Here is an article originally from the blog, Advance the Struggle. The author, Esteban, raises important questions considering the size of the student population in the United States, the role students have played in radicalizing movements, and how they can think about themselves in terms of their own emancipatory capabilities. This is especially pertinent when student struggles break out of narrow university demands and into realms which directly impact the working class. Considering the U.S. has hundreds of public universities where working class students are struggling to get by, it is a matter of time, organization, and self-activity before these questions are bumped into.
There are many more points raised in this piece and I will not go into all of them, leaving it to others to raise insights, agreements, and critiques.
In light of Tuesdays announcement of a 20% increase in CSU stuent fees, we felt it’d be appropriate to post some original writing on the role of the student movement. Is it a middle class movement as some have argued? Or is it part of the struggle against capitalism?
For what seems like the past decade, California students have been taking busses to Sacramento to lobby legislators to stop gutting and gentrifying university education. These efforts have been spearheaded by organizations like the faculty union CFA and student government officials (ASI) from various schools.
These efforts have achieved very little in terms of battling against Sacramento’s cuts. While there have been glimmers of more confrontational, militant resistance coming from groups like SUP in San Francisco, and similar organizations at other campuses, they have not spread throughout universities or gained enough of a foothold at their campuses in order to challenge their local administrations and the power structure in Sacramento yet.
With this in mind, check out Esteban’s analysis of the relation between students and the class struggle. In light of the most recent failure to stop pushing out working class students of color from the university system, we should take a moment to re-consider our strategies and perspectives on what a student movement is.
Students as Positive Proletarian Actors
students are workers. the logical implication of that fact is that students should organize as workers and with the rest of the working class. i think the success of a working class movement (ultimately culminating in total victory, ie, socialism) is largely based upon the extent to which students/intellectuals facilitate the process of workers becoming students/intellectuals. this seemingly obvious and simple fact is neglected by the great majority of established campus organizations including socialist and ethnic ones – both of which are products of the last round of historically relevant student struggle in the era of the “new left.” students have a crucial role in developing the class struggle, but those who fetishize workers in terms of some one dimensional blue collar fantasy as well as those who sideline class (let alone class struggle) in favor of cultural, national or other ascribed identities refuse to see this fact. this is a huge opportunity that is being thrown away and the working class as a whole suffers for it. below are some thoughts on how students can be positive proletarian actors.
the attack on public education is just one facet, one symptom, of the capitalist crisis in this acute stage. to defend public education requires a fight on every front of the class war, and thus requires broad class unity. although broad proletarian unity is always needed, the crisis provides a material basis for realization. students must see themselves as part of the proletariat, right along with the day laborer, the single mother on welfare, and the auto worker. together they must launch a coordinated attack against capital – a revolution. of course this is a long and painful process that goes through ups and downs, and hasn’t even really begun yet. we have a lot of catching up to do, but once students see their true role in society as workers and potential actors on the historical stage clearly, they have taken the first step toward defending their immediate interest (public education) as well as having taken the first step toward the socialist revolution which is the only thing that can crystalize in the long term those same material interests. once the identification of the student with the worker has been realized, they have to begin to organize and resist.
what does organizing along these lines mean? the traditional reformist way of “organizing” for students is the ritualistic signing of petitions and politely taking afl-cio provided buses to an annual convergence on sacramento to do charade lobbying sessions with congress people. oh yes and of course the conventions and conferences where they get together with all the branches of their organization from across the country and shmooze, playacting a fantasy future as middle level manager or state employed bureaucrat. this is bullshit and must cease. this is the time for proletarian resistance, not middle class opportunism.
real student resistance means first of all taking ownership of their education, putting their analytical and writing and computer skills to use for the working class movement (which is non-existent and thus has to be created). they should make propaganda that is relevant to the wide and diverse sections of the working class and disseminate it (in print on the street and on the internet and any other way possible). students should fiercely protect the freedoms that exist in campus environments and use the somewhat unique campus atmosphere to demonstrate what militant resistance looks like. not conferences, potlucks, anti-coca-cola petitions but walk-outs, marches, blockades, occupations, student strikes, etc.
these militant actions have to be taken off the campus (or to campus workers like food service and janitorial staff) so that other workers can see the possibilities in action. students should walk out and go to the street for massive outreach, calling on everyone to strike and shutting down streets or whatever else along the way. realistically, nobody will go on strike just because some crazy students tell them to, but it will plant a seed and can crack the fear, which are first steps to building organic networks and organizations that can make strikes happen.
students should also do consistent work in the community even if its just propaganda. the biggest asset students have to offer the working class is being more highly literate than most other workers. they should use their literacy to study – hard – the movements of the past. once they have some good ideas about the pluses and minuses of those movements and know generally what is needed today, they need to start sharing that perspective with the working class. “sharing” is actually a way of testing their theory too, because if workers reject a theory that probably says something about either the content of the theory or the form in which is being delivered. study, present, test, reflect, and through every cycle, recruit working class people into the process that it becomes more and more of an organic product of the working class itself, rather than staying in the abstract loop that academia trains students to operate within.
