Student activism and the role of MarxistsApril 10, 2013
by Adam Booth (10th April 2013)
It has been a busy period within student politics over the past few months as students from across the political spectrum have campaigned for positions within student unions, culminating in the NUS conference this week. In some areas, left-wing candidates have been victorious; in other places, more right-wing candidates have won (often under the banner of being “politically neutral” or “apolitical”). These campaigns provide a decent backdrop for the second article in our series on the student movement, in which we analyse the broader question of student activism and the role of the Marxists.
On a personal note, this year marks an important turning point for the author of this article. After eight years of being a student – four years spent doing an undergraduate degree and almost four more working in postgraduate research – I am soon to end my time at university. Seven of these years were spent as an active Marxist involved in the student movement at Cambridge University and as a supporter of Socialist Appeal.
Involvement in the student movement is for most, however, limited to only a few years. This relatively rapid turnaround within universities has both a positive and a negative effect on the student movement. On the one hand, the fresh layer of new students that start university every year provides a constant stream of young people who have no experience of defeats and who are open to radical and revolutionary ideas, serving to renew and reinvigorate the student movement.
On the other hand, however, this turnaround also generates a discontinuity within the student movement. The lack of experience of defeats also means that the student movement is constantly having to relearn the lessons that previous generations have gone through. This problem becomes more noticeable to those who do stay on at university for longer periods; similar tactics are tried by successive waves of students, but without any experience of the outcome of previous attempts.
This problem is not, of course, unique to the student movement. The ranks of the working class are constantly being renewed with fresh layers of workers, most of whom only learn the necessity of organisation and action through their own experiences. Through the process of the class struggle, new sections of the working class become unionised and take strike action in defence of their conditions. From the fight for partial reforms and victories, workers become conscious of the need for a wider transformation of society and of their own power.
In this respect, the role of a revolutionary organisation is often referred to as being the historical memory of the class struggle. George Santayana, the American philosopher, stated that “he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” This is very true; but the memory of an individual has its limits. The task of a revolutionary organisation is to act as a collective memory, drawing on the lessons of all past struggles and movements, and generalising this experience. This is what is meant by “theory” in a Marxist sense – the generalised experience and lessons of the past, which must be applied to the concrete conditions of a given particular situation today in order to determine the best course of action.
Research students in university are taught that before conducting any original research, they must first conduct a literature review, so that they are building on the collective experience of previous generations, starting from the highest point of human knowledge and standing on the shoulders of giants. Any student who arrogantly decided to ignore previous literature would very quickly realise that they were wasting time in pursuing activities already proven to be fruitless and would likely give up altogether in frustration.
But many well-meaning activists do not take the same methodical approach in relation to the student movement as they would in their own studies. Too often in the student movement, there is a tendency amongst activists to believe that history begins and ends with them. Rather than learn from the lessons of the past and work to build a base of educated activists who can argue confidently for socialist ideas, many enthusiastic and radicalised students try to seek immediate change. Rather than patiently building up a base of support over a number of years for socialist ideas amongst the wider population of students, many activists become frustrated and seek shortcuts.
Such a mentality is understandable: as mentioned previously, most students are only at university for a limited period of time, and would like to see a tangible change during their time there. In addition, the nature of university life – with its dynamic environment that allows young people to come into contact with new ideas, not to mention the increasingly difficult conditions that students face in relation to fees, jobs, and housing – engenders the development of radical ideas amongst students. (It is for good reason that students are often referred to as a “barometer” for the pressures in society.)
When it comes to changing society, however, there can be no shortcuts. Any attempt to circumvent the necessary task of winning over the masses to socialist ideas will inevitably end up in either opportunism or ultra-left sectarianism. Rome wasn’t built in a day and trying to artificially create mass change on an individual or small-scale basis in the limited years that one has at university is a proverbial cul-de-sac. The intentions of such individuals and small groups are, of course, always for the best; but as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
From my time at university I have seen many examples of this – promising activists who reach radical conclusions quickly, but who then fail to understand how to connect with the mass of students. The end result is normally one of two outcomes: either the persons concerned attempt to win political positions – without first winning any base of support – and become demoralised when they lose; or the activists involved increasingly distance themselves from the mass of students through a process of “radical” actions, again without putting in the necessary groundwork to win over the majority of people to the need for such radicalism. In either case, the likely result is demoralisation and isolation from the mass of students.
Long term work
As Marxists, of course we wish to see a change – we wish to radically transform society! But we must always have a sense of proportion and understand that as individuals or small groups, we can achieve very little. Importantly, we must also understand that it is not the propaganda or the actions of us as individuals that will cause the mass of students to become radicalised and take action. The 50,000 students who protested in the mass demonstration of November 2010 did not turn up because of any reading of Marx or Lenin, nor simply because of the efforts of existing activists. Rather, such mass movements are the result of objective conditions – the hammer blow of events such as rising fees and vicious cuts, and the effect of these events on the consciousness of ordinary people. Again, any attempts to artificially create such radicalised consciousness through individual actions – substituting the activity of an individual or small group for the participation and movement of masses – will inevitably lead to isolation and demoralisation.
The task of socialists and Marxists in the student movement, therefore, must be a more long term one of building a base in university campuses and winning support for socialist ideas. Such a project will, in many cases, take longer than the university lifetime of any individual. But by building a solid base of activists who are educated in Marxist ideas and the lessons of previous struggles, a collective, historical memory can be built up, preparing the ground for the ability to make a decisive impact and play a leading role in the struggles to come.
