Apolitical wrangle ends short-lived unity

Laurie Smith reports on a split in the student anti-cuts movement. (first published in the Weekly Worker)

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Workers Power have vied for influence in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) since its formation over a year ago, but their tense marriage of convenience appears to have come to an end.

The left all want unity. Just without the rest of the left.

As well as the two Trotskyist groups, at its founding conference in February 2010 NCAFC also had a fair number of independent activists and student union officers, anarchists and others, and was a step forward organisationally from the many ‘rainbow coalitions’ or ‘broad fronts’ which were in reality treated as the property of a single group – Education Not for Sale (AWL), Education Activist Network (SWP) and Student Broad Left (Socialist Action). Communist Students welcomed this small step toward unity of the student left. But neither WP nor the AWL had a vision of working towards the unity of Marxists, as Marxists. They seemed content, in public anyway, to limit their politics to what was ‘realistic’. This was acceptable to the independents, many of whom regarded Marxism as old hat, or had been successfully inured to it by the left’s dogmatism and control-freakery. But maintaining even a loose ’n’ broad unity against cuts to education has proved impossible.

The current spat began when AWL members announced a ‘reinvigoration’ conference of NCAFC for June 4 in Birmingham.[1]
The not quite unilateral call was also supported by some local anti-cuts groups, but the manner in which it had appeared on the website, effectively as a fait accompli, was sufficiently underhand to provoke fury from both Workers Power and the leading independents in NCAFC. Members of the AWL were at a London meeting of NCAFC two days before they put out the call, but made no mention of it there – or on the group’s e-list – until after it had been announced. The date also fell in the middle of many students’ exams or holidays. Evidently, the hard work of some AWL members for NCAFC had not been entirely sincere – having built up some sympathisers around them in the north, it was pretty transparently attempting to pull a fast one and recreate NCAFC as a group under its own hegemony, where it could fish for recruits to its own peculiar brand of social-imperialist ‘Marxism’ without awkward and potentially embarrassing competitors around. What a narrow and really quite patronising view of politics!

For many newer activists not familiar with the sectarian approach of the left, the conference no doubt sounded reasonable. The manner in which it was conceived and the ensuing backlash on the group’s email list would not have reached them; and, ironically perhaps, NCAFC’s very lack of an accountable leadership (which would be, like, way too hierarchical and authoritarian, man) made this sort of manoeuvring much easier. Once it became clear that the conference had achieved a momentum of its own online and was getting support from quite a few local groups, leading NCAFCers, rather than oppose it, insisted that it should not elect a leadership body, as the AWL planned, and should not be able to overturn NCAFC policy adopted at previous conferences. Workers’ Liberty comrades initially agreed to this compromise, before going back on their word at the conference itself.

The committee elected is about one third AWL members, with the rest being independents. Some Workers Power members did attend the conference, but, churlishly perhaps, refused to stand for the committee because of the way the conference had been set up.[2] The contributions of some of the new faces on the e-list make it clear that they were primed to believe that NCAFC had been run in a top-down fashion by a London clique, and to regard all criticism of the conference as sectarian and unfair attacks on the AWL.

Several leading figures (three Workers Power members, and three independent union officers) posted an open letter about their “grave concerns” about the conference.[3] This was initially deleted from the NCAFC website, the AWL evidently having realised that without accountable leadership it is those with the admin rights who wield the real power. It was not long before the letter was reposted elsewhere on the web, and the AWL eventually caved in, allowing it to remain on the NCAFC site. It is hardly surprising that most independents have been dismayed at the argument, which has appeared apolitical, with each accusing the other of power-grabbing and engaging in games of numbers and ‘who said what, when’.

Given that on the surface (and in reality) both of the groups at the centre of this fight have the same political approach to NCAFC, bemusement can be readily understood. Some of the new additions to the e-list have immediately asked to be removed after finding their inboxes full of claims and counter-claims going on for pages. A special mention must go to one independent and union officer, who proved that a lust for power is not just a Trotskyist trait, when he called on the new committee to coopt some London members of the old committee (which he was on), so that ‘core activists’ could be “re-included with the minimum of fuss”. In other words, compounding the democratic failings of the conference with backroom deals.

