Les Misérables, the Berkeley Riots, and College Activism Today

 Les Miserables artworkAnyone who hasn’t seen the musical film Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe is highly encouraged to do so.  Even if one isn’t a fan of musicals, this particular story offers a plethora of historical gems and political insights to the audience.  My focus in this message is the film’s stylized portrayal of the June Rebellion, also known as the Student Revolution of 1832.  Believe it or not, this long-ago uprising—mostly forgotten until recently—holds a lot of relevance for us as student activists.

 One of my favorite songs in the production is “Red and Black,” sung in the tavern in which Marius’ group of college friends headquarter their activism and plot their revolution.  Red represents “the blood of angry men” and black “the dark of ages past.”  I find this scene to be incredibly poignant for multiple reasons.  First and foremost, the students are young, idealistic, and incredibly naïve, though their passion is clear and emotionally moving in their performance of their song.  Second, the June Rebellion’s insurgents were annihilated and evaporated after one day and night. Their loss is inevitable.

The original novel by Victor Hugo—I highly recommend the unabridged version—provides an incredibly detailed account of the ill-fated revolution.  Though the student revolutionaries had leftist leanings and identified with the ideals of 1789 over their own wealthy backgrounds and familial aspirations, they called themselves republicans.  This, of course, doesn’t refer to the ideology of the current American neoconservative political party, but rather to the Tocquevillian mindset that common folks, including the poor and landless, were competent enough and capable of partaking in the electoral process and deserved genuine representation in government. 

These young revolutionaries favored a democratic republic over the constitutional monarchy under Louis-Philippe.  Though they were republican, these students’ identification with proletarian ideology and their use of red banners—red being the color of “the world about to dawn”—make it reasonable to conclude they were socialists of the decades preceding Marxism (Marx didn’t gain international notoriety until the late 1840s, though socialistic ideas were already popular).

The June Rebellion was neither the first nor last revolutionary uprising in France, itself being but one wave in a tide of leftist revolutions around Europe and the world.  This chapter of socialistic revolutions in modern history took its place among those of 1789 in France, 1830 in France, 1848 across Europe, 1871 in Paris, 1917 in Russia, 1949 in China, and 1965-70 at American colleges.  While I disagree with the leftism of the 1832 revolutionaries, I can certainly admire their zeal for republican values, especially approaching republicanism from a libertarian and minarchist perspective.  The point where I neither agree nor sympathize with their cause is in their willingness to achieve their political goals through violence and bloodshed.

June Rebellion by FrèreUnlike the local militia at Lexington who waited until they were attacked by the British regulars before returning fire, the student insurgents disrupted a public funeral, barricaded city streets, and commenced firing at the army, the national guard, and the police.  Not cool—not okay! 

Instead of appointing themselves to be the vanguards of a New French Revolution, these students could have used their wealth and noble background to become public officials and serve the interests of the working class through reform rather than violent revolution.  In their case the revolution failed, 166 insurgents and soldiers were killed and over 600 wounded in a single day and night, and the inevitable counter-revolution resulted in martial law, stricter municipal codes, confiscation of private citizens’ weapons by the government, and the common people across France had even fewer liberties than before the uprising.

(On a side note I must admit: both Javert’s willingness to operate undercover among the insurgents and his willingness to pursue Jean Valjean for years over the pettiest issue would make him the ideal Homeland Security agent in the twenty-first century.)

The violent, student-led uprising reminds me of the Berkeley Riots in the 1960s, as well as other riots that occurred on college campuses across the country.  The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties makes an excellent argument regarding the riots.  On a number of college campuses (but especially at UC-Berkeley) the riots were led by student leaders of leftist groups—students who publically proclaimed themselves as Marxist-Leninists—and the riots began as pseudo-demonstrations with occupation of a building or an area often being a hidden goal of the ringleaders.  They weren’t actually protesting against the Vietnam War for “peace,” but rather for U.S. withdrawal in order to secure a victory for the communist North Vietnamese.  Anyone can look at photos of these demonstrations and see students waving Viet Cong flags or holding up images of Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh.

These charlatans’ chants for peace were also hypocritical.  At Berkeley, the ROTC building was dynamited and set on fire.  ROTC buildings at UW Seattle, Stanford U, U Delaware, and Nashville Agricultural were either blasted with explosives or set ablaze.  In college campuses around the country young people were trying to change the world for what they thought was the better, but they were dead wrong in their use of violence and their complete surrender to ends-justify-the-means mentality.

Liberty Leading the People by DelacroixWhat makes YAL and other libertarian-oriented groups so different from the campus activists of the 1960s?  For starters, we’re classically liberal and traditionally conservative. 

We believe in the non-aggression principle, which means the only violence we would ever wage would be purely in self-defense.  We respect private property, extending to abstaining from the destruction of public property because, even though “public property” is a legal fiction, it’s not our own. 

We believe in liberating our fellow man by securing the maximum individual liberty for him to enjoy.  The student radicals of 1832 Paris and 1960s America believed in enacting positive change through violence.  They also hoped to impose their leftist ideology on society as a whole.  We are very different from them and—if I dare say it—morally superior to them.  We’re peaceful, voluntary associates who never compromise on our principles. 

Better yet, while we, not unlike them, seek to translate our ideals into public policy, the beauty of our system lies in the fact that unlike theirs it forces no one to do anything they don’t want to do.

Furthermore, we’re a large and growing national organization.  We’re not activists isolated on one or two campuses.  We’re not idealistic revolutionaries hoping to enact change overnight.  We are many chapters on many campuses united under the banner of Young Americans for Liberty.  We have brother and sister organizations and strategic partners around the country.  We won’t be seen barricading any section of UCLA or George Mason University, nor will we be seen firing on ROTC cadets or campus police with the vain hope that this will return American government to within its constitutional limits. 

Our method lies in organization, unity, cohesion, and education of our fellow students.  We don’t shoot, we vote.  We won’t lead insurrections but rather political coalitions, and not to a battlefield but to the voting booth.  We will elect our own members to city councils, state legislatures, and the Congress.

 We have the honor and privilege of following in the footsteps of Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Murray Rothbard, and Ron Paul as we become the vanguard of a peaceful revolution that seeks reform and understanding rather than violent upheaval. 

We understand that our mission may take twenty or more years to accomplish.  We are ready, willing, and unafraid to continue our work.

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Cosette sketch by Bayard, June Rebellion sketch by Frère, and Liberty Leading the People painting by Delacroix are all public domain.

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