All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1969

Our Totalitarian Radicals

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a number of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.

A frightful desecration of the true values and purposes of higher education, as conceived and out­lined by scholars from Plato to such modern figures as John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman and Woodrow Wilson is taking place on many university and college cam­puses throughout America today. The above-mentioned thinkers and many others have always envisaged the ideal university as a place aloof from the transient clamors of the day, where professors and students are partners in the search for the good, the true, and the beautiful, where debates and discussions are carried on with methods of reason and courtesy, where studies in the humanities and natural sciences are pursued in an atmosphere of tranquility.

The perfect university has never existed; but on both sides of the Atlantic, movement is away from, not toward, its ideals. Students whose qualifications in scholarship must be extremely dubious in many cases because of the amount of time they devote to such extra­curricular activities as harassing college administrators with per­emptory demands, often backed up by the crudest forms of physical coercion, are turning campuses in­to prize-fight arenas. The quarrel­some brawling that goes on under the most trivial pretexts, the end­less demonstrations on university property, often on subjects which are quite outside the range of the university student, the general at­mosphere of bedlam would be cal­culated to drive Socrates, St. Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, or any other great teacher to take off for the nearest available retreat in some desert, leaving behind an in­vitation to his most promising students to follow him.

Speaking at the dedication of a new library at Swarthmore, an ex­cellent small liberal arts college, the diplomat-scholar, George F. Kennan, himself a liberal dissenter from many conventional positions, drew this caustic contrast between Woodrow Wilson’s vision of an ideal university, shut off from the cares and clamor of the outside world, and the state of mind and behavior of the radical Left en­rolled in student bodies today. To quote from Kennan’s speech, which has been preserved in hook form as part of an informal dialogue, with replies from dissenting stu­dents and others:

“We have people utterly ab­sorbed in the affairs of this pass­ing world. And instead of these af­fairs being discussed with knowl­edge and without passion, we find them treated with transports of passion and with a minimum, I fear, of knowledge. In place of slowness to take excitement, we have a readiness to react emotion­ally, and at once, to a great variety of issues. In place of self-posses­sion, we have screaming tantrums and brawling in the streets. In place of the ‘thorough way of talk’ that Wilson envisaged, we have banners and epithets and obsceni­ties and virtually meaningless slo­gans. And in place of bright eyes `looking to heaven for the confir­mation of their hope,’ we have eyes glazed with anger and passion, too often dimmed as well by artificial abuse of the psychic structure that lies behind them, and looking al­most everywhere else but to heaven for the satisfaction of their aspira­tions.

“The world seems to be full, to­day, of embattled students. The public prints are seldom devoid of the record of their activities. Pho­tographs of them may be seen daily: screaming, throwing stones, breaking windows, overturning cars, being beaten or dragged about by police, and, in the case of those on other continents, burn­ing libraries. That these people are embattled is unquestionable. That they are really students, I must be permitted to doubt.”

The acceptance of Mr. Kennan’s speech by some of his audience was typical of the spirit of the “New Left,” a familiar name for the present generation of col­legiate radicals, in preferring abuse to argument. What hap­pened, in Mr. Kennan’s words, was as follows:

“But no sooner had I emerged from the stage door of the Col­lege’s auditorium than I was made aware—by the presence there of a group of angry young men, mostly bearded, who hissed their disagreement and resentment at me like a flock of truculent village geese—that I had stepped on some tender nerves.”

Internationally Contagious

Student unrest, often assuming violent and riotous forms, is not confined to the United States. There have been manifestations in free countries, where there is no excuse for violent lawbreaking, and in countries where the denial of all freedom explains and justi­fies what has happened. The most obvious and striking example is Czechoslovakia, where the timid concessions to greater freedom, political and economic, have been brutally swept away by the Soviet invasion.

