Organising for an alternative vision

Student unions are not like trade unions, argues Mike Macnair. Unity must be built primarily around politics, not 'student issues'

Across England and Wales university students are starting their courses with ‘freshers weeks’ and existing students are returning. The Scots universities have already started. Autumn 2010 saw large, militant demonstrations against the new arrangements for university fees and a broad wave of student occupations, which petered out over the Christmas vacation. This year Edinburgh University anti-cuts campaigners have kicked off with an occupation against the Scots government’s plan to charge fees to English students at Scottish universities. This is a narrow issue which is not likely to relight the anti-fees movement.

Meanwhile, last year’s president of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, has set himself up in business as a consultant advising universities on the “challenges and opportunities” of the new funding regime, at the relatively very low rate for management consultants of £125 an hour. If university managements have any sense the business will fail.

Will there be student militancy this year? And, if so, about what? Fees? Cuts and department closures? Room rents? Or, as in the wave of occupations in January 2009 over the Israeli attack on Gaza, some international issue? The answer is that both whether there will be student militancy and, if so, what the trigger will be, is quite unpredictable.

The left

In spite of its aspiration to organise the workers’ vanguard and lead the working class as a whole, the British far left is heavily involved in student politics and dependent on student recruitment. This has been the case since the 1960s.

The dominant approach of the far left to student politics is borrowed from its approach to the trade unions. The idea is that the National Union of Students and the individual student unions in the universities and colleges can be considered as in some sense analogous to a trade union. In a trade union the left can organise in the first instance round making the union do its job of defending members’ interests properly - conceived as mobilising the members rather than selling out to management. This is the formal basis of the various ‘broad left’ formations in the unions.

Transposed into student politics, this approach has been markedly unsuccessful. The latest incarnation is the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which grew after last autumn’s occupations. It attracted around 100 to its June conference ... and accusations that it had been hijacked by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.[1] A ‘left slate’ of candidates at the NUS conference in March did badly: the AWL, unsurprisingly, claims that this results from the fact that the slate was stitched up between the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Action group’s Student Broad Left, and that it adopted minimalist policy ideas.[2]

The reality is that student politics is markedly unlike trade union politics. On the one hand, student militancy is not primarily concerned with students’ direct material interests: the 2010 movement against higher fees was about future, not present, students; the movement round the attack on Gaza campaign was even more obviously altruistic. In addition, though students in the ‘new universities’ and colleges are hardest hit by government ‘education reforms’, the wave of occupations of autumn 2010, though it did include some of these institutions, remained centred in the ‘old universities’.

On the other hand, student politics is very episodic in character: a year-cohort may be very militant, but then give up as rapidly as it mobilised. The converse of this is that the apparatus of the student unions and the NUS is under at most highly episodic pressure from their ‘base’, and the politics of the NUS conference and elections are even further removed from the concerns of the ‘membership’ than trade union equivalents. Why?

The necessary first step in approaching the issue is to grasp theoretically the political economy of the class location and dynamics of students under developed capitalism. Secondly, grasping the dynamics of student politics requires an understanding of the relationship between universities and the state.


To begin with political economy and class. It is a bad error of ‘new left’, ‘Hegelian Marxist’ readings of Marx, to imagine that the tendency inherent in capitalism towards polarisation of society into two antagonistic classes is completed and hence that everybody is either bourgeois or proletarian. It is true that the antagonism of the two polar classes is the fundamental dynamic element in the social order. But there remains an extensive middle stratum in the society: the petty proprietors, a class as a class owning some means of production, but insufficient to merely live off the labour of others. This class takes the form mainly of peasants and artisans in the ‘third world’; mainly of managers, professionals, etc, in the ‘first world’.

