Fighting for Marxism
Communist Students member Robert Eagleton outlines the platform he is standing on for the National Union of Students ‘Block of 15’
From April 8 to 10 students from across Britain will gather in Liverpool for the annual conference of the National Union of Students. This year, comrades in Communist Students have decided to stand me as a candidate in the upcoming leadership elections. The reasoning behind this is clear: to offer conference delegates a Marxist alternative to the usual politics of the rightwing, Labour dominated, NUS bureaucracy and the drab, uninspiring ‘student trade union’ politics of economism typically put forward by various sections of the ‘Marxist’ student left. I am standing on an explicitly and unapologetically Marxist platform because the times we live in demand nothing less.
There can be no doubt that students have suffered some of the worst attacks from the current government’s austerity programme. The response of the NUS leadership has been predictably supine and cowering. The decision of Aaron Porter (NUS president from 2010-11) to condemn the 2010 occupation of the Conservative Party’s headquarters at Milbank Tower in response to the Tory decision to increase higher education tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 per year epitomises the contempt of the NUS for any form of spontaneous, radical action or ideas that challenge this (essentially state-funded) ‘union’ and its relationship to government.
The NUS would evidently rather busy itself with student surveys, secure more discounts from large corporations for its NUS Extra Card and collect signatures for its various online petitions than genuinely attempt to provide students with a radically different and inspiring way of looking at and understanding the world.
Unfortunately, the majority of the left within the student movement has tended to offer a leftwing mirror-image of this approach. The thinking here is that students can be mobilised – ‘action’ by ‘action’ – around the most minimal and basic ‘economic demands’, which – or so the story goes – is supposed to radicalise students and create the conditions whereby they can become trained fighters in the struggle to overthrow capitalism.
While economistic demands such as ‘Stop the cuts’ and the organisation of one demonstration after another can on occasion achieve limited success (as was seen when the relentless action taken by the Quebec student movement in 2012 managed to force the Canadian government to reserve its decision to increase tuition fees from $2,168 to $3,7931), it is imperative to remember that such action can only ever be defensive in nature. Whilst the achievements of the Quebec students should be admired, the fact is that Marxists should not be holding up such things as the answer or a model to follow, but using all possible means at our disposal to transform student consciousness by articulating an alternative that can challenge the logic of capital in all spheres of life.
In its most radical form, the left sees it as common sense that we should organise and establish organisations around an amorphous ‘anti-capitalism’, so as to include anarchists, Greens, Labourites, Keynesians, Scottish nationalists and so on. Predictably, the outcome of these ‘student broad front’ methods (on occasion even ‘theorised’ as reflecting the role of Karl Marx in the First International!) is that the far left tends to limit its politics to what is deemed ‘acceptable’, while the question of what we should be organising and agitating for is relegated to the background. It is telling that the biggest student broad front in this country at the moment is called the CampaignAgainst Fees and Cuts. The aim of this organisation, now dominated by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, appears to be replacing the NUS with a more leftwing and more democratic version. Its own structure even apes some of the NUS’s elaborately bureaucratic structures and sections. Indeed, there are even signs that some in this organisation – exasperated by the extremely hollowed out NUS in its present form – is flirting with a split from the NUS and looking to establish NCAFC as an alternative.2 A hopeless perspective.
The need for Marxist politics and parties is lost on such comrades, apart from as a means of feeding students into this or that sectarian manifestation of ‘Marxism’, of course. The situation in student politics, then, is depressingly similar to that in the ‘adult’ far-left organisations.
In Communist Students we have a completely different method of approaching student politics. For us, consciousness and ideas are crucial, which is why my platform raises not just fees and cuts, and calls for grants that students can actually live off, but also demands democracy in the NUS and society, principled internationalism, principled opposition to the British state’s military interventions, opposition to all forms of oppression and discrimination and so on.
