TOWARD A STUDENT SYNDICALIST MOVEMENT, OR UNIVERSITY REFORM REVISITED
By Carl Davidson
In the past few years, we have seen a variety of campus movements developing
around the issue of' 'university reform.' A few of these movements
sustained a mass base for brief periods. Some brought about minor changes
in campus rules and regulations. But almost all have failed to alter the
university community radically or even to maintain their own existence.
What is the meaning of this phenomenon? How can we avoid it in the future?
Why bother with university reform at all?
It is a belief among members of Students for a Democratic Society that all
the issues are interrelated. However, we often fail to relate them in any
systematic way. What, in fact, is the connection between dorm hours and the
war in Vietnam? Is there one system responsible for both? If so, what is the
nature of that system? And, finally, how should we respond? These are the
questions I will try to answer in the following analysis.
Why university reform?
SDS has named the existing system in this country 'corporate liberalism.'
And, if we bother to look, its penetration into the campus community is
awesome. Its elite is trained in our colleges of business administration.
Its defenders are trained in our law schools. Its apologists can be found
in the political science departments. The colleges of social sciences
produce its manipulators. For propagandists, it relies on the school of
journalism. It insures its own future growth in the colleges of education.
If some of us don't quite fit in, we are brainwashed in the divisions
of counseling. And we all know only too well what goes on in the classrooms
of the military science building.
This situation takes on more sinister ramifications when we realize that
all these functionaries of 'private enterprise' are being trained at the
people's expense. American corporations have little trouble increasing
the worker's wage, especially when they can take it back in the form of
school taxes and tuition to train their future workers. To be sure, many
corporations give the universities scholarships and grants. But this is
almost always for some purpose of their own, if only for a tax dodge.
Furthermore, the corporate presence on campus grotesquely transforms the
nature of the university community. The most overt example is the grade
system. Most professors would agree that grades are meaningless, if not
positively harmful, to the learning process. But the entire manipulated
community replies in unison: "But how else would companies know whom to
hire (or the Selective Service whom to draft)?" And we merrily continue
to spend public money subsidizing testing enterprises for private
What we must see clearly is the relation between the university and
corporate liberal society at large. Most of us are outraged when our
university administrators or their student government lackeys liken
our universities and colleges to corporations. We bitterly respond
with talk about a 'community of scholars.' However, the fact of the
matter is that they are correct. Our educational institutions are
corporations and knowledge factories. What we have failed to see in
the past is how absolutely vital these factories are to the corporate
What do these factories produce? What are their commodities? The
most obvious answer is 'knowledge.' Our factories produce the know-how that
enables the corporate state to expand, to grow, and to exploit people
more efficiently and extensively both in our own country and in the third
world. But knowledge is perhaps too abstract to be viewed as a commodity.
Concretely, the commodities of our factories are the knowledgeable. AID
[Agency for International Development] officials, Peace Corpsmen, military
officers, CIA officials, segregationist judges, corporation lawyers,
politicians of all sorts, welfare workers, managers of industry, labor
bureaucrats (I could go on and on): Where do they come from? They are products
of the factories we live and work in.
It is on our assembly lines in the universities that they are molded into
what they are. As integral parts of the knowledge factory system, we are
both the exploiters and the exploited. As both the managers and the managed,
we produce and become the most vital product of corporate liberalism:
bureaucratic man. In short, we are a new kind of scab.
But let us return to our original question. What is the connection between
dorm rules and the war in Vietnam? Superficially, both are aspects of
corporate liberalism, a dehumanized and oppressive system. But let us be
more specific. Who are the dehumanizers and oppressors? In a word, our past,
present and future alumni: the finished product of our knowledge factories.
How did they become what they are? They were shaped on an assembly line
that starts with children entering junior high school and ends with junior
bureaucrats in commencement robes. And the rules and regulations of in loco
parentis are essential tools along that entire assembly line. Without them,
it would be difficult to produce the kind of men that can create, sustain,
tolerate, or ignore situations like Watts, Mississippi and Vietnam.
Finally, perhaps we can see the vital connections that our factories have
with the present conditions of corporate liberalism when we ask ourselves
what would happen if the military found itself without ROTC students, the
CIA found itself without recruits, paternalistic welfare departments found
themselves without social workers, or the Democratic Party found itself
without young liberal apologists and campaign workers? In short, what would
happen to a manipulative society if its means of creating manipulable people
were done away with?
