© Copyright, 1965 by Hal Draper
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Most of the references one hears to the student movement of the thirties, and most published references too, are quite wrong in one basic respect: they speak as if “the thirties” represented a single, homogeneous period for the student movement. But the biggest single fact about the history of this movement is that it went through a sweeping change in spirit, methods, and politics, which changed its face completely in mid-course. The present sketch will concern itself mainly with that transformation. 
This movement was newborn in 1931; it was not the continuator of a previously existing one. During the twenties there had been a small movement around a magazine called The New Student, but it had never created much of a stir. The “Lost Generation”reflected in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels was (as he wrote in one of them) “a new generation ... grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken.” The rebels too reflected the malaise of the society they rebelled against, as is so often true. The New Student thought that what was needed was a revolt in “manners and morals” ; youth had to save the broken-down old world; some kind of change was necessary, something had to be done; “spiritually, this is an age of ruin and nausea”. By 1923-24 there were a number of campus battles; but by 1924-25 “normalcy” and prosperity were returning, and The New Student’s interests turned amorphously toward moral indignation with such phenomena as the growing “gigantism” of the universities, the evils of commercialized education, and the “quality of life.” With increasing depoliticalization, the movement decayed into Menckenism, particularly enamored of Mencken’s derision of bourgeois society from an elitist standpoint – one which was as contemptuous of the mass of people as it was of the “booboisie”;. By 1927 the magazine was confessing that “Where we used to dream of new faith and new communities developing out of colleges and flowering through a thankful country, now the main hope is that students will be less bored by lecturing...”. And by 1928 it was through. For the bulk of students, what reigned supreme were the three “f’s” – football, fraternities, and sex.
Then in 1929 the bottom fell out. It seemed as if the bottom had fallen out of the whole economic system. For there was no natural famine, no devastating war, no plague: it was as if the social machine simply broke inside and had ground to a halt. There was something referred to as “overproduction “, which meant that too much wealth had been produced; and since there was too much wealth, millions were unemployed, factories were shut down, and breadlines grew. Apple sellers became a street sight; vaudeville entertainers sang Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime? The bodies of financial magnates rained down from upper stories of Wall Street executive suites; and other tycoons, like Charles M. Schwab, were convinced that the Social Revolution was just around the corner.
The social group hardest hit by the depression was the youth. In 1930, the census figure for unemployed of all ages was 3,187,647, and about one-fourth of these were in the fifteen to twenty-four age range. (According to other estimates, over one-third). As of January, 1935, there were 2,876,800 youths between sixteen and twenty-four years of age who were on relief; and this was about 14 per cent of the total for this age group. In 1938, one out of every five youths in the labor market was either totally unemployed or on work relief (not counting those working only part-time). This was the youth problem of the thirties: “unemployment for between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of all youth; scanty education for the great bulk of youth from families in the lower-income brackets; and an extreme intensification of all problems for Negro youth. Youth made up more than its share of the one-third of a nation ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed.” 
For this “Locked-Out Generation” the prospects of the student youth were correspondingly dim.
In 1935 one college president told a student assembly that the 150,000 students with degrees were emerging into a world which did not want them. A Columbia University official said: “the social order is unable to absorb those who are annually graduated from our colleges and professional schools.” (This was often true even for the highest-ranking men.) Another well-known educational institution, the US Army, was getting a stream of college graduates at its Whitehall Street recruiting station in New York, and the New York Post explained that the attraction was “grub, prosaic grub.” In 1934, the year I was graduated, it was estimated that one-third of the previous graduating class had been able to obtain no employment at all, and that another third had gotten jobs for which they had no interest, talent, or training. One college journal addressed an editorial to the graduating class headed Into the Wasteland. There was an Ode to Higher Education, of which one variation went like this:
I sing in praise of college,
All this meant two other things, too: first, it was increasingly difficult to work one’s way through college; and second, retrenchment in educational budgets reduced the opportunity for other students to go to college. A Harper’s article of 1935 said: “In many respects, the post-1929 college graduate is the American tragedy. He is all dressed up with no place to go ...” A whole section of the American middle class was being declassed; and the student movement was in part a result of this declassment.
The student movement that arose was initiated and launched by two radical youth groups, working separately: the Young Socialists and the Young Communists. This fact determined its whole history. Let us begin with the Socialist wing.
There had been a socialist student organization in existence since 1905, when Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and others formed the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. The ISS later became the League for Industrial Democracy, an adult organization which maintained an intercollegiate department. But after the First World War, the college section of the LID was small and amounted to very little during the 1920s. It was only with the onset of the depression that it began to grow. Two years after the stock market crash the LID’s annual student conference, held at Union Theological Seminary on the theme of Guiding the Revolution, assembled 200 representatives from 44 colleges. In the presidential election of 1932 the Socialist candidate was Norman Thomas, whose campaign drew in a considerable number of students (including myself) and helped to build the LID’s student organization.
By December 1932 the college arm of the LID – at this point called the Intercollegiate Student Council – was chafing at being merely a department of an adult organization; and it was also facing competition from the Communists, as we shall see. Reorganization as an autonomous Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) gave it its own structure and a more independent life, but it never achieved independence in one respect: financially. The adult LID continued to pay its officers, whom it had originally appointed, and these remained, as before, Joseph P. Lash and Molly Yard. Lash, a graduate of The City College of New York in his early twenties, remained on as executive secretary of the SLID, and later of the American Student Union, right through the thirties, with Miss Yard as his first lieutenant. Both were members of the Socialist party. Lash also became editor of the SLID’s new magazine, first called Revolt but quickly toned down to the Student Outlook.
It must be explained that the SLID was an amalgam of two fairly different kinds of socialist students: the “Yipsels” and the “LID types.“ The “LID types” were essentially liberal social-democratic in their approach to politics, and sometimes not very political at all; they often tended to be colored by pacifist, Christian socialist views, and not infrequently were more liberalistic than socialistic. A young man at Swarthmore named Clark Kerr could fit into the SLID chapter there. In their own way, both Lash and Molly Yard were “LID types.”
