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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Have we unlearned how to learn? 1968 and today

Have we unlearned how to learn? 1968 and today

Erin Hagood

Platypus Review 168 | July - August 2024

This article was originally given as a teach-in at Columbia University and at the New School occupation in April 2024. It is published here with minor revisions. It also builds on a teach-in and article in the Platypus Review I wrote in August 2022, “SDS and the Legacy of the New Left today.”[1]

ON APRIL 17, 2024, the students of Columbia University’s “Apartheid Divest” coalition, led by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, erected an encampment, a “liberated zone” with posters copied straight from the Columbia occupation of 1968. As this encampment began, Columbia’s President Shafik was sitting before congress to testify about the rise of antisemitism on college campuses. When she returned to campus, President Shafik ordered the destruction of the encampments and the arrest of over 100 student protesters. Since then, the campus has been closed to visitors amid continuing protests, including protests by faculty and the erection of a new encampment. The students have demanded financial transparency, divestment from the war in Israel and Gaza, and (ironically?) a boycott of Israeli intellectuals and students through the Tel Aviv University exchange program, among other newer demands, such as amnesty for arrested students and a commitment to academic freedom.

The occupation of campus has seemed to many to be a “spontaneous” uprising of students, followed by similar “spontaneous” acts of solidarity from campuses across America, and now spreading across the world, so I hear, in Austria, France, Australia, and elsewhere. Such “spontaneity” would seem to defy theoretical understanding, but it is also misleading, for even spontaneity has its context — men make history, but not in the conditions of their choosing.

The radical posture of the protests are, in effect, preparing the way for the anti-Trump, anti-fascist popular front incorporation of the radical students into electoral politics. This cycle was born in the 1930s and repeated itself in the arc of the New Left from 1964 to 1972. This talk will focus on the student protests of 1968, to which the current protests make a specific analogy.

Perhaps counterintuitively for a protest movement with such slogans as “We can’t get bogged down in analysis” or “Whoever occupies himself with theory, without acting practically, is a traitor to socialism,”[2] I am going to start our inquiry with two “professors” — Marxists Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno. In their private correspondence about the 1968–69 student protests, they debate the relationship of the New Left radicals to the politics of the 1930s. Adorno is often considered a pessimist and critic of the New Left, not only for his written criticisms of the student movement, but for calling the police on students occupying and disrupting his lecture in Frankfurt in 1969. Following this incident, students continued to protest with the somewhat infamous “titty attack,” in which naked students waved their breasts in his face while throwing tulips on his head and chanting, “Adorno as an institution is dead!,” forcing Adorno to cancel his disrupted lectures for the rest of the semester.

Herbert Marcuse, though originally sympathetic to Adorno, became quite critical of him after speaking to one of the Frankfurt student protesters about the incident. Though Marcuse agreed with Adorno that the police can and should be called, even by a Leftist, if the occupation threatens to descend into violence or to destroy property and items necessary to the continuation of education, he felt Adorno should not have called the police on students. Adorno, of course, claimed that such a threat was exactly why he had taken such a measure. But they quickly realized that the heart of their disagreement had remarkably little to do with whether the police ought to have been called, a matter of split-second judgment of events. No, their disagreement had a political content.

Adorno, borrowing a term from Jürgen Habermas, warned that the student movement threatened to descend into “Left fascism,” that it would bring about the technocratization of the university that it claimed to oppose and that its opposition to thought was “regressive,” justifying and alibiing the status quo it claimed to disrupt while blocking the creation of an authentic critical theory. Marcuse took issue with this formulation — for he felt “Left fascism” was a “contradiction in terms” and that the self-contradiction of the Left could not lead to it becoming its opposite — the Right. Marcuse said that although it was not a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation, theory might be pushed further by praxis, and that this was what was happening in the thoughtless “actions” of the student protestors — not the thoughtlessness of fascism, but a praxis that could lead to further thought.

Adorno articulated the crux of their controversy: “You [Marcuse] think that praxis — in its emphatic sense — is not blocked today; I think differently.”

