How Ultraleftism Divided UNAM Strike

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

Phil Hearse

[The following article is excerpted from “Mexican Students’ Epic Struggle in Danger,” which first appeared in the November 3, 1999 issue of the Australian socialist paper Green Left Weekly, three months prior to the ultimate repression of the strike. The full text was also posted on the news list of the Black Radical Congress. The author, Phil Hearse, is a veteran socialist journalist and observer of Mexican social movements. We are publishing his account here, along with the preceding article by Christian Castillo, to offer our readers a sense of the diversity of viewpoints on the strategy and tactics employed by leading currents in this important struggle.]

MEXICO CITY — COMMANDEERED buses flying red and black flags and Che Guevara portraits sped through the city on October 2, ferrying students to a demonstration commemorating the 1968 student massacre at the Plaza of the Three Cultures.

Led by veterans of the 1968 movement, 60,000 students and their supporters slogged the fifteen kilometers from the university campus up Insurgentes and Reforma, the world’s longest urban avenues, to a torchlight ceremony in the plaza. Just five weeks before, on August 28, 30,000 students had marched in support of the electricity workers’ struggle against privatization.

From these mobilizations — and several smaller ones in between — the impression could have been gained that the six-month strike of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) students against education fees was in good shape. But the opposite is true; this historic strike, one of the most important student struggles worldwide in the 1990s, now faces major difficulties and risks defeat.

Free education is seen as a fundamental gain of the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution. In March and early April, weekly demonstrations of up to 80,000 students were held, as well as almost permanent meetings of the student coordinating committee, symbolically in the Che Guevara auditorium of the philosophy faculty.

The students set April 19 as the starting date for a strike if the fees were not withdrawn. On the very first day of the strike most faculties [departments –ed.] carried out amazing feats, organizing commissions on everything from catering to propaganda — as well as the interminable assemblies. And there was something very new for the Mexican students — the central role of women, who were the majority of the leaders in most faculties.

The student leadership, now renamed the General Strike Council (CGH), had the wind in its sails. Public support was huge, especially from popular rganizations and militant unionists. The university non-academic workers’ union, STUNAM, was vocal in its support. And Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatistas, was issuing almost daily polemics against university rector Barnés and in support of the students.

By May, the PRI government now realized that it was in a defensive position and ordered Barnés to make concessions. First he persuaded the university council to lower the fee level by about 30%. This did not persuade the students to end their struggle, since the fees could be readjusted upwards with the next academic year, and anyway they wanted to defend the principle of free education.

Second, Barnés made one of the most decisive moves of the strike. In late May the university council declared that the fees would be voluntary, and if the strike was ended, there would be no disciplinary measures and no victimizations.

This posed a serious tactical problem for the CGH. One possible option would have been to accept the deal and then run a massive “don’t pay the fees” campaign, which in a poor country would have found a very sympathetic audience. Alternatively, the CGH could have legitimately concluded that since it was clearly on the offensive, one final shove on the basis of “withdraw all fees” could have quickly won.

But the CGH did neither. Instead it rejected the offer, and added six new demands as the basis for ending the strike, including the creation of a permanent “space” for discussing the problems of the university, between students, workers and academic staff. This demand amounted to a restructuring of the university administration. The CGH then declared that the strike would inevitably be a very long one.

This moving of the goal posts shook many of the less radical students. By taking this option, the CGH risked opening a divide between itself and the mass of students it was supposed to be leading.

After the rejection of Barnés’ offer, the media offensive against the students, especially by pro-government TV stations Televisa and TV Azteca, reached lynch-mob proportions. For the first time, they were able to portray the student leaders as the intransigent and unreasonable side.

Students Divided

The tactics of a prolonged strike started to have unfortunate consequences. In June strikers disrupted the university entrance examinations, leading to clashes with high school students and their parents.

The attempts in July and August to disrupt university registration for the next academic year failed, but not before ugly clashes between students had taken place. It became known that many of those registering had paid the fees.

On July 28 the students celebrated 100 days of the strike, and once again tens of thousands turned out to march through the Reforma rush hour crowds to the Zócalo. But differences were starting to emerge about the conduct of the strike in the faculty assemblies and in the CGH. This was reflected in a growing division inside the militant left organizations.

