Lessons of the California Students Movement

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California is the epicenter of the developing student movement against cuts to public education.[1] The March 4 (M4) demonstrations were a manifestation of the response by the various actors involved in the movement. This article will analyze the specific origins of M4 and tendencies involved in the movement, which were only briefly enumerated in the previous article. These aspects are presented so as to better understand the formulation, direction, weaknesses and strengths of the California student movement.

Origins of M4

The selection of the March 4 date as the proposed "Day of Action and Strike" came out of the October 24 2009 conference held at UC Berkeley. The conference was called after a coordinated state-wide protest on September 24. It was organized almost entirely by various union organizations[2] and their Trotskyist allies (ISO, LMV, SO[3]); with the participation of Trotskyist influenced student groups like Advance The Struggle (AtS)[4] and Student Unity & Power (SUP).

Two clear factions among the 700 - 800 delegates around the question of what precisely to call the "day of action," with the union allies calling for a "diversity of tactics" ("Day of Strike and Action") and AtS/SUP calling for more militant action ("Day of Strike"). The argument used by the Trotskyist camp was that by being restricted to strike efforts this "would limit participation dramatically and give the unions an excuse to remain passive."[5] In the end, the union current won out and M4 became a "day of strike and action." The Trotskyists celebrated the victory because now, with the encouragement of actions such as letter writing campaigns to the state legislature, union participation could be maximized. However, AtS/SUP - who've been angered at the tactics adopted by the ISO -- have still been actively involved in spreading the idea that the unions should come to the ‘defense' of the struggle and help in the mobilization.

Here again we are provided stunning clarity with how the union apparatus and its leftist appendage continually derail class struggle. Their role is to sabotage working class militancy and efforts at autonomous organization. One way in which this is accomplished is through the continuous funneling of working class struggles into the coffin of bourgeois electoralism and blocking the development of its consciousness with the bourgeois ideologies of nationalism and inter-classism. As this neurotoxin courses through the veins of the class, workers' struggles become isolated behind one camp of the bourgeoisie in rivalries which the proletariat have nothing to gain from. The unions are active agents in this process and leftists are their willful servants in this.

Since M4: The movement fractures

After M4, a conference was held in Los Angeles on April 24 to discuss the next proposed "Day of Action" (slated for October 7) as well as to formulate the principles of the movement. The conference was poorly attended, with between 70 - 100 participants, and was unable to vote on anything other than the next proposed "Day of Action" due to the poor attendance and fractious nature of the groups present-just as well since several groups spoke against the inclusion of "anti-capitalist" as a principle of the movement!

The student movement itself has been winding down as the school year ends but two additional pressures are also putting a drain on organizing efforts: coordinated harassment on the part of university administrations and failure on the part of the movement to garner wider support from the working class. These two pressures are interconnected and reflect on the movement's significance and weaknesses. Across the state, university administrations have coordinated their targeted harassment of student activists. The violent brutalization and hostage taking of a student at UC Davis by police forces on M4 is one extreme example of this. Since M4 there has been a pernicious abuse of the "student conduct" hearings to threaten students with academic sanctions so as to deter further action. On at least one campus, university administration conducted disciplinary hearings against students for an action initiated on another campus![6]

The movement was largely unable to significantly extend beyond narrow confines of the union apparatus and selected groups of radicalized students. And thus, the student movement fell prey to all manner of leftist derailment of class struggle-unsurprisingly; "diversity of tactics" really just means one thing to a unionist: any response besides class struggle!

