Beginnings of a New Revolt

When the newspapers have got nothing else to talk about, they cut loose on the young. The young are always news. If they are up to something, that’s news. If they aren’t, that’s news too. Things we did as kids and thought nothing of, the standard capers of all young animals, now make headlines, shake up police departments and rend the frail hearts of social workers. Partly this is due to the mythologies of modern civilization. Chesterton once pointed out that baby worship is to be expected of a society where the only immortality anybody really believes in is childhood. Partly it is due to the personal reactions of reporters, a class of men by and large prevented, occupationally, from ever growing up. Partly it is hope: “We have failed, they may do better.” Partly it is guilt: “We have failed them. Are they planning vengeance?”

In talking about the Revolt of Youth we should never forget that we are dealing with a new concept. For thousands of years nobody cared what youth were doing. They weren’t news. They were minding.

They aren’t minding now. That isn’t news. They haven’t been minding since the days of John Held, Jr., College Humor and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In those days they were cutting loose. In the Thirties they were joining up, giving one last try to the noble prescriptions of their elders. During the McCarthy Epoch and the Korean War they were turning their backs and walking away. Today they are striking back. That is news. Nobody else is striking back. Hardly a person over thirty in our mass societies believes it is possible to strike back, or would know how to go about it if he did. During the past couple of years, without caring about the consequences, making up their techniques as they went along, organizing spontaneously in the midst of action, young people all over the world have intervened in history.

As the University of California student said at the recent Un-American Activities Committee riot in San Francisco, “Chessman was the last straw. I’m fed up.” It’s about time somebody got fed up, because, to mix the metaphor, all the chickens are coming home to roost. It has become only too apparent that we can no longer afford the old catch-as-catch-can morality with which civilization has muddled through to 1960. Sloth, rascality, predatory dishonesty, evasion, bluster, no longer work. The machinery has become too delicate, too complicated, too world-encompassing. Maybe it was once true, a hundred and fifty years ago, that the sum total of the immoral actions of selfish men produced a social good. It is no longer true. Maybe once, societally speaking, if wolf ate wolf long enough and hard enough, you produced a race of intelligent dogs. Not now. Pretty soon we are just going to have a world populated by dead wolves.

Toward the end of his life H.G. Wells remarked that “something very queer was creeping over human affairs.” He saw a kind of foolish dishonesty, a perverse lust for physical and moral violence, and a total lack of respect for the integrity of the personality invading every walk of life, all the relationships of men, individual and global. He seemed to be not only troubled, but puzzled. In his own In the Days of the Comet the earth passes through the tail of a comet and a beneficent gas fills the atmosphere and makes all men good overnight. You feel that he suspected something very similar might have come upon us unawares out of outer space, but that in actuality the gas had turned out to be subtly and pervasively malignant. It is easy to see what he was getting at. Nobody sees it better today than the young student, his head filled with “the heritage of the ages,” taught in school all the noblest aspirations of mankind, and brought face to face with the chaos of the world beyond the college gates. He’s got to enter it, college will be over in a few months or years. He is entering it already fed up.

Think of the great disasters of our time. They have all been the result of a steadily growing immoralism. You could start indefinitely back — with Bismarck’s telegram or the Opium War — but think of what those men alive have experienced: the First World War itself, a vast “counterrevolutionary” offensive; the Versailles Treaty; Fascism and Nazism with their institutionalization of every shoddy and crooked paranoia; the Moscow Trials; the betrayal of Spain; Munich; the Second World War with its noble utterances and its crooked deals; the horrible tale of fifteen years of peace and cold war; the Rosenbergs; the Hungarian Revolution; and, in the last few months, the rascality that has burst around our heads like exploding shrapnel — U-2, phony Summits, an orgy of irresponsibility and lies. This is the world outside the college gates. Millions of people are asked to enter it cheerfully each June, equipped with draft cards, social-security cards, ballots, job-application blanks countersigned by David Sarnoff, J. Edgar Hoover, Allen W. Dulles, the family physician and the pastor of the neighborhood church. Is it surprising that a lot of them should turn away at the door of this banquet hall, turn in their tickets and say, “Sorry, I’m already fed up”?

