Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Ben Bedell

’Revolutionary Student Brigade’ formed in Iowa

First Published: Guardian, July 3, 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Iowa City–Radical students from around the country met here this month to form a national organization of anti-imperialist students.

The Revolutionary Student Brigade, the name chosen for the new organization, is the outgrowth of the two-year-old Attica Brigade, an anti-imperialist student organization from the East Coast. The Brigade has expanded from its East Coast base to include chapters in the Midwest, South and West.

The founding convention, held here June 15 to 17, saw the consolidation of the Brigade as a national organization. About 450 Attica Brigade members and independent anti-imperialist students, from some 80 colleges, universities and community colleges, met at the University of Iowa for the three-day conference.

The opening speaker at the convention set the tone for the gathering which was characterized by a high level of enthusiasm and unity.

Speaking of the need for a mass, student anti-imperialist organization, Rob Devigne, a member of the Brigade’s governing body, said, “Students have a definite role to play in the worldwide struggle against imperialism. We can bring the understanding to the students on our campuses that it’s not a bad policy or politician that causes a Vietnam or an energy freeze, and it’s not just one bad boss that causes a Farah strike, it’s the system of imperialism.”

Speaking about the general situation in the world, Devigne said, “We can see that the outlook for defeating the imperialists is very good. The Indochinese people began 1973 with great victories against U.S. imperialism. Recently we’ve seen the freedom fighters in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique throw off the chains of Portuguese colonialism. When you look at the overall situation, it’s really they, the imperialists, who are on the run and it’s the people who are rising up to smash them.”

In a more detailed statement of its principles of unity, the Brigade makes the following critique:

“In the words of Ho Chi Minh, imperialism is a two-headed leech, one head sucking the blood of the workers and oppressed nationalities at home and the other sucking the blood of the colonized and semi-colonized peoples abroad. Its bloodthirstiness doesn’t come from bad policies which the ruling class can change or abandon at will. It springs from the very nature of the system, which is based on the private appropriation of profit. . . .

“We firmly unite around two principles and an understanding that our common enemy is U.S. imperialism. Membership in the Brigade is based on these two principles: Support for national liberation abroad, as exemplified by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, and support for the struggles of oppressed people at home.”

The Brigade has been active in the past year in rallying anti-Nixon students around the slogan “Throw the Bum Out” and has also mounted support for the Farah strikers and the United Farm Workers’ boycott of Gallo wines and scab grapes and lettuce. Individual chapters have been active in mounting resistance to budget cutbacks, appearances by racist theoretician William Shockley and a broad range of other issues.

The convention began with the presentation of reports by the national interim committee, the Brigade’s governing body, and reports from the regional committees. One point stressed in the reports, especially by the East Coast chapters, and reasserted continually throughout the convention was the failure to put forth the political stance of the Brigade to students forcefully enough. “Be bold” became the watchword of the convention.


Another concept repeatedly heard was avoidance of the “trap of reformism.” One region wrote a paper in criticism of a tendency to become involved in reformist “second-level” organizations. “In some of our work, such as farmworkers or prisoner support,” the report read, “we fail to identify the chief enemy of the farmworkers and the reason for the oppressive prison system as being the system of imperialism. Instead ideas that it is one grower or one rotten prison administrator, come to the fore. This holds back the struggle because it can lead people to believe we can unite with ’liberal’ elements of the ruling class, that the system can be reformed, that the struggle can be resolved under imperialism, that the system really does work. These are ideas we obviously do not want to spread. . . . We must get rid of concepts, like second-level work, which hold our efforts back.”

Another criticism, offered by the Florida chapter of the Brigade, pointed out a tendency toward ultra-leftism. “Although the problem of tailing the masses is ever present and must be combated,” their report stated, “the problem of moving beyond the masses, and identifying ... a select organization as the revolutionary agent is a more destructive problem and it must be combated more intensively. Lenin has talked at length about these problems and many times issued sharp invective at those who through excitative and militantly offensive tactics, set themselves up as the revolutionary force.”

Area reports were followed by a speech from former SDS national secretary Clark Kissinger. Kissinger, in a very well received speech, addressed many of his remarks to errors which he said the student movement of the 1960s had made. Among them were a failure to view the entire capitalist system as inherently oppressive; a lack of organization of national minority groups under common leaders and goals, no centralized leadership (“We made a religion of anarchy”) and no effort to unify workers and students in a broad mass movement.


Messages of solidarity were heard throughout the convention, including those from Herbert Blyden of the Attica Brothers Legal Defense, Pete Zastrow of Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization (VVAW/WSO), Tapson Mawere of Zimbabwe African National Union and representatives of the Federation of Puerto Rican Socialist Students, the Iranian Student Association and the MREQ, a Canadian Marxist-Leninist organization.

Cultural presentations were interspersed with political discussion, presentations being offered by Prairie Fire, revolutionary singers from California; guerrilla theatre groups from the Boston and Columbia University chapters, and an anti-imperialist rock-and-roll band.

