First and foremost, the Revolutionary Student Movement (MER-RSM) would like to congratulate the Young Communist League (YCL) on launching the call for the YCL’s 26th Central Convention. The MER-RSM is a new attempt to build a Canada-wide revolutionary, combative, militant, and anti-capitalist student movement. We aim to organise students in the service of the broader working-class movement, towards communism. We are an initiative of the Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR-RCP). Since launching in December of 2012 we have quickly grown and now have active chapters across Canada in BC, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Insofar as we are in favour of disseminating communist politics throughout the student milieu, we see the achievement of your 26th Central Convention to be a positive development in the class struggle in Canada.
As part of building the MER-RSM, we have consistently sought principled unity with other revolutionary forces throughout Canada. To this end, the MER-RSM has for some time now requested that a series of debates on “The Role of Revolutionaries in the Student Movement” be organized between the MER-RSM and the YCL, as a means of presenting and reconciling the two distinct communist approaches to student organizing in Canada. In the absence of any movement on that front, below we have presented a critique of the Main Political Report that was prepared by your Central Committee in preparation for your 26th Central Convention. We hope that this will lead towards a line struggle between our two organizations, and ultimately towards the unity of communist student activists in Canada.
Our critique focuses on three areas of the report with which we disagree. First, the MER-RSM does not believe that the YCL’s Central Committee has an accurate handle on the current world situation. Notably absent from the Report is any mention of the rise of Russian and Chinese imperialisms, and most importantly, there is no mention of the revolutionary processes currently underway in Turkey, the Philippines, India, Afghanistan, and Nepal. Second, we believe that the distinction between revolution and reform is misrepresented within the report; we will present a mass-line solution to this problem. Third, we believe that the understanding of the student movement as a democratic mass movement focused on democratic rights –and by extension an arena in which class struggle is inappropriate and detrimental – is a flawed and fundamentally social-democratic understanding of the student movement.
The World Situation
Given that the job of revolutionaries in Canada is to make revolution in Canada, we will not spend much time dealing with a misunderstanding of the world situation by the YCL Central Committee. Indeed, disagreements over this-or-that international event are likely in any organization; a precondition for unity between communist students in Canada should not be total agreement on international affairs. This being said, there are two important areas to which we wish to draw our comrade’s attentions that are not included in the Main Political Report’s section on the world situation. They are: the rise of other imperialisms (specifically Russian and Chinese imperialism), as well as a lack of any mention of the People’s Wars currently being fought in India, the Philippines, and Turkey, or the revolutionary processes in Peru, Afghanistan, and Nepal.
In the Main Political Report, section #45 specifically mentions imperialism’s renewed interest in Africa. The Report is correct to state that European and American imperialisms are attempting to re-divide the continent amongst themselves, in a process reminiscent of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ of the 1880s. However, the report does not mention that American and European imperialisms are not the only imperialisms intervening on the African continent. Since capitalist restoration in China in the 1980s, Chinese imperialism has also sought the African continent as a new source of super-profits. In the 1990s alone trade between China and Africa increased by 700%; today China is Africa’s biggest trading partner, with over 800 Chinese firms (most of them private) doing business in Africa, predominately in infrastructural development projects and banking. Chinese finance capital bank-rolls the export of Chinese capital into Africa; China has become an imperialist power. Indeed, even aside from expansion in Africa, how else can we understand China’s recent acquisition of the right to exploit 1/3 of the Ecuadorian rainforest in a search for oil other than as an imperialist venture on the part of the Chinese ruling class?
In Section #52, the Main Political Report mentions that the encirclement of Russia and China is the key geo-political objective of US imperialism. However, the Report does not specify that this attempt at encirclement is inter-imperialist rivalry; the implication within the Report suggests that China and Russia are at the very least not imperialist countries.
