Students need Marxism

Communist Students puts forward the only politics that can emancipate humanity. Chris Strafford reports

On April 26 members of Communist Students gathered in central London to thrash out our perspectives for the coming period and to look critically at our work over the last year.

In spite of numerous apologies because of exams, essays and poor options for Sunday travel, over 20 comrades attended. Conference was opened by outgoing executive member Nick Jones, who reported on our activity over the past 12 months - not least the inspiring pro-Gaza occupations that spread across the UK. Comrade Jones also looked at various CS interventions within the student movement and our impact on the organised left, where we have consistently posed the need for Marxism in opposition to broad movementism. Although we are not exactly popular with the left groups, we have made modest progress in terms of influence and support over the last year. Comrade Jones also discussed our weaknesses, referring to our “sloppiness” in relation to NUS work, and called for a more systematic approach.

Capitalism in crisis

The first discussion was on the ‘Capitalist crisis and the tasks of communists’. I opened up the debate by giving a quick overview of the economic crisis and the response of the bourgeoisie.

We can see that across the world there have been profound repercussions, with an increase in unemployment and poverty, especially in the peripheral countries, as the capitalist metropoles attempt to offload the crisis onto the ‘third world’. One of the most striking examples is Pakistan, which has been used by the imperialists to further the so-called ‘war on terror’. Pakistan’s budget is unsustainably geared towards military spending, leaving large sections of the population in poverty and without basic services in many areas.

I argued that communists have two key tasks in the coming period: firstly to put forward a coherent solution to the crisis - millions are looking for answers and alternatives following the ideological blow suffered by capitalism. Whilst many on the left are putting forward reformist and nationalist responses, CS insists on working class socialism. As the pro-Gaza occupations demonstrated, students will respond to the big political questions - they are hungry for global answers and should not be fobbed off with ‘student issues’ alone.

It is important not to isolate ourselves and to ensure that we continue to participate in joint actions and campaigns with others on the left and those who constitute the semi-anarchist milieu. However, unlike others, we will not seek to trick people by hiding our politics - we will continue to put forward the only politics that can move our movement forward: Marxism.

Our movement is in desperate need of an organisation that can carry out the fight for socialism effectively: that is, we need a Communist Party and students too need to build a Marxist organisation able to incorporate different tendencies and traditions. CS is already such an organisation in microcosm - we should be confident that our ideas will continue to reach a wider audience.

The discussion which followed flagged up differences within the organisation over the emphasis of our work - should it be based on engaging with the organised left or do we need to shift towards greater campus activity and winning individual students who are not necessarily involved in the movement?

Gaza occupations

The final session of the morning was kicked off by Cat Rylance, who gave a talk on the occupation movement that swept the UK in solidarity with the people of Gaza, who were being subjected to a barbaric blockade and military assault.

The occupations had developed confidence among those taking part and a national network of support and advice sprung up via the internet. Speaking of her own involvement at the University of Manchester, comrade Rylance described how the occupation had generated support from unions and staff as well as fellow students - solidarity was offered in the shape of food and a range of other necessities. Security guards had put their jobs on the line when they refused to film activists and gather information which could be used in disciplinaries - which were being threatened by the obnoxious and at times stupid university management.

One of the features which concerned comrade Rylance was the generalised hostility towards the organised left because of the actions of groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, which is widely regarded as attempting to manipulate situations to its own advantage. Communists should work in such campaigns openly and honestly, while at the same time trying to convince people of the value and necessity of Marxism.

During the discussion many comrades spoke of their experience during the occupations. John Sidwell, who was involved at Kings College University, bemoaned the stifling of debate by the SWP when leading anti-Zionist, professor Moshé Machover, spoke at the occupation. Comrades from Sheffield reported the open and democratic atmosphere that had developed - despite the attempts by Socialist Action to close down debate and end the occupation prematurely.

Ben Lewis argued that Gaza had become a symbol and a uniting factor for the movement. He noted that throughout our history the big politics and international struggles such as Vietnam have always been able to mobilise students more than issues such as fees.

All contributors touched in some way on the aftermath of the occupation movement and the political confusion that was witnessed at the student coordination event, which had been organised by Revolution, Workers Power’s youth group, afterwards. Everyone except CS was happy to tail and subordinate themselves to a layer of semi-anarchist students. As a result there will be very little to show for the occupations in terms of an organisation that can provide leadership over the coming period.

