Over the last several years our larger graduate schools have contained within their precincts a cold war the outcome of which is going to influence higher education in this country for some time to come. The combatants are a new generation of graduate students on the one hand and their professors on the other. As a junior faculty member who is often caught between these camps, I have been able to watch tensions rise at more than one university. The chief battlegrounds are history and the social sciences, and the issues are frankly political. To put the matter simply, today’s graduate students are substantially to the left of the men at whose feet they have chosen to sit. They are impatient with both the enlightened conservatism and the mild liberalism of their professors. Though this emerging radicalism is, to be sure, difficult to characterize, one explanation will be hazarded here.
Certainly the causes for dissatisfaction are not hard to trace. The senior professors all lived through the McCarthyite epoch of the early 50’s, during which period they learned that caution was the better part of academic valor. If few were conscious opportunists, most trimmed their ideological sails and selected areas for their teaching and research that avoided the main controversies of the time. The impact of McCarthyism was deeper than many realized, and its effect on graduate teaching in America has persisted in a variety of subtle ways.
The students who are now Ph.D. candidates, however, had no experience of the years when “loyalty” was a pervasive issue—and for this very reason their rebellion lacks somewhat in charitable understanding. But more significant is the fact that the radical outlook is becoming generally widespread. Through the books that appeal to them, through the topics they pick for their research, and also through their beer-party bull sessions, it is clear to see that the graduate students of today have little in common with the men presiding over their apprenticeship.
One sure sign that a revolt of some sort is underway is the appearance of a “new” publication by graduate students to express their shared views. I have in front of me not one but three such new journals, all started within the last year. New University Thought is published at the University of Chicago, an old home of new causes. Point Sixty seems mainly an undergraduate effort and is produced by students at eleven colleges in the Philadelphia area. Studies on the Left, by far the most interesting of the batch, comes from the University of Wisconsin. All three have small circulations, and which of them will survive, or for how long, cannot be predicted. Meanwhile, they have in common a real enthusiasm and the conviction that what they are saying needs to be said and has not been said properly before. The themes they discuss can be summarized as nuclear war, civil rights, mass culture, the need for personal involvement.
The level of analysis among them varies. Point Sixty breaks little new ground—partly because too many of its articles are by guest name writers—but its protest against campus ROTC programs mixes intelligence with anger in an unusually persuasive way. The Chicago journal, New University Thought, tends to be factual to a fault—there seems to be a concerted effort to keep the emotions down. Nevertheless it contains an excellent statistical analysis of the lunch counter sit-in strikes, with tables showing how many participated in each Southern state. It carries a report on American investments in Cuba, which in a dispassionate way throws much light on the conduct of our foreign policy toward the Castro regime. Wisconsin’s Studies on the Left, however, calls for a more detailed analysis for several reasons. The editors of Studies are older graduate students, and therefore better informed as to both worlds-—of academe and of reality. Then, too, the magazine expresses, in a candid way, the intellectual foundation of the new radicalism in the universities. If elsewhere students are not yet ready to take the giant steps which are in evidence at Wisconsin, there is some ground for supposing that the thinking now going on in Madison will have an important influence over American halls of learning in the years just ahead.
The radical tradition runs deep at the University of Wisconsin. It was the birthplace of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” and it put its resources at the service of Bob LaFollette’s Progressive party in the 1920’s. At the same time, Wisconsin has become one of America’s distinguished centers of learning: for many years it has held the lead in the fields of American history and labor economics. Yet if a radical tradition still remains, the students are now its custodians. The first issue of Studies on the Left (there have been two so far) contains a “statement by the editors” chiding their professors for having failed in their intellectual obligations:
As graduate students anticipating academic careers, we feel a very personal stake in academic life, and we feel that, as radicals, we are hampered in our work by the intrusion of prevailing standards of scholarship, which set up a screen between ourselves and our product, an automatic censoring device which trims and deflates and confines our work, under the pretext of what is supposed to be “objective scholarship,” until we no longer know it as our own.
If anything is the language of revolt, this is it.
