Demo2012: time to get real

Callum Williamson reports on a demo which showcased the weaknesses of both right and left in the student movement

Whilst the student demonstration on Wednesday November 21 did not exactly shake national politics, it was the scene of a political struggle between elements of the student left (led to some extent by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) and the careerist bureaucracy of the National Union of Students.

Most of the media has reported that around 10,000 students were there – as part of either the main procession or the NCAFC feeder march. The route, a subject of controversy beforehand, avoided buildings of political significance and proceeded down almost empty streets, as it meandered away from central London south of the river Thames. The rally in Kennington Park did not go as the NUS would have hoped. President Liam Burns was heckled and forced to leave the stage. Liam will be counting on a continued ebbing of the student movement, the active elements of which are beginning to show their disillusionment. Unless there is a significant resurgence in political activity on campus, and the students see their supposed leadership as a fetter upon their struggle, he will avoid the fate of Aaron Porter, who was barracked during the 2011 protests and subsequently declined to stand for re-election as NUS president.

An article on the NUS website entitled ‘Demo 2012 – what’s next?’ gives an outline of NUS plans for 2013 and attempts to offer a narrative to students who were probably asking themselves what the point of ‘Demo 2012’ was. This excerpt reads like the PR material of a faceless corporation: “The demo should act as the beginning, and at NUS we’ve been busy putting together a calendar of campaigns for students to get involved in.”

Students are invited to enter student politics on the terms of the NUS leadership, within the parameters of events and campaigns they have organised and control. The events listed include “shareholder activism training” (if only the capitalist class understood the importance of responsible investment!) and a national constituency lobby (a bankrupt tactic adopted by successive NUS leaderships as a substitute for serious collective action) for January in protest against reforms in further education for adults. The NUS claimed the march was about setting the higher education agenda, but it is clear the leadership is looking to return to business as usual.

NCAFC is more and more trying to assert itself as a rival to the NUS bureaucracy. Its supporters marched under the slogan encouraging reformist illusions – “Tax the rich to fund education” – that was adopted at the NUS conference, but was later dropped by the leadership. Like much of the student left, NCAFC is taking hope from the victory of students in Quebec, led by a leftwing student union, against a proposed fees hike. The problem is that without a proper understanding of why that struggle was successful, the wrong lessons are learned and it becomes a justification for the student left to continue what it has been doing for years, but simply trying to be louder and more ‘militant’.

An alternative to the treachery of the NUS leadership, on the one hand, and the endless, fruitless ‘actions’ of the left, on the other, is needed. Patient building and education is what is required in what looks likely to be a period of reduced activity. The student movement needs to get itself into a shape where it can actually resist future attacks and go onto the offensive. Democratisation and politicisation will be key.

The forces driving the changes within higher education today can only be understood through an analysis of capitalist development and the power of capital within society. The fight around education must be one that raises the question of who should own and control it; and one which is based on the assertion that the key task of revolutionary students in universities is to fight the influence of capital within these institutions. The unity of revolutionaries on campus would be an important step in this direction.

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