The Myth of the Long March Through the Universities

Actually, it didn’t take very long.  In many places, it was all over by 1972.  And it was more of a stampede than a march. 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Malcolm Bradbury’s classic novel The History Man.  “The History Man” is Dr. Howard Kirk, not an historian but a sociologist.   As Dr. Kirk and his creator would be the first to concede, fiction is not life and life is not fiction.  But Howard would go on to point out that the superstructure -- culture -- inevitably reflects the substructure -- the social relations of production.  The History Man could not have been written in the early ‘70s if breathtaking changes hadn’t already taken place at British, and American, universities.

To be fair, too, Howard teaches at one of Britain’s “new universities.”  Both architecturally and pedagogically, University of Watermouth represents a clean break with the dreaming spires of Oxford and Cambridge.  The 19th century redbricks were pale imitations of the ancient universities.  The post-war glass and steel universities set out to be different.  When he arrives at Watermouth in 1968, Howard is shown a glossy brochure, “Creating a Community, Building a Dialogue,” which opens with a statement by the campus’s avant garde Finnish architect Jop Kaakinen:  “We are not alone making here the new buildings; we are creating here those new forms and spaces which are to be the new styles of human relationship.  For an architecture is a society and we are here making the society of the modern world of today.”

At a party given at the beginning of his first term by the head of the social science division, the author of the standard work on the Bedouin intelligentsia, Howard

…found himself detained in conversation by a middle-aged man with a benign self-conscious charm, and the healthy, crack-seamed face of an Arctic explorer….  Howard, in his fur coat, discoursed on a topic he had grown greatly interested in, the social benefits and purgative value of pornography in the cinema.  ‘I’ve always been a serious supporter of pornography, Dr. Kirk,’ said the man.  ‘I have expressed my view in the public forum many times.’  It dawned on Howard, from the tone of demotic regality in which he was being addressed, that he was talking to no other person that Millington Harsent.

Harsent is the university’s Vice-Chancellor.  (At British universities, the VC runs the show.  The Chancellor is generally an underemployed duke or duchess who visits the campus once a year and reads a speech, but has no other responsibilities.)  “’I can’t tell you how pleased we are to have someone of your stature here,’” Harsent tells Howard.

At Watermouth, the radical Dr. Kirk is pushing against an open door.  “‘I think this is a place I can work against,’” he tells himself.

Howard has gotten an appointment at this new university, on the southwest coast of England, by virtue of his first book, The Coming of the New Sex, a heavily promoted best seller.  Over the next five years, he will write The Death of the Bourgeoisie and, a dozen years before the birth of Mark Zuckerberg, The Defeat of Privacy.

Barbara Kirk, Howard’s wife, was troubled by the first book when she surreptitiously read it in manuscript. 

‘Do you know what it says?’ asked Barbara.  ‘It says you’re a radical poseur.  It tells how you’ve substituted trends for morals and commitments.’ ‘You’ve not read it properly,’ said Howard, ‘it’s a committed book, it’s a political book.’  ‘But what are you committed to?’ asked Barbara.  ‘Do you remember how we used to say “maturity” all the time?  And it never meant anything?  Now it’s “liberation” and “emancipation,” but it doesn’t mean any more than the other thing.  Because there’s nothing in you that really feels or trusts, no character.’  ‘You’re jealous,’ said Howard.  ‘I did something interesting, and you’re jealous.’

‘No character,’ said Barbara again, sitting in his chair.  ‘How do you define character?’ asked Howard.  ‘How do you define person?  Except in a socio-psychological context.  A particular type of relationship to the temporal and historical process, culturally conditioned; that’s what human nature is.  A particular performance within the available role-sets.  But with the capacity to innovate through manipulating options among the role-sets.’  ‘I know,’ said Barbara, ‘you’ve said that all here.  But what’s it got to do with real people?’  ‘Who are these real people?’ asked Howard.” 

Dr. Kirk has read Erving Goffman and R. D. Laing as well as Marx and Freud.

But Barbara is not hopelessly bourgeois.  After arriving at Watermouth,

…she began to push at the world.  She felt herself on the front line again; the baby was old enough to leave.  But now her old idea that she would go into social work, which meant a formal, institutional course, seemed just a compromise with the system.  She wanted more, to act.  She started a community newspaper.  She led consumer protests.  She shouted ‘Fuck’ in council meetings.  She joined in with a group of Women’s Libbers and led consciousness-raising sessions.  She hurried women to clinics and welfare services, hoping to strain them to the point of collapse, so that the people could see how they had been duped.

In other words, she became a community organizer.

Howard, meanwhile, has attracted a large following on campus.  Small, wiry, with a Zapata moustache, “he was good at persuading people that a new era of human creativity and fulfillment was at hand.  He was busy at many meetings, and lots of people on the edge of breakthough came to talk to him.  He discussed with them their struggles with the vestigialities of the past, their breaking marriages.” 

