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The Student Movement and the Present Political Situation

V. I. Lenin

A students' strike has been called at St. Petersburg University. A number of other higher education establishments have joined in. The movement has already spread to Moscow and Kharkov. Judging from all the reports in the foreign and Russian newspapers and in private letters from Russia, we are faced with a fairly broad academic movement.

Back to the old days! Back to pre-revolutionary Russia! That is what these events signify above all. As before, official reaction is tightening the screw in the universities. The eternal struggle in autocratic Russia against the student organisations has taken the form of a crusade by the Black-Hundred Minister Schwartz—acting in full agreement with "Premier" Stolypin—against the autonomy which was promised the students in the autumn of 1905 (what did not the autocracy, faced with the onset of the revolutionary working class, "promise" Russian citizens at that time!); against an autonomy which the students enjoyed so long as the autocracy had "other things to think of than students", and which the autocracy, if it was to remain such, could not but begin to take away.

As before, the liberal press laments and groans, this time together with some Octobrists—the professors lament and snivel too, imploring the government not to take the road of reaction and to make use of an excellent opportunity "to ensure peace and order with the help of reforms" in "a country exhausted by convulsions"—imploring the students not to resort to unlawful courses which can only play into the hands of reaction, etc., etc., etc. How ancient and antiquated, how hackneyed are all these tunes, and how vividly they resurrect before our eyes what took place twenty years ago or so, at the end of the eighties of last century! The similarity between that time and this is all the more striking when we take the present moment by itself, apart from the three years of revolution we have gone through. For the Duma (at first sight) with only the tiniest difference expresses that same pre-revolutionary relation of forces—the supremacy of the wild landlord, who prefers using Court connections and the influence of his friend the official to any kind of representation; the support of that same official by the merchants (the Octobrists) who do not dare to differ from their benevolent patrons; the "opposition" of the bourgeois intellectuals who are concerned most of all to prove their loyalty, and who describe appeals to those in power as the political activity of liberalism. And the workers' deputies in the Duma recall feebly, far too feebly, the part which the proletariat was recently playing by its open mass struggle.

It may be asked, can we in such conditions attribute any importance to the old forms of primitive academic struggle of the students? If the liberals have sunk to the level of the "politics" of the eighties (one can of course only in irony speak of politics in this connection), will it not be a debasement of the aims of Social-Democracy if it decides that it is necessary to support the academic struggle in some way or other?

Here and there, apparently, Social-Democratic students are putting this question. At any rate, our editorial board has received a letter from a group of Social-Democratic students which says, among other things:

    "On September 13 a meeting of the students of St. Petersburg University resolved to call upon students for an all-Russian student strike, the reason given for this appeal being the aggressive tactics pursued by Schwartz. The platform of the strike is an academic one, and the meeting even welcomes the 'first steps' of the Moscow and St. Petersburg Professorial Councils in the struggle for autonomy. We are puzzled by the academic platform put forward at the St. Petersburg meeting, and consider it objectionable in present conditions, because it cannot unite the students for an active struggle on a broad front. We envisage student action only as one co-ordinated with general political action, and in no case apart from it. The elements capable of uniting the students are lacking. In view of this we are against academic action."

The mistake which the authors of the letter are making is of much greater political importance than may appear at first sight, because their argument, strictly speaking, touches upon a theme which is incomparably more broad and important than the question of taking part in this particular strike.

    "We envisage student action only as one co-ordinated with general political action. In view of this we are against academic action."

Such an argument is radically wrong. The revolutionary slogan—to work towards co-ordinated political action of the students and the proletariat, etc.—here ceases to be a live guidance for many-sided militant agitation on a broadening basis and becomes a lifeless dogma, mechanically applied to different stages of different forms of the movement. It is not sufficient merely to proclaim political co-ordinated action, repeating the "last word" in lessons of the revolution. One must be able to agitate for political action, making use of all possibilities, all conditions and, first and foremost, all mass conflicts between advanced elements, whatever they are, and the autocracy. It is not of course a question of us dividing every student movement beforehand into compulsory "stages", and making sure that each stage is properly gone through, out of fear of switching over to "untimely" political actions, etc. Such a view would be the most harmful pedantry, and would lead only to an opportunist policy. But just as harmful is the opposite mistake, when people refuse to reckon with the actual situation that has arisen and the actual conditions of the particular mass movement, because of a slogan misinterpreted as unchangeable. Such an application of a slogan inevitably degenerates into revolutionary phrase-mongering.

Conditions are possible when an academic movement lowers the level of a political movement, or divides it, or distracts from it—and in that case Social-Democratic students' groups would of course be bound to concentrate their agitation against such a movement. But anyone can see that the objective political conditions at the present time are different. The academic movement is expressing the beginning of a movement among the new "generation" of students, who have more or less become accustomed to a narrow measure of autonomy; and this movement is beginning when other forms of mass struggle are lacking at the present time, when a lull has set in, and the broad mass of the people, still silently, concentratedly and slowly are continuing to digest the experience of the three years of revolution.

