First a note to readers in St. Louis. Tomorrow (4/17) Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, author of Democracy: The God That Failed, will be giving a lecture on that topic here at Washington University. It’s scheduled for 4 pm in Rebstock 215. I’m lousy at giving directions, so I’ll refer you to this campus map (Rebstock is building #29) and to the information desk at (314) 935-5998.
The benefits of bringing someone like Dr. Hoppe to a campus are obvious. Students who attend the event hear a learned talk from a pro-liberty perspective, a rarity at most universities. Even those who don’t attend get the benefit of the advertising — for Hoppe we’ve chalked the campus walkways with slogans such as "Down with Democracy!" and for an earlier event with Paul Gottfried we came up with even more provocative catchphrases ("Are you ashamed to be white?" was one of them). Chalking, by the way, is a very effective means of advertising. Posting boards are always cluttered, but sidewalks are usually bare, clean surfaces on which to present your message. If it’s legal on your campus, do it. Which brings me to another of the benefits of these events, that students get hands-on experience with fighting statism. In this case those who work especially hard also get to have dinner with Dr. Hoppe.
My last article made the case for another counterrevolutionary campus activity, reading groups studying classics of the conservative and libertarian tradition. A third activity as valuable as bringing speakers and running a reading group — more valuable even, if done right — is putting together a student newspaper. Every few months a conservative student paper makes news when its offices are burglarized, its entire print run stolen, or hundreds of its copies are burned by campus radicals. At Washington University I co-founded one such paper, the Washington Witness. We routinely face bureaucratic impediments, which are seriously threatening in their own right, but never have had a print run stolen. I like to pretend its because my colleagues and I strike fear into the hearts of campus Leftists. The truth is just that Washington University is a rare campus where there’s still a degree of civility.
Speakers, reading groups and publications are only means to an end however. For some students that end is personal advancement: padding out a resume and maybe toadying up to Republican congressmen. Others are in it to do something rather than to be someone. Good intentions alone though are not worth much. I know of conservative organizations on other campuses that have brought in top-dollar speakers (Margaret Thatcher, Charlton Heston), won national awards and distributed their publications on several campuses (or even nation wide), and had regular meetings attended by scores of students — but that have still failed to achieve any lasting good at their universities. What do you do after the speaker goes home? What do you accomplish by distributing a student publication nationally, as if you were competing with the Wall Street Journal or National Review? You have a hundred students at a meeting but how committed are any of them? I’ve seen groups that have done everything right, only to collapse after a few years — usually when the original leadership graduates. Those involved may have had fun while it lasted but they failed to achieve anything that endured.
I’m far from certain that my own efforts at Washington University will survive me, but that has always been my goal. Given the strain — academic, social and psychological — involved in these activities any shortage of fully committed talent will spell the end. That will be true on any campus. Still I take pleasure is seeing how the miniature institutions I’ve cultivated have grown and become a unique kind of "Washington University" conservatism. As high as the risk of failure is, I wholeheartedly recommend this kind of particularism to everyone. Think small-scale and long term (this applies outside of academia as well).
An essay I came across in an old issue of the Intercollegiate Review puts it concisely:
"In the case of large secular universities…which seem to be administered by those who think it their role to advance the cause of the universal and homogenizing state, the conservative task is to work toward developing smaller bodies on campus to resist homogenization from within. …Models for such associations exist: fraternities, dining clubs, literary societies, interest-oriented group houses, religious houses, independent ‘think-tanks.’ In each case a common life develops which, being independent of the control of the central authority, can be uniquely resistant to homogenization. Such groups should positively revel in their peculiarity, and conservatives should offer support in helping them retain or regain their independence." (Mark Henrie, "Rethinking American Conservatism in the 1990’s: The Struggle Against Homogenization." Intercollegiate Review, Spring 1993.)
This is why even with the best intentions and most capable students groups like the College Republicans or College Libertarians are limited in their effectiveness. Aside from the necessary narrowness of their ideas and activities, they simply are not campus-specific. They are defined from without and never become part of the very identity of their universities the way that unique, independent and non-partisan organizations can.
It takes time to develop an identity unique to a particular college. Everyone comes to campus knowing what a Republican or a libertarian is and this pre-fabricated identification helps those groups recruit. On the other hand you will be surprised just how many people come out of the woodwork to join a non-partisan conservative/libertarian organization precisely because they do not want to be associated with a given party. The same is true for ideology. Initially independent organizations may not have a clear ideology, but gradually one will grow and be better adapted to the campus than a set of beliefs derived from some outside entity. Conservatives like to talk about tradition, but tradition has to be endogenous and particular. Libertarians love freedom, but part of freedom has to be independence. Usually the campus projects of both libertarians and conservatives have failed because they have not taken their own overarching principles seriously enough. They haven’t put them into practice.
A number of think tanks and non-partisan institutions offer resources that particularistic student groups can adapt to their own purposes. Young America’s Foundation supplies speakers (I recommend the antiwar anarcho-capitalist and rap expert Reginald Jones. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has more scholarly speakers and other academic resources; ISI also administers the Collegiate Network, which assists independent conservative publications. The Leadership Institute offers training for students interested in broadcast journalism or in starting a campus publication. Some of these groups are neocon-ish, but ideology aside they can still be helpful. Organizations that are not exclusively concerned with campus activism also have resources to offer. The Ludwig von Mises Institute has several especially worthwhile summer conferences.
America’s universities have been breeding grounds for radicalism for over a generation now. As institutions they cannot be reclaimed from the Left all at once or all in the same manner. If campus counterrevolutionaries are to succeed, they have to use particularistic means. They have to revive and lead the independent traditions of their universities.