The Unlikely History of Tolstoy College

  • Posted on: 21 January 2016
  • By: thecollective

By Jennifer Wilson from The New Yorker

There was a rumor, among professors who came on board later, that the founders of Tolstoy College originally wanted to name their school after Leon Czolgosz, the Polish-American anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley. Tolstoy, being a pacifist, gave them better cover with the administration of the State University of New York at Buffalo, under which the school operated, or so the story goes. Charles “Chip” Planck, the founder of Tolstoy College, denies this. “We weren’t anarchists of the bomb-throwing variety,” he told me. Tolstoy College was an educational community based on the anarchist principles espoused, late in his life, by the author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” It ran from 1969 to 1985, and was part of a project by the president of the university at the time, Martin Meyerson,to transform the Buffalo campus into the “Berkeley of the East,” a quest for prestige and higher enrollments that required something of an image change for a university in a freezing steel town suffering the effects of a long economic decline. As part of this rebranding, Meyerson adopted a more inclusive approach to the increasing political activism of the student body, calling for the establishment of a series of leftist educational communities, to be known as “the colleges.” In addition to Tolstoy College, there was Rosa Luxemburg College, which focussed on labor issues; a women’s studies college, led by Elizabeth Kennedy, a pioneer of lesbian history; a black studies college; and several others.

Meyerson had Oxford and Cambridge in mind, as well as Berkeley, but the “colleges” were decidedly rougher around the edges than their British antecedents. Tolstoy College was housed in trailers, and a typical classroom consisted of a couch and a few chairs. There were no residential dorms assigned to the college, but the anarchist tradition of collective living was encouraged by workshops and courses on the subject—including “Anarchism and Everyday Life,” “Community Control of Utilities,” and “The Problems of Collective Living.” (Among the problems covered, according to the syllabus, were “sexual relationships between those living together” and “practical problems such as shit-work and unconscious power structures.”) Most years, there were a dozen or so faculty members; each semester, they offered between ten and fifteen seminars, with titles like “Intro to History from the Bottom Up” and “Making a New Society.” By 1975, nearly two hundred students were regularly enrolled in Tolstoy College courses. Those who attended did not have majors, per se—the structure was deliberately loose. In the founding documents, Planck described the colleges as being “in tension with the university,” and noted that, for this reason, they “do not aim at the precise definition and finality of a ‘department.’ ”

Planck chose Tolstoy’s name for his anarchist college in part because of the Russian author’s strong antiwar stance, best captured in “Letter to a Non-Commissioned Officer,” from 1899, in which Tolstoy urges young Russian soldiers to drop their arms and defect. (The college was not the first community based on the writer’s ideas: after Tolstoy renounced private property and dedicated himself to anarchism, his most dedicated followers developed colonies devoted to living a Tolstoyan life, some of them as far flung as Japan, South Africa, and Chile.) Tolstoy himself served in the Crimean War, and became convinced that war was an exercise in which the ruling classes pitted “brother against brother.” His writings on pacifism influenced Gandhi and, through him, Martin Luther King; as the Vietnam War raged, his views gained new purchase. Planck was also inspired, he told me, by a volume of Tolstoy’s essays on education published by the University of Chicago Press in 1967. The essays espoused a radical pedagogy that put the teacher and student on equal footing. (Tolstoy implemented these ideas at his school for peasants on his estate outside Moscow, Yasnaya Polyana.)

Planck taught a course called “Political Lives: Leo Tolstoy,” which exposed students to both the Russian’s literary works and his essays on nonviolent resistance. The “Political Lives” course rotated subjects of study, devoting entire semesters not only to Tolstoy but later to Angela Davis and even a taxi driver named Stephen R. Chamberlain, whose autobiography, “Crispus Attucks, I Steal a Cab, and Other Stories,” chronicled his experiences driving for the Madison Taxi Company in Buffalo. I asked Planck and others associated with Tolstoy College if they found it contradictory at all to establish an anarchist college that was funded by the state. Peter Murphy, who taught courses on radical history, said that such a question misunderstands what the true goals of anarchism were for them. “Back then, I never believed it was a contradiction,” he told me. “I believed that [anarchists] seize the apparatus of the state and use that apparatus against the state. If the state wants to fund its demise, that’s great.”

Tolstoy College became the primary locus on campus for opposition to Vietnam: together, faculty and students organized petition drives, antiwar rallies, and more far-out events, such as “The Om Circle—A Guided Meditation for World Peace.” Students protested the university’s own relationship with the war, particularly the Department of Defense contracts that some science and engineering professors were using to fund their research.