The majority of the conferences’ participants spent the evenings sleeping on the floor of the high school gym. Delegates exchanged experiences and ideas continuously throughout the conference. Spirited debates arose around many issues, ranging from the national question, to the Symbionese Liberation Army, to a revolutionary view of sexuality.

The second day opened with a number of workshops on tactical questions and mass work presently being conducted by Brigade chapters. Discussions of work around strike and prison support activities were held. Especially well attended workshops were those on the role of third world students in the Brigade and a workshop on the role of communists in the Brigade conducted by Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Union.

Criticisms of the role of the Revolutionary Union in the Brigade were raised at the meeting. Fran Rickin, a former Brigade member from New York University, challenged Avakian from the floor and said that often “criticisms of the RU’s line are ruled out of order. People who don’t agree with the line find themselves unable to get an opposing view across,” she charged. Rickin, a Marxist-Leninist, believed that at least in her case, the sectarian line of RU had precluded her participation in the group as well as narrowing its base on the campus.

Avakian also addressed the conference as a whole and spoke about the urgent need to form a new communist-party. He pointed out that one of the main contributions of an anti-imperialist student movement is to prepare cadre for positions of leadership in communist organizations.

The Revolutionary Union played a leading role in initiating the original Attica Brigade chapters and consolidating the organization as a whole.

A caucus of independent local groups and newly formed chapters also held a number of meetings throughout the convention. Large contingents from the Radical Students Union at the University of California at Berkeley, as well as delegates from San Jose State, the University of Florida at Gainesville, Boston University and Stanford, met to discuss the direction of the Brigade’s development and debate the question as to whether to form a chapter on their respective campuses.

Criticisms of a sectarian style of work and a tendency toward ultra-leftism were aired. Several independents expressed misgivings about what they termed a tendency towards “cadrification,” away from the Brigade’s stated goal of being a mass organization. At least some of the members of each of the independent delegations resolved to form chapters.

Participation by national minorities at the conference numbered about 40 of the 450 participants. Black students from the University of Ohio at Athens attended, along with a large contingent of Asian-Americans from Wei Min. a San Francisco-based anti-imperialist organization. Observers from Chicano, Native American and Black anti-imperialist organizations also were represented. A third world caucus resolved that multinational forms of organization were imperative for furthering the anti-imperialist struggle.

The final day of the conference saw discussion and sharp debate on the questions of the focus of the Brigade’s national campaign and the proposal to change the name from the Attica Brigade to the Revolutionary Student Brigade.

Discussion and criticism of the Brigade’s mass newspaper, Fightback, was taken up. Several strong criticisms of the paper were registered, as two written reports pointed out tendencies towards “left-wing communism, sloganeering and rhetorical style.” On the whole, however, the paper was praised.

The question of a national campaign for the fall was undertaken. The national campaign was defined as an issue that all chapters would resolve to do some work on. The slogan of “Throw the Bum Out-Organize to Fight” was proposed as the focus for the national campaign. Anti-Nixon organizing had been an area of work for many of the chapters during the previous year.


The Brigade is careful to distinguish itself from impeachment groups, however. “Our enemy is not just Nixon but the entire monopoly capitalist class he represents. We can’t rely on Congress to throw him out and even if they do that won’t solve the basic problems that confront the people. We can’t rely on the liberals, like Kennedy, to solve them either. We can only rely on a mass peoples’ movement,” said one speaker. Objections to this slogan were raised mainly by third world students, who said it did not hit hard enough at fascist attacks on third world communities. They proposed the slogan “Throw the Bum Out-Fight Repression.” Proponents of the first argued that fighting repression was a part of “Organize to Fight.” The slogan, “Throw the Bum Out-Organize to Fight,” won overwhelmingly.

The second issue to be debated was the proposal to change the name of the organization. The primary reason for the change stemmed from criticisms made of the Brigade by the Attica Brothers Legal Defense Committee. The Attica Brothers said that the association of the name Attica with actions that the Brigade had undertaken, such as the seizure last May of the Statue of Liberty, might unfavorably influence juries hearing Attica cases.

The name Revolutionary Student Brigade was proposed and adopted after a debate. Opponents of the name argued that it tended to raise the level of unity to a point beyond the reach of many students, that it sounded like the name of a cadre organization and that it seemed to link the group too closely to the Revolutionary Union. Supporters of the name rejoined by asserting that the only sure road for smashing imperialism is revolution. They argued that the name accurately reflected the political stance of the organization.

The convention ended on a note of spirited enthusiasm, as Laura Rose, a Brigade leader and member of the Revolutionary Union, delivered the farewell address. She said the convention had been characterized by a “tremendous amount of unity that has come from the successes we have had in the past and the greater understanding we now have.”

She concluded by saying, “It is the imperialists that arc in trouble, for the people everywhere are on the rise. Our task is to build the anti-imperialist student movement and the anti-imperialist movement as a whole.”