Perhaps the most spectacular illustration of what can happen when student revolt takes place in an inflammable atmosphere was the paralysis of France last May. What began as a student revolt, involving clashes with the police, was followed by widespread strikes in factories and public services. The disorder was bought off by sweeping, across-the-board wage increases, out of all propor­tion to improved productivity. The harvest that was sowed in June was reaped in November. The wage increases, followed by ef­forts at artificial stimulation of the economy, made French exports less competitive and a stampede from paper francs into harder currencies like the German mark and the Swiss franc and into gold set in, touching off an interna­tional financial crisis.

Results of student revolt have not always been as concrete and spectacular as in France; but dis­orders there have been, spreading like ripples after a stone is thrown into a pool. Characteristically, there has been the highest meas­ure of restraint in Great Britain, although the University of London has had its taste of the American methods of sit-ins and “occupa­tions” of university buildings.

There has been more violence, in a few cases leading to deaths, in the Federal Republic of Ger­many, especially in the so-called Free University of West Berlin. Apart from legitimate grievances which students have on both sides of the Atlantic—but which are not likely to be remedied by smash­ing windows, blocking streets and provoking fights with the police —the causes of the German dis­orders are rather obscure.

For example, one of the first casualties occurred in the course of clashes between police and stu­dents in Berlin who objected to a visit to the city of the Shah of Iran—certainly a trivial pretext, especially as the Shah has proved himself more concerned with land reform and other progressive changes than the typical Oriental monarch.

There has been much windy declamation against the “System” and the “Establishment,” a glori­fication of communist professional revolutionaries like Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara, and Castro, and a general rejection of capitalism. The last seems a peculiar case of bad judgment on the part of young Germans.

If there is one country that owes its postwar rapid advance, quite literally, from rags to riches, to the bold, intelligent introduc­tion of the principles of capital­ism, especially the free market economy, that country is Germany. It is amazing that a younger gen­eration separated by only a few years from this clear demonstra­tion of the superiority of private economic enterprise both as a stimulus to industrial efficiency and as a foundation for the re­establishment, on a firm basis, of personal and political liberties, should produce so many misguided people yearning for the false gods of Oriental and Latin American communism.

A Valid Complaint

There is one justified cause of discontent for students on both sides of the Atlantic. For reasons that are sometimes similar, some­times different, they are not get­ting as good intellectual guidance and instruction as their fathers and grandfathers. Overcrowding is one problem. This is due partly to the general growth of popula­tion, which, like the weather, is something of which everyone com­plains without being able to do much about it.

Moreover, even allowing for the increased population, a far higher proportion of young people are going to universities and colleges. There is a belief, especially in the United States, that this is all to the good. But it is no benefit, rather an injury, to facilitate en­trance into college for the intel­lectually unfit and unprepared. This is especially worth bearing in mind when, on many American campuses, there is a deliberate ef­fort to recruit more students from racial minority groups, almost re­gardless of qualifications.

Most certainly, no qualified per­son should be excluded, because of race or color, from the benefits of higher education. By the same token, no one should have higher education thrust upon him if he is unable, through lack of training and preparation, to derive any benefit from it. Commonsensical Dr. Samuel Johnson rebutted crit­icism of the expulsion of some Oxford students for creating public disturbances by engaging in loud public prayer at inconvenient times and places:

“Sir, they were examined and found to be mighty ignorant fel­lows.”

To the comment that the hearts of the expelled students were well intentioned, Johnson offered his usual quick reply:

“Why, Sir, a cow is a very good animal in a field; but you do not turn her into a garden.”

War Damaged Schools in Europe

In Europe there has been no deliberate attempt to swell the ranks of students by making room for sometimes imperfectly pre­pared members of a minority ethnic group. But because of the breakdown of prewar class lines and the easier conditions of access to the universities, a larger pro­portion of the people are going to universities; and, despite the open­ing of new institutions in Great Britain, Germany, and France, this makes for overcrowding. On the continent of Europe there was a good deal of wartime destruction, especially in Germany, to be made good as regards buildings, labora­tories, and libraries; German stu­dents who come to the better American universities usually find the facilities far superior. Also, there is a disposition in Europe to rebel against old-fashioned teach­ing methods and the slight contact between professors and students.

