This documents reflects discussions in the YCL about the way forward for the student movement today. We welcome opinions and comments. It was originally published in the print edition of Rebel Youth, number 13-14.
Other articles and series on this theme: political parties and student struggle; our coverage of the Quebec Student Strike; Students of Canada Rise Up; YCLer Marianne Breton Fontaine speaks on Student Solidarity tour; Call to 2013 YCL student conference; and student actions step ahead but not enough.
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We are living at a time when a sea change is beginning in people’s way of thinking, not necessarily towards revolution or even progressive politics, but searching for new alternatives to cut-backs, privatization and austerity.
Nowhere is this clearer than among the youth and students, and who is surprised?
At first glance, it might seem like there is an inter-generational war going on – in Québec, the rest of Canada, and around the world.
Youth are being denied even the hope of a future better than their parents, economically and ecologically.
But the austerity budgets just passed on the provincial level, and the Federal Harper Conservative government‘s omnibus Bill C-38, are really a sort of class warfare.
As has been said before, we are being forced to pay for an economic crisis we did not create.
In the gun-sights of the Harper Tories is the labour movement and especially public sector workers, as well as aboriginal people, women, immigrant and non-status workers, the environment, and now even our democratic rights.
An important part of this offensive is spinning the neo-liberal wrecking ball at the foundations of accessible, affordable, quality, public, not-for-profit education from cradle to grave.
POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION ACROSS CANADA IS UNDER ATTACK
Newspapers headlines and research reports tell an alarming story. Sustained tuition increases. Escalating student debt. Shrinking student job opportunities. Rising youth unemployment. Growing corporate intrusions into all aspects campus academic and social life.
The doors to university, college and trade school are being slammed upon tens of thousands of youth.
But when students are organized, united and prepared to fight, they can reverse this downward spiral and make the goal “education is a right, not a privilege” a social reality.
This has been voiced loud and clear from the student movement of Québec. In the past months, the streets of Montréal have seen some of the biggest mobilizations in Québec and Canadian history — over a quarter of a million people marching in the streets, shouting at the top of their lungs.
A deliberate corporate media dis-information campaign has portrayed the students as violent spoiled brats (presumably for sacrificing their semester for an increase in fees that will hurt the next wave of students out of high school more than themselves). Despite this there has been an extremely strong flow of public support within Quebec, including labour, and in addition there has been growing support from English-speaking Canada, with letters and donations from student unions, labour, feminists, environmentalists, and many other groups.
But there is a growing awareness in English-speaking Canada that, back at home, youth and students, labour and progressive forces in general have to go much further with the fight back — and go on a counter-offensive.
The Québec students have made a point of connecting their battle as a social cause, linked with the struggle of all people’s forces against austerity and, as symbolized by the Red Square, personal debt.
They are fighting for a vision of society putting people and nature before profits, radically different than the view expressed by the Charest Liberal’s budget.
On the campuses, the movement has made a point of democratically empowering the students themselves.
The most militant component of the Quebec students – the CLASSE — have, successfully, worked hard to popularize the need for progressive taxation making the corporations pay – and the goal of eliminating tuition fees.
They have overcome many old sores, set aside differences, and united.
They have seen mass struggle not as a process that can be directed by the call of one student body, culminate with a single symbolic day of action, or be conjured forth by a particular organizing tactic, but as a broad, democratic and building movement that escalates the action plan.
They have not surrendered.
These are lessons we need to learn.
Two, three – many Quebec springs!
This summer People‘s Voice newspaper broke a story about the revealing comments of a former advisor to the US state Department, David Jones, on the Quebec student struggle. What was his greatest worry?
That “students elsewhere (may) determine Quebec has provided a `learning experience.”
After the economic crisis began, some cynics asked if there would be resistance.
Over the last few years the world has seen an unprecedented number of strikes, uprisings, and mass mobilizations.
Just a year ago the idea of a student strike was skeptically questioned by many in Québec. Then, a month after the strike officially began on March 22nd, protest was beginning to sprout spontaneously. But this kind of resistance does not grow over night. It takes hard work, a struggle of ideas, patience yet a strong sense of urgency, and organization that needs to begin immediately.
Student activists and leaders cannot afford to wait for better or spontaneous opportunities, or until we form the perfect student organization. Every month, week, every day, campus mobilization is delayed comes with a price.
Now is the time to act.
The last major mobilization of students in English-speaking Canada was called by the Canadian Federation of Students for February 1st 2012. The demonstration fell short of being what was necessary but could have been a good start.
We said the poor turn-out was a ‘wake-up call’ exposing the ‘lack of an action plan’
We called for “ramping up actions on campus. Sit ins. Occupations. More rallies [and] bringing the struggle into the community and winning the moral support of the public which, at least in sentiment, is probably already there - but not yet in a visible way that cannot be ignored.”
Criticizing progressive mass people‘s organizations is not something to be done in a cavalier fashion.
