The second annual conference of Communist Students took place in Manchester on February 16. John Jo Sidwell reports
All in all, it had been a good year for Communist Students, as executive members Dave Isaacson and Laurie Smith explained in their introductory remarks. We have fought a number of elections and, though, as expected, we did not win any positions, it was overall a good political exercise that spread our ideas and influence. In the forthcoming NUS executive ballot, CS member Chris Strafford is standing for the ‘block of 12’ on a full revolutionary programme (as opposed to the politics of the lowest common denominator favoured by much of what passes itself off as the left today).
CS has also done some excellent work in relation to Hands Off the People of Iran – organising a number of well attended meetings, as well as highlighting the plight of the 80 student leaders recently imprisoned by the Tehran regime. We have formed a close working relationships with students in Iran, assisting them where we can, including with translations.
Just over two dozen comrades attended the conference. While most of them, naturally, were CS members, it was good to see representatives from Permanent Revolution, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Iraq Solidarity Campaign too.
CS is clearly a new and inexperienced organisation, and as such suffers from a number of teething problems. Outgoing CS executive member Tina Becker pointed out that we need to “have our own debates and come to our own political conclusions” – for example, on the question of fascism. As our publication Communist Student only comes out once every couple of months, it is unable to carry those debates properly. Hence we should better utilise our website, as well as forums, blogs and the like. There is also the Weekly Worker, of course.
Taking issue with Mike Macnair’s recent article in the Weekly Worker (February 14), where he argued that ideas, not direct class interests, were key to understanding student politics, James Turley focused on what he saw as class antagonism in the NUS and the wider student movement. Comrade Turley said that despite the low levels of struggle within the universities, we should not discount the fact that the class element prevails when the state becomes involved.
The comrade cited the recent call for universities to spy on muslim students in the search for potential jihadists. In such situations, universities are almost akin to an element of the state police. This position was backed up by Carey Davies who highlighted the role of universities in commerce and the arms trade.
In times of low political activity, class antagonism between students and universities are often less discernable, so the argument goes. Students choose to focus on local issues or simply do not get involved at all. The failure of the NUS campaign to ‘keep the cap’ on university fees being one of many examples.
Comrade Isaacson stressed that, whilst such campaigns had been constrained by the bureaucratic NUS leadership, communists would be absolutely wrong not to participate in them. We must be with the moment as it exists … but use every opportunity to promote our vision of republican democracy, internationalism and communism.
Attacks on democracy in the NUS were also discussed. Comrade Becker being particularly scathing about the left’s failure to bring this vital issue to the mass of the student body. In fact, the left has taken a purely defensive position, focusing on what is, not what should be.
Comrade Turley mocked Student Respect and the AWL-sponsored Education Not for Sale for their wrong-headed approach when attempting to cobble together a joint slate for NUS executive elections (see Weekly Worker January 31). It was lowest common denominator from the start, but as it turned out “wasn’t low enough” for either of them. The inevitable result of such “fudging” was a programme with barely any leftwing content at all. Comrade Turley also noted that both Respect-Socialist Workers Party and ENS-AWL had fought hard to keep CS comrades away from negotiations. No wonder that with such undemocratic opponents the NUS bureaucracy has such an easy ride.
The debate was concluded with an agreed consensus on our continued approach. CS must do more than just involve students in immediate campaigns. Our main and overriding task is to educate ourselves in and spread the influence of Marxism.
Middle East and ‘illegality’
The last session, a debate on the situation in the Middle East, was addressed by Hussein al-Alak (Iraq Solidarity Campaign), the AWL’s David Broder and Tina Becker (CPGB).
In what proved to be a rather controversial theme, comrade Hussein kept referring to the “illegality” of the war and the occupation of Iraq and that in his organisation’s view Saddam Hussein was still the “legitimate head of Iraq”. That despite his execution. Essentially the comrade adopted the viewpoint of a left liberal nationalist, not an internationalist communist revolutionary.
