The American Student Left


Carl F. Rosenthal, a research scientist at CRESS, received his IVL A. in history from the University of Illinois and his B.A. in history from Boston University. Since joining the organization in 1965, Mr. Rosenthal’s special areas of research and study have been internal security and political communications. His most recent publication is Phases of Civil Disturbances: Characteristics and Problems.


This essay outlines the course and character of the American student leftist movement during the twentieth century. It summarizes the earlier character of student leftism and then describes how the the Left developed, its constellation of beliefs, and its tactics and objectives. A principal conclusion is that hard-core student activists quite consciously seek confrontations and that university officials frequently play into hands of the dissidents by calling in the police before trying other alternatives for resolving the conflict. Accordingly, this essay suggests the critical importance of developing new strategies of the types that lead to the management of conflict within institutionalized democratic procedures.


In times of accelerated social change, various segments of society begin to question the
pertinence of the core values and institutional arrangements in society. Historically, the universities have been the centers for debate on the relevance of traditional forms and for the germination of new ideas to solve pressing social problems. Quite understandably, then, students are in an institutional setting that is appropriate for adopting advanced and heterodox social ideals. Freedom from intellectual restraints, coupled with the typical idealism of youth, help to explain why students have been in the forefront of radical movements. As examples, students played an important role in setting off the chain reaction in European revolutions in 1848, in helping to overthrow the ezarist institution and, more recently, in the western hemisphere, in sowing the seeds out of which the Castro movement developed. Strikingly, however, the tradition of student radicalism has had only a feeble parallel in America until quite recently.

Certainly, tranquil student bodies cannot be the only reason for the absence of a radical
tradition. Attacks on American educational institutions date from the beginnings of the institutions themselves. Between 1800 and 1830, Princeton was subject to no less than six rebellions. During the first three quarters of the nineteenth century, student uprisings also occurred at Miami University, Brown, University of South Carolina, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Lafayette, Bowdoin, City College of New York, Dickinson, and De Paul. Until the present decade, the stormiest era in the history of American colleges was the period from 1880 to 1895 when not only demonstrations and strikes, but also widespread violence erupted at Dartmouth, Union, Bowdoin, Wesleyan, Amherst, and Middlebury.

Despite similarities between European and American students in terms of exuberance and
physical militancy, there were more essential differences. Unlike the European radical tradition, American students were not “alienated” from society and were not ideologically oriented. For the most part, student disturbances in the United States evolved from felt injustices particular to the university environment, such as bureaucratic irresponsibility, faculty incompetence, or irrelevant curriculum requirements. These grievances were seldom linked to issues outside the university context. Not until the beginning of the next century did the outlines of a student movement emerge that resembled the European pattern.

The student movement of the first half of the twentieth century had a tone and direction
that distinguished it from the earlier era of protest:

  • The student movement tied inequities in the university to the larger social, political,
    and economic ills in society.
  • It was ideological and academic in orientation.
  • It was coordinated and controlled by adult groups of various ideological persuasions.
  • It ultimately foundered as a result of growing rancor between non-Communist and
    Communist groups.

Later in this paper there will be a discussion of ways in which the student movement of the
present decade differs essentially from traditional leftist youth movements.

The Intercollegiate Socialist Society was the first noteworthy leftist movement to emerge
on American campuses. It was established in 1905 by such well-known personalities as
Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Clarence Darrow, Walter Lippman, John Reed, and Harry
Laidler. By present standards, the aims of the society were more reformist than revolutionary in character. Although the Society did not oppose free enterprise, it deprecated the influence of monopolies and cartels and the power of big city political machines such as Tammany Hall. According to the Society, these interests were so powerful that they controlled the system of American education, even at the university level. Upton Sinclair elaborated this viewpoint in his work, The Goose Step: A Study of American Education, published in 1922.

He alleged that the plutocrats of wealth controlled and administered the universities as if they were subsidiary corporations. Not only did they handpick the members of the university
governing councils, but they also passed judgment on the suitability of the curriculum and the
competence of the faculty members.

Since the times were adverse to public discussion of radical notions, the Society’s numbers were small, its activities essentially academic and intellectual, and its meetings secret.
After college graduation, members of the Society established the League for Industrial Democracy, intended to be the American counterpart of the British Socialist Fabian Society. Despite shifting changes of fortune, the League for Industrial Democracy has had an uninterrupted existence. It has served at times as the adult sponsor for various leftist student groups, including, for a while, the Students for a Democratic Society.

