Student movement, class struggle and hegemony

Image: Erik Mclean


The direct relationship between the student movement and the dynamics of class struggles in capitalist society

The present work aims at a brief analysis of the relationship between the student movement and the dynamics of the class struggle within the conflicts of capitalist society. It is about perceiving the student movement from its social base and its relationship with the struggles between social classes within capitalism. Therefore, we seek to answer the following question: what is the impact of the class struggle within the student movement, especially in its social composition and in the constitution of an internal hegemony?

The present work, therefore, has the following itinerary: (1) presentation of a critical analysis of the discussion about the student movement; (2) presentation of the Marxist conception of the student movement; (3) the relationship between student movement, social classes and class struggles. The discussion carried out here is the expression of a partial result of a broader research, which deals with the Marxist analysis of the student movement at a theoretical level, already initiated in other works.


Student movement: the dispute for its meaning

The student movement presents itself, in the contradictory landscape of capitalist society, as one of the most important social movements in the opportunity for social transformation. From this angle, the students' experiences of struggle and resistance become the target of debates and interpretations about their historical significance and their transformative and/or conservative potential. Thus, the student movement is full of different interpretations and theoretical-methodological approaches, which seek to elucidate and implement the analytical process. For this reason, it is impossible to consider the existence of only one “interpretation” or “explanation” of the student movement.

What reveals all this range of different approaches about the mobilizations of the student movement, among other elements, is the social and political perspective from which a researcher is starting. There is a battle over what the term “student movement” might be. This is what Mikhail Bakhtin (2009) calls the class struggle around the sign. Phenomena/beings exist independently of the consciousness that human beings have about them. When there is a perception of this phenomenon/being, that is, when there is awareness, then we define or conceptualize them in order to express their meaning. In this sense, the student movement (being) exists, regardless of the idea we have about it (sign).

In short, this existing diversity is a product of the class struggle, where the class perspective plays an important role that derives a theoretical and methodological choice. In this way, the student movement was analyzed under different interpretative pillars. We can structure these analyzes into two major approaches: generational (FEUER, 1969; ALTABACH, 1967) and classist (MARTINS FILHO, 1987; FORACCHI, 1965; FORACCHI, 1977; FORACCHI, 1969).

The generational approach is anchored in an analysis that focuses on the generational character of the student movement, especially linking it to youth discussions in general. It is about thinking about the student movement as an essentially youth movement, where discussions revolve around youth rebellion, its cultural aspects, ways of being, etc. Generally, in this approach, the conflict and mobilizations generated within the student condition are not seen from the perspective of and linked to more general conflicts in society (such as class struggle), but rather due to specific issues, insulated from other determinations of society. totality of social relations in capitalist society.

In this perspective, the multiple determinations of the studied phenomenon are lost sight of and analytical models are created that cannot reveal the concrete reality. In addition, another analytical problem is to link the base of the student movement directly to the youth. Not every youth movement is linked to student conditions and agendas, and not all members of the student movement are of youth origin (DOS ANJOS & TELES, 2019). Thus, the social base of the student movement is the students (we will go deeper into this issue later on).

The classist approach in the analysis of the student movement advances in the sense of stating that the social base of the student movement has a class composition. Thus, the conflicts and mobilizations of this social movement are linked to the conflicts and mobilizations of society in general. However, much of the literature on the classist approach of the student movement, especially Brazilian research, relegates the student movement as essentially a “middle class” movement and/or derived from the petty bourgeoisie (FORACCHI, 1977; COIMBRA, 1981; POERNER , 2004; ALBUQUERQUE, 1977). It is an essentialism that does not correspond to reality.

Marialice Foracchi in her classic book The student and the transformation of Brazilian society, for example, it demonstrates the links between the university student and his class of origin, the middle class. This connection between students and the middle class takes place through family relationships (which express dependency and maintenance ties) and the production relationships derived from the support of the family nucleus. The author, who advances in many aspects of the student condition, especially the transformation of young people into students, falls into essentialism, relegating the student condition of her time as the essence of the student condition in general at a conceptual level. In her time, without a doubt, the so-called “middle class” could comprise almost all university students, but this element should not be transplanted into theoretical and abstract analysis.[I] about the student movement.