Numerically more important than the “LID types” were the student members of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL – youth section of the Socialist Party), commonly called “Yipsels.” In the larger cities, where there were substantial young socialist groups, the Yipsels tended to dominate the SLID chapters, especially in New York City. (As student director of the New York organization of YPSL for several years, I was largely concerned with mobilizing Yipsels to help build the SLID chapters in the city).
It is important to understand that, by and large, at this time, the young Socialists constituted the left wing of a Socialist party which was itself rapidly going left throughout this period. The YPSL leaders, and an overwhelming majority of its membership, considered themselves to be revolutionary socialists, and, far from being influenced by the Communists in this regard, were utterly contemptuous of them, especially when the communist movement swung right after 1935. The Socialist party also swung sharply left in the thirties, though not enough to please the Yipsels. By 1935, as a result of the increased radicalization of its members and the influx of younger, more militant recruits, the party’s extreme right wing (the “Old Guard”) walked out. Later that year, the party accepted into its ranks the whole Trotskyist group (Workers Party, with its youth group, the Spartacus Youth league, many of whom were already active in the student movement). Both the loss and the gain served to shift the balance of politics in the party even more to the left – until the latter part of 1937 when another split took place in the party along left-right lines, with the large majority of the youth organization going along with the left wing.
As long as the tone of the student movement remained militant, i.e., up to 1935, the tension implicit in the coexistence of these two socialist strains within the SLID. occasioned little or no hostility. Besides, particular SLID chapters were usually either Yipsel-dominated or else “LID-ish”, and went their own ways in practice, as “hards” and “softs”, respectively. It was only with the rightward turn in 1935 that a clash developed.
The other source of the student movement came from the Communist students, and eventuated in the building of the National Student League. This part of the story is usually represented under the heading, Communist Conspiracy Decides to Capture the College Campuses, etc. What actually happened is a good deal more interesting and more complex. Both for this initatory period and for the later turns and changing course of t he student movement’s leadership, it is indispensable to understand the coeval turns of the Communist party line, which constitute the background. On the basis of this background, the story of what happened to the student movement is as clear as crystal; without this background, it is an insoluble mystery.
In 1929 the Communist International had launched all of its parties into what it baptized the “Third Period”, a period of wildly ultra-left and ultra-sectarian policies. The motivation came from the needs of the Russian regime. Having already liquidated the Trotskyist Left Opposition, the Stalin dictatorship now consolidated itself by turning against the Bukharin ”right wing”, and was driving hard toward the crystallization of the new Stalinist society in the image of the new ruling class. Internally, the turn toward mass bureaucratic collectivization of the land meant the adoption of terroristic policies toward the peasantry, and a rigidification of the party leadership’s autocracy in all aspects of life.
Translated into terms of the satellite parties’ tactics, the results was lunatic-fringe politics. (Maoist China, together with its faithful Maoist parties in other countries, is going through a sort of modified “Third Period” development today, for analogous reasons). The revolution was officially announced to be just around the corner. Roosevelt was a fascist. The AF of L and all of its trade unions were fascist, and the party line was to split the unions to form dual “Red” unions, like the National Miners Union. The socialists were another kind of fascists, called “social-fascists.“ There was nothing more important than to destroy their organizations, and no united front with them was permissible – except something called “the United Front from Below”, which meant that “honest” socialist rank-and-filers were called on to support Communist activities in defiance of their own “social-fascist” leaders. Of all socialists, the leftwing socialists were the worst “social-fascists” of all. Party organizations were oriented toward underground secrecy whether necessary or no, and discipline was conceived in military terms.
The “Third Period” line was still going strong as official policy in 1931 and 1932, when the student movement got started. In 1933 the Communist International was giving signs of softening the line; by 1934 it was clearly on the way out; and in 1935 the decisive flip-flop took place when the Franco-Soviet military assistance pact was signed in may. (The French Communist Party began voting for war budgets and militarization, and the line spread to other countries immediately). Later that year, the new Popular Front line was formally inaugurated at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern.
The Popular Front line meant a 180-degree swing in Communist policy from ultra-left to ultra-right. It, like the preceding course, was decisively motivated by Moscow’s orientation in foreign policy. Having helped to stymie resistance to Hitler’s seizure of power, the Kremlin now took fright at the Nazis’ threats of a holy war against Communism. The widest possible military alliance against Germany, in anticipation of World War II, became the crash-program objective, to which all other considerations were subordinated. To push this perspective, the American Communist party, like others, spared no effort to convince Washington and the American power structure that Moscow, together with the Communist parties it kept in tow, was no longer a Red Menace, no longer even interested in revolution. That, in fact, it could be depended on as a respectable defender of the status quo – as long as America participated in a system of “collective security” (world bloc) against the danger from Hitler’s Germany that might conceivably serve to “defend the Soviet Union” from attack from that quarter. All pretense at prosecuting a Leninist class-struggle policy was sold out in exchange for wooing the government into a foreign policy satisfactory to Moscow, naturally under anti-Nazi slogans.
Before the Popular Front period was over, nothing was too extreme for the Communist party to use to destroy its image as a Red Menace, including the dissolution of the party itself into a “Communist Political Association.” Every bit of radical language in the Communists’ program and propaganda was carefully translated into vague liberalese or unceremoniously abandoned or repudiated. The slogan became “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism”, and quotations from Marx and Lenin gave way to passages from Jefferson or Franklin or folksy evocations of Abraham Lincoln. President Roosevelt was transmogrified from a sinister fascist into a People’s Hero, and every good Communist became the most fanatical New Dealer within ten miles. Communist front organizations were hastily re-tailored to the new style: for example, the “anti-imperialist” American League Against War and Fascism became the pro-“collective-security” American League for Peace and Democracy.
