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New International, March 1949


Julius Falk

American Student Movement: A Survey

Socialism on the Campus as It Was and as It Is Today


From New International, Vol. XV No. 3, March 1949, pp. 84–91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The twentieth century has seen the development of the American campus into a mass institution. From a student body of under a hundred thousand at the turn of the century, the institutions of higher learning are now crowded with over two million students. This tremendous increase of our student population cannot be fully explained by the number of veterans on campus taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights who would normally be working or seeking employment. For even if we discount this category there would still be approximately eight times as many college students today as there were in the early 1900s. The increase of the college community can more accurately be traced to the needs of the economy, the higher living standards of the American people and the pressure of reform groups whose success was assured by the existence of the other two factors.

Need for College Graduates

A growing industrial nation requires an expanding number of men and women who have achieved more, academically, than the minimum of education provided in the secondary schools. America’s growth as an industrial power has led to its ascendancy as a world financial and political power. Industry, finance, diplomacy – these three related phases of American capitalism require large numbers of technically skilled personnel and semi-educated careerists, both of which categories are now being turned out en masse by the American colleges and universities. Executives, advisers, businessmen, lawyers, technicians, scientific workers, financiers, government bureaucrats, petty diplomats – these are but a few of the subdivisions of a new middle class which, for the most part, must receive its training in the college classroom. College endowments from big business, large private contributions to educational institutions, the construction of city and state tuitionless schools are not the products merely of good will or civil charity, nor merely submission to demands of labor and reform organizations. They are acts motivated by bourgeois instincts of self-interest, if not self-preservation. If the need for a large supply and oversupply of college graduates was essential before the last war, how much greater is that need today following the explosion of the atomic bomb and the emergence of the United States as undisputed overlord of half the world!

The increasing opportunities for the college graduate, the corresponding numerical growth of the student body, coupled with the rising living standards of the working class as a whole have led to a gradual change in the social composition of the student body: sons and daughters of workers and lower middle-class families have begun to break down the social and economic barriers and start nibbling at the dubious-quality offerings of American mass-production higher education. This addition of youth from relatively depressed sections of the population played an important part in the political awakening of the campus in the early ’30s. Students from poorer families were naturally more sensitive to and acutely aware of the economic and political dislocations of the nation as a whole. For them, depressions and intensified class struggle meant not only tragedy at home but additional hardships for themselves: the possible rupture of their college education and the loss of all hope. Obviously an economic crisis could not have the same profound psychological and practical effect on college youth who came out of the upper stratum of class society.


In the early ’20s the student body numbered a half of a million and was composed almost exclusively of young people from the respectable middle class. With the America of the ’20s apparently solid and stable there was no personal economic impulsion to pressure students into extracurricular political activity. Not even with the influx of lower middle-youth on the campus in the prosperous late ’20s was this political vacuum significantly filled. A false sense of security pervaded all social classes at this time and was accompanied by a politically passive campus. College, for the student of this era, was a place where one went to have his fling, make the social grade, and learn how to make more money. Whatever mass revolt against the status quo did take place was for the most part limited to petting parties, short skirts, whiskey flasks and speakeasy adventures. Fraternities and sororities reigned supreme and the pigskin aroused more spirit and concern on one campus than the Russian Revolution had impact on the entire student body.

A militant intellectual student movement did exist during the early ’20s but it was miniscule in size and soon retreated from politics to Menckenian snobbery; and from there to a natural oblivion. Of still less importance were local college groups organized by the Socialist Party and the League for Industrial Democracy. These groups had a narrow perspective and could not make any headway until the more politically propitious depression years.

If the student of the ’20s was typified by the hip flask, his successor of the following decade was characterized by the Communist Manifesto in the back pocket. If the short skirt can be considered symbolic of the form of student revolt in the ’20s, then the militant girl who came to school in low heels and a leather jacket to identify herself with the working class was symbolic of the depression student.

