Why “Militant Students” are so right-wing

We invite Socialist Appeal/Militant Student to debate these issues at a public meeting at UCL in the new term.

At the end of November, students at University College London organised an occupation in protest at UCL management's plans to buy out and demolish the Carpenters Estate in Newham, evicting 300 families. It was an impressive symbol of the solidarity being built between students at one of London's more privileged academic institutions and the working-class community their university management is attempting to destroy.

The biggest socialist group at UCL is “UCL Marxists”, run by members of Socialist Appeal. Surely these “Marxists” played a central role in initiating or at least supporting the occupation? In fact they played no role at all – literally none. This startling fact can only be understood by looking at the broader character of Socialist Appeal's “Marxism” – a character also on display in their recent attacks on the leadership of University of London Union.

“A question of leadership”?

In an article about the 21 November NUS demonstration entitled “N21 Student march against fees – A question of leadership”, on the “Militant Student” website, Socialist Appeal attack ULU, in particular National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts activist Michael Chessum (President) and NCAFC and Workers' Liberty activist Daniel Cooper (Vice President) – though they do not name the organisations. The article contains a number of falsehoods.

We have written this article both to refute Socialist Appeal’s nonsense and to draw out the broader political issues involved. We have written at some length because we think these questions should be thought through properly – rather than glibly blurring over the facts and the issues as Socialist Appeal's article does.

Political alternative

The article accuses ULU of failing to organise “a political campaign criticizing the NUS leadership and also positively offering an alternative.” They say ULU could have “printed out thousands of leaflets, calling on students to oppose the NUS leadership’s utter reformism and spinelessness.”

In fact ULU did print thousands of leaflets and posters criticising the NUS’s vacuous “Educate, Employ, Empower” slogan and arguing that “the only fair, workable answer to the question of how to fund education is that the rich and big business – the people in our society who have the most money – should pay.”

These materials outlined how, since the onset of the capitalist crisis, the rich have expanded their wealth, and made the case for taxing the rich and public ownership and democratic control of the banks. They argued for winning “the student movement over to these demands and creat[ing] a level of mobilisation, in alliance with the workers’ movement, which forces the government’s hand.”

“Smash the NUS”?

The articles claims that the most prominent message on the ULU/NCAFC feeder march (wrongly referred to as the “UCLU feeder march”) was “Smash the NUS”.

In fact, the feeder march was headed by a large banner reading “Tax the rich to fund education” and several hundred students out of two thousand were carrying NCAFC placards reading “Free Education: Tax the Rich”. Socialist Appeal members were actually on the march, so either they had their eyes closed or they have no problem publishing misleading commentary. A very small group of activists carried a banner saying “Smash the NUS” - but this was nothing to do with ULU, whose President is a member of NUS National Executive!

While we disagree with left-wingers who say “Smash the NUS”, their militant spirit is a thousand times preferable to the lack of militancy shown by “Militant Students”.

Students and workers

Socialist Appeal say that ULU made “no criticism of the NUS leadership’s refusal to link up with the working class on October 20.” Again: nonsense.

At the NUS conference in April, the left, led by the NCAFC, won the vote for a national demonstration, the first since November 2010 when students smashed Millbank in a dramatic display of direct action. This vote was possible because in November 2011 the NCAFC organised a 10,000-strong demonstration to maintain momentum.

The NUS leadership initially responded by proposing that any demo coincide with the TUC march on 20 October. The purpose of this was to get out of actually having demonstration. The effect would not have been a display of student-worker solidarity, but a small and unnoticeable student presence on the TUC demo. Failing or not wanting to understand the actual dynamics of the student movement, Socialist Appeal gives left-wing cover to the NUS leadership (perhaps unintentionally).

Events proved us right. ULU used its position of leadership to call an Education Bloc of students and education workers on the TUC demonstration. Student unions and anti-cuts groups from around the country joined the demonstration at ULU and the Education Bloc was widely regarded as one of the most vibrant and energetic contingents of the march. But showing what their real intentions had been during the debate over the national demo, NUS told student unions and activists not to attend.

ULU’s initiative was a concrete manifestation of student-worker solidarity – far more valuable than any number of abstract calls made from the sidelines by Socialist Appeal. Again, Socialist Appeal supporters were on the Education Bloc and even made their own posters advertising it. Either they have forgotten this or are they are determined not to let facts get in the way of their “analysis”.