Not all of this happened at once. For example, by early 1936 when the Communist Party nominated Earl Browder for President, the new line had not yet completely crystallized, but by fall it was clear that the party was advocating a vote for Roosevelt. Since Browder continued formally to run, the Communist press of September-October, 1936 presented one of the weirdest pictures in its checkered history.
While the Communist party was moving all the way right with bewildering speed, the Socialist Party, as we have seen, was steadily going left. In 1936, for example, the Socialist Party adopted statements against the danger of imperialist war and for a revolutionary transformation of American capitalism which marked an extreme leftward point for the movement, with the approval even of Norman Thomas. (Incidentally, Thomas was no longer a “fascist“ or “social-fascist” in Communist treatment. He was now more likely to be denounced as an ultra-left adventuristic Trotskyite). The YPSL was one of the important ingredients in the leftward pressure within the Socialist Party, and pushed for more. Politically speaking, the Socialists and Communists crossed each other, going in opposite directions.
During the first part of the Popular Front period (1935-36), the obsessive concern of the Communist Party was for “unity” with the Socialists in any way whatsoever. (This too was and internationalization of the Communist parties’ course in Europe, where unity with the mass social-democratic parties could bring the desired respectability). But by 1937-38 the Communists passed beyond this stage to wooing the real powers of the Establishment, from the Democratic Party machines to the National Association of Manufacturers, about whom Browder made unctuous speeches “holding out the hand of friendship” to the “progressive capitalists” who understood the Menace of Hitlerism. Popular Front changed to “Democratic Front” and then to “National Front”, as also in Europe where the Italian Communists reached the point of offering common cause with Mussolini’s “good” fascists as against the bad Nazi fascists.
This part of the story came to an end with the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, which gave the green light to the Nazis’ launching of the Second World War. The nature of the Communists’ concern with the menace of Hitlerism was adequately demonstrated when Molotov announced that “fascism is a matter of taste.” But this was politically inconceivable to the student movementthat was built during the “Third Period” and Popular Front days.
We can now return to the year 1931, when the student movement was beginning to stir. This was still in the murky depths of the fantastic “Third Period” line of the communist movement; and naturally the Young Communist League (YCL) was a tiny organization. The YCL’s leadership, typified by Gil Green, had been handpicked for wooden-headed docility to the party line, now that every slightly critical element had been driven out as a “Trotskyite” or “Lovestoneite.”
This leadership had no interest in orienting toward the organization of students, who were “petty-bourgeois” by definition and unstable intellectuals by occupation (just the kind who had caused so much trouble in the recent factional splits and expulsions). The “Third Period” dogma was that Communists were interested only in “proletarians”, although the interest was not reciprocal, and the YCL leaders flatly feared intellectuals, with whom they could not cope in any discussion of their own phantasmagorical politics.
It can be flatly stated that the YCL did not initiate the organization of the National Student League (NSL) and did not want it. Yet it is also true that the NSL was formed by communist students. That these two statements are both true is a testimonial to the misleading simplism of the “conspiracy “theory of radical history.
In New York, where it got started, there were two hostile groups of communist students. The YCL hardliners, in agreement with their leaders, simply went to school and then hurried away to do their stint for the party of the International Workers Order or one of the other party fronts. The other group, consisting of some YCL’ers and a number of Communist sympathizers and fellow-travelers, held to a “student orientation”; that is, they believed in the possibility and utility of Communist organization of students on campus, in the teeth of the party line.
It was the latter group which initiated the New York Student League (predecessor of the National Student League), while the YCL leadership remained cold to the enterprise but did not prohibit the participation of YCL members in it. It was not until 1933 that the leaders went over wholeheartedly to the “student orientation”, in part because of the salient success it had scored in making student Communists through the NSL’s activities, and in part because (as we have mentioned) the “Third Period” line was already thawing by this time. By 1934 if not before, there was a complete rapprochement between the strategy and tactics of the YCL faction and the course of the NSL leaders; in fact, in this year the YCL inaugurated a comparable project of its own in the shape of the American Youth Congress.
The only teacher prominent in the organization of the National Student League was a young economics instructor at Columbia named Donald Henderson, who became the NSL’s first executive secretary. When the university refused to renew his contract, a student strike on campus made the case a cause celebré. (He later threw himself into work for the Communist dominated Farm Equipment Workers Union, which absorbed his energies until his death).
The NSL was one of the most successful of the Communist-led movements of the thirties, and it was also one of the most competently led. Among its top leaders were Joseph Starobin, Joseph Cohen (Joseph Clark), James Wechsler – all of New York – and, from the West Coast, Serril Gerber and Celeste Strack. In general, they were more imaginative and less muscle-bound in style than the cliché-ridden hacks who presided over other Communist Party enterprises in the earlier years; in a real sense the NSL pioneered the Popular Front pattern which, after 1935, paid off so well for the communist movement.
One of the first attention-drawing actions of the NSL was its sponsorship of a student delegation to Harlan County, Kentucky, where a desperate miners’ strike was taking place, under the aegis of the National Miners Union, against brutal conditions and “legal” terror. The students were turned back from Harlan County by armed intimidation – in a manner somewhat reminiscent of what happened in the sixties to the Freedom Riders in the South. This was not the only attempt by student leaders to link the student movement with the labor movement (as their ideology demanded) but no other case garnered so much notice.
Then in 1932 came the Reed Harris case. Harris, the crusading liberal editor of the Columbia Spectator, ran stories exposing the bad conditions in the campus dining hall with regard to the preparation of food and treatment of student waiters. He was clumsily expelled, in the course of a series of events which highlighted the high-handedness and hypocrisy of the Columbia administration. (There have been some parallels since then). This was the administration of Nicholas Murray Butler – “Nicholas Miraculous Butler”, he was called – who was widely thought to have his eves fixed on tenancy in the White House rather than Morningside Heights. Harris’ expulsion precipitated a sort of small-scale free speech movement, with thousands of students coming out in a one-day strike to manifest their indignant protest. The result was mainly a victory; Harris was reinstated, although he had first to make some concessions. The affair was a boost to the NSL, which had organized and led it, and to the student movement in general, particularly in New York City.
