Tag Archives: National Union of Students

Anarchism and Marxism: A discussion

by Anne Archist

The following is a very rough transcript of a discussion. I’ve tried to reproduce it as accurately as possible but some sections may be missing and I may have made mistakes at some point along the way. I gave the Anarchism section of the talk, while the Marxism section was given by Daniel Morley. I apologise in particular if I have misrepresented Daniel’s comments in any way. The debate that followed from the floor veered all over the place and plenty of it was off-topic. I haven’t included my contributions to that debate because I couldn’t write and speak at the same time.

Anarchism

The first thing I want to say is that I will be “taking sides”, and specifically I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not interested in any form of Anarchism that is friendly to capitalism. I’m not just fixing definitions to suit myself here; ‘anarchist’ is a label applied to many theories, but this doesn’t show that they share a common theoretical basis. I could argue at length about how so-called “anarcho”-capitalism and social anarchism have nothing in common but this is the Marxist Discussion Group, not the Adam Smith Institute, so I’ll leave it at that and hope that people are satisfied.

I want to start out by giving a brief history of anarchist thought, and though I won’t have time to go into everything, I’m going to focus on a few historically contentious discussions in ways that will hopefully undermine some of the myths spread about anarchists. My view is that anarchists and Marxists have more in common than is generally recognised, and I hope this discussion can help to break down some of the stereotypes and barriers between our traditions.

Much as Marxism was preceded by utopian, idealist and religious socialism of various forms, anarchism’s roots stretch back to Greek and Eastern philosophy. It’s generally considered to have become recognisable in its modern form in the writings of William Godwin, though he apparently drifted away from communism – later editions of ‘Political Justice’ were heavily edited. The first person to self-describe as an anarchist is Proudhon, and the key historical anarchist theorists from today’s point of view are probably Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Rocker.

Anarchism became an important organised political movement as a faction of the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, founded in 1866. They preferred terms like “federalist” to describe their politics, and were led by Bakunin, though Kropotkin did join the International for a short period. Debates between this trend and the Marxists reached a head at the Hague Congress of 1872, and leading anarchists including Bakunin were expelled.

I want to clear up a few myths about anarchist theory. Despite its predecessors, modern anarchism rests on the same philosophical basis as Marxism – materialism. Bakunin said this in the clearest possible terms: “Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists are right.” As for economic analysis, it is often suggested that anarchists have none, or more precisely that they have none of their own. Firstly, I’m not entirely sure why Marxists would consider it a criticism to point out that anarchists agree with the Marxist economic analysis.

Secondly, the idea that they have none at all is quickly disproven by the fact that Bakunin translated Marx’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, into Russian (to the surprise of Marx, who overestimated the Russian working class’ backwardness); an abridged translation was published in Italian by an anarchist as well. Do we just have to admit we pinched Marx’s ideas, then? Well, no – Marx was heavily influence by Proudhon early in his career, whose book ‘What Is Property?’ was apparently the text that convinced Marx private property must be abolished. Anarchism and Marxism’s contributions to materialist analysis and anti-capitalist economics are intertwined. They form historically and conceptually inseparable parts of a whole – remove Proudhon’s ideas from Marx and you’re left with an economics not far off Adam Smith.

Don’t take it from me, though: “This work became possible only owing to the work of Proudhon himself”, say Marx and Engels in ‘The Holy Family’. They continue later: “Proudhon makes a critical investigation – the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation – of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”

Proudhon’s economic theory was limited, but this is understandable given his historical circumstances; he was not a communist, preferring market-based forms of socialism that he believed could usurp capitalism through the development of co-operative industry funded through mutual free credit. This was called mutualism. The idea was – roughly speaking, since I’ve not really read any Proudhon first-hand – that workers could set up banks, creating money to fund the establishment of cooperatives and other workers’ organisations that would compete with the state and capitalist enterprises. A kind of economic dual-power would come about and then capitalism would be surpassed as the collectives would perform better on the market (due to the fact that they were under the control of the people who knew best how to run them, they re-invested money back into the business rather than cream it off in profits, they sold at a lower price, etc).

Later anarchists – those in the First International, for instance – largely sided with Marx’s economic analysis as he moved away from its Proudhonist origins. Bakunin argued that the working class should use a “revolutionary general strike” as the death blow to capitalism, seize the means of production, owning and controlling them collectively. It’s worth spending some time on this question under the current circumstances. In fact, the anarchists were advocating the general strike – and trying to turn it into reality – at a time when Engels was decrying it as unnecessary at best. At worst it was impossible, and most likely it would not result in revolution even if it could be carried out since it targeted individual bourgeois in their roles as employers, rather than the instrument of their class organised as such – the state.