Given that it is always the job of communists to defeat their own bourgeoisie, why does an understanding of Chinese and Russian imperialisms matter at this specific historical juncture? As Russian and Chinese imperialisms continue to rise, and as American imperialism continues to decline, inter-imperialist rivalry will increasingly become more and more heated. A look at major international headlines over the past several years is all that it takes to confirm this observation; yesterday a crisis in Syria, today a crisis in the South China Sea and Ukraine, each more volatile than the last. As inter-imperialist rivalry increases and becomes more volatile, so too increases the danger of another World War. The current situation in Ukraine, where NATO and Russia posture for supremacy in the region, is a perfect example of such a phenomenon; indeed, the talking heads of the bourgeois media now speak of the approach of a second Cold War. It is only through a proper understanding of inter-imperialist rivalry that communists can equip themselves to combat the war danger as it arises, and organize to prevent a third World War within our lifetimes. That the Main Political Report is silent about this necessity, on the eve of a potential proxy-war in the Ukraine between Russia and NATO, is troublesome.
The lack of mention of Russian or Chinese imperialism is not the only aspect of the current world situation that is missing from the Main Political Report. Most importantly, the report lacks any mention of the People’s Wars being fought in India, Turkey, or the Philippines, or the revolutionary processes in Peru, Nepal, and Afghanistan. These revolutions and revolutionary processes are the most important international events in the world today, from a communist perspective. For instance, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which is in the process of fighting an armed struggle across large swaths of the Indian countryside, has been labelled the most significant internal security threat to India by the Indian state. In regions where the Indian state has been effectively liquidated, it is beginning the construction of a new state at the service of the oppressed classes. Because this is taking place in the second most populous country in the world, when our Indian comrades are successful at seizing state power throughout the entire territory of India, such an act will have a world-historical significance not unlike the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Our critique cannot contain detailed information on all of these People’s Wars or revolutionary processes, and so we invite comrades to investigate for themselves these exciting events. However, we do find it disappointing that the Main Political Report would spend so much time on the Bolivarian process, for instance, while ignoring the very real and exciting revolutions in South-Asia and elsewhere. These events provide inspiration for billions of proletarians worldwide; while the methods are not totally transferable to Canada, the struggles of comrades in India, Nepal, Turkey, and elsewhere are a great source of excitement and inspiration for comrades here. Defence of the revolutionary processes in these countries should form a central part of the international solidarity work of communists in Canada; instead the Main Political Report is silent.
Revolution or Reform?
The Main Political Report makes frequent reference to both revolutionary struggle and immediate reforms. Three sections stand out as examples of the way that the relation between these two types of struggle, or two sets of political demands, is conceived of by the YCL’s Central Committee. Section #299 of the Report says that “The YCL is a unique group in the youth and student movement because it ‘gets’ this unity of reform and revolution.”, in section #203b the Report says “There is no contradiction, in our view, between advancing socialism as the only genuine alternative to the current capitalist system, and our principled commitment to work to further the immediate and basic interests of students.”, and in section #166, one finds text reading “This view also has an expression in the ultra-left which sees mass organizations as backward or “inherently reformist” and sees the solution as the formation of small revolutionary groups, whether in labour or the student movement.”. While these sections can be understood as veiled critiques of the MER-RSM, they also point to a base misunderstanding of the role of revolution and reform in the broader revolutionary struggle, and the MER-RSM’s stance on this issue.
On the surface, the MER-RSM agrees with these statements; there does not have to be an antagonism between revolution and reform, and mass organizations –even those that raise reformist demands- have a key role to play in the broader revolutionary process. However, we wish to remind comrades here that socialism and communism are not simply a series of reforms, but rather the conquest of political power by the working class. Thus, while it is correct to say that there is a unity between revolution and reform, it is not wholly correct to say that such a unity exists; it is only a specific type of reformism, or reformism undertaken in a specific context, which advances the revolutionary struggle.
