• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Radical Students

Feuer’s hypothesis for explaining student protest hinges on the concept of “de-authoritization”: wherever a movement flourishes you can expect to find that generational hostility has been reinforced by contempt for a disgraced political regime. The hypothesis is useful because it anticipates the flareup of protest at seemingly unlikely spots and moments; a vacuum of true authority on the national level makes for a low boiling point everywhere. An obvious test of this idea is the past five years of American campus history, which Feuer does discuss. But his infatuation with the official policies of this period keeps him away from a clear judgment of whether and to what extent a de-authoritization has occurred. He grants the movement’s existence but implies, contrary to his own formula, that the very stability of the American order has been the chief source of resentment.

Once we get away from Feuer’s personal bias it is not difficult to see that a limited but genuine de-authoritization has catalyzed student protest in this decade. Two new books, William M. Birenbaum’s Overlive and Immanuel Wallerstein’s University in Turmoil, fill in much of what Feuer has neglected to say. Starting with different emphases—Wallerstein’s on the international political situation, Birenbaum’s on what urban universities have been doing to their ghetto surroundings—these books reach similar conclusions. Both writers understand that widespread and vehement protest must derive from real circumstances and from a diffuse uneasiness with the government’s broken promises. Both take for granted, as Feuer does not, that universities are instruments of an economic system and as such are logical pressure points for dissidents who want either to change the system or gain entrance to it.

These books taken together indicate two broad ways in which America has been losing the respect of some of its most sensitive college students. First, the attempted relaxation of the Cold War in the Sixties has had the effect of discrediting the previous decade’s pieties. People with no economic or mental stake in “defense” have begun to feel that the sword-rattling, the spy network, the frenzy over left-wing influences, and the indefinite postponement of domestic justice for the poor and black have been unnecessary, or necessary only to those who sought to extend American militarism. Yet the policies continue after their supposed rationale has become incredible. Disenchantment turns to rage when the shopworn fears of world conquest are trotted out to justify the mass slaughter of Vietnamese partisans. Some young Americans have been gagging on the “free world” propaganda that nearly everyone was swallowing a few years ago.

Secondly, universities since World War II have increasingly merged their purposes and style with the government’s. Both have become more bureaucratic and anonymous, more responsive to the largest corporations, and more concerned with counterrevolutionary technology and ideology, all the while making well-publicized but token gestures of democratization. As property-owners and employers the universities have mirrored the opportunism and discrimination of the society at large. Politically conscious students of the Sixties have started to learn, outside the classroom of course, that the contemplative academic haven has been a primary contributor to the warfare state. Again, the shock has been considerable precisely because the older view was such an article of general faith.

This summary places more reliance than Feuer would on the manifest content of student rhetoric, but it is consistent with his approach. By comparison with his fullest modern examples—Russian protest before the Revolution, French and German between the World Wars—a modest de-authoritization has touched off a modest-sized movement. Whether the conditions of student life have worsened is doubtful, but amenities do not appease a feeling of revulsion. If anything, they exacerbate it. Consider the opening sentence of Tom Hayden’s prescient Port Huron Statement of 1962: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” The question has not been how to gain one’s withheld rights but whether to accept one’s legacy—a moral or spiritual problem rather than a practical one.

For this reason Feuer’s psychosocial method of explanation remains useful, irrespective of his prejudices. Students often engage in what Feuer calls “projective” politics, as opposed to the relative realism and materialism of class and ethnic groups. They seek out symbolic issues distant from their immediate situation in order to express or resolve ambivalence about authority and identity. Among students a kind of claustrophobia at the thought of membership in a too pervasive, too predictable, and too discriminatory order gets translated into fraternal and ascetic identification with those who are exempt from any charge of being its heirs: the black proletariat, migrant farm workers, NLF peasants. And this identification requires a mistaken perception of political realities or even a provocation of repressive malice from authorities

There is indeed some truth to the charge that one segment of the American student Left has invited the crackdown which it takes to be the very essence of the liberal regime. This is often defended as a way of polarizing the uncommitted, but of course the uncommitted have largely ended up at the wrong pole—and yet the tactics remain unchanged. One must finally conclude that for some radicals the spectacle of students being beaten and gassed carries a perverse satisfaction of its own, a revelation that the “fascist police state” so long anticipated has surfaced in all its horror. The irresponsibility of such thinking consists largely in its obscuring the real preconditions for fascism that do exist in America today: an economy that can no longer yield an adequate profit rate without a high degree of state control, monopolistic practices, domination of client states, and a perpetual war scare, plus a widespread willingness in the working class to blame an ethnic and political minority for the system’s troubles. The police are a significant part of this restless class, but they are not fascism incarnate. To treat them as such is to redouble their hostility and to squander valuable energy.

