their causes. They produced marvelous documents, some of them richly illustrated. All of them displayed real thought and serious work.
The administration, not surprisingly, did not share the students’ new-found enthusiasm for manifesto writing. Moreover, it found the concept of cooperative work and group grades offensive to its dog-eat-dog model of learning. It wanted each student to compete against every other student. It hated the idea of students learning and working as teams, and being rewarded as a group. The fact that virtually all scientific projects are group projects and that virtually all scientific papers are authored by a group, was surely not unknown to Chancellor Shrum, who had also taught physics. Moreover, as a Northerner, shouldn’t he have understood about sled dog teams? But the idea that the skills of cooperative learning and writing, so essential in the real world, should be taught at the undergraduate level was far ahead of the administrative mindset in that time and place.
The administration was also upset by the fact that virtually all the papers produced in this course were very good and deserved and got an “A.” Naturally, when students work together, they tend to produce better work. The administration wanted a bell curve. With the overwhelming support of my department colleagues, I refused to assign bad grades for good work.
During that same period, some of my colleagues were advocating a simple pass-fail system, or doing away with grades altogether, and my group grading project fed into this simmering controversy. Some voices in the more conservative departments accused the PSA department of imperialism: by giving out high grades we were supposedly pirating students away from their departments, to the detriment of their budgets. The administration threatened to erase all of our department’s grades and give the students no credits. This of course incensed the students, who had indeed worked very hard, and with great enthusiasm, and learned a lot.
Tempests were also brewing inside our department. Tom Bottomore was a very prominent academic Marxist. He had translated a number of early works of Marx and written extensively about the sociological dimensions of Marx’s thinking. He validated Marxism as an important sociological theory, one which must be included in the history of sociological thought along with the more conventionally accepted sociological works of Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Tönnies, etc. In a word, he had made Marxism respectable in the academic world, even at the staid University of British Columbia, which used one of his books as a text. That was an important contribution, and one which attracted a number of leftist academics to Simon Fraser’s PSA department from the moment that his appointment was announced. Kathleen Aberle, John Leggett, Louis Feldhammer, Mort Briemberg and others of my colleagues, including of course myself, were in this group. Many graduate students and also undergraduates responded to the same attraction. Bottomore was a big red magnet.
However, for Bottomore Marxism was only an academic pursuit. He certainly knew, but did not go along with, Marx’s famous saying, “The philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.” He soon saw that the SFU administration paid no deference whatever to his status as department head, and this infuriated him, but he did not rally his troops to fight back. His faculty colleagues meanwhile expected him, as department chair, to show deference to their consensus, and this also offended him. The administration was far to the political right of his own Labour Party inclinations, while most of his faculty colleagues and the students were considerably to his political left. Inside of a year, Bottomore wished a plague on both houses and departed in a huff to teach at Sussex in more sensible England.
With him went my PhD thesis plans and my initial reason for being there. I wasn’t having any luck studying with great names in academic Marxism; both Marcuse and Bottomore fled soon after I arrived. (Marcuse did visit SFU as a guest speaker at the invitation of the PSA department, and the department attempted to hire him, causing a huge uproar.) But there was so much else going on at SFU that I hardly had time to think. There were endless department meetings and all-faculty meetings and protest rallies and sit-ins and occupations.
My own contribution to all of this brouhaha was very minor. All I remember is a short talk I gave at a rally concerning an upcoming university Board of Governors meeting on the campus. I said, to general laughter, “Since we have not been invited, it would be impolite to refuse to go.” There is a photo of me addressing the rally, with a university administrator in the background, looking disgusted (left). The board was said to be looking for the parties responsible for the “troubles,” so I had a glass shop make up a stack of small mirrors that we held up to the trustees as they entered the meeting. Either at this meeting or at another one, I don’t remember, the board did fire university president Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, and later also chancellor Gordon Shrum, but their replacements proved no better.
In June of ’68, I drove to the Michigan State campus in East Lansing and attended the national SDS convention there. My memories of this event are a blur. There was the Black Panther Party, enjoying enormous prestige, but poisoning the air with anti-women slurs; there was the Progressive Labor Party or one of its front groups, tightly disciplined but offending almost everyone with its smug know-it-all dogmatism; and there was the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), the most vibrant of the predominantly white groups, but already splitting into RYM-I (Weathermen) and RYM-II, a volatile coalition of Marxist-Leninist groups. It was a turbulent gathering, like free-for-all combat in a food court.
At the convention, I got briefly acquainted with Bill Ayers, Rick Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Mark Rudd. At this time they were radical student activists, leaders of big student protests, with the ambition to lead broader movements. Their main aim was to get the masses to rise up, battle the police in the streets, and seize political power. The stupid bombing bit that some of them got involved with, and that earned them the “terrorist” label, came later, after their mass mobilization dreams were mostly frustrated.