We would also mention the extensive work ULU has already done mobilising students in solidarity with workers' struggles at University of London and beyond – for instance the 3 Cosas campaign by University of London cleaners – as well as starting to organise student workers. Again, Socialist Appeal has had no involvement with these campaigns whatsoever.

ULU/NCAFC feeder march

“The ULU leadership confused matters by at the last minute and without preparing the students, embarking on an alternative route for the march.” Far from “embarking on an alternative on an alternative route for the march”, ULU called a feeder march to the NUS demonstration which departed earlier and met the NUS march at Embankment. Again, Socialist Appeal were on this feeder march!

Nor was the feeder march called “at the list minute and without preparing the students”. It was called weeks in advance, advertised widely and billed as an opportunity for radical students’ unions and activists to both attend the march and make criticisms of its message and route.

Socialist Appeal argued that with “the history of police brutality against the student movement in the past few years, splitting and atomising the movement is highly irresponsible and increases the risk of kettling.” Oddly, this passage echoed the NUS right-wing’s charges against NUS Trustee Board member Edd Bauer.

Edd Bauer was accused of “putting students in danger” for tweeting his support for the ULU/NCAFC feeder march. NUS President Liam Burns, seeing an opportunity to attack a prominent left-wing student activist, tabled a no confidence motion in him, which thankfully failed to receive the necessary support at NUS National Executive.

Edd’s reponse to Burns applies here too: “The right to protest doesn’t only extend to routes officially sanctioned by large bureaucratic organisations like the NUS. Not all students feel the NUS executive represents them and if they want to protest in a way they consider more effective then they have a right to do so. The only conceivable risk to a student who didn't march on the NUS route is that they may fall victim to police brutality. This isn’t a function of students exercising their right to protest on or off NUS routes but rather a function of very serious institutional problems with the police and political problems with the government. By going off a NUS route a protester is not doing anything wrong that means they should be blamed for being attacked by a police officer.”

We repeat: Socialist Appeal’s criticism demonstrates that they simply do not understand the dynamics of the student movement and amounts to covering for the NUS leadership.

Westminster Bridge

But there is arguably even worse in the article:

“… we were left with the farcical situation where, when it came to the crossing of London bridge [sic] the ULU-UCLU feeder march was pulled in different directions, with one ULU steward and two NUS stewards competing with each other on loudspeakers, trying to get the students to either go on to Kennington Park, or to go to protest outside Parliament. This ended up delaying the march for an hour, during which time the farcical scene could only serve to demoralise the students.”

Because large numbers of demonstrators stopped at Westminster Bridge (what the article calls “London Bridge”) and pushed towards Parliament, rather than obediently trooping off to Kennington, Socialist Appeal accuses ULU of splitting and demoralising the movement. As if it was not the decision of NUS to steer the march clear of and hold a rally miles from any centre of political or economic power which demoralised the movement – and the protest at Westminster which at least added some minimal militancy, excitement and self-respect to the whole sorry proceedings! (Which is not to say that no students felt confused by what was happening, of course.)

ULU has only been run by the activist left for a few months and there is much to do to continue transforming it. But Socialist Appeal's attacks are wrong-headed from beginning to end – and essentially attacks from the right.

“Perspectives”

All this reflects a more general and long-term problem with the politics of this tendency.

Anyone reading Militant Student’s criticism will be struck by the sense of distance implied in the language between them and the wider student movement. There are continual references to “the students”, as if they are an external object.

This reflects the reality that Socialist Appeal is not in any meaningful way active in the student movement as a movement. Not just in London but everywhere, its members do not participate in any of the student activist coalitions like the NCAFC responsible for organising a militant counter-weight to the NUS leadership, or in local anti-cuts groups. They raised no suggestions about the direction of the movement in many of the publicly advertised and open demonstration planning meetings called in London by the NCAFC and ULU. Socialist Appeal prefers to make criticisms, often no more than abstract generalities, from the outside, as if peering at the movement through a window.

This passive, speculative approach derives from the strange conception of Marxism held by the group. For them, a Marxist perspective does not mean an analysis of concrete conditions which locates the strategic points at which socialist activists can most effectively intervene and transform the direction and flow of class struggle.

For Socialist Appeal, Marxism is, in the words of its ideological founder, Ted Grant, “a science of prediction”, ie of passively observing an analyzing “objective events” from the outside, with no necessary role for Marxists in shaping those events. But as the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci explained it, “analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves (unless one is writing a chapter of past history), and they only acquire significance if they serve to justify practical activity, an initiative of will.”

