The Students in Social Movements and Revolutions: 1930s, 1960s, and 1980s
“The revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspiration of the people to which they belong.”
--Amilcar Cabral, The Weapon of Theory
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."
--- Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, students played a vital role not only in formulating the ideology of social movements; but also, in the language of the 60s, they “put their bodies on the line” in an attempt to change the world. In the United States, the students of the 30s, 60s and 80s were a key component in the democratic struggles of their day. Many of the students, not all of course, came from relatively privileged backgrounds, yet identified with the poor, the powerless, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. Exploring a diversity of worldviews, students were able to expand their narrow cultural deprivations, and see the world with eyes other than their own. Through their imaginations, they were able to feel the pain of the oppressed and the exploited. Due to administrative limitations on their own academic freedom and frustrations over their own options, they realized that the source of their own repression was the source of the subjugation of the cast-out and defenseless.
Because the world is so much broader than the alternatives given by Democrat or Republican power blocks, any struggle for social change needed to explore options that were, until then, uncharted. The University, by its very nature, is autocratic. The students and sometimes the professors fought for democracy, social equality, and intellectual sovereignty at great risk to their future careers. The Democratic Classroom, though only a dream, represents the university as a community of students. Thus, challenge toward authority is the key element to any student movement.
The 1930s were a period of the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, and open flirtation with far-reaching philosophies that questioned the very authenticity of capitalism and the privileged schemes of the political economic oligarchy. Issues like anti-militarism, radical pacifism, antifascism, collective security against fascist aggression, civil rights and, perhaps most important, the rise of industrial unionism would place many students at the center of the extraordinary social upheavals of the time.
In the City Colleges of New York was the birth of the National Student League, which was close to the Communist Party. NSL became the voice of dissent that was heard on campus for students from the impoverished enclaves of East European Jews. These students began life with the radical traditions of their parents from Russian and Austrian Empires. Young people, who brought these traditions with them, became a core of the new radical student movement in 1931. This reawakened the Student League for Industrial Democracy, the Socialist rival of the NSL. The new student movements began to fight for egalitarian change on campus and in the larger social world. Such issues as academic freedom, aid to the unemployed, aid to poor students, the opposition of compulsory military training and religious services are examples of the earliest issues. Capitalism and the US Government were seen as putrefying, cadaverous and incompetent ventures built on squander and avarice.
In March 1932, students from New York traveled to Kentucky to witness first-hand the police violence being leveled against striking coal miners in Harlan and Bell counties. The United Mine Workers abandoned the miners. The miners were then organized by the Communist-led National Miners Union. While the strike and the student support failed, the efforts of the NSL gave national recognition to the social movement. The student movement began to take root outside of New York and, in doing so, NSL began to expand beyond its working class origins. Together with SLID, they began to take on issues such as students’ rights -- particularly academic freedom and the challenge of in loco parentis (that the college administration, like parents, exercised nearly absolute authority over students’ lives). Other issues, such as peace, were important as well. 1933 saw the advent of the Oxford Pledge -- which the student would not serve in the armed forces for any reason. In fact, 39 percent said under no circumstances would they fight in any war, and another 30 percent said they would take up arms only if the US was invaded. By 1935, both the NSL and SLID were working so closely together that when the Communist Party advocated working with liberals and other radicals in the Popular Front, this was already well on its way to becoming a fact. The American Student Union was born. Soon racial equality became a central issue -- working for anti-lynching laws, an end to segregation, and civil rights. Anti-fascism was extremely important and the Socialists became divided over what was more important: ant-militarism or collective security. Eventually many students would make their way to Spain to fight in the civil war against the fascists there. This would carry over as support for the war against fascism in World War II.
