On the Student Movement in the United States

The following is the contribution to the 18th International Communist Seminar by Josh Sykes, Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Click on the image for a pamphlet-layout PDF

Click on the image for a pamphlet-layout PDF

Freedom Road Socialist Organization has a rich history of work among youth and students. Many of the veteran cadres of our organization were active with the youth of the Black Panther Party, Brown Berets and the Students for a Democratic Society of the 1960s, the Revolutionary Student Brigades in the 1970s, or the Progressive Student Network in the 1980s. Others worked on campuses to organize against South African Apartheid, in the historic Jesse Jackson campaign, or in solidarity with the Central American revolutionary movements. Many also organized Asian American and Pilipino (1) students, or worked in mostly oppressed nationality student formations like the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) in New York. Today, students and youth in Freedom Road continue to do mass student organizing, mainly in the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) formed in 2006.

Why should Marxist-Leninists do work among students?

Our line on student work has its roots in the New Communist Movement. Much has changed since then, and we as an organization have learned a lot and gained a lot of experience, but the basic principles remain. As we see it, communists should work among students for three main reasons: 1) in and of themselves, the student movement can strike blows against the U.S. ruling class, 2) the activity of the student movement can spread advanced ideas to society as a whole, and 3) advanced students can take up Marxism-Leninism and join the struggles of the working class.

Furthermore, in our student work FRSO upholds the Mass Line, the view that the masses of the people are the makers of history, and that people learn primarily through experience in cycles of practice-theory-practice. This means that we work in mass organizations, and follow the principle of “from the masses, to the masses,” in work to raise people’s consciousness and understanding.(2) We also understand clearly that, as Mao Zedong said, “The young people are the most active and vital force in society. They are the most eager to learn and the least conservative in their thinking.”(3)

Historical development of the student movement in the U.S.

The student movement in the United States has some characteristics that result from its particular historical development in a large imperialist country. First, since the final turn towards revisionism (Marxism in words and opportunism in deeds) by the Communist Party USA in the mid-1950s, there is no genuine Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the United States.(4)

But this leadership vacuum was soon filled by revolutionary minded students and youth, who were won to Marxism-Leninism and began a process of building Marxist-Leninist organizations and integrating with workers and oppressed nationalities. Just as many members of the Chinese Communist Party emerged out of the May 4th Movement,(5) so did many members of the New Communist Movement emerge from the struggles of students and youth.

However these new Marxist-Leninist organizations did commit both “left” and right errors. The liquidation or retreat into sects by the largest New Communist organization and the failure to build a new Communist Party resulted in many setbacks in the 1980s and 1990s. Today’s progressive and revolutionary forces are small and scattered as a result. The same goes for the student movement as whole.

There are no powerful Red youth groups, though a plethora of small, Trotskyite youth formations exist. Their practice follows from their theory, however, and so the Trotskyite student formations tend to be sectarian and commandist in their style of work and approach to the masses. Most student activists work in mass organizations alongside anarchists, social democrats, and other radicals. Two of the largest and most significant mass formations today are the Students for a Democratic Society and the Iraq Veterans Against the War.(6)

Students for a Democratic Society

The FRSO currently does most of its student work in a multi-issue, mass student organization, the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS, though majority white, is multinational such that most chapters reflect the composition of the campuses on which they exist. Furthermore, SDS is one of the largest and most active student organizations in the country, with well over a hundred active chapters all over the U.S.

Founded as a national organization in 2006 by students representing a variety of Leftist ideologies, from Marxists to anarchists and radical social-democrats, today’s SDS is named after one of the outstanding student organizations of the 1960s, out of which much of the New Communist Movement of the 1970s was born. The SDS of the 1960s organized in solidarity with working class and oppressed nationality struggles and against the Vietnam war. The new SDS stands in that same tradition.

Since its founding, most of SDS’s work has been in the anti-war movement. SDS has also done important solidarity work with African Americans struggling against national oppression. SDS has worked in the immigrant rights movement, protesting fascist, anti-immigrant speakers on campuses and leading some walkouts for immigrant rights. Revolutionaries in SDS work to build coalitions with oppressed nationality students and youth. SDS also organizes for women’s liberation and for the democratic rights of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people.

Likewise, SDS also organizes solidarity with working class struggles. When workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago occupied their factory in December 2008, SDSers from throughout the Midwest went to the factory to show support.

