Youth in the vanguard of anti-war party

Over the last few weeks young people, school students in particular, have played a leading role in the anti-war party. February 15 introduced a new generation to direct political struggle. School students learnt quickly. Not least from their own debates and experiences inside and outside the classroom. In turn they inspired the People's Assembly for Peace on March 12. Eloquent, passionate ... and on strike. The Saturday after war broke out - March 22 in London - saw the biggest wartime protest in British history. The 400,000-strong march is notable for another reason - the very high proportion and prominent role played by young people. Youth have been at the forefront in the rash of regional and local demonstrations too. From being on the fringe of the anti-war party they are now rapidly growing into hard-core activists. Predictably, once the slaughter actually started, support for the war surged. Tony Blair and George Bush had lost the intellectual argument. Only those who wanted to be convinced were convinced. Government-made dupes - and they dimly knew it. There are no links between Baghdad and bin Laden, no stockpiles of anthrax or nuclear weapons. The Ba'ath regime poses no threat to Britain or the US, etc. Furthermore, the US is indisputably the world's sole superpower. True, Saddam Hussein is a brutal murderer of communists, Shia muslims and Kurds. But Iraq is a half-starved and beleaguered wreck of a country. Patriotism is the last resort. People are told by the Bush and Blair axis to back our brave servicemen and women. Supposedly this makes an unjust war a just war. Cutting through the patriotic cant, our paper carried the appropriate headline in reply: "Rather defeat for US-UK forces than their victory". An uncompromising message, instinctively disliked by converts to liberal imperialism. Eg, David Aaronovitch, Christopher Hitchins, Clare Short. Not young people though. Led by Charles Kennedy and the Daily Mirror - the former bourgeois wing of the anti-war party - the soggy middle ground has drained away into the pro-war camp. 'Supporting our troops' excuses surrender. Most of the former 'don't knows' and those who claimed that they would support an invasion only in the event of a second UN security council resolution are now found unhappily and uncomfortably approving of the war. Tony Blair's popularity has partially recovered as a result. Proportionally the anti-war party has therefore undergone a definite shrinkage. From a 52% high last month, today the figure is down to 30%. However, in absolute terms, in terms of real numbers, we have been largely unaffected. Society polarises. The centre has collapsed. Not the anti-war party. Moreover, amongst the 18 to 24 age group opposition to the war still stands "well above 50%" (The Guardian March 25). And if ICM had deigned to poll those between 12 to 18, everything suggests that the figure for this age cohort would be well over 60%. Put another way, the young have not succumbed to the patriotic plague that has infected their elders. The carefully accreted collective myths, lies and stupidities of nationhood have not fooled them. It is natural that youth should be so numerous in the anti-war party. The anti-war party is global in scope. And youth are internationalist. They identify with and feel for the people in Iraq. The anti-war party stands for direct action. Young people are not, as the government insultingly suggests, 'apathetic' and 'apolitical'. They are eager for struggle and eager to learn. They will not sit slumped in front of the TV screen during the war in sad resignation. The anti-war party highlights the unrepresentative nature of parliament and how Blair could have simply used the royal prerogative to launch the war. Young people loathe parliamentary phrase-mongering and pomposity. Young people are republicans, not monarchists. The anti-war party looks towards a world without war. The anti-war party is the party of the future, and, yes, the future belongs to youth. On March 22 the internationalism, optimism and militancy of young people was truly inspiring. Particularly impressive was the taking up of the symbols of protest, revolution and communism and making them their own. Leftwing leaflets were willingly taken and papers such as the Weekly Worker brought. Those of us, like myself, who first came to political activity during the 1960s - in my case as a school student - were surely watching the influx into the movement of a generation that will in the years to come gradually replace us, as we come to the end of our useful lives. Many thought it was a pity that more of the 15 or 17-year-olds who had been on strike on March 12 or March 20 were not given a platform in Hyde Park. Their ideas and ideals are certainly more candid and often considerably in advance of the naive Labourites, soppy Liberal Democrats and UN-infatuated CND peaceniks. The parliamentary road of securing peace failed abysmally. Tony Blair had the country against him. Yet he won a thumping majority for war in the House of Commons. The UN was from the start a den of thieves. Yet now, due to Bush and Blair, it is an irrelevant