The “prevailing standards of scholarship” in history and the social sciences may well raise the radical ire. Since the end of World War II, professorial scholarship has generally taken two, not unrelated, directions. The first is that of celebration. American achievements, values. and institutions have been described rather than analyzed, and in terms of praise rather than evaluative criticism. Another aspect of this celebration has been the reassessing of radical movements of the past in such a way as to show that they were, after all, conservative in character. Viewing this trend among their elders, students often wonder whether Julien Benda’s old indictment of “treasonous” intellectuals who put national ideology above the quest for truth is not here relevant—whether, to put it bluntly, scholarship has not been made to serve as a weapon in the East-West struggle.
The second postwar academic path has been that of methodological preoccupation. In the sciences which deal with human relations, students are required to take “into account” an impossibly wide variety of causative factors. Political and social, economic and cultural, legal and psychoanalytic influences—all must be conjoined in one’s frame of reference. The result is not theoretical understanding, but a sense of multiple entries which attempt to satisfy all the going disciplines. Group research projects in particular have leaned on this crutch, and the approach has seemed to a good many sensitive students to be like a gigantic exercise in evasion foisted off on them by their professors, with the result that any free play of the scholarly imagination is held in rein by a misplaced obsession with “objectivity.”
The revolt of the doctoral candidates at Wisconsin is a revolt against all such prevailing orthodoxies. If conservative professor-scholars have been mere celebraters, the liberals have hidden behind methodological barricades. “There is work for the radical scholar,” the editors of Studies on the Left write, “the thinker who is committed to the investigation of the origins, purposes, and limitations of institutions and concepts, as well as for the conservative or liberal scholar who is committed to their efficient maintenance and improvement. There is room in scholarship for the application of reason to the reconstruction of society as well as to legalistic interpretation and reform.” And the vehicle that the angry young men of Madison have chosen for their new departure is Marxism.
It is only with a good deal of forethought—and even then with some eventual misgiving—that I have chosen to call this intellectual revolt “Marxist.” The lay and scholarly publics are both intolerant of the “Marxist” rubric, whether it signifies an ideology or a philosophical system. Nevertheless the graduate students who are taking this step to the left know what they are doing. They have no illusions about Soviet Communism, and the Marxism which draws them antecedes the Russian Revolution by many years. Nor do they pretend to be guided by a theory which effortlessly provides ready answers to all social and historical questions. One wishes at times that there were some better phrase—something more American, perhaps. For the formidable apparatus of “dialectic” and “economic determinism” and “historical materialism” conjures up an image of an artificial system, inevitably imposing its categories of analysis on an unwilling reality. To be a Marxist, further, is to be constantly on the defensive or to talk only to the small circle of the already converted. One alternative, of course, is to point out that the American tradition is not without its own theorists of similar persuasion. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have been called pre-Marxian Marxists, and Thorstein Veblen and Charles Beard might also be styled Marxists, although they never benefited from the inspiration of the Master himself. At least these men, to mention no others, looked on American society as a product of its material substructure (despite the fact that their writings never approached Marx’s in philosophical sweep).
But if Marxism cannot be refuted out of existence, it would be because it is more than an economic theory—for it is, of course, a sociology of history, an analysis of power, a quest for a rational society. In spite of its Soviet taint, then, and against the general disapproval of the established professors of all the social sciences, graduate students have been increasingly attracted by this century-old theory. That Marx belongs to the intellectual tradition of the Western world—that he is not a permanent kidnap victim of the Russians and Chinese—must be recognized as a fact of history. Furthermore, his and Engels’ writings, products of the 19th century, are clearly no less relevant to the present than the academically respectable Max Weber’s or John Stuart Mill’s. Graduate students—especially before they branch out on their own—are usually looking for intellectual guideposts: it seems to me perfectly understandable that the figure of Marx should again loom up as a diviner of the social order.
All this is not to say that the coming academic generation intends to be straitjacketed in any way. Certainly they have seen—as have the rest of us—that dogmatic Marxism is the death of true scholarship. In forty years the Soviet Union has produced no historians or social scientists of the front rank precisely because the professors of history and social science viewed their Marxism not as food for intellectual inspiration, but as national ideology. For the Russian academic world, Marxism has been the vehicle for day-to-day rationalization. In America, those who have again begun to use Marxist approaches, there is reason to believe, will be honest with themselves and the rest of us.