In summary, both the generational approach and the classist approach, despite their elements that contribute to the analysis of the student movement, fail to advance in the conceptual analysis of the student movement. In our perspective, the Marxist conception of the student movement manages to detach itself from the limits of the aforementioned approaches and move forward in the discussion. This is what we will put briefly in the next topic.


Elements for a Marxist conception of the student movement

The Marxist conception of the student movement presupposes a Marxist conception of the social movement and of society in general. In this sense, in the light of the dialectical method, it is impossible to analyze the student movement apart from society and its determinations. Thus, if it is true that this movement can be characterized as a totality, it is equally certain that it is inserted in a larger totality that is capitalist society (TELES, 2018). Thus, we understand social movement as a mobilization of social groups (JENSEN, 2014) derived from certain social situations that generate social dissatisfaction, a sense of belonging and certain objectives.[ii] (VIANA, 2016; TELES, 2017).

The student movement contemplates all these elements and is, therefore, a specific social movement. The basic social group of the student movement is, of course, the students. It is their specific social situation (student condition) that generates this social group, being characterized as a situational group. However, it is necessary for students to be dissatisfied with their situation, collectively perceiving it and mobilizing it based on certain objectives.

Thus, the student condition produces a variety of forms of social dissatisfaction, especially those that revolve around the school/university space, such as the precariousness of student assistance, relationship between teachers/students, lack of infrastructure at school/university, etc., in addition to other specific situations of the subgroups that form the students.

The sense of belonging within students is facilitated by the fact that they spend most of their days in the same place, the school/university space. Thus, this space is the place where the learning process takes place from school institutions, but it is also a space for socialization, exchange of experience among students. The awareness and perception of their dissatisfactions can only be remedied from their collectivity, as a problem not of individual students, but of the student group as a whole. If these students mobilize from an objective, then we will have a student movement.

In summary, we understand the student movement as a specific social movement that expresses the mobilization of students derived from their student condition.

This movement is constituted by the student social group, which is articulated through claims referring to the educational area[iii].

These are the fundamental elements of a Marxist discussion about the conceptualization and definition of the student movement. There are, of course, other determinations, which can be seen in Sanchez (2000), Bringel (2009), Cohn-Bendit (1981), Guimarães (2011), among other authors.

Having already evidenced our concept of student movement, it remains for us to know how the relationship between this student movement and the dynamics of the class struggle within capitalist society takes place.


Student movement and class struggles

One of the pillars of the historical analysis of humanity, based on Marxism, is the idea that class struggle is the engine of history. Marx and Engels, in communist manifesto already stated: “The history of all societies existing until today is the history of class struggles” (MARX & ENGELS, 2010, P. 40). Thus, the dynamics of this particular social conflict becomes of great analytical importance, since societal transformations pervade the struggles of social classes placed in a given society and there are consequences for other social relations, such as the conflicts of groups of social movements.

We understand here social classes in the Marxist sense, that is, as a set of individuals who have a certain way of life, interests and struggles in common against other social classes from a certain activity established in the social division of labor, derived from the way of working. dominant production (MARX, 2010; MARX, 1986; MARX & ENGELS, 1992; VIANA, 2012).

The dynamics of class struggles have direct consequences for the student movement, and the way we will put this relationship will be based on two elements: the class composition of the student movement and the hegemony within it.

The social basis of the student movement, as we have already mentioned, are the students, who are not homogeneous. A student has a certain class belonging, since he can be linked to the bourgeoisie, proletariat, peasant, etc. From this angle, the student movement is essentially a polyclassist movement (except for a few branches of this movement that may present monoclassist tendencies). This element will have profound consequences on their mobilizations, objectives, etc., since a certain class belonging generates different ways of acting in the world, access to goods, resources, a certain cultural form, etc. Thus, the class composition of the student movement reflects the class belonging of the individuals that compose it.

