essays

Aug 1, 1978

Lessons for Libertarian Campus Radicalism

“Past libertarian student organizations have lacked either a deep-seated intellectualism, organizational knowhow…or a revolutionary strategic vision.”

Throughout human history, people have struggled with the problems created by government. Generally, such discontent has resulted in mere expressions of desperation, devoid of any comprehension of the true nature of man’s socioeconomic condition. On occasion, however, liberal ideas have come to the fore in conditions of strategic social tension and have made profound change possible.

Modern adherents to the libertarian tradition must evaluate carefully successful past mass resistance to state actions, so they can learn how best to create future movements capable of victory over state oppression. Such movements are, by definition, radical in that they seek to understand, make connections among, and operate on the root causes of existing conditions. And nothing short of radicalism is embodied in the libertarian challenge.

To the average American, the word “radical” is associated with the word “student” in something like the way, during the Nixon years, the word “executive” became associated with the word “privilege.” And there is good reason for the average American to make this association between radicalism and the young.

By 1960, for the first time in history, youth had come to represent a major autonomous social category. Students outnumbered workers in transportation, agriculture, public utilities, construction, and mining. Not until 1960 had 66 percent of all adolescents completed high school. But from 1960 to 1970, the American college student population increased from 3,789,000 to 7,852,000. The structural transformations in Western society since World War II had resulted in a cultural and identity crisis for youth, along with an institutional framework in which “youth” had become a coherent and self-conscious social class. Adulthood had been postponed for millions by segregating the greater bulk of youth into mass higher education, the conscripted army and the urban ghetto (via urban renewal, minimum wage, etc.). But these same institutions had become enclaves facilitating youth class-consciousness and action. They had reinforced and intensified the grievances, the discontents, the alienation. And the great advances in technology of the mass media provided a structural basis for interlinking the various enclaves into a homogeneous youth consciousness.

The significance of student political activity lies in the fact that future social leaders are largely reared on American campuses. The ideals discussed today in academia will be those advanced in future reform movements. Students enter college in their most formative years, when the development of self-identity and political values is most intensive.

The campus rebellion of the 1960s resulted from the profound changes which developed after World War II in the American social structure and system of higher education. These institutional changes were the result of a dramatically increased government role in society, especially in education. This involvement fostered a major “class conflict,” or generational conflict, between “youth” and the mainstream of modern corporate state America.

In Youth and Social Change, Richard Flacks traces the unprecedented student radical activism of the 1960s to the following developments:

1. Creation of the system of government-induced mass higher education.

2. Rise of the new stratum of young intelligentsia. Born into this stratum and raised to be socially concerned, this influential group came from primarily prosperous, privileged, liberal families.

3. Students born into the traditional stratum were radicalized due to their desire to become part of the subculture of the new, young intelligentsia.

4. Groupings of large masses of youth in large universities facilitated mass politicization and radicalization. The university system freed youths to devote themselves to social issues, creating an excellent opportunity for intense interaction and development of a broad consciousness. The universities served as self-contained societies in which political conflict could be conducted on a scale so that individuals and small groups could feel they were having effects. The increasing centrality of universities to the functioning of society as a whole meant that such local conflicts had a wide social and historical impact.

The crisis of the 1960s resulted from the major shift from a free market in higher education, with its stress on individual competition, to massive bureaucratic management.

Historically, the young had been assimilated into adult culture as they reached physiological adulthood. Prior to World War II, individuals under sixteen were considered adults, that is, full-time workers. Any continued segregation and education of the young had been traditionally reserved only for the male offspring of the elite. In such cases, extended youth was considered necessary and desirable only for those born to rule. And the rest of society had come to view “progress” partly in terms of wanting their sons to become such youths. In advanced countries prior to World War II, these youths (mostly college students) had been conservative, fully integrated into the prevailing order, and ready to assume the elite roles of power. They expressed dissent not by revolting, but by participating in movements of political and cultural reform led by adults. The values they acquired at home or in school and those upheld by the political and institutional elites were sufficiently similar to prevent any discernible generation gap. In addition, these youth were not experiencing vocational difficulty; they looked forward to upward mobility.

After World War II, however, higher educational institutions began a major transformation from being centers for individual cultural refinement and truth-seeking into being an “industry” designed to produce the increasing numbers of upper- and middle-management personnel required by the then-fully-burgeoning corporate state economy. This new corporatist society also required technicians to perform the research and development necessary to promote the kind of technological change embodied in the new order of military-defense complexes, technocracy, and nationally regulated economic activity. Job training shifted from private apprenticeship and vocational schools to “public” high schools, “junior colleges,” and technical schools. This new age of mass higher education was to create at least the illusion that society was providing increasing equality of opportunity to all youths regardless of origins. In the process, lower- and middle-class eagerness for inclusion of their sons in the corps of the formerly elite “youth” was exploited to its fullest. The result was the creation of the “behemoth” university by the 1960s, separating another 25 percent of those between 21 and 24 from the demands of adulthood.

