The Student Revolution

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article first appeared in the May 1, 1969, issue of
Libertarian Forum

All through
the land, this wondrous month of April, the student revolution
has spread to campus after campus, even to the most conservative
and the most apathetic. Last year confined to Columbia and a few
other campuses, this spring’s revolutionary wave has hit all types
of campuses, from mighty elite Harvard to working-class San Francisco
State, from poor-boy Queensborough Community to formerly conservative
Catholic Fordham. This is a wave that must be considered, that
must be understood, for it clearly heralds a mighty and accelerating
phenomenon in American life.

of us, including this writer, thought that the dearth of student
revolutionary activity last fall, after the high point at Columbia
the previous spring, meant that the campus revolution was fizzling,
and was in serious trouble. But, beginning in the late fall with
San Francisco State and then Berkeley, the student rebellion has
reached a crescendo this spring which few of us have ever dreamed
could be possible in America. Of course, the pattern of student
activity — of all types — is to start slowly in the fall and reach
a peak in the spring. But this year’s peak is so far above last
year’s that the permanence of the student revolution seems evident.
And all reports state that each succeeding class is more revolutionary
than its elders, that freshmen are more radical than seniors;
finally, the sudden emergence of radical high school movements
throughout the country again ensures the deepening of the campus
rebellion in the years to come.

then, should we respond to this remarkable new phenomenon? There
are two typical responses to any revolution against State power
anywhere, whether it be campus, Negro, or national liberation
front. These are the conservative and the liberal. The Conservative
answer is to shoot them down, to use maximum coercion, to bring
in courts, police, armies, missiles, you name it, anything to
crush and kill. This response accords with the Conservative view
of the State generally, which is to preserve and cherish the State’s
rule at all costs. The Liberal “answer” is to cozen and sweeten,
to co-opt with petty and trivial reforms fueled by great gobs
of federal tax-money. In the end, if the revolutionaries persist
and refuse to be either beaten or bribed into submission, the
liberal, too, turns to State coercion, but with more hand-wringing
and more do-gooding pieties. In the end, he will use almost as
much force as the conservative, but his “humanitarian” patina
often makes him even more repellent to the true libertarian.

In our
judgment, neither of these tactics – apart from their morality
or immorality — is going to work. The conservative tactic, in
fact, is precisely the one that has led to the greatest victories
for the revolution. The model proceeds somewhat as follows: a
small group of radicals presents their demands; the demands are
brushed off by the Administration; the radicals seize a building
and/or strike; the Administration calls in the cops, who wade
in and beat and club and arrest; this naked manifestation of State
brutality polarizes and radicalizes the campuses, pushes almost
all the moderate students to the side of the radicals, and the
revolution is on. This was the pattern, for example, at Columbia,
at San Francisco State, at Harvard. The liberal tactic is by far
the most dangerous for the revolution — most clearly successful
at this year’s sit-in at formerly sedate Sarah Lawrence — but
this too is increasingly failing, witness Cornell and the City
College of New York. What, then, would be the successful tactic
in dealing with the student revolution? It is beginning to look
as if the only successful tactic, ultimately, will be what the
press calls “capitulation.” It is interesting that the press and
the politicians are beginning to refer to the student body of
our nation as one of those “aggressor enemies” that we have become
all too familiar with in the past: the “Huns,” the Nazis, the
Commies; and now it is our kids, virtually the entire generation
of them. What are we supposed to do with them, Mr. Conservative?
A little napalm? Or maybe the H-bomb, a “clean” one perhaps, so
it won’t fall on too many of us adults? How far are you prepared
to go in using brutality and suppression as your answer to all
the problems of this century?

For make
no mistake; a generation is speaking. Anyone who is the slightest
bit familiar with the campus situation knows the total absurdity
of the typical conservative belief that the whole thing is being
manipulated by a few “Commies” and “outside agitators” who zip
from campus to campus exerting their supposedly Svengali-like
effect on the nation’s youth. These rebellions are spontaneous
and spur-of-the-moment; they take inspiration and heart from rebellions
on their fellow campuses, but they are in no sense manipulated
by any arcane forces from outside. They stem from the deepest
yearnings and values of the kids on campus.

Whether or
not capitulation is the only tactic that will work, it is our
contention that it is the only moral response we can make. Let
us approach this question by considering the usual baffled cry:
What do these kids want? Capitulate to what?

The goals
of the revolution can be broken down into two different categories:
the immediate and the ultimate demands. The immediate goals are
the concrete, day-to-day demands that emerge from the everyday
crises and irritants of each campus, and each campus and each
group of kids will have different variations on a very similar
national theme. The ultimate demands deal with the kids’ perception
of the fundamental evils inherent in our present educational system,
as well as a vision of what that system could and should be like
in the future.

