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From Campus Organizing to Rebuilding the Left

Student organizing isn’t the most burning issue in American politics today. But socialists would be wrong to dismiss it. On-campus organizing can be the beginning of lives dedicated to renewing labor militancy and rebuilding the Left.

Protestors at the march against the Vietnam War organized by Students for a Democratic Society and the Women's Strike For Peace, Washington DC, April 17, 1965. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

The American university student movement has seen a few surges throughout history, first during the Great Depression and then at the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the many shortcomings of student organizing, these experiences occasionally sparked mass student actions that catalyzed change far beyond universities themselves.

While students do not have the kind of power that workers do in society, we can follow in the footsteps of past generations of student radicals and play a principled role in renewing labor militancy and rebuilding the Left.

When the Old Left Was Young

Although we often think of the 1960s New Left as the high-water mark of US student organizing, the student rebels of the Depression era were the “most effective radical organizers in the history of American student politics,” according to Robert Cohen in When the Old Left Was Young.

During the first two years of the Depression, however, most American college students were unconcerned with the nation’s burgeoning breadlines and shantytowns. The campus seemed to stand apart from the rest of society, sheltering mostly middle-class, upwardly mobile youth from the early Depression years. At a time when factories, banks, and farms were closing down, “higher education remained a growth industry.”

Eventually, in 1932, as college enrollments started slipping by more than 4 percent, the mood on campus changed. Witnessing the losses of the middle class and the well-educated during the Depression, students acutely felt the age’s economic anxieties. Their professors had either lost salaries or their jobs, and their classmates had either dropped out or started to work poorly paying jobs to stay in school.

In the face of growing disaffection, the National Student League (NSL) emerged in late 1931, when students affiliated with the Communist Party (CP) came to realize that spontaneous political action on campus was becoming increasingly common. However, at least initially, the CP did not believe it was worthwhile to organize “bourgeois” college students. Insisting otherwise, the NSL secured the reluctant support of the CP, but remained autonomous and financially independent from the party.

Before communists entered the scene, campus politics had been under the monopoly of the student section of the League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), a labor organization primarily led by socialists, though not formally affiliated with the Socialist Party. The League’s leaders, men and women in their thirties and forties, took an academic approach to student politics: spending months to arrange lectures about radical principles, but little time showing students how to act on those principles. Throughout the 1920s, the League was too far removed to see campus problems as a bridge to larger political issues. By the time the Depression hit, the American student left was barely alive.

The NSL’s founders recognized the need for change; they rejected the notion that the duty of college radicals was solely to study radicalism. Indeed, at the core of the NSL’s founding program was a call to immediate action on a set of ambitious yet practical political demands. By introducing the idea that the conditions students were facing made for important issues around which student radicals could organize a mass student movement, the NSL helped give the student left “a sense of identity which it had lacked in previous decades” — and a hand in getting organized.

Student actions in support of labor strikes, the struggle to uphold campus free speech in the face of administrative suppression, and the movement against tuition in working-class colleges are a testament to the political awakening that began in spring 1932. This flurry of student action could have never been predicted by polls taken throughout the 1920s, in which college students had voted more solidly Republican than the general electorate.

Come the 1932 elections, Republicans lost their sweeping campus majority to FDR. And more surprisingly, Socialist candidate Norman Thomas surged in the polls. Thomas’s 18 percent support among polled undergraduates dwarfed the 2.2 percent vote he received from the general electorate — a debt he owed to the campus campaign supporting him.

Inspired by the organizing success of their counterparts in the NSL, the SLID reoriented itself toward political action in time for the elections. For the newly revitalized SLID, Thomas’s campaign offered an opportunity to transform their skeletal campus network into an effective national college campaign for a Socialist candidate. If the SLID aided the Thomas campaign, the Thomas campaign in turn “invigorated the SLID by boosting the morale of its organizers and raising their political expectations.”

From that moment onward, the movement’s leaders took a sharp turn toward campus militancy, organizing national campaigns to mobilize and radicalize their classmates. In doing so, the NSL thought that students who became active in protesting retrenchment and inequality in education would learn through this struggle that the source of their hardships and the high cost of education was capitalism itself.

At the end of this radicalization process, the NSL and SLID hoped that students would see the need to fight campaigns not as ends in themselves, but as a part of a commitment to the struggle for socialism. From there, students would be compelled to align themselves with other dispossessed groups — particularly in the labor movement.

This pro-labor orientation had been evident since the earliest days of the NSL, when its leaders organized a trip to Kentucky in 1932 to support striking coal miners. The violence that police and vigilantes, paid by the coal companies, had inflicted on the student delegation exposed middle America to the poverty and bloody class conflict roiling much of America. In this regard, the media attention that the student excursion awarded to the conflict not only radicalized thousands of students, but also helped spur senators to battle successfully for a congressional investigation of the coal strike.

Such was the impact of the Kentucky expedition that it set the tone for the high point in the history of student-labor solidarity. Student participation in picket lines, involvement in union recruitment efforts, and mass national campaigns with young trade unionists in support of a federal jobs program became a hallmark of the movement. Even the NSL’s main competitor on campus, the SLID, lauded the Kentucky expedition and the organizing that had made it possible.

