A dead end and dishonest initiative
James Turley and Ben Lewis argue that there can be no short cuts to building the mass, Marxist student movement we need
We would like to express our concern at the drift of some Communist Students comrades towards the highly ambiguous Anti-Capitalist Initiative project. We are both veterans of, and also members of the Communist Party of Great Britain; we have been involved with CS since the founding conference, and have played a major role in setting its political direction.
The purpose of CS, since its inception, has been to organise Marxists in the student movement as Marxists, and win progressive students to our aims in an open and honest fashion. The ACI, conversely, is a regroupment project which aims, at best, for some kind of ‘halfway house’ formation of a kind that CS has frequently criticised in the student movement, and at worst, a capitulation to unconscious ‘movementism’. Either which way, it is correctly characterised as a liquidationist project, and - as we will show - offers no answers to the burning questions facing us in the coming period.
Communist Students was founded, in fact, because the pseudo-naive ‘anti-capitalism’ of the existing student left was thought, by a number of student members and sympathisers of the CPGB, to be woefully inadequate. It came out of a debate as to whether these comrades should sign up to the Alliance for Workers Liberty’s then student front organisation, Education Not for Sale.
ENS was pitched as a unity initiative against the intrusion of the market into higher education, and at the time (2006) the British left as a whole had just about exhausted its various botched unity drives - a phenomenon in which the CPGB was a highly critical participant. Still, we decided then that we would not join ENS (or Student Respect, or any of its then competitors), but rather set up an openly communist student organisation on the basis, initially at least, of CPGB politics.
Why the inconsistency? The short answer is: ENS, Student Respect and so on all shared a political method - which we termed ‘student trade unionism’ - fundamentally at odds with the reality of student politics as a whole. Students are not workers; the NUS is not a trade union. These projects are hopeless on their own terms; they are attempts to summon up a mass movement out of nowhere. Where a mass movement has genuinely come into being, as one did at the tail end of 2010, such ‘broad fronts’ sometimes enjoy fleeting success by riding the wave.
Whereas the Socialist Alliance at least pointed towards serious unity between the Marxist left groups, in spite of its inadequate political basis, ENS and the like could never unite anyone - because their politics were based on a fantasy.
The prospect of ‘unity’ on this kind of fudged basis has been proffered numerous times since (normally, it should be said, by ENS and its successors). The AWL once again attempted to expand ENS into something viable in 2008 - again on a vague ‘anti-capitalism’, so as not to alienate ‘the movement’. Again, it was stillborn; and again, CS declined to join up (although there was a brief, abortive flirtation between the AWL and Revo). It is clear already that ENS’s successor, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, is back to square one - or worse, now that it is effectively ‘owned’ by the AWL.
We have consistently argued for the unity of Marxists on the basis of Marxist politics. This is the general line of the CPGB, but it is peculiarly apposite for student politics, where the occasional mass movements are quite as likely to be driven by ideas, by international affairs, as by ‘economic’ interests. The ground is perhaps more fertile for communism than for broad frontism.
The questions we need to ask of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, then, are ‘What is it?’ and ‘Is it going anywhere?’ To the first question, there is no immediately obvious answer, so it is worth looking at its political make-up.
Primarily, it consists of three fragments of Workers Power - the official group, still led by Richard Brenner and his allies; the 2006 split (primarily) of the WP ‘old guard’, now Permanent Revolution; and the ex-WP youth. These comrades are all united again, albeit on a far lower political level. So far, that political level consists of … a worthy statement on the inadvisability of privatising the NHS, and a vague commitment to ‘making radical and socialist arguments to new audiences’. In addition, there are a few hangers-on, such as CS’s very own Chris Strafford.
The appeal of the ACI seems to be twofold. Firstly, there is the absence of an obviously dominating left group, as with the SWP’s various fronts; secondly, there is the rhetoric of building from the ‘bottom up’, which has a certain superficial democratic cachet.