What is the role of the struggle for reforms in the broader revolutionary struggle, according to the MER-RSM? Let us start from the assumption that our goal is communism, and the conditions in which we are working are conditions as they currently exist; that is to say, we have abstract goals (communism) and concrete conditions (reality) as the two poles which must be mediated. Our job is to figure out how to get to communism from here; how to turn concrete conditions into our abstract goal. Being Marxists, we understand that the motor-force of this process is class struggle. Thus, any action that is taken should be evaluated on the basis of whether or not that action advances the class struggle, or, whether or not it concretely advances concrete conditions towards the abstract goal of communism. Specific reforms that are fought for need to be subordinated –and consciously and openly subordinated- to this broader revolutionary process.. Fighting for reforms as part of the broader revolutionary struggle, and having the fight for reforms subordinated to the goal of revolution, is the true unity of revolution and reform.
This is the qualification and method that the MER-RSM uses to decide what sorts of reformist struggles to engage in. And we do partake in reformist struggles, be it the 2012 Quebec Student Strike, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa General Assembly Campaign (which one can also find a veiled critique against in section #201b and #201c of the Main Political Report, though one wonders why such a mass based democratic campaign wouldn’t be supported by the YCL Central Committee...), the University of Toronto Transitional Year Program Preservation Alliance, the fight against Men’s Rights Activists, and so on and so forth. What is important in each of these struggles is that while reformist work is engaged in, a revolutionary line is put forward by the MER-RSM. By applying the mass line –the principles of “from the masses, to the masses” and “unite the advanced, bring up the intermediate, and isolate the backwards”- we are able to use reformist work, subordinated to a broader revolutionary program and line, to produce new communists and advance the class struggle, rather than simply tailing social-democratic campaigns or groups.
In this vein we think it is a mistake to bring up the question of creating or not creating separate groups within the context of the question of immediate reforms. First, the YCL is itself a small group that is organizationally separate from the mass movements into which it intervenes; we are left to conclude from the Report that according to the YCL’s Central Committee, the YCL alone has the right to exist. But, different demands also necessitate different organizations, tailored to different sections of the masses. For instance, when the uOttawa section of the MER-RSM undertook the General Assembly campaign, it struck a separate organization –separate from both the student union and the MER-RSM – to form the organizational basis of the campaign. This was necessary as the student union bureaucrats could not be trusted to carry the campaign to its proper conclusions, and the level of unity required to fight for a general assembly was much lower than is required for membership in the MER-RSM. Such an organization –an organization of the intermediate- was far more successful in organizing the intermediate section of the masses than we would have been had we subordinated ourselves to the student union (as anger against the bureaucrats was a pull factor for the campaign), or dictated that only those that form the advanced section of the masses of students could involve themselves in the campaign through membership in the MER-RSM. At the end of the day the campaign was successful and the MER-RSM at uOttawa grew three-fold, vindicating our understanding of how to engage in struggles for specific reforms and the mass-line. We understand the creation or destruction of organizations to be a question of tactics at any given point, and not a question of principle; the latter is a sectarian position.
This methodology stands in stark contrast to the approach outlined by the YCL’s Central Committee in the Main Political Report. Starting at section #175, titled “Mass Action”, and after advancing a critique of more militant direct action approaches, the Report outlines the key strategy being put forward by the YCL: “The litmus test for evaluating tactics is to identify what tactics move the greatest number of masses into the struggle, in the strategic direction.” While on the surface this seems obvious, there is a populist current that runs through this statement: it is not simply a matter of moving the largest number of people, but of advancing the class struggle. And advancing the class struggle can only happen by moving an increasingly larger number of workers to the correct politics, to communist politics. The decisive necessity of advancing the political level of the masses is lost in the YCL’s argument; instead we get references to uniting various strata of the working class. While unity is important, it must be a principled unity around a correct political line and practice; it is far better for the class struggle to produce ten communists than to produce one hundred social-democrats.
