Action Across the Spectrum

Student Activist Groups

BACK IN THE LATE '60s, college campuses were a constant concern for American government and campus administrators. Now, most agree that Harvard and other campuses have become less reactionary and that students devote more time to community concerns and working to reform the status quo. In short, students are interested in working within the system, not against it.

But what does that mean? If campuses are no longer hotbeds of activism, what are student politics about? At Harvard, student political organizations range from left to right, from groups associated with a political party to those which focus on specific issues. Of 150 student groups, 13 to 15 could be called politically active.

While few groups have a guiding political ideology, most of the more active organizations are oriented to the left of mainstream politics.

Student activism, says Dean of Student Archie C. Epps III "has never disappeared from American colleges," as some would believe. Rather, "in a year of presidential campaigning, party-related groups are quite active, and campaign work is quite classic." Issue-oriented groups which have sprung up over the past 10 years are "represented in the same number in the past," Epps adds.

Although most organizations are relatively small, many have overlapping membership, where common views prevail. For example, members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) at Harvard boast a membership of 15 core members, but Damon A. Silvers '86, president of the organization, says that more than 15 students sympathetic to the organization's politics participate in meetings and demonstrations.


Organizations which focus mainly on electoral politics, such as the Republican and Democratic Clubs, attract the largest student memberships. GOP Club President Marie J. Lucca '85 says the about 125 students pay membership dues to the club, while the Democratic Club has more than 50.

ALTHOUGH MANY STUDENT GROUPS consider themselves substantially left of center, most have reluctantly supported Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale.

But the communist Spartacus Youth League (SYL) stands out on the left, because it has adopted the slogan. "You can't beat Reagan with Democrats" and instead focuses on working class organizing. SYL seeks to form a workers party to raise class struggle to the heights of socialist revolution. Accordingly, their Harvard component, Friends of SYL, works to persuade students to become working-class partisans.

It's still early in the year, but groups have been actively organizing either for presidential candidates or for specific issues. The first week of school, a demonstration against South African apartheid drew a crowd of more than 50 students. The rally, initiated by SYL, was planned as a united front protest, under the slogans "Bury Apartheid" and "Free All Victims of Apartheid Oppression." However several groups invited to participate in the demonstration refused.

"We could not appear on a platform which did not specifically endorse divestiture," DSA's Silvers said. However, Silvers, on his own, spoke on the platform, encouraging other students to leave the rally.

"It was brought to my attention that SYL had pestered the campus well and were tabling continuously on campus," Silvers explained. "There was a serious danger that people not familiar with the political scene on campus would perceive the SYL as leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle," Silvers added.

The Black Students Association (BSA) was also asked to participate in the rally, but refused. "We thought that appearing on the same platform with the SYL would be contradicting too many of our beliefs and political views," said BSA president Timothy A. Wilkins '86. "It would not have made for a strong alliance."

"Members of these groups could see the contradictions to what their leaders were doing," said SYL member Andre Weltman '86. "That's why members of the organization came to the rally anyway. No one could have been opposed to the slogans we proposed for the united front demonstration. The leaders of these groups were more afraid of appearing on the same platform with communists."

THE DIVESTITURE RALLY INCIDENT demonstrates the fractious differences among various campus groups. Many organizations frequently work together on certain events, such as divestiture demonstrations or rallies against U.S. military intervention, only because the several groups share a core membership of activists.

Members of the DSA readily admit that they have members who are active in the Committee on Central America (COCA), the South African Solidarity Committee (SASC) or the Third World Student Association (TWSA). The result is a community of student groups who participate in electoral politics and protest on particular issues, often through legislative venues.