Anti-imperialism and the anti-war movement

Freedom Road Socialist Organization members in the student movement work to oppose imperialist war and occupation. Since 2003, most of FRSO’s anti-war organizing has been in opposition to the U.S. war against the people of Iraq, with the main goal of keeping the demand for “troops out now” at the forefront of the movement. Secondarily, we have sought to raise an anti-imperialist pole in the movement (including building support for the Iraqi resistance among the advanced) and to raise the social costs of the war, raising the level of militancy.(7) As the FRSO Student Commission said in a statement in September 2008, highlighting some of our work in SDS,

Members of FRSO have been working in SDS since the first National Convention in Chicago back in 2006. What have we been doing? We have organized militant local chapters. We organized against the war in Iraq, for immigrants’ rights, labor solidarity, in defense of the Jena Six, and more. We are all involved in a lot of local work, and while doing that, we worked hard to build national campaigns. In 2007 and 2008 members of Freedom Road were in the lead of SDS’s work around opposition to the 4th and 5th anniversaries of the U.S. war against Iraq. This led to actions on more than 80 campuses in 2007 and on 90 campuses in 2008, many of which were not associated with SDS before. Through this and other work we’ve brought many new activists and student groups to radical politics and into SDS. We helped organize student contingents in major national marches and we also helped to organize the 2007 and 2008 National Conventions in Detroit and Maryland, and the 2008 SDS Action Camp in Asheville.(8)

Like other social movement in U.S. society, the ebb and flow of the student movement is determined by objective conditions. The election of President Obama, and the developing economic crisis had an overall negative impact on student anti-war organizing, releasing some built up pressure and diverting the attention of some of the intermediate. In our analysis, however, the principle factor in the declining role of the anti-war movement among students and in society as a whole has been due to the relatively lower level of activity of the armed Iraqi national resistance. Simply put, less fighting on the ground in Iraq means less struggle here in the U.S.

As the criminal U.S./Israeli attacks on the Palestinian people in Gaza began last year, students on campuses around the United States held actions in support of the Palestinian people’s struggle and to demand an end to U.S. aid to Israel. Students on campus have played a particularly important role in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, by fighting to have their colleges and universities divest from Israel.

Likewise, anti-imperialist students have played a big role in solidarity with Colombian workers, who suffer from brutal exploitation under the U.S.’s Plan Colombia. Colombian Trade Unionists are murdered in the hundreds by death squads funded by U.S. corporations like Coca-Cola, Drummond Coal, and Chiquita Banana. Students have long been in the forefront of the campaign to get Killer Coke off of campuses, and tour

Colombian workers around the country to speak about U.S. military intervention in their country. Understanding this as a question of self-determination, students doing Colombia solidarity work oppose Plan Colombia and “Free Trade”. Students also make up an important part of the annual protests to shut down the School of the Americas, a “counter-insurgency” and death squad training school in the state of Georgia.

Students in SDS have also worked hard on the campaign to free Ricardo Palmera, a leading negotiator of the FARC-EP, now a political prisoner of the U.S. empire as the result of neo-colonial extradition policy.

As public opinion becomes more and more opposed to the war in Afghanistan, the student movement will respond by leading more actions against this war. Already students are leading educational events and protests exposing the ruling class’s interests in subjugating the Afghani people and in propping up a criminal, puppet government there.

The student movement and oppressed nationalities

Throughout the 20th century, the student movement has been and remains today largely divided on national lines. This is the result of continuing oppression of whole nations of people within the United States, including in particular the history of the segregation of the U.S. educational system. Until the historic African American liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, university campuses were virtually all white. As a result of the struggle of African Americans along with Chicanos, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, the doors to colleges and universities were opened and programs such as Ethnic Studies began to teach about the history of racism and national oppression in the United States. One example was the united front of oppressed nationality students of the Third World Liberation Front, which led the historic San Francisco State Strike in 1968 and 1969.

As a result of this history, African American, Chicano, Latino, Asian, Native American and other oppressed nationality students tended towards organizing themselves into nationally specific formations.(9) These organizations today include the Black Student Unions (BSUs), MEChAs (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán – Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán), and Asian Student Unions. These organizations began as militant political organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, although most have more recently become mainly social, cultural, and service oriented.