During the 1920s, the leftist movement on and off the campus faded into obscurity. A vigorous prosecution campaign by the national and state governments against radicals, along with dissension within and between groups, contributed to the decline of organized leftism. In fact, the combined strength of the leftist groups in the 1920s, both in its Socialist and Communist forms, was smaller than that of the Socialist Party alone in the years preceding the

Not surprisingly, the Great Depression stimulated the revival of leftist parties. Under
their guidance, various student groups were organized. The most important of these were the
National Student League (the Communist campus group) and the Student League for Industrial
Democracy. Both student organizations had chapters at the utmost prominent universities during
the 1930s. Particularly in the case of Communist student groups, the chapters were tightly
organized and centrally directed by the parent organization. Rarely did the statements or actions of the youthful adherents deviate significantly from party lines.

Another characteristic of the campus movement was that student activities were primarily academic and intellectual, although they frequently participated in organizational activities. On campus, student activism involved recruiting new members and petitioning for the right to engage in political activities. Off campus, they participated in movements to organize the unemployed and to strengthen the fledgling trade unions.

During the mid-1980s, conditions seemed ripe for the further expansion of the leftist movement as unemployment continued to remain at a high level. Disillusioned with laissez- faire economics, many students were attracted by the explanations and solutions offered by Socialists and Communists. Instead of expanding, however, the student Left (as well as the
leftist movement) eventually became weaker and then virtually collapsed.

Any explanation for the collapse of the student movement must principally consider Communist machinations. Better trained in organizational tactics, the Communists succeeded in attracting the student affiliates from adult liberal and Socialist groups and uniting them into
a single conglomerate. As events developed, the consolidated student movement became more
of a tool to further the Soviet Union’s political and military objectives than it was a means of radicalizing the student population. With each new twist in Comintern policy, members of the student movement were asked to adopt a new position. The result was that the toll of desertions steadily mounted. Eventually, the student movement subdivided to the point of non-

In 1935, the Comintern line veered sharply from a militantly leftist position to one not too
dissimilar from that of the Democratic administration. The abrupt tactical change was signaled too when abuse against liberals and Socialists was succeeded by the call for a united
front of the so-called progressive forces. At the campus level, popular front tactics took the
form of pressing for the unification of all leftist and liberal groups into a single national organization. It did not take long for the Communists to overcome opposition. Before the year’s end, the Communist National Student League, the Socialist Student League for Industrial Democracy, and various liberal youth organizations combined to form the American Student
Union. At its peak strength, the Union had a national membership approaching 20,000 as well
as a larger number of unregistered supporters.

At first, the American Student Union’s international position was pacifist. Its members
were urged to declare their opposition to the involvement of the United States in another international war. To underline this position, the Union voted to endorse the Oxford Pledge and many of its members signed the Pledge not to fight in the service of their country even if
forced. As an indicator of the depth of pacifist sentiment, it is reliably estimated that more
than 200,000 students turned out in response to the Union’s call for a day of antiwar protest

The union of liberals, Socialists, and Communists did not last long as a result of the next
Soviet move. From an antiwar position, the Comintern now swung in the direction of advocating a collective security arrangement of anti-Faseist states. Pacifist and Socialist members of the American Student Union were appalled, and refused to abandon their original position. Consequently, the Union split along the lines of those who favored the position of collective security and those who were committed to the principles of the Oxford Pledge. Because the advocates of collective security were able to control the 1937 national convention, the pacifists along with many Socialists, withdrew from the Union. In the following year, the
remaining Socialist element severed its ties with the Union and attempted unsuccessfully to
reestablish an independent Socialist student movement.

Despite the large-scale desertions, the American Student Union continued to function. Although reliable data are absent, it seems that the membership of the Union was composed of idealistic liberals, an uncategorizable number of discontents, and a large Communist element.

What is clear, however, is that Union policies coincided for the most part with Communist
ones. Even more important, the abrupt shifts in Communist tactics had led to the virtual destruction of the student leftist movement. Aside from the minuscule Socialist and Trotskyite
youth groups, the American Student Union in the late 1930s was the only remaining alternative
on the Left.

The final blow to the student leftist movement was not long in coming. Following the
signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939, Communist strategy swung full circle from
collective security and anti-fascism back to the 1935 antiwar position. Comintern tactics
became unpalatable even to many Communists, and some of them resigned from the adult and
youth groups. Virtually without membership, the American Student Union dissolved. By 1940,
organized student leftism had almost disappeared and subsequent efforts during the war years
to revitalize the student movement were unavailing.