Another element, equally important, is the hegemony within the student movement. Hegemony understood as cultural validity, which refers to what is predominant from the point of view of representations, culture, values, etc., within a given community (MARÍAS, 1955; MACHADO NETO, 1968; VIANA, 2016)[iv]. Thus, when we refer to hegemony in the student movement, we are talking about what prevails in its mobilizing dynamics. In addition to these issues, it is also necessary to explain that analyzing the class composition of the student movement and examining its class position are different aspects of the analytical process.

From this angle, assimilating these aspects (class composition and hegemony) we can see that the student movement has several ramifications (organizations, subgroups, demonstrations, etc.) and trends (political orientations based on ideologies, doctrines, theory, etc.) in its dynamics. That is why we can see a multiplicity of expressions within the student movement, some of them antagonistic to each other.

But what is the relationship between social composition and hegemony? Nildo Viana, when dealing with social movements at a theoretical level, helps us to understand this issue in the concrete analysis of the student movement: “When the social composition of the social movement or of a certain branch is of the underprivileged classes, it tends to have specificities and more contradictory elements when subjected to bourgeois hegemony. When the social composition is markedly that of the privileged classes, then bourgeois hegemony tends to reign without major contradictions, except in certain ramifications. But there are divergences in both cases and in all senses, which only analyzes of concrete cases can solve. It is possible, for example, for sectors of a social movement whose social composition is predominantly of the underprivileged classes to break with all contradiction and fully adhere to bourgeois hegemony or proletarian hegemony. Likewise, the same can occur in the case of a social movement whose social composition is of the privileged classes (especially in the less integrated class within it, the intelligentsia), which is more common when there is a rise of social struggles, especially the struggles workers” (VIANA, 2016, P. 57-58).

That said, we can move forward towards thinking about the existing types of student movement, bearing in mind both their class composition and hegemony. In this sense, there are three variants of the student movement: the conservative, reformist and revolutionary student movement.

The conservative student movement expresses the bourgeois hegemony within itself, contributing to the reproduction of society based on specific student objectives. Examples: Nazi student youth in Germany, Christian democratic students in Brazil, etc. Its action is generally articulated with the reactionary wing of the dominant bloc. In times of stabilization of the dynamics of capital accumulation, the conservative student movement has little adherence or political resonance within student conflicts. It is in moments of capitalism crisis, in the intensification and radicalization of social conflicts that this trend emerges with greater force and number, expressing the reaction of the upper social classes linked to the dominant bloc.

Associated with doctrines, ideologies and representations that express reactionary objectives, they assume different forms according to each specific case, such as conservative, fascist, liberal-conservant, neo-Nazi variants, etc. Such objectives point to the fight against radical and revolutionary student organizations, the search for conservative hegemony within the student group (using moral discourse, creation of imaginary enemies, etc.), the articulation with other social movements that have conservative tendencies , among other claims.

The relationship of the conservative student movement with the State will depend on the political composition that assumes state control. If the government is linked to leftist (progressive) parties, the relationship is one of combat and denunciation. If they are governments linked to right-wing parties, the relationship is one of alliance and defense. A concrete example of the latter case is the history and development of Hitler's student youth. Initially it was a paramilitary youth and student organization that supported the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

With the seizure of power by Hitler, the Hitler student youth became state policy, becoming, from 1933 onwards, an organization linked to the Ministry of Education and encouraged by the State in general and by the school/university institution in particular, raising about two million students at the end of the first year of Nazi rule. In 1939, membership of this organization became mandatory throughout Germany, which made it reach the surprising number of 5 million members (MONTEIRO, 2013). Such a mobilizing organization, at this moment, metamorphoses, becoming autonomous, losing its link with the student movement and becoming an authentic bureaucratic organization directly linked to the State.

The reformist (or progressive) student movement expresses its ambiguity between bourgeois and bureaucratic hegemony, fighting for specific reforms both in terms of education in particular and those that affect society in general. Due to its broad social composition and the internal dynamics of student conflicts, it is the variant with the largest number of organizations, currents, mobilized individuals, etc. The fundamental determination of the reformist student movement is its relationship and its claim addressed to the State.