There are a significant amount of oppressed nationality struggles in the U.S. right now, particularly in the immigrant rights movement (which is connected to the Chicano national question in the Southwest). Similarly, in the Black Belt South, where African Americans make up an oppressed nation, there has been significant motion around the case of the Jena Six and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In all of these cases, the majority white sections of the student movement have done some coalition building work and organized to fight back against racism and national oppression.

Students and the economic crisis

Since the further development of the economic crisis, members of Freedom Road have begun to look more closely at ways to fight back against budget cuts and tuition hikes on campuses. As working and poor people lead the fight-back, demanding that the rich pay for their crisis, likewise students are demanding that budgets not be balanced at the expense of accessible education, raising the slogan that “education is a right!”

There is already spontaneous movement amongst students as a wave of protests against cuts to education sweeps the country, including the militant student occupations of New School University and New York University. A recent article in Fight Back! Newspaper highlights some of this motion:

Hundreds of students from City University of New York (CUNY) walked out of class on March 5 to protest Governor Paterson’s proposal to cut funding to education. Jackelyn Mariano, a protester from Hunter College said, “CUNY is made up of working-class students and students of color who really can’t afford to go anywhere else. It was supposed to be free when it opened up, and tuition has been increasing ever since” (Washington Square News, 3/6/09). Hundreds of students from New York University also participated in the rally.

In Arizona, responding to over $300 million in cuts to higher education for 2009, over 2000 students from universities across the state marched on Phoenix in early February. On March 18, over 1000 students gathered in Jacksonville, Florida, to protest hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the state’s education system. And in Sacramento, California, thousands of teachers and students from across the state descended on the capital last week to protest massive layoffs and cuts to education.

At Middle Tennessee State University, the university’s steering committee proposed eliminating 44 majors, dissolving some departments, closing the women’s center and day care center, laying off 70 faculty and outsourcing custodial services. The Coalition to Save Our Schools at Middle Tennessee State University has been leading a huge effort with repeated demonstrations of hundreds of students to stop the cuts, including a ‘funeral for higher education’ on Feb. 9 that coincided with the governor’s state of the state address.

In some instances, even student government associations are organizing protests, like at Binghamton University in New York, where over 50 students protested tuition hikes and held signs last week that said, “I chose $UNY ‘cuz it used to be CHEAP” and “Public education must be affordable” (Press Connects, 3/25/09). And at Penn State University in February, the student government organized hundreds of students to protest the governor’s budget proposal that cut $20.3 million from Penn State’s budget while also excluding the university from the Pennsylvania Tuition Relief Act. This move would block many low-income students, and especially oppressed nationality youth, from access to higher education (The Daily Collegian, 2/10/09). (10)

It is important to note that the struggles for immigrant rights and for national liberation overlap in significant ways with the broader struggle for college access. Working class and oppressed nationality demands need to be at the forefront of the struggles against budget cuts and tuition hikes on campuses. It is the programs that were won through struggle by past generations that will be first cut. As public universities move to increase tuition in the current economic crisis, it is oppressed nationality students who will feel the effects most drastically as the doors to higher education are systematically closed to them.

Conclusion

The central task of Marxist-Leninists in the United States today is to build a new Communist Party on a Marxist-Leninist basis. Without a Party guided by the most advanced revolutionary theory it is impossible for the working class to take power and build socialism, which is so desperately needed. Like so many students before them, we want students who join Freedom Road Socialist Organization to transform themselves and eventually to go into the working class and the masses of the oppressed nationalities to help lead the class struggle. Mao Zedong once asked, “How should we judge whether a youth is a revolutionary? How can we tell? There can be only one criterion, namely, whether or not he is willing to integrate himself with the broad masses of workers and peasants and does so in practice. If he is willing do so and actually does so, he is revolutionary.”(11) This was true when Mao Zedong said it in 1939 and it is true today. While they are in school, students and youth must become anti-imperialists, and take up the struggles of the multinational working class and oppressed nationalities and put those demands in the forefront, working to advance the interests of the people and land blows against the ruling class and their cronies. When their time organizing on campus is up, they must transform themselves, go into the working class and the masses of oppressed nationalities, and take up wholeheartedly the class struggle.

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Josh Sykes is a member of the National Executive Committee and co-chair of the Student Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization

Notes

(1) In the 1960s and 1970s many Filipino student organizations adopted the term “Pilipino” in rejection of colonialism and in solidarity with the growing national democratic movement in the Philippines.

