Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/450/5383
Young people in revolt
Three million on the streets of France, a million in Chile. 415 out of 456 colleges occupied in Greece. Mass student rallies and demonstrations in Germany. Young people are fighting for their future all around the world. Ben Robinson examines why these events are taking place and what links them.
UNIVERSITY OCCUPATIONS started in France this February. Protesting against the effective removal of under-26s' rights at work (the CPE law), half a million students and workers demonstrated on 7 March. By 18 March they had attracted 1.5 million, by 28 March and 4 April around three million across France.
Mass university occupations defied police oppression and helped organise this magnificent movement. Student bodies appealed to workers, who responded with two general strikes and joint protests and rallies. 70% of the population rejected the proposed law. Airports, train stations and other facilities were stopped, and the government was forced to withdraw its plans for review after signing them into law.
So when French president Jacques Chirac visited Chile in June, he must have felt at home. A movement of school students involving 400,000 young people were either occupying schools and being brought meals by supportive parents, on strike or involved in campaigning against the state of education, and the effects of privatisation (enshrined in the LOCE law).
This struggle escalated as the government refused to meet the demands of free transport, no exam fees and a change in the whole education system. Students, mainly 13-16 year olds, organised impressive mass meetings and heated discussions on the way forward.
Eventually, mass demonstrations put overwhelming pressure on Chilean president Bachelet to offer concessions. Public support for the school students never dipped below 75%.
The government's offer, eventually accepted, was to meet those demands on exam and bus fees, resulting in an extra $200 million going into the education budget, and review the current laws governing education with student participation.
In Greece, another student movement was developing that would shake the government. By 8 June, 250 universities were occupied, against proposed changes in how the education system works, moving towards private companies' control, and away from providing for those from poorer backgrounds.
Xekinima, the Socialist Party's sister organisation in Greece, led the call for a general strike for 22 June. Though this happened on a smaller scale than we were demanding, still thousands of students and striking workers demonstrated. Occupations have been called off for the summer, but in autumn students will carry on where they stopped.
These huge events are the biggest in their countries for at least ten to 15 years. But internationally they are even more important. Taken together with smaller but still significant events in USA, Germany, etc. they show a new phase of youth in revolt.
A NEW generation has grown up since the Berlin wall fell and the Stalinist regimes collapsed. Young people were promised a continually brightening future, but instead they have lived through attack after attack on the gains of previous generations.
The richest sections of society have had a field day. Profits are booming whilst the working class and other poor oppressed people's living standards are falling. Great gains have already been taken away. But the international capitalist class plan further attacks.
In Germany and Greece, recent student protests opposed moves to privatise the education system. In Germany, university fees will be brought into many of the different regions, pushing education for students from poorer backgrounds even further out of reach. France has seen occupations over rights at work.
Chile is slightly different. Decades of Pinochet dictatorship, and the continuation of attacks after the dictator was ousted in the early 1990s, had run the education system into the ground. In May's elections Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female president come to power, claiming to stand for the oppressed people. When Bachelet failed to address problems in the education system, there was a huge explosion of anger.
Young Chileans' struggle has several inspirations. One is the explosion of anger across Latin America, where there has been a huge increase in workers' militancy. Only last year Bolivia saw four-fifths of its roads barricaded, for example.
Another undoubted inspiration is this year's struggle in France, which emanated from the universities, but gained its power from workers who took up the struggle. But the most decisive factor is that those involved in the struggle have lived through attacks after attacks.
Lack of organisation
THE PARTIES that were once seen to represent workers have been bought off by big business, whose interests are recklessly pursued by the leadership of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD - who are in a coalition government with the German equivalent of the Tories) and by other parties that betrayed their roots such as Blair and Brown's Labour Party.
This absence of mass workers' parties has had an impact on young people. They can provide an invaluable forum to debate and develop ideas, and also give a lead in struggles. Their absence means there's no major challenge to the cuts and attacks being put through. This can and has resulted in less confidence in workers ability to fight back, and also become a barrier to further developing ideas.
