The Revolutionary Student Movement – theory and practice (1968)

As part of commemorating 1968, “The Year of Revolutions”, we are running the piece below.  It is the text of a talk given by Ernest Mandel, plus excerpts from the discussion, at the International Assembly of Revolutionary Student Movements, which was sponsored by the Columbia University Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the major radical youth movement in the USA in the 1960s.  Mandels’s talk took place on Saturday evening, September 21st (1968) at the Education Auditorium of New York University. More than 600 people packed the auditorium and the question and answer period extended for several hours.

The introduction to the pamphlet based on the talk notes, “Mandel’s speech was a powerful polemic against the tendencies of pure ‘activism’ and ‘spontaneism’ which have recently sprung up among some radicals in the West. He argued in defense of the Marxist conception of the indispensable integration of theory and practice. During the question period, Mandel gave extended replies to a number of controversial questions in radical circles today. Among them were the socio-economic nature of the Soviet Union, the Cultural Revolution in China, the necessity for a Leninist party, and moral vs. material incentives in the construction of socialism.

A Belgian, Ernest Mandel took part in the resistance movement there during the Nazi occupation in World War 2.  He became a leader of the Fourth International after the war and an important Marxist theorist and educator.  He wrote widely on political struggles of the 1960s and was popular with radicalising students in many countries.  Mandel was the author of Marxist Economic Theory,  and a number of other important texts, including An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory.  His The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx traced the main discoveries of Marx from his first economic investigations in 1843 to the publication of Capital. Mandel’s work was translated into a range of languages from English to Arabic.

by Ernest Mandel

Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the Berlin students, and many of the other representative student figures in Europe, have advanced as the central idea of their activity the concept of the unity of theory and action, of revolutionary theory and revolutionary action. This is not an arbitrary choice. The unity of theory and action can be considered the most important lesson of historical experience drawn from past revolutions in Europe, America and other parts of the world.

The historical tradition which embodies that idea goes from Babeuf through Hegel to Marx. This ideological conquest means that the great liberation movement of mankind must be directed by a conscious effort to reconstruct society, to overcome a situation in which man is dominated by the blind forces of market economy and starts to take his destiny in his own hands. This conscious action of emancipation cannot be carried on effectively, and certainly not carried through, unless man is aware of the social environment in which he is living, of the social forces he has to confront and the general social and economic conditions of this liberation movement.

Just as the unity of theory and action is an essential guide for any emancipation movement today, so Marxism teaches that revolution, conscious revolution, can only be successful if man first understands the nature of society in which he is living, if he understands the motive forces behind social and economic development in that society. In other words, unless he understands the forces that command social evolution, he will not be able to change that evolution into revolution. That is the main conception that Marxist consciousness has been introducing into the revolutionary student movement in Europe.

We will try to show that these two concepts, unity of theory and action, and a Marxist understanding of the objective conditions of society, which existed for a long time before the student movement in Europe was born, were rediscovered and reintegrated in practical struggle by the European student movement as a result of its own experiences.

The student movement starts everywhere – and it is no different in the United States – as a revolt against the immediate conditions students experience in their own academic institutions, in the universities and high schools. This aspect is obvious in the West where we live, though the situation is completely different in the underdeveloped countries. There, many other forces and circumstances impel the university or non-university youth to rise up. But over the past two decades the type of youth who goes to the university in the West has not, by and large, found in their homes, in the conditions of their families, or in the local communities pressing reasons for social revolts.

There are, of course, exceptions. The black community in the United States is such an exception; the lower paid immigrant workers in Western Europe provide another one. However, in most Western countries, students who come from this poorest proletarian milieu are still a tiny minority. The overwhelming majority of students come either from petty bourgeois or middle bourgeois milieu or from the higher paid layers of salary earners or wage earners. When they reach the university, they are generally not prepared by the life they have led up to that point to understand very clearly or fully the reasons for social revolt. They first come to realize this within the framework of the university. I do not refer to the exceptional small minorities of politically conscious elements but to the great mass of students who become confronted with a certain number of conditions which lead them on to the road of revolt.

Briefly, these embrace the inadequate organization, structure and curriculum of the university along with a whole series of material, social and political facts of experience within the framework of that bourgeois university which become unendurable to a larger and larger part of the students. It is interesting to note that bourgeois theoreticians and educators who want to understand the reasons for student revolt have had to reintroduce within their analysis of the student milieu certain notions which they have long eliminated from their general analysis of society.