(2) See FRSO’s pamphlet Some Points on the Mass Line. http://www.frso.org/about/docs/frsomassline.htm

(3) Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, p. 290

(4) For more discussion of this, see Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Chicago, Liberator Press: 1978

(5) On May 4th, 1919, a wave of student protests shook China. “The ‘literary’ revolution became a nationwide complex of manifestos, demonstrations and militant action. New political terms were coined and stirred awareness of the new literature. Satirical essays constructed a new style. Repression could do little against this radicalization… Student societies (among them the New People’s Study Society founded by Mao Tsetung) organized centers for the production and dissemination of Marxist literature.” (Han Suyin, The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954. Boston, Little Brown, 1972. p. 68.)

(6) Though IVAW is made up exclusively of post-9/11 veterans, it is mainly an organization of students and youth, so for that reason it is included here.

(7) http://www.frso.org/about/statements/2007/antiwartasks2007.htm

(8) http://www.frso.org/about/statements/2008/sds-study-struggle-unite-fight.htm

(9) Many nationality specific formations of the 1960s and 1970s like the Black Panther Party, the Chicano groups like the August 29th Movement and the Brown Berets, or Asian American groups like I Wor Kuen or the Red Guards were made up almost entirely of young people but generally did more work in their communities than on campuses. Other nationality specific student groups, like the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), a major African American organization of the 1960s, also did considerable work organizing in their communities and with non-students.

(10) http://www.fightbacknews.org/2009/03/wave-of-protests-against-cuts-to-education.htm

(11) “The Orientation of the Youth Movement” (May 4, 1939), Selected Works, Vol. II, (FLP English Edition: 1965) p.246.

18 responses to “On the Student Movement in the United States

  1. Good work, comrade. I am very proud of the struggle that the FRSO is conducting while in the belly of the beast. I wish you best of luck.

    On a side note, it must be a great experience to the attend the ICS. Let me know if there were any other good reports worth reading.

  2. In the spirit of unity, struggle, unity: Thanks for this contribution. I think it does an decent job of painting a complicated movement in broad strokes for an international audience.

    However, I find the inclusion of the Fight Back! News article, and especially the author’s introduction of the piece very troubling.

    There is nothing “spontaneous” about some of the examples of student organizing listed. Honestly, the first thoughts that come to mind are quotes straight out of Oppose Book Worship. This is not meant as a cheap-shot, instead as someone who is a part of a collective that has dedicated more than a decade building and maintaining one of the longest running radical student organizations in recent US memory, it is frankly quite disrespectful.

    I cannot help but draw the conclusion that our work is being used as mere show with at least a tacit implication that members of FRSO (Fight Back!) are somehow involved or at least that their political line is in command. I think such a presentation removes our agency and obscures any sort of proper acknowledgment of our work. I feel the need to set the record straight: as someone intimately involved in the Tennessee example, at no point did FRSO (Fight Back!) cadres play leading roles in this work. And unless people are operating under the cloak of secrecy at all levels, including multiple environments where I would have a hard time seeing the need in which to do so, not a single FRSO (Fight Back!) cadre played any kind of role period.

    Perhaps the saddest thing of all, at least for someone who has really dung into these trenches, is that the way our work is presented totally misses the boat on the central lessons I would suggest we draw: mainly the practice of overcoming real “contradictions among the people” by organizing a longstanding, resilient worker-student alliance. In the south. Where workers are without collective bargaining. Where students had limited to no experience organizing around common issues state-wide, across different university systems. With mobilizations that were far less white than one could reasonable expect given the student activism milieu.

    So please, and I don’t say this to score some cheap points but because I feel like this paper has some real deficiencies: step up, make self criticism, or at least engage in a principled way with the criticism being made here.

    If folks might prefer to have this conversation in person, depending on the dates of the upcoming SDS convention we could try to arrange something. The one qualifier I ask: if a conversation were to happen please do not use it the basis, as supporting examples or as general window-dressing in any future publication.

    • I think the author, by “spontaneous”, meant, that these struggles were not being led by Marxist-Leninists, but by self-organized masses of students.

      In that way, I don’t really see how it could be percieved as also implying that FRSO was playing a role in them, of claiming ownership, or of using them as “window dressing”. On the contrary, I think it is saying rather clearly that the FRSO is not leading those particular struggles. It is the opposite of saying that the FRSO’s line is in the lead on those campuses.

