Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 18 March 2021


The Making of the New Left

The movement inspired young people to believe that they could transform themselves—and America.
Protesters from the Free Speech Movement
Protesters from the Free Speech Movement marching through Sather Gate, the University of California at Berkeley, November 20, 1964. From left: Mona Hutchin and Ron Anastasi (students); John Leggett, Morton Paley, and John Searle (faculty); Sallie Shawl, Michael Rossman, and Mario Savio (students).Photograph by Chris Kjobech, Untitled (Free Speech Movement), 1964 / Courtesy the Oakland Tribune Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, gift of ANG Newspapers © The Oakland Museum of California; Photo illustration by Paul Sahre

The New Left was born in the early nineteen-sixties as a revolt against the modern university, and it died less than ten years later, in the auto-da-fé of Vietnam. Although it helped mobilize opinion on issues like civil rights, urban poverty, the arms race, and the war, the New Left never had its hands on the levers of political power. But it changed left-wing politics. It made individual freedom and authenticity the goals of political action, and it inspired people who cared about injustice and inequality to reject the existing system of power relations, and to begin anew.

If this was a fantasy, then so was the Declaration of Independence. Fresh starts are not difficult in politics. They are impossible. You can shake yourself loose from some of the past, but never from all of it. “All men are created equal” did not turn the page on slavery. But there were many who hoped that it would, and if there weren’t people willing to place all their bets on a better future—and that was the spirit of the New Left—then we would not be worth much as a society.

The New Left emerged independently at two great postwar knowledge factories, the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. More than a third of their students were in graduate or professional school. Michigan had more contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration than any other university in the country. Berkeley was the main federal contractor for nuclear research, and had more Nobel laureates on its faculty than any other university in the world.

Michigan was the birthplace of the largest and best-known student political organization of the decade, and probably ever: Students for a Democratic Society. S.D.S. was descended from the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), which had been limping along for decades until, in 1960, it was renamed, on the ground that, as the first president of S.D.S., Alan Haber, put it, SLID was an embarrassing acronym for an outfit in decline.

Haber had entered the University of Michigan as an undergraduate in 1954 (and did not receive his B.A. until 1965). His first name was Robert, for the Progressive senator Robert La Follette, of Wisconsin, and his parents approved of SLID and their son’s politics. He was known as the campus radical, but he was not a fire-eater. If S.D.S. had been associated only with people like him, it would almost certainly have failed to attract recruits. It needed a charismatic person who came from the place most students at Midwestern public universities in the nineteen-fifties came from, the shores of the American mainstream. Tom Hayden was such a person.

Hayden was born in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit, in 1939. His parents were Catholic—he was named for St. Thomas Aquinas—who, unusually, divorced, and Hayden was raised principally by his mother in somewhat straitened circumstances. But he had a normal childhood, and he did well in school. He entered Michigan in 1957 and became a reporter on the student paper, the Michigan Daily. Hayden had no political ambitions. In his coursework, he was drawn to the existentialists, then very much in vogue in American colleges. But in 1960 there was an uptick in student activism, and Hayden, a twenty-one-year-old college junior, independent and professionally uncommitted, was perfectly positioned to be caught up in it. “I didn’t get political,” as he put it. “Things got political.”

The inspiration for the Northern student movement was a Southern student movement. On February 1, 1960, four first-year students from the all-Black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in the Woolworth’s department store in downtown Greensboro. The waitress (who was Black) refused to serve them, so they sat there all day. The next day, nineteen additional students showed up to sit at the lunch counter. The day after, it was eighty-five. By the end of the week, there were an estimated four hundred. Sit-ins quickly spread, and, within ten weeks, the movement had led to the formation, under the leadership of the civil-rights veteran Ella Baker, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would become a major activist organization of the civil-rights movement.

In March, Haber came to Hayden’s office at the Daily. He told him that Michigan students were picketing Ann Arbor stores as a show of sympathy for the Southern students and suggested that he cover it. Hayden wrote some stories about the picketers, but he had little impulse to join them. Around the same time, though, he read “On the Road,” which had come out in 1957, and the book inspired him, like many others, to hitchhike to California. There, he got a quick course in politics.

