Some Thoughts on the Ongoing Student Struggle from Someone Who is Not a Student

From Fires Never Extinguished

The grandfather of a friend of mine was a forced Jewish laborer in the Nazi munition camps during World War 2. When reparations were finally paid to the survivors, his grandfather refused them. My friend asked his grandfather why. "Because as it is now, I was a forced laborer against my will, but if I take the compensation, then I was just an employee of the Nazi state."

It's interesting. During one of the more curious exchanges between the Greek government, now in deep financial crisis, and the German government, who most elites are expecting to bail the Greeks out, the Greek Deputy Prime Minister evoked the history of Nazi occupation of Greece during the Second World War. He said: 'They took away the Greek gold that was at the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back. I don't say they have to give back the money necessarily but they have at least to say "thanks".'

More than 300,000 Greeks died in that occupation as agriculture production was shifted to feed the Nazi war machine. And after the Nazis came the Americans, with their anti-communism, coups and dictatorship. American anarchists are quite familiar with the role of the Greek students in bringing those CIA-backed governments to their knees.

Here at home, of course, many people have raised the demand for reparations. The foundation of the idea is certainly sound. Land was stolen, labor was stolen. Little to no payment was given. Even today, the repercussions resound throughout communities. Take a look at the difference in family wealth between white families and essentially all other demographics. Check out the disparities from the suburb to the reservation, or from the exoburb to the south end of town. Surely this requires rectification, if not remuneration. And, despite its dominance as local currency in the white middle class part of town, that payment cannot be tendered in boredom or ennui.

The sad emotional state of the suburbs is no compensation for the death and destruction wrought on those tagged at birth as enemies of American capitalism. Many white insurrectionist anarchists seem to want to leapfrog over what is derisively called "identity politics"; nevertheless, what are we to do with the reality of a white supremacy that, despite all the European communist theory thrown at it, still persists? Indeed, the insurrectionist call to jettison analysis of race -- or, perhaps, to put it on the same level as the boredom and emptiness of white suburban life -- seems at times like an alleged sophistication hiding what would otherwise be considered crass right wing analysis.

Still, the anarchist response to such things has usually been that our reparations take the form of expropriation. We will seize back what was stolen; dispossess the dispossessor. What is worth keeping we will keep and reorganize under a totally different ethic. What isn't worth keeping, we'll burn. As Errico Malatesta said, "If one really wants to change the system in fact and not just superficially, it will be necessary to destroy capitalism de facto, expropriating those who now control all social wealth, and immediately set about organizing a new social life on a local basis and without passing through legal channels. This means to say that in order to create a 'social republic' one must first bring about... anarchy!"

We aren't afraid of ruins, as Durruti said. Still, some of our parents were, weren't they? They fled to the outskirts when they got the chance. Some of our parents got stuck in those ruins and desperately wanted their kids to escape them. But either way, there was no escaping the ruin of Capital, was there? The architecture of the collapse of industrialism imprinted on the suburbs, too. Cookie cutter homes. Some are squats now. But a great deal of the empty ones are gutted, showing that even desperate people see little point in expropriating them beyond what can be carried away. Their Wal-Mart design serves only one purpose: the reproduction of the alienation of Capital. Deep down we all know this.

Neighborhoods without neighbors. Hours wasted driving to meaningless jobs. The price the white middle class is willing to pay not to live near poor Blacks, first and foremost. And others of course. The chemicals of Capital fill the gap, but the shame remains, manifesting as fear and violence. Students shoot up the schools. Dad shoots up his work. The lithium of the recovering inner city heroin addict and the Valium of the 1950's middle class housewife have merged to keep the rest in place, even if that restless leg syndrome won't let up. These are suburbs but they aren't les banlieues. Could they be? What does it mean to hope that they could be?

But, of course, as I referenced above, in this day and age, where the destructiveness of capitalism to the Earth is widely recognized in anarchist circles, and where Capital's ubiquitous presence squeezes profit and commodifies everything everywhere, seizing the means of production, as Malatesta mostly meant, seems like less and less of a sufficient answer. Not to say that we won't take them. Just that taking them doesn't quite seem like the answer it once seemed.

So, getting back to the question of reparations, if we are in an age of all-encompassing Capital, and at the same time, most of the actual production we do is both pointless at best and harmful at worst, what do we do? Is destroying Capital, including its physical edifice -- from factory to prison to university -- a kind of reparation? If I burn the warehouse down, after looting it of course, rather than collectivize, is this a reparation? Or is it revenge? Perhaps both? Does that make me the enemy of someone who wants to collectivize?

I find myself asking these questions as I watch the increasingly militant student movement in California. I sympathize with the desire to smash the university, both physically and politically. Nevertheless, I often wonder, as I read the likewise increasingly fiery proclamations emerging from the insurrectionist tendency within it, whether that struggle, which contains both the demand for the destruction of the entire vampiric order and at the same time the refusal to accept compensation from it, may find itself unable to communicate with, not only most the university population, but also the general population as a whole. And I wonder if its determination to downplay or ignore the ongoing role of white supremacy in American capitalism, may lead to a critical weakness as it torchlit marches ahead.

Of course, as I often hear, the demand is to generalize the struggle. Certainly. That is the goal of any nascent uprising. And there are indications that this is happening. But isn't the larger question, perhaps setting aside for now the tendency of the American working class to look down on university students as privileged, how a movement can articulate and mobilize behind a position based on what will be perceived as an attack on standards of living and social mobility. An attack on opportunity, even.

