Connecting with new layers
Ben Lewis detects the beginnings of a new sentiment amongst students
Communist Students has certainly stepped up our game in the last couple of weeks, having a presence at freshers fairs in 17 universities, where we distributed around 4,000 copies of the latest issue of our paper, Communist Student (see communiststudents.org.uk). This was specifically designed to introduce our organisation and to provide a broad outline of our politics on themes such as capitalism in decline, the threat of war on Iran and the environment.
As you would expect, we had some very interesting discussions with students from all sorts of backgrounds and political outlooks, and were able to get a snapshot of political opinion and sentiment amongst the campus population. We established numerous contacts and drew a new layer of interested and sympathetic comrades around us – particularly in Manchester, where there was a lot of interest in our work.
I am sure my experience was similar to that of other comrades (and indeed most of the left) in that I found the response from students warmer than in previous years. The reasons for this are obvious. The financial crisis, combined with the fact that the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ are currently being thrown around in the bourgeois media every day, certainly gave us more of a pitch. As one open Tory supporter in Kingston put it to me, as she took a copy of CS almost in spite of herself, “I would say communism doesn’t work, but then again I can hardly claim that capitalism is working, can I?”
Numerous other anecdotal examples from the fairs underline how the political atmosphere has changed. Yet we should not get over-excited about this and fall into the trap that a looming recession and the prospect of millions of people being forced into austere living conditions will immediately and automatically favour the left. Class-consciousness is still at an extremely low level – something quite clearly highlighted by the apolitical, commercialised and tightly regulated affairs that freshers fairs still are. And unfortunately most students are out to get freebies and discount vouchers, as opposed to new political ideas.
Nevertheless, there is the beginnings of a new sentiment amongst students which communists can tap into. With a growing minority starting to question the rationality of the current economic system, it is clear that we in CS should be confident about our ideas and our ability to influence and win new layers.
Communist Students is quite clear about what is needed – a mass student movement where the hegemonic ideas are those of Marxism as a living and breathing guide to action and political practice. We are clear that this is nothing like the stale, narrow and economistic outlook peddled by the existing left. As the failings of the system of capital are revealed for all to see, the left sects are still offering fronts like Another Education is Possible and Education Not for Sale.
Yes, the struggle for free education and grants is important, particularly given the coming review of the cap on fees. Yes, we should question the nature of education under capitalism and the role it plays in readying young people for the workforce through continuous assessments and examinations.
But we need to be much more audacious – more and more students are searching for the big, global ideas in answer to both capitalism’s obvious failings and their own alienating individual experience. We should not limit ourselves to trade union-type demands, but point to a new communist society and show what needs to be done in order to get there.
Arming ourselves with Marxism must be central to our work. We now have CS cells in Cardiff, London, Manchester and Sheffield, and each of these groups devotes a good amount of its time to collective study and discussion. This does not mean that we in CS are aiming to produce clones, as some of our critics allege. What it means is winning students to Marxist politics through a culture of open, honest and critical debate, which allows for the frankest exchange of ideas.
We need to develop cadre who are in it for the long haul and who are willing to become rounded Marxists. What currently blights left student politics is the insistence on activism for the sake of activism – well-meaning young radicals are encouraged to rally behind the latest single-issue or reformist campaign. They receive no genuine education beyond narrow sect dogma, and are certainly not encouraged to study the political viewpoints of opponents on the left. Those who do – especially when it comes to the ideas of the CPGB and CS – are often told to sling their hook.
Those who remain become little more than mouthpieces for promoting the latest sect wheeze. This is an unacceptable way to treat what are to begin with honest and enthusiastic young people who want an end to capitalism and have vague notions about a better and more just world. As anyone who has been to university will know, by the end of their degrees many of the keenest members of the Socialist Workers Party and its student wing, the SWSS, end up burnt-out, dis-illusioned, cynical and hostile to the left – they are either absorbed into bourgeois society, become anarchistic individualists or a mixture of both.
CS branches will be studying different texts and recording their meetings, so that education can become a collective endeavour and individual comrades where there is no branch can also take part.
In Manchester, for example, CS comrades are currently looking at Lenin’s State and revolution, while those in Sheffield are shortly to begin their study of Capital. The London group is also reading Capital, but alternating this with their study of Mike Macnair’s excellent new book Revolutionary strategy and monthly public meetings. Nationally, CS will hold a day school every month – the next one being on November 2 in London.
In order to encourage more younger comrades to write for our magazine, our excellent new website (www.communiststudents.org.uk) and also the Weekly Worker, the CS executive has set up a commissioning team to work more closely with comrades and plan longer-term projects.
Given the current global situation, our main campaigning priority remains Hands Off the People of Iran – Hopi is organising films and meetings, and CS is building for the Hopi annual conference on December 13. We in CS now also have good contacts with Iranian students, allowing us to exchange ideas and learn from each other. CS members have been integral to getting the exiled Iranian students Kaveh Abbasian and Behrouz Karimizadeh to speak in London and in Manchester, with other meetings planned soon.
One area where we have so far been weak has been in our ability to directly intervene in day-to-day issues on individual campuses. Comrades can gain a hearing through taking up particular grievances: eg, opposing department closures, fighting the commercialisation of courses, mobilising to support a sacked lecturer, etc. This in no way implies that we fall into the trap of running around chasing every issue – activism for the sake of activism belies a complete lack of understanding of what it means to be a Marxist.
Despite our organisational limitations, CS has been able to strongly articulate the politics of revolutionary Marxism and win over a new layer of students across the country. We can and must increase our political work and agitation because the objective situation and the programmatic meltdown of the left demands it. Yet in stepping up our work we should not take our eye off our main long-term task: patiently organising for the re-articulation of communist politics as the only credible and viable alternative to the rotting system of capital.
The ideas of revolutionary Marxism as the basis of student unity are needed now – not at some undefined point in the future. As our interventions in freshers fairs showed, Marxism is not exactly rolling off the tongues of every student – these ideas are still in a minority. But precisely due to its explanatory power and perspective of human liberation, if the left openly fights for Marxism then this situation can be taken forward so that we become the majority.
This is the battle of ideas that CS is committed to, and we call on all those who share this aim to join us!