In such conditions Social-Democrats would make a big mistake if they declared "against academic action". No, the groups of students belonging to our Party must use every effort to support, utilise and extend the movement. Like every other support of primitive forms of movement by Social-Democracy, the present support, too, should consist most of all in ideological and organisational influence on wider sections who have been roused by the conflict, and to whom this form of conflict, as a general rule, is their first experience of political conflicts. The student youth who have entered the universities during the last two years have lived a life almost completely detached from politics, and have been educated in a spirit of narrow academic autonomism, educated not only by the professors of the Establishment and the government press but also by the liberal professors and the whole Cadet Party. For this youth a strike on a large scale (if that youth is able to organise a large-scale strike: we must do everything to help it in this undertaking, but of course it is not for us socialists to guarantee the success of any bourgeois movement) is the beginning of a political conflict, whether those engaged in the fight realise it or not. Our job is to explain to the mass of "academic" protesters the objective meaning of the conflict, to try and make it consciously political, to multiply tenfold the agitation carried on by the Social-Democratic groups of students, and to direct all this activity in such a way that revolutionary conclusions will be drawn from the history of the last three years, that the inevitability of a new revolutionary struggle is understood, and that our old—and still quite timely—slogans calling for the overthrow of the autocracy and the convocation of a constituent assembly should once again become a subject of discussion and the touchstone of political concentration for fresh generations of democrats.

Social-Democratic students have no right to shirk such work under any conditions. And however difficult this work may be at the present time, whatever reverses particular agitators may experience in this or that university, students' association, meeting, etc., we shall say: knock, and it will be opened unto you! The work of political agitation is never wasted. Its success is measured not only by whether we have succeeded here and now in winning a majority, or obtaining consent for co-ordinated political action. It is possible that we shall not achieve this all at once. But that is why we are an organised proletarian party—not to lose heart over temporary failures, but stubbornly, unswervingly and consistently to carry on our work, even in the most difficult conditions.

The appeal we print below from the St. Petersburg Joint Student Council shows that even the most active elements of the students obstinately cling to pure academic aims, and still sing the Cadet-Octobrist tune. And this at a time when the Cadet-Octobrist press is behaving in the most disgusting fashion towards the strike, trying to prove at the very height of the struggle that it is harmful, criminal, etc. We cannot but welcome the rejoinder which the St. Petersburg Committee of our Party found it necessary to give the Joint Council (see "From the Party"[1])

Evidently the whips of Schwartz are not enough as yet to change the present-day students from "academics" into "politicians"; they need the scorpions of more and more Black-Hundred sergeant-majors to give a full revolutionary training to new cadres. These cadres, trained by all Stolypin's policy, trained by every step of the counter-revolution, require the constant attention of ourselves, the Social-Democrats, who clearly see the objective inevitability of further bourgeois-democratic conflicts on a national scale with the autocracy, which has joined forces with the Black-Hundred Octobrist Duma.

Yes, on a national scale, for the Black-Hundred counter revolution, which is turning Russia backward, is not only tempering new fighters in the ranks of the revolutionary proletariat, but will inevitably arouse a new movement of the non-proletarian, i.e., bourgeois democrats (thereby implying, of course, not that all the opposition will take part in the struggle, but that there will be a wide participation of truly democratic elements of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, i.e., those capable of struggle). The beginning of a mass student struggle in the Russia of 1908 is a political symptom, a symptom of the whole present situation brought about by the counter-revolution. Thousands and millions of threads tie the student youth with the middle and lower bourgeoisie, the petty officials, certain groups of the peasantry, the clergy, etc. If in the spring of 1908 attempts were being made to resurrect the "Osvobozhdeniye League"[2], slightly to the left of the old Cadet semi-landlord union represented by Pyotr Struve; if in the autumn the mass of youth which is closest of all to the democratic bourgeoisie in Russia is beginning to be disturbed; if the hireling hacks, with malice tenfold, have started howling once more against revolution in the schools; if base liberal professors and Cadet leaders are groaning and wailing at the untimely, dangerous, disastrous strikes which displease those dear Octobrists, which are capable of "repelling" the Octobrists who hold power—that means new powder has begun to accumulate in the powder-flask, it means that not only among students is the reaction against reaction beginning!

And however weak and embryonic this beginning may be, the party of the working class must make use of it and will do so. We were able to work years and decades before the revolution, carrying our revolutionary slogans first into the study circles, then among the masses of the workers, then on to the streets, then on to the barricades. We must be capable, now too, of organising first and foremost that which constitutes the task of the hour, and without which all talk about co-ordinated political action will be empty words, namely, the task of building a strong proletarian organisation, everywhere carrying on political agitation among the masses for its revolutionary watchwords. It is this task of organisation in their own student midst, this agitation based on the concrete movement, that our university groups, too, should tackle.

The proletariat will not be behindhand. It often yields the palm to the bourgeois democrats in speeches at banquets, in legal unions, within the walls of universities, from the rostrum of representative institutions. It never yields the palm, and will not do so, in the serious and great revolutionary struggle of the masses. All the conditions for bringing this struggle to a head are not ripening as quickly and easily as some of us would hope—but those conditions are ripening and gathering head unswervingly. And the little beginning of little academic conflicts is a great beginning, for after it— if not today then tomorrow, if not tomorrow then the day after—will follow big continuations.


[1] This refers to the decision of the St. Petersburg Committee of the R.S.D.L.P. published in "From the Party" column of the news paper Proletary, No. 36, October 3 (16), 1908. The St. Petersburg Committee called upon the Social-Democratic students' groups to dissociate themselves from the appeal of the Joint Students' Council and subordinate the student movement to the aims of Social-Democracy in the nation-wide struggle against tsarism.

[2] See pp. 63–67 of this volumeEd.

Published: Proletary, No. 36, October 3 (16), 1908. Published according to the text in Proletary.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1973, Moscow, Volume 15, pages 213-219.

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