A Hypothesis on Applying Lessons From Venezuela to Student Organizing

Student movements–and society as a whole–would benefit greatly from breaking down the walls between the university and society, and forging concrete connections between student groups and local community organizations.

(Note: This essay should be read as nothing more than a personal perspective and a working hypothesis.  There is a good chance that I am not giving enough credit to current student organizing efforts, the impacts of recent efforts, and the complexity and diversity of student organizations that operate in California).

Endless amounts of analysis have been written about how the university is a site of class struggle, of how education is being ravaged by neoliberal reform and privatization, and of how these trends are symptomatic of larger movements in the dynamics of global capitalism.  But it seems like hardly anything has been written about the concrete strategic aspects of resisting such trends in an effective manner.

This is the main reason why I have not participated much in student organizing (specifically around things like tuition hikes), despite my identity as a student at the University of California.  Whenever I did try to participate, there was a severe lack of purpose or overarching goal; there was vague talk about “resisting tuition hikes” and “empowering students”, but the work I saw being done never seemed to translate into any sort of sustained mass action.  The riots of 2009 in Berkeley and the large system-wide Occupy protests in late 2011 were interesting, but didn’t translate into much in terms of a long-term movement, or concrete short-term gains for students, workers, or faculty.  Mobilizations against tuition hikes and the administration happened–but they were brief, and organized so loosely that it took nothing more than a vacation break or two to disperse the participants and what little infrastructure they had built up.


So, what do we change about the way we approach student organizing?  What kind of strategies should we employ in order to create a substantive, sustainable, and effective mass movement?  This is where I look to Venezuela for answers.  Regardless of whether you agree with the politics and practice of the chavistas, one cannot deny that they have been very effective at seizing power in Venezuela and using it to enact radical changes in Venezuelan society (a process that is either authoritarian and top-down, or decentralized and bottom-up, depending on who you ask).  A key branch of the  20th-century radical left in Venezuela was the students, and I think we can learn much about how to organize from the strategies employed by militant Venezuelan students in the ’60s and the ’80s.

For instance, take this excerpt about students in the late ’60s, who were attempting to radically “renovate” the nature of both the governance and the purpose of the university:

On the practical plane, the student movements engaged in the Renovation sought to develop participatory student organizational structures within the university, in part to resist the traditional elected institutions of the universities (the Federation of University Centers, or FCUs) which had long served as direct proxies for the two-party system.  Instead, radical students formed alternative, directly democratic council structures and fought for the creation of a general university assembly. […] While the proposed assembly would have equalized faculty and student participation…it would also and more radically have included university employees and workers on an equal footing.  It was in this sense that the Renovation became an “insurgency against the institution”, attempting to break down the walls that separate the university from the society as a whole while being careful to never sacrifice its prized autonomy.  In reality, this was a radicalization of the very notion of autonomy itself, one that asserted autonomy from the government while insisting that the university be subservient to the needs of the wider society of which students and workers were a part. (Ciccariello-Maher 2013: 111).

This strategy was wildly effective at turning the university into a center of anti-systemic organizing–so much so that the government eventually resorted to military force in order to shut down various universities.

There are a lot of things here to take into consideration for our own student movements.  For one thing, the overarching goal of “democratizing the university” cuts right at the root of the problem: the lack of control that the university’s constituents have over their education and their labor (both manual and intellectual).  This strategy also points toward the importance of student groups collaborating more with campus unions–which, in the UC system, are continually engaged in struggles with the administration over salaries, benefits, safety, etc.

But the most interesting aspect of the Renovation, to me, was the idea of “breaking down the walls” between the university and society.  I would argue that the University of California is especially guilty of having “walls”; walls which even the most militant student organizations hardly seems to notice.  Is it not embarrassing, for example, that UC Berkeley–a place famous for its allegedly subversive nature, and its willingness to challenge systems of oppression and marginalization–is adjacent to some of the most marginalized communities in California, and yet does next to nothing to stand in solidarity with these communities and utilize its resources and labor-power to empower these struggles?


The alienation of campuses like UC Berkeley from surrounding struggles is in stark contrast to the practices of radical Venezuelan students, who continued their strategy of student-community engagement through the ’80s and uniting “student radicalism with a mass base in the barrios,” and coordinating closely with barrio organizations–a collaboration which escalated into widespread uprisings and massive street battles with the military in the late ’80s, and setting the stage for the rise of Hugo Chavez in the ’90s (Ciccariello-Maher 2013: 113-14).  This strategy effectively grounded the student movement as part of a larger societal shift–rather than maintaining the focus entirely on student-centric issues, and thus making the the struggle in the university irrelevant to non-students (this is an especially important dynamic at elite institutions like UC Berkeley).

Another advantage to connecting with community groups, beyond radicalizing the organizational efforts of students and making them more accountable to the needs of society, is that such connections can help drastically mitigate the problems associated with the transient nature of students.  One huge problem that is continually brought up in student organizing circles is the problem of students not feeling like they have much stake in campus organizing efforts; after all, they will be gone in just a few years.  Synthesizing student activism with community activism, on the other hand, can give a sense that the labor invested into such collaborations can be further developed even after an individual is no longer a student.  They ground the student into activism that is far more long-term, with people far more experienced, than simply remaining within the walls of the university and engaging in student-specific issues.  And in addition, having close ties with groups with more permanent, long-term membership than typical student groups (again, due to the transient nature of students) means that such networks can be a huge asset in storing the lessons and experience of previous students and passing it on to incoming students as living memory.