A few days ago, when I was in Toronto, one of the leading Canadian educators gave a public lecture on the causes of student revolt. These reasons, he said, “are essentially material. Not that their living conditions are unsatisfactory; not that they are badly treated like nineteenth century workers. But socially, we have created a sort of proletariat in the universities who have no right to participate in the determination of the curriculum, no right to at least co-determine their own life during the four, five or six years which they spend at the university.”

While I cannot accept this non-Marxist definition of the proletariat, I do think that this bourgeois educator has partially revealed one of the roots of the generalized student revolt. The structure of the bourgeois universities is only a reflection of the general hierarchical structure of bourgeois society; both become unacceptable to students, even with their present elementary level of social consciousness. It would take us too far afield to probe into the deeper psychological and moral roots of that phenomenon. But in certain Western European countries, and probably also the United States, bourgeois society as it has operated during the last generation over the past 25 years has provoked very widespread decomposition of the classic bourgeois family. As youngsters, the dissenting students have been educated first of all through practical experience to question all authority, beginning with the authority of their parents.

This is extremely striking in a country like Germany today. If you know something about German life or study its reflections in German literature, you will know that, until the second world war, paternal authority was least questioned in that country. The obedience of children towards parents was very deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. Then the German youth passed through a series of bitter experiences beginning with a generation of German parents which largely accepted Nazism, went on to embrace the cold war, and lived comfortably on the assumption that so-called “peoples’ capitalism” (called “social market economy”) would have no recessions, no crises and no social problems. The successive failures of these two or three generations of parents have today created among the youth a deep feeling of contempt for the authority of their elders and prepared them, when they come to the university, not to accept without challenge or without serious reservations any form of authority.

They find themselves confronted in the first place with the authority of their professors and university institutions which, at least in the field of social sciences, are obviously out of touch with reality. The teachings they do get do not allow any objective scientific analysis of what goes on in the world or in the different Western countries. This challenge to academic authority as an institution very quickly becomes a challenge to the contents of education.

In addition, in Europe very likely more than in the United States, we have very inadequate material conditions in the universities. They are overcrowded. Thousands of students are obliged to listen to professors through sound systems. They cannot talk with their professors or have any contact, normal exchange of opinion, or dialogue. Housing and food conditions are also bad. Certain supplementary factors extend the forces of student revolt. However, I must insist that the mainspring of the revolt would persist even if these material conditions were corrected. The authoritarian structure of the university and the inadequate substance of the education received, at least in the field of social science, causes more discontent than these material conditions.

That is why attempts at university reform which have been pushed by the more liberal wings of the different establishments in western neo-capitalist society will probably fail. These reforms will not achieve their purpose because they do not get at the real sources of student revolt. Not only do they not tend to suppress the causes of alienation of students but if widely applied, they would even intensify that alienation.

What is the goal of university reform as proposed by liberal reformists in the western world? It is in reality an attempt to streamline the organization of the university to fit the needs of neo-capitalist economy and neo-capitalist society. These gentlemen say: of course it is very bad to have an academic proletariat; it is very bad to have many people who leave universities and are not able to find jobs. This makes for social tension and social explosion.

How to solve this problem? We will do so by reorganizing the universities and distributing the number of places accessible according to the requirements of neo-capitalist economy. In a country which needs 100,000 engineers we will be assured of 100,000 engineers rather than 50,000 sociologists or 20,000 philosophers who cannot find gainful employment. This will do away with the main causes of student revolt.

Here is an attempt to subordinate the functions of a university, even more than in the past, to the immediate needs of neo-capitalist economy and society. It will generate a still higher degree of student alienation. If these reforms are enacted, the students will not secure a university structure and education which corresponds to their wishes. They will not even be allowed to choose the career, the field of learning, the disciplines they want and which correspond to their talents and needs of self-realization of their personalities. They will be forced to accept those jobs, disciplines and fields of learning which correspond to the interest of the rulers of capitalist society, not to their own needs as human beings. Thus a higher level of alienation will be imposed through reform of the universities.

I do not say we should be indifferent to any kind of reforms of the university. It is necessary to find some transitional slogans for university problems just as Marxists have tried to find transitional slogans for other social movements in whatever sector these come to life.

