I forgot to mention that Angela Davis visited my institution a couple of weekends ago and delivered the keynote address for the Women's and Gender Studies Conference that we hosted. (Aside: I'm not generally inclined to be star-struck, but I definitely was a little around Dr. Davis. I was charged with taking care of her and transporting her back to her hotel after the keynote address, so I got to spend time and speak at some length with her one-on-one. It was awesome.) Anyway, while she was here, a few of our students "protested" her visit, standing outside of the building with signs that read (among other things) "My Tuition Shouldn't Pay For Communists." I had been told earlier in the day by one of my (non-protesting) students that this might happen, and when I asked "why are people protesting Angela Davis?!?", he responded "Because she was a Black Panther and she is a Communist." For the record, Davis was exceptionally gracious with-- and more than a little amused by-- our student protesters. On her way into the lecture hall that night, she stopped and spoke with them, inviting them into her lecture so that they could (in her words) "come to a better understanding of one another." (They declined.) I'm still a little shocked that there were protesters, especially given Davis' prominent role in the Civil Rights struggle and our institution's emphasis on service and civic responsibility. (We made the President's Community Service Honor Roll.) But the more I think about it, the less shocking it is.
I regularly teach Marx in my Ethics and Social/Political courses, and I have found over the years that students know very little about communism or socialism before coming into class. Actually, it's worse than that, as students often have gross misconceptions about communism and socialism before coming into class. Many of them think that "communism" = "atheism" (full stop). Or they think that the only historical instantiation of communism (the USSR) was an unqualified moral, political and economic failure. Or else they believe that everything they learned in ECON 101 about the merits and meritocracy of the Free Market is true. So, I find that it takes a little bit of massaging to get their minds open to some of Marx's critiques of capitalism, which are in reality quite consistent with their fundamental ethical and political sensibilities. And with a little more massaging, it's usually not that difficult to demonstrate the "socialist" elements present in our own democracy. It's not about Stalinist totalitarianism or hedonist atheism, I tell them, it's about poor people. Believing that Marx might have been right doesn't mean you have to give up your iPod, dress in all grey, and stand in a bread line. It just means, at the very least, that you might object to the exploitation and alienation of your fellow human beings.
I'm particularly interested in this as a sociological phenomenon. Why are today's students-- who were, for the most part, not even born until after the "fall of communism"-- so hostile to it? I would think that people of my generation would be more so, since we grew up with the Wall still in place, but it doesn't seem like we really are. When I was an undergraduate, I didn't have anywhere near the access to information about global poverty, or multi-national corporations, or any of the other collateral damage of capitalism as students today have. And, oh yeah, the entire economic infrastructure of my country didn't collapse, either. My formative years were the cushy, consumerist, mostly peaceful, Clinton years. What gives?