The truth is that the dominant faction, at this time, is the united forces of PR and the ex-WP youth. The political method at work here is that of PR - the very soggiest brand of Trotskyist centrism imaginable. The ‘bottom up’ rhetoric is no defence against this whatever, and nor is failing to nail down a serious political basis. There may be elements of the ex-WP youth that are demonstrably healthier politically than PR in its present state of hopeless disorientation. They, however, are hardly keen to shout for Marxist politics at ACI meetings. They are happy to go along with organisational measures such as setting up a website.
So what is going to appear on this website? The ACI will have to have something to say about political events. Is it going to consist of elaborate political-economic essays, cultural commentary, thought-out manifestos - or urging the broad masses into ‘action’ against the latest attempts of the government to dump on us?
To ask the question is to answer it. The extant political lines of the component organisations are all committed to broad frontism. All, furthermore, share the fetish for spontaneous ‘action’ and ‘struggle’ which has acted as an alibi for all Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist opportunisms in post-war history.
In short, the website will be like Socialist Worker, perhaps with better prose and a more open submissions policy. We are back to the beginning - what we have is Workers Power circa 2005, but on a lower level.
It will offer further proof, if any were needed, that left organisations are not built from the bottom up, but from the top down. This is as much a statement of fact as it is ‘good practice’ - the ACI will inevitably reflect not the politics of the teeming thousands ‘out there’ that the likes of Bill Jefferies imagine are chomping at the bit to sign up, but rather the moribund political method and programme of its originators. The fantasy of ‘bottom up’ organisation simply means that there can be no programmatic clarification, and what passes as a platform must inevitably remain platitudinous.
So why is comrade Strafford so keen on it?
His article in praise of the ACI, published on the CS website, begins with a summary of the world and British situation, which is fanciful in some respects. “Movements like Los Indignados in Spain and Occupy and the student movement in Britain have, along with the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, lit the fuse of mass action against capital,” he writes - despite the fact that much of this activity was not ‘against capital’ at all.
Likewise, his assessment of the anti-cuts movement in this country - “thousands of local groups and campaigns [springing] up across the country … [acting] as the conduit for communities to highlight and resist devastating cuts to essential services and the support for the most vulnerable” - is simply absurd. Mass action against the cuts has been monopolised by the trade union movement; anti-cuts groups, where they are not the most limited of single-issue campaigns, merely regroup elements of the existing left in pursuit of a notional ‘mass’ audience.
Comrade Strafford does not provide a political assessment of the ACI at all; the most telling part of his piece is his sole criticism of the abortive unity projects of the last decade, which were - in his view - too focused on elections, and parked between them. Yet this is a symptom of the real issue, which is the proliferation of front groups - electoral, single-issue, whatever - which organise around inadequate sub-Labourite politics. (To his credit, at the ACI founding conference comrade Strafford did at least point out the fallacy of trying to create a new ‘workers’ party’ when there is one already).
From this, we may deduce that his interest in the ACI stems from its possibilities in terms of action. He writes, presumably outlining his hopes for the initiative: “We must begin to build trust through common work in fighting the cuts, the drive to war, attacks on our environment, the fascist threat and much more. Communists have a duty to be side by side with workers and youth in the heat of battle, but also to be there carrying out the less exciting work of slowly and patiently building local and national centres of working class resistance. On a higher level there has to be a re-evaluation of the theoretical underpinnings that the left is built on. There has to be open forums to clarify where we have gone wrong, and what kind of left we want and need.”
The last two sentences are correct. The problem is that the idea that mass action holds the key to building up the left, as outlined in the rest of the passage, is one of the many things the left needs to ditch. Action - for what? The desiccated reformism of the Labour Party? The sub-Keynesian politics of left union bureaucrats or UK Uncut? The Labourite politics favoured by the far left when it goes ‘to the masses’?