      The report is on “The Student Movement in the U.S.” and I think it would be a shame to leave out good work such as that being done by the student organizers in Tennessee.

      As for the lessons of the struggle, I think those in Tennessee have a lot to offer in terms of summing it up and I think this paper is very modest in attempting to draw lessons from the student movement’s fight back against the economic crisis on the campuses. The first sentence of the section in question says that the FRSO is conducting an investigation of ways to fight back. I don’t think this is a wrong approach.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • thomas walker

        I think what Cmrd Nelson is trying to get at is that the author of the Fight Back! story hadn’t taken to heart the esteemed Chairman’s maxim “no investigation no right to speak.”

        In the two leading organizations in the statewide movement of students and workers against higher ed budget cuts in our state, I can name three organized socialist presences and two that operate on a semi-collective basis. Those cadre, who I’m assuming the author of the news story doesn’t know and hasn’t talked with (open to correction), are leading the organizing of students and workers. I don’t think this is about the fundamentals of your analysis–though I think there are some omissions that require analysis from MLists and folks in that tradition, i.e. United Students Against Sweatshops, Student Environmental Action Coalition and the student climate change movement in general–though to some extent if our assumption is that things that were in great part organized by people in the organized socialist left and folks who are very close to them, I don’t think analysis that flows from some concept of spontaneity will hold up in the end.

        We made a CONSCIOUS choice to organize and led the struggle against the state, and to do so in a way that eschewed typical student organizing but instead bring in people who would be most directly affected–higher education workers.

        It seems like gettin that particular piece of the puzzle wrong is actually a detriment to the analysis. It seems like we’d want to uphold that work as something that communists helped to lead and build in really, extremely crucial ways. We drove out a university president, stopped lay offs and budget cuts for the next several years, forced them to withdrawal the proposal to remove the tuition cap, and made important linkages among working people and students.

      • What is more, “pure” spontaneity exists only in books containing fairy tales about the workers movement – but not in its real history. What is understood by “spontaneity of the masses” are movements that have not been planned out in detail ahead of time by some central authority. What is not to be understood by “spontaneity of the masses” are movements that take place without “political influence from the outside.” Scratch off the blue coat of an ostensibly “spontaneous movement” and you will find the unmistakable residue of a bright red veneer. Here a member of a “vanguard” group who set off a “spontaneous” strike. There a former member of another “left-deviationist” affiliation, who has long since left it but who received sufficient mental equipment to be able, in an explosive situation, to react with lightning speed while the anonymous mass was still hesitating.

        In one case, we will be able to detect in “spontaneous” action the fruits of years of “underground activity” by a trade-union opposition, or a rank-and-file group; in another case, the result of contacts that, for a rather long period of time, have patiently – and without apparent success – been nurtured by shop colleagues in a neighbouring city (or a neighbouring factory) where the “left- wingers” are stronger. In the class struggle too there is no such thing as a goose “spontaneously” falling from heaven already cooked.

  3. A quick caveat: I know the cmrds here wouldn’t, and I doubt the cmrds in the middle of the state would, claim that we constructed organs of the future party through the work, and I don’t think (in re Cmrd Nelson’s comment about the past decade spent building a worker and student movement in Knoxville) we’d claim that we’re solely responsible, but this IS the mass line–workers and students coming forward to join a struggle that has demands formulated from going to the people, if you will. ;-)

    Our mass work is sacred space that we sustain and build with our time and bodies and minds and resources. I think any analysis of the leading coalitional members of the TN movement would prove that.

  4. There’s a similar issue with the work in CUNY that this article quotes from the Fight Back newspaper. Multiple members and supporters of FRSO/OSCL, as well as individuals associated with other left organizations (not including FRSO-Fight Back, as far as I’m aware), played a major role in building that struggle, including the walkout. Labeling this struggle spontaneous while ignoring all the work that the aforementioned left forces put into organizing it appears to be a somewhat convenient concession to a spontaneism that I know FRSO-Fight Back opposes in general.

    Comrades, I know you can do better than this.

  5. Straight-White-Male-Middle Class Vanguard Man w/ the Hegelian Political Program!

    I absolutely agree with what other folks have said regarding the very deliberate nature of the organizing going on at CUNY and in Tennessee. I believe this video demonstrates quite clearly that several explicitly leftists organizations laregly spearheaded these movements: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOU8GIRUd_g

  6. As the author of the Fight Back news article (http://tinyurl.com/mov3mx), I’d like to point out that the word “spontaneous” does not appear anywhere in the story. In fact, the stories about MTSU, CUNY, and Arizona appear under a heading that reads “Organizing against the cuts”. I am open to constructive criticism about how I portrayed the mass movement, but please take the time to carefully read the article before you draw your knives.

