ISSE/SEP Conference: Report on the work of the International Students for Social Equality

The following is a contribution made to the International Students for Social Equality/Socialist Equality Party Emergency Conference Against War by Andre Damon, a student at the University of Delaware and a member of the ISSE Steering Committee in the US. The report reviews the political basis of the ISSE and the aim of its work.

The conference was held March 31-April 1 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Further discussion on the ISSE and reports to the conference will be published in coming days.

The student work of our party, like all other aspects of its practical activity, proceeds from an analysis of objective reality. As such, it is necessary to address the social and economic forces acting upon the political consciousness of students.

The current period is one of great changes—both in human relations and subsequently in human consciousness. The outbreak of the war with which we concern ourselves today has made manifest the rifts and tensions rending the post-war order. It represents the American ruling class’s semi-blind attempt to preserve its global hegemony through open violence and plunder.

The explosion of American militarism has not resolved, and will not resolve the problems its architects sought to make right. Rather, it will lead to a further breakdown of current geopolitical order and brings forth the potential for worldwide economic destabilization—a precursor for which we saw last month in the panic surrounding the global equity market slide, the meltdown of the sub-prime mortgage market, and the collapse of New Century Financial.

For college students, these things are not simply rumblings in the distance. When students graduate from the universities they are assured neither steady prospects for employment nor continual increases in their quality of life. Median wages in the US have fallen sharply over the course of the past decade, and college graduates have by no means been spared. Adjusted for inflation, the median income of people holding bachelors degrees in 1998 was $43,000. By 2006 this figure had fallen to $40,000.

The prospect of uncertain pay and employment after graduation compounds the difficulty of paying off educational loans, and forces a large percentage of students to work several part-time jobs year-round in addition to their studies. In fact, a growing number of students work full-time while attending college, as they cannot otherwise afford housing and living expenses.

Burdened with debt and uncertain employment prospects, it is no surprise that recent college graduates have figured prominently among the millions of people taking out sub-prime, adjustable-rate mortgages and facing the possibility of foreclosure when rates go up.

This phenomenon feeds into the larger economic instability facing young people, and fuels concerns that a possible recession this year, coupled with a collapse of the housing bubble, could cause a rapid sell-off of US debt abroad, leading to a devaluing of the dollar, a jump in interest rates, and even deeper recession.

These events do not fail to make an impact upon people’s consciousness. Students, together with the rest of the working class, are growing more estranged from the two-party system and the political establishment as a whole. However, we must ask: where is this opposition to go? What channel must it take?

Students who find themselves in opposition to the political status quo will invariably come into contact with the sundry left-radical organizations operating on campuses. These groups come in every color and stripe, but their politics are essentially identical—they make it their business to ask concessions from the Democrats or the Republicans. In essence, they seek to mirror the politics of the 50s and 60s reformism, as well as the anti-war politics of the Vietnam War.

This perspective, bankrupt as it was during the Vietnam Era, has if possible grown even more moribund over the proceeding forty years. This is facilitated by profound shifts and realignments within the political establishment; while the most hawkish and right wing elements of the ruling class have come to the forefront in American politics, the Democratic Party has abandoned any pretension to reformist politics and opposition to militarism. Both parties are in favor of destroying the concessions gained by the working class during the previous period and reorganizing the world under us under the aegis of US militarism.

While the opposition that did exist among sections of the Democratic Party to the escalation of the Vietnam War never represented a principled stand against imperialism, it did reflect a certain strategic leeway possessed by the ruling class during that period. By contrast, the successful conquest and retention of oil-rich regions in the Middle East are of fundamental importance to the world hegemony that the US ruling class is seeking. This is why all sections of the ruling elite and its media hirelings speak of “success” in Iraq and Afghanistan as being a universal good.

Since these radical protest organizations cannot and will not base themselves on the working class, their demands lack any social basis to give them motive force. As a result, they are left demanding the most pitiable concessions (such as the enthusiasm with which groups like United for Peace and Justice have greeted the Democrats’ resolutions to fund the war), and largely occupy themselves with the planning of various stunts and capers. In truth, there is nothing in these groups to attract broad sections of the student body, and certainly little that would interest the most thoughtful sections of students who are being radicalized by events.

