Mark Harrison presents his personal recollections of Sunday’s Education Activist Network Conference and his thoughts on the student left.
So I went to this Education Activist Network (EAN) conference on Sunday. I am glad that I went, as it was better than I expected and actually invigorated me to return to my campus filled with new ideas for action, although the Socialist Workers Party continues to disappoint me.
My first gripe is that this event felt more like a day school than a conference. Four and a half hours of the day were devoted to top down speeches and ‘workshops’, whilst only an hour and a half of the day was left for motions.
In fact only one motion was presented, moved by Mark Bergfeld (The SWP’s member on the National Union of Students NEC).
Due to travelling from Manchester I missed the first speakers in the ‘Opening Remarks’ opening rally, this included John ‘Marxist’ McDonnell MP who I have unfortunately yet to ever see in the flesh.
Alan Whitaker of UCU Left was speaking whilst I entered the Lucas Theatre. He emphasised that education as we know it had “survived Thatcher”, before explaining that the train to gain scheme is set to be scrapped, along with EMA (a financial scheme which my friends used to survive in college) and “progressive” institutions such as ESOL. Following recommendations made in the Browne Review, the ‘cap’ is set to disappear, cuts of 80% are going to be made across the board in education and funding is going to be switched from the state onto the shoulder of students. Of course this is why it is so important to attend the national NUS demo on 10th November.
Other speakers claimed that there is “no need” for these “illogical” education cuts as spending on education contributes “pound for pound” to the British economy and these cuts are an attack on the aspirations and dreams of working class children. They also said that the government did not have an interest in a well educated population which could think for itself, as they would rather they could be like mindless drones which they could send to Iraq. I was about to note this as rather patronising before the speaker said that the working class was not that stupid and would not be manipulated in this way.
The other speakers continued to note the mass of voters who have been disillusioned by the Liberal Democratic party, whose ideology appears identical to the Tories’, although the only solution for Jim Wolfreys (editor of International Socialism Journal) is revolution, he said that we need to unite everybody from the Labour party to the Coalition of Resistance and not use such language or make too radical demands.
Usman Ali (NUS VP-Education) made some wise cracks about being the ‘token Asian’ before pointing out the discrepancy between the sociological composition of the coalition government and the rest of the country. He also spoke of how his father sold all of his mother’s jewellery so that he could have the opportunity to go to university. He stated that the national NUS demo was the “beginning, not the end” before paraphrasing former US president JFK. I had paid particular attention to Usman as when he was introduced by former Revolutionary Communist Group member Jenny Sutton, she remarked that the NUS appears to have transformed recently. I do not agree with this analysis: the NUS are just posing left a la Labour Party.
It was then time for workshops, I attended ‘Economic Briefing: is austerity inevitable?’. The first speaker was Costas Lapavitsas, a Marxist economist from SOAS. Some of his presentation did go over my head, something I welcome, as I do not appreciate dumbing down. He identified the main causes of the economic crisis. In the immediate term there was the burst of the American financial bubble which from 2001-07, the change in the balance between the old and the new capitalist powers and the rise of industrial capitalism in what he was reluctant to call the ‘Third World’. Secondly, was the transfer of productive power from the West to the East. As he believes capital flows upwards, not downwards. The implication of this is that it sustained the bubble, which was domestic in nature.
The third cause was the “financialisation of capitalism”, which has been experienced following the post war boom and has transformed capital.
He was keen to stress that governments have used Keynesian tools (in relation to the banks) but not the Keynesian method in response to the crisis. He added that if there is anywhere that “Keynesianism is alive and well”, it is China, before ending with his thought that the idea that cuts in public spending will lead to growth is ‘foolish’.
Graham Turner then seemed to give a Keynesian analysis of the economy.
There then followed an interesting debate from the floor, with the first contribution challenging Graham for seeming to suggest that the deficit was due to high public spending and not the bail out of the banks. The next contribution came from someone who is involved in a Das Kapital reading group at King’s. He thought that mainstream economics could neither explain nor give solutions to the current crisis. He saw a split in the ruling elite and pointed to the importance of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Simon Hardy of Workers’ Power said that we need to be careful with our arguments, he spoke of a capitalist system which is in long term decline, the ruling class adopted monetarism as a desperate attempt to maintain profit rates and no longer wishes to pay for the welfare state, for Simon the answer is socialism. Following contributions stressed the ‘traditional trade union demand’ of opening the books. As we need to know what the deficit is, this was linked in with British Airways who are attacking their staff whilst they are making profits. Another comrade said although some of us think we should tax the rich, this would lead to capital flight and so we should nationalise the banks without compensation – I held back the urge to denounce him for advocating socialism in one country. There then followed a succession of speakers who declared themselves to be Marxists before saying that we should not be advocating ‘socialism’, we need to look at the Vodafone protests, start at the beginning, bring in wider forces, argue and fight against the cuts. Apparently this is an argument that has been used for a long time, I wonder when the time will be right to argue for the politics that you actually believe in.