What almost invariably goes along with reduction of class relations to the two polar classes is that, in spite of the ‘Hegelian Marxism’ of this view, its supporters fail to grasp the interpenetration of the classes. There is, as Marx put it in Theories of surplus value, a wage element in the capitalist’s receipt of surplus value. Conversely, every worker who is paid more than bare subsistence costs receives an element of the social surplus product in the wage. The classes are in that sense interpenetrated.

This, in turn, leads to a fundamental point that Hal Draper makes in his Karl Marx’s theory of revolution (volume 2: Politics of social classes). The proletariat shades into the middle class and the middle class shades into the bourgeoisie. Skilled workers are proletarians in a certain sense, but can become petty bourgeois. Certain sorts of information technology specialists, for example, can move very rapidly between working for somebody as skilled workers and working as consultants selling services, as opposed to their labour-power.

An associated problem is that of ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ labour. At a very basic level of the material division of labour addressed by pre-Marxist political economists, this distinction revolves around whether what is produced increases the total material surplus product - particularly food, etc. Yet under capitalism productive labour is more accurately defined - as Marx in places defines it - as labour which produces profit. Marx says, for example, that a singer who sings for her own pleasure is not working productively, yet a singer who sings for a capitalist selling musical performances is a productive worker: she is producing surplus value for that capitalist.[3]

Another point follows from this. The singer’s skills, which make her performances saleable, are, under capitalism, means of production. They can be used to produce profit. It is for this reason that the IT specialists may be able to exploit their skill to set up independent businesses. But even if they do not do so their wages may include an element of rent: the capitalist who employs them is not only hiring labour-power, but is also hiring the worker’s intellectual property.


Within this framework, how are students and universities located? The best way to start is to take the example of BPP - a private, profit-making organisation that was relatively recently authorised to issue degrees in accountancy and law. BPP is selling to its clients - the students - a body of intellectual property rights which take the form of access to the guild corporate knowledge of lawyers or accountants. The acquisition of those intellectual property rights will enable students to take up jobs as trainee solicitors, trainee accountants, and so on. Potentially, when they have completed their training, they can then become petty proprietors selling legal or accountancy services on the market.

They will not all do so. For example, around 50% of those who get law degrees will go on into the profession. Around half of those will not go beyond being employed as assistant solicitors or other employed lawyers, and in substance these people are skilled workers. The other half will go into business themselves (a very few ascending to the heights of partnership in one of the global mega-law firms, becoming part of the capitalist class).

BPP employs academics, maintenance staff, cleaners, etc - all of whom they exploit in what is a perfectly normal market operation. The relationship between BPP and the students to whom it charges fees, in contrast, is simply that of the purchase of a service - ie, it is not a class antagonism. That is not just true of BPP - it does not make any difference to the nature of the underlying political-economic relationship that most of higher education is provided by endowed charities and state institutions. The student of higher education is buying a skill.

What of humanities students? Where do degrees lead them? They lead to the ‘milk rounds’, the employers’ hiring fairs, and then to managerial, professional or administrative jobs. Being a student sometimes permits you to climb the ladder or the greasy pole to improve your assets as a trader - whether that is simply as a seller of labour-power plus rent for skills, or as a small business operator.

Not everybody is actually going to succeed in this, nor does any particular degree automatically lead to this outcome. At one of my former employers, for a large chunk of law graduates the ‘first employment destination’ turned out to be in fast-food services. Not all students are going to end up as skilled white-collar workers. Yet it remains the case that the transaction between the student and universities, in substance, is the sale of exploitable intellectual property by the university to the student.

What are the consequences of this? Firstly, students are not a class and do not form a fraction of a class either. In the first place they are not a fraction of the working class because a section of them are going to wind up elsewhere. Not all students are going to wind up in the middle class either. Further, the student-university relationship is not that of the worker and exploiter. Being a student is a life-cycle position. Being hard up as a student is also a life-cycle position - a gamble on getting better off at the end of the day. In substance this is the same thing as an apprenticeship. Although the relationship between students and staff is hierarchical, it is not one of class antagonism.

