Youth, students and revolution

By Emma Clancy

[Feature talk presented to the Democratic Socialist Perspective Socialist Summer School, January, 2007, Sydney.]

In the Transitional Program, Trotsky wrote:

"The movement is revitalized by the youth who are free of responsibility for the past. The Fourth International pays particular attention to the young generation of the proletariat. All of its policies strive to inspire the youth with belief in its own strength and in the future. Only the fresh enthusiasm and aggressive spirit of the youth can guarantee the preliminary successes in the struggle; only these successes can return the best elements of the older generation to the road of revolution."

Youth and students have played a vital role in revolutionary struggles in the past and continue to today. In Latin America, young people are energetic leaders and participants in the social movements, and in Venezuela, view themselves as being the “foot soldiers of revolution”. In France last year, we saw youth, in particular university students, respond to an attack on the rights of young workers and prompt a general strike of workers that mobilised millions in an expression of the popular dissent against neoliberal policies, and the determined leadership of the youth meant the movement was successful. In the past year we’ve also seen the massive student strike in Chile, the Los Angeles school walkouts for immigrants' rights, and the student strike in Auckland for young workers' rights.

This talk aims to look at role that young people and students, as a distinct social layer with a common experience, have played in a number of struggles, and to draw out the lessons that test and affirm our strategy of intervening into the student movement. The global youth radicalisation of the 1960s dramatically illustrated the revolutionary potential of students in society and informed the strategy that socialists apply to young people and students, and while conditions are very different today, this strategy is still relevant and the most effective approach.

The 1960s student radicalisation

A key observation from the ’60s student radicalisation was the role that students can play as a catalyst or detonator, in that often this layer, for a number of reasons, will be quicker to radicalise around a particular issue than other sections of society, and has the potential to have a radicalising influence on other social layers, sparking political struggle in broader society.

The global student revolt that grew throughout the ’60s was fuelled by the crisis of imperialism and its increasing brutality in trying to crush revolutionary and anti-colonial movements, and the expansion and changing nature of higher education gave students a far heavier social weight as a group. The United Secretariat of the Forth International (USFI) 1969 resolution, A Strategy for Revolutionary Youth notes,

The powerful student radicalisation has shown its capacity to serve as a transmission belt speeding the development of a radical political consciousness among other social layers of the same generation. In several countries it has triggered mass action by the working class as a whole.

France 1968: students as catalyst

On May 9, 1968, the French revolutionary communist youth organisation, the Jeunesses communistes revolutionaires (JCR) held a mass meeting of 6000 students in the Latin Quarter in Paris, renamed the Heroic Vietnam Quarter by the students, which was addressed by Ernest Mandel. He told those present “Students can and must play a powerful role as a detonator. By playing this role within the working class, above all through the intermediary of the young workers, they can free in the working class itself enormous forces for challenging capitalist society and the bourgeois state.”

The student revolt was marked by street marches and university occupations, based primarily on opposition to the Vietnam War, and also university conditions and constraints. State repression of the students urged workers to join the students in solidarity, and more than 800,000 workers joined students in a general strike on May 13, three days after the “night of the barricades” where police had viciously attacked student protesters. Workers continued the strike, and students turned the occupied universities into centres for organising the movement. 10 million workers, or 2/3 of France’s work force joined the general strike, and 2000 workplaces or factories were occupied.

The leadership of the students helped spark the outburst of pent-up anger and political opposition to the authoritarian de Gaulle regime, but while the students were led by revolutionaries the majority of the workers and their unions remained under the influence of the (Stalinist) Community Party (PCF), which, instead of leading them forward, demobilised the movement by caving-in to the government.

Universities resourcing the movement: the anti-war university

In the US in 1970, there was a massive increase in student activism in response to the escalation of the war to Cambodia on April 29, and the Ohio National Guard killings of four protesting Kent State university students on that campus in early May. The US Socialist Workers Party newspaper Militant editorial observed that:

"The Kent State massacre had a profound impact on masses of American students”, who suddenly were forced to realise that “capitalist violence was not reserved for use in the ghettos or against colonial liberation fighters” and that “almost overnight, a massive new layer of students was brought into political action. A student strike gripped the country, beginning spontaneously and involving millions of campus and high school students, becoming the world’s largest ever student strike.