In keeping with its anarchist principles, the college tried to model equal and shared governance and collective decision-making in the running of the school as well. Initially, there was no official policy on grading, but the administration stepped in and imposed limits on the number of A’s that could be given out in a class. Professors then let students decide collectively who would get which grades, using the Marxist rubric of “each according to his ability, each according to his need.” In practice, this meant that one student might say, “I need the A; I’m going to law school,” in the hope of convincing other students that he was truly needy. Faculty salaries were collectively determined, too, and based on the respective household expenses of each staff member.

Shortly after founding Tolstoy College, Planck left academia to start a farm in rural Virginia, inspired by the “back to the land” movement then gaining momentum. After his departure, Charles Haynie, a mathematics graduate student from Cornell who had become a civil-rights activist, became the de-facto head of Tolstoy College (although, as anarchists, faculty and students refrained from using official leadership titles). Before coming to Tolstoy College, Haynie, who died in 2001, worked with a nonprofit that tried to improve the mathematics curricula of black colleges in the South. When he wasn’t designing calculus lesson plans, Haynie was organizing with Freedom Riders and staging sit-ins, experiences that prompted Planck to hire him. His activism continued at Tolstoy College; at one protest, he brought his four-year-old daughter, Deirdre, along. Roena Haynie, Charles’s first wife, recalls her young daughter getting tear-gassed that day.

Within a few years of its founding, the direction of Tolstoy College shifted: alongside its anarchist curriculum, it began to place a strong emphasis on the gay experience in America, and became known on campus as the “men’s-studies college.” Several new courses were introduced, among them “Homophobia,” “The Working-Class Macho Male,” and “Gay Literature.” (The last of these was the first course on gay literature ever taught at the university.) Tolstoy College instructors set up support groups for gay men that were open to the public, and one of the instructors, Alex van Oss, co-hosted “Stonewall Nation,” a radio show devoted to gay issues throughout the country, with a special focus on Buffalo. (It was broadcast on WBFO, the same station that gave Terry Gross her start.) Van Oss, who eventually went to work for NPR, even snagged an interview with Allen Ginsberg, in which the poet discussed coming out to his parents.

The gay-studies curriculum at Tolstoy College partly grew out of an interest in how militarism was underpinned by cultural notions of masculinity. Most of the courses sought to subvert the gender expectations foisted on American men, which faculty believed steered young men toward the armed forces. (This idea can, arguably, be detected in “War and Peace,” in which Pierre’s pacifism is referred to by the elder Prince Bolkonsky as “women’s nonsense.”) One continues to find in Tolstoy College materials of this period, from course syllabi to student publications, echoes of the college’s antiwar origins—although pacifism is now articulated through a critique of traditional ideas about masculinity, as well as compulsory military service. The course description for “The Working-Class Macho Male” reads, “A lot of us end up, like me, in the Army or Marines—that’s the obvious place for our kind in this world. That’s what we’ve been set up for all along. The Fighting Marine!” One of the student journals sponsored by Tolstoy College includes a poem titled “I Am Not a Man,” which concludes, “I’m not a man. I meditate on peace and love. I’m not a man. I don’t want to destroy you.” Underneath the poem, there is a picture of Marx and Engels holding hands.

In the nineteen-eighties, Tolstoy College finally lost its battle with the administration—which had spent nearly a decade attempting to defund the program—and was forced to close its doors amid budget cuts. Charles Haynie was able to hang on as a faculty member, teaching statistics in his final years at Buffalo. With Reagan in the White House and conservatism ascendant, the leftist colleges came to seem like a relic from the late sixties. (One professor, Paul Richmond, blamed the attitude of the era, an ethos he summarized as “We’re all O.K. and we all have money for cocaine and dancing and we’re all going off to the disco.”) It looks different, perhaps, now. I spoke with the former professors of Tolstoy College just before student protests at the University of Missouri and Yale made national news. The course material I read, and the student writings I found, didn’t seem terribly out of place in the current context. Consider, for instance, the letter written by a Tolstoy College student to SUNY Buffalo’s chartering committee, in 1974, when a budget shortfall threatened closure for the college. The letter offered the student’s “personal reasons for being in Tolstoy College.”

I am a poor, lesbian/feminist, vague socialist, professional waitress, and over-age student from the rural/poor socio-economic stratum of America. I am also a person who cares about my dignity and your dignity and therefore I am committed to the eradication of my oppression and your oppression. That commitment means I feel alienated a whole lot of the time in this city and in this school. Often it means that people see lesbian not me, or that men see woman not me, or that middle class students see waitress, not me. It means that outside my circle of friends Tolstoy College is where I feel most total.

When a charter member asked at the public hearing if [Tolstoy] college had any specific plan for the future or in the community, I whispered “Revolution.” I wish I had shouted it.

The letter was signed, “In the Sincerity of the Revolution.”

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