ENS must break with AWL's social-imperialism
James Turley looks at the prospects for Education Not for Sale's 'Reclaim the Campus' event
Unlike the forced good cheer emanating from the Socialist Workers Party, the response of Education Not for Sale to the narrow defeat of the National Union of Students governance review has at least had a touch of sobriety: “The left should not kid itself,” reads an unsigned statement issued by ENS, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty-run student group: “We won 35% of the vote, and the right wing totally dominated the rest of the conference.”1
Now that the “real fight” is to begin, ENS has called an open conference (supposedly) of the student left for May 17, under the stirringly generic title, ‘Reclaim the Campus!’ Exactly what its goals are is something of an unknown quantity. A look at the draft agenda drawn up at a planning meeting on April 25 reveals a great deal of time allocated to discussions on what actions are required to proceed, but nothing on matters of programme.
There is to be a discussion on what has been contracted to “name/structure/statement of position”, and then an election to a new committee of ENS or some putative post-ENS organisation. Although there was no time allocated for motions in that draft2 (beyond 500-word “name/structure/statement of position” proposals, the mischievous implications of which will be discussed below), the ENS website now quietly concedes that motions are to be allowed.3
A bigger ENS?
So what are we looking at here? Most signs point towards an attempt to refound ENS on a ‘broader’ basis, attracting in ‘new layers’ of disorganised but angry students to fight the NUS right on its anti-democratic measures and abject cowardice in the face of the government/business squeeze on students’ living conditions. All those ‘workshops’ and the like could have come straight out of the laughably anti-democratic first conference of the SWP’s Student Respect.4
This is what the AWL would like to happen - we shall see how even the democratic sections of the agenda for Reclaim the Campus point towards this intention. Indeed, its purpose in setting up ENS in the first place was to organise the rump of the old anti-fees movement after the SWP and others had moved on to other priorities.
However, it is clear that this aim failed the first time and will fail again. ENS, as Mike Macnair put it in these pages, “operates as an effective front group for the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, [and] has in no sense ‘taken off’ as a mass campaign”.5 This was the case even at the time of the introduction of top-up fees, which was a massive political question discussed for weeks on end throughout British society. It is even more true now. The rejection of the governance review fielded only a brief mention some way down the bill on Channel 4 News, along with reports hidden away in the pages of the education supplements. The struggle took place behind the backs of the student population at large.
As both comrade Macnair and I have argued, the simple assumption that students live the same relationship to their immediate conditions of existence as workers is erroneous, and there are very compelling reasons why economistic politics will not only fail to build socialist consciousness among students (as with workers generally), nor will it attract significant forces at all.6
The idea that there are thousands of new supporters ready to sign up in the wake of the NUS review farrago, then, is palpably ridiculous. There are signs that the AWL has come to accept that the best it will be able to get out of May 17 is one or two new internal factions in ENS. For example, Workers Power’s youth front, Revolution (Revo), has declared it is mobilising all its student members to attend. Communist Students will be intervening as well, but not with the perspective of coming to a cosy accommodation - cooperation with ENS is for us entirely contingent on the outcome of the conference. No doubt other groups will at least send spies.
This brings us to the key question: imperialism. The AWL’s majority, as is well known, refuses to call for the withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, on a series of wholly spurious theoretical and not-so-theoretical bases. In fact the AWL has to be categorised as a social-imperialist organisation. It considers the presence of US-UK forces as somehow being progressive.
Both CS and Revo (and almost every other organised left group literally across the globe) are deeply opposed to the AWL majority’s line - Revo from an orthodox-Trotskyist position of ‘military support’ to the sundry anti-imperialist forces; CS from a perspective of forthright opposition to our ‘own’ imperialism and solidarity with those fighting for socialism in the region.
Moreover, at NUS conference in April, ENS put forward two AWL and two non-AWL members for executive elections. Asked if they would support a ‘Troops out now’ position, both the AWLers declined - but the others answered affirmatively. A small sample of ENS, to be sure, but nonetheless an indication among many that there is not much support outside the AWL for its scab position.
Should, then, CS or Revo propose a short and simple motion to the conference demanding, say, “the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all imperialist forces from Iraq and Afghanistan”, the balance of forces present may well be such that it is passed.
This outcome would be difficult for the AWL, but not a disaster - because we have still to discuss the elections to the new committee. Even if a well attended conference resolves to call for ‘Troops out now’, a committee composed primarily of social-imperialists could easily abort any actual actions based on the approved slogan. It would be embarrassed, but not in an overly difficult position.
Until now, this has basically been the method of the AWL in keeping the issue off the agenda. It has maintained a reasonable pretence of democracy, yet has railroaded ENS down the path of economistic campaigns (plus a couple of carefully vetted democratic demands), thereby effectively avoiding the possibility of fighting (let alone losing) an open battle on this question.
This brings us back to the “name/structure/statement of position” conglomerate. The very idea of limiting a proposal for a combined constitution and statement of aims to 500 words necessarily cripples the latter element, limiting it to either a more detailed discussion of one particular strategic point (which would inevitably, of course, be student economism), or a series of completely abstract and vague statements. The current ENS declaration combines the two, nailing a short platitude about human rights onto a series of mundane student demands.7 If the AWL has now effectively retreated from the 500-word limit by allowing motions (under duress from others on the left), it is nevertheless clear that it still aims to limit ENS to that kind of politics.
Communists are under no illusions about the aims and prospects of this conference. But sending a small team along is worthwhile. Here is a forum where we can expose the social-imperialist forces of the AWL - and the opportunity to argue for the changes need to transform ENS into an organisation with which communists can more generally cooperate.
The exact shape of the conference is still unconfirmed, and before the event itself there is at least one more planning meeting, on May 3 (which unfortunately coincides with Communist University North, jointly organised by CS and the CPGB).
We can say this though - if Reclaim the Campus does not resolve to call for immediate troop withdrawal, and elect a committee that is substantially and genuinely committed to this position, then there can be no possibility of cooperative relations with ENS, beyond limited unity around specific actions where there happens to be agreement. It is not the job of communists to provide left cover for imperialism - quite the opposite - and our involvement in this conference should be viewed in this light l
4. See ‘Low key rally’ Weekly Worker December 7 2006.
5. ‘Driven by ideas’ Weekly Worker February 14.
6. ‘The campus and the state’ Weekly Worker April 24.