If one simply engages in action over this or that single issue, or for something as nebulous as ‘building trust’, the actual political result will benefit those who dominate the movement institutionally. It is the labour bureaucracy that will determine the meaning of protests against cuts, war and the rest. But the point is to overcome the dominance of the bureaucracy, which in turn requires providing a clear, communist political alternative to it. We cannot dodge this question, as comrade Stuart King does, when he laughably accuses the CPGB of “passive propagandism”. The fact is, comrade King, that at the moment we on the left primarily make propaganda. We can either attempt to make decent, Marxist propaganda on a regular basis (weekly in our case) or try and conjure up a ‘mass movement’ and limit our propaganda in the hope of making short-term sect gains.
This is the stumbling block which upended the Socialist Alliance, Respect et al, and which currently makes the likes of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition little better than a laughing stock - that their favoured form of ‘action’ is primarily electoral makes no odds. On present evidence, that stumbling block will see off the ACI in no time flat.
CS should polemicise against the liquidationism inherent in this project, and attempt to win its people to a practical adherence to Marxist politics. Throwing ourselves into building it is simply a waste of time.
The liquidationist aspect of the ACI project is quite evidently born of frustration and disenchantment with the utterly parlous state of the far left and the enormity of the challenges thrown our way. Communist Students has not exactly been unaffected by the low level of the movement at the moment, and is experiencing several difficulties in simply continuing as an organisation aimed at promoting the ideas of Marxism amongst the student population. Just recently, comrade Strafford sought to tackle this problem by proposing that CS be ‘expanded’ in order to include university staff, cleaners, clerical workers, etc. His proposal was soundly defeated within the CPGB and he even claimed to have changed his mind after the discussion.
It strikes us that his enthusiasm for the ACI project is once again borne of frustration, as well as a certain rapprochement with the political ideas and views of the WP youth split. We share his frustration, and quite clearly we need to put a lot more time and effort into Communist Students as a project. But we should do so on the political basis on which CS was established - including in any future unity talks with Revo or whoever else. As we put it in a polemical exchange with the comrades from Revolution back in 2009, we will argue “as we have consistently done, for the unity of the left around the acceptance (not agreement with every dot and comma, as in the Workers Power … tradition) of a Marxist programme - a crucial distinction in the history of the Marxist programme.”
This fight will be a tough one, and is not likely to win us many friends in the short term. Yet it is the only way that the left can genuinely get its act together, regroup and seriously think about reaching ‘the masses’ .
1 . The more desperate attempts to justify this liquidation of a formal adherence to Marxism came when the AWL unconvincingly passed off its practice in ENS as broadly analogous to that of Marx and Engels in the International Working Men’s Association, an organisation it deemed a “broad alliance between all sorts of anti-capitalist and at first not even anti-capitalist working-class currents”. “Only gradually”, the comrades claimed, did it move to “a more explicitly revolutionary socialist direction, and right to the end it was broad enough to accommodate all kinds of different tendencies other than Marxists”. There is a similar logic at play in the ACI, with several comrades making much out of a so-called “process” towards a higher form of revolutionary unity.
Back in 2008, CS comrades Dave Isaacson and Ben Klein were forthright in tackling this nonsense head on: “What ahistorical twaddle. Firstly, Marx and Engels (ie, the revolutionary socialist Marxists) did not set up that organisation. They were not in the driving seat when it was formed. They entered it and fought for communist politics. According to August Nimtz, “Marx had turned down apparently similar invitations” in the preceding years. What made this one different, and made it worth entering despite the awful politics of many who were involved, was that it contained real working class forces. As Marx wrote to Engels, “I knew on this occasion ‘people who really count’ were appearing, both from London and from Paris” (A Nimtz Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough New York 2000, p179). See ‘Left unity not on offer’ Weekly Worker May 15 2008.
2 . http://communiststudents.org.uk/?p=7354.
3 . Letters Weekly Worker May 3.
4 . See ‘Centralism and autonomy’ Weekly Worker May 8 2012.
5 . CS exec response to Revo proposal for student “coordination”: http://communiststudents.org.uk/?p=2711.