But not only is there a lack of political organisation. The trade union leadership was generally not prepared to organise to defend rights. And, although this has started changing in the last few years the bureaucracy and leadership, usually right-wing, has been a huge barrier to expressing anger and organising resistance.
Now, over the last decade and more, with the political disarming of the working class and the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe and Russia, the capitalist class and their government stooges are busy 'returning to normal' in earnest.
This means taking back the temporary concessions granted in the post-war period, and bluntly running society for profit. They only care about maximising profit by whatever means possible. These struggles by young people are caused by capitalism's drive for short-term profiteering.
Working class can change society
OF COURSE, it's not just young people who are affected by this policy of destruction of the welfare state, and it's not just young people fighting back. In Britain, the destruction of the NHS, the education system, attacks on pensions, cuts in benefits etc are all part of this international wave of attacks.
But even here the younger, student nurses stand out as some of the most willing to struggle against NHS cuts. Young people come to struggle fresh. They haven't been affected by the defeats of the past. Youth today have seen previous generations receive many benefits, based on the post-war concessions and trade union strength mentioned earlier, and expect the same.
But it's like a mirage of a comfy chair. When you sit down on it, you fall straight through and hit the ground hard! This shock to the system is increasingly leading to young people saying enough attacks are enough, and when more are made this mounting anger explodes into action.
Young people are less tied down in general, and have less to lose and more to win. In Greece, Germany, Chile, and France these movements against different attacks all began in universities, schools and other education institutes, where young people are most concentrated and easily organised, and the immediate risks are less than in workplaces.
The contrast between generations is felt sharply in Chile. General Pinochet's coup against left-wing president Allende came about through the literal slaughter of the workers' movement in 1973. This year's school students' movement was the biggest explosion of anger since Pinochet's dictatorial rule ended in 1990. A Chilean professor remarked, "This is a post-Pinochet generation born without fear".
But young people today have witnessed a crisis in working-class organisation all their lives. Young people don't have the experience of past struggles, or often even access to information and ideas forged in these struggles. This inexperience can weaken movements because they don't necessarily know the best strategies for organising, or even a clear idea of what they're fighting for.
The magnificent resistance earlier this year marks a turning point. For this generation it's a glimpse of their potential power. Many young people drawn into these movements will have been involved in, or watched, the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements.
Protests against the World Bank, the G8 and other capitalist institutions, mainly by youth, marked a political resistance to the state of the world. They found a wide echo, even if only passive.
Questioning the system
THE ANTI-WAR movement held massive demonstrations on every continent. There was, and still is, huge opposition to the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This anti-war movement has been around one issue but it actively involved far wider layers of society than the anti-capitalist protests ever did. And many of the youth involved have come to question the capitalist system itself and are looking for an alternative
The wave of protests in France and worldwide mark another 'anti-' movement. They are against the bread and butter attacks on young peoples' living standards and their future lives. They push new layers of young people into activism, and gain huge support from older generations.
The major concessions achieved in France and Chile will hugely increase the confidence of these young people involved in struggles, and they will take this confidence into the workplaces when they finish education.
They are not only important for those young people active in the struggles. Many people worldwide will have watched and gained confidence from these movements. In the past, young people radicalised through events and struggles at a young age have gone on to play important roles in later struggles.
But as 'freer' parts of society, they also show first the anger building up amongst workers before it appears later on in mass class action. The willingness of wider layers to take up these fights shows this huge anger. The confidence that workers and activists will have got from these youth movements will help speed up this process.
The movement in France, a bigger economy than either Chile or Greece, caused ripples around the world and inspired youth elsewhere. The example of what the French students, through linking up with the workers, achieved is impressive. There are lessons for other youth movements.
Students have limited power in society. Previous Chilean governments weathered school student protests before, although on a smaller scale. Only through getting wider layers involved, workers in trade unions most importantly, can they achieve concessions. This time in France, the first university occupation began on 7 February. By 11 April, the CPE law was repealed. As the wider working class began getting involved in trade union 'days of action', in reality strikes by another name, the government were brought to the negotiating table. Drawing the workers into their struggle gave the French movement its real power.