For Howard, of course, the personal is the political, and vice versa.  In other words, radicalism means promiscuity, as the Kirks explain to their bourgeois friend Myra Beamish.  “’The only thing I never understood about that book [Howard’s The Coming of the New Sex] is whether we can do all those perverse things now, or whether we have to wait until after the revolution.’  ‘Christ, Myra,’ says Barbara, ‘nothing in consenting sex is perverse.’  ‘What’s more,’ says Howard, ‘they are the revolution.’  ‘Oh boy,’ says Myra, ‘you have such terrific revolutions.  You’ve really improved revolution’s image.’  ‘I try,’ says Howard.”

When Myra’s husband, Howard’s colleague Henry Beamish, sheepishly announces his apostasy, he tells Kirk, “’I’ve stopped wanting to stand up and forge history with my penis.’”

And so, at the legendary Kirk parties which bookend the novel, the guests include the owner of the town’s sex shop, “called Easy Come, a Women’s Lib polemicist from London in an Afro fright-wig, a radical Catholic priest and his Ouspenskyite mistress, and, much later, the entire cast and production staff of the nude touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest.”  The priest announces that “’the orgy is replacing the mass as the prime sacrament.’”

Acting on their principles, Howard and Barbara have various affairs, Howard with colleagues and students.  “Better to murder an infant in its cradle than to nurse unacted desires,” Kirk tells an English lit lecturer he’s trying to bed.  (She has an alternative reading of the infamous Blake quotation: “’It’s not the seducer’s charter you take it for.’”)

But making love does not mean not making war.  As a Marxist and a Freudian, Howard naturally has a conflict model of society. 

He only agrees to move to Watermouth after he assures himself that the charming resort town “did have a sociology -- had social tensions, twilight areas, race issues, class struggle, battles between council and community, alienated sectors, the stuff, in short, of true living.”

The most important meetings that Howard presides over, therefore, are with the organizations of radical students.  They are keen on internecine warfare, but Howard redirects their energies to disrupting life at the university.

To this end, he circulates a rumor that Mangel, a geneticist, has been invited to give a lecture on campus.  Kirk’s radical colleagues are outraged.  It would be like inviting Arthur Jensen or Hans Eysenck.

There were, in those days, some old-fashioned liberals in sociology departments, and they defend Mangel.  “’He studies the genetics of race,’” says one.  “’I don’t think that makes him a racist.’  ‘I thought we’d driven biological explanation right out of sociology,’” a radical replies.  “’I thought we were through with all that shit.’”  “’You’ve also driven sin and evil right out of sociology,’” says the liberal, “’which doesn’t prove there’s no sin.’”  [158]

Howard cleverly insinuates a discussion of Mangel into a subsequent departmental meeting.  “’He’s a racist and a sexist,’” shouts a student representative.  “’Professor Mangel is to my knowledge neither a racist nor a sexist,’” the Chair replies, “’but a well-qualified geneticist.  However, since we have not invited him here, the question seems scarcely to arise on this agenda.’”  But Howard, the agent provocateur, asks if the Chair would be prepared to invite him if his name were proposed.  The radicals protest that Mangel’s work is “fascist.”  “’I had always thought the distinguishing mark of fascism was its refusal to tolerate free enquiry,’” the Chair replies drily, and attempts to move on.

But as Kirk had anticipated, one of the old-fashioned liberals is provoked into proposing that Mangel be invited to campus.  “Professor Mangel and myself have a background in common,’” says Dr. Zachary.  “’We are both Jewish and both grew up in Nazi Germany, and fled here from the rise of fascism.  I think we know the meaning of the term.  Fascism, and the associated genocide, arose because a climate developed in Germany in which it was held that all intellectual activity conform with an accepted, approved ideology.”  Those outside the dominant ideological construct, Zachary explains, were isolated, like Mangel.  The opposite of fascism is “pluralism or liberalism.  That means a chaos of opinion and ideology.”  And so in the interest of traditional liberalism, Zachary moves that Mangel be invited to lecture.  “’You’ll get your chaos all right,’” vows one of the radicals.

When the Machiavellian Kirk abstains, the motion passes by one vote.  Radical faculty may have been outnumbered in those distant days, but they were not outgunned.  They had their Storm Troopers, the radical student organizations.  Of course the lecture is disrupted before it can begin, and the professor who was to introduce Mangel, poor Henry Beamish, is knocked down and trampled.

This is not the only exercise in leftist totalitarianism that the novel explores. 

