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Student Activism in the 1930s
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    Activist Impulses: Campus Radicalism in the 1930s
    Robert Cohen

    Economics and the Shift Left

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    Hell, Do We Have to Chew On Our Sheepskins Again? Cover art from the magazine Revolt, December, 1932
    "Hell, Do We Have to Chew On Our Sheepskins Again?" Cover art from the magazine Revolt, December, 1932)

  1. Both in the families that did witness generational conflict and many of those that did not, a common leftward trend was discernible. Student organizers were often more radical or more active politically than were their parents. This was obviously the case for students from conservative homes like Jones and May; but it was also true in liberal families. Though students from liberal homes proudly traced their dissidence to their parents, in many cases, the autobiographies reveal that even as they appreciated their parents' reformist politics, they were moving beyond it. This leftward shift was evident with such activists as Jack McMichael, son of a liberal physician, becoming a Christian socialist and ally of the Communist Party; James Jackson son of an NAACP-style liberal, becoming a communist; Irving Howe, son of trade unionists, becoming a Trotskyist; Alice Dodge, daughter of liberal Republicans, becoming a socialist. Even in families already on the Left this trend had a significant parallel, in that the children often tended to be more politically active and militant than their socialistic parents. [65]

  2. When asked to account for this leftward trend, the NSL and SLID during the early 1930s pointed, above all, to economics. They viewed the Depression as the great radicalizing force of their time. Thus in its December 1932 editorial, "Why Students Are Turning to Socialism," the Student LID's magazine Revolt traced undergraduate radicalism to "the impact of the economic crisis."

    Family incomes have declined and student budgets have been curtailed. Working students have discovered the usual summer jobs are no longer available, while wages for part-time work have fallen. Tuition fees have been increased . . . [and] the sacrifices involved in securing a college education are now less handsomely rewarded .... Educated for jobs that do not materialize, students will grow resentful towards the existing order and will use the learning they have acquired to overthrow it. [66]

  3. This economic theory of radicalization evolved out of both the personal experience and political ideology of NSL and SLID leaders during the early 1930s. By the end of the Hoover era, the Depression had (as seen in Chapter I) transformed the mood on campus. The economic crisis had made it possible for leftists to challenge the insularity, complacency, and elitism of traditional student culture. Seeing the contrast between the increasingly progressive student politics of their own era and the Republican campuses of the affluent 1920s, student radicals had good reason to see economics as the key to the student revolt of the early 1930s. Moreover, NSL and SLID leaders were predisposed toward this kind of interpretation, since they were influenced by Marxist ideology and its assumption that economics was the driving force in history.

  4. This theory of radicalization mirrored the travails of students whose own incomes and home lives had been diminished by the Great Depression. Among these students was Junius Scales, an ASU organizer and young communist, who attended the University of North Carolina. Home for young Junius included a mansion and affluent lifestyle in a prominent southern family. But the real estate market crash brought "severe financial reverses" to his family, devastating his father, who suffered a nervous breakdown and heart attack. These events left Junius receptive to the anti-capitalist talk of leftist students who congregated in the radical bookstore near the Chapel Hill campus. [67] Economic hardship and family tragedy also caused the politicization of a Vassar ASU activist. When she was a young girl, her father lost his well paying job in the western Kentucky oil fields because of the Depression. Thrown out of work, her father then lost his house and

    tried everything desperately. We moved into a little town in Tennessee where it was somewhat cheaper to live. A small income from a part interest in an oil well supported us for a while. That ran out. We moved into a two-room apartment, had the electricity turned off, bought at each grocer's in town m turn as we used up our credit. Practically the only jobs open at this time were traveling salesman jobs on commission. My father worked in insurance, school supplies, refrigerators, gadgets for oil stoves. Perhaps we should not have been too surprised when after a desperate penniless Christmas at home, he went off in his second-hand Ford and did not come back. We understood why .... I was sixteen then. I knew that my father loved us, that my mother still loved him, and I knew too that when every door was closed, there was no other way.

