When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941
New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism
In 1930, soon after the onset of the Great Depression, I entered the College of the City of New York, better known as City College or CCNY. I was eighteen years old. I felt as if I had left a Brooklyn village—the neighborhood in which I grew up—and gone to the big, outside, threatening world. I knew no one at CCNY or in Manhattan. I felt proud, lonely, and afraid. The first year at CCNY was notoriously hard, because so many were quickly thrown out for not making the grade.
Sometime during that first year, I saw a poster announcing a meeting of the Student Forum, the Socialist club. It was to be addressed by Felix Cohen, the lawyer son of the eminent philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen, who still taught at the college. I do not remember the subject, but it must have had something to do with socialism. It was the first time I had attended such a meeting. Nothing more than curiosity attracted me to it.
The meeting was opened by Joseph Lash, the chairman, the Socialist leader in the school, later the author of well-known works on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Cohen began to talk and was soon interrupted by loud and angry shouts from the back benches. As Cohen went on, the interruptions became louder and angrier. Finally, Lash stepped forward and appealed for silence to let Cohen go on with his speech. Instead, pandemonium broke loose; Lash and Cohen stalked out of the room; I sat dumbfounded, not knowing what it was all about.
As the Socialists walked out in protest, a student jumped up at the back of the room and shouted: “Everyone stay! We’ll carry on the meeting,” or words to that effect. He was Joseph Starobin, one of the Communist student leaders, who later became a professor of political science at York University in Toronto and the author of one of the better books on American Communist history.
The takeover of the meeting was wildly exciting. I had never before witnessed such a spectacle. For reasons I can hardly recapture any longer, I stayed. After all, the meeting might provide more fireworks. All that happened next was that everyone was exhorted to come to the next meeting of the Social Problems Club, the Communist rival of the Student Forum.
This was how I discovered the Communists at City College. Politically, I did not know what I was. I was almost totally ignorant of Marxism or communism. My family background was vaguely Socialist, owing to my parents’ early jobs in the garment industry and its Socialist-influenced trade unions. Only two political incidents remain with me from an early age. My mother took me, at the age of eight, to the Brownsville Labor Lyceum, where culture and politics met for that immigrant generation, to a meeting at which the venerated Socialist tribune Eugene Victor Debs spoke. On the steps as he came in or went out, she poked out my …
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