For one thing, the students from Wisconsin are severe critics of their own society, and they seem serious about their radicalism. That Marxism has been beyond the academic pale for the past twenty years, they know, and they know the reasons why. One article in Studies on the Left entitled “Objectivity and Commitment” tries to reply to the most common objections against utilizing Marxist thought. The charge that the Marxist scholar is not “objective,” the author of this article (one of the journal’s editors) suggests, is bogus, and in bad faith, at that. For how objective is any scholar, argues the author, including those most critical of Marxism? The vast majority of American academics claim that they have pursued truth in a disinterested manner and unhampered by preconceptions. Yet almost to a man their quest has brought them to a singularly unanimous conclusion: that true freedom is to be found, quite by chance, in the United States. Marxism may or may not be a closed system, this student suggests, but what about a system of thought which might be called “Americanism”? What objective sorting of evidence have ten-thousand historians and social scientists gone through so that virtually every one of them ends up embracing the institutions in his own backyard? The point, of course, is that objectivity is an illusory aim and the choice between Marxism and Americanism, he contends, is probably a toss-up. He then attempts to demonstrate that Marxism is not as monolithic as it is usually made to appear. Here he shows that Marx and Engels’ minds were far more open than is commonly realized and also suggests that their theory of society is not one which supplies automatic answers at a moment’s notice. “The evidence drawn upon by the creative Marxist must be as varied and many-sided as the living totality that Marx himself attempted to analyze,” this editor writes. “Marxism, at least as Marx and Engels formulated it, is simply not a deterministic or predictive system that can be applied to all situations, great or small.”
This entire line of argument is vulnerable, of course, to criticism, and it is hard to resist the temptation to pitch in But what I wish to emphasize is that these graduate students are hard at work on Marx in the face of strong opposing pressures from their professors. And the uses they see in their own fresh approaches to Marx are intellectual and at the furthest remove from Soviet apologetics. Curious as it may seem, it is not unfair to conclude that they have taken this step of intellectual commitment of their own free will.
What purpose will their Marxism fulfill for these students? Perhaps its greatest value for scholars embarked on original research will be to cause them to put first things first. Instead of rushing off in all directions at once in an eclectic search for evidence, the tendency will be to begin with an examination of the economic forces at work in whatever historical period is under study. Studies on the Left is primarily a journal by and for historians; its emphasis is on the economic history of this country. But whether an article investigates socialist movements in the early years of the century, or the declining days of the New Deal, or Samuel Adams and the revolutionary period, or the mechanical reproduction of art forms—the inquiry always begins with an examination of the relative stage of technological development and the structure of economic controls. All of the essays, consequently, have a focus and a sense of direction. It is clear that “economic determinism” can be and often has been a Procrustean bed for scholars, and doubtless it will always present this danger. But so long as there is painstaking research along with the theory, and if non-economic factors are not deliberately neglected, why should students not utilize “economic determinism”—or apologize for using it?
Graduate students, returning to the hard-headed kind of analysis once used by Madison, Hamilton, Veblen, and Beard, are, at the same time, asking serious questions about power. Among professors of politics it has become unfashionable to talk of power—especially about men of economic power—because such discourse can easily lead to disturbing criticisms or national institutions. The postwar professors have insisted that in America power is dispersed so widely that for all intents and purposes it does not exist: power is either one “dimension” out of many—a dimension usually subservient to habit, custom, and consensus—or else it is seen as being shared among such a variety of competing groups, blocs, and interests that no single agency can call the tune and all is thus compromise and equilibrium. To the uneasy graduate student, though, these explanations are but more flights into multiple causality. The hunch remains that power is far more concentrated than they have been taught to believe. Hence the appeal to graduate students of a writer like C. Wright Mills (again, despite the pooh-poohing of their professors) and the willingness to think aloud about power elites. If Marx saw undisputed power in the property-owning class, the students now see it belonging to a corporate elite. But such a statement is not so much a conclusion as it is a hypothesis for investigation.
