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Richard Thompson, editor of Young Socialist, spoke at the Cross-Canada Socialist Education Conference in Waterloo, Ontario, in August 1971.

A Revolutionary Strategy
for Canadian Students

by Richard Thompson

Young Socialist, September 1971

(Excerpts from a speech to the Cross-Canada Socialist Education Conference.)

The emergence of a mass student movement is one of the new features of the present radicalization. In the past students have engaged in revolutionary activity, as they did in the thirties and at the time of the Russian Revolution. But the objective conditions have never before existed for a student movement which could by itself become a major factor in the developing world revolution.

It is the response to this challenge that has, among other things, distinguished the Trotskyist movement in Canada from the Communist Party (CP) among others. Despite its claims to the revolutionary heritage of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the CP has responded to the radicalization of students only when it had no other choice. In fact, the Stalinists do not even recognize the student movement. Their youth movement, when. it has existed at all, has been oriented almost exclusively to young workers.

The student movement has its deepest roots in the rise of the world revolution. It was first shaped by the actions of students in defending the struggles of oppressed peoples around the world. French students were in the forefront in defense of the Algerian revolution. The student movement in the U.S. began with the defense of the rising black struggles and defense of the Vietnamese's right to self-determination. In Canada students have been in the forefront of the defense movement for Quebecois political prisoners. In short, the student movement has been built on the most solid foundation possible: a genuine internationalism based on action.

Another aspect of this, which shows how fundamentally the student movement is central to the new radicalization, is that students have formed the militant wing of all the mass movements that have arisen. This does not mean that students have carried different of "more radical" slogans or in any way separated themselves from these movements but that they have been the most consistent activists and builders of these movements and have prevented them from being derailed.

The struggles of students against their own oppression is inextricably linked up with student support for the struggles of other oppressed groups. A success in one part of the world or in one movement is bound to be taken up elsewhere. The radicalization is extremely infectious.

University explosion

The present mass student movement has its roots in the university explosion which followed WWII. Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, has compared the expansion of education in the past two decades to the growth of the railways at the turn of the century. In the past ten years alone the number of students at the University of Toronto has doubled.

This-has produced a fundamental change for students at every level of the educational system. Education has become a mass, bureaucratic industry, and the oppression of students who are being trained as skilled workers has changed qualitatively to produce a powder keg.

The universities and schools are second only to the family in the systematic oppression of youth on which capitalist wage slavery depends. The policy of in loco parentis is designed by the School Boards and Boards of Governors to make the schools a "home away from home." Those who rebel are subject to double jeopardy: from the courts and then the school administrations.

Education is based on regulated competition between students which pits them against each other in a struggle for survival. In the process there is a numbing of intellect fostered by multiple choice exams and the practices of cramming and memorizing. A study done of a first year economics class showed that after only six months the average rate of retention of material in the course was a mere two percent.

As well as the oppression that exists within the schools most students are forced to remain dependent on their families. The prospects after finishing school are no better. Unemployment among youth is more than double that of the population as a whole. For young Quebecois and women it is much higher. Added to this, only a fraction of those who get jobs find work in which they can use their knowledge and skills.

As revolutionary socialists we know that only the working class can make the socialist revolution. Our work in the student movement and in other mass movements is based on our confidence that the radicalization will continue to deepen and will be extended to the working class. Many of the lessons which will be learned in building the student movement will lay the groundwork for building the mass struggles of workers when they come.

The NDP

The main link between the student movement and the working class in Canada is the New Democratic Party. The new radicalization is reflected in the NDP in the growth of its mass, organized left wing, the Waffle. It is in the NDP that a student-worker alliance, in the true sense of the term, will be built.

The mass demonstrations against Bill 63 in Quebec and the May-June events in France in 1968 have shown that in the absence of revolutionary leadership of the working class the militant tactics of the student movement and its audacity in struggle can inspire workers, especially young workers, and bring them into action.

Our strategy for the student movement has been developed out of the experience of student struggles both internationally and in Canada.

The main experience of the student movement in Canada before 1969 was the Canadian Union of Students (CUS) and its counterpart in Quebec, l'Union Generale des Etudiants de Quebec (UGEQ). CUS reflected the growing radicalization of students and it took up the demands for increasing student rights, winning some measure of control in the university and opposing imperialist aggression in Vietnam.

CUS collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. It didn't understand the student radicalization and was unable to develop a program which could lead it forward. The leadership of CUS was gradually taken over by the new left and in 1969 it was voted out of existence on a majority of campuses where referendums were held.

During the years of CUS the first wave of student struggles occurred. In these first struggles were stamped the characteristics of the new upsurge that occurred this spring. Most of them involved demands that defended and extended student rights, for example, over 1,200 students in Regina demanded "Tax Potash, Not Students" in the demonstration to end student loan restrictions.

