Student movement needs organisation- and ideas
One year after breaking into the lobby of Tory HQ at Millbank, on November 9 students marched through London again, the central themes being tuition fees, soaring youth unemployment and the restructuring of higher education.
Attendance was around 8,000-10,000 (though police estimates put it at much less), significantly lower than last year. This should be expected with the National Union of Students’ lack of any real mobilisation for the demonstration and the left’s lack of strategy. Most of the building and careful planning for the day had been on the part of the police, who mustered horses, dogs, at least three helicopters and thousands of officers – it seems that even in these times of austerity no expense is spared when it comes to putting on a show of intimidation.
The Met had spent the week before November 9 warning that baton rounds and rubber bullets had been authorised in an attempt to appear tough on public order (although this may have backfired in terms of the press coverage). Despite the provocative policing, however, there were relatively few disturbances on the day – there were a small number of arrests when a group broke off to set up camp in Trafalgar Square, which the police deemed illegal.
As the march proceeded along The Strand towards the City, morale was boosted by a display of solidarity from construction workers, who signalled their support from the scaffolding of a building site. There were cheers and applause, as the chant went up: “Students and workers, unite and fight!” There were more expressions of mutual solidarity, as the march passed by a group of electricians, engaged in a struggle against employers who want to drastically slash their wages. Some of them had been at the wrong end of a police kettle and vicious assault a few days earlier.
We then found themselves diverted away from St Pauls and onto an alternative route to the Moorgate campus of London Metropolitan University, one of the hardest hit by the cuts of any university in the country. As the end point was reached, the police, who had surrounded us from the start, closed in briefly before protestors filtered away either to join the Occupy squatters or make their way home.
The problem for the student left now is how to avoid a situation where in a year’s time, after the government has forced yet more marketisation down our throats and we are still just as divided, there are only 5,000 on the streets protesting. Waiting for objective conditions to create some sort of spontaneous uprising is absolutely no strategy at all. The battle against the hike in fees and scrapping of the education maintenance allowance was lost last year, but we still have to fight a rearguard battle against further attacks. But most of all we need to inspire students not just with a vision of a better education, but of a better future.
There is a vast discontent with the current order, sparked by a system that is patently failing. This has translated into a yearning for an alternative, including on campus. It is down to the revolutionary left to demonstrate that the Marxist alternative is the only viable one and to mobilise students around that. However, much of the left views the student movement as analogous to the trade union movement, and believes that their job is primarily to ensure that students unite around fees, rents and so on. The problem with this is that, unlike workers, students do not have a common class interest and in fact are not divided from their university and college administrations by antagonistic class interests. As a result student militancy tends to be episodic and inconsistent.
Higher education is driven by ideas and it is in this area that revolutionaries ought to concentrate. We need to win as many as possible from the individualistic path of merely purchasing the training necessary to pursue a career towards the hugely more ambitious aim of uniting in order to create a world fit to live in through the struggle for human emancipation – the logic of the class struggle against capitalism.
But how can this be done if the rival groups aim merely to recruit to their own particular sect? Unity is an absolute necessity and it means more than simply marching alongside each other for one afternoon. It means building an organisation together, fighting alongside each other, engaging in debate and working out a strategy and programme to bring down this wretched system.
The left often talks about how the cuts ‘must’ be fought, whilst the actions of the groups suggest that we lack any idea of the gravity of the situation. Without meaningful unity the capitalist class will succeed in making the majority pay for the economic crisis. If their attacks are successful (and in higher education many have already been implemented) they will set back our movement for generations to come. And they will ensure that education remains a commodity bought by the few in order to acquire greater earning power.