students have to prioritize the spread of those literacy skills because its not beneficial for the proletariat to be functionally illiterate and (mis)led by a “vanguard” intelligentsia layer (wassup Stalinists). none but the proletariat can liberate itself, and this liberation requires literacy and intellectual development which the bourgeoisie has denied us with their stupid ass media and fucked up educational system. this is the concept of ‘organic intellectuals’ in action, unleashed from a classroom where ethnic studies and sociology teachers love to quote gramsci yet shy away from the street and real struggle. thats intellectual alright, but it isnt organically connected to the proletariat (as per what gramsci actually says).
beyond theory, student militants’ eyes should be open for individuals in the community and at workplaces who want to struggle against their conditions and the students should provide some vehicle for them to do so; not as a vanguard party that concocts perfect plans and to whom workers must subordinate themselves, but as a partner who has some unique skills to offer; not as a substitute for other workers in the community, but as a conduit that facilitates communication between workers and casts some analytical light on the situation from a broader perspective than most working class people have been exposed to. the point is for students to rebel and to spread the rebellion, infusing it with perspective that hopefully students will have gained by independent study of radical histories and theories. their literacy skills can thus be put to best use in action.
just as students are workers, workers must also become students. students can both learn and teach by participating in working class struggle, and making a conscious project of intellectual development (their own intellectual development as n individual and that of the working class to which they belong). i call this perspective of reciprocal learning between intellectuals and non-intellectuals mediated through class struggle and organized in a professional and revolutionary manner, “freireian-leninism.” dont steal the term . . . it will be famous one day.
all of the suggestions above imply the existence of student organizations, but consistent with the assertion that students are proper members of the working class, these organizations have to go beyond student status and assume a proletarian character. really an organization open to all serious militants with a proletarian class consciousness is what im talking about, but of course every organization starts from a particular social milieu and is flavored/biased by it; students will produce a student flavored working class organization. ultimately, though the goal should be overpower that particular flavor with a generalized proletarian character that comes from inclusion of broad sections of the class. thats a far way off, and we are looking here at the role of students in particular in building organizations that can move the struggle forward.
such an organization does not exist despite the many claims that are made to that effect. the Communist Party certainly is not such an organization, as was illustrated perhaps most graphically in the role they played in France ‘68 when one of the measures they employed in order to dampen worker militancy (expressed organically through wildcat strikes in the auto industry – hint hint, US worker) was to divorce the radical student movement from the proletarian insurgency. most communist (small c, including maoist and trotskyist) organizations actually have no base in the working class and just sell newspapers, so im not just trying to pick on the stalinists. none of them embrace students as workers, or effectively make students of workers (that is, provide them the tools for independent reflection and analysis – at most they indoctrinate with dogma, which is NOT synonymous with making someone a student).
as far as existing student organizations go, none of the big name ones are of the character im talking about. mecha, bsu and the like (although they vary significantly campus to campus and some chapters are more active and more radical than others) in general ascribe to middle class illusions and function more like “greek” organizations of an ethnic type than as vehicles for militant activity. most students see these as social networking opportunities to make friends, party, and get contacts for good jobs when they graduate, all within the context of an outer shell of cultural pride and exploiting a tradition of militancy hasnt been refreshed through major struggle for 4 decades. this is tired. the main marxist student organization is the ISO and although it presents a decent analysis in its many forums and movie showings and meetings, participates little in organizing concrete resistance and has the main focus of selling newspapers. their mainly privileged membership interacts little with the working class in anything other than uni-directional ways (selling workers papers, volunteering as union bureaucracy proxies to tell union members what the misleading sell out bureaucrats tell them, etc).
i know that at San Francisco State University, there is a militant student group that has organized a couple of good walkouts, protests, and stuff. They are called Student Unity and Power (SUP), and last year they were known as Fight the Fees (the change in name signals an evolution in consciousness from the purely economic to a more political character, which is good). This past March 12th they organized a march of about 300 students about 2 miles to the community college called City College of San Francisco with the aim of breaking down fake campus boundaries. they shut down major streets along the way. the past two years they have walked out on May 1st to go to the main pro-immigrant demo and shut down streets along way, arriving with big numbers and usually infusing a militant spirit to the otherwise drab march. their propaganda and flyers are very conscious and scorn the official labor movement. they are anti-capitalist, multi-racial, gender balanced and working class.