For example, I do not see why the slogan of “student power” could not be raised within the framework of the university. This would not do for the whole society since this would mean that a small minority allocates to itself the right to rule the overwhelming majority of society. But within the university the slogan of “student power,” or any slogan along the same lines of self-management by the mass of students, has a certain validity.

Even there I would be a bit cautious because there are many problems which make a university different from a factory or from a productive community. It is not true to say, as some American SDS theorists do, that students are already workers. The majority of students are future workers or partial workers. They may be compared with the apprentices in a factory since they are the same from the viewpoint of intellectual labor as apprentices are from the viewpoint of manual labor. They have their social role and their special transitional place in society. We must therefore be cautious how we formulate such a transitional slogan.

However, it is not necessary to pursue this argument further at this moment. Let us accept for the time being the idea of “student power” or “student control” as an acceptable transitional slogan within the framework of the bourgeois university. But it is absolutely clear that even the realization of such a slogan, which in itself is impossible for any length of time, would not change the roots of alienation of students because these do not lie in the university itself but in society as a whole. And you cannot change a small sector of bourgeois society, in this case the bourgeois university, and think that social problems can be solved within that small segment so long as the problem of changing society as a whole has not been solved.

As long as capitalism exists, there will be alienated labor, alienated manual labor and inevitably also alienated intellectual labor, and thereby alienated students, whatever changes direct action is able to achieve within the framework of the university.

Here again, this is not a theoretical observation which is plucked from the sky. This is the lesson of practical experience. The European student movement, at least its revolutionary wing, has gone through such an experience in practically all Western European countries. In broad outline, the student movement started with inner university issues and then spilled over the limits of the university rather quickly. It went on to raise a series of general social and political problems which were not directly related with what was going on inside the university. What happened at Columbia where the question of the oppression of the black community was raised by the rebellious students is similar to what has happened in the Western European student movement, at least among the more advanced elements, who were most sensitive to the problems of the most exploited parts of the world capitalist system.

They engaged in various acts of solidarity with the revolutionary emancipation struggle of the peoples in the underdeveloped countries, with Cuba, Vietnam and other oppressed parts of the Third World. The identification of the more conscious sections of the French student movement with the Algerian revolution, with the emancipation struggle of the Algerians against French imperialism, played a very great role. This was probably the first framework in which a real political differentiation took place on the left of the student movement. The same students later played the vanguard role in the struggle for the defense of the Vietnamese revolution against the war of aggression by American imperialism.

In Germany this sympathy with the colonial people had an unusual starting point. The big student revolt was triggered by an action in solidarity with the workers, peasants and students of another so-called Third World country, Iran, on the occasion of the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin.

The student vanguard does not merely identify with the particular struggles in Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam: it shows sympathy with the revolutionary emancipation of the so-called Third World in general. The development proceeded from there. In France, Germany, Italy – and the same process is now going on in Britain – it was not possible to start revolutionary action in solidarity with the peoples of the Third World without a theoretical analysis of the nature of imperialism, of colonialism, of the motive forces responsible on the one side for the exploitation of the Third World by imperialism and on the other side for the self-liberation movement of the revolutionary masses in these countries against imperialism.

Through the detour of an analysis of colonialism and imperialism the more conscious and organized forces in the European student movement were brought back to the point where Marxism starts, that is, to the analysis of capitalist society and the international capitalist system in which we live. If we do not understand this system, we cannot understand the reasons for colonial wars or the colonial liberation movements. Nor can we understand why we should solidarize ourselves with these forces on a world scale.

In the case of Germany, this process took less than six months to unfold. The student movement started by questioning only the authoritarian structure of the university, went on to question imperialism and the misery in the Third World, and then by solidarizing with its liberation movements was brought to the necessity of re-analyzing neo-capitalism on a world scale and in the country itself where the German students were active. They had to come back to the starting point of the Marxist analysis of the society in which we live to understand the deeper objective reasons for social misery and for social revolt.

Unity of Theory and Action
In the total process of the dynamic unity of theory and action, theory is sometimes in advance of action and at another time action comes ahead of theory. However, at each point the necessities of the struggle force its participants to reestablish that unity on a constantly higher level.