The immediate
demands deal with concrete cases of the particular university
either being repressive or tying in with the military-industrial
complex and the war activities of the government. The prime goal
is to sever the universities’ all-pervading tie-ins and linkages
with the government and its war machine. This year’s major protest
demanded the abolition of ROTC on campus. ROTC has become intolerable
to our youth; the spectacle of military training insinuating itself
as a legitimate part of academic life and of the educational process,
the realization that ROTC is training officers to enslave their
fellow soldiers and to murder en masse in Vietnam, has
become too obscene for any of our articulate and self-respecting
kids to tolerate. And these kids never forget that the ROTC is
training an elite officer corps who will be employed to enslave
and command that hapless mass of youngsters — among whom will
be many from our campuses — who will become enmeshed in the toils
of the draft. One of the events that radicalized the ordinarily
cool Harvard student body was an arrogant speech by President
Pusey defending ROTC on campus as supplying a much-needed Harvard
elite to our officer corps. This sort of pretension of the right
of Harvard men to rule was much too blatantly despotic for the
libertarian instincts of the present student generation.

This year
ROTC; last year the protests were against the university’s intimate
connections with the Institute of Defense Analysis (Columbia),
and against the university allowing its facilities to be used
for recruiting purposes by the armed forces and its mass of murderers,
and by corporations such as Dow Chemical heavily involved in the
production of napalm, an instrument of this mass murder.

gets excited over student disruptions, sit-ins, a few bread crumbs
left in rooms, a few blades of grass trampled on; all this leads
the general public to a frenzy of denunciation of the “violence”
committed by the students. But where oh where is anything like
the equivalent frenzy directed at the monstrous engines of violence,
slavery, and mass murder against which the kids are directing
their protests: the army, the draft, the war, the police? Why
not try to tote up the balance sheet of violence committed by
both sides and see what comes out?

We are particularly
puzzled by that legion of “libertarian conservatives” who condemn
the kids unreservedly for “initiating violence.” But who has
initiated violence? The kids, or the universities that collaborate
in the draft and the war machine, who eagerly obtain funds from
the taxpayers for all manner of research and grants, including
research for germ warfare? The tie-ins between government and
the universities link them inexorably, as witness the acts set
forth in James Ridgeway’s recent The
Closed Corporation
. Particularly grotesque was the Randian
argument, put forward by Robert Hessen in a widely distributed
article, that Columbia was private property and that therefore
the students were and are everywhere violating the sacred rights
of private property; in addition, there is a definite sense in
the Randian approach that our university system is really pretty
good and that the rebel students are in the process of busting
up a sound and virtuous institution. Apart from the various specific
tie-ins with the State which the Columbia rebels were pinpointing
(such as the IDA), nearly two-thirds of Columbia’s income comes
from governmental rather than private sources. How in the
world can we continue to call it a private institution?
Where does private property come in?

In fact,
Columbia, as most of our universities — and of course all of
our frankly state-owned universities such as San Francisco State
or Berkeley — is governmental property, paid for by government
though run by corporate leaders tied in with government. And government
property is always and everywhere fair game for the libertarian;
for the libertarian must rejoice every time any piece of governmental,
and therefore stolen, property is returned by any means
necessary to the private sector. (In libertarian theory, it is
not possible to steal from someone who is already a thief
and who is only losing property that he has stolen. On the contrary,
the person who takes stolen property from a thief is virtuously
returning it to innocent private hands.)

the libertarian must cheer any attempt to return stolen, governmental
property to the private sector: whether it be in the cry, “The
streets belong to the people”, or “the parks belong to the people”,
or the schools belong to those who use them, i.e. the students
and faculty. The libertarian believes that things not properly
owned revert to the first person who uses and possesses them,
e. g. the homesteader who first clears and uses virgin land; similarly,
the libertarian must support any attempt by campus “homesteaders”,
the students and faculty, to seize power in the universities from
the governmental or quasi-governmental bureaucracy.

retort that public universities, too, are under the rule of legitimate
authority because these authorities are elected by the taxpayers,
who therefore “own” these campuses. Apart from the fact that university
trustees are scarcely elected by anyone, this is a particularly
grotesque argument for alleged libertarians to use. For it brings
them squarely back to the virus of Social Democracy against which
they began to rebel decades ago. The government “represents” the
taxpayers indeed! If this were true, then any kind of libertarian
viewpoint goes by the board, and we may as well all become Social
Democrats, applauding any conceivable activity of government so
long as an elected government performs the deed. Surely the basic
libertarian insight is that the taxpayers do not rule, that, on
the contrary, they are mulcted and robbed for the benefit of the
State and its cohorts, and therefore the idea that the “public”
or the “taxpayers” really own anything is a fundamental
lie palmed off on us by the apologists for the State. It is not
we but the government rulers that own “public” property,
and hence the vital importance of getting all this property from
the “public” to the private or “people’s” sector as rapidly as
possible. “Homesteading” is often the easiest and most rapid way
of accomplishing this goal.

