The demonstration in London against fees and cuts on 14th March should give the student left a lot to think about over the coming weeks. It was supposed to be the highlight of the National Union of Student’s ‘week of action’, which went almost entirely ignored by the national media. The turnout – about 500 – was a clear indicator of how the movement we witnessed in late 2010 has all but died. The fact that there was no imminent bill to be fought, and that efforts at mobilisation were relatively feeble, goes some way to explain the low numbers and apparent lack of enthusiasm from the majority of students.
However, the failure of the student left to come up with a real strategy to draw in, politicise and mobilise the majority of students is a key factor. The expectation that large numbers of students will fight a battle they see no way of winning, particularly after the defeat we suffered when MPs voted through the last set of reforms, is illusory. The current approach seems to borrow much from nursery rhyme The Grand Old Duke of York, with various groups on the left calling march after march because “What parliament does, the streets can undo”. So after over a year of this strategy, why have we got nowhere? We have to be honest with ourselves and with those we want to join us in this fight. Students alone cannot bring down a government and even if the government were to collapse any time soon, this would lead to an election that the radical left could not come close to winning. The current Labour leadership is as committed to a cuts programme as the coalition. Maybe not while wearing the same smiles as the Bullingdon boys, but the impact on our class would be just as devastating.
Endless defensive campaigns against neoliberal education reforms have met with little success because of the lack of a united left with a positive vision of an alternative. Too often they have taken the line of least resistance by harking back to a ‘golden age’ of education which never existed. Even before fees, the primary function of education has been to serve the varying needs of the labour market, and access to higher education was still highly restricted. Communists wish to create a democratic education system based on the needs of individuals to fulfil themselves and on the need to create a critical intellectual culture that is necessary for a free society. For the left this means going beyond calling for free education to the positive transformation of the education system by all those who play a part in it (students, communities, lecturers, etc.), and made to serve individuals and society as a whole, rather than the needs of businesses and profit. If student Marxists fail to argue for such a transformation of education, no-one else will and radical change will remain off the agenda.
The tasks for the student left in relation to the wider movement are clear: it must stress unity with workers and the unemployed, and turn the rhetoric of solidarity into actions expressing this. It must articulate an alternative not just to this government but to the current education system and the capitalist system which it serves. But most crucial is the elephant in the room at every conference of the student left; we need meaningful unity, on the basis of a political outlook that transcends narrow ‘student trade unionism’ and puts forward a vision that challenges the logic of capital at every juncture. If ecological catastrophe is to be averted, if the needs of the young, sick and elderly are to be met and if we wish to liberate ourselves from the day to day alienation of late capitalism, the working class must come to power. This cannot succeed in one country alone: the lessons of the 20th century must be learned. Our vision must be of a revolution beginning on a European scale if we are serious about establishing a viable alternative to global capitalism.
When the government feels it is politically safe to introduce further education reform towards privatisation, the student movement will gain momentum and spring into action again. Student politics is by its nature prone to a rapid ebb and flow of militancy and politicisation. As such, we should not be too frustrated by the gradual decline of the student movement since the heady days of 2010-2011. But the left must work to create something viable, enduring and inspiring for students to look toward. Given what lies ahead for our class both here and abroad, the far left face enormous responsibilities. We must live up to them by rallying around the banner of internationalism, radical democracy and Marxism; the politics of emancipation needed to win the fights ahead.