To understand this dynamic process we must recognize that any counterposing of immediate action to long-range study is a wrong method. I was struck during the Socialist Scholars Conference and at various other gatherings I have attended in the United States during the last two weeks by the systematic manner in which this division was defended one way or the other. It was like a debate between deaf people in which one part of the audience says, “It is only necessary to initiate action, immediate action, anything else is useless,” while the other part of the audience says, “No, before you act, you must know what to do, so don’t act yet. Sit down, study, write books.” (applause)

The obvious answer gained from historical experience not only of the Marxist but even of the pre-Marxist period in the revolutionary movement is that you cannot do one without the other. (applause) Action without theory will not be efficient or of a deepgoing emancipatory nature because, as I said before, you cannot emancipate mankind unconsciously. On the other hand, theory without action will not be genuinely scientific because there is no other way to test theory except through action.

Any form of theory which is not tested through action is not adequate theory; it is useless theory from the point of view of the emancipation of mankind. (applause) It is through a constant effort to pursue the two at one and the same time, simultaneously, and without division of labor that the unity of theory and action can be reestablished on a progressively higher level so that any revolutionary movement, whatever its origins and socially progressive goals, can really attain its objectives.

In connection with the division of labor, another idea was expressed which struck me as extremely odd to be put forward at a body of socialists. This prevailing division between theory and action, which is already very bad in itself, is given a new dimension in the socialist movement when it is said: in one category there are the activists, the simple people who do the dirty jobs. In another category is the elite which has to think. If this elite gets involved in picket lines, it won’t have the time to think or write books, and in that case a precious element of the emancipation struggle will be lost.

I must say that any notion of reintroducing within the revolutionary movement the basic division of labor between manual labor and intellectual labor, between the infantry which does the dirty work and the elite which does the thinking is profoundly unsocialist. It goes against one of the main aims of the socialist movement, which is precisely to achieve the withering away of the division or distinction between manual and intellectual labor (applause) not only within organizations but, much more important, on the scale of society as a whole. The revolutionary socialists of fifty or a hundred years ago could not grasp that so clearly as we do today when there are the objective possibilities of achieving that goal. We have already entered an objective process of technology and education which is working towards that end.

One of the main lessons to be drawn from the degeneration of the Russian Revolution is that, if this division between manual and intellectual labor is maintained in any society in transition between capitalism and socialism as a permanent institution, it cannot but breed bureaucracy, new inequalities and new forms of human oppression which are incompatible with a socialist commonwealth. (applause)

So we must start by eliminating to the extent possible any idea of such a division of labor in the revolutionary movement itself. We must maintain as a general rule that there are no good theoreticians if they are not capable of participating in action, and that there are no good activists if they are not capable of assimilating, strengthening and developing theory. (applause)

The European student movement has tried to achieve this to a certain extent and with some success in Germany, France, and Italy. There has emerged a type of student leader who is an agitator, who can even, if need be, build a barricade and fight on it, but who at the same time is able to write a theoretical article and even a book and to discuss with the leading sociologists, political scientists and economists of his country and beat them in the field of their own disciplines. (applause) This has made us confident not only about the future of the student movement but also about the time when these students will no longer be students but will have to undertake different functions in society.

The Need for a Revolutionary Organization
Here I want to deal with another aspect of the unity of theory and action which has been under discussion in the European and North American student movements. I am personally convinced that without a real revolutionary organization, by which I mean not a loose formation but a serious, permanent organization, such a unity of theory and practice cannot in the long run be achieved. (applause)

I will give two reasons for this. One is linked with the very nature of the student. The status of the student, unlike that of the worker, is by its very nature of short duration. He remains in the university, four, five, six years, and nobody can predict what will happen to him afterwards when he leaves the university. Here I want at once to answer one of the more demagogic arguments which has been used by some leaders of the European Communist Parties against the rebellious students. They have said scornfully: “Who are these students? Today they revolt, tomorrow they will be our bosses who will exploit us, so let us not take their actions very seriously.”

This is a foolish argument because it does not take into consideration the revolutionary transformation of the role of university graduates in present society. Had they referred to the statistics, they could have learned that only a tiny minority of today’s student graduates become bosses or direct agents of bosses as top managers. That may have been the case when there were no more than 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 student graduates a year. But when there are a million, four million, five million students, it is not possible for the majority of these to become capitalists or managerial executives because there are not that many capitalists or managerial jobs available.

