Class of ’68

Class of ’68

What can account for the worldwide impulse to rebel? Fifty years after 1968, a personal reflection on the Columbia University uprising.

The author sitting in the lobby of Hamilton Hall, Columbia University, on April 23, 1968 (Keith Kaufman)

In the spring of 1968, I was a wide-eyed freshman at Columbia College and a militant agitator for the left-wing cause, and the student uprising that broke out at my university seemed to me to be one of history’s hugest events, on a par with the Peloponnesian War or the Russian Revolution. Half a century later, I have tempered my evaluation—and yet, I have to confess, not in every regard. The Columbia University student uprising was, in fact, authentically large. And it was mysteriously dynamic, which made it larger still. Perhaps the dynamism was not obvious to everyone at the time. The professors who watched in astonishment failed to see it sometimes, and so, too, did the journalists. But we students saw it. We felt it in the flesh. We trembled.

My own organization in those days was an august left-wing youth movement with an ancient history, founded in 1905 as the Intercollegiate Socialist Society under the leadership of none other than Jack London. The Intercollegiate Socialist Society was a noble movement, and it evolved after a while into a practical movement, too. It became a youth auxiliary of the social-democratic trade unions under a more modern-sounding name, the Student League for Industrial Democracy, or SLID. And it took on a mighty responsibility, which was to train young people in the grandest traditions of the American liberal left—the traditions that are pro-labor, pro–civil rights, egalitarian, and democratic. Maybe SLID was not a good acronym. At the start of the 1960s, the members wisely changed the name yet again to Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. Only, a war between the generations was by then beginning to break out, and the student leaders of the renamed organization could no longer get along with their adult sponsors. The sponsors were hard-boiled social democrats in the Old Left style, and they demanded conformity to social-democratic dogma. The students demurred. The elders changed the locks. SDS, like a young reprobate who has been thrown out of the family home, wandered off on its own, bereft of adult guidance but free, at least, to follow the dictates of youthful whim. And somehow the mysterious dynamism began to stir.

By the spring of 1968, the SDS chapter at Columbia had blossomed into a vigorous campus organization, commanding the allegiance of perhaps two or three hundred students, with a few dozen people as the activist core and an “Action Faction” of red hots in the leadership. Every last person among those hundreds of SDSers was upset in the extreme about America’s participation in the Vietnam War—upset that, in the early months of 1968, a few hundred American soldiers a week were getting killed in Vietnam, and vastly more Vietnamese. Everyone was upset about civil rights—perhaps not as intensely upset for the moment, but, in any case, upset. Then came April, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and a new moment arrived. Riots broke out in a number of cities. Riots seemed to be a hair away from breaking out in Harlem, down the hill from the Columbia campus. And, in that atmosphere—sulfuric, enraging, disorienting—the SDS chapter struck up an alliance or coalition with one other student group.

The students in SDS’s Columbia chapter were white, except for a few. The coalition partner, however, was the Student Afro-American Society, or SAS, whose own membership consisted of the first sizeable contingent of black students ever to enroll at Columbia—not everybody within that contingent, but a large enough portion to be able to make claims for the black students as a whole. The alliance between those two groups, SDS and SAS, was entirely logical but not especially easy. The students of SAS, in their sundry currents of opinion, had by no means broken with their own elders, and their connections to the broader and adult black community conferred on them (or so I thought at the time, and still think) a more sophisticated appreciation of American reality than could sometimes be found among the SDSers.

Still, the two organizations held a joint rally. And, by joining together, the two groups touched off an explosion of unexpected emotion, and a chain of further explosions, something really extraordinary—an explosion of political anger among a few hundred students, and then a few thousand, and more thousands, together with some of the younger and radical professors and friends and families: an anger that could no longer be expressed by oratory or pamphlets or chants and slogans, but only by physical action. A minor scuffle with the police broke out. And the scuffle led to the seizure of a classroom building, which led to the seizure of still more buildings, which led the university president to call in a large number of police, which led to a couple of nights of fighting and a great many injuries (most of them superficial, some of them grave and lasting, with a policeman the most gravely injured of all), and many hundreds of arrests, which led to still larger crowds, sometimes from outside the university, marching through the uptown streets amid clouds of rage, bitterness, alienation, and confusion: a genuine insurrection, mostly nonviolent (apart from those two terrible nights), unplanned, mass, emitting fumes of utopian exhilaration. Such was America in the spring of 1968.

