This academic year has seen significant steps forward for students fighting for the ideas of Marxism on their campuses. This has been reflected in the success of the founding conference of the Marxist Student Federation (MSF) in February 2014, and also in the campaigning and election of Marxists as student representatives in a number of universities.
With over 100 members at around 20 universities across the country, and with weekly meetings that attract the interest of hundreds of students, the Marxist societies are increasingly becoming an active part of political life at many universities. This is now taking a qualitative step forward as the Marxist Student Federation as a whole is beginning to make its presence felt in student politics at a national level, with the NUS conference in April being a focus for Marxist students.
MSF members have been running election campaigns on a number of campuses, standing to be delegates to the NUS conference, and for sabbatical positions in their student unions. These campaigns have been run on clear, coherent and bold socialist programmes. The impact that they’ve made where these campaigns have been run has demonstrated the interest in and relevance of Marxist ideas for large numbers of students at university today. After the success of this year’s elections for the MSF, you can bet on seeing many more Marxist students campaigning for socialism next year!
University College London
The first NUS delegate elections of the year contested by Marxist Students were held at the University of College London (UCL). These elections were very poorly publicised by the student union, a problem compounded by how early in the academic year voting took place, leaving first year students in particular with little knowledge of the elections and the important issues that candidates were campaigning over.
Despite this, Marxist students Sian Creely and Timur Dautov, with the support and backing of the UCLU Marxist Society, rose to the challenge of campaigning for election as delegates from UCL to the NUS conference. They produced leaflets and posters as well as making use of The Spark – the weekly newsletter of the UCLU Marxists – to highlight the key issues of free education, lowering of rents and resisting privatisation that the NUS should be taking up. They also used the opportunity to explain to students that safeguarding our education and standards of living in the future requires an NUS that uses socialist policies to fight for students.
Such bold policies were welcomed by many students, and Sian was duly elected as a Marxist delegate to the NUS conference from UCL. The campaign got the UCLU Marxists off to a flying start for the year but also proved that, while elections can give us a useful platform for our ideas, the small cliques that tend to control such elections have little interest in publicising them to the student body as a whole. If we want our ideas to reach a wider layer of students who perhaps would otherwise not come into contact with political ideas, we must rely on our own methods of leafleting, postering, distributing newsletters and simply talking to as many people as possible as essential parts of our campaigns.
These campaigns for NUS delegate positions laid the foundation for the election campaigns of three Marxist Students for sabbatical positions at UCLU in the second term of the academic year. Timur Dautov, Sam Bayliss and Algar Epps all campaigned for a socialist student union, with the backing of the UCLU Marxist Society, by linking student issues with the wider struggle for socialism.
Throughout these elections the candidates made clear that attacks on education are not ideologically motivated, but are the product of a crisis of capitalism. If students are serious about fighting these attacks, then our struggle has to be one against the capitalist system as a whole, and for a rationally and democratically planned socialist system. They emphasised that this struggle is not one that UCLU, or even the NUS, can wage on its own. It is necessary for student unions to link up locally and nationally with the labour movement in a serious and practical way.
These policies stood in contrast to those of other candidates, many of whom declared themselves to be ‘left’ but who, at best, offered little more than vague reforms that did not link student problems to their root cause – capitalism – and failed to articulate any actual policies for achieving free education and resistance to privatisation. At worst these campaigns descended into a popularity contest based on which candidate could come up with the most amusing puns.
All too often this is all that student politics has to offer, and it is the aim of the Marxist Student Federation to distance ourselves from the trendy cliques and careerist politicians that frequently infect campus elections. We openly stand for clear socialist policies that offer a real alternative to the attacks on education, young people and the working class as a whole. Although none of the three Marxist candidates won these elections, the excellent reception they received from students for their ideas throughout the campaign shows that a hunger for a real socialist alternative in student politics is present and growing.
The Cambridge Marxist Discussion Group backed two Marxist Students in their campaigns for NUS delegate positions. Kevin Chang and Moses Levi ran campaigns explaining the need for a fighting socialist NUS to defend Cambridge students against rising rents and tuition fees.
The Marxist Students in Cambridge were campaigning amidst extreme student apathy and hostility to the Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) and student politics in general. Almost none of the elections for sabbatical positions in the union were contested, and two had no candidate whatsoever apply for them. This sparked a vocal campaign by anti-union right-wingers to vote against all candidates standing for election, regardless of their policies, and vote instead to re-open nominations for every position.
Throughout their campaign Kevin and Moses pointed out that the intense apathy towards student politics is a result of having student unions that fail to mount a real fight in defence of student interests. At a time when fees and costs of university are increasing, job prospects for graduates are getting worse, and the quality of education is deteriorating, CUSU appears to be doing absolutely nothing about these issues. By trying to be as inoffensive as possible to the tiny minority of right-wing students and the university administration, CUSU waters down its activities until they make no impact on the consciousness of the majority of students. Kevin and Moses pointed out that student engagement comes from building a fighting student union, and this applies as much to the NUS as it does to CUSU.
