1. The Capitalist University Divides the People
Capitalism deprives the working class of everything, including knowledge. The knowledge produced in universities through scientific experiment and research is not used to improve the world but to destroy it and its peoples in the relentless search for profits. Science under capitalism is used to improve methods of exploiting the working class and to produce commodities more efficiently and cheaply. To the capitalist, workers are sources of value to be exploited to the maximum. It is according to this logic that the cost of reproducing the working class is kept to a minimum, including investment in their education.
Higher education is not a requirement for most wage workers under capitalism. Capitalists need a large and flexible pool of cheap labor that is easily reproducible and replaceable. This material factor continuously reproduces the division between manual and intellectual labor which is basic to capitalism. Starting in early childhood, schools put students on a track towards their future career. Some will be encouraged to pursue college and even graduate school, trained as skilled professionals or intellectuals. Most others are funneled away from academia, some into roles that require only a remedial education or a short period of trade-schooling. The university plays an important role in reproducing the division between classes. Compare Ivy League schools like Stanford and Harvard, full of the children of the wealthy, with community colleges and state schools that enroll mainly children of the working class.
The manual/intellectual labor divide is the basis for the continuous reproduction of capitalism’s fundamental production relation: the separation of workers from the means of production. Bourgeois education corresponds to the needs of capitalist society; it maintains these divisions and ensures that they appear natural and eternal. In contrast, a future socialist education system will correspond to the needs of the people, and act as a tool for eliminating class oppression and exploitation. A society without classes will be free from the divisions that restrict knowledge and science to the ruling class. To achieve this transformation, we must completely revolutionize the bourgeois university, from admissions and tuition to curriculum and administration.
The demand for universal access to a free and high-quality education is not just of interest to students who are crushed by debt and threatened by rising tuition. Free, universal education is of interest to all working people who are deprived of access to knowledge. We struggle for the right of the people to free education and instruction at all levels. The wealth of knowledge amassed by humanity belongs to the proletariat and the people, not to the bourgeoisie. When education is no longer under the influence of the ruling class, it will serve to produce fully developed human beings, through both theoretical and practical learning, combining productive labor with general instruction.
2. Free Tuition Under Capitalism: Neutralizing the Popular Struggle
We demand free and universal education for all working people, but we know that this alone will not put an end to class society. It is one of the many demands that we combine into a broad program for social revolution that will establish a society without class distinctions and with full equality for people of all nationalities.
In fact, free education is not necessarily at odds with capitalism. Bernie Sanders’ College for All legislation, for example, would eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public schools. The growing support for this platform comes not just from students, but also from employers. The increasing demand for skilled workers in new sectors and growing industries means that certain capitalists back the policy of expanding access to education for a section of the working class (especially if it’s funded by taxes on the very same workers). While this legislation claims to give the masses access to higher paying jobs, and therefore a better quality of life, it cannot promise to employ all college graduates. Capitalists will benefit from a larger pool of candidates who compete for the same jobs, driving down wages and increasing profits. Sanders’ College for All may be possible under capitalism, but eradicating unemployment, debt, falling wages, and rising costs of living is not.
If capitalism can provide free education for all, why has tuition steadily increased over the past 50 years? In response to recurring crises of the capitalist economy, the state has cut back in all areas of social spending. “Democratic socialist” politicians like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez support free tuition in order to win over large sections of the masses who suffered under the neoliberal policies of the Clinton-Bush-Obama years that gutted social programs and slashed public funding for education. They paint a nostalgic picture of the ‘golden age’ of higher education following WWII, when university enrollment increased by more than 400% nationwide. But their fondness for FDR’s New Deal and the post-war boom lacks proper historical appraisal: the growth of public education after the war was a direct result of imperialist expansion at home and abroad.
The goals of the New Deal were to overcome the economic crisis of the Great Depression, to appease the growing militant labor struggle, and to consolidate the domination of capital over the working people. The state will always step in when the capitalist system needs to be rescued from crisis. The New Deal was never intended to serve the working class, but to reinforce the dominant position of the capitalist monopolies. To reach this goal, the state intervened in all aspects of the national economy and successfully increased profits for capitalists. Once the economic crisis was over, however, the state turned on the working masses, suppressing strikes and promoting anti-labor laws. The attack on affordable public education we have experienced since then is a familiar pattern of rolling back economic reforms once the threat of working-class rebellion has died down.