    Thanks to her "absolutely mad obsession to go to a good college," she studied hard and performed well enough to obtain a Vassar scholarship. She became "a member of the ASU at Vassar because knowing what I know, I must learn to act." Similarly, a midwestern student traced the roots of his activism to his father's hours being lengthened and wages being cut in half: "Watching him become dehumanized, my mother becoming more ill intensified my feelings, and I felt the necessity for becoming [politically] active." [68]

  5. With wages being cut, students who paid for their education had to work longer and harder than previous generations of self-supporting undergraduates. Whether they tried to make ends meet by washing dishes, cleaning houses, or waiting tables, the hardships these students experienced at home and at school sometimes moved them leftward. A University of Iowa ASU activist was among this group of students. His father lost his farm, had to move to town, and "went to work as a day laborer #[$]3.50 a day when he worked, and employment was unsteady." The son found that at high school affluent students shunned him because of his poverty. He realized that higher education would only be possible if he could join

    that growing crew of college students who "work their way through." I chose the University of Iowa because it was cheap and because bad jobs were plentiful. Far be it from me to question the truth of Horatio Alger and the great American tradition of working-your-way-up-from-the-bottom, but my first three years in college were a kind of ever conscious hell—three hours sleep, day-old meals, heavy eyes, trying to keep awake in classes, being too tired to try for debate, studying in odd minutes .... I combined the three—scholastic success, activities and work. It's not a pleasant combination. [69]

    The memory of these hardships remained even after this student won a scholarship to study in Europe; it prodded him to become critical of the economic system that had victimized him, and it led him to a group of young radical British intellectuals, with their Marxist perspective and calls for a Popular Front against fascism.

  6. For some student movement veterans, economic hardship was such an important source of their activism that they looked back upon the entire movement as an outgrowth of such hardship. Film critic Pauline Kael, for instance, viewed the student movement during her college days at Berkeley in the 1930s as an insurgency produced by lower class youths. She recalled very well defined class lines distinguishing movement activists from the rest of the Berkeley student body; "there was a real division between the poor who were trying to improve things on the campus and the rich kids who didn't give a damn." Palmer Weber, an NSL leader from the University of Virginia, observed a similar class division on his campus in the 1930s. In both cases, the wealthiest students, belonged to Greek houses and had nothing to do with the student movement. At Virginia, according to Weber, the most affluent students were "people who came" to campus "in their Cadillac cars," and who were much more interested in holding golf clubs or hunting rifles than picket signs. During Christmas vacations, while radicals hitched their way to leftist student conventions, the University of Virginia's "car crowd, hunting crowd, golfing crowd . . . went off to Bermuda." Virginia's radicals came not from this rich upper crust, but rather from the third or so of the student body that was much too poor for Caribbean cruises. Since these students were feeling the pinch of hard times, they were, as Weber explained, "willing to think, talk and entertain ideas of how to reorganize society." [70]

  7. This class analysis of the student movement, offered by Kael and Weber, accounts for some, but by no means all of the student activism of the 1930s. The findings from our sampled activist group indicate, in fact, though students hurt economically by the Depression constituted a significant minority, they were not a majority within the student activist community. In our sampled activist group, economic hardship was cited by 29.6 percent of the students as they explained their politicization. The 29.6 percent figure ought not be interpreted too rigidly. It is possible that lower-class students may have been underrepresented in our sampled group, since over half the sample was drawn from participants in SLID and ASU summer leadership conferences-which some working students, due to time limitations, may have been unable to attend. But even if this was a significant distortion (and the presence of lower-class students at both conferences suggests that it was not), and if one builds in a huge 20 percent margin of error, this would still leave a majority of students whose activism was not linked to economic hardship or class interests. [71]

  8. The limitations of class analysis as a mode of understanding student activism in the 1930s was also reflected in the memoirs of the student movement's national leaders. One such leader, Celeste Strack, entered the student movement at UCLA in 1934 with assumptions about the movement's social base identical with those of Kael and Weber. Strack's own family had been hard hit by the Depression, as were the families of many of her comrades in the UCLA student movement. She assumed that student activists across the nation came from families that had been hurt by the economic crisis. But when Strack went beyond her own campus, and became a national NSL leader with contacts at other colleges and universities, she found that her class analysis of the student movement had been simplistic. Strack came to this realization during her first visit to New York. She had recently made a name for herself as a leader in the free speech fight at UCLA and was in New York to assume her new national office in the NSL. Here Strack's comrades in the student movement put her up in the home of Helen Simon, a Barnard College NSL leader. Strack was startled to find that this Barnard radical's home was an

    apartment on Fifth Avenue or right off it .... There was a doorman. I go in with Helen. We go up on the elevator. We go walking through carpets ankle deep, and I'm ushered into my own private bedroom with its own private bath that belonged to her sister who was in Europe. The next morning I was woken by somebody knocking on the door, and it was the maid saying breakfast was ready. I said "Well just give me a minute and I'll be right out." "No," she said, "I have it here," and arrived with a tray with breakfast. I can still see it; there was a silver vase with a rose on it, and next to it was a folded copy of the Daily Worker. I could not believe my eyes. I, of course, was under the impression that I had come to New York to become associated with a left-wing revolutionary movement .... The initiation was a little more than I could bear. I didn't know whether to laugh or what to do, so I said nothing about it. [72]

