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Social Revolution – NUS: What Now?

‘NUS: What Now?’, Social Revolution, No. 4 (June 1976), pp. 10-11

As the economic crisis deepens, and cuts in the education sector intensify, the National Union of Students, far from reacting as a confident, effective fighting organisation of students, is facing a severe crisis of its own. Two university unions, Aston and St.Andrews, have voted to disaffiliate: a number of other unions are considering such a move. Others, notably Manchester, have rejected disaffiliation, yet the movement in the constituent organisations of NUS for separation from the national union is gaining support from a considerable minority of students. In the Manchester disaffiliation referendum over one third of the votes cast were for disaffiliation. Why is this happening in such a ‘militant’, ‘marxist’ union? Can the ‘moderate’ reaction be stopped and what prospects are there for students?


Until the late 60’s NUS was little more than a travel bureau/debating club, controlled by a right-wing bureaucracy. This situation changed with the radicalisation of students by such movements as the anti-Vietnam war campaigns. Since then, NUS has been controlled by the Broad Left, an alliance of ‘Ieft-Iabourites’ and Communist Party members. It has launched a number of successful campaigns; around the issue of student autonomy under the last Tory government and more recently the annual grants and Education Cuts campaigns. Significant victories were scored in the early days of these campaigns: Thatcher’s plans to destroy union autonomy were stopped, annual reviews of student grants were conceded. Now, however, the campaigns are being fought primarily to defend existing gains rather than achieve more.

The political inspiration behind the moves to disaffiliate is clearly provided by the Federation of Conservative Students: although they favour working within NUS in order to cripple it, it is their policies that are the main influence for disaffiliation: propaganda about a ‘pro-Soviet’, undemocratic NUS, etc, etc, is having the obvious effect of encouraging students to desert NUS. At the moment they seem to be losing influence to an extent, or at least when faced with active pro-union agitation. However, they could easily gain ground again in the near future.

Yet students do not basically form a reactionary mass; on the contrary, the political ideals of the average student are mildly radical social-democratic. The FCS and their more fascist hangers-on are making advances because there already exists a profound disillusionment amongst students with the NUS itself. The blame for this must lie within the NUS itself and with the leftist politicians who dominate it.

Anatomy of a Successful Campaign

In the early days of the NUS campaigns, significant successes were scored. The reason for this was primarily the real mass involvement of students. We saw widespread rent strikes, refectory boycotts and strikes/occupations in support of higher grants, as well as the regular mass demonstrations. Combined with the fact that the depression had not yet set in completely, these campaigns wrung concessions from the state. Recognising that mass self-activity leads to militancy and radicalisation, the state tried to buy off its future generations of technical and white-collar workers and management with more money: in reality this ideological
‘ideological’ weapon was probably the strongest in the students’ armoury.

It would seem apparent that in times of crisis this kind of mass involvement is all the more necessary to halt the decline in students’ living standards. To successfully do so would require an even greater consciousness, a realisation that a society based on exploitation and profit making cannot automatically satisfy our needs.

NUS Steps In . . . . .

Faced with this new militancy, the state found itself with an unusual ally – the NUS itself. The leftist politicians running NUS were as frightened as the state of mass self-activity by the students. Like all good union bureaucrats they only feel safe when they dominate struggles, for then they can keep it within safe confines and retain their own power. To channel student discontent along ‘safe’ lines, the mass demonstration was developed.

Originally seen by students as a sign of their solidarity and anger, it became for NUS the focus of the campaign. All else was to be subordinate to getting students out on the streets of central London; to march past Centrepoint and down Oxford Street once a year. Having mobilised their camera-fodder, the bureaucrats would then go along to the Department of Education and Science with their figures to haggle over sums. Thus the ‘mass demonstration’ became a way of ‘heading-off’ student militancy. After four years of grants campaigns, what it had boiled down to is demoralisation and confusion amongst the mass of students, while NUS considers it’s had a successful campaign if it’s got 20,000 out on the streets!!

An Irrelevant Union . . . .