The bourgeoisie will always balance their books on the backs of the working class. The upper layer of American workers during the New Deal era temporarily benefited from the rise in capitalist profitability in the form of increased government spending and higher wages. But when crisis hits, progressive social programs are the first in line for the chopping block. In the 1970s, the financial crisis necessitated dramatic cuts to government spending that decimated the living standards of most Americans. Sanders and AOC’s left-progressive version of Make America Great Again is a call to return to the welfare state of the post-WWII era when the capitalist class formed a compact with the petty bourgeoisie and the upper layers of the working class. However, the majority of the working class was never part of that pact.
In moments of mass revolt, the state may relent to mass demands in an attempt to reconcile the class contradictions of capitalism. These concessions are not made out of benevolence, but out of fear of popular revolt. In moments of crisis, political figures emerge who claim to represent the interests of the working masses (Sanders, et al.). They win popular support but their policies cannot resolve the irreconcilable differences between workers and capitalists. The working class struggles to advance its immediate interests and, ultimately, to end class society. By the same logic, capitalists constantly attack the gains made by the working class, to suppress the revolution and to maintain and grow their wealth and power.
3. The History of Militant Student Struggle at CUNY
The experience of militant students at the City University of New York (CUNY) clearly illustrates how the capitalist state’s flexibility protects it from the high tide of working-class struggle. The ruling class protects its position and appeases the mass movement with temporary reforms, incorporating popular demands into its own class project. The fight for Open Admissions, the victory by CUNY students, and the slow, painful rollback of their gains, is an important chapter in the history of the revolutionary student movement.
For many years after its founding in 1847, CUNY was free to attend—for those who could meet the admission requirements. In reality, the school system with the nickname of “proletarian Harvard” was a majority white school, closed to most working-class people, especially racial minorities and oppressed nationalities. Free tuition is not sufficient. In order for universities to be truly accessible to all students — regardless of income, race, or nationality — it must be combined with open admissions and full financial aid for living expenses.
For this reason, the militants of the Open Admissions struggle of 1969 set out to transform CUNY. The radical student movement united with the working class in the neighborhoods that surrounded the college campuses. They were supported and inspired by the broader social movements of the time against racism and national oppression, and by groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. In April 1969, over 200 Black and Puerto Rican students occupied Manhattan’s City College (CCNY) and renamed it the “University of Harlem.” At that time, Blacks and Puerto Ricans made up 40% of New York City high school students and 98% of Harlem residents, but a staggering 91% of CCNY’s daytime students were white. In the entire CUNY system, white students made up 87% of the student body at senior colleges and 68% at community colleges.
The problem of racial segregation at CUNY was directly linked to the public high schools of New York, which remains to this day the most segregated system in the entire country. Efforts by Black and Latino parents and students to integrate schools have been met with blatant racism as well as more subtle forms: resistance from white parents trying to protect their children’s access to the “best” schools. Schools in low-income and majority non-white neighborhoods tend to be underfunded, understaffed, and in disrepair. These conditions lead to low academic performance and graduation rates. Children graduating from these schools have much lower chances of getting into one of the senior CUNY schools, continuing the cycle of racial and income segregation.
In 1970, in direct response to the student occupations and demonstrations, CUNY granted guaranteed admission to all NYC high school graduates. Students and their allies had successfully imposed free, universal education and desegregation onto the administration through political force. CUNY schools immediately became more diverse and welcomed students who had been underserved by the public school system since childhood. But as enrollment skyrocketed, graduation rates dropped. Many of the new students required remedial courses to bring them up to a college level. CUNY provided basic courses like math and reading, as well as counseling services. In 1975, a total of 253,000 undergraduate students enrolled at CUNY schools, a 55% increase from 1969.
