Throughout most of the history of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and its forerunner, the International Socialists, students have played an important role. They continue to be a vital component of the organisation, which is why the recent debates surrounding our student work are of interest to the party as a whole.
Our general approach to student work starts from the position of students in society. Students are a layer of society in a transitory situation. Increasingly today they are drawn from working class backgrounds, and increasingly they are preparing for a life as part of the working class. Nonetheless, students are not workers—they lack the collective economic power of the working class. Many, though still a minority in most of the older universities, do have casual or part-time jobs alongside studying, and a minority combine university study with more stable full-time employment. But the fact that they are workers some of the time does not change their position when they are organising on the university campus.
At the same time, universities tend to be highly ideological places—whatever the actuality, students often arrive at their university expecting to gain a more profound understanding of society. Even though there is increasing pressure on students to produce coursework and sit exams in order to compete on the jobs market once they graduate, even though there is increasing pressure on staff to get ever larger cohorts of students through their studies, students still tend to have greater freedom than workers to discuss and debate political or ideological questions.
When they radicalise around these questions, they can do so as a minority. Students do not have the discipline of the workplace or union branch. While they might aspire to win votes in their students unions, which are rarely representative of the student body as a whole, it is not necessary to win the majority of students in order to call a political meeting, organise a demonstration or even occupy a university building in protest. Small numbers can act, and in doing so hope to draw wider layers of students behind them.
But having moved into struggle, the very limited power that students have, means that their struggles often have a highly episodic character. “The student struggle,” as Tony Cliff used to say, “rises like a rocket and falls like a stick”. Despite this, students are important to the party for two key reasons. First, their freedom to organise and fight as a radical minority can impact upon wider society, influencing the wider working class and helping to promote its struggles. Second, recruiting students on the basis of revolutionary socialist politics has been one of the ways in which the party has historically grown. In certain periods student members have been crucial in allowing the party to relate to—and recruit—workers. And given the large number of university graduates in the contemporary working class, building among students remains central to the future of the SWP.
The different material conditions that confront students and workers already imply that there can be tensions between our student work and the wider organisation. That is why it is important that our student work is accountable to the party as a whole—which has to collectively debate and take a position on the interests of the party and the wider working class movement. The same is true of our work around other groups, such as our LGBT or anti-racist work. It is also the case with our trade union fractions. Sometimes, the party as a whole will overrule the position taken by a particular fraction, prioritising the needs of the class over the sectional interests of a specific group. For instance, at the January national conference of the party, we voted to back Jerry Hicks as our candidate in the Unite union’s general secretary elections, overturning the narrow vote in the Unite party fraction to back the existing general secretary, Len McCluskey. This was an issue that concerned the party as a whole. In exceptional circumstances, the elected leading bodies of the party, the central committee (CC) and national committee (NC), might also overrule the decision of a particular section of the party. They are able to do so because they are elected by and accountable to the party as a whole, and they will face the party at its annual conference, which decides whether to re-elect them or not based on their record.
So too with our student work. The day to day running of this area of our work rests with our student office, which is appointed by and answerable to the CC. Our approach is not to simply instruct our students to behave in a particular manner. It is always preferable to win people through political conviction. But, in the final analysis, we expect our student members to abide by the decisions of the leading bodies of the party. Those decisions should be tested in practice. Naturally, if our student members think them to be bad decisions on the basis of this experience, they have the same rights as other members to contest the decisions and oppose the leadership at the party’s annual conference, to fight for a different approach and to elect a new leadership.
We don’t agree that going outside of the party structures to try and influence it and its perspectives is a better method of operating. Statements from SWSS groups online, attempts by some groups to either act autonomously of the student office or to simply boycott it have been some of the issues we have faced.
In recent years we have built Socialist Worker Student Society groups in universities. These groups are often broader than the members of the SWP in a particular university, but they are not united front organisations and nor are they independent of the SWP. They are support organisations of the party with membership based upon acceptance of the ideas and positions contained in our newspaper Socialist Worker. Our SWP members should be at the core of the SWSS groups and should fight with other SWSS members to win the totality of our politics and to recruit to the party.
One other point follows from our general approach. While our student members should focus their activity on campus, where they can most effectively build, and should not be drawn into the day to day running of party branches, they should have a relationship with non-student members in a locality. At present this should involve: attending branch and district events, especially larger public meetings and aggregates; where appropriate attending public and industrial paper sales; taking part in the educational programmes being adopted by many districts; coordinating over important areas of united front work. Certainly there must be debate and discussion between branch members in any locality and the student membership.
The student movement of late 2010, the biggest in decades in Britain, was prefigured by a series of explosions of student struggle. These stretch back to 2003 and the widespread school student walkouts that greeted the invasion of Iraq. Since then there have been other episodes, such as the wave of university occupations in response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009.
