by Edd Mustill
This is most likely the last post of the year. A big thanks to all (both?) our readers, and here’s hoping for an Unrestful year in 2011.
It’s been good to see so many comrades using the Christmas break to think about the nature of the student movement and where it is going. The following is just a summary of some of the main contributions to the debate from around the internet, with some of my own thoughts thrown in. Apologies if I’ve missed out any contributions; this is not an exhaustive list.
Most controversy has been created by Laurie Penny’s polemic with Alex Callinicos of the SWP. Penny wrote an article attacking “the old politics” and much of the “old left” along with it. Rightly dismissive of the Labour Party’s attempts to attract young people by offering membership for 1p, Penny says that the new activists “have no time for the ideological bureaucracy of the old left.”
Callinicos responded by arguing that the student protests have actually been quite traditional in form, making the interesting point that “the crowd” as a political beast is centuries old. This does, I think, gloss over the possible significance of some of the demos; the “wild demonstration” on 30th November when thousands of people ran miles around London to avoid police kettles is something without precedent in modern times. Callinicos also puts across the SWP’s perspective that a general strike is basically a necessity ASAP. There should be more explanation from those sections of the Left calling for an immediate general strike as to how it would be brought about and what its political role would be, although perhaps that is a debate for another post!
Penny’s response touched on a theoretical justification for her position that I would be interested to hear her elaborate further:
“The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production whilst keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.”
Does she mean that the state has been decentralised? That there are more potential targets for political opposition than there used to be? That movements need to first and foremost think locally? But isn’t it the case that the state is more centralised than ever, and monopoly capitalism as strong as it ever was?
Richard Seymour has picked up on this, warning that such thinking maybe be a symptom of neo-liberalism, rather than a cure for it. He also warns against ideological laxity leading to unprincipled alliances (no doubt some critics of the SWP will chuckle to themselves when they read that). Finally, he makes a brief case for the existence of hard-copy left-wing newspapers as a way of overcoming atomisation in a way that Twitter isn’t capable of.
Billy Bragg, whose political degeneration continued at speed with his desire to get four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence to Christmas number one instead of an actual song, is totally wrong to say that the British Left has historically suffered from “ideological nitpicking.” The exact opposite is true: the British Left has always been laced throughout with hardcore empiricism, and a rejection of the importance of theory.
In this sense, those who claim that the movement doesn’t, or shouldn’t, care about ideology have more in common with the old left bureaucrats than they would ever care to admit. Trade union leaderships have always shied away from theory as well. In fact, bureaucracies manage to cement their control over organisations and movements precisely when no theoretical or ideological challenge arises against them.
This is something that Liam has already replied to on this blog, in particular flagging up the dangers of discarding theory too lightly.
This is not to suggest that anyone who is anti-Trot is anti-theory. Far from it, as Patrick has shown on this blog.
Guy Aitchison, at the New Left Project, and James Meadway, at Counterfire, have been discussing the implications of a centralisation of leadership in the movement. Meadway frankly discusses the unevenness of the movement, and argues that the militant actions of students are a direct result of their lack of economic agency – students have to be more radical in order to be noticed at all. Meadway is essentially arguing for students to “turn to the class” without giving up leadership of their own movement.
Also at NLP, FE student Sophie Burge looks forward to more political radicalisation in the fight to save EMA, and predicts, with good reason, that the student movement will develop into a more generalised anti-cuts movement. How and why this will happen is definitely something we need to look at more in the immediate future – how can “the student movement” retain all the militancy that has made it so significant while it reaches out to the “traditional” workers’ movement?
Something that has begun to worry me about some views from “anti-leadership” activists is a lack of perspective on the movement’s significance and size. Paul at Though Cowards Flinch has noticed this too, and defends the traditional far left for, well, engaging in class struggle. He has a warning for us:
“If mutual respect between the current movement and ‘traditional’ working class structures and the accompanying necessary humility does not develop, however, history does show that the current movement, far from creating the revolutionary change that many involved now seek, may ultimately end up as a call for a vapid liberalism which fails to deal with the class inequalities that lie at the heart of all the social injustices now being committed by our Coalition government.”
For example, as someone who had grown weary of years of boring marches, I agree entirely with Jon Moses’ praise of new forms of protest, but the claim that they are part of a “new political mood” needs to be critically examined. I think what is happening at this stage is more a quiet polarisation than a general radicalisation. We shouldn’t forget that, in the grand scheme of things, only a handful of schools were hit by walkouts, and even at the majority of university campuses little or nothing has happened since November 10th so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Jon also seems to contradict himself: arguing that set piece battles with the forces of the state have given protesters a “political education”, he then goes on to say that such situations are outliving their use, and that we should be decentralising direct action into smaller, faster, more local protests like flashmobs. Nevertheless, discussions of what specific tactics to use on demos themselves have been rare, and it’s good to see this question being raised.
Jo Casserly of Revolution at UCL has raised a significant point; that the aim of the movement should be to bring down the government “by any means necessary.”
On leadership, Jo says something I agree with completely: “…my feeling is that those who praise the ‘leaderless’ nature of our movement are seeing what they want to see, and are often leaders themselves.”
“Leadership” is a word that raises the spectre of bureaucracy in the minds of many people, who are right to be wary given the history of the socialist movement in the last century. Perhaps it’s time we defined leadership in terms of a political phenomenon rather than a group of individuals on a Central Committee. All the most politically conscious elements within the student movement constitute a leadership of sorts. Whoever is behind Network X’s leaderless gathering in Manchester on January 15th / 16th, is part of this leadership too whether they would care to admit this or not.
Harpymarx has picked up on this with a call for collective leadership rather than an abandonment of leadership, staking a claim for the Labour Representation Committee as a model of such practice.
Other things worth reading that, for reasons of space, I’ll only mention briefly: The Really Open University have reproduced an interesting piece from Italy about the student movement there, which concerns itself, among other things, with the question of violence on protests. Alex Snowden at Luna17 has five tactical questions for us to consider.
A large proportion of the volume of material being produced has come from a relatively small number of places (UCL, Leeds), but it’s good to see comrades giving serious thought to serious questions. Hopefully, this will continue into the new year and beyond. Let’s keep talking, debating, campaigning, and fighting.