The kernel of truth in this demagogic argument is that a departure from the academic environment can have detrimental consequences on the level of social consciousness and political activity of the graduated student. So long as he remains in the university, this atmosphere no longer surrounds him and he is more susceptible to the pressures of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology and interests. There is great danger that he will reintegrate himself within his new social milieu, whatever it may be. There will ensue a process of backsliding to reformist and left liberal intellectual positions which no longer involve revolutionary activity.

It is instructive to study the history of the German SDS, the oldest of the current revolutionary student movements in Europe, in this light. Since it was expelled from the German Social Democracy nine years ago, a whole generation of SDS militants have left the university. After several years, in the absence of a revolutionary organization, the overwhelming majority of these militants, whatever their individual wish to be convinced and active socialists, are no longer politically active from a revolutionary point of view. Thus, to preserve the continuity in time of revolutionary activity, you need an organization which is broader than a purely student organization, an organization in which students and non-students can work together.

There is an even more important reason why there is need for such a party organization. Because without it, no permanent unity of action with the industrial working class in the broadest sense of the word can be achieved. As a Marxist, I remain convinced that without the action of the working class it is not possible to overthrow bourgeois society and construct a socialist society. (applause)

Here again, in a remarkable way, we see how the experiences of the student movements, first in Germany, then in France and Italy, have arrived in practice at that theoretical conclusion. The same sort of discussions that are going on in the United States today about the relevance or irrelevance of the industrial working class for revolutionary action were being held a year, or even six months ago, in countries like Germany or Italy.

This question was settled in practice not only by the May-June 1968 revolutionary events in France but also by the common action of the students of Turin with the Fiat workers in Italy. It has also been clarified by the conscious attempts of the German SDS to involve parts of the working class in its agitation outside the university against the Springer publishing combine and its campaign to prevent the emergency laws restricting civil liberties from being enacted.

Such experiences have taught the student movement in Western Europe that it is absolutely indispensable to find a bridge to the industrial working class. This question has different aspects on different levels. It has a programmatic aspect which I cannot go into now. It poses the question of how students can approach the industrial working class, not as teachers, because then the workers will send them packing, but within a common field of interest and social endeavor.

It poses above all else the problem of party organization. Otherwise a series of self-defeating experiments to build collaboration on a low level of immediate action between a small number of students and a small number of workers will, after three to eight months, dribble away and come to nothing. Even if you start all over again, when the balance sheet is made after a year or two or three, there will be very little left.

The function of a permanent revolutionary organization is to facilitate a reciprocal integration of student and working class struggle by their vanguards in a continuous way. There is not simply a continuum in time but also, so to speak, a continuum in space in the form of a continuity between different social groups who have the same socialist revolutionary purpose.

We must ask if such an integration is objectively possible. It is much easier to answer yes after the experiences in France, Italy, and certain other Western European countries and to defend that line concerning Western Europe than for the United States. For historical reasons which I cannot go into now, a special situation exists in the United States where the majority of the working class, the white working class, is not yet receptive to socialist ideas of revolutionary action. This is an incontestable fact.

Of course, this can change quickly. Some people said the same thing about France only a few weeks before May 10, 1968. Yet even in the United States, there is an important minority of the industrial working class, the black workers, of whom nobody can say after the experiences of the last two years that they are inaccessible to socialist ideas or incapable of revolutionary action. Here at least is one immediate possibility for unity in theory and practice with part of the working class.

In addition, it is essential to analyze the social and economic trends which in the long run will shake the predominant political apathy and conservatism of the white working class. The example of Germany under very similar circumstances shows that this can happen. A few years ago the German working class was mired in the same stability, conservatism, and unshakable integration in capitalist society as many people picture the North American working class today. That has already begun to change. This case illustrates how a slight shift in the balance of forces, a little downslide of the economy, an attack by the employers on traditional union structure and rights can create social tensions which can change a lot in that domain.

In any event, it is no more my task to inform you about the problems of your own class struggle than it is yours to preach to the workers. I want rather to point out one of the main channels through which socialist consciousness and revolutionary activity may be transmitted between students and workers, as not only Western Europe but also Japan has indicated. That specific transmission belt is the working class youth. As a consequence of the technological changes over the past years affecting the structure of the working class, the bourgeois educational system is inadequate to prepare the young workers, or part of the young workers, to play the new role in this changed technology which they should play even from the point of view the capitalists themselves. The United States exhibits an extremely striking example of this in the total breakdown of education for the young black workers who have an unemployment rate as high as the average during the Great Depression for the total American working class. That fact explains a good deal about what is going on amongst the black youth in this country.