In East Lansing, I stayed in a house belonging to some of the campus RYM-I people. Late at night after the convention session, three young RYM-I women put down their sleeping bags next to mine on the floor. One of them volunteered, “You can have sex with us, but we all have the clap.” I thought about it and declined.
The SDS convention felt wildly exciting at the moment. Listening to the presentations I found myself pulled and fired up this way and that, high on the smoke of radical change. But it left me with a depressing afterglow. On the drive back to Vancouver, I found myself fantasizing that if one could combine the best qualities of each of the competing trends, one would have a formidable fighting force. Then I immediately castigated myself for thinking such un-Leninist rubbish.
Some time after Bottomore’s departure, after some interim substitutes, we faculty in the PSA department elected Mort Briemberg the department chair. Mort was an excellent choice. He was a culturally conservative Canadian in a stable marriage; he didn’t do drugs, screw his students, or cheat and lie. He could not be painted with the “hippie” or “outside agitator” brush. He had outstanding academic credentials as a former Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He was a calm, thoughtful, soft-spoken person, absolutely honest and up-front, and courteous with everyone. If he had chosen to go that route, he might have made a very popular rabbi, even with his steadfast support of the Palestinian cause. In a brighter academic setting he would have been a consensus pick as department chairman, and probably would have risen to become university president.
Mort’s election was also a time when the department (or most of it) came together and adopted something like a mission statement, or perhaps it was a manifesto. This had three main planks; it went like this:
Simon Fraser University is rapidly moving toward the multiversity, toward the imitation of an American model of education. We, faculty, students and staff of PSA, counterpose to this spectre the vision of a department grounded on the philosophy of participation and control from below and designed to serve the needs of the people of British Columbia.
1. Critical social science: We must tell the truth. We must tell the truth not only about what the powerful regard as useful but about important, controversial issues. We must shrink neither from the conclusions of our criticism nor from conflict with the powerful. We are social critics. We seek to understand society in its totality and to reveal the relations and dynamic of that totality. We see within each social order the possibility of going beyond that social order. We identify, analyze and so help to overcome obstacles to the realization of human liberation.
2. Democratic control: We assemble in classes. We assemble in meetings. These are different settings but they cannot be isolated. Faculty power in decision-making complements faculty authoritarianism in the classroom. Parity in decision-making complements uninhibited intellectual discussion in the classroom. We affirm the principles of parity between students and faculty and openness in the meeting-room. We affirm the principle of uninhibited discussion in the classroom. We stand for a philosophy of education which counterposes dialogue to monologue and which counterposes open debate to the didactic delivery of information and opinion. We encourage cooperative struggles for truth and mutual criticism instead of the manipulation of exams and the competition for grades.
3. Community integration: The university is not neutral on social questions. The work of most social scientists serves the interest of the wealthy and powerful. We will contribute our energies to solve the problems of workers not the ‘problem with workers’, the problems of native peoples not the ‘problem with native peoples’, the problems of welfare recipients not the ‘problem with welfare recipients’, the problems of youth not the ‘problem of youth’.
I heartily subscribed to this document then, and I still do today. The first point, critical social science, is largely a question of mental survival. Uncritical social science, such as the structural-functionalist celebration of the status quo that ruled sociological theory in those days, was like a cloud of carbon monoxide, inimical to life inside the skull. The second point is a matter of creating an environment conducive to learning; without democracy in education we breed too many caged parrots. The third point is about righteous work: whom do you serve? My study of the Michigan State University program (published in Viet-Report) had crystallized for me the lesson that it is shameful for an intellectual to be a lackey of an oppressive power structure, and all honor lies in working for the underdog.
There were a number of American draft evaders in Vancouver, as well as kids who had been inducted and refused to stay with their units, which earned them the label “deserters.” I became friends with one such kid, “Terry.” He was from Indianapolis. His father had left. His mother worked in a store. He hated the Vietnam war as much as any student did, but he didn’t have the privilege of the student deferment. I helped out as best I could with temporary shelter, moral support, job references, and a bit of cash. Mort and Liz Briemberg had co-founded a much-needed aid organization for people in this situation.
Inbetween lectures and protests, I managed some reading and writing in pursuit of my growing interest in Marxism. I acquired the complete works of Marx and Engels in the original and plunged in. I published a couple of pieces in the London journal New Left Review, which led a British student to apply to the PSA department to study for the PhD with me. (I didn’t have a PhD myself.) More on that later.