The new left didn't have a long view of history. In the period of its ascendancy (before the decline of CUS) there were numerous theories about revolution which ignored the working class.

Before the May-June events in France the myth was prevalent that the working class in the imperialist countries had permanently fallen asleep, bought off by the super-profits reaped in the colonial countries and held spell-bound by the labor bureaucrats. For every new group of oppressed people who entered the radicalization there appeared theories about them being the vanguard, or even the class, that would be able to lead a successful revolution. There were theories about women as a class with the emergence of the feminist movement, youth as a class and so on.

This short-sightedness occurred because the new left lacked revolutionary traditions. It had no link with previous class struggles and it lacked revolutionary theory. As the radicalization continued to deepen many of the early new left student activists and feminists turned their backs on these movements altogether.

With the decline and collapse of CUS many new leftists abandoned the campuses. The Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA), the only cross-country new left organization, came to an ignominious end at about the same time. In the files of SUPA it was revealed that a section of the elitist leadership had carried on correspondence with the Liberal Party hierarchy which had led to the establishment of the Company of Young Canadians.

Many of the new leftists who did not abandon socialist ideas entirely joined the sectarian grouplets which have by-and-large abandoned the campus and rejected the revolutionary potential of the student movement. A handful came over to the program of revolutionary socialism.

Between the collapse of CUS and the upsurge of this spring there was a drop in the level of student struggles. There were some struggles, such as the successful day care occupation at the University of Toronto, but for the most part it was a matter of attempts by student councils to win piecemeal reforms from the bureaucratic administrations.

War Measures Act

It was in the aftermath of the War Measures Act and the October crisis early this spring that the most massive upsurge of students in English Canada so far occurred. These struggles, in universities and high schools from Victoria to Antigonish, Nova Scotia were a striking verification of the correctness of the analysis of the stage of the student movement at the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialists Convention last Christmas. At that time we said that the lull in the student movement was temporary; that the radicalization of students was continuing to deepen and that the ruling class's attempts to streamline and reform the universities would only deepen the contradictions.

One of the most immediate causes of the upsurge has been the continual cutbacks in education spending caused by the economic crisis of capitalism.

The radicalization is continuing to deepen and extending into the junior high and public schools. The new left failed abysmally when it took the leadership of the student movement. This situation presents a big challenge to revolutionaries: to lead the movement forward.

We are in the midst of a massive radicalization. Most students are not revolutionaries but they are undertaking struggles for partial demands against the administration and acting en masse. Therefore, the student movement needs a transitional program which can lead the struggle forward.

The main demand must be for student-faculty-staff control of the schools and campuses: democratic control of these institutions by those who use them. Universities should be turned over to support the struggles of oppressed groups, to build the antiwar movement and to be used as organizing centers for student struggles against the administration. Closing down the universities and schools by student strikes is not as effective as taking them over in struggles that can involve masses of students.

Mass Movements

The student movement must be totally independent of the administrations. This is the strength of all of the mass movements in this .radicalization and guarantees them a chance of success because they are able to develop freely.

The slogan of student participation in university governing bodies must be rejected. The student movement should make concrete demands from the administration and other authorities. Students should not take responsibility for decisions made by the big business dominated administrations. All the committees in which students are involved should conduct their work openly.

The student movement must also be built as the militant wing of the broader mass movements. Sentiment against the war and Canadian complicity in it is extensive. Over seventy percent of university students support the right of self-determination for Quebec and there is massive sentiment in favor of repealing the abortion laws.

In order to be effective this sentiment must be organized. The student wing of the mass movements can be strengthened by demanding that the schools and campuses be turned over for use as organizing centers for these movements. By building a mass base for these movements on the campuses and high schools the struggle of students around demands for control of their lives and educations will be strengthened.

We socialists will win the leadership of the student movement by proving, through our actions, that we deserve it. It is not automatic. In the past many leaders from the reformists on the student councils to the new leftists have betrayed students by making deals with the administrations behind their backs or by abandoning the struggle. The distrust of leadership that this has created can best be overcome by consistent building of the movement. This is the task of the Young Socialists.

We are building the YS as a revolutionary student organization: a training ground for Trotskyism and as the leadership of the student movement. The YS was formed in the early stages of the world-wide radicalization of youth. We are in and of the student movement. We are the memory of the student movement because we have participated in the movement, learned from the movement and written for and about the movement from its very beginning.

We are the revolutionary socialists on the campuses and in the high schools, spreading the ideas of socialism and building student struggles. The growth of the YS in the past year and spring upsurge in English Canada are only a harbinger of things to come.

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