  9. Strack's encounter with this affluent Ivy League radical had parallels on other campuses. Theodore White observed a similar disjunction between economic hardship and student radicalism as a Harvard undergraduate during the 1930s. White recalled that he and his friends—lower-middle class commuter and scholarship students, who were poor by Harvard standards—found themselves visited

    regularly by Harvard's intellectual upper-class Communists, who felt that we were of the oppressed. Occasionally such well-bred, rich or elite Communist youngsters . . . would bring a neat brown-paper-bag lunch and join us at the round tables to persuade us, as companions, of the inevitable proletarian revolution. [73]

    But Harvard's affluent student radicals made few converts among White and his plebian classmates. This failure, White explains, derived from the fact that

    We were . . . middle class in the flesh-hungry and ambitious. Most of us, largely Boston Latin School graduates, knew more about poverty than anyone from Beacon Hill or the fashionable East Side of New York. We hated poverty; and meant to have no share in it. We had come to Harvard not to help the working classes, but to get out of the working classes. We were on the make. And in my own case, the approach to Harvard and its riches was that of a looter. [74]

  10. At Columbia James Wechsler found that the class divisions his Marxism had led him to expect—with the more blue-collar students assuming leadership—in student politics did not materialize. Columbia's most proletarian students were football players, recruited from mining towns and other working-class communities. But according to Wechsler, "these same athletic battalions tended to produce the most violent opponents of radicalism .... The athletic proletarians were always warring against the champions of Marxism and any symptom thereof." [75]

  11. The pattern that Strack, Wechsler, and White observed was by no means confined to the Ivy League. Joseph D. Martini, assessing the social base of the student Left at the University of Illinois, in the most thorough quantitative case study of a single campus in the 1930s, revealed that here too relatively affluent students played a prominent role in radical politics. The largest group of Illinois student radicals came from families whose fathers were employed in professional occupations. At the Illinois campus 45.8 percent of the student activists came from such families, as compared to the overall student body of which only 17.9 percent came from households headed by fathers in the professions. The proportion of working-class students was also lower in the Illinois student Left than it was in the student body as a whole-8.3 percent of the student radicals came from blue-collar homes as opposed to 15.2 percent in the overall student body. [76]

  12. These contrasting images of student activists' crass background derive from the diversity of the movement itself. The movement included both the type of lower-class rebels described by Kael and Weber and the more affluent radicals described by Strack, White, and Martini. The autobiographical essays of participants in the SLID and ASU leadership institutes leave no doubt at all that privileged and underpriviledged students were both well represented in the movement. The ability of the student movement to transcend class lines was also evident in the movement's political geography. The largest and most active ASU chapters included such working- and lower-middle class campuses as CCNY, Brooklyn, and Hunter Colleges, but also much more elite campuses, such as Harvard, Vassar, and Columbia. [77]

  13. The movement's diverse social composition suggests that student activism involved much more than economic self-interest. Even a glance at the motivations of affluent student activists reveals that their activism had little or nothing to do with their class interests. The Depression moved them leftward by evoking guilt and compassion rather than economic insecurity. Such guilt was visible, for example, in the political autobiography of a Vassar ASU organizer. In explaining how she first became aware about social inequality in America, this activist recalled that as she grew up in her prosperous Boston household

    I began to realize that my family had more money and more things than the majority of the families in the country .... We moved into a larger house, unnecessarily large, which made the difference even more marked .... I began to feel quite guilty and ashamed at having really more things than I wanted, when so many had nowhere near enough. This feeling increased during the depression. [78]

  14. Affluent student activists were more likely to experience the tragedy of the Depression vicariously, through less fortunate friends rather than through their own families. This was the case, for instance, with Kay Martineau, an ASU organizer whose father ran a successful New Hampshire newspaper. Her first personal encounter with the economic crisis came when the father of a blue-collar high school friend tried to commit suicide after he went broke during the Depression. This led to her first stumbling steps toward social criticism. "I wished they weren't so poor and I disliked the comfortable and selectman. But I didn't know just why." These early stirrings accelerated after a visit to another school friend, the daughter of an impoverished carpenter, whose family "ate meals of boiled potatoes from tin plates [and] . . . slept in meal bags." At college she "began to question" the undemocratic features of American life on campus and off after encounters with the hardships and inequities confronting her friends. One of these encounters involved her college roommate,

    who was working her way through. She stayed in and I went out, she had no clothes, I had a lot, she got long letters from her family, telling her that her brother had no work and that her mother was thinking of illegally selling beer to make enough to eat. I joined a sorority. She didn't and I found her crying one night because she was called a "drip."