This is only one expression of a more general tendency which dictates extreme sensitivity to everything which goes on amongst the youth. There is no more ominous sign of the decrepitude and decomposition of a social system than the fact that it must condemn and reject in toto its youth. The French rulers during the May events not only seized upon any distinctions between young students, young employees and young workers but considered the youth as such an enemy.

A concrete example was the incident at Flins during the general strike. After a young high school student was killed by the police there was a tremendous tumult. The police moved in and started to screen the demonstrators, asking people for their identity cards. Everyone under 30 was arrested because he was considered as a potential insurrectionist, as somebody who was going to fight against the police. (applause)

If you carefully examine contemporary literature, the movie industry and other forms of the reflection of social reality in the cultural superstructure during the last five or ten years, you will find that, under the very dishonest cover of talking about juvenile delinquency, the bourgeoisie has really drawn a picture of the kind of youth its system produces as well as the rebellious spirit of that youth. This is not at all limited to students or minorities like the black youth in the United States. It likewise applies to young workers.

It is imperative to study whatever goes on in the milieu of young workers because the struggle to win these young workers to a socialist consciousness, to the ideas of socialist revolution, will probably be decisive for the fate of most of the Western countries over the next ten or fifteen years. If we succeed in making social revolutionists out of the best of these youth, as I think has been done to a large extent in Western Europe, we can be confident about the future of our movement. If this possibility is missed and a large part of this youth drifts to the extreme right, we shall have lost a decisive struggle and be in the same grave predicament as the European socialist and revolutionary movement had to face in the early ’30s.

The unity of theory and action in practice means also that a whole series of the key ideas of the old socialist movement and the revolutionary tradition are being rediscovered today. I know that part of the student movement in the United States wants to create something completely new. And I heartily agree with any proposal to do things better because a balance sheet of what former generations have succeeded in achieving from the point of view of building a socialist society is not too convincing. But here a word of warning is in order. Ninety-nine times out of 100, when you think you are creating or discovering something new, what you are really doing is going back to a past which is even more remote than the past of Marxism.

Virtually all the new ideas which have been advanced in the student movement in Europe over the last two or three years and are now becoming current in the United States are very, very old. And for a very simple reason which is lodged in the history of ideas. The logical trends of social evolution and the main projected trends of social criticism were developed in their general lines by the great thinkers of the 18th and the 19th centuries. Whether you like this or not, it remains as true for the social sciences as for the natural sciences where a series of basic laws have been established in the past. If you want to develop new trends, you have to proceed from the foundation which has been created by the best that previous generations have been able to achieve.

This desperate search for something completely new is only an episodic aspect of the initial phase of student radicalism. When the movement becomes broader and mobilizes large masses then, paradoxically, the opposite will appear, as French sociologists have underlined with great surprise in regard to the May events. Then the broad revolutionary student masses will strive to rediscover their historical tradition and their historical roots.

They must be instinctively aware that they are much stronger if they can say: we are fighting in an extension of a struggle for freedom which began 150 years ago, or even 2,000 years ago when the first slaves rose up. This is far more convincing than saying: we are doing something completely new which is cut off from history and isolated from the whole past as if that past had nothing to teach us and nothing we can learn from. (applause)

This quest will ultimately bring the student rebels back to a few but very basic historical concepts of socialism and Marxism. We have seen how the French, German, Italian, and now the British student movements have reverted to the ideas of socialist revolution and of workers democracy. For somebody of my school of thought it was a tremendous joy to see with what jealous precautions the French revolutionary movement protected the right of every tendency to free speech, linking up with the best traditions of socialism. Your own assembly renews ties with the old socialist and Marxist tradition of internationalism when you say that the student revolt is worldwide and the student movement is international.

