Keeping it broad backfires
Laurie McCauley reports on Saturday's 'student coordination' event
On April 18, around 70 student activists met at University College London for the ‘student coordination’ instigated by Revolution, the youth group of Workers Power.
Though 70 people is not bad for a new student left initiative - testament to the impact of the university occupations over Gaza in radicalising students - it is a long way from the kind of numbers we need to be drawing to national events. There was a surprisingly high proportion of unaffiliated activists and anarchists, and only around half of those present were from the organised Marxist left. As well as Revolution, there were contingents from Communist Students, Education Not for Sale (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) and the Socialist Workers Party (who recently set up Another Education is Possible).
All but CS were agreed, though, that revolutionary politics is off the agenda. In its initial call, Revo deliberately set up the conference to be as politically lightweight as possible, making no mention of revolutionary politics, or any politics at all really.1 The AWL leaders of ENS were rather indifferent to the call at first, but ended up sending a fairly sizeable delegation after it became clear that more than a few were going to turn up. Yet surprisingly for a conference which came out of the occupations, there was no time scheduled for a genuine discussion on Palestine for everyone to take part in - just a small workshop which lacked any sort of direction.
You did get the impression that the organisers themselves sometimes did not have a clear idea of what they wanted to do. Although chair Jo Casserly (Revo) suggested motions should be motivated in the morning session, this would not follow any formal structure. However, this was all irrelevant in the end anyway (see below).
The first session featured Jean-Baptiste from France’s New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), an activist at Nanterre University. The comrade told us about the quite impressive student coordination in France, which has had some success in battling the commercialisation of education, but warned that people were disappointed that few demands had been met and support could drop off. He talked about the Bologna process, an initiative by several European countries to standardise their higher education systems, and suggested that comrades attend a counter-summit in Belgium on April 25.2 The comrade also talked about the Emancipating Education for All network which has been set up internationally.
Comrade Jean-Baptiste’s speech was followed by a completely unstructured debate. It was initially unclear whether we would simply ask questions of him, have a discussion, or motivate motions. Workers’ Liberty member Ed Maltby set the tone though, getting rather carried away by claiming that what had happened in France was now happening in Britain. This is pretty far from the truth - their student coordination had mass involvement - and while there was much talk from both the AWL and Revo on emulating students in France, Germany and Greece, they did not acknowledge the fact that relative success in such countries is largely the result of a much wider spread of socialist consciousness, roots and ideas.
Instead of revolutionary unity, both organisations went on about ‘building the movement’. Of course, what they generally aim to do is build their own little section thereof. Ironically, comrade Jean-Baptiste had pointed out the problems of little organisations trying to build themselves, as opposed to what he referred to as “the movement”.
Comrade Dan Randall (AWL) said that free education and other issues were class questions and said the movement should be ‘anti-capitalist’. Yet, as Karl Marx pointed out in the Communist manifesto, there are many ‘socialisms’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ perspectives. Communist Student Mohsen Sabbagh argued that we have to articulate a vision of a genuinely democratic alternative to positively supersede capitalism - the revolutionary democratic programme of Marxism.
Not that this was to be even discussed - Workers Power openly declare that they share the same ‘broad front’ method as the AWL, making clear that their vision for a student network is ENS without the social imperialism3. Luke Cooper (Workers Power) told us that the occupations and the G20 demonstrations were “just the start of what we can achieve together”. Rhetorically asking how we unlock that potential on “broader issues”, the comrade enjoined us to “keep it broad”. In the breaks between sessions, WP members were arguing that the coordination was a united front in the Marxist sense, a laughable suggestion. United fronts are temporary alliances with reformist trends aiming for working class action as a whole to achieve particular goals. As such, they allowed the communist parties to directly speak to and influence those workers still under the sway of social democratic parties.