Aside from overtures toward the unity of revolution and reform, it is unclear how the YCL puts this unity into practice. Indeed, it seems that the majority of work that the YCL has undertaken –be it the “Raise the Minimum Wage Campaign”, the Charter of Youth Rights, supporting the Canadian Federation of Students, etc. – lacks any sort of revolutionary aspect. For instance, while the Main Political Report spends some time criticising the right-wing labour bureaucracy (section #169), at the end of the day it re-affirms the centrality of the same labour bureaucracy to the student movement (section #178), in effect defaulting to social-democratic reformism. The same can be found in the Report’s approach toward the CFS. And while the same Report argues for extra-parliamentary struggle, we are left to equate mass-action with “mass political action outside parliament” (section #178) ultimately showing the focus –unconscious or not – of the YCL’s mass work. We do not doubt that there are sincere revolutionaries within the YCL, and perhaps even on the Central Committee of the YCL; however, the political perspectives put forward by the YCL’s leadership are decidedly reformist and lack any sort of unity between revolution and reform in practice.
Class Struggle or Democratic Struggle?
Up until the release of the Main Political Report, we had incorrectly conceived that the main difference between the MER-RSM and the YCL was the role of the CFS within the broader student movement, with our position being to largely ignore the CFS and the YCL position being to support the CFS. While this disagreement remains the main practical difference between our two organizations, there is a theoretical difference that lies at the root: the conception of the nature of the student movement itself.
The YCL conceives of the student movement as a democratic movement (as opposed to a class movement) engaged in a struggle for democratic rights. In section #19 of the Main Political Report, the YCL Central Committee writes “The youth and students’ struggle is not identical to the class struggle of working people because it is also a democratic struggle, a multi-class struggle.” And in turn, the “right” to education is conceived of as a “democratic right of the people” (section #197b). In turn, the main task that the YCL sets itself is to align the student movement with the labour movement as “the progressive, democratic outlook recognizes that the students have interests that align with the interests of the people.”
The YCL is decidedly against applying class struggle politics to the student movement; in section #202, the Report states (and here we quote at length because the perspective is significant):
It is also very easy to write-off an inactive campus as rancid with apathetic, privileged, or ‘bourgeoisified’ youth. Some ‘left’ critics go further than this ‘blame the victim’ approach and announce that there are ‘proletarian’ and ‘bourgeois’ students and, throwing unity to the wind, advocate an internal struggle within the movement. This might appear to be a logical application of Marxist analysis: identify the working class forces within a movement, and propose that they be pitted against the non working class elements. The mistake, however, is to confuse the class with the movement. Today, it is difficult to find a people’s struggle, other than the labour movement, which is not in some way a class mix. As big business dominates all aspects of social life, and attacks even basic democratic rights, many social strata is [sic] drawn into action. Extending the “class war” into the student movement would be disastrous, undermining the fighting unity of student forces, orienting the struggle inward instead of against the main enemy. This amounts to, unfortunately, empty stentorian posturing about the pure revolutionary student line and helps the right-wing agenda, including defederation.
This section is also a thinly veiled critique of the MER-RSM, directly referencing our position that students can be considered either proletarian or bourgeois. However, the YCL Central Committee completely misses the point of the MER-RSM’s line, and in so doing not only obfuscates issues more than solving them, but advances a social-democratic approach to the question of student organizing in the process.
First, we should take issue with the YCL’s use of the term “student movement”. The YCL implies that there is some sort of vibrant living movement that the MER-RSM has decided to isolate itself from. The YCL locates the student movement in English Canada within the CFS. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth; while the CFS claims to represent over 500 000 students, we would hazard that upwards of 90% of its members don’t even know that the CFS exists. Instead of the leading body of a movement or a mass organization, the CFS is best understood of as a social-democratic lobby organization that sometimes fights for the right to free education; indeed, as the Report itself suggests, the CFS has failed to do even basic membership mobilizations for the past several years. While the Report critiques some aspects of the CFS, the YCL Central Committee does not understand that the bureaucratic nature of the CFS’ activism is itself a result of a politics that subordinates electoral victory –be it at the union or parliamentary level – to all other actions. Thus, the Report implores us to not make structural critiques (even though we advance a critique on the level of politics and practice, not exclusively structure) of the CFS in the name of unity. But, the MER-RSM has to question the content of such a unity that sees a revolutionary organization tied to a defunct social-democratic lobby organization that is only able to retain its membership through lawsuits.
