The free-speech fight that shaped the New Left

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 7:02 Author: Tom Unterrainer

There is a quotation from the ninth chapter of Moby Dick which I think is very appropriate, kind of our motto: ‘Woe unto him who would pour oil on the waters when God has brewed them into a gale.’

Mario Savio, a student leader of the Free Speech Movement

[Berkeley] had everything in terms of American superlatives: the largest and longest mass blockade of a police operation ever seen … It was, in sum, by far the most gigantic student protest movement ever mounted in the United States on a single campus.

Hal Draper, Berkeley: The New Student Revolt

The momentous events that unfolded from September 1964 through to January 1965 at the University of California in Berkeley confounded many people. “Why”, they asked, “are the brightest and the best of this generation at war with their university and the police?” By the mid-60s a fair proportion of liberal journalists, academics, writers and politicians had managed to get their heads around the Civil Rights movement. They understood the simple — but awful — truth that the history of black people in America is a history of enslavement and oppression and that the time for change had come. But these privileged, gifted, mainly white students… what did they have to protest about?

On 14 September 1964, Dean Katherine Towle announced that a proscription of all political campaigning not related to the activities of the Berkeley Democratic and Republican clubs was to be enforced. This meant the banning of any and all outside speakers, discussions groups, fund-raising efforts and political recruitment on university property. The mainstream Democrats and Republicans didn’t escape the new restrictions – they were banned from backing any particular candidate and raising funds for “off-campus” activities.

They were restricted to disseminating information leaflets. They had to submit posters for vetting, secure the backing of a tenured professor and pay for ‘security’ for each meeting. All political activity on campus was now either banned or heavily regulated by the administration. To many students these limitations were a direct attack on Constitutional Amendments protecting freedom of expression. To others, they were the culmination and natural consequence of a deeply cynical process.

Prior to the banning order the central avenues through campus were a lively scene, with street stalls and political gatherings. In the post-McCarthy era Berkeley was considered the very model of a modern, liberal institution. Its new President, Clark Kerr, had acted as a mediator between his predecessor Robert G Sproul and faculty during the “Year of the Oath” where academic staff were instructed to swear an oath of allegiance.

As Hal Draper put it “the long fight of the faculty against this indignity, to which most ended up by capitulating, [resulted in] the loss of some of the most eminent men on the faculty, who left rather than disgrace themselves and their profession.” Compared to the open reactionary Sproul, Clark Kerr was a breath of fresh air. All expected the “liberal” Kerr, a winner of the “Alexander Meiklejohn Award” for contributions to academic freedom, to sweep out the old and open up a new era of scholarly development. They were to be sorely disappointed.

Power, bureaucracy and Clark Kerr

“In a book that I recommend to everyone here, Uses of the University, President Clark Kerr describes what he calls the multiversity and using the following metaphor, he called it a knowledge factory. He said that it has a president … a board of directors … It has employees … And it has raw materials, the students”. [Mario Savio, The Berkeley Knowledge Factory]

As a young man, Clark Kerr was a member of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a socialist organisation of which Jack London, Upton Sinclair and Norman Thomas were all members. This youthful radicalism gave way to a form of liberalism that was soon transformed by the ideas Kerr developed as an academic.

The students of Berkeley could have no doubt that Robert G. Sproul was an open reactionary. With Kerr — an advocate of the “managerial revolution” — things were not so clear. Kerr’s 1960 book, Industrialisation and Industrial Man, advocates a form of society based on ‘bureaucratic managerialism’. When applied to a university, what did Kerr’s form of “management” produce?

Mario Savio, a student leader of the FSM and undergraduate in Physics and Maths, described the university administration as follows: “We should not ask whether such intellectual cacophony and bureaucratic harassment are appropriate at universities – for certainly they are not – but rather, whether these local ‘plants’ in what Clark Kerr calls the ‘knowledge industry’ deserve the name university at all.”

“Kerr is sensitive to the real relations between Ideals and Power in our society. Ideals are what you are for, inside your skull, while your knees are bowing to power” (Draper).