The “anti-war university” was the strategy most widely used by students during May, strongly argued for by the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), and like France in May and June 1968, demonstrates how students can take over their institutions and use them as an organising centre, open them up and use the resources to strengthen the movement.

The student strikes were called by mass meetings of students and campus staff, which also elected broad strike councils to coordinate the strikes. The students needed headquarters and resources to build the strike, and naturally turned to student union offices or other on-campus space, and student newspapers were turned into strike newspapers and distributed on and off campus. At the University of Illinois, students produced thousands of anti-war posters at the university’s Art and Architecture Institute and plastered them all over Chicago. The strike steering committee’s meetings were broadcast over closed circuit TV on campus.

After the Kent State massacre, a mass meeting of 17,000 students and staff at UC Berkeley passed a seven-point plan of action, the first of which was:

  • This campus is on strike to reconstitute the university as a centre for organising against the war in Southeast Asia. We are curtailing normal activities for the remainder of the quarter. We pledge our time, energy and commitment to stopping this war. We will open the campus to mobilise our resources — our knowledge and skills, our manpower and facilities. We will organise not only against the war, but against the structures in society that facilitate that war. And we will organise to end our university’s complicity with that war.

The Berkeley students maintained control of the key sections of the university for six weeks.

Throughout May 1970, the YSA urged the students to use the universities’ resources, including phone facilities, broadcasting systems, campus press and printing equipment to reach out to the workers, GIs and other sections of the community to join the mass anti-war protest scheduled for May 30, as well as facilities for classes and discussions to be held on political topics.

Although the students maintained only partial and temporary control of the universities, the anti-war university strategy had a massive impact on the student body. While ultra-leftists including the SDS argued that the universities were a tool of capitalism and could not be in any way transformed and needed to be shut down (calling the anti-war university strategy a sellout), the YSA, supported by the vast majority of anti-war students, argued that closing down the universities was exactly what the ruling class wanted — to disperse the students. Maintaining the unity and concentration of the student body through the university was crucial.

The strategy provided the framework to organise the radicalising students into political activity and democratic activist structures, seriously raising the level of political consciousness of the students. It effectively raised a series of questions about the role of students and the need to build alliances with other sections of society, about the nature of education and universities under capitalism and about power and democracy.

The Militant May 22 editorial statement pointed out:

The student action of taking control of the institutions most relevant to their lives will not be lost on the working people and oppressed national minorities in this country. In the struggle for a socialist America, it will stand as an example to layers outside the universities.

The Indonesian experience

More recently, in Indonesia in 1998, from March to May, student protest played a key role in turning discontent over the economic collapse and lack of democratic rights into a full-scale political crisis. The universities in Indonesia played a vital role as the point where the middle class grew and consolidated as a group, and this consolidation was severely threatened by the economic crisis. A movement for reform had grown in the 1980s and 90s on the campuses, and during that period many students turned away from the traditional elitism of the old student movement, and came to the conclusion that it was necessary to form an alliance with the workers and peasantry and urban poor to transform society, a political strand that was of course influential in 1998.

The People’s Democratic Party, which cohered left-wing and revolutionary students in the 1990s, had sent members into worker communities to establish links, which were crucial during the 1998 upsurge.

The Suharto and then Habibie regimes tried to intimidate, isolate and crush the student movement for reform, which was steadily radicalising and seeking to move off campus. Students were abducted, tortured and murdered, and student protests were fired on. The repression of the explosion in student activism culminated in the May 12 killings of four students at the Trisakti University which immediately triggered the riots in Jakarta that led to the resignation of Suharto in an attempt to defuse the social explosion.

