Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Workers Headquarters

Marxists on Campus: Shedding Ultra-leftism to Build Student Movement

First Published: The Call, Vol. 10, No. 2, March 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Call Note: Last November, student members of the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWH) played a key role in organizing a Progressive Student Conference at Kent State. This conference, attended by some 400 students, represented an important breakthrough for the Headquarters’ student work. Their contribution was the product of a step-by-step process of combatting ultra-leftism, building the main struggles of students and uniting with the activist forces.

Following is a summary of this process and views on the student movement. The article is excerpted from a longer report which is available from The Call.

* * *

Following the formation of the RWH after the split in the Revolutionary Communist Party, what had been the RCP’s youth organization, the Revolutionary Student Brigade, continued to exist as a mass communist organization, vaguely tied to the RWH.

There was a struggle to reorient and integrate ourselves into the mainstream of the student movement, which at the time focused around building the divestiture campaign (selling university stock in S. African apartheid). There was a well-intentioned but artificial effort to sever the umbilical cord to the RWH and make it appear that the RSB was “independent” and not a “sect’s youth group.” Finally, there was an effort to make our Marxism more flexible and more mass-oriented.


Despite some excellent organizing and fine tuning, the stubborn fact remained that the RSB was a fetter to uniting with the advanced.

The RSB was subjective because it tried to make our communist organization the mold that advanced activists had to fit into. It was objectively sectarian because it ignored the natural and indigenous forms that already did and potentially could have united the movement, such as progressive student groups. It was also dogmatic because it relied on the “tried and true” formulas of the Young Communist League of the CPUSA rather than relying on our own practice and assessment of what is needed today.

We finally agreed that the RSB itself was ultra-left. Student comrades from the CPML arrived at the same conclusions about their Communist Youth Organization, although under different conditions.

Our line for building the Kent State Conference and helping form the Progressive Student Network which was launched there is, on the other hand, based on several assessments that are components of our current line on the student movement.

A Movement of Movements–The student movement today is composed of at least a half-dozen independent movements that students are involved in, such as anti-draft, women’s issues, anti-nukers, minority students, gays, third world support, student government, etc. There is no single thread that now ties the entire movement together such as the Vietnam War did in the ’60s or the civil rights movement before it.

Waves of Activism–Waves of mass activity have provided different focuses, which have shifted several times since 1977. The shifts have seen the advanced activists and the mass base moving from anti-apartheid organizing, to anti-nuclear, and recently to anti-draft.

Each wave has brought forward new activists and large single-issue mass organizations such as the North East Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa (NECLSA), the Students Coalition Against Nukes Nationwide (SCANN), and the Midwest Coalition Against Registration and the Draft (MidCARD), which have basically come and gone with the waves of protest.

Cores of Advanced–A number of activists now see the need for an organization that can address itself; to a number of different questions and be “multi-issue.”

On several campuses, students already have started pulling together their advanced cores into progressive student groups, and in many cases Marxist-Leninists have played an important role in this.

Uneven Development–Both the intensity of mass activity and the size of the advanced cores vary from campus to campus. Groups like the Radical Student Union at Amherst or the Progressive Student Coalition at Northwestern University have active memberships of over 25 students who are also involved in different single-issue groups. But many schools have not been able to build such organizations and rely much more on building the single-issue organizations and smaller core groups of the advanced.

Generally, the larger state universities and private elite schools, with a tradition of student activism (and some radical faculty), have had the more advanced experiences and have built larger movements and more permanent organizations.

The smaller state colleges and urban-based commuter schools with a greater working class student body have not been the primary centers of activity for today’s student movement. But while these schools have had less success in building a movement around issues like nukes, apartheid, and the draft, they have been the scenes of important struggles around cutbacks, discrimination and different local issues.

Anti-Corporate Consciousness–Most activists are sympathetic to nearly all progressive movements against injustice and inequality (sexism, racism, etc.). This is coupled with deep cynicism and antipathy towards the big corporations and establishment politicians, and their profit and power motives.

For example, anti-draft demos and leaflets usually link the draft with the profit drive of Big Oil in the Mideast, while the anti-nuke activists acknowledge that the unprofitability of pulling out the billions of dollars invested in nukes is what prevents the energy industry from shifting to solar.

In addition, uncertainty over the future is increasing as students find their educational and job options limited. The draft and the threat of war, the fear of nuclear destruction, and the move to the right among the ruling class has produced a new concern about what looms ahead. Students’ frustration and fears, however, can also mean a turn in the opposite political direction–towards jingoism and conservatism–as the Iranian hostage crisis proved last year.

No new “Camelot” has captured the idealism and imagination of students today as a McCarthy or McGovern did a decade ago. This is partly a reflection of the decline in the student movement since the late ’60s, but is also a product of the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate distrust of establishment politicians.

Not Revolutionary Consciousness–Most activists view Marxism as one ideology among several (e.g., feminism, pacifism, anarchism, etc.) that are useful in building the people’s struggle. But they also have a healthy and vehement disdain for the ultra-left sects of the Spartacist and RCP ilk.

