The Green road to free education?
Communist Students were out for Wednesday’s Free Education demo, Callum Williamson reports on the event and the need for the left to come up with a strategy for quiet times
Considering the betrayal of the NUS bureaucracy (which it is alleged, actually called around Students Unions to discourage mobilising for the event after dropping its initial support for a march) there was a decent turnout at the demonstration on Wednesday November 19. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) put the turnout at 10,000 (perhaps a slight over-estimate but I found it difficult to judge the numbers myself) which all things considered is not terrible. Although the handful of arrests which were made have dominated much of the coverage of the event in the bourgeois press, the march was definitely one of the most relaxed student protests I have attended. All in all this was a standard march of the student left.
The Greens were prominent at the rally organised by NCAFC outside parliament. Their first speaker talked of ‘inter-generational robbery’ (because its obviously old folks who are the problem) and the need to ‘take back’ higher education. A student representative from the movement in Mexico came with well-received messages of solidarity and spoke on the deadly struggle they are engaged in with the Mexican state. Labour MP Diane Abbot reiterated what previous speakers had said about ensuring equality of opportunity and said that if she were Mayor of London she would bring back the Educational Maintenance Allowance. Green MP Caroline Lucas was met with the loudest cheers, pledging that the greens would implement a new tax on the top 4% of businesses to fund free higher education. Green leader Natalie Bennett took to the stage to again voice support for free education and attack UKIP for “racist scapegoating” in the wake of the economic crisis. Left Unity’s Kate Hudson, speaking on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, spoke of how the government could find the money for war and nuclear weapons but somehow not universities.
From the reception the Green party’s representatives received it is clear many students have hopes in them and what they could do for young people and ‘social justice’. The Green’s record in power in Brighton and their dispute with the refuse workers demonstrates that, like any party which tries to administer capitalism, locally or nationally, this will push them into confrontation with the working class. Their lack of orientation towards the working class makes it all the easier for them to become the new Liberal Democrats if they got near power (i.e. abandon entirely the ‘progressive’ elements of the platform on which they stood). However for the sake of argument lets take them at their word and ask whether there is a Green road to free education. The state is indeed capable of funding free education but the marketization reforms in higher education are an attempt to remodel the educations system in order for it to better serve the capitalist class (providing research, a source of profit and skilled labour). Whilst the capitalist system remains gains like free education are always at risk and the education system will have to serve the needs of capital. The fight against the influence of capital in higher education cannot be separated from the struggle to replace capitalism. It is likely, with the Greens’ popularity increasing in wider society, that more and more students will give them their support. The nostalgia for social-democracy that the far-left often encourages helps create an environment in which the Greens (who benefit from having an MP, a larger membership than any one of the socialist parties and at least some mainstream media coverage) benefit. We have to make the argument for socialism and class politics.
Whilst demonstrations like those in 2010 can be inspiring, the student left must stop treating protest as an end in itself. The hard truth is that the student movement, the workers movement and the left have suffered defeat after defeat in recent decades despite determined resistance. The left (on campus and in wider society) lacks any real strategy and refuses to learn the right lessons from each set back. Simply mobilising in response to attacks by employers and the state, in each instance pretending to themselves and those around them that short-term victory is possible, is not working. Unity built around opposition (which is doubtless very broad) to specific measures (e.g. fees and cuts), which has been the approach of the far left, has produced large demonstrations and occupations but not victories. We cannot content ourselves with organising marches and hoping the momentum builds. Clearly this will not always be the case and the student resistance has ebbed since 2010. Obviously Communist Students supports the resistance of the student movement, including the upcoming days of action in December which are particularly important given the clampdown on dissent of campuses that has accompanied marketization, but we have to go beyond resistance. We need a strategy for quiet times, when momentum is not building. First of all we need to build the democratic unity of the existing forces of the far left around a programme for the replacement of capitalism by socialism. This will take time and necessitates open debate and being honest about our disagreements. It is patient building and a willingness to talk about big ideas, not just tuition fees and EMA, that will allow the revolutionary left to become a serious force in society that can win victories and concessions from the capitalist class and their state. This is not an easy task, it is all the harder when many Marxists spend their time peddling reformist politics, but it is absolutely necessary.