Marx believed that our civilization was born in the arms of its own executioner, twins who were enemies in the womb. Certainly ours is the only great culture which throughout its life has been accompanied by a creative minority which rejected all its values and claims. Almost all others have had a huge majority who shared in few, if any, of the benefits of civilization. Slaves and proletarians are nothing new, the words themselves are derived from another civilization. But a society which advances by means of an elite in permanent revolt and alienation is something new. In the last fifty years this elite itself has slowly gone under; it, too, has been overwhelmed by the society it both led and subverted. L’Homme Révolté has come to the end of his tether. One by one he has compromised and been compromised by all his thousand programs. Nobody believes him any more, so he has become a commercial stereotype, along with the cowboy and the Indian, the private detective, the war hero, and the bison and all other extinct animals. As the agent at MCA said to me three years back, “Revolt is the hottest commodity along The Street.” The programs are used up and their promulgators are embarrassed. Youth is fed up with them too. And why not? Hitler fulfilled the entire emergency program of the Communist Manifesto, and in addition made May Day a legal holiday.

For the Bolsheviks, the good society would come automatically if the right power were applied to the right program. But power and program are not the question: what matters is the immediate realization of humane content, here, there, everywhere, in every fact and relationship of society. Today the brutal fact is that society cannot endure without this realization of humane content. The only way to realize it is directly, personally, in the immediate context. Anything else is not just too expensive; it is wrecking the machinery. Modern society is too complex and too delicate to afford social and political Darwinism any more. This means personal moral action. I suppose, if you wish to call it that, it means a spiritual revolution. Prophets and seers have been preaching the necessity for spiritual revolution for at least three thousand years and mankind has yet to come up with a bona fide one. But it is that kind of action and that kind of change that young people are demanding today.

Myself, past fifty, I cannot speak for the young. I am inclined to think they will fail. But that isn’t the point. You might as well be a hero if society is going to destroy you anyway. There comes a time when courage and honesty become cheaper than anything else. And who knows, you might win. The nuclear explosion that you could not prevent doesn’t care whether you were brave or not. Virtue, they say, in itself is intrinsically enjoyable. You can lose nothing, then, by striking back.

Furthermore, just because the machine is so vast, so complex, it is far more sensitive than ever before. Individual action does tell. Give a tiny poke at one of the insignificant gears down in its bowels and slowly it begins to shudder all over and suddenly belches out hot rivets. It is a question of qualitative change. Thousands of men built the pyramids. One punched card fed into a mechanical brain decides the gravest questions. A few punched cards operate whole factories. Modern society has passed the stage when it was a blind, mechanical monster. It is on the verge of becoming an infinitely responsive instrument.

So the first blows struck back were tiny, insignificant things. Not long after the last war Bayard Rustin got on a bus in Chicago and headed south. When they crossed the Mason Dixon Line, he stayed where he was. The cops took him off. He “went limp.” They beat him into unconsciousness. They took him to jail and finally to a hospital. When he got out, he got on another bus and continued south. So it went, for months — sometimes jail, sometimes the hospital, sometimes they just kicked him into the ditch. Eventually he got to New Orleans. Eventually Jim Crow was abolished on interstate carriers. Individual nonviolent direct action had invaded the South and won. The Southern Negro had been shown the only technique that had any possibility of winning.

Things simmered for a while and then, spontaneously, out of nowhere, the Montgomery bus boycott materialized. Every moment of the birth and growth of this historic action has been elaborately documented. Hour by hour we can study “the masses” acting by themselves. It is my modest, well-considered opinion that Martin Luther King, Jr., is the most remarkable man the South has produced since Thomas Jefferson — since, in other words, it became “the South.” Now the most remarkable thing about Martin Luther King is that he is not remarkable at all. He is just an ordinary minister of a middle-class Negro church (or what Negroes call “middle class,” which is pretty poor by white standards). There are thousands of men like him all over Negro America. When the voice called, he was ready. He was ready because he was himself part of that voice. Professional, white-baiting Negroes who thrill millionairesses in night clubs in the North would call him a square. He was a brave square. He is the best possible demonstration of the tremendous untapped potential of humanity that the white South has thrown away all these years. He helped to focus that potential and exert it. It won.

