The Strike: A Critical Reappraisal
Ripsaw, December 1968
Superficially it appears that the Left won a great victory at Columbia last spring. Clearly, the protest on Morningside Heights was the most sustained, the most dramatic, the most far-reaching of its kind at an American campus. Educational institutions, like other major institutions in this country, carry an aura of invulnerability and it is no insubstantial thing to demonstrate that their operations can be brought to a grinding halt. Yet the immediate effect of this accomplishment has been to foreclose realistic discussion of two critical problems: 1) the relationship of Strike Central’s strategy to the apparent success of the movement, and 2) the implication of the Columbia action for fundamental radical goals.
Students for a Democratic Society was the only group on campus last year which consistently raised the important issues at Columbia, conducting a continual educational effort about the University’s complicity in the Vietnam war and its larger involvement with the critical institutions in our society. Students for a Democratic Society was the only group which consistently seized the initiative, attempting to involve students in action around these issues. Without the impetus of S.D.S., Cit[izenship] Council and the [Students'] Afro-American Society, it is likely that last spring there would have been no sit-in, no strike, no revolt. But in analyzing the events that followed the crucial first steps, it is important to remember several significant points about Columbia. In addition to the fact that there has been an incredibly restive mood among students nationally, a growing willingness to confront authority any place, any time, Columbia as an institution has been peculiarly rife with dissatisfaction – much of the dissatisfaction only tangentially related to radical perspectives. Columbia is after all a school of declining reputation and academic quality. Students in the college, Graduate Faculties and other important sectors of the University often find their lives here frustrating, boring, and unpleasant. Courses are large, departmental relations impersonal, programs of study anachronistic and limiting. Student life is diffuse, and Columbia affords relatively little opportunity for students to meet and establish real relations with one another. Columbia is a school where even students have colleagues instead of friends.
The fundamental point is simply that Columbia last spring had tremendous explosive potential. Almost any incident could have precipitated the explosion and almost any strategy could have sustained it. There were very few people on campus who did have good solid personal as well as political reasons for wanting to strike a blow at Columbia. Columbia’s internal weakness enhanced by the presence of an unusually incompetent and inept administration, one so totally benighted and out of touch with opinion on the campus that it did not see fit to field the standard techniques of cooptation, which are part of the normal arsenal of “establishments” which expect to stay established.
Given these ingredients it is hardly clear that Strike Central ought to rush to congratulate itself on the closing of Columbia last spring. Rather, it is time to stop regarding the closing of Columbia as a vindication of the Left’s strategy. This year it is likely that the ground will be less fertile. Andrew Cordier appears a more formidable adversary than Grayson Kirk. Students are tired. Strategic errors will be more costly. Strategic errors that duplicate those of last spring could be disastrous. There is a pressing need for reappraisal.
It seems apparent, at least in retrospect, that a substantial segment of S.D.S. attempted to function as a cadre during last spring’s confrontation. It is hard to indicate all the components of this approach but certainly the most important was the commitment to vanguard action. The cadre was to stay ahead of the movement. Its task was to seize initiative even during the crisis, thus setting the terms of a conflict, to which others – allies as well as opponents – would have to respond.
On one level such an approach is unassailable. Any group has the right to act on the basis of its own consciousness, to shift the conditions of struggle, attempting to induce others to adopt positively to the evolving situation. Had S.D.S. members continued to make clear, during the occupation of the buildings, that indeed they did conceive of themselves in this light, that they intended to act according to the dictates of their own critique, and that they would be politically responsible to no one, their strategy would have been morally impeccable. With full clarity as to how S.D.S. members were committed to behave, those who were not in total agreement with S.D.S. policy would have been free to make clear and rational determinations of how far they were personally willing to go along with particular courses of action.
A cadre operation is different from a “united front” and such a distinction ought properly to have remained explicit. Unfortunately out of a kind of opportunism, and also as a consequence of honest confusion, S.D.S. members did not make this distinction explicit. The consequence in terms of the functioning of the Steering Committee was disastrous.
After the first night of the occupation of the buildings, the people inside the buildings elected representatives to a central steering committee which met continuously in Ferris Booth Hall. People did not believe they were electing a cadre. They thought they were choosing a representative body. The Steering Committee was composed largely of S.D.S. members, and its decisions clearly revealed an S.D.S. orientation. This was true for two rather obvious and straightforward reasons. S.D.S. assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for the more bureaucratic tasks of the movement, and those involved in these day-to-day activities, while not official representatives, were often present at Steering Committee meetings, frequently setting the focus, tone, and direction of the discussion. In addition, since people in the buildings didn’t know each other very well, they commonly elected S.D.S. members as representatives, for they were generally more visible, articulate, and experienced than anybody else.