Students occupied the parliament building, symbolically taking over the “centre of power”. The student movement on its own could not bring down the government, but the threat of the spread of the radicalisation was what prompted the ruling class to remove the focus of mass anger — Suharto. The New Order regime feared that the student movement in Jakarta would follow the lead of students in the regional campuses by making links with peasants, the urban poor and workers, and threaten a serious transformation of society. The early protests against Habibie were mainly university students, but again this spread to broader society and masses of the urban poor became involved in November 1998.

The Indonesian experience highlights a number of things: that societies undergoing rapid social change are particularly susceptible to the influence of a student movement, and this movement can fill the political vacuum in a state without well-established functioning democratic institutions.

It is also a good illustration of the fact that students are a social layer in transition, the politics of which are not necessarily determined by their class of origin.

Lessons from these examples

1. Students can have a social significance much greater than their numbers and often radicalise faster than other sections of society.

Some of the material factors leading to this social weight and receptivity to left-wing politics that have been identified by Marxists include the contradiction between students’ aspirations and the reality of education within the capitalist framework — which I will look at in a minute — and their living circumstances, such as in general having more time and freedom than older people or non-students with work and family commitments to think about political issues and the world around them.

Students also have access to more information than most of the population and the concentration of very large numbers of students in the institutions allows for the rapid dissemination of politics and ideas and for students to form a critical mass in protest at a given moment. Most campuses are in the major urban centres, along with the concentration of the working class.

2. The examples also illustrate the fact that while students are a potentially powerful social force, and can act as a catalyst towards a revolutionary upheaval, they do not have the power to make a socialist revolution alone. Students are not a class, they are a social layer in transition between classes, and don’t have a specific relationship with the means of production.

Education and the university
under capitalism

The social position of students has been a point of debate among the left, with some arguing that students who graduate will become part of the “middle class” — that is, that they will have higher incomes and better working conditions than non-graduate workers, a thoroughly un-Marxist view of class. While university education used to be reserved for the rich, the post-World War II economic expansion led capital to dramatically expand the role of universities and allow a large influx of working-class students to enter. As well as the fact that, since that period, a majority of students come form working-class backgrounds, the vast majority are also destined to be wage workers when they graduate.

This process of the proletarianisation of university graduates, professionals and white-collar workers — as intellectual labour is introduced into the productive process on a larger scale — increases the links that the student body has with the broader working class, and the impact of neoliberalism in forcing many students to work their way through university intensifies this.

The economic expansion following the destruction caused during WWII created the need for much greater numbers of technically skilled workers, university graduates, and precipitated the massive expansion of the student body, changing the role of the universities. A key factor behind the ’60s student explosion was the fact that during the 1950s and ’60s, the global student population more than doubled to meet these economic needs.

The contradiction I referred to earlier between the aspirations of students and the reality of education being a thoroughly alienating process has also steadily intensified. Instead of being about learning, working with others and contributing to society, education is atomised and competitive.

The content of courses is increasingly tied to business needs as opposed to social needs. Universities remain the key indispensable means of capital to reproduce and propagate bourgeois ideology. Students and staff are denied a meaningful level of control or participation in decision-making over the functioning of the institutions, and the loyalty of the vice chancellor is bought by the ruling class with enormous salaries.

“For a Red University

We take all of this into account when setting forward a framework of orientation to the student movement — not just the role of universities, but the specific characteristics of the student body. The red university strategy, as based on Trotsky’s Transitional Program and developed by the USFI in its 1969 resolution, remains the best framework of orientation for revolutionaries in that it applies the transitional method to campus.

Other major trends in the student movement include student “economism” — seeking to narrow the scope of the student movement to purely student and education issues; and on the other hand, ultraleftists who view campus as a place to recruit and then go work in the “real” struggle, among the workers or peasants. Both of these political trends were significant in the Australian student movement in the 1970s, being pushed by Labor and Maoist students, respectively, and the “economist” approach is dominant today.

The red university strategy sets out that revolutionary youth must “put forward a program that transcends the campus in its goal but at the same time includes it; that connects student demands with the broader demands of the class struggle on a national and international scale; that shows students how their own demands relate to these bigger struggles, are an integral part of them and can help advance them.” It aims to help university students understand the role of the university under capitalism.

