Rights and wrongs

Sofie Buckland of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, newly elected to the leadership of the National Union of Students on the Education Not for Sale ticket, takes issue with David Isaacson and the anti-economist emphasis of the CPGB

David Isaacson's analysis of the situation facing students, the nature of student unionism and the state of the student left made a number of important points, but was marred by abstractness and sectarianism (Weekly Worker March 23).

David is right that NUS has long been run into the ground by an assortment of Labour right-wingers, "independents" and other careerists, preventing any serious resistance to the process of marketisation in education under both the Tories and New Labour which has most recently produced top-up fees.

He is right that careerism is an endemic danger in the student movement, particularly when the great majority of students have literally no political involvement in their national union and in many cases no knowledge of it beyond a discount card. And he is also right that the fragments of the student left need to unite around common aims while freely debating political differences.

But while David is posing the right problems, he hardly attempts to provide solutions. "The fight for communist politics in the student movement has never been more relevant," he tells us. Very true, but throughout his article, David fails to explain how communist politics can be put into practice.

He condemns the Education Not for Sale network, as whose candidate I was elected, for "economism" in what seems like a ritual genuflection to CPGB preoccupations: no evidence is provided for the charge. It is true that ENS places emphasis on the struggle around "economic" issues like grants and fees; but, as I will explain, this is no more economism than a working-class political party placing emphasis on workplace struggles over issues like wages, hours and conditions.

Could it be that David offered this "critique" of ENS in order to justify the CPGB's support for Respect candidates above ENS ones in the NUS executive elections?

David's article approvingly cites ENS's clear advocacy of left unity in the student movement and its open and democratic functioning. Yet, despite his admission that Student Respect has no democratic structures and has held no national meetings to decide on candidates or strategy for NUS conference, he advocates a vote for Respect above ENS - as an official CPGB position. What decisive political issue was it that mandated this position? David fails to explain. On ENS's internal discussion list, he has cited the AWL's rejection of the "troops out now" slogan for Iraq as justification for his position.

Long before NUS conference, it was obvious that this made no sense. Respect's NUS manifestos were filled with liberal/populist fluff about "fighting war and privatisation"; none of them contained the words "socialism", "workers" or "class" (or, in fact, even "capitalism" or "anti-capitalism") a single time. The ENS manifestos, by contrast, offered a firm commitment to radical democracy and support for working class struggle, and in the case of mine to a clear revolutionary socialist-feminist stance.

The impression given by these manifestos was borne out at the conference, where even by their existing "high" standards - remember the walk-out when Houzan Mahmoud addressed delegates last year - the SWSS/Student Respect leadership managed to shock. Thus, for instance, the SWP's NUS executive member Suzie Wylie joined the 15-1 executive majority supporting a motion that religious schools provide a "uniquely" beneficial environment for children from "minority" backgrounds. Fortunately, quite a few rebel Respect delegates joined the majority of the conference in voting down the motion.

Similar antics were on display when the conference discussed Iran "“ apparently any condemnation of the Iranian regime is islamophobic, even when political islam is not mentioned - and abortion - the SWP's new position seems to be that only women can discuss abortion rights, and they condemned the ENS members who organised a demonstration demanding conference take a position in support of abortion rights.

This line was justified to Respect delegates with the claim that pro-choice text promoted by ENS was in fact the work of right-wingers who hoped that delegates would vote it down! Unfortunately for the SWSS commissars, one Respect-supporter explained this to his fellow University of East London delegate, AWL member Laura Schwartz, who happened to have written the pro-choice text.

David rightly attacks Respect for its popular frontist politics. Nowhere was this more evident than in its manoeuvring for the executive elections, where it publicly supported not only the soft left Pav Akhtar against the AWL's Daniel Randall for president but MAB member Jamal el-Shayyal over left-wing Green Party member and ENS supporter Joe Rooney for national secretary.

In the part-time "block of 12" elections, Suzie Wylie told Respect members that they should transfer not to fellow socialists in ENS and the SP's Socialist Students, but to George Woods of Student Broad Left/Socialist Action and "progressives" like el-Shayyal. It is this kind of right-wing sectarianism that resulted in the break down of the united left electoral slates which existed in NUS between 1998 and 2002, and which makes even discussion of wider left unity in the student movement extremely difficult.

This was a conference at which, having reduced NUS's activity campaigning to almost nil, the right-wing around Labour Students began the process of clawing back even the radical paper policy pushed through by the left in previous years. Labour Students succeeded in overturning NUS's commitment to a universal, non-means-tested student grant - no doubt hoping that this will be the first step in returning to the days when NUS "accepted" that grants were simply "unaffordable". A serious rallying of the left to defeat this retrenchment is clearly urgent.

Yet even here, SWSS/Respect failed to do their duty, allying with the right-wing to defeat an ENS demand that "Tax the rich" and "Living grants for all" should be NUS's main slogans and thereby relegating them to 3pt print at the bottom of next year's placards. This was no surprise, however, to ENS members who had seen SWSS and Student Broad Left ally at compositing for the conference to ensure that all references to "Tax the rich" would be removed from the main left motion on education funding.

When socialists demand that capital should be forced to pay for education and the other services we need, Labour Students and even the Lib Dems reply that they too favour "progressive taxation" but our demands are simply too radical. It seems that SWSS agree with them, failing to understand the difference between an anti-capitalist programme and one which puts forward minor social democratic reforms.

This brings us back to the question about economism - and the sectarian approach David's article put forward on behalf of the CPGB. When ENS advocates an end to fees, a living grant, a living wage etc, it advocates them not as purely "economic" demands, but as economic demands which spill over into political ones.

A policy to unite the student left should not include every dot and comma of the revolutionary programme: what it should do is pose the question of a political framework in which immediate demands can be won, retained and extended - not only in terms of reorganising the student movement, but in terms of a broader alliance for social change and the kind of society we want to see. In that sense ENS is unambiguously working class in its orientation in a way that groups like Respect and Student Broad Left are not.

In contrast, the CPGB's approach seems to be that of a purely propagandist sect. This was clear in the recent student union elections at Sheffield University, where rather than getting involved in or even engaging with broader left-wing campaigns for the SU executive, your comrade Carey Davies stood on an abstractly revolutionary manifesto and won 78 votes out of nearly 5,000.

My point here is not that it is always wrong for communists to stand their own, explicitly revolutionary candidates against the reformist alternative; this was exactly what the AWL did when it persuaded ENS to stand Daniel Randall for NUS president against Pav Akhtar.

The question is in what circumstances and how you do it; whether it contributes to building up the forces of the left or is merely a sectarian stunt. In both the case of Sheffield University and your decision to vote for Respect above ENS at NUS conference, the primary concern seems to have been recruitment to the CPGB rather than anything else.

Despite only having existed since last summer, ENS is taking clear steps forward. At NUS conference, it was able to unite activists from a wide variety of left backgrounds with a basic commitment to anti-capitalism and workers' struggles, not only electing two members to the NUS executive, but more importantly holding large and democratic caucuses and planning activity for the months ahead.

We will be holding a student activist conference, sponsored by the University of Sussex Students' Union, in Falmer near Brighton on 27 May, and plan to issue an open invitation to other sections of the student left to participate in its organisation. We hope the CPGB will participate in a way that, at NUS conference, it unfortunately declined to do.