Bakunin’s “federalist” inclinations led him to hold that the question of remuneration for labour was a matter to be decided by individual communities. The question of ownership was settled, but the question of distribution was a subject for experimentation; communities might choose markets with local currency, some form of labour-note based rationing, etc. This theory is generally referred to as anarcho-collectivism, or just collectivism, though distinctions are rarely drawn accurately or consistently from here on in and the term has also been applied to other socialist theories.

Some anarchists consider Bakunin’s ideas as a transitional state that will give way to full communism while others consider it an end in itself (since freedom of migration would allow people to choose which distributive system to live under, etc). Rocker suggests that the economic objectives of mutualism, collectivism, communism, and so on should be considered merely educated guesses at the best way of ensuring a free society, and says that people will likely experiment with different distributive methods.

As I said, the distinctions get less clear from this point, but Kropotkin says: “For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: “Bread, shelter, ease for all!” And those voices will be listened to… we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy.” His point is that basic necessities should immediately be distributed along communist principles and be available to all without any distributive barrier. The key difference, then, is that they are willing to take sides in the debate about distribution – unsurprisingly, these people are called anarchist (or anarcho-) communists.

Kropotkin’s later thought also hinted towards aspects of syndicalism (which is not a specifically anarchist theory but anarcho-syndicalism, the anarchist version, is most common these days). He edited the passage I quoted earlier, to replace the slogan “in demolishing we shall build” with “in building we shall demolish”. This reflected what he felt were lessons learnt from the course of struggle – that simply overturning the status quo without any idea of what should follow it would leave the door open to a restoral of bourgeois order (or perhaps worse).

The syndicalist idea, like mutualism, is a strategy rather than a distributive principle.  It says that some form of industrial union organising can be used in place of a political party in the traditional sense in order to bring about revolution. Syndicalists generally conceive of their task as building organisation in industry either through federating and coordinating pre-existing unions, setting up independent revolutionary unions, or otherwise strengthening the working class’ level of economically-based organisation.

This would then allow them to wage class war using primarily economic weapons such as the strike, and to eventually use general strikes and the seizure of the means of production by force if necessary to effect collectivisation. It’s a common misconception that anarchists, syndicalists, and particularly anarcho-syndicalists, reject political struggle per se, and think that revolution will somehow come about through the economistic development of trade union consciousness.

Rocker, who is often credited as the major anarcho-syndicalist theorist, said: “If Anarcho-Syndicalism nevertheless rejects the participation in the present national parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with political struggles in general, but because its adherents are of the opinion that this form of activity is the very weakest and most helpless form of the political struggle for the workers…  Their method is that of direct action in both the economic and political struggle of the time. By direct action they mean every method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic and political oppression. ”

Rocker goes on to talk about just a few methods of direct action, but makes it clear there are more. The tactic that best represents the relation between economics and politics is probably the social strike; this a strike undertaken with the interests of the whole community in mind, which may include demands such as the lowering of food prices or rent, the provision of services and welfare through employers’ acknowledgement of a “social responsibility”, etc. Similarly, the general strike was used as a weapon by the Chartists in their campaign for enfranchisement – this would presumably be a form of ‘social general strike’.

So that’s a potted history of anarchist theory – there’s a lot more I could go into but I obviously don’t have the time. I hope it’s dispelled a few myths about anarchism: that anarchists don’t have any economic analysis or that they merely piggy-back on Marxism’s in a way that demonstrates a lack of theoretical completeness; that anarchists are idealists, don’t recognise the importance of class struggle, or don’t base themselves in the working class; that anarchists have commonly advocated unrealistic spontaneity or that their strategic and tactical understanding can be reduced to wishful thinking; that anarchists are opposed to organisation; and so forth.

It’s a common misconception on the part of anarchists that Marxists all want to take state power, in their own name and for their own nefarious ends, introducing something akin to the USSR. This is, of course, totally false – take, for instance, the International Communist Group, who say “the revolutionary dictatorship of our class will abolish the state”. On the other hand, it’s a common misconception on the part of Marxists that anarchists all want to live an individualistic utopian existence of utter freedom. This is just as false – Bakunin talks about “the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic” as “the system of Anarchism.”