This is not to deny that, in reality, the university does not in fact deliver those things for many, even most, people. Clearly it is just another factory reproducing a class necessary for Capital's expansion. It's like asking if one's job fulfills. It feels like the set up to a joke. No one but a few could take it seriously.

Nevertheless, the university is not perceived this way in the common conception. Nor is the student experience broadly viewed from the outside as oppressive (quite unlike, for instance, high school and other compulsory education). So, it seems to me, the dare on the university student movement is not merely to generalize itself by, for instance, seeking a replication of its tactics (as I said, this is obviously necessary), but to make an argument that the critique it has of its own conditions, while perhaps contrary to the generally held mythology, are in fact just as miserable as life under other modes of capitalist production.

Towards resolving this dilemma, which I do not think is unique to the student uprising, we must spend time thinking very hard about the kind of arguments that can break through these widely help misconceptions. I think it's sometimes possible to get lost gazing into the fires we set. And it's not always true that the fire that liberates us liberates everyone else. Or, even if it could, if you're going to burn your own house down, you need to think hard about how to convince your neighbors not to call the fire department. And not to become a vigilante fire fighter, for sure. They're going to get nervous as those flames lick ever higher and higher and closer and closer to their own house.

Because, in the end, we're talking about a radical departure from the way that society is organized today. I mean, we clearly need fire -- and lots of it. But, while I think we rightly resist the temptation to prescribe what that world would look like specifically after the flames of the revolution have subsided, I think it's important to generalize the argument and, importantly, to look for critical contradictions within the experiences of others that can make clear how the student struggle is related to others, even those that have not yet emerged. Find these contradictions and push on them. See what happens. The odds are things will realign in new ways. New opportunities that were not initially obvious will present themselves.

For instance, do most people realize that the destruction of the university at its logical conclusion means the destruction of the work system as well? Perhaps the workers may lament the tuition increase as something akin to a pay cut, but does the more radical analysis find purchase with them? As someone who is not a student, I am prepared to suggest that the answer might be no. Or it might be sort of yes if they are putting their own kids through school. The movement must think of contradictions in the system that can be attacked that will plainly reveal this reality.

Figuring that out, I think, is the task before the student insurrection. It is not incumbent on the movement to listen to the self-serving warnings of the professional leftist managers of social revolt. But that doesn't mean there aren't people worth listening to. Look around for others making absolutist demands and connect with them. Consider how their demands fit into the already existing analysis. "Fuck work" is an obvious starting point. But there are others. Whose land are you on? Can you answer this question? This is a good place to start, too.

To get to this place, it will require, perhaps, a little less European insurrectionist communist theory, and a little more connecting with real life experience, especially the lived experience of others. To generalize the struggle the analysis must also be generalized in some sense. This, as the Zapatistas say, requires listening. But there is a strong insurrectionist tradition in American history. Think John Brown. Think Nat Turner. Think Set-tainte of the Kiowa. Think Harriett Tubman. People who at least at some points in their lives refused compromise. Consider their names and their struggles. Incorporate the demands of others into the flyers, banners, manifestos and communiques.

White supremacy will be a fatal weak point if it is not confronted head on, so it must be done now. Think how white supremacy fucks up the struggle against capitalism. Why do working class white Minutemen track down and confront working class or peasant Mexican migrants? Why did poor Southern whites join the slave patrols that returned to their masters Blacks that participated in the ongoing general strike against the slave system? This makes sense only when we consider the cross-class alliance of white supremacy.

This doesn't mean a watering down of politics. On the contrary. But take a fanatical approach. Attack the middle ground but try as much as possible to ground your infinite demands in obvious truths. Then attack those who deny reality with a friend/enemy dichotomy. Think how the Abolitionists attacked the wishy-washy middle. There's something to be learned there. Read William Lloyd Garrison. From the middle will emerge your worst enemies. You've already seen the damage a handful of liberals can do. Therefore, it is incumbent on you to destroy the middle ground. It pretends to offer reason but instead delivers only more insanity.

But, above all else, in the US every movement must consider carefully how its politics fit into the overall context of white supremacy. But there's hope: when the system of white supremacy is in crisis -- which means that enough crazy motherfucking white people reject their whiteness in solidarity with people of color that the reactionary system can no longer be counted on to undermine class solidarity -- amazing things happen. The very explosions insurrectionists desire manifest! The women's movement emerges. Gender and sexual relations shift. And on and on. Capital becomes weak and stumbles. The Reconstruction legislature of South Carolina sent revolutionary salutations to the Paris Commune. Think about that. The capitalist machine counts on the alliance of whiteness to create within struggles an emergency escape hatch for white people of all classes. This must be refused.

White supremacy may seem quaint and "olde timey" in the age of a Black president, but it's grip is still on us. It is the cross class alliance that time and time again turns the white working class against what would otherwise be its comrades. It is the knife's edge of Capital. If the student movement can generalize itself, whatever else it does, it must attack white supremacy head on. This is what will throw the system into crisis. This contradiction is what will build that unstoppable constituency that will overturn Capital.

Think insurrection. Think John Brown. Think Bleeding Kansas. Think solidarity. Death to Capital.

Sign up for E-news

If you'd like to receive our occasional IAS e-newsletter, with updates on grants, books, events, and more, send us an email at info (at)

User login