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Students and Workers in the Transition to Socialism: The Singer Model

Staughton Lynd is co-editor, with Alice Lynd, of The New Rank and File (Cornell University Press, 2000), a collection of interviews with people who did grassroots labor organizing in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
This essay is the 2002 winner of the Daniel Singer Millenium Prize.

Daniel Singer’s first book was Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, published in 1970. There he posed the question: “Could it be that a socialist revolution is beginning, that Marxism is returning to its home ground, the advanced countries for which it was designed?” And he answered his own question, Yes. The main message of the May crisis was that a “revolutionary situation can occur in an advanced capitalist country.”

Singer saw in France, in 1968, a revolution from below, a spontaneous upheaval. It began in the universities of Paris. Then it spread to factories all over France, as ten million workers occupied the places where they worked. Singer expressed passionate disdain for the Communist-dominated trade union movement, which, he argued, functioned as a brake on the revolution from below. What French workers did was direct action expressed in sit-downs and factory takeovers. It was the creation of a “dual power” parallel to that of the government, in the form, not of trade unions, but of revolutionary action committees. Singer asserted that in France, in 1968, students and workers sought “a new form of democracy, including industrial democracy, that does not just rest on an occasional ballot.” Whether articulated by students or by workers, the ideology of May 1968 was a “revulsion against anything coming from above, against centralism, authority, the hierarchical order.”

For Daniel Singer, what happened in France in 1968 became during the remainder of his life the paradigm for an interrelationship of social forces that held out hope for a transition from capitalism to socialism, after all. We may term it the “Singer model.” The outstanding characteristics of the Singer model are that 1) students act before (or at any rate, independently of) workers, but 2) when workers intervene in support of (or against the same enemies as) students, “rebellion [turns] into potential revolution.” Singer stressed that in France “the students clearly did not think that their struggle was a separate one. They wanted to break out of their ghetto and turn to the workers.”

This suggested model of revolution was something new under the sun. Singer recognized that “workers cannot conquer economic power under capitalism as the bourgeoisie did under feudalism.” Building a new society within the shell of the old would be less possible for the working class than it had been for the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless Singer saw in the French events the possibility of a series of steps whereby the working class, acting, as physicists say, “in parallel” to the revolt of the young, could approach the transition to socialism.

This new theory of the transition from capitalism to socialism drew on French and Italian ideas about “structural reform” or “revolutionary reform” (popularized in English by André Gorz). May 1968, as befits a prelude, exhibited only scattered concrete expressions of these ideas. In a few cases workers not only occupied their factories, but also attempted to restart production. Perhaps the most significant prefigurative institution was the workers’ practice of gathering at the workplace “in general assemblies meeting every day” to decide what to do next, a practice that reappeared during the French general strikes of 1995. The term that held the most promise for the future, in Latin America as well as in Europe, was “autogestión” or “self-management.” Here, Singer wrote, “would lie the opportunity to move quickly from workers’ control to a share of the management and then to full management by collective producers.” Writing thirty years later just before his death, Singer still saw the strategy of “structural reforms” or “revolutionary reformism” as the path to the future.

What should we think about the Singer model? Thirty-some years after he put it forward, does it still make sense? How do Singer’s ideas compare with those of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and C. L. R. James? How does what happened in France in 1968 resemble or differ from what happened in Russia in 1905, in Hungary in 1956, in the Vietnam antiwar movement, or in Poland in 1980–1981?

What Is To Be Done?, Rosa Luxemburg, and the 1905 Revolution

Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, published in 1902, remains the inevitable starting point for discussion. Therein, it will be recalled, Lenin insisted that the experience of trade unionism in all countries demonstrated “that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness.” The spontaneous labor movement, Lenin wrote elsewhere in the same pamphlet, “is pure and simple trade unionism.” Political, socialist consciousness could only be brought to workers from without, by Marxist intellectuals whose task was to “divert” the labor movement from its spontaneous, trade-unionist striving.

