Tag Archives: National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts

A plague on both your houses!

by Anne Archist

There has been a perspective (at least superficially) missing from the recent ‘horizontalism vs hierarchy‘ debate triggered by the student movement’s decentralised self-organisation over the past few months. On the one hand there have been some (mostly newer) activists, politically unaffiliated students whose involvement in the movement is more limited, plus a few left-communists and anarchists influenced by the anti-organisation trend. On the other hand there have been Leninists and some pre-existing activists from other political traditions.

The former are concerned with preventing centralisation and bureaucratisation, widening informal networks and so on; they don’t, however, seem to be particularly interested in building solid organisational and practical links between the occupations, student assemblies, and so on. I get the impression that their vision is one of many different groups doing different things and linked together by a common cause but no real process of coordination or means of ensuring accountability beyond a very local level. The latter are concerned with making the movement more accountable and responsive at ‘higher’ levels, putting structures in place to regulate and coordinate local bodies, etc. I get the impression that their vision is one of  national committees competing for real ‘leadership’ of the movement, with institutional structures and hierarchies extending down towards local anti-cuts groups and heavily permeated with full-timers and lay-activists from Leninist groups.

The missing perspective, then, is one that acknowledges the need for organisation and structures without creating professional ‘leaders’ and buying wholesale into structures that will inevitably lead to a process of calcification. Leninists are (overly) fond of pointing to the famous pamphlet by Jo Freeman, which actually arose from the feminist movement, as a critique of anarchist organising methods. Of course, Jo’s critique can be applied in large part to structured organisations as well, and the remedies she suggests are compatible with anarchism. Incidentally, the response puts across the impression Cathy Levine hasn’t actually read Freeman’s essay, so I wouldn’t really recommend it in relation to this debate.

It is sadly commonplace for debates to polarise, especially when they are conducted in non-ideal conditions (such as under time constraints, in a stressful situation, or across language barriers). I’ve got a long history of writing about this problem as applied to anarchism and Marxism, and I don’t suppose it will be resigned to history anytime soon (I’ll be taking part in a discussion at Cambridge’s Marxist Discussion Group on the topic next term, in fact). We shouldn’t be surprised that the middle-ground hasn’t been given much space in the debate. As part of their relentless drive towards over-simplification to the point of absurdity, some of the intellectual-gutter elements of the left have tried to assert that there are only two options: rigid, committee-based national organisation exercising formalised links with local committees and so on; or else utterly ‘anarchic’ individualist voluntarism whereby hundreds of conflicting statement and tactics will proliferate until the vast majority give up altogether. This is simply not true, and nor does it adequately differentiate between the many factors involved in a successful movement (such as the difference in structures needed for organising a march compared to those needed for publicising it).

Those of you who know me will recognise this as another call for honest but open-minded discussion aimed at understanding our differences but also our similarities, and working ourselves away from extremes of knee-jerkism and towards more considered balancing acts. In short, then, the real challenge for the student movement right now is to find ways of formalising and structuring the relationships within the movement without creating a caste of professional and unrepresentative ‘leaders’, to find ways of ensuring accountability of those taking executive action without also surrendering important decision-making power to them rather than larger bodies, to work out the right attitude to take with NUS and allies like the trade unions that both appreciates their appropriate roles and puts pressure on them to fulfil those roles more closely in line with the interests of society.

The NUS, for instance, is a mediator and a representative – but not of the politically engaged and active ‘student’ movement (which is not really a student movement at all, including as it does parents/staff/etc, but merely a sectional vanguard of a broader anti-cuts sentiment that the left cannot help but see coming). Its actual role (whether we like it or not, and whether we wish this to change over time or not) is to perform a regulatory and mediating function – it works as much for the state as it does for us in some senses – and to act as the voice of all students. We have to understand this function in order to know how to relate to the NUS as it currently is and see what it can do – and what it cannot or should not do – for our movement.

