Conflict of Generations

Conflict of Generations by Lewis Feuer. Basic Books. 542 Pages. $12.50.

NO MATTER what the captions on Life magazine say, Harvard has never experienced "centuries of academic calm." In fact, from 1766 to 1834, students seemed to go on a virtual rampage. Lewis Feuer has traced student politics back to the French Revolution, and his Conflict of Generations signifies a major effort to give these movements historical perspective and academic respectability. Feuer largely concentrates on the political consequences of the conflict, not the Oedipally determined struggle of sons against fathers. The element of generational conflict, he contends, has led students to amorality in the choice of political means. Given a set of alternative paths--rational or irrational--for reaching a social goal, student movements will rend toward the most irrational and violent.

This analysis accompanies a leisurely executed polemic against student movements of whatever ideological flavor as they emerged throughout history. In all the major student movements documented by Feuer--the German, the Bosnian, the Russian, the Japanese, the Chinese, the French, the American--the original generosity and sacrifice for ideals ended up as criminal elitism in which the end justified any means: assassinations, thievery, strikes, destruction of property, and a heavy youth-weighted rate of suicide.

STUDENT MOVEMENTS arise in disoriented societies, a condition often reenforced by the political apathy of the masses. Feuer lists two basic requirements for a student movement: gerontocracy and "deauthorization." A gerontocracy means that the older generation possesses a disproportionate amount of economic power and status. Feuer does nor regard the United States as a gerontocracy, but perhaps he is mistaken. The younger generation has grown weaker in this country, not stronger, as a result of prolonged schooling and economic dependence on their elders well into adulthood. This gives rise to the "free floating aggression" characteristic of young adults whose emotional energies do not go into making a living.

The gerontocratic order is undermined by a feeling that the older generation has disgraced itself (deauthorization). The scandal of racial discrimination, for example, deauthorized the older generation in the early sixties and brought into existence the New Left. The debacle in Vietnam, I suspect, more significantly enforced deauthorization in every region of the country.

One further law outlined by Feuer states that every student movement must have a "carrier" movement--either a nationalist, peasant, labor, or civil rights cause. Student patronage of such causes tends to distort them, inflame them, or deflect them. Student activists look for and require some oppressed class with which they can identify. They seek to offer themselves in a self-sacrificial way to an excluded group, whether it be the proletariat or a racial minority.

Since some students are convinced they are deceived and exploited, they feel and kinship for others who are similarly deceived and exploited. "The back-to-the-people spirit is at once the most distinctive, noblest and self-destructive trait within student movements." All student activism requires this streak of populism and companionship with the masses.

Harvard populism among people barely able to locate Central Square had all the classic symptoms of generational revolt. According to the formula, students act autonomously first and then seek for identification. The takeover of University Hall, for example, kicked off a campaign to identify exploited Harvard students with exploited Cambridge workers. Perhaps there is an identity. Significantly, though, the campaign against expansion began in earnest after the takeover.

When the masses do not respond to heroic student initiatives, as they often do not, there tends to ensue a further loss of faith in democracy. But the erosion of democratic thinking among student radicals has been going on since 1964. Some suppose that the intellectuals will have to lead the revolution themselves. This belief tends to legitimize individual acts of terrorism.

REJECTION by the masses is not a law of history, though. Feuer points out that in developing countries, students may meet favorable circumstances. Where democratic politics are closed off, then the intellectuals--young and old alike--will make common cause. Where the older intellectuals share power or see possibilities of compromise, then the intelligentsia will experience the conflict of generations. This "localized" conflict can be more acute. For the sake of revolutionary purity, students direct their tactics against the old liberals who have "sold out to the Establishment!" And since many of them teach at the university, they are easy to surround and threaten.

One should not mistake the student movement for a youth movement. A student movement has the component, however feeble, of intellectualism. "A new idea," writes Feuer, "has all the poetry involvement and purity of a first live." Such idealism commands respect as a major means by which ethical ideas enter history.

This is found with a complementary component of anti-intellectualism, apparent in student zeal to purify the classroom of backward thinking.

Feuer writes an attractive kind of history, all anecdote and theory. Most of the anecdotes seem rather chilling, deliberately so, but the analysis is quite original. He clearly demolishes the old notion of student politics as one episode toward modernization. Student movements plague all types of societies and generally end in chaos without a single piece of legislation or reform to call their own. Feuer invented much of this analysis in response to current student radicalism and applied it to history retrospectively, but his case is nevertheless well argued. When he applied his categories of student revolt to the American New Left, they led, a bit too easily, to harshly negative conclusions.

America's first student left in the thirties spent most of its energies fighting the New Deal. The alternative it had in mind to the economic chaos of the Depression was the law and order of Stalinist Russia. When it became clear by 1940 that Stalin had duped the radicals, or they had duped themselves, the American Left lost credibility with the next generation of students. The radical thirties gave way to the conservative forties and fifties, and the "silent generation" did not life a finger to save the deauthorized elders from the McCarthy persecutions.

The New Left of the sixties grew out of an affluent society. Worse than that, it grew out of a stable society. The movement lacked objective economic institutions to attack. The moralistic disapproval of capitalism had carried over from the thirties, but the thrust was no longer socialistic. Socialism is mentioned rarely by the moderate wing of the SDS, and even then only awkwardly. The enemy is the system, not just the capitalist system. The New Left has picked up the alienation of the beat generation and combined it with political activism.

FEUER TENDS to use terms like "radicals," "students," and "activists" indiscriminately. He might easily have distinguished the New Left from the New Politics. The New Left prefers to work outside party politics. It prefers direct action for the sake of a moral principle--strikes, demonstrations, building takeovers. Any kind of long run participation in decision-making bores the radicals. It is more Nietzschean to pit one's will against the system and make it yield. Confrontation politics is not really politics at all.