Political Allegiance of the ’30s

The crash of ’29 was the antidote that dissipated the political apathy of the roaring ’20s student. Before long, brightly painted futures were washed away. Many were forced off campus, others were uncertain of ever graduating, most of them lost confidence in the present and the future. The labor market was flooded with undergraduates and young people with valueless diplomas. There were at one point in the ’30s approximately five million youth looking for work, a large number of them with a college background. What job the college boy did get was frequently of a menial and miserable paying sort. Visions of a profession and career were replaced by a bitter disillusionment

With the depression as a backdrop it is easy to understand why the college stage became a political battleground. Politics was forced upon the student. It could no longer be just an intellectual exercise for the elite, but was now intimately related to the student’s immediate existence. The fact that colleges by this time already had hundreds of thousands of students from lower middle-class and working-class families contributed in large measure to the politicalization of the campus. These were students from families who suffered most acutely from the foreclosures on little business and factory layoffs. The children of these dispossessed began to look toward militant social action as a solution to their dilemma.

There were two political tendencies on campus at this time anxious to give leadership: the Young Communist League and the Young People’s Socialist League. The latter operated through the Student League for Industrial Democracy, student section of the League for Industrial Democracy. The YPSL was much more militant than its parent organization, the Socialist Party, but was nevertheless limited on campus by that party’s lack of dynamism in the United States and the political insipidity of the world Social- Democratic movement.

The Young Communist League, on the other hand, could pose as the essence of rebelliousness and thousands of students learned to accept the leadership of the YCL, which was not hamstrung by a reformist party. The world Stalinist movement, with Russia at its head, symbolized the most thorough and consistent break with the status quo. It was also fortunate for the growth of Stalinism on the campus that the depression coincided with the “Third Period” of world Stalinism. During this period, the interests of the Kremlin bureaucracy dictated a policy to all its subordinate parties that was, on the surface, ultra-revolutionary. Only the most militant, revolutionary phraseology was permitted and all forms of meaningless, adventuristic actions were undertaken by the Stalinists. Strikes and demonstrations were called in Stalinist-controlled unions and organizations with the full knowledge that the demands could not be won and that heads would be busted. All those opposed to the Stalinists, according to them, became “enemies of the working class” and “social-fascists.” With a revolutionary fervor superimposed on a debilitated American economy the Communist Party grew from an unimportant current into a whirlpool that sucked in thousands of members and supporters. Intellectuals and students who romanticized the class struggle were, proportionately, the most numerous prey of this bold “revolutionary” party. Little did anyone suspect at this time that the Stalinist-led adventures in the labor movement, the overturned milk wagons, the breaking up of opponent meetings were not motivated in the least by consideration for the American people, but could be traced directly to the desires of the Russian bureaucracy.

The YCL became particularly influential in this period at the city colleges, above all at the tuitionless campuses of New York City. The student body here came predominantly from poorer families and oppressed minorities. Thus, in addition to an economic incentive to engage in radical politics, these New York students who learned to express themselves in college began correctly to regard themselves as the articulate spokesmen for discriminated minorities against the system which exploited their parents in a double sense: as workers and as members of religious and racial minorities. The Stalinists did not find it difficult to channelize much of this student resentment against capitalist society into membership in or sympathy for the YCL. Not only were New York college students more disposed to Stalinist propaganda because of their sharper alienation from society, but it must be remembered that New York City had for many generations been the country’s most enlightened and advanced intellectual center and most specifically, the organizational and political hub of the Communist Party.

Revolt on the Campus

It was only natural, therefore, that the Stalinist bid for building and controlling the student movement began in New York. In 1931 a number of representatives from various YCL-led campus clubs met in New York City and organized a student league that was soon to mature into the strongest left-wing national student movement the country had thus far witnessed : the National Student League. From a modest beginning of New York chapters, the NSL became the national rallying center for what James Wechsler has dubbed the “revolt on the campus.” The NSL was much broader in concept that the SLID and needless to say, more militant. It made wider appeals to a student body which found inspiration in the freshness and militancy of the new organization that was soon to eclipse the SLID in influence, activity and prominence.