The red university strategy seeks to develop a set of demands for the transformation of university from a capitalist institution into one serving people. Key demands that can be raised consistently are for free education, access for anyone who wants to study, for student-staff control of the university and content. All of these raise questions about the role of the university, and are demands that require fundamental change in broader society in order to be met, helping to develop the revolutionary consciousness of students.

The other key goal of the strategy is to actually turn campus into a base from which to change society, as illustrated by examples of Paris ‘68 and the anti-war universities in the US.

Education for liberation

This is digressing a bit, but another aspect of looking at youth, revolution and the role of students and education that’s worth going into briefly is the concept of “education for liberation” in a revolutionary situation, which is being developed in Venezuela’s Bolivarian education system.

Although Venezuela had a relatively strong left-wing student movement throughout the ‘60s-‘80s, by the time Chavez was elected, this movement had largely faded — it did not play a key role in his election. As Bolivarian forces strengthened in society, the autonomous universities became a refuge for the right-wing opposition. Many student unions remain in the hands of the opposition.

Pro-Chavez forces are constructing the new Bolivarian education system, and youth are playing key a role in the revolutionary process, in missions and in their communities, but there remains a challenge to build a student movement take up the right on their campuses.

The rector of the Bolivarian University, Andres Eloy Ruiz, said in interview in November: “Education always has a role associated with the productive apparatus and the model of society”. He pointed out that Venezuela’s economy — and hence higher education system — was geared towards administering the oil export industry. It was a dependent and distorted economy, and only the privileged elite had access to education.

Some of the key goals in the creation of the new Bolivarian education system that Eloy Ruiz outlines are:

  • · The “municipalisation of education”. This aims to physically take universities and schools to the people by constructing them in all the municipalities where they don’t currently exist.
  • · Building the system around urgent social needs, for instance, placing a big emphasis on training new doctors and teachers.
  • · Integrating the university with other new institutions of the revolution — for example, everyone who is doing environmental science should be in one of the community missions to improve the environment. All students and courses should be connected with a community. “You are not studying for yourself but in a social context and reality.”
  • · For interdisciplinary studies — everything is connected, and the rector argues that this will help to overcome the very atomised mindset that has developed under capitalist education
  • · To reverse the power relationship between students and staff and to democratise the universities, by shared student-staff administration, and for the integration of physical and intellectual work.
  • · Education should be about the development of the consciousness of a person. Achieving the goal — to develop critical consciousness — will allow the individual to participate in the community productively. The Venezuelans are showing the role of developing consciousness as the key to emancipation of the individual and the collective emancipation of society.

The example of the transformation of education and society in Venezuela, as well as the crucial role young people are playing as the “foot soldiers” of the revolutionary process, is an important part of our orientation to students here in Australia, as it allows us to raise questions about our education, and the capitalist system, that we can engage with as revolutionary socialists.

France again

Young people continue to play a major role in the revolutionary and progressive struggles around the world.

In France in 2006, young people, particularly university students, responded to an attack on the rights of young workers and prompted a series of general strikes. Millions of people from schools, universities and workplaces took part in a series of anti-CPE (New Employment Law — a law which deprived young workers of their rights for the first 90 days of their employment) strikes in April. At the peak of the movement, three-quarters of universities and more than a quarter of high schools were occupied or blockaded.

The struggle to defeat the CPE was successful; while a range of mass movements against neoliberalism in France in the preceding years were not, such as the demonstrations and strikes against attacks on pensions and health insurance in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

Green Left Weekly correspondent Murray Smith wrote, “Why didn’t it fail this time?” He identified some of the factors leading to the victory:

"In the first place, the CPE was aimed at a very specific part of the population: young people. And those young people who would have been directly affected — university and high school students — mobilised massively against it.”

The second reason was that all the trade unions “supported the movement from start to finish”. Smith explained:

"One reason for the defeat in 2003 was that one of the main union federations, the CFDT, defected early on and accepted the government measure in exchange for insignificant amendments. It lost many members as a result. This time, everyone stayed on board. Only a few months ago, a measure similar to the CPE, the CNE (New Employment Contract), went through with little opposition.