It was never going to be a clean break for the AWL, and Workers Power has not exactly burnished itself with glory either – sending adverts for the WP summer camp from NCAFC email addresses and using the organisation’s logo, in what is perhaps a final two fingers up to its rivals.

Lack of politics

Differences over dogma aside, the AWL and WP approach to student politics is basically the same. We need to create broad coalitions over free education, not bang on about Marxism too much, and ‘build the movement’. Both are ostensibly in favour of unity of the student left around such basic demands.

So what’s the beef? What has been striking about the statements published by the AWL and WP on the matter is their complete lack of politics. Their main point of difference, on imperialism, has not been discussed since the first conference and does not appear to have played a role in this bust-up. Needless to say, the AWL-written platform for the June 4 conference made reference to “international solidarity”, but took no line against the presence of imperialist troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Just maybe, the AWL could simply no longer stomach being part of an organisation which had anti-imperialism (part of the political ABC for pretty much everyone else on the British left) as part of its platform. But this commitment was never a big part of NCAFC’s activism, and the original policy document has not been on the website for some time. For its part, WP never seemed to have a problem keeping quiet over the matter, though many would have been sympathetic if it had decided it could no longer work with the pro-imperialist AWL.

But rather than a principled split, or even an unprincipled one, when one looks behind the claims and counter-claims, what this ruction reveals is sectarianism pure and simple: putting short-term gain for one’s own group ahead of the interests of the class as a whole. In this case, the interests of the AWL in picking up some new members. And Workers Power, in fairness, have the same fundamental approach to student work. As the practice of British Trotskyism has become incredibly cynical and opportunistic – a self-reinforcing product of the left’s weakness – ‘theory’ has had to follow suit. And what the AWL and WP share with the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, etc, is a narrow and manipulative view of what the working class is capable of politically. I have had it explained to me by representatives of various groups that the differences on the left are principled and unity is impossible; all we can do is wait for the inevitable crisis of capitalism; whatever group takes the right lines or are the best fighters at this point will win the support of the masses.

From this perspective then, the only important thing is to try and induct as many people as possible into your group in the hope that you will be in pole position when it all kicks off. The idea of patiently building a mass party with millions of active, thinking, debating members, (as the Bolsheviks or Germany’s SPD once were – no, really, comrades), and of revolution being the conscious act of the working class itself, becomes something like a joke, or a pipe dream at best.

Embarrassing, but not a disaster

The student movement is currently in a trough – at precisely the time when we need to be strengthening it – politically, organisationally – for its inevitable reappearance, as the cuts hit harder and faster. Unfortunate, then, that some groups have instead seen the lull as a period for manoeuvring; continuing to think only of sect advantage and not what the working class needs to defend itself.

While Communist Students warned that the fragile unity achieved between WP and AWL students in NCAFC would not last, we have no desire to gloat. Such apolitical, sectarian warfare makes us all look bad, and makes it that much harder to win people to the Marxist vision of universal human liberation through working class revolution. Independent activists who glowingly approved when these groups ditched their own politics, ostensibly for the sake of unity, should consider after recent events whether this denial is in fact a deliberate part of their manipulative approach (and why it is that our fellow Marxists get most riled when CS members raise the topic of … Marxism). In fact, the political opportunism and organisational sectarianism of the left are just two sides of the same coin: a narrow, hidebound vision of politics.

The tussle over the NCAFC name, which may yet become a split, or see the walkout of WP, is not a disaster though. NCAFC never provided the space which students need to debate ideas and strategy; politically it has not offered anything substantially different from the SWP, suffering from the same monomaniacal focus on ‘action, action, action’ – albeit ‘non-hierarchical’ action.

There always was, and remains, the possibility that NCAFC will simply be superseded by a larger and more representative organisation thrown up in the course of struggle – fine. If a genuine, mass united front against cuts to education comes about, that would be a big step forward.


  1. anticuts.com/2011/05/05/ncafc-reinvigoration-conference-birmingham-4-june
  2. www.socialistrevolution.org/2761/ncafc-reinvigoration-5-june-statement
  3. anticuts.com/2011/06/09/open-letter-grave-concerns-over-ncafc-5-june-conference-3

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