Home > Local Democracy, Marxism, Sectariana, Socialism, Trade Unions > Socialist strategy, students and anti-war work

Socialist strategy, students and anti-war work

Having been told that the Socialist Students group at the local university is going to be building for the anti-war demonstration on October 24th, presumably with street stalls and leafleting, my main response was, “Why?” I have been a proud and loyal “stopper” since before the war broke out, but aren’t our energies better devoted to other things now?

The purpose of the anti-war movement, as I always saw it, was three fold. First, to prevent the war. Failing that, to maintain pressure on the government to make the wars as short as possible by bringing the troops home. Third (and centrally to this argument) the point was to create a nexus that would gather both the regular political activists and the irregular activists, those ‘normal people’ outraged by the war.

I think that, with certain qualifications, the Stop the War Coalition has failed on point number three. The main qualification is that engagement with the public has not ceased; petitions are still steadily signed on Stop the War stalls around the country – and in towns with major barracks such as Canterbury, that’s important. The SWP here do a solid job in that regard.

Notwithstanding this engagement, however, the socialist Left only has a limited number of activists with a limited amount of time and resources. I think these can be better directed towards union work and building to fight cuts to Council jobs and services. Moreover, I think that the forum for debate created by such a campaign would be infinitely more productive than anti-war work at this point.

As has been detailed on this blog over the course of several articles, the ways in which Councils are intending to cut jobs and services are manifold. Tory Councils particularly seem to be gearing up, possibly anticipating primary legislation to help them (when the Tories win the General Election) – which Paul has speculated on at length. Labour is thinking in the same vein – and cuts to education will be felt in local services too.

It can be argued that these issues are not of immediate relevance to students, but I think this is too narrow an approach. Students regularly campaign on free education, campaign for the protection of university staff and services. The SP-led Socialist Students organisation is also involved with the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign. These campaigns are at their best when they have the active support of other workers.

The position of these workers, in terms of organisation, political consciousness and ability to render aid to other workers, is directly affected by such cuts, and this impacts the position of students – which is one reason why so many students at SOAS went all-out to save staff in danger of deportation after dirty tricks by management.

So perhaps it is time for a little less concentration on Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Sri Lanka (etc – QUB/UU Socialist Society site gives an additional flavour) and a little more concentration on building the links (and, as an object lesson in socialist theory, updating the organisational concepts of?) solidarity necessary to sustain the campaigns about things which do have direct relevance to students. Which might, additionally, have the effect of changing the rather turgid and sterile character of SU politics.

There is no point in having a bastion of radicalism amongst students if those students remain isolated, and are not used to direct unionisation and the extension of working class organisation. For groups like Socialist Students, which often gets off the ground in towns without branches of the Socialist Party amongst local workers, this is doubly important. Isolated, students will be defeated every time.

  1. Jonathan Buckner
    October 1, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Since it’s late and I am quite tired, I’ll be quick and stick to a technical point!

    The socialist organisation at Canterbury (UKC) is named the ‘Student Socialists’ and are independent of any political party or organisation. It’s a broad church for discussion and action and not led by the SP!

  2. Jonathan Buckner
    October 1, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Since it is quite late, and I am quite tired, I’ll be quick and stick to a technical point!

    The socialist organisation at the university (Canterbury campus) is the ‘Student Socialists’ not the ‘Socialist Students’, and is independent of any political party or organisation – at the recent European elections, many members were active in campaigning for Caroline Lucas among the student population. It is definitely not affiliated in any way to the SP – or anyone else!

  3. Jonathan Buckner
    October 1, 2009 at 12:13 am

    Apologies for the multiple comments – I thought the first hadn’t posted, so just reposted what I could remember – and clearly did not remember very well at all!

  4. Aaron Kiely
    October 1, 2009 at 12:20 am

    Hello there! I don’t think we’ve met, but you’ll be pleased to know that Stop the War activity is not only what we’ll be doing this term. Many students will be involved in the upcoming local community campaign against cuts to local council services and have also campaigned tirelessly alongside other trade unionists with UAF. Students also went to the G20 protests, Rage Against Labour, Climate Camp, take part in Transition Towns and are time permitting involved in local CND, Amnesty and supporting our unions on campus (if they were to strike for example)..

