Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Students Point The Way

The demonstration by around 50,000 students and lecturers against the Liberal-Tory Cuts in Higher Education and increases in Tuition Fees provides a pointer for workers' resistance to the Cuts. The demonstration was well organised, and sizeable. That is important for any demonstration, because the only real purpose of a demonstration is to act as a mobilising agent, showing to workers in general the depth of opposition, and highlighting the fact that simply accepting the bosses attacks is not the only option. Demonstrations that fail to mobilise large numbers or appear directionless can have the opposite effect.

The leaders of the NUS, however, have shown some weakness in their condemnation of the actions against Tory Headquarters at Millbank Tower. The kind of mindless vandalism seen on some previous demonstrations is counter-productive, but the smashing of windows at Millbank was largely a necessary part of trying to get into the building. If anything, the real criticism should be that a strategy was needed to occupy the Tories HQ, rather than just get a few dozen people into it. The tactic of Occupation is one that workers have used over the centuries, and particularly during the 1960's. It is one that needs to be redeveloped. To complain about a few hundred pounds damage done to the Tories HQ in the smashing of windows seems rather churlish and weak-kneed when it is put in contrast to the billions of pounds of damage that the Liberal-Tory Government is doing to the economy, and to workers livelihoods.

There is no doubt that the Capitalist media will focus on the attack on Millbank, but the reality is that it has put the story at the head of the news, and allowed the main issues to be able to be raised. Without it, the media would have given the actual demo a couple of minutes news time, while it headlined on Cameron's talk to Chinese students instead. But, the demo, and the assault on Millbank show the problem that students and similar groups in society face. Rather like the peasants and other radical petit-bourgeois classes in the past they have a lack of economic muscle. Peasants at least could withhold food from the towns, but in doing so, they tended to immediately damage their own livelihoods. That is why they tended to go in for rioting, and the ransacking of Landlords estates and property. The reality is that where workers in striking immediately hit the profits of their bosses, if students strike, the reaction of the bosses is to be frank - “so what?” Other groups in society face a similar problem. The Liberal-Tories have focussed on attacking Welfare because claimants are a disparate group. They have no immediate means of acting collectively. In the 1930's with prolonged mass unemployment, Unemployed Workers Unions were established. In the 1980's a similar situation arose, and some of us learned the lessons of the 1930's and applied them. I was involved at the time with producing a weekly leaflet for and with the unemployed, which we called “Dole Mirror”. It was handed out at various Job Centres, and acted as a means of bringing unemployed people together. We organised fund raising discos, and eventually persuaded the local Council to fund the establishment of an Unemployed Workers Centre. But, the history of such organisation is very patchy, and the reality is that the unemployed are like students able to exercise very little economic power.

Once students have enrolled their options are limited. The most effective economic leverage that the NUS could apply would actually be to call for a strike on enrollment, organising students due to enroll next year to boycott the Universities. That would not only immediately hit the Universities coffers, but would have a massive impact on all of the Landlords, and other businesses in University Centres, who are dependent upon a large influx of students each year to pay rents and buy from their businesses. That would be a big incentive for them to apply leverage to the Liberal-Tories to change policy. If already enrolled students could use the intervening period to organise a year's sabbattical that would further increase the economic leverage applied. Finally, in May '68 just as workers occupied factories and reatarted production udner their own control, so students organised to open up the Universities, organising courses on Marxism, organising open discussions drawing in workers on what was happening and so on. Sympathetic Lecturers and other sympathetic workers in the Universities could arrange something similar organising open lectures and tutorials, or simply throwing open their existing lecturers and tutorials to any workers and students who wished to attend. In that way, those students who participated in the enrollment boycott could organise to turn up to their local University and attend such open lectures for free, gaining an advantage for when they did start their University courses.

But, the experience of Greece shows that workers most directly affected by the Cuts are in a similar position. As Engels pointed out, the bosses learned that under some conditions, a strike can be an efficient means for them to save money. The lesson of the students demonstration today is that we can build a large, and widespread opposition to the Liberal-Tory Cuts provided it is properly organised and not rushed. We have to avoid the danger that some of the sects may adopt an adventurist approach, demanding mass demonstrations, or General Strikes without first doing the necessary work to build the forces capable of making such mobilisations a success. The fact that most of these sects are isolated from the real workers makes that a very real danger, and a look at some of the wacky ideas they have in their propaganda – like demanding a Workers Government! - demonstrates that.

The advantage that the students and lecturers had was that Universities and Colleges form self-contained communities. That is an ideal basis for doing the kind of preparation work necessary to build for such mobilisations. It also means that it is easier to gauge the real mood, in order to know if the time has arrived where such a mobilisation will be effective. If we are to build similarly successful mobilisations to fight the Cuts across the piece we have to build similar grass roots opposition within all communities in the same way. That was the lesson of the Poll Tax mobilisations and campaign. Ideally, Branch Labour parties could play an important role in building such grass roots organisation. Its likely that the Labour leadership will give little in the way of support to such a strategy, but that does not matter. Individual LP members can take the initiative themselves via their Branch LP's, and combine that now with campaigning and canvassing work for next year's elections. Ideally, it should be combined with a drive to recruit tens of thousands of new LP members, to provide the basis of a real fight against the Cuts, and which will overwhelm any resistance to effective action by the Leadership. It will require a close linking up with rank and file Trade Union members in the Public Sector, and in those private companies that will be seriously affected by the loss of work resulting from a cut in Public Sector contracts.

That can form the basis for local actions to resist the Cuts, to occupy buildings threatened with closure, to occupy firms threatening to lay-off workers, and to bring such firms under direct Workers Control. It will form the basis for organising local demonstrations to mobilise wider community support against the Cuts, and to build links between Cuts committees in each Community, and with Trades councils and District Labour Parties to form new forms of local direct democratic workers organisation. The Tories claim to want a Big Society, we should give them one, a society in which the workers who produce the wealth control it.

The Liberal-Tories talked about introducing new democratic measures at the election such as the right of recall. As I pointed out yesterday, Liberal Economy With The Truth, the Liberals went to court on the basis of lies told by Phil Woolas, but they have been shown to have been lying through their teeth about the Cuts, about Tuition Fees etc. Even today, Clegg and others have been claiming that they have had to change course because the situation was worse than they believed. But, we now have confirmation that this is untrue. The Liberals believed that the Tories £6 billion of Cuts for 2010 were a “disaster”, they believed that the issue of the deficit had been “hyped up”, and that it was not really significant. The NUS have said that they want to organise the recall of Liberal MP's who vote for the Tuition Fees. The building of local anti-cuts committees in each community would be a good basis for that. But, why just the Liberals. The Tories promised they would not increase VAT, or make attacks on Child Benefit etc. They lied too. We should demand the right to recall all MP's who have acted contrary to what they said they would do in their election addresses and manifestos.

That would be only simple democracy, but the reality is that Capitalism cannot even provide democracy consistently.

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