Feuer’s concept of “projective politics” is suggestive enough to raise once again many of the challenges that have been hurled at the New Left by its Establishment foes. We can set aside Louis Halle’s and Jacques Barzun’s supercilious explanations of protest, but the doubts about effectiveness voiced by such serious critics as Nathan Glazer are another matter.4 Can a movement with no program be counted on to achieve a better society, or indeed to achieve anything besides temporary inconveniences to those who have power and know how to consolidate it? Are the students capable of sustaining discipline and taking politically necessary steps that are not reinforced by generational animus—for instance, cooperating with the blue collar and clerical classes who are theoretically detachable from the corporate elite, but happen to despise radical students? How much devotion to democratic ideals is implied by a movement that chafes under “repressive tolerance” and regularly uses minority coercion in the name of “the people”? How radical are those students who invite cancellation of the university forum for radical analysis by harassing and intimidating their ideological foes?

These are nasty questions, the asking of which is usually taken as exposing one’s conservatism. The standard Left reply is that the students are feeling their way toward an unimagined better world and that their horror of war and racism is a guarantee of reliable intentions. This is a tempting but not a logical line of argument, and ultimately it amounts to an abdication of personal commitment. Following the movement, “getting over one’s violence hangup,” replaces the drab business of assessing the actual strength of radical forces and the possibilities for making inroads into a conservative and relatively stable society.

Romantic revolutionism has never made a revolution anywhere. Marx distrusted militant students, Engels regarded them as mischievous “officer candidates without an army,” and Lenin came reluctantly to see the student desperadoes of pre-1917 Russia as incurably bourgeois. The historical record is littered with abortive student movements that betrayed their announced ends, acted with suicidal impulsiveness, and veered wildly between authoritarianism and apathy. The American movement is too fragmentary and new to permit of any definite judgment of its ethics or its power, but under the present counterattack it is already having a crisis of morale. To be “for the students” in a reflex way isn’t a service either to radicalism or to the students as people.

But to ask whether student rebels can overcome their debilities is to misconstrue the issue, for the movement’s success depends precisely on its ceasing to be exclusively a student matter. The unmasking of questionable purposes in official America is more important than any calculation of how much is won or lost in the sum of campus showdowns. The movement finally amounts to an ongoing critique of the managerial, aggressively evangelistic mentality on which the current American dispensation rests; whoever abandons this mentality carries the movement within himself, whether or not he approves of student tactics and leaders. The hope and strength of radicalism lies not in its gaining formal concessions but in its redirecting inhibited energies toward humanistic ends. It isn’t necessary to imagine an economic collapse or a concerted revolt against the American empire to arrive at a different idea of the future than, say, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “technetronic society,” which is only an extrapolation from the present convergence of technology and centralized power. An entire way of life that depends on paranoid fictions and bureaucratic anonymity can be discredited by its inability to contain what it has repressed.

The university remains vital to this debunking process, not only because it allows critical thought to flourish but also because it is a peculiarly visible arena of competition for social rewards. Whatever the society cannot amicably settle will be dramatized and aggravated there. This is a point which radical activists, for all their “projective politics,” have understood more soberly than their elders. In the current academic year they have subordinated themselves to what might superficially seem a conformist effort—the struggle of young black men and women to gain a foothold in the system which has kept them down. In fact, this struggle is nothing less than revolutionary. Black students are not settling for what Nathan Hare of San Francisco State calls super-tokenism, the majority’s “plucking many of the most promising members from a group while failing to alter the lot of the group as a whole.”5 They want nothing less than the elevation of their people as a people, and to this end they have necessarily become trenchant critics of everything that white America has hidden. They are bringing to the academy that “voracious taste for the concrete” which Fanon finds typical of the ex-colonized, and which makes further mystification impossible.