In August 1968, more or less as my last act before leaving Simon Fraser, I flew to Boston to attend the annual conference of the American Sociological Association (ASA). A group of radical professors and grad students had formed the Sociology Liberation Movement (SLM), and were organizing a protest against the appearance of Wilbur Cohen, then the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, as keynote speaker. Giving a platform to Cohen was an indirect endorsement of the administration and its Indochina war policy.
Before I arrived in Boston, SLM leaders had met with ASA organizers and painted the spectre of loud, organized disruptions from the floor during Cohen’s address, with the attendant police intervention, batons, chairs flying, mass arrests … similar to what was happening during this period at other venues around the world, and very bad publicity for the ASA. A compromise was reached, whereby the SLM was given fifteen minutes for its own speaker to respond to Cohen’s keynote.
The SLM speaker had not been picked yet, and I remember sitting with the SLM caucus in the back of the hall minutes before Cohen was due to start. Who was going to go up there in front of those thousand colleagues and answer Cohen? I didn’t volunteer, I was scared. Nobody volunteered. But people knew about the SFU struggle, and eyes turned toward me. Suddenly a consensus crystallized and I was pushed up on the dais. I had less than ten minutes to prepare. Hastily I scribbled notes on the back of the program.
Afterward, conference organizers transcribed the audio tape of the talk and published it along with other convention talks in the Journal of the ASA. The text seems to reflect generally what I said, but I have no way of verifying it in any detail. Someone (not me) gave it the title “Fat Cat Sociology” and under that name, the text was widely reprinted. The editors of an anthology on Radical Sociology published it as a document of the movement, opining that “In many ways, Nicolaus’s speech outlined the major views of the Sociology Liberation Movement.” That qualification, “in many ways,” hints at the fact that some of my radical academic colleagues were scandalized by parts of the talk. I probably did not need to call Cohen “secretary of disease, propaganda, and scabbing,” as I did. Apart from that and a few similar rhetorical flourishes that formed the common coin of the period, my talk echoed the points I had made in my Viet-Report articles, and it borrowed greatly from the manifesto that my PSA colleagues had formulated just previously in Burnaby. The main idea is that the machinery of knowledge must be reversed: instead of carrying knowledge from the poor to the rich and powerful, it must expose the rich and powerful to the poor, in a language that even a 15-year old high school dropout can understand. A year later, the Antioch Review gave me the opportunity to address these issues at more leisure in the form of an article titled The Professional Organization of Sociology: A View from Below.
It would be misleading to paint my Simon Fraser experience as an unremitting crusade of radical activism and scholarship. Far from it. In my spare time I led a dissolute life. I had come late to sex, and I worked to catch up. Within a week I was in bed with a department secretary. Then followed a threesome with two townies, a tumble with a girl who could not have been 16, a foursome, a fling with a roaming faculty wife, a lost weekend with a Catholic undergraduate virgin, an affair with a woman six months pregnant, and other brief entanglements whose memories are mercifully shrouded in smoke. Somehow I also managed two (consecutive) living-together relationships that in those fluid days qualified as “long-term,” meaning longer than a month.
The truth was, I was lonely. People were kind, there were moments of comradeship in the struggle, my classes were popular, but I never had the feeling of really belonging. I should have been used to that already, but it still ached inside, and I found temporary relief in sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
There were weeks when I smoked marijuana on waking and at breaks during the day. Some friends and I pooled our money and bought a kilo of “Okanagan Green,” and spent hours cleaning out seeds and stems. I scattered the seeds in the National Forest.
For a while I believed that marijuana stimulated my brain and made me more creative. I tested that hypothesis by writing down my thoughts while stoned. I came to the conclusion that it only made me more paranoid. I still smoked nevertheless, but much more infrequently, with the rationale that it loosened me up in social conversation, where I tended to be tongue-tied. I quit smoking marijuana altogether a couple of decades later, after graduating from law school.
I dropped acid (took LSD) three times. The first time, acid indirectly ended my cello playing, and could have ended my life. Some years earlier, while at Wesleyan, I had taken cello lessons. I bought a student-quality instrument during a summer vacation from a violin maker who worked out of a farmhouse in southern Wisconsin. He scoured the countryside for old Norwegian barns and salvaged the lumber to build violins and other string instruments, and had won ribbons at the state fair. At Brandeis some friends and I would get together occasionally to play simple chamber music pieces. I took the cello with me to Canada, but rarely played there. My then girlfriend in Vancouver, Melody K., had a BMW motorcycle which she would let me borrow. One evening, after taking a tab of LSD, I got on the bike and rode it full throttle on a straight, empty road, absorbing the exquisite sensations of the headlight piercing the fog, the pavement blurring by beneath me, the dotted line slicing through my brain, and the wind stripping my breath away. Against all odds, I got home safely, but when I turned off the bike’s engine, it seized up. The cap of the cylinder head on the right side had sprung loose, probably from overheating, and jammed the piston so that the engine couldn’t turn over. I sold the cello to pay the mechanic to fix the bike. It was no great loss; Yo Yo Ma had nothing to fear from my cello playing. Melody later hooked up with one of the Ayers boys from Chicago and had a baby. But that’s another story.