So how do I think we should conceptualise the relationship between Marxism and anarchism? Well, I think that there is probably a wider gap between the extremes of those calling themselves Marxists than there is between the average materialist anarchist and the average Trotskyist. We need to pay attention to what people actually think, concretely and specifically, rather than what language they use to describe their ideas. I’d suggest that the types of anarchism I’ve discussed are probably best understood as contributions to the Marxist tradition – historically, philosophically, economically, etc. Obviously though, I’d also go so far as to say that at certain historical periods anarchists have been ahead of more orthodox or mainstream Marxists and that this contribution has been a vital factor in driving Marxism forward.

Marxism

Marxism and anarchism obviously have a lot in common – they’re both theories that are against all forms of oppression and inequality, and they both aim to create a stateless and classless society in the long run. I think that the Marxist understanding of class society and the state are key to understanding the world around us. They are a theoretical focus that provides us with a guide to action; we can learn things about how to deal with them from the way we analyse and critique them. The first question we should ask is: “what are the origins and effects of oppression?” The history of human society has more or less been a list of oppression in varying different forms. Even today we are still surrounded by inequality – why is this, and why is it allowed to go on when it could be addressed so easily? So many people live below the poverty line while a relatively small number of people own vast fortunes that could easily provide for these people’s needs. Why isn’t this done?

The first antagonism was between man and nature. Human beings are poorly adapted to their environment – we can’t fly, we don’t have poisonous stings, etc. On the other hand, we are dependent on nature for our survival, since it ultimately provides our food, shelter, clothing, and so on. This is the first law of society – that we have to struggle against nature to fulfil our needs. We are materially conditioned by nature, not born free; the idea of people being totally “free” in a state of nature is a myth, because they can never be free from the demands of survival. This leads to a struggle to improve the forces of production in order to improve the conditions of existence.

How did the first state arise? Initially there was no need for a state, no state apparatus. Society was, however, divided into different groups such as tribes; these groups competed against each other in order to control resources, using trade, violence, intimidation, and so on. The struggle was both over nature’s bounty and over the subjugation of others’ labour power in the form of slavery. Often people ask about the nature of the link between this slavery and the establishment of state machinery – did classes come first and necessitate the creation of a state, or did the state come first and facilitate the subjugation of minorities into a different class? This isn’t really important. What matters is that when you strip power of its economic basis it becomes devoid of meaning, it becomes literally incomprehensible. What is the meaning of power free from exploitation of labour, control of resources, etc? Oppressing others for the sake of it is meaningless.

It follows from this that the state is not just an arbitrary evil that we can do away with once we realise its nature. It performs a certain social function – serving class interests – and it preserves the prevailing form of class rule. Marxists think that the proletarian state works in the same way – it defends the revolution by suppressing other classes. Even some anarchists would agree with this in a sense. So why did the state maintain itself historically in situations like in the USSR? What was the economic basis for this?

The USSR couldn’t produce sufficiently. The state can only be done away with once work is no longer a burden, which is brought about by the shortening of the work day due to increased employment and productivity. This allows people to take part in running their own affairs and therefore does away with the need for such centralisation and specialisation of administering society. The division of labour between mental and manual can’t just be wished away, it’s based on class inequality. Kropotkin feared that intellectuals and technicians would form a new ruling class – the division of labour provided the basis for a further class divide. Marxists, on the other hand, would identify this as a symptom of class society instead; it can be done away with as class divides are done away with.

Workers’ control failed in Russia because of the objective conditions, not because of the divide between mental and manual labour creating a new class. The workers weren’t capable of organising production properly and began to collectively exploit each other by charging high prices to other factories for their products. So is federalism or localism an answer, as a way of reducing the complexity of organising production (since each collective would only need to deal with local affairs, etc)? No, in fact the opposite. Russian workers couldn’t handle production because Russia was small and isolated – they needed to rely on a world division of labour.

[Something I didn’t really catch about medieval communes]

Potential exists to raise the standard of living internationally because of capitalism’s development of the productive forces and the process of globalisation. Today we are living in an epoch of revolution – there have been waves of unrest across the Middle East, inspired perhaps by the UK and Greece and so on. We are looking at an emerging world fightback.

Discussion.

T: You spoke about anarchism and Marxism being loose categorisations in terms of theory – I was wondering whether you could talk about the differences in praxis?

