Columbia [University] Strike Coordinating Committee, 1968
The most important fact about the Columbia strike is that Columbia exists within American society. This statement may appear to be a truism, yet it is a fact too often forgotten by some observers, reporters, administrators, faculty members, and even some students. These people attempt to explain the “disturbances” as reaction to an unresponsive and archaic administrative structure, youthful outbursts of unrest much like panty raids, the product of a conspiracy of communist agents in national SDS or a handful of hard-core nihilists (“destroyers”) on the campus, or just general student unrest due to the war in Vietnam.
But in reality, striking students are responding to the totality of the conditions of our society, not just one small part of it, the university. We are disgusted with the war, with racism, with being a part of a system over which we have no control, a system which demands gross inequalities of wealth and power, a system which denies personal and social freedom and potential, a system which has to manipulate and repress us in order to exist. The university can only be seen as a cog in this machine; or, more accurately, a factory whose product is knowledge and personnel (us) useful to the functioning of the system. The specific problems of university life, its boredom and meaninglessness, help prepare us for boring and meaningless work in the “real” world. And the policies of the university – expansion into the community, exploitation of black and Puerto Ricans, support for imperialist wars – also serve the interests of banks, corporations, government, and military represented on the Columbia Board of Trustees and the ruling class of our society. In every way, the university is “society’s child.” Our attack upon the university is really an attack upon this society and its effects upon us. We have never said otherwise.
The development of the New Left at Columbia represents an organized political response to the society. We see our task, first as identifying for ourselves and for others the nature of our society – who controls it and for what ends – and secondly, developing ways in which to transform it. We understand that only through struggle can we create a free, human society, since the present one is dominated by a small ruling class which exploits, manipulate, and distorts for its own ends – and has shown in countless ways its determination to maintain its position. The Movement at Columbia began years ago agitating and organizing students around issues such as students’ power in the university (Action), support of the civil rights movement (CORE), the war in Vietnam (the Independent Committee on Vietnam). Finally, Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society initiated actions against many of the above issues as they manifest themselves on campus. Politically speaking, SDS, from its inception on campus in November, 1966, sought to unite issues, “to draw connections,” to view this society as a totality. SDS united the two main themes of the movement – opposition to racial oppression and to the imperialist war in Vietnam – with our own sense of frustration, disappointment, and oppression at the quality of our lives in capitalist society.
One of the most important questions raised by the strike was who controls Columbia, and for what ends? SDS pointed to the Board of Trustees as the intersection of various corporate, financial, real estate, and government interests outside the university which need the products of the university – personnel and knowledge – in order to exist. It is this power which we are fighting when we fight particular policies of the university such as expansion at the expense of poor people or institutional ties to the war-machine. We can hope for and possibly win certain reforms within the university, but the ultimate reforms we need – the elimination of war and exploitation – can only be gained after we overthrow the control of our country by the class of people on Columbia’s Board of Trustees. In a sense, Columbia is the place where we received our education – our revolutionary education . . . .
But why do students, predominantly of the “middle-class,” in effect, reject the university designed to integrate them into the system and instead identify with the most oppressed of this country and the world? Why did the gymnasium in Morningside Park become an issue over which Columbia was shut down for seven weeks? Why pictures of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and red flags in liberated buildings?
Basically, the sit-ins and strike of April and May gave us a chance to express the extreme dissatisfaction we feel at being caught in this “system.” We rejected the gap between potential and realization in this society. We rejected our present lives in the university and our future lives in business, government, or other universities like this one. In a word, we saw ourselves as oppressed, and began to understand the forces at work which make for our oppression. In turn, we saw those same forces responsible for the oppression and colonization of blacks and Puerto Ricans in ghettos, and Vietnamese and the people of the third world. By initiating a struggle in support of black and third world liberation, we create the conditions for our own freedom – by building a movement which will someday take power over our society, we will free ourselves.
As the strike and the struggle for our demands progressed, we learned more about the nature of our enemy and his unwillingness to grant any of our demands or concede any of his power. Illusions disappeared; the moral authority of the educator gave way to police violence, the faculty appeared in all its impotent glory. On the other hand, tremendous support came in from community residents, black and white alike, from university employees, from high school students, from people across the country and around the world. Inevitably, we began to reevaluate our goals and strategy. Chief among the lessons were (1) We cannot possibly win our demands alone: we must unite with other groups in the population; (2) The 6 demands cannot possibly be our ultimate ends: even winning all of them certainly would not go far enough toward the basic reforms we need to live as human beings in this society; (3) “Restructuring” the university, the goal of faculty groups, various “moderate” students, and even the trustees, cannot possibly create a “free” or “democratic” university out of this institution. (First, how can anyone expect any meaningful reforms when even our initial demands have not been met?) Secondly, we realize that the University is entirely synchronized with this society: how can you have a “free,” human university in a society such as this? Hence the SDS slogan: “A free university in a free society.” The converse is equally true.
The basic problem in understanding our strike – our demands, tactics, and history – consists of keeping in mind the social context of the university and of our movement. If you understand that we are the political response to an oppressive and exploitative social and economic system, you will have no difficulty putting together the pieces . . . .
The six demands:
As the fall begins, it is clear that Columbia will be the scene of much more political action. No demands have yet been met. The university is prosecuting in criminal court close to 1,100 people, most of whom are students. At least 79 students have been suspended, hundreds more placed on probation. Columbia’s exploitation of the community and her support for the Government’s imperialist policies continue. Most important, people now know that they are fighting the forces behind Columbia, the power of the ruling class in this society, not just the institution. And they have the commitment to keep fighting. The Democratic National Convention killed electoral politics for young people in this country and the Chicago Police Dept. provided an alternative – to fight. So did Columbia this spring. So does it now, along with every other university in this country. The struggle goes on. Create two, three, many Columbias, that is the watchword!