Kerr wanted a regulated and standardised university system that, like an automated factory, would produce uniform products. In his writings, Kerr advocates the “systemic and systematic bureaucratisation” (Draper) of all society, from industry through to institutions of learning. In this way a “bureaucratic vanguard”, the “captains of bureaucracy”, would take the helm of society, ensuring order and productivity. With a strong managerial layer and systems in place to “guide” workers/students/“citizens” in their daily lives, industrial and social relations would be transformed. Unions, pressure groups, political parties — all would become redundant. With all Power concentrated in the hands of a select caste — protecting the “liberal” Ideals of the free market — the Ideals of diversity, expression, democracy, liberty would be superfluous.

Apart from crushing the creativity of academics and students in the classroom and lecture hall, Kerr was responsible for a long list of crimes against liberty. The so-called “Kerr Directives” issued in 1959 softened some aspects of university life, but in other important ways the situation worsened.

Draper lists the following as “highlights” of the Kerr regime: “The student government [like student unions in British universities] was forbidden to take stands on ‘off-campus’ issues, except as permitted by the administration, and was effectively converted to a ‘sandbox’ government … Political-interest and social-issue clubs were misleadingly labelled ‘off-campus clubs’ and forbidden to hold most organisational meetings on campus, or to collect funds or recruit … Outside speakers were not permitted except on a 72-hour-notification basis … Off-campus activities could not be announced at impromptu rallies.” This list goes on.

Students fight back

Although issued in 1959, the “Kerr Directives” were not enforced by the university until Dean Towle’s announcement in 1964. The exact circumstances of the enforcement revolve around big party politics, civil rights and media power. “Some time in July [1964], a reporter for the Oakland Tribune (which was boosting Goldwater, of course) noted that pro-Scranton students were recruiting convention workers at a table placed at the Bancroft entrance to the campus … It appears that he [the reporter], or someone else from the Tribune, pointed out to the administration that the table was on university property and violated its rules” (Draper). The Tribune’s partiality to Goldwater, a particularly reactionary Republican presidential candidate, was not the only point of concern for the newspaper bosses.

On 2nd September a committee comprising members of the civil rights groups CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) began a picket of the Oakland Tribune to demand a fair-hiring agreement. This move outraged William Knowland, owner of the Tribune, Goldwater campaign manager and “a kingpin in the entire power structure” around Berkeley. The Tribune ran a front page denunciation of the picket on 3rd September and Knowland swung the considerable weight of the Goldwater campaign into action to pressurise the Berkeley administration to stop the campus organisers.

Activists continued to exploit loop-holes in the “Kerr Directives” — especially questions around the ownership of certain sections of the Berkeley campus — to continue organising. They also began to organise active resistance to the directives, resulting in a series of re-issues and clarifications of the rules.

Then on 1 October activist Jack Weinberg refused to show identification papers to campus police “visiting” the CORE campaign stall. He was promptly arrested and taken to a nearby police car, but before he could be driven away students surrounded the vehicle. It’s estimated that up to 3000 students were involved in a thirty two hour blockade of the car. A succession of speakers climbed onto the car roof demanding Weinberg’s release, repeal of the restrictions and condemning the university administration.

This one, almost accidental, moment of petty brutality crystallised the forces of what was to become the Free Speech Movement. As one FSM member put it students were “sick and tired of being shat upon” by an administration determined to transform itself into a bureaucratic overlord and students into raw-materials for the “knowledge factory”. They’d had enough of a system struggling to adjust itself and retain control in the wake of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement and a brewing Cold War. A system captained by the likes of Clark Kerr and his co-thinkers.

The ultimately successful struggle of the Free Speech Movement was a precursor to the emerging New Left. The story of what happened next and the way it influenced a generation of student radicals is both historically interesting and of importance for struggles today.

* Hal Draper — a prominent third camp socialist — was a librarian at UC Berkeley at the time. The FSM amended their slogan “Trust no one over thirty” to include “…except Hal Draper” in recognition of his continuous advice, solidarity and support.

The Nottingham free speech campaign

Students at the University of Nottingham are organising for a mass demonstration for Free Speech on 21 February. After a series of incidents, including fines for “unauthorised” petitions and the arrest of one student at a Palestine Solidarity stall, it is time to act.

The campaign is demanding the repeal of legislation that requires “permission” for political campaigning, an end to fines, an explanation and apology from the Vice-Chancellor for the arrest of a student, and a commitment to never use the police suppress student protests.

Students from around the country are expected to join the protests – the campaign encourages student political and campaign groups to follow suite. For more information, contact

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