Building up the educated activists – the “cadres” – who are trained in Marxist theory and how to apply it to a given concrete situation is the primary task of a revolutionary organisation in most periods of history. In turn, the tasks of these cadres is, in the words of Lenin, to “patiently explain” – to intervene in the struggles of their workplace or university campus and link the particular demands for certain reforms to the general need to fight for socialism. Over time, through consistently putting forward a correct analysis of events and a programme of action, Marxists can win the trust and respect of those around them. This is the real meaning of leadership – winning political authority by winning the political argument. Leadership is earned, not simply declared.
By patiently building and intervening over a longer period of time, Marxists can place themselves in a position to provide this important leadership when the larger movements break out. Given sufficient numbers of educated cadres, armed with the correct ideas, present at the correct time and place, and operating in the correct manner, Marxists can, in such situations, play the decisive role between success and failure.
The need for theory
It is to be applauded that energetic, radicalised students wish to be politically active and fight for a change in society. But not all forms of activity are equal. Some pursuits will be more fruitful than others, based on the objective situation and material conditions at a given place and in a given period. To draw an analogy with the physical world: the energy contained in steam has a very large potential to create useful work, and with knowledge of thermodynamics, such energy can be turned into a powerful source of motion, movement, and electricity. But in the absence of such knowledge, and without any direction, the energy in steam will dissipate and be wasted.
In this sense, Marxist theory is not some optional extra; it is a vital tool of any revolutionary who wishes to make a change in the movement. Theory without action is sterile – this is true; but action without theory is blind. As Lenin wrote, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” In the absence of theory, there is no perspective for what is needed, and therefore no strategy for how to proceed; a proper longer-term plan of action is replaced with an empirical approach, in which one stumbles from one event to another, constantly being taken by surprise, unable to react correctly.
As Trotsky said, “theory is the advantage of foresight over astonishment.” In this respect, Marxist theory is like a compass, allowing us to orientate ourselves correctly during a stormy period when it is easy to be blown off course by turbulent events, taken in by superficial sparkles, or distracted by ephemeral trends. Theory grounds us, sets us on a steady path, and gives us an enormous sense of optimism about the future prospects for world revolution. There can be no substitute for such a powerful weapon.
The task of revolutionaries within the student movement, therefore, is not to simply be active, but to assess what activity is necessary and to build the forces that are capable of achieving such actions. This, in turn, requires political discussion regarding the objective situation facing the movement and the tasks and requirements resulting from this.
There is a tendency within the student movement – especially amongst the most advanced and radicalised layers – to become frustrated and impatient and to substitute political discussion with constant action and activity. Such direct action, without any perspective behind it, becomes simply directionless action, and can become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. This tendency is especially prevalent when the there is an ebb in the movement and the masses withdraw from activity. Again, such a situation often leads to individuals and small groups substituting their own individual actions for the activity of the masses.
Similarly, there can, in the absence of any political perspective, be a tendency to simply focus on the immediate activities and problems facing the movement, rather than formulating any longer term view of what is needed. In such situations, each battle is elevated out of all proportion in terms of its overall significance; wider political questions are pushed into the background in favour of organisation tasks; and isolated struggles against particular cuts and attacks are fought without any linking to the general picture of capitalist crisis, class struggle, and the need for an economic alternative.
Such an approach inevitably tends towards simple reformism, in which the fight for socialism is relegated to a distant point in time in favour of the immediate tasks facing the movement. In this way, it can be seen how ultra-leftism and sectarianism in terms of approach – i.e. the use of constant activity and action in isolation from the mass of students – can so frequently exist alongside reformism and opportunism in terms of political demands – i.e. trying to win elections and positions within the student movement on a watered-down programme of reformist demands that are not linked in any way to wider political questions – within the same individuals and groups of student activists.
The aim of Marxists must always be to link the particular to the general; to fight for every reform and progressive measure, but always to show how these particular struggles for reforms are linked to the general need to transform society. This is the method that Trotsky describes in the Transitional Programme, needed “to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution.”
Activity and action is vital on the part of socialists within the student movement. Indeed, a Marxist who restrained himself to mere commentary of events would be of little value. As Marx himself stated: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” But the activity of socialists within the movement must be turned outwards at all times and used to connect Marxist ideas with as broad a layer of students as possible.
Again, there is a tendency – especially at times of ebb within the movement – for student activists to turn inwards and simply discuss amongst themselves, rather than turning outwards and trying to raise consciousness and increase the politically active layer within the movement. Such inward looking groups of activists can frequently become isolated and removed from the mass of students, who are easily alienated by what appears to be simply a ‘left-clique’ of friends from the perspective of ordinary students who are outside of these groups.
The language and methods used within such groups often only serves to create a further sense of alienation for those who do try to participate and get involved: names, terms, and acronyms are used without any explanation or context; ‘in-jokes’ frequently pervade amongst the most experienced layer; and strange organisational procedures and hand-signals only act as a further barrier to participation.
Once formed, the logic of an inward-looking activist clique can serve to exacerbate the isolation of such a group. For example, rather than trying to turn outwards, involve the mass of students in decision making, and win people over to the need for direct actions – such as occupations – on a political basis, action becomes a “propaganda of the deed”, which only further serves to alienate the mass of students from such activist groups.
