Skip to content


Personal tools
You are here: Home » Documents » Hal Draper - Students in the 1930s

Hal Draper - Students in the 1930s

Document Actions

Hal Draper - Students in the 1930s


Hal Draper was one of the more intelligent Marxian scholars. Despite a Trotskyist background his "Marx-Engels Cyclopedia" provides a very valuable reference work and some of his writings show real insight.

That makes his article on "THE STUDENT MOVEMENT OF THE THIRTIES: A POLITICAL HISTORY" all the more interesting. The following excerpt shows how even in 1965, after living through the experience of the war against fascism, Draper still defends the 1933 slogan refusing “to support the United States government in any war it may conduct.”

Draper proudly boasts of having continued to fight against Communists for having "betrayed" the anti-war movement by supporting collective security against fascism right up until 1937-1938.

At the same time, in other parts of the article, he also denounces (more plausibly) the "third period" ultra-left line prior to that "betrayal", and also the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact when the other imperialist powers rejected collective security and adopted an appeasement policy to encourage a Nazi-Soviet war. Finally of course he also denounces the "popular front" after the other imperialist powers did form an alliance with the Soviet Union against the Nazis.

Just as remarkable as the fact that Draper was still proud of this Trotskyist stand sabotaging collective security against fascism as late as 1965, is the fact that this resistance was successful until 1937.

Large majorities of American students, at "left" or "socialist" national conferences, consistently voted down resolutions in support of collective security in opposition to the "party line".

The difficulty people have accepting any kind of united front with US imperialism today is neither new nor surprising.

Comparisons between the Baath fascist Iraqi regime and the Hitler regime are somewhat spurious. Comparisons between the recent peace movement and the 1930s peace movement are not.

Note also that despite his (genuine) status as a "theoretician" Draper feels content to simply describe his heroic struggle against the Communists and collective security, without feeling any need to present arguments to demonstrate that he was right and they were wrong.

On the other hand however, support for that view disappeared almost entirely during the war against fascism.


Here's the extract:

Perhaps the greatest impetus to the student movement came from the war question.

There is no question but that there has never been a generation of youth more concerned about the danger of war than this one. Their attitude toward this danger was unmistakable: some of the polls and surveys showed a depth of opposition among large masses of youth which was unprecedented. In 1933 a sampling of 920 Columbia students included 31 per cent who considered themselves absolute pacifists - almost one-third; another 52 per cent stated they would bear arms only if the country were invaded; only 8 per cent said they were willing to fight for the United States under any circumstances. A national poll showed 39 per cent who said they would not participate in any war, and another 33 per cent who would do so only if the United States were invaded.

The students obviously did not share the attitude of some of their mentors, like the Fordham dean who denounced student anti-war activity with these words: “They are making fools of themselves.... What war are they worrying about anyway?”

The mounting consciousness of the danger of war crystallized politically around the “Oxford Pledge” , an English import. In February, 1933 the Oxford Union, following a debate, had passed a resolution which announced that under no circumstances would they “fight for King and country. “ This was adopted by a vote of 273 to 153 ; when Randolph Churchill made a motion at the next meeting to expunge this offense to patriotism, the pledge was sustained by an even higher vote, 750 to 175. The sentiment was echoed at other English universities, including Leicester, Manchester, and Cambridge.

In the United States the Oxford Pledge, while retaining the name, was quickly translated into American as a refusal “to support the United States government in any war it may conduct.” For the next period the Oxford Pledge was the platform of the student anti-war movement.

It will be noted that the American version does not say quite the same thing as the Oxford version of the Oxford Pledge. The difference was deliberate. It was formulated here by student leaders who, both Socialist and Communist, regarded themselves as Marxists and did not want to make the pledge a statement of absolute pacifism - a viewpoint which was virtually nonexistent among the Communist leaders of the NSL and infrequent in the leadership of the SLID nationally or locally. Hence the American pledge was pointedly not worded to read as a refusal “to support any war which the U.S. government might conduct.” Instead, it was politically directed against support of the government in any war.

In 1934 the two radical student organizations launched what seemed to many at first a rather wild idea, but which turned out to be the most successful single action of the movement: a “Student Strike Against War.” The date was set to commemorate the entrance of the United States into the World War, and it took place on April 13,1934. It was actually only a “demonstration strike” , scheduled for one hour, from 11:00 to noon, but it did call on all students to “walk out” of their classrooms. ( This was intended literally; students were asked not to cut classes but to go to their scheduled class and leave with as many others as possible).