The analysis set forth by Lenin in What Is To Be Done? is often thought to have been refuted by the Russian Revolution of 1905. In Russia that year, the working class embarked on “perhaps the most extensive general strike in history” and created autonomous institutions from below: first local strike committees, and then the improvised citywide labor bodies known as “soviets” (councils). Rosa Luxemburg, who had harshly criticized Lenin’s pamphlet for its “pitiless centralism” and condemned its author for having the “sterile spirit of the overseer,” found in the 1905 revolution a dramatic confirmation of her faith in the capacity of the working class for spontaneous, self-directed activity.

In 1905, Luxemburg returned from Germany to her native Poland, threw herself into revolutionary work, and was arrested. After her release from prison, she wrote her pamphlet, The General Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions.

Luxemburg’s central thesis was that the rolling general strike that gripped working-class Russia in 1905 was not artificially “made,” not “decided,” not “propagated,” by a revolutionary central committee. If anyone had undertaken to win the working class to the idea of a general strike by house-to-house canvassing, she wrote, it would have been “idle and profitless and absurd.” Not only in 1905, but also during the previous decade, the role of the Russian Social Democratic Party had been “insignificant,” as over and over again, in one locality after another, seemingly minor incidents of workplace life had triggered explosions of whole working-class communities, led by workers themselves.

It now appears that the Russian revolution of 1905 was far more spontaneous than Lenin had thought possible but less self-directed from below than Rosa Luxemburg supposed at the time. Indeed, the Russian revolution of 1905 appears to exemplify “the Singer model.” Students (as well as a variety of middle-class professionals) acted first, and then, transforming protest into revolution, the working class weighed in.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 is generally thought to have begun on “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905, when Father Gapon led several thousand factory workers to the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The workers carried a petition requesting a minimum wage and an eight-hour work day, freedom of speech, press, and association, the release of all political prisoners, the right to organize unions, and election of a constituent assembly. Soldiers opened fire, killing dozens. The rest is history.

But there was a pre-history to Bloody Sunday. Against the background of military defeat by the Japanese and the assassination of the minister of the interior, conventions of teachers and doctors were broken up by the police. A congress of delegates from institutions of local administration (zemstvos) passed a resolution favoring a national assembly with real powers. Beginning in late November 1904, liberals organized a series of banquets in twenty-six cities ostensibly to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of judicial reform and other anniversaries. Maxim Gorky wrote to his wife about one such banquet: “There were more than six hundred diners…in general, the intelligentsia. Outspoken speeches were made, and people chanted in unison, ‘Down with the autocracy!’ ‘Long live the constituent assembly!’and ‘Give us a constitution!’” Students in both Moscow and St. Petersburg launched demonstrations in late November and early December, sometimes ending in violent conflict with the police.

Few workers were involved in these activities preceding Bloody Sunday. One historian of the 1905 revolution declares flatly: “The movement for social change that sparked the crisis of 1905 began, not in the working class, but among the educated, privileged social strata.” It appeared, writes another, “that almost the entire middle and upper classes—that is, the educated classes—were speaking out against the government.”

Workers initially became active to support student protesters. On November 28, 1904, there was a bloody assault by soldiers on student demonstrators. That evening thirty-five workers crowded into Father Gapon’s apartment in St. Petersburg. The group decided, in the words of one participant, that the workers should “add their voice” to that of the students. Father Gapon was asked to draw up a petition to present to the Tsar.

Yearlong turmoil among both workers and students followed Bloody Sunday. Finally, when in the fall of 1905 workers gathered to form a new kind of institution called a “soviet,” they assembled at the universities. The universities came to serve as meeting places in the fall of 1905 because of a late-summer government decree granting the universities administrative autonomy. The result was the opposite of that intended. In Moscow,

[t]housands of students from all over the city gathered daily in the university lecture halls during the first weeks of September to attend marathon meetings….On September 11, the majority of students present supported a resolution pledging to fight hand in hand with the laboring masses for the overthrow of the tsarist regime….When classes resumed on September 15, some 3,000 students showed up at the university, but fewer than half sat in the classrooms. The rest marched through the halls, interrupting classes and singing revolutionary songs (Laura Engelstein, Moscow, 1905).

