The Working Class Has the Right to Knowledge: The Argument for an Open and Cop-free University

The May Day Student Organization recently received an inquiry from another student organization asking about our position on open campuses at CUNY. After conducting a student survey, this organization had found that many students desired a police presence on campus out of fear of “intruders,” which comes into contradiction with the demand for campuses that are open to the general public. We welcome inquiries such as this as opportunities to elaborate points from our program and to further develop our positions on important questions that students face.

When developing a position on any question we must first turn to our program, which serves as the basis of unity for our organization and provides our basic orientation to all questions pertaining to the struggles of students, including the two questions raised by our comrades: (1) the question of police presence on university campuses and (2) the question of public access to university campuses.

Our position on the first question can be found in the second demand of our program, which calls for “complete removal of the repressive state apparatus (e.g., military and police) from participation in the university including the presence of agents on campus, in faculty positions, inclusion in curriculum, grants and funding, partnerships, and recruitment.”

Even though the university will always belong to the bourgeoisie in capitalist society, we must strive for the maximum separation between the university and the repressive organs of the bourgeois state. Despite its class character, the university still serves as an important site of struggle in the proletariat’s long-term fight to seize political power and transform society. The removal of police from campus would increase the autonomy of the university and allow students to organize and engage in political struggles with greater freedom. This freedom is necessary in order to build a revolutionary student movement that takes up workers’ demands and joins in the struggle for socialism.

The progressive demand to remove police from university campuses has precedent. In Greece, for example, the police were forbidden from entering university campuses by a law passed in 1982. This policy was only reversed in 2019 by the right-wing New Democracy government.

In order to address the concerns about student safety on campus, we first have to recognize that the police mainly serve to protect private property and restrict student activity on campus. Police don’t resolve the question of safety on campus or in society generally, since their principal role under capitalism is to protect capital and manage the struggle between classes on behalf of the bourgeoisie. While police may provide a superficial sense of security to a particular type of student, their presence on campuses has in practice proven to be a threat to students and their freedom.

Regarding the second question of public access to university campuses, we can turn to the following passage from our program:

“The university plays an important role in the bourgeoisie’s mastery and application of science, and only distributes knowledge according to what is needed for the reproduction of the bourgeois social order. Under capitalism, science is used as a weapon against the working class, to rationalize production and intensify exploitation, rather than as a tool to meet the needs of the whole of society. Therefore, the bourgeoisie does not educate all people equally, but restricts the distribution of knowledge to a relatively small number of trained scientists and intellectual spokesmen. Meanwhile, the vast masses of working people are educated only up to the minimum level required for unskilled or semi-skilled labor…

“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. The wealth of knowledge amassed by humanity belongs to the proletariat and the people, not to the bourgeoisie.

To demand an open university system is to strike out against the restriction of knowledge described in the first paragraph quoted above. The right of the people to knowledge is universal and cannot be conditional on whether they are enrolled in classes, on whether the bourgeois state recognizes them as citizens of this country, on their previous education levels, nor on their intellectual ability. We must fight for and defend the basic democratic right of the whole working people to access university campuses for the purposes of conducting research, holding meetings, and exchanging ideas. This is because, both from the standpoint of the immediate interests of the proletariat and from the standpoint of the final aims of socialism, the need for the fullest measure of political liberty and the freest exchange of knowledge is felt. Such an open university system would serve as an important tool in the proletariat’s mastery of the class struggle.

Cast Away Abolitionist Illusions

Abolitionists, as we noted in our critique of this trend last summer, hold that the struggle for a world without police and prisons proceeds through incremental reforms in which the repressive apparatuses of bourgeois dictatorship are gradually “crowded out.” It is absolutely vital that we recognize the futility of such an approach to transforming society. We cannot quantitatively reduce the presence of police in our society, first by removing them from college campuses, then from hospitals, etc., until one day the bourgeoisie wakes up scratching its head and wondering where its most important weapon in the class struggle has gone. By framing the demand for removing cops from campus as just one step in a process that will eventually eliminate police altogether, the abolitionist trend obfuscates the true nature of the police. The police are not simply poorly conceived “ways of responding to harm” which need to be “reimagined.” The police and the standing army are the bourgeoisie’s most critical weapons in the competition between warring classes, and it will never allow for these institutions to be “crowded out” as long as it is in possession of them.

According to the needs of the class struggle, the bourgeoisie may at certain times expand the repressive reach of the police over society, as is currently happening in Greece. Or, in response to threats from popular rebellions, the bourgeoisie may contract its reach, as it did when the University of Minnesota cut ties with the Minneapolis police department during the mass protests last year. This flexible quality of the bourgeoisie fosters the illusion that if we just keep struggling for gradual reforms and concessions hard enough and long enough, we can force the bourgeois state to contract until it has withered away altogether. But we know from the historical experience of the class struggle that revolution is not a process of quantitative “crowding out,” nor is it a fanciful “reimagining” of the world.

History tells us that revolution is a seizure of state power from one class by another. Removing police from college campuses is a favorable condition to the realization of this final aim and should therefore be supported. But we have to be realistic about the fact that it is a democratic demand which does not traverse the boundaries of bourgeois democracy or the capitalist system.    

The way we frame our demands and the manner in which we struggle for them can sometimes be more important than the demands themselves. Concessions won from the bourgeoisie in struggle can be lost all too easily, as is evidenced by the current assault on the gains won through decades of popular struggles in Greece. What’s more important than individual reforms is (1) the way the struggle broadens and consolidates the organizational capacity of the mass movement (for example, the MDSO was forged by just such a popular struggle, the 2018 New School Cafeteria Occupation) so that further assaults on the capitalist system can be made and (2) the way the struggle reveals the general and fundamental features of the capitalist system so that we can in turn adapt our consciousness to it in as definite, clear, and critical a fashion as possible. This transformation of consciousness is our highest task. It reveals the way forward and steels our commitment to revolution. When advanced students identify a progressive demand, e.g., the removal of police from college campuses, and lead the struggle to impose it on the bourgeoisie – even if the demand is not realized – the genuine nature of the capitalist system is exposed before the broad student masses.