A Revolutionary Strategy
for Canadian Students
by Richard Thompson
Young Socialist, September 1971
(Excerpts from a speech to the Cross-Canada Socialist Education
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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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