The answer is that we might then have a fighting chance to change that system.
Most of us have been involved in university reform movements of one sort or
another. For the most part, our efforts have produced very little. The Free
Speech Movement flared briefly, then died out. There have been a few dozen
ad hoc committees for the abolition of this or that rule. Some of these succeed,
then fall apart. Some never get off the ground.
However, we have had some effect. The discontent is there. Although the apathy
is extensive and deep-rooted, even the apathetic gripe at times. Our
administrators are worried. They watch us carefully, have staff seminars on
Paul Goodman, and study our own literature more carefully than we do. They
handle our outbursts with kid gloves, trying their best not to give us an issue.
We have one more factor in our favor: We have made many mistakes that we can
learn from. I will try to enumerate and analyze a few of them.
1) Forming single-issue groups. A primary example here is organizing a committee
to abolish dorm hours for women students over 21. This tactic has two faults.
First, insofar as relevance is concerned, this is a felt issue for less than
10 per cent of the average campus. Hence, it is almost impossible to mobilize
large numbers of students around the issue for any length of time. The same
criticism applies to student labor unions (only a few hundred students work for
the university), dress regulations (only the hippies are bothered), or
discrimination in off-campus housing (most black college students are too
bourgeois to care). The second fault is that most of these issues can be
accommodated by the administration: After months of meetings, speeches and
agitation, the dean of women changes the rules so that a woman over 21, with
parental permission and a high enough grade average, can apply, if she wants,
for a key to the dorm. Big deal. At this stage, the tiny organization that
worked for this issue usually folds up.
2) Organizing around empty issues. Students often try to abolish rules that
aren't enforced anyway. Almost every school has a rule forbidding women to visit
men's apartments. But it is rarely enforced, even if openly violated. Since most
students are not restricted by the rule, they usually won't fight to change it.
Often, they will react negatively, feeling that if the issue is brought up, the
administration will have to enforce it.
3) Fear of being radical. Time and time again, we water down our demands and
compromise ourselves before we even begin. In our meetings we argue the
administration's position against us before they do and better than they will.
We allow ourselves to be intimidated by the word "responsible." (How many times
have we changed a "Student Bill of Rights" to a watered-down "Resolution on
Student Rights and Responsibilities"?) We spend more energy assuring our deans
that we "don't want another Berkeley" than we do talking with students about
the real issues.
4) Working through existing channels. This phrase really means, "Let us stall
you off until the end of the year." If we listen to it at all, we ought to do
so just once and in such a way as to show everyone that it's a waste of time.
5) Waiting for faculty support. This is like asking Southern Negroes to wait
for white moderates. We often failed to realize that the faculty are more
powerless than we: They have the welfare of their families to consider.
6) Legal questions. We spend hours debating among ourselves whether the
university can legally abolish in loco parentis. They can if they want to,
or if they have to. Besides, suppose it isn't legal. Should we then stop,
pick up our marbles, and go home?
7) Isolating ourselves. Time and time again we fall into the trap of trying to
organize independents over the "Greek-Independent split." This should be
viewed as an administration plot to divide and rule. On the other hand, we
shouldn't waste time trying to court the Greeks or "campus leaders." They
haven't any more real power than anyone else. Also, SDS people often view
themselves as intellectual enclaves on campus when they should see themselves
as organizing committees for the entire campus. We retreat to our own
"hippie hangouts" rather than spending time in the student union building
talking with others.
8) Forming Free Universities. This action can be a good thing, depending on
how it is organized. But we run the risk of the utopian socialists who
withdrew from the early labor struggles. We may feel liberated in our
Free Universities; but, in the meantime, the "unfree" university we left
goes cranking out corporate liberals. In fact, they have it easier since we
aren't around making trouble.
9) Working within student government. We should do this for one and only
one reason: to abolish the student government. We should have learned by
now that student governments have no power and, in many cases, the
administration has organized them in such away that it is impossible to
use them to get power. (In a few cases, it might be possible to take over
a student government and threaten to abolish it if power isn't granted.)