Anti-War Policy

The Stalinist-sponsored movement waged campaigns on local issues, but capitalized most on its campaign against war and fascism. The most dramatic actions on the NSL were the Oxford Pledge its members took and the anti-war student strikes which swept the nation with increasing momentum. By 1935, close to 200,000 students left their classrooms to demonstrate against war, fascism and American imperialism. This number does not include the many thousands of high school students who likewise struck against war. These protests, usually under the joint sponsorship of the SLID and the NSL were preceded by threats from the school administration and followed by suspensions and expulsions. Yet the revolt of the students could not be tempered or subdued by administrative repression. The strikes grew in size and subsequent disciplinary action became local academic-rights issues.

The National Student League had appeal not only for the unaffiliated student but for many members of the YPSL-led SLID as well. Many young socialists on and off campus turned away with disgust from the moth-eaten reformist leadership of the Socialist Party and joined the Young Communist League. Other young socialists active on campus looked with favor on cooperation with the YCL. (Indeed, at this time, even the Socialist Party, as a whole, thought of itself as the critical defender of the Russian state!) The Stalinist student leadership took clever advantage of the relative decline of its competing organization and of the friendly disposition of SLID members toward the NSL. Organic unity was proposed and accomplished. Although this resulted in a larger and more powerful organization, it marked the beginning of the end of the progressive non-Stalinist national student movement. Out of this coalescence in 1936 there emerged the American Student Union. Almost from the outset this united student movement was under the domination of the YCL. The militant anti-Stalinists in the ASU were few; the young socialists were rapidly losing members and were bogged down by the Socialist Party bureaucracy. The YCLers in the ASU did not face such problems and, in addition, they were masters at maneuver and deception. In short order the ASU degenerated into a valuable front for the Stalinists, with anti-Stalinists either being expelled or dropping out. With the student movement under one roof now it became that much easier for the Stalinists, in due time, to behead it.

Essentially the student movement was able to grow on the basis of its opposition to imperialism and war. Without these features there was nothing to cement it. Campaigns for civil rights and academic freedom alone could not awaken the student body and keep it alive politically for any extended period of time. There had to be something more fundamentally rebellious about a student movement if it was to capture the imagination and active support of the campus. This is no less true today than it was then.

From 1931 to 1936, when the Stalinists, for their own reactionary reasons, were sounding what appeared to be a revolutionary clarion call against bourgeois society, the left-wing student movement achieved a vitality it had never known before and has not known since. The political and organizational decline of the ASU dates from the moment the Communist International at its Seventh World Congress (in 1935) instructed its Communist Parties in the new tactics and policies of the “People’s Front.” In the United States it meant turning the left-wing student movement into a conformist and patriotic organization. The “People’s Front” and “collective security” meant giving a new respectability to the Communist Party and its peripheral organizations. Roosevelt and the New Deal were no longer the main enemy. The former was graduated from a “social-fascist” villain to a progressive hero. The New Deal, which had been attacked as the War Deal, was now adopted by the YCL and the ASU as their Ideal. The Stalinists no longer thundered against American imperialism or pledged themselves not to support America in any war. Instead, for example, they demanded that the State Department take action against Japan for sinking the American gunboat, the Panay, in Chinese waters.

Another shift in line came with the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, which was Russia’s signal to Germany to proceed to war according to plan. The YCL and the ASU obediently followed orders. Roosevelt was once again an “imperialist warmonger” and all the names in the Stalinist lexicon of abuse were hurled at the Allied powers. Germany was absolved from war guilt with Molotov’s notorious “fascism is a matter of taste” statement.

ASU and Stalin-Hitler Pact

This latest and most startling twist in policy completely discredited the Stalinists, on campus. Their picket signs, “Stop the Aggressor,” were replaced by “The Yanks Are Not Coming.” But this hypocritical new militancy fell flat. The student body remained in sympathy with the Allies – to no small degree due to the Stalinists’ previous efforts to whip up a war spirit. The school administration proceeded to clamp down vigorously on the American Student Union. In school after school it was declared illegal and summarily thrown off campus. The Stalinists, who had completely cut themselves off from the student body by their latest Russian import, received neither aid comfort from it. What the government and school authorities could not do previously to crush the independence of the mass student movement was now accomplished with ease as a result of the Stalinist change in line. The ASU disappeared from campus life ignominiously.