But the eruption of a national movement in 2010 was on a far larger scale. It came in the wake of an enormous National Union of Students (NUS) demonstration in London called primarily over opposition to a tripling of student fees. The demonstration culminated with activists, many of them socialists or anti-capitalists, leading an occupation of Millbank, the Tory party headquarters. The demonstration was followed by a wave of street protests. In London and other cities, groups of students, many of them working class school and college students protesting against the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, took to the streets almost nightly to confront lines of police officers. University students occupied on a large number of campuses. The politics of the occupations varied. For instance, at the core of the UCL occupation were a group of extremely capable activists, many of whom were informed by autonomist-influenced conceptions that permeated through anti-capitalist and campaigning movements over recent years. They nonetheless ran a large occupation. At other universities, socialists were able to more strongly shape the character of the occupations. While the movement was going up, the different approaches could be partly pushed to the background, even if there were plenty of sharp debates, for example over whether decisions should be taken on a democratic or consensus basis. Whatever the differences within it, the emerging movement was characterised by an extremely high ideological level—the protests were taking place in the wake of the greatest capitalist crisis since the 1930s at a time when ruling class ideas generally were being called into question. We were able to very effectively intervene to draw large groups of students around us. At Manchester University, for example, we were by late 2010 having regular SWSS caucuses of 50 or so students.
In early 2011 this movement collapsed. The government’s attacks on students passed through parliament and the national student movement quickly ran out of steam. SWSS was, quite rightly, one of the last forces to leave the battlefield. But in early 2011 the leadership of the party committed an error.
What was required was a sharp shift in our approach. This would have involved two things. First, a recognition that, with the collapse of the national movement, there would now be a more episodic and uneven pattern of struggle, with particular issues taking precedence in any given university at any given point. Second, we ought to have focused more on the general politics associated with our tradition in an attempt to win and bind to the party a minority of those students who, in the struggles of 2010, had identified with us as the best militants. This is not simply a “shift towards ideological meetings”. In a general sense, running ideological meetings has been a feature of our student work since 2001, and especially since the crisis broke in 2007-8. With the relative decline of student struggle, something more was needed—a cadre of people who could grasp not simply our politics on this or that ideological question, but who were thoroughly won to our general theory and perspective, who could effectively contest the rival ideas in the movement that now came into sharper opposition with our own. In those universities where, by a combination of good fortune (always a factor in the universities given the high turnover of students) and hard work, our students had drawn around them such a cadre, we fared relatively well; in some others we saw our groups decline.
The problems were not obviously apparent in 2011. The decline of the student movement coincided with the Arab Spring and with the beginnings of a series of one-day strikes involving, among others, university and college lecturers. Mobilising around these questions helped to maintain a level of student activity. But by 2012 our student recruitment had halved compared to the year before or 2010.
We are now attempting to correct our error and present a clear orientation for our students. This involves three main elements.
First, there will be episodes of struggle over particular attacks, for example, the recent large occupation at Sussex University. In some cases our students will be participants in wider struggles over austerity—for instance, students at Goldsmiths in London organised a feeder march of hundreds of students to attend the 25,000-strong protest against the planned closure of the local hospital’s A&E ward.
Second, in other cases there will be particular political issues we want to take up. For instance, at Cambridge University, students had to organise to oppose the presence of French fascist leader Marine Le Pen at a debating society; the following weekend saw a protest against the presence of the English Defence League, which students were involved in building. Here building through Unite Against Fascism (UAF) was the key question, and given the likelihood of far-right activity in most towns and cities, creating a UAF/LMHR presence on campus is something that our student groups ought to do.
Third, we want to recruit and develop students on the basis of our general politics, through sales of Socialist Worker and other publications, and through our SWSS meetings.
Here we should be clear that our audience is not limited to the existing left on campus or the clubs and societies that exist within a given university. Over recent years the growing political generalisation has created the terrain in which we have been able to work with other societies over a range of issues. If we can organise a joint meeting with the Femsoc over women’s oppression or the Palestine campaign over Gaza, that is clearly advantageous to us. But we should not assume that it will always be possible to work with such groups, and historically this has not been our main orientation. There are wider layers of students who are radicalising and our open to our ideas—they might not all be pre-existing members of various campaigns and societies. The highly ideological nature of the period means that we can attract an audience over quite general political questions and win a section of that audience to the party’s politics.
In addition, when we engage in united front activity we must remember that there needs to be tension between the party and the wider movement. Organising a SWSS meeting on “Trotsky and the Fight Against Fascism” after an anti-EDL demo or on “How can Palestine be Free” after a broader meeting in solidarity with Palestinians is not sectarian. Nor is taking up these issues with the people we are working with. The united front implies unity over certain questions, debate and discussion over others. Only in this manner can united fronts be a bridge into the party.