There is a lone conservative student in one of Kirk’s seminars, George Carmody.  “He has the reputation of being appalling… He is a glimpse from another era, a historical offense.”  George is clean-shaven and wears a university blazer and a tie.  His grey flannel trousers are pressed and his shoes polished.  He addresses Kirk as “sir”; to the rest of the class he is “Howard.”  George is supposed to discuss theories of social change in Mill, Marx, and Weber, and comes to class with a big pile of books, bookmarks protruding, and a long paper to read.  This is how seminars at British universities had been conducted for generations, but not at Watermouth and certainly not in a Kirkish classroom.  Howard tells George that he “was supposed to make a spontaneous verbal statement to the class, summarizing your impressions.  I didn’t ask for a written paper presenting formalized and finished thoughts.  What kind of group experience is that?  I think you’ve made a heavy, anal job of this because you’re a heavy, anal type.”  Carmody concedes this, and adds that he’s being treated for it by the Counseling Service.

He is nonetheless allowed to present the paper, by a show of hands.  But the other students, predictably, interrupt.  He’s asked for his methodology.  “It’s an objective summary of my findings,” George replies.  He’s accused of “bourgeois self-justification.”  “’I know it doesn’t agree with your politics,’” he responds, “’but I think someone ought to stand back and look critically at these critics of society, for a change.’”  “’You’re seeing society as a consensus which bad people from the outside set out to upset, by wanting change,’” he’s told.  “’But people desire and need change.’”  Howard intervenes:  “’I’m afraid this is an anal, repressed paper in every way.  Your model of society is static.  It’s an entity with no internal momentum and no internal conflict.  In short, it’s not sociologically valid.’”  When George ventures to suggest that he thinks his is “a possible point of view, sir,’” Kirk replies, “It may be in conservative circles.  It isn’t in sociological ones.’”

Not surprisingly, Carmody gets Fs on his sociology papers, though he receives As on his work in English, his major field -- English having not yet been saturated by theory.  When George discovers he may not graduate because of Kirk’s politicized marking, there are more confrontations between the two.  The desperate student then manages to photograph Kirk in flagrante with a student and a colleague.  His own privacy having been defeated, Howard nonetheless can rely on his radical student shock corps to intimidate the Vice Chancellor.

The novel, as is clear from this Carmodian summary, eloquently and wittily exposes radical fascism -- or liberalism, as it’s long been called in this country.  Contemporary liberalism is about the suppression of free speech.  (The “free speech movement” at Berkeley in the mid-‘60s was about the right of radical groups to set up tables on campus to distribute literature and collect money; it had nothing to do with free speech.)  It’s about domination and manipulation.  And it’s about hate.  “Hate and revolutionary zeal raged” in ’68, when Howard comes into his own, and Bradbury repeatedly emphasizes the link.

Howard and Barbara have children as well as opinions.  Anyone who’s had the opportunity to observe faculty interacting with their kids will recognize the Kirk style of parenting.  Here’s an exchange around the breakfast table:

‘Why does it always have to be cornflakes?’ asks Martin.  ‘You can’t say all that much for the human lot, as we bumble around in the Platonic cave,’ says Howard, ‘but sometimes there are glimpses of the eternal beyond.  Like cornflakes.’  ‘No metaphysics, Howard,’ says Barbara, ‘let’s all just eat our cornflakes.’  ‘Are you opposed to metaphysics?’ asks Celia, not eating her cornflakes.  ‘She’s a British empiricist,’ says Howard.  ‘Look,’ says Barbara, ‘these kids leave for school in fifteen minutes.  I know it’s against your principles, which are dedicated to driving me insane.  But could you exercise a bit of parental authority here and get them to eat their sodding cornflakes?’  ‘Are you going to eat your sodding cornflakes?’ asks Howard of the children.  ‘Or do you want me to throw them out of the window?’  ‘I want you to throw them out of the window,’ says Martin.  ‘Christ,’ says Barbara.  ‘Here’s a man with professional training in social psychology.  And he can’t get a child to eat a cornflake.’  ‘The human will has a natural resistance to coercion,’ says Howard.  ‘It will not be repressed.’  ‘By cornflake fascism,’ says Celia.

Kirk means church in Scottish, and virtually all faculty members now subscribe to the Kirkian creed as regards free speech.  “Old fashioned liberals” scarcely exist in humanities and social science departments, and if they’re around, they keep quiet.  It’s impossible to imagine anyone voting to invite a Mangel to lecture today.  But then it’s impossible to imagine any university tolerating a Mangel on its faculty.  The real change, however, has come beyond the iron gates of British and American colleges.

In a landmark essay in 1989, Chester Finn described universities as “islands of repression in a sea of freedom.”  But like Matthew Arnold’s “sea of faith,” the sea of freedom and tolerance has receded dramatically over the last quarter of a century. Generations of indoctrinated graduates now dominate the judiciary, federal and state bureaucracies, corporate boardrooms, the media, and the entertainment industry.  This is the long march that had “fundamentally transformed” America even before the Radical-in-Chief took the oath of office.

Howard Kirk, who would be 77 today, would beam with pride.

A second edition of Jeff Lipkes’ Rehearsals:  The German Army in Belgium, August 1914 was published last year, along with his translation of Henri Pirenne’s La Belgique et la guerre mondiale, Belgium and the First World War.