The relationship between the students and the administration is no more of a class-antagonistic relationship than when I go into Tesco to buy food. Surplus is not extracted from students, unless in the case where the degree being ‘sold’ is useless and does not get anybody anywhere. But this case is no different in principle from any other fraudulent sale of worthless goods.

Hence, the social relations of which students are part do not in themselves support a mass movement around students’ material conditions. That is not just a matter of there being no relationship of class antagonism: it is also a matter of the diversity of material existence for students being so great: science students spending hours in labs have very different lives to humanities students.

Amongst workers, of course, there is also diverse life experience. It is very different to work for Barclays Bank as a clerk or even as a cleaner than it is to work as a miner. Yet there is class antagonism between the worker and the employer, and this creates common ground for permanent trade union organisations. However, the social relations that students enter into mean that their material conditions and interests themselves do not provide the basis for student politics.

Universities and state

What does provide the basis for student politics is the second point: the relationship between universities and the state. The universities in the modern sense were promoted in 19th-century Germany as part of state-building and student politics emerges alongside this process. Student politics did not appear in the English system until much later - in fact there were no universities in the modern sense in England until the later 19th century, with major reforms to Oxford and Cambridge and the emergence of the ‘red brick’ civic universities. The same goes for the USA. It is only in the later 19th century that there came into being systematised institutions with exams, etc - and alongside this the emergence of student politics.

What drives the emergence of modern universities is the expansion of the state bureaucracy. The idea emerges that a bigger state bureaucracy is needed and that this requires more people trained to take up managerial and administrative positions. The fact that the institutional form emerges in Germany is actually an accident - the multiplicity of statelets in 18th-century Germany created duplicate bureaucracies, and the different principalities had been competing to set up academic institutions. In France, in contrast, the grandes écoles were set up to provide training for the state bureaucracy and the form of the modern university spreads from there to the university sector. Everybody else copied these forms.

The jobs which the universities were training students to do as bureaucrats or colonial officials did not involve specialist skills like running a lathe or simply general literacy, but rather the skill of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.

To train in this very general skill, what is required is that students are brought into artificial conditions of uncertainty: in the sense of debating issues to which there is no straightforward, ‘orthodox’ answer. How this was done was by building on the teaching of the classics. We spread the teaching and researching of classics into the teaching of history, modern languages, national literature, etc. This was possible because precisely in the study of the classics there is uncertainty about what these old texts mean. We artificially create that uncertainty by promoting debate within the universities - otherwise known as ‘academic freedom’.

In due course, employment of graduates in the state bureaucracy came to be supplemented by employment in corporate bureaucracies as well. The demand is still premised on this skill of making decisions in conditions of uncertainty, where there is not an obvious answer. The techniques of developing the skill remain the same.

This is why we continue to see the existence of humanities subjects, which are of no direct use to capital or the state. It is the skills these studies develop which are in demand from employers. It is also why we continue to have a degree of academic freedom; and why humanities and social science students are encouraged to read ideas which are well outside the political consensus, from the right as well as from the left, and to argue contrary and divergent positions.

That in turn has the consequence that there is student political life in those universities which have large humanities departments. Their studies themselves encourage humanities and social science students to think outside the tramlines of conventional politics. In the ‘hard sciences’, in contrast, much more emphasis in placed on the acquisition of specific knowledge and specific skills. In institutions dominated by this sort of specific (scientific, technical and pure vocational) training activities, there is not an independent and inherent dynamic towards student politics.

Training careerists

A subset of this activity is the development and training of the next generation of the ‘political class’ - not really a class, but a social stratum - of corrupt careerist politicians who monopolise electoral representation. Before the ascendancy of trade unions and Labourism, this role was mainly played by the Oxford and Cambridge Unions and similar debating societies in other universities (the Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies are a late survivors of a form which used to be widespread). These institutions mimic the procedures of parliament.