The objection is not that seven, eight or nine members of the Steering Committee were members of S.D.S. It would not have mattered if it was a completely S.D.S. body. What did matter was that the S.D.S. people did not for the most part regard themselves as representatives of a constituency; they continued to think of themselves as part of a cadre. Consequently it was quite common for members of the Steering Committee to cast votes that clearly violated the mandate from their own building. Furthermore when representatives went back to their constituency they tended to report the votes of representatives from other buildings, thereby conveying a misleading impression as to the sentiment of the people inside the buildings. The result was a growing paranoia. People began to distrust each other, they felt unconfident of their information, and uncertain as to whose contradictory story was to be believed. Most seriously, they began to feel impotent and fearful.
This situation raises fairly obvious ethical as well as political issues. An elementary sense of fair play would seem to indicate that if people do not intend to act as representatives, if they prefer to function in cadre arrangements, then they should act openly, refusing to serve as representatives in order to permit those who do want representation to get it. Similarly, if a group participating in a political action wishes to retain a free hand (and a cadre by definition requires a free hand), then it must be willing to sacrifice the right to demand that others observe rules of solidarity. Solidarity presupposes a democratic structure in which all agree to adhere to the decisions of the full group.
The political issues are equally serious. Clearly one of the main objectives of the Columbia action was the radicalization of new students. This objective was in many respects even more important than the achievement of specific demands. There are many ways to radicalize people – no doubt the most important is to create consciousness, by bringing people to clearer perceptions about the nature of the social structure of which they are a part. But in America it is one of the great liabilities of the Left, that while many students are extremely sensitive to the negative aspects of contemporary society, they have little in the way of positive vision which can sustain on-going revolutionary activity. That is why the quality of the revolutionary movement itself takes on a very special importance. By experimenting with new forms of organization within the movement, it becomes possible for the membership to develop new perspectives and new conviction about the feasibility of creating a decent and humane social order. It is difficult for people to sustain revolutionary elan when they feel irrelevant and impotent within the revolutionary movement itself, when they experience their own movement as a miniature replication of the society they oppose. Students cannot long be expected to revolt against a power structure merely for the purpose of substituting student despots for grown-up despots.
In short, the absence of genuine democracy within the strike movement itself was dysfunctional because it was demoralizing. Only the timely intervention of the New York Police Department stemmed an inner erosion which might ultimately have destroyed some of the communes.
This still leaves the larger questions of if and when cadre action is appropriate. Unfortunately the very word cadre becomes so thrilling to some that at the mere use of the word all critical faculties are dissipated. It is a positive development that the Left has begun to perceive the uses of cadre action. Such action is particularly desirable in the context of American society precisely because it wears such a deceptive mask. It has been amply demonstrated that the essential character of the system stands revealed only when provoked, that to know the quality of American society is to challenge it, that to uncover its fundamental weakness is to battle it. Such events cannot wait on parliamentary democracy. But to recognize the importance of cadre action as an essential component of a radical strategy is not the same as saying it is appropriate or desirable on all occasions. Indeed, if cadres are to be a significant and useful part of the movement, it will be in part because the Left has a fully developed concept of when a cadre action is not appropriate.
This is not an easy problem to deal with, particularly in the abstract, but certain basic concepts should be adhered to.
1. A cadre should not take action when it imperils the safety and well-being of people who are not fully in accord with the action. In its simplest form this means that people in a demonstration ought not to provoke police into a confrontation if most of the people do not wish to get clubbed over the head. But the more complicated example, relevant to the Columbia situation, is that it is not the place of a cadre to decide that other people ought to get arrested. The cadre is free to make this decision for itself, but it is politically disastrous for the cadre to attempt to use its action as a kind of moral coercion over others to take similar action. It is one thing for someone to say “My friends and I will take this action for the following reasons… For the same reasons we think you should too.” It is quite another to use the argument, “I am going to lay my body on the line; if you don’t join me I will be in greater peril.”
2. A cadre does not take action when it imperils the maintenance of a large mass-based movement. The main advantage of a cadre is that it retains a free hand in creating and shaping contexts for action. Its chief disadvantage is that in retaining the free hand it must sacrifice its influence over a movement by impairing solidarity. In the long run, sustained cadre action threatens the unity of a movement for the simple reason that the unwillingness of the cadre to be bound by the sentiments of the larger group is ultimately license for every faction to feel itself under no obligation to the group. Ultimately the movement unravels.
