Hal Draper


Berkeley: The New Student Revolt


16. Enter Red-baiting

This new generation of student activists also has a new tactic – civil disobedience. The technique was developed for Alabama and Mississippi but is easily transferred. I misjudged the FSM’s willingness to use this tactic. When we didn’t give in to their early demands, they went to civil disobedience like that! They set up tables, they blocked the police car, they sat in. They took us completely by surprise. (Clark Kerr, in Jan. 5 interview.)

What took the administration completely by surprise, then, was the unexpected militancy and unconventionality) of the students’ fighting style. But there was far more about the “new generation of student activists” that the administrators did not understand. And it was even more of a mystery to the newspaper commentators who could oscillate only between “college kids on a tear” and “sinister Communist plot.”

Many administrators, like the press and the outside community, saw the protest as not much more than “a civil rights panty raid,” as one administrator put it. The bearded, sandalled, longhaired students in the protest took on a great prominence in their eyes. Their rebellion against the administration, they believed, was no different than their rebellion against the conventions of dress and appearance. They did not take the political motives of the demonstrators very seriously. Some members of the administration, on the other hand, saw the demonstrations as anything but frivolous. In fact, they saw in them wider implications and broader goals than the students’ professed aim of free speech. They saw them as the beginning of an attempt to turn Berkeley into a Latin American style university, where the students have a major, if not a predominant, say in determining all aspects of university life and policy. The leaders of the FSM, they believed, wanted to harness the student movement and the university itself to the cause of the particular social and political changes they sought. (Graduate Political Scientists’ Report)

Newspaper readers who saw only the specter of “beatniks” and “Communists” can be forgiven, since the press fed them little else. Photographers in some cases deliberately sought out the one or two bearded, longhaired students in a group; this was “color,” and the majority of “respectable”-looking boys and girls in the crowd were not news. That the administrators operated on basically the same intellectual level, however, was a more serious matter.

Relations between the administration and the students immediately after the Pact of October 2 were severely complicated by the red-baiting in which Kerr engaged.

Two San Francisco dailies quoted him on October 3 as saying that “Forty-nine per cent of the hard-core group are followers of the Castro-Mao line,” but Kerr denied the accuracy of this quotation when asked personally and also later (December 1) denied it in the Daily Cal; there is no record, however, that he ever sent a public denial to the papers themselves. He had the benefit of letting the Hearst press’s readership think him a properly “hard” Communist-slayer while shaking off responsibility for the slander before the campus community.

To citizens sending in letters, he replied by enclosing an editorial from the Los Angeles Times as “a good analysis of a complex situation.” The editorial charged that the demonstrators “were doing their best to embarrass the university and create ‘martyrs’ for a cause that probably had little to do with the issue of free speech or the right to petition,” and that “about half [of the activist group] reportedly weren’t students at all, but off-campus meddlers.” This editorial, which Kerr personally circulated, would leave little doubt of what off-campus meddlers’ “cause” was being hinted at. Kerr was also quoted in the press – accurately – as saying that “some elements have been impressed with the tactics of Fidel Castro and Mao Tse-tung.” (He went on to add: “There are very – few of these, but there are some.” This was literally true: there were very few; but in that case, what exactly was the point? There were also “very few” Goldwaterites, for example.)

A student neatly answered Kerr’s implication that the students’ tactics were borrowed from Castro or Mao, in a letter to the Daily Cal. He was glad to learn, he said ironically, that the Castroites had won in Cuba because they merely “picketed Batista’s headquarters, set up illegal tables on the streets of Havana, and held sit-down demonstrations in front of tanks, singing freedom songs while waiting for the police to take them away.” As we have seen, Kerr later found out that the students’ tactics had been transferred from “Alabama and Mississippi.”

On October 6 in Los Angeles, Kerr continued the barrage by telling a news conference that “up to 40 per cent of the hard-core participants” came from off-campus; he identified them as “very experienced and professional people ... tied with organizations having Communist influences.” These base less charges were repeated on Kerr’s authority by others, such as the president of Stanford University, and by the state and national press. [1*]

The relation of radicalism to the FSM will be considered later, but it may be pointed out here that the real meaning of Kerr’s esoteric reference to Mao and Castro followers was not generally appreciated. What it meant implicitly was that Kerr knew and admitted that the Communist Party – the minuscule one existing in the Bay Area, not the one in Cuba or China – had decisively nothing to do with the outbreak of the student movement.

What many students resented particularly was the idea that the Communists should be given the credit for what they themselves had accomplished. It was another example of the fact that the Communists could depend on the red-baiters for their biggest boosts.

With the exception of Kerr and of the inevitable hoarse cries from Birchite and Republican-rightist politicians and editors, there were remarkably few in the situation who even hinted at “Communist domination” of the FSM. Even the Reporter account by Professors Lipset and Seabury limited itself to the insinuation that “the use of illegal tactics was part of a conscious effort by extremists to undermine faith in the democratic system.” The main exception was Professor Lewis Feuer, who, swinging from the floor, charged that political and social activism on the campus was “a melange of narcotics, sexual perversion, collegiate Castroism, and campus Maoism,” in the best style of Billy Hargis, and that the FSM was a “Soviet-style coalition.” But then – Feuer even came close to red-baiting Kerr himself, whose view of the Multiversity he dislikes: Kerr, he wrote, is “almost a ‘neo-Marxist’ in his conception of the modern university’s development,” and his basic theory “converges strikingly with dialectical materialism”! [2*]

But this runs ahead of our story.



1*. Kerr later exonerated himself of the red-baiting charge in the following disingenuous terms. Replying to the “claim” that “the administration engaged in making improper charges,” he answered: “I did say in October that, among the outsiders who turned up, some had been sympathetic with Communist causes. I consider this a statement of fact.” But the pretense that this was all he had said, is not a statement of fact.

2*. Feuer, Rebellion at Berkeley, New Leader, December 21.


Last updated on 27.8.2006