No outside organizers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association. They came around later, but they could never quite catch up with it. It is pretty hard to “catch up with,” to institutionalize, a movement which is simply the form that a whole community has assumed in action. Although the force of such action is shaped by group loyalty, in the final analysis it must always be individual and direct. You can’t delegate either boycott or nonviolence. A committee can’t act for you, you have to act yourself.

The Montgomery bus boycott not only won where Negro Zealotism, as well as Uncle Tomism, had always failed, but it demonstrated something that had always sounded like sheer sentimentality. It is better, braver, far more effective and far more pleasurable to act with love than with hate. When you have won, you have gained an unimpeachable victory. The material ends pass or are passed beyond. “Desegregated” buses seem natural in many Southern cities today. The guiltless moral victory remains, always as powerful as the day it was gained. Furthermore, each moral victory converts or neutralizes another block of the opponents’ forces.

Before the Montgomery episode was over, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King had joined forces. Today they are world statesmen in a “shadow cabinet” that is slowly forming behind the wielders of power, and the advisers and auxiliary leaders in the councils of Negro Africa. At home in America the Montgomery achievement has become the source from which has flowed the moral awakening, first, of Negro, and following them, of white youth.

Everything seemed to be going along nicely. According to the papers and most of their professors, 99 and 44/100 percent of the nation’s youth were cautiously preparing for the day when they could offer their young split-level brains to GM, IBM, Oak Ridge or the Voice of America. Madison Avenue had discovered its own pet minority of revolt and tamed it into an obedient mascot. According to Time, Life, MGM and the editors and publishers of a new, pseudo avant-garde, all the dear little rebels wanted to do was grow beards, dig jazz, take heroin and wreck other people’s Cadillacs. While the exurbanite children sat with the baby sitter and thrilled to Wyatt Earp, their parents swooned in the aisles at The Connection or sat up past bedtime reading switch-blade novelists. The psychological mechanisms were the same in both cases — sure-fire, time-tested and shopworn.

But as a matter of fact, anyone with any sense traveling about the country lecturing on college campuses during the past five years could tell that something very, very different was cooking. Time and again, hundreds of times, I have been asked, by some well-dressed, unassuming, beardless student, “I agree with you completely, but what shall we, my generation, do?” To this question I have been able to give only one answer: “I am fifty. You are twenty. It is for you to tell me what to do. The only thing I can say is, don’t do the things my generation did. They didn’t work.” A head of steam was building up, the waters were rising behind the dam; the dam itself, the block to action, was the patent exhaustion of the old forms. What was accumulating was not any kind of programmatic “radicalization,” it was a moral demand.

Parenthetically, I might say that a legend of the Red Thirties was growing up too. Let me say (and I was there): As far as practically every campus except CCNY and NYU was concerned, the Red Thirties are pure myth. At the height of the great upsurge in California labor, led in its own imagination by the Communist Party, neither the Young Communist League nor the Young People’s Socialist League was able to keep a functioning student cadre in continuous operation on the University of California campus. At least every four years they had to start over again. And the leadership, the real bosses, were middle-aged party functionaries sent in from “The Center.” One of them, bellowing with early senility, was to show up at the recent Un-American Activities Committee riot in San Francisco and scandalize the students.

The plain fact is that today students are incomparably better educated and more concerned than their elders. As the young do, they still tend to believe things written on paper. For the past five years, bull sessions have been discussing Kropotkin, Daniel De Leon, Trotsky, Gandhi, Saint-Simon, Plato — an incongruous mixture of the world’s cat bellers — looking for the answer. The gap between the generations has been closing up. Teaching them is a new group of young professors, too young to have been compromised by their actual role in the splendid Thirties, themselves realistic-minded products of the GI Bill; and neither ex-dupes nor ex-fellow travelers, but serious scholars of the radical past. It is only just recently that they have come up, only just recently that the creative minority of students has stopped assuming that just because a man stood at a podium he was ipso facto a fraud. So the head of steam built up, the waters mounted behind the dike.

And then one day four children walked into a dime store in a small Southern city and pulled out the plug. Four children picked up the massive chain of the Social Lie and snapped it at its weakest link. Everything broke loose.

Children had won at Little Rock, but they had not initiated the action, they had been caught in the middle in a conflict of equally dishonest political forces, and they had won only a token victory. All the world had marveled at those brave young faces, beautiful under the taunts and spittle. If they had not stood fast, the battle would have been lost; it was their bravery alone that won it. But it was a battle officered by their elders, and like all the quarrels among their elders nowadays, it ended in a morally meaningless compromise.