Marxists must always begin with the politics of the situation, and actions should flow from this political analysis. We do not uniformly advocate occupations in all situations simply for the appearance and feeling of militancy and radicalism or because we want to create a nice space in which people can discuss – i.e. “socialism in one room”. Rather, we advocate certain concrete actions in certain concrete situations where such actions can help to raise consciousness and give students a sense of their own power. In any case, we would – and must – always link any individual student occupation to the need for a wider political struggle, involving the NUS (the National Union of Students) and the broader labour movement.
Lessons from UCL
Many of these generalised lessons outlined above were shown in practice by the concrete example of the recent student union elections in the University College London Union (UCLU), where Stella Christou – Socialist Appeal supporter and founder of the UCLU Marxist Society – stood for Education and Campaigns officer.
Stella ran with the support of other members from the UCLU Marxist Society, which was only formed at the beginning of this academic year, but which has quickly become one of the largest political groups in the university, and probably the biggest left-wing organisation on campus. Stella’s campaign was openly political, not only raising demands against all fees, cuts, and privatisation – with specific reference to the particular situation of UCL and the infamous ‘Masterplan’ to open up the campus to big business – but also linking these demands to the wider need to link up with the rest of the student movement and with the labour movement, campaign for a fighting NUS, and struggle for socialist policies against Tory cuts.
The main competition for Stella came from Keir Gallagher, a left-wing candidate who was running alongside several other activists who had experience of the 2010 student movement as part of an unofficial slate. Like the others on this unofficial slate, Keir’s programme, whilst raising several good individual demands, made no attempt to link them to any wider political questions or struggles. Other demands were outright reformist. Rather than opposing fees altogether, Keir simply demanded no increase in fees; there was no mention of the need for a national movement of students or a fighting NUS; nor was there any attempt to explain how the attacks on students and education are the result of the wider economic crisis and the government’s programme of austerity. In other words, Keir and the other activists painted the picture that their suggested reforms and demands could be achieved by the isolated campaigns of the UCLU and within the confines of capitalism and its current crisis.
Of particular note is the absence of any unified position across the left-activist (unofficial) slate relating to the NUS. Surely this would be a vital question for any group of socialists within the student movement? How can anyone wanting to fight fees and education cuts not have a perspective of how the student movement nationally should proceed? These attacks on students are not being made locally, but nationally (and, in fact, internationally); a national perspective for the student movement, therefore, is vital and not of secondary importance.
And yet such a position and perspective did not exist for this group of activists. Why? It is impossible to know for definite, but from discussions with many of those running in the elections from the unofficial slate, it emerged that they did not present any demands relating to the NUS because of differences within the group over this exact question. In other words, rather than discussing the politics involved and trying to reach an agreement on how to orientate and proceed, the question was avoided for fear that it might cause debate.
In the end, this activist group won almost all of the positions they stood for. This is clearly to be welcomed by those on the left. However, one must ask: how will these activists work together in the future, in the event of an upturn in the movement? At such a point, the question of the NUS will become concrete: do we fight to change the leadership and the policies of the NUS, or do we advocate splitting the NUS and creating a radical alternative? Or should we only advocate a new NUS within certain circumstances, and if so, what circumstances would these be?
In this way, one can see how trying to improvise a position on such important questions – during a mass student movement when a position is most needed – can only lead to splits and disorientation. Surely better, therefore, to discuss these political questions in advance? Thus, it is evident that rather than creating ‘unity’ and enabling ‘action’, avoiding political discussion in the long run simply creates disunity and paralysis.
Now that these activists have won their respective elections, one must also wonder how they will achieve anything beyond the simple demands that they have mentioned during their election campaigns. How can you genuinely convince the mass of students to fight bigger struggles and campaign for broader demands when you have not raised these issues in order to get elected and therefore have no mandate? Moreover, how can you even achieve any simple reforms and demands at a time when capitalism is in crisis and cuts are being made in increasing quantity and ferocity?
This is the lesson that reformist leaders are learning internationally, including the leaders of trade unions: there is no room for reforms under capitalism. In the end, the best that such leaders can offer is a “dented shield” against the cuts, and the student union leaders will fare no better – those who imagine that they can somehow win reforms in isolation from any broader struggle will quickly find themselves helping to implement cuts.
Another important example from the UCLU elections was provided during the student union’s Annual Members’ Meeting (AMM). A very good motion was presented by members of the activist slate, calling for “No confidence in the Bloomsbury Masterplan”. Part of this motion called for the student union to support students and staff who take direct action against the Masterplan proposals. Stella and other members of the Marxist society proposed amending this aspect of the motion, suggesting that – rather than simply supporting direct action by individuals and groups – the student union should launch a sustained mass campaign against the Masterplan, involving mass meetings that raise political questions and allow the mass of students to participate in deciding on any direct action.
This amendment was argued against by those from the activist slate, who claimed that students are not interested in participating in such decisions or even in student politics in general, and that there is therefore a need for direct action by activist groups. Such an argument is full of contradictions from beginning to end, as Stella’s campaign material explained at the time, and amounts ultimately to blaming students for the lack of any movement. But the lack of involvement from ordinary students in student politics is not the fault of those students; rather, it is a reflection of the way in which, too often, student politics and student leaders do not express or represent any of the genuine needs and desires of ordinary students. It also reflects how many students feel alienated even from left-wing student politics and activism, precisely because of the cliquey, inward-looking nature of those involved in such activism.