Following the war, the Communists and Socialists attempted separately to promote nationwide student affiliates. Once again, Soviet calculations were linked to international policy
considerations. With the outbreak of the Cold War, the Communists sought to mobilize opposition to American foreign policy in the Balkans, the Far East, and Southeast Asia. In 1947, the Progressive Party was established with Henry Wallace as its presidential candidate.

Having only a marginal base, the Communists hoped to attain their objectives by supporting
Wallace and the movement to create a broadly based new third party. The youth adjunct of
the new party was the Young Progressives which, before the 1945 elections, claimed a member-
ship of 10,000. Had it not been for the organizational efforts of the American Youth for De-
mocracy, a Communist youth front formed at the end of the war, the Young Progressives
probably would not have gained so large a membership. At any rate, the Progressive Pary
and its youth affiliate, as well as the Communist American Youth for Democracy, quickly faded
after the disastrous showing by Wallace in the presidential election.

Other attempts were made by the Communists during the late 1940s and during the 1950s
to establish mass-based student and youth groups, but none of these fronts succeeded in attracting more than a handful of adherents. One explanation is that during the 1950s students
were relatively apathetic about political issues. Even more important in long-range terms,
students had become disillusioned with the packaged ideological solutions of the traditional
Left. In a century unparalleled in terms of human and material destruction, students were also
increasingly questioning the wisdom of adult leadership.

Student suspicions were reinforced by events in the Communist world. In 1956, the crimes of Stalin were exposed and, during the same year, Soviet troops invaded Hungary. These events had the effect of shattering the U.S. Communist Party and its youth affiliate, the Labor Youth League.

The Socialist wing was also having minimal success in promoting a nationwide youth and student movement. Although untainted by the stains of Soviet imperialism, the Socialists were attacked for thinking in anachronistic terms. Instead of confronting current problems with new solutions, it was alleged that Socialist thinking was still rigidly locked in terms of the issues of the 1930s. The unpopularity of traditional socialism is apparent when one realizes that no Socialist youth group numbered more than 500 during the 40s and 50s.

Ironically, developments on the campus in the late 1950s and early 1960s seemed to portend
the growth of conservatism on campus. The right-wing Young Americans for Freedom (YAF)
claimed chapters in universities throughout the country and a sizable membership. Moderates and liberals alike feared that the YAF would eventually be in a position to control the
national convention of the United States National Student Association, the organization of student government groups. At this time, however, other less visible but more significant forces were converging from an opposite political direction. From the convergence of those forces developed a new, largely student-based radicalism, much different in tone and character from the leftist movement of the preceding era.

The so-called New Left has had a shocking impact. Members’ actions seem to many bizarre, purposeless, almost suicidal in nature: they sometimes clothe popular demands for reform in the language of repulsive obscenities; they condemn the democratic system as it presently exists and, at the same time, damn the Socialists and Communists as rightists and reactionaries. Not surprisingly, many Americans are puzzled by this spectacle. They ask
how the New Left developed, what its system of beliefs consists of, and what its tactics and
objectives are.

The New Left had its genesis in the race problem, The 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision raised the hopes and expectations of the southern African-American population. Disillusionment soon followed, however, when certain states adopted measures to avoid compliance with the decision. Under these circumstances, student activists–mostly from segregated African-American colleges–began a campaign to dramatize injustices. They hit upon the tactic of civil disobedience. The philosophical basis behind civil disobedience is that it is just to violate inequitable laws to achieve the supremely moral goal of full equality of all people. The southern African-American crusade electrified many students in the North, white and black. Many of them came from the South in behalf of the civil rights struggle.

Other forces were converging during the late 1950s to mold a new, largely student-based
Left. Two very important currents emanated from abroad: the new leftist youth movement in
Great Britain and Fidel Castro’s movement in Cuba. Universities and Left Review, which began publication in Great Britain in 1956, soon gained an active readership at American universities. Review concepts appealed to many reform-minded students who were disillusioned
with the traditional approaches of the past. Not until three years later, however, could American students claim to have a new leftist publication of their own.

If the British leftist youth movement provided the philosophical foundation of an American student reformist movement, it was Fidel Castro who provided much of the inspiration. Students of leftist orientation considered Castro an idealistic, revolutionary leader, who was unmarked by the scars of old Left orthodoxy. They saw new hope in Castro and his movement, and some gained direct inspiration by visiting the island to see the workings of the revolution firsthand.