Having effectively demoralised the mass of students, NUS then proceeded to alienate them too. NUS conferences are dominated by inter-policy haggling and discussions on issues such as Ireland, Vietnam, anti-fascism, etc. These issues are important but in many ways are ‘safe’ issues, since students can do little about them in practice: meanwhile issues on which direct action are possible are ignored. These party battles are very satisfying to the bureaucrats and would-be bureaucrats; action is seen as passing resolutions and ‘supporting’ this or that struggle, usually safely tucked away in another part of the world. Students are, of course, quite unable to affect these struggles anyway, but they serve the purpose of diverting attention from real issues affecting themselves. Few discussions are held on the meaning of what we’re taught or our role in society (except that leftists like to see students as some intelligentsia to lead the revolution – masturbatory dreams of Russia in 1917); how we can develop inks with other workers, especially in our own colleges, instead of through ‘safe’ channels of union bureaucrat to union bureaucrat; developing educations as a social right for all – throwing open our facilities, etc.

Little wonder that students see little relevance in what NUS discusses and that a growing feeling of alienation from the union develops. This leads to demoralisation and support for ‘moderate’ politics as exemplified by the FCS, Labour Party, etc. The role of the left in NUS is one of weakening and confusing the student body at a time when unity and strength is required beyond all else.

Can NUS Change?

Given the will, students can force NUS to act in a more militant way; but this sould be only a temporary gain. NUS is not anti-student because it is controlled by nasty people, but because of the social role it plays, along with all other unions. If an organ of struggle is created in the course of a dispute it will reflect the wishes of its membership. When this dispute is over, the struggle dies down. Then, despite the best will in the world; bureaucratisation sets in. The elected representatives, no longer having to justify themselves constantly to the rank-and-file, fall into a position of becoming permanent negotiators with the employers, in this case the state as personified by the DES.

No longer is the issue what the membership wants, but what the employer can afford. The result is haggling over figures and then selling the compromise to the members. They begin to see things in the terms of the bosses, and ultimately become their agents. It is just possible that this process can be averted to a greater or lesser extent in a small union (like one of NUS’s C.O.s) but in a union of 770,000 meeting only twice a year it is near impossible to prevent.

What Future for Students?

The fight against education cuts, and for unity in the student movement, cannot be won within the context of the present social system. To the state, students represent a long-term investment that will payoff in the future in terms of higher profits derived from the highly-skilled nature of their training. But we are in an acute economic crisis, and the first things that are cut-back are long-term investments. If this means that education suffers, then it suffers; this takes the form of college closures, layoffs of staff or leaving posts vacant and decreases in the real value of grants.

Only militant direct action can prevent this from being too drastic, and then only if real links based on solidarity, friendship and understanding are forged between students and other workers. The idea that students are some kind of elite must be got rid of.

At best though, this will leave students still on the treadmill of constantly fighting to maintain their standards: real gains will be almost impossible to achieve: students must actively work to maintain living standards in order to avoid demoralisation and keep their confidence. The only genuine struggle with any chance of success is that for a social revolution: only a libertarian communist society can free students from the constant need to battle authority, and make genuine creative study possible. This will involve the abolition of students as a separate sector of society, education will be open to all when required and not restricted to a young, small and relatively privileged group.

A Strategy?

The first priority must be to restore morale and confidence amongst the mass of students, and agitating for this could centre around the following points:

** rank-and-file control over all disputes and campaigns
** real links between students and college workers, academic and non-academic and with the wider working class, community
** union policy within C.O.’s to be decided by regular mass meetings open to all students, and with union executives being unable to independently place motions before meetings.

This fight will have to take place in all areas, including within the local union bodies. We must not argue for leaving unions – such a move will only strengthen the forces of right-wing reaction; rather we should realise that success will transcend the bounds of the present structures and render them meaningless; we must constantly argue the point that capitalism offers no progressive solution to the problems students face.

Of immediate necessity is an organised libertarian communist presence within the student movement; only when we re-group our scattered forces will any progress be made. Anyone (individuals or groups) interested in building such a presence should write to us C/O London Group.

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  1. February 24, 2011 at 1:01 pm

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