This article was published in the January 2011 issue of The Commune. It argues that the student movement's strength comes from below, not from the long march through institutions.
Joe Thorne reflects on the November-December student movement and the interventions of the organised left
One evening, early in December, in the occupied hall of University College London, debate turned to general problems of political strategy. A member of a Trotskyist group stood up to defend their identification with the unions and the Labour Party. He said that if you go to work, and you want to resist the boss, you join the union, and Labour is the political expression of the unions. So if you want to fight industrially you have to have a fight within the unions; if you want to fight politically, you have to have a fight within the Labour Party.
A conclusion like this is more or less typical of Trotskyism, at least as far as the unions go. The sine qua non of contemporary Trotskyism is its loyalty to the forms – and thus, in practice, to an extent, the leaders – of the official movement. Hence slogans such as ‘TUC must call general strike’, or ‘make unions and Labour fight’.
This goes beyond the recognition, for example, that the unions are, in part, expressions of (as well as brakes on) workers’ self activity, and that thus we ought to engage with them as such. It is loyalty to these institutions because it poses reform of their structures and/or replacement of their leadership as a necessary condition of progress in the class struggle. There is no sense in these slogans that the working class has any capacity for autonomy from its official representatives.
What is remarkable about the recent episode, however, is that the very people who push these ideas have also proved in practice that they are unnecessary. Thus, there is a contradiction between official ideology, and real practice.
Chronology of a movement
10th November saw the official NUS demonstration, approximately 50,000 strong. A number of people invaded the building housing the Tory offices at Millbank, smashing up the foyer and lighting fires. Some made their way to the roof. It is important to note, at this stage, that the invasion was not purely spontaneous. It was planned in advance by a number of linked groups and individuals.
Now, the people who planned it probably weren’t aware of the full impact it would have, but it was at least planned to the extent that small bits of paper were being handed out suggesting that people make their way to Millbank, even if that itself wasn’t the main way people got there. The images echoed around the news media. Some, sensing that the student movement now merited the status of real movement, publicised the “day of action” on 24th November, which had already been called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and backed by the Education Activist Network.
Who are these groups? NCAFC, originally a project of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, also involves Workers’ Power – both Trotskyist groups – as well as a number of independents. NCAFC was launched at a conference in February, which itself was in preparation for a number of months before that. Its organisation made use of pre-existing networks: the AWL’s Education Not for Sale campaign, and Workers’ Power’s “Revolution” youth group. EAN is more or less a typical, shallow SWP front, which claims that education workers are involved because they have official (but purely official) affiliations from education union branches where SWP members are strong.
The spectacular media coverage of the violence at Millbank caught a certain mood. Beneath the surface, discontent was ready to explode amongst 16-18 year old working class, FE students who were set to lose their Educational Maintenance Allowance – between £10 and £30 a week to assist with staying in full time education – which was introduced by Labour in 2004. News of the 24th, pitched as a ‘walk out’ as well as a more general day of action, spread quick amongst angry teenagers, online and offline.
On the 24th, massive walkouts took place around the country. According to one estimate, perhaps 130,000 people took part. In most places, observers identified the large majority of participants as 16-18 year old students who had organised walk outs from their schools or (more often) colleges. There were clashes with police in central London, in Bristol, and in a few other places. Activists of the established left were not prominent in many places, with crowds of self-organised teenagers taking action. This was probably the high-point of the movement so far, in terms of militancy, decentralisation, and participation.
On the 30th, another day of action was called. Walkouts and demonstrations, this time, were rather smaller, but still spread to areas and groups barely touched by the established left. We can speculate, but not as yet confirm, that the smaller size of the day’s activities could be attributed to the repetitiveness of the action required, and repression on the level of individual educational institutions. Already, on the first day, we know that in places students who led, or took part, were suspended, and that serious efforts were made to prevent students escaping, including locking school gates, and physically holding back pupils. It seems likely that many of those institutions which were unprepared on the first day would have learned their lessons on the second.
Political disputes took place between the existing groups – EAN, NCAFC – as well as within NCAFC (EAN not having sufficient genuine pluralism to provide the grounds for any dispute at all), and between NCAFC and a number of smaller new groups looking to spring up. The disputes principally concerned who could legitimately call a day of action: the more established groups reserving the right for themselves; and within NCAFC, Trotskyist full-timers apparently taking decisions without due involvement of non-aligned student activists.