The two men, now teachers of the New Left with a large influence on the protesters around the globe, had in their youth — back in the 1930s and 40s — faced a similar demand to “act” and had opposed it. Adorno replies to Marcuse:

The strongest point that you make is the idea that the situation could be so terrible that one would have to attempt to break out of it, even if one recognizes the objective impossibility. I take that argument seriously. But I think that it is mistaken. We withstood in our time, you no less than me, a much more dreadful situation — that of the murder of the Jews, without proceeding to praxis; simply because it was blocked for us. I think that clarity about the streak of coldness in one’s self is a matter for self-contemplation. To put it bluntly: I think that you are deluding yourself in being unable to go on without participating in the student stunts, because of what is occurring in Vietnam or Biafra. If that really is your reaction, then you should not only protest against the horror of napalm bombs but also against the unspeakable Chinese-style tortures that the Vietcong carry out permanently. If you do not take that on board too, then the protest against the Americans takes on an ideological character.[3]

As Atiya Khan wrote in her 2009 articlefor the Platypus Review, titled “The decline of the Left in the 20th century: 1968,” the unification of praxis with a “non-existent theory” by the protestors recalled for Adorno:

the emergence of counter-revolution—expressed in the form of fascism/Stalinism—that had ensued in the aftermath of the crisis of 1917 leading to the disintegration of revolutionary Marxism by the 1930s and generating an acute problem of consciousness on the Left. In the postwar period, the devastation of the Left was supplanted by an “authoritarian character structure” that was expressed universally, not only in the fascist rallies, but also in the Popular Front movements, as well as in the anti-colonial, nationalist movements of the Third World. Frankfurt School theorists, including Adorno, theorized the notion of the “authoritarian personality” as a double-sided expression of counter-revolutionary and simultaneously, revolutionary potential that was rooted in the dialectical contradiction of capitalism. Borrowing from Freudian psychoanalysis, Adorno and his colleagues (Marcuse and Reich) interpreted the constitution of the “authoritarian personality,” characterized by “narcissism” and sadomasochism, as evincing a regressive “fear of freedom.” Thus, faced with “political hysteria” Adorno observed, “Those who protest most vehemently are similar to authoritarian personalities in their aversion to introspection.” Certainly the 1960s marked a political crisis, but one in which the Left, instead of evaluating the legacy of the 1930s Stalinism, reproduced those very structures and tendencies it sought to overthrow.[4]

To call the protests of 1968 “Left fascism” was indeed optimistic, for, following Wilhelm Reich, fascism has a progressive aspect. For Adorno, the complete identification with the machine in reified “actionism,” through which the subject is disciplined completely to the capitalist means of production, in reaching its outer limit would pose once more the question of subjective ends. For what does one develop the ratio[5]of action? The liquidation of the party, which mediated rational means with the end of freedom, severed the umbilical cord between theory and practice, obscuring the task of freedom. Nevertheless, the authoritarian personality complex of the students, which celebrates unfreedom, may have been an opportunity for discovering the task of freedom contained within universal unfreedom — but only if the latter could be recognized.

The protests of 1968 imagined themselves to be a progressive overcoming of the Stalinist Marxist Left of the 1930s, but what if it were only a further regression? What if the apparent “radicalization” of the Left were actually a repression of the most pressing historical problem, namely, the need to theoretically work through the block to emancipatory praxis?

This debate between “professors” articulates the theoretical problems at the core of the New Left of the 1960s and the student protests of 1968.

