Thoughts on Socialist Strategy for the Student Movement

By Sebastian Lamb

[A 1998 NSG discussion document on socialist activism in the student movement in the Canadian state.]


1. a) Our starting point is a Marxist understanding that the best way to fight for reforms is through the building of strong movements and that the best way to radicalize people is through experiences of successful mass struggle. A socialism from below strategy for student activism should seek to mobilize the largest number of students possible to fight for their interests on an ongoing basis and act in solidarity with the struggles of others.

b) This contrasts with the social democratic strategy of using student mobilizations to back up lobbying efforts by student politicians. It is also different from left strategies that substitute the actions of a small number of committed radicals for the building of a mass movement in the belief that this is sufficient or the best way to stimulate a movement’s growth.

2. a) We should promote the democratic self-organization of students themselves, independent of student governments and political parties/groups (e.g. in coalitions or action committees rather than committees of student federations or fronts for a socialist group).

b) We should encourage student movement groups to see the links between different struggles and adopt a multi-issue approach rather than a single-issue one (e.g. anti-tuition hikes).

c) Student activists should place demands on elected student officials, including their participation in student movement groups, but never rely on them. Whatever their politics, these officials are subject to conservatizing pressures that come from maintaining student governments and services and are often dependent on university administrations. Socialists should give critical support to clearly left candidates in student elections while being careful not to allow elections to demobilize or divert movement-building efforts.

3. a) Students can exercise power through collective action, but as socialists we recognize that the greatest power lies with workers, who can withdraw their labour power and halt the production of goods and services (many students are also workers, but we’re speaking here of students in their role as students, not in their workplaces). Even a more powerful student movement than exists today in the Canadian state could not halt the attacks on education by itself.

b) It is vital to begin to build alliances between students and unions both on and off campus. Socialists need to challenge the elitism, dismissive attitude towards unions and failure to understand workers’ experiences that some student radicals display. Wherever possible we should try to bring student and labour activists together instead of relying on links between student politicians and union officials. However, given the state of unions and the student movement today every link at every level matters.

4. Student movement groups should seek to organize around demands that will move more people into struggle, regardless of whether or not these sound “radical.” Movements are radicalized through mass struggle, not by the language of programmes or demands. Over time, socialists should try to get movement groups to take up as much of the strategic approach summarized here as possible. How and the extent to which we do so depends on the development of the movement. At all times, we must pay attention not only to where other left activists are at but also to involving more not-yet-activist students. Since we aim to build movements open to people who have never been activists before but who want to fight back, it is a mistake to try to get student movement groups to adopt political positions that will cut them off unnecessarily from people new to activism (e.g. explicit anti-capitalism).

5. Within the broad mass action-oriented movement we’re trying to build, socialists should not only contribute to developing strategy, tactics and forms of organization for the movement but also offer our distinctive ideas about capitalism and the socialist alternative. Ways to do this include engaging in discussions, selling NS and inviting people to NSG activities.

6. a) Today, there are two organizations that attempt to affiliate local student governments on a pan-Canadian scale: the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) (francophone campuses in Quebec are currently organized in their own federations, although there has recently been discussion about some affiliating to CFS). CFS’s policies are generally those of social democratic reformism, while CASA’s are right-wing.

b) CFS’s structure is designed to organize student officials for lobbying and policy-making, not grassroots activists for movement-building. Decisions at general meetings are made by delegates from affiliated student governments, who are usually student politicians.

c) From an activist perspective, CFS today provides the only existing infrastructure for coordinating and organizing campaigns beyond a local level. For this reason, the NSG should advocate that all student federations join CFS. CFS-bashing is a common tactic for the campus right and should be opposed just as we oppose similar criticisms of women’s centres, PIRGs etc. NSG members should attempt to be delegates to CFS meetings when it is possible to do so without having to hide our politics or compromise our political independence.

d) How socialists relate to CFS tactically should be determined by our overall approach to building a pan-Canadian fighting student movement. Grassroots student activist groups, not CFS or local student governments, are the basis for a real movement, and we should try to link them up wherever possible. Working in and through CFS today should be seen as a way to help build such a movement.

e) At the moment, there is an entrenched social democratic national leadership in CFS (although nowhere near as strong or conservative a bureaucracy as exists in the union movement). A future large-scale student radicalization is likely to be reflected within CFS and may make it possible to change CFS in significant ways. Just as the completely inadequate leadership of unions is no reason for locals led by radicals to go it alone rather than digging in to build left oppositions, socialists should not try to pull campuses out of CFS. Within CFS, we should work with others in a left current and promote strategies of militancy, democracy and solidarity as an alternative to the leadership’s direction. However, our priority at all times must remain developing student self-organization on campuses and not debates among student politicians.