MIA: History: ETOL: Document: Education for Socialist Bulletin: The Antiwar Strategy of the SWP and the YSA.

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—Revolutionary Antiwar Policy and Practice—


From “After the May Upsurge: Young Socialists and the Student Movement.”

[The following is an analysis on the May, 1970 events from “After the May Upsurge: Young Socialists and the Student Movement,” the political resolution adopted by the Young Socialist Alliance convention in December 1970. This excerpt is reprinted from the Young Socialist Discussion Bulletin, Volume 14, No. 4.]

The 1970s will be a decade of profound crises for American capitalism and of unprecedented opportunities for revolutionary socialists. We in the YSA are optimistic about the prospects for organizing masses of people in struggle against the U.S. ruling class and its government in Washington. Our experience in 1970 has confirmed our view that the current radicalization, which began in the 1960s, can lead to the elimination of capitalism in the stronghold of world imperialism through a socialist revolution in the United States.

The May Upsurge

In May 1970, two government actions— the invasion of Cambodia and the massacre of students at Kent State— touched off the largest student general strike in history. The invasion of Cambodia by U.S. forces represented a decision by the Nixon administration to extend and intensify the war in Southeast Asia. The murder of the Kent students symbolized the attempts of the ruling class to silence one of the most dynamic and effective opponents of Washington’s war plans, the student movement.

The combination of these two events, which were followed by the gunning down of Black youth in Augusta, Ga, and at Jackson State, in Mississippi, triggered a nationwide student upsurge which threw the entire country into a major social crisis, producing shock waves which have not yet subsided.

The size and scope of the campus actions were unparalleled. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, headed by Clark Kerr, reported on the extent of the May campus upsurge: major protests occurred on 1454 campuses (out of a total of 2551); and 550 campuses had strikes which completely halted the normal functioning of the schools.

One of the most significant features of the upheaval was the creation of new forms of struggle by the mobilized masses of students. For the first time in history, striking students “opened up” their schools as antiwar universities. Students began reconstituting their schools, turning them into instruments of struggle against the war. Taking control of the school facilities, students used them for reaching out to involve other sectors of the population in the antiwar movement. The process of attempting to reach out beyond the campus demonstrated an understanding by students of the need to link up with more powerful social layers in order to win their aims. This understanding represents a new advanced consciousness among thousands of students about the student movement’s role in fighting for social change.

The form of organization which spontaneously emerged in the struggles of May was the broad-based, representative strike committee which called and presented proposals to mass meetings and Coordinated strike activities. At many schools, these committees involved the entire university community and served to organize the new functions of the antiwar university.

These important new forms of struggle have become permanent acquisitions of the student movement because, while the strike was only temporary, it lasted long enough for the concept of the antiwar university and democratic strike Councils to engrave itself in the consciousness of the millions of students who took part. Future upsurges will tend to follow the pattern established in May. In this sense we can say that May 1970 was the “1905 of the Student movement”—.new organizational forms of struggle emerged and were tested for the first time, just as the first soviets emerged and were tested in the 1905 Russian Revolution, and in 1917 became the organs of the new state power. Universities run by the strike committees will not become organs of state power, but they will emerge again to play a crucial role in helping to organize masses outside the campus into anti-capitalist action.

The YSA learned important lessons in the May events. First, the events expressed the tremendous depth of the youth radicalization and revealed young people’s increasing lack of confidence in the government’s ability to solve the problems facing American society. While the radicalization is deepest among youth, the widespread sympathy and support for the students’ objectives expressed in other sections of the population and the strike’s impact on the rest of the country offered impressive testimony to the extent of the radicalization in society as a whole.

Second, the May events dramatically illustrated once more that the war in Indochina remains a central driving force in the radicalization and the central issue in U.S. politics. In spite of Nixon’s elaborate schemes for “Vietnamization,” U.S. imperialism is gripped more tightly than ever in the vise of trying to maintain its world domination on one side and trying to maintain social peace at home on the other. The war in Vietnam and the antiwar movement are the sharpest expression of the dilemma Nixon faces.

Third, the May strike revealed more clearly than ever before the increased social weight and power of the student movement in today’s neocapitalist society. The impact of the students’ actions, both directly on the government and through their influence on other social sectors, provided conclusive evidence of the decisive role students can play in detonating major social explosions. The May student strike stamped its impression on the entire Society, serving notice to America’s rulers that they must take account of the reaction of students in any of their future plans.

Fourth, the development of antiwar universities confirmed in action the YSA’s strategy for the student movement, that is, the use of the university as a base to organize other sectors of the population into anticapitalist Struggle. This proved to be an attractive idea to masses of students once they had gained a sense of their own power in the first days of the strike.

Finally, the student upsurge graphically illustrated the power of independent mass action. The student strike, which arose completely independently of the “dove” capitalist politicians, forced Nixon to adapt his plans and helped educate masses of people that they can succeed only by taking action on their own without relying on the capitalist politicians who pose as their leaders.

Another aspect of the strike as massive independent political action was the rejection, on the overwhelming majority of campuses, of any ultraleft actions or forms of organization which would narrow the base of the strike, such as limiting participation in the strike committee to the traditional campus radicals. This stands in sharp contrast to the SDS-led campus struggles of 1968-1969.

The YSA’s understanding of these lessons enabled us to play a leading role in the May events. YSAers helped initiate and participated in strike committees on many campuses, working to mobilize students and to deepen their understanding of the antiwar university. Where it was possible, we helped organize citywide and regional coordination of the strike, We were the only group able to act as a national organization in our support of and participation in the upsurge. The Militant, to a limited extent, served the function of a national strike newspaper, giving the only national coverage and analysis of the events as they were happening.

