Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Building a Revolutionary Student Movement

Part 1 – SNCC and the Early Period

First Published: The Call, Vol. 2, No. 12, September 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The future of the student movement appears bright. This year could bring about a revitalized struggle on the part of students and young people both in the U.S. and around the world.

Last spring’s student uprisings in South Korea, Greece, Thailand, South Africa and Japan signaled the coming resurgence of this movement. In Connecticut, Wisconsin, California and elsewhere, student coalitions led by Black and minority student organizations, fought against government cut-backs in financial aid and ethnic studies programs. At the University of Washington and other major universities, broad coalitions of students defeated efforts of the school administration to bring non-union lettuce and grapes into the campus eating facilities and held mass rallies in solidarity with the United Farm Workers of America and against racial discrimination. Ten thousand marched in May on the campus of Kent State University, where in May 1970, four students were killed by national guard troops while protesting the invasion of Cambodia. On other campuses around the country, thousands of young people rose up demanding that Nixon be dumped and that an end be put to his fascist policies.

The beginnings of some new anti-imperialist student organizations is also a promising sign of things to come. Despite claims by the capitalist press that “Nixon has brought peace to the campuses”, or that the student movement is “dead” the fact is that as long as the many injustices of this system continue to exist, there will always be a movement of students which rises up in resistance. The continued growth of various student organizations confirms this fact.


For instance, MECHA and UMAS are two Chicano student organizations present on many campuses in the southwestern U.S. which have continued to grow and take a militant stand against the treatment of the Chicano minority. Youth Organization of Black Unity (YOBU) is another anti-imperialist youth organization which has played a significant role in building African Liberation Month and initiated demonstrations against the racist “scientist” William Shockley and his theories of white supremacy as well as against the campus policies of racism and discrimination.

Many other local and national organizations of minority, students, veterans organizations on the campuses, women’s groups and others continue to lay the groundwork for a year of struggle. In June the first national meeting of the Revolutionary Student Brigade was held in Iowa, in preparing to open a new year of activism, the questions of what role students can play in the revolutionary movement and what tasks the student movement faces need to be widely discussed.

The recent history of the student struggle provides some material with which to answer these questions. Students and youth in general have always gravitated towards the revolutionary movement primarily as a result of their own position in society. Youthful energy combined with the desire to build a better world and shape their own future as well as an openness to new ideas, have drawn the youth into the ranks of those most active in the people’s struggle.

Often because of their education, students have gained early access to revolutionary ideas and teachings. Many of the great revolutionary leaders like Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, V.I. Lenin, J.V. Stalin and Mao Tsetung were first introduced to revolutionary thought while they themselves were students.

The general oppression of the majority of young people under capitalism provides an additional basis for student activism. High unemployment and bad or irrelevant educational conditions, forced military service in imperialist wars and many other factors act to expose to students the real nature of this system. In the U.S. many thousands of students came face to face with the contradictions of imperialist society when they were called upon to fight in the Vietnam war. It exposed to many the lies that they had been taught about the “benevolent” and “democratic” nature of the US. system of government .especially when it affected them directly.

Thousands more rebelled against the blatant injustices committed by the ruling class against Black and other minority peoples in a country which teaches its young that capitalism brings brotherhood and equality.

This contradiction–the clash between the phony capitalist ideals taught in the classroom and the reality of oppression, exploitation and aggression which became sharply evident in the 1960’s–produced the ferment in which students around the country were speaking out and going to jail in protest of war and racism. This rebellion broke out even at a time when the workers movement was at a relatively low ebb. But even without the conscious working class leadership so necessary for victory; even with the errors and the often unscientific approach to the struggle that many students took in that period, one thing should be clear. The rebellion of the students in the 60’s was just and was a heroic page in the history of the people of this country.

As early as 1959, students at Berkeley and Chicago began to denounce the government’s policy of sending “military advisors” to Vietnam. Over the next decade, teach-ins, draft resistance movements, blocking of troop trains and armaments depots and countless marches and publications brought the issue of the imperialist war clearly before the people. In so doing, the student movement set the spark that led to the flame of the U.S. anti-war movement with its mass actions a million strong and its broad support among the working people.

It was no coincidence that the militant student movement of the 60’s found its beginnings in the most heavily oppressed and poorest region of the country-in the South. On February 1, 1960, Black students initiated the first sit-in to desegregate the Wool worth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. The brutality with which this demand was met shattered for many people the illusion of U.S. “democracy.” This kind of brutality towards the student movement and the Black liberation struggle in particular was a clear indication of what the ruling class will do to maintain their profits and their power. It was to be followed by such events as the Orangeburg Massacre and the murders of protesting students at Texas Southern Univ. which made headlines all over the world.

The growth of the sit-in movement and the spread of similarly militant movements throughout the South, led to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at Greensboro in 1963. SNCC allied with many other organizations outside the campuses in waging the fight for Black liberation and grew nationally with the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement.

SNCC advocated non-violence as the main tactic until through its own experience, it learned that the U.S. ruling class would use reactionary violence and terror against any and all challenges to its white supremacist policies. In 1967 SNCC began advocating instead, “organized self-defense of the Black community” against Klan and police terror. The slogan of “Black Power” was advanced beginning in 1965 as an objective call for the right of self-determination for Afro-American people.

SNCC’s move from pacifism to resistance and Black Power brought down upon them the wrath of the liberals as well as the so-called “friends of the Negro people” and even that of the revisionist Communist Party USA who were loudly advocating their line of “peaceful transition to socialism.” SNCC was forced to “go against the tide” and rely on themselves and on the masses.


SNCC’s influence in the ideological direction of the student movement laid the groundwork for the developing anti-imperialist consciousness that followed. It was the first major organization to publicly call for militant protests against U.S. aggression in Indochina. Later, during the 1967 “June War” of Israeli aggression in the Middle East, while many sections of the student movement were trying to straddle the fence between anti-imperialism and Zionism, SNCC openly denounced Zionism and its policies of war and annexation of Arab territories. Calling upon the movement to take up the anti-Zionist call, SNCC was able to show clearly the link between Israel’s anti-Arab policies and the white supremacy of its chief backers, the U.S. ruling class.

Owing, to the absence of a Marxist-Leninist party in the U.S. since the early 50’s, most entrants into the movement of the 60’s were young people, unfamiliar with a scientific understanding of the class and national struggles and unfamiliar to Marxism. SNCC and the whole Civil Rights Movement became a school of clashing ideologies and the scene of some new stirrings of revolutionary ideology growing in opposition to the liberalism of the disenchanted middle-class reformers. Various degrees and formulations of Marxism, nationalism and reformism straggled out their views and at one point led to a split.

The split in SNCC had several underlying causes. One was that SNCC never resolved the organizational question of whether it was to be a mass-based organization or a narrow cadre group. This contradiction made it impossible to resolve political differences properly. Secondly, there was a split over the question of whether white and Black SNCC members could remain in one organization. The growing nationalism of the period came into conflict with the liberalism of most of the white students and intellectuals, who viewed themselves for the most part as part-time fighters. White SNCC workers were finally asked to leave and to go and organize in white communities-something which, up to that time had been totally neglected.

Other divisions in the ranks included some who advocated the necessity of armed struggle or preparation for such a struggle as the main form of the fight for liberation, against others such as John Lewis and Julian Bond who advocated “working within the system.”

SNCC’s overall contribution was its consistent stand against racism and imperialism. Because of this, the entire student movement began to see the need to unite against imperialism and to make the fight against discrimination a central part of its program.

The second part of this series will appear in the October CALL, analyzing the lessons of the May 4th Movement in China, and tracing the development of SDS.