    And this is going to be really confusing… but I’ll try and explain, there are now 3 socialist groups on campus. SWSS – as you will know, the SWP affiliated society is one.
    Now for the confusing bit: There was a group on campus for 3 years, which started out as a Socialist Student branch (with links to the Socialist Party). That group then took the decision to disaffiliate for various reasons and changed its name to Kent University Student Socialists. Bearing in mind that we were the only active socialist group on campus at the time, we didn’t think much of it until we found out that now that Socialist Students (the initiative of the SP) will again be starting up on campus.

    I am going to suggest a name change, because it has really confused people, possibly to the detriment of recruitment, but we’ll see how it goes.

    Don’t worry, there’s a lot of varied activity over the year and I’m sure it’ll be as mmm….. ‘vibrant’ as it was last year! :)


    Red Kent!

  5. October 1, 2009 at 6:16 am

    Well, Jonathan, I think Aaron answers your point. I was aware both of SWS and Student Socialists – but there is also the group I’m referring to – Socialist Students.

    Aaron, I suspect we may have met – at a Labour meeting and in Coffee and Corks perhaps?

  6. October 1, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Be interested to know why KUSS (great name btw) disaffiliated from Socialist Students. In other parts of the country Socialist Student branches have been very independent of the SP. If memory serves a couple of years ago the branch at Sheffield Uni was run by an anarchist.

    • Ben Hickman
      October 1, 2009 at 9:12 am

      There seems to be some confusion here:

      1. ‘Student Socialists’ are not THE socialist student organisation at Kent — firstly, they are professedly not a socialist organisation but a ‘coalition of lefts’, and secondly there are the Socialist Students and the SWSS on campus.
      2. To answer AVPS’s question, the reason Student Socialists disaffiliated from Socialist Students is still unclear, and seems to be part of the misunderstanding regarding the nature of the organization which you suggest — it was also done without Socialist Students knowledge, and against the organization’s own constitution.
      3. To answer the article itself, the context of the anti-war work is that of a student society taking its first steps, and therefore a fourth function of it is to galvanize and encourage the society from the outset. Given that the campaign against the war in Afganistan is a hugely popular one, and that furthermore there is a national demo coming up on the issue, this seems a natural place to start for such a society. Furthermore, the war and public service cutbacks are inseperable.

  7. October 1, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Very interesting contributions to date, and a good thought provoker, Dave. I hope the article can, perhaps via twittermeans, reach a wider student activist/wanabee activist group and draw some reaction/comment, as I’d be really interested as someone a generation apart and with no real feel for student life to know where ‘things are at’.

    I’ll forego the obvious jokes about three similarly named groupings vying with each other for position and changing names etc etc., though I won’t hide that I smiled as I read it simply because, while I may understand why it happens, it may be handy for Jonathon and Aaron to recognise (if they don’t already) that that is how many people will react.

    Just as Phil (AVPS) @6 is interested in the detail of the split within the socialist student movement (which I don’t pretend to understand), I’d be interested in Jonathon/Aaron’s take on why they and their comrades have not joined the university Labour group as a way to get involved. I think I may know some of the answer – and I don’t want you butting in ahead there, Semple – but it’d be interesting to hear it from the student’s mouth, as it were.

    On the more general question of why students tend to want to get involved in wider issues e.g. anti-war, Venezuela (and this notwithstanding Aaron’s suggestion that this is not always the case), I have to say I’ve often wondered that myself.

    I think perhaps the first reason is obvious. Students come to a town for two or three years and then go away again, in general, and it must be difficult to want to get inolved in something in detail if you know it’s going to be for a relatively short period. Further, I’m always a bit suprised (I live near Edge Hill University in Lancashire so see some of this) how quickly the town (Ormskirk) empties out after term time, meaning that in reality many students only stick around their place of study for around six months in any year.

    But that’s surely not all of it. I think another main reason, and I get this from the fairly negative reception I’ve had when trying to engage with students at Edge Hill is that local politics and activism is seen as a huge irrelevance peopled by councillor ‘fatcats’ like me who have very little understanding of how real people think, especially the young, and that the council will be the same whatever party’s in charge because they’re all the bleedin’ same.