I was not well placed to listen to the mid-day speeches, however there was much talk of the spirit of ’68, something I found strange as I believe a fair few people were in fact calling for worker-student control of universities and the abolition of exams during those heady days. Julien Sergere of the French CGT also claimed that rank and file workers were taking the struggle out of the hands of their leadership – he received a standing ovation.
In the second round of workshops I attended ‘Defeating cuts in your institution’. The first to address the room was Hannah Mallinckrodt from the successful ‘we support our teachers’ campaign at KCL. She highlighted that Kings’ is a traditionally conservative university but they were still able to be victorious. Hannah warned about the need to oppose all ‘restructuring’, merging of courses and the essentialness of working with UCU. Michael Chessum, the education officer from UCL and a member of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts spoke next. He condemned NUS’ proposed graduate tax as ‘bollocks’ and said that we are engaged in an ideological battle, ‘there is no middle ground between free education and the market’. He implied that we are in a historic situation and “only the British left could fuck it up”; we need to overcome sectarianism and make real strides towards unity. The last speaker of the panel was Mark Campbell of London Met UCU. He spoke of the need to avoid sectionalism and for local UCU meetings to be open for all, as well as the need for unions to put pressure on management whilst consultations are taking place.
The debate focused on whether we should call for the seemingly controversial demand of ‘free education’. Apparently the fact that a member of the Adam Smith institute joined the anti-cuts campaign at Kings’ is proof that this lowest common denominator politics gets the goods.
It was the final session that really got my goat. Ammendments calling for a merger with NCAFC, affiliation with CoR, and unity with other campaigns were all voted down. One can only presume that this is due to the SWP not wanting to lose control of their campaign, or that they feel NCAFC’s stance for free education will alienate people, extremely strange as EAN now calls for “occupations […] industrial action [and] a general strike”.
However, the conference DID vote overwhelmingly to “participate and build for the ‘Free Education’ Bloc” on the 10th of November.
I think I was alone with the four other members of Communist Students at the conference who voted for our amendment which attempted to pose a clear opposition to capitalism.
In conclusion, a conference cannot be serious if a minority of the timetable is allotted to a single motion, which was pre-prepared by the conference organisers. It was less than two years ago that I joined with the SWP in voting for ‘free education’ motions at NUS conference, this latest zig zag is nothing but an opportunist turn. Their strategy does not even work on their own terms. Usman Ali seemed to be the only member of the NUS leadership that bothered to attend. The other members of the NUS campaigns who were there were from the Liberation campaigns and actually positioned themselves to the left of the SWP in their commitment for free education.
In Manchester I have seen the SWP make a volte farce, last year I was able to unite with them and commit anti-cuts group to operate under majority decision making and making statements for free education. Now in their quest to brown nose the hippy student officers they will not even discuss politics in these meetings and allow anarcho-bureaucratism to reign. Meanwhile, interest in the anti-cuts group has begun to dwindle.
I see NCAFC as a positive development, the most cynical readers will see it purely as an attempt for The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Workers’ Power to recruit new members. Sure, the politics of the network are virtually identical to those of the SWP a year ago, however it does seem to be democratically run. Members of CS and The Commune were surprised to be able to submit and pass a joint motion at their conference in February. Furthermore, it does seem to have the involvement of numerous independents and I was impressed with NCAFC’s unity amendments.
Finally, we should desert the terrain of social-democratic politics. Communist Students were treated like odd-balls for their amendment calling for a living grant, however I do not feel even this goes far enough, we should not reinforce the utopian prejudices of those who believe it is possible to return to the post-war consensus. As was actually said many times on Sunday, we should be articulating a different vision for society. Education under capitalism can only ever be tailored for the job market. The only path towards a truly fulfilling education is proletarian revolution – for communism.