It sounds like some sort of elaborate practical joke, revolutionary politics as re-imagined by the Bash Street Kids. Communist Students arrive at the Education Not for Sale conference "Reclaim the Campus", and position themselves around the room, pretending to be participating in the event in good faith. The document they propose is a clever pastiche of other, serious motions to the conference. Whereas other proposals taken to Reclaim the Campus by groups or individuals were serious attempts to create a broad basis for fighting left unity within the student movement, Communist Students propose an alternative statement which falls just short of being a full Marxist programme, but, mischievously, is worded just right to exclude large swathes of the non-Marxist activists in attendance. When, after a too-long debate, the inevitable happens and their garbled half-programme is voted down, a speaker for the group gets up and obliquely hints that Communist Students won't be participating in ENS after all. Boom boom.
Just what inspired such madcap shenanigans? Turning up to the conference of a broad student activist network, proposing an ill-thought-out, over-written barrel of demands calculated to piss off half the activists in attendance without adding anything to the group's programme and then storming off in a huff is such a breathtakingly bad way of "winning students to Marxist ideas" that I'm still half-convinced that it was just a complicated joke. CS drew absolutely no advantage from this stunt, being essentially laughed off the floor before the vote even took place. But let's look at the political reasoning behind this bizarre gesture.
For Communist Students, Education Not for Sale is guilty of "economism". This is a term now on its way to becoming a catchphrase – they gleefully throw it around at every opportunity, and yet studiously avoid explaining themselves in a serious or constructive way. Because ENS intervenes in campaigns around closures, cuts, mismanagement and marketisation, and makes campaigning around fees and NUS democracy a priority, we are somehow abdicating our responsibility as student radicals.
Instead of raising the combativity, politics and confidence of the student movement by galvanising fights around day-to-day campus issues, CS contend that we should be looking for "a unity based on ideas" – patiently explaining Communism to students through educationals and discussions, not wasting time with actually organising around the current struggles students are actually engaged in. Through polemic with other groups they hope to erect a flawless programme, which they will then presumably export to the rest of the student population by talking to them about it in their wildly popular meetings and press. For CS, practical organising for their ideas is superfluous – the ideas stand alone, drawing all the strength they need in order to dominate from their inherent "truth". This is awfully convenient, as it removes the requirement for them to do any work beyond endless and onanistic internal debate and self-important huffing and puffing about other groups on the left. Witness Communist Students' disdain for the "painfully obvious" discussions of marketisation at Reclaim the Campus, their stubborn refusal to actually do anything useful in their "stronghold" of Sheffield, bar running electoral candidates on unreadably jargon-filled, hopelessly abstract programmes, and mimicking the Weekly Worker's focus on inter-left bitching as a substitute for the class struggle.
The charge of "economism" has two roots . One is in a bizarre conclusion tacked artificially onto the end of Mike Macnair's WW article "Driven By Ideas" and ham-fistedly "improved" by James Turley in "The Campus and the State" – that is, that students can't be mobilised on a national level around "immediate material issues". "However dismal things get on particular campuses" says Turley, "unity on a national scale must take the form of unity around ideas". Macnair claims that because being a student is "a life-cycle position" and isn't the same as being a worker, "the social relations of which students are part do not in themselves support a mass student movement around students’ material conditions". So, because students aren't employed by their universities, there are no antagonisms over their material conditions, and no possibility of getting students to act together around these. Macnair also laughably suggests that students are simply too varied to act as a unified body with common interests, because science courses are very different to humanities courses.
These two articles are classics of the CS genre – they are stuffed with references to Hegel and grand-sounding jargon, and yet the political conclusions their authors draw reveal that neither Turley nor Macnair have been paying any attention to the world outside their bedrooms. Of course students have common material interests, which are under threat at the national level as the result of the government's politics – in the UK notably the lifting of the cap on fees – and there is a huge potential for massive student movements around these demands! Students might not be a class (although students are increasingly taking jobs and being students and workers at the same time) – but they have common material interests that lead them into struggle with the government on a national level and towards unity with workers in struggle.
Macnair and Turley, in their zeal against economism, aren't calling for socialists to galvanise these fights and give them a political character (as ENS is doing); they're calling for socialists to ignore them completely, as they are impossible! This even as events in student movements from France to Canada to West Africa (not to mention the 1990s Campaign for Free Education in this country) prove the exact opposite – that the major student movements of today, the ones that are really threatening to governments, are concerned with students' conditions of life. Poor Communist Students! Will they ever find the solution to this complicated puzzle?
