Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Challenges facing the student movement

I agree with Billy Bragg that the student protestors are heroes of 2010. He rightly celebrates the way their action is an inspiring and refreshing antidote to cynicism and fatalism. They have blown apart the myth that we are powerless.

There are three issues raised by his article that I'd like to consider further. They could become important as the movement develops and as we debate how to move forward.

Firstly, Bragg writes of school, college and university students: 'they have taken the initiative, not waiting for the Labour party or the TUC to tell them what to do, making their own connections with others in society facing painful cuts and demanding that tax avoiders take their share of the pain, too.' (my italics).

I agree that one of the significant breakthroughs here is their initiative and willingness to act, indeed to lead. But we also need to start considering how the militant student protests can be linked up with the large-scale, organised and hugely powerful forces of the trade union movement. How can the student rebellion become a detonator for larger struggles?

This means students and school students starting to place serious demands on the union movement. Next term they will need to make it clear what they want from the unions, e.g. teachers and lecturers taking strike action in support of their demands (which are, after all, huge issues for them too).

A local example illustrates the point. One of the brilliant things about last Thursday's demo in Newcastle was the way school and college students visited the Civic Centre on three separate occasions, partly because it is the seat of a LibDem council but also to reach out to council workers (2000 jobs are expected to be scrapped in Newcastle Council).

There were chants of "students, workers, must unite" and a statement signed by trade unionists and campaigners received big cheers when read out at the rally. There was also, justifiably, some frustration and disappointment that unions didn't have more of a presence on the day (although they weren't completely absent, of course).

Secondly, Bragg writes 'From what I've experienced, they seem determined to avoid the ideological nitpicking that has for so long blighted the British left'. This seems to be a common sentiment. It's understandable - many activists and supporters are desperate to avoid unnecessary divisions or past differences preventing unity. There are indeed some examples of sectarian silliness, or the continuing pursuit of old vendettas on the Left creating barriers to co-operation.

But this view also misrepresents both what has happened before and what is happening now. The Left's weaknesses aren't principally to do with 'ideological nitpicking' - this is too simplistic. There have been, and always will be, differences over politics, strategy and tactics. This is only natural. And it's important to acknowledge, respect and (in a friendly, constructive way) debate those differences.

At its best the Left - or sections of it - has been willing to co-operate and create, with others, united and broad-based campaigns. The supreme example in the last decade is of course the anti-war movement, which has consistently been shaped and led by the radical left but has also involved mobilising large numbers and has made a huge impact on political debate and left-wing political culture in this country.

Also, there will be ideological differences in the movement in the coming months. At the birth of a new movement it can feel like everyone agrees and there are few differences. But inevitably differences develop over the best tactics to adopt - and these generally reflect deeper political issues.

I recall the late Marxist writer and activist Chris Harman making this point about the anti-capitalist movement in its early euphoric phase. He was certainly right to predict that the appearance of consensus wouldn't last forever.

Harman supported his case by referring to historical experiences, such as the tumultuous period between 1968 and the mid-1970s. While history doesn't repeat itself, we can be sure that all sorts of contentious issues will arise and need to be thrashed out, respectfully, in democratic and inclusive forums like the newly emerging student assemblies.

Finally, Bragg writes: 'This is the first generation to have the opportunity to create a form of socialism that is not tainted by totalitarianism.' It's true we need to create a form of socialism untainted by totalitarianism. But haven't we been here before? It was widely noted that the anti-capitalist movement, which emerged after the Seattle demonstrations at the end of 1999, was a progressive and radical movement in a post-Berlin Wall era.

It can even be extended back to the generations of 1968 and 1956 (when Soviet brutality prompted the emergence of a New Left). Those generations of left-wing and radical activists defined themselves partly by their rejection of Stalinism, which was still a real political force. Rejecting 'totalitarianism' was important and necessary, but just a first step. Any 'new left' still faces a series of challenges if it wants to influence the course of history, including (as Bragg notes) the need to articulate a clear socialist alternative.

In the period ahead the student movement will need to find ways of galvanising trade unions and the wider anti-cuts movement. The unions will need to rise to that challenge. The movement will also have to discuss and resolve the strategic issues that inevitably arise, some of which are more important than mere 'ideological nitpicking'. They may even prove decisive in determining whether the movement succeeds or fails.


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