In Berkeley, he met with students who had demonstrated at an appearance in San Francisco of the House Un-American Activities Committee (huac) and had been dispersed with fire hoses by the police. In Delano, he met organizers for Chicano farmworkers. In Los Angeles, at the Democratic National Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy for President, he interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. At a student conference near Monterey, Hayden gave a talk on “value stimulation.” The spirit of self-determination, he said, “has bowed to the vast industrial and organizational expansion of the last 75 years. As a result, the majority of students feel helpless to chart their society’s direction. The purpose of the student movements is at once simple and profound: to prove human beings are still the measure.”

The final stop on Hayden’s road trip was the annual conference of the National Student Association (N.S.A.), which was being held at the University of Minnesota. About twenty-five members of SNCC had been invited. Hayden was thrilled to meet them. “They lived on a fuller level of feeling than any people I’d ever seen,” he wrote later, “partly because they were making modern history in a very personal way, and partly because by risking death they came to know the value of living each moment to the fullest. Looking back, this was a key turning point, the moment my political identity began to take shape.”

Video From The New Yorker

The N.S.A. convention was debating whether to adopt a statement of support for the sit-ins. The issue was controversial for some delegates because it meant endorsing illegal actions. One of the speakers in favor of a statement of support was a white graduate student from the University of Texas named Sandra (Casey) Cason.

Cason was from Victoria, Texas. She took racial segregation “as a personal affront,” she later wrote, “viewing it as a restriction on my freedom.” Even before Greensboro, Cason had participated in protests against segregation in Austin, where she was active in the Young Women’s Christian Association. The University of Texas had started admitting Black undergraduates in 1956, but only one dormitory was desegregated, the Christian Faith and Life Community. That is where Cason lived. She got interested in existentialism and began reading Camus. After graduating, she taught Bible school in Harlem, and read James Baldwin.

“If I had known that not a single lunch counter would open as a result of my action, I could not have done differently than I did,” she said in her speech to the N.S.A. delegates in Minneapolis. She went on:

I am thankful for the sit-ins if for no other reason than that they provided me with an opportunity for making a slogan into a reality by making a decision into an action. It seems to me that this is what life is all about. While I would hope that the N.S.A. Congress will pass a strong sit-in resolution, I am more concerned that all of us, Negro and white, realize the possibility of becoming less inhuman humans through commitment and action with all their frightening complexities.

When Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes to a government which supported slavery, Emerson went to visit him. “Henry David,” said Emerson, “what are you doing in there?” Thoreau looked at him and replied, “Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?”

She paused, then she repeated the last line. There was an ovation. The convention endorsed the sit-ins by a vote of 305–37.

Hayden was stunned. In almost any earlier left-wing political organization, Cason’s speech would have been written off as an expression of bourgeois individualism. But she was saying exactly what Hayden had been saying in Monterey. She was telling the students that this was about them.

It is doubtful whether Black demonstrators being taunted, fire-hosed, beaten, and arrested felt that they were coming to know “the value of living each moment to the fullest.” People like Cason and Hayden cared about injustice, but the fundamental appeal of politics for them was existential. “We were alike . . . in our sense of moral adventure, our existential sensibility, our love of poetic action, and our feeling of romantic involvement,” Hayden wrote about meeting Cason. He was now ready to join S.D.S.

Two people standing at table covered in piles of paper.
“I turned the big pile of papers into three smaller piles of papers we can go through the next time we clean the house.”

He courted Cason by sending her boxes of books, including Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” which he had frantically underlined. They got married in 1961 and eventually moved to New York City, and it was there, in a railroad flat on West Twenty-second Street, that Hayden wrote the first draft of what would be known as the Port Huron Statement. “I was influenced deeply by ‘The Power Elite,’ ” Hayden said, and the effect of C. Wright Mills’s 1956 book is obvious.

Mills, who was born in Waco, Texas, in 1916, was a large and energetic man, the kind of person who builds his own furniture. He was also disciplined, organized, and prolific. By the time he died, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-five, he had written more than half a dozen books.

