The 1960s generation turns left

December 3, 2014

Fifty years ago today, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California (UC) Berkeley was at its height as police cleared an occupation of the Sproul Hall administration building, arresting close to 800 people. The free speech struggle at Berkeley was the start of the student rebellion of the late 1960s, in the U.S. and around the world.

The movement had taken off two months before when police attempted to arrest an activist for defying a ban on student groups using a campus plaza to ask for support and donations for off-campus causes, like the civil rights movement. Before the arrested activist could be taken away, students surrounded the police car. A demonstration went on continuously for the next 32 hours--with the blockaded car serving as the speakers' platform--until UC President Clark Kerr was forced to negotiate with students.

Talks continued in the following weeks, but UC officials took a hard line, threatening strict punishment for students and organizations. The pickets, protests and occupations culminated on December 2 with a huge rally that took over Sproul Hall. When police moved in during the early morning hours and arrested the occupiers, a student strike was organized--it paralyzed the campus in the coming days.

Joel Geier was a central participant in the Free Speech Movement. The Independent Socialist Club he cofounded in the midst of the Berkeley struggle later became the International Socialists, and for more than two decades, he has been a member of the ISO. He talked to Dan Russell about the making of the Free Speech Movement and the lessons it holds for today. This is the second half of a two-part interview--the first can be found here.

TODAY, IN places like Britain and Chile and Quebec, there are established and ongoing student unions. Was there ever any talk about trying to build an undergraduate student union during the Free Speech Movement?

NOT TOO much during the course of the Free Speech Movement, but there was toward the end of it.

The free speech movement ran from September to the big December sit-in and student strike. After that was Christmas break, and when students came back, there were examis. The new semester began in February, and there were attempts to hold mass civil rights demonstrations in Jack London Square in Oakland, just south of Berkeley. In cities like Oakland and Richmond, there was a strong, all-Black movement, which the Berkeley CORE chapter worked with.

So there was an attempt to engage in civil rights activity, with mass picket lines and so on, but it petered out, as did the organizing around a kind of student-union formation. There are ups and downs in any movement, and the Free Speech Movement was no exception. After the huge struggles of December, there was a kind of letdown--lots of people want to go back to their normal lives, or at least try to assimilate the lessons of what happened.

A student strike paralyzed the UC Berkeley campus after the mass arrest of Sproul Hall occupiers
A student strike paralyzed the UC Berkeley campus after the mass arrest of Sproul Hall occupiers (Don Kechely)

But then the war in Vietnam escalated. In February, the U.S. began Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombardment of North Vietnam, and massive numbers of troops began to be deployed--by the end of the year, there were already 200,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.

The first activities of the antiwar movement were teach-ins, and at Berkeley--because of the Free Speech Movement that came before it--you had the biggest turnout of anywhere in the country. The first teach-in was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which had about 1,000 or 2,000 people--when they got Berkeley, 30,000 people attended.

Next came the formation of the Vietnam Day Committee, also started in Berkeley. It began with the troop train demonstrations. Soldiers were brought by railroad to the Bay Area and shipped out to Vietnam from there--so the Vietnam Day Committee called demonstrations to try to stop the trains. This became the largest of direct-action anti-Vietnam groups in the country at this point, and it was a direct product of the radicalization of the Free Speech Movement.

THERE HAS been an attempt to institutionalize the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. There are official, campus-approved celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement anniversary this year, and an annual Mario Salvio award is given to a local student activist. But at the same time, there's a backlash on campuses like UC Berkeley against Palestinian rights activists. What are your thoughts on this kind of the institutionalization of the free speech struggle?

I THINK it's in the introduction to State and Revolution where Lenin talks about how there's an attempt, after the death of revolutionaries, to turn them into harmless figures and celebrate them. I think some of that is going on here--they're taking a mass protest movement, which represents the early stages of the radicalization of the left of the 1960s, and turning it into a semi-establishment thing. You have a radical leader like Mario Salvio turned into an icon, but with his radical content destroyed.

There is an enormous free speech fight going on in this country right now around Palestine solidarity. The case of Steven Salaita is the best-known aspect of it--he's a professor fired because of his criticism of Israel and its war on Gaza this summer. If that wasn't recognized at the official 50th anniversary celebration as one of the main battles going on in this country, then I think you do have something that's becoming institutionalized.

