19 December 2021

Lasch—Student Activism

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. VIII, "Is Revolution Obsolete?"
The issue of "law and order" has recently become prominent in national and local elections. Instead of seeking to understand its origin, many radicals—along with most of the liberals—interpret the need for order as incipient fascism. They argue that productive workers are so strongly committed to the existing industrial system that they will gladly opt for fascism to preserve it. Not only does this view confuse a commitment to order and economic security with a commitment to capitalism as such, but it seems to imply, when coupled with an analysis that insists on the revolutionary potential of blacks and students, that economic expendability alone can serve as a basis for revolutionary discontent. From this we can only conclude that any revolution likely to occur in advanced countries will be, by definition, a minority revolution imposed on the rest of society by a self-appointed vanguard whose economic superfluity liberates it from "false consciousness."

In the face of such an analysis it is necessary to insist that unless a movement for change enlists the active support of the great majority, it is unlikely to accomplish anything that would be recognizable as democratic socialism. This means, among other things, that the student movement will have to transcend its character as a student movement and forge links with those who work in the main institutions of industrial society. Whether it does this has become one of the most important political questions of our day.

(p. 114)

Ch. X, "After the New Left"
The absence of continuity in American radicalism—in American life generally—made it possible for the radicals of the sixties to discover all over again the existence of oppression and exploitation, the power of the ruling class, and the connection between capitalism and foreign wars. In their excitement, they quickly proceeded from reformist to revolutionary ideas, not only leaving most of their followers behind but glossing over a host of difficulties—both tactical and theoretical—that were inherent in the adoption of revolutionary goals. It should at least have been treated as an open question whether classical conceptions of revolution, deriving from a conjunction of historical circumstances not likely to recur, have any meaning in an advanced industrial society. A major theoretical problem for the new left was precisely to work out a new conception of social reconstruction, in other words to reformulate new ideas about revolution itself instead of being content with unanalyzed images from the past. In the absence of any real analysis of the concept or its applicability to contemporary American life, "revolution" quickly became the emptiest of clichés and was used indiscriminately by radicals, liberals, conservatives, advertising men, and the media, usually to describe changes that were nonexistent.

Useless as the word soon became, it had important effects on those who continued to take it seriously. Consider its influence on the antiwar movement. As soon as the leaders of the movement realized that the Indochina war could not be attributed simply to diplomatic bungling but had roots in the social structure of advanced capitalism (roots which have yet, however, to be fully explained), they began to insist that this recognition be immediately embodied in the movement's practice. This at least seemed to be the intention of the much-publicized transition "from dissent to resistance," announced in 1966-67, although it was not always clear whether this slogan implied an escalation of strategy or merely more militant forms of civil disobedience. (Even in the latter case, however, the almost unavoidable ten-
dency was to justify new sacrifices by the announcement of revolutionary objectives.) In any case, "from dissent to resistance" was a misleading slogan for a movement that would continue to depend on "dissenters" for much of its effectiveness. Even as a tactic, "resistance" led the antiwar movement into attacks not only against the war but, increasingly, against the entire apparatus of military-corporate domination both at home and abroad, while at the same time the adoption of an "anti-imperialist" perspective unavoidably narrowed the movement's ideological appeal and its base of support. A dangerous dispersion of energies followed from decisions made by the antiwar movement in 1966 and 1967—decisions that arose not so much from calculation of their political consequences as from the need to make an adequate response to the rising militancy of the young, to the agony of the choices confronting men eligible for the draft, and to the atrocity of the war.

The history of the student movement in many ways paralleled that of the antiwar movement, if indeed their histories can be disentangled. After the student left discovered the university's links to the war machine and the corporations, it needed to develop an analysis of higher education that would simultaneously explain why the university had become the center of opposition to the war. An analysis that treated the university simply as an agency of oppression could not explain why so many students had apparently resisted brainwashing and consistently took positions more critical of American society than those taken by other citizens. The problem confronting the student movement was to expose and attack the university's "complicity" in war and exploitation without forgetting that it was precisely the relative independence of the universities (or, more accurately, of the colleges of arts and science), together with the fact that they were at least formally committed to values directly counter to those of industrial capitalism, that made them a good ground on which to fight.

The adoption of revolutionary points of view did nothing to clarify those issues. It encouraged on the one hand a misplaced class analysis of the university itself, in which student "prole-
tarians" confront a ruling class made up of administators and faculty, and on the other hand a preoccupation with the "real" problems outside academic life, especially those of the working class, which led student activists to abandon the attempt to reform the university and in many cases to leave academic life altogether. These positions, however much they differed from one another, shared an unwillingness to confront the difficulty of explaining the university's relation to society or the relation of students to the class structure as a whole. Were students to be regarded as future members of an oppressive bourgeoisie, whose defection from this class and rejection of "bourgeois life styles" therefore constituted the first stage of the "cultural revolution" called for by Abbie Hoffman? Or were they apprentices to a new kind of technical intelligencia, in which case student rebellion might be considered, in Norman Birnbaum's phrase, as an anticipatory strike of the workforce? These questions concealed an even more fundamental issue: Had the class structure of industrial society changed in such important ways as to render much of traditional Marxism obsolete? The inability of the "Marxist" left to answer these questions helps to explain the rapid growth of a left based on youth culture, on "liberated life styles," which at least takes a clear position in favor of the first of these hypotheses, and which is prepared to interpret even a change of costume as a "revolutionary act"—thereby reducing the complexities of revolutionary action to an absolute minimum.

