The Sixties Remembered

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Patrick M. Quinn

Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer
by Michael Steven Smith
New York: Smyrna Press, 1992. 230 pages, cloth $19.95, paper $9.95.

DURING PERIODS OF lulls in the tempo of radical struggle such as the one that grips the moment, it is increasingly difficult–and correspondingly necessary–to maintain continuity between previous waves of radicalism and those to come.

The history of the left and labor movements in the United States tells us that veterans of the Knights of Labor carried a tradition and culture of struggle into the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), while militants who had been active in the IWW and the pre-World War I Socialist Party provided much of the yeast for the rise of the Communist and Trotskyist movements formed by the great social upheaval that occurred during the Depression of the 1930s.

Similarly, participants in the struggles of the 1930s played an important role in the genesis of the radicalization of the 1960s that was fueled by the movement against the war in Vietnam. Now, over two decades after that radicalization, the question is posed perhaps more sharply than in any other period; the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European social systems has, for many militants, put in question the very historical impulse that energized generations of struggle.

Given these circumstances it is all the more urgent that continuity and links be preserved between the veterans of the struggles for economic, political and social justice of the 1960s and the new generation of militants-to-be who will emerge during the struggles of the 1990s and beyond. And it is because it will serve as one of those important links that Mike Smith’s memoir is so welcome.

To date very few memoirs of participants in the struggles of the 1960s have appeared. This paucity of first-hand accounts has contributed to the media-fostered caricature of the sixties as a mindless interlude of dope-smoking hippies, tie-dyed T-shirts, sexual libertinism and acid rock. The radical political experience that was at the core of what happened during the sixties has been nicely excised or shoved to the margins.

Mike Smith’s Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer serves as a modest but important antidote to the vulgar misperception of the sixties currently in vogue. It is a compendium of a 54-page memoir and 32 articles, reviews, letters and speeches penned by Smith between 1968 and 1990.

Smith, who turns 50 this year, was born in Chicago but grew up in a comfortable Milwaukee suburb in an upper- middle class Jewish-American family. He became radicalized in the mid-sixties while completing a law degree at the University of Wisconsin. In 1968 he moved to Detroit where he joined the Socialist Workers Party, while putting his legal training to good use on behalf of dispossessed tenants, anti-war soldiers and Palestinian rights activists.

In 1970 Smith moved to New York, becoming a full-time staffer at Pathfinder Press, the SWP’s publishing arm. In 1974 he left Pathfinder, returning after a serious illness to law practice, but remained an active member of the SWP until he was expelled as a dissident in 1982.

The best thing about this book is Smith’s account of how and why he became a socialist, of the legal work that he carried out in support of U.S. soldiers victimized because of their opposition to the war in Vietnam, and of the sordidly undemocratic internal life of the SWP that provided the crucible for his expulsion. The autobiographical component of the book is far too short; readers would have benefitted from a greater amplification of the process of Smith’s radicalization and his political life as a Trotskyist militant for a decade and a half.

The collection of Smith’s selected writings, which forms three-quarters of the book, is understandably uneven as one might expect in a retrospective collection of this sort. The articles, reviews and other contributions are organized around six themes: Smith’s work with the G.I. anti-war movement; his career as a radical lawyer; his passion for Lenny Bruce and for jazz; his experience in the SWP; his support of the rights of Palestinians; and his family.

Some of these articles are of course dated; others remain informative and have either retained their timeliness or stand as historical documents. In the articles and reviews, Smith’s affection for jazz is at times contagious; his championing as a Jewish American of the rights of the Palestinian people is courageous and compelling; and his portrait of his parents and his child is touching. The radical movements of the 1960s were all the better because of the Mike Smiths who peopled them.

As Alan Wald notes in his excellent introduction, “The moment of Trotskyism’s greatest influence in the 1960s has now entered history as part of the larger legacy of the left out of which new generations of socialist activists, along with surviving veterans of the past, will have to create new instruments for social transformation under continually changing conditions.”

Mike Smith will be one of those surviving veterans whose experience will help to leaven the movements to come. And hopefully, there will be a whole new generation of Mike Smiths out there who will rise to the occasion just as he did.

September-October 1992, ATC 40