The change in tempo and scope of student struggle involves a shift in our approach to official student bodies. We remain committed to work in the NUS, despite its limitations and cowardly leadership. But the basis for a united left-wing challenge to the leadership of the NUS is much reduced since 2010-11. We need to consider therefore how we use the NUS. Our approach should be to see the elected positions we can win as being a platform from which to build our organisation and strengthen struggle in colleges and universities. This means returning to the approach whereby we stand someone who can work full-time for the organisation and use the position accordingly. There has been widespread criticism of the decision to remove one candidate from an election to the NUS executive and to stand another. However, the CC always considers and if it deems necessary changes our candidates for such positions, whether in trade unions, the NUS or in united front campaigns—they are, after all, running for those positions as representatives of the SWP.
In student unions we will, in some cases, stand candidates for sabbatical and executive positions. But this must always be done in consultation with the CC. Winning such positions impose powerful pressures on even the strongest members of the party. In general, it is a mistake to be in that position without the presence of a strong SWSS group that can hold the elected student to account. We do not stand in elections primarily to run student unions; we do so to build the left and our presence on campus. That means using elections as a forum to promote our politics. It means, too, that we stand as open members of SWSS, even if we are part of a wider formation, and that the student office should discuss election propaganda. In those cases where we consider running as part of a wider left slate, again this needs to be subject to discussion with the CC, just as it would in a trade union election.
More generally, whatever the hollowing out of student democracy over recent years, as forums such as general meetings have been curtailed and unions have increasingly oriented on providing services, we want to use “official” channels to promote our ideas—whether that means writing in the student newspaper or moving motions at union meetings.
What should our student groups look like? Along with involving itself in wider struggles and debates on campus and beyond, each SWSS group should have a weekly routine that consists of three things.
First, there should be a weekly caucus that can discuss the activity over the coming week. This should be where any problems and tactical questions can be raised.
Second, every student group should organise a sale of Socialist Worker. This is important in giving us a presence on campus. More generally, we need every SWSS member to take and sell our paper on their course, in their halls of residence and during activity and meetings. This ensures that comrades are in a relationship with those around them and are forced to discuss political questions with those they do activity with. Sales of the paper should be reported to the caucus each week, with someone responsible for collecting the money and recording sales. Of course, our wider publications—Socialist Review and International Socialism—are also vital to satisfying the demand for radical ideas among students and in order to develop the ideas of existing members.
Third, there should a SWSS meeting based on the kind of topics proposed by the student office each week in its national mailing. This should be advertised through postering, leafleting, email and online, and by phoning round and discussing with our contacts. SWSS groups should prepare seriously for each meeting, encouraging our newer members to make contributions and thinking through how we can use the meeting to build our group.
One of the more damaging claims made by the faction is that the CC is planning to drive out or punish our student groups, and we would like to take this opportunity to respond. This is simply untrue. Moreover, the attempt of the faction to act as a “buffer” between the CC and the students, or to argue that the CC is “out to smash SWSS”, is deeply damaging. We are extremely happy that there has been, in recent years, an influx of new student members and that many are playing an important role in building the party. We welcome the new political and theoretical challenges that recruiting a new generation of students brings.
We do not develop our student membership by praising or damning them. Much has been written and said by faction members in recent weeks repeating that students are in general often strong-willed, sometimes ultraleft and are, nonetheless, crucial to the future of the party and need to be encouraged. But it is deeply patronising to leave it at that. In the wake of the student struggle of 1968, there was also tension with the student recruits to the International Socialists. There were, as many will attest, sharp arguments about the need to orientate on workers, to take the students from the London School of Economics to sell at the gates of Ford Dagenham, and so on. This cut against the grain of the prevailing ideas among many students, including the milieu we grew out of, which was heavily inflected with Third Wordlist, Maoist and Guevarist ideas. But the students also brought with them a wealth of new ideas, experience and energy, that helped to fuel the early growth of what became the SWP.
Anyone who joins the party develops through activity and through debate and discussion with other members of the organisation. There are structural reasons, which we have set out above, why the orientation of our student membership can be different from that of workers, just as the experience of particular groups of workers can be quite specific to them. That is why our tradition is one of collective debate followed by unity in action. And it is why the elected leading bodies of the party must seek to lead in tension with the wider party. The tension means both that we learn from and seek to generalise the positive experiences of those fighting back and that we seek to overcome the sectional limitations that particular groups of comrades face. The leadership also had to argue, for example, with many of our leading workplace militants in the aftermath of the end of the pensions dispute, a time in which many trade unionists became deeply pessimistic about the prospects for renewed struggle.
We hope that following the special conference we can create the terrain on which the party can move forwards together, and that our student members can continue to play a role in developing and fighting for our perspective and analysis.
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