Michael Copestake reports from the 2012 Communist Students conference
This year’s Communist Students conference took place in London over the weekend of June 9-10 against a background of controversy and intra-organisational struggle – up to and including a recent coup attempt against the elected leadership by comrades in Manchester CS branch around Chris Strafford. As such, the conference was an important opportunity for critical self-reflection on CS as a project and its focus in the future. But it turned out to be rather anti-climactic, with not a single comrade from the Manchester branch turning up to put forward their political views or to engage with the rest of the organisation more generally.
The first session of the conference saw executive member Ben Lewis give his outline of the proposed perspectives for 2012. Comrade Lewis began by noting the instability of global politics. Internationally, the class struggle is intensifying, but, contrary to the predictions of the 2011 CS conference, we have not yet seen a mass anti-austerity movement in Britain.
It seems likely, said the comrade, that the stagnation in the world economy, particularly in Europe, will continue. The current crisis is, however, necessitating the further financial centralisation of the European Union, which in practice can only entail further political centralisation. How the peoples of Europe responded to this would be key, the comrade said.
In conclusion it seemed to comrade Lewis that, while there were huge objective possibilities – and, just as importantly, huge responsibilities – for the left, the possibility of reaction and war was evident in the current crisis. But subjectively the left is in no position to lead the working class and, as CS is part of the left, that includes us. So it is important for CS to be active, dynamic and daring in fighting for the ideas of Marxism.
Comrade Lewis stressed that CS should continue to argue for Marxist principles in the student movement. Regarding the proposal by Revo, the Workers Power youth group, for unity discussions, the comrade said it was important to continue the exchange, even though Revo itself seems to be going through its own version of the recent WP split.
The perspectives for 2012 were unanimously approved. It was agreed to organise a conference on revolutionary unity and the student movement in the new year, inviting groups like the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Students, Revolution, the Labour Representation Committee youth and so on.
CS executive member Callum Williamson began his introduction to his motion on CS organisation and tasks by noting that some of the problems that the organisation has faced have resulted from the fact that two thirds of the executive was based in London, while the remaining third had been in Manchester, which has had the most active branch. He accepted that the executive had not met regularly enough and had not asserted or re-asserted basic organisational principles such as the paying of dues, national registration of members and so on which had encouraged the growth of an anarchic, federalist approach to CS.
To combat this the motion proposed the election of a treasurer, membership secretary and web editor in order to ensure that organisational questions were not neglected. The executive was mandated to produce a pamphlet condensing the various debates that have taken place in the Weekly Worker recently around Lenin’s view on the type of party that was needed, with a new introduction underlining ‘Why Lenin matters’. The executive will also produce what comrades agreed should be snappy, interesting and thought-provoking materials for next term’s freshers fairs. There will normally be weekly executive meetings open to all members.
In the discussion that followed there was agreement that, while CS had never been a large organisation, there was potential for it to grow quickly again. We have to be a lot more confident and a lot more thorough about chasing up contacts and the large number of people sympathetic to our ideas.
The conference also debated the new Anti-Capitalist Initiative project, set up by Workers Power and its milieu. In introducing the discussion, James Turley stated that the ACI is attempting to unite the left around ‘action’. However, in practice, the ACI unites only the fragments of Workers Power plus a few others. Compared to where WP was 10 years ago, it is a step backwards in terms of size and even programme. Then they were part of a single organisation committed to some form of Marxism.
A comrade gave an account of a local branch meeting of the ACI he had attended the previous day. At Peckham ACI’s inaugural meeting there was lots of talk of ‘saving the NHS’ and calls for the ACI to approach local churches and a Labour councillor in a campaign against betting shops and pay-day loans. But it seems that in order not to scare off the vicars they will present themselves as a ‘local group of trade unionists’. The conference was unanimous that it would be a waste of CS comrades’ time to build the ACI – whether at a national or local level.
Of course, that is not the view of comrade Strafford, who had been invited to explain why he believes the ACI should be supported. He had also put forward a motion, which conference had agreed to hear despite the fact it had been submitted well after the deadline. But he and the other Manchester comrades boycotted the conference – none had sent apologies (although comrade Strafford has been ill and did so the day after).
In light of the heated internal disputes – over, for example, editorial access to the website – the outgoing executive majority had originally decided to limit conference attendance to its existing membership and not allow the possibility that previous non-members would join on the day and be able to sway the vote. When it was pointed out that this would mean that two comrades is Manchester, themselves not actually nationally paid-up members of the organisation, could not attend, the executive then decided to open conference to all those currently on the CS internal email list (which included the two comrades, former members and those still sympathetic). Any of these comrades who paid the registration and membership fee would be eligible to take part with full speaking and voting rights. But it was not to be.
Comrade Strafford’s motion advocated the abolition of the executive in favour of “open national meetings”; the creation of a “writing committee” to supervise the production of a pamphlet on “how to fight austerity”; affiliation to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts; and the joint organisation of a day school to discuss “what kind of student and youth organisations we need” with the Revo group. The motion was put to conference in comrade Strafford’s absence, but was unanimously rejected. It was, however, accepted that we should keep an eye on the NCAFC and intervene where possible. But comrades generally agreed that, unless there was another change in government higher education policy, the ‘spark’ for renewed student activity was unlikely to be fees and cuts.
Comrade Laurie Smith introduced a motion on Iran which committed CS to maintain its affiliations to Hands off the People of Iran and Stop the War Coalition, to sponsor Hopi meetings on campus, seek joint meetings with STWC where possible, to mandate the executive to try to forge links with “revolutionary students” in Iran and feature an interview with an Iranian student on the CS website. This was passed unanimously.
The conference ended with the adoption of a motion that dealt with the organisation’s internal problems. It concluded by stating that those “who do not recognise the annual conference of Communist Students, its decisions and elected national executive place themselves outside of our ranks”. The motion was unanimously approved. All those seeking to join or rejoin CS will be asked if they accept the decisions of this conference as binding.