Again, it must be emphasised that there is no use in substituting oneself for the masses. If there is not the mood amongst the mass of students for action, then it is the task of Marxists to patiently explain and build up the active forces in preparation for an upturn in the movement, not to simply surge ahead with occupations, etc. regardless of the support amongst the wider student body.
Finally, it is worth noting the frequent attempts by the activist slate during the UCLU elections to persuade Stella to step down, on the grounds that she would “split the left vote”, despite the preferential voting system making such a “split” impossible. Stella was approached on numerous occasions by members of the unofficial slate – and others from outside UCL altogether – who implored her to remove herself from the election. In addition, Stella was told by several of the activist candidates that she could have been part of the unofficial slate, if only she had approached them earlier – but how was she or anyone else to know of the existence of such a slate, given that this activist group do not hold any meetings throughout the year!
Such methods are anathema to those of revolutionaries. Trying to stitch up elections through backroom deals and carve up the political pie in the shadows is completely unprincipled and has more in common with the bureaucracy that we as socialists are fighting against than with the methods of Marxism. The role of Marxists should be to use elections as a platform from which we can raise political ideas and link the specific demands and struggles of the student movement to the wider need for socialist policies, not simply as a means by which to win positions on a non-political basis. If we can win elections whilst openly raising our ideas, then this can open the door to organising campaigns that help to put those ideas into practice; but there is little benefit to winning without the support for our actual programme.
Experiences from Cambridge
My own experiences of student activism at Cambridge University also provide many concrete examples of the general lessons explained above. I started university in 2005 as the last year that ever had to pay the lower rate of tuition fees, then at about £1,100. I only became politically active at university in my second year, helping organise activity around the Hands Off Venezuela campaign on campus.
There wasn’t a huge amount taking place in the university at that time, or at least no real mass action that I was aware of. Perhaps there were things going on that I did not know about (I vaguely recall hearing about a small occupation), but this only emphasises the nature of much of student activism, which too often revolves around small groups of friends or existing cliques and networks, and which is therefore inaccessible to the mass of students and to those who are seeking to enter political activity on campus for the first time.
The main turning point was in my fourth year in early 2009. The invasion of Gaza by Israeli troops at the turn of the year had led to a wave of university occupations and sit-ins across the country. Some other activists organised a sit-in of the Law Faculty in Cambridge quite early on in this wave of occupations, which lasted for six days. Without really knowing what to expect, I threw myself into the occupation and participated actively.
The occupation in Cambridge didn’t really go anywhere in the end. At its highpoint there were about 150 people, but this gradually dissipated to small numbers as most of time was spent in endless debates about organisational procedures and tasks, with very little political discussion or strategy for how to broaden out the movement or achieve any of our aims. Whilst the occupation didn’t lead to much in the short term, it did help to galvanise the student movement in Cambridge (and nationally). As a result, I decided to try and stay at Cambridge for longer to stay involved in the student movement that seemed be re-emerging.
In some sense, my hopes for a renaissance of the student movement were premature. A national student protest in London at the beginning of 2009 soon after the wave of occupations only attracted around 1000 people, and at the end of the academic year many of the most active people in Cambridge graduated and moved away. I quickly found myself as one of only a few people from the organised Left still around in Cambridge University and the movement seemed to be back in an ebb.
This episode again demonstrates the dangerous side of the high turnover within universities. If one does not build a solid base and actively win over new people and train them every year, then the situation can quickly change from a positive to a negative. From being in a position of strength, the active, organised Left can very easily find itself in a position of weakness.
In Cambridge, this situation was partly allowed to happen because of how the activists involved in the occupation (including myself) had orientated after the brief surge in the movement that had taken place at the beginning of 2009. In hindsight, and with the experience gained since, it is clear that we should have turned outwards and used the occupation as the beginning of a process of building a solid broad left group within the university. Even though the occupation was primarily about the invasion of Gaza and the situation of the Palestinian people, many other political issues had been raised during the occupation relating to university life and education in general, and these could have been the basis for building a broader campaign.
Instead, however, the numbers increasingly dwindled from meeting to meeting and the small group that remained active were united more by friendships and personal ties than by a desire to rebuild a political base in the university that would last beyond their remaining months as students. I was equally guilty of this as anyone else, allowing myself to be sucked into nostalgia for the occupation and the euphoria that we had felt at the time, rather than looking forward for how to build and campaign in the future.
The experience in Norwich
In the summer of 2009 I decided, with the help of Socialist Appeal supporters in Cambridge, to establish a “Marxist Discussion Group” in the university to provide a forum for exploring the broader ideas that were being raised amongst an increasingly radicalised layer of youth. The economic crisis, which had blow wide open in the autumn of 2008, had led to a full-blown recession by the following year, and many students were graduating into an increasingly competitive jobs market. People were once again openly discussing Marxist ideas in relation to the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism, and there was a general sense that youth were particularly being affected by this crisis.
Fellow Socialist Appeal supporters, who I was in contact with, had already taken the initiative in previous years of setting up similar Marxist societies at the University of London Union (ULU) and at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich. The UEA society in particular had been very successful, putting on regular meetings about Marxist theory and also on important current events, such as the mass movements that were taking place at that time in Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan, and Iran. The society would actively link up with other student societies and also with academics, such as a sympathiser from the Latin American department, and this enabled them to put on large meetings on topical issues – including over 150 people at a meeting on Venezuela – and reach out to an ever broader layer of students who were interested in socialist ideas.