To its credit, the CFS has a policy to reduce fees and, on paper at least, to call for their elimination – compared to other organizations like CASA that take a much more backward approach and call for a tuition increase (and have their activists often joined at the hip with the Conservative and Liberal parties).
While recognizing these limitations it is necessary to call for a united and militant student movement that moves all campuses into action and reaches out beyond, to stand with the struggles of labour and other people‘s struggles.
What is the way forward?
1. The student movement and the CFS needs an escalating plan of action for a broad and united fight back, not an archipelago of isolated actions;
2. This struggle should open a broad democratic debate about free, accessible, quality, public, not-for-profit education;
3. The student movement struggle must go beyond the daily business of administration and bring the political courage to struggle into the hands of the members themselves through democratic empowerment and open debate;
4. The student movement must urgently find unity with Quebec and Aboriginal students, and it must be on the basis of their rights to sovereignty and self-determination as nations, up to and including the right to separate. We can’t let Canada’s flawed constitution (which, among other problems, does not recognize these national rights but delineates education as a provincial matter) obscure the vital need for a pan-Canadian fight back.
Obviously, since these demands were formulated by the YCL at our January 2010 student conference, Quebec has exploded. Now each point on this list, which may have seemed abstract in the winter, is very concretely on the table.
In addition to free education from cradle to grave (including childcare) the YCL also demands abolishing student debt, grants not loans, kicking military recruitment and research of our campuses, restoring and expanding funding to education including Aboriginal education, and a living stipend for students.
The student movement in English-speaking Canada also needs to have an ideological weapon to advocate for free education, like a campaign newspaper as do the Quebec student unions.
The student strike is also the most effective way to put moral pressure on the government. It should therefore be part of the student‘s arsenal.
What’s holding back the student movement today? To be sure, there are organizational weaknesses, and too often a lack of political will to act. And the success of the student’s response will is determined in many respects by our ability to set aside differences and act together.
Beyond the debate about tactics we think there is an ideological battle.
On the one side are the advocates and apologists for the neo-liberals, for the Harper Tories and their lot – who see education as a privilege.
On the other side are the left and progressive forces, who demand access to education as a right.
The progressive camp also has debates. Some student activists tend towards strategies of ‘lobby or wait until the next Election and vote NDP,’ and right-wing social democracy.
But many more student activists tepidly support the NDP, if at all. They instead recognize that the best way to move social reality, so Tories can be driven from office and victories won for students, is through mass struggle and mobilization.
The situation has polarized. Within the student movement, which side will win?
Progressive students cannot stay in the arm chair. Action is demanded.
STRUGGLE OF IDEAS OR CLASS WAR ON CAMPUS?
It’s easy to write-off an inactive campus as rancid with apathetic, privileged or ‘bourgeoisified’ youth. Some ‘left’ critics go further than this ‘blame the victim’ approach and announce that there are ‘proletarian’ and ‘bourgeois’ students and, throwing unity to the wind, call for an internal class war in the movement.
Campuses, however, are hardly socially homogeneous; students (as well as educators and campus workers) come from different regions and from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, and most importantly, from different class backgrounds.
Students are a heterogeneous strata under capitalism and the class composition of the student population varies from institution to institution, and is constantly in flux. Most post-secondary students come from the working class majority in our society, even if they are not always or fully conscious of their class position at this point in their life.
For the working class, education is emancipatory – it helps us struggle better. In this sense, access to education is both a democratic demand and a class demand.
Big business also has interests in education. It requires trained workers. But the capitalists are not willing to pay the bill, through corporate taxes. State-monopoly capitalism makes the people pay instead — through wages, savings and especially debt.
This is the primary contradiction in the struggle for accessible education and why it is in the interest of students to win broad social progress, starting with the defeat of the Harper Tories, and a people’s agenda.
As students become ever more aware of their real social and class interests, the political balance of forces within the student population shifts and the progressive pro-working class student forces will be better situated to give dynamic leadership to the student movement as a whole, allowing it to become a vital ally to the working class and people’s struggle in general.
Therefore building a united and militant student movement is not only crucial to defend and advance students’ interests for a quality and accessible education; it can also engage more effectively in addressing broader social concerns, and working together with other social forces and movements – labour, women, the unemployed and impoverished, Aboriginal peoples and community activists – help to bring about a better country.
The student movement can help catalyze the mass struggle and, as long as it is militant and united, can assume a dynamic and positive role in the broader people’s struggle for social progress.
The challenge isn’t bringing the class struggle inside the movement (it’s already objectively there!). The challenge is winning to the students to take sides in the broader class struggle, and expanding the struggle beyond the campus.
On which side of the picket lines – or the barricades – do the students stand? With the working class or against it?
THE QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP
Within the student movement different political trends of thinking seek to answer that question. These two trends are historical developments that have never existed in “pure” form – and are constantly inter-tangled into student politics. The student movement, like all people’s forces, will create leadership depending on the circumstance because leadership is an objective necessity in struggle.