Then as now, Columbia was the ground zero for student protest. The Columbia Occupation of 1968 began when the Student Afro-American Society occupied Hamilton Hall to protest the Vietnam War and to demand that Columbia halt construction of a student-only gym in Harlem. According to Mark Rudd, this action and the subsequent “barricade” erected by the students in Hamilton Hall “radicalized” the “white, middle-class” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), of which he was a leader. The “oppressed” in the form of black people in America and the third-world guerillas in Vietnam and elsewhere, according to Rudd, took the “vanguard role” and awakened the students to their opposition to the system.[6]

However, the SDS students did not want to disconnect themselves from the “base” of students by remaining behind a barricade, so they set up a separate, “white” occupation. They had learned, according to Rudd, from black-power activist Stokely Carmichael that “blacks and whites must organize their own.”[7]

This so-called radicalization of the SDS and the organizational form it took in segregated occupations was not spontaneous, but had been prepared by the history of the SDS and the New Left’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Founded in 1960, Students for a Democratic Society was a catch-all for refugees of the New Left, a generation of young radicals and Leftists who felt they could not find a home in either the aged and anti-communist Socialist Party or the Stalinized Communist Party. Its prominent leaders, Michael Harrington (who would later go on to found the DSA) and Bayard Rustin, came from the Trotskyist tradition within the American Socialist Party. They led these new young students into the Civil Rights Movement, where they worked with SNCC and CORE[8] to organize mass sit-ins against segregation and voting drives to register juridically disenfranchised southern black people to vote. The coup de grace of this organizing came in 1963, when Bayard Rustin organized two days of mass protest in the nation’s capital: the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

But triumph comes before the fall. In 1964, the U.S. was swept into a presidential election. The incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson against Barry Goldwater. Deep in the Jim Crow South, activists in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had organized alternative meetings and votes to put forward delegates, including a significant number of black delegates, for the upcoming Democratic National Convention, in defiance of the Dixiecrats’ segregated, white-only Democratic Party. When these delegates were denied seats at the 1964 DNC[9] in Atlantic City, they left to boycott the convention and hold an alternative convention. When LBJ announced that no future DNC would be segregated, Bayard Rustin, the hero of 1963, now scared of the “Right-wing threat” coming from Barry Goldwater (sound familiar?) urged the delegation to take the deal. But Bayard Rustin had another point — any protest of the DNC would only be a sham independence, so why not be honest and enter the party within which one is already working? Feeling angry and betrayed, the delegation refused, and “black power” was born.

Within youth organizations like SNCC and SDS, this transformed into the belief that white and black radicals would have to organize separately since the white radicals did not face the same oppression and could not be trusted to support the radical demands of the movement. Bayard Rustin criticized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Development and the beginnings of these developments in his 1965 article, “From Protest to Politics.” Carl Davidson and Greg Calvert of the SDS’s new “Praxis Axis” countered this article with their own slogan, “From Protest to Resistance,” calling for base building and resistance to U.S. imperialism rather than the old social-democratic strategy. Greg Calvert had picked up the slogan of “resistance” from his time in Tunis with the Algerian resistance to French imperialism. The Praxis Axis looked to the “New Working Class” of black workers, students, and women to supplant the traditional working-class focus on the Left and provide a new revolutionary force.

Mark Rudd’s Columbia SDS of 1968 was a product of this earlier history. Mark Rudd was highly critical of this new Praxis Axis which was the majority tendency of SDS ahead of the 1968 protests, writing that, “Though possessing a ‘Marxist’ analysis, they believed that the way support is gained is by going out to people and talking to them about this analysis.”[10] When a Colonel from the Select Service Committee running the draft was scheduled to speak at Columbia, the Praxis Axis majority voted to attend the talk and “ask probing questions.” This was not enough for Rudd and his emerging opposition. They decided action was necessary, so as the Colonel was speaking, they landed a pie squarely in his face.

This new “radical” wing of the SDS called itself the Action Faction and sought to promote direct action through occupations and confrontations. Spurred by the occupation of Hamilton Hall by the Student Afro-American Society, the SDS called on the general student body to occupy campus and Low Library, which culminated in the police arrest of 1,000 protesting students after the disruption of classes for a week.