With cooperation in two antiwar strikes and increasing collaboration in labor solidarity actions, the socialists in the SLID and the communists in the NSL set aside the sectarianism that weakened the Left beyond campuses and united to form the American Student Union (ASU) in the fall of 1935. The organization was to become a union of all progressive, antifascist students that would overcome the key political weakness of both the SLID and NSL: their inability to organize beyond their respective party lines and become mass membership student organizations.

Indeed, at the time of the ASU’s founding convention, the combined membership of the SLID and NSL was only about 5,000. Although the groups had mobilized 175,000 students in the 1935 antiwar strike, they had been unable to convince a substantial percentage of these demonstrators to join their organizations.

The merger was, at least by the looks of it, a success. The ASU worked with FDR to expand New Deal youth-programs, claimed 20,000 dues-paying members, and mobilized almost half of the entire American undergraduate population to the streets. Beneath the surface, however, the question of US involvement in the war was chipping away at the liberal-radical coalition.

By 1940, and under the discipline of the CP, communist students had alienated thousands of activists by wildly oscillating between championing first the Popular Front strategy, the Communist Party’s call to arms against fascism, and then the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin’s shocking abandonment of antifascism. For noncommunist students, this was proof that the communists’ allegiance to the student movement was only secondary to their absolute faith in Stalin. In the end, the American student movement was fatally wounded, and the liberal-radical coalition was shattered.

The Lessons Students Learn

“The student movement was one of the first casualties of the Second World War, but its impact was not ended,” wrote Marxist scholar and former SLIDer Hal Draper.

For the next couple of decades at least, wherever anything was stirring in the labor movement or in liberal campaigns, wherever there was action for progressive causes or voices were raised in dissent from the Establishment, there one was sure to find alumni of this student movement, who had gotten their political education and organizational training and experience in the American Student Union or the Student League for Industrial Democracy or the National Student League.

In entering the labor movement, former student radicals contributed to the labor upsurge which made the second half of the Depression decade one of the greatest eras of union organizing in American history. At the same time, out of the campus battles of the Depression grew the political debates that in the sixties shaped the SLID’s successor organization, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Two decades after the fall of the ASU, the bitterness and exclusionary politics of the Depression had festered into a strong disdain for communism in the SLID. As a new generation of student radicals found themselves rejecting this admonition, a rift surfaced between SDS and the labor movement.

Communism was not the only wedge separating students from labor. The economic, political, and cultural transformations that resulted from the Second World War had eroded the “radical labor subculture” in the United States and opened the way for a new theory of revolution — one which placed revolutionary agency not on workers, but on students.

The argument, according to Herbert Marcuse, was that globalization, technological innovation, and the relative prosperity of the working class in the developed world had stripped workers from their ability to develop a socialist consciousness. As such, Marcuse held that a revolution would come from the underprivileged in the ghettos and the privileged in the universities. The idea that students could have a serious impact on the world — that the revolution would start in the ghettos, the Third World, and the campus — perhaps unsurprisingly spoke to young people. Many in SDS attempted to fill the void they now believed was left by the working class with students, black revolutionaries, and Third World guerrillas.

Ultimately, SDS was consumed by a sectarianism and radical posturing that spelled its end in 1969. Still, there remains an important debate in the organization’s turbulent history about the relationship between students and the working class. In August 1966, among the delegates that attended the SDS convention in Clear Lake, Iowa, were Kim Moody and Carl Davidson. Each championed a different vision for the American youth movement.

On the one hand, Moody’s proposal drew heavily from Hal Draper’s assessment of the Depression movement and called for a calculated strategy to orient SDS toward rank-and-file labor organizing. On the other, Davidson saw the corporate liberalism of the sixties as vulnerable to an effort to radicalize the “new working class,” made up of highly specialized workers trained in the universities. While SDS voted to adopt Davidson’s position over Moody’s, his proposal lacked Moody’s incisive class analysis as much as Moody’s proposal lacked consideration for the radicalizing effect of campus conditions.

Half a century later, in the summer of 2018, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) began to take these lessons to heart. Not only is this generation of young radicals rallying behind universal demands to cancel student debt, win tuition-free public college, pass a Green New Deal, and elect Bernie Sanders (a former student radical); we are also advancing a rank-and-file strategy to imbue the labor movement with militant, former student organizers.

As Moody recently pointed out, these types of campaigns are generally transitional in nature — that is, not necessarily socialist in content but built on issues of immediate concern to the majority of the working class that “challenge the neoliberal austerity agenda and the absolute hegemony of capital over so much of our lives.”

Through these prolonged struggles, Moody argues, the working class learns to emancipate itself. It is this notion of “education through prolonged struggle” that synthesizes the hard-won lessons of the American student movement. Both in the 1930s and 1960s, students organized political actions around issues that addressed “not all but some of the content of the bigger question of inequality,” gathering forces and pushing things “to the limits of capitalism” as a “means of accumulating an organized mass movement.”

Students’ contribution to the socialist movement cannot be measured in campus campaigns or labor solidarity actions alone. After all, these radicalizing experiences are a means of developing a movement with a “mass revolutionary character” that can inspire a commitment to socialism from below and, in turn, build labor militancy to achieve transformative change. So while student activism is not enough, prolonged struggles on campus can turn each new generation’s feelings of alienation and inequality into their opposite: the beginnings of a long-term commitment to struggle for a better world.