One should note, finally, the moral impetus which Marxism has always imparted to historians and social scientists. Marx was himself a compassionate man and his quest was to bring into being a rational social order. It is not surprising that to many young intellectuals today’s world seems, if not totally insane, at least heavily weighted on the side of irrationality. The older conservative invokes Original Sin to explain human and social perversity and tends to believe that most ills are given in the nature of things; the liberal, fearful of the costs which totalitarian solutions have levied, settles for piecemeal reforms whenever he can get them. Here, the Wisconsin students quite unself-consciously adopt the Utopian spirit which infused Marx and Engels. To a reasonable man—to these reasonable students—racial prejudice, the nuclear arms race, the debasement of culture—all of these look like institutionalized madness. Quite simply, the human situation, the global situation, must be put to rights. For Marx, their particular class interests clouded the minds of individuals, and he had little faith that men could be educated on matters of any great magnitude. But graduate students are not revolutionaries and their hope is education: that knowledge will change society.
It may be objected, again, that these young scholars have a set idea of the society they want to create, and that consequently their research will become strategy rather than scholarship. Such a result, after all, was what one experienced with Soviet Marxists. But at this juncture, at least, the charge against the graduate students would be unfair. While Marx’s own analysis of capitalist democracy was but a prelude to his socialist philosophy, our home-grown Marxists are critics of the present American society but not heralds of a new one. Though they aspire to a rational social order, it is not necessarily one which calls for the abolition of private property or the establishing of human equality by political means. Unlike their European counterparts, these students are forced to be Marxists without being socialists—to try to be a Marxist intellectual during working hours and then to have to go out and vote for Jack Kennedy is bound to be a frustrating experience—and this deprivation will no doubt take its toll in a variety of ways. Some idea of the predicament faced by these graduate students can be seen if Studies on the Left is contrasted with its British opposite number, the New Left Review.
The New Left Review is very much a successful venture. Beginning in 1957 as the Universities and Left Review, it merged with the New Reasoner and now has a full-time editor, a London office, and a circulation of 8,000. It appears six times a year and is required reading matter for university students of left-wing persuasion. The journal sponsors a London coffee house (“The Partisan”), thirtythree “New Left Clubs” from Plymouth to Aberdeen, and has published several pamphlets and a book of essays (Out of Apathy) . While its finances are still somewhat shaky, its following is impressive by any measure. Though its articles more often than not make for heavy reading (it is difficult to see how anyone without some advanced training in philosophy or the social sciences can get through them), the subscribers and club members form a dedicated group which at this time is clearly the most vigorous single body on the British left.
It is important also to note that the New Left Review was founded at Oxford by a group of graduate students, much like those who founded Studies, as a reaction against the teachings of their professors. The social sciences at Oxford seemed to the students to be particularly divorced from the world of reality. Oxford political philosophy is almost exclusively an exercise in a linguistic analysis which carries the assumption that most of the world’s problems can be cleared up by a systematic study of language. Oxford politics is the legalistic study of established institutions, with virtually no recourse to sociology or the new behavioral approaches. And Oxford economic theory is confined to model building and mathematical statistics which seem to constitute closed systems in themselves. Oxford has many virtues, but what it lacks is the ability to inspire the imagination of those who are concerned about the problems of today. The rediscovery of Marxism, then, came only after an exposure to the donnish scholasticism of this ancient seat of learning.
Like Studies on the Left, the New Left Review is also Marxist in its general orientation, but it differs from Studies in being a thoroughgoing socialist journal as well. This difference means that for the New Left Review analysis can be followed by prescription, that when problems are posed, solutions can be offered. It is worth taking some time to contrast the political outlook of the New Left Review with that of Studies on the Left. The young Marxists on both sides of the Atlantic are confronted with much the same sorts of problems; but though sharing a common ground in the analysis of these problems, they perforce part company in the matter of solutions.
Capitalism. For the young Englishman of the left the answer to the problem of capitalism is to do away with it. The New Left Review is “traditionalist” on this question, standing for public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. This old-fashioned approach, however, is supported by a sophisticated array of economic arguments and by articles demonstrating how ownership and control of the country’s major financial and industrial institutions give to a small group of individuals the power to decide the course of national policy. The magazine argues furthermore that only if work is made a matter of public service rather than private profit will the labor of men be a meaningful component of their lives. This solution is as old as Marx himself, and undoubtedly just as Utopian. But it has not been absorbed by writers for the New Left Review as part of the Holy Writ; it has been arrived at after careful examination of life in the welfare state and analysis of all the suggestions for a middle way.
