This article was published in the Young
Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialists Discussion Bulletin during the
period leading up to the organization's bi-national convention at the
end of December, 1970. Richard Thompson, a former leader of the
Saskatchewan-based Committee for a Socialist Movement, had joined the
YS/LJS in July. (See
Saskatchewan New Left Leaders Join Young Socialists.) He also gave a
talk on this topic at a YS conference in Saskatoon, September 18-20
The document was for discussion only. It was not voted on at the YS/LJS convention, but excerpts from it were published in the January 1971 issue of Young Socialist.
The Present State of the Student Movement
by Richard Thompson, Saskatoon Local
YS/LJS Discussion Bulletin Vol 7, No.
The Crisis of Leadership
The main feature of the student movement in English Canada in the past two years has been the lack of activity and the relative quiet on English Canadian Universities. This apparent quiet does not stem from an ebb in the radicalization of students, which has broadened and deepened since 1968, but from a general lack of clear direction and, in particular, from a lack of leadership.
One of the main sources of strength of the student movement, until its collapse two years ago, was the Canadian Union of Students (CUS). Despite its many weaknesses CUS was able to provide some leadership and direction for the radicalization of English Canadian students. It was only in the brief three or four year period before the defeat of CUS that there existed a widespread link between "student issues" (Loans, accessibility to university, quality of education, etc,) and the broader questions that were radicalizing youth as a whole (such as the war in Vietnam). The explosive potential of these links has not yet been realized even though, prior to its defeat, CUS won massive support among students for its program.
With the collapse of CUS the new left began to abandon the campuses en masse. The new left had initially been active in radicalizing CUS but in the later period, when they finally gained control of the Union, they led it into a dead-end combination of reformism and ultra leftism. The result was a widespread disillusionment about the possibilities of students taking the road to revolution. The bourgeois myths about students being "privileged" and "middle-class" and, hence having an interest in defending Capital, reappeared and have had an effect on a broad layer of radicalizing students. The most active new leftists turned to "community newspapers", communes and "organizing among the most oppressed" layers of capitalist society. Many former activists disappeared altogether. The effect of this was to remove a wide layer of the former leadership of the student movement.
At the same time, the May-June events in France in 1968 and the growth of student struggles on a global scale taught us new lessons which the amorphous and divided new left was unable to fully understand. They revealed the enormous revolutionary potential of the student movement and, at the same time, demonstrated the limits of any movement which is not deeply rooted in the working class. Most important, the international student movement has demonstrated, in a practical way, the limits of spontaneity and the need for conscious revolutionary leadership. The new left could neither learn these lessons nor escape their consequences. They abandoned the campuses.
The Deepening of the Contradictions
The international Trotskyist movement has systematically absorbed the lessons of the world-wide revolt of youth. In our movement's analysis of the contradictions of the bourgeois university and of the reasons for the mass student upsurges of the past few years there is nothing that would lead to the conclusion that English Canada is fundamentally different. The presence of a labour party in Canada, the NDP, says less about the present lack of a mass student movement than it does about the possibilities of such a movement rapidly spilling over to the political organizations of the working class. At present the radicalization in English Canada continues to deepen among students despite the absence of any large and visible upsurges. This radicalization is attempting everywhere to take on active political forms. An example of this was the National meeting of Student Union Presidents which overcame the apolitical limits of similar meetings since the end of CUS, and took a public stand against the War Measures Act.
The limited reforms that have been won over the past several years on English Canadian Universities have deepened the contradictions of the bourgeois university. On the other hand, they will call forth a higher level of struggle in the future. As Mandel says:
The liberal reforms of the Claude Bissells and the repressive "reforms" of the Kenneth Strands are paving the way for student upsurges whose demands are much more fundamental than those of the past.
The third factor which is deepening the contradictions within English Canadian Universities is the growing economic crises of Canadian Universities. The rise of the student movement came about largely because of the rapid expansion of post-secondary education after the Second World War. This expansion undermined the former elite university of the privileged few. University graduates are now destined for positions in which they must sell their labour power and a greater number of students are now drawn from the ranks of the working class. During the rapid post-War expansion Capital required increasing numbers of highly skilled workers. This rapid expansion is now slowing down.