On the evening of September 21, the working class joined the students. Amid tremendous excitement a crowd of over 3,000 persons —almost a third of them striking workers—forced its way into the Law Auditorium. Allegedly, a police officer stationed at the university entrance told arrivals: “If you are looking for the Socialist Revolutionaries, turn to the right; the Social Democrats are this way, to the left.”

In St. Petersburg, Leon Trotsky (who became chairperson of the St. Petersburg soviet) wrote:

[T]he doors of the universities remained wide open. “The people” filled the corridors, lecture rooms and halls. Workers went directly from the factory to the university….[A]s soon as the worker crossed the threshold at the university he promptly became inviolable (Leon Trotsky, 1905).

According to Trotsky, “the higher educational establishments were overflowing with people.”

On October 11, 1905, “some ten thousand factory workers, students and others assembled in various professional and local groupings on the campus of St. Petersburg University. A meeting of railroad employees voted unanimously to strike.” One of the first groups to elect delegates to the St. Petersburg soviet were three thousand union printers, meeting on the evening of October 13 by candlelight in the university cafeteria. The first meeting of the St. Petersburg soviet was held on October 13 at the Technological Institute. The second meeting, on October 14, took place at the larger physics auditorium of the same institution.

Similar scenes took place in other cities with universities. In Kharkov, in October 1905 “[t]he strike leaders and their followers established their headquarters at the University of Kharkov and used its property freely.”

Thus in Russia in 1904–1905, as in France in May 1968, events when closely scrutinized conform closely to the “Singer model.” Students and intellectuals acted first, in the zemstvo congress, banquets, and other middle-class gatherings of 1904. Even at the height of working-class self-activity during the general strikes of fall 1905, universities continued to be the meeting places of the movement.

C. L. R. James and Hungary in 1956

For C. L. R. James and his associates, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was what the Russian Revolution of 1905 was for Rosa Luxemburg: the very model of a working-class revolution from below. The James circle considered the Hungarian Revolution to be “successful as no other revolution in history was successful” because it “disclosed the political form which not only destroys the bureaucratic state power, but substitutes in its place a socialist democracy” and this was all the more impressive because the Hungarian Revolution took place in a setting where there was no economic crisis and where the working class, before the upheaval, had neither a political party or press of its own.

But as in Luxemburg’s telling of the 1905 story, so what James and his colleagues said about Hungary tended to obscure the role of students and intellectuals in preparing the ground for workers’ self-activity.

Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956, echoed throughout the Communist world. In April 1956, a group consisting mainly of students formed the “Petofi Circle,” named for a poet who played an important role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Assisted by the Writers’ Union, the Circle became a center for criticism of Hungarian society. Pamphlets were produced. Meetings of the Circle became larger and larger. Soon, the meetings of the Circle were attracting thousands of people. The meetings overflowed into the streets, where loudspeakers relayed the speeches inside. The general themes were intellectual honesty and political freedom.

The great majority of those taking part in the meetings of the Petofi Circle were writers and students together with a number of schoolteachers, doctors, and other professionals. There is no evidence of significant participation by workers, nor of any effort by members of the Circle to cooperate with workers, to share with them what the Circle was experiencing, or to declare that workers’ struggles were bound up with the demand for truth and freedom. However, strikes during the summer of 1956 made it clear that workers were discontented, too.

Parallel events were afoot in Poland. Dissidents in Hungary wanted to express sympathy and solidarity “with our Polish brothers.” By this time, students in nearly every faculty of Budapest University and at most other universities throughout the country were in permanent session. It was apparently these student meetings, not the Petofi Circle, which decided that on October 23 there should be a march to the statue of General Josef Bem, a Pole who had assisted the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

Initially, the majority of the marchers on October 23 were young people. The crowd went from the statue to Parliament Square, and then to the radio station. As they moved through the streets they were joined by many workers on their way home from work. At the radio station, the secret police opened fire with machine guns. The Revolution had begun.