At this point the political orbits of the Socialist and Communist students were at perigee. The Communists had already pulled out of the “revolutionary” buffoonery of the “Third Period” but had not yet entered on the complete abandonment of revolutionary tactics which was going to characterize the Popular Front period. On their side, not only the YPSL but even the Socialist party itself had adopted resolutions on the war question which were thoroughly revolutionary-socialist in content and phraseology (in fact, this was one of the main reasons why its “Old Guard” right wing split away). If, as we have said, the Socialists and Communists were crossing each other as they went in opposite political directions, it was during the period from 1934 to the middle of 1935 that they were closest.

There was therefore little difficulty in achieving complete NSLBSLID cooperation in the organization of the first student anti-war strike. To the surprise of its sponsors, it also achieved a considerable measure of success, especially in its public impact. In spite of a barrage of threats and pressure from administrations, about 25,000 students participated in 1934. To be sure, about 15,000 of these were in New York City - and of these, in turn, nearly half were probably accounted for by the three city colleges, City College of New York ( CCNY), Brooklyn College, and Hunter. At other campuses the number was not impressive as yet, but the public sat up and took notice. Attempts to intimidate the student strikers at CCNY, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins added to the headlines.

The number of participants took a big jump on April 12 of the following year. The second Student Strike Against War in 1935 - focused, like the first, on the Oxford Pledge - drew about 150,000 students nationally, according to the student organizations. This claim was probably not much exaggerated provided one notes the qualification that not all of these 150,000 actually participated in a “strike” , that is, a walk-out from classes. In some places a more usual form of demonstration or meeting was substituted.

The figures were still highest in New York City, with Brooklyn College easily leading again with 6,000; CCNY and Columbia each had 3,500 out. Philadelphia did well, with 3,000 at the University of Pennsylvania and 2,500 at Temple. In the Middle West, the biggest strikes took place at the Universities of Chicago, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. On the West Coast, Berkeley came in, at 4,000, with the second largest demonstration in the country; but even Stanford had 1,500. This time the movement was nationwide: there was some kind of manifestation on over 130 campuses in all regions of the country, including nearly 20 in the South.

This was a great shot in the arm for the student movement, but the fact is that this image of a national mass movement had been projected by the work of comparatively small groups of radical students. To take the example of my own campus, Brooklyn College, which had seen the largest strike in the country for both years: there were probably about thirty active members each in both the SLID and NSL chapters, give or take another dozen. If about 95 per cent of the student body came out on the strike, in the face of administration threats of disciplinary action and the violent opposition of the student newspaper, this was an index not to the size of the direct organizational influence of either group but rather to the climate of social and political opinion among the students generally. I doubt whether there was at any time during this period a number of student-movement activists greater than there are today (1965), though there are two important qualifications to be added: the total student population in the universities and colleges was much smaller then and the student readerships insisted on more compact and efficient organization than is common today. The main difference was in the times.

The years 1934-35 were not only those in which the Communists and Socialists came closest together politically, but also those in which the Communists, having abandoned the doctrine that Socialists were “social fascists” , started going all-out for “unity” with those whom it had so recently stigmatized. On the student field, the NSL started proposing unity with the SLID in 1934. With cooperation in two student strikes behind them, and increasing cooperation in other projects, the SLID began to look favorably upon the proposal. By 1935, as their own line toward “unity” blossomed internationally, the Communists seemed ready to make almost any concession to get agreement. Within the SLID, the left-wing YPSL also was favorable to merger, feeling that in a united student movement their own politics would have a larger field to operate in. Another source of pressure toward merger was the growth of the NSL, which threatened to overshadow the SLID.

In June the national executive committee of the SLID voted for fusion, and the unity convention was held during Christmas week in Columbus, Ohio. The new organization formed there was called the American Student Union.

There was a considerable bloc of previously unaffiliated liberals at this convention, but, as before, they played no independent role. The agreements, disputes, and discussions emanated from the Socialist and Communist blocs. By this time, not only the Franco-Soviet Pact but also the speeches and documents of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern had begun to make clear the direction of the Popular Front policy. The entire international Communist movement, including the American party with its usual automatism, had already by this time abandoned its anti-war policy and, in all countries earmarked for the anti-German alliance, was headed in the direction of classic jingoism. Soon there were going to be no more shrill “patriots” than the Communists.