Mills spent most of his career at Columbia. He was self-consciously a maverick, and had no compunction about criticizing his colleagues, some of whom were happy to return the favor. As a sociologist and a social critic—the roles were the same for him—Mills was interested in the problem of power. And he came to feel that there had been a change in power relations in the United States, caused by what he called “the new international position of the United States”—that is, the Cold War.

In “The Power Elite,” Mills argued that power was in the hands of three institutions: “the political directorate,” “the corporate rich,” and the military. The power of the first group, the politicians, had waned relative to the power of the two others, whom he called “corporate chieftains” and “professional warlords.” But the significant thing was that the three groups did not have rival interests: they constituted a single homogeneous ruling class whose members, virtually all white male Protestants, circulated from one institution to another. Dwight Eisenhower was in the military élite, then became President and filled his Cabinet with corporate heads.

Mills never explained exactly what the interests of the power élite were, or just what their ideology was. But ideology was not what engaged him. He believed, as John Dewey believed, that democratic participation is an essential constituent of self-realization, whatever decisions are collectively arrived at. Mills concluded that American democracy in this sense was broken. “Ordinary men,” he wrote, “often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. . . . The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.” (Although Mills grew up in a Jim Crow state, “The Power Elite” has nothing to say about race relations.)

The Port Huron Statement echoes Mills. It says that the Cold War had made the military the dominant power in what Hayden called (after Mills) “the triangular relations of the business, military, and political arenas.” Domestic needs, from housing and health care to minority rights, were all subordinated “to the primary objective of the ‘military and economic strength of the Free World.’ ” The Cold War was making the United States undemocratic.

Who could be agents of change in such a regime? The working class is the agent of change in leftist theory, a theory to which organizations like the League for Industrial Democracy (the progenitor and sponsor of slid) remained true. By this stage in his career, though, Mills had no use for organized labor. Labor leaders sat at the table with the rest of the power élite, he said, but they played no real role in decision-making. Faith in the revolutionary mission of the proletariat belonged to what he called the “labor metaphysic,” a Victorian relic. Mills was not really interested in wealth and income inequality anyway. He was interested in power inequality. But he had no candidate for a change agent.

In the fall of 1956, Mills went to the University of Copenhagen on a Fulbright, and travelled around Europe (sometimes on a BMW motorcycle that he bought in Munich and that became an iconic ingredient in his persona). In 1957, he gave a talk at the London School of Economics. That visit was his introduction to the intellectual left in Britain, and he and his hosts hit it off. Mills had been disappointed by the reception of “The Power Elite” in the United States; in Britain, he found people who thought the way he did. “I was much heartened by the way my kind of stuff is taken up there,” he wrote to an American friend.

The British intellectuals to whom Mills was drawn—among them, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, the historian E. P. Thompson, and the sociologist Ralph Miliband—were calling themselves the New Left. They were more Marxist than Mills was, but they believed that culture and ideology had become as important as class in determining the course of history.

Mills returned to the L.S.E. in 1959 to give three lectures entitled “Culture and Politics.” (“A huge, alarming Texan has just been lecturing to the London School of Economics,” the Observer reported.) The following year, Mills wrote an article for the British journal New Left Review, which Thompson and Hall had founded. “I have been studying, for several years now, the cultural apparatus, the intellectuals—as a possible, immediate, radical agency of change,” he wrote. “For a long time, I was not much happier with this idea than were many of you; but it turns out now, in the spring of 1960, that it may be a very relevant idea indeed.” Travelling abroad, he had come to believe that young intellectuals were capable of enlightening and mobilizing the public. The article was called “Letter to the New Left.”

Mills’s “Letter” was mocked by his Columbia colleague Daniel Bell, who called Mills “a kind of faculty adviser to the ‘young angries’ and ‘would-be angries’ of the Western world.” But the “Letter” was taken up by S.D.S., which circulated copies among its members and reprinted it in a journal, Studies on the Left, launched by graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. “He seemed to be speaking to us directly,” Hayden wrote about the “Letter.” Mills had “identified ourselves, the young and the intellectuals, as the new vanguard.”