On my second LSD trip, I found myself sitting on my porch in Kitsilano totally enraptured for an hour in watching rain drops splatter on the railing. Whoa! I said to myself. Being totally in the moment is overrated! There’s more to life than watching raindrops!
The third happened the night after the ASA convention. I was staying with Tonia A., a Brandeis grad school friend. Another guest there was a gay friend of hers, Monroe G. She told me that Monroe was interested in me. What the heck, I thought. Monroe and I spent an hour together. The next morning, with the acid worn off, Toni asked me how was it? Great! I admitted, truthfully. She gave me the names of some gay friends in San Francisco. I never looked them up. I had mixed feelings, and in a different universe I probably would be occasionally bisexual. (I had one other homosexual encounter as part of a threesome decades later.) But there were very few men who ever turned me on. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding what women see in men. Women are just as intelligent if not more so; the best ones are also sociable, witty, empathetic, realistic, practical and dreamlike at the same time, and their bodies tend to be soft, curvy, beautiful, delicious. I have sometimes thought that I am really a Lesbian in a man’s body.
My Vancouver friends also introduced me to the scenic beauties of the region. We walked for miles along the harbor. We went into the mountains and played in the snow a bit. We explored beautiful Stanley Park. We drove up the North Coast a ways. We hit the cultural hot spots of Kitsilano, where I lived for a few months in a crumbling house slated for demolition. I especially enjoyed our weekend trips to the west coast of Vancouver Island, where we camped on the beach in what is now Pacific Rim National Park. That is such a spectacular place that I brought my young family there for a vacation decades later.
In late ’68, having spent about a year and a half at SFU, I decided it was time to move on. One didn’t need a crystal ball to see that the administration was going to axe the whole lot of us radicals, first chance they got. My reason for having gone there in the first place, Tom Bottomore, was gone. Very exciting things were happening in San Francisco, where I had a friend. Most important, I had a contract and a publisher’s advance to translate a mammoth work by Karl Marx, the Grundrisse, from German into English. And so I once again piled my belongings into and on top of my aging Beetle and headed south to San Francisco.
P.S.: The movement at SFU continued with full force after I left. As expected, the administration did fire most of the radical PSA professors, including Mort Briemberg, Kathleen Gough, John Leggett, Louis Feldhammer, Nathan Popkin, Saghir Amad, David Potter, and Prudence Wheeldon. The firing was totally illegal and earned the university a formal vote of censure by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, but the university basically said “fuck you” to the Association and refused to reinstate them. The whole protracted episode, which I watched from afar, soured my interest in following an academic career. What happened to my SFU colleagues would have happened to me. Several of the fired professors, including Mort, found it impossible to get university jobs, and their academic careers were destroyed. Decades later it turned out that the CIA was tracking Mort and other professors as part of an “Operation Chaos.”
In memory of this movement, the students of SFU pushed through a resolution renaming the main plaza of the campus, the scene of all the rallies and demonstrations, “Freedom Square,” and marked it with a commemorative plaque.
Forty years after the start of the protest, in 2005, the university commissioned a book in which that struggle, seen through the eyes of the administration, occupies a central part. The book dubs SFU “the Radical Campus.” This reminds me of my high school in Kansas, Shawnee Mission, which was named after the Shawnee Indian nation. First they almost exterminated the Shawnees, then they stole their name for a school.
If you are interested in knowing more about this “most notorious conflict on a Canadian campus then or since” — notorious for the viciousness of the administration — here are some web links:
A Taste of Better Things. A detailed account of the PSA struggle, by Mort Briemberg. Originally published in Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology Vol. 1 No. 3 Oct. 1970.
On SFU Turning 40, by Mort Briemberg, in Seven Oaks magazine
Radical Campus or Haunted House on the Hill? A review of the Radical Campus book by Mort Briemberg in Canadian Dimension magazine
Remembering the Fired Professors. A podcast by Mort Briemberg.
Radical University, Not! A podcast by Mort Briemberg.
Foggy Portrait of a Radical Campus, a review of the Radical Campus book by Jerry Zaslove in the Bulletin of the Canadian Association of University Teachers
Book Review by Donald Fisher of Radical Campus, in Canadian Journal of Education (2008)
No Longer Radical but Reactionary; a July 8 2011 article in Politics Respun magazine on the university’s lockout of unionized staff members.
(Continued in San Francisco 1968-1973)