Laurie Smith reports on last Saturday’s surprisingly positive conference of leftwing student activists
Over 100 student activists gathered on Saturday February 6 for the Convention Against Cuts and Fees. Hosted by University College London Students for Free Education and given the green light by both the Socialist Workers Party’s and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s student fronts, the convention was the first time the left has had such a get-together since the student coordination organised by Workers Power last April, which saw a similar number of activists gather.
As well as the AWL and SWP, WP’s youth group, Revolution, Communist Students and a fair number of independent activists were present. It was good to see more than the ‘usual suspects’ – ie, the student sections of the far left – but the new faces from last year had mostly vanished. Despite talk of the need for unity, the left’s sectarianism prevented the coordination cohering anything in organisational terms, meaning that this year’s event was starting from scratch again.
Given that, the turnout was quite surprising. Clearly campus campaigns over funding and course cuts had brought people along, just as the wave of occupations over the Gaza invasion last year made the student coordination possible. The left wasted that opportunity to organise and further politicise student activists, and CS members were expecting the same again: the groups were likely to fish for a few green recruits but oppose any talk of organisational unity. We were to be pleasantly surprised in this regard, as the first speaker in the opening plenary, unaffiliated UCL student Joana Pinto began her talk by agreeing with the call made by CS in an article on our website two days earlier, for the convention to produce a national organisation and elect some sort of steering committee.
Further, in the discussion members of both WP and the AWL performed an about-turn and were arguing that, yes, we did need unity. After an intervention by a CS member comrade Pinto confirmed that motions would definitely be allowed – another improvement on last year, when the majority at the coordination had voted not to debate politics, only puerile ‘action points’. The SWP, present once again under its Another Education is Possible banner, did not appear to have pushed the event amongst its periphery and was represented by a core of mostly loyal members. SWP interventions were aimed at scuppering the formation of any new organisation. Evidently the SWP does not want a competitor to AEIP, and its actions on the day were entirely motivated by this narrow, sectarian outlook.
CS’s proposal for open talks about a united left slate in the NUS elections came under vociferous attack from Hanif Leylabi and another SWP comrade, who said that in elections you needed all sorts of policies, but there were “different opinions” in the room on topics outside of free education, like war and Islamophobia. A lame excuse. The SWP would prefer a stitch-up between left luminaries in a Euston pub, and had already approached National Union of Students officers Daf Adley and Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy about standing a slate. CS calls for an open and democratic process were ignored. Their arguments did not pass muster with the convention though, which proceeded to endorse our motion, albeit by a narrow margin, with many abstentions. Now we must make sure the steering group follows through on this commitment.
Last year’s shameless attempt by Education Not for Sale to maintain a diplomatic silence on the question of imperialism was attempted once again. No-one wants to lose ENS, which is essentially no different than the other student fronts. Yet the AWL, which effectively controls ENS, is infamous for its scab line on imperialism, refusing to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq because they are ‘more progressive’ than reactionary Islamist groups.
The other groups’ terrified avoidance of big politics, and their desire to unite solely around the question of free education, ensured that imperialism and war were missing from the timetable, and conspicuously absent from the proposed ‘statement of intent’ drafted by the organising committee. Motions being allowed though, CS and the Commune agreed a joint amendment calling for opposition to imperialism, international solidarity and the immediate withdrawal of troops from the Middle East. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this was passed by a large majority.
In between plenaries the conference split up to attend bland workshops such as ‘Busting myths, fighting cuts’ and ‘Working with trade unions on and off campus’. Information and skill-sharing is, of course, useful, but is something any student movement worth its salt would be doing on all campuses. After lunch the conference was split up into regional workshops, which seemed achingly pointless, given that comrades can meet regionally any time, and many had probably travelled together that very day. A national conference should be an opportunity to discuss what strategy we need to achieve our aims, and to deepen the politicisation of radicalised students. It was an opportunity to create what is vitally needed: a national student movement to fight the attacks.
The convention did elect a steering committee from the regional meetings. This is a positive step forward, but the politics of this new formation must be deepened – there is the question not just of what we are against (the AWL’s Dan Randall, in opposing our Marxist platform, said we should be “anti-capitalist” and no more) but also what we are for. Effective unity has to be based on a clear political vision.
What sort of unity? Both the AWL and WP want to ‘keep it broad’ and play down their Marxist politics in order to ‘build the movement’. No-one is opposed to organising with and fighting alongside non-Marxists in common struggles, and CS welcomes the small steps conference did take toward putting together some structures. Our point was that, if the people in that room had argued and voted for the politics they believe in, we would now have a Marxist organisation, at least formally, not a loose anti-cuts network.
In the final session, CS put forward an alternative platform to that drafted by the convention organisers. Theirs demanded free education, with a nod to solidarity with education workers, but conspicuously avoided the question of imperialism (no doubt to keep the pro-Zionist and increasingly deranged AWL from storming out). Our platform put forward the politics of Marxism. The convention (now campaign) is not a united front. A ‘united front’ is for orthodox Marxism an alliance, made from below or above, between revolutionaries and reformists, whose aim is actually to further the immediate interests of the working class. For us it is a means to win those influenced by reformism to the politics of revolution.
I am short-sighted, but I do not think even I would have failed to notice the presence of significant numbers of students who were not self-proclaimed revolutionaries. Maybe I missed the bit where the courageous Marxist minority got up amidst heckling reformists to argue that free education was insufficient and that we needed working class unity in a revolutionary organisation to fight for a communist society. Actually, I did argue that myself, but was surrounded by dozens of quiet and rather bashful looking far leftists. Yes, there were new faces – but only a few, and no date was set for another conference. If setting up united fronts is the task Marxists have set themselves, their performance so far suggests they should not give up the day job.
It is, unfortunately, only worsening objective conditions which are waking the student left up to the need for unity. Nevertheless, a growing awareness of this and the minimal structures which came out of the conference are a step in the right direction. But if we are to build an effective alternative to the system, the student movement must make political debate a priority.
Free and open discussion is the only way to win the best politics and achieve the most effective unity. Not just sharing tips on the effectiveness of this or that tactic, or ‘Trade union work’, which are the sort of talks we can have any time in local groups or on the internet, but debating the critical questions facing the left today – questions of principle and strategy.
One of the ironies of the day was that, after voting down CS’s Marxist platform, conference proceeded to adopt several ‘motherhood and apple pie’ motions – not only opposing Islamophobia, but supporting workers’ struggles, etc. Instead of a coherent platform which puts the blame on the system and clearly identifies the international working class as the agency of change, we have a list of statements against every single bad symptom. To take Marxist politics out of the equation is actually to burden the student movement with a huge handicap.
Our analysis enables us to expose the workings of the system and explain why capitalism can never willingly grant us a decent education. It points to the militant and united action necessary to take on the state, the impossibility of a fully human existence for the working class under capitalism, and the possibility of socialism. The working class needs these politics if is to mount a united and effective fightback against cuts and not be led down blind alleys by the trade union bureaucracy.
If it is not the right time for Marxism now, comrades, when exactly will it be?