The NSL line had not yet been overtly affected. Even though, outside the student field, the Young Communist League had dutifully made clear that the Oxford Pledge was now obsolete, the leaders of the NSL formally stated that the Oxford Pledge would be maintained, in answer to a challenge from the Socialists. In fact the process of coordinating the student movement with the new Communist pro-war line was going to take two years, up to the Vassar convention of the ASU at Christmas time 1937, whereas elsewhere Communist-dominated organizations were able to carry out the flip-flop in weeks or months. The difference was due entirely to the bitter fight made against this turn by the Yipsel forces-in the SLID.

At the fusion convention, therefore, all was not sweetness and light, as might have been the case if the merger had taken place a few months earlier. One sticky question was the attitude of the ASU toward the Russian regime. In a compromise, a resolution referred to the Soviet Union only as an example of a “non-imperialist” nation whose “peace policy” deserved support - a formulation which was then satisfactory to the leftwing Socialists too. Another problem, the relationship of the ASU to the Communist front organization which then still called itself the American League Against War and Fascism, was settled by an agreement not to affiliate with any such body except by a three-quarters vote of the national committee.

The main dispute took place over the question of war policy. In line with the preconvention pledge of the NSL leadership, the Oxford Pledge was re-endorsed, by a vote of 244-49 (the 49 were liberals who agreed with the new Communist line of “collective security” and had no reason to weasel over it). But when the Socialist bloc introduced a resolution which included the idea that the Oxford Pledge would still be applicable even if the United States were aligned with Russia in the war-for-democracy toward which the Communists now looked, this was defeated 155-193 by the combined votes of the Communists and pro-collective-security liberals against the Socialist left wing. But this was still only a negative action, as compared with the later complete endorsement of American foreign policy when the ASU came under unchallenged Communist domination.

The leadership of the new organization was divided according to preconvention agreement. Three “LID types” became national officers: Lash as executive secretary, George Edwards as national chairman, and Molly Yard as treasurer. NSL=ers took the posts of high school chairman, field secretary, and editor of the magazine (Student Advocate). The national committee was divided into three blocs, with an equal number named by the SLID and NSL, leaving a number of seats for “unaffiliated liberals.” There was only one hitch in these proceedings: the morning of the vote, the YCL faction decided that they would not accept one name on the SLID list - mine - in spite of the previous agreement that each of the merging organizations would name its own people to the national committee. The infuriated SLIDers informed them that this would explode the agreement, and the YCL finally backed down, muttering darkly about the “disruptive” role I had played by presenting the Socialist anti-war resolution on the Oxford Pledge


At the Christmas 1936 convention of the ASU, the time was not yet propitious to unload the Oxford Pledge formally, as was shown by the fact that a YPSL sponsored resolution attacking the collective-security (pro-war) line lost by only thirty-seven votes. What did happen, however, was that the two “LID types” who had become ASU national officers, Lash and Yard, went over to the Popular Front and collective-security line and became staunch fellow-travelers of the Communist bloc. At a Socialist caucus meeting during the convention itself, a furious denunciation of these two was the main feature, and in effect the national staff of the ASU became monolithic.

During 1937 pro-war feeling in the country grew apace. The New Deal moved more openly toward interventionism, as Roosevelt came out in October with his “Quarantine the Aggressor” speech. The Socialist anti-war minority in the ASU had a harder row to hoe. By the end of 1937 the Communists, in bloc with Lash, were in position to dump the last vestiges of the student movement's militant politics and anti-war activity. At the convention, a well-organized Socialist bloc of delegates carried on a last-ditch fight to save the Oxford Pledge but lost, 282-108. By the 1938 convention, with the Socialist left wing out, the complete Popular-Frontization of the organization bore fruit: the Roosevelt administration finally gave its official blessing to the ASU, in a letter of greetings to the convention from the President; the convention also got messages from the mayor of New York and its Board of Higher Education, from the president of CCNY, from the women's director of the Democratic National Committee, and other notables. The student movement was now completely respectable, completely pro-administration, and completely emasculated.

Created by keza
Last modified 2004-03-20 02:25 AM

Powered by Plone

This site conforms to the following standards: