THE LESSONS OF LEUVEN

This is a good moment, then, to draw some preliminary lessons from the case studies of Nijmegen, Tilburg, and Leuven. These instances of Catholic universities becoming the primary breeding grounds for radical revolt exemplify the truism that the link between Catholicism and social movements does not always have to be a straightforwardly supportive one. Catholicism can also play a negative role as a perceived authoritarian belief system against which one feels compelled to revolt. All the more so if one is Catholic oneself. Obvious manifestations of such negative mechanisms are confrontations where the concrete incarnations, so to speak, of the Catholic church are unloved—if not despised—power brokers. It should also be noted that often the particular contribution of Catholicism to the incursions of social movements consists of both elements at once, positive reinforcement and negative repulsion, even and especially within the minds of rapidly evolving single individuals. One and the same person may well be propelled by a profound sense of social justice—at least partially rooted in the lessons learned during religious instruction as a child—to question authority, notably Catholic authority figures. There is no better target for such righteous rage than a hostile university administrator at a Catholic institution of higher learning or, as was the case in Leuven, an entire episcopacy aligned against the wishes of a mobilizing community.

The linguistic orientation of the Catholic University of Leuven remained at the centre of various agitations until 1968. In early 1968 the issue once again became headline news, and it came to yet another round of mobilizations, which far exceeded the events of May 1966. When the francophone section of the university community on 15 January 1968 announced their decision, arrived at one day earlier, to keep the Leuven campus bilingual, the dyke burst once again. Far surpassing the turbulent events of May 1966, the city turned into a battlefield. The administrative offices were invaded, furniture thrown out onto the adjoining Old Market and set on fire. ‘Even the most staid types continuously shouted with clenched fists: “Revolution”; and individuals

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Entry for Paul Goossens in wikipedia: .

who, two weeks earlier, still personified moderation and tranquillity turned out to be frightful agitators. The entire Leuven student body seemed to have been infected by a rebellious virus and had become propagators of the most radical points of view.’[1] Or, in the words of Christian Laporte: ‘An insurrectionary climate of revolutionary inspiration took over the old centre of the Brabant town: black flags were raised and one began to see wall newspapers, directly inspired by the Chinese dazibaos, while a journal with the explicit title Revolte explained in scientific terms how to manufacture Molotov cocktails.’[2] On 16 January, 325 students suffered arrest.

But the battle had hardly begun, with masses of students defying orders to stay clear of city streets. During the night of 20-1 January, an auditorium went up in flames; on 24 January another 675 persons were arrested by the police. Most worrisome for the authorities, the virus began to spread beyond Leu- ven.[3] Students at the second-largest Flemish university in Ghent expressed their solidarity with the Leuven students in no uncertain terms. And on 23 January 1968 a most extraordinary process of trickle-down activism began to affect the high school student milieu. Between 23 January and

  • 6 February, with universities in Flanders in turmoil, tens of thousands of high school students grabbed this window of opportunity to express their solidarity with the Leuven students and to press for democratization at their own institutions, usually far more dictatorially run than any ofthe universities. Sometimes encouraged by emissaries from Leuven, often alumni returning to their high school alma mater to stir up the crowd, the numbers of demonstrators and the locations of such rallies speak for themselves. Small provincial towns witnessed extraordinary assemblies of angry young students. On
  • 7 February 1968 the Belgian government stepped down. The road to Leuven Vlaams was now irreversibly cleared.

Were Leuven students the exception or did they exemplify a much larger and more general Belgian trend? Nothing demonstrates the synchronicity of Catholic and secular radicalization more persuasively than a brief summary of the corresponding evolution of two additional representative Belgian Catholic youth organizations. The Flemish Katholieke Studentenactie (KSA) organized young Flemish Catholics over the age of 6. Given the separate organizational existence of the KVHV—initially in the forefront of the Leuven student insurgency—university students were not their primary targets, though KSA members included some post-secondary students as well. What interests us here is the contingent of KSA activists aged 16 and above. In a remarkable reconstruction of this brand of KSA activists between 1965 and 1979, Iris