as groups like these (innovative, class conscious, free from baggage of the past) develop and grow, the tired cultural nationalism and the fake marxism which pass for student activism on most campuses will be swept aside. knowing that groups like SUP could render their claim to radicalism redundant, both the fake marxists and the stale cultural nationalists tend to talk shit and sabotage them (calling them “white” organizations from the one side, and “identity politics” from the other, just because they are multi-racial and class conscious) rather than recognize their vitality and join forces. in that sense you can see their reactionary potentialities, and the time will come when the battle for hegemony, a confrontation between the new radical forces and the old crustified ones, will be fought out. before the Black Panthers was founded Huey was a student and used to go around debating all the radical groups on campus and smash on them. the clarity of thought he achieved in this process unleashed his genius to be applied in action, in the community amongst the proletariat. now it is time in the US for a similar reckoning with a similarly restrictive past (now it is the vestiges of the “new left” rather than the vestiges of the old, but the dynamic is parallel). we have to debate the old guard and build fresh organizational vehicles. the afl-cio is stale and proves itself useless in the face of crisis, and i think there’s a corallary with student organizations. its time to re-organize our thought and action to connect organically with the mood of the masses and provide a way for them to magnify their discontent with reality and channel their dreams of alternatives. when that happens new 1960s type interventions can emanate from the student strata of the proletariat and new Huey P. Newtons can be born. new IWW’s and new BPP’s can offer us outlets toward the socialist future the proletariat subconsciously yearns for. we can smash the widespread frustrations and emancipate the necessary actions.
12 thoughts on “Students as Positive Proletarian Actors from Advance the Struggle”
Great post! I saw this a few weeks ago when I was doing some research for a study group on student and labor organizing we’re doing up here in Seattle with Democracy Insurgent (DI), a student-worker- unemployed folks group fighting budget cuts, layoffs, speed up, and tuition hikes at the University of Washington (we helped organize the rally in the photo above). It really struck me that Esteban is asking many of the same questions DI folks are asking ourselves right now: how do our student members interact with workers as equals, how do we break down the divide between mental and manual labor, how do we broaden our own organization so that it can include different layers of the working class (waged workers, students, unwaged workers, unemployed folks, etc.).
We started as a student group but now for the first time rank and file worker militants and working class folks from the community are beginning to join our organizing projects as co-leaders. This is very very exciting. However, it’s something that’s easily misunderstood because it departs from a lot of progressive assumptions of how campus labor solidarity work is supposed to go down. Usually, student – labor alliance groups are composed mostly of students, and they come out and do rallies and actions in solidarity with workers when the union leadership calls them and asks for help. In turn, the union will support student demands for divestment from companies that run sweatshops, etc.
Our approach is a bit different from this – we’re actually trying to build one organization that includes both students and rank and file workers. We’re willing to engage in struggles and conflicts inside the workforce itself (including struggles against conservative union bureaucrats) if this is necessary to advance the struggle against management. And we’re trying to get to a point where workers can actually be an active part of the campus activist scene – LEADERS on campus, not just objects of students’ solidarity. We’ve gotten some criticism from some of the union bureaucrats and other campus activists who feel like we’re disrupting historic student-labor alliances. What these folks don’t see is that we’re building NEW alliances and this is crucial considering that the fight against budget cuts is something that students and workers can’t win unless we organize joint campaigns together.
It looks like Esteban is coming from a campus context where most students are from working class backgrounds and are being trained in their classes to become skilled laborers. So he points out how it’s important for students to recognize themselves as workers and to see their own oppression as tied to the oppression of other workers. This is true for a layer of students at the University of Washington too, but here we also run into folks who are being trained to be the future managers. This poses a set of problems we’re grappling with as we expand.
Esteban argues that one of the key roles of radical working class students should be to create opportunities for other workers to become students and intellectuals in their own right. This is right on! Esteban contrasts this to identity based student organizations and the “vanguard” socialist parties that tend to maintain the distinction between students and workers in their organizing methods. Our aproach of co-writing flyers, strategizing together, and increasingly reading and discussing with custodians and other campus workers is different, much closer to what Esteban advocates.
It’s great to know that there are other folks out there thinking about these things! I’m looking forward to reading more about the anti-budget cuts fight down in Cali, and sharing insights from those struggles with folks up here.
the only thing i have to add and ask is, what do forms of class consciousness look like? esteban references the “new left” which the “old left” had a hard time understanding and orienting to. they didn’t recognize Black Power or the Women’s Liberation movement as forms of class consciousness.
i think related to this question of consciousness is why this piece on Advance the Struggle is so important: on the one hand students represent a distinct layer of the working class with their own unique experiences that provides them with certain skills that will be necessary to building movements and organizations to fight capitalism and on the other hand, universities, as a result of the “last round of historically relevant student struggles in the ‘new left,'” have been considered a place of upward mobility.
according to the rulers, new layers of the working class were being offered the chance to become management, and should, thus, not support or consider themselves a part of working class movements. but some revolutionaries of that era turned the university into a resource for the broader community and working class.
i think i’m trying to locate the pivot points of consciousness (in a non-stalinist way). does it open up and ‘advance the struggle’ so to speak, or does it close down and re-enforce class divisions against, between and within the working class?
i think esteban hit the nail on the head when he said that today’s BSUs are not BPPs. they are in fact quite the opposite. but the transition from the Old Left to the New, the parallels and breaks between the Black revolt of the 1910s and 1920s, and the Black revolt of the 60s & 70s can be found in both the fundamentally different experiences of contemporary class layers, as well as the concrete successes and failures of the last round of struggle by that layer.
following this thought, how will Black folks, students, women create new identities that will animate the next round of struggle?
my questions on consciousness are still coming together in my head, let alone the answers.