This was a wishful misreading. Mills did not have Americans in mind at all. He was responding to developments in Britain, in Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland and Hungary, and in Latin America. His next book, “Listen, Yankee,” was a defense of Castro’s revolution. Those were the young intellectuals he was referring to.

Nevertheless, Hayden was inspired to compose his own “Letter to the New (Young) Left,” in which he complained about the “endless repressions of free speech and thought” on campus and “the stifling paternalism that infects the student’s whole perception of what is real and possible.” Students needed to organize, he said. They could draw on “what remains of the adult labor, academic and political communities,” but it was to be a student movement. “Young,” in Hayden’s “Letter,” meant “student.”

What was needed, Hayden said, was not a new political program. What was needed was a radical style. “Radicalism of style demands that we oppose delusions and be free,” he wrote. “It demands that we change our life.” Not having a program meant keeping the future “up for grabs.” This approach meant that direct actions, like campus sit-ins, undertaken for one cause (for example, abolishing R.O.T.C.) would find themselves being piggybacked by very different causes (for example, stopping university expansion into Black neighborhoods, as happened at Columbia in 1968 and Harvard in 1969). Demands kept multiplying. This was not because events got out of the organizers’ control. It was the way the New Left was designed. Policies weren’t the problem. The system was the problem.

Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the S.D.S. convention at which Hayden’s statement was adopted was held at an educational camp in Port Huron, Michigan, that had been loaned to the group by the United Auto Workers. For the Port Huron Statement represents the American left’s farewell to the labor movement. The statement did end up containing a section supporting unions, but that was added at the demand of the students’ League for Industrial Democracy sponsors. Critical remarks about the Soviet Union were added for the same reason. Yet those preoccupations—the working class and Stalinism—were precisely what the students wanted to be rid of. “Dead issues,” Casey Hayden called the concern about Communism. “I didn’t know any communists, only their children, who were just part of our gang.” The students did not think of themselves as pro-Communist. They thought of themselves as anti-anti-Communist. To older left-wing intellectuals, that amounted to the same thing. Hence the New Left slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” It meant “Don’t trust an old socialist.”

The Port Huron convention began on June 12, 1962, with fifty-nine registered participants from S.D.S.’s eleven chapters. (There were eventually more than three hundred. The military escalation of the war in Vietnam, beginning in 1965, turbocharged the movement, particularly among male students, who were subject to the draft.) Participatory democracy—“democracy is in the streets”—and authenticity were the core principles of Hayden’s forty-nine-page draft. In that spirit, the delegates debated the entire document, section by section. “The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic,” the statement says. Since pure democracy and genuine authenticity are conditions that can only be reached for, never fully achieved, this was a formula for lifelong commitment. It asked you to question everything.

Still, the statement does not call for revolution or even an end to capitalism. Its politics are progressive: regulate private enterprise, shift spending from arms to domestic needs, expand democratic participation in the workplace and public policymaking, support decolonization movements, and advance civil rights by ridding the Democratic Party of its Southern segregationists, the Dixiecrats. (That problem took care of itself in the 1964 Presidential election, when the South flipped from solid blue to solid red.)

But the statement begins and ends with the university:

Our professors and administrators sacrifice controversy to public relations; their curriculums change more slowly than the living events of the world; their skills and silence are purchased by investors in the arms race; passion is called unscholastic. The questions we might want raised—what is really important? Can we live in a different and better way? If we wanted to change society, how would we do it?—are not thought to be questions of a “fruitful, empirical nature,” and thus are brushed aside.

The university has become a mechanism of social reproduction. It “ ‘prepares’ the student for ‘citizenship’ through perpetual rehearsals and, usually, through emasculation of what creative spirit there is in the individual. . . . That which is studied, the social reality, is ‘objectified’ to sterility, dividing the student from life.” And academic research serves the power élite. “Many social and physical scientists,” the statement says, “neglecting the liberating heritage of higher learning, develop ‘human relations’ or ‘morale-producing’ techniques for the corporate economy, while others exercise their intellectual skills to accelerate the arms race.” These functions are all masked by the academic ideology of disinterestedness.