During the early 1960s, to most Americans, the student movement seemed to be a harmless outburst of youthful idealism. Neither the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
The large majority of black people are either illiterate or semi-illiterate.

They don’t read. They need activity to follow. . . . The same thing happened in Cuba where it was necessary for twelve men with a leadership of Che and Fidel to take to the hills and then attack the corrupt administration . . . they could have leafleted the community and they could have written books, but the people would not respond. They had to act and the people
could see and hear about it and therefore become educated on how to respond to oppression.

In this country, black revolutionaries have to set an example.

In more precise terms, how does the splintered New Left expect to broaden the basis of
its support for revolutionary goals, particularly when the combined following of the student
Left is only about 100,000 and of this number only a fraction are hard-core activists? Although a small number of militants such as Huey Newton advocate guerrilla warfare, most
radicals consider terrorist tactics inappropriate and unrealistic. Rather, most
hardcore activists advocate direct action or confrontation–a perversion of the original inspiration behind civil disobedience–as the most effective way of exposing the inequity of the system.

Observers agree that it is all too easy (and uangerous) to dismiss their thinking as infan-
tile and their plan of action as absurd. If one accepts certain premises, New Left thinking and tactics reveal no mean political acumen. Their basic premise is that our present system of
government is rigged in favor of vested interests. The democratic concept of tolerance–the belief that all have the right to express their views–is considered the sham by which the “establishment” maintains itself in power. Herein, according to the radicals, is the trap in which so many idealistic reformers have been caught. Free discussion of ideas is a safety valve for reducing emotions and the level of revolutionary passions. Whenever reformers accept the forum method, therefore, the establishment is able to maintain a friendly, sympathetic face and docs net have to reveal the brute force underlying the system. Operating through the established institutional machinery of government, moreover, turns crusaders into compromisers. Above all, playing the traditional rules of the game serves to sanctify the system of government and to lull the masses into quiescence instead of stirring them into action.

In New Left strategy, the forum method is to be avoided except when absolutely necessary.
Even when it is necessary for tactical purposes, the militants seek to disrupt the dialogue by
wild statements and verbal abuses. Whenever the authorities walk out of the conference and
call in the police, they play into the hands of the radicals. Anytime the authorities have to resort to force, instead of discussions and forums, the quality and sanctity of the democratic
system is impaired. In a recent interview, Stokely Carmichael summed up the rationale behind New Left tactics when he stated that any demonstration in which the authorities are not
maneuvered into a position of using force is a failure for the demonstrators and for the

The hardcore activists, therefore, continuously seek confrontations and quite consciously want the authorities to resort to nondemocratic procedures. By linking widely shared grievances to impossible demands, the radicals have shown how easy it is to force the authorities to call the police onto the campus or into the ghetto. If the police overreact, the radicals win a moral victory: the activists gain the support of those onlookers who see justice in some of the demands voiced and of those citizens who are offended by excessive violence.

Last year’s disturbance at Columbia University illustrates how effectively the tactic of
confrontation can be used to discredit the authorities and gain the sympathy of uncommitted
spectators. After much vacillation, the president of Columbia University called in the police
to eject the protesters from the occupied buildings. Under the duress of verbal and, at times,
physical abuse, some police officers overreacted with the result that many innocent bystanders, both students and faculty, were injured. Incensed by this display of force, the student body rallied in defense of the heretofore small bands of dissidents. What the protesters were not able to accomplish by their sit-ins was, in effect, accomplished for them by the police–radicalization of the Columbia campus. In the day following the confrontation, virtually the entire student body heeded the call for a strike against the university. As at many other universities, the strike at Columbia served as the yeast to increase suspicions and enlarge the differences between students and faculty.

We should not forget that the spasms of extremist activity on the campus as we as in the cities are symptoms of more fundamental social and economic changes occurring in society. As yet, only a small minority seeks redress by means outside the perimeters of established democratic procedures. The vast majority of politically oriented students disavow violence and strongly support the democratic system. Even most adherents of the New Left can be won back by a patient and sympathetic approach. However, wishful thinking will not stifle the mounting alienation and frustration. If we are to preserve the integrity of our system of government, most observers agree that fresh thinking must be brought to developing new approaches for curing the psychological and social ills that engender the deep divisions in society.


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