For example, both comrades Broder and Becker felt the need to criticise his reliance on a “den of thieves” like the United Nations. Apparently it should decide what is legal and illegal, according to comrade Hussein. The sanctions imposed against Iraq (and those now in force against Iran) were perfectly ‘legal’, said comrade Becker. But we do not and should not support them. Sanctions affected the working class and poor in particular – ie, those that are already suffering under the Ba’athist dictatorship. In addition, a violation of UN sanctions could be used by the US as a pretext to invade Iran.
Comrade Hussein was also taken to task for asking the left to support “the Iraqi resistance”. True, he differentiated between groups like al Qa’eda that are “being run from abroad” (and should not be supported by the left) and “home-grown organisations” (which should be supported). Comrade Becker insisted that the so-called resistance is far from homogenous. Certainly it would be incorrect to offer blanket support. Much of it being islamist, based on rival local mosques and often paid for and manipulated by the Tehran regime.
Comrade Hussein maintained that all those with an islamic ideology were members of groups established by non-Iraqis. That was his none too subtle way of dismissing mass shi’ite parties: most importantly SCIRI/ISCI and the Sadrists’ Jaysh al-Mahdi. Within what he called the “native” Iraqi resistance, the broad ideology could be attributed to secular, Arab nationalism. In a word, Ba’athism.
Comrade Broder explained that he represents a minority view within the AWL. Unlike the social-imperialist majority he argues for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He attacked the fake anti-imperialism of much of the left, in particular the SWP’s ‘the enemy of my enemy must be my friend’.
As a result of such an approach the SWP has downplayed the lack of democracy in Iran, the sexual apartheid and the killing of gays, adulterers, etc. The SWP positively identifies with islamic organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
But it is precisely the secular leftist movements in Iran that are the only consistent opponents of both US imperialism and the Iranian theocracy. Comrade Broder called for critical support and solidarity with such movements.
At this point, comrade Hussein proposed that part of the reason why the SWP and Stop the War Coalition fail to support the secular opposition in the Middle East is their attempt to gain electoral support from British muslims. True in part, but he failed to grasp the fact that the SWP’s version of anti-imperialism owes more to JV Stalin than VI Lenin.
Comrade Becker highlighted the pro-imperialistic policies of the Iranian regime, eg, its adoption of IMF economics and support for US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of the anti-western rhetoric emanating from the theocracy is simply for popular consumption. An ideological cloak. The US and the Islamic Republic are quite capable of coming to a deal. But clearly US imperialism remains the main enemy.
This session was concluded with a moving message of solidarity for the imprisoned Iranian students, delivered by Iranian student and CS supporter Kave Heydan.
Motions and elections
Conference elected a new executive, which consists of Tina Becker, Dave Isaacson, Nick Jones, Ben Klein, Laurie Smith, Chris Strafford and James Turley.
Earlier, the meeting voted for an amendment to our ‘What we fight for’ political platform. Moved by Chris Strafford, point 9, on parliamentary tactics and revolution, was slightly redrafted and now includes the statement: “Communists also seek to mobilise working class self-activity independent of the state, the employers and the labour bureaucracy.”
Comrade Strafford also proposed a motion that would have seen CS “critically welcoming” the re-emergence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Most comrades disagreed. Many criticised the IWW’s refusal make political statements or to allow members of political parties to join, etc. What calls itself the IWW is in fact a syndicalist sect.
Communists strive to work in existing mass trade unions. “In Turkey, that means communists work in state-sponsored or yellow unions”, comrade Ben Klein pointed out. It was, however, agreed to further discuss the question of communist work in trade unions at the Communist University North. This will also provide another opportunity to discuss some other controversial issues within Communist Students, such as the nature of the Soviet Union.
All in all a very successful day showing the steps forward that CS has taken since its formation. We need to consolidate what we have achieved over the coming months.