From New International, Vol.3 No.1, February 1936, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Revolt On The Campus
by James Wechsler
Covici-Friede, N.Y., $3.00.
Let us say right off that James Wechsler has written an interesting book, packed with information. Beyond that our praise ends, for we behold the glaring emptiness of misdirected effort. As a journalistic resumé of the last decade of student strife, it fills a certain need. As a significant contribution, which it no doubt was intended to be, it fails utterly to present anything more than a superficial analysis.
Nothing can be more discouraging than to find an opportunity for serious discussion and contribution muffed in order to pursue the easier path of factual compilation. Undoubtedly a great many hours of research went into Revolt on the Campus. But because the outline of the writer was distorted, it succeeded in being little more than a 1935 edition of Sinclair’s Goose-Step, without the latter’s provocative disclosures and, consequently, striking novelty. By this time anyone who is not generally aware of academic tyranny, of trustee domination, of student insurgence, must certainly have been living in a vacuum these past few years.
In itself the work provided an excellent occasion for evaluating fundamentals. Instead of becoming the gist of the book, the information gathered should have served as a background before which the role of the student in society, political influences and the like, might have been presented. Can you imagine a work of some 480 pages which, except by occasional reference and inference, makes no attempt to estimate the nature, the role, the influences playing upon the student? (Is there a “student”? Would it not be better to say students?) Mr. Wechsler, unless we are mistaken, claims to be something more than a campus editor; he considers himself a radical – a communist, no less. Are we wrong, then, in demanding from him that he put a little juice, some meat into his survey? Or did Mr. Wechsler expect to overwhelm his audience with an array of proof that capitalism dominates the colleges, and that students here and there have bucked up against it? We fear very much that many readers will simply reply: “So what?”
Even within its own limits, however, the work is far from thorough. It is circumscribed by the limitations of a journalist, where the competency of a political analyst, a Marxist, was required. Nowhere is the history of the student movement described – and by movement we mean all that the word implies. Isolated, summary bits gleaned from spectacular incidents, hardly fill the bill. Suppose we forget all else, one thing we are certain every reader expects to find – a history of the National Student League and the Student League for Industrial Democracy. And not just a chronological table. What were their origins, how did they develop? Each of these went through a process of evolution. Originally a socialist student organization, the SLID is, for example, today part of a “student union” – the American Student Union. Similarly, in the case of the NSL. From Revolt on the Campus we are led to believe that two student organizations exist (they are now one); these have participated in numerous actions; and that’s that. Surely Mr. Wechsler knows that the nature of the movement has been debated, that the NSL evolved through opposite programs, that political questions have agitated it, just as the ASU is today rocked on the reef of a war program.
Further, anyone who has been acquainted, however slightly, with the student movement knows that the history of the movement lies not so much in visits to the Kentucky coal fields (important, but generally exaggerated), as in the school discussion clubs and the activity on the campus of the off-campus political youth organizations (Young Communist League, Young People’s Socialist League, Spartacus Youth League, whose student program is a vital and original contribution to the revolutionary youth movement, etc.). Nowhere in the book, with the possible exception of isolated mentions, is there anything that approximates a discussion of the campus “social problems”, “liberal”, and “history” clubs. This is fully in key with the outline of the volume which overlooks the existence of high-school students, who far outnumber the college students, that they too are “rebelling”, and that their principal means of expression, as also of the college students, has been the discussion club. The particular reason lies in Mr. Wechsler’s preoccupation with the newspaper headline. Unfortunately the headline does not always cite the news.
There are other omissions, too many to detail: the failure to explain the anti-war strike other than as a big news event, to discuss its program and its essential features ; the relation of the student movement here to that in Europe, why the American movement has taken the direction of a “union” while that in Europe is more generally political.
Perhaps the sharpness of our criticism tends to obscure those merits the book does have. In it the reader will find considerable source material on the conflict between students and the administration. One service Mr. Wechsler has definitely performed, an unintentional one we think; he has proved that, so far, the national student organizations have played a relatively minor role in the student struggle, that many of the outstanding instances of student activity (e.g., the New York City College anti-ROTC fight in 1926) were prosecuted by progressive campus forces operating through campus clubs and political youth organizations, thus proving they can continue to do so in the future.
Mr. Wechsler can write. But he did not write the right book.
Last updated on 31.7.2006