The Political Vacuum

The only youth organization left which continued to work on campus with a radical anti-war program was the Young People’s Socialist League (Fourth Internationalist) . This organization with close to a thousand members had split away from the Socialist Party in 1937 and became the youth section of the Socialist Workers Party. Operating primarily in the schools, it was nonetheless too small to combat the chauvinistic trend on campus or to recreate the anti-war spirit which the Stalinists had successfully destroyed. The Trotskyists on campus had always fought an uphill battle; at first against the misleadership of the Stalinists, then against the growing cynicism of students who had been repelled and demoralized by YCL tactics and finally against the objective conditions in the late ’30s which precluded a revival of a mass anti-war student movement. Unemployment was on the decline, war production and Lend-Lease orders reopened factories and the American government made increasingly successful appeals to the anti-fascist sentiments of the American students to work hard and dutifully in the interests of national unity against the forces of fascist aggression.

Economic recovery (based on war production), mounting war hysteria and Stalinist duplicity – these three worked together smoothly, destroying student idealism of the preceding years and leaving a tragic vacuum on. the American campus which has yet to be filled.


The word “vacuum” as used here must be understood in a relative sense. Compared to the mass movements of fifteen years ago, the campus today is indeed a “vacuum.” However, there are even more political tendencies functioning in colleges and universities today than during the hey-day of the NSL and the SLID. Almost all political parties have their organized spokesmen on campus. But the majority of these student groups, all of which are small in number and influence, are basically tied down to either Russian or American imperialism, and are thereby incapable of initiating or participating in an anti-war movement comparable to those led by the earlier Stalinist and socialist organizations. The atomization of campus politics itself is indicative of the relative sense in which the word “vacuum” is being used.

The average student today conscientiously avoids contact with political organizations either on or off campus. The reasons for this attitude are more complex than those which explain the political somnambulance of the ’20s. One common cause, though, is the apparent economic stability of the country. There are some 60,000,000 employed today, a phenomenon which many socialists looked upon as a utopian impossibility under capitalism. America came out of the war with a tremendously expanded industrial machine. Contrary to all predictions made during the war of widespread unemployment following the end of hostilities, American production and employment has increased rather than declined since V-J Day. Larger family incomes, war savings and a war-rationed population have proved to be a boon to consumer goods industry since the end of the war. Capital goods industries (as well as consumer industries) have been kept at high gear preparing for a Third World War and repairing the economic markets and strategic political bastions of war devastated Europe. Tremendous sums of money are being spent by private industry and government on “scientific research” especially on new and more efficient techniques of atomic, chemical and biological warfare. And a highly productive war economy means additional government “interference,” thereby necessitating an additional government bureaucracy of analysts, technicians, inspectors, etc.

Thus the prospect for successful professions in fields requiring college-bred skills in government and private industry has reopened on an unparalleled scale. The average student feels – not without some justification – that upon graduation he will be able to find an economically secure niche for himself: a government job, perhaps a teaching position, possibly as a theoretical mathematician on an atomic research project. The negative political effect that this renewed confidence in American production has had on the student body is not to be underestimated. Secondly, the student today has been considerably cowed by the drive against civil liberties. He is aware that his economic future may be tied to the good graces of a government which is cautious about those in its direct or indirect employ. This has intimidated any number of students into a total acquiescence where otherwise a minimum of radical political activity might have been expected.

Student Indifference

The student today is more than docile and apathetic toward politics. He is resigned. The inevitability of a Third World War is not welcomed by any means, but it is accepted. The proverbial fatalism of the American people is not excepted on the campus but is reflected in political abstinence.

The threat of universal military training and the passage of peacetime conscription did not provoke as much protest from the student as from non-campus forces although the former would be more personally victimized in these advanced preparations for armed conflict. Perhaps if the draft act were applied more extensively the student would have been forced out of his political lethargy, but the large, number of volunteers accounted for most of the armed forces quotas, leaving the campus virtually untouched.

The small core of “intellectualized” students – the driving power in rebel school politics in the past – has likewise retreated from politics. The most commonly expressed attitude from this quarter is: “Why bother with such prosaic matters as politics? The war is coming and that will put an end to all idle talk about socialism.” Armed with this feeble rationalization, the college “intellectual” is satisfied with his vicarious pleasures secured from reading Partisan Review and his ivory tower is lined with books on psychology – many of which are never opened – giving the “intellectual” a new terminology with which to analyze the dullest of all topics: himself.