This is a good piece and is showing the growing militancy and organizing around campus budget cuts and also breaking down the barriers of workers/students, faculty/staff on campuses. Currently in California there are movements growing both on the UCs, CSU, and community college level. I work with Student Worker Action Team (SWAT) at UC Berkeley which one of many groups state-wide planning general student/worker assemblies and a UC system-wide walkout on 9/24 against the union busting furloughs, layoffs, speed up, class reductions, and tuition increase this year of 9.3% and proposed 32% increase over the next year that will make tuition for UCs at $10,000!
SWAT now has some connections with Student Unity Power which is mentioned in this article. From speaking with SUP members, there is a sense of shared political development going on within this group through it seems reading groups and shared writing projects putting out perspectives like this. For SWAT which is a coalition of many individuals from student government, unions, faculty, grad and undergrads, and with folks coming from many organizations on the left, so-far most energy has been towards putting on events for public education like townhalls, supporting rallies against the regents with unions, etc. We have barely had time to write a points of unity and talk a bit more deeply about what this all means. Even with our differences, this coalition seems to be growing and helping animate organizing and confidence among all sectors on campus to organize against this extraordinary privatization attacks on the UC system. Most realize the 9/24 walk out is just the opening act.
I hope SWAT or other formations on campus can sustain and wage a long campaign against callous administration attacks as opposed to organizing for events only. We will see. There is a lot of energy on campus, and people are ticked off, though many more (mostly workers) are scared of fighting back feeling in this economy and especially in CA that they are blessed to have jobs. That’s what the UC bosses want us to feel. I hope that workers supported by one another and students who see themselves as workers or see themselves together in this sinking ship that is CA public education, will work together in a big way and be able to take it off-campus and into the community. As one SUP member said correct at a SWAT townhall event on 9/9 at UC Berkeley, “we are all facing structural adjustment.” The “American dream” of affordable higher education for many middle and working class Americans has been eroded for years through neoliberal economic policies of underfunding public services, and now the political and economic elites have traded in their scalpels for sledgehammers as everyday folks are seeing here in CA and throughout the U.S.
Great article. It gives me a lot to think about in my own organizing in student groups. I’m currently at a private university, and that changes the equation considerably in terms of working class composition among students.
Private universities tend not to catch working class students aspiring to middle class lives as managers of their parents and siblings but the scions of already hella wealthy families.
At the same time, many of these lessons still apply. I think students here, those willing to stand up to and break with their parents’ middle class ambitions for them, can work certainly “facilitate the process of workers becoming students/intellectuals.”
Moreover, they can try to challenge the composition of the university, take ownership over their education, and make it relevant to forming alliances as partners with working folks, not dominating them as future bosses.
There are also a number of possibilities for work in the community, a largely working class and black city.
This article is great, and very helpful in thinking about the relationship between students and working class movements.
What are some of the challenges when students want to proletarianize and organize with workers on campus?
This article presents some very strong points in thinking about how students can break down the mental/manual labor divides, and pass on their skills to help labor movements.
The question/challenge we are facing in our organizing, is, who do students work with? Who do they proletarianize with?
The rank and file workers, or the union bureaucracies?
It is not just in the students’ “consciousness” that they remain as students, separate from workers. We know it is in how the university is constructed, it is in how students are TAUGHT to see themselves as different, as upwardly mobile etc.
However, union bureaucracies and institutions also serve to perpetuate this divide. They also often paint workers as helpless victims who only need to be rushed into last minute meetings to take quick votes. When it comes to immigrant workers, the patronizing, condescending attitude increases tenfold. Which is why Andy Stern from SEIU can get away with saying he is organizing millions of immigrant workers, when in reality he is cutting bad deals with management, raking in money for his own bureaucracy, making conditions a wee bit better, or sometimes even WORSE! for the workers. He is able to get away with it cos the conception of what an immigrant worker deserves, is so low! The message is they should be THANKFUL that some union is trying to organize them. They shouldnt be asking for “too much.”
For a successful labor movement to happen, the stagnant, money grubbing, racist union bureaucracies need to be fought and either pushed to the left, or be overthrown by their rank and file. How can students proletarianize, and work with workers in a way that fights these barriers? Do students proletarianize according to the union bureaucracies conceptions of what they should be and be in service to them, or do they proletarianize to build solidarity with other workers?
What are some challenges that other folks have faced? How do we overcome them?
