by Dan Riazanov, Red Flag: http://redflag.org.au/article/spark-lit-1960s-campus-revolt
Fifty years ago this week, the Free Speech Movement at the University of
California Berkeley reached its high point with a mass campus protest
followed by an occupation of the administration building.
moved in against protesters, the call for a student strike went out, and
the campus was shut down in the coming days.
The movement had taken off two months before when police attempted to
arrest an activist for defying a ban on student groups using a campus
plaza to ask for support and donations for off-campus causes, like the
civil rights movement.
Before the arrested activist could be taken away,
students surrounded the police car. A demonstration went on
continuously for the next 32 hours - with the blockaded car serving as
the speakers’ platform - until UC President Clark Kerr was forced to
negotiate with students.
Talks continued in the following weeks, but UC officials took a hard
line, threatening strict punishment for students and organisations. The
pickets, protests and occupations culminated on December 2 with a huge
rally that took over Sproul Hall, the headquarters of the
In the early morning hours, police moved in and arrested
close to 800 people. A student strike, organised as the arrests were
taking place, took hold in the coming days, paralyzing the campus.
Joel Geier was a central participant in the Free Speech Movement. He talked to SocialistWorker.org's Dan Riazanov about the making of the Free Speech Movement and the lessons it holds for today.
Can you start by giving an overview of the role of the Free
Speech Movement in how the 1960s developed into a decade of protest and
The Free Speech Movement is a link in the chain that connects the
Berkeley campus to the Black civil rights movement of the early 1960s
and the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s.
The years 1963 and 1964 were the high point of the direct action
phase of the civil rights movement, nationally as well as in Berkeley,
and the Free Speech Movement broke out over a four-month period between
September and December of 1964.
Then, in February and March of 1965, the
antiwar movement took off. The bombing of North Vietnam and the
deployment of massive numbers of ground troops took place in the spring
In Berkeley, the antiwar movement was more massive than anyplace else
because of the Free Speech Movement before it. For example, the
teach-in organised by the Vietnam Day Committee in late May lasted for
three days at Berkeley, and 30,000 people participated in it. It began
as a mass movement because of what had come before.
So the radicalisation began with the civil rights struggles of 1963
and 1964, and the Free Speech Movement further catalyzed student
radicalisation in particular - not just in Berkeley, but
internationally. And the antiwar movement represented a further
radicalisation from there.
Why did this take place at Berkeley? First of all, Berkeley wasn’t
the elite school then that it has become today. It was an excellent
school, but the student body was mainly middle class - both lower-middle
class and upper-middle class, but with more working-class than
The upper class sent their kids to elite schools
or to Stanford. Tuition at Berkeley in those days was $600 a year. In
today’s dollars, that’s about $4,500, but it was still a school where
the lower-middle class could afford to send its kids.
As I mentioned, a minority of Berkeley’s 25,000 students had already
become engaged in political activity through the civil rights movement,
and also in organising opposition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s
anti-communist witch hunts.
In May 1960, hundreds of mostly college students protested outside
San Francisco’s City Hall when McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities
Committee (HUAC) planned hearings there. It was the first time that HUAC
had faced such mass dissent. The anti-HUAC demonstration in San
Francisco was really the start of the Berkeley student movement.
Those protests were the result of collaboration between the Young
People’s Socialist League and the Communist Party. This helped to instil
a radical political culture on the campus, so that when the Free Speech
Movement began in 1964, there were eight or nine radical political
clubs on campus that defined themselves as socialist in some form or
They had a membership between them of 200 to 300 people and a
periphery of another 200 people. Plus there were a couple hundred more
people who had been involved in the civil rights movement and other
sorts of groups, such as the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial
Equality (CORE) or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
We were a minority, to be sure, but a significant minority. We were
600 or 700 people on a campus of 25,000, but during the Free Speech
Movement, we were able to win the vast majority of the campus - and
really, the vast majority of our generation. We started by winning a
majority during the Free Speech Movement itself, and through the
anti-Vietnam War movement, the vast majority.
But let me return to the beginning and the connection with the civil
rights movement during the height of its nonviolent direct action phase.
This began with the success of Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign
in 1963 to challenge legal segregation in practically every aspect of
You had the spectacle of mass confrontations between Black
youth and the white political establishment, symbolised by Birmingham
Police Chief Bull Connor - and what’s more, the movement prevailed on
every front in Birmingham, which is why people everywhere looked to that
Then came the Freedom Summer campaign in 1964 to register as many
Black voters as possible in Mississippi. During that year, throughout
the country, civil rights groups were cropping up, and civil rights
demonstrations were taking place everywhere.