We Went on a campaign footing to build the strike and explain, the concept of the antiwar university. At the same time, we reached the broadest possible layers of the population with the ideas of revolutionary socialism.

The pattern established in May illustrated the potential for the next upsurge to succeed in drawing in the anticipation of the organized working class, high school students, the Third World communities and masses of women. The May events produced the first significant break in the trade union bureaucracy’s monolithic backing of Nixon’s War policy, a break which expressed itself, or example, in the labor-student demonstration called in New York City at the initiative of trade union officials as a response to “hard hat” attacks on antiwar demonstrators. While the May strike fell short of touching off a generalized social upheaval, it came close enough to let the ruling class see the outlines of a social revolution in this country. The capitalists were so frightened by what they saw that the threat of another May has become a permanent factor for them to consider before making any major moves in their continuous campaign to crush the world revolution..

Nixon’s Offensive

During May, the ruling class counterposed campaigns for capitalist “peace” candidates and doorbell-pushing for legislation such as the Cooper-Church and Hatfield-McGovern bills to the independent mass action organized by the students. In typical fashion, they attempted to disorient the mass movement and divert its independent struggle back into the arena of the Democratic and Republican parties. While the majority of students did not shed their illusions about the possibility of winning their demands through capitalist “peace” candidates, the attempt to divert their struggle met with little success during May.

Once the strike had been effectively ended by the pullback from Cambodia and the closing of the schools, the ruling class launched a two-pronged counter-assault designed to eliminate the threat revealed in May. First, the U.S. rulers used the fake debates of the capitalist campaigns for the November elections’ to play down the issue of the war and to try to draw students back into “the system.”

Second, they conducted a propaganda campaign against “campus violence” and initiated a drive to restrict students’ rights to organize political activity.

During every election campaign, the ruling class puts up “alternatives” to try to make the American people think they have a choice and to give them the illusion that they control the government. Maintaining these illusions is, of course, one of the primary functions of elections in a bourgeois democracy. Because of the deep going and widespread nature of such illusions among the masses of people and the resources the capitalists put behind their campaigns, election periods have always been difficult times for organizing mass independent political action. There was virtually no independent political action in 1964 when nearly everyone stampeded into supporting the “lesser evil” of Lyndon Johnson against Goldwater. The support of many antiwar activists for Congressional “doves” in the capitalist parties during the 1966 elections seriously hampered the development of the then new antiwar movement. In 1968, the Kennedy and McCarthy campaigns were successful in recruiting the energies of thousands of young people away from mass action into playing the two-party shell game.

Considering this pattern, the striking feature of the 1970 elections was not that they were able to dampen independent struggles but that they were far less successful than previous elections in this respect. There are three reasons for the relatively limited effects of the 1970 elections.

First, Nixon’s phony gestures at “winding down” the war succeeded in silencing opposition among the “doves,” who endorsed his maneuver with grotesque servility.

Second, virtually all of the liberal candidates caved in under Nixon’s and Agnew’s pressure and adopted a patriotic “law and order” pose, denouncing student “extremists.”

Third, more young people than ever before have begun to see through the fraud of capitalist politics. These radicalizing young women and men perceive the futility of supporting a capitalist party “lesser evil” and look instead for ways to express their opposition independently.

Far from “swinging to the right,” (as the bourgeois press reported in an orgy of wishful thinking), young people in fact rejected the real shift to the right by the capitalist candidates.

Combined with the effort to draw students into the elections has been the second prong of the capitalist counter-offensive. Nixon’s drive to de-politicize the campuses is aimed at silencing the student movement which has consistently opposed his administration and his continuing aggression in Southeast Asia. Nixon hopes to divide-and-disorient the student movement in order to prevent another May He has employed several tactics in this drive.

First, Nixon has launched a general propaganda offensive to discredit student radicals in the eyes of the American people. Characterizing students as “bums” and “thugs,” the capitalist politicians and the bourgeois press have tried to associate a few isolated incidents of terrorism with the mass movements on the campuses. Falsely pinning the blame for violence on students, they have attempted to whip up hysteria about student-inspired “anarchy.”

Second, Nixon sent, along with his own covering letter, an “Open Letter to College Students” from J. Edgar Hoover to 900 college administrators. In his letter, Hoover calls the attention of the administrators to the “extremist” groups which are most dangerous, fingering the YSA and the Student Mobilization Committee as prime targets for administrators to attack.

Third, the Nixon administration initiated a set of unconstitutional political guidelines through the Internal Revenue Service, threatening universities and colleges with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they allow campus facilities to be used for “political” activity, such as support of candidates for public office. These guidelines are designed to give college administrations an excuse to crack down on the student movement. In accordance with the IRS- backed guidelines, most colleges have issued their own guidelines restricting the political rights of students. These range from prohibiting the use of student funds for the antiwar movement to proscribing the sale of radical literature on campus.


Fourth, the Ohio Grand Jury indicted the Kent 25 in the most blatant example of the attack on students, attempting to use the trial of these activists to whitewash the murder of four Kent students and intimidate the entire student movement.

The counteroffensive directed against the students in direct response to May has not succeeded in stifling struggles on the campus. In spite of the ruling class attempt to curb the radicalization, activity since May demonstrates clearly the potential for another upsurge in the near future.