In the ’20s the intellectual movement, captured by the arch-snob Mencken, was nonetheless a politically undefined social revolt and intellectually creative. The intellectual today, on the other hand, has made his peace with society (or, in some cases, becomes its advocate), is unproductive and sterile.

The Stalinists on Campus

The Stalinists remain the strongest single organized political force on campus. This is not by virtue of any alarming strength or popularity but rather by the above described political default of the student body as a whole and the political disunity of anti-Stalinist college clubs. Actually, the Stalinists have reached an all-time low and it is not conceivable that they will ever wield the same influence over the student body as in the ’30s. During the ’30s, the cardholders in the Young Communist League, which had comparatively high standards for membership, reached a peak of 22,000. The membership of their ASU front was several times that figure. At no time since the dissolution of the ASU has a single youthful Stalinist catch-all front organization with a combined campus and off- campus membership reached the size of even the old YCL.

The crisis of membership in the Stalinist student movement is related to its crisis of leadership. The ineptness of the Stalinist leader has to be observed to be fully understood. He has neither the knowledge nor the sophistication of the YCL spokesman. A large proportion of the old Stalinist youth leadership has been promoted to positions of local and national authority in the Communist Party and its controlled organizations. The Communist Party will find it impossible to locate a similar number of potential leaders in its present youth and student sections. The student magazine of the Stalinists, New Foundations, which is forced to depend on articles written by professional youth in the graduate schools and contributions from “former students,” is indicative of the poor stuff of which the campus Stalinist movement is made. A critical review of Paul Sweezy, for example, is left to Celeste Strack, a leading YCL hack of fifteen years ago! Other material published by young Stalinists in official CP student literature or that of front organizations is patently absurd. The recently departed American Youth for Democracy issued publications which could only embarrass the literate reader, not to speak of the politically advanced subscriber. The following quotation is from a statement issued by the New York state board of the AYD:

Stalinist Gyrations

The danger is that of a calculated effort by reactionaries to undermine world peace and to move our country toward fascism. This threat is heralded by a rising of reckless propaganda for war, based on provocative and hysterical slanders against the Soviet Union and other wartime allies. Fascist typewriter “generals” of the newspaper world, trigger-happy admirals and generals, irresponsible congressmen ...”

And so on, ad nauseam, à la Pravda. The above quotation is a fair barometer of the intellectual and political level on which problems are analyzed. The backwardness of the Stalinist student leader is not accidental. The Communist Party is a completely authoritarian organization which cannot encourage or permit independent thinking from rank-and-filer or leader. Critical and uninhibited investigation can only lead to doubts, heresies and disillusionment.

Unlike his predecessor of the ’30s, the more cultured student of today maintains a safe distance between himself and the Stalinists. The Stalinist gyrations since the earlier period; the trials, culture purges, concentration camps, and the ruthless expansion of the Russian state which have come to light since the ’30s; the stifling conformity and anti-intellectualism of Stalinism – all these factors have discredited the Communist Party on campus, and form an unbridgeable gulf between the CP and the more sensitive and talented student.

In 1943, when the patriotism of the Communist Party was reaching a climactic pitch, the Young Communist League announced its self-dissolution. This was more than a show of “good faith” from the Kremlin to its American allies via its foreign ambassadors. It was a tactic designed to recoup the setbacks suffered by the CP youth movement. The YCL was to be reorganized as a streamlined front organization which was to become a broad movement of “democratic” and “progressive” youth. As an organizational bulletin of the Youth Commission of the Communist Party put it:

During the war, the Young Communist League, feeling that there was an opportunity to have a broad anti-fascist, non-Communist youth organization, voted to dissolve and throw its membership and energies into such a new group.

This new organization was the American Youth for Democracy. Several hundred delegates were rounded up to found this new group in October 1943.

At almost the same hour the YCL was officially disbanded. The AYD was organized on several levels: teen-age clubs (mainly high school students), college chapters, and “young adult” branches for the working youth.