From the first sit-ins the young have kept the command in their own hands. No “regularly constituted outside authority” has been able to catch up with them. The sit-ins swept the South so rapidly that it was impossible to catch up with them physically, but it was even harder for routinized bureaucrats with vested interests in race relations and civil liberties to catch up with them ideologically. The whole spring went by before the professional leaders began to get even a glimmering of what was happening. In the meantime the old leadership was being pushed aside. Young ministers just out of the seminary, maverick young teachers in Jim Crow colleges, choir mistresses and schoolmarms and Sunday-school teachers in all the small cities of the South pitched in and helped — and let the students lead them, without bothering to “clear it with Roy.” In a couple of months the NAACP found itself with a whole new cadre sprung up from the grass roots.

The only organization which understood what was going on was CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, organized years ago in an evacuated Japanese flat, “Sakai House” in San Francisco, by Bayard Rustin, Caleb Foote and a few others, as a direct-action, race-relations offshoot of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (the FOR) and the Friends Service Committee. CORE was still a small group of intellectual enthusiasts and there simply weren’t enough people to go around. To this day most Negroes know little more of CORE than its name, which they have seen in the Negro press, and the bare fact that its program is direct, nonviolent action. This didn’t deter the high-school and college students in the Jim Crow high schools and colleges in Raleigh and Durham. They set up their own direct nonviolent-action organization and in imitation of CORE gave it a name whose initials spelled a word, COST. Soon there were COST “cells” in remote hill-country high schools, complete with codes, hand signals, couriers, all the apparatus of youthful enthusiasm. Needless to say, the very words frightened the older Negro leadership out of its wits.

The police hosed and clubbed the sit-inners, the Uncle Tom presidents of the captive Jim Crow colleges expelled them in droves, white students came South and insisted on being arrested along with the Negroes, sympathy picket lines were thrown in front of almost every chain variety store in almost every college town in the North. Even some stores with no branches in the South and no lunch counters anywhere found themselves picketed until they cleared themselves of any implication of Jim Crow.

The effect on the civilized white minority in the South was extraordinary. All but a few had gone on accepting the old stereotypes. There were good Negroes, to be sure, but they didn’t want to mix. The majority were ignorant, violent, bitter, half-civilized, incapable of planned, organized action, happy in Jim Crow. “It would take another two hundred years.” In a matter of weeks, in thousands of white brains, the old stereotypes exploded. Here were the Negro children of servants, sharecroppers and garbagemen — “their” servants and sharecroppers and garbagemen, who had always been content with their place — directly engaged in the greatest controlled moral action the South had ever seen. They were quiet, courteous, full of good will to those who abused them; and they sang, softly, all together, under the clubs and firehoses, “We shall not be moved.” Long protest walks of silent Negroes, two abreast, filed through the provincial capitals. A major historical moral issue looked into the eyes of thousands of white spectators in Southern towns which were so locked in “our way of life” that they were unaware they lived in a great world. The end of Jim Crow suddenly seemed both near and inevitable. It is a profoundly disturbing thing to find yourself suddenly thrust upon the stage of history.

I was at the first Louisiana sit-in with a girl from the local paper who had interviewed me that morning. She was typical, full of dying prejudices, misinformation and superstitious fears. But she knew it. She was trying to change. Well, the sit-in did a good job of changing her. It was terrific. A group of well-bred, sweet-faced kids from Southern University filed into the dime store, hand in hand, fellows and girls in couples, and sat down quietly. Their faces were transfused with quiet, innocent dedication. They looked like the choir coming into a fine Negro church. They weren’t served. They sat quietly, talking together. Nobody, spectators or participants, raised his voice. In fact, most of the bystanders didn’t even stare rudely. When the police came, the youngsters spoke softly and politely, and once again, fellows and girls hand in hand, they filed out, singing a hymn, and got in the paddy wagon.

The newspaper girl was shaken to her shoes. Possibly it was the first time in her life she had ever faced what it meant to be a human being. She came to the faculty party for me at Louisiana State that night. Her flesh was still shaking and she couldn’t stop talking. She had come up against one of the big things of life and she was going to be always a little different afterward.