The message of the free speech movement was against the liberal establishment of this country, which was fighting against the civil rights movement when it stepped on the toes of American capitalism. I would say that Steven Salaita is the Mario Savio of this year, and Students for Justice in Palestine are the legitimate heirs of the Berkeley struggle of 1964.

HOW HAS the role of the university under capitalism changed in the last 50 years, and has that changed the relationship between students and society, compared to what existed at the time of the Free Speech Movement?

WE HAVE to start from the enormous change between universities before the Second World War and the universities of the postwar period--the era where Clark Kerr was the theoretician of their economic and social role.

Universities before the Second World War were, for the most part, elite institutions to train and educate the ruling class. In the postwar period, with the expansion of American capitalism, universities had become institutions that created middle management and technicians for an expanding capitalist system and imperialist state.

By the mid-1960s, the University of California was doing a lot of research for the military, along with other universities, to develop the weapons of mass destruction that were used in Vietnam. I think that Kerr was one of the first theoreticians of this, and that was something that was highlighted in the Free Speech Movement.

What we've gotten in the last 40 years is the neoliberalization, not just of the economy, but of the universities. I told you that when I went to school at Berkeley, tuition was affordable for working-class students if they worked 10 hours a week or worked over the summer.

The universities still produce white-collar workers for American capitalism on an even more massive scale, but it's capitalism that has changed--it has become much more neoliberal, and with it, there is much more of a class differentiation between the 1 Percent and the 99 Percent.

I got my bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago. In 2011, the president of the University of Chicago made $3.4 million--on par with the head of a corporation. Large numbers of university presidents and administrators make the salaries of the 1 Percent--this is in order to assure that they have the same ideological outlook as the 1 Percent.

So universities are much more institutionalized, and with the absence of a radical movement like the one that existed in the 1960s, they have been able to put in place all sorts of policies that leave graduating students today with enormous debts. They're indebted to the corporations from the beginning, so it's more difficult for them to resist.

The goal is to force them into a mode where they don't step out of line, but I think the Occupy movement and the campaign around the Salaita case are the first initial steps to try to challenge this. But these are still minority movements on campuses in terms of where most people stand. Occupy was a tremendous step forward, but it didn't leave behind any organization or lasting power.

I think that Clark Kerr was a forerunner of what was going to occur with neoliberalization. And the Free Speech Movement was an early rebellion against this direction. It won in the 1960s, but since then, neoliberalization has been carried out on a much wider scale, and U.S. politics has been dragged to the right.

Right now, there isn't a student movement that can challenge the priorities of what has gotten to be a much, much worse situation, for students and for faculty--or at least those faculty who are adjuncts and barely scrape by, not the small layer that is paid big salaries. A class differentiation that has gone on inside the university reflects the changes in U.S. society over the last 40 years.

WHAT LESSONS should we take away from the Free Speech movement today?

THE FREE Speech Movement came out of the civil rights movement, which had created a small but significant layer of leftists on the campuses. It showed that, at different points in time, it's possible for radicals to win over their generation. That's the significance of what took place.

The Free Speech Movement acted as a catalyst for this to take place throughout the country as people got the courage and the confidence they hadn't had before the free speech movement won. It spread across the U.S. and internationally. Berkeley was the center of the international student radicalization, at least through 1968, when it shifted to Europe and took on more radical forms.

I think it's important for people to understand that those circumstances repeat themselves, though it may be a long time between the high points. Nothing like this took place between the 1930s and the 1960s, and it hasn't taken place for a long time now.

It was possible to break through at Berkeley because there was already a political layer that was different from all other campuses. That was why there was both a crackdown by the university and state authorities, and a successful fight against it. That political layer that came out of both activism and an ideological struggle, and that's what we're engaged in today--rebuilding both of those things.

Rebuilding a left means showing that struggles can break out like in Ferguson or Occupy, but also waging an ideological struggle to win people over--not just against the right wing, but against the liberal currents of American capitalism. We need to carry out an ideological struggle to create a radical cadre and a radical political culture on campuses, so when things do open up, they can lead to much bigger battles and bigger successes.

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