With the Second World War, the Cold War, and political despotism and paranoia that followed WWII, the memory of the 1930s was scrubbed from popular culture. Thus, when college campuses began to reawaken in the early 1960s there were no models to draw upon. Early Civil Rights of the 1960s began as a utopian dream that America should honor its commitment to freedom for all. The realization that groups were left out of the American dream and the violence of those in authority left many struggling with the question: Why in the most free country on the planet were the youth who questioned authority treated like criminals? To many Americans, the war in Vietnam looked like just another colonial power bullying its control over its commonplace subjects in a foreign dependency. The moral mask of America was ripped from the face of the empire. Idealistic and patriotic youth became embittered revolutionaries. Everything was called into question, including the Cold War, the government, the Constitution, capitalism, the family, sex roles, the church, the university. A student’s role was to change the university or to destroy it. Knowledge was power. Education was to be pursued to empower the powerless and to reconstruct society to achieve real political, economic, social, and cultural democracy. Institutions of power, privilege, wealth and property were to be undermined. In the language of the time, the students were to learn in the streets, homes, farms, and job sites and carry that understanding into the classroom. In the classroom, they would develop a strategy to radically transform society and transfer it back to the streets. This strategy included the stamina and movement to change the community in which we live, from one of wealth, power, privilege, property, hierarchy and despair to one of equality, universal empowerment, justice, reciprocity, symmetry, and hope.
The 1960s never really went away; it shattered and turned in on itself. It evolved into many minor and competing movements of the 1970s, isolated and incestuous. But, in the 1980s it burst forth as a more mature movement for social change, dealing with issues like US imperialism, the struggle against South African Apartheid, environmental concerns, equality of all nations and ethnic groups, feminism and of course peace.
Throughout history, the student movements’ challenge to authority remained constant. Radical education defined as its primary goal the minimization of political and economic dominance by a small favored oligarchy. The authority fought back. Officially, in the US, the educational system could not be allowed to threaten power, wealth, privilege or property. The American Dark Ages was to be preserved at all costs. This was presented as a university curriculum of general intellectual knowledge. Ignorance was redefined as liberal education. If this educational mission of preserving the dominant worldview was ever to stumble, then the ruling elite’s control over the economy might slip.
The American political culture exists in a holding cell of repression. Higher education is the prison guard. College professors are to carefully manage the ideas being discussed in the classrooms in order not to overstep the limits defined appropriate by those in power both in the university regents and in the nation as a whole. The marketplace of ideas is the marketplace of the oligarchy. If all science, history, literature and education are really propaganda, and it is, then objectivity of the professor is a fraud. Liberal education is designed to limit debate as far as the ethics of private property, a market economy, and an elite hierarchy. Empirical evidence is arranged so as to never challenge these basic assumptions. Ephemeral truth is seen as factual. Imperialism’s rule, that is both social and cultural, is cared for; and half-truths become the pedagogical foundation of the university.
Radical students and professors challenge all of this. If education is dangerous, subversive and offensive, or threatens power, wealth, privilege or property, then the tiny number of the chosen patricians of America, the power elite, will claim that it is not truly education. Our institutions of higher education are founded upon the principle of mis-education.
In American history, the debate over the moral foundation of the Republic should take center stage. Revisionist history is not given equal billing. To say that the founders were racist murders of the American Indian, and criminals who enslaved and raped Africans, is not a blind assertion but a legitimate debate. What is at stake here is the ethical ramification of the legitimacy of the Republic itself.
The historical sociology of the scientific revolution needs to ask the questions: Which groups supported science, rationalism, and empiricism? What was the nature of the supporters of science and their struggle against the church? Which groups in society benefited from the advances of the scientific method, and who wanted to slow it down? What is the relationship between science and capitalism? What is the role of science in the expansion of commerce and industrialization? During the enlightenment the 1600s and the 1700s, we witnessed the ebb of an extremely oppressive oligarchy based upon the monarchy and religion. The old order was to be replaced by the oppressive twin oligarchies of capital and the professionals. Without asking these questions, education only furthers the most undemocratic oligarchy and oppressive stratification.
One of the questions we must ask is: Education for whom and why? Large groups of people are not being assimilated through our educational process and cannot be ignored. Migration and immigration has created a mixed population all over the globe. Higher education remains in the realm of white bourgeois studies, with this there was a bias for European and capitalist orientation. It is clearly true in the sciences and the humanities that higher education legitimizes colonialism. Social science, the bastard cross between the two, is twice as guilty of the worst excesses of colonial and class exploitation. Professors and students in all disciplines need to deal with the metamorphosing class constellations, globally. Failure to do so is to continue to fail to comprehend academia’s role in legitimizing a hierarchy of oppression. The denial of class realities is directly related to how we teach math, science, social science and humanities.
