December 16, 2015

The Student Movement, Class & Revolution

Jenna Amirault & Drew Garvie

The upcoming school semester brings about renewed opportunities for student mobilization, solidarity with labour, and the creation of wider coalitions in the battle against austerity. The need to organize militant cross-Canada action has been made apparent by all the bourgeois political parties’ failure to take student issues seriously in this election and their failure, more generally, to represent the working class as a whole. In today’s economy students make up a new generation of debt owners with little prospects of getting a job upon graduation and insufficient social services to lessen their economic disparity in times of hardship. Colonialism and institutional sexism and racism create barriers to education that are left unaddressed by bourgeois politicians. It is pressing that students organize to challenge the limitations of the current education system and work with labour to overthrow capitalism itself. But what role can students play in revolutionary action? Why is the demand for access to education important, if it is not in itself revolutionary? And why is student-worker solidarity important?

Access to Education and Democratic Struggle

The Young Communist League of Canada stands in solidarity with all students struggling for free, accessible, quality and emancipatory public education. The democratic struggle for accessible education is important to help secure post-secondary schooling for the working class, which is of course gendered and racialized. Yet, ultra-leftist groups and individual activists have criticized the demand for free and open access to education as reformist or even counter-revolutionary. Education under capitalism, they argue, is not a democratic right or tool of emancipation, but simply a means by which class position is enforced and class distinctions produced and reproduced. It is certainly correct that the elite maintain ideological control of the public education system but higher education remains, even in its “attenuated state…a public arena where ideas can be debated [and] critical knowledge produced” (Giroux 18). Universities are often the first place that young people encounter political ideas and become politically active. Rather than abandon educational institutions as places of struggle, revolutionary students and organizations must push to make education accessible to working class students and radicalize the student body through action.

The Harper government’s recent attack on the Humanities and Social Sciences can be understood as a testament to the threat of a critical education. Since the 1960s and 1970s the Humanities and Social Sciences have helped to expose the pervasive injustices and inequalities of the Canadian state and have helped to shape anti-racist, feminist, and anti-colonialist thought (Open Letter 2013). The view that it is not possible to win partial reforms in education under capitalism ignores a historical and existing struggle for democratic curriculum and academic freedom from corporate and bourgeois ideological control. If revolutionary students reject this struggle outright, then we are reduced to ultra-revolutionary slogans such as “smash the bourgeois university”, or directed towards setting up our own “autonomous” “free schools/skools” which might be interesting to attend, but reject the necessity for mass student struggle. We should recognize that free and accessible education ensures that marginalized people continue and expand their involvement as active participants in shaping the institution and the political ideas emerging from it. There will not be a qualitative change in the education system under capitalism away from its primary role of reproducing the ideologies of the capitalist class, but struggles for reform are not inherently “reformist” and can be used to broaden the political outlook of the student movement towards an alliance with the working class and other classes oppressed by monopoly capitalism.

Class and the Student Movement

Young Communist student unionist Camila Vallejo
addresses a student mobilization in 2011 in Chile
The democratic struggle for accessible education is a battle best waged in solidarity with labour and people’s organizations. The recent victory for free education in Chile is a testament to this power. After Augusto Pinochet dismantled the public education system in the 1980s and ushered in a market driven model, Chilean students faced some of the highest tuition costs in the world. But through ongoing agitation, strikes and mobilizations by students, labour, and grassroots organizations Chileans were able to successfully reclaim education as a right and are now trying to realize the promise of the current government to bring in free, accessible, and quality education in Chile. The Chilean student movement, in many places led by Communists and members of the Chilean YCL (JJCC), put forward the demand for free education and connected it to the broader struggle of the working class for public ownership over natural resources, in order to pay for education and expand other social services.

Closer to home, Canadians saw the power of a united front in Québec. In 2012, Québec student activists in solidarity with labour and progressive organizations organized strikes, occupations, and demonstrations in opposition to proposed tuition increases. Eventually, what started as a student strike over access to education became a broad social battle against austerity and, with Bill 78, for democracy itself. Members of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) in partnership with the CFS-Ontario also held a Québec-Ontario Student Solidarity Tour in an effort to spread the movement to English-speaking Canada. Many labour unions also expressed solidarity with and rallied around the student movement because they recognized the linkages between students’ fight for accessible education and their own fight for better wages and working conditions, although the NDP and right-wing social democratic labour leaders actively opposed supporting the strike. Donations from union locals across the country were made to ASSÉ in order to fend off accumulating fines that the Québec state was using to repress the movement. 

Worker solidarity in the 2012 strike had very tangible political and organizational results, however, the labour movement failed to mobilize in an organized mass way, and therefore was limited to playing a supportive role. There were calls in 2012 and again this spring in Québec for a General Strike of students and workers. As can be read in the report from Québec in this magazine, worker-student unity was shattered due to a somewhat justifiable cynicism in the willingness of the trade union leadership to put up a real mass fight around political demands. However, the conclusion that some of the student movement came to was to write off labour completely. What role the student movement can play in the struggle for socialism is a debate that presents itself again and again. The main thing to grasp is that while the student movement might have a more “revolutionary” mood at a given time, it is the organized class-conscious working class that must play the central role. Labour is organized at the point of production, the origin of capitalist exploitation. As such it can grind to a halt and even overthrow capitalist production. While the student movement might be able to put financial pressure on governments by delaying the graduation of students (the reproduction of labour power) and accumulate expenses in education costs through a student strike, this pales to the power of a major general strike or a wave of workers’ strikes.