Since World War II the bourgeoisie has ruled with the support of the labour bureaucracy. Hence, we also see in student politics an institutional mimic of the labour bureaucracy in the form of the student unions. In Britain, these are not, in fact, trade unions in any sense. They are in substance state-sponsored cooperatives, whose structures mimic those of the labour bureaucracy. In France ‘student unions’ are appendages to the political parties or union confederations that have sponsored them, mimicking the party-divided character of the French trade union movement.

The National Union of Students thus plays the role of a training ground for the next generation of political professionals and bureaucrats. Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, for example, were both presidents of the NUS. Lesser examples are very numerous.

Radical student unionism and the wave of occupations in the 1970s could be described as the ideological mimicking of workers’ action against the Industrial Relations Act, etc.

Driven by ideas

In order to train students in the abilities they will need to be successful politicians, labour bureaucrats, administrators, civil servants and so on, it is necessary to open up the range of political ideas that can be discussed. A consequence of this is student politics. However, this politics is not primarily driven by student material interests, but by ideas.

Another consequence is that groups which are marginal to the mainstream political consensus can have much larger representation in student politics. Higher education in the arts and social sciences precisely involves thinking outside the range of the consensus, in order to create artificial uncertainty. It is impossible to do this educational job and not encourage students to consider ‘extreme’ political ideas.

Precisely because student politics is driven by ideas, it can equally be the case that it is a centre of the left (as it has been in recent years in Tehran) or of the right (as has happened in Caracas recently). In fact, one of the big bases of the German Nazis was on campuses - the Communist Party of Germany, in contrast, was much weaker among students in the 1920s. There is no natural affinity of student politics with the left. There is, however, an opening in which it is possible to intervene - even on a mass scale - on the basis of ideas. This can be seen in the influence on students of the ideas of radical trade unionism of the 1970s, in the ideas of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Vietnam campaign in the middle and the end of the 1960s and, for that matter, the ideas of ‘identity politics’ (and the associated ascendancy of ‘postmodernism’ in the academy) that were prevalent in the 1980s and early 1990s.


I wrote much of the theoretical argument I have just made in February 2008, with a view to opening a discussion on the issue.[4] There was not then a great deal in the way of critical response. Comrade James Turley made some criticisms within a framework of partial agreement at the Communist Students conference that month and wrote up his argument for the Weekly Worker in April.[5] Ed Maltby offered a sharp attack, in response to Communist Students’ intervention at the ‘Reclaim the campus’ conference of the AWL’s Education Not for Sale front, in his AWL blog in May 2008.[6]

Comrade Turley drew attention to a number of tendencies towards local conflicts between students and university managements: over room rents; over department closures and privatisations (in Glasgow, a long-running occupation over the closure of a building finally won at least nominal concessions from the university management in August[7]); and over speech and behaviour controls (drugs; monitoring of Islamists; in the past, as in May 68, sex issues). He also suggested that these tendencies can support the production of solidarity between students and campus workers, who are in a class-antagonistic relationship to university managements.[8]

He concluded: “What there is not, however, is any objective tendency towards a generalised national campaign on immediate material issues. However dismal things get on particular campuses, unity on a national scale must take the form of unity around ideas. There is no short cut: students need to be activated as political agents as such, not as fighters in an imaginary class struggle.”

Paradoxically, this claims more than my original article did. It is perfectly possible - as the fees movement in autumn 2010 showed - for student militancy to be activated by a ‘student issue’ on a national as well as on a local scale.

Comrade Turley’s other points are legitimate; and I did not mean in my original article to suggest that student communists should not take such struggles seriously. My fundamental points were the limited ones that student unions are not in any useful sense analogous to trade unions, with the result that ‘student trade unionism’ and student broad leftism do not have the sort of purchase that broad leftism has in the trade unions; that student activism can be (as in Caracas recently or in inter-war Germany) a base for the right, not the left; and that student militancy is as likely to be activated by issues affecting the society as a whole as by ones affecting students as such - this was shown by the movement around the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009 (or, for that matter, student mobilisation round the anti-war movement in 2002-04).