The other root of the charge of economism comes from a misreading of Lenin. In "What is to be Done?", Lenin's famous 1902 attack on economism, Lenin accuses the Economists of the Workers' Cause newspaper (Rabocheye Dyelo) of "bowing before spontaneity" and "tailing the workers' movement". Because of the weakness of the revolutionary movement during the spontaneous workers' uprisings of the 1890s, the revolutionary parties were unable to take up the leadership of the workers' movement, and turn it from a militant movement around trade-union demands into a movement for political power. Certain Social-Democrats began to regard this weakness as a virtue, and theorised a justification for their failure to give political leadership to the working class, arguing that socialists shouldn't broach the political sphere, but should concentrate entirely on the economic struggles of workers, that these economic struggles will eventually spontaneously result in the conquest of power. However, Lenin argues that the political direction the workers' movement, left to its own devices, will "spontaneously" arrive at, will be a "bourgeois trade-unionist" politics:
"But why... does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead precisely to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination."
The Economists of Workers' Cause aren't wrong to take part energetically in factory work. Their error is that they make a virtue of their own weakness, and become infatuated with their inability to give political leadership to the workers. Because they aren't capable of giving political leadership to the working class, they claim that it is not necessary, that the working class will "find its level" all on its own. They merely propose to tail the current, trade-unionist level of consciousness of the workers, in the hope that one day it will magically "morph" into something more radical. Until that day, they warn against socialists even attempting to step over into broader political agitation, or to link individual economic disputes to broader political trends and truths.
Lenin's attack on the Economists was written in a certain historical context, when the balance of forces in society was at a certain level:
"Our Economists... lose sight of the gigantic process that has been made from 1894 (approximately) to 1901. Like real "tail-ists", they frequently live in the distant past, in the period when the movement was just beginning. At that time, indeed, we had astonishingly few forces, and it was perfectly natural and legitimate then to devote ourselves exclusively to activities among the workers, and severely condemn any deviation from this. The whole task then was to consolidate our position in the working class. At the present time, however, gigantic forces have been attracted to the movement..."
The economists had an incorrect idea of their own strength, and from this drew bad politics – they refused to see what their new responsibilities were in the light of the changed balance of forces in society, and instead continued to take refuge in the earlier activity, which they should have now been trying to raise up to a higher level.
Communist Students attack ENS for "economism" because we are engaged in building struggle around economic issues. They fetishise economic struggle as something which is in itself always and forever bad, backward and "tail-ist", regardless of the current level of combativity of workers or students. They counterpose always-bad "economic" activity on the one had to always-good "political" activity on the other. Instead of looking at the whole picture, basing your political strategy on your strength and responsibility, and on the balance of forces in society, Communist Students' method is to say "ugh, economic work, material issues? That's just base, dirty stuff, below us real Bolsheviks. We're real revolutionaries, interested in politics and theory. Forget about that economistic "free education" campaigning rubbish. Here, have a book about Hegel".
Lenin, however, doesn't counterpose "dirty, tailist economic work" to "good, vanguardist theoretical political education". For him, the way to raise the political awareness of the working class is precisely to engage in its economic struggles, in a galvanising, politicising way: "[the party will undertake] guidance of the economic struggle of the working class, the utilisation of all its spontaneous conflicts with its exploiters which rouse and bring into our camp ever new strata of the proletariat!"
Is ENS really committing the sins of the Economists at the level of student politics? Are we "tailing" the consciousness of students, and warning against raising it above its current level? Does engaging in economic disputes shut us off from the possibility of raising the confidence and political consciousness of students? And just what are Communist Students playing at?
To answer these questions, we'll have to do something unfamiliar to some in CS: look at the state of the student movement and the balance of forces in the real world.
Students in HE and FE are facing a number of attacks. The cap on tuition fees is about to come off, and HE and FE institutions are being encouraged to operate like for-profit businesses. This means harsher discipline on campus, more tests, more pressure and a narrowing curriculum. 'Unprofitable' courses and teachers are being jettisoned; research and teaching jobs are being made more precarious. Services like housing and catering are being hived off to the private sector; and the cost of living is rising for students while benefits and bursaries aren't keeping up. Less well-off students are being forced into taking hyper-exploitative precarious jobs; and their degrees are being designed to fit them for a life of exploitation in the workplace, rather than to enhance their understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Less work-oriented humanities courses are becoming a luxury reserved for the rich.
