How Our Campuses Came to Reject Free Speech

berkeley free speech.jpg

John Dewey said the job of education was to free students from the intellectual captivity imposed by “village truths,” the groupthink version of reality they had grown up with. But the irony now is that liberalism, once created in opposition to small-town traditionalism, has generated its own all-encompassing “village truths” creating conformism on today’s campus.

Students are now subject to a curriculum watered down by political correctness. So it comes as news to even well-read young people that there once was an anti-Communism and anti-Stalinism of the left in America. It was a tradition upheld by people like the literary critic and Yiddishist Irving Howe and the historian Eugene Genovese. But Howe’s and Genovese’s anti-Stalinism made them objects of enmity for the anti-anti-Communists of the New Left, who have dominated academia for the past three decades. The New Left aped the Communists by shutting down all campus debate, and in so doing, laid the groundwork for political correctness.

Here, the Frankfurt School guru Herbert Marcuse is a key figure. His writing achieved fame in the mid-1960s as many mistakenly came to see the liberal idea of tolerance as exhausted. Marcuse argued that our “liberalist society” is based on a form of domination so subtle that the majority accepts their servitude and even wills it. In such a situation, tolerance means an acceptance of the status quo that serves the cause of corporations and their intellectual lackeys.

No Tolerance for Dissenters

Instead of John Stuart Mill’s ideas on free speech, Marcuse embraced “repressive tolerance.” Marcuse, whose ideas about liberalism and Stalinism were at best confused, thought free speech should be denied to those misguided, objectively reactionary people on campus who assumed that America is a relatively free society. Tolerance must be withdrawn from regressive movements, he argued,
BEFORE they can become politically active.

This line of thought, a critique of pure tolerance, arrived on campus as the neo-Stalinism of political correctness. The key concept of the New Left and promoters of PC is that America, appearances to the contrary, is a fascist society.

Marcuse acknowledged that suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger. But since that danger is real, he argued that “the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teaching and practices in educational institutions.”

Another key figure here is Norman O. Brown, important in the 60s and remembered now, if at all, for his sexual doctrine of polymorphous perversity. He wrote: “We are in bondage to authority outside ourselves, most obviously…in bondage to the authority of books…This bondage to books compels us not to see with our own eyes, compels us to see with the eyes of the dead, with dead eyes…There is a hex on us, the specters of books, the authority of the past, and to exorcise those ghosts is the great work of magical self-liberation.

When the great critic of Marxism Leszek Kolakowski visited American campuses in the late 1960s, he wrote that “What impressed me was the mental degradation of a kind I had never seen before in any leftist movement. I saw young people try to ‘reconstitute’ universities and to liberate themselves from horrifying, savage, monstrous, fascist oppression. The list of demands, with variations, was very similar on campuses all over the world.”

Undiscussable Subjects

The fight between those looking to politicize the campus and those opposed was largely decided by the events of the spring of 1970, a year with more than 3,000 left-wing bombings. In quick succession, we saw Earth Day, the most widespread demonstration in US history; the trial of the Black Panthers for killing one of their own; Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia; and the Kent State
tragedy. All these produced widespread campus strikes in which one-time liberals melded into leftists.

At Amherst, the prominent M.I.T. American Studies professor Leo Marx told the striking students: “How can we go out into the streets and talk to the people who are so prejudiced against us?” “This strike is a signal that the present politics of the American government, if persisted in, will eventually destroy the structure of higher education in America.” He described America as a
“society devoted to war and racism and imperialism.”

By 1972 when Vietnam was de-escalating and the urban rioting had for the most part died down, James Q, Wilson wrote that “the list of subjects that cannot be discussed…in a free and open form (on campus) has grown steadily, and now includes the war in Vietnam, public policy toward urban ghettos, the relationship of intelligence and heredity and the role of corporations in certain overseas regimes.

The substantive commitment to victims of American society overwhelmed the former commitment to academic life organized around open debates. Sides had been chosen up and there was little to debate. The question of what was true was replaced by the question of which side you were on.

(Image: Berkeley “Free Speech” protesters. Credit: Berkeley Lab.)


  • Fred Siegel

    Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership, a City Journal contributing editor, and an expert on public policy solutions for urban governance. A former fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he is currently scholar-in-residence at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn.

    View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *