It is now 45 years since that momentous year 1968, one of the turning points of contemporary world culture, if not quite of contemporary politics. Not unlike 1848–49 in Europe, 1968 was marked by events that involved student and political protests in several places. There was a dire sense of crescendo and momentum: the heightening of protest against the Vietnam War, the violent turn of the civil-rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the utopian libertinism of the hippies. To have been close to its center is an ambiguous experience impossible to forget.
Radicals and their sympathizers then and now have loved the parallels with 1848 and especially with 1789 — “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth 20 years later of his revolutionary experience in France, “but to be young was very Heaven.” The English writer Hugh Kingsmill was to call such people “dawnists,” always on the verge of the utopian day. Yet upon realizing the outcome of the French Revolution in Napoleonic tyranny, Wordsworth repented and returned to Christianity. Few of the American “dawnists” seem to have seen that light, so different from their own.
To be close to the ’68 events at Columbia seemed then, and seems now, more nightmare than dream. New York City was the epicenter of anarchy, of fiercely aggressive and moralistic but incoherent political theater, an emotional mania caught brilliantly by Saul Bellow in his great novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet. The “upward psychopathic mobility” of Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and R. D. Laing was joined to the remnants of the “Old Left” (a euphemism for Communists and their fellow travelers) to energize the SDS-dominated “New Left.”
The ostensible reasons for the Columbia rebellion of April and May 1968 have been thoroughly and admirably explained in the Cox Report, commissioned by the university and published just six months later as Crisis at Columbia. An ill-fated project to build a Columbia gym in the adjacent Morningside Park, despite the advantages it would have provided the Harlem community had it been built at the foot of an otherwise useless, rocky bluff; war-related defense research being done by a few Columbia professors; the university’s ambivalence about allowing indoor political protests; the crucial, compromising, pro-radical sympathies of a large section of the younger Columbia faculty; and the impalpable but steadily turbulent background beat of the nation’s largest, most volatile, radical city: add to them the capacity of the Broadway IRT subway station at West 116th Street to belch forth radicals from all over the eastern seaboard at all hours of the day and night, and the result was a real witches’ brew.
Columbia’s proximity to Harlem and its topographical, hilltop superiority on Morningside Heights was an all-too-ready image of WASP detachment and indifference to the city’s and the nation’s grievous racial problems. Exactly what a university — and a famous liberal one at that — could do about racial injustice and the Vietnam War was never clear, and that very obscurity added a maddening complexity that elicited furious, moralistic impatience and a steady stream of abusive acts and speeches from radical SDS leaders Mark Rudd, Ted Gold, Juan Gonzalez, and J. J. Jacobs. Just as Mario Savio and the Berkeley protesters of a few years earlier had gone from being a “Free Speech Movement” to being a “Filthy Speech Movement,” so leader Mark Rudd would grow increasingly insulting in manner and speech, especially to university representatives — “offensive vulgarity,” the Cox Report called it. Rational, judicious discussion or respect for elementary manners and legalities were taken to be a proof of cowardice and bad faith. As Philip Rieff was later to write, “transgressive succeeds remissive” — the appetite of radical rage grew by eating.
The Columbia events were to serve as an inspiration for events within the next year at Harvard, Berkeley, and Cornell, at the last of which President James Perkins set a standard for liberal cowardice and capitulation that led to the voluntary departure of disapproving professors such as Allan Bloom, Donald Kagan, and Thomas Sowell, and indirectly to the birth of neoconservatism. At Berkeley a radical-lit fire gutted the main auditorium inside Wheeler Hall and led to Governor Ronald Reagan’s calling in the National Guard in May 1969; his own forthright actions and eloquent public critique of faculty fecklessness helped propel him to the U.S. presidency a decade later.
The Cox Report noted that the vast majority of Columbia students in April and May 1968 never occupied campus buildings, and only intermittently did any large numbers show sympathy with any features of the SDS and radical black protest and occupation of buildings. However, successful but violent action by New York City police, whom university officials had called on to eject students from university buildings, led to a student strike that paralyzed the university (as Harvard would be by a student strike a year later) and led to a Strike Coordinating Committee, which elicited widespread participation — temporarily.
It was during one of the interminable, round-the-clock meetings of this large faculty-and-student assembly, the SCC, that this elected delegate to it had an epiphany of sorts. I had listened to numerous radical harangues over several days, most of them oddly dislocated and abstract, but the speakers were fiercely sure of themselves and grossly contemptuous of anything short of fire-eating, maximalist radicalism in confrontation with university authorities. Frequent acclamations of solidarity with African Americans and those fighting American “imperialism” in Vietnam were like reassuring religious ejaculations at a revival meeting.
But one night, late, with many absent and others in the auditorium (in a university building) exhausted and somnolent, a speaker was introduced as the “chairman of the Strike Education Committee,” and he explained to us that a new university would be opened on the Columbia campus with “liberation classes.” This speaker, like many in those days, was dressed to look like the German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht — a culture hero of the Left — dark turtleneck shirt, wire-rim glasses, short hair. He was to resemble many a radical I would see in action over the next decade in the U.S., England, France, and Italy.
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).