[9.4.14] What Next for the Student Left?
Thursday 4 Sept 2014 @ 6pm
Dalhousie Student Union Building
A moderated roundtable hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society (Dal/King's). Part of the 2014 NSPIRG Rad Frosh.
Round table participants:
Anna Dubinski (King's)
Holly Lobsinger (Dalhousie, NSPIRG)
Jack Wong (NSCAD)
What is the relation of student activism to what might be broadly called the Left? What might it be? The responses to these questions seem to either look to or eschew the past for inspiration.
Many contemporary movements have taken as their inspiration the student radicalism of the 1960s, like the Students for a Democratic Society; the subsequent anti-oppression movements of the 1970s and 80s, of gender, environmental, anti-imperialism; and the horizontal democratic resistance politics of the anti/alter globalization movement which characterized much of 1990’s activism. Such an approach of connecting student activism to the Left, however, often ends up in what can seem like anachronistic esoteric arguments. In a present moment dominated by austerity and the seemingly never ending rise of the Right, there seems to be more fundamental questions than, say, the rehashing of position of feminists, anarchists and Marxist groups of the past — questions that might unsettle the comfortable assumptions of radical politics today.
An alternative stance is to think of such of questions as an irrelevant, academic obstruction to real action, recognizing that theory can often confuse more than clarify. The abundance of jargonistic takes on the Left, however, does not diminish that students specifically and the Left more broadly, need spaces to ask themselves questions and struggle for answers.
A place for critical thought and discussion then may be necessary, as movements, whether confused or theory-avoidant, need to ask themselves what political success and failure would look like, on their terms. This roundtable gives radical student activists an opportunity to reconsider what the relation of student activism might be with respect to a reconsidered Left. How would we move beyond the past, to consider freshly the question of how student activism might relate to the Left?
1. What sorts of questions should radical students ask themselves, the Left, and about the world?
Student life presents unique opportunities — to read, discuss, examine and critique different traditions of politics, sometimes with no previous political experience at all. And yet, a fear of sectarian controversy that could rip apart fragile student coalitions seems to call for, at least partially, imposed limitations to debate and criticism, and perhaps even the intellectual and political development enabled by the post-secondary setting. Even more, as students we often occupy a precarious part of the broader Left, due to perceived (and, perhaps often, real) social privilege. How can we as students actually engage in serious, honest reflection and conversation to clarify these uncertainties? What obstacles do they face? What sort of fundamental questions ought we as student activists ask ourselves and the broader Left? How should we ask them?
2. What is capitalism, and how can it be overcome?
In 2006 the new SDS, a broad coalition of student activists in the US, asserted its aims were to: “change a society which depends upon multiple and reciprocal systems of oppression and domination for its survival: racism and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism, among others.” A very similar vision was advanced during the 2012 student strike in the CLASSE Manifesto. These systems, with a single exception, are straightforward forms of domination. A ruling stratum (whites, men) oppresses a given subaltern. While capitalism might appear likewise, as the direct and violent oppression of one class by another, many on the Left would argue this oversimplifies the complicated historical, social, political, economic and cultural characteristics of capitalism. How ought the students think about the specific form of capitalist domination? And what forms of politics are adequate to overcome it?
3. Why, and how, could students succeed today where they didn't in the past?
The Port Huron (1962) statement of the original Students for a Democratic Society sought to “replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity…” From the vantage point of the present, the first SDS seems to have failed to meet its own task. Possession, privilege and circumstance still determine social power. So why did the student movement of the past fail to achieve its ultimate ends? And how can the new student movement succeed, especially in the absence of a large-scale, organized international movement in the present? What would make international revolutionary politics possible again? How ought we to understand the loss of political possibility?