Critics of Open Admissions slammed the program for lowering the “standards” of CUNY schools with the influx of under-prepared students. Many students entered CUNY with math or reading skills below the 8th-grade level, and the Board of Higher Education blamed them for the rising expenses of providing remedial courses. As the cost of providing free education to the children of working-class New Yorkers increased, those most vulnerable students were the easiest target. The economic crisis of 1973-1975, the most severe downturn since the Great Depression, made the situation even more precarious.
By the mid-1970s, New York City was $3.3 billion in debt and near bankruptcy. President Ford blamed the financial crisis on high wages, expansive social programs, and the “generous instincts” of New York City. The proposed cure for the crisis was to slash spending: the city was told to cut expenditures and only keep “essential” government functions. Ford placed a target on the back of CUNY: “The record shows New York City operates one of the largest universities in the world, free of tuition for any high school graduate, rich or poor, who wants to attend.”
In June 1975, the Emergency Financial Control Board (EFCB) took charge of the city’s finances. The board ordered mass layoffs of municipal workers and cut CUNY’s budget by tens of millions of dollars. The following year, the Board of Higher Education imposed tuition on CUNY students. Open Admissions remained in place, but the imposition of tuition and stricter admissions standards at senior colleges marked the beginning of the end of the progressive reform era. The reforms had served their purpose: Open Admissions had appeased the righteous anger of the masses in 1970, but by the end of the 1990s, those gains of the student struggle were almost completely rolled back.
4. CUNY Must Be Open in Order to Be Truly Free
Despite its eventual and long drawn-out defeat, the historic victory of Open Admissions is celebrated by veterans of the struggle and revolutionary students today. However, bourgeois politicians and conservative members of CUNY’s administration have vilified the policy ever since its inception. In his State of the City Address in January 1998, Mayor Giuliani blamed the policy of Open Admissions for lowering CUNY’s educational standards:
Open enrollment is a mistake. It should be changed. Its consequences have been cruel. It has created in CUNY students false expectations which the realities of life inevitably leave unfulfilled. By eliminating any meaningful standards of admission and continually defining down standards for continuation, the entire meaning and value of a college education has been put in jeopardy for the many who are ready, willing and able to meet and exceed higher standards. For a college to have standards, it must first have an entrance examination which requires applicants to show that they have the basic skill and aptitude to earn a publicly subsidized higher education. And then to sustain the privilege of having others pay for substantial portions of their higher education, students must maintain good grades and meet strict attendance requirements.
In the late 1990s, the CUNY Board of Trustees waged a campaign to end remedial education for good, effectively barring access to the senior colleges for working-class students. The permanent imposition of stricter admission standards at CUNY in 2002 was the special cause of Chairman Herman Badillo, whose assessment of the Open Admissions era was completely negative: “We lost 28 years of progress because of open admissions.”
In the two decades since then, the top five senior CUNY schools have tightened admission requirements such as GPA and SAT scores, while community colleges must still accept all applicants with a high school diploma or GED. From 1989 to 2006, tuition and fees rose 94% in inflation-adjusted dollars, while the state’s funding contribution fell by 35% and the city’s by 24%. The combination of these two factors has increased the disparities within the two-tier college system, in which the majority of Black and Latino students are crowded into the less prestigious community colleges. Since the recession of 2008, more students from middle-class families have enrolled at CUNY, seeking an affordable education. This corresponded to a sharp decrease in the enrollment of minority students by 2012: Black freshmen at the top five colleges decreased by 42% and Latinos by 26%.
The weakness of the student movement — and the left in general — has allowed for the gains of the 1960s-70s to be rolled back almost completely. Students today must fight again for free tuition and open admissions: this is the only way to end racial segregation at CUNY. In order for open admissions to serve all students, regardless of their income, CUNY must make up for the wildly uneven education that students receive in high school. A CUNY report in 2017 found that among associate degree students, less than 5% graduate in 2 years and more than 80% are assigned to some remediation, requiring more than 60 credit hours to graduate. We must reinstate remedial education at all CUNY schools, not just the community colleges. Along with free tuition, all students must be provided with subsidies for the additional costs of education: food, childcare, transportation, books and supplies. Being a full-time student is a luxury that many working-class people cannot afford, and working a job in addition to taking classes makes it almost impossible to graduate within four years.