On top of this student apathy, Kevin and Moses were singled out as “dangerous extremists” by the right wing in various opinion articles in the student press. They even had a blog post specifically dedicated to a hysterical attack on their campaigns for election. But naturally, all publicity is good publicity, and these attacks served to publicise sections of the Marxists’ manifestos to an even wider audience.
Despite all of this, and to the horror of the small right-wing minority, Kevin was elected as a Marxist delegate to the NUS from Cambridge University. The campaign raised the profile of the Marxist Discussion Group in Cambridge which now has an established reputation for successfully backing Marxist candidates for election to NUS delegate positions, having done so in 2012 and 2011. The help with leafleting, stalls around Cambridge and convincing people of the necessity of a socialist NUS provided by other Marxists and sympathisers in the University has given an excellent boost to the work of spreading Marxist ideas in Cambridge.
Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL)
Alex Bollard of the Queen Mary Marxist Society ran for election to be NUS delegate on a Marxist manifesto that called for universities and the economy as a whole to be run on a democratic basis, with investment for need and not profit.
Such a revolutionary programme was a welcome change to the vague reformism of the other eight candidates for NUS delegate positions. For example, almost all of the candidates spoke about the need for the NUS to fight against the privatisation of the student loan book, but Alex was the only one to point out that the marketisation of education is part of a wider problem of capitalism in crisis that is causing capitalists to tear open as many new avenues of profit as possible, education being no exception. To halt the privatisation of the loan book, we need to fight against capitalism.
One issue that was raised during Alex’s election campaign was the question of tactics. A number of candidates, who identified themselves with the “horizontally-organised” activists on campus, argued that the days of big national demonstrations are over, and that the new method of struggle for students should be small, localised activity, which the NUS should support but leave the organisation to activist groups on campus.
Alex pointed out the severe deficiencies in this strategy. She explained that the NUS, despite its bureaucracy and its failure in 2010, is still the one organisation that holds authority in the student movement. Unlike groups such as the Student Assembly Against Austerity, which the majority of students have never heard of, if the NUS organises a demonstration then it will get a response from a much larger layer of students than any other organisation could. Large national demonstrations, called by the NUS, are a much more powerful show of strength by the student movement than a handful of activists doing a banner drop on a single university campus. Grassroots campaigning is a vital part of student struggle, but activists should raise their sights and use their activity to build a powerful national movement for socialism in which students must link up with trade unions. The NUS is the only body capable of achieving this and so we must fight to win it to a socialist programme.
Despite an excellent campaign that involved leafleting and canvassing for two weeks, Alex narrowly missed out on being elected. With four NUS delegate position available, Alex came fifth out of nine with over 300 votes, losing out to the big slate campaigns that have historically always dominated elections at QMUL. However, this is the first time that the QM Marxist Society has backed a candidate in the student elections. The valuable experience and the boost to the Marxist Society’s presence and ideas on campus that is has given will set the Marxists in good stead for next year.
The elections for NUS delegate positions in Sheffield were, as with UCL, also held early in the year. Two Marxist Students, Scott Shaw and Natasha Sorrell, ran Marxist campaigns for election to these positions.
With frequent stalls, extensive leafleting and revolutionary manifestos, the Sheffield Marxists’ campaign captured many students’ imagination and was an excellent opportunity to discuss the ideas of socialism with a wider layer of students. In making the arguments for socialism in a concrete way, by talking about what policies the NUS should be pursuing in relation to cuts, fees and linking up with the trade unions, Scott and Natasha were able to make big steps forward in convincing Sheffield students of Marxist ideas.
The elections were poorly organised and the final results were not announced until long after voting was closed. However, Natasha was successfully elected as a Marxist delegate to the NUS from Sheffield University, while Scott narrowly missed out on a position. It is worth noting that in Sheffield four of the seven positions for NUS delegate are reserved for women, which means that when far more men than women run for the position, as was this case this year, the competition is disproportionately greater for the male candidates than the female ones.
The result of this is the unfortunate situation where a Marxist candidate who might otherwise have been elected loses out to a vague reformist or even a right-winger simply because the latter is a woman. Naturally, when it comes to politics no gender is more or less suited to defending the interests of students because those interests, particularly at a time like now, are predominantly defined by the attacks on education and standards of living in general. Fighting against this is a question of having bold socialist policies, an attribute not specific to either men or women. This year’s election in Sheffield is an example of how positive discrimination in the student movement can serve to hold back genuinely progressive candidates from being elected. We stand for candidates being elected on the basis of their politics, not their gender.