(pp. 126-128)

Whether the student movement becomes the basis of a new labor movement depends in considerable part, according to [Michael] Miles [The Radical Probe], on whether student radicalism overcomes the influences that have recently crippled it—dogmatic Marxism, infatuation with the traditional working class, terrorism, chic cultural protest. Deploring dogmatism and posturing, Miles nevertheless insists on the "ideological dimension" of student protest—an aspect of the movement that many of its friends have tried to
minimize. One of the signs of current political exhaustion is a renewed distrust of ideology. ... Many observers would regard the ideological element in student protest as regrettable and unnecessary; Miles regards it as central. In his judgment, the underlying seriousness of the student rebellion reveals itself nowhere more clearly than in the conflict between a technocratic and managerial ideology on the one hand and the ideology of the radical intelligentsia on the other—mutually exclusive views of the world which, indeed, postulate the historical extinction of the adversary. Just as Brzezinski regards the intellectuals as "historical irrelevants," so the left-wing intellectuals hope to eliminate the technocrats as a class. It is just because it has an ideological dimension, in Miles view, that student rebellion may portend a larger movement, "since there is not the slightest possibility of the left organizing these social forces [the new middle class, new working class, etc.] without a systematic alternative vision which first identifies these progressive social forces in its analysis and then appeals to them in its social content." An ideology in this sense is inseparable from the search for a constituency and serves not to encourage but to check the left's propensity for fantasy.

(pp. 137-138)


Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The Agony of the American Left (1969)

"Both the strengths and the weaknesses of the New Left derive from the fact that it is largely a student movement based on "alienation." From the beginning, the New Left defined political issues as personal issues. How does one achieve personal integrity—"authenticity"—in a mechanized bureaucratized, dehumanized society? In the fifties, the disaffection with modern life, already widespread, expressed itself as a retreat from the job into privacy. Young people confronted with the hierarchic, authoritarian, and repressive quality of established institutions gave to those institutions a purely formal allegiance, while saving what they hoped was the best of themselves for a life of intense domesticity. In effect, writes Christopher Jencks, "[We] wrote off the 9-to-5 portion of our lives" and "pinned most of our hopes on creating a comfortable and comforting family life which embodied the ideals we had picked up in our own childhoods." In the sixties the same impulse takes the form of an attack on the institutions themselves. It takes the form of radical politics or, alternately, the hippie protest. But the issue of personal integrity remains. The Port Huron statement, for instance, declares that "men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-
understanding, and creativity. . . . The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image or popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic." It deplores the "loneliness, estrangement, and isolation" that "describe the vast distance between man and man today." In upholding "participatory democracy," it declares that "politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life." Turning to the question of the university, the Port Huron statement complains that the campus has become "a place of private people, engaged in their notorious 'inner emigration,'" where apathy "begets a privately constructed universe."

Stefan Kac said...

Lasch, Agony (cont.)

"These eloquent accusations define an undeniable reality. Charged, moreover, with deep moral feeling, they might have served as the starting point of political analysis. But they did not in themselves constitute an analysis, nor could they become the basis of radical politics. The search for personal integrity could lead only to a politics in which "authenticity" was equated with the degree of one's alienation, the degree of one's willingness to undertake existential acts of defiance. It is not too much to say that for some of the new radicals, "the important thing is to fail; to die nobly in the fight against fascism, while others destroy its imperialist foundations abroad. Success would be immoral as well as a bore." [Michael Miles, "The Communist Party Today" (New Republic, Feb. 3, 1968)] The obsession with authenticity, when combined with the genuine moral anguish of the war in Vietnam, generates a mystique of "resistance." "When we say "resistance," writes a graduate student from Berkeley, "we mean just what we say: we want to close down the
induction centers, stop the troop trains, kick the recruiters off-campus, and generally shut the war machine down." He and his friends, however, "are under no illusion as to what the consequences of resistance will be. The resistance will be crushed." Resistance, in other words, becomes an act of pure desperation, "born of the knowledge that the situation is bad and getting worse."

"Acting out of an ideal of personal heroism rather than from an analysis of the sources of tension in American society and the possibilities for change, the New Left vacillates between existential despair and absurdly inflated estimates of its own potential."

(pp. 180-182)