The CGH’s rejection of a peace plan proposed by eight retired Professors — for withdrawal of all fees and a university-wide assembly to discuss future management — let Barnés off the hook; another opportunity for the students to seize victory was thrown away.

From early on in the strike, the media had claimed that the main strike leaders were “ultras,” and unfortunately the left-liberal daily La Jornada and the similarly inclined weekly Proceso had chimed in with this reactionary offensive. Every section of the strikers denounced these claims, aimed at discrediting the students as a body.

But unfortunately, there is ultraleftism at work in the leadership of the strike. The political lead in the CGH is given by an informal coalition of “Marxist-Leninists,” based on the science faculties and the politics faculty. They include sympathizers and supporters of ultraleft currents like the Unión Revolucionario Emiliano Zapata, the Frente Popular Francisco Villa and the Movimiento Proletario Independiente.

In early August another coalition of far left groups began to distribute leaflets calling for a negotiated end to the strike, and for the continuation of the struggle by other means. This coalition involved both Trotskyist and “Marxist-Leninist” groups, including the Revolutionary Workers Union (URT), the Socialist Unity League (LUS) and the PRT (Revolutionary Workers Party).

This latter coalition, although representative of the division in the far left as a whole, had few members on campus. However, they were soon joined by the Trotskyist Juventud Socialista (Socialist Youth), who have about forty campus members, including one of the best known strike leaders.

Also in August-September the supporters of the Corriente en Lucha por el Socialismo, a pro-Cuban Marxist-Leninist group, finally broke with the ultralefts. Together with radicals from the PRD these groups formed the “democratic sector” of the CGH.

This set the scene for some huge battles inside the CGH in August and September, some of which — unfortunately — were shown on TV. The dominant groups favoring an indefinite continuation of the strike resorted to punches, rhythmic shouting down of opponents and prolonging the meetings indefinitely.

The most systematic critique of the behavior of the CGH leadership has been made by Juventud Socialista, perhaps because they stayed loyal to the ultralefts longer than most dissidents.

Juventud Socialista says the methods of the ultraleft are Stalinist and have broken with the elementary norms of democratic functioning in the workers’ and socialist movement. Further, they claim, the ultralefts are deepening the rift between the activist “vanguard” of the strike and the mass of the students, who are passive and desperate for a resumption of their university studies.

But an uncomfortable truth has to be recognized by the dissidents like Juventud Socialista. With or without undemocratic methods, the ultraleft leadership of the CGH has the support of some thousands of students.

This is explicable only by the harshness of the class struggle in Mexico, the vast gap between the more than 90% of the population who are poor and the tiny percentage of super-rich, and the depth of the class hatred among the poor and oppressed which this produces. In Mexico, “class against class” ultraleftism has a significant social base.

Declining Activity

Despite the official positions of the university council, Barnés wants nothing less than total victory. For that, he and the PRI government need to prevent negotiations which could lead to a solution acceptable to the council.

 [As of November, 1999] participation in strike activities continues to decline. On October 4, an outlying UNAM school, twenty kilometers from the main campus, was retaken for several hours by reactionary students and university security staff — who were driven out several hours later by CGH supporters summoned from the main campus. This attempt was a warning and a straw in the wind.

The government has repeatedly said it will not use force, and its hand has been stayed by the memory of the 1968 massacre. Any government would pay a high price for repeating it. But if the climate of violence continues to grow, and with the mass of students, parents, university workers and teachers in a state of exasperation, an intervention by the army is not excluded.

On October 25 President Ernesto Zedillo, touring flood-stricken areas, said that if necessary the army would be used to restore the schools and “clean” them. Of course, he was talking about flood-damaged schools, but every newspaper took his words as a hint that the army was ready to intervene at UNAM.

The CGH could still lead a victory, but only if it abandons its ultraleft intransigence and stops giving Barnés and the government excuses not to negotiate. A defeat for the students would be a bad blow to all those fighting neoliberal attacks, not least the electricity workers fighting privatization and the Zapatistas in Chiapas; both groups have supported the students throughout.

For the militant socialist forces in Mexico, these events must sound an alarm bell. The forces of revolutionary socialism are substantial, but divided into numerous contending groups — and many of these are in the grip of ultraleft, semi-Stalinist, ideologies. Only a major ideological and organizational renovation of the forces of Marxism can create a political leadership capable of leading effectively the mass struggle for an alternative to neoliberalism.

ATC 88, September-October 2000