Communism: more than just 'student concerns'

Student elections: Campaigning for communism

Communist Students member Callum Williamson reports on his campaign during the Univeristy of Westminster Union student elections

Standing as a Communist Students candidate running for president in the University of Westminster student union (UWSU) elections, I came fourth with 230 votes (around 10%). I ran with the support of Westminster Students Left (a broad grouping of mainly unaffiliated socialists and leftwingers), who were standing six candidates for National Union of Students delegate positions.

I was running on an overtly communist platform against six ‘apolitical’ candidates. The aim of this was not to win a union post on watered-down politics, but to win people to the politics of communism.

The student union has recently taken to holding debates for its YouTube channel and the election hustings were filmed with this in mind. But the presidential debate was frustratingly apolitical. It is fair to say that it was impossible to really engage with the other candidates, given the extent to which I was speaking about totally different issues from the others (in criticising my manifesto, another candidate noted that I had said nothing about UWSU sports teams).

There were, however, issues over which it seemed political contestation would be possible. For example, I attacked the bizarre policy of neutrality the student union has taken in regards to all ‘off-campus’ issues - in other words, we refrain from taking a stance on anything other than ‘student concerns’. While the other candidates seemed to support this, I pointed to the impact students had often made when they had been at the forefront of key struggles.

During canvassing we generated a fair amount of interest. Many of those I spoke to were keen to understand the details of my platform and often expressed sympathy with Marxist politics. But a number of people mentioned the different initiatives suggested by some of the other candidates to give Westminster students a ‘competitive edge’. Whilst it is completely understandable that students are concerned about future employment prospects, schemes to give one section an advantage at the expense of other students (and others looking for work) are self-evidently no solution to mass unemployment.

The tendency towards establishing greater links between universities and business, including through such proposals, is a damaging one, in that it refashions higher education as the training and research arm of capital. This represents a threat to genuine academic freedom and so a defeat for students, with education increasingly dedicated to setting up hoops that students must jump through - playing students off against one another to decide who will have an advantage when they enter the labour market. The real answer lies beyond capitalism, a system that in its current form periodically requires millions to be unemployed.

I was asked more than once why I would stand under the banner of communism: ‘Surely you’re not for anything like the USSR?’ So why did I cling to the term? Communist Students argue that we must reclaim the word from Stalinism and in doing so rescue it for the struggle for emancipation. It is not that we have a quasi-religious attachment to ‘communist’, but it is useful in that it immediately asserts our commitment to the overthrow of the capitalist state and the social order it protects, at a time when revolutionary politics have been consigned to the wilderness. On the other hand, ‘socialism’ - suggested to me as a more acceptable label for our movement - has for many a reformist meaning. Moreover, ‘socialism’ for Marxists refers to a transitionary stage of democratic workers’ power before a classless, stateless society can be established, not our final goal.

The main talking points during the campaign for president concerned the petty squabbles between feuding careerist cliques, who used every opportunity to discredit, to cheat and to level accusations of cheating against their rivals. In the final week the favourite was disqualified for ‘voter harassment’, leading to a protest at the results event. To me it seemed all this was the behaviour of wannabe bureaucrats and their mates - but perhaps they were just really passionate about their exciting initiatives to get students involved in campus life.

In terms of the success of this particular campaign, all depends on whether it will be possible to build on campus between now and the end of the year. It is encouraging to see that there is a receptive audience for revolutionary ideas, even given the state of the organised left and the absence of a clear route out of capitalism at present. The question, however, is how to mobilise this sentiment behind a communist project.

The task of the Marxist left must be to build the necessary unity of its forces and conduct a patient struggle within society to win people to its ideas.