• Email
  • Print

The Radical Students

The Conflict of Generations: The Character and Significance of Student Movements

by Lewis S. Feuer
Basic Books, 534 pp., $12.50

Overlive: Power, Poverty, and the University

by William M. Birenbaum
Delacorte, 195 pp., $4.95

University in Turmoil: The Politics of Change

by Immanuel Wallerstein
Atheneum, 147 pp., $4.95

Innumerable essays and books on the university crisis, the generation gap, and the significance of the student Left appear to have settled very little. Public anxiety has fastened upon these themes as a unitary threat or promise calling for a general position of resistance or welcome. Often the first casualty is logic. The distribution of power within universities is discussed as a conflict between strict and permissive rearing patterns, and tactical matters get confused with taking sides for or against a whole generation. No rhetorical strategies are spared to prove that we should or shouldn’t allow ourselves to be guided by the superior idealism or utter depravity of the young.

No one who writes according to such formulas can be very helpful, but by far the worst record has been compiled by renowned liberals attempting to stave off the ideas of student radicals with improvised theories condemning or belittling them. Thus Louis Halle derives campus disorders from he currents of “nihilistic” thought (Freud, Lorenz, et al.) that have been delaying Man’s self-improvement for the past century or so. In his view “the student drive to destruction” is so patent that no evidence of it need be presented; the only problem is to decide which books and teachings are to blame. George Kennan adopts a tone of weepy hauteur as he contemplates the “defiant rags and hairdos” of “perverted and willful and stony-hearted youth.” He too prefers to skip over the manifest disputes and get directly to the heart of the matter: bad taste, bad manners, lax upbringing, and want of respect for the Wilsonian concept of the university, “its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith.”

Jacques Barzun, after documenting many of the Left charges against multiversities, suggests that student protest may spring from the teaching of misanthropic modern art. Student activists “are but acting out in life what their parents pay good money to see acted on the stage.” Irving Howe proposes that “the very idea of commandment and regulation,” after 150 years of skeptical assault, has finally dissolved and given way to “a psychology of unobstructed need.” (So much for the “socialist” perspective.) And Diana Trilling, who sees her husband’s university as a “white island, constantly shrinking” before “the meaner streets of the vicinity,” declares that the flouting of parental authority these days is simply inexplicable: “does it not almost amount to a mutation in the species?” All would agree with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who does offer definite reasons for the activists’ mood but finally insists that the struggle is being waged between “social process” on one hand and “anarchy” on the other.1

These efforts to drown the student movement in generalities deserve some explanation themselves. The announced aims of student radicals are threatening to many professors who are temperamentally loyal to that mixture of formalism, discretion, and indifference known as the academic process. Their personal niche needn’t be directly jeopardized for them to feel perturbed by attacks against the more exposed parts of the university, that are judged “irrelevant,” or relevant to the wrong interests. Most academics are reconciled to the university’s bending to dominant economic and political forces, so long as it is done inconspicuously. Precisely because campus upheavals bring these ties into the open, professors are inclined to react in a passionately euphemistic way. It is easier to speak of anarchy, nihilism, and the decline of civilization than to admit the compromised circumstances of one’s professional life. The same point applies to critics outside the academy, for the student movement offends tacit notions of the benevolence of government, the dignity of commerce, and the delegation of authority which most people find essential to their mental peace. They respond as if the very principle of order, rather than specific privileged interests, were being menaced with extinction.

This reaction seems to be deeply ingrained in the mentality characterizing the greater part of American politics—a mentality derived from classic bourgeois liberalism as it has been modified by success. As C. Wright Mills noted, “Twentieth-century liberals have stressed ideals much more than theory or agency. But that is not all; they have stressed going agencies and institutions in such ways as to transform them into the foremost ideals of liberalism.”2 It is not surprising in this light that American academics, reluctant to admit that their universities are constantly evolving to accommodate money interests, tend to identify the institutional status quo with truthseeking and tolerance: an attack on the standards undergirding elitist pluralism is taken as an attack on learning itself. Thus those who pound at the university’s gates are judged according to whether or not they put their claims into the form of discourse already practiced on the inside. If not, they are “anarchists.” When the crisis subsides and the institution has moved a modest step to left or right, the new arrangement will become the professorial norm for determining whether Western culture is about to receive its death-blow.

Lewis Feuer’s ambitious and learned book on the strife between generations shows what can happen when this resistance of the academics is buttressed by a sweeping historical idea—in this case a potentially useful idea. Feuer distinguishes student movements from ordinary college uprisings such as those led by the youthful Harlan Stone and Ronald Reagan. The latter have no serious political content and are adequately explained by the filial resentment and artificially prolonged dependency of college students. A genuine movement, taking on the aspect of a quasi-revolutionary assault on the political system, can only follow a significant “de-authoritization” of national leaders—loss of face through shameful policies or submission to an enemy power. But Feuer maintains that even such a movement will be driven by unconscious forces. Whatever their ideology, student movements will probably founder in ambivalence, excessive emotionalism, and ephemeral identifications with more truly oppressed groups. Feuer supports this assessment with much evidence culled from the past 150 years of world history. Yet the uses to which he puts his argument, particularly as he approaches his own time and place, finally become monotonous and absurd.