D: I think the role of party leadership is to popularise, preserve and develop theory and ideas. This is Marx did. Between the crisis periods he didn’t slog away inside pre-existing parties, he concentrated on developing theory that workers could draw on when they began to organise as a class. The chief problem of any revolutionary party is that there isn’t a revolution most of the time.

D2: The relationship of activists/revolutionaries to the working class is crucial. The other day I saw UKUncut walking through Boots, making a load of noise and so on… They alienated the workers there – I heard the workers complaining about them – and they didn’t really achieve anything. I would say to them that I agree with their aims, but I think they’d achieve a lot more if they went about it by speaking to the workers, making sure that they understand the situation, and encouraging and helping them to organise, because ultimately they’re the ones with the power in this situation. I think there’s a real divide between this – I think it’s called propaganda of the deed – kind of tactic, and the ideas of unionisation, organisation, etc.

L: I think it goes to show how loosely people use the terms these days that UKUncut could be called anarchists, I mean, they’re just not. The term propaganda of the deed comes from the sort of individual terrorism that some anarchists carried out at the end of the 19th century, but even at that time there were other anarchists who were in the International and organising in unions and so on. It’s an outdated idea – nobody really believes in it as a strategy any more – and it doesn’t reflect the greater part of the history of anarchism. It’s not something that has really been endorsed anarchists in the 20th century onwards.

D: This kind of individualism in tactics is based on objective factors like low levels of class struggle; it’s not something that inevitably stems from any theory, and it’s a pitfall that’s common to many theories, so you have groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany or the Brigate Rosse in Italy who were ostensibly Marxist groups that followed the same kind of individualistic, conspiratorial terrorist tactics rather than class struggle.  People respond to the objective circumstances they find themselves in and it’s often tempting to think that there is some kind of short-cut to revolution or class-consciousness when you’re in a lull period.

D2: You’re right about the term ‘anarchism’ losing its hard edge. I think maybe a more accurate term to describe these groups would be ‘autonomist’? I just worry that there’s a kind of logical escalation from these sort of publicity stunt tactics to terrorism and violence; they might think “oh well we did this and it didn’t work, so maybe we should try something more extreme, something that’s going to have a more direct effect or get more attention”.

T: I think the problem with trying to forego a party is that it puts the onus on the individual to do everything themselves – if you’re not in an organisation you have to try to educate yourself and so on. And maybe there’s an extent to which people who aren’t in parties treat the whole movement as a party of sorts, so instead of developing ideas and bouncing them off members of the same group, they throw them out to the movement as a whole, and so on…

X: What do people think about the election of Ed Miliband with the unions’ support? Does this provide some kind of possibility for change – I mean, he’s not been very militant so far but maybe knowing that he’s relying on the unions’ backing will motivate him to action.

H: If Ed Miliband was going to do anything, I think he would have done it by now, to be honest. I mean, he’s pretty shit.

X: I was just wondering whether maybe the economic situation made him more timid than he might otherwise be, it’s a difficult situation to be in as a leader.

H: Well, if anything the economic situation gives him more leeway, it should allow him to be more confident because everyone’s so pissed off with the tories.

D2: We have to understand the election of Ed Miliband is part of a dialectical process. He represents a move away from Blairism; the Blairites were literally weeping when it was announced that he had won the election, because they know that it represented a change of direction to some extent. If we keep applying pressure to them then we can force people in positions of leadership to step up to the plate.

D: We shouldn’t be too interested in the personality traits of this or that leader. As Marxists we base ourselves in the working class and the movement, not the figurehead that represents it in Parliament. The election of Ed does demonstrate the strength of the grassroots movement in Labour though – the unions could effectively control Labour if they wanted to, but they’re not exercising that power in a militant way and they won’t do unless their members push them to. Sadly there was no real left candidate in the election – that would have been John McDonnell, but the bureaucracy prevented him from standing – so we’ve got to put demands on the leaders to push them in that direction. Ed should have supported the student demos and he should not just march with us on the 26th but should be at the head of the march, leading it.

M: We shouldn’t underestimate the influence a mass movement can have on the leadership. Look at Chavez, he started off as (D: a follower of Tony Blair)… Yeah, but the movement pushed him to the left.

Y: As Marxists, why are we even talking about change through democratic means? Why are we even discussing the Labour Party, they’re not Marxist, they’re not Socialist and they won’t deliver Socialism. That’s not how it works, we believe in revolution, right?