It’s dope that this article is getting credit and discussion from student organizers. Pretty rare that intellectual activity gets used as it seems to be intended to be used.
I’m a member of SUP, and there it was definitely an exciting moment when a compa presented on what was happening with SWAT. And now here Jamusa is talking about firming up SWAT as more than a quick coalition which is, in both my and the general SUP opinion, what needs to happen before campus organizing can change back from symbolic opposition to the ground-shaking deployments of masses of angry youth that can actually win. Yeayuh.
It is really great to see all of this happening here. I am a teaching assistant at UW, and also organize w/DI. These are conversations we have been having a lot in our group; I think a major component in breaking down the student-labor alliance model that Mamos is referring to involves creating space for students to understand how knowledge itself has been enclosed by the university system; space that is necessary if a “preletarianization” is to have a chance of happening
I think this involves a serious need to refine our understanding of a “public” university. A critique that can get lost in these struggles over resources and lives is, what exactly are we trying to “save”? Are we trying to preserve a system that uses state capital to discipline new workers into either low wage jobs or managerial positions or unemployment, all of which serve the state and capital? Or are we fighting for a place to smash the notion that the state should educate people in the first place? If it is the latter, can we even accomplish this in the University as it exists now, even one with “fair labor practices”?
We are living in a time when the University is still perceived to be public, but has been so completely enclosed that the only way we can see it serving radical change is as a place to find basic literacy and time for reading for future revolutionaries. Access to this knowledge is still policed by journal bindings, access to the internet, professors’ offices, because these are the places where we know knowledge can be found. But what about the space of the U itself? Students at UMinn, UMass, and other universities have worked to accomplish anti-capitalist skill and education building through free-schools and tent state universities, and while providing great alternative spaces of community, they have not revolutionized the U itself. What is the possibility for creating a new ANTI-U, that in its existence rejects the notion of enclosed or appropriate knowledge? I believe strongly that working beyond the labor-alliance model is one way of doing this, which is why Esteban’s article is in many ways so helpful; but students and (potential) faculty need to be willing to give up their membership in an “educated” middle class, not just in terms of identifying as workers, but actually rejecting the notion that a university education is liberatory; which might mean leaving the U behind altogether.
I just want to add that this is what I think is making the struggle Mamos described at UW so seemingly slow and/or difficult as compared to UC schools, etc; we are not just fighting for better working conditions at the U, we are actually involved in a struggle over the means of production themselves; a lot more people have a lot more state in fighting against this.
This essay is an important contribution to a discussion that needs to deepen quickly, especially as capitalist attacks on education are only going to get worse and quicken in the upcoming years as part of their offensive in the economic crisis.
I have a few notes.
What I like about the essay is that it is the kind of reframing of the question away from liberal conceptions of student struggles as “petition politics”. As the essay points out, student organizing is typically trapped by lobbying and carrying out liberal strategies and frameworks to stop attacks on education.
There is an additional problem on the Left or progressive side. There tends to be a division between ideas and action. Behind this division lies either stagist conceptions of change where “raising of consciousness” must come first (often it seems for an indefinite period) and action. This same division occurs in some of the radical Left who see in the campus an arena for propagandistic educating that leads to recruits for the Party–a reserve army of members ready to be mobilized when the “objective” moment arrives.
For progressives, rather than seeing these linked or interrelated in a dynamic process these are counterposed to each other as objective and subjective structures. These are part of the theoretical roots of the overwhelming pull of conservatism in student politics and the point of contact with one among many facets of professional politics–the NGO complex, Democratic Party, Union bureaucracies etc. None of these approaches do what Esteban is arguing here: break down the walls between student and worker experience and activity.
Esteban talks about one other significant part of this landscape: those people of color student groups like MEChA, BSU, MSA etc. that are often vehicles for conservatism. This is a very real phenomenon in campuses all around the country, despite some exceptions. At the same time I would say there needs to be a more detailed approach to these groups that this essay doesn’t get into. There are people outside of the leadership of these groups that are worth engaging with and winning over to more radical perspectives. They often, though not always, are a social space with real living links with social milieus where key contradictions in this society are being worked out and where radical ideas can open up.
At least this is true in my experience. I don’t think this means “entryism”, nor an immediate and direct contending of ideas with the more conservative leadership of these groups. Instead there needs to be poles of influence built through socializing combined with better organizing around key issues or crises effecting the community. Obviously, the work of SUP around the budget cuts is exactly such a crisis that can make the conservative leadership of these groups irrelevant as they are swept aside, from which a more direct attack on their failures can be made.
I also think this essay is a great contribution because it situates the fight over education within the context of the capitalists looting public infrastructure, including education, to boost the falling rate of profit. This can’t be separated from the general attack on working conditions and pay packages that are meant to increase the rate of exploitation. In other words, the essay situates student struggles right at the heart of the crisis of neo-liberalism and its offensive against the working classes. But the argument of students as workers goes one step further as I understand it. It also breaks down within a radical program the false division between campus and community, between “mental and manual labor”. I think this is what makes the ideas here different from most radical left conceptions, though there are historical precedents. I’ll get back to this in second.