Feuer’s most important mistake is to assume that irrational passion automatically makes for ineffective political behavior. Regardless of how despotic a regime may be, he invariably demands of its opponents that they “foster liberal democratic values.” He shows no awareness that polite and patient reformism may be out of place in certain cases, or that survival may sometimes take precedence over decorum. Russians opposing the Czar, Chinese opposing the Kuomintang, Latin Americans with their curious “compulsion to discredit liberal democracy in the United States,” and of course American students trying to exert group power are all deemed “irrational” because of their aggressive ways. Nowhere does Feuer indicate that the cultivation of decent personal values might be a separate matter from the choice of tactics for dealing with an enemy. The most durable liberal illusion is that violence never pays.

A related fantasy is that one’s government never seeks domination over others, but is just kept busy protecting “freedom” around the globe; the liberal rule of thumb is self-interest for others’ motives, altruism for ours. This attitude enters The Conflict of Generations as disbelief in the sincerity of anyone who questions American policies on any front. Feuer accuses one student, who had just returned from risking his life in the Mississippi Summer of 1964, of “hypocrisy” for wanting to lead the Berkeley Free Speech Movement; another’s opposition to the Vietnam war is described as a “pseudo-goal.” The American student movement turned from civil rights to Vietnam in early 1965, says Feuer, solely because the government’s success with civil rights legislation removed the generational appeal of this issue; he neglects to mention the bombing of North Vietnam. Without referring to the Bay of Pigs invasion or to American policy at all, Feuer deduces that Fidel Castro’s Oedipus complex accounts for his anti-Americanism. And still doing penance for his own student radicalism, he goes so far as to hint that the McCarthy era never existed; it was “the projected creation in large part of the bad conscience and cowardice of the radicals.”

At the end of his book Feuer observes that every dominant generation as well as every student generation “has its projective unconscious, its inner resentments, its repressions and exaggerations.” The remark is tossed off as an afterthought, as if it were not fundamentally relevant to his theme of “the conflict of generations”; nowhere does he consider that it is precisely the young who tend to be chosen as receptacles for the envy and fear of their elders. A psychoanalytic outlook such as Feuer professes should make him attentive to voyeuristic and vindictive attitudes toward youth. As a psychiatrist has recently said, reflecting on the brutality of American “correctional” facilities for the young, “It appears sometimes that our society needs its delinquents who act out impulses which the adults do not or cannot and then requires that the youth be viewed with indignation and censure.”3

Feuer, however, detects the politics of the unconscious only in student protesters, never in their antagonists. He tells us of the New Left’s “positive advocacy of promiscuity” and “positive advocacy of interracial sexuality,” but says nothing about the adult prurience that makes for censorship laws, harassment of nonconforming youth, and fears of miscegenation. Indeed, the opinions of conservative adults seem altogether beyond his criticism. “The fathers favor a policy of war in Vietnam; therefore, the rebellious sons are for peace. The fathers criticize the Communists; therefore, the sons refuse to criticize the Communists.” He actually goes so far as to diagnose the youthful tactic of “going limp” as masochism, comparable to “the submission of the intellectuals to the Stalinist terror.” The passage is instructive not for what it says but for what it reveals about the fixated mentality of one generation of ex-radicals.

Feuer’s interest in self-vindication shows through clearly in his chapter on the most controversial episode in his own career, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. A critical moment of that year was the Academic Senate’s defeat of the “Feuer Amendment,” which sought to define a category of speech and advocacy that should not be tolerated on campus grounds. Feuer’s position was principled and arguable, though to most of us it seemed to invite unconstitutional prior restraint. But having undertaken to explain the debate, Feuer might at least be expected to summarize the arguments that decisively prevailed over his own. Instead, he caricatures them by misleadingly lifting a few odd-sounding phrases out of context and writing off the whole majority view as a product of anger, bewilderment, momentary exaltation, and servile desire to please the activist students. He would have us believe that his own emotional involvement in the FSM was merely the resigned melancholy of a social scientist observing that “the Law of Generational Struggle was in full ascendancy.” Nothing could be less like the self-ironical spirit of psychoanalysis than this combination of infighting and sham transcendence.

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.

Letters

Complaint June 5, 1969

  1. 1

    See Halle, “The Student Drive to Destruction,” New Republic, October 19, 1968; Kennan, Democracy and the Student Left (Boston and Toronto, 1968); Barzun, The American University: How It Runs, Where It Is Going (New York, Evanston, and London, 1968); Howe, “The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique,” Commentary, October 1968; Trilling, “On the Steps of Low Library: Liberalism and the Revolution of the Young,” Commentary, November 1968; and Schlesinger, Violence: America in the Sixties (New York, 1968).

  2. 2

    The Marxists (New York, 1963), p. 29.

  3. 3

    Eveoleen N. Rexford, “Children, Child Psychiatry, and Our Brave New World,” Archives of General Psychiatry, XX (January 1969), pp. 25-37.

  4. 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.

  5. 5

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

  6. 6

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

  • Email
  • Print