'Solidarity' or the politics of Marxism

James Turley examines the future of Education Not for Sale and replies to the Alliance for Workers' Liberty over NUS conference

The annual conference of the National Union of Students was nothing if not dramatic. The main event was undoubtedly the slim defeat of the spectacularly undemocratic governance review, which aimed to strip conference of all its decision-making powers, abolish delegate elections and inflict countless other nips and tucks on student politics.

Despite attempts to spin the conference as a whole as a success for the left - notably by that most reliable source of forced optimism, the Socialist Workers Party, whose Rob Owen claimed that the right was “demoralised and reeling” - it is clear that we have not managed much more than bloodying the nose of the bureaucracy.

The closeness of the vote on the review actually demonstrated the dominance of the pro-review forces - being a constitutional change, the proposal required a two-thirds majority, which it just failed to achieve (ironic that the final burial of NUS democracy should fall foul of a pre-existing undemocratic regulation), enjoying 65% support on conference floor. Meanwhile, the right retains control of the executive. Rumours abound of a putative attempt to call two ‘emergency’ conferences before next April, where further attempts will be made to force through the review.

A tale of two fringe meetings

Well documented as it already is, it is worth going over the run-up to NUS conference, and the interventions of Communist Students, Hands Off the People of Iran (Hopi) and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Education Not for Sale.

Several weeks ago, ENS announced its intention to hold a fringe meeting at NUS conference focusing on solidarity for workers and students imprisoned in Iran. Hopi was invited to provide a speaker, and offered to do so, provided that the meeting was staged as a debate. Alas, this condition was unpalatable to comrade Ismail, and ENS chickened out; in the event, its fringe dropped the question of Iran entirely, and instead piloted the newly launched ‘Reclaim the Campus!’ campaign.

Hopi, supported by CS, went ahead with a fringe meeting to fill the gaping Iran-shaped hole at conference. We invited AWL comrade David Broder to speak from the platform - he is in a minority in the organisation, as he calls for troops out of Iraq (and in a minority of the minority, as he calls for troops out now). He is also a supporter of Hopi, and the AWL has handed him the brief, recently, of directing another front organisation, Middle East Workers Solidarity - all of which would make him a perfectly suitable platform speaker at what was, after all, the only meeting on Iran at conference.

However, demonstrating the lack of intestinal fortitude to which we are now accustomed, the AWL denied him permission to attend the meeting. No other AWL member, majority or minority, turned up (which has not stopped AWL student organiser Sacha Ismail from moaning that none of the far smaller CS team made it to the ENS fringe meeting).

Quite apart from all this, there was the matter of the various elections to the executive bodies; CS was faced with the decision on how to vote. Ultimately, we decided to make the demand for immediate withdrawal of troops a sine qua non for any support at all (along with consistent opposition to the governance review). We individually emailed all socialist candidates who did not have these demands explicitly in their platforms to ask if they would support our formulations. The two non-AWL ENS candidates, to their credit, responded positively, as did Socialist Students. AWLer Heather Shaw did not reply, but told our comrades at conference that she did not accept our formulation. Daniel Randall, a presidential candidate, sent us back an angry diatribe.

The maths of the contest mean that it may have been the case that the latter comrades’ failure to measure up has cost ENS a place on the block of 12 - Heather Shaw missed the STV quota by a mere 0.8 votes. CS had only a handful of delegates, but perhaps by deprioritising votes for ENS and refusing them to Shaw - we have had a decisive influence. So be it.

A tale of two scab lines

Comrade Randall’s arguments have been given a great deal more significance, then, by events - our ‘calculus’ may have had a serious effect on a knife-edge vote.

He was not happy - in particular, he berated us for not mentioning ‘socialism’ or ‘the working class’ in making our voting conditions, for daring to consider withdrawing votes from a “proven Marxist” whose opponents were all awful rightwingers” (apart from Ruqayyah Collector, whom he described as a “bag carrier for Ken Livingstone”).

His arguments are spurious. No, comrade Randall, our named bottom lines did not include ‘socialism’ - but we did not send emails to Conservative Future, or the Liberal Democrats, or Student Broad Left for that matter; we only sent emails to members of explicitly socialist organisations. Socialism was a de facto bottom line.