If we cannot find ways of building a democratic, accountable movement that has enough structure to prevent ‘personality-makes-right’ mentality, that organises marginalised or sectional groups with due respect for their needs (such as the women’s section that the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts has been organising since some months before the movement exploded into the news media), and that still allows mass-participation with differing levels of involvement and communication between different localities/sections/etc, then quite frankly we’ve got little hope of winning this struggle. The Leninists are right to assert that relying on groups of friends tweeting and throwing things at the police won’t help us win, but nor will imposing top-down leadership and subjugating our movement to the tempo and whims of the Labour movement. I should point out that of course I’m not implying that all Leninists are calling for this any more than all anarchists are calling for affinity-group streetfighting – if pushed to take a side in the argument, I’d suggest that generally the Leninists understand the importance of bottom-up leadership of ideas better than their opponents understand the importance of accountability and structure.

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Filed under Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

What’s Next?

by Edd Mustill

We produced a recent summary of the debates in the student movement here, and in this post I want to elaborate further on some of my own ideas.

When we talk about the student movement we need to be clear on a few things. Firstly, we need honestly acknowledge its size and state. Relatively few schools have seen walkouts. Most campuses have seen little or no action since they mobilised for the NUS/UCU demo on November 10th. We are a minority movement – this is important for reasons I’ll soon return to.

Secondly, we need to see ourselves as part of a wider anti-cuts movement, and I think most of us do. This is important not so that we can issue vague statements of solidarity with unions or whoever, but because it should politically inform all the decisions we make.

Thirdly, we have to keep in mind that the unpredictability of politics that we’ve seen in the last two months in unlikely to go away entirely. This means we need to be tactically flexible. It also means we can get away with trying more ambitious things on the off chance that they will work.

Momentum

That said, I fear we might see in January that the movement is not as self-sustaining as some comrades believe.

At some universities, mostly Russell Group and the London arts colleges, anti-cuts groups have emerged as semi-permanent bodies. A layer of students have been drawn into political activity who are unlikely to drop out in the foreseeable future. They will be able to keep on holding occupations and other such actions this year, hopefully growing as a result.

But, in the very places where students are most effected by cuts, in schools and colleges, and in many poorer unis that are more likely to see course closures, there is no local organisation. While we theorise about the nature of liberated spaces, we need to acknowledge that on whole campuses, no-one has so much as held a meeting.

The bread-and-butter of local organising is something that cannot be ignored (I recently produced a guide for the NCAFC about this called Local Organisation). Having stalls, leafleting, holding public meetings, and so on need to be kept up in between the big set-piece events.

Anyone who is concerned about the over-centralisation of leadership within the movement must surely recognise this. As things stand, people see a Facebook event and come out for the next national day of action. You can kid yourself into thinking this is a great model of decentralisation, but in fact it shares some characteristics with the way bureaucratic union leaderships operate: get everyone out for a big day, have the march, and everyone goes home again (it’s just that we do it more frequently, and with more militant consequences, than the unions).

I cannot stress enough how important I see the self-organisation of local groups as being to the health of this movement. Work out local demands to keep things going. If your group is more or less stable, go to a campus or college where nothing is happening, approach some contacts to hold a joint meeting, and get something going.

Leadership

And so to the thorny question of leadership. We remain, as politically active students, a relatively small minority. We constitute, as a movement, the political leadership of the student population in the country (yes – even the ones who disagree with us) because we are fighting for the objective interests of students as a group.

This might sound dangerous – the Right will ask, how can you presume to speak for all students? – but in reality we recognise it as a fact every time we hold a protest. Our slogans always relate to “students,” not “students who agree with us,” “left-ish students,” or whatever. When the fees issue came up, the interests of students and those working class people who want to be students were threatened, and we came into the political arena with the right slogans, and mobilised people. This was an act showing political leadership, on the part of all of us who got people out on November 24th.

This gives us certain responsibilities. We have to gauge the political consciousness of all students, not just the most radical, and we have a responsibility, as all left-wing and radical movements in history have, to politicise the depoliticised, and to organise the un-organised. This shows the necessity of being organised on a national scale.