One objection to this essay is raised in the comments over at Advance the Struggle. It says it conceptually confuses workers and students. The argument goes that students can’t be confused as workers because their relations to the means of production is different. The idea here is that using “worker” to describe the experiences and oppression of students is just a metaphor with little link to concrete realities. It has no explanatory power so to speak. As rhetoric by itself you can’t win over students to a radical perspective.
Esteban has an answer to that, saying that students must be understood first in terms of the value they add to labor-power, for example trained in some technique that boosts profits or the tuition paid that increases the profits of the education business. Second aspect of this is the student’s relation to the circulation and social reproduction of capital, for example, all the unpaid labor that makes production and profit possible.
I fundamentally agree with this framework. However, I’d like to add a qualification, about which I’m not sure where the essay stands and follow up writing could flush out a little more. The formulation of “students are workers” can’t homogenize the experiences of being a student and a worker. These positions are related to the domination of capital, white supremacy, patriarchy etc., but they are not identical. Students experience the oppression of “edu-factory” that is related but not identical to those as workers. The realities of the edu-factory are one facet of this domination but are experienced in particular ways unique in its details, if not its general outlines. The difference has strategic and tactical implications. It doesn’t matter for this discussion whether it is strategically better to advocate a wage for students, as Esteban does, or there should be a demand for “open colleges”–no admissions and no tuition. In addition, even middle class students can play an important role, since any mass movement will have a significant fraction of the middle class joining and contributing. In fact, they will be among some of the entry points into this fraction.
But this doesn’t negate the importance of the broader point the essay is making. It means that a framework for a new student radicalism needs to have a program for democratic control of higher education expressed in the demands and grievances of student experience, but framed within and leading to the context of exposing the relationship of the campus to the world “outside” in an effort to breakdown the walls between education and the working class and oppressed. This wall is desperately maintained at all times by the college administration and most faculty because it is the basis for the legitimacy of their power and the role of the university itself. It must constantly hide itself as an ideological arm of the state and political elites.
What I like about Esteban’s essay is that, unlike most other radical Left approaches, it forces people to think beyond “craft union” conceptions of student organizing, where students stay trapped as bourgeois conceptions of “students” on which college under the ruler’s control is founded on. Mamos gave an example of typical student-labor alliances as a perfect case in point. Anyway, there are plenty of historical precedents: the best aspects of the struggle for Black Studies and the student “syndicalism” of the old SDS.
Finally, the essay links this whole discussion with the need to think about organization. This is vital. One aspect of this is building radical organizations and formations that begin to have stable roots in the working class and the oppressed. Students are going to play a role in this. I think it’s true that, with the disappearance of the mass working class parties and institutions, many working class students educate themselves “against the grain” in essentially the bourgeois institutions of college. These layers are as important as ever to the launching of new initiatives both in revolutionary organizations and mass formations.
I think the essay is capturing this process when Esteban writes “students/intellectuals facilitate the process of workers becoming students/intellectuals”. This is understood as “frierian-leninism” that is distinct from both the 2nd international influenced Lenin of “What is to be Done?”, where the picture of the workers is one of being trapped in “trade union consciousness”, and the “mass line” of traditional Maoism. What I like here is that it doesn’t substitute an (abstract) theory and the activity of the revolutionary organization for that of the masses. If I understand this “frierian-leninism” correctly, these two aspects of any mass movement have a dialectical relationship with each other, which is definitely the direction I think things need to go.
Either way, this is a loaded question. We all know it means different things to different radicals depending on what revolutionary traditions they draw from. It’s something I this Gathering Forces will be taking up in the coming year. But what needs to be validated here is the intention of grappling with this question. Some radicals refuse to organize as students and others falsely separate in practice the two. This essay shows there is another way.
One last thing. Where I would differ is when in the comments over at Advance the Struggle, Esteban says that working people are not struggling and have “nothing” to say. My understanding of what is being said here isn’t that workers shouldn’t lead or that they cannot say anything, but that for historical reasons they aren’t. Esteban cites the Bart workers near strike a little while back as an example, arguing that students can use their knowledge and skills to help the workers put out a political perspective concerning the potential strike.
This is a big problem. The lack of a political struggle that goes beyond economism is only contributing to the retreat of working people in the face of the offensive. However, this picture of the ideas and contemporary struggles of workers, however small those struggles are, doesn’t take into account the active role of the union bureaucracy in discouraging and sabotaging every initiative by working people–a conflict being heightened now by the economic crisis. The case of the BART strike that wasn’t is likely no different. This conflict, however, is sharpening because of the crisis, especially outside the U.S. right now.