The Marxists of Studies on the Left are no less critical of the basic structure of American capitalism. The indictments they array go just as far and quite as deep—but there follows no call for public ownership. The analysis usually peters out in a surge of Jeffersonian nostalgia which hankers either for the days of sturdy yeoman farmers or for a world of competitive small businesses. It is curious, and not a little depressing, to find that the almost invariable remedy for the excesses of corporate activity is a call for “vigorous antitrust” action.
Mass Culture. The British are as involved with the problems of culture and leisure as we are, and the New Left Review has had exhaustive discussions of popular taste in the affluent society. Television and advertising are particular favorites, and the magazine is much concerned over the quality of life being experienced by the country’s youth. But the whole topic of culture is posed in Marxian terms, and though taste is seen as being at a low level, individual wants are attributed to the character of the economic system. The British public is not blamed for staring at televized trash: these people are the products of a society which cramps their imagination and perverts their sensibilities.
In America the debate over mass culture has been essentially a bootless one because it is based on Puritan assumptions. Curiously enough, Americans of both left and right join hands here in chiding the ordinary person for not exercising more self-discipline or developing his potentialities for cultural appreciation. This chiding is often very severe and not infrequently descends to mere carping. Indeed, even the most dedicated of American radicals are prone to display a feeling of disillusionment: they talk as if the proletariat has betrayed them. The working man, now released from material privation, has committed the treason of failing to live up to the cultural expectations set for him by those who assisted him in his earlier struggles. What results is exhortation to turn off the TV and take up a good book.
The Bomb. Perhaps the most significant political force for the young left in Britain today is not the Labor party but the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. On this issue the New Left Review gives its unqualified support to the Aldermaston marchers and to the entire movement toward neutralism in the cold war. The program is straightforward enough: to serve immediate eviction notices on American air force bases and to pitch Britain’s own bombs (undetonated) into the sea. The discussion is on moral rather than strategic grounds. The mere possession of such a weapon, it is argued, is a standing temptation to destroy civilization. America and the Soviet Union can make nuclear fools of themselves, but Britain should sit the next one out.
Americans of radical persuasion are, on the other hand, in the unenviable position of being citizens of a major power.1 The best protest against the bomb—the only one that could win any substantial support—was the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. But the basic aim of this group—a moratorium on testing—has already been satisfied by the Eisenhower administration. The Committee, to be sure, never even got to first base with American students—its policy was too sane, too sweetly reasonable. Yet Studies on the Left offers nothing more radical.
Black Men and White Men. What the state of Mississippi represents for Americans, the Union of South Africa signifies for Great Britain. Once again, the over-all view of the young British left is quite simple: white authority in Africa must step down. The socialists in London ask that the white settlers either accept majority rule—that is, black rule—or return to England, for the future of Africa lies with self-government by the natives. Such a change will, of course, produce difficult periods of adjustment and not infrequently violence. But the pacifism manifested by the New Left group when they are discussing the Bomb is seldom in evidence when they consider Africa. In the latter case, it is a Marxist view of history that is invoked: the quest for freedom is bound to be revolutionary; a “dictatorship of the proletariat” will invariably follow, lasting until the African nations give up their tribal anarchy and the purported counterrevolutionaries are eliminated. The problem of Africa, however, is one the Africans must work out for themselves. Thus, the role of Britain is to withdraw support from the settler oligarchies and let history take its course.
Americans of the Marxist left have no such grand historical design to apply to the racial problems of the U.S. For one thing, the Negroes in the South can hardly win their freedom without outside aid. For another, the states below the Mason and Dixon line cannot be cut off from the Union. American radicals never applauded in any sustained way President Eisenhower’s decision to send the 101st Airborne into Little Rock. This use of the power of the state to enforce the Constitution was always looked upon with mixed feelings, and it has never been considered a precedent which might profitably be used again. In short, there is no radical program on civil rights, only an annual debate on the half-hearted proposals submitted to the Congress. Radicals have allowed others to define the issues for them, and the radical graduate students on Studies are no different. For radicals the problem of civil rights admits of no solution precisely because they refuse to postulate that the South is engaging in an act of Constitutional nullification. Emotional involvement with the plight of the Negro cannot function as a political strategy.