The response on the campuses of the white colleges of the South was immediate. There had always been interracial committees and clubs around, but they had been limited to a handful of eccentrics. These increased tremendously and involved large numbers of quite normal students. Manifestations of sympathy with the sit-ins and joint activities with nearby Negro schools even came to involve student-government and student-union bodies. Editorials in college papers, with almost no exceptions, gave enthusiastic support. Believe me, it is quite an experience to eat dinner with a fraternity at a fashionable Southern school and see a can to collect money for CORE at the end of the table.

More important than sympathy actions for and with the Negroes, the sit-ins stimulated a similar burst, a runaway brush fire, of activity for all sorts of other aims. They not only stimulated the activity, they provided the form and in a sense the ideology. Nonviolent direct action popped up everywhere — so fast that even the press wire services could no longer keep track of it, although they certainly played it up as the hottest domestic news of the day. The actions dealt with a few things: compulsory ROTC, peace, race relations, civil liberties, capital punishment — all, in the final analysis, moral issues. In no case were they concerned with politics in the ordinary sense of the word.

Here the ROTC marched out to troop the colors and found a line of students sitting down across the parade ground. In another school a protest march paraded around and through and between the ranks of the marching ROTC, apparently to everybody’s amusement. In other schools the faculty and even the administration and, in one place, the governor joined in protest rallies against ROTC. There were so many peace and disarmament meetings and marches it is impossible to form a clear picture — they seem to have taken place everywhere and, for the first time, to have brought out large numbers. Off campus, as it were, the lonely pacifists who had been sitting out the civil-defense propaganda stunt in New York called their annual “sit out” and were dumbfounded at the turnout. For the first time, too, the courts and even the police weakened. Few were arrested, and fewer sentenced.

The Chessman execution provoked demonstrations, meetings, telegrams, on campuses all over the country. In Northern California the “mass base” of all forms of protest was among the students and the younger teachers. They provided the cadre, circulated petitions, sent wires, interviewed the Governor, and kept up a continuous vigil at the gates of San Quentin. All this activity was unquestionably spontaneous. At no time did the American Civil Liberties Union or the regular anti-capital-punishment organizations initiate, or even take part in, any mass action, whatever else they may have done. Chessman, of course, had a tremendous appeal to youth; he was young, he was an intellectual, even an artist of sorts; before his arrest he had been the kind of person they could recognize, if not approve of, among themselves. He was not very different from the hero of On the Road, who happened to be locked up in San Quentin along with him. As his life drew to a close, he showed a beautiful magnanimity in all he did or said. On all the campuses of the country — of the world, for that matter — he seemed an almost typical example of the alienated and outraged youthful “delinquent” of the post-World War II era — the product of a delinquent society. To the young who refused to be demoralized by society, it appeared that that society was killing him only to sweep its own guilt under the rug. I think almost everyone (Chessman’s supporters included) over thirty-five seriously underestimates the psychological effect of the Chessman case on the young.

At all points the brutal reactionary tendencies in American life were being challenged, not on a political basis, Left versus Right, but because of their patent dishonesty and moral violence. The most spectacular challenge was the riot at the hearing of the Un-American Activities Committee in San Francisco. There is no question but that this was a completely spontaneous demonstration. The idea that Communist agitators provoked it is ludicrous. True, all that were left of the local Bolsheviks turned out, some thirty of them — Stalinists and the two groups of Trotskyites. Even the “youth leader” who, twenty-eight years before, at the age of thirty, had been assigned to lead the YCL, showed up and roared and stomped incoherently, and provided comic relief. Certainly no one took him seriously. There was one aspect about the whole thing that was not spontaneous. That was the work of the committee. They planned it that way. Over the protests and warnings of the city administration they deliberately framed up a riot. When the riot came, it was the cops who lost their nerve and rioted, if rioting means uncontrolled mob violence. The kids sat on the floor with their hands in their pockets and sang, “We shall not be moved.”

Spectacular as it was, there are actions more important than the San Francisco riot. Here and there about the country, lonely, single individuals have popped up out of nowhere and struck their blows. It is almost impossible to get information about draft resisters, nonregistrants, conscientious objectors, but here and there one pops up in the local press or, more likely, in the student press.

