The beginning of the school year doesn’t just mark the end of warm summer days—it also reignites student organizing initiatives. But there’s a huge range of views among students about how to approach organizing and activism. In order to get a better overview of these differences and encourage debate, I organized a panel on the politics of today’s American student Left at the US Social Forum in Detroit this summer. Below are some of the most provocative statements from the panel presented in the hopes of sparking discussion. For the full transcript, see “Ideology and the Student Left” (Platypus Review, Issue #27, September 2010).
“If you look historically at what creates the context for a revolutionary situation, from Oaxaca to Greece, it is clear that students play a significant role in creating a context in which revolution can become possible.”
—Will Klatt from Ohio, a member of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and an organizer for Service Employees International Union. He is currently organizing a national day of action, “Education is a Right,” for new SDS on October 7.
"One opportunity offered by private universities lies in their position in the larger economic framework, which makes a lot of strategies viable…to stand in solidarity with workers and push for their demands. We students are in a strategic position for pressuring our universities to pressure companies."
—Luis Brennan, a student community organizer at University of Chicago and former member of the new SDS.
"There is a very important strategic component to reform struggle, but not in the way that most of the social movement Left is invested in. What we need is reform struggle in a revolutionary framework. Struggles for reform will legitimize the revolutionary movement, putting the movement and the people in a better position to gain further demands along the path towards revolution, which comes only when we get the power, as a movement, to fundamentally transform the defining social institutions of our society."
—Aaron Petcoff from Detroit, formerly of the new SDS and currently a member of the Organization for a Free Society (OFS).
“We need a total theory—not a total understanding of everything in the world, but a theory that grasps fundamentally the unfreedom of capitalist society, rather than merely collects particular descriptions of the effects of unfreedom, or collates a series of bullet points aimed at this amorphous thing called ‘the Man,’ American hegemony, the System, or Empire.”
—Ashley Weger from Chicago, an organizer for Platypus and former organizer for UNITE HERE at DePaul University. Weger is currently attending York University in Toronto and plans to start a Platypus Marxist reading group there.
The panel was followed by an audience Q&A in which panelists discussed the future of alternatives like worker-owned cooperatives, community gardens, and tenants associations as well as the pitfalls of broad umbrella organizations that claim to be non-ideological.
What strategies do you think student organizers on the left should be implementing? How do you see students’ place in relation to larger student movements? Let us know in the comments section, or email us at email@example.com.