Marxists should aim to be at the centre of all struggles and can work in united fronts, but they should do so as honest participants. Consciously setting up something they know to be insufficient is a different thing altogether. If unity - even on a soft-left basis - is truly desired, why do we have at least four student left unity projects with almost identical politics? Because of the underhand approach of the leftsects to ‘the movement’ in general, which involves diluting one’s own politics to set up ‘networks’ and constituting oneself as the ‘revolutionary minority’ (the small force that is secretly driving the ‘bigger wheel’) in the hope of getting a few recruits. Each group treats Marxism as its own personal property, to be transmitted to a cherry-picked few from its student fronts. This is not the culture we need to create the rounded and critically thinking revolutionaries of tomorrow. We need free and open debate on crucial questions of organisation and international solidarity.
Speaking of which ...
Don’t mention the war!
Revolution’s report of the event4 is very much in line with the soft, consensual and apolitical manner in which it approached the coordination: “Needless to say, with so many different people with so many different ideas, ideologies and perspectives, there was bound to be disagreement, but for the most part people kept it civil and the overwhelming mood was that unity in action should be sought to achieve common goals.”
But what common goals? Let us take a look at the issue that sparked the whole thing: Gaza. Whereas Workers Power and Revo call for “Victory to the resistance!”, leading members of the AWL have said that “Israel has a point” (Mark Osborn) in its war on Gaza and characterised it as a two-sided genuine conflict of ‘right against right’. Leaving aside AWL guru and self-confessed Zionist Sean Matgamna’s rants on the “clerical fascism” of the Gaza solidarity demonstrations, in the AWL’s increasingly irrational world view, anyone who supports the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland is automatically anti-semitic and wants to drive the Jews into the sea!
In the discussion CS member Ben Lewis wondered how there could be any meaningful coordination between those who support the Zionist state of Israel and those who call for victory to Hamas without maintaining some sort of diplomatic silence. This certainly caused some commotion, but was left unanswered. No, no, we have to “keep it civil” and “achieve common goals” (ie, fudge).
Our motion5 attempted to outline the politics of proletarian internationalism for the Israel/Paelstine conflict - for a working class foreign policy to combine the struggles of the Palestinian masses, the British working class and also Israeli anti-Zionists. We were clear that imperialism is the greatest enemy of all peoples of the world and that we should be for its defeat. At the same time, we should be clear that Hamas offers no way out for the Palestinian masses.
The AWL motion on Israel-Palestine recognised the rights of both peoples to self-determination but cunningly avoided mentioning imperialism and our attitude to it. Similarly Revo’s motion limited its aims to fighting for a “Free Gaza”. The form that our solidarity took - whether it should be implacably based on the defeat of imperialism’s project in the Middle East, as our motion proposed - did not seem to matter.
After the opening plenary the conference split up into diversionary workshops on the occupations in colleges, climate change and free education.
In the workshop on free education Ed Maltby described the invasion of Gaza as an “esoteric” issue. He argued that we should focus more on “grassroots” questions like free education. Not that solidarity with the oppressed of the world is matter that concerns and dynamises students at a grassroots level. I would love to hear Ed’s explanation of exactly which properties of a 1,000lb bomb are “esoteric”, but these sorts of comments belie a twisted, patronising and thoroughly economistic view of students and workers that the AWL holds - students can only be motivated by ‘real’, ‘class struggle’, ‘trade union’ type demands for free education and grants.
This not only leads to terrible politics, but actually does not make any sense at all. Whereas only a few hundred students marched recently for free education, many thousands of students took the streets to oppose Israel’s murder of Gazans. And quite understandably too. Proposals in the workshops were not voted on, the chair assessing a consensus and putting the favoured position to the final plenary (for further consensus), rather than having all suggestions argued out and democratically voted on in front of the whole conference.
Debate in the free education workshop was also curtailed halfway through, the Revo chair deciding to take only (entirely ‘ideology’-free) action proposals. Again a fudge with a post-modern twist, and one which used the extremely anti-democratic consensus ‘principle’ to reach it.