Following the election, the Sheffield Marxists decided to move amendments to NUS policy proposals in the student union council where, if passed, they could then be submitted and discussed at the NUS conference. The amendments proposed by Natasha, as an NUS delegate, and the Sheffield Marxists called for the nationalisation of the major levers of the economy to provide funding for investment in education, healthcare and public services. They also called for the NUS to link up with trade unions and the Labour Party to oppose zero-hours contracts, unpaid internships and for a job or decent welfare for every school, college and university graduate, to be funded by taking the banks and big business into public ownership under democratic workers’ control.
Thanks to the patient and convincing explanations of the Marxists, these openly socialist amendments were passed by the Sheffield Student Union council as Sheffield SU’s amendments to NUS policy this year. However, in an act that was at best spectacularly incompetent and at worst an active sabotage of student union democracy, the SU executive failed to submit the amendments passed by the council to the NUS, and as such they will not be discussed at the NUS conference.
The lesson we can learn from this is that we cannot expect any favours from the student union bureaucracy. If Marxist students want their programme to be discussed at the NUS conference we must rely on our own strength and ensure that we pressure sabbatical officers to respect the democracy of student unions, and hold them accountable if they do not. This also highlights the importance of passing Marxist amendments to NUS policy at as many universities as possible so as not to have all our eggs in one basket.
The strong campaign for the NUS delegate positions and the NUS amendments was the basis for the Sheffield Marxist Society deciding to run two candidates for sabbatical positions in the student union. Natasha Sorrell and Sparsh Pandya both ran Marxist campaigns that found a good reception among students in Sheffield.
Throughout the campaign Natasha and Sparsh were the only candidates (out of nine for each of their positions) who made a coherent argument for an alternative to austerity: a planned economy of nationalised industries and democratic workers’ control so that high fees and student debt can be confined to the dustbin of history.
Events that the Marxist students found especially fruitful platforms for spreading the ideas of socialism were the hustings, the candidates’ debate, lecture shout-outs and the opportunity to go door knocking round the halls of residences to talk about our campaigns.
The candidates’ debate was particularly interesting from the point of view of the Presidential candidates, all of whom with the notable exception of Natasha, showed a clear lack of comprehension as to ways to go about lowering or abolishing fees. One candidate, who self-defines as a Marxist, even advocated nothing more than a tax on the rich in order to lower (not abolish) university fees! This served to strengthen the position of Natasha and Sparsh as serious Marxists, committed to educating themselves and others about a socialist programme.
The response that the Marxists received from students throughout the duration of the campaign was immensely encouraging. Even people who, for one reason or another, mustn't have voted for the Marxist candidates in the end agreed with their analysis of the economic situation as a consequence of the crisis of capitalism itself. Some students even asked questions such as ‘what can you actually do about it as President/Welfare Officer’ which was a fantastic opportunity to discuss linking up with the labour movement and unions and struggling for real change in society instead of clinging to reform. It also allowed Natasha and Sparsh to explain how the Sabbatical roles are extremely limited in terms of what changes they can actually bring about, due to hired management controlling the University and union’s purse strings instead of the students and workers.
Although neither Natasha nor Sparsh won in these elections, the ever expanding size of the Marxist society in just one year demonstrates the successes of Marxist ideas in Sheffield. The Marxists have much success to look forward to in the coming months.
Looking to the future
These are the first election campaigns run by members of the Marxist Student Federation and they provide an excellent foundation upon which to build our presence on campuses and nationally in the coming years. Having run candidates in just four universities, the ideas of Marxism have racked up well over 1000 votes from students this year. With 20 Marxist Societies around the country the MSF has the potential to make a real impact on campus with elections in future.
What distinguishes Marxist Student Federation candidates from others is our principled, uncompromising socialist programme. For other so-called socialists, this is too much to bear, with one such person informing the Marxist students in Sheffield that their campaigns were “damaging the reputation of the Left” by being “too radical”. For careerist student politicians, the Marxist student approach that we would rather lose elections than win on anything other than a socialist programme is incomprehensible.
For Marxist students, the only incomprehensible thing is student union officers and delegates who make no effort to fight cuts, fees and falling standards of living for students and graduates. This fight to defend students is what student unions exist for, and the inertia of those who do not offer this programme is a betrayal against the interests of the students they are supposed to represent.
We recognise that it is utopian to expect this programme to be carried out by one student union or even the NUS on its own. It is necessary to link up with the labour movement and offer an economic and political alternative to capitalism and governments that seek nothing more than to manage its decline.
What we are proposing is radical. We propose revolutionary change to society as a whole. Declaring this boldly and with coherent arguments will not turn students away from socialist ideas; in fact it will draw them closer. In this year’s elections it was Marxist students alone who stood out among the mass of cliques and careerists as the ones offering a genuine solution to the problems faced by students today.
Next year promises to build on the successes of this one. See you on the campaign trail!