With this in mind, the MER-RSM absolutely recognizes that what passes for the student movement is in fact a multi-class movement. This is perhaps a more appropriate statement in Quebec where there actually is a movement to speak of. We recognize the multi-class nature of the student movement both in terms of objective class composition –i.e. there are students that come from a multitude of class backgrounds –as well as the class horizons of the politics advanced by student organizations themselves. The recognition of the multi-class nature of the student movement is central to our understanding of student struggles. Where we differ from the YCL is that instead of advocating the unity of students from all classes under an innocuous bourgeois-democratic movement and politics (imagining that democratic demands exist apart from the class struggle; more on this later), we advocate that proletarian students organize themselves on the basis of proletarian politics, and in the service of the broader working class movement. This in turn implies recognition that revolution in Canada will not be based on campuses (indeed, proletarian students are likely in the minority on university campuses in English Canada), and instead proletarian students should direct their activities towards the broader class struggle rather than this or that campus issue.
We do not necessarily advocate orienting the “struggle inward”, but we are not against such an orientation either. In fact, we disagree that the “main enemy” is solely the big bourgeoisie; insofar as social-democratic reformist bureaucrats within the labour and student movements also inhibit the development of the class struggle in Canada, these forces constitute a “main enemy” that must be struggled against. However, given that bureaucratic elements are often unable to organize around their political line, they tend to be self-isolating and thus largely ignorable; the majority of our efforts are indeed “outward looking”.
The acknowledgement of the multi-class nature of the student movement and a call to organize students along proletarian lines has no connection, for the MER-RSM at least, to any analysis which sees campuses as “inactive” or students as “apolitical” or “apathetic”. Our insistence on organizing along explicitly radical, militant, and communist (proletarian) political lines suggests that our understanding of the current historical conjecture is quite the opposite! Across Canada the working class is increasingly questioning capitalism; as the Main Political Report correctly mentions, for the vast majority of Canadians there has been no recovery from the 2008 crisis. Our understanding of the current conjecture is that there is a real material basis –possibly for the first time since the Great Depression – for the mass radicalization of large sections of workers, proletarian students included. Thus, it is necessary for communists to advance the radical politics and solutions for which workers will increasingly be looking. Our own experience and success with launching what the YCL Central Committee characterizes as an “ultra-left” student organization requires us to abandon any notions of “apathetic” or “apolitical” students; our organization would not have been possible in such conditions. It is disappointing to see the YCL Central Committee obscure this central point of debate between our two organizations.
We suggest that a central aspect to the YCL’s misunderstanding of the nature of the student movement is a lack of understanding on the fundamental role of education within capitalist society. In section #148, the Report says that education should be thought of as “a right and a tool of emancipation” and not as “a commodity which is integral to the production of a trained modern workforce”. This is in line with the YCL’s conception of education as being a democratic demand, and the student movement as being solely a movement engaged in democratic struggles. But just as we are reminded that the labour movement doesn’t exist in a vacuum (section #161), neither does the student movement or education. Education under capitalism is either a means by which the ruling class produces and reproduces itself, or precisely “a commodity which is integral to the production of a trained modern workforce”, depending on which class position one occupies. Insofar as production is mediated by the logic of capital, so too will education be mediated by this logic. Capital requires labour for its self-valorization, and therefore requires a workforce capable of doing the type of labour necessary according to the law of value for valorization to occur. Education under capitalism, for the vast majority, has the role of producing those specific types of labour that capitalism deems necessary at any given point.