There was no physical destruc­tion in the colleges and universi­ties of the United States. But in the matter of teaching, American students have their special griev­ances. Too often professors with high reputations find themselves attracted to research and to gov­ernment projects, with the result that actual contact with the stu­dents is in the hands of younger and less inspiring assistants. The restoration of teaching to its old and honored place may well be the Number One problem of the Amer­ican university.

The students of the American “New Left” (so-called because, unlike the orthodox communists, they look to a German refugee philosopher named Herbert Marcuse, not to Karl Marx for inspira­tion, and profess more admira­tion for Red China and for Cuba than for the Soviet Union) pride themselves on being not only learners but builders of a new order in America and throughout the world. Certainly, education should widen, not constrict the student’s view of the world around him.

Marcuse and the New Left

But the students of the New Left seem gravely deficient in many of the qualities essential for forming sound judgments, in qualities which intensive study should develop. For instance, they seem strikingly devoid of humility and of humor. They are never de­terred from staging demonstra­tions, confrontations, and whatnot, up to and including occupation of college property and provoked clashes with the police, by the re­flection that they might be wrong. Insistent on free speech for them­selves, they are unwilling to grant it to others.

And like their prophet Marcuse, they are intent on tearing down whatever displeases them, from college regulations to the Ameri­can government and society, with­out giving anything but the va­guest idea of what they would put in its place. There is nothing fresh or original in their ideas; they wallow in clichés about the sins of “society” and “the Establishment” that are half-baked and very im­perfectly thought out. It never seems to occur to them that in a modern industrial society of 200 million people work must be done, political and economic decisions must be made, priorities must be set, all sorts of problems of organi­zation must be faced.

Students for a Democratic Society

The largest association of the New Left calls itself Students for a Democratic Society. Its aspira­tions are voiced partly by disor­derly mass demonstration with mindless slogans, partly by such cloudy gobbledygook as the follow­ing excerpts from the Port Huron Statement of the SDS:

“The political order should serve to clarify problems in a way in­strumental to their solution…. Channels should be commonly available to relate men to knowl­edge and to power so that private problems from bad recreation fa­cilities to personal alienation are formulated as general issues.”

Make sense out of that if you can! At least it shows that the SDS leaders who formulated this piece of pretentious verbosity were quick to assimilate some of the worst intellectual and sty­listic idiosyncracies of their less-gifted professors.

About the nearest the spokes­men for SDS come to formulating positive goals is to denounce pov­erty and discriminatory treatment of blacks and other racial minori­ties and to denounce what they portentously call the Establish­ment for alleged responsibility for both these ills. What they com­pletely overlook is that there is some correlation (and this is true under any conceivable system) be­tween individual diligence and ability and individual reward. All that is apparently necessary, in their view, is to pull a few mys­terious levers and, Presto, a so­ciety of equals will emerge.

We have surely seen enough of the fruits of totalitarian fanati­cism in the records of communism and Nazism. The New Left is suf­fering from a bad case of this spiritual and intellectual malady. But the likelihood that they will strike deep roots in American life is fortunately slight. For they can be fairly designated as rebels without a cause, people who don’t know what they want and won’t be happy until they get it. Their fulminations will have about as much effect on an American so­ciety based on the twin principles of political liberty under law and economic freedom through a con­sumer-oriented market economy as pea-shooters bombarding the Rock of Gibraltar.




Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country from New England to Louisiana. They are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former nor the burning sands of the latter. What­ever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.

The innocent, those who have ever set their faces against vio­lations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law. And thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals are trodden down and disregarded….

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit, which all must admit is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the people. Whenever this effect shall be pro­duced among us, whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw print­ing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn ob­noxious persons at pleasure and with impunity—depend on it, this Government cannot last.


  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.