1998: A long look at the student left

Submitted by Anon on 30 March, 1998 - 1:21 Author: Mark Osborn

The SWP have recently come to a practical agreement for a joint left slate in the forthcoming National Union of Students Executive elections with members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and independent socialists in the Campaign for Free Education. AWL member Kate Buckell is the Presidential candidate on a broad left “Unity Slate”, which also includes three SWP members. The agreement marks a step forward for practical, united work on the student left. Yet it also marks a shift in the SWP’s policy in NUS. What is going on? To get it in perspective, I want to look back a few years.

1980: I meet the Militant in the Labour Party Young Socialists and the SWP on the steps of my student union. The Militant want Labour to nationalise “the top 200 monopolies”. They say socialism can come peacefully through Parliament.

Everyone is talking about Benn and the Labour Left. There is a big fight for democracy inside the Labour Party. #I pass Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as I move left and they move right — I like to think of us waving to each other as we pass in the middle.

After a while I side with Benn’s campaign. I build my LPYS branch. I start causing trouble in the Labour Party. The Militant seem to be in the right place — they run the LPYS — but they are a bit odd. They talk like Daleks, for one thing — Scouse Daleks. They run the LPYS like their own little fiefdom, in most areas separate from the mainstream of the labour movement. Their paper is boring and so are they.

The next few years: I discover Militant support the Russian war in Afghanistan and I am gobsmacked. They refuse to get involved in the movement to stop the Falklands war. They don’t like gay rights, either. I don’t understand this, as most gays I know seem quite nice. The Militant try to recruit me. Clearly this is out of the question. I cause as much trouble as possible in the LPYS.

The Labour right launches a witch-hunt against the Militant. The right’s real target is the broad ‘Bennite’ Labour left, but Militant (roundly disliked by the left, and sometimes even for the right reasons) are easier to pick on. The Labour left start a defence campaign, but then Militant launch their own “front” organisation. They have lots of “front” campaigns.

My LPYS branch has a day out at the Militant-run anti-witch-hunt conference in Bradford. They carve it up crassly. At the conference the Militant’s guru, Ted Grant, falls off the stage but he does it so gracefully it seems as if he’s been practising.

I buy my first pamphlet by Trotsky — on fascism — from the Militant bookstall. I try to read it on the bus home. The language is strange. Why does he write like that? I can’t read a single page.

It’s all very odd. But one thing is becoming clearer: we need socialist revolution. The bosses won’t give us what we want without one. But how can we fight the police and win? No-one seems to want to tell me. I’ve got a lot of questions.

What about the SWP? I walk past their sellers at Labour Party meetings where sometimes there’s going to be a big fight inside. They say they’re with the left, so why don’t they buy a Party card and come and help us? They say they want Labour to win in 1983, so why don’t they canvass? The SWP thinks I shouldn’t be in the Labour Party. Nevertheless they are generally a bit more well-read, more flexible and more interested in politics than Militant. They sell a paper which looks good. They talk in London accents and say “bloody” a lot — it seems a bit fake proletarian to me. Some of them are headbangers. They also have a guru, Tony Cliff.

Cliff speaks well. He can also stand on a stage without falling off. Cliff is funny. An entertainer. Nevertheless, when what he has said is examined for political content it boils down to this: 1. the Tories are no good (“bloody no good”); 2. the Labour leaders are also no good. But I know this!

Cliff wants 10,000 members. He feels sure that with 10,000 members the SWP will succeed. He wants us to join. Clearly that is out of the question. Joining a socialist group is no answer to “what next?” “how do we beat the right and transform the movement to one that can beat Thatcher and win socialism?” He hasn’t told me this or explained the connection between joining the SWP and socialist revolution. I walk past SW sellers at Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament meetings. They hang around trying to pull individuals away. If anyone joins that’s the last we see of them — they start going to different meetings. Inside the meeting I’m fighting Stalinists.

By 1983 there are 400 students in the Labour Club. It is mad for a socialist not to be a member. So mad that it is clear the SWP are under pressure, losing some members to the “Labour left”.

A large number of people in the Labour Club seem to be revolutionaries of one type or another. The people who run the student union, right and left, debate there each week. We walk past the SWP organiser at the door and buy another paper, Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Workers’ Liberty), inside. At some meetings nearly everyone has a copy. For a good while I don’t like the people selling SO. They seem very left. They come over as too pro-IRA/Sinn Fein (they were). They may be wrong, but they’re sharp and a bit arrogant. Their paper looks worse than Socialist Worker. The editors clearly need a bottle of tippex. I send £5 to their financial appeal.

