Socialist Alternative, the organisation behind Red Flag, argues that we need a workers’ revolution to win human liberation. Yet we are very proud of our student clubs on university campuses. In fact, we would argue that students are of immense strategic importance for any revolutionary organisation, and especially critical while socialists do not have mass influence.

For one thing, youth will always be the most dynamic, energetic and creative force in any revolutionary movement. Eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that students in the 1960s, by their protests over cultural and political issues, “stimulated [workers who were more used to fighting around economic questions and less combustible] to discover that…they can ask for far more from the new society than they had imagined”.

Any organisation which has not developed a young layer of members is on the road to irrelevance in any political radicalisation and upsurge of struggle. Revolutionary organisations can and should build among university students even in times when they are not engaged in radical struggles.

Firstly, there are always some students who can be won to revolutionary politics on the basis of ideas because they deal with often abstract theories in both social and physical sciences. In contrast, workers tend to be more practical. They seek an organisation that can organise and lead the struggles they need, making it difficult to establish roots in the working class until there is significant radicalism among wider layers and socialists have thousands of members able to play at least some of that organising role.

Secondly and very importantly, universities are spaces where revolutionaries can organise in ways that are simply not an option in workplaces – regular information stalls, setting up clubs for both discussions and political agitation, making announcements at lectures, intervening in classes. While students work more today than previously, they still have more flexible time than most workers, so they can more easily meet to discuss politics. Just wander through any university cafe at almost any time of the day and you are struck by the different experience from that of workplaces, where time spent together for informal discussion is fleeting if it occurs at all.

A 3,000-strong student demonstration last semester in Melbourne illustrated the importance of students for socialists. More than 30 students who were not members of Socialist Alternative attended a meeting afterwards to discuss the politics of revolution. In the days after such a protest, you are likely to see students from the rally around campus if you sell a socialist paper or hold a meeting; you can meet up for coffee with those who become open to discussing Marxism.

The experience of workers’ rallies is quite different. Often workers have to return to work immediately. By the next day they are dispersed across the city’s workplaces. The volatile nature of students means that once they take action, it can quite quickly open up a larger minority to a discussion of revolutionary politics. Even in much bigger workers’ rallies, that isn’t the case.

There are other important considerations. Students as a whole constitute a sizeable social layer. If you can establish campus clubs and ongoing activity, it gives you some small social roots. And in spite of the Liberals’ best efforts to destroy student unions, on most campuses there is a milieu of political people who interact in various ways. This creates some pressure on socialist groups against simply becoming abstract propagandists. The ideas you argue are likely to be contested; you have to show their relevance and correctness – unlike if, for instance, you rely on meeting individuals in the streets or at protest rallies.

Training young leaders

Student revolutionaries have to relate to Labor, Greens and independent activists. They gain experience in forming joint electoral tickets, deciding which compromises can be made within the framework of socialist principles, when to argue the point about any number of issues.

They can win student union positions that carry responsibilities not usually open to small groups of revolutionary workers in trade unions. Combined with serious study of Marxism, such regular activity can build a student cadre that can play a leading role and imbue the organisation with energy and enthusiasm.

A base on campuses provides a foundation from which a socialist organisation can begin to branch out. Because of their more flexible time (you don’t fail an exam for missing a few lectures or lose money like workers do if they take a day or a shift off), students can intervene when workers do move into action. Even in the past, when students came overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds, they were able to play important roles in mass workers’ struggles and building socialist organisations.

In Russia in the 1880s and 1890s, students played a key role in developing the first Marxist circles, which laid the basis to build the Bolsheviks, a workers’ party capable of leading the 1917 revolution. In Italy in an industrial upsurge from 1969 until 1972, student-based revolutionary organisations became quite influential and swelled their ranks with thousands of newly radicalising workers. Students sparked workers’ uprisings against the monstrous Stalinist states of Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. In China in 1989 their rebellion drew hundreds of thousands of workers into the struggle for democracy.

Today there is much less of a division between the life of students and workers than in the 1960s. Socialist Alternative students have been able to mobilise and play a constructive role in several workers’ struggles in the past three years. In this kind of experience they see concrete illustrations of the politics they have learnt mostly from books and discussion groups.

They have shown they are capable of convincing small numbers of workers of socialist politics. This lays the basis for a serious intervention in any sustained growth in workers’ struggles in the future. In any case, many of them become worker militants after leaving university, capable of leading their workmates and convincing some of Marxism; and they play an important role in educating the next layer of new members.

Any revolutionary group which downplays the importance of building among students risks missing the opportunity to begin the process of building a mass revolutionary party when it arises.