Then came the summer, and the Columbia uprising gave way to rioting outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and the fall, when any number of additional student revolts broke out around the country; and the spring of 1969, likewise; and the fall; until, in the spring of 1970, a national antiwar student strike succeeded in mobilizing millions of the students, which amounted to one of the largest protests ever to take place in the United States. Nor did Columbia manage to calm down during those next years, as I well remember. The uprising of 1968 receded into the past, and, even so, the embers went on smoldering, and some of us students were always demonstrating, or plotting to demonstrate, or marching here and there, always with the expectation that, at any moment, the original insurrection might break out anew.

The mysterious dynamism at Columbia in 1968, then—what was the source of that dynamism, finally? Filmmaker and historian Paul Cronin has just now put together a book called A Time to Stir, which contains more than sixty essays or statements by people who participated on one side or the other in the Columbia events, and the contributions make clear that, on a first level, the dynamism was not really mysterious. Anger is a combustible, and it combusted. But there were other levels. Everyone who thinks back on those times will recall that a variety of thoughts and feelings, some of them fairly vague, without immediate connection to any particular outrage or campus issue, entered into the insurrectionary mood. Among a good many students, not just the radicals, there was a suspicion that American society as a whole had taken a wrong turn—a worried suspicion that impersonal institutions had lost contact with ordinary humanity and with moral behavior. Maybe there was another suspicion, which was shared by a lively vanguard. It was a suspicion that traditional ways of organizing the relations of men and women and of sexuality in general had ceased to make sense, or perhaps had never made sense—a suspicion that every last social custom and habit needed to be reexamined and reinvented, not just in the political world but in the realms of private behavior and domestic life. That was a shapeless idea for the moment. And yet, the shapeless idea kept intruding into student actions, and uprisings broke out within the student uprising, with young women rebelling, or muttering under their teeth in preparation to rebel, against their uncomprehending comrades, the young men—a rebellion within the rebellion that would turn out to be massively influential in years to come.

Or maybe the dynamism at Columbia drew on still another source, deeper and broader than everything else, and yet oddly invisible—an impulse to rebel, whose existence can be inferred from a mass of evidence, but, like some unknown particle in physics, cannot otherwise be detected or described. The mass of evidence in this case was worldwide. The uprising at Columbia was spectacular, but it was not unique. In several parts of the world, similar uprisings, sometimes nearly identical in style, broke out during those same weeks and months.

The largest and most spectacular uprising of all, roughly simultaneous to the one at Columbia, got started in a small way in the last week of March 1968 at a university in the Paris suburbs. The uprising spread to the Sorbonne in Paris itself, then produced something that is accurately denominated as the “Night of the Barricades,” then spread to further schools elsewhere in France, and ultimately made the leap into the zones of organized labor, where it generated perhaps the largest general strike the world has ever seen, quite as if France as a whole were teetering on the brink of revolution. The French student uprising spread to Italy and West Germany and, in varying degrees, to everywhere else in Western Europe. Even Spain, which was a fascist dictatorship in those days, underwent a few tremors. People in North Africa felt the vibrations. An enormous student uprising took place in Mexico City (and elsewhere in Mexico), only to be suppressed with a massacre by the police at the Tlatelolco plaza in October 1968, which produced dozens of deaths, or perhaps hundreds—no one knows how many for sure. And the Mexican student uprising spread elsewhere in Latin America. The student movement in Japan was significant, and likewise in South Korea.

Student protests broke out in the Soviet Bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe and even, ever so slightly, in Moscow. The protests in Warsaw, in February and March, were among the earliest of the student rebellions of 1968, although hardly anyone knew about them in the rest of the world, given the Polish censorship. The young people’s fervor in what was then Czechoslovakia became, by contrast, exceptionally visible, if only because a reform wing of the Communist Party rose to power in Prague and, in the months before the Soviet Union sent in the tanks, tolerantly indulged the ebullience of the younger generation. Among the many young people’s protests and uprisings around the world in 1968, the ones in Poland and Czechoslovakia and other East Bloc countries eventually proved to be, all in all, the most consequential, judged from a conventional political standpoint. Every one of those Eastern Bloc protests was suppressed. The leaders sometimes ended up in jail, sometimes for several years. And yet, from those protests emerged a series of tiny dissident movements, which germinated underground, until, in 1989, the tiny movements blossomed into mass insurrections and democratic revolutions, typically under the leadership of the by-then grizzled veterans of 1968. There was the example of Václav Havel, a leading personality among the young dissidents of Prague in 1968. In the spring of that year, an opportunity came Havel’s way to visit New York. And, because the Columbia uprising was in the news, he made a point of going uptown to take a look, which meant that among the sympathetic faces in the enormous crowds at Columbia was his own face. Many a young hero in the Columbia rebellion of 1968 dreamed of one day leading a revolution, and here was a man who would actually do it—the Velvet Revolution of 1989, than which no revolution in modern times has been more beautiful or more successful.

