The student movement: a year on

Cat Rylance on the tumultuous protests that shook British society last year

Beyond defensive manoeuvres

Around this time last year, school, college and university students were preparing for the opening blow of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat attacks on public services. These attacks were met with a level of resistance not seen for decades. Walkouts, occupations and mass demonstrations mobilised hundreds of thousands. The strength of our actions was clear. The movement radicalised thousands of people who had never been involved in political struggle before and won strong levels of public support. The boldness and energy of the movement stands as an inspiration to those other sections of society now readying themselves to defend their living standards.

But the movement has its weaknesses too. We failed to repel this first wave of cuts and – if we are to stand any chance of defeating those that are coming next, if we are to reverse those already implemented, if we are to turn this defensive struggle into a fight for an idea of a decent life which goes beyond the narrow strictures of our seemingly pre-cut lives under capitalism – then we have to ask ourselves why we didn’t succeed.

There are probably as many different answers to this question as there are political forces and tendencies represented in the student movement. But from the average careerist student union bureaucrat, through the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), all the way to the ‘autonomous’ campus groups there is a kind of negative consensus that the problem is not to do with the level of radical politics and ideas in the movement.

The movement was, at times (and much to the distress of many of the forces named above), a space in which we could discuss our strategic approach. Initially the idea was that to be successful the main thing was to keep our organisations ‘broad’ – the point being to unite as many students in action as possible and to avoid ‘alienating them’ by bringing radical politics into the movement. This was the policy of the National Union of Students (NUS) and local student unions, and, in groups in which they dominated, a profound sectionalism developed – not only would we not discuss other education issues beyond cuts, but our ‘anti-cuts’ meant only anti-education cuts. Ie, we were saying very little about very little.

This idea of keeping it broad was also endorsed in a strange way by some socialists who came to see the importance of unity in action as being in opposition to political agitation by socialists. At its worst, this led to the SWP arguing against raising the demand for free education – a position that was actually far to the right of the majority of students entering into struggle.

As the student struggle grew in both size and militancy, the NUS’s condemnation of more radical actions, such as the events at Millbank, exposed it as a force that was incapable of defending students and their interests. This lead to the emergence of a second major debate, albeit one which had not broken from the framework of the first. An activist tradition which took a particular lesson from the failures of the anti-war movement dominated this act. Two million people on a peaceful march could not stop the war in Iraq and this proved, to them, the redundancy of ‘traditional’ methods of struggle. For these people, the problem lay not in the inadequate politics of that movement per se, but in the insufficiently radical and imaginative action we were taking. This, they say, was because we were constricted by our attachment to official structures like the NUS. Organisation, from this perspective, tends inevitably towards hierarchy and bureaucracy, acting as a dampening force on the spontaneity and militancy of the grassroots.

We in Communist Students locate the weaknesses of the student and the workers’ movement precisely in the lack of organisation of our side, in the absence of a united revolutionary organisation that can win the mass of students to its banner and provide a genuine, viable alternative to the mind-numbingly narrow outlook of groups like the NUS. We should not buy into the NUS logic of a narrow focus on ‘student issues’, but should bring big politics and inspirational ideas into the movement for those seeking them: ideas about what it means to be a student, about how we are ruled, about what austerity says about the nature of our epoch etc.

We are under no illusions that the fees would have been defeated – even if we had overcome our disunity. Yet the student movement would now be in a much better position to further fan the flames of militancy and to spread the inspirational ideas and outlook of Marxism across society as a whole. As such, SWP verbiage about “What parliament did, the streets can undo” is nothing but cynical nonsense to pick up a few newly radicalised recruits. It certainly does not amount to any sort of strategy.

We are clear that any organisational structure or state form can be corrupted; that is why Marxists must emphasise the need for democracy, accountability, and open political debate as a way to clarify political differences and to keep us thinking on our feet. We understand that many turn away from the necessity of organisation and democracy in reaction to the enormous levels of bureaucratisation at all levels of our movement. But the answer is democratisation, debate and politics. Attempting to avoid difficult or controversial political questions in the name of a lowest common denominator unity will one day come back to bite us in the backside.

Marxism may still have a bad reputation, but its radical core shines out even under the muck of Stalinism. Instead of ephemeral alliances with the right and vacuous posturing to the left, it provides the best basis for a student movement that can win.

First published in CS magazine Issue 11.

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