    This being said, I agree with Comrade Sykes in characterizing the majority of the 150+ protests that took place this spring around budget cuts as textbook examples of “spontaneity”. Folks commenting here are taking issue with characterizing the MTSU and CUNY struggles in this way, and I am inclined to agree, but no one has challenged the main point which was about the mass movement as a whole. (The sentence in question reads “There is already spontaneous movement amongst students as a wave of protests against cuts to education sweeps the country…”) Does someone want to address this?

  7. Sorry for not reading the Fight Back! story itself; that’s an error on my part. I had assumed the characterization provided in the piece submitted to the ICS was applicable.

    I’m actually kind of unclear about what the question is in re the “mass movement as a whole.” Are we wondering what’s the role of communists in helping build a movement around access to higher education? Are we wondering how that fits into a much larger, multi-issue, multi-tendency/style, multi-ideology “student movement”? I’d be happy to engage in questions around the student movement, which I’m now an official “alum” of, if you will, after five and a half years working in a student-labor solidarity organization.

    Fundamentally, though, I think this piece actually looks at a minority of student work in the country, despite its importance, and so I’m not sure that I think we can asses, based on this, the state of the “movement.” It seems to me that the plurality of student organizations in the country participate in environmentalist activism, with the rest of us divided among international solidarity/anti-imperialist/anti-war, labor, queer, immigrant, and women’s organizing–surely with others represented in small numbers as well.

    We need to develop theory that analyzes this trend, and the politics, however little of them there are, that it puts forward. PowerShift is the largest gathering of student activists in over a decade. What does that mean for us when a corporate sponsored nonprofit extravaganza sucks in a significant sector of our activists? What kind of power is a formation like that poised to win and/or exercise? How do we challenge that movement to do precisely the kinds of things we’re doing in smaller student campaigns–that is, how do we get them to embrace anti-imperialist demands that pose a threat to US capital?

    I also think we need to look at student organizations that are multi-national, longstanding, and that have a series of important victories. I mentioned before United Students Against Sweatshops, which in a lot of ways is fundamentally attacking the footholds of neoliberalism on our campuses–and winning. We need analysis of the student movement that incorporates the lessons from our experience building that particular organization.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think SDS really provides us a lens through which we’re able to see trends or developments among the student movement at large, despite its work that I’m happy is going on. I think we need a lot more facts before we go searching for the truth.

    • I find some of the previous comments strange, but insightful. I don’t think anyone is trying to short-change any experiences at CUNY or in Tennesse, but to repeat it is largely under the workings of spontaneity – or to say that it does not have a clear or definite Left leadership.

      We could spend hours naming the different leftist student forces at work – ISO/Campus Anti-war Network, FRSO/OSCL in New York, Solidarity through USAS, etc etc. I think this is a good introduction to our (frso.org) work which is national and strongly based in local organizing within SDS on a range of issues (not just anti-war but also immigrants rights, labor solidarity, queer liberation, etc.) Perhaps this wasn’t as thoroughly explained as one would like to see, but please see http://www.fightbacknews.org for more of our student work.

      Maybe I’m biased toward SDS, but I do think this group is a very good indication of where the student movement is. I have a lot of respect for USAS, and SDS should work closely with more groups such as this, but SDS has been at the forefront of most of the major student demonstrations in the past three years (4th and 5th anniversary of Iraq, occupations in NYU, Republican Nat’l Convention, Rochester and New School).

      I enjoy hearing different criticisms, and I’ll leave my comments at that.

  8. I’d like to echo most of the concerns expressed by comrades Nelson and Walker, and particularly by comrade Mandel, whose words resonate so deeply that he speaks to us from beyond the grave.