Universities like UC Berkeley are in an excellent position to engage in student-community networking.  UC Berkeley is in a hotbed of radical organizing, surrounded by communities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Richmond, which are peppered with dozens of groups fighting everything from gentrification to police brutality to environmental degradation.  Thus, the types of collaborative activities that can be developed are endless: joint projects could be anything from planning a panel event with speakers from both the community and the student body discussing a particular subject, to organizing blockades and sit-ins, to skill-share workshops.  Students can go out and work on community projects; community members can come to the university to utilize research tools and access archives.  Student groups working on food justice and urban gardens could link up with local food pantries and community garden organizations; campus unions could link up with local fast food workers to plan out mass strike actions; public health researchers could help environmental justice groups study the quantitative effects of local industrial pollution.

All in all, I hypothesize that if students in California replicate this strategy of linking with community groups, and transcending the walls of their respective ivory towers, then we will see a movement emerge that has far more substance, and a much clearer future, than the erratic and unstable “movements” that we have seen in recent years.  Furthermore, this strategy could potentially underpin the escalation of the student movement into something that could actually pose a radical challenge to State and Capital, rather than simply presenting reformist demands to an administration which has zero incentive to listen.  Hopefully I will be testing this hypothesis over the course of the rest of this year.

This entry was posted in Revolutionary Politics, Student Organizing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Hypothesis on Applying Lessons From Venezuela to Student Organizing

  1. Zach says:

    Nice post. If you’re looking for some inter-state coordination, I’ll be spearheading efforts of some sort at Western Washington University. I’ve been reading a lot about Quebec’s student movement history, their union organizations, and their tactics. It seems to me as if there’s a lot we can learn from both Quebec and Venezuela.


  2. nooutside says:

    Great post! I like how you’re bringing Ciccariello-Maher’s insights from Venezuela back to UC Berkeley, which was (incidentally?) where he was a grad student-worker and was involved in struggles across the university-community divisions. I’m not sure if you’ve read his writings on Bay Area and UCB struggles, but if not, I highly recommend them, as his understanding of those movements and those in Venezuela likely mutually influenced each other.

    See his ‘dispatches’ from Oakland here:

    And check out this excerpt from an interview with him:
    “CW: I’m interested in knowing more about how the organizing you are engaged with made those connections across the campus/community divide and also across the strata of the education system. How did your organizing make those connections?
    GCM: From the perspective of the Oscar Grant struggles and the anti-police struggles, a lot of it had to do with attempting to mobilize radical students into those struggles. Recognizing the fact that student struggles are a powerful accelerant, they mobilize and create young organic intellectuals overnight. And that, in a way, provides a sort of feeder for other struggles. That is not without its difficulties and problems. But, part of the question was one of drawing students who are mobilized through student struggles to broaden their horizons and enter into these struggles in the community, struggles against police. It’s a lot easier to oppose fee hikes and budget cuts than it is to oppose the systematic function of the police in communities. To put it differently, it’s a lot easier to stand for something that pertains to you, that affects you directly, and that you think you deserve, than it is to stand for and protect those who maybe don’t look like you and yet are subject to everyday violence by the state. So, I think there’s a question of drawing people in to transform consciousness, but also to provide the basis for these struggles to continue, linking these struggles together in their constituencies and in their practices.

    I wasn’t directly involved in proliferating student organizing between the different campuses, but just in the Bay Area there was always a powerful interplay between the UC system, on the one hand, and especially SF State in San Francisco and Laney College in Oakland. The close proximity of these, the historical legacy of these: Laney was home in a lot of ways to the Black Panthers, and the Laney Black Student Union was always involved in drawing together these questions of struggling against community oppression, on one hand, and budget cuts and state funding, on the other.”
    – here’s the rest of the interview here: http://classwaru.org/2013/08/19/against-academic-alibis/


  3. Great post. The emergence and prominence of two particular ideas signaled (at least for me) the high water mark of the 1960s student activist left in the U.S., ones which you bring up here:

    – Participatory democratic control of universities
    – Accountability to and integration with the surrounding neighborhoods and communities

    Given the fragmentation of the student left in 1970s, it’s hard to find anything close to a complete “win” on either point — though the expansion of student governments and student trustees/regents were at least minor concessions wrung from administrators, and many of the initial “identity studies” programs won by activists incorporated some sort of concrete community involvement or support.

    Getting student organizing to such a high level — and keeping it there — is a fundamental challenge that never really goes away. The groups who have done best are ones that pay close attention to institutional memory, building democratic and oppositional cultural traditions on campus, and continuously building up leadership skills and confidence of new members. The students in the 60s in that sense had it easy: because college (and housing) was so cheap, organizers post-graduation could simply get a job waiting tables a few days a week, and spend the rest of their time helping organize the campus. (I’ve been told a significant number of the “students” who occupied Columbia University’s administration in 1968 were actually recent alumni.)

    Keep up the great work, and keep writing! 🙂


  4. Hey Arjun, great post and sounds like you may be interested in the organizing that the California Student Union is doing. You can find out more about us here — http://castudentunion.org/ — Any questions or if you’d like to get involved, please also do feel free to get in contact with us at castudentunion@gmail.com

    Much love & solidarity!!!


  5. Pingback: Reversing the Privatization of the University Via Militant Research | Kurukshetra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s