But there is real debate in SO. Lots of discussion. It is actually interesting. And they are prepared to be unpopular if they think they are right. Well, me too...

Their speakers have stock phrases: “transform the labour movement into a movement which fights”, “fight for a workers’ government”. But these phrases are connected to well-reasoned arguments. These are the slogans of the united front: SO aims to organise the left while arguing for their specific politics. For a while it seems that the difference between the groups is: SO are in the Labour Party and SW are not. After a while the mist cleared a bit and the truth shone through...

It is clear to me now. The issue of the Labour Party is only one specific example of a more general question: how should socialists work in the broad labour movement and other campaigns? Militant and the SWP (despite their differences on the Labour Party in the early ’80s) had answered the general question in one way, Socialist Organiser (Workers’ Liberty) in another.

Socialist Organiser took responsibility for the movement. They aimed to provide a policy for the movement to struggle effectively, and to organise the left around these policies. They encouraged the left to challenge the right for leadership of the Labour Party, the unions and other campaigns. Out of this sort of activity, and by making propaganda for their ideas and organisation, they recruited. The development of the movement and building Socialist Organiser were seen as being essentially complementary.

These are the key reasons that Socialist Organiser/Workers’ Liberty has been the central force on the student left since the mid-’80s — understanding the need for real, campaigning unity in the struggle against both the NUS right and government policy. It is only because we’ve understood these ideas of Lenin and Trotsky — and applied them consistently and correctly — that our relatively small organisation has had such a big impact in NUS...

Socialist Worker, in contrast, related only to part of the labour movement (the unions and not the Labour Party), and their work in the unions and various campaigns often resembled political smash and grab raids (join, pull people out, leave, take the activists with you, all to the detriment of the movement and to get them selling Socialist Worker instead). Instead of organising with the rest of the left, wherever possible, to fight the class struggle, they sealed themselves off.

For the sake of political delineation, rather than the needs of the class struggle, they cut themselves off from the struggle in the Labour Party in the early ’80s. Presenting a sharp profile against the movement — and even at its expense— is something the SWP does all the time.

For a period in the ’80s (during the so-called “downturn”) they refused to take responsibility in the unions even to the extent of the members taking stewards’ positions. In the student movement the SWP operated thorough a lifeless, undemocratic “front” — SWSS, something with no independence from the SWP, a recruiting mechanism for “the Party”.
Central to the SWP’s reason for doing everything is “party building”. They are even prepared to bend their politics in an effort to win the next recruit. (Cliff calls it “stick bending” and seems to be proud of it). During the Gulf War, 1990-1, they kept very quiet about their support for Iraq because they thought it would be unpopular with potential recruits. (They were right, it would have been unpopular, and they were wrong on the issue itself. Socialists should not have backed Iraq, but should have been prepared to say what they believed, not just what went down well with the current batch of “punters”. If the SWP believed “Victory to Iraq” was right, they should have argued it).

For a period in the early and mid-’90s the SWP engaged in a lot of what we dubbed “fake ultra-leftism”. In other words they said and did things which they knew were wrong — even absurd — as a type of advertising pitch to appeal to possible new recruits. The worst, clearest and most irresponsible example was Socialist Worker’s call for a general strike during the anti-pit closures movement in the autumn of 1992.

The SWP had refused to call for a general strike during the miners’ strike of 1984-5, when a general strike was both necessary and possible. In 1992 when the miners were so weak they were not able to strike, the SWP called for a general strike.

The organised labour movement was tremendously sympathetic to the National Union of Mineworkers and opposed to what was clearly gratuitous Tory revenge on workers who had taken a stand against Thatcher in the ’80s. However there was virtually no strike action in defence of the miners. The protest movement was political, expressed in a gigantic demonstration in support of the NUM.

Why did the SWP call for and petition for a general strike? They were “making a pitch” to those swept into the movement which said: “we’re the radicals, we want to fight. Join us”. In the process they were miseducating activists. They developed no sensible “next step” for the movement and a policy for the left in the labour movement to fight for. But this was not their concern.