The society at UEA – officially entitled the Socialist Society – was also used as a base to run campaigns on campus and in the student union. An important campaign was launched against the local private bus company, which was universally hated by students for the poor services it offered whilst charging extortionate prices, and society members intervened in the UEA union in order to get the student union affiliated to international solidarity campaigns such as Hands Off Venezuela and the Pakistani Trade Union Defence Campaign.
In addition, the UEA society was always keen to stress the need for students to intervene in the wider labour movement, and in particular in the struggles of local trade unions and workers. The society organised student solidarity for the postal workers who were out on strike, raising money through a collection and visiting the picket lines, and a film showing of Ken Loach’s “Bread and Roses” was put on to help with the local “Justice for Cleaners” campaign that was taking place at the time.
By intervening in the student union, the society members were also able to attend the Norwich trades council as delegates from UEA union. This position was used to help support a teachers’ strike that broke out in 2008, with contact made between the Socialist Society members and the leading shop stewards. Students helped leaflet for a public meeting around the issue and as a result of this work a leading member of the Socialist Society was asked to speak at the picket lines during the strike.
Importantly, the society also linked up with the local Labour Party and trade unions to host a meeting with John McDonnell, the socialist Labour MP who was standing in the Labour leadership race back in 2007. Due to the hard work of leafleting by members of the society, over 100 people came to the McDonnell meeting, and it was widely recognised by this point that the Socialist Society was by far the largest and most active political organisation at UEA.
The UEA Socialist Society had started from the initiative of a single Socialist Appeal supporter in his second year of university, but within two years had established itself as the focal point for student activism and campaigning on campus, as well as becoming an important part of the wider movement in Norwich. All of this was done at a time when there was no real national student movement to speak of. Importantly, this was also achieved as an openly socialist organisation, with no attempt to dilute down the ideas into something more “palatable”. Students were attracted by the clear analysis and presentation of Marxist theory, which was always linked in a concrete way to international events and the need for local campaigning activity within the student and labour movements.
Cambridge Marxist Discussion Group
The example of the UEA Socialist Society was the inspiration behind my attempts to found the Cambridge Marxist Discussion Group (MDG), which was launched at the freshers’ fair in October 2009, the first year of my postgraduate studies.
The response to the MDG was instantly very positive, with over 200 people signing up to the society, attracted by our term card of events, including discussions on Marxist theory, history, and current events. The society was an instant success, with around 40 people attending the first meeting and good turnouts for the rest of the year, including around a dozen people who would attend regularly – and who described the meetings as the highlight of their week!
I think the main reason behind our success with the MDG was that we were seen to be a serious group, both in terms of theory and orientation. We did not simply discuss ephemeral trends, as is often the case in the student movement, but tackled important theoretical issues. We never hid our politics or diluted our ideas to make them more palatable. Nor were we afraid to debate our ideas in the open with our opponents. On many occasions we were paid visits by right-wingers who most of the time left with their tail between their legs. In fact, we often found that it was useful to have an opponent or two present, as it helps to sharpen the discussion and thus clarify our ideas further.
We also tried to link the MDG to the labour movement, for example by collecting money when there was a strike or organising for trips to picket lines. In fact, I remember collecting money from our very first meeting for the postal strike that was taking place at the time, and also taking along members of the society to visit picket lines for a strike of PCS members outside the main HMRC offices in Cambridge.
There wasn’t a great deal of activity within the university that year. I remember a couple of activists running for positions in the student union and getting quite demoralised when they didn’t win, which later led to them giving up and dropping out of student politics altogether. Again, this shows the need to build up a base and have a perspective on the need for more long term, patient work.
Other than that, there was also a brief (failed) attempt by a small group on the left in the spring of 2010 to get the student union disaffiliated from the National Union of Student (NUS) through a referendum – a campaign that the Tories and the right-wing were all too happy to support, since they hoped that an independent student union would be less political, as was seen in Imperial College in London and other universities.
The main argument of those on the left who were calling for disaffiliation was that the NUS had become completely paralysed by bureaucracy and was no longer able to represent students in any meaningful way. Unable to see the longer process of ebbs and flows that is inherent within any movement – again, because of the lack of any longer term perspective and historical memory – these activists had mistakenly written off any possibility of the NUS changing under the pressure of events – a perspective that Socialist Appeal supporters, and we in the Marxist society in Cambridge, hadexplained at the time. By the end of 2010, the situation in the student movement had changed dramatically and all talk of disaffiliating from the NUS had dissipated.
The student movement of 2010
The General Election in May 2010 brought the Con-Dem coalition to power. Even before this, trouble was already brewing in higher education (HE), as Socialist Appeal student supporters warned at the time, and all sorts of contradictions were building up beneath the surface. On the one hand, youth unemployment was rising due to the crisis and the New Labour government was trying to get more young people into university and away from the jobs market. On the other hand, the crisis had already led New Labour to begin carrying out millions in cuts to universities and to commission the infamous Browne Review to examine alternative methods for HE funding.
As predicted, these pressures did begin to impact on the NUS leadership, who felt a need to respond. Before the Coalition had even announced their cuts to HE funding or their policy regarding fees, the NUS had already called for a national student demonstration for 10th November 2010. With the announcement of the increased fees of £9,000 and the savage cuts to university funding, this demonstration became a rallying call to students across the country, with 50,000 attending on the day in London.