den of thieves. Nor has the numbers strategy worked. Two million marched on February 15. Yet nightly Baghdad is being pounded from the air and American and British troops are turning Basra, Nassiriya and southern Iraq to rubble. Evidently, more is needed. Communists say: take a leaf from the school students. When the US-UK forces began their war of conquest against Iraq on March 20, school students staged countless strikes. Organised spontaneously - by text-messaging, by rumour and by budding agitators - they braved teachers and threats of suspension and expulsion. While many were thwarted and kept imprisoned in school grounds, tens of thousands escaped to the streets. As directed by the Stop the War Coalition, they made their way to the town centres. In London - Parliament Square. Slogans were joyous, constant and defiant: 'You make war, we break the law'. Often they had to walk five or six miles. Police tried to block routes and constantly harassed them. Without success. They marched on. No one is suggesting that school strikes can by themselves stop the war. Nor that school students constitute the most potent social element in the anti-war party. School students can, however, act as a signal for wider forces - crucially their parents - who make up that section of society which can bring about the decisive change necessary to put an end to not only this squalid war, but the capitalist system which by its very nature engenders wars - that force, that section of society is, of course, the working class. When the working class finally moves in all its mass and might, then regime change goes from an abstract slogan and becomes a graspable reality. Meanwhile school students are doing what trade union leaders such as Bob Crow, Mick Rix and Billy Hayes can still only talk about. Government ministers, the establishment media, police and school heads united to condemn and belittle the school students' strikes. They were dismissed as naughty, out-of-control minors - school children, not school students. "Treat it as normal truancy and take appropriate action," advised the Secondary Heads Association (Guardian Education March 25). Translated, these euphemisms mean suspensions, coralling parents as watchdogs and tighter security in schools. The authoritarians want schools transformed from open prisons into closed prisons. Liberals in the education bureaucracy prefer another approach. The velvet glove, not the iron fist. Instead of locking up school students, they want to channel their anger into carefully supervised discussions and away from the streets. As will have been gathered, communists defy conventional wisdom. People do not suddenly become fully rounded individuals and independent human beings at an arbitrarily set age. There is a huge difference between the average nine-year-old and someone who has reached the age of 15. That is why we do not divide the population neatly into adults and children. There is a transition from childhood (dependence) to adulthood (independence). The category 'youth' has been used by the left for this self-making transitionary period of maturation. Communists are confident that young people will have learnt infinitely more from taking strike action against the war on March 20 and joining city centre protests than by following the set curriculum, attending some supervised discussion or enduring one of the government's gruesome citizenship courses. That does not mean that we are against schools or education in general. On the contrary communists have always stressed the necessity of learning and the ongoing, lifelong nature of that process. Without exception people want to discover how various things about them work. Human beings are naturally curious. That is what education should be about and facilitate. The problem is obvious. Those in control of the education system are not those who are interested in helping the new generation to develop to the full. Whatever the Head Teachers Association and the government say, the education system is in the last analysis designed to serve the vampirish appetites of capital and profit. Not people and their constantly expanding needs. The education system is primarily concerned with producing labour power for the benefit of big business and the state machine. That is true for secondary schools, as it is for the new universities. Consequently schools and colleges in Britain do not provide anything like a decent education for the mass of the population. Not only are they endemically cash-strapped, but the staff, including the teaching staff, are in constant short supply and woefully underpaid. So classes are too big and facilities are generally very poor. More than that, the exam system selects for conformity, not constructive thinking about social change. Schools, their teachers and students are judged by the government according to exam passes - the sorry result is closer to a sausage factory than a life-enhancing place of learning. Some teachers strongly object to this system. However, most believe that they have a duty to force their students to obey school rules and jump through an endless series of exam loops. Their final point of reference