The total avoidance of Marxism by all comrades apart from CS and the playing to the soft anarchism which was very much present no doubt both contributed directly to the farce of the final plenary. In a delectably ironic twist, a proposal to not actually take the submitted motions from one comrade won by 35 votes to 30. Who voted for taking the motions? Overwhelmingly the organised left - not that we should be ‘talking to ourselves’ or anything, eh?
This is what makes the Revo report even more ridiculous: “Communist Students’ representatives emphasised the need for Marxist unity, ignoring the fact that many people there weren’t Marxists. Needless to say their proposal didn’t sit too well with the majority of the room.” It was precisely the people who wanted to (on the surface at least) discuss politics and formulate some sort of policy to unite around that were the purported Marxists!
Leading SWP member Hanif Leybali spoke in favour of no motions - arguing that we should vote on ‘action points’ coming from the workshops, as this was after all a “coordination for networking” and we needed “consensus”. Workers Power’s Simon Hardy defended hearing motions eloquently, arguing that we were here “because of politics”. Simon was actually heckled by a few people from the floor: “No! We came here for coordination!” AWL student leader Sacha Ismail argued that we do not need to decide whether to be “for two states” or whether “Zionism is the greatest enemy of the peoples of the world” - this being his pathetic attempt to ‘understand’ our politics.
Even some members of Revo voted against taking motions, illustrating Workers Power’s entirely opportunistic recruitment of anarchist-leaning students and avoidance of the crucial questions of programme and Marxist education. Instead of motions, only ‘action proposals’ (undemocratically coming from the workshops and gutted of political content) were taken and the plenary became an entirely uncontroversial and repetitive discussion on tactics, rather than the interesting and much needed space for debate on politics and the sort of unity we need. Hence, apart from the confused and directionless discussion in the first plenary, politics was not debated in front of the whole conference at all.
No organisation has been established which could provide some sort of alternative to the dull and uninspiring (not to mention almost identical) Another Education Is Possible, Education Not for Sale or Campaign to Defeat Fees - despite Revo’s lofty pretensions of a “decent start to building a new student movement”. The meeting ended having agreed nothing concrete in terms of either political standpoint, organisation or plans for the future - other than an action around the Universities UK conference on May 7 and more national coordinations in June and October. But what these are meant to be doing is left open. You can bet your bottom dollar it will have nothing to do with politics though and a strategy to get to unity by actually openly articulating, discussing and debating our differences instead of hiding them away.
Revo sum up our approach as wanting “to base everything on Marxism, unwilling to take serious steps towards joint action on key issues unless the Marxists agree to unite first”. At least they share something with Sacha Ismail – an utter inability (or lack of willingness) to grasp what we actually say.
What a complete and utter failure. The occupation movement was inspiring. At a time when student politics looked down in the doldrums, students moved into politics and were looking for answers, ready to discuss big ideas, wanting to listen, learn and debate.
But once more it looks like the incredibly apolitical opportunism of the left sects could scupper what was a chance of deepening the organisation and politics of this movement - radicalising it and creating something long-lasting. Activists influenced by anarchist and anti-globalisation ideas are often (rightly) repelled by the ‘democratic’ (read bureaucratic) centralism and sectarianism of the left. But avoiding debate and organisational structures entirely can only achieve an empty unity with no political clout or direction. Any structure is, of course, open to abuse, and to prevent this we need accountability and a democratic culture of free debate, where minorities can speak freely and openly (take heed, Workers Power - it might prevent the next split) and become the majority.
Free debate is a requirement for both sustainable unity and effective political action - both bureaucratic centralism and apolitical activism are alien to the Marxist method. At a time when capitalism is in crisis and bourgeois democracy looks more and more of a sham, it is incumbent upon genuine Marxists to fight for a revolutionary youth organisation based upon the politics of Marxism.
5. Our motion can be read at: communiststudents.org.uk/files/cs-coordination-leaflet.pdf