A: We’re not talking about Labour getting into power to represent us, we’re talking about using Labour to build a mass movement. They are a mass organisation that we can intervene in as part of building the movement for that revolution.

Y: But why Labour? Surely there are better mass organisations?

T: There’s obviously lots of debate over the issue of Labour between Marxists, but ultimately parliament isn’t negligible. The Italian Communist Party for instance came out of the reformist Italian Socialist Party… There is potential to build something better out of it.

A: What better basis is there? I don’t see one. I mean, you can start to ask why should we still be based in the working class – some people influenced by Marxism did this, like Foucault and the Frankfurt School – but if you think the working class are the revolutionary agent then you need to base yourself in its mass organisations.

Y: But I think our key aim is to dispel false consciousness. The most important thing we can do is to make people aware of the extent of exploitation and oppression. They don’t realise how exploited they are, and they don’t realise the limitations of the Labour Party and so on. I worry that this sort of thing just reinforces these illusions.

L: Well, on the point of the Italian Communist Party and so on – building revolutionary parties out of reformist ones – they weren’t built in a party like Labour, and neither were the KPD. They aimed to pull people out of the reformist parties to build a mass movement outside them; that’s not what most socialists do with Labour. They try to fight through it and turn it into something it’s not.

D2: The only other mass party that has been to the left of Labour is the Communist Party, and their membership has fallen massively. Labour is the natural party of the working class. It’s just ultra-leftist and sectarian to try to set up a new party outside of the existing mass party of the class.

L: But wasn’t that exactly what the Third International did? And what about Die Linke in Germany? They’ve been successful following this tactic. I think there is a danger of perpetuating illusions in Labour by remaining in there long-term.

T: We shouldn’t concentrate on the snail’s-pace progress in Labour. We should look to students’ unions and trade unions. It’s dangerous to refuse to work through parliament, because people do actually have a lot of illusions in the real world. They look to parliament, they want to be represented in there. We have to work with people as they are but try to get them out of Labour in the long term.

D: Marx, interestingly, said that the working class could come to power through parliament in Britain. It’s not about putting pressure on the leaders to do this or do that; it’s about building a labour movement. There is no other organisation that can play the same role. How do you build a new mass party? It won’t be us here in this room that do it – it will be the working class. We should participate in the struggle through Labour to gain the ear of the working class. I disagree with the person that spoke before about our task being to dispel false consciousness; the working class don’t suffer from false consciousness, they know that politicians don’t do anything to help them, they know their job is shit and their boss is better off than them for no good reason. They just think that the existing structures serve them better compared to any other option they can see right now. There isn’t real mass participation in Labour, but this is just reflective of the low ebb of class struggle in general. There’s also no real participation in the unions for instance.

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Filed under History, Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

NUS won’t back EMA day of action

by Edd Mustill

The National Executive Committee of the National Union of Students has voted against supporting the national day of action against the cutting of EMA on 26th January. The vote went 6 for, 27 against.

The NEC also voted against backing the London demo on the 29th, by a margin of 22 to 13. The question of support for strike action by the lecturers’ union UCU was referred to the next NEC meeting.

Once again the official leadership of students in Britain has refused to step up when action is needed. The NUS has shown it is unwilling to support anything that it cannot directly control. Hopefully individual students’ unions will still support these protests, which will go ahead regardless.


Source
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Filed under Current Affairs, Student Issues

Are the “official” leaderships closing ranks?

by Edd Mustill

Times Higher Education this week reports on divisions in the lecturers’ union, the UCU, between the current general secretary Sally Hunt and the UCU Left.

Phil at AVPS has written a good piece about this here. It seems one point of conflict is the UCU NEC’s decision to back a call from the Left supporting the protest in London on 29th January.

Meanwhile, NUS President Aaron “Glowstick” Porter is bringing a motion to an emergency NEC meeting on Monday condemning the plans for a London demonstration on 29th January. In the name of unity with the trade union movement, Porter wants students to attend the TUC’s Manchester rally on that day. This would perhaps make sense, if Unite, the GMB, and UCU weren’t backing both protests.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In his quest for unity in the movement, Porter has variously dismissed, condemned, and tried to take credit for actions called by groups and individuals to his left.

It seems that the official leaderships of the UCU and NUS are closing ranks as the authority to direct the movement slips away from them. They are wary of having to work with less “official” bodies, because of the political effects this will have on radicalising some of their members. The telling sentence in the THE report is this:

“Critics of the UCU Left note that many of its key figures are members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), arguing that this subjects the union to external influence.”