The arrival of the Roosevelt administration in 1933 had the effect of heightening political consciousness among the students, as it also did among the general population. A “National Conference of Students in Politics“, sponsored by the SLID, took advantage of and reflected this development. The NSL participated in it too, as did the student divisions of the YMCA and YWCA, student Christian associations, and some student service groups. There was a substantial list of eminent professors who allowed their names to be used as sponsors: Charles Beard, Morris R. Cohen, Jerome Davis, John Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Politicians on the list included Norman Thomas, Philip La Follette, and two senators. It was typical of such gatherings that, although there was a large number of liberals present, it was the Socialists and Communists whose discussions (and disputes) dominated the proceedings, not (in this case) by manipulation but simply because the liberals had nothing distinctive to say. They tended to follow in the wake of the radicals, who set the ideological tone.
Perhaps the greatest impetus to the student movement came from the war question.
There is no question but that there has never been a generation of youth more concerned about the danger of war than this one. Their attitude toward this danger was unmistakable: some of the polls and surveys showed a depth of opposition among large masses of youth which was unprecedented. In 1933 a sampling of 920 Columbia students included 31 per cent who considered themselves absolute pacifists – almost one-third; another 52 per cent stated they would bear arms only if the country were invaded; only 8 per cent said they were willing to fight for the United States under any circumstances. A national poll showed 39 per cent who said they would not participate in any war, and another 33 per cent who would do so only if the United States were invaded.
The students obviously did not share the attitude of some of their mentors, like the Fordham dean who denounced student anti-war activity with these words: “They are making fools of themselves ... What war are they worrying about anyway?”
The mounting consciousness of the danger of war crystallized politically around the “Oxford Pledge”, an English import. In February, 1933 the Oxford Union, following a debate, had passed a resolution which announced that under no circumstances would they “fight for King and country.” This was adopted by a vote of 273 to 153; when Randolph Churchill made a motion at the next meeting to expunge this offense to patriotism, the pledge was sustained by an even higher vote, 750 to 175. The sentiment was echoed at other English universities, including Leicester, Manchester, and Cambridge.
In the United States the Oxford Pledge, while retaining the name, was quickly translated into American as a refusal “to support the United States government in any war it may conduct.” For the next period the Oxford Pledge was the platform of the student anti-war movement.
It will be noted that the American version does not say quite the same thing as the Oxford version of the Oxford Pledge. The difference was deliberate. It was formulated here by student leaders who, both Socialist and Communist, regarded themselves as Marxists and did not want to make the pledge a statement of absolute pacifism – a viewpoint which was virtually nonexistent among the Communist leaders of the NSL and infrequent in the leadership of the SLID nationally or locally. Hence the American pledge was pointedly not worded to read as a refusal “to support any war which the US government might conduct.” Instead, it was politically directed against support of the government in any war.
In 1934 the two radical student organizations launched what seemed to many at first a rather wild idea, but which turned out to be the most successful single action of the movement: a “Student Strike Against War.” The date was set to commemorate the entrance of the United States into the World War, and it took place on April 13,1934. It was actually only a “demonstration strike”, scheduled for one hour, from 11:00 to noon, but it did call on all students to “walk out” of their classrooms. (This was intended literally; students were asked not to cut classes but to go to their scheduled class and leave with as many others as possible).
At this point the political orbits of the Socialist and Communist students were at perigee. The Communists had already pulled out of the “revolutionary” buffoonery of the “Third Period” but had not yet entered on the complete abandonment of revolutionary tactics which was going to characterize the Popular Front period. On their side, not only the YPSL but even the Socialist Party itself had adopted resolutions on the war question which were thoroughly revolutionary-socialist in content and phraseology (in fact, this was one of the main reasons why its “Old Guard” right wing split away). If, as we have said, the Socialists and Communists were crossing each other as they went in opposite political directions, it was during the period from 1934 to the middle of 1935 that they were closest.
There was therefore little difficulty in achieving complete NSL-SLID cooperation in the organization of the first student anti-war strike. To the surprise of its sponsors, it also achieved a considerable measure of success, especially in its public impact. In spite of a barrage of threats and pressure from administrations, about 25,000 students participated in 1934. To be sure, about 15,000 of these were in New York City – and of these, in turn, nearly half were probably accounted for by the three city colleges, City College of New York (CCNY), Brooklyn College, and Hunter. At other campuses the number was not impressive as yet, but the public sat up and took notice. Attempts to intimidate the student strikers at CCNY, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins added to the headlines.
The number of participants took a big jump on April 12 of the following year. The second Student Strike Against War in 1935 – focused, like the first, on the Oxford Pledge – drew about 150,000 students nationally, according to the student organizations. This claim was probably not much exaggerated provided one notes the qualification that not all of these 150,000 actually participated in a “strike”, that is, a walk-out from classes. In some places a more usual form of demonstration or meeting was substituted.
The figures were still highest in New York City, with Brooklyn College easily leading again with 6,000; CCNY and Columbia each had 3,500 out. Philadelphia did well, with 3,000 at the University of Pennsylvania and 2,500 at Temple. In. the Middle West, the biggest strikes took place at the Universities of Chicago, Minnesota and Wisconsin. On the West Coast, Berkeley came in, at 4,000, with the second largest demonstration in the country; but even Stanford had 1,500. This time the movement was nationwide: there was some kind of manifestation on over 130 campuses in all regions of the country, including nearly 20 in the South.