But more to the point: as I already said, I think it’s true that working class students are connecting with ideas and skills in college that are hard to find outside of it (though not exclusively) because of the historic retreat of the Left from working class and oppressed communities. At the same time, I would argue that working people already “possess” significant experience and ideas today, however contradictory, that people coming off the campuses with exposure to past historical experiences, ideas and methods need to fuse with. This is the basis for radical leaps in their activity–not bringing these things from the outside as in the conception of “What is to be Done?”
All in all, perhaps this is a matter of emphasis–but an important place to pause either way.
Thanx for the great essay.
Arjay, great to make contact with you. It’s really good to know that other folks out there doing this work and trying to develop a deeper and broader organizing practice around fighting budget cuts. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more about SUP.
Great notes mlove. While I disagree with the somewhat rigid and doctrinaire critiques of the piece over in the comments on the Advance the Struggle site, I agree with you that it’s necessary to flesh out a bit more specifically how students and workers are exploited differently. I’m looking forward to hopefully discussing this with Esteban in the future.
CG, Makanaster, and I have been having some very productive discussions along the same lines cuz as we’ve been working to set up a new committee in Democracy Insurgent that aims to build a rank and file TA organization independent of the UAW TA union bureaucracy. We’ve been thinking about how we can bring together education workers’ struggles on campus with the custodian’s and tradespeoples’ struggles and how we can connect undergrads with both layers of campus workers. We want to rally folks together under the banner of “we are all workers” But at the same time, we recognize there are significant differences between the different layers we’re trying to bring together.
For example, we’re coming to the conclusion that TAs are most definitely workers who can organize through things like strikes and job actions. At the same time though, they are expected to play middle class roles as managers of the undergrad students and as “professionals” whose mental labor is exalted over the manual labor of the custodians. This is what we need to break down. We’ll have to see whether TAs will be inspired by the custodian struggle to break out of the narrow confines of their professional role or whether we’ll face a lot of opposition as we move forward.
To do this, we’re trying to do a deeper power analysis of the TA’s role in the university. How exactly are they exploited? Are they doing “reproductive labor” like what Selma James describes in Race, Sex, and Class? Is their role in capitalism to discipline, train, and reproduce skilled workers and in some cases managers as some of the comments on Esteban’s piece over at Advance the Struggle suggest?
With privatization, as more and more of UW’s budget is funded by tuition, will their exploitation shift and intensify because they’re the ones who staff most of the tuition-generating undergraduate classes as Mlove lays out in his article on the NYU grad student strike (http://nbjournal.org/2007/07/nyu-grad-union-strike/)? In other words, are they shifting from being “reproductive” workers to being “productive” workers who produce surplus value (profit) for the university bosses?
Definitely some things to think about…
Finally, CG talks about how knowledge has been “enclosed” by the university. That’s right on. Mlove specifies why this happened – too many of the traditions of independent working class intellectual life have deteriorated because of the lack of revolutionary organization today. Many former activists end up finding their way into academia and working class students stick it out in college despite all the alienation cuz there isn’t’ an alternative built yet. Hopefully blogs like Advance the Struggle and Gathering Forces can make a small contribution to reviving some of this “unenclosed” knowledge sharing so folks like us can maintain a vibrant intellectual life as we work and struggle on the job.
“knowing that groups like SUP could render their claim to radicalism redundant, both the fake marxists and the stale cultural nationalists tend to talk shit and sabotage them (calling them “white” organizations from the one side, and “identity politics” from the other, just because they are multi-racial and class conscious)”
“Esteban talks about one other significant part of this landscape: those people of color student groups like MEChA, BSU, MSA etc. that are often vehicles for conservatism. This is a very real phenomenon in campuses all around the country, despite some exceptions. At the same time I would say there needs to be a more detailed approach to these groups that this essay doesn’t get into. There are people outside of the leadership of these groups that are worth engaging with and winning over to more radical perspectives. They often, though not always, are a social space with real living links with social milieus where key contradictions in this society are being worked out and where radical ideas can open up.”
these two comments point to an experience we had in Democracy Insurgent. DI is a majority people of color group that had Arab, Muslim, East Asian and South Asian members among others, and last year we were organizing around Palestine during the height of the Gaza offensive. there was also a Palestinian student group that was hesitant to get involved. they fell into that “consciousness-raising” camp that mlove is talking about, and would not commit to any concrete organizing.
the coalition we formed included parts of the revolutionary Left who kept chasing the Palestinian student group because “there were no Arabs or Muslims involved.” this was infuriating because this was said several times always while we were standing right there.
to me this says a number of thigns. the basic analysis of the failure of the 60s & 70s by much of the Left is the dominance of “identity politics.” this is true to an extent, but this analysis often comes off as ahistorical. i think there are a lot of groups out there today who can be properly placed within that category, but at the height of the Civil Rights movement and Black Power the difference between the identity politics groups, and the fighting political organizations of people of color were fuzzy at best. i think the crystallization of identity politics needs to be understood as historically as part of the decline of the movement. the form of organizing around an “identity” remained — which is important because these are real divisions within the working class that are part of the different ways capitalism oppresses us — but the content of actual movement and struggle against the the oppressors on a mass scale all but disappeared. the dominance of identity politics is a relatively recent phenomenon.