Finally it is relevant here to discount an assumption which had never been articulated but which had a great deal to do with the way Strike Central operated last spring. The assumption is that the way to radicalize people is to force them into a situation where they must take militant action. This is a myth which is most dangerous and counter- productive. Radical action without radical perception is intrinsically short-term and produces just exactly the sort of people who one day tell their children, “I was idealistic like you once. I’ve been through it all… but Henry, be realistic!” It is not hard to catch people up in a tide where they find themselves taking action which would have been out of the question weeks ago. But unless they really feel in their inner being that such action has genuine importance and a strategic meaning that transcends a temporary fit of perversity, such people will very quickly become passive, precisely because they have taken the big action and in a sober moment of reflection cannot satisfactorily answer the question, “Was it worth it?”
We know that last spring students at Columbia were moved to militant action. But was this an ephemeral phenomenon or did it imply a genuine deepening of radical consciousness? Certainly it is now fashionable for people to wander about explaining how ‘radicalized’ they are. Yet it is important to put this in context. Television has, after all, created the image of ‘the new Columbia Man,’ bearded, zealous, disillusioned, militant. While this role retains its peculiar in-group charm, it would seem prudent to retain at least a healthy skepticism. Nobody, not even the august Bureau of Applied Social Research, has as yet a clear view of what real change has taken place in people’s political perspective as a result of the strike. But minimally one should raise the question of whether the Left’s articulation of goals and demands was of such a nature as to contribute to mass consciousness or to befuddle it.
II. THE DEMANDS
There was nothing quite so ludicrous during the strike as the sanctity of the ‘Six Demands.’ They assumed a sort of celestial magnificence which made rational discourse out of the question. One Tuesday afternoon six rather innocuous points were thrown together into a program. Curiously, people began to act as if the tradition of radical and revolutionary thought had found their ultimate expression. To be radical was to believe in the ‘Six Demands.’ The true dividing line of liberals and radicals came on the issue of whether one supported the ‘Six Demands.’
But this dividing line was entirely arbitrary and nonsensical. Certainly there was nothing about the six demands that a liberal could not support. They were minimal in substance. Had David Truman adopted them all immediately, they would not have had even the slightest effect on racism and imperialism. Nor was it the case that amnesty would have meant the University’s capitulation. Amnesty would only have meant that the Administration was strengthening its tactical hand by a posture of leniency and moderation, which would insure it wider support for repression should outbreaks occur a second time. The domino theory is a theory erected by nitwits – it is no more applicable to Columbia University than it is to Southeast Asia. There is nothing cataclysmic about an initial tactical retreat. So long as it is not a rout, it often frees the opposition to come back and fight with fuller force another day. It happened to be the case that the Columbia Administration was sufficiently rigid as to have a kind of compulsive horror of giving an inch, but that was simply a further reflection of its general incompetence on the field of political battle. Because Grayson Kirk was foolish enough to believe that amnesty constituted a mortal blow to the interests of Columbia, the Left came to believe it too. Only it wasn’t true. Amnesty could quite easily have been turned to a moral victory for the administration, vindicating its “essential fairmindedness,” etc.
Fundamentally all of the demands were symbolic rather than substantive. The removal of Kirk and Burden from the IDA Board would not have affected to the slightest degree the continuation of defense department research, nor could it have had a real impact on defense research even at Columbia. Similarly the gym assumed importance as a symbol of exploitation of the Harlem community – the cessation of its construction had no potential for altering the essential relations that obtained between Columbia and the ghetto.
It is certainly fair to add here, that the Strike leadership basically understood that these demands were symbolic. Indeed, it was always Strike Central’s real position that substantive change could only emerge as a consequence of revolution, that the demands were merely levers in a revolutionary struggle. Yet even with this kind of perception of the ‘instrumental’ character of the demands, the question should be raised as to whether it was wise to use symbolic demands as the focal point of the movement.
Assuming again that a major goal of the movement was the raising of radical consciousness among ever increasing numbers of students, there is grave doubt as to whether the demands supported this aim. Primarily this is because the constant glorification of the ‘Six Demands’ endowed them with an importance that they simply did not have. Educational efforts ought to have been directed not at proving to students how meaningful would be cessation of construction on the gym and termination of Kirk and Burden’s relationship to IDA, but rather at underscoring just how insignificant they were in the context of a larger struggle against the social forces they embodied. With the six demands as the beginning and end of all agitation last spring, it was impossible to place these things in their proper perspective.
The demand for amnesty was particularly misleading, but for somewhat different reasons. It became clear early in the strike that amnesty was the pivotal, central issue. This was true primarily because of all the demands, it was the least palatable to the faculty and administration. Yet there is a real question as to the educational value of waging a broad, powerful, and intense struggle over the issue of amnesty for the people in the struggle.
Strike Central saw amnesty as important because it embodied an affirmation of the illegitimacy of the administration’s authority. Yet most of the campus never perceived the matter in this way. For the large number of students at Columbia the demand for amnesty concerned nothing more profound than an insistence that people not be punished. Demands ought at least to have the virtue of clarity. If their meaning remains obscure, they lose their value. This consideration alone ought to have raised questions as to whether amnesty was a desirable rallying point for the movement.