In the Bay Area, there was a large civil rights movement, primarily
focused on questions of employment - in large part because of the
significant presence of socialists and communists inside the movement.
Practically everyone thinks of the Bay Area as a very liberal part of
the country, but in 1963 and 1964, Blacks couldn’t be hired in virtually
any public position. They couldn’t be clerks in stores, they couldn’t
be cashiers in supermarkets, they couldn’t be salespeople in auto
dealerships, they couldn’t be bank tellers.
Because of the radical current inside the civil rights movement in
the Bay Area, the main focus became employment and jobs for Black
workers, and there were a series of militant demonstrations and sit-ins
along those lines. At Mel’s Drive-In, at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, at
San Francisco Auto Row, at Lucky Supermarkets, hundreds of people were
The largest single component of those who were arrested were Berkeley
students, who were either members of or mobilised by the Berkeley CORE
chapter, which became the largest CORE chapter in the country.
weekly meetings had 75 or 100 people at them. Six people had founded the
campus CORE chapter in August or September of 1963 - within the next
year or two, three of those six would join the Independent Socialist
The dominant group in the campus CORE chapter was the ISC, whose
political line on the civil rights movement, on the Democratic Party, on
American politics, became the view accepted by campus CORE members. And
those campus CORE members became the cadres of the FSM.
This connection to the civil rights movement is necessary to
understanding the Free Speech Movement. It wasn’t just about the right
of unrestricted free speech.
It was about the university response to the
political pressures from the capitalist establishment of California,
which was trying to crack down and stop the mobilisation of campus
activists taking on the racist hiring practices of California
It was an attempt to shut down the civil rights movement
on campus that was engaging in off-campus activity that was “illegal” by
holding sit-ins against the “legal” right of the employers not to hire
So the Free Speech Movement began in reaction to the university’s
attempt to say that students could no longer organise around these
issues on campus. Basically, the university said: You can’t even raise
any money to support the civil rights movement in the South. You can’t
do anything that supports any “illegal activity,” like sit-ins or
opposition to segregation in Alabama.
That’s the content of “free speech” that the Free Speech Movement was
about, to begin with. Plus, the right of the university to carry out
what we called “double jeopardy” - that is, to impose university
discipline on students who had already been arrested and sentenced by
police for participating in the Bay Area civil rights actions.
For example, I was arrested at the Sheraton, in the Cadillac showroom
on Auto Row, and in a number of sit-ins, and I was sentenced to jail
time for it. And the university came along and said that it was going to
discipline us as students - that it could suspend us.
In order to do this, the university had to ban all political activity
on campus. Even though the point was to ban civil rights movement
organising on campus, the university couldn’t say that - so it had to
shut down all political activity, affecting even Republican student
I want to make another point here. For most people who took part, the
Free Speech Movement was the first political thing that they ever
engaged in - so they were shocked by the behaviour of the liberal
establishment on campus and in the state government.
Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of UC Berkeley - who had become the
president of the entire UC system by the time of the Free Speech
Movement - was a liberal with labour movement credentials.
He was raised
a Quaker and had a social democratic background - he had been in the
Student League for Industrial Democracy, which was the predecessor
organisation of Students for a Democratic Society.
The governor who called in the police to break up the protests and
thus became the students’ prime antagonist was Pat Brown, a liberal
In other words, the Free Speech Movement was taking place in
opposition to a liberal establishment, not right-wingers. And this was
the first experience in political activity for many liberal students.
They were shocked at how the people they had looked up to or thought
highly of were treating them - and that radicalised them over the course
of the movement.
This took place over the course of the Free Speech Movement, which
was a mass upheaval from below, but it also took place in waves. It
began with the four months from September through December in 1964, with
some magnificent struggles combined with setbacks, but it continued
developing from there.
The significance of the Free Speech Movement is that it won over the
campus generation to radical politics. It shows that radicals could win
the sympathy and the support of the bulk of their campus generation.
After the Free Speech Movement, the left was no longer a small but
significant minority at Berkeley. Its politics became the dominant
politics of the whole generation.