This was a great shot in the arm for the student movement, but the fact is that this image of a national mass movement had been projected by the work of comparatively small groups of radical students. To take the example of my own campus, Brooklyn College, which had seen the largest strike in the country for both years: there were probably about thirty active members each in both the SLID and NSL chapters, give or take another dozen. If about 95 per cent of the student body came out on the strike, in the face of administration threats of disciplinary action and the violent opposition of the student newspaper, this was an index not to the size of the dlirect organizational influence of either group but rather to the climate of social and political opinion among the students generally. I doubt whether there was at any time during this period a number of student-movement activists greater than there are today (1965), though there are two important qualifications to be added: the total student population in the universities and colleges was much smaller then and the student readerships insisted on more compact and efficient organization than is common today. The main difference was in the times.
The years 1934-35 were not only those in which the Communists and Socialists came closest together politically, but also those in which the Communists, having abandoned the doctrine that Socialists were “social fascists”, started going all-out for “unity” with those whom it had so recently stigmatized. On the student field, the NSL started proposing unity with the SLID in 1934. With cooperation in two student strikes behind them, and increasing cooperation in other projects, the SLID began to look favorably upon the proposal. By 1935, as their own line toward “unity” blossomed internationally, the Communists seemed ready to make almost any concession to get agreement. Within the SLID, the left-wing YPSL also was favorable to merger, feeling that in a united student movement their own politics would have a larger field to operate in. Another source of pressure toward merger was the growth of the NSL, which threatened to overshadow the SLID.
In June the national executive committee of the SLID voted for fusion, and the unity convention was held during Christmas week in Columbus, Ohio. The new organization formed there was called the American Student Union.
There was a considerable bloc of previously unaffiliated liberals at this convention, but, as before, they played no independent role. The agreements, disputes, and discussions emanated from the Socialist and Communist blocs. By this time, not only the Franco-Soviet Pact but also the speeches and documents of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern had begun to make clear the direction of the Popular Front policy. The entire international Communist movement, including the American party with its usual automatism, had already by this time abandoned its anti-war policy and, in all countries earmarked for the anti-German alliance, was headed in the direction of classic jingoism. Soon there were going to be no more shrill “patriots” than the Communists.
The NSL line had not yet been overtly affected. Even though, outside the student field, the Young Communist League had dutifully made clear that the Oxford Pledge was now obsolete, the leaders of the NSL formally stated that the Oxford Pledge would be maintained, in answer to a challenge from the Socialists. In fact the process of coordinating the student movement with the new Communist pro-war line was going to take two years, up to the Vassar convention of the ASU at Christmas time 1937, whereas elsewhere Communist-dominated organizations were able to carry out the flip-flop in weeks or months. The difference was due entirely to the bitter fight made against this turn by the Yipsel forces in the SLID.
At the fusion convention, therefore, all was not sweetness and light, as might have been the case if the merger had taken place a few months earlier. One sticky question was the attitude of the ASU toward the Russian regime. In a compromise, a resolution referred to the Soviet Union only as an example of a “non-imperialist” nation whose “peace policy” deserved support – a formulation which was then satisfactory to the left-wing Socialists too. Another problem, the relationship of the ASU to the Communist front organization which then still called itself the American League Against War and Fascism, was settled by an agreement not to affiliate with any such body except by a three-quarters vote of the national committee.
The main dispute took place over the question of war policy. In line with the preconvention pledge of the NSL leadership, the Oxford Pledge was re-endorsed, by a vote of 244-49 (the 49 were liberals who agreed with the new Communist line of “collective security” and had no reason to weasel over it). But when the Socialist bloc introduced a resolution which included the idea that the Oxford Pledge would still be applicable even if the United States were aligned with Russia in the war-for-democracy toward which the Communists now looked, this was defeated 155-193 by the combined votes of the Communists and pro-collective-security liberals against the Socialist left wing. But this was still only a negative action, as compared with the later complete endorsement of American foreign policy when the ASU came under unchallenged Communist domination.
The leadership of the new organization was divided according to preconvention agreement. Three “LID types” became national officers: Lash as executive secretary, George Edwards as national chairman, and Molly Yard as treasurer. NSL’ers took the posts of high school chairman, field secretary, and editor f the magazine ( Student Advocate). The national committee was divided into three blocs, with an equal number named by the SLID and NSL, leaving a number of seats for “unaffiliated liberals.” There was only one hitch in these proceedings: the morning of the vote, the YCL faction decided that they would not accept one name on the SLID list – mine – in spite of the previous agreement that each of the merging organizations would name its own people to the national committee. The infuriated SLID’ers informed them that this would explode the agreement, and the YCL finally backed down, muttering darkly about the “disruptive” role I had played by presenting the Socialist anti-war resolution on the Oxford Pledge.
The typical issues on which the student movement fought and around which it organized were mainly the following six, given roughly in order of importance:
- Anti-war activity and opposition ROTC.
- Violations of academic freedom and student rights on campus.
- Issues involving economic aid to students (tuition fees, free textbooks, etc.).
- Reform of college administrations, particularly changes in the boards of trustees who ruled the campuses.
- Aid to the labor movement.
- Anti-fascist activity – which could be concretized only now and then, as when a delegation of Italian Fascist student leaders were welcomed at CCNY by the administration in one way and by the student body in another.
There were, of course, the usual cries of alarm from all quarters as the student movement grew and impressed the public mind with the fact that something was happening in the colleges. The pulp writer H. Bedford-Jones – emulating Calvin Coolidge’s 1921 article, Are the Reds Stalking Our College Women? – published an article in Liberty under the pen name of J.G. Shaw, asking “Will the Communists Get Our Girls in College?”, purporting to explain the terrible dangers to which his daughter had been subjected by sinister Red conspirators. The following week the New Masses headlined a reply, My Father Is a Liar! by Nancy Bedford-Jones, the daughter, who shortly thereafter atoned for her sins by marrying Lash.