Education under capitalism, and access to education under capital, are not democratic rights or a tools of emancipation, but simply a means by which class position is enforced and by which class distinctions are produced and reproduced. Thus, the slogan “Education is a right!” is not only misleading (it isn’t a right because rights don’t exist), but also falls short of critiquing the nature and role of education under capitalism. For education to be liberating, it must not be subordinated to the needs of capital. This is why the MER-RSM makes a point of calling for a “broad based education which is scientific and proletarian in nature”; it is not simply enough for the working class to have unfettered access to the university, but rather the working class must destroy the university-as-university and destroy education as it exists under capitalism. This is precisely the political or revolutionary demand that must be put forward by communists, rather than the economistic demand that the YCL puts forward by tailing social-democratic lobby organizations like the CFS.
Throughout all of this, what the YCL Central Committee misses is that there already is a class struggle going on within the student movement. For instance, in the context of the 2012 Quebec Student Strike, how else can we understand the split of the student movement into “greens” (those favouring an end to the strike and tuition hikes) and “reds” (those favouring reduced tuition or an end to tuition)? While it might be easy to dismiss the “greens” as not legitimately part of the student movement, this leads to a debate based on semantics of who can or can’t be considered part of the student movement. We think that a better means of understanding this split is to look at the class forces at play, and understand that this was in fact a manifestation of struggle between students advancing a proletarian political line and a bourgeois political line. And indeed, the absence of any such open struggle except at very low levels in English Canada points to the total domination of the petty-bourgeois or professional “Education is a right!” political line, one that the YCL enthusiastically tails. It is only the incumbent student union bureaucracy that benefits from not bringing class struggle out into the open; supporting the student union bureaucracy is the effect of these calls for unity.
Even if we examine the social-democratic slogan of “Education is a right!” –which suggests that we fight for free tuition and the removal barriers to access to education – we can see a class divide within the student milieu in English Canada. For those students from bourgeois backgrounds, education is a means by which they reinforce their class positions. Thus, bourgeois students benefit from restricting access to education as it is a way of restricting access to their class position. We see this political line manifest itself when bourgeois students complain that increased access to education would make their degrees worth less than they are under the current conditions of restricted access to education. However, for working class students, education is often a means of transcending their class position; thus they benefit, or at least have the potential to benefit, from increased access to education. Even with an incorrect slogan such as “Education is a right!” we can see that the idea that there is a commonality of interests between all students, or that the category of ‘student’ can exist as an all-encompassing identity, does not make sense and is not a scientific understanding of the class forces at play within the student movement. A “democratic demand” such as access to education is actually tied directly in to the class struggle and is a class demand; a “democratic movement” is thus also a class movement, with the class nature of the movement determined by what politics are in command.
At the end of the day, the position put forward by the YCL in the Main Political Report –the conception of education under capitalism as being potentially liberating, support for student union bureaucracy, and against class-struggle – is not a communist political line but rather a social-democratic line. It is not advancing a proletarian agenda within the student movement, but rather advancing a petty-bourgeois agenda disguised by calls of unity. We hope that comrades in the YCL will correct their approach.
The MER-RSM hopes that this critique gives members of the YCL points to consider as the communist movement in Canada continues to grow and re-orient itself towards a proletarian and revolutionary politics. We urge revolutionary minded comrades within the YCL to either vote down or amend the Main Political Resolution to bring it in line with the communist approach advanced by the MER-RSM as a means of moving towards greater unity between our two organizations. The path to communism in this country will not be easy to traverse, but it will be only possible to achieve communism with the correct political approach to the pressing questions of our day. “Unity and Militancy”, as the Report is titled, are both important: but it must be a real proletarian militancy, and a unity around correct politics. We look forward to hearing the results of your Central Convention, and make ourselves available to answer any questions about our line or practice you may have.
(PDF version available here)
(PDF version available here)