From these criticisms of our mistakes over the past few years, I think
the direction we should move in becomes more clear. Also, when we consider
the fact that our universities are already chief agents for social change
in the direction of 1984, I think we can see why it is imperative that we
organize the campuses. (I do not mean to imply that we ought to ignore
Toward student syndicalism
In the preceding analysis of the university (by no means original with me),
we can find an implicit antagonism, or, if you will, a fundamental
contradiction. Namely, our administrators ask of us that we both
participate and not participate in our educational system. We are told
we must learn to make responsible decisions, yet we are not allowed to make
actual decisions. We are told that education is an active process, yet we
are passively trained. We are criticized for our apathy and for our activism.
In the name of freedom, we are trained to obey.
The system requires that we passively agree to be manipulated. But our
vision is one of active participation. And this is a demand that our
administrators cannot meet without putting themselves out of a job. That is
exactly why we should be making the demand.
What is to be done?
Obviously, we need to organize, to build on the campuses a movement that has
the primary purpose of radically transforming the university community. Too
often we lose sight of this goal. To every program, every action, every
position, and every demand, we must raise the question: How will this
radically alter the lives of every student on this campus? With this in mind,
I offer the following proposals for action.
1) That every SDS chapter organize a student syndicalist movement on its campus.
I use the term "syndicalist" for a crucial reason. In the labor struggle, the
syndicalist unions worked for industrial democracy and workers' control, rather
than for better wages and working conditions. Similarly, and I cannot repeat
this often enough, the issue for us is student control (along with a yet-to-be
liberated faculty in some areas). What we do not want is a company-union type of
student movement that sees itself as a body that, under the rubric of
"liberalization," helps a paternal administration make better rules for us.
What we do want is a union of students in which the students themselves decide
what kind of rules they want or don't want. Or whether they need rules at all.
Only this sort of student organization allows for decentralization and the
direct participation of students in all those decisions daily affecting their
2) That the student syndicalist movement take on one of two possible structures:
a Campus Freedom Democratic Party (CFDP) or a Free Student Union (FSU).
a) Campus Freedom Democratic Party. This is possible on those campuses where the
existing student government is at least formally democratic (that is, one
student-one vote). The idea is to organize a year-round electoral campaign for
the purposes of educating students about their system; building mass memberships
in dormitory and living-area "precincts"; constantly harassing and disrupting
the meetings of the existing student government (for instance, showing up en
masse at at a meeting and singing the jingle of the now-defunct "Mickey Mouse
Club"); and, finally, winning a majority of seats in student government elections.
As long as the CFDP has a minority of seats, those seats should be used as
soapboxes to expose the existing body as a parody of the idea of government. It
should be kept in mind that the main purpose of these activities is to develop
a radical consciousness among all the students in the struggle yet to come
against the administration.
What happens if a CFDP wins a majority of the seats? It should immediately push
through a list of demands (the nature of which I will deal with later) in the
form of a Bill of Rights or Declaration of Independence or both. The resolution
should indicate a time-Iimit for the administration (or regents or whatever) to
reply. If the demands are met, the students should promptly celebrate the
victory of the revolution. If not, the CFDP should promptly abolish student
government or set up a student-government-in-exile. Second, the CFDP should
immediately begin mass demonstrations: sit-ins in the administration buildings,
in faculty parking-Iots, in maintenance departments, and so forth; boycotts
of all classes; and strikes of teaching assistants. In short, the success of
these actions (especially when the cops come) will be the test of how well the
CFDP has been radicalizing its constituency during the previous two or three
b) Free Student Union. The difference between an FSU and a CFDP is mainly
tactical. On many campuses, existing student governments are not even formally
democratic; rather, they are set up with the school newspaper having one vote,
the interfraternity council having one vote, and so on. In a situation like
this, we ought to ignore or denounce campus or electoral politics from the word
go, and, following the plan of the Wobblies, organize one big union of all
students. The first goal of the FSU would be to develop a counter-institution
to the existing student government that would eventually embrace a healthy
majority of the student body. It would have to encourage non-participation in
student government and to engage in active, non-electoral, "on-the-job"
agitation. This would take the form of organizing and sponsoring the violation
of existing rules. Such violations might include staging dormitory sleep-outs
and "freedom" parties in restricted apartments, nonviolently seizing the
building that houses IBM machines used to grade tests, campaigning to mutilate
IBM cards, disrupting oversized classes, and nonviolently attempting to occupy
and liberate the student newspaper and radio station. All this should be done
in such a manner as to recruit more and more support. Once the FSU has more
support than the student government has, it should declare the student
government defunct, make its demands of the administration, and, if refused,
declare the general strike.