A recurrent image of the student movement of the thirties as “ideological” rather than “activist” needs qualification. It certainly was “ideological”, being under the thorough leadership of Communists and Socialists, but it was also at least as “activist” as campus radicals today; the difference was that it did not counterpose one to the other. Probably all wings would have agreed on the following statement from the SLID’s Blueprints for Action – A Handbook for Student Revolutionists:
“The radical movement has too many sideline commentators; the great need is for participants. Besides, action is one of the best ways of getting clarification.”
But the second period of the student movement was now beginning, in which the highly ideological leadership of the Communist students made a turn toward “de-ideologizing” and de-politicalizing the movement in line with their new orientation. The “non-ideological” mask that was to be adopted was incompatible even with ideology in a liberal form. What was beginning was the cant of speaking in the name of “The Students”, whose aspirations and most secret thoughts always somehow coincided with the latest pronouncements of the YCL. Already before the ASU merger convention, the NSL Organizer (organizational bulletin) for December, 1935 had inveighed against the belief that the new student organization would be “radical”:
“For what purpose is the Union formed? We say, simply, to protect our welfare, to advance our interests, to give us strength. Then why do some NSL’ers still view the Union in terms of the ‘radical’, ‘liberal’, ‘liberal-radical’ etc. students in their particular schools? Is it not because these NSL’ers see the Union primarily in terms of vague ‘social problems’, political discussions, etc., and not in terms of student problems, campus issues:” 
This dichotomy between “social problems” and “student problems, campus issues” was a fraudulent one, for the approach of the NSL – as of the SLID – had been to direct activity and education to bridging the gap between the two, showing the connection between campus issues and broader social problems, and the relevance of society-wide radical solutions to student life. What the NSL-YCL line was now demanding was the dropping of an overtly radical approach to both social problems and campus issues, in the interest of maximum unity of all men of good will for an anti-German alliance.
This was acted out most obviously in the student antiwar actions of 1936 and 1937. There were two influences at work now, only one of which was the new Communist line against militancy. The other was that many of the campus administrations sharply changed their tone. Instead of denouncing the strike and threatening draconic punishment, they rolled with the punch and tried to clinch. They offered auditorium facilities, called off classes for the hour, and proposed to make it all official: only, of course, “why should it be called a strike, since you aren’t really striking against us, are you?” And “anti-war “is so negative: why not ’for peace’?” Increasingly, “Peace Assemblies” replaced the anti-war strikes, and, swathed in respectability, the students listened to peaceful rhetoric in the same pews where they were accustomed to hearing commencement addresses.
The Communists eagerly accepted every such offer by administrations, and the statistics of participants rose mightily, as whole campuses went through the motions of a “Peace Assembly.” There were strikes of the 1934-35 variety, and evocations of the Oxford Pledge, mainly in those places where the left-wing Socialists dominated the ASU chapter. Liberal students in the ASU followed in the wake of the Communist line, which suited them to a T; in fact, they could feel, with justice, that it was the Communist line which had come over to them, not the other way around. By 1937 the guts had been taken out of what had once been the Student Strike Against War.
At the Christmas 1936 convention of the ASU, the time was not yet propitious to unload the Oxford Pledge formally, as was shown by the fact that a YPSL-sponsored resolution attacking the collective-security (pro-war) line lost by only thirty-seven votes. What did happen, however, was that the two “LID types” who had become ASU national officers, Lash and Yard, went over to the Popular Front and collective-security line and became staunch fellow-travelers of the Communist bloc. At a Socialist caucus meeting during the convention itself, a furious denunciation of these two was the main feature, and in effect the national staff of the ASU became monolithic.
During 1937 pro-war feeling in the country grew apace. The New Deal moved more openly toward interventionism, as Roosevelt came out in October with his “Quarantine the Aggressor” speech. The Socialist anti-war minority in the ASU had a harder row to hoe. By the end of 1937 the Communists, in bloc with Lash, were in position to dump the last vestiges of the student movement’s militant politics and anti-war activity. At the convention, a well-organized Socialist bloc of delegates carried on a last-ditch fight to save the Oxford Pledge but lost, 282-108. By the 1938 convention, with the Socialist left wing out, the complete Popular-Frontization of the organization bore fruit: the Roosevelt administration finally gave its official blessing to the ASU, in a letter of greetings to the convention from the President; the convention also got messages from the mayor of New York and its Board of Higher Education, from the president of CCNY, from the women’s director of the Democratic National Committee, and other notables. The student movement was now completely respectable, completely pro-administration, and completely emasculated.
The new atmosphere that enveloped the ASU can be gathered, in part, from the following comment by a friend of the movement, Bruce Bliven, writing in the New Republic for January 11, 1939 on the convention that had just taken place:
Their enthusiasm reached its peak at the Jamboree in the huge jai-alai auditorium of the Hippodrome (seating capacity 4,500) which was filled to its loftiest tier. There were a quintet of white-flanneled cheer leaders, a swing band, and shaggers doing the Campus Stomp (“everybody’s doing it, ASU–ing it”), confetti. There were ASU feathers and buttons, a brief musical comedy by the Mob Theater and pretty ushers in academic caps and gowns. All the trappings of a big-game rally were present and the difference was that they were cheering, not the Crimson to beat the Blue, but Democracy to beat Reaction. To me, it bordered just alongside the phoney. 
It was phoney, of course, whatever one might think of football rally exercises. This was making like Joe College according to the detailed instructions of the YCL Organizer on How to Be American.
Later on in 1939 there was a second excellent example of what had happened. This one is directly from the Young Communist League Bulletin at the University of Wisconsin:
“Some people have the idea that a YCL’er is politically minded, that nothing outside of politics means anything. Gosh, no. They have a few simple problems. There is the problem of getting good men on the baseball team this spring, of opposition from other ping-pong teams, of dating girls, etc. We go to shows, parties, dances, and all that. In short, the YCL and its members are no different from other people except that we believe in dialectical materialism as the solution to all problems.” 