Thus we see that the outlook of the British New Left Review, compared with the American Studies on the Left, is decidedly Utopian. Its socialism and pacifism are not so much policies for the present as they are goals for a remote future. Yet even so these goals are concrete ones, for the young British socialists have a fairly distinct image of the kind of country and the kind of world they would like to see and to have; they express their faith in the progress of history, and they have not lost confidence in the ordinary man. Their Marxism gives them—if nothing else—a sense of direction and a feeling of political purposiveness. It is on just these counts that young Americans of the radical persuasion are at a distinct disadvantage. Though their critical faculties are highly sophisticated, they cannot apply their minds to imagining the outlines of a new social order for America.
It is true that what others have to offer dissatisfies them. In their view the popular commentaries of Vance Packard and William H. Whyte, Jr., are superficial descriptions of social class and organized power, and the more academic studies of David Riesman and John Kenneth Galbraith stop short of a genuine probe into the social structure. Yet these students also assume, however implicitly, that socialism—whether of a Utopian or a pragmatic character—is not a conceivable next step to think about—either for themselves or for anyone else. It is not enough to call on young people—as David Riesman is currently doing—to embark on Utopian thinking. What is required are some actual Utopias: some concrete pictures of a new and better social order. If these are not forthcoming, the reasons are not hard to unearth.
Even in our age of affluence, it is possible to criticize the irrationality of the capitalist economy; but the proposal of a thoroughgoing substitute finds no ready audience. Though the system might be essentially irrational, it has done the job that most people seem to expect of it. The stark fact is that the American working class is relatively contented with the economic status quo, and finds no attraction in radical politics. While steelworkers, for example, may have no love for their employers and might be willing to strike for many months to raise their living standard to what they feel is a decent level, even these workers do not regard themselves as being exploited by the system as a whole. In Britain, on the other hand, the working class constitutes at least half the population, and it maintains a feeling of self-identity—in spite of higher wages and increased comforts.
Furthermore, the English Labor party still retains the loyalty of the vast majority of British workers; and it is an ongoing organization to which the young intellectual may attach himself. It was Marx himself who saw that the man of ideas could not be satisfied detached from any political rote. For socialists, the intellectual can only play a meaningful part if he is in the vanguard of the proletariat. But what, as in the case of America, if there is no class-conscious proletariat with which to affiliate? If there are no big battalions of protest, then the intellectual lacks not only an audience but also a potential mass following. Another consequence of such a situation for American radicals, as I have noted, is the strong temptation to accuse the working man of betraying his historic mission. And once this kind of disillusionment arises within the circle of the intellectuals, the idea of a radical movement seems even more remote. Such disillusionment bespeaks, not a possible alliance between intellectuals and workers, but, instead, serious tension.
Finally, the fluidity of America’s class structure—especially for those with college degrees—means that we have few Angry Young Men devoting their energies to attacking a social system which has shut them out. In Britain there is far less chance for young intellectuals to display their talents, and they can thus turn their personal grievances into a call for a new kind of society. The editors of the New Left Review, while hardly unemployed, are the sort of people who are not wanted in respectable university circles—in any event the number of academic posts available are deplorably few. A graduate student at an American university, on the other hand, usually finds a well-paying assistant professorship waiting for him and from that point a recognized and acceptable career. The public acceptance of the professor has proved at times to be almost embarrassing. It is an uphill fight to think about reconstructing a society which treats one so well.
Yet despite all these obstacles to Utopian thinking, the intellectual awakening symbolized by Studies on the Left at Wisconsin is beginning to be felt throughout our graduate schools. What this generation of students will eventually have to ask themselves is whether it is possible to be a theoretical Marxist without being a socialist. The answer is worth waiting for, if only because these young men and women will be the college and university professors of the next generation. Their revolt against the professors has only just begun: what they do when they come to power in our universities—and their coming to power is only a matter of time—will have an important bearing on the intellectual life of our country.
1 Perhaps even Americans of radical cast believe that it would be unthinkable for the United States to throw its bombs away—history having forced on us a role which must be played out until Communism is contained or transformed. Socialist theories of society, in the final analysis, are seldom applicable to great international powers. Beneath British thought concerning neutralist status is the idea that socialism can only become a reality if England takes the road of a nation like Denmark and devotes its resources to putting its own house in order. So long, then, as America is driven by military imperatives and global responsibilities, there seems little likelihood that socialist prescriptions will take hold.