The AYD was designed to grow into an organization of thousands. It had a progressive-sounding program and gave its complete support to the Roosevelt administration. There was nothing in it politically to frighten the unsuspecting. Its main attraction for the young “innocents” was its social life. Yet the AYD never lived up to expectations and it was only on campus that it showed any viability. It suffered from an incompetent leadership and did not have enough to offer neighborhood and working-class youth. On the campus, however, where it was fashionable to be “progressive” yet safe, the AYD met with some initial success. One could belong and feel distinctive, though not queer, meet new friends of like interests, without demands being made as return payment. The AYD fitted in well for a number of years with a new unthinking breed of college dilettantes which grew up during the war years enthralled by American folksongs and convinced that to be a “progressive” was to have acquired the essence of all wisdom.

Following the war the AYD came out unreservedly in favor of military conscription! The Stalinist mentors of AYD operated under the illusion that the military alliance of Russia and America would continue undisturbed. Peacetime conscription was defended as a “character builder,” a “health measure” and as a patriotic requirement. It was on this issue that the first serious defections from the AYD took place. For this position was a bit too much for many AYDers, including active Communist Party members on campus, to swallow.

Before these defections could get out of hand there was a sudden reversal of policy. At Potsdam and at the San Francisco UN Conference the conflicts between Russian and American imperialism proved irreconcilable, even temporarily. The order was given to the American Communist Party for a new “left” turn. The CP and its front organizations including the AYD, obediently complied. A new chorus was now chanted against any plans for peacetime conscription, against occupation of foreign lands and against the “anti-Soviet” plans of American imperialism. This new change in line echoed by AYD meant a further decrease in membership. On a number of campuses the AYD had its charters rescinded by the school authorities. Without school facilities at its disposal these unrecognized college chapters of the AYD could not keep their loosely organized membership together. The active membership of the AYD in one such chapter after another was reduced to the hardened CP core. In 1947, for example, a rally sponsored by the New York city-wide college AYD managed to attract no more than 150 students. The only successful meetings AYD could hold required a Paul Robeson performance or the histrionics of Vito Marcantonio.

The AYD was definitely passing off the college political scene. Then the Stalinists on campus found a new white hope to bolster their morale and prospects for a mass student base: Henry Wallace.

Wallace had an appeal on campus that took everyone by surprise. The Students-for-Wallace movement, controlled by the Stalinists, grew and flourished on every important campus. Not only Stalinists and their young dupes followed Wallace, but liberals and consciously anti-Stalinist elements declared their support of his candidacy, many of them joining the Students-for-Wallace cavalcade. Wallace’s “peace” campaign was effective; his attacks on Jim Crow won the Negro students; his pleas for the rights of the Jewish people to a homeland won the support of many Jewish students. Wallace appealed to every healthy sentiment. And no one could call the former Vice-President a Communist! His prestige as a cabinet member in the Roosevelt administrations stood him to great advantage. At its nominating convention when the Wallace movement became the Progressive Party, the Students-for-Wallace movement was organized along with other youthful Wallace contingents as the Young Progressives of America.

The success of the Wallace movement opened up new vistas for the student section of the Communist Party. At their last national convention it was agreed to unite what was left of AYD with the Young Progressives following the national elections. This had already been anticipated on many campuses where the membership formally and informally merged with the Young Progressives. The youth resolution at the CP convention also announced the perspective of building a young “Marxist League” that would be formally affiliated to the Communist Party. Without any concern over appearance, the resolution made it clear that the new Wallaceite front was to be the transmission belt for cadres of the newly projected young “Marxist” affiliate.

Illusion About Wallace

But the Stalinists overextended their objectives. They themselves were taken in by Wallaceite enthusiasm on campus, but large numbers of the Wallace supporters were not sufficiently serious. They would sing themselves hoarse at Wallaceite songfests, but active participation in a political organization was another matter. These students may have had every intention of continuing their support for Wallace but such pledges were not worth much. Another section of support for Wallace came from students who promised support for his campaign as a protest against the two capitalist candidates. These students never expressed the intention of joining the Young Progressives. Another group of anti-Stalinist supporters of Wallace joined the YPA because they felt that the Stalinists could be removed and that a third New Deal party could be revived.