Yet this is an internationalism of the same type, with the same roots and with the same goal as the internationalism of socialism, as the internationalism of the working class. The imperative international problems with which the students are faced are problems of solidarity with our comrades in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil who are leading tremendous struggles propelling the Latin American revolution to a new and higher stage after the defeats which were imposed on them by bad leadership, by internal reaction and imperialist repression over the last years. Most of all, we have to hail the courage and audacity of the Mexican students. (applause) In a few days they have fundamentally changed the political situation in that country and torn away the mask of false democracy which the Mexican government put on to receive millions of visitors during the Olympic games. Now everybody who goes to these Olympic games will learn that he goes to a country where the leaders of the railway union have been kept in jail long years after their sentences were served, where many political leaders of the left have been imprisoned for years without trial, where student leaders and a thousand student militants are in jail without any basis in law. Their heroic protests will have tremendous consequences for the future of Mexican politics and the Mexican class struggle. (applause)

It is also necessary to say a few words about persecuted students in other semi-colonial countries about whom nobody speaks, such as the leaders of the Congo students who have been in jail for nearly a year for having organized a small demonstration against the Vietnam war when vice-president Humphrey came to their country. We must not forget the leaders of the Tunisian students who have been condemned to 12 years in jail for the same reason, just for leading a demonstration. Twelve years in jail! We must alert public opinion so that these crimes of repression will not be forgotten.

We must also think about our comrades in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (applause) who have led great struggles this year. They have shown that their fight for introducing and consolidating socialist democracy in the countries of Eastern Europe is a fight which parallels our struggle against capitalism and imperialism in the West. We will not let either Stalinist or imperialist reaction misrepresent the nature of this fight as pro-imperialist or pro-bourgeois, which it is to no extent whatsoever. (applause)

Finally, we must not forget, as some can do, because it may not be in the headlines, the fight against US intervention in Vietnam which is still the main struggle in the world today. Just because negotiations have started in Paris, that does not mean we have nothing more to do to help the struggle of our Vietnamese comrades. Therefore, I call upon you to participate in the worldwide action which has been endorsed by the Japanese student movement, the Zengakuren, by the British Revolutionary Student Federation together with the Vietnamese Solidarity Campaign there and by the Student Mobilization Committee in this country. This is the Week of Solidarity with the Vietnamese revolution from the 21st to the 27th of October. That week hundreds of thousands of students, young workers and young revolutionists will come out at the same moment in a common worldwide action for the concrete goal which the Vietnamese comrades themselves tell us is the most important today for them! Show the world that in the United States hundreds of thousands of people are for the immediate withdrawal of the American troops from Vietnam. That will be a very great accomplishment. (interrupted by applause)

Some Questions from the Audience

As noted in the Redline comments at the start, the discussion was very wide-ranging.  We’ve only included here the questions dealing with students and the student movement.  People wishing to read all the questions and answers can click onto the link at the bottom.

Q. Do students have an intrinsic value as a revolutionary agency, and if so, what is it?

A. There may be some confusion here about what I said. I did not say that students must become workers in order to have revolutionary consciousness. That flies in the face of history. I’m sorry if I speak a little like a grandfather; I am not even a father. The revolutionary role of students has existed as long as the working class movement. The fact that revolutionary students can introduce revolutionary ideas to the working class was recognized by socialists, not only by Lenin but by Kautsky, Adler and many other Social Democrats nearly 100 years ago. Students can play an independent role – of course they can. Students can give the first impulse to revolutionary action, of course. They can have revolutionary consciousness; nobody can deny that. Read the history of the past 80 or 90 years of the socialist movement and you will see that at numerous moments students played precisely the same role as they are doing today in many underdeveloped countries and even in some more developed countries.

What I said was that students will not always remain students. When they leave the university, if they do not have an organization which enables them to remain integrated with other revolutionary elements, they are in danger of integrating themselves into a hostile social milieu. Why? Because many enter a milieu which is completely different from student life. They become employees, white collar workers, technicians, state functionaries. They live and work amongst people with different ideas than the student milieu with strong conservative prejudices against socialism, where there are material temptations. My point was once they cease to be students, they need a revolutionary organization to avoid losing their revolutionary consciousness.

In addition to the revolutionary consciousness of the students is the question of the effectiveness of their action. I said that beyond the initial stage of protest and impact on a restricted scale, it is impossible to take effective revolutionary action (action, not consciousness) if you are not linked with the industrial working class. This is a question of social power. The workers have a colossal potential of social power because of their strategic position in the productive process. Students also have a certain degree of social power today, more than they had 20 or 50 years ago when you could close the university for 5 years and it wouldn’t change anything in the economy of the country. Today no industrial country can afford to close the universities for 5 years. That would create big problems inside the technologically advanced industrial sectors.