Nothing in this pre-history is intended to detract from the magnificent self-activity of the workers’ councils in the Hungarian Revolution. The point, once again, is that if we really wish to understand what happened in Russia in 1905, or Hungary in 1956, and above all, how it might happen again, we have to attend to all that happened, not just the activity of the working class.

Lest I seem to be generalizing on too slender a basis of fact, I want to look quickly at two other experiences of the second half of the twentieth century.

The Movement Against the Vietnam War

The Singer model resonates for me because it corresponds to my own experience in the 1960s. I was part of the civil rights movement in the American South, led by the youthful organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I was myself a leader of the movement against the war in Vietnam that students began at a time when the AFL-CIO and almost all trade unions in the United States supported the war (just as the AFL-CIO presently supports the “war against terrorism”).

Initially there may have been some hostility on the part of antiwar protesters toward working-class young men who were drafted to fight in Vietnam. But at least as early as the fall of 1967, in the great demonstration at the Pentagon, the antiwar movement began to address soldiers with the words, “Join us!” From then until the war ground to a close in 1975, we recognized that the antiwar movement could succeed only when working-class young men in uniform refused to fight.

Eventually they did refuse to fight, as chronicled in countless movies and memoirs, and in a brilliant historical study by Christian Appy, Working-Class War. Infantrymen became convinced that they were being used as bait, to attract enemy attack and thus to locate targets for air strikes and artillery fire. The burning of whole villages and massacre of their inhabitants—as at My Lai—became a commonplace way to vent anxiety and frustration. Soldiers came to feel “a desperate need to find some moral language, however strained, to justify their actions.” At least a third of the “enemy” casualties in Vietnam were civilians.

In the end, soldiers came to feel that they were fighting a war for nothing. By 1969–1970, officers were fully aware of the risk that their own men might try to kill them. In the last analysis, the sense of returning veterans that the antiwar protesters had been right struggled with the feeling that no one who had not been there had any right to speak.

In however awkward and disjointed a manner, the Vietnam years ultimately show workers joining with students to protest a war that oppressed them both. Students came first. And this is understandable, given the fact that most students are not yet committed to livelihood and support of a family, and are in a setting and a period of their lives where excitement over general ideas is encouraged. But protest grew to the point that it could stop the war only when the working class joined in.

Polish Solidarity

The experience of Polish Solidarity makes it clear that the Singer model should not be understood to apply only to situations where students and intellectuals act first. It can also apply, in modified form, to a situation in which after several cycles of protest it becomes almost irrelevant to ask, Who acted first?, but in which students and intellectuals maintain throughout a separate identity.

Historian Roman Laba argues that in 1970–1972 Polish workers took the initiative in creating, first, factory committees, and then, regional interfactory committees, without significant input from intellectuals. Historian Lawrence Goodwyn adds that in 1980, when Solidarity erupted at the Gdansk shipyards, intellectuals who came from Warsaw to help “did not know how to read the scenes in the Lenin Shipyard” and inappropriately sought to soften the demands of the workers.

Assume all this to be so. One might compare the scene at the shipyard in August 1980, as understood by Lawrence Goodwyn, to the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August 1964, when African Americans from Mississippi rejected the compromise supported by Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, Joseph Rauh, and other leaders, adamant that “we didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”

The essential message of the Singer model remains. Students and intellectuals need to be understood as a social force in their own right. They are not and should not be encouraged to become merely “organizers” (Lenin) nor should it be supposed that their contribution is “insignificant” (Luxemburg). Whichever group takes the initiative in a particular historical situation, students and intellectuals need to relate to workers horizontally, as one of two equal hands seeking to create a better world.


In my view, the Singer model has once again been dramatically illustrated by the antiglobalization movement, beginning in Seattle in November 1999.