At the end of the statement, though, the university is reimagined as “a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.” Academics can perform the role that Mills accused American intellectuals of abandoning: enlightening the public. For this to happen, students and faculty, in alliance, “must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy. . . . They must make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life.”

The Port Huron deliberations lasted three days. They ended at dawn. Hayden was elected president of S.D.S. (Haber was happy to return to being an undergraduate), and the delegates walked together to the shore of Lake Huron, where they stood in silence, holding hands. “It was exalting,” one of them, Sharon Jeffrey, said later. “We felt that we were different, and that we were going to do things differently. We thought that we knew what had to be done, and that we were going to do it. It felt like the dawn of a new age.”

Tom Hayden’s charisma was the cool kind. He was lucid and unflappable. Mario Savio’s charisma was hot. Savio’s gifts were as a speaker, not as a negotiator. He channelled anger. Savio’s politics, like Hayden’s, were a kind of existentialist anti-politics. “I am not a political person,” he said in 1965, a few months after becoming famous as the face of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (F.S.M.), something most people would have called political. “What was it Kierkegaard said about free acts? They’re the ones that, looking back, you realize you couldn’t help doing.”

Savio was born in New York City in 1942. His parents were immigrants, and Italian was his first language. When he learned English, he developed a fairly severe speech impediment, which may have helped make possible his later renown as the greatest orator of the American New Left, since he was forced to concentrate on his enunciation.

Savio entered Berkeley as a junior. The campus appealed to him in part because he had heard about the student protests against HUAC that had been broken up with fire hoses. His first campus political activity was attending meetings of the University Friends of SNCC. He agitated for civil rights in the Bay Area, and in 1964 he went to Mississippi to participate in Freedom Summer. Soon after he returned to Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement began.

It seemed to erupt spontaneously. That was part of its appeal and part of its mystique: no one planned it, and no one ran it. It had no connection to S.D.S. or any other national political group. The reason is that the F.S.M. was a parochial affair. It was not a war for social justice. It was a war against the university administration.

The fuse had been lit long before 1964. The administration’s tensions with faculty dated to a controversy over loyalty oaths in 1949, which had led to the firing of thirty-one professors; its tensions with students dated to the emergence of an activist organization that participated in student-government elections in the late fifties.

The administration was hostile to political activity on campus for two reasons. The first had to do with the principle of disinterestedness, which called for partisan politics to be kept out of scholarship and the classroom. But there was a more pragmatic reason as well. U.C. administrators were wary of the system’s Board of Regents, many of whom were conservative businessmen. Joseph McCarthy was dead, but HUAC, though increasingly zombie-like, lumbered on. So political activity on campus was banned or tightly regulated—not only student organizations, leafletting, and the like but also outside political speakers. It wasn’t that administrators did not want dissent. It was that they did not want trouble.

Until the fall semester in 1964, students had been allowed to set up tables representing political causes on a twenty-six-foot strip of sidewalk just outside campus, on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way. One day, a vice-chancellor, Alex C. Sherriffs, whose office was in Sproul Hall, the administration building that adjoined the area with the tables, decided that the spectacle was a bad look for the university. He conveyed his concern to his colleagues, and on September 16th the university announced a ban on tables and political activities on that stretch of sidewalk.

Representatives of student organizations, when their appeals proved unavailing, began picketing. On September 30th, in violation of the ban, organizations set up tables at Sather Gate, on the Berkeley campus. University officials took the names of students who were staffing tables and informed them they would be disciplined. Students responded by staging a brief sit-in outside the dean’s office. The next day, tables were set up again on campus and, at 11:45 a.m., university police arrested Jack Weinberg for trespassing.

Weinberg was a former Berkeley mathematics student who had been soliciting funds for the Congress of Racial Equality at the foot of the steps to Sproul Hall. (He was also the person who coined the slogan about not trusting anyone over thirty.) When he was arrested, he went limp, and officers placed him in a police car that had been driven into the middle of Sproul Plaza. Students immediately surrounded the car; eventually, there were more than seven thousand people in the plaza. Some of them climbed onto the roof, with Weinberg still inside, to make speeches. That roof was where Savio made his oratorical début. Weinberg remained sitting in that car until seven-thirty the next evening.