It should be emphasized, however, that most of the active students do not consider themselves revolutionaries, anti-imperialists or Marxists.

While people do sense that a big political change is necessary, there is not a lot of clarity and vision of what exactly is needed, who can do it, or even if a fundamental change is possible. The anti-nuke and anti-draft movements, while fairly big, are unsustained, the activists relatively inexperienced, and the struggles not over pitched-battle, dividing-line issues like the Vietnam War.

Also, no big movement of labor (like during the Depression) or minorities (like during the ’50s and ’60s), or foreign revolution (like the Chinese, Cuban or Vietnamese) has given any new insights or inspiration to those broader questions. The crisis of Marxism internationally has made it difficult to provide the standard answers of how the working class, the communist party, and socialism will solve our problems.

The critical question of how students will become Marxists in this period has yet to be solved. Our ability today to paint broad strokes of the revolutionary path ahead is limited. On the positive side, though, we can illustrate how Marxism can be used to explain the overall crisis of capitalism in the U.S. today, a materialist view of how to build the unity and strength of the various people’s movements, and an international strategy to thwart the danger of world war.

Among activists there is a very rational desire to not harp on ideology, but rather to deal with practical questions and develop program to get new students involved. A handful of older reactivated radicals have helped provide some leadership and injected a certain amount of political understanding into the movement, but in the main it is very young. People do respect and acknowledge the ’60s student movement, but today’s struggle has its own features and its own course of political development.

Initiating the Network–Given the analysis above, last spring we helped initiate a call to try to pull together some of these different campus activists into some kind of loose united front or network. The experience and respect we had gained in the local areas and in the big coalitions like SCANN and MidCARD; the spirit of urging unity and opposing sectarianism; being tolerant arid not bickering; being modest and not grandiose; being concrete and programmatic and not harping on principles; and proceeding slowly and not rashly were important features that won people to the feasibility of pulling off a network and the conference.

The fact that a certain crossover existed between the activists in the different movements made the idea of a network that would link together the issues and the activists very appealing. Building a full-blown organization with chapters, central office, etc., was thought premature at this point, as the actual numbers and influence of the groups was too transitory and unstable.

In building the conference, the united front was broadened to include not just anti-nukers and anti-draft people, but also people in the U.S. Student Association, Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, student government people, feminist and gay groups, as well as some of the more traditional movement leaders like Dave Dellinger.

The national question however, posed serious contradictions that are not immediately solvable through the Network. The Black and Latino student groups have very distinct and independent characteristics. Their members are legitimately wary about getting ripped-off and submerged in a “rainbow coalition” student movement. However, some minimal gains were made: The head of the USSA Third World Student Coalition and Study And Struggle (associated with People’s College) united with the Network, although their numbers at the conference were not very strong.

While we have to try for greater coordination and communication with minority student activists, we have to recognize that the movements actually are separate. There is a task, however, of pushing for the white activists in the movements to do education and support work for minority struggles. We have the task of educating and winning over other white students to the concerns and struggles of minorities, showing the identity of interests, and proving to minority students that the progressive student movement is a reliable and principled supporter of their demands.

The conference turnout was excellent and was a good reflection of the student movement today. It proved our assertion that strategically the student movement is on the rise. The conference was ideologically pluralistic with pacifists, independent Marxists, feminists, anarchists and various brands of Marxist groups.

Overwhelmingly, the composition of the conference was young, White students who have gotten involved in political activity over the past one to two years. They came from the big state universities where the student movement has traditionally spawned, including delegations from over 50 campuses, mainly in the East and Midwest.

Despite some problems, most students recognized that the Network’s formation was a good first step in uniting the movement politically and organizationally. It was a common view that the future viability of the Network depends not so much on the resolutions passed at the conference, but on what we do after the conference back on our campuses to continue building unity and reaching out to new students.

Among our tasks now is to develop a better strategic view of student work in this changing period. What we face is a growing concern around the attacks of the New Right and the reactionary prospects of the Reagan Administration. As a multi-issue group, the PSN and the local progressive student groups are timely and appropriate forms to deal with some of these new features of the times.

In particular, conservative policies will likely mean sweeping budget cuts and revisions of liberal views. Important struggles around campus issues and higher education in general will probably become a focus of student concern.

In the past, most of our activity has centered around the more explicitly political issues such as third world support, the draft and nuclear power, which have generally only mobilized the advanced. Developing work around such educational issues on campus will activate more “mainstream” students and force us to adopt an objective understanding of the political pulse of the majority of students.

Similarly, we have gained some good experience through participating in student government activities. Student government, once viewed as a haven for future lawyers and junior politicians, is becoming an important arena of political contention on the campuses.

Our line, of course, is still incomplete and many questions remain unanswered. For example, although the Network was certainly an advance, it remains to be seen how solid its base is and what its overall role will be. Nor is it clear what section of the movement will wage the most struggle, have the most impact, generate the largest mass base of support, and have the greatest radicalizing influence. And exactly what role will students play within the broader united front of the people’s resistance in the upcoming period?

These questions are being discussed now, but their definitive answer lies in our continued practical involvement in the mass work and campus organizations.