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Vignette: ’68 Revolutionaries Revisited
The illiberalism of student radicalism in the 1960s shaped the world we live in today.

SDS leader Mark Rudd at a Columbia University protest, 1968.

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At a certain point in the chairman’s allocution he announced: “All content of these liberation classes — including themes, topics, and texts — is to be approved in advance by the Strike Education Committee.” The members of this Strike Education Committee, it turned out, were not to be elected or approved by the assembly he was addressing, although they were to derive their authority from it. This explanation seemed to pass our body without murmur or objection, until this delegate raised a hand and asked a question about the propriety of such a plan. Abuse was shouted at me. But I was having an epiphany into the nature of illiberal radicalism, and I hotly replied: “Don’t you see that advance approval of topics and texts has nothing ‘liberated’ about it? It is Stalinist, or Fascist!” This was not just a single “teach-in,” it was a proposal for systematic radical indoctrination. Amid a furor, I called for, and got, a voice vote about the chairman’s proposal, by remarking the obvious fact that he could not properly speak with the authority of a body whose approval he had never solicited.

My objection failed in the vote — as I recall, by about three to one, with several dozen delegates present. Pandemonium had broken out. I made a brief speech of resignation and then left the room — and radical politics — forever. I was gratified to find departing along with me several other students and faculty members.

Several months later, in January 1969, Berkeley radicals staged similar protests. Manuel Delgado of the “Third World Liberation Front” told University of California authorities: “What we’re asking for is control. . . . We want our own college, which we control, books, courses, faculty, and admission requirements.” Black students at Cornell took over a building and armed themselves, without punitive consequences from the supine President Perkins. The African-American scholar Thomas Sowell, who was there, remarked later of Cornell admissions policies: “The local black community in Ithaca was . . . not thrilled by the importation of hoodlums by radical chic whites at Cornell.”

The epiphany at Columbia was completed and illuminated years later when I read Dostoyevsky’s description of the nihilistic Russian radicals of the 1860s in his great anti-revolutionary novel The Devils (1872). No one has ever caught more memorably the “moral inversion” that animated, and discredited, revolutionary radicalism: relying on an unavowed, inherited premise of moral obligation and respect for law that their own anarcho-Marxist worldview could in no way justify, the radicals unwittingly assaulted and undermined the credibility of ethics itself. Similarly, the noble, historic, nonviolent, deeply American and Christian civil-rights struggle of Martin Luther King was largely undermined by militant “Black power” advocates and saved only by his martyrdom.

The contemptuous expressions on the faces of the Columbia radicals, the strident, insulting violence and obscenity (and incoherence) of their language, damaged the American republic (and a great university). It also signaled the sunrise, not of a utopian era, but of shameless cynicism and coarse libertinism, political and nonpolitical, in the midst of which we all must now live, move, and have our being.

M. D. Aeschliman, Professor of Anglophone Culture at the University of Italian Switzerland and professor emeritus of Education at Boston University, holds four degrees from Columbia University and taught there. His most recent book is a new edition of Charles Dickens’s classic novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Press).

 

   

 

 



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