By fighting for far-reaching reforms at CUNY, New York City students will contribute to a nation-wide expansion of militant struggle in higher education. Against the trend of privatization that has decimated the country’s public education system since the recession of 2007-2008, we must fight not only to preserve public institutions like CUNY, but also to transform them into people’s universities.
5. Reformism Is a Weapon of the Ruling Class
Reformists are those who merely struggle to improve the conditions of the masses without working to destroy the power of the ruling class. The MDSO fights for reforms in order to develop and broaden the class struggle. Our main fight is against capitalism, so our campaigns around immediate improvements to the education system are weapons to reinforce and develop the larger struggle. Our program links the demands of students with those of the working class, bringing a proletarian consciousness to the university. By uniting the various existing reform struggles in the mass movement under the banner of revolutionary leadership, we can strengthen our force until it is strong enough to completely sweep away the foundations of this decaying society. The demand for free tuition can unite students and workers across the country, which is why the progressive political representatives of the ruling class use it in their campaigns and platforms. This is a calculated tactic intended to win support from young people who are struggling with rising costs of living, unemployment, and student debt.
Opportunist politicians and non-profit reformist groups attempt to capture the genuine anger and rebelliousness of students and channel it safely into the confines of bourgeois politics. Groups like the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) wear the mask of socialism, but instead of linking the student movement with working-class struggles, they effectively incorporate student activists into the Democratic Party. They do not recognize that the state exists to manage the affairs of the ruling class and to guarantee the preservation of their profits and power. YDSA’s tuition organizing work is limited to supporting College for All legislation. Their position on campaign financing reveals their confusion regarding the class nature of electoral politics: “In order to get politicians to dump their billionaire donors and side with working class people, we have to threaten them with a mass political movement.” Some politicians may be convinced to ditch their wealthy donors (or voluntarily do so, in order to appear anti-big capital and appeal to a working-class base), but their basic relationship to the bourgeoisie will never change. We assess politicians not as individuals, but as actors filling a particular role in the service of the ruling class. Who we vote for does not change the nature of capitalism itself. Revolutionary students must fight popular struggles under a socialist program that is fundamentally opposed to the institutions of the bourgeois state.
We reject the liberal notion that the essential characteristics of capitalism can be gradually reformed away. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who vacillates between the centrists and the petty-bourgeois reformists, promotes the classic myth of class mobility: “Higher education opened a million doors for me. It’s how the daughter of a janitor in a small town in Oklahoma got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a U.S. Senator, and eventually, a candidate for President of the United States.” This bootstraps fairytale tries to mask the class nature of our society. Capitalism is defined by the fact that the ruling class controls production, profiting off the labor of the working class who have no choice but to work for a wage. Upward class mobility can only become a reality for a small number of people — the entire working class could never trade places with or join the ranks of the tiny ruling class. The YDSA and other reformist groups show a criminal lack of historical memory, not to mention leadership, when they call on students to spend their time campaigning for politicians and lobbying for legislation.
History has shown us that those who put their trust in reformists are always fooled. Regardless of any sincere intentions, reformists ultimately serve the interests of the bourgeoisie. We must, therefore, expose the character of reformism for what it is: a weapon used to corrupt and weaken the student and worker movements. We call on students to combat the restriction of the student movement to the struggle for reforms. Rather, on the basis of reforms which improve the lives and immediate conditions of working people, we must wage a resolute struggle that aims for nothing less than the complete destruction of the domination of the capitalists and their political servants.
The May Day Student Organization advances the class struggle through the demands of our program. The transformation of our education system is one aspect of the social and political revolution that will put an end to exploitation and oppression. The progressive student demand for a university that serves the people is part of the larger struggle to put political power in the hands of the working class.
We call on those who want to fight to transform the bourgeois university into a people’s university which serves the needs of all society. To fight means to struggle through mass action for the right of the people to knowledge, to instruction at all levels, and to a free and universal higher education. This fight can only be carried out to completion by relying on the combativeness of the people.
WE DEMAND FREE AND OPEN UNIVERSITIES THAT SERVE THE PEOPLE!