The influence of the ‘occupationist' tendency

However, if one end of the derailment came from leftist organizations seeking to impose their "united front" ideology on the movement another came from within the groups which positioned themselves in opposition to them: the radical students associated with the "occupationist" tendency-a trend most vocal and theoretically centralized in Santa Cruz. One of the opening lines of The Coming Insurrection[7] states "'The future has no future' is the wisdom of an age that ... has reached the level of consciousness of the first punks." This text had an indelible impact on the development of the occupationist trend in the movement. This is expressed throughout their literature. One of the pivotal texts produced by this tendency is entitled "Communiqué from an Absent Future."[8]

Within Absent Future, the failure of the "occupationists" to adequately grasp the nature of the capitalist crisis becomes apparent. Their increasing isolation stems precisely from their classless analysis encapsulated in statements such as, "[calls] for unity are fundamentally empty. There is no common ground between those who seek to uphold the status quo and those who seek to destroy it." Along with the correct rejection of "united frontism," they also reject the basis for the evolution of a proletarian movement: the mobilization of the class in general assemblies for the widest possible discussions and the election of revocable delegates. They then go on to provide the anti-CPE struggle as an example of a movement which began as an expression of "a rebellion that starts in the classrooms and radiates outward to encompass the whole of society" but, despite successfully forcing the bourgeoisie to reverse their hand and repeal the CPE, "the movement was unable to transcend the limitations of reformism." It's difficult to understand precisely how the authors understood the anti-CPE movement, which from the beginning represented the very unity they seem to reject, i.e. class unity rallied to the defense of the working class[9].

The a-historical analysis in Absent Future does not stop there, however, as the text goes on to herald the 2008 Greek uprising as "[breaking] through many of these limitations" represented in the burning, looting & rioting-all the while lamenting the lack of broader working class solidarity with the uprising of the Greek youth. This is simply not true as the framing of the youth revolt was always, even among most of the anarchist groupings, on the terrain of class struggle. The violence expressed in the months following December 2008 certainly cannot be denied, but the authors of Absent Future fail to grasp the class nature of the uprising by being obsessed with the violence itself. Nowhere is there mention of the general assemblies held in the midst of the flames so celebrated by Absent Future; or the expressed occupation of GSEE, the largest union, headquarters not to simply burn it down but to "to disperse the media-touted myth that the workers were and are absent from the clashes" and further to expose the role of the unions in undermining class struggle.[10] A far cry from the claim that they made almost no demands! The demand was class struggle and working class solidarity, both of which are lacking from the arguments presented within the article and increasingly within the tendency. The Greek anarchists themselves are reorienting their tactics after the tragic death of three bank workers during the May 5 riots; in this event World Revolution's article "Anti-authoritarians in Greece: reflection on violence" is particularly illuminating[11]. As capitalism's primal crisis deepens, violence certainly will occur but minority violence will always derail a class response.

Returning to California, the mobilization for the "defense of public education" is currently caught within a quagmire. The union chokehold over the students' movement remains in place, while some of the student groupings have begun descending into isolation, due to the twin impacts of police harassment and a limited and very confused political praxis. The struggle needs to expand beyond the university. The crisis of education is part of the ever worsening crisis of capitalism and the assault on the public sector is just one part of a broad array of austerity measures being forced upon the working class; and the inability of capitalism to reform itself in the face of its own crisis necessitates a response that goes beyond simply defending one part of that class. The only response is a struggle waged on a working class terrain which extends to all sectors of the class and the fight for this continues on.

AS 8/6/10.


[1]    "Students in California Fight Back Austerity Attacks," Internationalism 154

[2]    For endorsements see: https://www.savecapubliceducation.org/?page_id=7

[3]    International Socialist Organization (Socialist Worker), Socialist Organizer (The Organizer), Labor's Militant Voice

[4]    Advance the Struggle, https://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com

[5]    See Socialist Worker's article: "March 4th and the next steps," May 29 2010

[6]    See Occupy CA's article: "First Student Conduct letter issued at UC Irvine," 19 April 2010.

[7] tarnac9.wordpress.com/texts/the-coming-insurrection

[8] https://wewanteverything.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/communique-from-an-absent-future/

[9] See the ICC's ‘Theses on the spring 2006 students' movement in France' 

[10]  See ICC's article: "The youth revolts in Greece confirm the development of the class struggle," International Review no. 136 - 1st quarter 2009

[11] https://en.internationalism.org/wr/334/reflections-on-struggles-in-greece


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