Depoorter has persuasively drawn up a picture of a previously rather traditionally oriented Catholic youth organization suddenly, in or about 1969, casting about for different ideological and activist guideposts. As elsewhere in the Flemish half of Belgium, the radical dynamic behind Leuven Vlaams was central to this repositioning of the 16+ age group within the KSA. ‘The influence of “Red Leuven” on the KSA became apparent especially after 1971. With several years’ delay, the opinions of that new generation of students began to affect the KSA. This process came about when the first generation of members, those who had lived through “May ’68”, left the KSA after 1971 and were replaced by a new generation which was marked even more decisively by left-wing currents.’[4] From 1972 to 1975, writes Louis Vos, within the pages of the KSA’s Werkgemeenschap +16 newspaper, the aptly renamed Aksiekrant, now jointly published by the similarly radicalized Jong Davidsfonds, ‘criticism of the capitalist establishment based on a left-wing or Marxist social analysis provided the red thread’.[5] Vocal KSA contingents in these years were a permanent fixture of protest demonstrations on a variety of topics, marching and chanting alongside members ofthe Maoist AMADA and the Trotskyist RAL.[6]

The francophone Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (JOC), unsurprisingly, if anything surpassed the KSA in radical sentiments and revolutionary phraseology employed in publications and other interventions in the public sphere. Here, once again, the years 1969-74 were central to this experience of Catholic radicalization towards the political Left. A few examples, recorded by Paul Wynants in an important contribution to this theme, may suffice. As late as 1964, the JOC leadership habitually ended all internal correspondence with the formula, ‘tous unis dans la meme amitie partagee dans Notre Seigneur’ [all of us united in our joint love for Our Saviour]. Ten years later four words sufficed: ‘unis dans la lutte’ [united in struggle]. The JOC/JOCF chose the occasion of May Day 1974 to self-proclaim itself a ‘revolutionary workers’ movement’. And graphic illustration of such changing trends is provided by a poster produced by the JOC at this time which reproduces portraits of individuals who have been ‘executed because they struggled with and for the people’. Next to the predictable Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr, the collection of symbolic figures included the Colombian priest and guerrilla fighter Camillo Torres; the French Maoist student Pierre Overney, drowned while fleeing French police; Rosa Luxemburg; Che Guevara; and the Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, one of the last victims of Francoist ‘justice’ in dictatorial Spain.[7]

  • [1] Goossens, Leuven ’68, p. 97. 2 Laporte, Affaire de Louvain, p. 286.
  • [2] 28 For the aforementioned (and other) facts and figures, see Mark Derez, Ingrid Depraetere,
  • [3] and Wivina Van der Steen, ‘Kroniek van het studentenprotest’, in Louis Vos et al., De stoutejaren. Studentenprotest in dejaren zestig (Tielt: Lannoo, 1988), pp. 124-33.
  • [4] Iris Depoorter, ‘Van Katholieke Actie naar maatschappijkritiek. De stromversnelling in de+16-werking van KSA/KSJ (1965-1979)’, unpublished licentiaatsverhandeling, Catholic University of Leuven, Department of History, 2000, p. 74.
  • [5] Louis Vos, ‘Traditie als bron van vernieuwing. De katholieke studentenactie in Vlaanderen,1955-1975’, Bijdragen tot de Eigentijdse Geschiedenis 8 (2001), p. 169. Vos, the indisputableauthority on the student movement in Leuven, has now assembled his rich store of articles onthis topic in Louis Vos, Idealisme en engagement. De roeping van de katholieke studerende jeugdin Vlaanderen (1920-1990) (Leuven: Acco, 2011).
  • [6] A similar situation characterized Far Left politics in French-speaking Switzerland, where astimulating and informative report on the history of the Swiss JEC from the early 1960s to theearly 1970s, written in 1971, noted that the JEC and JEC Universitaire ‘today, together with the[Trotskyist] Ligue Marxiste Revolutionnaire, remain the sole student movements organized inhigh schools and universities’; see ‘La JECU Suisse’—BDIC, JECI, F delta 1980/786.
  • [7] See Paul Wynants, ‘De l’Action Catholique Specialise a l’utopie politique. Le Changementde cap de la JOC francophone (1969-1974)’, Cahiers d’histoire du temps present 11 (2003),pp. 102 (‘unis dans la lutte’), 107 (1 May 1974 proclamation), and 103 (reproduction of ‘SuperPoster des luttes ouvrieres’).
 
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