The solid ground on which the Stalinists were banking proved to be quicksand following the Progressive Party’s election disaster. A large vote might have been a force pulling in and crystallizing the large student sympathy for Wallace into a powerful YPA. With the unexpectedly small vote, however, the YPA declined rapidly. A few figures will help us understand how acute this drop has been: at the University of California (Berkeley) the YPA has fallen from about 600 to 100 book members; at the University of Chicago the numerical decline is about the same in a chapter which witnessed a bitter factional struggle between the anti-Stalinists and Stalinists; at Brooklyn College the fall has been from a pre-election claim of over 500 members to an estimated 100. What is true on these large campuses is no less the case in most of the YPA chapters.

These figures do not tell the whole story, for the present membership contains much “deadwood.” The Jimmy-Higgins work for YPA continues to be carried on by the same core of Stalinists who had to do the spadework for the AYD until its dissolution in February of this year.

The Stalinists have two immediate organizational objectives on campus. One is to attempt to build and stabilize the YPA, the other is to establish “Marxist Cultural Societies” on every campus. The two college fronts are given distinctly different functions. The “Marxist Cultural Societies” are designed to cater to the more intellectual students. The cream of the Stalinist intellectual world is invited before these societies to explain the intricacies of “Marxist” theory as most recently edited. The YPA clubs are the “mass organizations” with programs planned for attracting students with more modest intellectual pretensions. It is to be the vehicle for the rallies, demonstrations, petition campaigns, etc.

The Stalinists and Civil Rights

The topics and issues the Stalinists have chosen for their campaign activity are interesting and significant. Rallies, campaigns and propaganda meetings revolve almost exclusively around civil rights issues. A Stalinist-sponsored meeting on the situation in Germany, the Atlantic Pact or the trial of the churchmen in the East European countries is practically unheard of. The Stalinists are evidently afraid of the reception such topics might receive from the student body on the one hand arid from the administration on the other. Instead, they have chosen to concentrate on civil rights as an easier means of building support and as part of an integrated campaign against the government’s efforts to outlaw the Communist Party and its fronts.

The civil rights issue receiving the heaviest concentration from Stalinists clubs on campus is Negro rights. Through a campaign against Jim Crow the Stalinists hope to recruit Negro students to their sorely depleted ranks and try very cleverly to use the popular fight against racial discrimination to recruit support for the less popular campaign to defend the CP leaders by linking the two issues. As part of this new added emphasis on “Negro work,” the Stalinists have successfully infiltrated student chapters of the NAACP and have captured or organized independent Negro societies.

The New Stalinist Student

Academic rights is another civil rights issue which is receiving a one-sided accent from the CP. Where local academic rights issues do not exist the Stalinists have consciously gone about creating issues, with themselves as the storm center. At least on the New York campuses, the Stalinists have gone out of their way to violate school regulations in an effort to get CP-controlled club charters suspended. In one college the Stalinsts sponsored a meeting off campus in the name of the school organization at which a CPer under “judicial review” was the invited speaker. It is an age-old administration policy in this school – as in many others – that no club can sponsor a speaker who is standing trial. This is an arch-reactionary policy of judging a defendant guilty until proved innocent. However, it has never been seriously contested by the student clubs. That is, not until today, when the Stalinists are actually seeking martyrdom. The CP strategy is the following: A club they control intentionally violates a rule; the club is suspended; the Stalinists become fighters for student rights; rallies are held tying up the vicious attacks of the school authorities on the ‘'Marxist” society with the government trial of the eleven CPers; the Marshall Plan is brought under fire; Wallace is hailed and after a month or two of defiance the suspension period is over, the club back to normal and a propaganda triumph for the Stalinists is scored.

It is the responsibility of every democratic student to fight the reactionary administration of a school; it is necessary to fight the suspension of any organization which violates these primitive restrictions. But it is also important that the Stalinists’ political motivation for inviting suspension at this time be exposed.