With the NUS having organised a national student demo, the student union in Cambridge, which had been a fairly inactive body previously, suddenly found itself thrust to the front. Members of the Cambridge Marxists took this opportunity to write a number of motions to the student union meetings, providing positive suggestions on how the full time union officers could build the movement.
In Cambridge, the national demonstration was preceded by a large local demonstration the week before, called by the Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU). On the day of the NUS demo itself, we managed to get a large contingent from the Marxist society to London. Further student protests developed in local areas in the subsequent weeks.
The anti-fees group in the university, which we had been involved in organising and developing since the beginning of the academic year, decided to try and occupy the Old Schools building (the main university administrative building) in a secret operation. Given the mood that existed amongst students at the time, the occupation rapidly grew once word spread. On the first evening there were several hundred present, and the student union was soon forced to offer its official support to the occupation, which in turn gave more students the confidence to come along and join in.
This shows the importance of student unions in the minds of most people. Despite the fact that most people have no involvement in the student union or are even aware of what it does, by giving the occupation their support, the student union made the occupation seem “legal” in the minds of the mass of students, and thus helped broaden the movement out. This demonstrates the correctness of the Bolshevik idea of how revolutionaries should relate to the reformist (or even reactionary) trade unions and parliamentary bodies – that is, to participate in them and to place demands on the leadership – as opposed to the anarchistic or ultra-left conception, which is to try and somehow circumvent these traditional organisations, which are seen to have authority in the eyes of the masses.
The occupation of the Old Schools lasted 11 days, and was part of a much wider movement of university occupations, which were on a qualitatively higher level than the occupations in 2009. The student movement against fees and cuts was the first movement against the coalition government and hit the national headlines. The Cambridge occupation was one of the largest in the country, and received much attention from the press.
Most of these activists involved were very well meaning, but many of them could not see past the organisational questions of how to create a nice “space” that was “open” and “liberating”. Complex organisational procedures were used to decide on even the most mundane of chores, and I was quickly reminded of the frustration of my previous occupation experience. However, this time round I was better armed in terms of my political level and unlike the first occupation where I was isolated, this time there were many other members of the Marxist society intervening in the occupation.
My experience of the first occupation was of great benefit. I had realised from my previous experience that there is no point in trying to argue about trivial organisational issues. The most important thing was try to raise the political questions; to ensure that the movement has some sort of perspective and longer term aims. In this respect, we – the Marxist society members – tried to make positive suggestions on how the movement could be broadened and developed.
In particular, we helped organise early morning trips to leaflet the main workplaces in Cambridge, telling the workers what was going on, and talking to them about the issues involved. In addition, we organised for any trade union contacts we had to come in and speak to the occupation. The results were excellent. We received large donations of food and money from the trade unions and from other members of the public. I’ll never forget being on security at 6am outside in the snow and receiving four boxes of pastries from a supportive local! These sorts of acts of solidarity really helped to show the students why it was important to link up with the labour movement.
Incidentally, we also used the occupation as an opportunity to visit trade union branches and demonstrations in Cambridge and elsewhere. I got a good response at various trade union meetings, where I told the members that the students would support them in any action they took, and I remember being invited to speak as a representative of the Cambridge occupation on the platform at a demonstration of over 2000 trade unionists in Norwich on a freezing cold day in early December.
Most significantly, we initiated and organised the General Assembly – a large public meeting towards the end of the occupation of people from all over Cambridge, held inside the occupied space. The idea didn’t have much support from the more anarchistic elements who were always a bit hostile towards any attempt to broaden the movement beyond students. Again, we managed to cut across this attitude by demonstrating what the labour movement is in practice. We contacted every contact we had in the labour movement – trade unionists, Labour Party members and councillors, etc. – and invited them along to a large meeting in the occupied room to discuss “where next in the fight against cuts”. The response was phenomenal. In the end, over 300 people were crammed into the small occupied space, including school students, academics, and trade unionists, and many more were turned away due to a lack of space. Person after person from all walks of life got up to talk about how inspiring the student movement was, and everyone gave their solidarity. In addition, I also managed to get on the microphone to make the closing remarks.
We even managed to get the student union to officially back the occupation and the General Assembly, and to commit to sending delegates to the local trades council to link the student movement with the labour movement. The student union officers at the time were not considered to be particularly left wing and had been elected in the previous period – a period of relative calm – but were now forced to support all our suggestions in the face of the pressure from below. This again shows how the pressure of events can always force the leadership to act, provided that this pressure is given a positive direction – in this case through the motions and suggestions of Marxist society members.
Throughout this whole period of the student movement, members of the Marxist society always participated alongside all sorts of other tendencies – anarchists, reformists, and other left groups – as part of a united front against fees and cuts called Cambridge Defend Education. However, we never hid or diluted our ideas, nor did we try to lead the movement bureaucratically by discussing things behind closed doors. We were always friendly towards others in the movement and, as far as possible, we always tried to encourage open political discussion where we could openly raise socialist ideas in the context of the fight against tuition fees and education cuts. Again, leadership does not mean controlling what happens or how things are done – it means earning the trust and respect of the masses.
The student union elections
The student movement declined after the increased tuition fees were voted in by Parliament in December 2010. Further demonstrations were called, but there was never a real strategy amongst student activists over where to go beyond yet more protests.