    Outraged that her sorority denied membership to lower-class and Jewish women, she resigned and began to think of herself as "a kind of social outcast." She gravitated toward the ASU as the most egalitarian group on campus and the one most committed to combating the social injustices which had victimized her friends. [79]

  15. The presence of affluent activists such as Martineau in the student movement was one of many indications that the movement was not merely an economic phenomenon. Had economic hardship been the most important source of student activism, then the movement would likely have been strongest during the worst years of the Depression on campus, 1932-33. These were years when unemployment was at its peak, when Hoover was stumbling, the viability of the New Deal uncertain, and student enrollments slipping. As Theodore Draper recalled of his college days in this era,

    My generation was a hopeless one . . . utterly defeatist. There were no jobs; the place was coming down. Most boys I knew didn't prepare themselves for careers at college because there weren't any opportunities. There was a real sense of a society in total collapse. [80]

    These economic hardships had facilitated the rise of the student movement in Draper's generation, prodding students to become critical of Hooverism and the failing capitalist system. Yet, in these hard times the movement would not grow nearly as fast as it did in 1936-1937, when economic conditions improved for the college middle class.

  16. The contrast between 1936-37 and the early days of the student movement was striking. Where in the early 1930s the movement never mobilized more than 25,000 students, in the later period the movement's national demonstrations involved about 500,000 students. This astonishing growth had occurred while collegians were benefiting from the moderate economic gains achieved by the New Deal. Thanks to the NYA, some 10 percent of the national student body, which otherwise might have had to drop out of college for economic reasons, received federally funded part-time work. The NYA and the mild economic upswing ended the decline in college enrollments that had begun under Hoover. Where in the early 1930s the news from the job market for college graduates worsened steadily, during the mid-1930s employment opportunities became far more promising. College seniors about to graduate in 1936, felt encouraged by surveys, like that published in the New York Times showing that nationwide their "employment opportunities had doubled . . . compared with 1935 . . . and that salaries are higher by an average of $10 per month." Job recruiters, who had all but disappeared from campus in the early 1930s, returned in the mid-1930s. By the fall of 1936 even teachers—one of the groups hardest hit by the Depression—were again in demand. [81]

  17. The economic climate improved so dramatically on campus in this period that much of the student Left muted its talk of a declining middle class and collapsing capitalist system. Student activists began to worry that classmates might be lulled into political lethargy by their improving economic situation. Thus in his keynote address to the ASU convention in 1936, Joseph Lash expressed his regret that the "glamor of tinsel, temporary prosperity has hit the campus. Students are deluding themselves into believing that the jazz twenties are returning. They want to convince themselves that the crisis which had descended upon the campus has passed." This same concern led the ASU in the fall of 1936 and 1937 to publish in its national magazine articles debunking the "new prosperity." These articles stressed the limited and temporary character of the economic recovery; they reminded students that mass unemployment continued. The ASU's warnings about the durability of the Depression proved well founded. The recovery faded during the 1937-1938 academic year. But the period of economic recovery on campus had shown that ASU leadership had erroneously thought that an improving economy would impede student activism. The growing anti-war strikes in these years attested that the student movement could enjoy good health whether or not the economy was in bad health. [82]

  18. The student movement's expansion in this period of recovery does not mean that Depression or social class were unimportant to the movement. The Depression remained a standing invitation for student activism throughout the decade; it reminded both lower-class and affluent students that America had severe social problems that merited their attention. Students radicalized by personal economic hardships or insecure about their career prospects in Depression America were always a significant segment of the student activist community. But the growth of student activism in the improved economy of 1936-37 does indicate that student movement's strength and concerns extended beyond economics.

  19. Even though this was the Depression decade, it was not this crisis, but rather the crisis in international relations which generated the largest student mobilizations in the United States: the annual student strikes against war. James Wechsler found this to be the case even at Columbia, one of the nation's most active campuses:

    When student fees were raised, we believed we had at last found an issue which touched the deepest economic nerve and which according to our dogma, should have stirred the largest indignation. But far more students attended anti-war rallies than ever gathered to decry this attack on their parents pocketbooks. [83]

    Since the cause of peace and anti-fascism concerned the entire younger generation, it enabled the student movement of the 1930s to transcend class lines and to organize impressive protests irrespective of the state of the economy.


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