Obviously, the success of either a CFDP or an FSU depends upon our ability
to organize a mass radical base with a capacity for prolonged resistance,
dedication and endurance. Bearing these needs in mind, one can easily see
why such a student syndicalist movement must be national (or even international)
in its scope. There will be a need for highly mobile regional and national
fulltime organizers to travel from campus to campus. When critical
confrontations break out, there will be a need for sympathy demonstrations
and strikes on other campuses. There may even be a need to send busloads of
students to a campus where, because of mass arrests, replacements are required.
Again, we can learn much from the organizing tactics of the Wobblies and the
3) That the student syndicalist movement adopt as its primary and central issue
the abolition of the grade system. This is not to say that other issues, such
as decision-making power for student government bodies, are unimportant. They
are not; and, in certain situations, they can be critical. But to my mind, the
abolition of grades is the most significant over-all issue for building a
radical movement on campus. There are three reasons why I think this is so:
a) Grading is a common condition of the total student and faculty community.
It is the direct cause of most student anxieties and frustrations. Also, it
is the cause of the alienation of most faculty members from their work.
Among our better educators and almost all faculty, there is a consensus that
grades are, at best, meaningless, and more likely, harmful to real education.
b) As an issue to organize around, the presence of the grade system is
constantly felt. Hour exams, midterms and finals are always cropping up
(whereas student government elections occur only once a year). Every time
we see our fellow students cramming for exams (actually, for grades), we can
point out to them that they are being exploited and try to organize them. In
every class we take, throughout the school year, every time our professors
grade our papers and tests, we can agitate in our classrooms, exposing the
system and encouraging both our classmates and our instructors to join with us
to abolish that system.
c) The abolition of the grade system is a demand that cannot be met by the
administration without radically altering the shape and purpose of our
educational system. First of all, if there were no grades, a significant part
of our administrators would be without jobs, for they would have nothing to do.
Also, large mass-production TV classes and the like would have to be done away
with. Since education would have to take place through personal contact between
the student and his professor, classes would necessarily be limited in size.
Since the evaluation of a student's work would not have to be temporally
regulated and standardized, independent scholarship would be encouraged, if
not necessitated. As a result, the corporate state might have some difficulty
in finding manipulable junior bureaucrats. Finally, the Selective Service
would have a hell of a time ranking us.
For these reasons, it is my feeling that the abolition of the grade system
should serve as the "umbrella" issue for a student syndicalist movement, much
in the same manner as the abolition of the wage system served the syndicalist
trade union movement. Under this umbrella, many other issues can be raised,
depending upon which segment of the student community we were appealing to and
upon what degree of strength we might have at any one time.
4) That the student syndicalist movement incorporate in secondary issues the
ideology of participatory democracy. This can be viewed as an attempt on our
part to sabotage the knowledge factory machinery that produces the managers
and the managed of 1984. There are numerous ways to go about this. I will list
a) Approach students in teachers' colleges with a counter-curriculum that is
based on the ideas of Paul Goodman and A. S. Neill for the radical education
b) At the beginning of each semester, request (or demand) of the professors
that you and your fellow classmates participate in shaping the structure,
format and content of that particular course.
c) Sign up for, attend, denounce, and then walk out of and picket excessively
d) Organize students and liberated faculty members in certain departments to
work out a model counter-curriculum and agitate for its adoption, mainly because
students participated in shaping it rather than because of its merits.
e) Hold mock trials for the dean of men and dean of women for their' 'crimes
f) In the case of women students, organize a decentralized federation of
dormitory councils (soviets?) where each living unit would formulate a
counter-set of rules and regulations; and then use them to replace existing
rules on the grounds that the women themselves made the rules.
I am sure that if we use our imaginations, we can extend this list indefinitely.
And because they embody the philosophy of participatory democracy, these
suggestions, to my mind, are of intrinsic worth. And I also believe that they
might have far-reaching effects. For participatory democracy is often like a
chronic and contagious disease. Once caught, it permeates one's whole life and
the lives of those around. Its effect is disruptive in a total sense. And within
a manipulative, bureaucratic system, its articulation and expression amounts to
sabotage. It is my hope that those exposed to it during the time they are
building a movement for student syndicalism will never quite be the same,
especially after they leave the university community.
Position paper delivered at the August 1966 SDS Convention
Return to SDS Document Library