9th December: parliament votes for the first time on tuition fees. A large demonstration called by the NCAFC and EAN – perhaps 20,000 strong – ends in parliament square. There is a little violence towards police; the square is kettled, and a lot more violence ensues. The NUS “vigil” attracted a few dozen students, who had to be asked from the platform not to boo NUS President Aaron Porter. The relative mobilising power of the two groups, on that day, was starkly demonstrated. Again, images of violence fill the media.
Between 10th November and the end of the universities’ winter term, around 25 universities were occupied at one time or another, with one – Kent – remaining in occupation over Christmas. The occupations lasted between several weeks and 24 hours. One in particular, at UCL, became a hub of activity and a focus of attention.
Organisations of struggle against institutions of representation
Contrary to the ideology of the Trotskyists, the official movement – e.g. the NUS – can be bypassed in the right circumstances; and such a bypass is a condition of the movement’s effectiveness. The effective role of revolutionaries on a national level was held by i) those who planned the invasion of Millbank as ‘propaganda of the deed’, and ii) those who organised the NCAFC more than a year in advance. Many anarchists or dissident Marxists want to say that the role of Trotskyists, “the left” in their term, is tout court malign or irrelevant: but this is clearly not the case here.
So was the official movement irrelevant? Well, not completely. As we can see from the above chronology, the NUS did have an important role – getting 50,000 on the streets of London – that could not have been achieved directly at that time by NCAFC or any comparable organisation. Many of those who stormed Millbank would not have been there if the NUS hadn’t called it. However, from that point, the leadership of the movement passed decisively to the NCAFC, and to the array of student occupations up and down the country. One failure of the movement thus far has been to find a way to pass leadership of the struggle to its real social base: the teenagers who walked out around the country on the 24th and 30th of November.
In its general form, this is one the oldest and most important lessons in social movement dynamics, including the dynamics of revolution: the new organisations of struggle replace the old institutions of representation with remarkable speed and decisiveness. If NCAFC had claimed in October that they – numbering perhaps 100 activists at most – would have been able to put 20,000 people on the streets of London in two months, those claims would have been dismissed, understandably, as grandiose fantasy. But that is what happened.
The ‘long march through the institutions’ is dogma for the Trotskyists, even when they themselves have marched well enough outside of them. Even as most occupations were organised outside the forms of the student union (even where they sometimes had their support); the same people who had watched all this happen were calling for newly engaged activists to ‘take over their student union’. Now, in some cases, this may make sense. But there are also plenty of examples of activist energy running aground over student union election campaigns, or meetings, or being unable to use the student union to do the mobilising we need.
What next? Spread the struggle...
Despite our support for those who chose to physically and violently challenge the police, we cannot pretend that the government’s program will be defeated by a movement based largely on street mobilisation, however riotous, at least while it is restricted to those sectors of society who have participated so far.
Tactical principle number one: spread the struggle. Time and time again, we have seen that the ruling class is not overly troubled by struggles which remain confined to the sections of the working class directly affected by this or that measure. Students staging an occupation cannot inflict economic pressure on the government or the bosses in the same way as workers going on strike: therefore we need allies beyond the campus.
Tactical principle number two: intensify the struggle where it already exists. We need to argue that occupations ought not to see themselves merely as fora for lobbying, but rather as a space for political discussion, development of tactics and strategy and building links with other struggles. Particularly important is that university students can build solidarity with college students’ struggles, pulling the movement together but without dominating or patronising others.
Tactical principle number three: our strength cannot and must not come ‘from above’. There is no good appealing on politicians, union leaders and self-appointed movement ‘celebrities’ to speak in our name. They will always try and instrumentalise us to further their own interests: but this type of hierarchical politics is the inverse of the society we want to build. Our struggles must be based on the maximum collective decision-making and the democratisation of power.
Communists’ role in the occupations is not simply to preach the desirability of an to capitalism or denounce the limitations of ‘reformist’ struggles. Abstraction is just élitism if has nothing strategic to offer to the real movement ‘from below’.
Of course, it may well be true that the movement will fail if it does not sufficiently generalise and challenge the government in a more thoroughgoing manner. But we cannot simply summon the class struggle into existence: our starting point must be to intensify and radicalise the movement where it has actually begun. The student protests of November-December 2010 may not (yet) have defeated the government. But they represent an important first step, the first mass defiance to the ConDem cuts. This movement’s continuation and the lessons of its first phase are of vital importance to all opponents of the cuts.