This is what the student movement had become. The last chapter was written after September, 1939. After four years of eviscerating the student anti-war movement for the sake of the grand alliance against Nazism, the Second World War was inaugurated with the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The Communist leaders of the ASU ground all gears into reverse, and some of the passengers got shaken out, particularly Lash, who really believed what he had been saying about collective security. At the Christmas 1939 convention, the rug was pulled from under the “innocents.” The Communists held it in iron control, rolling up huge majorities even on procedural questions whenever necessary. A motion condemning the Soviet attack on Finland was defeated 322-49. It was announced that the war was “imperialist”, and ASU propaganda echoed the slogan that “The Yanks Are Not Coming.” A motion for a national membership referendum on this line was overwhelmingly turned down. Lash was replaced in the executive secretary’s office by the YCL apparatus-man, Bert Witt. At the 1940 convention there was no opposition at all – also no cheerleaders, confetti, or shaggers; the major speakers were Communists or fellow-travelers. But by this time it scarcely mattered, for the ASU was a shell. When the line changed again, after the German attack on Russia, and the Communists became shrill patriots again, it was too late to save the student movement even in its Popular Front form. The student movement was dead.
This is not the place to attempt a full assessment of the impact of the student movement of the thirties, but a word must be said about one type of assessment that has been published. This latter is based on the fact, which I have stressed in connection with the anti-war strike, that there was always a great disparity between the number who actually joined any of the radical student organizations and the larger number who could be moved into action by this small vanguard. Two writers on the subject have operated with the statistics in a manner which is a model of how not to understand social movements.
One is Robert W. Iversen who, in his The Communists and the Schools, makes a characteristic remark. When the alumni of CCNY were disturbed by the college’s “red” reputation
The Alumni Association reassured them in 1936 that only 1 per cent of the students belonged to radical organizations. But unfortunately, the 99 per cent possessed few of the gifts for publicity that seemed the peculiar talent of the dedicated few. 
This reduction of the radical students’ appeal to a “peculiar talent” for clever publicity makes a mystery where there was none. It would be hard to explain how assiduous reading of Marx and Lenin gave rise to this gift. But the radical students at CCNY needed no Madison Avenue gifts when they had a college president like Frederick B. Robinson, a president who could personally make an umbrella-swinging physical attack on a student protest meeting (1933); who first insisted on subjecting the student body to a college reception for an official delegation of Italian Fascist students, and then reacted to the hissing of his guests with an uncontrolled outburst of “Guttersnipes!” (1934). These were only two of his more dramatic exploits, guaranteed equally to make headlines and to convince unaligned students that they had to take a stand. (CCNY blossomed with lapel buttons reading “I Am a Guttersnipe”).
Even without such cooperation by administrations gifted with a peculiar talent for alienating their students – especially under the pressure of conservative forces off-campus – Iversen’s dichotomy between the “1 per cent” and the “99 per cent” is a basic misunderstanding of the relationship of forces. Around the 1 per cent who actually joined a radical student group were concentric rings of influence, embracing different portions of the student body as different forms of commitment were demanded. For every one who joined there were perhaps two who agreed in the main with what the student movement was trying to do, but who did not join, either for lack of time to devote to such activity of for other reasons which did them less credit. There was another circle of students who were ready to support most of the campaigns or actions which the student organizations might launch on a given issue, such as defense of students victimized by the administration. It was probably most inclusive during the annual antiwar actions, whether in the form of the anti-war strike or the “peace assembly.”
Even outside the widest of these concentric circles, if we consider the students who never participated in any dissenting form of activity at all, it would be an error to suppose that all of them were hostile to the student movement and needed only adequate talents for publicity to make this hostility felt. The general social disillusionment with the status quo, with “The System”, conditioned many of them, if only because it put them on the defensive before the self-confident radicals. It deprived them of that capacity to feel that “all radicals must be kooks”, which is characteristic of a social system sure of itself.
The picture, then, is far more complex than a “1 per cent” versus a “99 per cent”, and it was through this complexity that the organized student movement made itself felt as a relatively small vanguard which, from time to time, could put much larger masses into motion.
Iversen’s handling of statistics reflects a profound ignorance of what was going on at the time. Thus he writes:
In 1941, a careful attempt was made to assess the extent of communism among the students of Brooklyn College and City College during he previous five years. The most reliable index was found to be the communist vote in student elections. Thus, at the peak of Communist power in 1938, 1,002 votes were cast in a Brooklyn College straw ballot. Of this number, 280 were cast for the Communist candidate. Several things may be concluded from this: first, since the total college enrollment was over 10,000, the political indifference of the vast majority of students was virtually monumental, with the Communists comprising less than 3 per cent of the total student body. The figures do show, however, that about one-third of the students who were politically conscious enough to vote at all voted Communist. 
What is left entirely out of the picture is the fact that in 1938, after some years of intensive Communist propaganda identifying the Popular Front line with euphoric enthusiasm for the New Deal, and particularly in 1938 when Roosevelt was obviously steering an interventionist course, there were far more Communist sympathizers and fellow-travelers who voted for the New Deal candidates than there were Communist Party members who registered their vote for the ceremonial candidates put up by the party. It would be impossible to pick a year which would be worse than 1938 for determining pro-Communist sympathies on the basis of casting a ballot for the party’s candidates.
Iversen’s passage continues as follows, with a second case:
“At City College, the situation was somewhat different. In a straw vote held during the presidential campaign of 1940, there were only 126 Communist votes out of a total of 2,656. The enrollment at City was about 6,000. City College thus reveals ...” 
But it does not matter what Iversen thinks it reveals, since he seems to be unconcerned about, and does not mention, the fact that this straw poll took place after one year of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The Communist power was now an ally of Hitler – especially in the eyes of a City College student body with a very high proportion of Jewish students. By this time the Communist Party itself was staggering, and especially its sympathizers were falling away in droves. The marked difference between Brooklyn College in 1938 and City College in 1940 depends on the background politics, not on the place.
