Which Way Forward for the Student Movement?

California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has added fuel to the growing flame of the student movement by slashing nearly a quarter of the funding ($650 million each) from the two public university systems and passing a series of severe “trigger cuts” of up to $400 million if the state economy does not recover enough to produce an additional $4 billion in increased revenue.

California State University students are now presented with their third fee hike since November and will pay over $1,000 more in tuition this year—a total of $6,422—which is twice the 2007 level. University of California students will now pay $13,192 in tuition which is an increase of $1,890 more than last year. Put plainly, the California Democrats’ budget has successfully placed the burden of the economic crisis squarely on the shoulders of working class students and their families.

Although lawmakers in both parties insist that, given the state’s deficit, these sorts of cuts are the only option, students all over the state have other ideas, and have already taken action by the thousands to voice them. From campus demonstrations and marches, to sit-ins and full-on occupations, CSU and UC campuses have become the newest battle grounds in the growing youth movement fighting against austerity and demanding universal access to a free, quality education.

Last year’s March 4 demonstration, which brought out an estimated 12,000 students and faculty, was followed by a mobilizing conference in San Francisco in October where students from campuses all over California came to democratically decide the actions to be taken and the demands to be raised by the movement. Among the demands that were passed by a majority vote at the conference were: free, quality public education from pre-K through graduate school; the rejection of austerity and privatization; equal access to public education; taxation of the rich and corporations; and the democratic governance of the education system.

The unfolding politics of austerity are becoming tangible for young people who suddenly find themselves unable to afford the classes they need to graduate on time, having to take on a second job to stay in school, are priced out of an education altogether, and are generally forced to change the direction of a life path they thought they had control over.

The continuous attacks on public education, which have brought on the serial fee hikes and cuts in staff and programs, have pushed broad layers of students to take action, and the movement has taken its first steps. Given the depth and global scale of the crisis of capitalism, its inability to restore anything resembling stability, as well as the capitalists’ exclusive command over both major political parties, we can expect the attacks on students to continue indefinitely until mass action of youth and workers can stop them.

In California, the student movement is still in its early stages of growth. However, it will need to overcome some important obstacles currently limiting the movement, if it is to achieve its aims.

Mass-scale actions require a lot of work and preparation, and up to this point, the movement has been struggling to gain momentum and broader participation. In larger cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, where thousands have been mobilized during the days of action, much of the organizing work has fallen upon student organizers and trade unionists. However, most of the actions all over the state have been limited to semi-spontaneous, uncoordinated gatherings, and the force and energy of the movement has gone up and down since the March 4 day of action.

Given the various hectic periods of the school year, this ebb and flow effect is inevitable as long as the student movement lacks a permanent structure through which to organize and express itself. The statewide conferences have given a central and democratic voice to the movement, and they have been a decisive first step in the right direction.

This structure should be replicated on each and every CSU and UC campus, as well as the community colleges in the form of General Assemblies, to open up the democratic process of participation and discussion on every campus. By giving individual students the floor and demonstrating that their say counts in this movement, the General Assemblies would empower students and act as a truly representative body, putting the tasks of planning and mobilizing directly and democratically into their hands.

One of the most important practical tasks of such an organization would be the regional and statewide coordination of the mass actions of the movement. This could be achieved through the election of “committees of struggle” from the floor of the General Assembly, revocable at any time by the assembly, which would have the task of coordinating efforts with other committees from the other campuses, including the formation of regional and statewide committees.

Recognizing the General Assembly as the highest decision-making body of the students would combat the development of undemocratic leadership cliques, which could derail the healthy active participation of the student body in the movement. By taking the crucial step of organizing itself into such a democratic structure, the movement could swiftly overcome its present limitations of reliance on spontaneity and lack of coordination.

In order to achieve any of the demands put forth by the mobilizing conference, the movement will have to go beyond campus demonstrations and even beyond the statewide days of action. The drastic cuts to education are part of an extensive policy of austerity that will increasingly provoke a fight-back from all layers of the working class.

The establishment of a permanent students’ fighting organization would open the door to building strong ties with the labor movement by linking the demands and actions of the students with those of the organized working class and oppressed sectors which are also facing attacks. In this way, the student movement could gather the mass support that it takes to carry out decisive strike action and fight back  against the onslaught of austerity policies. After all, the transformation of education is not separate from the struggle to transform society.

The fact that Jerry Brown and the Democrats are the authors of this budget, and the ones directly responsible for liberally allowing working-class college students to pay the bill for the capitalists’ crisis, leaves us with a clear view of where they stand in relation to the student movement. The youth will find no support in their struggle from either the Democrats or the Republicans, both parties of the capitalist class, intent on preserving the status quo and extinguishing any independent movement of the working class or the youth.

But we cannot simply ignore the political arena, as the budget cuts continue to rain down from it. The student movement, just like the labor movement, will require a political vehicle for advancing its interests against those of the big banks and corporations that drive the two main parties of today.

This can only emerge in a decisive way if it is based on the resources and the power of the existing labor movement. Only a mass labor party could put forth the massive campaign needed to conquer the White House and Congress on an anti-austerity platform that would make the rich pay for their own crisis.

The structural transformation of the student movement and the establishment of a mass organization may sound like a daunting task, but the youth in California and other states have on many occasions demonstrated their fighting spirit and explosive potential to take action on a mass scale.

As the young generation of the working class, we have no alternative but to fight back and to fundamentally change society. As long as capitalism continues to exist, any gains we make will be under threat of being rolled back. We believe that a similar process of transformation will unfold in the labor movement as the political crisis of capitalism continues to intensify.

Based on their own experience, working people will be compelled to enter the political arena in order to fight back as a class and improve our standard of living. We invite you to join the Workers International League to fight for a Marxist perspective and revolutionary socialist solution to the crisis of capitalism.

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