There was a similar example in the student movement. In February 1994 our comrades took an initiative to set up a rank-and-file committee, the National Student Activist Alliance, to fight the proposals to cut the student grant. A national march was called as a focus to build a movement of opposition.

SWP posters started appearing saying the march was a “march on parliament”. They wanted to re-route the march even if it meant student demonstrators would have to fight their way through riot police! That was the reality of the SWP’s call — a massive fight with the police in central London — and the chances of getting to Parliament were nil. It was a gift to the right wing in NUS, who attempted to stop student unions sending coaches because there would be a fight with police. It is not clear how many hundreds of students were scared off by the SWP’s or the right’s propaganda. However, in the run-up, the march organisers had to spend a vast amount of time and energy organising against the SWP’s wrecking plans, rather than against the NUS right wing and the Tory government. That sort of squabbling simply makes it harder to get a hearing from ordinary students. Nevertheless the march was still huge — 15,000.

On the day, the SWP sent a dozen full-time organisers and as many unemployed comrades as they could find to try to re-route the march. There was a small split-off and a lot of messing about. Many of the marchers were bewildered. The SWP took this stance in order to “expose” Socialist Organiser and portray us as “right-wing” and “bureaucratic”, and so they could claim to be the real radicals. In actual fact we were attempting to build something truly radical — a mass movement which could go way beyond the very small numbers of students who enjoy the idea of a punch-up with the Met. This is a very clear example of the SWP attempting to recruit at the expense of the mass movement. In contrast we recruited out of building the mass opposition.

The SWP seem to have made a new turn since the general election. Some of the old “fake ultra-leftism” has gone and has been replaced — for the moment — by a policy of the “fake united front” in some areas of their work. The march the SWP organised in Brighton outside last year’s Labour Party conference was not called by the SWP. It was “fronted up” by a union branch (run mainly by SWP members) and organised on reasonable slogans: “keep the Labour-union link” and “rebuild the Welfare State”.

On the face of it, it was something the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty might have done. However the march was really very different from the type of activity we organise: it was an SWP-building stunt. They are entitled to build the SWP, as we build the AWL, but the only people who will be struggling around the demands the march was ostensibly organised to promote will be the people who chose to sign up for the SWP. There is no ongoing campaigning in which the SWP is participating around these slogans. The local pickets of Labour MPs which the SWP are currently organising under the banner of “Rebuild the Welfare State, Tax the Rich” are simply continuations of this type of campaigning at local level.

Contrast this to the way the AWL organises. Beginning in September 1994 we took an initiative to set up the Welfare State Network. The Network involves all sorts of activists and other socialist groups who have come together on something they can broadly agree on. The WSN has consistently organised political activity in defence of the welfare state in the unions and Labour Party, on the streets and estates. Our slogans have also been: “Rebuild the welfare state,” “Tax the rich”; “People before profit”.

The purpose of these types of slogans is to inspire, show a way ahead and move forward broad layers of the labour movement and others. The fact that the SWP use them as pure and simple mechanisms to draw in new members also shows the limitations of what they consider to be political struggle: they make propaganda for socialism or “revolution”; they leave the organisation of “partial”, “minimal”, immediate struggles largely to others.
The agreement reached with the SWP in the forthcoming NUS elections is a step forward. It is something we have advocated for years (together with the need for one organisation of the united student left). We have to think about why the SWP have come to this agreement. Why now? With what end in mind?

Since 1995 the Campaign for Free Education has been the left force fighting the right in NUS. It has been flexible and broad enough to encompass nearly everyone except the SWP, who refused to join. It has organised some very impressive marches and other activities. It is well rooted in the movement. The SWP turned up on the marches to sell Socialist Worker. Over the summer, when the government was setting out to abolish grants and introduce fees, the SWP set up a front campaign, Stop the Fees. STF is a very good example of the SWP’s “fake united front” policy: setting up late, popping in and out of “mass work” according to the needs of current recruitment policy. They did not join the existing broad left organisation — they set up their own “front”. STF has no internal structures, no independence from the SWP; it is a “soft front”, a recruiting mechanism for them.

The problem for the SWP leadership in all these manoeuvres is this: a lot of their members can see the point of united work with the rest of the left. That is because unity based on patient, long-term work inside the labour and student movements for day-to-day working-class concerns is a unity well worth having. SWP students will learn this in the coming months — and some of them will learn the limits of the SWP.

[1998]

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