While he was there, student leaders met with administrators, now led by the president of the entire U.C. system, Clark Kerr, and negotiated an agreement for handling Weinberg, the students who had been disciplined for violating the ban on tables, and the students who were preventing the police from moving the car. The agreement also revisited the rules for on-campus political activities.

Kerr was the perfect antagonist for Savio, because Kerr had literally written the book on the postwar university: “The Uses of the University,” published in 1963. “The Uses of the University” basically transcribes three lectures Kerr gave at Harvard, in which he described the transformations in higher education that led to what he called “the multiversity” or “the federal grant university.” The text became a bible for educators, revised and reprinted five times. Savio called Kerr “the foremost ideologist of [the] ‘Brave New World’ conception of education.”

As his book’s title suggests, Kerr’s view of the university was instrumental. The institution could grow and become all things to all people because it was intertwined with the state. It operated as a factory for the production of knowledge and of future knowledge producers. In the nineteen-sixties, undergraduate enrollments doubled, but the number of doctoral degrees awarded tripled. These graduate students were the experts, Kerr thought, that society needed. The president of a modern university, he argued, is therefore basically a mediator.

“Mediator” was a term Kerr later regretted using, for it exposed exactly the weakness that Hayden and Savio had identified in higher education: the absence of values, the soullessness of the institution. Kerr was not unmindful of this grievance. The transformation of the university had done undergraduates “little good,” he admitted. “The students find themselves under a blanket of impersonal rules for admissions, for scholarships, for examinations, for degrees. It is interesting to watch how a faculty intent on few rules for itself can fashion such a plethora of them for the students.”

“Interesting to watch” is mediator talk. Kerr even had a premonition of how the problem might play out. “If federal grants for research brought a major revolution,” he wrote, “then the resultant student sense of neglect may bring a minor counterrevolt, although the target of the revolt is a most elusive one.” Unless, of course, the university gives the students the target. A ban on tables was such a target.

Child about to eat a giant ice cream sundae but doesn't want the cherry on top.
“Do I have to eat the cherry?”

The students involved in the Sproul Plaza “stand-in” didn’t trust Kerr. They suspected he would manipulate the processes he had agreed to so that the students could be disciplined and restrictions on political activity would remain. They probably were right: Kerr seems to have underestimated the strength of student support for the activists all along. So the activists continued to strategize, and, amid the action, they came up with a name for their movement.

“The Free Speech Movement” was an inspired choice. The students didn’t really want free speech, or only free speech. They wanted institutional and social change. But they pursued a tactic aimed at co-opting the faculty. The faculty had good reasons for caution about associating themselves with controversial political positions. But free speech was what the United States stood for. It was the banner carried into the battles against McCarthyism and loyalty oaths. Free speech was a cause no liberal could in good conscience resist.

Another way to gain faculty support was to get the administration to call in the police. No faculty wants campus disputes resolved by state force. At Berkeley, this was especially true for émigré professors, who knew what it was like to live in a police state. Astonishingly, the administration walked right into the trap.

The F.S.M. continued to hold rallies in Sproul Plaza, using the university’s own sound equipment. And since most students walked through the plaza at some point, the rallies attracted large crowds. Tables reappeared on campus, and the organizers were sometimes summoned for disciplinary action and sometimes not. On November 20th, three thousand people marched from Sather Gate to University Hall, where a meeting of the regents was taking place. Five F.S.M. representatives were let in but were not allowed to speak. By then, the F.S.M. had attracted members of the faculty and a range of students, from the conservative Mona Hutchin, of the Young Republicans, to the communist revolutionary Bob Avakian. Free speech was a cause that united them all.

Then Kerr overplayed his hand. On November 28th, disciplinary action was announced against Savio and another student, Arthur Goldberg, for the entrapment of the police car on October 1st, among other malfeasances. On December 1st, the F.S.M. demanded that the charges against Savio and Goldberg be dropped, that restrictions on political speech be abolished, and that the administration refrain from further disciplining students for political activity. If these demands were not met, the group promised to take “direct action.”