It is particularly
amusing that the one act of students which upset the most people,
and especially called upon their heads the charge of “initiating
violence,” was the act of the Cornell black students in bringing
rifles and ammunition on campus. Laws were immediately and hysterically
passed imposing the severest penalties on such action. But what’s
wrong with carrying guns? Does not every American have a constitutional
right to bear arms? And these weren’t even concealed arms,
so why the fuss? Surely the crime comes not in carrying
weapons but in using them aggressively. Libertarians and conservatives
know this full well when they quite properly call for the repeal
of gun laws, restricting the right of everyone to bear arms. Why
does everyone forget all this when Negro students bear arms? Could
it be that for many “libertarian conservatives” racism runs far
deeper than devotion to liberty?

Another broad
type of immediate demand is the ending of the university’s use
of the property-killing power of eminent domain to oust ghetto
poor from their homes (major charges at Columbia and Harvard).
Surely the libertarian, opposed to urban renewal and eminent domain,
can only applaud this goal. A third type of widespread demand
is an insistence on simple academic freedom – an insistence
that the university is a place for freedom to express radical
political views without harassment. The San Francisco State rebellion
was touched off by the university’s firing of instructor George
Mason Murray, a Black Panther, and this year’s Berkeley strike
by the attempted firing of Panther Eldridge Cleaver. The current
Queensborough Community College rebellion was touched off by the
firing of a Progressive Labor member of the faculty, Don Silberman.
In all these cases the rebels are fighting for an elemental feature
of what makes a genuine university.

Again, conservatives
might protest that the trustees have the right to fire anyone
they please. But, as we have pointed out, this is not so in the
vast bulk of our universities that are openly or covertly governmental.
The trustees of those colleges that are genuinely private have
the legal right to fire anyone, it is true; but so then
do the faculty and the students have the right to quit, to demonstrate,
or to strike — in protest against the kind of a university where
the trustees would do such a thing. And here again, any person
concerned with education and freedom of inquiry must agree with
that vision of a university where academic freedom rather than
trustee dictation prevails.

Another crucially
important demand concerns the ways in which the university reacts
to the other demands of the rebels: that the State must not
be called in to decide the issue. Again, everyone gripes at the
disruption of the educational process caused by canceled classes
or a barricaded door. But the really violent destruction consists
in calling in the police, the brutal cops with their mace and
their clubs and their tear gas. It is no wonder that police brutality
has been the major and almost instant catalyst of radicalization
on campus. There can be no education, no dialogue, no community
of scholars, where there are helmets and clubs and bayonets. “Cops
Out!” is an elemental and crucial cry that erupts from the embattled
rebels, and it is one that any person of elemental good will,
let alone a libertarian, must commend. Even more despotic is the
new and sinister instrument of Statism first employed this year
by Columbia University: the court injunction. The labor unions
knew precisely what they were doing when they lobbied to pass
the Norris-LaGuardia law outlawing the use of injunctions in labor
disputes; libertarian theory requires the extension of this principle
to abolishing injunctions everywhere!

For the injunction
has two profoundly tyrannical features: (a) it moves to prohibit
someone in advance from specific actions that, for libertarians,
are totally legitimate. Thus, Mr. X. is enjoined by the courts
from demonstrating at College Y because the courts have concluded
that X might engage in an illegal action. But to move thus in
advance of action is totally illegitimate; a libertarian legal
order moves only against people after they have proceeded
to commit a crime, and not before. And (b) the alleged violator
of an injunction gets thrown into jail by the judge at the latter’s
discretion, without a jury trial, without a proper defense, the
right to cross-examine, etc. Furthermore, the judge can keep jailing
anyone whom he adjudges in “contempt of court" — whether
for violating injunctions or for any other reason — as long as
he feels like it. The whole area of “contempt of court” is one
where judges can reign by their whim unchecked by law or rights.
The entire field must be swept aside in the system of libertarian

Along with
the demand for keeping the State and its minions out of campus
disputes comes one for general amnesty, both civil and criminal,
in the courts and in the university. Again a perfectly legitimate
demand, especially since in the vast majority of cases the kids
have done nothing wrong according to libertarian doctrine. Somehow,
the curious theory prevails that “it’s okay to disobey a law or
a rule, provided you’re willing to take your punishment,” and
amnesty very often meets widespread resentment. But the whole
point is that the kids, and libertarians too, don’t recognize
the justice of the particular rule or law, and that is precisely
why they violate it. So therefore they should not, at least according
to their lights, be punished. Besides, Mr. Christian Conservative,
what’s wrong with mercy?

