Old wine, new bottles
On November 1, the Socialist Workers Party sealed its abandonment of Student Respect by launching an equally anodyne replacement. Dan Read and Dave Isaacson report
Most of the 150 or so student activists who gathered in London for the launch of Another Education Is Possible (AEIP) were members of the Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS). Also present were members of Communist Students (set up by the CPGB), Socialist Students (Socialist Party), Revolution (Workers Power’s youth group) and Education Not for Sale (the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty front organisation). A number of non-affiliated students were also present.
The conference was rather contradictory in its focus. On the one hand, in opposing our attempts to force the Marxists in the room to openly come out as such, leading SWP student organiser Rob Owen again and again emphasised the need to focus on “activism”, as opposed to any serious political debate - or, as he put it, discussing “a full socialist programme” for “this very new organisation”.
On the other hand, the opening speeches were very different from the usual ra-ra-ranting at such events. Paul Mackney, former joint general secretary of the University and College Union and now an advocate of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning (Call), and Alex Callinicos of the SWP were presumably supposed to provide some political weight and guidance to start us off.
In fact, AEIP will have no branches, no internal life, no publication. The only concrete action agreed upon was an “emergency demo” on November 14 to protest against the government’s plan to withdraw grants from over 40,000 students - and a commitment to organise a national speaking tour to highlight “the effects of capitalism on education”. Not much “activism” at all.
As for the politics, the SWP is obviously willing to identify the current financial crisis as a systemic failure. Comrade Callinicos spoke about the need to “build a viable left to challenge the system of capitalism itself, not some manifestation of it”. And conference proceeded to vote through a motion agreeing on the need to “challenge the priorities of the capitalist, profit-driven system”. Leading SWPer Sean Vernell even agreed with CS member Tina Becker that we should “try and spread Marxism as the leading ideology on campus” in the workshop on ‘Recession and resistance’. (In fact throughout the day a number of CS contributions were well received by individual SWPers.)
However, conference then went on to vote down our attempt to fill this formulation with concrete meaning - ie, by committing the new student grouping to the ideas of Marxism. Incidentally, it was not only the ‘Marxists’ of the SWP who voted against this. So too did Revo, Socialist Students and the AWL.
Unsurprisingly, the Respect debacle - the reason why the SWP now feels it necessary to launch a new student front - was not even mentioned. There is no desire for AEIP to become a vibrant, democratic student organisation - it just has to be the replacement for Student Respect.
Although the individual ‘workshops’ discussed key ideas such as the recession, climate change, imperialism and racism, this served no purpose - there was no attempt to draw up a programme for the organisation or even plans for concrete action. Indeed, the main session was a so-called debate between SWP student organiser Rob Owen and Wes Streeting, NUS president, on the question of NUS democracy - or rather the lack of it - and the proposed governance review.
However, comrade Owen did not even attempt to respond to Streeting’s points. It is clear that the SWP does not really have any answers to the attempt of the NUS bureaucracy to gut the ‘union’ of the last vestiges of democracy. It has no programme for a radical democratisation of the organisation, for example. In fact, the main motion prepared by the SWP comrades talks about how we “must fight for [the NUS] to return to being a democratic, campaigning student movement”.
When a CS comrade asked what kind of mythical period this was referring to - hadn’t the NUS always been riddled with Wes Streeting-type Labour careerists? - comrade Owen gave an evasive ‘yes and no’ answer: at least in the 1960s the NUS had been a lot better than today.
This answer reflects the SWP’s unwillingness to take democracy seriously, as CS member Ben Lewis pointed out. He said that Wes as an individual is not the problem: rather it was the “social layer” of bureaucrats that holds the movement back. What we need is for the left to unite around the principles of Marxism to defeat the “petty Bonaparts” and go on the offensive against the governance review by articulating a programme of radical democracy.
Crucially, this should insist on the accountability and recallability of all NUS officers, who should take home no more than the average skilled worker’s wage, and allow for full transparency in all matters. We should be clear what the NUS has always been - the plaything of would-be careerist politicians, with the left trying to get a foot in the door to promote its own (usually sectarian) agenda.
Whilst we should oppose the attacks from the NUS leadership, we should be under no illusions that a ‘left’ leadership would do much else - all of the rotten structures of the NUS must be overhauled. Our comrades also pointed out that this required that our movement be democratic to the core - it is easy to accuse Wes and his allies of being anti-democratic (which they are), but look at our own movement: stage-managed conferences without ample time for motions and politics, and a conscious replication of the NUS modus operandi. Both Education Not For Sale and Another Education Is Possible (don’t confuse them!) load their events with platform speeches and meaningless ‘workshops’, and reduce real debate to three-minute soundbites. Clearly, a long, hard look in the mirror is required …
The conference went on to vote down an equally uninspiring alternative to the SWP’s main motion submitted by Revolution - whose comrades also do not believe in fighting openly for socialism or Marxism, it seems.
Ditto the AWL, whose proposal for a set of alternative “campaigning priorities” is just as economistic as the SWP’s - but even further to the right: instead of the SWP’s “Freedom for Palestine” it contains the formulation “Solidarity with the Palestinians”. While the AWL seemed prepared to accept the bullet point calling for “Troops out now”, everyone was aware of the vicarious Zionism behind the attempt to swap one vague phrase for another in relation to Palestine. AWL members also made a big deal of the fact that their slightly longer version mentions “student-worker unity”, which is almost as empty a slogan as their oh-so-powerful anti-recession demand for a “workers’ government” (try asking an AWLer how this government is supposed to come about - the confused look on their face is priceless).
