Students must not merely be envisaged as a sociological category


Though I am not a part of the ongoing movement in Delhi University, being a student compels me to engage with the polemics – especially between Paresh Chandra and KYS – it has given rise to. Its relevance for politics conducted on the terrain of the university, of which I happen to be an integral part, cannot be overstated.

“It is impossible to grasp Marx’s Capital without understanding Hegel’s logic.” – V.I. Lenin

In its critique of Paresh Chandra’s article, the KYS has tried to draw lessons from the French May’68 movement as interpreted by one of its key leaders, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. I would like to quote some lines from a book by the same author before I return to the KYS’s critique:

“The French crisis was first of all a crisis within a single institution – the university.[…][Quoting Touraine] ‘The more modern and scientific a university becomes, the stronger grows its political and ideological commitment. The more young people are taught to think for themselves, the more they will challenge, criticize, and protest. The university continually creates its own opposition’.”[1]

Clearly, Cohn-Bendit envisages the university as a location where a spark can exist and the KYS would also, in all probability, acknowledge that. But of what use is such acknowledgement when the KYS is trapped in an eclectic position, thanks to its misreading of critique of power as critique of political economy. Such eclecticism helps it rescue neither critique of power nor critique of political economy.

The KYS cites Marx in their ‘More on what is ailing the University Democrats’: “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”. If we consider the quote a little carefully and through some abstraction we will realise that it clearly deals with the identity question, albeit very much unlike the KYS would have us believe it does.

Paresh Chandra argues that “working class is that section on which work is imposed”. The KYS grasps this merely at a phenomenological level and ends up seeing Comrade Chandra’s statement as an example of fetishising the student as worker. Its polemical response on that count reveals its failure to grasp the logic that this phenomenology conceals and which Comrade Chandra’s formulation seeks to pose. The abstraction of concrete labour resulting in subsumption of labour by capital is not visible to the KYS. The student, when in a university, does work, i.e. study. And this academic activity of the student is itself a social imposition that has come into being (as a process) through the unfolding of capitalism with developed requirements of functionally unique (re)produced labour-power in the ‘social factory’. Envisaging capital as a social relation of which the working class as a class-in-itself is constitutive is important. Equally vital is to be able to see the student as a necessary moment of that class-in-itself – within the larger social totality called capitalism – for the reproduction of capitalism. Therefore, one of the indispensable appearances of the worker-at-the-moment-of-reproduction on the stage set by capital is bound to be student.

The two-fold character that, according to the KYS does not exist outside industrial production, can now be clearly discerned even among students, with the increase in number of private colleges and their intake. This clearly serves to underscore the proletarianisation of a category the KYS calls petty bourgeois and whose petty bourgeois fate it seem to have sealed: “Petty bourgeois students, through education, come to acquire skills (as a property form), which then helps them share with the bourgeoisie, surplus value produced by workers”!!! Ambedkar spoke about the ‘Annihilation of caste’ but the refoundation of class in the KYS’s discourse has given rise to a concept of class that is not fundamentally different from caste. In its polemic against Paresh Chandra, which projects his argument as one that renders class quasi-behaviourist, there is a lot of, I would say unnecessary, stress on ‘background’. Let us now see what this background is, or whether there can be any talk of a background at all in a Marxist conception of class.

The working class at any moment is the organically linked totality, which different heterogeneous (or functionally unique) ‘sections’ of labour under the social domination of capitalist relations, takes. With temporal shifts there is a restructuring of that heterogeneity (and roughly the relation). This restructuring is the process called class. In more concrete terms, it is proletarianisation. Althusser’s critique of Engels in the appendix to his essay ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’ speaks of an “epistemological void”[2] that one is bound to encounter in the KYS’s critique. For, it sees the determinateness of student in “the combination of one’s class background and the class process”. Here a problem arises for every communist. The question of revolution. Is the revolution simply temporal unfolding or is it a culmination of (anti-capitalist) counter-tendencies that unfold within the temporal unfolding to create a rupture in the totality at that temporal moment? If it is the former, then we can sit back and simply wait for it to arrive on its own. But if it is the latter, as I think it is,  the revolutionary task at any moment is to articulate these counter-tendencies, which cannot be grasped as sociological fixities, but only as moments in the non-linear, dialectical process. Only when they are seen as moments can sociological locations be seen deconstructed as the site of play and struggle between the two tendencies.

In that light, Paresh Chandra’s advocacy of student-as-worker is a revolutionary advocacy. The student is a worker – in the moment of reproduction of labour-power, and the process of reproduction of labor-power is also coerced labor. Here it is immaterial whether the student becomes a worker/capitalist or aspires to be anything of that sort. The (capitalist) tendency, which the KYS calls petty-bourgeois, and the (anti-capitalist) counter-tendency are both present as contradictory forces at every moment, including that of academics, where human labour becomes work through its subjugation and determination by forces (capital) that are alienated from it and beyond its control.

In such circumstances, the fate of a revolution at a moment depends on how the politics of working-class mobilisation and the strategy of capital articulate that moment through their respective tendencies that are both constitutive of that moment. It, as a result, is contingent on which direction the contradiction of the two tendencies or lines take – the one of repression of the contradiction in a bid to efface it, or the other of its sharpening and heightening! This contradiction in the context of working class politics in the university is the key, not because it is present in a student but because it resides in the soul of every worker.


[1] Gabriel Cohn-Bendit and Daniel Cohn-Bendit: Obsolete Communism: The Left wing Alternative

[2] Louis Althusser: For Marx

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