The mobilization of the most varied tendencies within the reformist student movement is linked to social reforms, changes in educational policies, more funds for education and research, legislative changes, etc. Thus, the branches of the reformist student movement are linked, almost always, to the progressive bloc, hegemonized by left-wing political parties or youth linked to these same parties. Due to its breadth, this type of student movement has several trends, ranging from the most moderate to its extremist wings – which supposedly claim the radical transformation of society.

A national example of a reformist student movement is the National Union of Students (UNE), which we have analyzed in other works (TELES, 2019a; MAIA & TELES, 2016). Hegemonically, since its founding, its board has been linked to “left”, “reformist” political parties (except for some mandates in the 50s and 60s) and has never sought to break with state legality. The UNE, especially since the country's re-democratization at the end of the 1980s, has always been integrated and articulated with the progressive bloc, especially with the most electorally competitive sectors – the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) and the Workers' Party (PT). Since the 1980s, these two political parties have hegemonized the UNE, creating an apparatus that has lasted for over 30 years. Thus, until 2002, they were always consolidated as opposition to the federal government. But it is from 2003 onwards, when part of the progressive bloc manages to reach federal power that a metamorphosis takes place: from opposition to the government it becomes situation to its measures.

In this way, the UNE in PT governments meant, within the student movement, the mobilization for the modernization of Brazilian subordinate capitalism. The element that explains the mobilization of this entity against the neoliberal governments of Collor de Mello (1990-1992) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002), while defending the government of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, is the composition of the UNE board, equipped by political parties, especially the PCdoB, which made up the federal government.

The real objectives of this entity, materialized in its various mobilizations and claims, meant the maintenance of neoliberal measures not only in educational policies (mainly ProUni and REUNI), but throughout Brazilian society implemented by the Lula government (TELES, 2019b) and later to the Dilma government. The dissimulation-simulation process was the strategy most used by UNE to obfuscate its main interests, presenting them as the interests of students in general.

Finally, the revolutionary student movement, due to the weight of bourgeois hegemony in society, is marginalized and peripheral as it expresses proletarian hegemony, articulating specific student demands with the issue of revolutionary social transformation. A hegemony of revolutionary social movements becomes rare in capitalist society due to its revolutionary character; hence, its hegemony only appears in moments of radicalization of the class struggle, articulated, generally, to the labor movement in the autonomous or self-managed stage of its struggles[v].

Here, in order to avoid doubts or misinterpretations, we are referring to hegemony within the student movement, and not to the possibility of its existence or maintenance. From this angle, even if there is no hegemony of the revolutionary variety of the student movement, revolutionary branches exist, despite their small number in non-revolutionary times.

The fundamental element of this variety is the opportunity for the radical transformation of society and, therefore, of the student condition itself. The revolutionary objective within student demands requires articulation with the revolutionary proletariat, the social class that has the possibility and potential to transform society as a whole due to its position in the social division of labor. Thus, the specific claims of the student group are related to the universal claims of human emancipation via proletarian revolution. Due to its objectives and demands, the revolutionary student movement has an anti-statist orientation towards the State and is the target of repression in its mobilizations in general.

The most well-known and radical example of this variety was the student rebellion in France, especially in the city of Paris, in 1968 (BRAGA & VIANA, 2019). May 68 in France became the deepest and most radical expression of all the struggles that took place at the end of the 60s, a time of crisis of accumulation of the capitalist mode of production and broader contestation of society by various sectors of the lower classes. and social movements (especially the student movement).

In this context, the French student movement became radicalized in its struggles against the precarious reorganization of education in the country (Plan Fouchet), whose quality of teaching deteriorated and maintaining the student condition became difficult. The streets are taken over, universities are occupied in a generalized way and there is a deepening of the general conflicts in France, bringing together new sectors of civil society and the radicalization of certain sectors of the French labor movement, which made the biggest general strike in the history of the country.[vi]. The worker-student alliance was fundamental to create a pre-revolutionary climate in France at that time, enabling the realization of the self-management project (revolutionary process) and the possibility of capitalist relations both in terms of production relations and within other social relations.[vii].