If the bulk
of the immediate demands of the student rebels is proper and praiseworthy
from the libertarian point of view, what of the ultimate demands?
What do “they" want, down deep? Mainly it is what we touched
on earlier: (1) the demand to transfer power from the trustees
to students and faculty; and (2) the severing of the university
from the government-military-industrial complex. Both demands
are interconnected; for the students perceive as few others do,
that the American university is a critical and vital part of the
ruling system by which the Establishment trains the rising generation
to become cogs in the military-industrial machine. The new rebels
want no part of being such cogs; and all libertarians must bless
them for their revulsion against the educational status quo. The
students see that the only way to remove the universities from
their “brainwashing” and apologetic role on behalf of the State
and its allies is to transform the very nature of the university
into student-faculty rule. And why not? As we have seen, for governmental
universities this is an eminently libertarian demand, a necessary
means for transforming governmental into private property. But,
in addition, it is a worthy objective for genuine education, and
there is no libertarian reason why even legitimate trustees cannot
transfer power voluntarily. Such eminent universities as Oxford
and Cambridge are essentially “producers’ co-ops,” owned and directed
by the faculty. Student-faculty power means a shift back to the
university, not as servitor of the military-industrial complex,
not as apologist for the State, but as a genuine community of
scholars searching for and discovering the truth. This is the
vision that animates the student revolutionaries, and it is a
noble vision indeed. Considering what our universities have become,
it is also a vision radically different from the status quo: hence
it is revolutionary.

It is particularly
ironic that conservatives and libertarians should be so distressed
at the prospect of students having a say in the universities.
After all, a free-market proponent is supposed to favor “consumer
sovereignty,” and what are students but the consumers of the educational
product? Why react with hatred to any attempt by the consumers
to influence their education?

conservatives have for decades inveighed, and properly so, against
the American educational system. They have seen how that system
imprisons and indoctrinates the youth of America into the statist
system, how it functions as intellectual apologists for the State
apparatus. For decades, no one did anything about this insight.
Now, at long last, that the students are reacting precisely against
this system, now that they see the evil and are trying to change
it, why, Mr. Conservative, why in hell are you on the other side?

The students
see even more than the traditional Conservatives did. They see
that, apart from other tie-ins, corporations have been using the
government schools and colleges as institutions that train their
future workers and executives at the expense of others, i.e.
the taxpayers. This is but one way that our corporate state uses
the coercive taxing power either to accumulate corporate capital
or to lower corporate costs. Whatever that process may be called,
it is not “free enterprise,” except in the most ironic sense.

And so, libertarians
must hail the student revolution, their means and their ends,
their demands both immediate and ultimate. These kids, the first
generation in a century to really see and understand the evils
of the State, deserve encouragement and support and not our condemnation
or our petty complaints. Libertarian students and adults alike
have begun to realize this truth. One heartening event has been
libertarian participation in some of the recent rebellions. One
prominent young libertarian not only participated whole-heartedly
in the Cornell rebellion, but he was the only person among the
rebels to vote against thanking President Perkins for his liberal
concessions to student demands.

most striking adherence came at Fordham University, where the
Fordham Libertarian Alliance constitutes our best-organized chapter
on the college campuses – hopefully, a harbinger of the future.
FLA was the first group on the Fordham campus to raise the libertarian
demand of “Abolish ROTC”; SDS, dominated by Progressive Labor
on that campus, hung back for weeks because of fear that the “working
class” would not go along with such a demand. But finally, SDS
swung into line, and the Fordham sit-in on April 23–24, which
lasted over 24 hours, included members of SDS, FLA, and mainly,
unaffiliated individuals. The sit-in was unpremeditated, spontaneous;
there was no manipulation by a few sinister persons, let along
outsiders. Instead, everything was spontaneous, joyous, done by
discussion and genuine consensus. FLA members conveyed their exhilaration
at the true spirit of community animating all of the students,
and their joy at the liberating act of taking control of their
own lives, at acting dramatically and even heroically for a moral
cause. They experienced, for that unforgettable day in their lives,
the shared joy of liberation, one that, perhaps some day, all
of us may share. God bless them and their generation.

the whole thing can be summed up by a sign carried by some of
the kids at an anti-war march in New York City on April 5. The
sign read simply: “Death to the State. Power to the People.” How
can you fault a movement having that as a slogan?

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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