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Everything You Need to Know About How to Create a Successful Student-led Social Movement


I am going to do something I almost never do on this website: discuss a review of a book. I do this because this review is more informative and more useful than most academic articles one could ever read.

The reviewer is Barry Eidlin of McGill University, one of the finest, if not the finest, sociologist of labor unions on the planet. The author was Matthew Williams of Loyola University in Chicago – who wrote Strategizing Against Sweatshops: The Global Economy, Student Activism and Worker Empowerment (2020, Temple). The book was reviewed in the January 2021 edition of Social Forces, the number three sociology journal in the U.S.

Eidlin takes Williams’ first rate book on student protest, boils down its essence and then mixes in his own substantial insights from having observed student protests for years. The result is a two-and-a-half page essay that will tell you everything you will ever need to know about failed and successful student activism. Student activism is a subject that generates a lot of polemic, a lot of fuzz and a lot of rhetorical argument based on wishful thinking rather than realism. You would be hard put to find any five-hundred page tome that says as much about student protest as you find in this brief review.

I will take the Eidlin-Williams insights, already easy to read at two-and-a-half pages, and give them to you in a nice convenient bullet point list.

1. Student protests are amateur affairs with

  • Lack of focus

  • Endless meetings that go nowhere

  • Endless arguments about minor side points

  • Cooptation of status-hungry participants

2. Despite all this, some student protests really work.

  • Williams’ book is about the nontrivially successful American student movement to partially restrict sweatshop labor in the Global South.

  • Student protests stopped the Vietnam War in the United States

  • Student protests have overthrown many governments in the Global South.

3. Student activism is undercut by

  • Students’ tendency to leave campus after a few years, undercutting their ability to maintain a long campaign

  • Students being very different from the populations around them, making it difficult to build community solidarity.

  • Students being young and prone to amateur mistakes in all aspects of life, not just social organizing.

So, what allows students to succeed given these obstacles?

4. Turnover in student populations allows for strategic and tactical flexibility. There is no narrow-minded inertia when protesters and leaders change every few years. Successful student movements adapt to new opponent strategies quickly, and come up with innovative responses that are just right for the time.

5. Student movements succeed when they ally with external protest movements such as labor alliances, progressive parties or student organizations at the national level that have more stability and more institutional memory. The experienced pros from these more stable organizations provide useful training and skills that get the student organizers up to speed.

6. Conferences and congresses are critical to student organization success, because of the ability to learn from parallel organizations in other parts of the country.

7. Student leaders often graduate to becoming leaders of more enduring organizations off campus. As such, their student organizing skills often take on a second life in their new roles.

I absolutely concur with all of this.

If I absolutely positively had to add any original elements to this mix, I would say that students sometimes have rich progressive parents and relatives. Some students have conservative parents and are absolutely rebelling at what they were brought up with. However, children of liberal parents can be free to act on the political aspirations of older family members who are too entrenched in their jobs and responsibilities to be able to take chances out on the street. The students are free to do what their parents dare not do.

Liberal or conservative, the parents can provide financing, lawyers and bail for when students get in trouble. Parental social position won’t help against the most repressive authoritarian governments. The Thai government wiped out a student protest movement in 1976 by lynching students all over campus as well as arresting, torturing, and sexually abusing students they caught but did not hang. The student protest collapsed quickly.

But the ability of parents to allow students to organize without having to work thirty hours at a part time job, and the ability of parents to bail out students in legal trouble, is a big deal.

Parents also provide networking that can facilitate the links to key allies.

None of this should even remotely dampen the respect we should have for student organizers who have done very hard things all by themselves. They have often spoken up when no one else in the world would take their issues seriously. Eidlin and Williams provide tremendous guidance as to how student groups should mobilize to maximize their chances of success.

In this era of increasing upper class privilege, political authoritarianism, organized anti-feminism, legitimated racism, and widespread ecological destruction, students may be our best hope for keeping social progress alive.

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