"The CNE allows employers in companies with less than 20 employees to sack workers in the first two years of their employment without providing a reason. A day of strikes and mass demonstrations against the law on October 4 was not followed up and the CNE went through. What was different this time was that the initiative was not with the union leaderships but with the students, and the student mobilisations steadily expanded."

There was an explosion of student organising across France. A teacher at a Paris high school described the situation to the British Socialist Worker:

"In the universities, not only has the movement held strong, but there is a growing politicisation on the campuses. All sorts of ‘commissions’ or workshops have been set up to debate economic alternatives, ecology and feminism. Films have been shown and mass meetings organised to decide whether blockades should be continued — mass meetings of 1000 or 2000, and in places like Rennes or Poitiers, open-air meetings of 4000 and 6000."

As another article describes:

In Montreuil, eastern Paris, as in many other areas across France, students and teachers held a mass meeting in the morning before the demonstrations, with trade union activists from local workplaces present as well.

The protests clearly opened up the space for political discussion and organisation. What stood out about the role that students were playing — apart from having actually sparked the mass movement — was their influence on the politics of the movement. Comrades will remember the revolt by Arab and ethnic North-African young people (from communities with an average youth unemployment rate of above 50%) in November 2005 against police racism and violent harassment, and general political neglect. The French government tried to claim that these Arab and African youths “would be glad” to get work — any kind of work — even if the terms of the CPE would basically make them second-class citizens; that “privileged” uni students were denying them this “opportunity”. But the students turned to these young people from the suburbs, by going to the high schools and directly to the impoverished neighbourhoods, to involve them in the struggle, which played a major role in countering the racism and division that the French government promotes. The result is that tens-of-thousands of these young Arab and African unemployed people from the poor neighbourhoods joined the demonstrations.

Murray Smith explained some of the dynamics of the French student and workers movements:

"There is a tradition of powerful student mobilisations in France, and this is not the first time one has been successful. In 1986 the government was forced to withdraw an education reform and in 1994 a measure similar to the CPE was defeated. Last year, there was a four-month long militant movement of high school students. The fact that there are regularly movements among students — sometimes national, sometimes just local — means that there is a frequently renewed layer of activists.

"The support of the unions was a key factor in the victory — there was a united front of eight trade union organisations and four student unions. But it was the youth who were the locomotive. The student unions were actively involved in the movement, but its leadership was the Student Coordination, comprising representatives elected by mass meetings, which met every weekend in a different university and which was dominated by left-wing activists.

"The demand for the withdrawal of the CPE had mass support. As people understood what was at stake, opposition rose to around 70% of the population, and more and more people were ready to take to the streets.

"Underlying the whole movement is an ongoing refusal of French public opinion to accept the inevitability of neoliberal capitalism. This was demonstrated at the polls when the projected European constitution was defeated in the referendum on May 29 last year after a dynamic campaign by the left for a “No” vote."

The students stared down government threats and attempts to pacify the movement, and reaffirmed in practice the validity of the mass action strategy. The experience of France also showed that neoliberal attacks on student welfare rights, which mean many have to work to survive the years of higher education, have eroded much of the distinction between students and workers — a majority of students identify with workers.

Students as workers —
youth oppression

All youth, regardless of whether they're studying or not, are subject to the same specific oppression, especially in the workplace. Young workers are often viewed as being “worth less” than older workers, putting them in a very weak bargaining position. Lack of work experience and the need for training is often given as justification for paying them “youth rates”. Young people are forced to do the same work for less pay than older employees — some teenagers earn as little as $4 per hour — and are often dependent on penalty rates for weekend and night shifts to make up their income.

Because many young people are working to augment another source of income while they study — usually from their family or welfare — casual work, with its insecurity and lack of rights, is common.

As well as poor wages and working conditions, young workers are often subjected to bullying, sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse, and are more likely to put up with it than other workers because of their weaker position in the workplace.