Legitimacy

It might seem at the moment like I’m fudging the leadership question with a sneaky get-out: the idea that all politically conscious elements constitute a “leadership” in a broader sense. But humour me for a bit.

Leadership is not the issue behind all the debates between Laurie Penny, the SWP, and others. They are concerned with the question of revolutionary legitimacy. Which groups and bodies have the right to make certain political decisions, and why? I don’t think anyone is of the opinion that we are all just a group of individuals deciding what to do on a one-by-one basis, so this is the important question.

Some, like Revo, are keen for general assemblies along the French model to be the movement’s sovereign bodies. Others say, defer to the labour movement. Matt Hall has stated an interesting case for occupations to take on the role of leadership bodies, although he doesn’t put it quite like that.

All these have their strengths and weaknesses. Occupations are very uneven, existing strongly in a handful of universities. General assemblies are even rarer, but are trying to broaden out to other anti-cuts activists. The labour movement is powerful but is moving with about as much urgency as a sea urchin.

Before Christmas, the pitch of struggle was at such a level that legitimacy was more or less decided by a simple factor: if something proposed was a good idea, someone went and did it, and it got done. If it was a bad idea, it didn’t happen.

General assemblies can pull more sections in, on a more permanent basis, than occupations can. But they won’t be able to have a monopoly on having good ideas, just like NCAFC won’t, or EAN won’t. The first meeting of the London Student Assembly contradicted itself in its first session. It declared itself to be the sovereign body of the student movement in London, but was then quick to ensure local groups that they wouldn’t be bound by its decisions. There’s nothing hugely damaging about this contradiction, as long as we don’t get too hung up on who has some sort of ultimate, legitimate authority.

If general assemblies can be broadened out to include the most combative sections of the working class in a town or region, they should be. It would be foolish, in this situation, to think they were usurping a somehow immortal authority held by trades councils, for example. The difference between good and bad politics is often about timing. In terms of getting people to act on a proposal, when it comes about is often more important than who actually proposed it.

None of this is to deny the need for organisation. On the contrary, without local and national organisations, thriving off the input on their supporters, having the gumption to make the right political call when need be – in short, to lead – nothing would happen. Really, we all know this.

Student-Worker Unity

One of our immediate tasks is to make “student-worker unity” more than a slogan. We need trade unionists on our next round of demonstrations. Unite and the GMB, the UCU and PCS are backing protests on the 29th. We need to push for as big a turnout as possible, not just because union banners look nice, but because all these protests at the moment are having a radicalising effect on those who attend (contrast to the later Stop the War marches, which had a demobilising effect).

A combination of the anger, energy, and political discussion on the marches, and the direct and naked confrontation with the forces of the state (cops), means that protests themselves are arenas of political discussion. We can make sure people go away from the 29th, back to their homes and workplaces, with new ideas, ready to fight.

It’s great that Kenny and McCluskey are backing the 29th, but I suspect the trade union turnout will depend more on reps than general secretaries. In January, students should find out when local union branches are holding their meetings and ask the chair if a student activist can go along and give a speech. Don’t forget how inspired we have been by the movement in the Autumn – why would trade unionists be any less inspired?

Beyond the 29th: Against sectionalism

Sectionalism plagues the British labour movement, and always has. Basically, this is the idea that the needs of particular groups of workers are more important than the class as a whole. The trade union movement has always suffered from it, seeing isolated unions going down to defeat.

Union bureaucracies benefit from sectionalism and tend, consciously or not, to promote it. We know, from the student movement, that we can junk our official leadership (NUS) when they fail to act. We also know that local organisation feeding into national networks is incredibly important. If we take this lesson into the trade union movement, we can help them to rediscover the traditions of rank-and-file organisation that have made for strong, militant unions in the past.