And from there, the Free Speech Movement was the catalyst for the
spread of radical student politics to campuses throughout the US and
internationally. For the next four or five years, the American student
movement would be the largest and the most radical in the world - and
Berkeley was at the centre of it.
What was it about the Independent Socialist Club that allowed
it to play a leading role in the Free Speech Movement when there were
eight or nine other left groups at Berkeley?
The ISC was formed first at Berkeley. When it became a national
organisation five years later, with a number of other Independent
Socialist Clubs in other parts of the country, it changed its name to
the International Socialists (IS).
The ISC began the same night as the FSM did. It was a split of the
left wing within the Shachtmanite movement, which was then inside the
Socialist Party and its youth wing, the Young People’s Socialist League.
This was a continuation of the wing of American Trotskyism that had
developed the idea of supporting “Neither Washington nor Moscow” - that
was committed to socialism from below and an analysis of the class
nature of Stalinism.
Shachtman and some of his supporters had moved to the right - they
were supporting the Democratic Party and the union bureaucracy. The wing
of the Shachtmanite movement that would form the ISC remained committed
to the left.
We had a history at Berkeley. We had already been
instrumental in forming the CORE chapter, which was one of the largest
political groups on campus, and winning it to our views on American
The ISC was successful both because of the deep roots it had inside
the civil rights movement and because of the activist and the
ideological role it played on campus. It had a wide influence because of
its role in CORE. Everyone in the Free Speech Movement knew that CORE
and the ISC were the left wing of the movement.
There were other left-wing groups like the Young Socialist Alliance,
which was affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party. But they didn’t
have the political influence or the cadres that we did. The two main
leaders of the Free Speech Movement were Mario Savio, who had come out
of SNCC and YPSL, and Jack Weinberg, who joined the ISC the night it was
The ISC was an activist group - we were totally involved in every
aspect of the Free Speech Movement, building it and taking part in it.
But we also played an enormous ideological role. We could explain the
political context and justifications for the Free Speech Movement’s
actions and responses better than anyone else, and so activists looked
to us for those explanations.
Hal Draper was very important in this regard. He was a founder of the
ISC who laid out an analysis of Clark Kerr’s view of the university
that we published as a pamphlet titled The Mind of Clark Kerr.
That really became a bible for Free Speech Movement activists. It
explained how Kerr thought the role of the university was as a
“knowledge factory” - that was Kerr’s term - to prepare people to be
white-collar workers and middle-level managers for the corporation.
So it was very clear how Kerr envisioned the universities to be part
of the American corporate establishment. We laid this out for students -
that they were seen as the raw materials for this knowledge factory. In
particular, Savio and Weinberg carried those views into the broader
student movement. So did Hal - he spoke at many of the Free Speech
So the ISC carried out an ideological struggle on the campus. It was
the group that held meetings, not just on Kerr’s views, but on every
unfolding aspect of the Free Speech Movement struggle.
didn’t just have our own speakers, but other left- wing leaders, and
they discussed and oriented the movement on campus. We carried out the
ideological struggle against Kerr, against the Democratic Party and
Governor Brown, against the liberal establishment
For example, we exposed who the UC Regents were - the board of
trustees for the university. Marvin Garson wrote a pamphlet called “The
Regents” to explain to people exactly who they were - that almost all of
them were leaders of the main corporations and banks and newspapers of
We laid it out to people that the people setting the
policies of the university were the leaders of California capitalism.
It was this ideological role as well as our activist role and our
influence in the campus CORE that gave us the ability to play a leading
role in the struggle, in collaboration - very important and critical
collaboration - with other leftists and people moving toward the left
inside the Free Speech Movement.
Large numbers of activists didn’t join
us immediately, but they did so in the wake of the Free Speech Movement,
a year or so afterwards.
Can you talk about the role the ISC played in the student
strike that came on December 3 after the mass arrest of those sitting-in
in Sproul Hall? The campus movement in California today has talked
about attempting to build strikes in the last five years or so, but we
haven’t seen anything like what happened at that point.
It was important how the strike developed out of the struggle itself.
Our general view was to try to win over campus opinion. Not to denounce
people for not being radical enough, but to win over the bulk of the
students by going through all of the aspects of what was going on and
winning them politically.
We had proposed a student strike for some period of time, but the
main view of the Free Speech Movement, coming out of the civil rights
movement, was to engage in sit-ins. Most of these sit-ins took place
with around 300 or 400 people. The last one in December was most
successful, with between 700 and 800 people arrested during the
occupation of Sproul Hall.