to say flatly that identity politics undermined the movement, i think, is akin to the demand “black and white unite and fight” or the accusation that “Black Power only divided the working class.” it wants to make the struggles of women, queer folks and people of color secondary to the mythical pure class struggle instead of seeing them as part of the class struggle.
the AtS essay alludes to this. one of the thing that the article is getting at are the layers and divisions within the working class; in the case of the article that between the student-worker and non-student-worker.
claims by the Left that there are no people of color groups are telling more of the blind spots in their organizing and politics. they still only see people of color as either only being capable of cultural nationalism or as the poor oppressed who don’t take part in class struggle. accusations by the Left of “identity politics” points to larger failures by the Left to develop a dialectical understanding of “sex, race and class.” (the Selma James piece by the same title is great for this reason.)
mlove, i think, is pointing at this. even within identity politics groups there are still potentials for radical organizing. many people are drawn to these groups because they see how as women, people of color, etc. they are oppressed and exploited under capitalism. and just as race and sex represents divisions within the working class, there are also class divisions within women’s groups and communities of color. these divisions can become key centers of organizing. when Arab and Muslim youth fight against US Empire and white supremacy we come up against the middle class leadership of our communities. we’ve seen the Left get caught in this trap, as well, where they just trail the conservative leadership at the expense of Muslim youth who want to organize.
i’ve been at this long enough.
I agree with mlove that we need to work with the rank and file of the various identity based groups (MEChA, Muslim Students Association, etc.) And it’s also important to work in united front coalitions with socialist and anarchist organizations around specific campaigns. We’ve done both in Democracy Insurgent.
But, Esteban’s comments really speak to the frustration we’ve had in some of these coalitions, as Khalil lays out. Just as he described, some folks into identity politics have called us too “white” cuz we’re multiracial and cuz we talk about class (even though our group is overwhelmingly majority people of color). Some class reductionist anarchists on the other hand have accused us of having identity politics because we talk about fighting white supremacy and building people of color power and self-government.
We’re not trippin though, cuz we’ve often attracted folks from both sides who are tired of the narrowness of “class” vs. “identity” politics and who are looking for something new. We are growing and attracting new members precisely because we get caught in the middle of this old, worn out debate and have something new to offer.
But what is even more frustrating than either of these attacks is the benign neglect that you described K, which came from generally more sophisticated and organizing-focused socialists who we otherwise respect and have had a good working relationship with. They never attacked us or accused us of having identity politics… in fact they did the opposite, they just never recognized us as a people of color group. This was infuriating because it overlooked the fact that people of color from our group were crucial to building and expanding the coalition. It just reinforces the whole messed up situation where poc have to work twice as hard to get recognized for their work.
I remember at the time that was happening you made a key point about that Khalil – you said that once people of color become revolutionaries, some white revolutionaries treat them like they’re no longer part of the “masses”. As if identity politics is the only “authentic” politics of everyday people of color and when they take up class struggle politics or when they fight white supremacy by building multiracial groups then somehow they are no longer authentic everyday people. Like you pointed out back then, this could have a lot to do with the mechanical thinking that academia generates, which can poison campus activist circles: the subaltern cannot speak and when she does she is not longer the subaltern.
The other key point you laid out in your comment is how some majority white socialist groups are unable to advance the class and gender struggles that go on inside communities of color, including inside identity based student organizations. As you pointed out, Democracy Insurgent consistently tries to engage in these struggles… we see it as an important part of building up the strength and power of the community to fight white supremacy. An example of that can be found here, over at Jomo’s blog BlakOrchid: http://blakorchid.blogspot.com/2009/01/echoes-of-intifada-in-seattle-arab-and.html
It is a reflection on how age and why we engaged in gender and generational struggles inside Arab and Muslim communities here in Seattle in order to advance the struggle against Israeli apartheid.
Much of the Left was passively supportive of what we did, but they didn’t block with us to help build these developments. It’s almost like they hedged their bets and waited to see if what we were doing would really take off. After having a lot of friendly but critical conversations with socialist friends about this it became clear that a lot of them were nervous about alienating themselves from liberal Arab and Muslim leaders who had been past coalition partners, even if these folks are holding back the struggle today.
This brings up the whole problem of majority white left groups “reaching out” to people of color or “being allies”. Who specifically are they reaching out to? Who are they being allies to? The middle class, patriarchal leadership, or youth, women, workers, queer folks, and the most insurgent elements in our communities who these self-appointed race leaders constantly try to hold back?
Our group is not about “reaching out” to our communities cuz we are PART of our communities – precisely because we’re mostly people of color, we can’t ignore these real tensions that go on all around us and we train ourselves to engage and fight them out .