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

    Obstacles to Radicalization

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    Graphic from the New Masses supporting CUNY student protests concerning Pres. Robinson's censorship of the student press.
    Graphic from the New Masses protesting CCNY President Robinson's censorship of the student press.

  1. For students in Depression America there were many routes leftward. The array of factors inducing students toward political activism—including economic hardship, middle-class guilt, fears of war and fascism, the search for an egalitarian community, and the influence of progressive parents and teachers—were so numerous that one might well expect broad majorities of college students to become dedicated activists. And yet the number of students who actually went all out and became members of either the ASU or its rivals on the student Left was not overwhelming. In no single year did this activist core ever go much beyond the 20,000 figure which the ASU claimed as its national student membership. [l03] This represented only a small minority of America's national undergraduate population, which annually averaged slightly more than a million. Thus to understand student politics in Depression America, it is necessary to discern not only the factors which facilitated, but also those which impeded the activist impulse on campus.

  2. Throughout the Depression decade, traditional collegiate culture remained the biggest obstacle confronting the student movement. Thanks to Hollywood, millions of youths had been brought up with the idea that college was supposed to be a fun place, dominated by socializing sororities, frats, and football. This idea weakened considerably after it was challenged by both the student movement and the sobering crises in the American economy and in international relations. But it would be a mistake to confuse this weakness with collapse, for the old collegiate culture did not die. On campus after campus there were significant student minorities—and in some cases even majorities—which continued to see extracurricular college life in this traditional manner. Weakened as they were by the Depression, fraternities and sororities remained the largest residential social organizations of American collegians and a source of institutional power for non-radicals. Though the political and economic turmoil of the 1930s had made their collegiate lifestyle seem archaic to student activists, others thought differently. Anti-radicals in the Greek houses reasoned that with life after college looking so bleak, they should at least have some fun while they had a chance during their fleeting college years In this view the Depression was grim enough without having to be reminded of it by those depressing radicals. [l04]

  3. Youthful anti-intellectualism that had long been a part of traditional undergraduate culture bolstered this apolitical mind-set. Those collegians who dominated the world of frats and football were usually unfriendly to more intellectual students, whom they disparaged as "grinds." They criticized and ostracized such serious students for being too engrossed in their studies and not showing the proper collegiate spirit (ie. not throwing themselves into the time-consuming socializing and juvenile rituals of the frats and football set). Some of this same hostility to "grinds" was applied to radicals, who also were depicted as overly intellectual party poopers. "The Communists we knew," Henry May explains, "were too serious, intense . . . for most middle class young Americans, and most... students came from the middle class." [105]

  4. Radical students and "grinds" did, as their critics charged, share a more serious outlook than the average student. Indeed, there was some overlap between these two groups. The ranks of the campus Left included some of the most intellectually gifted members of their college generation. An impressive number of movement alumni would go on to become prominent academics, writers and journalists, including Leo Marx, Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Saul Bellow, Richard Hofstadter, Theodore Draper, Seymour Martin Lipset, Joseph Lash, Leon Wofsy, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Kristol, Henry May, Pauline Kael, Harry Magdoff, Budd Shulberg, Merle Miller, Richard Rovere, Carl Schorske, Eric Sevareid, and James Wechsler. This does not mean, however, that the movement was always a magnet for intellectually intense or studious students. Hard times often tended to make diligent students more studious rather than more political. The Depression motivated many of them to work harder so as to assemble the strongest possible academic record and improve their chances in the constricted job market. Such students, as Harry Magdoff recalled, made City College "horrendously competitive, terribly competitive in terms of class work" during the early 1930s. Radical political activism could thus seem too time-consuming and risky (especially on campuses where students were expelled) for this type of job conscious student. [106]

  5. Time also posed an obstacle to activism for students who had been hurt economically by the Depression. Often when sociologists have explained the propensity of students for political activism, they point to the fact that undergraduates have more time for political thought and action than their elders. This was definitely not the case for working students—and during the Depression the majority did work their way through college. Those who labored long hours in low paying jobs, studied, and attended classes often did not have time for sustained political activism. This is not to say that combining employment and activism was impossible. The memoirs of CCNY night school student activists offer some remarkable examples of students who worked full time jobs by day, did their academic work at night, and somehow managed to squeeze in some political organizing. But such schedule juggling was difficult and discouraged all but the most politically conscious and energetic of students. [107]

  6. The movement had to contend as well with a substantial degree of hereditary politics. Not all collegians came—as had the radical student organizers portrayed above—from liberal or leftist homes. Indeed, throughout the Depression decade substantial numbers of students came from conservative middle-class families and reflected the political values of their parents. It is true that the national straw polls showed that in 1936 FDR became the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than a decade to win a plurality (48.3 percent) of the national student body. But significant as that victory was, it should not be forgotten that 44 percent of American students went Republican that year. This meant that a very significant minority of undergraduates nationally would not be friendly to the egalitarian agenda of a student movement to the left of the New Deal. In the South, moreover, even though the student majority voted Democratic, its politics followed the racially reactionary path of local white supremacist politicians and parents, and was generally cool toward the integrationist student movement. [l08]