But there is a deeper issue. Amnesty only had theoretical meaning as part of a larger claim that the Administration and Trustees were illegitimate. This is altogether reasonable. But implicit in this position was a commitment to an alteration of power relations within the University – in other words, University re-structure. As part of a thrust towards student power the demand for amnesty made sense. But Strike Central had little interest in student power and for this reason the demand for amnesty made little sense.
It is useful to consider Strike Central’s approach to University restructure. This position was rather complicated but not unintelligent. Essentially the argument was that given the context of the larger society, University restructure could not in any way qualitatively alter the nature of the institution either in its internal relationships or its external ones. Therefore University restructure was a dangerous ploy which, while offering no genuine hope of redress, could mislead people into believing that important concessions had been made. In other words, restructure would only serve to split the movement, serving as the critical cover for massive cooptation.
While all of this may well be true, it should be clear that the argument had equal validity with respect to the IDA, gym, and disciplinary demands. Short of a revolution, the granting of any of these demands would not substantively affect deep-running policies and would create the illusion of victory.
What conclusions can we draw? Is it the case the only safe demand to make is one calling for total revolution? Obviously this is less than satisfactory. Rather the first conclusion ought to be that no demand should be rejected simply because its underlying character is reformist. It ought to be evident that any demand short of revolution is essentially reformist. Other criteria for selection of demands would be more illuminating. A radical movement ought to put forth demands which can be made to seem reasonable and humanly desirable to a large number of people and which carry with them real and not merely symbolic content. In other words instead of simply calling for the removal of Kirk and Burden from the IDA board, the movement should center its efforts on the demand to an end to Defense Department research at Columbia. Instead of calling simply for an end to construction of the gym, the movement should address itself to the substance of University expansion.
As the movement struggles for these substantive demands, it is to be assumed that University resistance will stiffen, revealing even more clearly the institution’s inner imperatives. In consequence it can reasonably be expected that radical consciousness will increase as growing numbers of students find themselves embroiled in an ever escalating conflict over issues that they genuinely believe have real importance and meaning.
Curiously, despite the rhetoric of last spring, despite all the attacks on Columbia as a citadel of racism and imperialism, there was a strong strain of opinion within Strike Central to the effect that Columbia didn’t really matter at all. The primary object of the movement was to use the dissatisfactions with Columbia as a way of radicalizing student opinion and sensitizing it to the fundamental forces at work in the larger society. While it has remained unclear as to what radicalized students are supposed to do once they have been radicalized, there is a strong undercurrent of feeling that they should somehow involve themselves in struggles outside the campus. The critical fronts for battle appear to be elsewhere – in ghettos, factories, at the Pentagon.
It is time that the Left seriously re-examined the question of what it actually wants to get out of these battles on university campuses. And it is time that the Left begin to regard the university campus as something more than a recruiting ground for new leftists. This is as good an occasion as any for us to start believing our own rhetoric. The grim reality is that university campuses matter a great deal – they are not only critical socializing agencies, they also form a very important link in processes which perpetuate oppressive structures both in this country and abroad.
Oddly enough, it really appears to be the case that knowledge is power. Knowledge builds weapons. Knowledge enables the U.S. government to maintain and strengthen the Empire. Knowledge is a source of new methods of social control. Knowledge aids in the suppression of ghetto discontent and abets the gradual ‘moronization’ of the American working class. Increasingly the very functioning of our society depends on the production of highly trained personnel and on the expansion of intellectual vistas. For this reason, universities are themselves a crucial arena of struggle.
Minimally, there is an important educational job for the Left to do. Young people coming out of the universities are the possessors of a very marketable commodity – their own intellectual equipment. They carry with them a very grave responsibility for its use. It is part of the responsibility of the Left to create a climate of opinion in which an increasing number of scholars will refuse to put their intellect to work for anti-human purposes.
Furthermore, because universities are centers of important government research, they are centers which must be vigorously attacked. It is part of our task to drive this research out of the universities. It is part of our task to sabotage the university’s efforts toward molding personnel to fit comfortably into government and corporate slots. It is part of our task to make universities genuine centers of independent and critical thought, directed toward human ends.
This struggle should be undertaken seriously and in good faith. It is unlikely that Columbia as an institution can sustain such an enterprise. But if the American university cannot survive without its defense contracts, if it cannot survive except as a poor relation in a mesh of connections to larger and unacceptable social forces, then it does not deserve to survive at all.
But the reality is that we have not yet put the University to a serious test. We should do so. In a genuine battle for University disengagement we will find many allies, both students and faculty. We shall not need to create symbols and cadres to make them radical.
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