    I recognise that that might sound a little bitter and middle-aged-councillor-man. It’s not meant to be. It’s simply trying to recognise the truth that I’ve so far been remarkably unsuccessful at engaging the student body with local issues (other than defeniding themselves in ‘town/gown’ disputes around late night noise etc). Of course it’s not just me – it’s the local Labour party as a whole but I do feel the biggest responsbility.

    Grappling for a way forward, it seems to be that in general if we want to encourage localised student activism in the way you (Dave S) suggest, we need to ‘market’ its relevance.

    I am reminded of the principal criticism you have raised of university Labour clubs/societies – that they are career paths for people to get into parliamentary/think tank jobs and thence into the mainstream politics gravy train. Perhaps to some extent we should be borrowing that notion of a career path, though, by suggesting that a three year ‘apprenticeship’ in local politics provides a very good grounding for wider political activism.

    Political activism is not all about demos and what you have elsewhere described as the ‘carnivalesque’. While this has its role in e.g. opposiing cuts, there are also things to do like close examination of council papers (as you did for your post on Canterbury cuts), attending Overview and Scrutiny meetings etc., and developing working relations with the local press to get over the case. These are skills to be developed which have a real cross over to broader campaigns, but also have the side effect of helping to engage with non-student activists.

    But how do we sell such an ‘alternative career path’? Or rather, who should be the salespeople if the university Labour party can’t do it because they’re too focused on a mix of local student matters and mainstream career aspirations, and if people like me who could help are seen as an irrelevance anyway.

    Of course the answer to an extent is people like Dave Semple, and that’s why you were down the fresher’s fair last week and why he wrote this article. But where do we get more Dave Semples from?

    These thoughts have got a bit random. I’ll stop there for now.

  8. October 1, 2009 at 9:25 am

    @Ben – thank you for your comment here. The only thing that concerns me personally is your third point, and I think you miss my point.

    No one is arguing that the anti-war movement and cuts are separable from the point of view of class analysis. Both are means of retrenchment from the point of view of the ruling class.

    They are very separable from a tactical perspective however. They are after all two campaigns, and to simply say that they are inseparable is no answer – because you may as well say that we should be engaged in proactive campaigns on every issue going (as they are just as connected).

    Realistically we have neither means nor time to do so – so we must engage where we can be most productive. And the thesis of this article, which no one has answered yet, either here or through facebook comments, is that we are most productively engaged elsewhere than by explicitly anti-war work.

    Something else for your consideration is that, everything being connected – which we agree on – fights against cuts are also fights against the war, though this is a connection which many people will not instantly make. So all the better to direct anti-war work down that direction.

  9. pluralprogressive
    October 1, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I should really throw my two cents in on this one.

    The reason for the disaffiliation was simple, the members at the time wanted nothing to do with being affiliated towards one political organisation. The members wished to escape the sectarian jabberings that national organisations usually have and which eventually spill over into local groups and can seriously hinder a local group’s ability to co-operate with others. Members of KUSS last year belonged to a varying number of organisations and were more enthusiastic about some groups rather than others, however they recognised how important left unity was on university campuses. KUSS wished to be the embodiment of the ideal.

    As Aaron said to me in conversation last week, we would welcome anybody attached to any political party or movement into the KUSS fold, they could even have their own meetings of their respective organisations, but the necessity for one unified socialist/left group at the University of Kent was desirable, and I hope it would be for the majority of UoK leftists.

    Ben’s point that KUSS was not a ‘socialist’ organisation stands in contrast to Phil’s mention of the Sheffield Uni Socialist Students branch being run by an anarchist! So Socialist Students will take on anarchists (and Greens, and anyone else) but will lay on the charge that KUSS is not a socialist organisation but a coalition of assorted leftists? Am I failing to see the difference here between the inclusiveness of both groups?

    I think Aaron has thrown a positive and enthusiastic light on the emergence of three socialist organisations at the University of Kent. Yes it will make Kent far more politically active and certainly makes the left seem far more colourful, but it really is confusing. Most students don’t have time to read the histories of Militant and the SWP to get to grips with the difference of opinion when it comes to implementing a socialist programme!