Rejecting sectionalism, seeing ourselves as part of a larger class movement, means we must have the freedom to criticise our comrades in the trade union movement, and to be criticised by them. I think that most of us in the student movement are arguing for rank-and-file leadership of one sort or another, and that our differences are not as great as we might think – in short, we are all perhaps somewhere in between Penny and Callinicos.

Rejecting sectionalism means that we therefore have a responsibility to argue for it in the trade union movement as well. This will be, once again, an act of leadership on the part of politicised students – from the rank-and-file.

Obviously, we are not in the business of lecturing trade unionists. Reps will know better than us how to organise in their own workplace. But what is “student-worker unity,” if not the idea that we come together, because of our common class interests, to formulate a joint political strategy against the government?

In short, what I’m saying here is this: the political situation is volatile, and will become more so. Let’s try new things and, yes, old things too. Let’s get serious about approaching the trade union movement, whose members are about to be put through a shredder by this government. Let’s acknowledge the position of leadership we all have in the anti-cuts struggle, and take our responsibilities seriously.

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In defence of Trots

This is a guest post by Tami Peterson. Tami is studying a Masters of Research in Social and Political Theory at Birkbeck, and is Anti-Rasicm and Anti-Fascism Officer at Birkbeck SU and on the NUS LGBT Committe, writing in a personal capacity.

In the recent discussion around the protests and demonstrations that have happened across England an old spectre has come back to haunt the student movement. This is a spectre of plots by Trots to “overthrow” the NUS leadership, to incite violence and to generally cause mayhem. These Trots along with anarchists and self-described kids from the “slums of London” are the “bad protesters” to be shunned, disregarded as insane or irrelevant. The fact that the majority that make up this group are largely working class, poor and Black and Asian has, of course, nothing to do with the labels thrown at them by the media and rightwing groups like the EDL who are now targetting them.

Contrary to this are posed the “good protesters”, the apparently “peaceful students” who are overwhelmingly white, middle class, in Higher Education (as opposed to the rabble from FE colleges and Sixth Forms) and generally respectable. They work with the police, think all forms of vandalism are unacceptable (unless of course it is the state that is vandalising public services) and oppose violence (unless of course it happens to be a war or other state-sponsored aggression).

In reality, there is a fake narrative being created here. The first lie is that the new student movement is led by Trotskyists and Anarchists. Quite simply this isn’t the case. The scale and breadth of the movement which has happened in the wake of the 10th of November is being led by young people, most of them ages 16-18 or younger. Many of them are too young to vote or be members of the NUS. While the organised left has indeed been responsible for setting up organisations like the Education Activist Network, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and the London Student Assembly the reality is that others are the ones who have sparked this movement.

This false narrative obscures the real divide which is posited in the age-old question: Reform or Revolution? The “bad protesters”, or anyone questioning the very organisation of capitalist society, a system which is increasingly brazen in its pure marketisation and privatisation of every aspect of social life, is to be disregarded or belittled. Trotskyists, leftists, anarchists and anti-capitalists openly call for revolution, for the elimination of this illogical, inhumane system and the creation of new forms of creative action and collective human life.

Those on the side of reform don’t want to cause too much of a fuss because at base, they still believe that this system is one which is worth fighting for. They believe that they can force a kinder capitalism, a softer system. But the vitriol and scorn poured on open revolutionaries by the reformists is really due to the fact that in the early 21st century we are seeing the decline of social democracy. As leading Tory Quintin Hogg put it when the welfare state was being born: “If you don’t give them reform, they will give you social revolution.” As we witness the destruction of the welfare state, the inherent contradictions and inequality become more stark and the Emperor not only fails to wear clothing, but we are all now aware of that fact.

The sad reality for the reformists is that they are fighting for a dead ideal. They are fighting for a piece of the pie which is non-existent and the spectre of the “bad protesters” scares them into thinking, “Could they be right? Is there no future for me?”