In Seattle, in Quebec in the spring of 2001, and again in Genoa, Italy in mid-summer 2001, student and working-class activity unfolded on parallel tracks and converged. The motivation of unions like the United Steelworkers of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in encouraging members to go to the anti-World Trade Organization events in Seattle has been romanticized. This was not internationalism, in the spirit of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The Steelworkers were concerned to keep steel made outside the United States from entering the country, no matter what happened to steelworkers in Brazil, Korea, or anywhere else. The Teamsters, then and since, wanted to keep Mexican truck drivers from crossing the Rio Grande, so much so that even the supposedly rank-and-file candidate for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Tom Leedham) criticized incumbent Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. for not doing enough to keep Mexican fellow workers out of the country. Neither national union was concerned about the welfare of workers in other countries. Once in Seattle, moreover, the AFL-CIO organized its own march and rally, and tried to prevent rank-and-file trade unionists from joining students in confrontations with the police downtown.

The pattern in Quebec was similar. The trade union leadership, rather than joining student protesters “at the fence,” directed its followers to an empty parking lot where they listened to speeches.

Nevertheless, just as in Paris in 1968, so in Seattle, Quebec, and Genoa, many individual workers took note of what students were up to, ducked under the arms of union marshalls, and left the line of march prescribed by union leaders to join young people in direct action. “Teamsters and sea turtles together at last” was therefore not an entirely empty slogan. The words described the personal experience of many rank-and-file workers, for whom there was a genuine discovery of solidarity with student demonstrators. Repeated in Quebec City, Genoa (where the son of a trade union official was killed) and elsewhere, the pattern is clear. This is not a students’ movement or a workers’ movement. It is a movement of students and workers.

The temporary spokescouncils of antiglobalization protesters are very different from the kinds of institutions (guilds, banks, corporations, free cities) whereby the bourgeoisie built up a base of power within feudal society. But they are not so different from the radical Protestant congregations that were also part of the capitalist new society within the shell of the old. Moreover, although it would be dangerously misguided to suppose that national trade unions, under any conceivable leadership, will ever lead the way to fundamental social change, local unions are potentially a different story.

There are historical moments when a local union, like the Russian universities in 1905, can become the meeting place and headquarters of a broader movement. Local 1397 of the United Steelworkers of America at the U.S. Steel Homestead Works was under rank-and-file control from the late 1970s until the mill was shut down in the mid-1980s. At the height of Polish Solidarity, Local 1397 hosted the presentation to “The People of Poland” of the annual award of the Thomas Merton Center, a radical Catholic entity devoted to direct action. The evening included the singing of “Solidarity Forever” the Polish Falcon Choir; a dance by the Polish Women’s Alliance of Pittsburgh; and presentation of the award by Charlie McCollester, chief shop steward at a factory in nearby Swissvale.

Polish Solidarity, McCollester stated, defined the core of the Polish crisis as a disappearance of democratic institutions that gave a free hand to what the Solidarity draft program of July 1981 called a “class of rulers not subject to control by those whom they rule.” Is this a peculiarly Polish problem, asked McCollester? Not at all. “The destruction of a major steelmaking center in Youngstown, Ohio, the radical reduction of steel and other industrial jobs in our own Mon Valley were decided by no vote, no consultation with any public body.” The movement to prevent plant shutdowns had no hope of winning unless, like Polish Solidarity, it recognized itself as a movement for economic democracy.

Paris in 1968 left us the slogan: “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” A few years ago, Seattle, Quebec, and Genoa would have seemed impossible. Now the realm of the possible has been expanded. Students typically act first, or at any rate independently, not to direct or organize workers but to express their own needs, consciences, and dreams. Workers join in: on Bloody Sunday, after work in downtown Budapest, at the Nantes aircraft factory in France, in resisting the Vietnam War, all along the band of shipyards on Poland’s Baltic coast. And as Daniel Singer seems to have correctly proposed, because of the participation of both workers and students, revolution in the industrial societies of the global North once again appears possible.

2003, Volume 54, Issue 10 (March)
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