Britain: Young, gifted and striking back

The significance of the student movement

At the end of last year, students took to the streets in a month of mass protest against Con-Dem attacks on education. They were the first major group to move against the government’s cuts programme. But does this mean that they represent the leadership of the anti-cuts movement as some have suggested?

THE CON-DEMS have had a year in government. Assuming a mandate where they had none, they announced wave after wave of public-sector cuts. But instead of the sandcastle defences most trade union leaders had offered, their plans have run into the solid rock of protest. Before Christmas, the student movement brought 130,000 onto the streets, going far beyond the control of the official leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS). March 26 saw the Trades Union Congress (TUC) bring out over half-a-million workers in a mass demonstration, whetting rather than sating the appetite for struggle. Those trade unions prepared to fight are seeking to coordinate action at the end of June, in anticipation of the huge battles that must be fought and won.

The student movement, first to stand up against the catastrophic cuts, played an important role in the developing resistance. The authorities were forced to make concessions on the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) paid to the poorest college students and on tuition fees in Wales and Scotland. But the student movement also developed in a vacuum, where the TUC and right-wing union leaders were refusing to organise action that measured up to the scale of the crisis. Continuing their policy of featherweight resistance during successive New Labour governments, the voice and power of the working class have been largely absent for nearly a generation.

But it is in these struggles that the power of the working class is essential. The world economy lost an entire year’s production in the economic crisis, and the capitalist class is trying to regain its former prosperity by decimating the conditions of the other classes. Like a pride of wounded lions, all are fair game, from the flesh of small businesses to the carcass of the welfare state. This is a fundamental battle for survival, with the legitimacy of the capitalist system already shaken in the eyes of millions. The questions of how to defeat the cuts, of what alternative there is to capitalism and to today’s economic turmoil, how to build an alternative society, and who can bring about this change, are all interlinked and essential for activists. Events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown that revolution is back on the agenda.

Owing to its economic role, the working class is locked in direct struggle with the capitalist class. Its concentration in workplaces and communities creates the conditions for working-class unity, as well as for collective struggle. The potential power of the working class is evident most obviously in strike action, but also on the political and social planes as well. It is, in fact, the only cohesive force in society that can defeat the Con-Dem cuts programme, and which could also transform society.

The freedom to fight

DURING AND SINCE the students were on the streets, some self-proclaimed leaders have proposed that students have the leading role to play in the fight against the cuts. A clear illustration of this was the call by the student group, the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), to organise ‘the’ follow-up meeting for the anti-cuts movement after the demo on 26 March. This drew the support of the Coalition of Resistance and Right to Work groups, but very few of the half-a-million marchers.

This idea is put forward in a more generalised manner in two books on the student movement, Springtime: The New Student Rebellions, and Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest. These books bring together a number of people who played a role in the student protests, with 89 contributors including the ex-president of the University of London student union, Clare Solomon, and journalist Laurie Penny. Every trend in the student movement is represented – with the notable exception of Socialist Party members!

Cailean Gallagher, from Oxford university and co-editor of Fight Back! expresses the idea of students’ predominance most clearly: “Students must be, and already are, an essential part of this renewal. There are practical reasons for this: we are well placed to protest and organise. We have the energy and time to act again and again, and to keep struggling; we can be creative in our methods of dissent, we can communicate and organise faster than ever before, and we can commit in a way that no others can. We aren’t just marching for our own sake; we won’t have to pay higher fees. But we will have to live in the society that is being created now.

“We have the access to literature, ideas and minds we need to generate an ideology and culture for the society we want to live in. As students we occupy a privileged position within the existing elitist academic structures. Members of an elite can use their position to the advantage of society as a whole. When we write and organise, our methods and language will be drawn, inevitably, from our studies, but we will be deploying them for our own radical ends. We need to read, write, talk, experiment, so that we can understand both what we learn and what we are trying to achieve. The student movement is unique in that it has the power to marry activism and ideology. As students we can use our privilege to develop new ideas for the Left; and then practice what we preach”.

Becoming a student is a huge shift. For the majority it means moving away from home, mixing with people from different class backgrounds. It is a chance to explore ideas and, potentially, to change the course of your life. Politically active students can find a huge amount of free time when the need is clear. Although burdened by debt and increasingly reliant on low-paid work to see them through their studies, in general they are not weighed down by the pressures of work, bills and mortgages to the same extent as the working class. This means they can find time more easily to devote to activism, and to bring their youthful energy and initiative to bear. So they can and should play active roles on campus, and in the education and broader anti-cuts movements.

