The role of students in radical struggles

4 June 2024
Tess Lee Ack
French students lead a mass rally of workers and students in Paris on 1 June 1968 PHOTO: AP

The emergence of a vibrant student movement in response to Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza is an exciting development for socialists. Students have bravely put their studies and future careers (and in the US, their bodies) on the line to stand up for Palestine, shining a light on their universities’ complicity with the Israeli war machine.

For any mass movement to go forward, the dynamism, energy and creative flair that young people bring to it are priceless. Students have pushed to the forefront of the international solidarity movement, giving it a more radical edge and providing a left-wing pole of attraction within it.

This is far from the first time that students have taken a radical lead. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, students were often the catalyst for mass activity on a much wider scale.

The general strike in France in May ’68 was sparked by student protests. Students and workers found common ground in their hatred of the authoritarian regime and the capitalist system behind it. Their combined forces created a deep social crisis, a nearly revolutionary situation that caused President Charles De Gaulle to flee the country. It was possible to restore “order” only because of the treachery of the Stalinist French Communist Party, which bullied and cajoled workers to return to the job—and did its level best to prevent interaction between students and workers.

In Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969, radical students linked up with workers to challenge both bosses and the state, setting up student-worker committees and helping to establish rank-and-file groups in workplaces. Even after the workers’ struggle subsided, demonstrations and activities on the campuses maintained the momentum for a period.

It was students who provided the militant vanguard of the movement against the Vietnam War, engaging in myriad acts of disruption and civil disobedience. Many also developed a new political outlook, developing a critique of the capitalist system that causes wars.

Similarly, students played a leading role in anti-racist campaigns, from the civil rights movement in the US to the international anti-apartheid movement to the freedom rides by student activists in Australia that highlighted and challenged the appalling racism directed towards Aboriginal people.

It wasn’t just in the West that students led significant struggles. In October 1973, for example, students in Thailand led an uprising that overthrew the military dictatorship and forced the king into exile. Late into the 1970s, large numbers of students in South Korea and Chile also fought heroically against their oppressive right-wing regimes, often drawing workers into their struggles.

Even well after the decline of the mass student movements, students in China in 1989 led the revolt against their supposedly “Communist” government, with many thousands occupying Tiananmen Square for weeks on end. As in France, they sparked off a workers’ movement that presented a serious threat to the regime, subdued only by brutal army repression.

In this century, students have played an important role in struggles all over the world, from Hong Kong to Sudan to Chile to Canada, to name just a few.

So clearly, students can at times be a powerful force for change. However, because students play no direct role in producing profits, they have no real social power and cannot overthrow the system. Ultimately, only the working class—by collectively stopping the flow of profits and taking control of production—can defeat the combined power of the capitalists and the state.

Nonetheless, students can be a vital element of the struggle. They will often be the first to take action, and because of their ability to move into struggle quickly and their readiness to disrupt “business as usual”, they can act as a detonator for broader social forces. Within a movement or campaign, it is often students who put pressure on (or sideline) the more conservative elements and push it to the left.

For much of capitalism’s history, universities were the preserve of the elite, where those who were born to rule were trained to rule. However, there were always at least a few (Marx and Engels come to mind) who rejected this pathway. In the early twentieth century, Lenin argued that students could play a vital role as “the vanguard of revolutionary democracy”, drawing workers into the socialist movement, and insisted that revolutionaries should conduct serious work among students.

But the composition of the student population changed dramatically with the economic boom that followed World War II.

In a newly redivided world, the dominant powers competed frantically for military and economic advantage. The Cold War arms race and the drive for technological development created a demand for much higher numbers of skilled and educated workers to operate the machines, the computers and weapons systems, and to administer the expanding state sector.

Hence the explosion of higher education, which for the first time drew in large numbers of people from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds. If anything, that process has accelerated. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of students in higher education globally more than doubled to 207 million. This has dramatically narrowed the gap and increased the connection between students and the working class. Today’s students are less of a detached elite and more embedded into the fabric of society.