It is precisely any initiative of will that is lacking from Socialist Appeal. It is debatable whether they really analyse the world at all. Typically, their analysis here is a series of dogmatic assertions slapped down on top of the reality of the UK student movement.

This is a consistent theme with this group. That Workers’ Liberty’s founders made very similar criticisms of Socialist Appeal’s predecessors (the Revolutionary Socialist League/Militant) in 1966 underscores the extent to which Socialist Appeal are a sterile and dull sect, seemingly uninfluenced by changes in the world around them.

Absolved in theory from the need to actually do anything, Socialist Appeal’s main activity consists in organising a series of “Marxist Discussion Groups”. These are promoted with the arrogant claim that they are “the Marxists”, ie the only real, true, authentic Marxists, the keepers of knowledge – hence also their refusal to actual name Workers’ Liberty or the NCAFC in the article.

We recognise the need for socialist propaganda work but, as Lenin said: theory divorced from practice is sterile, and practice divorced from theory is blind. Socialist propaganda, the creation of activists educated in socialist ideas, is useful in so far as those ideas are tested in practice and contribute to changing the world.

Why Socialist Appeal is so defensive of NUS

One hallmark of Socialist Appeal is its insistence, as a point of dogma, that Marxists must work inside the “mass organisations”. They apply this across the board and irrespective of concrete conditions to the British Labour Party, the Pakistani People’s Party, Hugo Chavez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – and NUS!

The articles argues that saying “Free education – smash the NUS” is the same as “No austerity, smash the Unions”. We think the simple equation of NUS with the basic self-defence organisations of the working class is dubious to say the least. So is the patronising, bureaucratic tone adopted towards students rightly angry with NUS.

We think it is wrong to call for “smashing the NUS” or for student unions to disaffiliate from it. (For more on our view, see here.) We support working inside the NUS – and moreover we actually do it (unlike Socialist Appeal – no surprise). But it is not a principle to never split or found a breakaway/alternative organisation or union like the Association for Student-Union Solidarity (ASSE) in Quebec, or National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers split from the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) in the docks of the north of England in the 1950s. Such decisions are tactics, based on the logic of the class struggle, not timeless formulas applicable in every situation.

Fabian, Stalinist “Marxism”

The problems with Socialist Appeal’s ideas go beyond giving theoretical justification for passivity, political abstentionism and bureaucracy. They call themselves Marxist and Trotskyist, but this is Trotskyism cross-bred with Stalinism and Fabianism. They promote the view, for example, that the expansion of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in a colonial war of plunder and destruction after 1979 was “progressive” because, in the words of current leader Alan Woods, rural Afghanistan was home to “‘dark masses’, sunk in the gloom of barbarism, whose conditions of life and psychology have not changed fundamentally in 2000 years.”

Ted Grant’s main theoretical contribution to Marxism, the “theory” of “proletarian Bonapartism” – in brief, that workers can be the ruling class under any variety of totalitarian state, as long as the economy is nationalised – was an extreme example of the role of “orthodox Trotskyism” in disorientating Marxism’s response to the horrible influence of Stalinism, by downgrading the role of working-class agency and independent working-class politics in the creation of a socialist future.

It held that that “deformed workers’ states” had been created in Eastern Europe by Soviet tanks after the Second World War. Later Grant extended the analysis to China, Cuba, and even states like Syria and Burma, arguing that forces other than the working class could make socialist revolutions – peasant guerrillas, military officers, Stalinist armies. Grant effectively wrote independent working-class action out of “Marxism”.

Today, Socialist Appeal’s main distinguishing feature is its uncritical support for the nationalist-capitalist Chavez regime in Venezuela. But its “perspectives” inevitably shape its activity in Britain too. Hence its 1980s predecessor Militant’s role in Liverpool, where it led the Labour council to fight the Thatcher government but collapsed and did a deal in the middle of the miners’ strike, because it believed that history was going its way, and saw no need to risk confrontation. Hence the “UCL Marxists” total abstention from the Carpenters struggle. And hence Militant Student’s right-wing attack on the leadership of ULU.

We invite Socialist Appeal/Militant Student to debate these issues at a public meeting at UCL in the new term. We will be pleasantly surprised if they accept.

• For more information on Workers' Liberty Students, see here.