How the left took over U.S. colleges

In the 1992 book The Rise and Fall of the American Left, John Diggins describes how the American left, which seemed to have fallen on hard times in the 1970s, found a new home in the universities. He talks about the ironies involved. Here is an excerpt, which is very relevant today..

“Although the New Left saw itself as the victim of history, in at least one respect it became its beneficiary. In the sixties and early seventies American higher education expanded enormously. University enrollments increased and new campuses opened on the East and the West coasts to accommodate the postwar baby boom children now reaching college age. Consisting to a large extent of graduate students, the New Left entered the academic profession en masse and found respectable positions at virtually every distinguished university except Chicago. Appointed at a time of expansion, the “tenured Left” survived the budget-cutting contractions of the early Reagan years. With no new massive hiring expected in the immediate future, the remnants of the New Left are the most significant ideological presence on the American campus today and most likely will continue to be so well into the next century.

“The New Left’s finding an afterlife in the academic world is replete with ironies. It will be recalled that at the turn of the century Daniel DeLeon and other socialist theoreticians worried about the implications of a radical intelligentsia whose interest may not coincide with that of the proletariat. With the dreams of the New Left shattered in the seventies, no one had to worry about whether the Academic Left could articulate the needs and aspirations of an American proletariat, since that creature had no existence. With no constituency in the real world, the New Left had no choice but to ascend to the ivory towers of theory. Yet the move into the groves of academe is surprising in many ways. No one who had watched campus demonstrations in the sixties could have anticipated the eagerness with which former protesting graduate students later accepted positions at the very institutions they said were responsible for racism, imperialism, fascism, sexism, and other evils of “liberalism.” At Berkeley, Columbia, San Francisco State, and several other campuses in the sixties there seemed to be two incompatible worlds—academic gentility and revolutionary fury. Inside the university building was the faculty member: nicely dressed, family photo on office desk, surrounded by books, polite and patient, wondering when the troubles would end so that the sacred serenity of the library might again be enjoyed. On the outside the graduate student: with ragged army jacket and beard, fist raised, noisy, rude, impatient with explanations. Facts are fictions. Scholarship is for squares. The system sucks. Fuck you, faculty; you’re either for us or against us.

“And so it went for half a dozen years. But in the end the majority of New Left graduate students, after repeating again and again that they would never allow themselves to be “co-opted,” did so without so much as a blush.”

The above is all an excerpt from the book. Diggins, who is a professor of history, says that these radicals became gatekeepers who changed who could become a professor. He writes: “In the field of American History, for example, a liberal PH.D. who subscribed to consensus instead of class conflict, or a white male conservative who admired Madison more than Marx, had about as much chance of getting hired on some faculty as Woody Allen of starting as point guard for the Knicks” (Woody Allen is a Jewish actor and producer who looks very nerdy)

The book is also interesting because it shows that the left was usually (not always) believers in Marx, and it also shows that current un-democratic manifestations of the left were already getting foreshadowed (for instance conservative speakers were being heckled on campus, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

Professor Diggins

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