Excerpts from "From Ike to Mao and Beyond - My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist"
New People, New Influences
Revolution #025, December 4, 2005, posted at revcom.us
New People, New Influences
I only stayed in the dorms for a short time, and then Tom and I and a couple of other people got an apartment. One of my good friends in the dorm, who later moved into an apartment with me and Tom, was from India. His name was Sidhartha Burman, but it got shortened to Sid, and especially some of my Jewish friends liked to joke with him, "Sid Berman, good Jewish boy from India." But his name was really a classical Indian name, Sidhartha Burman, and he was from a very wealthy bourgeois family. We had a lot of struggle with him. He was a really good-hearted guy, but he used to recount to us, for example, that when he was back in India, he was awakened every morning by being given a massage by servants. Then he would walk from his house to his father’s business in Calcutta, where he lived, and he acknowledged to us that every day he would step over the dead bodies of the poor people who had starved to death on the streets of Calcutta the night before. We struggled with him and struggled with him, and we finally got him for a little while to become kind of a hippie, but that’s as far as we could get with him. On the other hand, he did share with us a lot of experiences and open us up to an understanding, or at least a glimpse, of a whole different part of the world and different cultures and customs.
Politically at that time -- in the period before the Free Speech Movement -- there was mainly civil rights activity among students. In fact, the right to organize for civil rights activities on the campus was the focal point of what became the Free Speech Movement. It may sound unbelievable now, but in those days, the Cal administration had a rule that you could organize things like student clubs, but you could not carry on political activity on campus for "off-campus political causes," such as civil rights. You were not allowed to organize on campus for, say, a civil rights protest or demonstration against a company that wouldn’t hire Black people -- it was against the rules and you could be expelled for it. That gave the spark to the whole Free Speech Movement (FSM). The FSM not only radically changed the Berkeley campus, but was a major impetus for a wave of changes on campuses all across the country. When the FSM was going on, people, young people in particular, came to Berkeley from all parts of the country.
For example, one day I walked on campus and there was this guy from New York who’d come to Berkeley specifically because he recognized the significance of the gathering Free Speech Movement. He told me stories about having visited Italy, where the Communist Party was looked at very differently than in the U.S. -- it was a mainstream political party there. He also told this vivid story about being in a courtroom in New York City when they brought in this prisoner to appear before the judge, and the prisoner had obviously been brutally beaten by the cops. It was so bad that the judge sort of lost control for a moment and blurted out, "god, what happened?!" Then he described how the judge regained his "composure" and went on with the ordinary business of the court as if nothing were wrong. When I put things like that together with things I knew and was learning, from my own personal experience, and especially the experience of many of my friends, it had a kind of cumulative effect.
As I described earlier, even when I was in high school some of the gathering momentum of the civil rights movement carried over in various ways and found various expressions among the students and within the school, among the Black students in particular. So I knew about Malcolm X by the time I graduated from high school. And I remember a year or so later, when I was in the hospital starting up the cortisone treatments, I saw a Sunday afternoon political discussion/debate program on TV. They had different people talking about Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, with people on different sides of the argument, though they were all white -- arguing about whether the Black Muslims were just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacists. I remember one guy making the argument, "No, they’re not, because the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacists are defending and upholding oppression, whereas whatever you think about the Black Muslims they’re on the side of opposing that oppression." That immediately struck me as true and important -- I agreed with that right away. It was in line with everything I already felt, but it also put something together for me.
I remember listening to Malcolm X’s speeches and seeing him on tele-vision, and always being riveted and, increasingly, inspired by him. I agreed with Malcolm X when he said "freedom, by any means necessary." I had never agreed with the pacifist view. It’s one thing if you want to say there should be pacifist tactics in a particular situation, like a demonstration, but I never agreed with pacifism as a principle -- that Black people, for example, should always turn the other cheek. When I heard about the Deacons for Defense in the south, who organized and took up arms to defend the Black community from the KKK and all the racist sheriffs, I thought that was right -- it was necessary and important. So when Malcolm X articulated "by any means necessary," I felt that was right, and I didn’t agree with the idea that you should confine the people to turning the other cheek or just to passively accepting, for whatever supposedly loftier purpose, being brutalized.
I loved to listen to Malcolm X speeches. At one point, I got a recording of "The Ballot or the Bullet," and I listened to that over and over. Later, when I started making speeches myself, I drew a lot from Malcolm X, especially the way in which he exposed profound injustices and contradictions of the system so sharply. (I also drew from Richard Pryor, particularly the ways in which he used humor to bring to light things in society that were covered up, or that somehow you weren’t supposed to talk about.)
Straddling Two Worlds
My friend Matthew came back to Cal, and he had a circle of friends who were mainly Black that I also got to know and became friends with. And when I went back to Berkeley High to do tutoring and officiating at track meets and coaching summer league basketball teams and things like that, I maintained contact with my old friends and that milieu, so to speak. While I didn’t think of it that way at the time, looking back on it now, I feel like I was straddling two worlds, but to me they were both part of my life, they were both part of my world. And the same kind of shit that I ran into in high school came up again - -- for example, there were people at Cal who would straight up tell me that they would not be friends with me because I hung out in the Student Union and around campus with Black students. As I said, I was sort of straddling two worlds, but to me this was all part of what I was about. I wasn’t trying to make a "statement" -- these were just my friends, these were the people and things I was interested in and cared about, these were just the different parts that made up the whole of my life. I wasn’t saying to myself, "Oh, I’m straddling two worlds," but objectively I was.
In a lot of ways, culturally, I was drawn more to things that were from my earlier years, especially my high school years, than I was to the university. But then politically, and in terms of intellectual ferment, there were things about the university that were increasingly drawing me. There was the Dylan music, the poetry, even the Milton seminar. I took courses in Shakespeare and Chaucer, and I’m one of the few people that I know of who has actually read the entire "Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spenser! -- which is a classical epic poem, hundreds and hundreds of pages long, written at more or less the same time as Shakespeare. I read that -- I actually took a course on this poem -- mainly because I knew Spenser was a big influence on Keats and I was really into Keats. All that was one part of my life, too.
I also had a goal of learning five or six languages. I took Italian and I took some Spanish, but I didn’t ever fulfill my goal -- other things intervened which became more important to me. But by taking Italian I got interested in some of the Italian romantic poets from more or less the same period as Keats and the other English romantic poets. My favorite Italian professor was very progressive, and I used to have talks with him about what was going on in the world -- as much as I could, I would talk with him in Italian about all this.
But, once again, I was straddling different worlds. You know, most of the people who were big into athletics -- let’s put it this way, they were not among the vanguard of the progressive and radical forces on the campus. There were some friends of mine, like Kayo and my roommate Tom, who were sports fanatics and who also had strong progressive views and radical tendencies, but that was more the exception than the rule. So, in that way you could say there was a certain conflict in terms of things that I was passionate about. But by this time, around 1964, I was finally getting back on my feet physically and feeling like I dared to do some things. So when the summer gave way to the fall and the Free Speech Movement arose, and in addition with the influence of Liz -- with whom I was starting to fall in love -- I was ready to throw myself into that.