Our proposal for the strike was a way of involving not just the
activists, but winning over broader layers of the campus to take part in
the Free Speech Movement. The goal was to win over enough students that
it would shut down classes on campus. And if not the students, then we
could win over the teaching assistants to shut down the ability of the
university to function.
It’s important that we weren’t just announcing a strike - we thought we could win students to participate.
We had been proposing this inside the Free Speech Movement in the
fall of 1964 and lost the votes. But in the midst of the Free Speech
Movement, graduate students formed a coordinating council that worked in
collaboration with the movement.
Since many of the graduate students
were teaching assistants or research assistants or readers, this led to
the formation of a campus union to represent them.
The union came over to the idea of a strike before the Free Speech
Movement did. Then, in the middle of the December 2 occupation of Sproul
Hall, the steering committee of the Free Speech Movement called a
meeting and also decided in favour of a student strike. They sent three
people, myself being one of them, out with instructions to organise for a
The reason I was a part of that team was that the ISC
had been arguing for some time that this was the way to involve the
whole campus - involve people who weren’t activists and weren’t prepared
to engage in a sit-in and get arrested.
The strike came after the mass arrests and it was successful. It
lasted for a total of three days. On the first day, around 50 percent of
the students went out - by the third day, it was around 80 percent.
One reason why the strike was so successful was because of the TAs –
their organisation had meetings every day of the strike to discuss how
it was going, with reports from every department.
In the social sciences
and humanities, it was 90 percent effective, with 90 percent of the TAs
out. The strike also spread to math and biology and physics - though it
was a failure in places like business administration and engineering.
Today, in places like Britain and Chile and Quebec, there are
established and ongoing student unions. Was there ever any talk about
trying to build an undergraduate student union during the Free Speech
Not too much during the course of the Free Speech Movement, but there was toward the end of it. The free speech movement ran from September to the big December
sit-in and student strike. After that was Christmas break, and when
students came back, there were exams.
The new semester began in
February, and there were attempts to hold mass civil rights demonstrations in Jack London Square in Oakland, just south of Berkeley.
In cities like Oakland and Richmond, there was a strong, all-Black
movement, which the Berkeley CORE chapter worked with.
So there was an attempt to engage in civil rights activity, with mass
picket lines and so on, but it petered out, as did the organising
around a kind of student-union formation. There are ups and downs in any
movement, and the Free Speech Movement was no exception.
After the huge
struggles of December, there was a kind of letdown - lots of people
want to go back to their normal lives, or at least try to assimilate the
lessons of what happened.
But then the war in Vietnam escalated. In February, the US began
Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombardment of North Vietnam, and massive
numbers of troops began to be deployed - by the end of the year, there
were already 200,000 US troops in Vietnam.
The first activities of the antiwar movement were teach-ins, and at
Berkeley - because of the Free Speech Movement that came before it – you
had the biggest turnout of anywhere in the country. The first teach-in
was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which had about 1,000 or
2,000 people - when they got Berkeley, 30,000 people attended.
Next came the formation of the Vietnam Day Committee, also started in
Berkeley. It began with the troop train demonstrations. Soldiers were
brought by railroad to the Bay Area and shipped out to Vietnam from
there - so the Vietnam Day Committee called demonstrations to try to
stop the trains.
This became the largest of direct-action anti-Vietnam
groups in the country at this point, and it was a direct product of the
radicalisation of the Free Speech Movement.
There has been an attempt to institutionalise the Free Speech
Movement at UC Berkeley. There are official, campus-approved
celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement
anniversary this year, and an annual Mario Savio award is given to a
local student activist. But at the same time, there’s a backlash on
campuses like UC Berkeley against Palestinian rights activists. What are
your thoughts on this kind of the institutionalisation of the free
I think it’s in the introduction to State and Revolution where
Lenin talks about how there’s an attempt, after the death of
revolutionaries, to turn them into harmless figures and celebrate them.
think some of that is going on here - they’re taking a mass protest
movement, which represents the early stages of the radicalisation of the
left of the 1960s, and turning it into a semi-establishment thing. You
have a radical leader like Mario Savio turned into an icon, but with his
radical content destroyed.
There is an enormous free speech fight going on in this country right
now around Palestine solidarity. The case of Steven Salaita is the
best-known aspect of it - he’s a professor fired because of his
criticism of Israel and its war on Gaza this summer.