The student movement cannot isolate itself if it wants to push for educational reform or even for revolutionary change. Yet, some “revolutionary” voices conclude that the multi-class nature of the student movement means focusing on struggle between bourgeois and proletariat students, or revolutionary and reformist, and organizing along those lines. It is obviously true that the student movement contains different class elements. While very few students themselves are actually of the bourgeois class (owners of the means of production), there are certainly a disproportionate amount of students that come from bourgeois families and petty-bourgeois families. Without getting into specific demographics, we know that many working-class students are shut out of post-secondary education through financial and societal barriers. But we also know that the average undergraduate student in Canada graduates with close to $30,000 of debt, and that enrollment is still historically high. So we must also conclude that the majority of students do not come from bourgeois families.

Some right-social democratic voices in the student movement use the left-sounding conclusion that students have become too “bourgeoisified” and “privileged”, and therefore a defensive movement position is necessary. The right-wing is so strong because they have a superior class base in the student movement, so we must protect what’s left of the student movement through secretive legal and bureaucratic maneuvers and avoid mobilizations. Echoing this, the conclusion that some on the ultra-left reach is that the great mass of students are bourgeois and beyond redemption. Therefore we must organize in small groups along revolutionary lines against “reformist” student unions that are a major barrier to a revolutionary movement. Under this logic some on the revolutionary left refuse to work with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and with student and trade unions that they view as reformist, “legalist”, inherently social democratic and therefore counterrevolutionary. While it is very true that there are real subjective problems inside the student movement that are holding us back, including ideological problems in the leadership of the movement, the refusal to work or unite with other groups or individuals that could be united with is ultra-leftism in practice. The objective political conditions of the present time are such that the student movement is beginning where other forms of mass struggle are lacking. Revolutionary students and student organizations should endeavor “to broaden every democratic student movement, the academic kind included, and make it more conscious and determined” (Lenin 1964). Addressing the refusal of student revolutionaries in St. Petersburg to participate in a student strike that was lacking explicitly political anti-tsarist demands, Lenin (1973) argued that rather than abandon the democratic student struggle revolutionary students should strive to be an “ideological and organizational influence” on newly politicized young people by helping them understand “the objective meaning of [their] conflict,” making the student movement consciously political, and directing their “activity in such a way that revolutionary conclusions will be drawn from the history.” He recognized the setbacks that, “particular agitators may experience in this or that university, students’ association [or] meeting” but argued “the work of political agitation is never wasted” no matter how “weak and embryonic” its beginning may be “the working class must make use of it and will do so”.

Ideas have a class base in society as a whole and are reflected in the student movement. If we as revolutionaries make it a matter of principle to set ourselves apart and not work shoulder to shoulder with students that are in motion, if we don’t work to have an “ideological and organizational influence”, then we weaken both ourselves and the student movement. This is not a question of “entryism” into a “social democratic” student union and trying to “radicalize” it. Student unions are mass organizations not political parties with a set political program. It is true that political parties have a great deal of influence in the student movement (see Rebel Youth issue 13-14), but that does not mean that student unions are inherently “bourgeoisified”, “legalistic” or “social democratic”. There is a battle of ideas that we should not shy away from in the student movement and in student unions, and we need to be there. Lenin said in 1903, when the revolutionary student “breaks with” other political tendencies in a movement, “this by no means implies the break-up of the general student and educational organizations. On the contrary, only on the basis of a perfectly definite programme can and should one work among the widest student circles to broaden their academic outlook and to propagate scientific socialism, ie, Marxism” (Lenin, 1964). The propagation of scientific socialism, of Marxism-Leninism, in the youth and student movement is the task of the Young Communist League of Canada. It is through this ideological framework that we hope to strengthen the overall movement, not weaken or divide it. We are not in competition with the student movement, but are part of it, as students who recognize the importance of situating the current struggle of students in the struggle for a socialist Canada.

This fall students in Québec are presented with a unique opportunity to, once again, extend their solidarity with labour as public sector workers prepare for major strikes. In English-speaking Canada, the movement is still fragmented and on the defensive, but there are pockets of resistance growing. No matter who wins the upcoming Federal election, it will not significantly change the balance of class forces in Canada and internationally, meaning that the student movement will continue to face crushing austerity policies. A thorough understanding of where we stand as the student movement in the context of the broader class struggle is necessary. Building unity with Aboriginal peoples, women’s organizations, the LGBTQI* community, the anti-war movement, immigrant rights groups, the anti-poverty movement, with groups fighting police brutality and racist policing, and especially with a fighting labour movement, is key to winning our own demands. A genuine people’s coalition in motion on the street is the way to resist the corporate agenda and move to the offensive in order to curtail and overthrow corporate power. With the ongoing capitalist economic crisis, the expansion of imperialist wars, and the crisis of climate change, the stakes for working people and specifically our generation have never been higher. Now is the time to organize!


Giroux, Henry A. 2014. Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. Chicago:    Haymarket Books.

Lenin, Vladimir. 1973 “The Student Movement and the Present Political Strategy.”   Lenin Collected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

-----. 1964. “The Tasks of the Revolutionary Youth.” Lenin Collected Works. Moscow.

2013. “Open letter: Thou shalt not commit sociology (or critical thinking of any kind).” Retrieved August 18, 2015 (


This article is printed in Issue 19 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on student struggles and the federal elections. Find out more and subscribe today!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular stories