    As a Marxist involved in the aforementioned MTSU work and connected to other Marxists doing this work in other areas, I can speak for a number of us in saying that to see Fight Back! sweepingly characterize this work as “spontaneous” is somewhat offensive. We’re all well aware of the highly negative connotations this term has in the tradition and, regardless of any qualifications you guys make after the fact regarding intended referents of the word or the sense in which it was intended, it’s hard not to conclude that the article is intended to deemphasize work you aren’t involved in and to suggest your involvement (however unreal it may be) in the rest. Nor is it a surprise to see the central role SDS plays in your story, given that SDS is where you have your people. I too am a member of SDS, I too value the organization and hope the best for its future, but let’s not pretend it’s the whole story just because our organizations are involved (Solidarity may not have quite the influence in SDS that you have, but we do have members involved in a number of places).

    As far as any of us can tell, none of you have any real source of insight into the situation in Tennessee. You don’t have members here, you weren’t involved, none of us have sent you internal reports. You can’t even get basic facts straight: Solidarity is involved through SDS and CSOS, not through USAS (we do have people who were or still are involved in USAS but not in any of the campaigns under discussion here). I will let members of other organizations speak for themselves, but we are not the only Marxists involved in these “spontaneous” efforts.

    What do you even mean when you claim that our work here is “largely under the workings of spontaneity” and lacking a “clear or definite Left leadership?” I can’t think of any vaguely reasonable interpretations of either of these claims under which they are true. The work here was carefully planned and brought about through hard, conscious work and based in organizations and alliances which have been formed deliberately over many years. Most of the leading organizers were and are self-described Marxists, some of whom belong to Marxist organizations and some of whom are contentedly unaffiliated. The methods used–working closely with labor, focusing on getting low income students and campuses consisting primarily of people of color involved, etc.–were strongly influenced by the Marxist orientation of the organizers involved. We’re very proud of the broad coalition formed here and of all the people who got involved, and frankly I find the suggestion that because many of these people don’t have orthodox ML views their actions are therefore “spontaneous” or in any way less important to be both annoying to me personally and offensive to those people, many of whom were people of color from other campuses whose involvement was at least as essential and impressive as ours.

    It seems to me that most members of Fight Back! maintain that any work which their organization did not directly lead is therefore spontaneous, with all the negative connotations that word traditionally has. Other explicitly Marxist organizations of equal or greater size and of equal or greater involvement apparently don’t even exist in your estimation. The organizing at CUNY and MTSU are without left leadership? Really? I know some Marxists at these places, myself included, who find this claim somewhat puzzling.

    Nobody in Solidarity would ever refer to the work done by your organization as spontaneous or without left leadership. We might criticize some of your views and methods, but we would never try to deny your role. It’s dishonest and totally unproductive toward the goals that we share and should be placing above this kind of sectarianism. I can say from personal experience that Solidarity members frequently praise work done by Fight Backers! and give you full credit in doing so. We also frequently lodge criticisms, but they are criticisms grounded in reality and not in this bizarre theoretical world where the involvement of other leftists can be defined away and devalued by antiquated terminology. Furthermore, it’s insulting toward organizers who don’t identify as Marxists to insinuate that their work is inherently less valuable because it doesn’t consciously derive from an ML platform. Let’s judge based on results rather than coherence with Lenin’s polemics, can we?

    Doug and Kosta, I sincerely enjoyed talking to both of you this past weekend and I like you both. I certainly don’t share your politics and I have some serious criticisms of your organization but that won’t stop me from treating you cordially and transparently and considering you comrades provided you can return the favor. I just don’t think writing or defending articles like the one above can be considered a great start.

    • I have to state again the point made by kosta, that ‘the majority of the 150+ protests that took place this spring around budget cuts as textbook examples of “spontaneity”.’ That’s what the article is arguing. It then looks at some of the most interesting protests against budget cuts, etc. through a quote from an article in Fight Back! news. Nobody is arguing that the MTSU struggle was spontaneous, or lacked Left involvement. The Fight Back! news article doesn’t argue that, and neither does the ICS contribution of the FRSO. It doesn’t say that the struggle at MTSU is spontaneous, but it does say (I think correctly) that the struggle at MTSU is part of an upsurge that is generally spontaneous. I’m sorry to say that I think you’re blowing things a little out of proportion, and you aren’t actually arguing against what the article really says.

      Now if you want to debate the conceptual validty of “spontaneity” in general (or any of Leninism’s other “antiquated terminology”), then that is a different issue, one on which we should perhaps just agree to disagree.

      • Comradezero, I think that all that is being asked is for is public self criticism. The post at the bottom (7/4 5:17pm) is a real step in that direction.