This action sparked similar protests across the world. In “Three Student Risings” (1968), Fawthorp, Nairn, and Triesman describe the occupation of three universities in Great Britain. The demands of these occupations are what is broadly described as “student power,” which included greater student control over universities and education under capitalism. This raised the question of the relationship of the university and the students to society as a whole. The three wrote:

Universities are linked to a set of productivity norms which, in order to be met, need a system as authoritarian as any other factory. Expose that, by linking it with outside repressive forces . . . and the first cracks will appear in the façade. When the outside insists on coming inside, we will know two things. One, we will lose; but the loss of “socialism on one campus” is inevitable and should stimulate support in all the others during the really hard struggle. Two, we will have won, because we will force the Administrations to openly show their relation to the capitalist machine, and the institutions’ implicit aim of producing a new generation of managers to rule the working class.[11]

Recognizing the students as future managers of capitalism, they wonder if radical students can question the status quo and work for socialism while embracing that managerial role.

This was not a new problem, but had been a central part of the student protests and strikes of the 1930s, in which students had protested the destruction of academic freedom, labor suppression, the anti-communism of the academy, the authoritarian administration of the university, and the specter of a second world war and attendant draft. In the 1930s as in the 1960s, the students demanded action — radical action. The Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), an important precursor to the SDS, wrote, “The radical movement has too many sideline commentators; the great need is for participants. Besides, action is one of the best ways of getting clarification.”[12]

Members of the student movement of the 1930s Old Left fought over the importance of “student issues” and how to connect them to the outside world. The basis of their protest of the university was its role in the progressive state that had emerged since the First World War and their role as students in reproducing the Bonapartist state management of the working class. But it was unclear what it would mean to oppose such things. As FDR embarked on New Deal programs, courting the support of labor unions, and the Communist Party (a major influence on the young students) shifted towards a “Popular Front” strategy of alliance with capitalist politicians against the threat of fascism, the student movement broke apart. They were no longer able to justify an anti-war stance in opposition to FDR and the Democratic Party. Hal Draper, a major figure in the Brooklyn College protests of 1934, wrote that “After four years of eviscerating the student anti-war movement for the sake of the grand alliance against Nazism, the Second World War was inaugurated with the Hitler-Stalin Pact.”[13] The students followed the Communist-led Popular Front into the Democratic Party and went all-in for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s third term. Draper declared, “The student movement was dead.”

These arguments about the relationship of “student power” to society and the role of the student protests in capitalist politics were rehearsed in the 1968 student protests. Mark Rudd was not sanguine about the “student power” wing of the protests, writing, “Th[e] student powerization of the Columbia rebellion and the New Left in general is an attempt on the part of the ruling class to de-fuse the social and political content of our Movement—rip its guts out, tear off its balls, and substitute some sort of faggoty, wimpy, tepid, ‘we-love-your-system-but-it-needs-reform,’ McCarthyite gook in its place.”[14] McCarthyite here refers to Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate in the Democratic Party running against LBJ in the primary that year.

The New Left radicals of 1968 were facing again the problems and questions that had been posed to the Old Left in the 1930s. How does a student work towards the socialist revolution? What is socialism? How should the Left relate to capitalist parties like the Democratic Party? How do students relate to the working class? Should one be “anti-fascist” or “anti-imperialist”? The young Leftists saw the history laid out before them — the betrayal of the communists and the liquidation of the radicals into a Popular Front strategy, the institutionalization of revolution to support the neverending march of capitalism — and they resented it.

Rudi Dutschke, a leader of the SDS and student protests in Germany, believed that the last 50 years of the German workers’ movement from 1918 to 1968 were a “chain of betrayals by leftist and rightist intellectuals.”[15]

In the theses of protesting students from the Sorbonne, they write: “Let us not allow our goals to be assimilated as those of the proletariat have been.”[16]
Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit in their essay on the May student uprisings in Paris, specify this “assimilation.” They believed that the Bolshevik Revolution led to bureaucratization, and that contemporary Marxists of all stripes “look upon the proletariat as a mass that needs to be directed from above.”[17] They identified this mistake in the creation of a Marxist party for socialism. The Cohn-Bendit brothers argued that Lenin, who in his famous pamphlet What is to be Done? (1902)said that consciousness must be brought to the proletariat from without, had thus condemned the proletarian revolution to failure. They saw the student action as a corrective to the party. They would not theorize consciousness and attempt to lead the workers through the constitution of a party. Rather, they would “encourage the workers to struggle on their own behalf, and show how their every struggle can be used to drive a wedge into capitalist society.”[18]