Only, what can account for the worldwide impulse to rebel—the impulse in 1968? It could not have been a reaction to any particular set of concrete issues or controversies. America’s political movements for civil rights and withdrawal from Vietnam mattered greatly to people in many countries, and yet, in each country, the rebelling students and young people had reason to emphasize priorities of their own, which were not necessarily America’s or Vietnam’s. Was the causal factor something vague or abstract—a worldwide mood or political belief? That does seem possible. In one country after another, and not just in the United States, young people fell into a panic about the direction of society—an acute fear that madmen were in charge of society, and the various governments were no better than the fascists and Nazis of the past. These were fears about Cold War insanities, laced with toxic fears still lingering from the Second World War. Then again, in one country after another, young people with left-wing backgrounds of various kinds nursed an anxiety about their own virtue and integrity—a worried suspicion that, compared to their own parents in their youth, they were lacking in courage and conviction and heroic capabilities (combined sometimes with an angry suspicion that, over the years, the heroic parents had sunk into cowardly complacence). This was a generational anxiety on the left. It was a worldwide after-tremor of the Great Depression and the Second World War. And, across the continents, and on both sides of the Cold War, young people came to feel that, in response to these terrible developments, they needed to conjure a spirit of selfless and noble idealism, something fresh and lively and left-wing, except in a new style, and not in the 1930s and ’40s style of the older generation. Only, what did it mean to be newly left-wing in those days and settings? On this matter, a worldwide consensus did not exist.

There was not much agreement even within the few small blocks of the Columbia campus. The largest single sentiment among the rebelling students there and among their faculty friends was an exasperated and radicalized liberalism in the American vein, an angry left-liberalism perhaps, even if the word “liberal” had come to sound darkly criminal. Naturally, the Columbia left-liberalism came in many stripes. There were Christian radicals of different sorts, beginning with the religious-minded admirers of Martin Luther King. Dwight Macdonald showed up on campus on a couple of occasions to orate on behalf of his version of anarchism, which likewise had its liberal side; and he, too, had admirers, in a small way. Then, too, there were sophisticated champions of a post-Trotskyist anti-Stalinism, who might have regarded “liberal” as an insult; philosophical disciples of the Frankfurt School Marxists; radical pacifists; admirers of Malcolm X (who renamed the university after him in the course of the uprising); an occasional Communist Party recruiter from the 1930s, skulking about; and whole crowds of countercultural “freaks,” who sneered at “politicos” and participated in the uprising only when some demonstration promised to be historic (which was all the time, for a few weeks) or when musicians were performing.

The ideological variations and divagations and contradictions within Columbia’s SDS chapter were especially complex. Once the uprising was underway, the members of SAS and their friends and allies elected to pursue an autonomous course, which strengthened the rebellion ten times over by attracting a warm and fervent support from the wider black community. But the SAS decision also left SDS free for a few weeks to dominate the rest of the uprising. And SDS’s political philosophy turned out to be several things at once. The particular strand of American socialism that had given birth to SDS was liberal and aggressively democratic, which meant anticommunist in the trade-union style—and, at Columbia in 1968, the social-democratic legacy still clung to life, in spite of everything. The SDS literature table on the steps of Low Library distributed a pamphlet about Che Guevara, but it also distributed the old SDS manifesto, the Port Huron Statement from 1962, before SDS and the old-time social democrats had severed relations.