Ironically, this undertaking is greeted with fear and anxiety by many radical professors, perhaps because it is taking place on their own territory. There is a difference between sympathizing with Venezuelan guerrillas and being personally confronted with “non-negotiable demands,” beatings, and arson. But more than squeamishness or selfprotection is involved; a radical scholar who believes in the university’s longrange utility for social renovation cannot be happy with tactics and stated aims that seem to threaten intellectual freedom. The discreetly political university defined by Kerr and Barzun allows some excellent radical scholarship to survive on the grounds that it is truthful; but the open, compensatory politicization advocated by Nathan Hare seems ominous. The subordination of inquiry to what Hare calls “Black ego development,” the imposition of tests for blackness and radicalism in the choice of faculty, and the creation of ideologically satisfying counter-disciplines to refute “white” history, sociology, etc., all smack of thought-control. No wonder, then, that radical professors are finding themselves torn between their sense of historic necessity and their feelings as academics.

These contradictions cannot be escaped. They can be understood, however, as transitional, for both the university and the society. If America absorbs the sweeping democratization being proposed, current militant tactics will obviously become unnecessary; if it cannot, questions of academic style may be pre-empted by a social explosion. It is pointless to ask people now on the bottom, awakening to their latent power, to respect the intellectual luxuries enjoyed by those near the top. The way to defend scholarly objectivity may be to refrain from using it as a screening device to blindly exclude the “unqualified.” If the university exists to offer conditions for learning to people who have decided that higher education would be useful to them, it will have to reshape itself to accommodate those it has never cared to understand. The main stumbling block, the real enemy, is not the probably transitory “black anti-intellectualism” but the elitism that purports to find this so incomprehensible and uses it as a pretext for automatic rejection of black demands.

The unique strength of the black student movement, as opposed to all the movements dissected by Feuer, is its claim on the conscience of the white majority. Its dynamic is such that black liberation and white awareness come to the same thing; the overrated phenomenon of “backlash” recedes as lifelong unconscious lies are correctly named and exposed. This is why a tiny group of black students in a college far removed from the ghetto can get results undreamt-of by SDS. And the lesson continues after the confrontation is over. The very necessity for ethnic enclaves within the citadel of white individualism is a rebuke to the system’s pretense of democracy; what Hare calls “the programmed educational maladjustment of the Black race” can only be remedied by a racial solidarity which shocks and embarrasses—and thus enlightens—those who have never thought clearly about exploitation. As Eldridge Cleaver has said:

For all these years whites have been taught to believe in the myth they preached, while Negroes have had to face the bitter reality of what America practiced. But without the lies and distortions, white Americans would not have been able to do the things they have done. When whites are forced to look honestly upon the objective proof of their deeds, the cement of mendacity holding white society together swiftly disintegrates. On the other hand, the core of the black world’s vision remains intact, and in fact begins to expand and spread into the psychological territory vacated by the non-viable white lies, i.e., into the minds of young whites.6

What the young whites are learning is not simply the privileged position they have held, but also the subtle deprivation accompanying it. To be locked unknowingly into a mentality which has to negate and prettify and rationalize is to be out of touch with oneself. The blacks’ insistence on connecting identity to learning and learning to committed action is thus of great potential significance to all students in all disciplines of the self-estranged knowledge industry. The answer to student alienation is not, as Lewis Feuer would have it, a “purified idealism” based on forswearing generational “demonry,” but a humanizing of the educational process and of the society itself. There is nothing fortuitous in the fact that the main hope for this development lies with those who understand the duplicity of corporate America without having to open a book. Coming to full self-consciousness now, they are starting to teach the rest of us what they have always known.


Complaint June 5, 1969

  1. 4

    See Glazer’s “The New Left and Its Limits,” Commentary, July 1968, pp. 31-39, and ” ‘Student Power’ in Berkeley,” The Public Interest, Fall 1968, pp. 3-21.

  2. 5

    Hare is quoted extensively by John H. Bunzel, “Black Studies at San Francisco State,” The Public Interest, Fall 1968, pp. 22-38.

  3. 6

    Soul on Ice (New York, 1968), p. 77.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print