  7. Although these obstacles to radicalization helped limit the size of the ASU, it must also be borne in mind that the ASU's influence on American campuses during the Depression decade far transcended the size of the organization. Small as the ASU might seem in comparison to the overall student population, in the context of American student politics, the ASU was a formidable presence. Its membership of 20,000 not only far exceeded previous student activist organizations, but was also much larger than any competing national student group in Depression America. This meant that on many individual campuses and in every region except the South, the ASU's vocal and dedicated activists lacked effective competition and could set the tone of American student politics. [l09]

  8. The significance of the ASU's membership level becomes even clearer when one turns from the Left to the Right. One can understand the direction of student politics in Depression America by noting the absence of any kind of effective national organization of conservative student activists. Where the Left had the 20,000 member ASU, the Right had nothing of even half this size. Although students in the fraternities and those with Republican backgrounds might seem to offer the Right a natural constituency to challenge the ASU, the fact was that no serious effort was made to mount such a challenge. In the reformist New Deal era, conservatives knew they were out of step with majority student opinion. Consequently, they were unwilling to make the time commitments and personal sacrifices necessary to build national activist organizations when the political field seemed so unpromising.

  9. The ASU both facilitated and benefited from a leftward shift on campus which was far broader than its own dues paying membership. This shift was reflected in surveys of student opinion throughout the 1930s, which found majority support for more equal distribution of wealth, greater government regulation of business, and an expanded welfare state. Roosevelt's victory in the 1936 student polls was a testament to how far the Depression had brought the campuses since the 1920s, when large student majorities had gone Republican. This was particularly good news for the ASU, which in the mid-1930s moved into a political alliance with the Roosevelt administration. But, of course, the most dramatic sign of change and of the ASU's dominance of student politics in this era came each spring, when the ASU spearheaded anti-war demonstrations which annually mobilized hundreds of thousands of students. [110]

  10. The influence of the ASU-led student movement was by no means confined to these spring strikes. The movement was helping to change some of the central institutions of American student life. This occurred most decisively in the case of the student press. At the dawn of the Great Depression, collegiate newspapers were overwhelmingly apolitical, often reporting more on college social life and football than serious news. By the mid-1930s, much of the college press was not only focusing on politics, but commenting upon it from a Left-liberal perspective. The movement had accomplished this by dispatching activists to work in the student press and by exposing editors to leftist ideas and causes. A Fortune magazine national report on college youth confirmed the movement's success in this area, finding that

    college newspapers are often far to the left of the undergraduate bodies. This is particularly true at Columbia, Vassar and Dartmouth, where the radicals provide almost the whole vocal element. Much of the energy that went into art in the undergraduate days of F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . now goes into the fledging political writing of a Left tinge for the college papers. [111]

  11. In helping to politicize the campus and prod collegians leftward, the student movement transformed the very ideal of student leadership. In the 1920s collegians awarded leadership not to the politically aware or intellectually developed student, but rather to the one who was socially adept and prominent in campus social clubs or athletics. However, this ideal of leadership came under steady fire from the student movement. A new and more political conception of student leadership was gradually taking hold on campus. This change was reflected in a 1936 New York Times student survey, which concluded:

    Nowhere is the new liberalism more apparent than in the 1936-style campus leader .... He is no longer the star athlete, [or] the "smooth" prom man .... His stigmata are more apt to be brains, a good grasp of student and national problems and frequently leadership in the peace movement. [112]

  12. The effect of this change was especially visible in student government elections. Formerly little more than popularity contests, these elections on many campuses became serious political races in which substantive social issues were raised. This trend even affected the nationwide association of student governments—the National Student Federation—which under the influence of the student movement began to support Left-liberal causes, including the American Youth Act campaign in the mid-1930s. [113]

  13. These changes in the student press and government indicate the far reaching impact that the student movement—and the activist impulses which created it—had on Depression America's college campuses. The movement had made impressive progress in its goal of transforming student life; its national anti-war strikes, marches on Washington, ties with the Roosevelt administration, politicization of student leadership demonstrated that students had become serious political actors. The campuses were no longer, as they had seemed in the 1920s, merely playgrounds for middle-class youth. [114]

  14. Such changes suggest that had the ASU and the student movement lived long enough, they might have achieved a lasting revolution in American student life. But this was not to be. The apolitical culture of frats and football, socials and sororities would prove more enduring-living through the war years and obtaining unparalleled supremacy in the 1950s. The ASU's failure to achieve any lasting impact on student politics and culture came about because the organization at the age of four began to self-destruct, due to the influence of the communists in its leadership. From the fall of 1939-1941 the increasingly communist-dominated ASU so discredited itself that the student movement died, burying as well the politically active style of student life that it had pioneered.


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