Students do not belong to any class—as a group they are in transition, an intermediate layer. A few may rise into the upper echelons of society (especially if that’s where they come from), and some will become middle-class professionals, but the majority are destined to become technical or white-collar workers, just as subject to exploitation as the manual workers more traditionally understood as the working class. In this sense, modern universities can be seen as factories, churning out graduates who keep the wheels of the system turning.

Universities are supposed to foster the pursuit of knowledge, the exploration of ideas, a scientific understanding of the world, abstract and critical thinking, creativity—all in the interests of human progress. To the extent that this is true, it’s actually in the interests of maintaining the status quo, both by training the managers and workers capitalism needs and by inculcating the ideology that upholds the system. But the continued advances required by capitalism do demand some of these things, so students are exposed to a range of ideas and have the time and space to discuss and develop them. And the very contradiction between the romantic ideal of the university and their increasing reality as big businesses and willing partners of capitalist enterprises can raise all sorts of questions. Students soon discover that the competition and profit motive that characterise capitalism pervade university life.

Young people are more likely to encounter radical ideas at university than anywhere else, and socialist clubs can often find a receptive audience by both initiating activity and providing forums for political discussion. And although students work more today than previously, they are less tied to jobs and family responsibilities and have more flexible time than most workers, giving them more freedom to engage in political activity. This can make them more sensitive to shifts in the political climate. By recognising and relating to such shifts, socialists can play a decisive role in deepening the process of radicalisation. And when serious struggles erupt, students can quickly start to develop a revolutionary critique of capitalism.

As a worker, you must win the support of the majority to undertake any action against the boss, such as a strike. Students face no such limitations. Quite small numbers can initiate bold actions that capture the imagination, develop momentum and inspire emulation. The examples cited earlier often started with tiny groups taking a stand and galvanising wider circles.

The volatility that is characteristic of student movements is both a strength and a weakness: a strength in that it means that students can spring into action quickly and with enormous energy; a weakness in that both their intermediate class position and the transitory nature of student life make it difficult to sustain student organisation over the long term.

In the right circumstances, though, student actions can have an impact well beyond their ranks. Most potently, students’ youthful enthusiasm and defiance—as we saw in May ’68—can inspire and ignite struggle by workers, the only social force that can bring real, material pressure to bear.

How far that process can go is a matter of politics and organisation.

Many of the students radicalised during the 1960s and ’70s rightly rejected the Stalinist politics and organisations that then dominated the left. Among the currents that vied for influence, the “new left” and many anarchists suffered from an intellectual elitism that dismissed the working class as the key force for social change. They instead looked to struggles in the Third World (the Cultural Revolution in China, guerrilla activity), alternative lifestyles such as communes or even terrorism, all of which were a dead end.

A lot of student activists were simply demoralised by the collapse of the movement and dropped out. Others made their peace with the system and sought positions of influence within it. For example, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a radical student leader in May ’68 known as “Danny the Red”, became a leader of the German Greens and a European MP; closer to home, Jim Bacon, a Maoist student leader at Monash, ended up as the Labor Premier of Tasmania.

On a more positive note, large numbers of radicalised students went into teaching and public service jobs, significantly accelerating the shift of their white-collar unions to the left.

A small number, however, rediscovered revolutionary Marxism and set about building organisations dedicated to the project of fighting for socialism and human liberation, led by the working class. Paradoxically, campuses are central to this. Even when struggle is at a low ebb, there are always some students who can be won to revolutionary politics on the basis of ideas. They need to develop the ability to defend their political positions on contested terrain, and when the opportunity arises to take action, they can gain experience in mobilising and leading others.

Student clubs play an important role in recruiting and training new members who can provide the cadre of a revolutionary party. Building a base among students is therefore of enormous strategic importance for any revolutionary organisation. It is out of such work that Socialist Alternative has grown to be the largest revolutionary organisation in Australia.

At some point, as capitalism continues to wreak havoc on society and the environment, there will be a revival of mass resistance. This will create opportunities for students to link up with the working class and build a revolutionary party capable of leading a fight to overthrow capitalism and build a better world.

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