It's clear that not only does all this mean that a large number of local, individual struggles are brewing which need to be taken up, but also that these individual attacks all form part of a general, political strategy on the part of the capitalist class and its government; and that the only way that these battles can be successfully won is through a national student strike movement based on the French model, to inflict a national defeat on the government. Such a movement would give socialists the opportunity and the responsibility to fight for our ideas at a mass scale, and practically pose the questions of power, democracy and the re-imagining of education. But that national movement on these material issues has to be built before we can intervene in it.
In the face even of these basic economic tasks, where is the 'mainstream' student movement currently at? Most SU executives are now made up of various species of careerists – some rightwing, some apolitical, many hopeless, more than one or two religious bigots. Though elected, and not themselves bureaucrats, they are subject to the bureaucratising influence of SU bar managers and other unelected long-term staff, and they generally lack political culture and leadership. Their responses to government or university administration attacks tend to be the responses of confused, isolated time-servers who know themselves to be out of their depth: feeling powerless (or unwilling to get involved in "politics"), they react with hostility to left-wingers and propose do nothing at all. The leadership of the national union, with Wes Streeting's Labour Students at its head, is able to feed off this passivity and perceived powerlessness – and entrenches it by giving it a sleek programmatic expression, that is, by proposing to mitigate the damage by politely asking the government to please carry out its neoliberal agenda as humanely as possible. No dangerous stunts like mass action or strikes: Streeting says that students have to look grown-up, polite and 'credible' to the government.
The result of this generally parlous state of the student movement is despair and resignation on the part of ordinary students. In calling for a fight, and organising the construction of a collective weapon to carry this fight and reinvigorate the student unions, ENS are carrying out economic work. But it is economic work that is vitally necessary, and which can only raise the level of combativity of students and their receptiveness to our ideas. In no way is this "tailing" the current level of student consciousness, nor is it underestimating our level of strength or our responsibilities. We are carrying out economic work, but we are not committing the Economistic errors of the Workers' Cause group: we are undertaking vital work without which no large-scale audience for socialist ideas can be won! In the CPE movement in France, the importance of successful mass economic movements for the spreading of socialist ideas and the sharpening of the general student consciousness was made clear to all socialists who bothered to take note. As Xavier, a leading member of the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires wrote in Critique Communiste at the time (which I have helpfully translated on my AWL blog):
"This movement was an opportunity for thousands of young people to acquire an exceptional experience of struggle. Organising a strike with pickets, participating in mass AGs [student general assemblies], acting in co-operation with workers, carrying out radical actions, etc... This militant experience, and the political discussions which took place on a mass scale within this context, represent a fundamental advance. These youths will not forget this experience... The debates around precarity, exploitation, racism and liberal reforms multiplied in the AGs. The question of constructing anther society, founded on something other than maximising profits, was posed and discussed by thousands of students... the movement explicitly posed the question of a general strike and the removal of the government, from the outset: these two key ideas for revolutionaries in the current context were discussed on a mass scale for weeks. This is no small matter, and will be significant in the future."
If anyone is committing the errors of the Workers' Cause group – making a virtue of your own shortcomings in order to save face, entrenching your present-day inadequacy in a dogma that condemns you never to rise above today's difficulties, it is... Communist Students! Small and demoralised by the enormity of the tasks in front of them, rather than facing up to their inadequacy, they court it. Isolating themselves from students and kidding themselves that by dreaming up perfect programmes, and limiting their whole activity to polemicising about other left groups, they are able to insulate themselves from the traumas of the real world, and divest themselves of the responsibilities that residence in the real world implies. They write ridiculous defenses of their irresponsible posturing. Who cares if they act like clowns in ENS meetings, fail to do basic activist work in Sheffield (or anywhere), and shoot themselves in the foot by conspiring to prevent ENS from getting anyone elected to the NUS executive... Who cares what basic schoolboy errors CS commit, because they have no need of fighting unity, concrete actions or organisation on material issues – because "unity on a national scale must take the form of unity around ideas". Anchoring yourself in the real world by trying to construct a mass movement now, that takes today's conditions and consciousness as a starting point for the journey to higher levels of consciousness and combativity would be rank economism, and Communist Students have no desire to dirty their hands with that. As Turley smugly points out, "There is no short cut" – why, Communist Students may have to carry on these adolescent charades and masturbatory "programmatic" posturing forever!