However, Iversen’s subject, the influence of Communists in the colleges, is only a part of the larger problem of the relation of the student movement to the campus. A similar approach is taken, in a more impressionistic fashion, by Murray Kempton in a book about the thirties, Part of Our Time, which makes some remarks about the student movement in its last chapter.
Kempton recalls that in Harper’s of August, 1931, just before the student movement blossomed before the public, Harold J. Laski had published an article whose title asked: Why Don’t Your Young People Care? The question, asserts Kempton, “was not materially less valid” at the fever pitch of the student movement in 1937 than it had been in 1931, and he cites statistics to indicate this:
At the height of its uproar, the ASU had only twelve thousand members and claimed another eight thousand who hadn’t paid their dues but were otherwise totally committed. The Young Communist League had fewer than five thousand student members at any one time. As the thirties wore on, the Young People’s Socialist League, the heroic and historic Yipsels, fell below one thousand members and the Young Trotskyites below five hundred.
Yet the few persons in those last three organizations made most of the history of student rebellion in the thirties. In 1937, as an instance, young Communists, young Socialists, and one young Trotskyite constituted eighteen of the thirty members of the National Executive Committee of the American Student Union; and all its national officers were either Socialists or Communists. There were close to four million high school and college students in the United States in 1937; the myth of their radical impulse was created, at the very most, by fifteen thousand persons. It has been said that these fifteen thousand set the tone for the American campus in the thirties, in which case they did it by default. A tone set by three-tenths of one per cent of a community can hardly, after all, be described as a tone. 
The problem of how a “tone” is set by the relationship between a small minority of activists and a larger mass of sympathetic or impressionable students is, as I have already discussed, more complex than such statistics can express. However, Kempton’s tendentiousness is manifested by his use of the figure “four million high school and college students.” No one has ever claimed that the student movement set the tone in the high schools; it was remarkable enough that fairly active movements of high school students were built during the thirties, at least in New York and Chicago. It is a question, therefore, of about a million and a quarter college students; and even here we must remember that most institutions of higher education, especially the small freshwater colleges, denominational schools, and vocational-technical institutions in non-urban areas, remained little affected by the swirl of events – any events. Nor need it be claimed that the student movement set the tone at, say, Harvard if the totality of university life is thereby meant. In fact, the same point could quite legitimately be made even about what was probably the most highly politicalized college in the country, Brooklyn College, during the time I was chairman of its SLID chapter as well as in the subsequent years. The large majority of students devoted themselves to studying and getting their sheepskins and pursuing their personal lives just as if there were no student movement, but even while doing so they could not help absorbing the climate of ideas which pervaded the political life of the campus as a part of the larger society. Now, the tone which was set by the small vanguard of student activists was precisely this political tone, through all of the concentric circles which I have described.
Here is a final example, from Kempton, of how easy it is to get three mistakes into three sentences:
“What history there is asserts that in 1937 half a million American college students took an oath never to support this government in any war. The Selective Service Act came three and one-half years later; fewer than one hundred men refused to register under it as a matter of principle. By 1943, just 1,400 young men of all sorts had gone to prison for ideological or ethical defiance of the draft law. And half of those were Jehovah’s Witnesses ...” 
In the first place, the Oxford Pledge was not an oath to become a conscientious objector, as I have explained. With few exceptions, the Socialists and Communists who led the student movement were vigorously and articulately opposed to conscientious objection as a policy (the right to conscientious objection is another matter), and did not advocate that revolutionary students go to jail rather than accept the draft. Second, it is not true, nor was it claimed, that “half a million American college students” took the Oxford Pledge in 1937. That figure is for total participants in the various “peace assemblies” or other anti-war demonstrations that took place in 1937. And, as has been related, by this time the Oxford Pledge had been dumped in practice by the ASU leadership and most chapters, preparatory to being officially dumped at the Christmas conventions. This already suggests the third and most important error. Kempton writes as if the student movement rejected the coming war until it came, and then the movement collapsed. Like Iversen, he ignores the fact that the student movement had been turned into a political instrument for preparing youth to accept the war as a crusade against fascism, years before the test came.
The student movement was one of the first casualties of the Second World War, but its impact was not ended. For the next couple of decades at least, wherever anything was stirring in the labor movement or in liberal campaigns, wherever there was action for progressive causes or voices were raised in dissent from the Establishment, there one was sure to find alumni of this student movement, who had gotten their political education and organizational training and experience in the American Student Union or the Student League for Industrial Democracy or the National Student League. The history we have sketched is that of one of the most important educational institutions of twentieth century America.
1. There is no published material on this, but a sound treatment can be found in the unpublished Ph.D. dissertation by George P. Rawick, The New Deal and Youth (University of Wisconsin, 1957). This is without doubt the only attempt at an outline history of the movement that is worth reading; it has the added advantage of including also the closely related story of the American Youth Congress as well as of the New Deal youth agencies. Also still worth reading is the 1935 book by the National Student League leader James Wechsler, Revolt on the Campus (New York: Cocivi-Friede, 1935) even though it deals with only the first period of the movement and of course is written entirely from the then NSL viewpoint. For this first period, it is especially good for great detail on the issues and battles of the student movement, about which I have put very little into this essay. I have leaned heavily on both Rawick and Wechsler’s accounts for the factual framework.
2. Rawick, The New Deal and Youth.
3. NSL Organizer, December 1935.
4. Bruce Bliven, New Republic, January 11, 1939.
5. Young Communist League Bulletin, University of Wisconsin, 1939.
6. Robert W. Iversen, The Communists and the Schools (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1959).
7. Robert W. Iversen, The Communists and the Schools (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1959).
8. Robert W. Iversen, The Communists and the Schools (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1959).
9. Murray Kempton, Part of Our Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1955.)
10. Rawick, The New Deal and Youth.
Last updated on 29.8.2006