    I am sure KUSS will remain to be a pragmatic, plural and inclusive organisation that would not wish to deride another member of their affiliation to a national organisation. Having one forum for the whole left on campus is better than having three groups (two of which rely on the ‘shipping in’ of national members- some of which are no longer students- outside the locale) slugging it out to carve their own nichés amongst radical and progressive sections of the student movement.

  10. October 1, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    @9 – aren’t you contradicting yourself? You use the argument that Socialist Students is a coalition of Left groups to dispel the idea that this is the point of the disagreement between Socialist Students, the national organisation, and KUSS. But isn’t this also the justification for breaking the link with the national organisation – that they wouldn’t permit a wide and flexible arrangement for activism?

    Generally I think your attitude to this demonstrates how little you know about the activities, theories underpinning said activism and reputations of the ‘other groups’ with which you say this group wanted affiliation.

    Finally the idea that because an organisation is headed by an anarchist that it is not socialist is preposterous – little enough distinguishes anarchism from the pre-Marxist pre-materialist versions of ‘socialism’.

    Where I think Ben maintains that the group ceased to be socialist is where it basically wanted to invite reformist pro-capitalists – such as Lib Dems – on board.

  11. pluralprogressive
    October 2, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Dave, perhaps you misunderstood me.

    Ben said: “Student Socialists’ are not THE socialist student organisation at Kent — firstly, they are professedly not a socialist organisation but a ‘coalition of lefts’, and secondly there are the Socialist Students and the SWSS on campus.”

    The point I was attempting to make is that Ben is of the assumption that a ‘socialist’ organisation should be explicitly there for socialists. Of course anarchists and other anti-capitalists can be on board. I was attempting to point out how preposterous Ben’s argument was.

    Our case to break with a national organisation was in order to escape dogma and the history far-left organisations have had with one another nationally. To become plural, and to genuinely make the case that KUSS (previously KSS) was independent, we had to act in the spirit of ‘independence’, thus disaffiliation was our attempt to remove a potential shackle that may have alienated alternative socialist opinion to that of Socialist Students and the SP.

    We never once invited the Lib Dems on board. We had friends who were Lib Dems, but the organisation was still profesedly ‘socialist’ in the most liberal sense being that we did not have a programme for a socialist society, but all of us were in agreement on the merits of socialism, regardless of their own opinion in best achieving that goal.

    My apologies for any misunderstandings.

  12. Reid
    October 2, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Meanwhile, over at CCU we have no Socialist Student societies (the swp told me that the “comrades had disbanded” – probably to jobs in the new media industry) and asked me to start a new SWSS. Seeing as you have three can we borrow one of your spare ones please?

  13. October 2, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Hey Reid, was hoping you might comment. It’s like a Canterbury socialists reunion event. Or would be, if we’d ever been in the same place at once.

    Anyway, I think there should be some sort of joint socialist group by which to combine CCCU, UKC and the arts college – not to mention recruiting sixth forms as who else will free education matter more to? As I have some free time at the moment (read: temporarily unemployed) that’s something I’ll be attempting to set up in concert with the rest of you.

  14. Aaron Kiely
    October 2, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Dave and Reid, feel free to come to the meetings as uniting the campuses would be great! ;-)

  15. October 2, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Well, I’m going to be working with Socialist Students for the foreseeable future. I am not saying this precludes working with KUSS – but I would like to be sure of my bearings as regards what KUSS actually is. As a Marxist, theory and tactics are not dissociable for me – and the tactics of KUSS (from what I gather and from what pluralprogressive says) seem questionable.

  16. Ben Hickman
    October 2, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    For Reid’s information: Kent Socialist Students is currently trying to combine activities between the Univ. of Kent, Christchurch, and in the mid- to long-term non-student Canterbury. Hopefully you can play a part. If you want to, that is.

    I’m not sure I understand any of pluralprogressive’s points — he seems to be confusing an anarchist individual with the aims and principles of a whole orginisation, ‘the Left’ with something inherently of benefit to society, and non-sectarianism with an organisation so exclusive as to bar anyone outside the 500 yard radius of the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus. However, I do of course concede that all succesful transformations of society were done on the basis of a handful of students acting unprinciplied and ‘in the spirit of independence’. No doubt capitalism is quaking in its brogues.

  1. October 30, 2009 at 11:52 am

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