Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Building a Revolutionary Student Movement

Part 2: Students against Imperialism

First Published: The Call, Vol. 3, No. 1, October 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This article is the second of two-parts on the history of the student movement in the U.S. Last month’s article dealt with the development of NCC and the influence of the civil rights movement on students.

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The role of students providing a spark to mass movements such as the struggle for civil rights and against war and aggression in Vietnam is nothing new. This process has been repeated in similar form in many countries. In China, for example, revolutionary students launched what became known as the “May Fourth Movement” in 1919. This movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of students to oppose the division of Chinese territory by the European powers following the Versailles Treaty of World War 1. Protesting imperialist domination of their country, the students in May, 1919 were the first to recognize that it was not “foreigners” in general who were China’s enemies, but the imperialist exploiters, their troops and corporations, who sought to drain and subjugate China. The student uprising of May Fourth was violently attacked by the Chinese Imperial Dynasty, and several students were killed. The urban workers of Peking, Shanghai and other big cities joined in the anti-imperialist movement in a wave of general strikes during the following month and sweeping anti-imperialist unity between workers and students was forged. Furthermore many of the intellectuals who later founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 to lead the revolutionary struggle, were participants in the May Fourth Movement. In the course of the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal battle, the students and intellectuals embarked on mass criticisms of traditional Chinese schools of thought, denouncing the philosophy of Confucius with its contempt for the laboring people.


Mao Tse-tung, reflecting on the May 4th Movement of which he too was a member, pointed out to the students of China: “How should we judge if a youth is revolutionary? ... 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 ...” (On the Orientation of the Youth Movement, May 1939) The movement for “student power” which arose in the U.S. in the 60’s also faced the dilemma of dealing only with student issues, or else taking on the imperialist system, of which the universities are only a tool and a reflection.

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) at Berkeley in 1964 was a dramatic event which helped to stimulate the whole student movement of the sixties. The FSM, initially a campus issue, was transformed into a major mass struggle.

The FSM began when university authorities, fond of speaking of Berkeley as a “marketplace for ideas,” suppressed a campus table where money was being collected for the civil rights battles being fought in the South. In response, a movement rapidly spread demanding the right of free speech on all issues, and the right to organize politically. Believing that these rights were guaranteed by the constitution, many students woke up to the nature of the imperialist system when their demands were met by police, tear gas, and mass arrests.

Out of the FSM came the recognition that the interests which ran the whole society, also ran the universities. University of California regents were exposed as oil monopolists, publishing tycoons, and so forth. In this period, the tactics of mass confrontation against the police and student strikes spread from Berkeley to hundreds of other campuses, as Dow Chemical recruiters were chased out of the schools for the manufacture of napalm, and army ROTC buildings were burned down:

As a result of militant student actions, the universities granted some concessions on the question of free speech, academic requirements, dormitory hours and the like. But the basic class role of the universities did not change. Many students recognized this, and stepped-up the anti-imperialist struggle, especially around Vietnam. As a result, those who advocated only “student power” and reform, became the right-wing of the student movement, trying to make “the system work.” In the mid-sixties, however, this tendency could not gain hold among the most active students who began joining fighting organizations like Students for a Democratic Society in large number.

Students for a Democratic Society was the largest anti-imperialist student organization of the 1960’s. By the late 60’s its membership had swelled to near 70,000 with nearly 350 chapters all over the country. It had back-fired on its founders. Originally set up by right-wing social democrats of the League for Industrial Democracy, Socialist Party, and some labor union bureaucrats, founders’ purpose; was to channel the dissension of youth into saving the system, getting them interested in Democratic Party politics, and capitalizing on the groundswell of discontent among the youth to build a base for their reformist politics. But as soon as the active students were brought together in this setting, the influence of such forces as the Black struggle in the South, Vietnam, and the Berkeley movement began to cause sharp debate within the early SDS over its character. While early SDS buttons carried the anti-struggle message, “Build, Not Burn” and called on students to support Lyndon Johnson with “Part of the Way with LBJ”, within a few years, the buttons said, “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win” and called on students to boycott the elections (“Vote in the Streets”) and inarch against the war and the system. The great strength of SDS was its internationalism and its militant anti-imperialism. It did not fail, however, to fight around local student issues on the campus, focussing especially on questions affecting minority students and minority communities, as well as for the rights of women. Several of its most important battles were against university expansion which resulted in destruction of Black communities, such as at Columbia University in 1968. Within SDS a significant section of the women’s liberation movement developed. Women in SDS called upon the organization to take up issues of discrimination and oppression of female students. It helped organize women’s groups on the campuses, and agitated within the student movement for attention to the special demands of women and against male supremacy within the organization.