Chilean students spoke of the lessons of France and also painted banners with quotes from Che Guevara. France also inspired many chants on Greek students' demonstrations. Greek students sped up their struggle through seeing the message of France.
The most important lesson that we can draw from these struggles is that the role of the working class is central in the struggle to change society.
Resistance is growing in Britain
ON 28 March, the day that three million demonstrated in France, one million were on strike for their pension rights in Britain's biggest strike since the 1926 general strike. Again, these were attacks on the working class' conditions in order to maximise profits caused a fightback.
There is huge anger under the surface. Last year, Scotland held its biggest political demonstration ever under the 'make poverty history' banner. London had some of its biggest demonstrations ever, with two million marching against the Iraq war on 15 February 2003.
Brown, Blair and Cameron are from the same mould as Chirac in France, Bachelet in Chile, Merkel in Germany and Bush in the US and send the same stream of attacks rain down constantly on workers' and young peoples' heads. The New York Times describes the background of the law that Chile's youth targeted.
"In his last act before stepping down in 1990 after almost 17 years in power, General Pinochet issued a decree reducing the central government's involvement in and supervision of education. Instead, authority was shifted to communities and education was opened to free market forces, with private companies allowed to compete with the Catholic Church, traditionally the main provider source of private schooling." This privatisation of education is what Blair is trying to push through now.
A layer of young people in England and Wales will have seen what has happened earlier this year, and taken heart. The underlying causes of the movements exist here, and Blair and Brown are daily adding to the kindling.
The mass movement in France in 1968 was sparked by students but taken up by workers. In some areas it began to take power into its hands.
Chile in 1973 saw stormy events between workers and oppressed people on the one hand, and the capitalist class. Before Pinochet's coup against the left-wing government, 800,000 workers marched, demanding arms to defend the government. Socialist ideas received huge support from these workers.
Most countries in the world have seen movements on a bigger scale and with more far-reaching demands than those we've seen this year. It is studying the lessons of the movements of the past, and putting these lessons into action, that parties such as the Socialist Party exist for.
A PARTY well-versed in Marxism and the lessons of history can ensure that the working class of the 21st century don't make the same mistakes. Young people are looking for these lessons.
The existence of a revolutionary party based on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky could mean a huge change in the depth of ideas of those most advanced layers engaged in struggle.
Today, these predominantly youth movements are in danger of remaining toothless in the absence of the conscious intervention of the working class.
Rebuilding a fighting, campaigning trade union movement and political representation for workers and young people go hand in hand. One can't fully develop without the other. For these struggles to advance, these organisations need to be strengthened and renewed, and often in the case of workers' parties, started from scratch.
It's the job of socialists involved in this process to argue for their ideas, and for a socialist alternative, whilst showing their ideas in action by helping to build these organisations.
We are currently going through a pause. The Greek students' struggle will reignite this autumn.
In Chile the LOCE is under review, but when the 'review' is finished it is unlikely it will be what the students want. The French ruling class will come back to these measures again, having only promised to 'replace' the CPE.
But young people have also shown their willingness to come back to struggles. The day after the CPE was repealed in France, thousands of students demonstrated nonetheless. They were demanding that the whole package of cuts and attacks passed as part of the same package as the CPE should be withdrawn.
More and more people will draw the conclusion that it's the whole capitalist system that needs changing, as the only way to guarantee our rights. These movements mark the beginning of a more favourable period for socialist ideas.
Socialists must get involved in these movements, initiating struggle where possible, and put forward our ideas as the best strategy for workers and young people, for a socialist world. This also means building our organisations in England and Wales, in order to prepare for future struggles.
Join the resistance
International Socialist Resistance
ISR is a broad, independent anti-capitalist youth organisation. ISR was founded in Brussels, Dec 2001 at a conference of 500 young people.
ISR members fight across boundaries for a socialist world, based on meeting the needs of all.
PO Box 858 London E11 1YD
020 8558 7947
Socialist students organise in over 40 UK universities with members in over 70.
For more info:
In The Socialist 27 July 2006:
Invasion of Lebanon
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party campaigns