Because of the uneven development of capitalism the slowing down of this rapid expansion is occurring more rapidly in Canada than either the U.S. or Europe. Only 15% of new faculty hired at Canadian Universities are trained in this country. The rate of unemployment of university graduates is rising as a whole. These developments reflect the general malaise of the capitalist economy which is reaching ever higher degrees of decay. It is clear that the bourgeois state will not take long to cut back spending on universities whose graduates enter the ranks of the unemployed.
The slowing of the growth rate of post-secondary education will not occur smoothly. It is already evident that the universities have projected expansion plans which are at odds with the government's attempts to make cut-backs much more rapidly. The unevenness in the tailing off of the growth rate, which is due to the irrationalities of capitalism, will everywhere take an even further toll on students. Increasingly students will be denied the choice of areas of study and there is already noticeable growth of overcrowding. The overall effect will be to further amplify all of the contradictions of the bourgeois university.
The University as a "Red Base"
In the recent experience of the world Trotskyist movement the student milieu has shown its importance in two distinct ways. In the first place it has the dramatic potential to draw the masses of students into radical opposition to bourgeois society as a whole and, in so doing, to spill over to other layers of society and the working class. Secondly, it is becoming increasingly clear that a strong student base of broader mass movements (Anti-war, Women's Liberation and Defense of the Quebec Movement) can be a major factor in their healthy development, and that a strong student base in these movements is one of the best guarantees that their inherent revolutionary dynamic is permitted to smoothly unfold. These two dimensions of the student milieu can combine as they did in the May events in the U.S. following Kent State and Cambodia. From this experience our New York YSA comrades conclude that:
Our experience in Canada points to similar conclusions. During the recent Women's Liberation Conference in Saskatoon the new left leadership which was able to dominate the Conference was altogether lacking a campus base (Dixon/Morton and Rands/Benston). This was true even though the radicalization of women is occurring most rapidly among students and despite the predominantly student composition of the Conference. Second, the campaign to defend democratic rights in Quebec has been most rapidly taken up among the student milieu. We can anticipate and prepare for the development of a future mass student opposition to the suppression of the movement in Quebec Third, it is clear that the emergence of an active-militant student movement will qualitatively change and advance the socialist wing of the NDP. Finally, our experience in the anti-war movement and our knowledge that the growth of radicalism among university students paves the way for advances in the high schools have already shown concretely that we are far from exempt from the lessons of the international movement.
The Deadend of Reformism
The present period of relative quiet on English Canadian universities is bringing about the slow death of the various shades of reformism which predominate most of the attempts being made to change the universities. All of these are marked by the subordination, to one degree or another, of student groups and student councils to the needs of the Administration and university authorities. As long as this is the case, mass action and mass participation are also subordinated and, therefore, rarely arise. But even this generally negative experience is teaching lessons to a substantial layer of students. The need for autonomous student action — autonomous from, and against, the whole repressive and suffocating university hierarchy — is being driven home, in one form or another, to a great many students.
In this period the thing that characterizes most student councils is confusion and, at times, almost chaos. These are not the conservative student councils of the early sixties which rapidly went through their business and adjourned for a thoughtless drunk. They reflect all of the tensions and contradictions felt by students as a whole. But, on the other hand, they have very little conception of what is possible and, therefore, they are unable to lead. Their politics are generally reformist and they are politically isolated from the great mass of students.
This reformism is also due to the continued lack of understanding of the revolutionary dynamics of student power struggles. In their best and healthiest features these struggles have always gone outwards, toward ever broader layers of students and towards the working class. The Red University is the only direction in which such struggles can develop. If they fail to do so they will rapidly lose ground and collapse.
The Tasks Ahead
The rapid growth of the YS/LJS during the past year is a sign of the vast possibilities now open before us. In the student milieu, and among youth in general, the other tendencies on the left have proven themselves inadequate. Only our movement has the organization clarity and political direction to mould a revolutionary socialist leadership among youth.
On many campuses our movement has already begun the work of building a "red base" — a centre for socialist ideas and action. We must extend our work in this area and strengthen our campus fractions. The growth of repression in Quebec makes this task even more vital. When the English Canadian student movement begins to awaken we will be prepared. In the meantime, we must develop our cadre, recruit new militants and extend our, present campus activities. As our growth shows — the time is right.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All