Introducing the Communist Students amendment on the need for a Marxist programme, Tina Becker quoted Alex Callinicos’s plea to challenge capitalism as a system. Surely, the current crisis requires an answer that goes beyond fiddling with aspects of the system, she said: “The vast majority of people in this room are Marxists - are we afraid to openly fight for what we believe is true?”
The SWP did not even have to put somebody up to speak against our amendment - the AWL’s front group, ENS, got there first. Incredibly, in a room full of self-proclaimed Marxists, the ENS comrade who spoke won a round of applause for stating that he was “not a Marxist”. Rather than seeking to win him to their politics, the SWP simply loved the fact that he said this, imagining him to be typical of thousands of others who they believe will join us if only we dumb down our politics. Despite Callinicos’s opening speech the SWP still seems to be in Respect mode.
The ENS comrade went on to deliver the usual line about how we should not “alienate” people by putting forward a political programme - any programme, presumably. Oddly, he was the very same comrade who had spoken against a similar motion we had put forward at the Education Not For Sale conference. All the members of purportedly Marxist organisations voted against our amendment (apart from AWL member Ed Maltby, who abstained).
CS member Chris Strafford put forward our second amendment, which would have committed AEIP to support Hands Off the People of Iran, as well as the Stop the War Coalition. SWP member Siobhan Brown got up and delivered what was clearly a prepared ‘speech’ containing many of the slanderous and nasty arguments made against Hopi previously.
Apparently, by answering the call for solidarity made by Iranian students, women’s and workers’ organisations, Hopi is “patronising the Iranian people”. She went on to repeat the lie that Hopi was trying to split the STWC and “consistently undermines its work”. Presumably, she was referring to Hopi’s unsuccessful attempt to affiliate to the coalition, which the SWP voted down.
Sarcasm aside, the large numbers of those voting against our amendments gave us a reminder of just how politically moribund the left is. The Hopi amendment was supported only by comrades from Socialist Students, whilst almost everyone else voted against. The social-imperialists from the AWL abstained.
Once this was done with, a pretty harmless amendment from Socialist Students (which specified the need for a socialist student group) was blown out of the water by the SWSS. As was a proposal by Revolution’s Luke Cooper to accept all 17 nominations for the AEIP committee (to be known, in true NUS style, as the ‘block of 10’). The unsurprising result: apart from ENS member Tom Wills (who is not in the AWL), the entire leadership is made up of SWP members and its close allies.
Two groups, no answers
With the split in Respect and a looming recession, the SWP is clearly suffering from a crisis of perspective. This event was simply an exercise in pouring old wine into new bottles. The need to examine our past was conspicuous only by its absence.
What further makes the event all the more preposterous is that we now find ourselves with two student groups with similar names and almost exactly the same politics - Another Education Is Possible and Education Not For Sale. The left cannot even unite around these insufficient and vague politics, let alone around a programme capable of providing the leadership we need.
The AWL wrote a pretty negative report of the conference and looks set to continue trying to plough its ENS furrow. ENS had caucused the day before the AIEP conference, but the AWL’s dwindling student forces found themselves outnumbered by comrades from Revo.
After enthusiastically supporting the ENS conference earlier this year, Revo is now enthusiastically supporting this SWP initiative. Once again it provides a “great opportunity” for an “anti-capitalist network” which can coordinate action. Revo obviously feels that by engaging with these fronts in a ‘positive’ way it is likely to at least get a hearing - its alternative motion, whilst much more leftist in its rhetoric, was based upon just the same method as the SWP’s proposal - don’t mention our programme for socialism for fear of putting off the masses. But isn’t it the masses that we want to win to socialism?
Hardly inspiring, given what is going on in the outside world. Unwilling to draw lessons from the past, the left wants its cadre to carry on regardless.
Ben Lewis witnessed SWP lack of confidence and elitism
Two incidents at Saturday’s AEIP conference provided an interesting insight into the SWP’s abysmal political culture and disdain for serious ideas.
After intervening in a debate at the workshop on climate change, I sold a copy of the Weekly Worker to a comrade from People and Planet, who was very interested in what I had said. She explained that she was new to the left and not organised in any political group. But she had been slightly unnerved by the complicated world of the left, and also how she had been told by the event organisers to avoid speaking to certain left groups like the “Heebee Geebees”, as they were apparently “mad”.
I said that if she meant the CPGB then she had just bought a paper off one of them. Rather shocked, she felt it necessary to apologise to me. I pointed out, though, that such is the narrowness of this approach that I should actually regard being ‘crazy’ as a badge of honour. She agreed and expressed genuine disbelief at how the Marxist ideas I had raised in the discussion could be dismissed as “mad”.
We had witnessed a similar example when queuing up to register for the conference. One young comrade was getting stuck into a leaflet issued by CS when the guy next to him interjected to say: “You’re not with them are you? They are actualy insane. Actually insane.”
This approach to politics belies both a complete lack of confidence in the SWP’s ideas and an elitist, almost contemptuous attitude towards newer comrades coming into our movement. Rather than fight openly and honestly, the SWP seeks to wall them off from other contending ideas (particularly ours) in order to ensure any recruits become unthinking, uncritical, activist grunts, who move from one ‘building’ project to the next.
Not only is such an attitude reactionary and the sheer antithesis of striving towards truth: it does not work. As Saturday showed, people thinking about politics are far more intelligent than the SWP leadership imagines them to be.