And we were quite right to focus on the things we did. Critical support is not, as a memorable Spartacist headline once put it, a marriage proposal - it has to be based on concrete political positions. Socialism is not like a badge, which anyone can pin to their lapel and thereby expect to receive communist votes. Those who call themselves socialists - let alone Marxists! - and talk endlessly of ‘working class solidarity’ must walk the walk; to put it bluntly, they must not uphold or apologise for political lines which amount to scabbing on the key struggles of the working class as a class.

Comrade Randall believes our formulation on immediate troop withdrawal is abstract. It is not - the troops are concrete troops; the desired withdrawal is a concrete withdrawal. What is laughable is that he believes starting from an utterly empty phrase like ‘working class solidarity’ is somehow less abstract. In practice, this very worthy sentiment has, in the hands of the AWL, translated in a completely unprincipled manner to solidarity, not merely with the Iraqi labour bureaucracy (which would be one thing), but that section of the Iraqi labour bureaucracy that is openly collaborationist! It is a perfect storm of social-imperialism and Labourism - the result is that the democratic demand of the vast majority of the Iraqi working class for an immediate end to the occupation is given precisely no ‘solidarity’ whatsoever, because, as Jim Denham puts it, most Iraqis are not “reputable trade unionists” (Letters Weekly Worker January 9 - words fail, Mr Denham).

Dan Randall, it must be said, is not Jim Denham - he is a member of the AWL minority. But ‘troops out’ without the ‘now’ is in the last analysis another way of saying ‘troops in until ...’ It does not differ fundamentally from the majority AWL line, in that it imagines (despite the protestations to the contrary from both factions) some progressive role for imperialism that should not be unduly interrupted. Five years ago, this was a fantasy. Today, as the corpses pile ever skyward, it is beneath contempt, and no amount of hot air about solidarity with the oh so ‘reputable’ Quislings of the labour bureaucracy will divest the demand for immediate troop withdrawal of its necessity for any meaningful socialist politics.

The future for ENS

This brings us back to May 17. Communists must intervene, as we did at NUS conference, on this question. We must force the issue.

We must do so because it is clear that the AWL, whatever its claims about broadening ENS and tightening up its structures, is planning to brush this issue under the carpet yet again. “ENS has a generically anti-imperialist position,” writes comrade Ismail. “Certainly, there is a need for ENS activists to debate these issues. But does the group need a common position on ‘troops out now’?”

Well, it is worth noting that, if ENS does have a “generically anti-imperialist position”, it is certainly not viewed as significant enough for inclusion in ENS’s ‘Where we stand’ statement, which in its whopping six sentences does not mention imperialism, and has only a single, wholly neutral, reference to the anti-war movement. We do, however, have a thoroughly AWLish abstract commitment to “consistent solidarity with working class struggles in Britain and worldwide”.

Four of those six sentences are completely focused on student politics. Another is a desultory statement of support for trade unions. The single democratic demand makes a very woolly reference to “universal human rights”, as differentiated from “cultural relativism”, which would not be out of place in The Guardian.

Mike Macnair has persuasively argued in these pages that, quite apart from being opportunistic, such completely economistic programmes are extremely ill-suited to student politics in general. Students do not live the same relation to their direct ‘material interests’ as workers proper, and the most successful examples of campus work have been those driven by ideas, paradoxically for very compelling material reasons (‘Driven by ideas’, February 14). I do not agree wholly with Mike’s view, but I believe his assessment of the failure of ENS so far to amount to anything more than a de facto front for the AWL is well founded.

So, yes, comrade Ismail - if ENS is to undergo a qualitative transformation into a real student activist network, a real axis of student left unity, it needs to have a position on ‘troops out now’. It needs to intervene on more than just student issues, along with tokenistic support for strikes; and its interventions need to be guided by stronger stuff than ‘human rights’ platitudes borrowed wholesale from liberalism. It needs Marxism.

By refusing to allow ENS to democratically decide on full and rounded slogans for its anti-war work, the AWL in practice imposes its line - in this way, the AWL’s slow political suicide is destined to take down ENS with it, unless the latter can get itself a real programme.