The attitude of Stalinists on campus toward the Trotskyists is a far cry from that of ten years ago or the official party attitude today. One never hears a Trotskyist member or sympathizer labelled “fascist,” “Nazi agent,” “stoolpigeon,” etc., by a CPer. The vehemence of the ’30s is gone. On the contrary, there is a calmness in the Stalinists’ tone when conversing with a Trotskyist that almost borders on friendliness. The fact that these conversations take place at all is evidence of the new type of student Stalinist. Ten years ago the threat of expulsion from the YCL for any social contact with a Trotskyist was not idly made. Every week during the late ’30s there were lists of loyal YCLers expelled for talking to real or imaginary Trotskyists.

This new Stalinist objectivity is a sign of the times. The CP no longer has a fanatical and devoted student membership which will swallow any idiocy in the name of the party. To shout “fascist” at a Trotskyist today in personal debate would ring a false note to the CP student listener and any serious CP effort to prohibit its membership from discussions with Trotskyists would boomerang.

There are dozens of socialist student groups on almost as many campuses throughout the country. Most of these clubs are recognized college organizations; others exist as discussion groups off-campus due to lack of adequate forces to maintain a functioning on-campus club, or as a result of reactionary school administration policies which deny school facilities to political groups. These socialist clubs mirror almost all shades of American socialist thought. The most active organized socialist forces working on the campus are members of the Socialist Youth League and its parent organization, the Independent Socialist League, and the Young People’s Socialist League, youth affiliate of the Socialist Party.

There is only one national socialist student organization in the country: the post-war edition of the Student League for Industrial Democracy. In 1946, under the sponsorship of the LID, local chapters of this revived movement were organized. There was an initial spurt of enthusiasm for the SLID, but it was shortlived. Today the SLID is once again almost extinct. In a number of colleges and universities where it showed some promise a few years ago, the SLID quietly folded or remained as a mere paper group. The reason for this collapse can be traced to the policies of a middle-of-the-road right-wing socialist leadership. There was simply nothing exciting about the program or leadership of the organization. It had a liberal outlook and program and was not even officially a socialist organization until its last convention, held six months ago. SLID membership is extremely heterogeneous: there are within it socialists, pacifists, liberals, conservatives, Wallace supporters – a small sprinkling of each. It could not distinguish itself politically from other liberal student organizations already in existence with larger memberships, important financial backing and distinctive programs. Lacking a dynamic or original approach, it was inevitable that SLID would become defunct. The Cornell chapter, for example, which was the pride of the SLID, decided recently that it had no special reason for existence and consequently permitted itself to become a chapter on paper only.

At the recent national convention of SLID all of its weaknesses were made clear. It was revealed that they have no more than several hundred members located in a few clubs in Eastern schools. SLID is almost unknown even by reputation in the West. Under the influence of right-wing YPSLs, the SLID convention voted to bar Trotskyists from membership! Following the convention, however, avowed Trotskyist students have been participating in the largest chapters and invited to participate in other chapters which voted to exclude them at the convention.

The extent to which the anemic SLID has been dropping off in membership and activity has been more than compensated for by the growth of independent socialist clubs in the past two years. In that period, militant socialist student groups have blossomed forth on about a dozen of the larger campuses. With one or two exceptions these clubs have found it difficult to keep going on a smoothly functioning and formalized basis. It must be remembered that the continuity in the radical student field was broken off for a number of years and that the revival of left socialist clubs will inevitably suffer from growing pains. But the prospects for the growth of Third Camp socialist groups are good. Though there can be no illusions about such groups soon maturing into mass organizations, they nevertheless have no political competition. A socialist club which upholds the Third Camp is clearly distinguished from all other anti-Stalinist student groups. The Students for Democratic Action (student section of the ADA), the World Federalist campus clubs, the Young Liberals who operate on the New York campuses are all, in varying degrees, tied down to American capitalism.

It is the responsibility of these socialist clubs to think in terms of building a militant national student movement which will embrace more than convinced socialists. A broader anti-war perspective is necessary – one which will open up the possibility of recreating an anti-war anti-imperialist student movement. A federation of all the independent socialist, SLID, militant pacifist and anti-war student clubs would not make a powerful force today but it would increase the effectiveness of these clubs considerably and at the same time provide the form for a mass anti-war student movement which is certain to develop when the student body is jolted out of its lethargy by the pressures of an ever-growing restrictive war economy.

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Last updated on 23 August 2018