The proportionally higher unemployment rate among youth contributes to their weak bargaining position, as there is a reserve pool of potential employees to hire if a worker refuses to accept bad conditions or bullying. The UN reports that globally, youth unemployment increased from11.7% in 1993 to historic high of 14.4 % or 88 million in 2004, on average 13.4% in industrialised Western countries.

In May 2005, the Dusseldorp Skills Forum found that the teenage unemployment rate in Australia was 3.5 times greater than that of people aged 25 and over.

Neoliberalism and education

In most countries, higher education is suffering under neoliberalism and the specific oppression of youth as a group is also intensifying.

Using Australia as example:

After a decade of Coalition attacks on higher education, the basis of which was laid by the ALP, students are now paying 30% of cost of their degree, and full-fee paying places have been introduced. Students are facing rising fees and consequent debt, and are forced to live in poverty while they study.

Some more statistics: Fees paid by Australian students are second only to those paid by US students, at around $5030 a year. Some full-fee degrees in Australian universities are now $237,000! UNSW vice chancellor Fred Hilmer asked: “Is a UNSW medical degree worth that much? It clearly is because some people are willing to pay it.” A government study predicts that students and graduates will owe $18.8 billion by 2008-09. According to NUS, 60% of students live in poverty and 80% work part-time or casual jobs in order to survive while they study.

Public investment in Australian higher education was cut by 7% between 1995 and 2003.

Capital still needs skilled workers to operate the increasingly complex economy — but now the ruling class is determined that students should pay for their education. This is naturally restricting poorer youth from enrolling: the Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committee reported a decline in enrolments over the last three years from 229,000 to 218,000 in 2006.

As universities are becoming increasingly privatised, and the courses they offer are more and more driven by market demand, there is a push for more technical and professional courses a the expense of the humanities and social sciences — so there is less room for critical thought and more focus on training to fit into the corporate mould.

The government’s “anti-terror” laws have targeted students and academics and Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) has been forced through with the intention of completely destroying an already weakened student movement, silencing student opposition to the privatisation of higher education and other unpopular government policies.

In this context, of the co-option and demobilisation of the student movement, do students still have the potential to play the same role in society? Is the red university strategy still relevant to student movement today?

The Australian student movement

Despite the obvious limitations of the organised bureaucratic student movement, we’ve seen many demonstrations in recent years of the important role that young people and students can play in the broader movement. Young people played a key role in the anti-corporate globalisation movement for instance. But it’s worth noting the important role that high school students have played in the movement in Australia in the past decade, in the context of the lack of movement on campus.

The high-school walkouts against Pauline Hanson were a great illustration of an increased capacity to quickly radicalise around an issue, and an increased willingness to mobilise, among young people that sparked broader layers to join the struggle. In 2003, the Books Not Bombs student strikes against the Iraq war inspired many people, including older people, to be part of the struggle, and these protests put a lot of pressure on the more conservative forces, because the students continued to mobilise after the invasion.

Among young people today, there is still a higher occurrence of progressive ideas than there is in the broader population — polls consistently show the majority are against the war and very concerned about the environment. The Australian Democrats youth poll 2005 showed:

  • · 71% thought the government should enter into a treaty with Indigenous Australians;
  • · 60% oppose mandatory detention of refugees; and
  • · 55% support same-sex marriage rights.

There is opposition to the oppression of youth and attacks on education, welfare and workers’ rights, and students have an important role to play in resisting the Howard government’s attacks. Again, high school students showed their increased willingness to act (more so than campus students) around some of these issues when in June 2006, Resistance initiated the student walkout against Work Choices, which mobilised more young people than the National Union of Students VSU national day of action.

Despite the limitations of the student movement, campus students have an important role to play in rebuilding the movements against the war on Iraq and against government inaction on climate change. Students have consistently responded and organised around these issues, and they’re vital issues that broader society is concerned about. The key challenge for revolutionaries on campus today is to rebuild campus activism around these issues, and to use the resources of the universities to do this, in order to strengthen the role that students can play in sparking the fight among broader layers.

Of course, building the revolutionary youth organisation is also part of this engagement on campus and among young people. We have to draw forward and develop new generations of revolutionaries. This is the role that Resistance must continue to play.

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