As Friedrich Hayek has noted, institutional and cultural evolution proceeds as a result of the myriad efforts of countless individuals to adapt to new problems, adopt new procedures, and realize new aspirations. With the growing politicization of society, resulting from government dominance of education and other institutions, a prolonged crisis develops, because this bureaucratic management of society cannot and will not adapt to the needs of social change. As a result, in the 1960s, increasing numbers of youth came to regard the existing culture as incoherent and the future as undesirable and chaotic.

The young are among the first to experience social crises because they have yet to form stable vocational and social attachments, because they most completely and directly experience the socializing effects of existing institutions, and because they are most intensely future-oriented. Many young persons experience cultural crisis as a crisis of identity in which they are unable to define the meaning of life and to accept the models of adulthood offered by the older generation. The crisis of the 1960s resulted from the major shift from a free market in higher education, with its consequent stress on individual competition and entrepreneurship, to a system of massive, stifling, bureaucratic management. Work was no longer defined in entrepreneurial terms, but as successful fulfillment of a career within the bureaucratic or professional hierarchy.

By the 1960s, the fear and apathy of the McCarthyism of the 1950s was declining. Toward the end of the 1950s, there had emerged a small mass of alienated, intellectual youths. The greater bulk of these youths were the children of corporate liberal parents who had raised them in a commitment to intellectualism and a critical attitude toward the prevailing culture (particularly with respect to its materialism, its conventional morality, its status seeking, and its mass culture). Academically serious, these youths were brought up involved with the arts and books, and oriented toward intellectual careers and social responsibility.

Finding the youth culture of the 1950s shallow and irrelevant, many of these youths felt excluded from the mainstream. As a result they formed an alternative subculture, of casual dress, bearded faces, drugs, jazz, and folk music, a culture in which friendship, art, ideas, and experience were preferable to the commercialized entertainment, organized athletics and spectator sports, etc., of middle-American youth.

In The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society, Kenneth Keniston points out that in addition to the development of this small alienated corps of young intellectual nonconformists, there developed a larger group of college youth reared in a nonhumanist, nonliberal background. This second group found the emerging intellectual youth culture attractive in that the 1950s culture appeared superficial to them when placed alongside the hypocrisies they had begun to perceive in American society. For white middle-class youths whose daily lives had been characterized by regulation, competitive pressure, sexual deprivation, and dependency, the experience of defying convention and authority was particularly appealing as a form of emotional release and relief from boredom. The culture originated by small, relatively isolated groups attracted the interest of mainstream youth because all youths shared problems of self-definition, vocation, and sexual identity.

Students also came to question the disciplines of their university curricula, because these disciplines assumed the viability of a culture that in their eyes had become obsolete. Students felt they were being trained for vocations that were either nonexistent or irrelevant to their aspirations. But, as has been mentioned, universities did serve their student populations by gathering them together in groups of 10,000-40,000, under conditions affording considerable free time for intensive communication of their emerging sentiments of social criticism and cultural opposition.

Until the 1960s, radical student movements were regarded as characteristic of underdeveloped, agrarian societies experiencing pressure for modernization under autocratic rule. In such societies, youth revolts result from the conflict between emerging technology and the established rigidity of the social order. Classically, student movements begin when expectations for social reform through the existing political system are frustrated. Youth becomes disillusioned by the gap between its ideals and social and political realities.

But with bureaucratization of Western higher education, a system was created not unlike that typically found in many agrarian societies. And from this situation exploded an unprecedented movement of youths willing to put themselves on the line for questions of “social justice” and abolition of war and the draft.

Of the many student organizations active in the 1960s, the most successful was unquestionably the Students for a Democratic Society. Kirkpatrick Sale’s excellent book, SDS, chronicles the development of this campus phenomenon from its forerunner organizations through its mobilization of millions of students on over 400 college campuses to its collapse as a viable political vehicle. At present, the extent of libertarian campus activity could best be compared to SDS in the early 1960s, when small groups of campus intellectuals debated the viability of student political activism as a basis for a general “new politics” in the United States. Several interrelated themes were the topics of all these discussions:

1. The need for intellectuals to become politically involved.

2. The inadequacy of traditional ideologies and categories for guiding political action.

3. The need for a new ideology to provide a general social analysis and basis for the “new politics.”

The early student activists defined their role as educating their fellow students to the need for political engagement and support of off-campus reform movements. Then, in the mid-sixties, the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley demonstrated the potential for large-scale, direct student confrontations. In addition, the FSM demonstrated that although committed activists might comprise only a small fraction of the student body, most students could be persuaded to join actions they could perceive as being in their interests.

