As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Matt Applegate looks at Paul Piccone’s “Students’ Protest, Class-Structure, and Ideology” from Telos 3 (Spring 1969).
Paul Piccone’s 1969 essay “Students’ Protest, Class-Structure, and Ideology” captures the revolutionary ethos of that time in the United States. Hippies, student politics, Black Power, as well as the work of such figures as Régis Debray and Herbert Marcuse all come under Piccone’s earnest critical consideration. His primary concern, however, is the link between these student revolts and the state of education in the United States. On the one hand, Piccone is intent on charting the means by which hyper-industrialization and the technologization of work lead to open student rebellion. On the other, he is interested in understanding why student rebellion is effective in relation to other forms of revolutionary organization that appear alongside it.
In the article’s opening, Piccone sees remarkable novelty in student revolt of the 1960s. Indeed, American student protests can be thought as equal to those of similar revolutionary struggles around the world: the Red Guards in China, “the French students’ May revolt, and the Berlin students’ agitation against the Springer organization” (107). In many ways, the student revolts of the 1960s signaled the emergence of American leftism on a world stage, and therefore entered into a world-historical lineage of revolution. It is thus in this world-historical sense that the conditions of student revolt in the United States are being scrutinized by Piccone in this article.
The ground of analysis for Piccone’s article is tied directly into the antinomies of industrialization. On the one hand, accelerating industrialization creates the need for more specialized labor: industrialization demands a more educated working class to meet, and then exceed, its demands for greater production. On the other hand, a more educated working class is less likely to accept the forms of exploitation that industrialization produces. Students are therefore an unusually privileged figure in this process, because they stand squarely between workers and non-workers, the college educated and non-college educated, adulthood and adolescence. Here, Piccone writes at length:
But in as far as education is also self-development and self-realization, efforts to prepare large groups of young people to meet the new industrial requirements have resulted in counterfinalities that threaten the very foundation of the systems involved. The educational sword is double-edged. While it produces the kind of technical experts by the increasingly more intricate industrial system, it also produces a large number of people able and willing to investigate their predicament, and seek changes in case that such an investigation produces unsatisfactory conclusion [sic]. (107–8)
The role of education is crucial here. In both spatial and temporal terms, the sites and practices of higher education must be treated as an autonomous zone of investigation. Thus, in the same way that students themselves inhabit an interstitial socio-economic position in the United States in the 1960s, the university can also often remain at a distance from state direction and corporate management.
Piccone’s characterization of higher education, however, does not adequately describe the effects he attributes to student revolt. Here, two distinctions in revolutionary form are drawn out. First, Piccone contrasts student revolt to broader class-based struggle. In Piccone’s analysis, class struggle as it is traditionally understood is not a live option in the United States because of the tremendous material benefits coming to all from accelerated industrialization. That is to say, the working class in the United States is characterized as a non-revolutionary body because they are more concerned with obtaining or maintaining wealth than confronting economic inequality. Thus, for Piccone, “the students remain de facto the only radical and progressive elements within such a society in the sense of questioning irrational foundations and demanding a radical restructuring according to humanistic criteria” (109). Second, student revolt is compared to, and ultimately valorized by, many other forms of struggle unfolding in the United States at the same time, particularly by the Black Power movement. What the students forefront, which the Black Power movement (or any other ethnic or race-based resistance movement on Piccone’s analysis) does not, is a purely class-based revolutionary program, rather than one founded on questions of identity. To be sure, Piccone does not dismiss the Black Power movement or other revolutionary bodies concerned with gaining recognition from or asserting themselves over their oppressors. Rather, the problem is one of how exclusivity and the uncritical influence of identity categories and rights discourse are valorized by white culture: “The ordinary justification for the exclusiveness is that this is the only way to attain a negro identity which is to permit the negro to assert himself in American society, forcibly or otherwise. But this way of posing the problem betrays idealistic assumptions in advertently borrowed from white culture” (114–15).
The path that Piccone charts here for his criticisms of non-student led revolutionary struggle therefore elicits a concern for total revolution, rather than reform or incrementalism. If the categories of white culture are to be opposed, the narrowness of identity-based struggle refused, and the failure of the working class is to be rejected, then Piccone must claim that a new revolutionary form is necessary for the kind of revolution he desires. His characterizations of the student movement, as well as that of higher education, however, reveal a strain of unwarranted political idealism in the arguments presented in this article. Perhaps this only became clear with the onward flow of history, but the student movements of the 1960s were not the world-historical events Piccone assumed them to be. That break not only failed to become manifest, it actually is still to come.
Leaving the question of revolution and revolutionary forms aside, the most telling critique that Piccone draws out in this article is leveled against education. The necessity of higher education marks a shift in the culture and priorities of American citizens, and that change acts as the catalyst for student revolt in an unprecedented show of force during the 1960s. Its traditional function as a kind of autonomous zone of intellectual and ethical investigation and an established institutional locus for revolt is perhaps the primary feature of the cultural changes in the United States that fostered thoughts of novelty and difference. The absence of this embedded rich tradition for thought in higher education today is telling, and follows Piccone’s own assessments of accelerated industrialization at work. Like the working classes of the 1960s, today’s students mostly enter colleges and universities with their own future material gains and economic benefits in mind. More than this, today’s students typically leave the university with rising levels of student debt that force them to serve these interests in pursuing higher education. While this underscores the idealism of Piccone’s writing in this article, it also affirms the novelty of that moment in the 1960s.