I have had the great joy of being able to be a part of the British Qualitative Election Study which reviewed opinions of the electorate both before and directly after the most recent general election. Time and again it was evident that people viewed organised political parties with disdain or a sad acceptance that one must choose between the lesser of evils. Mostly gone from party politics is any kind of romantic notion that a party fights for one’s interests, much less that a party is a valid forum for practicing politics. Many expressed their support for the Liberal Democrats and indeed a coalition government in the hopes that issues would be addressed that had previously been ignored. Yet this hope for working within the system has once again been scuppered by blatant Liberal Democrat betrayal.

The “bad protesters” have displayed the gut instinct of the youth of modern Britain. These youth had the choice of apathy and resignation to the wholesale destruction of any progressive measures the state once supported or it could show the will to fight back, and not simply fight for what was being taken away, but for a whole different way of doing politics and for a whole different way of living. The deliberative democracy and creativeness to come spontaneously out of the occupations is just one small example of what “bad protesters” can do.

So in the end, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Trotskyists, anarchists, anti-capitalists, revolutionaries and those from the slums of London in rejecting strongly the destruction of the welfare state. I stand with them in our desperate fight to create a better world in the face of the full violence of the state which is helped and supported by the silence or excuses of the “good protesters” who make apologies for it. So the next time someone labels you a “Trot” because you have decided to put your hands onto the wheel of history don’t try to distance yourself from it, take it as a compliment.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Guest Posts, Student Issues

Porter keeps on flipping

by Edd Mustill

NUS president Aaron Porter will have to be careful, as we say back in Sheffield, that he doesn’t “get a sore arse from sitting on the fence too much.”

Initially, he decried the day of action on the 24th for supposedly distracting from the NUS “strategy” of attempting to force by elections on Liberal Democrat MPs, using a constitutional provision which, by the way, does not yet exist.

He humbly back-tracked publicly in a speech to the UCL occupation on Sunday morning. He has acknowledged that peaceful direct action including occupations are accepted as a legitimiate tactic by the NUS, although his recent blog studiously ignores the existence of NCAFC and EAN:

“I want to announce my support for a new wave of action, spurred on and supported by NUS and Students’ Unions, mobilising our students in colleges and Universities and working with other activists and supporters from across the education sector, the trade union movement, parents, families and beyond. There has never been a more important time for a united student movement, and this is what I will lead.”

No activists will read this and think, “Thank god! At last we have a leader.” The numbers at tomorrow’s day of action will not be any higher because of this belated announcement.

Today the Cambridge Defend Education group, which was served with an injuction against its occupation of the Old Schools site, claimed on twitter:

“asked @aaronporter for support w/ our possession order. He said ‘we are not offering legal advice or financial support to students.’”

Porter tried to clear this up by suggesting that the NUS is seeking legal advice about the rights of occupiers but not on a “case by case basis.”

The NUS completely lost the leadership of the student movement after Porter so strongly and quickly condemned the Millbank protest in the national media. They are now trying to reclaim that leadership. The radical students who have mobilised themselves, and the groups who have been behind the days of action, must not let them do this.

Remember that the NUS wanted us to have one march, on the 10th, listen to some speakers, and go back to lobby our MPs. Remember that they have no strategy for defeating higher fees and education cuts.

The ball is still in the court of the radicals. We must start to formulate a strategy for defeating the Bill, and we must keep up and increase the use of democratic forums like general assemblies for debating the direction of the protest movement.

Comparisons can easily be drawn between Porter and Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party (remember them?) Perhaps Aaron gets a dizzying feeling when he sees Ed on the telly; a sense that he is gazing into his own future. Like Aaron, Ed has been unable to make his mind up about whether he supports the students protests, or perhaps whether it is politically expedient for him to do so. Political fence-sitting is fine in times of social peace, and it might even win you an election. Not any more.

Good luck to everyone tomorrow.

As they say in France, “The future belongs to us!”

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NCAFC and CoR press conference

The following video, from Counterfire, is definitely worth watching after yesterday’s events.

The press conference was held jointly by the Coalition of Resistance and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

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