        For the sake of clarity and in this spirit of rectifying a mistake that was perhaps not intended to be received so sharply by those of us it described, let me suggest the inclusion of a footnote in the piece itself. I would also suggest an additional errata that recharacterizes the Coalition as a broad, state-wide alliance of Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Tennessee students, campus workers, and community partners.

  9. “Furthermore, it’s insulting toward organizers who don’t identify as Marxists to insinuate that their work is inherently less valuable because it doesn’t consciously derive from an ML platform”

    I think that there’s not a clear understanding of spontaneity in general in this discussion that is making it more contentious than it should be. Spontaneity, in the Marxist-Leninist framework, is a movement/action/what have you that happens outside of the leadership of communist organizations. Most of the actions around education rights, especially in the winter, has come from either local liberal campus groups or, in many cases, from student government organizations. The paper tries to illustrate exactly that – not to say that these actions aren’t “worthy” or whatever, and not to say that other actions by left groups don’t happen. This is a paper by FRSO on the student movement from our perspective – of course we’re going to talk mainly about SDS and the work that we do, since that’s where we derive our lessons from. Other groups should also write summations of the student movement from their perspective and their actions, and add to the dialogue of what’s going on and what needs to be done.

  10. “Spontaneity, in the Marxist-Leninist framework, is a movement/action/what have you that happens outside of the leadership of communist organizations.”

    This is a particular take on the word’s use in the tradition that I don’t quite agree with, but as stated above it’s probably best that we just accept our difference of position on that. More importantly, though, I think it’s undeniable that, however you define it, “spontaneous” has negative connotations both as it is generally used and as it is specifically used in the ML tradition. It has always (as far back as Lenin and probably further) been used as a way to devalue work that the author’s political group was not involved in and, judging from how it’s being used here, not much has changed.

    I think my point is that there’s a lot more to this article than what is explicitly said. It’s written in a way that it’s making claims subtly without really making them, and so it’s easy to deny the validity of criticisms when they arise. No, it is not explicitly stated that the struggle at MTSU was spontaneous or lacking the right kind of leadership, but the way that MTSU is mentioned right after these criticisms are made against the movement as a whole, without any qualifications about it being an exception and with no reference made to the leftists involved as leaders here, and right before the comments in the concluding section, makes it pretty hard not to think the reader is meant to draw certain conclusions.

    It’s hard to imagine that a prolonged continuation of this discussion will be productive of anything except animosity, and I doubt any of us have much more to say on the matter of any substance, so let’s cut it short. And of course, to be fair, the comments I object to are in an article posted on your blog and not given publicly in response to our work (although this piece was being given out as part of the literature at your table at the SDS convention to people who aren’t aware of the background to all this, which was slightly annoying). I’m sorry if I seemed to be overreacting, I was just trying to say reasonably and transparently the things that all too often go unsaid and lead to unnecessary ill will between organizations.

    • Hi Alex,

      Looking back on the context I agree that it should have been stated clearer. Work needs to be credited where it is due. However, I again repeat that it would be imprudent to list all the left groups involved in local work — this sort of summation is not conducive to a short report. I know the value of local work, and we certainly aren’t trying to short-change anyone. However, I do have to agree that the student movement, as a whole, is largely working under spontaneity.

      What do I mean when I said there’s no clear or definite Left leadership of the student movement? I’m talking about the movement as a whole; i.e., there is no vanguard of the U.S. student movement (nor the working class). That is where things are at. I do think we tend to underestimate ourselves in the movement, including different organizations underestimating ea/ other (intentionally or not). I believe communist organizations such as FRSO and Solidarity, among others, are making really good contributions to student and youth struggles. That has been FRSO’s line for a while now.

      Ok, that’s all from me.

  11. Alex and others,

    As the author of this article, let me say as clearly as possible that it was not my intention to devalue the work of the organizers at MTSU. On the contrary, it was my intention to highlight valuable and exemplary work by including it. I’m sorry if that was not apparent.

    My reference to spontaneity was to the upsurge in general, not to any particular cases within it. I thought that was clear. But I can see how the wording of the article might lend itself to your reading of it, but again, this wasn’t my intention. So, regarding that ambiguity, I accept your criticism.

    I do, however, stand by and uphold the conceptual validity of spontaneity as a Marxist-Leninist concept. I think it is fine that we “just agree to disagree” as suggested above on this point.

    Thanks for your comments,
    Josh

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