If that wasn’t
recognised at the official 50th anniversary celebration as one of the
main battles going on in this country, then I think you do have
something that’s becoming institutionalised.
The message of the free speech movement was against the liberal
establishment of this country, which was fighting against the civil
rights movement when it stepped on the toes of American capitalism. I
would say that Steven Salaita is the Mario Savio of this year, and
Students for Justice in Palestine are the legitimate heirs of the
Berkeley struggle of 1964.
How has the role of the university under capitalism changed
in the last 50 years, and has that changed the relationship between
students and society, compared to what existed at the time of the Free
We have to start from the enormous change between universities before
the Second World War and the universities of the postwar period - the
era where Clark Kerr was the theoretician of their economic and social
Universities before the Second World War were, for the most part,
elite institutions to train and educate the ruling class. In the postwar
period, with the expansion of American capitalism, universities had
become institutions that created middle management and technicians for
an expanding capitalist system and imperialist state.
By the mid-1960s, the University of California was doing a lot of
research for the military, along with other universities, to develop the
weapons of mass destruction that were used in Vietnam. I think that
Kerr was one of the first theoreticians of this, and that was something
that was highlighted in the Free Speech Movement.
What we’ve gotten in the last 40 years is the neoliberalisation, not
just of the economy, but of the universities. I told you that when I
went to school at Berkeley, tuition was affordable for working-class
students if they worked 10 hours a week or worked over the summer.
The universities still produce white-collar workers for American
capitalism on an even more massive scale, but it’s capitalism that has
changed - it has become much more neoliberal, and with it, there is much
more of a class differentiation between the 1 Percent and the 99
I got my bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago. In 2011, the
president of the University of Chicago made $3.4 million - on par with
the head of a corporation. Large numbers of university presidents and
administrators make the salaries of the 1 Percent - this is in order to
assure that they have the same ideological outlook as the 1 Percent.
So universities are much more institutionalised, and with the absence
of a radical movement like the one that existed in the 1960s, they have
been able to put in place all sorts of policies that leave graduating
students today with enormous debts. They’re indebted to the corporations
from the beginning, so it’s more difficult for them to resist.
The goal is to force them into a mode where they don’t step out of
line, but I think the Occupy movement and the campaign around the
Salaita case are the first initial steps to try to challenge this. But
these are still minority movements on campuses in terms of where most
people stand. Occupy was a tremendous step forward, but it didn’t leave
behind any organisation or lasting power.
I think that Clark Kerr was a forerunner of what was going to occur
with neoliberalisation. And the Free Speech Movement was an early
rebellion against this direction. It won in the 1960s, but since then,
neoliberalisation has been carried out on a much wider scale, and US
politics has been dragged to the right.
Right now, there isn’t a student movement that can challenge the
priorities of what has gotten to be a much, much worse situation, for
students and for faculty - or at least those faculty who are adjuncts
and barely scrape by, not the small layer that is paid big salaries. A
class differentiation that has gone on inside the university reflects
the changes in US society over the last 40 years.
What lessons should we take away from the Free Speech movement today?
The Free Speech Movement came out of the civil rights movement, which
had created a small but significant layer of leftists on the campuses.
It showed that, at different points in time, it’s possible for radicals
to win over their generation. That’s the significance of what took
The Free Speech Movement acted as a catalyst for this to take place
throughout the country as people got the courage and the confidence they
hadn’t had before the free speech movement won. It spread across the US
and internationally. Berkeley was the centre of the international
student radicalisation, at least through 1968, when it shifted to Europe
and took on more radical forms.
I think it’s important for people to understand that those
circumstances repeat themselves, though it may be a long time between
the high points. Nothing like this took place between the 1930s and the
1960s, and it hasn’t taken place for a long time now.
It was possible to break through at Berkeley because there was
already a political layer that was different from all other campuses.
That was why there was both a crackdown by the university and state
authorities, and a successful fight against it. That political layer
that came out of both activism and an ideological struggle, and that’s
what we’re engaged in today - rebuilding both of those things.
Rebuilding a left means showing that struggles can break out like in
Ferguson or Occupy, but also waging an ideological struggle to win
people over - not just against the right wing, but against the liberal
currents of American capitalism.
We need to carry out an ideological
struggle to create a radical cadre and a radical political culture on
campuses, so when things do open up, they can lead to much bigger
battles and bigger successes.