It’s easy to fall into a trap and over-simplify this process. Good, militant student leadership is collective, grasping its duty, listening to students and also advancing unifying positions that helps the struggle move forward, informed. But it doesn’t have a magical power to overcome objective reality.
Likewise, the dichotomies of rank-and-file vs. officers, or top down vs. bottom are often inflated and even false. Movements have more than one layer of activists and leadership that are omitted with these kind of short-hand notes. Top vs. bottom can also re-orient the movement into a kind of naval-gazing search for perfect democratic structures. So-called direct democracy is not totally incompatible with representative democracy, however. Even the CLASSE incorporates both structures.
The way forward lies in winning the students themselves to the path of unity and struggle, and through struggle carrying out their own decisions. Searching for the perfect decision-making structure can distract from confronting anti-struggle trends within the movement.
This reactionary trend understands student organization’s as “student’s governments” and focuses on provision of services (like a health plan or entertainment such as music concerts) for students. It seeks “caution” and “respectability,” exclusively limiting the demands of students to immediate economic questions of students and minor goals. The student movement is about “building your resume.” Education not understood in humanist terms, but individualistically as a way to get ahead in the rat race.
Time and time again, life has shown that right-wing student councils can be tossed-out by their own members because they do not speak for their campuses. The vast majority of students, even though they are still learning about social and class interests, have a strong sense of justice, equality and the post-secondary education as a beneficial social value.
The YCL, together with the broad range of progressive students, view the student movement in this different, positive direction.
The progressive, democratic outlook recognizes that the students have interests that align with the interests of the people – the non-corporate majority population. It understands the parallel between student associations and trade unions, the importance of solidarity and struggle.
It correctly sees access to education is a democratic right of the people. This is the most broad and fundamental basis of unity within the student movement and is most commonly expressed by the demand – freeze, reduce and eliminate tuition fees.
The fight for free education can open up a broader questions about social transformation – although affordable education is not the same as accessible education because there are other barriers in society than just tuition fees.
For education to be free it would require a federal role. But it is a common mistake to forget the federal role in post-secondary education and to fall into the trap of accepting the current flawed Canadian Constitution’s designation of education as a provincial matter. If education is only a provincial matter a cross-Canada student movement is not necessary.
On the other hand, unity of the student struggle and policy solutions have to recognize the national question and the right of Quebec and Aboriginal people to control their own education. This is the fault of the NDP’s proposed Post-Secondary Education Act.
The YCL also makes the point that opposing militarism, war, and imperialism and fighting for peace and solidarity, are also student issues.
There is no contradiction, in our view, between advancing socialism as the only genuine alternative to the current capitalist system, and our principled commitment to work to further the immediate and basic interests of students. This finds expression, for example, in the YCL’s campaign for a Charter of Youth Rights.
FOR A CHARTER OF YOUTH RIGHTS
The Youth Charter campaign has the potential to act as a vehicle through which the YCL will unite broad sections of the youth and student movement behind a positive vision. Our goal needs to be to turn resistance into a counter-offensive against corporate power’s new Tory battering ram.
A youth charter would be a tactic to strengthen the progressive voice within the youth and student movement in a positive and new direction by winning other youth to its demands. It would be the basis to develop the struggles of the youth and students to a higher level, to bridge the gap between the labour and people’s fight back and the youth and student fight back, and therefore position the youth and students as a potential force within and around the people’s coalition.
In short, we think that the people’s needs should be rights, and we want to start a broad discussion among all youth about winning a society based on people’s needs not corporate greed.
The Charter campaign calls for a united coalition to reinforce the fight back of the youth. With the YCL as a driving force in such a coalition more youth will come into contact with our pro-socialist message.
For a stronger Young Communist League
Universal accessible public post-secondary education is an attainable goal – a goal already nearer to being attained in other countries such as Cuba that are less industrialized than Canada!
Funding for education can be ensured by cutting the military budget, progressive taxation, making the corporations pay, as well as the nationalization of resources and primary industry in Canada. But only through a socialist system of a democratically planned economy can the resources required for universal accessible public post-secondary education be defined and allocated on an ongoing basis. The case against war, poverty, misery, exploitation and oppression is really the case for socialism.
The Young Communist League is politically united with, and organizationally autonomous from, the Communist Party of Canada. It strives to be a vanguard for youth and student movement. It aspires to be made up of the most ideologically and organizationally developed sections of the youth who reject careerism and boldly present themselves as open young communists. Communist student organizers must be trained in greater numbers to contribute to the growth, press, and political action of the Young Communist League.
YCLers fight for a socialist Canada that would see the elimination of financial barriers to education, increases in working standards, and the democratic control of Canadian industry and natural resources. A socialist Canada is a peaceful alternative to the current capitalist system of war, massive unemployment, and inequality. In this sense, the YCL offers the true alternative to continued assaults on students’ rights and a future for the youth!
If you agree with this message, join us!