is not those seated before them. Rather it is the syllabus set from above. No wonder so many find school utterly boring, utterly frustrating, utterly pointless. Being forced to learn for the sake of exams is often a torture. Bunking off a widespread response. The inevitable response from Charles Clarke, minister of education, is more police patrols, more truancy officers and more draconian powers. Parents are even imprisoned because their offspring hate the small-minded and stultifying atmosphere of school life. Communists have a very different approach to the problem of boredom and frustration - democracy. There should be school councils, made up of students, teachers and people from the local community with real powers - and school students over 16 should be able to freely elect and recall their representatives. Above all there should be a fully rounded and responsive education system that helps to develop the human potential and talents of all. Democracy is never given to the weak: it has to be won by the strong. Democracy comes from below. Schools students can and must contribute to their own liberation. For that to happen they must build their own trade union-type organisations. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Schools Action Union and the National Union of School Students enjoyed a spectacular, if brief, existence. Widespread strikes and protests occurred over a whole number of issues - from objections to compulsory school uniforms to demands for the abolition of corporal punishment. Leftwing teachers and youth groups provided valuable support and advice. Today would be no different. We would also argue as a matter of urgency that young people establish their own national organisation in the anti-war party. Young people are in by far the best position to understand the problems and requirements of other young people. Eg, the need for Marxist political education. An anti-war youth network - with its own unrestricted democratic debates, elected and recallable officers, paper and finances - would be much better placed to harness the anger and energy of their peers than the middle-aged comrades who at present run the Stop the War Coalition and who often do not have a clue about how to relate to young people. Youth, by definition, comes to politics, and must necessarily operate, in a different way from their parents and grandparents. That is why communists favour the complete organisational independence of a youth network - not only because well known control freaks fear such independence - but because without that complete independence the youth will never prepare themselves properly for the future. Jack Conrad Our programme The CPGB's 'Draft programme' includes the following section on youth Youth are at the sharp end of Britain's capitalist decline. Young workers are in general not protected by trade union membership. Homelessness and unemployment are greatly disproportionate amongst the young. Training on official schemes is notoriously mediocre, designed more to massage government statistics than equip youth with the skills of the future. In the drive to cut costs basic education is under constant attack, with the standard of university education woefully diluted. Youth are contradictorily fawned upon by advertisers, exploited as cheap labour and blamed for social decay. The system is in fact only interested in youth in terms of the cash register. Every ideal, every artistic talent is judged purely in terms of its ability to generate artificial needs in others. There are many who reject the twisted values of the system. But in despair they often turn to nihilism - itself turned into a commodity by capitalism. The following demands are of crucial importance for youth: * The provision of housing/hostels for youth to enter of their own choice for longer or shorter periods when they lose their parents or choose to leave them. * Compulsory education up until the age of 16 and from then on within a fully democratic system. Education should be free and of a polytechnical nature: that is, rounded to include technical skills, as well as academic. * No religious schools, no private schools. * Students over the age of 16 should receive grants set at the level of the minimum wage. * The right of every young person on leaving education to either a job, proper training or full benefits. * Remove all obstacles to the participation of youth in social life. Votes and the right to be elected from the age of 16. * The provision of a broad range of sports and cultural centres under the control of elected representatives of youth. * The abolition of age-of-consent laws. We recognise the right of individuals to enter into the sexual relations they choose, provided this does not conflict with the rights of others. Alternative legislation to protect children from sexual abuse. * The extensive provision of education and counselling facilities on all sexual matters, free from moralistic judgement, is an essential prerequisite to enable youth to develop themselves in all areas of sexuality and reproduction. CPGB 'Draft programme' - 50p; bulk orders - 10 copies for £4; from CPGB address. Or see the webpage.