As if members of the union who are also members of a political party are somehow less legitimate as members! What then should we say about the NUS leaders who are also in the Labour Party, for example? Is this subjecting the NUS to a perfidious external influence? As if every political body isn’t “subject to external influence” all the time. Otherwise what would be the point in us ever doing anything?

This is nothing more than an example of the sort of sectionalism that has long-plagued the trade union movement in Britain. The let-us-get-on-with-it attitude of union leaderships is constant, and it was precisely this that was rejected by the students in the Autumn, which allowed the movement to develop.

The NUS is one of the worst unions for sectionalism, having not so long ago criticising the UCU for considering industrial action. Porter’s focus on Manchester has nothing to do with genuine unity and everything to do with his attempt to reign in the movement. The strategy he is now pursuing, if his open letter to Simon Hughes is anything to go by, accepts that as far as he is concerned the battle against tuition fees is over.

As for the 29th, more demonstrations are obviously a good thing at the moment. Not everyone can get to Manchester. Just as when there is a national demo in London, people who can’t make it protest in their own towns, the same is true of Manchester. There are local protests organised in Sheffield and Glasgow, but no-one is accusing the local anti-cuts groups there of “splitting the movement.” In a situation where we are building national resistance to a national government, it’s ridiculous to suggest that there should be no London demonstration. We can and should build the 29th into a national day of action against cuts, as much as we can.

Demonstrate in London. Demonstrate in Manchester. Demonstrate in your own town. Let’s do it.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy, Student Issues

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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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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A pledge is a pledge

by nineteensixtyseven

The NUS Pledge that more than 500 Liberal Democrat candidates, including every sitting Lib Dem MP, signed before the General Election read as follows:

“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”

Note what it did not say.  It did not qualify its statement with ‘conditional on the economic climate’.  Nor did it read, ‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament except if my party joins the government, in which case I will vote for higher fees.’ Listening to some Liberal Democrats, though, you would think that they signed a pledge which contained these very get-out clauses.

Julian Huppert and Nick Clegg

Let’s face it; Lib Dems were never going to form a majority government.  Those students who were naive enough to vote for them did not do so because they imagined a hypothetical land of milk and honey where everyone agreed with Nick, and the smooth-talking lothario benevolently rained down gifts upon dewy-eyed sixth-formers.  No, it was because there was a chance of a hung Parliament and possible Lib Dem participation in some form of coalition.  That is exactly what happened.

Nick Clegg, however, said yesterday that: ‘At the time I really thought we could do it. I just didn’t know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were.’  This is nonsense.  Would these be the same finances affected by the economic crisis that broke out nearly two years before the election?  Moreover, hasn’t his coalition partner, George Osborne boasted about bringing Britain ‘back from the brink‘?  If this is true then surely there is more call for phasing out tuition fees now than when the Lib Dems made the promise at the so-called brink?  You can’t have it both ways.

If you take the step and voluntarily sign a pledge then you should consider that you may one day have to act on it.  There is a reason why wedding vows do not usually contain multiple clauses spelling out circumstances in which they can be broken.  When you make a promise you are supposed to work hard to keep it. Otherwise, Clegg should have said this on his wedding day:

“I, Nicholas William Peter Clegg, take you Miriam González Durántez, to be my lawful wedded wife, for better but not for worse, for richer, but not for poorer, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part, unless of course, I meet a more attractive woman or I discover after the wedding day that you really annoy me.”

I doubt if his vows contained such qualifications, and the NUS Pledge certainly did not.  Even if Clegg really did feel that economic conditions had changed since before the election, he would still have no excuse because he should not have signed an unconditional pledge in the first place to boost his party’s electoral fortunes. If we apply Clegg’s logic we could have MPs promising free chocolate one day and citing possible cocoa shortages or milk price inflation the next.  Indeed, with no connection between the policies of a party and its actions in government we might as well all just appoint people to Parliament at random.

There is one aspect of this saga that people are in danger of missing.  The pledge contained an important promise to to ‘pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative’, not just to vote against higher fees in the knowledge that it will probably go through anyway and then abnegate all responsibility.  If you have a Liberal Democrat MP promising to vote against higher tuition fees then ask them what they are doing to stop the rise being implemented.  Are they pressurising their backbench colleagues?  Are they organising a proper backbench rebellion?  If the answer to these questions is ‘No’ then they, like the traitors who break their pledge to vote against higher tuition fees, should resign and facilitate a byelection so that the electorate can pass judgement on their betrayal.