Ed Maltby’s piece was a typical piece of AWL frothing-at-the-mouth polemic. Nonetheless, it is very symptomatic of the internal logic of the thinking of the far left on this issue (though, as we will see below, the Socialist Workers Party is rather more sophisticated). After the initial hyperbole it contains two elements. The first is a misreading of Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What is to be done?, which is more or less standard and not worth discussing here.[9] The second is a positive argument for the AWL’s approach through its ENS front.

We are told, first, that “Of course students have common material interests, which are under threat at the national level as the result of the government’s politics - in the UK notably the lifting of the cap on fees - and there is a huge potential for massive student movements around these demands!” - and that “events in student movements from France to Canada to west Africa (not to mention the 1990s Campaign for Free Education in this country) prove the exact opposite - that the major student movements of today, the ones that are really threatening to governments, are concerned with students’ conditions of life.”

Secondly, “a large number of local, individual struggles are brewing which need to be taken up, but also ... these individual attacks all form part of a general, political strategy on the part of the capitalist class and its government; and ... the only way that these battles can be successfully won is through a national student strike movement based on the French model, to inflict a national defeat on the government.”

These words were written in May 2008. In January 2009 a substantial movement of student militancy broke out - not around immediate ‘economic’ issues affecting students, but around the Israeli attack on Gaza. Meanwhile, Sarkozy’s ‘reforms’ were not defeated by the mass movement, but merely delayed.

Comrade Maltby proposed a two-stage approach. First, build a mass militant movement around “material” or “economic” issues, leading to a national student strike movement. Only once such a movement has been built can socialists intervene in it to fight for their ideas. This two-stage conception is reflected in AWL students’ idea of the basis for unity as being purely round the ‘material’ issues, which led comrade Maltby to regard Communist Students’ proposals to ENS as ultra-left - “bizarre” and “hopelessly abstract” and so on.

Come September 2011 and the AWL is complaining about the NUS elections stitch-up between Socialist Action and the SWP. On the one hand, the complaint is that it was minimalist in platform, about what can be agreed on the ‘student issues’. In this it follows comrade Maltby’s method - build the broad movement first. On the other, the complaint is that the SWP and SA excluded the AWL from the executive slate on the “irrelevant” issue of the AWL’s semi-Eustonism on the Middle East. Middle Eastern politics is, of course, so “irrelevant” to British student politics that it provoked a large militant movement in January 2009.


Dan Swain of the SWP has written a substantial article on the student movement in the April 2011 issue of International Socialism journal.[10] This is not in any sense a response to my argument, or even to the arguments of the AWL. It is, however, a serious and thoughtful piece. It is largely descriptive and historical in character, but the facts and history are valuable. It grasps correctly that students are “at a transitional point in society, between childhood and full incorporation into the world of work”; and that “Students are not directly exploited in the way that workers are”. Hence it recognises also that student organisations are distinct from trade unions, and it recognises the inherent volatility of student activist movements (as did the 1975 article by Alex Callinicos and Simon Turner on which it draws[11]).

After the description and history, however, comrade Swain does not grasp the nettle of ‘student trade unionism’ and the application of the ‘broad left’ model: unsurprisingly, since the SWP has been in practice applying this model in the NUS. Instead, he argues that “Precisely because students do not have a direct relationship to the means of production, a student strike is not as effective as a workers’ strike. As [fellow SWPer] Mark Bergfeld, a socialist on the NUS executive, is fond of pointing out, a thousand students can stop a train, but a thousand train drivers can stop a country.” Conclusion: “that the only force for carrying through a real transformation of society lies elsewhere and that students who seriously want to solve their own problems can only do so by becoming part of a revolutionary organisation that relates to the aspirations and struggles of that class.” So join the SWP!