This does not mean, however, that students necessarily struggle harder than any other group. The massive movements in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the region, which show no sign of disappearing anytime soon, show that sustained struggle is entirely possible, and on a higher political plane than the student movement has so far reached. In Britain in 2009, the Lindsey oil refinery strike, and the occupations at the Vestas wind turbine and Visteon car component factories, outlasted many student occupations. The height of last year’s student movement lasted a month, in the run up to the vote on tuition fees in parliament. As with all protests, it is a political question how far and hard people are prepared to struggle.

Students are outside normal class boundaries, even if working part-time. They do not have the same economic factors pushing them to unite as workers in a workplace do. As a consequence, they do not have the same social weight that the working class has. Even if students can be the first and most confident into battle, their inability to impact on the workings of the capitalist system as a whole means they can also be defeated more easily if isolated.

Stuck on first base

THE IDEA THAT the means of mass struggle is an innate quality of students does not help us understand the arc of the student movement. Following years of attacks, a movement of protest slowly developed, becoming especially strong in a few universities like Sussex. The proposals of £9,000-a-year fees and 80% budget cuts brought this to the fore, and the NUS and University and College Union (UCU) 10 November demonstration manifested this mood on the streets. But this was not the end of the journey as the NUS hoped, but rather the movement slipping into first gear. Around 130,000 protested and occupied a fortnight later. Further days of action brought new layers out with them. After the university fees vote went through, however, the pace slackened.

It then became less clear how to advance. This does not mean that the desire to fight was immediately quelled. The largest London Student Assembly was held after the Christmas break, packed out with student activists wanting a strategy to organise around. But the apolitical atmosphere, fostered by the idea that the movement was innate rather than evolving, meant that the meeting was not used to review the last battle and map the route for a new one. This led to a certain amount of confusion among the activists who had been central to organising locally.

Out of the November-December heights, a new generation of activists was inspired. Those activists are there still, and will not remain passive forever. There is huge potential for the movement to spring up again, given a correct strategy and focus. Already, we have seen thousands demonstrate in Glasgow, protests at London Metropolitan university and elsewhere. But these activists did not have a forum to discuss the crucial questions during the course of the movement, and this is essential if it is to move onto a higher plane.

If the NUS had opened up its structures, created extraordinary ones to involve and be led by the new layer of activists – before, during and after the fees vote – then the student movement would be in an incomparably stronger position. Given the appalling role of Aaron Porter, then NUS president, and the Labour Students leadership, it was necessary for the movement to create its own forums. But these would need to be based on mobilising action, as well as discussing strategy, and to allow activists to develop into leaders in their areas. It would be vital that student organisations such as these orient themselves to the working class, developing solidarity between workers and students, and getting involved in the transformation of trade unions and the NUS into democratic, combative organisations.

This lack of a political voice applies more generally, too, with the concerns of the vast majority of the population practically unheard in the palace of Westminster and the media. There has been an absence of forums for debate and of widespread, sustained social protest, and the one impacts on the other. In the past, it had been possible to use the Labour Party as an avenue for action and discussion among working-class and left-wing activists. Its transformation into a fully capitalist party, however, means that this is something for the new generation of student activists to read about in history books rather than experience first-hand.

Political opportunities were missed to develop the huge feeling behind the movement against the Iraq war into a real political alternative, partially because of the top-down approach of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Likewise, the anarchist-leaning ideas linked to the anti-capitalist movement and social forums, arguments for spontaneity over organisation, could not develop space for discussion and political activity. Both of these failed approaches are proposed to the student movement at present but will be found wanting in the developing struggles.

Not such a new idea

IT IS ALSO a mistake to assume the answer lies in academia. Universities are part and parcel of the capitalist system, prized by big business as finishing schools for the next generation of management, politicians, businessmen, etc. The last thing they need is for these people to question the society they are being trained to preserve. While criticism and debate can and does go on, universities mirror the agenda set for society as a whole by its ruling layers. This has always been the case, but has been intensified by the creeping commercialisation of education, including universities’ increasing dependence on big-business funding.

