Conference 2014: Fighting for Marxist Ideas
Communist Students held its annual conference at the University of Westminster at the weekend, with a focus on gathering and galvanising our forces for the year ahead.
Following a difficult couple of years for the organisation in the wake of an acrimonious yet largely apolitical split in the Summer of 2012, the organisation has been just about kept alive through the activity of a very small number of young comrades in and around the CPGB. In a situation where the organised student left, and the left more generally, seems to be moving ever further away from the idea that revolutionary Marxist politics should arm the student movement as a whole and at all levels, there has been a small revival of interest in the CS, leading comrades to feel that there is scope for the organisation to advance, however modestly at first, in the coming period. The conference elected a leadership of three comrades (Robert Hayes, Ben Lewis and Callum Williamson) to take a lead in pulling the group together and taking it forward in 2014 with its own organisational structures and impetus. Naturally, both politically and organisationally CS overlaps to a considerable extent with the forces of the CPGB, but comrades were all confident that this could change relatively quickly given the influx of interest.
There was an extensive discussion of the general political situation in the student movement, opened by Callum Williamson of Westminster University. He noted that the situation is still characterised by “fragmentation” and dissolution. As is often the case with student politics, things can move quickly and there have been some important local activity and isolated campaigns, but generally things are at a low level and the organisation of the left grows from bad to worse – reflecting the general fate of the left’s ‘adult’ organisations. To the extent that one organisation can claim to be providing some sense of leadership to student struggles, it is the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Yet, noted comrade Williamson, this “leadership” is conceived simply as calling the next action against cuts and saying “more of the same”. There is no “discernable desire to deepen it politically or organisationally”, he said, beyond the ‘Birmingham model’ of a “broad left-wing discussion group” alongside a local anti-cuts group on a particular campus. NCAFC is highly emaciated and, following the recent departure of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, now is mainly composed of the social imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, some anarchists and identity politics.
The comrade noted that there is an ongoing negative fallout from the SWP crisis, which has fed into the prevalence of anti-partyist, anti-Marxist politics that can be broadly described as ‘identity politics’ on the student left. There was a general consensus that such political trends need to be engaged with and defeated politically but that we should recognise that comrades in such trends often are seeking to address real problems on the student left, albeit that they often conflate cause and effect (most obviously in the case of accusations that the SWP is a “rape-denial organisation”) and therefore tend to draw dubious political conclusions. Comrades expressed their amazement at the implosion of the International Socialist Network, which was unfolding as conference met. Somewhat bizarrely, this rather speedy meltdown came not over the more or less openly stated collapse of some ISN leaders into reformism, but over disagreements over a piece of art. This is a rather sad indictment of the current political and organisation weaknesses of the ‘Marxist’ left – as well as the dangers involved in uncritically pandering to and assimilating some of the political organisational conclusions put forward by identity politics. In some ways the left is making a rod with which to beat its own back in this respect: either honestly adapting its outlook and methods to fit in with this thinking (such as the ISN or RevSoc) or cynically deploying such arguments as a means with which to conduct sectarian struggles (such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in NCAFC).
Comrades felt that we need to look to take a closer look at the arguments and issues involved when stressing our partyist, programmatic, democratic centralist alternative, which truly can unite, organise and inspire. We also investigated the possibility of holding debates on these and other related issues in the coming period. For our own education and for greater engagement with our contacts and periphery, we agreed to produce downloadable pamphlets gathering together some of the articles and essays we have written on three main themes: the question of oppression, the nature of student politics and the party question. Accordingly, comrades also decided to collectively study Lars T Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in Context. These study meetings will hopefully be made available online for new CS members and sympathisers. Get in touch if you would like more information.
Robert Hayes (Cardinal Newman College) then provided an outline of some of the as of yet general plans for CS comrades to intervene in local and national student union elections. Surveying some of our electoral work in the past, we discussed and agreed on some of the outlines of the politics we should be championing: we need bold demands to address the lives of students, the alienation they suffer under an increasingly irrational education system, the poverty and debt they toil under. We should also be championing high politics and questions that go beyond the immediate sphere of student life and existence, all as part of our struggle to win the Communist battle of ideas and the need to positively supercede capitalism. Themes that we were looking to stress were democracy, the campus and the state, oppression, imperialism and war, environmental chaos, European working-class unity and a thoroughly internationalist outlook and also a wide-ranging transformation of all bodies of student representation, as opposed to simply looking to get people elected to positions within the student union bureaucracy in and of itself. It was also felt that it is incumbent upon us to use our election campaigns as another weapon in our struggle to reshape the movement and arm it with Marxist strategic thinking as opposed to watered down platitudes that change from day to day. Fittingly in this regard, conference agreed that CS members would step up their work in local branches of Left Unity, arguing for Communist politics. CS now has a good pool of regular writers, so it was agreed that we should aim to produce a large broadsheet edition of Communist Student this term as a way of building support for our message.
We have thus set our small forces some ambitious targets. Yet the need for the kind of principled political message that CS puts out is as necessary as ever. Those who wish to help us make these ideas common sense in the student movement are urged to contact us and get involved.
Communist Students National Executive: 29 January 2014