The 1968 student strike at New York’s Columbia University exposed urban renewal as a vicious attack on the Black community and revealed again the degree to which the university is only a servant of the big corporations. The Oakland “Stop the Draft Week” and numerous national drives against the Vietnam draft, mobilized thousands of men to refuse to fight against the Indochinese people. SDS members began moving off the campus to organize among active-duty GI’s and to set up community draft resistance centers. Gradually, the actions of SDS attacked the imperialist system by name and spoke openly of the need for revolution, while moving from the big universities into the working class schools and communities.

Within SDS several serious ideological debates occurred. One was the question of the role and character of the American working class. Because of the primarily middle-class base of SDS, many students had a tendency to look down upon the working people. A line emerged which opposed uniting with workers’ struggles, and which claimed that the students and technically-trained professionals themselves were some sort of a “new working class” which must itself lead in revolution, and which depicted the industrial working class as a backward and dying class due to technology. With the gradual upsurge in tire labor movement in the latter part of the sixties this line was discredited to a large extent.

As SDS and the rest of the student movement took major strides forward in the anti-imperialist struggle, it was met with sharp repression.

At Columbia University, San Francisco State, Orangeburg, So. Carolina, Kent State, Jackson State in Mississippi and others, student demonstrations were violently suppressed, and the student movement had a number of martyrs who laid down their lives in the fight against the US. aggression in Indochina and against national oppression of Black people.

During this period especially, many students recognized the need to reach out to the people in the communities and in the factories; to do political organizing not only among students but among the masses of people. A significant trend within the student movement began by going out and doing just that.

Why did the movement of the sixties which had reached such tremendous proportions, collapse so rapidly? In part, this was due to organizational factors. SDS and other similar organizations were loosely structured and suffered from an inability to coordinate their efforts nationwide This weakness stemmed from both the instability of the students as a group (the transitory character of the student movement with the constant turn over of the campus population), and a lack of understanding of the significant role their movement could play.

Owing to the heavy bourgeois influences of the university and to the lack of a real communist party to provide clear leadership to the students as well as to the anti-communism which is part and parcel of university education, a large anarchist trend existed within SDS. Without a firm understanding of the real oppression and potential power of the masses of the American people, some among SDS turned to terrorism – they lacked faith in the people and believed that a small group of “pure revolutionaries” could destroy U.S. imperialism, and bring socialism to the masses. This characterized the Weatherman split-off from SDS. The U.S. student movement was also sabotaged directly by U.S. government agencies. In 1966 it was revealed that the National Student Association was heavily funded and infiltrated by the Central Intelligence Agency for the purpose of subverting it and keeping it from heading in a more militant direction.


Sabotage from within was carried out by such wreckers and agents as the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). Their objective was to destroy the mass base of the student movement by splitting SDS organizationally. PLP’s line aimed at splitting SDS away from the national liberation movements by characterizing all nationalist movements as “reactionary” – including the patriotic resistance of the Vietnamese, which PLP termed a “sell-out.” PLP also tried to mislead the student movement into withholding support from the Black liberation struggle because it was “too nationalist.” Their actual intention was to isolate SDS. Although PLP claimed to be a “vanguard communist party,” it was a party built primarily of students with no ties to the masses of working people. Their contempt for the workers was reflected in their abstract calls for a “student-worker alliance” which was a call for students to tail behind the narrowest economic struggles of the unions rather than join with working people in opposing imperialism and its policies. PLP scoffed at the struggle of Black students to gain admissions to the universities, saying that the “universities are just bourgeois institutions and if Blacks get in, it will just make them bourgeois.” They were dogmatists who belittled the importance of the fight for democratic rights and struggles of the students as students on the campus, especially of minority students. At the same time, they sought to prevent SDS from moving to support struggles of the people of Indochina: thus liquidating the two most powerful areas of student struggle. In 1968, a significant section of SDS voted to expel PLP from SDS for its white chauvinist and pro-imperialist politics and sectarianism. PLP, in a well-financed maneuver, set up a rump SDS in Boston, which was never able to build up a mass base as SDS had once had.