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Anger at Millbank

by Edd Mustill

Today saw the biggest education protest in Britain for at least a decade. Tens of thousands of university students, school students, and workers marched through London in opposition to the government’s plans to triple tuition fees.

Almost everyone seemed surprised by the size of the march. It was so big that, by the time I got to the end, the rally had finished. People were still walking down Millbank for over half an hour after I got there. All the big universities were represented by multiple coachfuls. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama Students’ Union brought out 180 students, a substantial proportion of its total membership.

UCL before the main march

Some of the loudest, most colourful and most militant sections of the march were students from schools and colleges. They are, after all, those who will have to pay the higher rate of fees.

A London feeder march from UCL began with Sean Wallis of the UCU branch there linking the higher education issue to other struggles. “Let’s take this government on and let’s bring it down,” was his message.

As with any demo that is much bigger than the “usual suspects,” there were many home-made placards and slogans visible. While this displayed a lot of imagination, it also resulted, predictably, in many signs reading “Down with this sort of thing,” “I would have made a better sign if I could have afforded to go to university,” or “Higher fees make kitty sad.”

UCU members turned out as well as students

It would be easy to dismiss such language as the apolitical mumblings of the Lolcat generation without remembering that the majority of people there were probably on their first real national demonstration.

The big contradiction of the demo was that its mood was lively, vibrant, even militant, but its politics were incredibly ill-defined. Much of the blame for this has to be shouldered by the NUS leadership for calling the protest under the vague heading of “Fund Our Future.”

The demonstration’s political content is important. There was a small official Labour presence but no calls for a graduate tax. Some student union offices wore shirts pleading for “Fair Fees” or similar slogans. The demand for free education was taken up loudly by the organised Left and contingents like Sussex and some of the London universities. Broadly, though, the demonstration gave the impression that there is a political battle to be fought and won among the student population, and that not many of those opposing fees have settled completely on a particular alternative.

Millbank

Around Millbank, which houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the police appear to have been unprepared for the size of the demo. Students were able to break in through the front entrance of the building.

Some held the roof for a while. They have been condemned by the National Union of Students’ leadership, but thousands of students surrounded the Millbank centre for two hours or more after the official rally had ended cheered them on, except for a brief period around 3.15pm when a fire extinguisher was dropped from the roof targeting the police below, after which the chant “Stop throwing shit” was taken up by the crowd.

Protesters on the roof

That such a large contingent remained to support an ill-defined militant action indicates the main characteristic of the protest as a whole: ill-defined militancy. Millbank bore the brunt of a vast and nameless anger. We do not yet know what other forms this anger will take.

Without the Millbank action, the demonstration would likely have been reduced to a footnote in the daily news cycle. With the Millbank action, the press coverage was dominated with pictures of windows breaking. Protesters appear to be trapped in a catch-22 situation with the media, but actions like this, whether you agree with them or not, open up, in front of a national audience, questions about what sort of tactics are necessary to defeat this government.

Police guarding the entrance

“You Lied”

Although it was the Conservatives’ HQ that was attacked, most anger on the rally was reserved for the Liberal Democrats who have broken their promise to oppose higher fees. Quickly, almost hauntingly, along the route of the march the words “You lied” appeared on walls and post boxes. Fake Liberal Democrat leaflets headed “Hollow Promise” were distributed among the crowd.

Alone and forlorn in the crowd, one student even allowed their placard to make the admission, “I agreed with Nick.” Chants of “There’ll be no LibDems in Parliament next year” were not uncommon. The Liberal Democrats appear to have killed their student electoral base stone dead. Of course, it suits the NUS leadership and the Labour Party to direct students’ ire at the LibDems without much public discussion of their own alternatives to fees. That is one reason why the argument for free education is yet to be won, as this demo showed.

LibDem betrayal mocked

These were some personal and incomplete thoughts concerning today’s events. I have not here attempted to map out any strategy for the student “movement.” One thing that resurfaced today, after many years of drab Stop the War marches, was the idea that protests can themselves be sites for political debate. There was, at times, not much chanting (someone needs to invest in some more megaphones) but there was discussion. Contrary to the familiar narrative being built up in the mainstream media, the broken windows and wall graffiti can be seen as part of this discussion, not as opposed to it.

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