Oasis between bible groups
Communists on campus are still swimming against the tide, reports Ben Lewis
The annual start-of-the-year freshers’ fairs, where students new and old get a glimpse of some of the weird and wonderful societies, clubs and associations they can get involved in at university, provide a decent opportunity for the scattered forces of the far left to attempt to recruit a new generation of activists. In fact this routine is a rather important one, in that the relative free time enjoyed by students ensures that they often form a solid layer of a group’s cadre who put in much of the hard yards on stalls, in campaigns and so on. Communist Students was, as usual, present at the fairs as much as possible, handing out our shiny new, 16-page issue of Communist Student.1
Having quite a few years of student politics – and many fairs across the country! – behind me, I found it interesting to see just how the freshers’ fair itself has changed, in line with the ‘student experience’ more generally over the past period. Back in the days of the anti-war movement in 2003, the left in Sheffield would basically set up a stall wherever it could find a place on campus and simply get on with the business of distributing socialist propaganda. This was on occasion rather chaotic and led to some (often quite bizarre) sectarian squabbles between the groups, but it was generally useful and good fun.
How things have changed. Just a few minutes after we arrived on the concourse with our materials, university security politely ushered CS comrades off the main university square onto the surrounding streets. This was not necessarily because the security guards took umbrage at the CS front cover (Lenin exclaiming, “Welcome to university”!) but because things have become so tightly policed on campus. If you are not an already established society, then you are not officially allowed to be on campus to hand out your material. Simple as that. In other student unions a stall can set you back hundreds of pounds: fine for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, but a big ask for either CS or a ‘Hands Off Our NHS’ campaign.
Being forced off campus, along with other non-societies or companies unwilling or unable to buy a seat at the table, led CS comrades in Sheffield into some quite bizarre experiences last week. On one day we were sandwiched between groups handing out “free study bibles” and on another we were set up next to a veritable human gauntlet of competing takeaway restaurants, gyms, night clubs (those publicising the notorious ‘school disco’ night took much interest in CS and wondered aloud as to whether handing out flyers encouraging students to dress as naughty schoolboys/girls was quite as serious by comparison). All in all, this mass of commercial advertising, combined with the sheer amount of religious or religious-influenced societies and organisations on campus, is in many ways reflective of where university life is at the moment.
So how did students react to being handed literature which bears the hammer and sickle? Based on my experience, and what is obviously a very small sample, I think it is possible to detect a very slight shift in students’ reaction to what is probably their first ever encounter with the revolutionary left. You certainly get a lot less of the ‘Piss off to Russia/China’-type response. The majority, of course, are largely indifferent. Some look distinctly uncomfortable as they pass you, yet only a very small number are mocking or hostile. Quite a few are curious and say, “I’ll take a look”, and a handful of them will go out of their way to take the publication, stop for a chat and give you their details. Let us be clear: the dynamic of student politics, as that of society as a whole, is not exactly driving towards the left and its ideas, and as such it is still heartening to hear people say, ‘I’m a communist – I’ll take that’. As one self-proclaimed Trotskyist student put it to me in an email following our long chat on campus, coming across people handing out communist literature was “like finding an oasis sandwiched between the bible groups”.
So, yes, there is a small but significant layer of those in higher education who clearly are looking for radical politics in this formative period of their lives. Yet this is where we on the radical left are obviously failing: not only is the proliferation of different, competing organisations a sad indictment of the current balance of forces (something invariably pointed out by many who took home a copy of Communist Student), but what much of the left has to say is either uninspiring and uninspired (cuts are bad, tuition fees are unfair) or hyperbolic and delusional (‘Join the socialists!’, etc). This is inseparable from the infamous ‘revolving door’ scenario, where many students are already burnt out and exasperated by radical politics before they graduate. As such, in our publication we in CS attempted to try and deal with these issues head on and to hammer home our basic message – that in order to go forward the workers’ movement needs to be radically rebuilt on the inspiring, yet eminently practical, politics of Marxist partyism, internationalism, democracy and working class independence. There is a crying need for these politics and the small but dedicated forces of CS have much to contribute to the student movement.
We are starting from very modest foundations, but we believe that our unflinching principles – especially against the backdrop of a left that is increasingly discarding such principles – can have a positive impact on the movement as a whole. We have made a good start in making contacts and plans for the coming term – particularly in Birmingham and Sheffield. In Birmingham, CS member Robert Eagleton will be standing for election as first year guild councillor and a delegate to the National Union of Students conference. While neither of these positions is massively exciting, the campaign will allow us an electoral platform to openly stand for communist ideas. In Sheffield we are working with members of the local Left Unity branch to establish a student society which can hold regular meetings, discussions, seminars, reading groups and socials, seeking to take a lead in the struggle to unite the left on a principled basis.
If you would like to find out more about the organisation or be added to our weekly email list, then either write firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text 07717 433432.
1. Available to download athttp://communiststudents.org.uk/welcome-to-university.