Communism in the classroom

16 year-old school student Callum Williamson, now the youngest member of our executive, gave an excellent talk on the nature of education under capitalism, raising the necessity of critical thought and the promotion of communist ideas. He spoke about how young people are refused democratic rights and are fed history and ideas without being encouraged to critically think about them.

One area where he thought communists should be taking a lead is on the fight for voting rights for 16-year-olds - at the moment it is the Liberal Democrats who have been campaigning for this. Comrade Williamson also commented on the establishment and expansion of youth councils across the country and the so-called youth parliament, through which the establishment hoped to keep politically thinking students firmly within the mainstream. He explained how these bodies attempt to restrict campaigning and controversy to such vital questions as local recycling schemes.

During the discussion comrades encouraged the school students present to take a lead in organising their own campaign rather than relying on university students to do it for them. Many spoke about their experiences of coming into politics whilst at school though the anti-war movement. Sachin Sharma discussed his role in coordinating school strikes in Leeds through the now defunct SWP school student front, Spark, and the creation of unofficial school newspapers.

Everyone was agreed that CS should act as a facilitator for autonomous school student groups, helping them with materials and ideas.

Divisions and debate

The second half of the day was given over to discussing various motions and the election of a new executive.

Ben Lewis moved the first motion drafted by the executive, which outlined the direction of our work under conditions of capitalist crisis. It committed CS to continue building up support for Marxism on campuses, encouraging other left organisations to take revolutionary unity seriously and organising a day school on the crisis as well as a summer camp. At these events differences on Palestine and other issues will be discussed in a thorough and sharp way. The motion was unanimously agreed.

The second motion came from Sheffield CS, which centred on the need to tighten up our organisation and laid out some general guidelines for branches - they should elect a secretary who would coordinate and report back to the executive. This too was passed unanimously.

I moved the motion from Manchester which sought to amend the constitution to ensure that young communists who are not necessarily students are welcome to join and take part, and accepted that branches could be organised in a wider locality when the necessary forces to create campus branches do not exist.

Comrade Lewis argued that basing our branches in a town or city would not enable us to intervene in the campaigns that develop on a particular campus. He did not want to codify the experience of the London CS branch, which brings together communist students from across the capital in the absence of an active base of support in any one college. He argued that Manchester CS, which has comrades from the three universities, should aim for separate branches on each campus. He moved an amendment deleting “localities” from the motion.

Nick Jones discussed the unique position of the London branch, which has no grounding on a particular campus, as in Manchester or Sheffield. Comrade Jones argued that London should aim to change that situation as quickly as possible. However, Dave Isaacson could not see the basis of comrade Lewis’s objections, as the motion merely brought the constitution into line with current practice - it is where we are organisationally. But he also thought that splitting up Manchester CS, which had been working efficiently, would be “madness”. That did not mean there should be a shift away from campus activity. The amendment fell and the motion was passed by a sizeable majority.

One of the most interesting debates was sparked off by the motion submitted by Cat Rylance, opposing an “anthropocentric view of the world” which denied animal rights. Comrade Rylance spoke about the treatment of animals in capitalist production and the dehumanising effect that has on people as well as the ecological impact of heavy farming and agriculture. This triggered a wide-ranging discussion on whether animals can have rights, on food production, humanism and whether it is necessary for a communist organisation to take a position on this issue. Dave Isaacson pointed out that Marxism was by its nature “anthropocentric”.

An amendment submitted by Laurie McCauley, which replaced the entire motion with a practical suggestion for an ongoing debate and the production of a discussion document, was passed. CS will now seek to organise discussions internally and with comrades outside the group to clarify our views on this and then decide whether we should adopt a position.

The final two motions were passed unanimously. The first was from outgoing executive member Tina Becker that committed CS to back Hands Off the People of Iran’s ‘Smash the Sanctions’ campaign. The second was on the National Union of Students and its destruction of what was left of democratic organs. It committed the organisation to develop our NUS work by allocating one member to take prime responsibility for it and mandated the executive to create a programme for the NUS, including winning NUS affiliation to Hopi.

Comrade McCauley gave the closing speech. He stressed that we have a lot of work to do, but we should be confident nevertheless. We are unique amongst the student left, in that we openly and consistently put forward the only politics that can emancipate humanity: Marxism. CS will continue to work within other campaigns and build actions up and down the country. It will continue to fight for working class socialism and democracy.