These groups look longingly to the Vietnam War era, when individual campus organizations had membership in the hundreds and a great deal of sway over the student body. At my campus, the Students for a Democratic Society put forward a candidate who won the presidency of the student government, and the majority of the representative offices in the spring of 1967. This year the group has resurrected itself, and despite being the only nominally anti-war organization on campus besides the ISSE, could muster only five or six people at its first meeting.

While the workers and students are being pushed to the left by the war and the continual betrayals of the Democrats, they are in general not gravitating toward the reformist organizations to the extent seen during the Vietnam period. As one student told me “We’ve tried protesting in the millions before the war, and nothing happened.”

In the final tally, all of the radical reformist organizations find themselves in stark contradiction to the type of mass movement developing in embryo. These groups base themselves on nationalistic conceptions and the politics of petitioning to one’s own bourgeoisie. By contrast, the developing anti-war movement is international in character, as reflected in the worldwide demonstrations during the run-up to the Iraq War.

Further, these tendencies appeal to students as separate from the working class, when in reality students and college graduates face the same problems and pressures as other workers. During the past 30 years the percentage of American people holding college degrees has more than doubled, and naturally a much greater part of the working class now goes to college. In 1972, only 12 percent of the American population held a degree. By 2006 this figure had grown to 28 percent.

It is popular within the ruling class and media today to explain social inequality by a divergence in education—that the poorer, unskilled workers are being hurt, while educated workers are moving up. In reality, students face the same pressures as the rest of the working class. Students are being driven into the same conditions as the working class, and the two groups are being increasingly commingled. When we talk about the work of the ISSE, it is not just a matter of issues confronting students as such. Our goal is to get students to understand the necessity of turning to the working class—that outside a political movement of the working class as a whole there is no answer to war and social inequality.

The aim of the ISSE is to fight for the perspective of international socialism. This implies that our ideas come into conflict with those of the reformist groups, as well as the prevailing consciousness of the working class. We recognize this and base our activity on trying to win over the working class to a socialist perspective.

On the other hand, the various amorphous antiwar organizations make it their business to smooth over any and all political differences. They wish to make one big harmonious movement that can cooperate towards the common goal of reformism. Any discussion of principled politics is generally strictly taboo. There is a logic to this, as these groups serve an objective social function: they work to divert the opposition that exits to the policies of the American ruling class into politically innocuous avenues. This is done by obfuscating the real political issues facing workers and students.

What then are the tasks of the ISSE? Our organization bases itself on the heritage of revolutionary Marxism; that is, it recognizes its task to be that of facilitating the political independence of the working class. As such, we must conduct an ideological struggle against the political conceptions that develop spontaneously in the minds of students.

Like the rest of the working class, there is a great deal of anger among students. Everybody hates Bush. But this visceral anger and revulsion does not suddenly transfigure into an understanding of the objective forces governing society or the tasks facing the working class.

It is our job to arm the workers and students with the ideological tools necessary to break with the ruling class. This is done by demonstrating in concrete, living reality the thorough bankruptcy of reformism and the irreconcilability of capitalism with further human progress.

First and foremost we must expose the nature of the Democratic Party and the perfidious role of its hangers-on. We must make students understand that the study of history and the resolution of theoretical differences are essential to any kind of opposition to militarism and social inequality. Any attempt to ignore history can end only in disaster. Further, it is our task to bring students to an understanding that outside of the working class there does not exist any social force capable of putting an end to militarism and social inequality.

Our organization is international at its core. We are the International Students for Social Equality because we recognize that only an international movement of the working class can put an end to the capitalist system. Increasingly, universities are international institutions, bringing together students from many different parts of the world. This can only increase the strength of our appeal.

During the course of our student work, there have arisen questions regarding the feasibility of such an approach. If we seek to build a mass party, will not those who are new to politics be estranged by continual debate over rote theory? If people are seeking answers to pressing questions, should we not give them simple, immediate and satisfying ones?

Our movement begins with a scientific assessment of the present political situation and ends with practice in line with that assessment. The formula cannot be altered. To shield the working class from the theoretical underpinnings of our practical activity, in order to somehow dupe it into following us, is simply to betray the workers.

We will win a following among students and working people through political honesty and intellectual clarity. The past five years have dealt a devastating blow to the perspectives of national reformism and protest politics. With the further escalation of US militarism these perspectives will discredit themselves even more completely.

This is why we must stand firm in our task of speaking to workers and students on the highest theoretical basis. It is in this way alone that a movement capable of ending war and social inequality may be built.