I just recently posted a note passed on from the Partisan Defense Committee concerning some student activity at Evergreen State College in Washington (Defend the Evergreen State College 6, June 7, 2008). There a number of students have been charged with offenses stemming from an incident last winter. Those charges, brought after what appears to be a police riot on that small out-of-the-way liberal campus, should be dropped. Moreover, ominously, the Evergreen State College administration has banned a chapter of the Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) from campus. The details are fuzzy but some students have staged an occupation (shades of Columbia 1968?). Any more up-to-date information is welcome here. Again, all militants must call for the defense of the right of leftist political organizations to exist on campus. Those are the minimum demands we pose today around this case.
This case, however, also brings to this old militant’s mind some reflections on the student movement of forty years ago, the campus struggles of the Generation of ’68 that I am seemingly endlessly commenting on this year. One of the slogans that the Evergreen State students have been putting forth is the notion of ‘student power’. I am not quite sure what that entails in the minds of the students out there but I assume that it is some variation of students having more input into the day-to-day operations of the campus. That my friends, in any case, is usually always a good democratic propaganda point to fight around- on the road to socialism. And that combination will, in the end, be the point that I want to make here.
It is rather a truism that politics abhors a vacuum. In a proper political universe the Evergreen struggle would be taken up, as a matter of course, by any workers party worth its salt. Today, in the absence of any other social force committed to speaking in alliance with them the students have correctly moved on their own. Thus, confronted with a non-responsive campus administration the beginning of wisdom for leftist student activists is to demand more say in what is going on, and to be left alone while doing it. However, it is also true that one should try, as previous student generations,in some individual cases willfully so, have not, to learn the lessons of history.
The question of 'student power' is hardly a new one and that is where references to the 1960’s are very germane. The 1960’s on campuses throughout the world represented the highest expression of the fight for student power. There were more theories about students as the ‘new’ working class and about the inviolability of the ‘red’ university than one could shake a stick at. Moreover, many of the early anti-Vietnam War struggles in this country were focused on the campus. The right of students to more say in the university furthermore got fully explored in the famous Columbia occupations led by Mark Rudd and SDS in 1968. In the end, however, power flowed back to the university administration. In Europe, that same year, another student uprising culminating in the May General Strike in France even more dramatically highlighted the struggle for student power. Again, power flowed back to the French capitalist state. Some ‘uppity’ students also ignited earlier struggles in France and other parts of Europe going back to the early 19th century revolutionary movements, and those effort, for the most part, failed as well.
Now that I have paid proper respect to the vices and virtues of student activism we have to come to the question of power. In short, do students control the life of the campuses today? It is almost silly to pose that question at this point. So what is the road forward? For this the May General Strike in France is illustrative. The students led the initial actions but until the social power of the working class was thrown into the balance the students were spinning their wheels. And that is the question of power in a nutshell. Until the issues that engaged the students got linked up to the social power of the working class they could not fundamentally get resolved. Although we know that the French Communist Party, in the end, sold out both workers and students the notion that students, by themselves, could fundamental change society took a beating.
The world-wide impact of the May events in France were moreover reflected in this country. SDS and the bulk radical student movement, including this son of the working class, had previously contemptuously written off the working class as hopelessly bought off or organically incapable of using its social power to change society. Sound familiar? After May the more serious student elements started dusting off their old text books that contained some words about the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx, Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution. And they were not wrong to do so.
That is what is missing in today’s student analysis of the way to obtain social power, the obviously limitation of the student power slogan. With the demise of the Soviet Union and other workers states the crying need for socialist solutions to the world’s problems, Marxism, communism and the like have been written off as failed experiments. That is why those Evergreen students, as sincere as they are in their struggles, can resurrect the student power slogan without embarrassment.
Let me make a point that shows this problem in graphic detail. Long ago, in the late 1960's, ostensible revolutionaries brought up the slogan on the campuses for worker/student/ teacher control of educational institutions(I believe that it was first brought up by Progressive Labor but I may be wrong). That is, in fact, a correct and worthy slogan. But here is the reality. Under what conditions would that slogan make more than propaganda sense? The answer- in a situation where the campuses were being nationalized under workers control.
Let’s me just present a concrete example, for now, though by way of illustration. Make a call for the nationalization of Harvard, as the young revolutionaries of the Spartacus Youth Clubs do today. But do not link that call with the struggle for a workers party and a workers government. Now, I hope, you get the point. The bourgeoisie will no more voluntarily nationalize its Harvards, its traditional sacred stomping grounds for creating its administrative elite than it will do any other progressive things. To challenge their exclusive 'right' to do so sounds to these ears like something that, in the end, can only be resolved by civil war. Under those conditions can students struggle for power by themselves? To pose the question is to give the answer. Students, right now, today make the leap and link up your struggles with those of the working class. Or, and I will play the role of professor now- at least think about it. Meanwhile- Defend the Evergreen State College 6!