For us the message is clear: it is fatuous to imagine that students are in some kind of boss-employer relationship with their universities. Students are not a class. No, the position of students in society is defined by what we might call a transitional phase in life: an increasing number are from working class backgrounds, but many are not, and even a section of those from raised in proletarian families are looking to gain the necessary skills and training to leave that way of life behind them. For us, students find themselves in an antagonistic relationship to the state: not simply in the most naked form when cops intervene on campus or attack student demonstrations, but also in the sense of their day-to-day dealings with the university authorities. This is why only a student movement armed with revolutionary working class politics can properly address and combat the remodelling of higher education in the interests of capital, as well as the numerous other government-led attacks student face.
Readers may now be thinking, ‘What would a Marxist do on the NUS leadership?’ The answer to this, you’ll be glad to hear, is not to water down our politics, but to expose the failures of the bureaucracy, whilst simultaneously acting as a rallying point for all Marxists in the NUS to unite around.
At the moment the politics of Marxism within the student movement are utterly marginal, which is why my election to the NUS national executive council will give Communist Students (and the politics we hold to be true) more prominence. It could potentially represent a very small step forward in uniting our movement around the politics that it needs. In our platform we call for an “EU-wide struggle against capitalist austerity” because austerity cannot be defeated in Britain alone. We also demand that the NUS reduce the £100,000-per-year salary currently paid to its chief executive,3 as well as that of its other staff, to the level of an average skilled worker. The fact the NUS finds the money to fund its excessively expensive and unelected chief executive at a time when only £5,000 per year is spent by the NUS on both international and postgraduate campaigns, and the average student leaves higher education with around £50,000 worth of debt, is disgusting.
We in Communist Students have also been consistent in our calls for the election of all full-timers/officers employed by the NUS and the abolition of the specific officer roles on the NUS leadership, such as president and vice-president of further education, in favour of their replacement by a full non-portfolio executive elected by single transferable vote at every conference. It should be up to the executive itself to allocate the various responsibilities. If elected to the NEC, I would try to initiate solidarity campaigns through encouraging affiliation to and cooperation with organisations such as Hands Off the People of Iran.
We have no illusions that the national conference will be anything other than a hollowed out, rubber-stamping ratifying body with no time to seriously debate motions or amendments. We will raise the £200 (!) necessary to run a stall on April 8 to loudly proclaim these basic points.
If you happen to be delegate to the NUS conference this year then seriously consider voting for me and Communist Students as a step towards building a vibrant, militant, thinking student movement informed by Marxism.
Below is a list of the demands contained in my manifesto:
- Abolish tuition fees.
- A living grant based on what students actually need to live a full and rounded life; not what capital says it can afford.
- Support and pay for students who are parents.
- Abolish the direct election of NUS officers. The whole executive should be elected by STV at conference (apart from the representatives elected by the liberation campaigns). The NEC should then elect its officers from its own number. They must be accountable to, and recallable by, the executive – which in turn must be far more accountable to the membership.
- Salaried officials and anybody employed by the NUS should receive no more than the wage of an average skilled worker.
- For full transparency in all NUS matters, especially dealings with government ministers and commercial concerns. Open the books.
- For genuine democracy in society: for annual parliaments and representatives on a workers’ wage, for proportional representation. Abolish the standing army, the monarchy and the House of Lords.
- Opposition to all British imperialism’s military interventions, occupations and sanctions. For international working class solidarity against war and repression.
- For an EU-wide struggle against capitalist austerity.
- For open borders: no human is illegal!
- Stop criminalising youth: legalise all drugs. For the provision of non-moralistic sexual education and counselling services for youth.
- Free, 24-hour childcare for all.
- Free contraception and abortion on demand.
- Protect the rights of individuals to enter into any consensual sexual relationships of their choice.
- Equal opportunities for same-sex couples wishing to adopt.
If you would like to find out more about my campaign please visit either www.communiststudents.org.uk or www.vote4rob.co.uk To send messages of support, or even help cover the costs of CS intervening at the conference, please email firstname.lastname@example.org