CS conference debates way forward
At the founding conference of Communist Students in Sheffield on Saturday December 9, some 20 comrades, most of them not members of the CPGB, were present. Ted North reports
Tina Becker began the conference with a speech addressing the way forward for Communist Students and the state of crisis for other left student groups, which are in reality fronts for their parent party.
CS, she explained, should campaign to promote the ideas of Marxism. Whilst founded by members of the CPGB, the comrade stressed that CS is an autonomous organisation able to initiate and run its own campaigns, decide its own policy and elect the leadership it wants. She observed that to those with some experience in the student movement this will come as a refreshing change.
The recent Student Respect conference demonstrated how not to organise students; there were no motions and no real debate. Other student groups embrace either Labourism or vague aims of social justice – Socialist Students and People and Planet, for instance.
Communist Students aims to fill a void in the student movement – the absence of a group openly espousing Marxist politics and organisation. Comrade Becker emphasised the importance of the democratic principles underpinning CS. We need to fight to win the unity of Marxists through open debate in all spheres – at meetings, in publications and on our website. The comrade finished her opening with a discussion of the campaigns we should get involved in, particularly the newly established Hands Off the Peoples of Iran, and the need for Marxists to oppose both imperialist attack and the Iranian theocracy.
Next came debate on the political platform of Communist Students. Up to now this has been in the form of a provisional, 13-point ‘Who we are and what we fight for’ declaration. Opening the session, Emily Bransom emphasised the need for CS to focus on political as well as economic questions, in contrast to the economism of groups such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty-sponsored Education Not For Sale.
The discussion that followed was exhaustive and centred on a number of proposed changes to the platform. Comrade Jim Padmore, a supporter of Permanent Revolution (the minority that was expelled from Workers Power), had raised a number of criticisms of it and his amendments were extensively debated. Comrades also raised other questions and a number of bullet points were amended.
A useful debate focused on comrade Padmore’s suggestion that removed mention of the fact that supporters and members of the Communist Party of Great Britain had taken the initiative to set up CS. This was criticised by Sachin Sharma and comrade Bransom, who stressed that we need to both make clear that we are an autonomous organisation and to be honest about our links with the CPGB – a position that won the support of the conference.
It was also suggested that we state that CS stood in the “tradition of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky”, as opposed to the original text’s emphasis on “Marxist tradition”. Toby Walton and Rowan Anderson agreed – these names emphasised the type of Marxism we identified with and should be included. This was criticised by Carey Davies and Jamie Linney. They warned that explicitly mentioning for instance, Trotsky, implied some measure of support for Trotskyism and his Transitional programme, and should therefore be avoided.
Mark Fischer, speaking as an observer, agreed with these comrades and said there was no unitary tradition of Marxism. Whilst Lenin and Trotsky were brilliant revolutionaries and Marxists, at times they bent the stick too far and misrepresented the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, for instance. Trotsky’s notion that, because the Soviet Union had no bourgeoisie and nationalised property it was therefore a workers’ state, is an unMarxist concept.
Ben Lewis agreed. He argued that we should not bog down the living tradition of Marxism with names. If we go down this route how do we decide which names to include? Conference voted to keep the original formulation.
Comrade Padmore suggested a number of other amendments: eg, emphasising questions in relation to education, women’s equality, racism, fascism, homophobia, chauvinism, the struggle against war and ecological sustainability. A majority went along with the thrust of this, but felt that the wording could be improved. It was decided that the executive committee would see to this.
Toby Walton suggested that instead of saying that we need to change the education system from “top to bottom” we use “throughout”. This was agreed in order to avoid any potential misunderstanding that by this we meant ‘top-down’ reform.
We also discussed communist tactics towards parliament. It had been proposed to remove the phrase “peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must”. This was rejected. It was agreed, however, that we would call for support for “revolutionary socialists standing in elections on a revolutionary platform”.
Comrade Padmore wished to add a reference to taking power “as we did in Paris in 1871 and in Petrograd in 1917” and remove the reference to Stalin’s Russia and add the phrase “workers’ state”. A number of comrades said that it would be wrong to include a reference to a “workers’ state”, as this simply repeats the mistakes of Trotskyism.
There was an attempt to commit CS to the position of no platform for fascists as a matter of principle. There were objections to this, however. Carey Davies said that no-platforming is a tactic, not a principle. Dave Isaacson likewise argued that, whilst it could sometimes be useful, at other times it was just plain wrong.
With our political platform agreed, we moved on to discussing our constitution. This was introduced by Dave Isaacson. So far a small group of comrades have done much of the work of CS. A constitution was needed to make us more effective, transparent and allow for a better division of labour.
Comrade Isaacson discussed the debates which have taken place within CS on including democratic centralism in the constitution. Given the bureaucratic monstrosities that pass for ‘democratic centralism’ in other groups, it was felt we should avoid the phrase, but deploy the spirit of this basic Marxist principle. Dave criticised the constitutions of other socialist groups, quoting from that of the Socialist Workers Party, in particular its undemocratic ban on permanent factions.
Conference discussed the draft constitution and made a number of small changes. A more explicit reference to the recallability of members of the executive and the duty to publish minutes were agreed. Ben Lewis proposed that we define the basic organisational unit as the “university/college/school group”. These tweaks were agreed and the revised constitution was approved by a near unanimous vote.
The second half of the conference was taken up with a speech from Mehdi Kia of Iran Bulletin and the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran and the election of our executive.
All candidates gave potted political biographies of themselves and answered a number of questions from the floor on how they envisaged CS developing, relations with other left student groups, etc.
Both before the conference and at the meeting itself, there was some controversy over the candidacy of Tina Becker, a leading CPGBer and part-time student in London. Some CPGB members of CS were not sure whether the comrade was suitable. They were concerned that having an ex-member of the leadership of our party involved at that level would give the impression that CS was simply a CPGB front group.
However, it was pointed out that, as the constitution of CS embodies the principles of autonomy and recallability, Tina is not some arbitrary imposition from outside. She is subject to the same accountability as other members of the executive. Mark Fischer underlined that in the view of the CPGB leadership, CS must be allowed to make its own mistakes and that he confidently expected two things from the new organisation – that the CPGB would find itself in a minority on occasions and that party members (on the executive and at other levels of the campaign) would sometimes vote different ways. When an organisation is alive and dealing with challenging new issues constantly, how could it be any other way, he wondered?
Tina was elected by conference along with CPGB members Ben Lewis and Dave Isaacson (CPGB), Jim Padmore (PR) and two ‘independents’, Jamie Tedford and James Turley – a good spread in terms of age, location and political shade. The new committee will endeavour to meet at least monthly.
A small point here. The chair, mindful of time constraints by this stage of the conference and believing that the objections to Tina had been overcome, recommended that the meeting simply vote for this team as a block. This was done for the best of reasons, but was a mistake. The comrades who had expressed misgivings about comrade Becker should have had the chance to register their opposition – if they had not been swayed by the arguments, of course – by casting a vote against her. Slate systems like this undermine democracy, as people are offered a ‘take it or leave’ it option – not an option at all, of course, when you are picking members of a leadership team. We must not make this mistake again.
Despite its small size the founding conference was a success – we now have a national organisation for students based on Marxist politics (the agreed constitution and political platform can be read on our website). We appeal to all students who accept our programme to join us in the struggle against capitalism and for democracy and communism.