The Port Huron Statement offered many sharp and well-phrased social criticisms, not just of American society. It said, “As democrats we are in basic opposition to the communist system”—which the social democrats of the older generation would have applauded (but Che would have condemned). I do not know how many students at Columbia actually read the Port Huron Statement, but I am guessing that most of the people who did so must have felt the way that I felt. I loved it. I was proud to belong to a student organization that possessed such a lofty manifesto. I suspect that without its historic connection to socialist tradition and the ideas in the Port Huron Statement—without phrases like “participatory democracy”—the SDS chapter at Columbia would not have attracted as big a following as it did.

On the other hand, within the chapter itself, people were by then reading pamphlets from The Little Lenin Library, which the old social democrats would never have allowed. Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question was passed from hand to hand. Some of the SDS leaders—some of the very people who found themselves thrust, for a while, into leadership of the mainstream of the insurrection—were beginning to define themselves, at least in private, as “revolutionary communists.” That was a fateful phrase, and it hinted all too strongly at the gods of destruction that already were beginning to seduce one SDSer after another, my own circle of friends, under the Guevarist name of guerrilla Marxism—a miserable tragedy in the months to come. It did not help that, within SDS, the main opposition to the ultras in the leadership came from a pro-Chinese splinter of the American Communist Party called the Progressive Labor Party, whose cadre at Columbia exuded an exhaust-pipe fume of fanaticism and Maoist dogma, which everybody else had to inhale. Still another faction consisted of the brainy disciples of a cracked and incoherent cult leader from a Trotskyist background known as Lyn Marcus, or Lyndon LaRouche, who promoted apocalyptic conspiracy theories. Here, then, was a tumult of ideological confusion. The tumult spilled outward from SDS meetings into the public events. The oratory at student rallies was pretty wild sometimes. The sundial must have blinked in astonishment. Solid doctrines and mad theories went marching arm in arm through the quads. It was the revolution of 1848 as described by a horrified Flaubert. The best of people were sane today and out of their minds tomorrow. And this was true of student uprisings across the world.

In Mexico City, the students ardently yearned for democracy, and just as ardently venerated the megalomaniacal dictator of Cuba, without appearing to notice the contradiction. In France, where the level of left-wing political education was exceptionally high, the most prominent leader of the uprising was Danny the Red, or Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who, on anarchist grounds, regarded himself as a “visceral anticommunist.” And, even so, a great mass of the rebelling students aligned themselves with a sprinkling of Trotskyist sects, and a still greater mass identified with a sprinkling of Maoist proto-guerrilla sects. In the Eastern Bloc countries, the student rebels were politically more consistent, at least on the topic of communism, about which no one had any illusions. And, even so, the Eastern Bloc ’68ers admired their Western counterparts in Paris and Frankfurt and New York and California and everywhere else, and yearned for the freedom to resemble them.

What did it add up to, then, the worldwide student uprising? You could easily conclude that it did not add up. Somehow it did, though. Young people around the world certainly felt that it did. This was obvious at the time, and, in any case, I know it to be true because, over the years, my labors as writer and citizen have brought me into conversations on comparative insurrectionary themes with the radical student leaders of 1968 from maybe a dozen countries. Each and every one of those conversations has reminded me of how vividly felt was the spirit of solidarity from one country or continent to another, and how warmly the veterans of those rebellions have tended to recall the spirit in later years—even if in one country after another, the old veterans have also shuddered in recollection of the spirit of destruction. Those people felt a solidarity back in the day because they pictured themselves as a generational cohort that had been thrown into conflict with their elders—not in every instance, but often enough. They felt a solidarity because they shared—they knew they shared—a disdain for the conventional symbols and hierarchies of success and power, another worldwide phenomenon. They shared an impulse for cultural impudence. They shared a sense of themselves as people engaged in a revolutionary project to make a better world—even if there was not the slightest consensus on how to picture the better world, or on how to get there, or on how to avoid falling into the nihilist chasm. They shared—they knew they shared—a notion that, whatever might be the proper philosophy for a young people’s movement, the reasons to rebel were undeniable, even if some of those reasons were inscrutable, and young people ought to rebel, and they ought to do so right now: a belief so urgent it felt explosive.

And so, they rebelled.

Paul Berman is a member of the Dissent editorial board and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of, among other books, two studies of the generation of 1968 around the world, A Tale of Two Utopias (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997) and Power and the Idealists (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).

Adapted from A Time To Stir: Columbia ’68, edited by Paul Cronin. Copyright © 2018 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.