However, this power is limited and students cannot get a real social transformation going unless they are linked with a stronger social force such as the working class. That is on the level of activity, not on the level of consciousness. What I sought to emphasize was the interaction that could take place between these two unequal social forces.

Q. What can be done about improving the relations between the student movement and the American workers?

A. It is most important to distinguish between what is episodic and what is permanent in the condition of the working class, here as elsewhere. Many of the French workers who made the general strike and occupied the factories in the number of ten million were the same who voted for de Gaulle on several occasions after the 1958 military coup. In the first national referendums, de Gaulle got something like 60 percent of the vote. With the structure of French society, this means that an important part of the working class voted for him.

In other words, you have to distinguish very carefully between conjunctural moods, even if these sometimes last a very long time as they have in America where the political apathy and lack of understanding of the white working class seems interminable. Still, the phenomenon is conjunctural and not rooted in the very structure of society. The only other logical argument against the anticapitalist potential of the working class has a bourgeois nature and is repeated by the reformists in the labor movement. They tell us over and over again that a higher standard of living, the acquisition of an automobile, washing machine and television set, will negate socialism and integrate the working class tightly into bourgeois society.

All those who use this argument, whatever form it may take, are only repeating a basically bourgeois argument, that it is possible to destroy class consciousness and class action through some material concessions. I deny that. I say there are basic class relations and basic class interests; that the workers, because of their place in the process of production and in the factory, are basically alienated. They will not accept fundamentally and forever a system in which a few people tell them what to produce, how to produce it, and when to produce it.

Under certain circumstances, it is difficult for them to achieve political consciousness as the result of certain causes, which you should be better able to explain. But if you are better specialists in American history, I am somewhat of an expert in the understanding of capitalist society. One hundred and fifty years of capitalism has taught us that the bourgeois class has at no time and nowhere definitely integrated the working class into its system. Conjunctural moods, yes. These can last as long as 20 or 25 years, as in postwar West Germany. But now even in that country there are clear signs that this class stagnation is coming to an end.

You must make your own analysis of American society to discern the factors which will start to change the situation. I will indicate just one vulnerable point. International competition, as the capitalists very well know, leads to an equalization of the technological level on a world scale. Yesterday American industry had to compete with international competitors with a much lower technology; today and tomorrow it is confronted with international competitors who have an equally good technology. But in these other countries of Western Europe and Japan, wages are half what they are in America, one third, or less. Just think what an exacerbated world competition will do to social contradictions in America, to the functioning of the trade unions, to the relations between the leaders of the trade unions and the rank and file when technology becomes the same but there is a huge wage differential. The drive of the corporations to reduce labor costs will tend to upset the long-standing quiescence and apathy of the American working class, especially among the working class youth which I spoke about before.

Q. What has all this economic theorizing got to do with our problems of action in the student movement?

A. I tried to show that the European student movement through its experience in struggle has already solved a series of dilemmas which you are erecting as tremendous obstacles. There is no contradiction between theory and practice. There is no contradiction between working among the students and trying to work among the workers. There is no contradiction between student power and workers revolution. That’s what I tried to show.

The European student movement has gone through the same kind of discussions and in practice has succeeded in solving at least part of them. It has turned in its very large majority in a certain direction. It has tried to find a common basis of struggle with the industrial working class. And it has succeeded very largely in France, and partially in other countries. It has also turned towards a stricter type of organization.

Remember that I did not bring up in my presentation this question of the Leninist type of organization; that was brought up from the floor. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t reproach me at one and the same time for answering the questions which are posed to me on the floor and for evading the debate. I tried to answer the questions that were posed; I did not raise them.

The relevant questions are: what should a growing student movement do in order to try and achieve a stronger basis in working towards a possible social transformation in the United States? What are the lessons of the European student movement for the American student movement?

We have taken the material above from the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA); there the text includes other questions and answers from the discussion period.  The text was transcribed by Joe Auciello for the MIA and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.  It is available here.



  1. The 1968 events had a powerful affect on a layer of young students in New Zealand. For instance, in Wellington a new Socialist Club emerged at Victoria University, producing a journal called ‘Red Spark’.

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