On the basis of the huge impact that the student movement had had on consciousness, along with the growth of the Marxist society and the role that we had played in the occupation, I decided to run for the position of CUSU President with the support of Marxist society members and Socialist Appeal supporters. The more anarchistic elements in CDE were sceptical about running for student union positions, claiming that it was pointless, but we went along with the plan anyway and most other people in CDE were extremely positive and supportive.
It is worth emphasising that Marxists are not opposed to running for positions; far from it, campaigning for positions can provide a very useful platform for our ideas. But we must have a sense of proportion, and understand that this – the spreading of socialist ideas – is the main aim with such a campaign. If we can win a position on the basis of a campaign in which we openly and honestly present socialist ideas, then this provides a strong foundation from which to campaign and fight in the future. But there is no good in running on an individual ticket with no real base of support from within the student movement and hoping to win a position in order to then carry out top-down changes.
Where left activists do manage to capture positions without first establishing a base of support, they can quickly find themselves isolated and frustrated. They are often continuously attacked from the less radical, more bureaucratic and careerist elements within the student body, the student union and the university administration, and overtime this war of attrition can lead to such people either capitulating to reformism, opportunism, and careerism themselves, or dropping out of politics altogether. In some cases, it is actually former student union officials who become the most ultra-left in relation to student unions, writing them off because of their own bad experiences.
I saw all of these cases during my time at Cambridge, as well as many other good activists who burnt themselves out by trying to single-handedly achieve things through constant activity. Such people would frequently swing from one extreme of ultra-left activity to the other extreme of opportunistically diluting down their ideas in order to capture positions. Neither extreme bore any fruit, but ultimately both tactics are the result of a common cause: the lack of a sense of proportion in terms of what can be achieved by a small set of forces in a small period of time; the lack of patience regarding the need to build up a base over time on the basis of strong ideas; and the lack of faith in the idea that the masses will move and can be won over to a socialist programme.
We defied all the expectations in our campaign and came second (out of three candidates), gaining the most votes that any far-left candidate had received in some time. The student media had written us off before the election campaign started, thinking that we were too radical and would come last. In the end we managed to gain over 1000 votes – a larger number than the previous CUSU President had won with, and a larger number than many left-wing activists have won elections with in places with much larger student populations than Cambridge. This was partly thanks to the momentum generated by the student movement, but also to the presence we had patiently built up on campus over the previous two years, which led many people to come out and actively support us.
Importantly, we also mobilised students to vote for us thanks to our militant programme of no cuts and no fees, calling for a fighting student union. In addition, we linked these demands to the wider crisis of capitalism in society and the movements taking place internationally and pointed out the need for the student movement to therefore link with the labour movement in order to fight all cuts. In the end, the right-wing got very scared at the prospect of us winning and mobilised en masse to stop us.
In addition, we also undermined the ultra-left idea that existed amongst many activists that the student union was nothing more than a right-wing, careerist bureaucracy that could never be claimed by the left. In fact, many of the more hardened anarchists actually tried to water down our programme and make it more reformist because they did not think we could win otherwise. Instead, we showed that a militant, socialist programme could gain support. In fact, some of the less hardened anarchistic elements were actually some of our biggest campaigners in the end, because we were seen to be serious in our efforts and were not just calling for endless direct (or rather directionless) action.
Another notable success was that we gained the official support of the Cambridge University Labour Club (CULC) for our candidacy, despite the fact that there was another LP member running who was more of a left-reformist. I had been involved with CULC regularly, popping along to the occasional meeting and writing for their online blog, and also helping out a few times in elections. A few years back I had also organised for John McDonnell MP to come and speak to CULC, and this paid off with CULC supporting our campaign.
Again it should be emphasised that this election campaign was the culmination of many years of patient hard work: putting on regular Marxist society meetings and building a solid base for socialist ideas; intervening in the wider student movement by putting forward motions to the student union, writing articles for the student media, and participating with other groups such as CDE and CULC; and winning the political battle of ideas over time. It was only thanks to this long term work that we were able to come close to winning the election on an openly socialist and militant programme.
Linking with the labour movement
Despite losing the election, we were very optimistic and upbeat, and straightaway continued the work of building the Marxist society, which had gained further in reputation thanks to the campaign. By the beginning of the new academic year in October 2011 we were easily the largest political group in Cambridge, with hundreds of people on our mailing list, including a couple of representatives on the student union council.
Thanks to the reputation of the Marxist society and the impact of the election campaign, I was also invited to debate against Vince Cable, the Coalition Business Secretary, at the Cambridge Union – a prestigious debating society – on the subject of “There is no alternative to the cuts.” We used the debate to put forward clear explanation in front of an audience of several hundred of how the capitalist crisis was responsible for the cuts and how the only alternative to austerity was a socialist programme. We won the debate thanks to the strength of our arguments and ideas, showing, once again, that socialist ideas can win a majority amongst students if put forward in an clear and open manner.