Capitalism is more than an economic system; it is an aggressive ideology that is fiercely assimilative in destroying all freedom in the name of freedom. Human rights are crushed underfoot in the name of human rights. Alternative views on democracy are crushed in the name of academic freedom. Real democracy is re-murdered with each generation. Radical professors were fired in 1930s and 1940s within the colleges themselves. The thought control of the 1950s and 60s led to innovators being black listed. Today, between tenure review and the pressure for grant writing, the breadth of the debate is continuously being limited. The pretense of democratic life that is “America” proves that the students in classes that prepare students for the institutions global power experience a major responsibility for crimes within the university, to which higher education publicly gives birth. Because government and the international business community support the university financially, professors are expected to become the shock troops of the international capitalist economy. Through professors, the student is given knowledge that is framed, distorted, and manipulated in order to render the college student like domesticated show dogs groveling for the approval of the professor.
Most multi-cultural education does not directly confront the rigid class hierarchies of exploitation and privilege, thus the pedagogy is founded on a vested interest in the direct oppression of the poor and the powerless. Most ethnic studies, by failing to consider class, are a prepackaged diversity that cannot be allowed to challenge property or dominance. This type of multi-cultural education is a basic tool of marketability and assimilation because it leaves the source of oppression and exploitation unchallenged. Self-determination of the powerless and poor communities is directly undermined by defining the advocates of economic equality beyond the pale of reason. Under such circumstances, nothing is left but to make higher education subversive and revolutionary. The professor must join the intellectual struggle to fight against the highbrow millstone of tyranny of neo-liberal pedagogy placed round every student’s neck. Every student must be given the entitlement to challenge the moral right for the college to even exist.
If education is to become a medium of liberation, the university must be exposed as an agent for class oppression. Higher education has become a necessary contingency for economic exploitation of the poor throughout the world. By rationalizing the system of exploitation, and vitalizing assets of capital, validating social stratification, as it exists, the ideology of power is legitimized.
Cooperation between most universities and college professors with policy makers during the cold war seriously compromised any possible virtue we could claim for moral justification of higher education in the US. The university was used to train these policy makers and to justify their crimes. The university participated directly and indirectly in worldwide aggression and state-supported terrorism. The university was a tool to undermine any possible alternative to imperialism. The university was central to the destruction democratic alternatives and the direct supervision of Pax-Americana.
Corporate Pentagon, State Department, and Interior Department alliances, along with state and local power structures, exercise control over the financing of the university. This includes tax dollars. This means that the primary concern of the university is to protect the power elite--all else is secondary. Community colleges and small four-year institutions are allowed to exist to cool-out working class aspirants, who receive an education without a future and serve as no threat to the elite.
Academic freedom exists as long as it does not threaten the economic freedom of the wealthy few, and the consumer freedom of those who can afford to choose. Students in economic classes are to be taught that the robbery of the poor by the owners of corporate property is not theft, but deserved reward; and enslaving the toiling poor is not slavery, but freedom. Science is research for profit and not a democratic and ethical responsibility to the planet and human culture. The earth and all its inhabitants become the economic colony of the few and that is presented as acceptable. Professors are expected to train the managers in corporate theft. The moral justification of a Liberal Arts agenda is to create critical thinking as an intensely insubstantial surface treatment so the collaborators, the professors, feel good about their moral cowardice.
The answer, then, comes through seditious sabotage within the ranks. Call everything into question including higher education. Expand options beyond what is acceptable. Explore the historical and sociological roots of all academic departments. Who benefits and who doesn’t, by the underlying assumptions? How does what is taught tie into the ideology of hegemony? What is the empirical evidence supporting this corroborating dogma of dominance? Students need to be able to democratically explore, by de-legitimizing unexamined presuppositions before investigating alternatives. Education is both democratic and subversive, or it is not education.
Anderson, Terry: The Movement and The Sixties
Cohen, Robert: When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941
Elbaum, Max: Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che
Francisconi. Michael Joseph (Papa Sconi)
Education, Revolution, and Democracy
Submitted for publcation.
Dr. Michael Joseph Francisconi (Papa Sconi)
Professor Anthropology/ Sociology
Department of History, Philosophy, and Social Science
University of Montana Western
(406) 683 7328, fax (406) 683 7493
University of Montana Western
Box 2/ 710 S. Atlantic St. / Dillon, Montana (MT) 59725
Comrade, Fellow Worker, Campesino
All Wealth is Theft