This argument reflects the SWP’s underlying syndicalism and sectionalism. It is true that it is only the working class that has the potential to change society. But this potential does not arise because workers have “a direct relationship to the means of production” and “a thousand train drivers can stop a country”: without solidarity from other sections and working class communities, the train drivers would soon be forced back to work. It arises because the working class is separated from the means of production and therefore needs organisations to mobilise solidarity in order to defend its most immediate interests.

The sectionalism of the SWP is politically reflected as sectarianism: willingness to cooperate only with forces to its own right and with a view to the only alterative being to join the SWP. But the SWP, though it is the biggest of the far-left groups, is by the standards of mass politics - and even of student mass politics - just one among many far-left groups one could join. The SWP’s policy reinforces this fragmentation, and by doing so undermines the impact the left could make. The same is, of course, equally true of the equivalent policy of the AWL, and so on.

Aim higher

Students need to aim higher than ‘student trade unionism’ and broad leftism. The conception of ‘moderate demands and militant action’ is a dead end. It leads only either to the direct actionists’ ‘Riot now!’ - or to collapse into the ‘moderate demands’, to which the right wing are willing to agree.

Take the case of the purpose of education itself - posed by the 2010 fees struggle. Education at all levels is not and should not be merely training to fill your future assigned role in society. It is, and should be, the provision of the means of access to the riches of choices and culture which the society is capable of providing. Governments ration it out and give it grudgingly in order to keep the poor in their place. Higher education is, and should be, education for power: for the ability to form your own rational opinions and participate in social discussions in the face of imperfect and contradictory information and uncertainty. This is a political right, an aspect of citizenship.

This political character means that HE should be available freely to all who want it. There are, of course, practical prerequisites - for example, it is no use trying to do a humanities degree without prior effective literacy or a science degree without fairly well-developed prior maths; but the real prerequisites are a lot lower than the hurdles which are set by the annual competition for university places. This approach, then, means fighting for an expansion of HE, not the mere maintenance of what already exists. It means in particular an expansion of adult education and mature access to university education.

What is involved in aiming higher is an alternative vision of society. For the Con-Dems, the vision of society is of one purely governed by the capitalist market: in which everything has a price and nothing a value. The alternative is a society whose aim is the fullest and most rounded possible development of every human being. The name of that aim is communism.

The problem of ‘student trade unionism’ and broad leftism is not just that it does not work. It is that it makes communist (socialist) students silence themselves as advocates of a real alternative social order.


  1. anticuts.com/2011/06/09/open-letter-grave-concerns-over-ncafc-5-june-conference-3/ ; www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/06/10/ncafc-conference-hard-facts
  2. Solidarity September 12.
  3. Capital Vol 1, London 1976, p1044.
  4. ‘Driven by ideas’ Weekly Worker February 14 2008.
  5. ‘Consolidating the gains’: communiststudents.org.uk/?p=881 ; ‘The campus and the state’ Weekly Worker April 24 2008.
  6. ENS, ‘Student economism’ and Communist Students, May 27 2008 (www.workersliberty.org/blogs/edwardm/2008/05/27/ens-student-economism-and-communist-students). See also the arguments of Dave Isaacson and Ben Klein of CS about the conference, dated May 15 2008: communiststudents.org.uk/?p=496
  7. Various views of the settlement at freehetherington.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/student-protesters-declare-victory-as-glasgow-university-sit-in-ends
  8. With the partial exception of Oxbridge academics, whose institutions are technically cooperatives of the academics.
  9. See LT Lih Lenin rediscovered Leiden 2006 Introduction chapter 5, and my review (Weekly Worker August 31 2006); also R Larsson Theories of revolution Kristianstad 1970, chapter 6, ‘Revolutionary economism’, on the theories closest to those of the modern far left.
  10. www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=723&issue=130
  11. www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/callinicos/1975/02/students.htm For some odd reason Callinicos is not on the index at www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/index.htm