Dutschke also pointed back to the failure of the Marxist revolutionaries and parties of the early 20th century, who had betrayed the workers in 1914 when they voted in favor of war credits, beginning WWI and sending the proletarians of all countries to fight each other in imperialist war instead of making the international revolution. At the time, the Marxist leaders of the Second International Social Democratic Parties argued that they had to support the war because they would lose the support of the working-class majority if they did not. In so doing, they sacrificed what Dutschke calls the “historic interest of the producers” for their immediate interests.[19]

Student protests were seen as a historically specific corrective to this defeat and failure of the Marxist Left. For Dutschke, the “historically correct limitation of our action to the university should not be made into a fetish.”[20] In the students, as in the “lumpen proletariat” of the Third World, the immediate interest was the same as the historic interest. Theory could be derived directly from the needs and actions of the present, with no need for a party or a group of intellectuals to mediate the problem.

Historically, Marxists argued for the merger of socialist intellectuals with the working-class movement in an independent socialist party. In this party, a socialist politics would be developed through theoretical and practical struggle. The radicals of 1968, seeing that this was not happening, sought to sidestep the question of forming a party by promoting the unity of action between the students and the oppressed of the Third World.

But this emphasis on “spontaneity” was only the flipside of the “organization” the Stalinists had held up when they kicked out the intellectuals and liquidated the historical Bolshevik Party and Communist International in the name of supporting “socialism in one country.” Both jettison the dialectic in favor of a one-sided actionism. The dialectical tension between spontaneity and organization, between theory and practice, between the workers and intellectuals, which the Marxist party for socialism had sought to work through, is lost.

The students of the 1968 protests hoped that through radical action and support for the “oppressed,” they could overcome their role as intellectuals stuck in the tired debates they inherited from the Old Left and join with a truly revolutionary practice. In this way, they believed they would overcome the crimes and betrayals of Stalinism and the socialists of the past.

They called for action, not thought. As the Cohn-Bendits write:

Between us we can change this rotten society. Now, put on your coat and make for the nearest cinema. Look at their deadly love-making on the screen. Isn’t it better in real life? Make up your mind to learn to love. Then, during the interval, when the first adverts come on, pick up your tomatoes, or if you prefer, your eggs, and chuck them. Then get out into the street, and peel off all the latest government proclamations until underneath you discover the message of the days of May and June. Stay awhile in the street. Look at the passers-by and say to yourself: the last word has not yet been said. Then act. Act with others, not for them. Make the revolution here and now. It is your own.[21]

So the students acted in 1968 and their confrontation with police batons and bullets made national headlines. But the tragedy of the Spring gave way to the farce of the Summer. At the 1968 DNC, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy ceded the nomination to Humphrey, LBJ’s former Vice President. Outside the gates of the convention, the students of 68 were burning their bras and shouting in protest. Inside the convention, Bayard Rustin, that old hero of the Civil Rights Movement, was working the floor for Humphrey to stop the looming “fascist threat” of Richard Nixon.[22]

But they wouldn’t have to remain outside for long. In 1972 for the nomination of New Left favorite George McGovern, student radicals would be invited inside. He even set up racial, gender, and age quotas to ensure that the Democratic Party was representing these young rebels adequately. The “radical street protests” of four years earlier became a new popular-front strategy going all in to stop the evil Richard Nixon. Those who were left out became sectarian Marxists, anarchists, and even terrorists. 1968 was not the birth of the New Left, but its death. Not its greatest success, but the final protest against its failure before its accommodation to a new reality.

