Student activism

Student activists: Free-form revolutionaries (Fortune, 1969)

October 16, 2011: 9:30 AM ET

Editor's note: Every week, Fortune.com publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, we turn to an article from January 1969 on the diverse, and fragmented, array of protest movements organized by young Americans in the late 1960s. The lack of centralized leadership within the student movements of the 1960s call to mind the Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread to cities around the world over the past month. Much like their predecessors described below, today's growing legions of protesters seem to have united around a shared sense of frustration and a desire for change rather than specific policy aims.

"The Movement" is diverse and confusing, which doesn't bother its members a bit. Its rioters and window breakers grab the headlines, but the silent thousands are working on spreading the word.

By Charles Burck

Wisconsin draft resistance union

In the washroom of a Wisconsin high school, a member of the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union teaches an incipient radical high-school group how to mobilize sentiment not only against the draft but against restrictive school policies-e.g., dress codes, pressures to train for occupational slots, a ban on an underground high-school paper.

FORTUNE -- Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization, considers it a petty bourgeois student movement. The Red Guards would run it into the ground. Castro would have no use for its lack of discipline. The radical movement in the U.S. is, on the whole, quite distinct from revolutionary movements in other times and places. Like them, the Movement, as it is called, has the sense of social obligation that characterizes leftist movements in general. The Movement finds itself in agreement with the thesis that U.S. society has institutionalized exploitation, and it seems to be coming to an informal acceptance of the view that capitalism is inextricably linked with most of the country's ills. But it rejects the ideologies and organizational forms of the old left, and strongly espouses the notion of individual freedom. It finds no applicable model elsewhere in the world, or in history, for what it thinks the U.S. ought to be.

The fact is that the Movement is incredibly diverse -- as multileveled and varied as American society itself. Its members have neither blueprint nor party line, neither national office nor secretariat. There is no unanimity among them about appropriate tactics or even appropriate ends except in the most general way. The "window breakers" are only one element. The Movement also encompasses hippies and doctrinaire Leninists, anarchists and populists, the "campus cong" and peaceful communards, militant confrontationists and mystics, Bakuninists and humanists, power seekers, ego trippers, revolutionaries whose domain is the individual mind, Maoists, rock bands, and cultural guerrillas.

As a result of this diversity, and its heartfelt commitment to individualism, the Movement has defied all attempts to bring its members together into disciplined cohesiveness. Most of its work is carried out at the local level by numberless, almost anarchistic, groups. Its national organizations, which often seek to set the tone for those who work under the national nameplates, are not really representative of the Movement's fluid groupings, and are frequently little more than advisers to their local chapters. These national organizations are a far cry from the old Communist party, U.S.A., with its rigid central control, adherence to official dogma, and ruthless suppression of heretics. More

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