With the escalation of the war in the Southeast Asia, and the expansion of the draft, protests soon escalated into national proportions. In April 1965, SDS called for a national student march on Washington and to their amazement, 25,000 participated. In 1967, nearly 100,000 students converged on the Pentagon to demonstrate against American warmaking. By 1968, SDS had over 350 organized campus chapters (there were eight in 1962), with official membership approaching 100,000.

The effect of student activism was immense. The challenge of Eugene McCarthy’s student legions toppled Lyndon Johnson in early 1968. After students at Columbia University called for mass revolutionary objectives, a French student revolt in Paris threatened the very existence of the De Gaulle regime. Student activism was the decisive factor in movements to end the draft, decriminalize victimless crimes, investigate police spying, end racial discrimination, and deal effectively with a host of other issues. By late 1968, a Fortune Magazine survey suggested that about 10 percent of the total American student body identified with the new left. In every case, radicalization had resulted from an inability of the bureaucracy to respond to student reform proposals, and from youth’s need for social and ideological identity in a seemedly insane world of war and social inequity.

But SDS could not endure beyond the point of radicalization. Without a coherent ideology, SDS splintered in 1969 into extremely hostile factions as it tried to cope with the problem of transcending the vision of “Korporatist Amerika” beyond student confines. It is significant to note that the SDS constituency among youth had continued to be large and growing during this period, although many SDS ideologues mistrusted the “revolutionary commitment” of their nonideological legions.

In 1970, the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State and Jackson State slayings resulted in a complete shift of the campuses against the Vietnam War and a heightened skepticism about American “democracy.” Opinion polls began showing marked shifts in general public opinion against the war. But without SDS or other coherent national vehicles for organized activity, many students came to feel that “peaceful protest” or “revolution now” strategies were either futile or counterproductive. And they began withdrawing from political action.

The study of SDS’s success and latter demise is a case study for organizational knowhow in the building of a broadly-based, libertarian student movement. SDS began with small coherent study groups firmly committed to developing a keen understanding of American political economy and how best to effectively create social change.

Neither a program of pure intellectualism nor of pure partisan activity is sufficient. Instead, commitments to both partisan and intellectual ends must be balanced.

Past libertarian student organizations have lacked either a deep-seated intellectualism, organizational knowhow (including efficient business procedures), or a revolutionary strategic vision. With the Young Libertarian Alliance legally handicapped as the student campaign arm of the Libertarian Party, a more general student vehicle not restricted financially or organizationally has been needed. Fortunately, the newly formed Students for a Libertarian Society, under the leadership of Milton Mueller, promises to be the kind of mass vehicle SDS provided in the 1960s. SLS will supplement the work of YLA in attracting and organizing student groups across the United States. As in the case of the student rebellion of the 1960s, without an effective national organization, the mobilization of students for profound social change is not possible.

With the New Left in nearly total disarray and conservative student activism nonexistent, SLS is well-positioned to develop a leadership role for future student activism. The system of mass higher education which created the culturally-alienated youth of the 1960s is completely intact. With U.S. adventurism in Africa today at a stage similar to that of Vietnam in the early 1960s, the stage is set for a repetition of that decade’s campus upheavals. In addition, today we have a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam populace which has learned to be cynical about government. Government misdeeds are widely recognized and understood. The SDS faced the apathetic heritage of the 1950s, a far more difficult challenge than exists today, despite the present lull in campus political activism.

SLS leadership must boldly illustrate major issues of social inequity, recognizing the psychology of students, and the cultural setting found on American campuses today. Such issues should be illustrated in ways that relate to student identity and concerns so that direct political action is clearly indicated. First attract individuals through such campaigns; then expand education on the issues into the broader analysis provided by libertarian thought. In this way, an expanding cadre can be assured. SLS leadership should continually stress a balanced program of outreach and internal education. Neither a program of pure intellectualism (dedication to rational and objective methods in the pursuit of truth) nor partisan activity (dedication to the triumph of society over the state apparatus) is sufficient. Instead, commitment to both partisan and intellectual ends must be balanced.

The techniques of organizing a libertarian student group, holding lectures, mobilizing demonstrations, printing and distributing leaflets, influencing faculty and campus media outlets, attracting student interest, and perpetuating libertarian activism through yearly student turnover are all matters discussed in an SLS handbook. Further information may be obtained by writing: Students for a Libertarian Society, 1620 Montgomery St. San Francisco, CA 94111.

Perhaps the major lesson of SDS and the 1960 student movements is that for a libertarian student movement ultimately to be successful, it must transcend itself if the consciousness it expresses is to survive and realize itself in society. Youth must have similar interests to those of other groups which potentially or actually are in motion for radical change. A radicalism relevant to those victimized by government control must be created.

The libertarian movement has entered a new era of sophistication on almost every front. Now, with the organization of an extensive student revolutionary movement, th impact of libertarian thought and action can produce the kind of mass mobilization and social change required for realization of a society of true liberty and justice.

David Theroux is director of The Academic Affairs Program of Cato Institute.