We used the strength of the society and our position within the student movement to try and link up with the labour movement, which was taking off nationally with the huge TUC demonstration in March 2011. In particular, we proposed a motion to the student union calling for students to support the public sector strikes taking place on 30th November 2011 – which happened to be the last day of term – by organising a student walkout on this day. At the same time, a leading local trade unionist and Socialist Appeal supporter had initiated the formation of a strike committee to co-ordinate the day of action and our motion called for student union delegates to go to the strike committee as representatives of the student movement. The motion passed and CUSU was now formally committed to organising a student walkout in support of the public sector strikes; in addition, a member of the Marxist society and Socialist Appeal supporter– Ben Gliniecki – was chosen as the student delegate to the strike committee. In the end, the student union officials purposefully failed to organise anything; nevertheless Ben was the only student to speak from the platform in front of a 5,000 strong crowd at the strike rally in Cambridge, and he used the opportunity to talk about the wider crisis of capitalism that is responsible for the attacks on pensions and the need for socialist policies to fight these attacks.
The next term, we also held a joint meeting between the Marxist society and the Labour Club on the subject of “Where next for the labour movement?”, which again allowed us to link up with the local trade unions and Labour Party. The meeting was very successful, with speakers coming from all across the city, and this success was repeated more recently with a meeting of around 150 people on “What’s the alternative to austerity?”, where we debated against Owen Jones and a local Labour councillor. Both of these meetings helped to solidify our reputation as part of the broader movement in Cambridge.
Again, on the basis of the strength of the Marxist society and the intervention around the public sector strikes, we decided to run a candidate for CUSU President. This time our candidate – Ben Gliniecki – came third of three, mainly because of the relative ebb in the student movement compared to a year earlier.
The decline of the activist group
Throughout this whole period, ever since the defeat of the student movement at the end of 2010, Cambridge Defend Education – the united front group against fees and cuts – had increasingly dwindled in size as a result of the general decline of the movement. In such a period where the general objective conditions for a mass movement are unfavourable, the task of activists should be to consolidate the gains they have made; to solidify the remaining base with a perspective of what is to come; and to prepare for the future by trying to explain socialist ideas to as wide a layer as possible and recruit new activists where possible.
This was what we – the members of the Marxist society – proposed in CDE meetings: that CDE should discuss and debate what our aims were; that we should hold regular public meetings with political discussions to reach out to a wider audience, and that we should write a manifesto or programme regarding these aims that we can use to spread our ideas across campus. All of these suggestions were intended to provide a strategy for how CDE could build and consolidate new members, in order to prepare for a future upturn in the movement.
Some parts of these suggestions were taken up; but on the whole CDE increasingly became a small clique of activist friends who longed to return to the euphoric days of the occupation and the student movement of 2010. Rather than placing these events within their broader context, the remaining activists in CDE imagined that they could artificially re-create the movement and militancy of November 2010 through stunts and direct action. Rather than trying to rebuild the forces of CDE on the strength of ideas and arguments, the activist group increasingly isolated themselves from the mass of students by trying to substitute their own individual actions for the movement and action of the masses. What began as a numerical weakness ended up expressing itself organisationally and strategically as this small group of activists became frustrated and sought shortcuts, often in the shape of ultra-left stunts and adventures.
Of particular note was an occupation in November 2011 that was highly criticised by a large layer of students – including even those who had been previously sympathetic to the occupation of 2010 and the cause of CDE. Rather than building for this occupation through a series of large meetings that would have allowed for the democratic participation of ordinary students, a decision was simply made at short notice, with no attempt to win support from the student union. Those in the occupation found themselves isolated and attacked from all sides as they attempted to try and relive the experience of 2010, but at a time when the mood for such an occupation did not exist.
By the end of the academic year, these ultra-left adventures had led to the disintegration of CDE and the complete isolation of the remaining activists. Again, many of the more experienced ones graduated and moved away, and no new activists had been recruited and educated to take their place.
At the same time, the Marxist society managed to hold its forces together and has currently had a very successful year of meetings – its most successful yet. Hundreds of people have come into contact with socialist ideas and a whole new generation of youth has been educated in Marxist theory, preparing the ground for the successful intervention in the mass movements of students and workers in Cambridge that will undoubtedly take place in the future as the crisis of capitalism increasingly impacts on the lives and minds of ordinary people.
Perspectives for the future
The experiences of the Socialist Society at UEA and the Marxist society in Cambridge, and of the recent elections in UCL, show the importance of educating cadres in theory, rather than simply encouraging blind activism; of having a sense of perspective and proportion; and of patiently building a base from to intervene in the wider student and labour movements.
From these concrete examples, one can see in practice how to connect socialist ideas with the broad mass of students over a period of time and thus play an important leading role in the student movement at the decisive points in the movement, providing the vital subjective factor when the necessary objective conditions are present.
The crisis of capitalism has dealt a hammer blow to the consciousness of students in Britain in the last few years. The movement of 2010 has temporarily subsided, but only to give way to a wider anger in society and thus prepare the ground for a return of the student movement on a qualitatively higher level – this time as a mass movement of students and workers.
The forces of Marxism in Britain are still too small to play a decisive role at a national scale; but in particular areas and struggles – where a base has been built – the Marxists have played an important role, and in some cases decisive, role – from the student occupation in Cambridge, to the Sparks’ dispute in Unite the Union, and now with the ongoing fight of the Labour councillors in Hull.
Importantly, thanks to the foundation of Marxist societies in universities across the country, these forces are growing and a new generation of youth are coming into contact with the revolutionary ideas of Marxism. These newly educated cadres are beginning to play an increasingly active and important role in the student movement across the country and will go on to become leading activists within the labour movement also. This is the music of the future; a future that we – the supporters of Socialist Appeal – are trying to build now. We encourage you to join us in this fight.