Due to space, we cannot develop and deepen each characteristic with regard to class composition and student movement, which we will leave for another work still in development. But these elements are enough to demonstrate the complexity and multiplicity of the student movement and its relationship with class struggles.


Last words

The discussion expressed in this text pointed to the importance and direct relationship between the student movement and the dynamics of class struggles in capitalist society. It is a research agenda that, with due development and deepening, will contribute to the elucidation of this social phenomenon in the light of Marxism.

Our contribution here was to demonstrate not only the relationship between the student movement and the class struggle, but how the objectives, claims, forms of organization and other social relations (State, civil society, etc.) of this specific social movement are immersed and are part of the contradictory landscape of capitalist society whose dynamics of class struggle is fundamental.

*Gabriel Teles is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP). Author, among other books, of the Marxist analysis of social movements (Edições Redelp).

Originally published in the magazine Wake up, vol. 6; no 06.


Bibliographic references

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ALTABACH, Philip. Student Politics. Transition, no. 28, p. 25-27, Jan. 1967.

BAKHTIN, M. (VOLOCHINOV, V.). Marxism and Philosophy of Language. Trans. Michel Lahud and Yara Frateschi Vieira. So Paulo: Hucitec, 2009.

BERNARDO, J. Students and Workers in May 68. Revista Social Struggles, n.19/20, 2008.

BRAGA, Lisandro; VIANA, Nildo (Org.). May 1968: Class Struggle and Self-Management Project. Curitiba: Editora CRV, 2018.

BRINGEL, Breno. The Previous Future: continuities and ruptures in student movements in Brazil. EccoS, São Paulo, v.11, n.11, p. 97-121, Jan./June., 2009.

COHN-BENDIT, Daniel. the grand bazaar. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1988.

COIMBRA, Marcos. Students and Ideology in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro: Edições Achiamé, 1981.

CONCEIÇÃO, Marcus Vinícius. Reflections on the Student Movement and May 1968. In: The Student Movement in Focus. Goiania: Redelp Editions, 2016.

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FORACCHI, Marialice. The Student and the Transformation of Brazilian Society. Sao Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1977.

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MACHADO NETO, A. Of Intellectual Vigor. A Study in the Sociology of Ideas. São Paulo: Grijalbo, 1968.

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MARTINS FILHO, Joao Roberto. Student Movement and Military Dictatorship (1964-1968)🇧🇷 Campinas: Papirus, 1987.

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[I] We understand abstraction here in the sense of Marx, that is, as a capacity for abstraction in the analysis of social phenomena (MARX, 2013)

[ii] The discussion about each element and concept of this discussion can be seen in an original way in Viana (2016) and commented by Teles (2017).

[iii] The relationship with issues related to Education can be direct or indirect. Thus, it becomes explainable certain ramifications of the student movement to fight for the approval of laws that go beyond the student question or the destruction of the capitalist society that generates the student condition itself. This derives from the political perspective and objectives posed by each concrete case for some branches of this movement.

[iv] The idea of ​​hegemony in these authors, despite some similarities, is different from that proposed by Gramsci (1982) which would be “moral and intellectual leadership” of a given collectivity.

[v] For a discussion of the stages of labor movement struggles, see cf. JENSEN, 2014.

[vi] “The entry of the labor movement into the conflict took place from a 24-hour general strike, pulled by the French union centers and fundamentally headed by the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), between the 13th and 14th of May, constrained by the eruption student. However, despite the union centrals reinforcing the idea of ​​it being a one-day strike (and we will make this clearer in the next topics), what was seen was a generalized and simultaneous strike, with factory occupations never seen before in French history. Independent of the unions, workers began to occupy factories, cross their arms in strikes and maintain direct contact with students who seek an alliance with them” (TELES, 2018).

[vii] For further analysis and information on the student rebellion in May 1968, cf. BRAGA & VIANA, 2019; TELES, 2018; BERNARDO, 2008; GREGOIRE & PERLMAN, 2018; WOODS, 2016; SOLIDARITY, 2006.

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