Earlier this year, thousands of youth wrote “Ceasefire” onto ballots for the Democratic Party primaries that aren’t. The radical protests that we see today are the Democratic primary that was canceled for the coronation of Genocide Joe, and Palestine is Bernie Sanders, now that Bernie is all in for Biden. Their slogan is not freedom, nor even less revolution, but martyrdom. What does the Left care for martyrdom? And yet the avowedly “Marxist” and “socialist” Left lauds the protests as a new revolutionary moment. The protests will denounce the crimes of capitalism, and some may even “resist” to their last breath, even when the crowds have all gone home, but for what? What will these actions have to do with socialism? What does it have to do with Marxism? We see already that, just as Adorno warned the New Left, the protests have inaugurated the new regime of censorship and bureaucratic management that the students denounce. Could it not be the case that, like the New Left the students copy, they will become their opposite — a New Right — and that all the radical phrases, happenings, and confrontation will only prepare the very capitalist domination they seek to oppose? What time is it on the historical clock? Maybe, when we look ahead to what we hope is a new future, we will just see Theodor Adorno, looking over his shoulder and winking at us.

We are repeating history, but without the political content of the New Left crisis, which forced young people to reconsider their relationship to historical Marxism. Today, protests copy all the effects of 1968, but not a word is said about its relationship to history. In the face of seeming repetition, one may want to say something, to stop our peers from going down the path of the past, but it’s far too late for that. This repetition has already happened. Today, the task of the socialist revolution and reconstituting an emancipatory politics has already been abandoned by the Millennials in favor of working within the progressive state and the Democratic Party. One either goes along with it or protests the fait accompli.

In 1914, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the world was faced with two-alternatives: socialism or barbarism. Today we live in the aftermath of the failed revolution for socialism, which has left us with nothing except for barbarism. In barbarism, humanity is a “will-less football.” But Rosa Luxemburg wrote that there was still hope, “if we have not unlearned how to learn.”

Unable to understand the historical meaning of our own activity, we liquidate our only hope for changing our condition in the name of an “action” which may be completely amenable to the continuation of capitalism to the Greek kalends.[23] Nobody believes that the protests will end the war. They just want to do something, anything in the face of the horror. But suppression of the task of socialism in the name of “radical action” will only kick the can down the road to another generation, making the avowed Left the allies of continued regression and the progenitors of new obstacles to freedom. The only possible consolation would be the conscious recognition that the action was meaningless. Today, we have unlearned how to learn. Can we learn it again? |P

[1] Erin Hagood, “SDS and the legacy of the New Left today,” Platypus Review 153 (February 2023), available online at <>.

[2] See Atiya Khan, “1968,” in Spencer Leonard, Atiya Khan, Richard Rubin, and Chris Cutrone, “The decline of the Left in the 20th century: Toward a theory of historical regression,” Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at <>; and Theodor W. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Practice” (1969), in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 263.

[3] Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement” (1969), trans. Esther Leslie, New Left Review 233 (January/February 1999): 123–36, available online at <>.

[4] Khan, “1968.”

[5] [Latin] Reason, calculation, procedure, etc. On this usage, see Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. and trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 75–86.

[6] Mark Rudd, “Columbia—Notes on the Spring Rebellion,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Ogelsby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 297.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality.

[9] Democratic National Convention.

[10] Rudd, “Columbia,” 292.

[11] Tom Fawthorp, Tom Nairn, and David Triesman, “Three Student Risings,” in The New Left Reader, 289.

[12] Hal Draper, “The Student Movement of the Thirties: A Political History” (1965), available online at <>.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rudd, “Columbia,” 300.

[15] Rudi Dutschke, “On Anti-authoritarianism,” in The New Left Reader, 249.

[16] “The Appeal from the Sorbonne: The open assembly of June 13–14, 1968,” in The New Left Reader, 272.

[17] Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, “The Battle of the Streets: ‘C’est Pour Toi Que Tu Fais La Révolution,’” in The New Left Reader, 261.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Dutschke, “On Anti-authoritarianism,” 245–46.

[20] Ibid., 249.

[21] Cohn-Bendit and Cohn-Bendit, “The battle of the streets,” 266, emphasis added.

[22] See Jack Ross, The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History (Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2015).

[23] [Latin] The first day of the month of the Roman calendar. With no corresponding day in the Greek calendar, waiting for it — ad kalendas graecas — amounts to waiting forever.