The demands were not met. A huge rally was held in Sproul Plaza the next day, leading to the occupation of Sproul Hall by a thousand people. Before they entered the building, Savio gave a speech, recorded and broadcast by KPFA, in Berkeley. He depicted the university as an industrial firm, with autocratic governance:

I ask you to consider: If this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors; and if President Kerr in fact is the manager; then I’ll tell you something. The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be—have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product. Don’t mean . . . Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels . . . upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

The transformation of students at élite universities into a new working class (with an echo of Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times”) was complete.

As Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” (a civil-rights anthem, but originally a song of the labor movement), the students proceeded to occupy the four floors of Sproul Hall. Shortly after three o’clock the following morning, hundreds of police officers stormed the building and arrested about eight hundred people, the largest mass arrest in California history. Protesters passively resisted; police responded by throwing the men down the stairs. It was not until 4 p.m. that the last protester was removed.

There was a meeting of more than eight hundred professors and instructors, and they voted by an overwhelming margin to support the students’ demands. On January 2, 1965, the regents announced the replacement of the school’s chancellor, and a liberal policy on political activity was unveiled the next day, a clear signal of capitulation. Unrest at Berkeley was by no means at an end. The war in Vietnam would see to that. Nor were the repercussions over. In 1967, Savio served four months in prison for his role in the Sproul Hall sit-in. But Kerr had done what the F.S.M. had hoped he would do: he had radicalized the faculty.

The movement that started in Port Huron and Berkeley soon got sucked into the political maelstrom of the late sixties. In March, 1965, the United States began its immense bombing campaign against North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder. That month, marines landed near Da Nang, the first American combat troops in Vietnam. By 1968, there would be more than half a million American soldiers there. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael introduced the slogan “Black Power” and replaced John Lewis as the chairman of SNCC, which began turning away white volunteers. The Black Panther Party was founded the same year. The women’s movement and, after 1969, the gay-liberation movement, representing subordinated groups that the New Left had given little attention to, occupied center stage. Militancy took over, liberals were driven away, and American politics descended into chaos.

In retrospect, the New Left’s break with the labor movement seems a disastrous, maybe an arrogant, miscalculation. So does its support for the Hanoi regime, which, after it finally united the country, in 1975, turned Vietnam into a totalitarian state. But the New Left never had any political cards to play. It was always a student movement. Today, the left has the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to turn its ideals into policy. There was no such wing in 1962.

Still, the spirit of Port Huron and the F.S.M. was not forgotten. The students involved had experienced a feeling of personal liberation through group solidarity, a largely illusory but genuinely moving sense that the world was turning under their marching feet. That sense—the sense that your words and actions matter, that you matter—is what inspires people to take risks, and gives movements for change their momentum.

“What can I call it: the existential amazement of being at The Edge, where reality breaks open into the true Chaos before it is reformed?” one of the F.S.M. leaders, Michael Rossman, wrote ten years later:

I never found words to describe what is still my most vivid feeling from the FSM . . . the sense that the surface of reality had somehow fallen away altogether. Nothing was any longer what it had seemed. Objects, encounters, events, all became mysterious, pregnant with unnamable implications, capable of astounding metamorphosis.

The music historian Greil Marcus was a Berkeley undergraduate in 1964. He described the experience of rallies and mass meetings this way:

Your own history was lying in pieces on the ground, and you had the choice of picking up the pieces or passing them by. Nothing was trivial, nothing incidental. Everything connected to a totality, and the totality was how you wanted to live: as a subject or as an object of history. . . . As the conversation expanded, institutional, historical power dissolved. People did and said things that made their lives of a few weeks before seem unreal—they did and said things that, not long after, would seem ever more so.

These reminiscences may seem romantic. They are romantic. But they express the core premise of left-wing thought, the core premise of Marx: Things do not have to be the way they are.

The nation was at a crossroads in the nineteen-sixties. The system did not break, but it did bend. We are at another crossroads today. It can be made to bend again. ♦

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