Even more important are the individual actions of high-school students whom only a hopeless paranoiac could believe anybody had organized. A sixteen-year-old boy in Queens, and then three in the Bronx, refused to sign loyalty oaths to get their diplomas. As kudos are distributed in a New York suburban high school, a boy gets up and rejects an award from the American Legion. Everybody is horrified at his bad manners. A couple of days later two of his prizes are offered to the two runners-up, who reject them in turn. This is spontaneous direct action if ever there was. And the important thing about it is that in all these cases, these high-school kids have made it clear that they do not object to either loyalty oaths or the American Legion because they are “reactionary,” but because they are morally contemptible.

The Negro faculties and presidents of the Jim Crow colleges, who not only opposed the sit-ins but expelled dozens of the sit-inners, now found themselves faced with deserted campuses. They were overtaken by a tremendous groundswell of approval of their youngsters’ actions from Negro parents, and were dumbfounded by the sympathy shown by a broad stratum of the white South. One by one they swung around, until Uncle Toms who had expelled students taking part in sit-ins during their Easter vacations in other states, went on public record as saying, “If your son or daughter telephones you and says he or she has been arrested in a sit-in, get down on your knees and thank God.”

Not only did the New Revolt of Youth become the hottest domestic copy in years, but it reached the ears of all the retired and semiretired and comfortably fixed pie-card artists of every lost and every long-since-won cause of the labor and radical movements. Everybody shouted, “Myself when young!” and pitched in with application blanks. The AFL-CIO sent out a well-known leader of the Esperanto movement who reported that the kids were muddled and confused and little interested in the trade-union movement which they, mistakenly in his opinion, thought of as morally compromised. YPSL chapters of the Thomasite Socialists rose from the graves of twenty years. Youth experts with theories about what their grandchildren were talking about went on cross-country tours. Dissent had a subscription drive. The Trotskyites came up with programs. Everybody got in the act — except, curiously, the Communists. As a matter of fact, back in a dusty office in New York, they were grimly deadlocked in their last factional fight. Although the movement was a spontaneous outburst of direct nonviolent action, it didn’t quite please the libertarians and pacifists. They went about straightening everybody out, and Liberation came out with an article defining the correct Line and pointing out the errors of the ideologically immature.

As the kids go back to school this fall, this is going to be the greatest danger they will face — all these eager helpers from the other side of the age barrier, all these cooks, each with a time-tested recipe for the broth. All over the world this kind of ferment is stewing on college campuses. In Korea and Japan and Turkey the students have marched and brought down governments, and they have humbled the President of the greatest power in history. So far the movement is still formless, a world-wide upheaval of disgust. Even in Japan the Zengakuren, which does have a sort of ideology — the Left communism against which Lenin wrote his famous pamphlet — has only been able to act as a cheerleader. It has failed to impose its leadership, its organization or its principles on the still chaotic upsurge. In France the official Neo-Gandhian Movement, in alliance with certain sections of the Catholic Left, does seem to have given some sort of shape and leadership. I am inclined to think that this is due to the almost total ignorance of French youth of this generation — they had to go to the official sources for information and guidance, they just didn’t have enough, themselves, to get started.

Is this in fact a “political” upsurge? It isn’t now — it is a great moral rejection, a kind of mass vomit. Everybody in the world knows that we are on the verge of extinction and nobody does anything about it. The kids are fed up. The great problems of the world today are immediate worldwide peace, immediate race equality and immediate massive assistance to the former colonial peoples. All of them could be started toward solution by a few decisive acts of moral courage among the boys at the top of the heap. Instead, the leaders of the two ruling nations abuse each other like little boys caught out behind the barn. Their apologists stage elaborate military and ideological defenses of Marxian socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, neither of which has ever existed on the earth or ever will exist. While the Zengakuren howls in the streets, Khrushchev delivers a speech on the anniversary of Lenin’s Leftism, an Infantile Disorder and uses it to attack — Mao! Meanwhile a boy gets up in a New York suburban school and contemptuously hands back his “patriotic” prize. He is fed up.


This essay, originally titled “The Students Take Over,” was first published in The Nation (2 July 1960). It was reprinted in Assays (1961) and World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (1987). Copyright 1987 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

[French translation of this text]