The idea of the leading role of students is not at all new. It has echoes of the ‘red bases’ theory put forward in 1968 by a so-called ‘new left’, including Anthony Barnett who wrote the introduction to Fight Back! This was the idea that students could take over universities, and from them link up to form the basis of a new society. But how will that stop big business driving down wages? How will it stop the cuts programme? This idea did not measure up to the tasks in the revolutionary year of 1968, at the end of the post-war economic upswing, and does not measure up in the depths of the severe economic crisis today.

The clear implication of this argument is that those outside of education either cannot or will not impact on the broader political life. As well as being incredibly patronising towards workers, the unemployed, younger people and all those who have not had the chance to go to university (and will be denied if the movement fails), it is fundamentally wrong.

Ideas come from experience. This is especially true of ideas of struggle and for building an alternative society. The student movement and all those individually involved learned a huge amount very quickly during the course of the movement. The demonstration on 30 November, organised so that the police could not kettle it, was a successful example of that.

It is possible for students to win some victories: for example, they defeated Margaret Thatcher’s plans to introduce university fees in 1984. But it depends on the scale of the tasks confronting the movement. The nature of the battle against the cuts means that it is not possible for students to fight alone or to play the leading role. Society functions as a whole, rather than as a series of independent parts. The reason Thatcher retreated in 1984 (until her heir, Tony Blair, succeeded in 1998) was because of the simultaneous miners’ strike, with the capitalist class not wanting to fight on several fronts at the same time.

Last year’s student movement was able to reach such proportions partially because of huge support among the working class. This was evident in the number of trade union banners on the various demonstrations – even 54% of readers of the reactionary Daily Star supported the movement! This was despite the mistakes that every movement makes. To a certain extent the students were channelling a much deeper desire to fight back that has been building up across society.

Since students took to the streets in force, other groups have started to move and the government has faced a number of setbacks, from forest privatisation to NHS reforms. The student movement played a role in “refresh[ing] the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach”, as Unite union general secretary, Len McCluskey, said. The 26 March demo saw the working class and trade unions enter the struggle on a mass, generalised scale.

In France 1968, student protest very quickly escalated and laid the basis for a general strike involving ten million workers. This revolutionary movement set as its aim not just opposition to draconian conditions, but demanded a new society, a socialist society. It had the potential to achieve it. The massive student movement in Germany, on the other hand, was sustained over a much larger period yet did not have a comparable effect on the working class. This was because of the very different political conditions and outlook that existed among workers in the two countries. In France, the total domination of capitalists’ interests under the authoritarian rule of General de Gaulle meant that the explosive situation only needed a single spark to set the whole country ablaze.

In the mood for action

IN BRITAIN, THE mood among workers for a fight-back was already present before the NUS/UCU demonstration on 10 November. The huge scale of the cuts had been made abundantly clear by the Con-Dem coalition and the previous New Labour government. Many fighting trade unions and activists had demanded an earlier national demonstration, and a programme of action from the TUC. But because of its right-wing leadership, the TUC put it off until 26 March. This suppressed urge contributed to the depth of support for the student movement.

Among those working-class organisations with a fighting leadership, the PCS (civil servants’ union), RMT (rail and transport union) and others, the seeds of a new political voice are found and have been growing for some time. These unions and their willingness to fight have more accurately represented the developing mood among workers. It is no coincidence that leading members of the RMT and PCS are working with the Socialist Party and others in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition electoral platform.

Workers’ struggles can also inspire young people, especially school students, to struggle. The two waves of school student action in the 20th century, 1911 and 1985, were linked to industrial battles. In 1985, a school student movement of a quarter-of-a-million – in which Militant supporters (predecessors of the Socialist Party) played a leading role – blew up in the immediate aftermath of the year-long miners’ strike, from which it took direct inspiration. Before the student movement last year, walkouts in individual schools were growing, often in support of teachers’ action against cuts or academies.

As industrial struggle develops, the questions of how to defeat the cuts and of developing an alternative to big-business domination will be debated throughout society. The answer will be glimpsed in the struggle. The principles of solidarity, cooperation, democratic and open discussion, and implacable opposition to capitalism will take shape and lay the basis for a socialist society.

A new generation has crashed into political activity and will play a huge role in the coming struggles in the next months and years. The student movement has inspired many who took part and supported it. Ideas for struggle have been tested out, some found wanting while others have proved their worth. As students continue to fight back, alongside workers and others, these ideas will continue to be debated. When the movement steps into full swing again, it will be richer and stronger because of these debates.

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June 2011