At the 1969 SDS Convention, when PLP was expelled, another important split occurred. Two lines on the direction of the student movement emerged; one advocated closer unity between the students and the working class, and national minority movements, and sought to rebuild SDS as a mass-based anti-imperialist organization. This tendency was called, “Revolutionary Youth Movement” or RYM-2. The other trend was the Weatherman line which was described earlier. This line saw no relevancy in the struggles of the American people or students, and said that the American people are “living off the people of the Third World.” Workers, said the Weathermen, are copartners with the imperialists. Weatherman claimed that to fight for the needs of the people would be to give U.S. workers “more privileges.” This line is repeated today by the Revolutionary Union and the Communist League who both claim that “white-skin privileges” are the cause of “backwardness” among the workers. RU called RYM-2 “pacifist” for opposing Weatherman’s terrorism and anti-working class stand.

This split between RYM-2 and the Weatherman coinciding with the expulsion of PLP, was the final blow to the organizational stability of SDS. Another basic cause of the downfall of SDS was the efforts on the part of some to confuse the student movement with the party. Rather than seeing SDS as a broad united front organization, they tried to narrow it to an appendage of their own narrow organization. This provided a basis for sectarianism and splittism.

But from this experience some important lessons for the student movement of today can be learned. The student movement must have a mass character. When left sectarianism gains control of the movement, the masses will turn away from it. The mass student organizations cannot become a narrow front for any group. When a party is built, it must give leadership to the students, but not remove the broad character and certain level of autonomous developments from this movement.

The student movement must not negate either side of the student struggle–its internationalist duties in opposing imperialism, or the defense of the day-to-day interests and rights of students and youth. Instead it must take up the banner of anti-imperialism and draw the connection clearly between the system, and the oppression of students and youth. PLP spread anti-communism everywhere it went by its overt and covert efforts to make SDS its appendage and to rob the youth movement of independence and mass outreach.

The student movement of today must take on campaigns against imperialist war, exposing the role of both superpowers, against the imperialist cutbacks in education, especially the attempts to deprive minority students of their right to an education and a trade. It must defeat reformism and the “student power” mentality that seeks to limit the struggle to campus issues. It must militantly oppose all fascist measures of the imperialists–on the campus or off–and gradually build up its ties with the other movements of .oppressed and working people.

In the past few months, a new anti-imperialist student organization has formed, called the Revolutionary Student Brigade. It held its founding convention this summer and has established several chapters around the country.


While still small and only in its early formative period, several important questions have already arisen as to what the character of this organization will be. Heavily under the influence of the Revolutionary Union, it faces many of the same dangers as SDS faced with PL’s influence. Already within the RSB, the RU leadership has taken a white-chauvinist position with regards to preventing caucuses of minority students from forming. RU pushes, their slogan “All nationalism is nationalism” failing to see the progressive aspect of nationalism of the oppressed nations and minorities.

In a speech to the RSB convention, RU leader Bob Avakian stressed only the role of the student movement in developing communist cadre from its ranks and ignored the mass character of the anti-imperialist united front which RSB must take on if it is to be successful. If it is to make a contribution, RSB must not become simply a recruiting ground for RU, and must oppose RU’s chauvinism and sectarian influence.

The positive aspect of the RSB is that it has made strong statements and taken a number of actions clearly directed at imperialism and its aggressive policies. But the question still remains as to whether this anti-imperialist consciousness can be linked-up to the everyday issues which face millions of students, especially those from working class and minority families.

In this period of sharpening crisis and rising contradictions between the people and the ruling class, the conditions for a rebirth of the mass, anti-imperialist student movement are good. The millions of students in this country can be welded into a revolutionary force which can stand up to imperialism and its fascist, aggressive policies and which can join with the working and oppressed peoples in bringing socialism to the world.

To do this, leadership is needed which can sum up the history of the movement and learn the right lessons in order to unite all that can be united into a fighting revolutionary struggle.